A month ago I wrote some thoughts on how everything is a comment. In that I mentioned something on which I’d like to expand:
You know why comments suck? Because people suck. You know why comments are great? Because people are great. But these problems only are expressed when there’s no oversight. Comments need such an ingredient to thrive: community.
Why do comments work on some sites and not others? The most common reason I’ve seen is because the site is not aiming to foster a community.
Look at the Disqus blog for example. Comments work there for two reasons:
- We put down some ground rules.
- We get into the conversation.
Literally. That’s it.
But if you were to go off and apply those two rules to any site, that still wouldn’t guarantee engaging, interesting discussions would ensue. That’s because one key point is still missing, the assumption on which all of this is built: we want conversation on our blog.
And because we want conversation on our blog, we think through the type of conversation we want on our blog, the type of community we want to build. We’re a group of people who make products for the Internet so we want to foster a community around that. This thinking in turn helps us write our ground rules I mentioned above.
That means we don’t allow every comment. And as a result we’ve found that the conversations we foster often offer just as much if not more value than the article on which it takes place. Yes, sometimes totally open free speech on an article offers value. Sometimes, not always. That decision is up to each publisher on their own.
And our blog is not the only example of a community with consistently good discussions. Communities with consistently interesting, active conversations abound from every vertical, for example:
- Life in Korea: Eat Your Kimchi
- Fun Facts: Mental Floss
- Science: Wired Science
- Venture capital: A VC
- the list goes on…
Comments need community because thinking through the type of community you want forces you to think through whether or not you want a community in the first place, which in turn helps you decide whether or not you truly want to host discussions on your content. Maybe you do, maybe you don’t. The choice is up to you, and any choice is okay.
One of the greatest things about the Web is its democratizing ability. Blogger gave anyone the ability to publish their thoughts. Myspace gave anyone the ability to curate a digital avatar. Twitter gave anyone the ability to share their thoughts at a moment’s notice.
One of the downsides of allowing anyone to speak is the propensity for an inverse relationship between number of speakers and quality of content. In other words, as more voices are added the lower the overall median quality of conversation. This is not so much an issue of signal vs. noise as it is insightfulness vs. dullness. Nor is this new or unique to the Internet.
Pixar’s Ratatouille is full of benevolent rats. It’s also full of love for creation — the main theme: “anyone can cook”. I think that lesson applies here. The greatest Internet products employ an “anyone can publish” philosophy (whether by happenstance or on purpose).1 And really most large-scale, consumer-focused Web products right now fit this “anyone can publish” bill:
- Twitter: publish short-form thoughts
- Tumblr: publish thoughts in many forms (mostly photo)
- Pinterest: publish what you like in photo form
- Quora: publish answers
- Disqus: publish thoughts on other peoples’ thoughts
- Reddit: publish memes
- Facebook: publish thoughts about life
There are many verticals here: blogging, commenting, photographing, pinning, question-answering. But really they all serve the same purpose: publishing. Creating or curating things and sharing them — they are variations of a theme. They’re all about giving people a voice and letting them express that voice.
Things don’t just suck generically — why comments suck
I love that so many products exist to give anyone a voice. What I don’t love: the problems that come with how they might use that voice, like spam, dulness of thought, and hatred. But I’d rather those products exist and figure out solutions as we go than not have the products at all.
Notice how in the previous paragraph I listed specific problems. I didn’t just say “Tumblr sucks”. But I might say “Tumblr has a porn spam problem and that makes Tumblr’s search less useful.”
There’s a lot of noise right now about whether people love/hate comments, how you improve them, and the role of identity. The debate often gets very charged. And rightfully so: there’s no shortage of examples of bad comments out there.
But there’s no shortage of bad blog posts either. Or bad photos, TV shows, or ads. But that doesn’t mean we just say “all blog posts suck” or “TV shows suck.”
It’s a cop-out to say something sucks and leave it at that. Things are bad for specific reasons. Think of the worst blog posts you’ve read, why were they bad? Probably because they:
- Geared towards a niche to which you don’t relate
- Weren’t well-thought
- Lacked accountability — maybe they criticized something but the critic didn’t publish their name
The first step to figuring out why comments suck is getting past blanket statements.
Low-quality comments suck for the same reasons low-quality blog posts or TV shows suck: not everyone is a great creator. And sometimes people purposefully create things they know will disrupt or anger others.
So of course un-moderated, non-community-driven comments are going to suck.
The missing ingredient: community
Or here’s another way of saying the above: you know why comments suck? Because people suck. You know why comments are great? Because people are great. But these problems only are expressed when there’s no oversight. Comments need such an ingredient to thrive: community.
Stapling a comments section on to your blog and not participating yourself is like asking 10 people separately on the street the same question. 5 will give quick, non-contextualized opinions; the other 5 will tell you why you suck. But put 10 people who care about the same topic into a room together and you create a place for insightful conversations to thrive. You create a community.
Everything is a comment
It’s worth noting again that these problems aren’t specific to these products but are rather problems with people.
Which is why I find it funny when people write blog posts about how comments suck. Because their blog post itself is a comment, just longer form and on their own site.
Likewise, tweets are comments, just on Twitter. Facebook wall posts are comments, just on Facebook. The atomic unit of a comment is a thought. And thoughts take many forms: blog posts, question answers, photos, the list goes on.
David Sparks, in a branch on comments:
Beyond that, comments live in so many places today. Blogs, facebook groups, forums, twitter, branch, quora…
So people throw up artificial barriers, like disabling comments on their site. They say things like “if you really want to comment, email me or find me on Twitter.” All they’re doing is increasing quality via self-selection bias. They could do the same thing on their site by participating in the conversations and, yes, every now and then moderating comments a bit. The same thing we do in the physical world.
And don’t think that just because you’re not hosting the conversation doesn’t mean it’s not happening.
But I understand not everyone wants to get in the conversation or moderate comments. Comments can be invaluable additions to communities but it’s more work. Conversations and communities aren’t for everybody and that’s okay. Cap Watkins, in the same branch:
The perception that comments are “cheap” is a result of them existing on every post. Not all posts warrant comments and while curating the individuals participating in the section is good, sites should also be curating where discussion opportunities even show up.
The role of companies is to keep us moving forward
YouTube comments are famously well-known for their lack of quality. Their comments lacked quality because they were just tacked-on, having no oversight, rather than being an empowering community tool. And what is a Youtube channel if not a community?
But then Youtube added community reinforcing features like voting, which further led to Top Comments and hiding comments receiving many downvotes. Comment quality has notably increased over the years; not everywhere, but it has. Youtube communities shouldn’t have to completely disable comments, they can provide a great feedback loop. Nor should they have to hire a moderation team. Youtube did the right thing by creating tools to empower their channels (communities) to enlist good conversations.
Disqus has long been a champion of both the commenter and the publisher, of giving everyone a voice. Comments is in the name, but it’s clear Disqus is best used in communities not just as stapled-on comments. Disqus’ job is to show the world exactly that.
When people say “comments suck” they’re usually talking about the stapled-on variety on large media sites or churnalism tech blogs. Unfortunately there’s no way to magically make comments un-suck because there’s no way to magically make people un-suck.
The role of publishers is to be honest about their intentions
Communities are self-sustaining and self-policing but can require work from management. So if you as an author want quality conversations then you have to step into those conversations too. You can’t just slap a commenting area on your site and expect gold to come out. Which is why commenting may not be right for you.
I really think authors should be responsible for the quality of their articles’ discussions. The reason Fred Wilson’s comments are successful is because he takes the time and does the work involved to keep them that way. If an author doesn’t want to curate, they shouldn’t have a discussion section to begin with.
The role of the rest of us is to be thoughtful
You know how we keep asking for the Internet to keep getting better? That only happens when we move it forward. Let’s stop talking about comments as this one, giant, blanket categorization. Comments come in many shapes and sizes.
If you don’t like like the discussion section on a specific site, say that. If you don’t like a blog’s community, say that. Move forward.
“Publish” here should be taken in the agnostic sense: I’m not referring specifically to written material or even a formal publishing process so much as I’m referring to creation of material with the intention of sharing it to an audience. ↩