Do blog comments still matter?

by Mathew on July 10, 2007 · 13 comments

Fresh from his financing round for Ning, former Netscape creator and new blogging superstar Marc Andreessen has a great list of eleven lessons he has learned since he started his blog a little over a month ago. Most of them are excellent, including the one where he admits he was wrong about blogging (when he said it required too much “time and ego”) and says:

“It is crystal clear to me now that at least in industries where lots of people are online, blogging is the single best way to communicate and interact.”

blogging.jpgHe also notes that in his experience “original content is what generates readership” (although I think it helps if you have a track record like Marc does) and that while he gets hits from Digg.com and so on, a surprising amount of traffic comes from StumbleUpon.com, which is something I’ve heard many times from other bloggers as well. But Marc also says something I’m not sure I agree with: he says he has turned off comments on his blog because he doesn’t have time to moderate them, and in any case that he sees the existence of blogs and trackbacks and search mechanisms like Technorati.com and Google’s blog search as an effective replacement for comments.

It’s ironic, in a way, that Andreessen also says he doesn’t feel he has to have comments on his blog because he can find other blog posts that refer to his — and then post a comment on them. If they also turned off comments, of course, that wouldn’t work. But would it be enough for everyone to have a blog and just respond to each other in the same way Marc describes?

I think there are a couple of problems with that, and it’s something I’ve thought a fair bit about and posted on in the past (raising the ire of Dave Winer, among others). The first is (obviously) that not everyone has a blog, or wants to have a blog. I have some persistent commenters whose opinions I value who don’t appear to have blogs at all — they blog by commenting. Last Podcast makes a similar point, and I see that Fred Wilson agrees with me too.

The second problem is that not everything requires a blog post. Just today, I came across a mention on Jeremy Liew’s Lightspeed blog about my post on Facebook hiring Chamath Palihapitiya, in which Jeremy described me as “questioning the hire.” Not a big deal, but I posted a comment saying I was just having some fun with the AOL connection, not questioning his abilities. Not something that would require a whole blog post, but enough to clear up a misunderstanding (I hope).

I’m only using that as an example. And I see Marc’s point about the difficulty of moderating comments, and looking for other solutions (such as a Meebo plugin, etc.). But why not allow users to moderate their own comments? I don’t know if Typepad has something like that, but WordPress does. Robert Scoble, ever the enterprising blogger, has even offered to host Marc’s comments.

  • http://www.propr.ca Joseph Thornley

    Good post Mathew.

    I’m stunned by the people who blog, but turn off trackbacks or comments. What is this medium about, if not the opportunity for anyone who reads your post to offer some reaction. That’s what separates it from the guys who own the printing presses and deign to publish edited “Letters to the Editor.”

    I don’t want to be snarky. But it seems to me that a good portion of the folks who push “trackbacks are dead/comments are dead” memes are the people who have large audiences. Maybe many of them have forgotten that social media is social because listening is as important as talking.

  • Mathew

    That’s a good point, Joe. I agree.

  • http://joeduck.wordpress.com Joe duck

    Good points. Trackbacks work OK as a blog to blog comment system but decrease the participation of people who don’t have blogs. Arguably those are the folks who we really need involve in these conversations.

    And hey, Scoble says he’ll handle Marc’s comments for free so I say bring ‘em back.

  • http://www.blognetnews.com David Mastio

    Sheesh. They still matter. You shouldn’t have to work to be able to follow a conversation and besides, unless you’re Andreessen making readers work means making plenty of them leave.

    More importantly, you shouldn’t have to have a blog to part of the conversation.

  • http://freerangelibrarian.com K.G. Schneider

    What all of you said. Limiting communication to the “blog to blog” model feels privileged in an old-fashioned manner, like the old I-write-a-book, you-write-a-book paradigm — limiting the discussion to people who maintain blogs. And that would exclude many, many worthy voices.

    I wasn’t even aware people were saying “comments are dead.” “Comments are a lot of work” may be more like it — even with good spam software, that’s still true — but I can tell from my stats that the most commented posts are the most popular.

  • http://www.ddmcd.com Dennis McDonald

    I agree with the comment that the folks who say “comments are dead” and turn theirs off usually are folks with large names or audiences already. When I hit one of their blogs and can’t leave a comment my reactions are (a) they don’t really care about my comments because I don’t already know them and (b) they are like an old fashioned static web site that is set to “broadcast only.”

  • http://www.instigatorblog.com Ben Yoskovitz

    Comments are one of the fundamental anchors of the blogosphere. Without them we have a billion people yelling into the wind.

    I can only imagine what Marc had to deal with in his comments – I spend a fair amount of time managing them on my blog, and it’s nowhere near his scale. But I’ve also built up very important relationships through my blog and the discussions that have happened on it.

    In Marc’s defense, he does provide a public email. So he’s not shying completely away; but I doubt Marc needs to be building much of anything in terms of relationships through his blog. Having said that, a blog is a public face; a big one, one of the only ones most people will have. He’s immediately “said something” about himself by turning comments off.

    My recommendation – let them run wild. Moderate when it gets out of hand, otherwise, let the discussion go where it may.

  • http://spap-oop.blogspot.com tish grier

    Great post, Matt….

    I’ve been bopping around conferences again (most notably and recently Supernova2007) but I’m noticing a fundamental shift from blogging as a social thing, where we leave comments and make friends, to more of a platform or money-making venture.

    Which I personally find awfully disturbing.

    At Supernova, there was so much talk about video, widgets, and widgets to syndicate video, and Jaiku, and the need to Twitter, the glorious saftey of Facebook that I couldn’t help but to agree with Denise Caruso’s assertion that it’s all kind of turning into anti-social media…

    Take a look at all those things I mentioned, and ask youself whether or not you can actually have two-way dialogue. In fact, it seems that the Facebook model–where you have to be “invited”–is what the CEOs really love.

    Blogs open to comments seem, in all this social media morass, to be the one way that we could actually have something that resembled a two-way dialogue with the person posting. But if I go by all the hype and hoopla I’ve been encountering lately, most folks on the inside believe better off being a one-way old media style content blaster serving content to folks we already know….

    Yet I did get to offer up a unique idea: innovate not just in business but innovate in social structures ….which Clay Shirky agreed with. We’re not innovating on this level, not teaching people how to handle the social milieu out here, and because of that, people are slowly turning away from actually being social and turning back to old broadcast style models.

    We don’t need more video, we don’t need podcasts and we don’t need to shut off comments. We need to grow thicker skins and learn just how to communicate out here.

  • http://www.ryananderson.ca Ryan Anderson

    I’m a big believer in the value of comments, because it leads to the value of conversation. In my corporate blog, I’ve outlined “generating comments” as one of our main goals, because ultimately, it’s not the words that we’re pushing out that is going to get people thinking, so much as the discussion that is created out of those words.

    That said, when I read blogs much bigger than my own, I’m frequently and consistently amazed at the level of discourse that has become the standard in comment areas. Read any Wired article to see what I mean – the most cretinous, uninformed, hate-filled dreck seems to become commonplace when a site reaches a certain level of mainstream popularity. In that respect, I completely empathize with people like Seth Godin, who refuse to allow comments.

    From where I sit, having too many comments to manage is a nice problem to have and moderation is really not that hard. If you’re going to have a corporate blog, you have to understand that you may be subject to more scrutiny. It comes with the territory, and you have to plan from that from the beginning.

  • http://freerangelibrarian.com K.G. Schneider

    Ryan’s comment reminds me of my impression of YouTube’s comments, which for any video with a real audience are largely pointless. The trolls have won out.

    I created a comment policy early on (after an incident with a troll leaving homophobic comments). I’m not super-popular and am really not striving to get there, but having a policy in place answers any questions and makes it clear I am not making up policy on the spot (n.b.: O.k., when I created the policy, it was rather on-the-spot and I was called out on it, but blogging was still fairly new). Yes, I am making judgments, but honestly, after implementing the policy I’ve never had to use it, and I won’t look quixotic if I do.

    What Ryan and I have in common is intentionality. I remember reading a lot of woowoo stuff about “radical trust” a year or so back and (with my administrator’s cap on, as well as experience with online communities going back to 1990) thinking, that will not scale. YouTube cannot possibly enforce a comment policy at this point without looking ham-fisted and sending its users to Google Video or wherever.

    But you can go into blogging with the idea that down the road, not every comment earns its right to be posted, and that “lively commentary” does not include enabling sociopathic behavior (which is what most of that vitriol is). I think that makes a difference no matter how big you do (or do not…) become.

  • http://www.greatestate.com Matt Weston

    I really like community based “reputation” systems to address these issues, combined with filters so that lots of comments from high reputation posters get shown first, only a few from low reputation…

  • http://www.awxus.com Stephi

    opportunity for anyone who reads your post to offer some reaction. That’s what separates it from the guys, Arguably those are the folks who we really need involve, You shouldn’t have to work to be able to follow a conversation and besides, limiting the discussion to people who maintain blogs. And that would exclude many, are folks with large names or audiences already

  • http://www.fofo-vb.com/vb ??????? ????

    Good post Mathew.

    I'm stunned by the people who blog, but turn off trackbacks or comments. What is this medium about, if not the opportunity for anyone who reads your post to offer some reaction. That's what separates it from the guys who own the printing presses and deign to publish edited “Letters to the Editor.”

    I don't want to be snarky. But it seems to me that a good portion of the folks who push “trackbacks are dead/comments are dead” memes are the people who have large audiences. Maybe many of them have forgotten that social media is social because listening is as important as talking.

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