The dilemma of comments

Once upon a long time (4.5 years) ago, when I started this blog, there was no way of posting comments. I had no publishing system. Everything was edited by hand and the entire site consisted of static html files. As a consequence of that, publishing was more or less stress-free.

After a while I decided to start using a CMS of some kind. Manually creating each page was getting a bit tedious. I looked around at the blogging tools that were available at the time and picked the one that looked best (Movable Type). With that came the possibility of enabling comments. I could now receive immediate feedback on everything I published. Fantastic!

Time went by. I wrote more articles. People liked them and linked to them, which meant a lot more people started dropping by to read what I had to say. And to comment. I still thought it was great to get feedback that way. If I had made a mistake or was wrong about something, someone would point it out and help me fix the mistake or learn something new.

That’s the good part of allowing comments on your blog. The positive, helpful feedback that helps you improve.

But then there’s the negative side to comments. The spam. The trolling. The abusive comments. The personal attacks. I realised that as I was writing I had started to subconsciously think about what kind of comments a post would trigger. I found it harder and harder to write freely, and to express myself the way I really want to.

The abuse has made me seriously consider – several times – disabling comments. I’m ambivalent about it. On the one hand it would make writing and publishing much easier. Write something, proofread it, publish. Done. As opposed to write, proofread, publish, respond to comments, edit the post to clarify things people who don’t actually read what you write misunderstand, wait for more people to post comments without reading, respond to the new comments, delete spam, delete comments that are out-of-line or off-topic, repeat. Managing comments eats up a lot of time that I would rather spend researching and writing new articles.

On the other hand, most comments are appreciative, constructive, and helpful. They catch any mistakes or errors I make, which means I learn from them. I don’t want to lose that. Absolutely not.

What I’m getting at is that I fully understand people who do not allow comments on their blogs. People like Jeremy Keith, John Gruber, Andy Rutledge, and Joel Spolsky have all explained why they prefer to keep comments off. I agree with many of their reasons, but not all of them. And to me, being able to have a dialog with my readers is very important.

So for now, comments are still open here. But I don’t know if they will be forever.

Posted on September 20, 2007 in Life, Writing

Comments

  1. My WordPress-run blog uses the Akismet plugin that is generally successful at catching spam. I also employ the option whereby new commenters must be approved so any spam that is not caught by Akismet (100 per day, 2-3 uncaught) is generally trapped by the “new commenter” filter and I just have to review these couple of messages, mark them as spam and then I am done.

    I would be beneficial for users of non-Wordpress blogs to be able to tie into Akismet.

  2. Roger, I’ve enjoyed your blog/site for years. I haven’t commented more times than the fingers on my hand(s), yet appreciate very much the writers and researchers who allow for comments. The percentage of positive and/or helpful responses seems to easily outweigh the non.

    Thanks for your hard work, your excellent music section, and your tips and tricks along the way. Keep it up. We love it.

    A hearty handshake and tip of the hat.

  3. What if you left comments on, but didn’t display them on the post? That would cut down on self-serving flames and trolls and you would still be able to get instant feedback.

  4. There’s always the middle ground. You can selectively enable comments on articles where it’s particularly relevant and just make it easy to email feedback in the other situations.

    I’m still waffling personally, but I do feel as if a slight barrier to posting feedback makes a significant difference in the quality of that feedback. In the case of encouraging e-mail feedback in place of comments, forcing someone to go to their mail program assures they feel strongly enough about expressing themselves that they’ll make the additional effort.

    Also, it’s a much more relieving experience to write and not feel obligated to disclaim every other sentence for the people who simply want to pick things apart.

  5. I do have comments on my blog.

    Look in the right margin of the home page for the link.

  6. I think bloggers need to start thinking in that direction of what they want out of a blog post instead. If you’re just writing to make a mental note or a “as a matter of fact, this is my opinion,” turn off the comments. People will either email you or respond in their own blogs. If you’re just writing for a tutorial or you actually do want a discussion, leave it open to the community. Dan of simplebits seems to be doing this as of late.

  7. September 20, 2007 by Roger Johansson (Author comment)

    Jules: I think Akismet is available for other systems than Wordpress. I’m not sure it would help with the comments that get through my filters and other defences though - all of it posted manually. An option to approve new commenters would help though.

    Luke:

    The percentage of positive and/or helpful responses seems to easily outweigh the non.

    Yes definitely, when you look at it logically. Emotionally it’s not always that easy though.

    Thanks for your hard work, your excellent music section, and your tips and tricks along the way.

    Thank you for reading.

    Jason:

    What if you left comments on, but didn’t display them on the post?

    Hmm. It’s a thought, but the instant feedback for everybody else is part of what I want to keep. On some posts people start long and fruitful discussions in the comments.

    Garrett:

    You can selectively enable comments on articles where it’s particularly relevant and just make it easy to email feedback in the other situations.

    That is an option I might look closer at.

    Dave:

    I do have comments on my blog. Look in the right margin of the home page for the link.

    Drats. I completely missed that and only took for granted that you didn’t have comments after reading the post I linked to. Sorry. I’ll remove your name from the post then :-).

    Todd:

    If you’re just writing to make a mental note or a “as a matter of fact, this is my opinion,” turn off the comments.

    Yes, I think I will be doing that more often from now on.

  8. I’ve got a fairly new blog but have been getting quite a few comments. I can honestly say that as of yet, I’ve not received any comments that were not totally appreciative or helpful.

    I think having comments is one of the best parts of a blog, but I definitely understand why you (and the other big guys) would disallow comments. For me, a lot of comments would be 20 or so on an article, for you guys we’re talking hundreds and that can not only get hard to manage, but your spam rate also jumps WAY up.

    I hope you keep comments around. :)

  9. I wrote my own CMS, so I get less of that automated comment crap. Also, I now only allow comments on the 5 most current posts (those that appear on my home page), although I can actually open or close comments at will if I wish.

  10. I hardly ever write comments on blog posts, but now you have triggered me. And perhaps, that wasn’t your intention.

    I read my preferred blogs mostly via my RSS reader. As a result I don’t see the comments. And as a reader I’m not interested in them. In my opinion you could disable commenting.

    But I understand the reasons why commenting is interesting. It’s communication after all. Otherwise it would be like an actor on a stage without an audience. On the other side journalists of magazines and newspapers don’t get feedback from their readers neither.

  11. I think comments are central to a blog. Without relevant feedback a blog becomes nothing more than a journal. (or memoirs if that sounds better to you). I agree with Todd, turn comments off on the items you post “as a matter of fact…”

    My approach to comment spam has been to allow my filter to do its job, anything else is added to the post right away and also emailed to me. The email allows me to respond quickly if need be.

    On top of that I have a quick and dirty page that outputs all comments submitted from people not on a list of recognized names. I can scan through the list and quickly check off the ones to remove.

    Additionally comments are automatically disabled on items older than a certain time frame, though I am thinking of altering that to disable items that have not been commented on after a certain time.

    Managing comments isn’t such a daunting task, ultimately I think it comes down to finding a simple, effective UI to handle the job.

  12. As an initial response I’d say go with Jeremy Keith’s approach and post only helpful, interesting etc. comments after a given period or so. Tim Bray also a similar approach before he enabled comments on his blog.

    My main problem with any approach that publishes comments later is that I rarely revisit a post. Unless I’ve kept the tab open specifically to follow the ensuing conversation.

    In fact, it would be interesting to figure out a good way to enable selective following of the discussion a post generates. After all, often the ensuing discussion is very valuable in addition to the valuable post content.

  13. Roger, I would give Akismet a try before anything else. It does perform very well for most people, Techcrunch use it and seem happy for one. And yes it is available for MT.

  14. I keep comments open on my blog. I’ve often been very lenient in what I allow to be posted, normally only deleting direct attacks on people. I have at times been tempted to go very draconian, and thought about implementing something similar to what Tantek Çelik has (that is, links to posts that link to your post from Technorati), but so far I have resisted.

  15. Dude… what are you talking about!? This post makes absolutely no sense! You’re trashing comments and blatantly attacking the end users!!??

    Just kidding. Great post. Before starting to write articles, I never realized how much work came after the actual publishing point, and you show that well in your rant.

  16. In all honesty, I don’t respect anyone (including Gruber) that doesn’t allow comments on their blogs. I truly believe all of the justifications that they have provided regarding not wanting to enable comments is a facade. It is just easier to not have a forum by which the general public can question your line or thinking openly, or offer differing opinions. In Gruber’s case, I am convinced that he didn’t want comments enabled because of his stint of thievery, when he was still accepting subscription payments and not sending out shirts (there were some that didn’t get their shirts until their subscription was over, and there were even a few that STILL haven’t gotten them).

    If you want to be a respected blogger, then you need to be able to stand up to the general public. If not, you are just an imbecile with an audience. The already narcissistic profession of blogging is only trumped by the even more hubristic notion that what you say should not have the stand the test of the general readership.

  17. Last week I took the comment form code out, still recv’d spam from scripters, and just dropped my comment table the other day. C YA!

  18. Without relevant feedback a blog becomes nothing more than a journal. (or memoirs if that sounds better to you)

    If you’ve read Joel On Software of Daring Fireball and think they’re nothing more than journals or memoirs, you need to read them again and pay attention this time :)

  19. Roger

    IMO comments switched off does not devalue your blog. If anybody wishes to comment on, or to correct your statements; you simply need to provide them with a form for contact purposes. You then can collect these comments and synthesise your thoughts and publish a follow up article if you deem it appropriate, crediting the additional contributions.

    There is a disadvatnge in not having an “organic” discussion with readers; however there must be some benefit in not having to fight spam, having threads go off topic, or outright slanging matches develop. Having said that, these are not attributes I associate with your blog.

    Ultimately it is your call. For my own part, if you switch off the comments - I’ll still be a reader.

  20. September 21, 2007 by not a troll

    a member system would allow you to have control over who replies here. I think likeminded people will have no problem registering if this means they can continue commenting in the future. and it’ll probably deter trolling, and spam too.

  21. Maybe you need some kind of Digg-like system for your comments? Then fellow commenters could bury (and remove) any comments that were seen to be out of order! This could kind of tie in to only featuring more relevant comments but would also engage readers/commenters into the process. :)

  22. Do you have a sunset period on comments? I’ve seen a number of blogs that close comments after a determinable period. This saves you from having to sift through and reacquaint yourself with ancient history when someone posts to an ancient thread.

    I would say this seems like a reasonable model. Because:

    • If the thread is active, the most important points are usually brought up early.
    • If a thread is overactive, it can devolve easily into flame wars and you can consider the sunset like the bell at the end of a fight.
    • If a thread is closed but someone really truly has something important to contribute, they usually can contact you through your site and you can either: * Re-open that thread. * Make a new post with the new info and refer back to the old thread.

    I for one have commented on many of your articles but only when I feel I have something to contribute (either information or kudos to you), or I feel that I need to ask a question for clarification.

  23. I quite understand the stress you have with your comments, I think all bloggers have a clue actually. And I agree with John Lascurettes about having the choice of opening/muting/closing comments.

    Personally,I can live with criticism and creative input, but pure harrasment and spam are not desired. My catchpa solution works, and the requirements for my readers to post a comment (multiple input fields )are relatively high, this results to the fact that if the reader post a comment, he actually have something to say ;)

  24. September 21, 2007 by George

    One idea is to give some sort of moderating privileges to frequent commenters you trust. You’d give them the ability to flag comments that seem to be spam, trolling, etc. Then the comments would disappear until you get a chance to look at them in a moderation mode. That way the time you spend moderating is cut down because you let people you trust do most of the work for you.

  25. September 21, 2007 by Esben Rose

    I use Bereastreet as my main portal to find css/html/design relevant articles and help..keep up the good work; it’s a ver nice resource! Thanks….

  26. I had a similar problem and it became pretty bad. Here was my solution and it’s been wonderful.

  27. Hey Roger,

    I can see where you’re coming from, but I do hope that you continue to keep comments on your site.

    I don’t comment very often, but I know from running a personal blog for the past year (and now our business has a blog), that I’ve always found comments to be a rewarding and useful experience, and as previously mentioned, Akismet does an incredible job of sorting out the spam!

    I can certainly see from so many of your posts, that the dialogue has been generally a fantastic addition to your site, and I’d have to echo the sentiment that the good outweighs the bad. I’m all for encouraging the good and not surrendering to the bad. Fight the fight and keep up the incredible work Roger.

    Thanks.

    Alex

  28. I disable comments on all articles after about 4 weeks. This reduces the number of spam-attacks greatly, since spam robots tend to attack older articles harder than new ones. This combined with Wordpress with Akismet makes my blog more or less spam-free…

  29. A few months ago, Doc Searls wrote an article in Linux Journal, “Beyond Blogging Black Holes”. This seems to be a popular topic these days.

    I mostly, as a reader, do not read comments on blogs.

    I do use my favorite RSS reader to process multiple blogs, neatly organized, to increase efficiency and maximize time usage.

    The main reason I read blogs (and not comments) is to keep my finger on the pulse of technology, thoughts on technology, hear about software and hardware upgrades, hear from authors of software, learn technology tips, and stay abreast of technology companies, from knowledgable, unique, experts in their field. And, can say something with a “wow” factor in a couple of paragraphs, in other words, a good communicator :-)

    imho, do whatever works best for you to maximize your experience and continue to provide a valuable content blog resource. If you are happy and productive (unspammed), it will be reflected in your blog’s content :-)

  30. September 22, 2007 by Roger Johansson (Author comment)

    All:

    Thanks for your tips on spam prevention. That isn’t the biggest problem here though. The system I have in place works quite well except for manually posted spam written to look like legitimate comments.

    Thanks also for your ideas on how a commenting system (and the handling of comments) can be improved. Perhaps I will try to implement some of your ideas in the future.

    pr10n:

    Managing comments isn’t such a daunting task, ultimately I think it comes down to finding a simple, effective UI to handle the job.

    If you define managing comments as removing spam and other unwanted stuff I agree. That doesn’t take a lot of time. It’s keeping an eye on the discussions and responding to them that does.

    Brent:

    Hehe… I breathed a sigh of relief when I read your second paragraph :-).

    John:

    Do you have a sunset period on comments? I’ve seen a number of blogs that close comments after a determinable period.

    Yes. Every once in a while I run a script that closes comments on older posts.

  31. Merlin Mann just opened up the newly redesigned 43folders.com, and one of the reasons for his decision to move the site to Drupal was to allow for site registration, thus controlling who can comment. He explains:

    We apologize for any inconvenience this causes, but we think it’s important for folks who participate here to do so with the confidence that they’re talking to real people who have some real skin in the game.

  32. Don’t worry about Usability in your comments system. Make it a step harder by forcing the user to go an extra step, this way people who are genuinely interested in commenting will do it :)

  33. I’ve generally found - with experience now on half a dozen sites - that after the spam is filtered out, by one means or another, the quality or not of comments relates directly to the quality or not of the post.

    On long, thoughtful posts, I get few real comments, but they’re generally throughtful as well.

    On controversial posts, I get controversial (and often confrontational) comments.

    And on quick posts I spun off in passing, I get quick, un-thought-through comments, which sometimes descend into flame wars.

  34. Well this is why you need an intern…

  35. Re: ….

    On the other hand, most comments are appreciative, constructive, and helpful. They catch any mistakes or errors I make, which means I learn from them. I don’t want to lose that. Absolutely not. …

    I just subscribed to your blog. I plan on learning from it -and- benefiting from the comments that are here.

    Constructive comments are one of the best things on the net.

    ===

    Re: …

    Please be polite, respectful, and on-topic when you comment. …

    It’s too bad it even needs to be said.

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