Becoming an old (blogging) man

Today I realized that I’m part of the “old guard” of blogging because I remember a time when blogging was so new that very few sites had comments (it seems like MetaFilter was one of the first few?) and after a few years when they started to become commonplace, people were generally decent to each other because it was very literally turning a blog into a face-to-face conversation.

But I think the root of the problem (described in various media outlets over the past year or so) of snarky, or mean-spirited, or generally unhelpful comments becoming the norm has to do with the distance we’ve achieved from those original link-and-essay heavy blogs.

I have a feeling that if you’ve only seen blogs in the past five years (which is probably 95+% of people reading blogs today) you consider comments to be de rigueur and they are entirely divorced from the original concept of a conversation between the reader and the author of the original post. It’s not an intimate conversation, it’s just another content management feature available to you on the web.

This has a de-humanizing effect that I’m seeing play out more and more often in the weirdest places. People will post about their idle curiosities on their personal blog (“Why does x happen when I do y?“) and instead of seeing friendly answers I would expect many years ago, I’ll often see someone early on read into the question and assume all sorts of accusations (“well, maybe it’s because you are a, b, and c, and everyone knows it!“) and watch most followup comments start from there and go into darker directions.

It’s tough because I love blogs and I love comments in blogs, but I’m starting to think there’s this “new generation” that has grown up online only knowing blogs as having snarky comment areas and never realizing it used to be a personal, intimate space where you’d never say anything in a comment that you wouldn’t say to a friend’s face. Also, know that I mean “new generation” in a way where age of person in it is irrelevant. You could be 50 years old and started reading blogs last summer and I’d put you in that group.

Of course, I could just be talking out of my ass, old people tend to do that…

62 Comments

  • FIRST!

  • heh. I knew that would happen.

  • I shall save you a rocking chair next to mine at the Old Webloggers Home. (Motto: “You can call it ‘blogging’ after we’re dead, sonny!”)

  • Well put. I feel very old, too.

  • I think the big problem with comments is most people who want to engage thoughtfully with blogs and bloggers already have their own outlets (blogs/twitter/facebook, etc).
    Why invest 10 minutes in thoughtfully commenting on a blog post when it just goes into an internet black hole? So instead you get a lot of the less established crew who don’t care.
    I wish commenting felt like I was contributing something or engaging in a discussion, but it mostly feels like a waste of time and energy. Any comment I make isn’t saved in any sort of history, it’s likely nobody read it, I won’t be notified of replies and nothing too interesting will happen because of it.

  • Thanks for your insights, Matt. I’ve only been blogging for one year but I find that the history of blogging is providing me with a lot of insights.
    My blog’s comments don’t have a lot of abusive drivel in them, but that’s probably an advantage of being a bit below the radar. I think there are still places where comments are civil and fun and I know a few. Unfortunately, commenting on content can attract the type of people who enjoy tearing down more than building up if it will build a reputation for the troll (I mean, commentator) in question.

  • Word up Matt. Those of us old enough to remember how things actually were in the prehistoric era of blogging know what you are talking about.
    Back in the late 90’s – early 2000s, when hardly anyone but the nerdiest people bothered with blogging because of the technical expertise needed to try, comments were not an option. And guess what? They didn’t need them! The sole fact that anyone was able to share the opinions from a virtual soapbox to the whole world at large was revolutionary and interesting enough.
    Even as I appreciate being able to exchange opinions over a given publication on a blog (as I’m doing at this very instant), I still think comments are completely optional. A blog isn’t less of it because it lacks commenting, if the content is greatly crafted and has a consistent quality output. The saying that “a blog without comments isn’t a blog” is nothing but a steamy pile of BS.
    That said, I’d probably regret that sites where comments lean toward high value online conversations decided to shut down commenting. But I would try to understand, seeing as the Internet literati that once were majority online are giving way fast to the John and Jane Does of the world, who most likely have never had a primer on netiquette.
    After all, who wants to be flooded with tons of nonsense drivel? Just look at YouTube these days.

  • Even before HTTP and HTML there were trolls and flamewars on Usenet.
    Yeah, there were assholes before there were platforms for assholes to use, but that’s not my point — I remember the occasional flame war on listservs back in the early 90s as well, but that didn’t seem to encompass most of the list activity.
    My problem today is that someone makes a blog post and the first or second comment sucks and then the 99 following are even worse and it seems like the quality has gone down.
    I think what bradsucks said about the ephemeral nature of comment systems and lack of technology rewarding those good commenters is a really big reason too, so I’ll probably make a follow-up post soon exploring that. I’ve been meaning to write about how hard it is to leave comments on sites and remember to revisit, even in 2008.

  • Word. My husband and I were just having this conversation. I started blogging (sorry, it was an “online journal” back then, you whippersnappers) back in ’98 with L.A. Stories and that morphed into a few different diaries, each one getting more and more private. The ability to add forums and commenting was *not* taking lightly. Now, it seems like you have to do it. I’ve even seen people say that it’s rude not to! Ridiculous.
    One of my favorite blogs, bikeportland.org, has some crazy commenters. There used to be fairly interesting and productive conversation in the comments but some of the threads there lately are just crazy. I don’t know how the guy who runs it can stand to read it. People don’t seem to realize (or care) when they’re crapping all over someone’s labor of love.
    I don’t make my living on the internet anymore so I have pulled out of nearly all my online communities and I do often miss the interaction but I don’t miss the crazy, weird and mean.

  • I used to get the best comments on my weblog hand-delivered to me over lunch. And you know what? I still do. (Plus, food!)
    My off the cuff reaction is that part of what’s driving your frustration is that Back Then the community was much smaller, and you were much more likely to run into the blogger on other sites around the web, if not in real life. And if there were great comments left on a post, they were more likely to lead to one-on-one email or IM conversations, which led to a greater sense of trust and intimacy (for lack of a better word), and son on, and so on… And since then blogs have, well, exploded. (And IMHO that’s a Very Good Thing, even if there are more rude people out there doing drive-by hack jobs with their pseudonymous comments.)
    I agree that there’s room for improvement in the tools we use for commenting; especially in the areas of identity, portability, discovery and syndication / reblogging. All of those things can (and will) help. But it’s the easy way out to blame the tools…or to look only to the tools for a solution. You should know as well as anyone that a community grows when it is well-gardened and tended to. The content, style and tone of the blog is the starting point…and it seems to me that bloggers that attract a quality audience are more likely to garden and encourage quality conversation.
    So, Matt, maybe it’s your fault — maybe you’re just stupid enough to be reading the the wrong blogs. (See, I knew I could weave a pointless insult in there *somehow*.)

  • It used to be that the whole web was a black hole, a glorious black hole that was inconsistently indexed and more indirect to explore and participate in. Then some cool new tools appeared and accelerated certain parts of the conversation.
    Before permalinks, comments and RSS aggregation, we all had to actually visit each other’s sites regularly, responding to anything interesting on our own blogs. When comment functionality first appeared, it was like allowing people into your living room, and most people were respectful.
    They still are on some blogs. But my fear is that through increased use of web services, stock WordPress templates, aggregators and social networks, we’re forgetting the value of that living room context.
    Eh, I’m probably just turning into a cranky old man.

  • TL; DR. But I TOTALLY agree.

  • Rex said the comments here were more representative, or diverse, or something. So I’ll make a different argument here. I’ve noticed that ‘old guard’ people take much more issue with UI and interface as being somehow paramount. So saying the LISTSERVs I was on in 1993 (and we used to have to walk uphil to get on them! Both ways!) were as acrimonious as any Gawker thread I see often gets me ‘oh, but that isn’t a blog’, which is a distinction that has no resonance for me.
    But I also note that people who don’t see technology as anything other than a shift in how to manage content (the difference between a web press and on-demand printing, to use a different paradigm) don’t get caught up in the theorizing about communities in ‘blogs’ vs LISTSERVs. The tone and manner in both roughly analogous. So talking about comments five years ago, or ten, is somewhat absurd (and disingenuous). Phone phreaks weren’t always the most collegial people, and gossip likely became a social phenomena because of party phone lines.
    That’s not to say that finding a better way to facilitate disparate voices and encouraging community where ever we find isn’t a crucial process. But lamenting that YouTube has ruined blogging is just defeatist head in the sand thinking. “Oh, you kids.” The kids don’t care. Rather than standing to the side and complaining, maybe taking those $5 fees to develop threaded and group moderated comments that finally breaks the useless model of endless comment threads of impenetrable Slashdot style systems would be far more useful.
    Do I ever read a YouTube thread? No. Do I think their existence undermines what I do? No. And do I think I could manage an onslaught of tools, were they ever to find me? Sure.

  • Netwert is right. With any large increase in users comes the inevitable decay in quality. I remember publicly complaining (on my blog, of course) about how I stopped reading Metafilter because the comments were becoming unhelpful. I think this was before Mathowie implemented the $5 barrier-to-entry.
    I’ve seen the same thing happen over the years with eBay and Craigslist, but it’s much much worse with Craigslist. I’ve been looking for a used car for the past 6 weeks and I would estimate that about 25-40% of all for-sale posts are from scammers trying to trick people into wiring money overseas. It’s gotten to the point where the signal-to-noise ratio makes it unbearable and an incredible nuisance.
    When I started CamWorld in 1997 it was because I wanted it to be a resource that others could use. It was purely an accident that I was writing opinionated stuff that others in the “web design industry” were relating to. They came back day after day to see what else I had to say. When I organized some of the first blogger meetups in late 1999 and 2000 in NYC and San Francisco, I was *shocked* that 20-30 people showed up to meet me and the other bloggers who attended the “CamVention/CamParty.”
    With comment ability came the comment spam, which for a period of time was so much of a nuisance many of us simply turned commenting ability off rather than fight a battle with the miscreants in the “SEO industry” trying to capitalize on PageRank that is not theirs.
    While the comment spam issue is mostly solved, the issue of filtering out the crud is not. The fact that such things as the YouTube Comment Snob filter and StupidFilter exist are prime examples of how much of the “lower end of society” has come online since the early days of blogging. It sounds awful but sometimes I feel that people must be able to pass an IQ test before being allowed to leave a comment online. I’m sure I’m not alone in this thinking.

  • Even before HTTP and HTML there were trolls and flamewars on Usenet.

  • Barrier to entry. To find ye olden weblogs of yore, you had to work at it. Then you read the article, and made a comment. Now, weblogs are practically crotch-thrusted at you, and commenting is crazy simple. Make mine a ’99.

  • I was just talking about the days of blogvoices.com, when blog comments were still a special add-on that you had to hack into blogger’s templates. I remember being heartbroken when blogvoices went down. Then again, it’s remarkable that the dude was HOSTING everyone’s blog comments. Insane!
    I remember the debates about whether commenting added anything to blogging. Now, in my work as a social media marketer, I see corporate PR folks who say things like “if your blog doesn’t have comments, then it’s not REALLY a blog.”
    It’s been a long and bumpy ride. That said, I started dealing with my first really nasty blog comment trolls in 2002, which was still pretty early in the Era of Teh Blorgs.

  • Now, in my work as a social media marketer…
    Social media marketing is a huge part of the problem. Comments and blog posts have to be scrutinized for link spamming, affiliate spamming, ulterior motives and payola.

  • Your problem is basic scalability. It’s the same thing that happened on Metafilter: when it had 3,000 users, it was divine; at a runaway 30,000 users, it got a bit maniacal. Your pragmatic solution (five bucks! barrier to entry!) was both profitable and had the added impact of preserving community and signal:noise, as a quick look at the free Yahoo Answers will attest.
    Blogs today (“blogs today!” dig my grave) have no such barriers. Commenters are welcome, because people like to randomly add a thought–look at YouTube and ESPN.com posts with a thousand useless, unread comments–and because it can theoretically drive more page views and ad impressions. As a result, quality drops.
    The solution, of course, is to stay micro. This is why new and closed communities are always popping up. But those are often unsustainable, which brings us back to the present situation. Not much we can do.
    Aside to Amber: nice callout with Blogvoices. Now we should all feel old.

  • Interesting discussion on the comments in response to [and possibly counter to] your post, Matt.
    Thinking about my own habits for a moment, as time has gone on and other services sprung up my own attention has become fractured — but I think this has resulted in the quality of my comments to blog posts improving. The frequency has gone down with idle chitchat, the pat on the back to the author, and other less constructive conversation being diverted elsewhere, but when I do take the time to jump out of my feed reader [perhaps another cause] to comment on something I’ve read there’s a reason behind it.
    On a mass scale — when you take into account newspaper sites with comments attached to articles, massively popular political sites, sports sites and the like — comments have taken on the new form you’re begrudging. They seem like grounds for off topic, snarky, name calling, abusive one liners and not grounds for conversation. Its almost like there’s a void of community in these places that lends itself to every post, news story, or item being its own black hole with no recourse or tie to any bigger picture.
    But on the small scale sites and even the medium scale — more popular personal sites, one author tech oriented blogs, photography sites, this blog — I still find that the people who are posting are doing so because they think they’ve got something to contribute to a conversation, and not just something to say.

  • I wonder how much of this gets back to one of the things Mena talks about in her banjo story. Earlier bloggers (and the blog companies they built) spent a lot of time trying to be more popular and juicing the technology for SEO and other “make me popular” type functions. Good news: it worked. Bad news: it worked. So now it’s really easy to troll around, find stuff, comment on it and move on. Hit and run commenting, as it were.
    Now, we’re all busy trying to solve the opposite problem (a la Vox) of giving bloggers more control over privacy and the ability to keep people out of the discussion. Of course, the number one complaint we hear about Vox is that it doesn’t allow public/anonymous commenting. So there’s probably no way to win on this.

  • I feel the same way about blog comments. I wish they could be the way they used to be. Put simply, I love ‘em. I miss the dialog that they once facilitated.

  • Ah yes, I remember my little dotcomments living room very fondly. I found some good friends among the people who commented–friends I’ve visited in other cities, friends I’ve had lengthy e-mail conversations with, friends I still talk to on the phone sometimes.
    I miss the days when my regular commenters turned into friends. Now my commenters are either people I already know or people who comment once and then never return. Since there are so many new eyeballs and so many blogs being, yes, “crotch-thrusted at you,” I don’t think those days will ever come back.

  • Many of us real old-timers (heh) came from BBSes, our first taste of being online: sites (not a perfect analogy) that existed solely on the computers of those that created them, and could usually be dialed into, and “live” for, only one person at a time. They were almost entirely text-based, often deeply geeky (who else was going to bother with them?), idiosyncratic and personal almost by design: since they ran off home phone lines, almost everyone on them was going to be in your zip code — local people of similar high-geek interest & savvy.
    When we discovered the web in the mid-90s or so, the “homepages” we created were in many ways a direct descendant of the BBSes. They were still very text-driven; graphic and design elements were secondary if not nonexistent, partly because of the tech limitations (the modems of the time could never pull down, or the computers easily display, streaming video, huge photo libraries, etc) — but also, I think, because of the mindset. We were a little slow to realize the world-wide implications of the WWW — we still did what we did for our fellow audience of geeks, the guys (and it was mostly guys, alas) who had the particular skills and sensibilities to get it all going. In large part, we wrote and acted as if our audience was still exclusively local, that our sites were something to still be viewed by one person at a time, and that those who did would all be someone that we’d already know, or could, or would want to. We called them homepages, and we _did_ consider them a kind of extension of our homes: everything we put on them was done with, relatively, a great deal of care (because it took a fair bit of know-how to get something up there in the first place); every part of them was “hand-made” in a way, thus personal and unique; and we opened the door, or thought we did, for one person at a time.
    In short, I think that the homepage-culture (and I think it _was_ a time and culture of its own, as much as any other) was what it was in large part because of the barriers-to-entry required to make them, and the way it attracted those of us of the mindset to put up with those barriers, to get our hands dirty with the code, to mind what we said because it took a little effort to say. Those barriers have long gone, which is great for the most part: for all the trolls, snarks and spam that the much more open and user-friendly web makes possible, it also makes possible an immeasurable wealth of great voices that just wouldn’t have been heard from back then. For all the oceans of crap, there’s more than enough gold still coming through to make it worth it. But it also means that early-web culture is gone for good and never coming back — it depended on walls that’ve long been broken through, for better and for worse.

  • Yes, it’s always September somewhere on the Net. And as others here have pointed out, that’s been true since the days of BBSes and Usenet. I watched the sad decline of alt.folklore.urban and several other newsgroups well before the Web was even a glimmer in Tim Berners-Lee’s eye. Sniping and trash talk are part of human nature, and WordPress + anonymity makes for an invitation some idiots just can’t resist.
    But the technology that enables the idiocy also makes it vastly easier to find the thoughtful stuff. I think that’s a fair trade.

  • I hate comments. That’s why I never comment. Never.

  • Almost ten years, and I’m always following that Greg.
    I, too, started blogging in the pre-comments days [or on a platform, Blogger, that didn’t have comments at the time], and even after I switched and *could* have comments, I didn’t. Even though I had some very nice email relationships and conversations with readers, I remember a distinct sense of insecurity, a fear of seeing “Comments (0)” next to my posts.
    Comments are about discussion, sure, and signal-to-noise is ultimately important, but there’s also a sense of comments as a way of keeping score, a metric. Slashdot feels like a turning point, a site where the mob frenzy aspect of it was as significant as what was being said or linked to. Plus, the comment rating system had a competitive element to it, and commenting turned into something of an end in itself.
    I look at the newspaper and major media sites, where a reporter’s randomest blogpost results in hundreds of mostly angry or useless comments, and while I still have a brief jealousy flashback [“Ooh, I wish I had 318 comments!”], the reality is that comments are being managed as a pageview or stickiness metric, not for any content or community value they might contain.

  • I think you guys are forgetting usenet 15 years ago. It could be every bit as mean spirited as blogs and other social media toay, the difference being more of the meanness had technical knowledge interspersed in the ad-hominem attacks.
    Blogs are a crappy format for real conversations anyway. No one reads past the 10th comment or so, it just gets unmanageable. And that’s even if the conversation is civil. Threading where the reply to a specific comment is visibly tied to that comment works better for understanding the flow of the conversation without more mental work than enjoyable for most people to decided to follow the conversation and not click away.

  • I agree, but Matt does not answer the question of how and why did it happen. Why snarky, or mean-spirited, or generally unhelpful comments became the norm.
    I think, this has to do with age of bloggers. Early blogs were generally written by well-educated, higher social status and grown-up people. Nowadays blogging is also popular among teenagers and you can write blog even if you are not so good at writing at all.
    This reminds me of one early discussion with my professor at university. He maintained blogging is to remain in the professional’s community, while I tried to argue blogging also is for general talking about what happened in school yesterday. It seems I am right.
    Reposted from [here](http://www.kitizaidimai.lt/kiti-zaidimai/2008/8/30/comment-or-not-comment.html)

  • I was expecting at least one derogatory comment in these comments, even if it were ironic, but it appears that if you post a blog complaining about how bad comments are, the trolls and spoilers come out with constructive comments. I think they do this just to piss you off.
    Yeah, that’s it. Meta-trolls FTW.

  • The simple solution is to moderate comments so they’re not displayed by default, and make it very clear on the comment form that that’s the case. Of course, approving comments is extra work, but just knowing that there’s moderation also deters people from leaving low-value comments.

  • This is the most civil comment thread I have ever seen. What have you done with the REAL Internet??

  • Agreed. With few exceptions, my commenters are cordial, but my closest online friends almost never leave comments. They’re much more likely to email me instead. It’s funny how I used to hesitate before leaving a comment because I felt like it was an assertion of intimacy, or rather a way to express my desire for connection. Now I hesitate because I don’t often see the value in it.

  • Wow! What blogs are you all following. I find the comments to be the “best” part of a blog post. It expands the commentary made by the author through COMMENTS. Extra bits of details left by others that have experienced the same, or didn’t and explain why.

  • This comment is more about a tool than the social-engineering/community-building aspect of valuable blog/comment interaction.
    I was intrigued by something called Lemur Catta Captcha http://lemurcatta.org/ used at http://www.atomicwang.org/motherfucker.
    It appears to pick random sentences (and tweak them subtly) that a reader has to choose from: automate-able by the blogger, but eventually, also by spammers. What makes more sense to me is the “level 2″ version: bloggers would write actual comprehension questions. It would be hard to make them NPOV and also avoid insulting the audience, but good blogging is hard.

  • What is quality anyway? Sincerity, maybe? I value sincerity and openness in people. Even if that means showing me you are a mindless dork, sincerely. What I don’t like so much is when you don’t even relate to the actual topic. Are you insulting anyone with your grossness? Sure, yourself and those who you belong to. Oh, you commentes anonymous? This means a lack of… a lack of sincerity, deep down?
    —-
    @lance: I hate your humour, that’s why I never read your commentary on anything.

  • You almost me lost at “Old Guard”. For some reason I misread it as “A-List” and felt the overpowering urge to stab myself in the face. Fortunately for myself (and us all), attempting to stab oneself in the face with a up of lukewarm tea does not result in serious or lasting injury, and I was able to continue reading without further incident.
    So while I drain a new cup, let’s explore this issue.
    What you’re experiencing is nostalgia, with all it’s diffuse vanity. Yes, back then X was wonderful, but Y (remember Y?) was as bad as X is today. By the way, have you heard about Z? And so it continues. The character of comments then was better because they worked under the conditions of the time, just as they continue to work within lightly fenced gardens that seek to maintain those conditions.
    But those are not the conditions of today. Today there are more of us, writers and readers both, each producing and consuming even more than before, each aware of more visible “status” disparities (i.e. the power law distribution writ large), each tuning out an ocean of commercial static, often seeking to pick up the signal of popularity-over-quality link aggregators, only to find ourselves standing before vastly more gaping maws of comment text fields eager for our words. All of this routinely praised, for better or for worse.
    I might add that you yourself are complicit in the degradation of blogs-as-they-once-were. Your post “Blogging For Dollars” probably triggered as much tarring over of the untamed “link-and-essay heavy” wilderness of the blogodome with an ad-tastic, profit-driven, niche-marketing strip mall as any other single post. My point is not to single you out or change the subject, but to show that all participants in this game are responsible for (or guilty of, if you were raised Catholic) shitting close to home. Our love and devotion to the thing changes it in ways we cannot control.
    In any event things are different now, and it’s no surprise that the old way of doing things is breaking down. As a method of feedback to the author (which I regard as the principal function) it just doesn’t scale, as meaningful feedback demands a level of thought and attention that very few not already invested in that particular author-reader relationship are interested in providing on a routine basis. The average comment anywhere could be replaced with a simple thumbs up/thumbs down with very little lost to the author, only marginally diminished satisfaction to the reader, and a significant savings in the time and energy required to make sense of that communication.
    This may not hold true for some high-profile sites, but I’ve come to believe that the primary function of comments on them is to perpetuate a kind of sticky rage by giving the readers a place to argue amongst themselves, quite independently of the author and his ad impressions.
    For the prototypical blogger, quality of feedback should always trump quantity, and comments as we currently implement them don’t encourage that in any way. Even down to calling them “comments” rather than something a little pretentious like “letters to the editor”, we seem to set our expectations much lower than what we actually wish for. I think the solution is to set our expectations high and concern ourselves more with the actual contribution that comments make to the site than the ersatz value that comes from giving the reader the opportunity, and re-calibrating our practices to fit. For some it may mean closing them altogether, for others it may mean extreme or novel kinds of moderation. In the end, you simply want to tell people that if they aren’t going to add value, then don’t bother.
    Some may say that’s stifling participation or what have you, but in this day and age it’s not even a speed bump. If I want to allow my readers to pen a douchey invective that I will never read, I can simply give them a link to Blogger or WordPress, a far more enabling and empowering thing than asking them to “keep it civil” while handing them my megaphone, and with the convenient side effect of being a fully automated method of ignoring them entirely. You can’t truly stifle any conversation, you can only ask it to get off your lawn.
    The tea is gone. Ta.

  • I tried to join a ‘discussion’ on a blog I hadn’t read before only to realise that I had somehow invaded some high school boys clic whereby if you have a differing opinion people start calling you bad names.
    It certainly has changed.

  • The last time I really felt connected to anything through weblog comments was about three years ago.
    Four years ago someone made a post about some stupid little computer annoyance, and I commented with the stupid little script that I had been using to work around the annoyance. There was no additional followup, but then three years ago, my little script appeared in someone else’s weblog, credit included, along with a couple extra lines that made it a little more clever. I made something, let it go, and it came back after erasing someone else’s pain a little smarter than before. I made a connection that helped someone past an annoyance in a way that they likely used daily, and although we never spoke or commented directly to each other, we both knew it.
    I have not felt connected through comments for three years, but then I have not made a helpful or useful comment in four. Perhaps the moral is that if everyone makes it a point to comment if and only if they can be helpful, informative, and insightful then the signal will out step the noise, the wow and flutter will normalize, and the magnetic tapes will return to normal operation…
    …or maybe such a manifesto would have stopped me from making this comment as well.

  • That’s because you’re d, e, and f. We all know it. You’re probably voting for x, y, and z.
    [Pejorative profane term]

  • I just want to reiterate — I think some people are reading a bit too much into my original post — I don’t think it’s about tools or barriers to entry so much as weblog comments becoming ubiquitous and somewhat de-valued and me noticing a trend of just general unpleasantness being the norm.
    I guess that’s a Permanent September problem in a way, but by no means did I mean my original post to sound like I preferred blogs being the realm of a technical and intelligent elite class of net users. On the contrary, I love that blogs are everywhere and about everything, I just wish drive-by commenting was a bit nicer and we had some sort of system for giving them more value overall.

  • Wait…
    So, you are saying that the quality of blog comments has gone done? Are you sure you’re not talking about Digg commenters and their comments?
    Seriously though, I think that comment quality decreases proportionally with the size of a site’s audience.

  • @Noah: Nicely put.
    I’ve expounded a bit in the past on my own blog about “homepage culture.” See: http://johnlabovitz.wordpress.com/2008/05/23/evolution-of-the-homepage/

  • I think this is an interesting discussion. It seems like with RSS I read far fewer comment threads than I used to, which leads to replying to less comment threads. Perhaps the type of people that leave reasonable comments are also the type that aren’t reading comment threads very often these days? (For the record, I got here through a link from Gruber’s RSS feed.)

  • I usually don’t read all the comments on a blog like TechCrunch because there are far too many. What’s worse is those seesmic comments, where some idiot has to videoblog his comment and waste time with um and uh and ahhh type crap.
    Trust me, I much prefer just text comments. Seesmic is a scourge. I just wanted to get that out there.

  • I’m enough of an “old timer” to realize that blogs are just a poor reinvention of Usenet.
    And since blogs haven’t got all the features of Usenet, I think that contributes to what you’re talking about. When I leave a comment on a blog, it is unlikely to turn into a “conversation” because I will probably never see any replies. In order to see them, I would have to remember what posts I commented on and keep going back to the pages to look for replies. When you return to a newsgroup, on the other hand, you automatically see replies to your posts. That doesn’t happen in an RSS reader.
    But, one good thing about blogs is that it sucked a lot of the crap away from Usenet. Now you all get to deal with the spam and the scammers and such.

  • paul in kirkland

    I find it ironic that I come to this post on blog comments (via Gruber), and find probably the best comment thread on any post I’ve ever read, ever.
    Go figure.

  • Brad’s comment from yesterday I think made a very good point. On another note, I have tried starting my own blog only to realize I’m not that interesting.

  • Metafilter isn’t a blog, it’s a discussion board, like slashdot, or plastic.com.

  • Funny. I haven’t left a comment in ages, and now I’m commenting on a post about commenting.
    I started an “online journal” about ten years ago. Each page was hand-coded and I think it took me longer to create the page than to come up with the actual content. It was a labor of love. We didn’t have comments back then, but I fashioned a link to a message board where readers could discuss the content of the latest entry. It was usually the same people leaving comments and we all knew each other virtually.
    About a year after Blogger came out, I tiptoed onboard. People who hand-coded their pages really didn’t want to make the leap, but at the same time, I wanted to spend more time on the content and less on creating the page. I used Blogger, Noah’s GreyMatter, Movable Type and WordPress over the years and although, these made my life easier as far as content creation goes, I lost some of the touch feely-ness I had with those that came in to my discussion boards.
    And now, over the last six months or so, I’ve sort of lost the blogging feeling. I guess back in the day when I was one of a handful of journaling websites, it was easier to get a comment or to keep readers interested, but now with so much to read out there, the old guy may be nearing blogging retirement.
    I think the problem with this new generation of commenters is that they don’t get to know the author. They have the anonymity to leave a rude comment and then be on their way to the next. They can give a fake name, leave a fake email address and no one will be the wiser. And you’re right…it’s not longer a conversation or discussion, it’s just a comment. And they’ll probably never come back to finish the discussion like this did on those old message boards.
    The scary part is that this impersonal way of communicating is starting to work it’s way into the real world. Kids these days. :)

  • The problem isn’t comments, it’s anonymity. People behave particularly badly when they don’t have face to face contact with another person. It’s not limited to blog comments.
    People who would never push you out of the way when walking past you on the street will, from the isolated comfort of their SUV where they can’t really see who you are, gun a two ton vehicle at you callously. If you make eye contact with them, they will often sheepishly wave an apology.
    It’s easy to be a bad person when you remove real humanity and replace it with anonymous idea. The clues that you are dealing with another person, their facial clues and body language, are missing on the web. So people gravitate toward being rude and arrogant and broadly dismissive or self absorbed or whatever their unrefined true colors are when they’re not working to impress people with their civility in person.
    They forget about being a human and start to act out the role of a 2D caricature, and execute a heartless program of being funny or smart in ways that are not humane.
    The more anonymity, the less humanity and civility. That’s why Digg users are commonly so outrageously ridiculous (their identity is nothing more than a string of random letters), and anonymous bloggers like FSJ can so easily take potshots that a real person wouldn’t.
    The entire basis of prejudiced and propaganda is to remove any humanity of the subject you want to create hatred for. Conversely, it’s also why news is delivered by anchors: it creates the impression of humanity and trustworthiness (regardless of whether the news itself is real or faux).

  • Why blog engines like WordPress and Blogger and MovableType haven’t focused more on tools for comment filtering is strange at this point in the game. Something akin to the Plastic and Slashdot-style comment rating systems needs to be tackled; best operated through some web-wide login system like OpenID. I tried Cocomment but I don’t think centralization is the answer here–this needs to be something distributed.

  • Not to sound too much like an old curmudgeon, but the internet used to be something you had to earn through a little bit of knowledge and a healthy dose of curiosity. Anyone you interacted with online you immediately felt a certain kinship with and as such you treated them with at least a little bit of decency and respect.
    I believe anonymity is part of the problem, but I believe the real problem is that the intrinsic value of the internet has been all but forgotten. It’s no longer a revolutionary medium for communicating and exchanging information, now it’s just “where facebook is”. Nobody has any respect for the internet itself and they certainly don’t feel any kinship with the people they meet there. It’s just another crowded place.

  • Comment quality went more obviously downhill around the time of rel=nofollow. Around that time, something skewed in the social dynamic between blogger and commenter–often, it had been a more collaborative relationship.
    But, at that point, blog “conversation” started to mean: popular bloggers get attention via links and comments. And, nofollow sort-of codified that: our comments could still give value to the blogger and their blog, but that gift wasn’t automatically reciprocated.
    Now, a blogger who uses nofollow (and, it’s “on by default” in many blog engines–even difficult to turn off, in some) has to go out of their way to recognize a good comment in the web sense of linking back to the commenter. And so, it doesn’t happen–enough.
    In response, people comment more strategically or selfishly or just to “graffiti” a popular spot at which they are otherwise unrecognized.
    At the very least, nofollow was designed with complete disregard for the potential role and value of good commenting. It’s discouraging to good commenters.

  • It’s like a backbeat — someone laments how comments have ruined the Internet, and then, three notes later, we hear the chorus: it’s the anonymity!
    Not to get all historical on y’all, but Thomas Paine and whatnot, anonymous ballots are a cornerstone of democracy. Pseudonyms have enabled crucial opportunities for dissent, in politics, literature and religion. I’ve never met anyone on this comment thread, and never really expect to. That you put a ‘name’ to your comments is immaterial — and perhaps a wee bit egotistical (did you really think we all recognized your name?). The credentialing that affirms your handle is just persistence, testimony and ethics (as a matter of discursive representation). That has nothing to do with your state-issued ID.
    I would expect the Venn diagram intersection of ‘old-guarders/A-listers’ and ‘half libertarian Economist readers’ to be rather high. Haven’t you noticed they’ve made it 150 years without bylines?

  • Oh shit, my utopia is full of assholes.

  • Thomas Paine and and anonymous dissenters were participating within an elite privileged class of intellectuals, much like those who participated on USENET before the masses found it, or the web before the masses found it, or blog comments before the masses found it. That’s why your signal to noise ratio goes down dramatically.
    It doesn’t matter if you know me. What matters is if I care about what you think of me. If I’m posting as an anonymous coward, I can be as rude and profane as I care to be. However, if I have a reputation to uphold, and/or hold a value in maintaining what other people think about me (regardless of whether they know who I am or not), it will push me to think harder about how I express myself so that I get my point across effectively without resorting to easy tactics like ridicule or lying to make my point.
    The problem with society isn’t really that everyone lacks a state issued ID branded on their forehead, but rather that it’s simply human nature to treat unknown people badly. If you take some effort to relate to people and try to show some respect for them as individuals, even if you disagree with their opinions, it will be reflected in the level of sophistication of how you reply to them.
    If you’re going for efficient, effective efforts to “win arguments” then you will waste no efforts to make sure what you say is accurate, respectful, or decent. Just like Fox News and the NeoCons, or like the more rabid fringe in the opposite end of the spectrum.
    “Democracy” is often a cop out used by people who want the benefits of democracy (unrestricted freedom) without exercising their responsibilities (honesty, journalistic integrity, respect for others, etc). That applies both to anonymous dissenters and to well known fundamentalists, who hide behind a banner of democracy while simultaneously working to undermine it.

  • Democracy is no more a cop out for those eschewing responsibility than a demand for transparency is a short cut to not having to respond to criticism. A well-wrought argument stands alone. And how you treat people is regional and cultural as much as anything else. Our worst arguments (the most vicious, the most acrimonious) are likely with people we know well.
    As much as I personally wish otherwise, you cannot mandate intelligence, or kindness, or decency.
    I still don’t see this as a cultural argument, but a technical one. YouTube and myriad ‘news’ site have badly integrated comments. Why should the clarion call be to eliminate comments? If ‘major media’ aren’t embarrassed at their ham-fisted attempts to create community when the craven interest is ad-sponsored page views, why should we even be pointing that out? They fail miserably. Would you want those commenters even reading, your site?

  • I dunno, I thought about this more, and I think the issue is how you define *blogs*. I mean if you just read the personal sites of the people who are your friends (i.e. not the professional sites they’re paid to update), have things gotten any worse? This thread is as good as any we had going in 2000, for example, and it wasn’t that hard to get it started and get all the old-timers out of the woodwork. Of *course* that doesn’t happen on Lifehacker, but if Gina had comments on her personal blog, I bet it would.

  • “Of course, I could just be talking out of my ass, old people tend to do that…”
    Well you’re not, and I’m …sorta … nearly… in some ways … old and I *never* do. Let’s just go with that.

  • Re: blogvoices.com. If someone could ever find and restore that database, it would be awesome.
    Also: dotcomments. I’ve still got that php file on my server. So awesome. Those were the days…

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