Matt Gemmell

Comments Off

6 min read

Those who follow me on Twitter may be familiar with my approximately twice-yearly musings on whether it’s necessary, wise or desirable to allow comments on blogs.

For most people, a comment form is an essential part of what a blog is, and most of us enjoy the opportunity to leave feedback (even if we do so only rarely). But there are also plenty of possible reasons why comments are unnecessary, or undesirable.

The argument against comments

  1. They’re for a tiny minority. Compared to page-views, only the smallest fraction of people will actually leave a comment on the article itself. Twitter mentions (for my particular readership/audience) are at least three times as common.

  2. You should never read the bottom half of the internet. This doesn’t tend to apply quite so much to this blog, but generally speaking, comments on the web don’t contribute very much. For that reason, I doubt that any significant percentage of readers go on to read the comments of others, which rather defeats at last half of the point of comments – to continue the discussion.

  3. Comments encourage unconsidered responses. You’ve just read an article, you feel strongly about it, and you have a text field just waiting there. When disagreeing, people tend to be at their very worst when writing comments. They use language and tones which they’d never use in email, much less in person. If your blog allows comments, you’re inviting people into your house – but sadly, some of them don’t conduct themselves appropriately.

  4. Comments allow anonymity and separation of your words from your identity. On Twitter or Facebook, anything you say is at least tied to whatever form of identity you have there. Comments on an arbitrary website don’t follow you around, and I think that encourages very unhealthy behaviour.

  5. Comments create a burden of moderation on the blog owner. Various systems exist to ease the burden, but with the burgeoning spam problem on blogs, there’s always going to be a trade-off between getting people’s comments published as quickly as possible, and keeping the comments relevant and spam-free.

Bye, comments

It’s been a very difficult decision (I love reading comments on my articles, and they’re almost unfailingly insightful and valuable), but I’ve finally switched comments off. Since I used the excellent Disqus service, the easiest way was simply to disable it globally, which also removes (but doesn’t delete – I still have them) comments on all previous posts too.

I join an increasing number of fellow bloggers, developers and designers who have removed (or never added) their comment forms and never looked back, such as Chuck, John, Marco, Shawn and Ben. I also asked on Twitter just yesterday whether I should go ahead and remove comments, and pretty much all of the replies were firmly in the ‘yes’ category.

We’ll see how it goes. I want to make it clear that this isn’t a means to discourage conversation; indeed, I hope the opposite is true. If you read something here, and want to reply, please do one of the following, in order of preference:

  1. Write a response on your own blog. Considered, long-form follow-ups by an identifiable, accountable person are the ultimate form of feedback and discussion. I’d love to read what you have to say. Let me know about it via email or a tweet.

  2. Reply on Twitter. If your thoughts are brief, send a public tweet to my Twitter account (@mattgemmell). This is what most people do already anyway, and it tends to automatically invite others into the conversation too. There’s a little blue ‘Tweet’ button at the bottom of every article on this blog.

  3. Email. I discourage this (I get a lot of email, and I think that the vast majority of replies to published articles should themselves be public), but it’s available as an option; my contact info is on my About page.

I look forward to continuing the conversation with you.

 Addendum

I received an email the day after publishing this article, quoted below:

Dear Matt,

I don’t have a strong feeling about whether a blog should have comments or not – it’s your site, so do what you want. There are high quality sites without comments (like Daring Fireball or Marco.org), and high quality sites with high quality comments (like Asymco or The Loop). Of course, there are also low quality sites with low quality comments (like every local newspaper website in the United States). Your site is well written, so I’ll keep coming back.

On the other hand, one of the things you wrote in your post really struck me the wrong way. “I want to make it clear that this isn’t a means to discourage conversation; indeed, I hope the opposite it true.” No, turning off comments is unquestionably a means to discourage conversation. You say that comments are for a tiny minority, which is true. Running and maintaining a blog is for an even tinier minority. It takes a lot of effort to build a blog of high enough quality that it will be heard. Twitter is arguably a bit better, but 140 characters at a crack allows perhaps a single sentence.

The purpose of turning off comments is to discourage conversation. There’s nothing wrong with that, if that is what you want. But if you really want a conversation, don’t pretend that you are going to get one by turning off comments. You aren’t being honest with your readers or yourself.

Just some food for thought.

With best regards,

[Name supplied]

This was one of the points I feared would be misinterpreted in the article. I replied as follows:

Hi [Name],

Thanks for your message.

I think there’s a distinction between a goal (or purpose, as you say) and a consequence. Switching off comments will inevitably reduce the number of responses, but I think that it’ll increase the average value of the remaining responses; that was my point.

I think it’s also important to clarify what I mean by conversation. The sad truth is that the vast majority of all comments fall into one of a few categories:

1. Strong agreement, without any further contribution or expansion of the discussion. Nice to read, but not valuable in the context of the article.

2. Strong disagreement, without sufficient/any rational justification. The “angry teenager on the internet” phenomenon. Unpleasant, frequent, and disposable.

3. Spam, either unrelated/commercial or thinly-veiled excuses to link to someone’s own product/service/site. Irritating and very plentiful.

The remaining tiny percentage (maybe 1%?) is the agreement or disagreement that contributes value, by amplifying or extending the original article, pointing out flaws or different perspectives, and so on. It’s definitely that kind of percentage, based on my own experience.

Some people will say that comments are what make blogs (or the web as a whole) interesting and edifying and social and so on. That’s fine, but it’s a bit simplistic - the truth is that most comments don’t actually add any value. And yes, there’s then the question of what constitutes value, and who should be the arbiter of it.

But we’re talking about a personal blog, which isn’t a democracy - and furthermore, which amongst other things is a portfolio and a principal branding opportunity for the author. The simple, polarised question of utopian conversational democracy vs ultimate censorship becomes a lot more complex. Your blog is your own site, and it’s just not an “anything goes” scenario.

I don’t like the fact that switching comments off will reduce ‘engagement’, which it will, but I truly don’t think it’ll noticeably reduce value or damage conversation, all things considered. I’ll be delighted to link to people’s follow-ups on their own sites, for example, and I’ll be happier to do it because there’s just a better chance that those follow-ups are well-considered and will expand the discussion. And if that’s not the case, then I don’t have the Sophie’s Choice of whether to remove a comment (something I’ve done on only a handful of occasions in all the years I’ve been blogging), or to let the bad smell cling to my own site for all time. I think that’s actually a lot more democratic for me as the author.

I can honestly say that, no, switching off comments wasn’t a means to discourage conversation. There are easier and less conspicuous ways to do that, which wouldn’t raise controversy (such as moving to an all-moderated policy for comments, for example, or insisting on an externally-authenticated login like a Facebook account, and so on). I do stand by the decision, and I can only re-iterate that it’s for the reasons stated. If anything, I was also hoping to provoke debate over the issue of whether comments are actually a good idea - an issue I continue to think about.

I’m grateful that you took the time to email me.

Best,
-Matt

I feel that both emails make worthy addenda to the article, so I decided to post them here.

Follow-up pieces

I posted a brief follow-up about a month after this article, and then a much more extensive round-up of responses from elsewhere on the web a few days thereafter.