Why we value blog comments, even if they’re not all constructive

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By Alexandra Reid

Whether or not blog comments are valuable has been debated for a long time in the blogosphere, but recently it seems more people are standing even firmer on their chosen side of the debate.

In a recent article by GigaOm, blogger Mathew Ingram brought up the comment debate once again by calling attention to the ongoing battle between TechCrunch writer-turned-venture-capitalist MG Siegler and VC Fred Wilson. Siegler “doesn’t have comments on his blog and has written several posts defending his decision, saying they are 99-percent bile and a waste of his time,” writes Ingram. While Wilson says “Siegler is missing a lot by not allowing comments.”

Ingram goes on to list some of the prominent individuals who have decided to turn off blog comments for various reasons, including Matt Gemmell and Seth Godin.

Some of the arguments against comments cited by these individuals include:

  1. They allow anonymity which encourages unhealthy behaviour and unconsidered responses
  2. They are distracting, burdensome and have the potential to influence the way you write
  3. A significant percentage of readers likely don’t go on to read the comments of others

Both Gemmell and Godin said that turning off comments was a hard decision, and in many ways they love comments offered on their work. However, the detriments outweighed the benefits in too many cases.

Despite these claims, and holding fast to the fad of hard lines, I will state that I agree wholeheartedly with Wilson and attempt to tackle each of these arguments in this post.

Comments are invaluable to blogs, even if an individual comment isn’t valuable on its own. As for everything in life, the key is moderation.

On the issue of anonymity

It’s a sad truth that comment trolls lurk online. These sorry individuals wait for opportunities to pounce on unsuspecting bloggers, anonymously (but sometimes with their real names) attacking the author, subject(s) and/or commenter(s) for the purposes of attracting attention and steering the conversation in whatever ways suit their perverse objectives.

Moderating comments will prevent trolls from entering your space. But, while it’s important to prevent obviously senseless negative comments from tarnishing your conversations, blocking comments won’t stop the trolls entirely – some will prevail by finding other outlets and conversations to smear with their disagreeable dribble.

For this reason, I find it rather odd that Gemmell states that he prefers people to connect with him on Twitter if they wish to comment on his content. Um, I hate to break it to you, but it’s pretty darn easy to whip up a fake Twitter account and post the same ill-considered comments there. I suppose you could always flag them as spam and report abuse, but I don’t see how this saves you any more time and burden than if you had just done so on your own blog through moderation. (Side note: Seth Godin only uses Twitter to tweet his blog feed and follows no one). On the contrary, directing people to post comments on various social media channels disperses opinion in such a way that makes it harder to track. Why not have all comments centralized in one, easy to access location such as your CMS?

The good news is that the majority of anonymous commenters that do get their comments on your site don’t get positive reactions from other commenters. In a recent study, popular comment system Disqus reviewed 500,000 comments and concluded that just 34 percent of anonymous comments received positive reviews from other readers, compared to 51 percent of comments left by people using their real identities and 61 percent of comments left by users using pseudonyms.

So, allowing comments with moderation will prevent trolls and ill-considered responses while allowing real people with real opinions that receive positive reactions to come through. In addition, by fostering healthy blog conversations through moderation, people can be quick to point out when someone’s comment is feckless, often ignoring the comment completely, stating outright that it is wrong, or by going the extra mile and explaining why it is wrong.

The benefits of receiving and making public these comments are numerous.

In a social media world, where ideas can become diluted and stretched across a vast number of accounts and in various forms of media, the value of a well-thought out comment is amplified.

Mitch Joel over at Twist Image said it well:

Forget the popularity of platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn and more. Focus on this: if someone reads and appreciates a blog post, they now have many more options to share what they think about… Knowing that people can share, comment or create in their own space (with their own friends) means that the value (or dare I call it a gift) of a comment on the blogger’s environment is not only the highest of praise, but it could well be one of the highest forms of engagement.

B2C blogger Dana Prince builds upon this point:

… if you allow comments, even ones that aren’t always gushing, you’re showing that you’re open to discussion and that you are interested in what people have to say. If you see an issue you can deal with, you’re working on your reputation management publicly. You always have the choice of posting or not posting a comment but letting the less-than-rave comments through demonstrates a genuine desire to continually improve.

On comments being distracting, burdensome and influential

Anil Dash, an entrepreneur and blogger living in New York, has managed to foster an environment on his blog that encourages excellent comments. In a great post called “If your website’s full of assholes, it’s your fault” (it has received 218 comments to date) Dash explains that if you run a website, you need to “take some goddamn responsibility for what you unleash on the world.” In other words, if you feel that moderating comments is too much of a burden, too bad. It’s your responsibility to do so and you had better budget for it. He offers some helpful steps for allowing comments with moderation (while also tackling the issue of anonymity):

  1. Have real humans dedicated to monitoring and responding to your community
  2. Have community policies about what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour
  3. Your site should have accountable identities: people don’t have to use their real names or login via social media, but truly anonymous commenting often makes it really easy to have a “pile of shit” on your website, especially if you don’t have dedicated community moderators. Instead, let users pick a handle (pseudonym) that is attached to all their contributions in a consistent way where other people can see what they’ve done on the site.
  4. Have the technology to easily identify and stop bad behaviour
  5. Set a budget that supports having a good community, or else find another line of work. You must allocate resources towards moderating your website. If you want to save money, turn off your web server, says Dash.

Continuing along Dash’s trail of thought, I also think that if you are a writer, you should have the ability to absorb the opinions of others and decide what you want, and don’t want, to influence your work. If you are so easily persuaded, find another line of work. I am a huge fan of Seth Godin, and know he’s an individual who consistently writes unique and thoughtful posts. I respect that perhaps blog comments don’t work for him. But I also agree with Ingram’s statement that “A blog without comments is simply a soap-box.” As bloggers, I believe we have the responsibility to listen to the opinions of others, take into consideration what we deem valuable, and explain to others what isn’t valuable. Otherwise, what’s the point of blogging in the first place?

Readers don’t read other readers’ comments

I’m sure that many people don’t read comments, but I know for a fact that many people do. I’m an avid comment reader myself and have seen the chains of conversation that initiate from individual comments, often creating enough content to become blog posts of their own. I use comments to come up with interesting angles for blog posts and social media discussions, and as validation for my arguments and that what I’m reading is important to other people. I read comments to discern whether an organization is transparent and really cares about its fans. I read comments to improve my understanding of a topic, as they often lead me to pursue other resources. Comments lead to conversations and help me develop relationships with others. Sure, lots of people simply post comments for the selfish reason of linking back to their sites, but with regular moderation you should be able to comb through the garbage and foster those helpful converations that matter to your readers.

I hope the arguments raised in this post serve to assure you that it is entirely worth the effort. What say you?

Image: John Chow

/// COMMENTS

4 Comments »
  • Nick Stamoulis

    January 30, 2012 9:55 am

    It really goes back to the goals of your blog. If you are using it to communicate and have a conversation with prospects, comments are essential.

  • Blog Posts to Read for February 23, 2012

    February 23, 2012 7:02 am

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  • Matt Hoey

    March 21, 2013 11:18 am

    I feel blog comments have never been as user friendly as they could be and thus not the best medium to interact with readers. Blog comments don’t encourage users to engage, they are often cluttered and annoying for users. I realise the irony considering i’m replying here but there are much better ways of interacting with readers and the web needs to move forward.

  • Francis Moran

    March 21, 2013 6:04 pm

    I think I’m on the I’d-like-more-comments side of the divide, Matt. We don’t get a lot of them here, and the ones we get are usually very helpful. (We do have a potent spam plugin to keep the bad stuff out and we moderate the rest to make sure the debate remains constructive.)

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