Blog Comments Considered Harmful?

Like many software developers, Joel Spolsky’s blog “Joel on Software” has been in my RSS aggregator for several years now. I don’t always agree with what he says, but I always appreciate the thoughtfulness that goes into his posts, and many of his posts are just plain classics.

I was intrigued by a recent entry, “Learning from Dave Winer” in which he suggests that low quality, often anonymous comments on blog posts add noise to the general discussion, and that responding on your own blog is preferable to leaving comments.

Now, its probably not a good idea to publicly disagree with two technology gurus, but I have to say that my experiences with blog comments, both as a reader and as a blogger have been quite different.

I should probably begin by saying that in the thoughts that follow, I am thinking mostly in terms of other technology centric blogs, which makes up the majority of the blogs that I read. If I were talking primarily about political blogging for example, my conclusions might be completely different.

First, many blog posts are just not that deep in the first place–like many of my recent posts for example! That’s not a knock against anyone, but it points to both the informality of the medium and its conversational nature. Even on carefully written posts, I have often found just as much useful information in people’s comments as I have in the original post. And if the author’s rhetoric has swept me too far away, thoughtful comments can help balance my overly enthusiastic reaction.

Also, many of the people leaving comments are themselves bloggers! The pattern I usually see is that they will leave comments when those comments are brief or otherwise link to their own blog entry for more detailed responses. In either case, such conversation adds considerable richness to the original post.

As a blogger, I am very grateful to have received many thoughtful comments to my posts which have helped me understand what I am discussing in more depth and breadth. Less often, I have tried to do the same for those who ask for clarification or help through comments.

And this brings up why I blog in the first place. I have many reasons for blogging: many are selfish, such as increasing my visibility in the developer community. But I also want to start giving back to the community that has supported me in my career in various ways, such as through blogs like “Joel on Software” for example.

Perhaps most importantly, I want to interact with fellow software developers. I live in a small rural city that is unable to attract and keep developers with comparable experience, and through blogging, I can reach out to those with similar interests anywhere in what is hopefully a mutually enriching experience. Commenting directly serves this and other important needs. Of course, folks like Joel Spolsky and Dave Winer are at a different point in their careers, and whatever their motivation for blogging is, it would seem that comments are not serving them well.

Being at a different point in your career may also affect how you read others’ blogs. What I find informative and insightful may seem quite misguided and superficial to someone else.

I can’t recall being shouted down in comments, but I suppose if I was that bothered by someone’s comment I could always delete it, despite the slippery slope that might start. I suspect that if someone is simply being obnoxious in comments, most people reading it will recognize it for exactly what it is and quickly filter this “noise” on their own without diminishing their experience too greatly. Like many, I don’t allow anonymous comments on my blog, which may discourage “anonymous cowards” from simply adding noise to the conversation. By the same token, the process for leaving a comment is not so demanding that it would discourage someone who really has something to add to the conversation.

I do get spam comments on a regular basis, but almost all of these are filtered out by Akismet and the rest can be quickly handled through WordPress. I have actually been quite surprised by how much this is not a problem.

So then, why are my experiences and my reactions to these experiences so different from Joel’s? He obviously has bigger problems on his blog than I do on mine, and therefore, I assume that his complaints are quite reasonable.

The obvious reasons are that my blog has not been around very long, and its not widely read, so these potential problems are naturally going to seem much smaller to me and many other bloggers if they occur at all. But I think it goes even further than this, because Joel Spolsky and Dave Winer have celebrity status in geek culture (and in Dave Winer’s case, he is a somewhat controversial celebrity) which probably brings with it a whole new class of problems. People may be looking to take shots at these guys just because of their celebrity, or “score points” against them through their comments. Privacy issues may even arise through such exchanges. As a result, its not hard to imagine that someone like Dave Winer might start to look at blog comments with hostility.

There may also be more mundane reasons why my experience is different. The plain truth is that as far as content goes, my blog just isn’t in the same league as Joel Spolsky’s. And I suppose it stands to reason that there may be something of an inverse relationship between the quality of a blog post and the quality of the comments those posts receive, and it probably works both ways. My half baked ideas get thoughtful responses while Joel’s more carefully prepared and presented thoughts need little else added, and any attempt to do so is more likely to detract.

So, while I agree that blogs are first and foremost a personal publishing medium, for me, comments are an important, defining aspect of blogging, both as a reader and writer. I can see why Joel and Dave and others in a certain class among bloggers see comments as detracting, making a blog less of a blog, but for most of us, I suspect that comments encourage quality communication more than they encumber it, and the blogosphere as a whole would be less of a community without them.

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