If you’ve ever spent a Sunday evening clearing out the contents of a website or blog anti-spam filter, you’ll identify with the decision of Dave Winer to turn off the comments on Scripting News. And having commented on Twitter and received some replies from Dave, I wanted to expand on the subject. But it’s important to note I’m not criticising this or any similar decision – simply evaluating whether it might be beneficial or harmful.
Is it ‘right’ to turn off the comments?
I want to start by establishing something – there is no ethical or moral argument against the owner of a website or blog making the decision to turn off a commenting system.
A digital publication of any sort belongs to the creator/owner, and they have the right to decide how they wish to communicate, and how they wish to allow any responses. That’s why I might question whether it’s a positive or negative thing for the site itself, but I respect the right of that person or business to do it, whether it’s Dave Winer, Seth Godin, or a large media company.
The benefits of no comments:
Whether you’re an individual or a large business, the main reasons for ditching comments always comes down to the same factors – the cost in time and effort versus the benefits of allowing them. And the costs always include two main contributors – spam and internet trolls.
Various software solutions attempt to curb the constant flood of spam comments, for instance Akismet, and most commenting systems also include moderation tools, such as Disqus, which runs here. The problem is that the low cost of automated spamming tools or outsourced labour means that an incredibly low hit rate can still be profitable, as it is with spam email. Figures as low as a response in hundreds of thousands of emails can still make an email spammer rich, and with comment spam to engineer search engine results, it doesn’t even need someone to click on a link – just by appearing, it’s mission accomplished.
And the simple fact is that the spam industry doesn’t have to worry about the occasional false positive or negative, so that their carpet-bombing will tend to always lead to some mistakes and time-consuming manual input on top of any anti-spam measures. Not too bad if you only have a handful of readers, but when you have tens or hundreds of thousands, plus years of content, it can become an almost never-ending task in itself.
Then you get the added hassle of the entirely human ‘internet troll’ who posts to annoy, infuriate and cause trouble. Not only does that mean they’re going to get through anti-spam measures, but it also devalues the conversation that may be occurring, and damages a community which may have taken months and years to slowly build.
No wonder so many of the more prominent bloggers have turned comments off, particularly when they tend to elicit the most rabid of fanboys for particular companies.
The value of comments:
But there are also reasons to justify the time and effort of moderating and responding to comments. The usual example is Fred Wilson’s community at avc.com. But there are countless websites and blogs where the comments have added valuable insight and conversation in addition to the original article, including many on my own sites.
And there is also an element of reader frustration. Several times I’ve seen someone post an article and wanted to respond with some material which would be pretty important to their position – and given up when I realised they didn’t have comments enabled.
The argument is that I could reach out via Twitter, facebook, or G+, assuming I have an account, know their username and don’t mind sharing that within my own content stream.
Or I can respond with my own blog post, as I’ve done here, which does carry the additional potential benefit of a link back if the conversation continues, or they publish their pingbacks (When a site links directly to your article). But that doesn’t work so well if I just wanted to mention a website name and a link, for example.
Is that frustration enough to stop me, or others, from reading? Probably not if I generally agree, but if there are regularly times when I’m tempted to correct something or quickly disagree, it might cause me to give up.
The options for minimising comment problems:
The good news is that comments aren’t simply an on/off question. Besides choosing a reasonable anti-spam solution, and allocating an amount of time which will be dedicated to trying to raise the level of comments with moderation and decent quality responses, there are some other things you can do:
- ‘NoFollow’ all comment links. This removes any search engine value for anyone commenting. People can still click through a commenter’s link, and many spammers will still submit content, but it will reduce the overall levels and if anything gets through, it won’t help as much.
- Turn off comments on older posts: A common technique for spam is to target older posts with comments as these aren’t checked often, so the spam is more likely to get through. Turning off comments on older posts will stop this, and most posts don’t elicit new comments after a few months.
- Use Facebook’s comment system: You could try using a comment system which ties to more ‘real’ identities, such as Facebook. Someone can still attempt to game it, but it’s much more of a hassle, and noone wants their internet trolling tied to their real name and details. The downside is that in addition to limited comments to those with a Facebook account, many people might be dissuaded from contributing if their real identity is on show – for instance, those with confidential information or those commenting on sensitive subjects etc.
Personally and professionally, my advice is that those businesses and individuals running a website or blog should budget time and resource to moderate and respond in comments effectively to build a valuable community which gives much more value in the long run. Not only is this more likely to result in valuable contributions which helps that article to be shared socially and rank higher in search, but if you’re lucky enough to build a reasonable community, you’ll find members who could help with the comment workload.
A hope for the future:
But there also needs to be more resource devoted back to improving the commenting systems available – ideas such as Disqus tools for commenter badges and status levels need to be more widely available to allow for better user moderation. Most innovation and funding seems to go towards whatever the latest shiny new social toy might be (Quora, Pinterest etc), rather than looking at improving platforms which have been around for a few years, and provide the basis of the open web which underlies all the growth and value we’ve since received.
It’s interesting to see Dave follow up his decision with a post which says that,
The people who read this blog, by and large, are really smart. I’m learning that because, after turning off the comments, I’m hearing from people about my blog that surprise me. People I didn’t know read it. If I knew they did, I might ask them what they think about this or that. Or to fill in a bit of knowledge that I am missing and don’t find online. But if I don’t know they’re reading, I don’t know to ask.
It echoes with another recent experiment, this time by John Batelle, who tried to guage whether people were still reading his blog via RSS, and found out that despite constant rumours of its demise, actually a lot of people access his content that way (I’m one of them, and the irony of mentioning RSS and Dave Winer in the same post without linking them is making me chuckle!)
We need intelligent and talented people to return back to some of the technology which has been neglected – particularly RSS and Blog Linking/Comments. There are many reasons why ‘mainstream’ internet users, governments and some big entertainment industries might envisage a closed internet inside Facebook or a similar network, but there are massively important reasons why many, many vocal and notable people are against it, and why the ‘mainstream’ may start to switch if the benefits of the open web are made easier and more accessible at a consumer product level rather than a ‘You’ll need to tweak the CSS but at least you’re not handcoding it all from scratch’ level.