Comments on Comments

In his most recent article, John Gruber (of Daring Fireball fame) responds to some criticism from Joe Wilcox (another technology writer) regarding his stance on Apple and Google. The whole article is entertaining and intriguing, but the Apple/Google stuff didn’t interest me so much as Gruber’s comments on, um, comments.

Gruber doesn’t allow commenting on Daring Fireball, something that Wilcox criticizes him for. In this day and age of social media and networking, it almost seems like a given that you have commenting enabled so that others can voice their feedback and opinions on your content — and this is true for blog entries, news articles, YouTube videos, Facebook posts, etc. To do otherwise — to not have commenting available — seems to go against the whole nature of the Web as it stands today.

Here’s Gruber’s explanation and defense of his “no comments” policy:

What makes DF an efficient and effective soapbox is exactly that it is not noisy. My goal is for not a single wasted word to appear anywhere on any page of the site.

Is my soapbox bigger than Joe Wilcox’s? Yes it is. But that’s fair, because I built this soapbox myself. It’s my firm belief that all websites eventually attract the attention and respect that they deserve. The hard work is in the “eventually” part.

Used to be, back in the early days of DF, that those complaining about the lack of comments simply were under the impression that a site without comments was not truly a “weblog”. (My stock answer at the time: “OK, then it’s not a weblog.”) Typically these weren’t even complaints, per se, but rather simply queries: Why not?

Now that DF has achieved a modicum of popularity, however, what I tend to get instead aren’t queries or complaints about the lack of comments, but rather demands that I add them — demands from entitled people who see that I’ve built something very nice that draws much attention, and who believe they have a right to share in it.

They don’t.

In today’s Web, it’s all about “signals vs. noise”. Signals are the good stuff — the blog entries, news articles, and YouTube videos that you find interesting, compelling, and relevant. Noise is the bad stuff, the stuff that gets in the way of you finding, experiencing, and sharing the signals.

And frankly, I have to agree with Gruber that comments are, by and large, noise (or, as he puts it, “cacophonous shouting matches”). We can go on and on about how great the social aspect of the Web is, how it encourages conversation, etc. Be that as it may, you can’t deny that an awful lot of crap has come along with any conversation that takes place. I always brace myself when I read an article on CNN because I know that I’ll encounter the comments — which, by and large, are obnoxious and boorish, and contribute little to the article. If anything else, commenting dilutes the article, and by extension, the website.

On the other hand, sites like Daring Fireball and Kottke are actually refreshing in their comments-lessness because there’s nothing standing between me and the signals. I have nothing distracting me from the author’s words, which allows me to better weigh and consider their point of view.

Don’t misunderstand me: I don’t think commenting is inherently bad or that it should never be implemented. For example, I tend to enjoy the comments on Internet Monk, which are very measured and thoughtful, even on entries that have the potential to be pretty controversial. (This is almost certainly due to the site administrators’ active moderation and curation of the comments, which is explained in the site’s FAQ.)

I have commenting enabled on Opus, a decision that honestly, I constantly go back and forth on. On the one hand, I receive so few non-spam comments overall that it doesn’t seem worth the overall management. On the other hand, the entries that do generate a lot of comments typically have very interesting, thoughtful discussion that doesn’t require much, if any, moderation on my part (and I’m very thankful to you, my readers, for that). Is the latter worth the former? I’m not sure.

One approach that I’m considering is picking and choosing which entries have comments and which ones don’t. Some entries are clearly ones that I hope will spark passionate and compelling dialog, but by and large, most entries are ones that don’t really require or necessitate discussion. I post them here because I find them interesting, and because I hope others do as well, but they’re not exactly conversation starters. But maybe I could be wrong. As I said, I’m still considering alternate approaches.

All I can say for certain is commenting has, as far as I’m concerned, lost its lustre — or at the very least, its novelty. And at some point, Opus will reflect that. In the meantime, I’m enjoying the discussion surrounding comments.