The Killing of the Comments (Well, Almost)

In working on my own design for, I’ve gone back and forth a lot over whether or not to allow comments when I go live with it. A blog typically comes with comments, but that’s not always true: one of my favorite blogs, Daring Fireball, does not have comments and it works out perfectly fine for it.

Then the other day, I kind of figured it out: comments are like the post-game discussion in the locker room. Sometimes you get fantastic game analysis in there: what went wrong, what went right, what to do next. But when all is said and done, that discussion is not what matters: what matters is the game you played, and that’s it.

In writing a blog, the game is your post itself, and the comments are the locker room talk. There may be valuable discussion in that talk, but more often than not it’s where to go for dinner or drinks. It’s an often-tangentially related conversation between two or more people that may or may not enhance the value of the post, but it comes with a couple of major caveats. Before looking at those, though, let’s start out with the upsides of having comments on a blog:

  • They can produce very insightful, interesting discussion
  • They (usually) can be as long as needed, allowing for great argument elaboration

That’s kind of it. They’re two very strong points in favor of comments, to be sure, but only two nonetheless.

A third upside one could consider, if you’re the type, is that comments encourage return visits to the site. I personally see it as a downside as it dilutes the reliability of unique visitors being actual unique visitors (if you return to the site from work and home just to see if there are new comments since yours, you’re considered to be two unique visitors). I’d be happier knowing a more definite 200 unique people read my post than anywhere between 50 and 300 people did, but your mileage may vary (greatly).

Now, let’s take a close look at the various downsides to having comments on your blog:

  • The Internet Fuckwad Theory effect is true if you allow anonymous comments
  • Forcing people to sign up for your site (or use OpenID) raises barrier to entry significantly
  • Comments often detract from the main post itself
  • If you run a popular enough blog, you risk having to deal with “First!” and similar bullshit
  • As much as interesting discussion can happen in comments, more often than not the level of debate isn’t exactly stellar, reflecting negatively on the host blog
  • Having to moderate comments can be too time-consuming for many, and not moderating at all may not be an option

Clearly, there’s a fair few things to say against allowing comments on your blog. Everyone who owns a blog will feel slightly differently about this, but this is my blog and the above is my perception of comments.

When I stacked them against each other, I looked at alternatives to the far too simplistic comments yes/no question, and settled on using Twitter for comments instead. Now, below each post on this site, you’ll find a link that points to and, if you’re logged in, will pre-fill the textarea with a few bits of data that establishes a relation between tweets and the blog post. This is an experiment for the time being, but it may well become a permanent solution.

With that in mind, let’s look at how using Twitter for comments fits into all this:

  • Twitter is not entirely anonymous; sure, you can create a bogus Twitter account in under a minute or so, but people afraid of using their identity will likely not go through all that hassle just to leave a Twitter comment for a blog post somewhere else
  • Twitter separates the comments from the main post, leaving the integrity of the post intact and the focus pure
  • Nobody is going to post “First!”s on Twitter; you wouldn’t do that to your followers (or they’ll all leave you) and “First” is no longer a sticking point: shows newest posts first, pushing any “First” comment down right away
  • Twitter, sadly, does not encourage thoroughly elaborated comments or discussions. 140 characters (minus my name and the post’s ID number) is just too limiting
  • There’s plenty of inane debate on Twitter as is; it wouldn’t make a lick of difference if some of it is in regards to a blog post

And now, for the biggest argument in favor of using Twitter for comments:

  • People are already using Twitter to comment on blog posts

That’s right: posting a tweet reply to some as an effective blog post comment is common practice. WhenDouglas Bowman redesigned his site, he received more comments on Twitter than on the announcement post itself. I myself often get people commenting to me on Twitter about something I put on my blog. So, from that perspective, nothing will really change — it’s just the encouraged (and only) method of commenting from now on.

What about the people who don’t have a Twitter account? For them, and anyone who has more to say than just a small 130-character snippet, trackbacks and pingbacks will continue to be supported on the site. I’m all in favor of responding to somebody’s blog post by writing a post on your own blog, and Twitter is effectively that: it’s a micro-blog.

Once I finally launch this site properly (using my own design, my own HTML + CSS + Javascript and my own Django back-end), if this experiment works out well enough, this new comment policy will become a built-in part of the site. For now, there’s two links at the bottom of a post.

Let’s see how it works out.

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