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 thoughts on “Becoming an old (blogging) man

  1. 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. 🙂

    Like

  2. 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).

    Like

  3. 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.

    Like

  4. 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.

    Like

  5. 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.

    Like

  6. 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?

    Like

  7. 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.

    Like

  8. 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?

    Like

  9. 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.

    Like

  10. “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.

    Like

  11. 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…

    Like

Comments are closed.