Myself and John Gruber have had plenty of disagreements. John and I have debated the reasons for the relative lack of malware on the Mac. I’ve tweaked his tail over his habit of excoriating those who make predictions and get it wrong, and over some inconsistency in the way he views positive and negative figures for Apple market share. And I’ve argued that he’s flat-out wrong on occasions, too.
I see it as part of the cut and thrust of healthy debate on the Internet. You put out an idea, people test it, you respond if you feel the need.
However, recently John’s weathered some criticism for the lack of comments on his site, and in a particularly angry post Joe Wilcox got about as close as you get on the Internet to demanding John go outside with him and settle things like a man. Now I should make this clear: I like Joe. We’ve conversed online and over the phone for many years, since his days as one of the best analysts covering the Apple market, and although we’ve never met I think of him as friend.
Joe’s not the only one criticizing John’s lack of comments. In a “conversation” on Buzz, Mark “Rizzn” Hopkins flayed John alive over his lack of comments. Mark puts it this way:
“The truth is, more often than not, is that Gruber’s an annoying jerk who doesn’t do much actual fact checking if he suspects it will conflict with his worldview. That ends up pissing folks like me off, because he essentially tells everyone who’d want to have an open dialog with him to screw off.”
Mark then went on to call me an “apple-naut” for disagreeing with him, argue that I couldn’t add up because I thought that 1998+4=2002 (way to go, Mark), and claim that “in our community, the community of tech bloggers, there is only ‘one right way'” – with comments. I was happy to correct him on a few of those points.
The comment conundrum
Which brings me nicely to commenting, and why I believe that John has got it right and Joe and Mark have got it completely, utterly wrong. First, to address Mark’s point: There is no “community of tech bloggers”. I’m a “tech blogger”, in the sense that I’ve been writing about tech for a long, long time. I’m not part of any community, apart from the community of my friends and my locality. I do this not because I want to be part of a gang whose rules I have to follow, but because I enjoy doing it.
And John certainly isn’t part of the same “community” as Mark. He’s a Mac geek, first and foremost. If you believe in online communities at all – and after reading Jaron Lanier’s most recent book, I have my doubts – then he’s part of the wider community of Mac nerds, for better and worse.
But John’s site is John’s voice. Even before it attracted serious traffic, it was just about what he had to say. It’s not a conversation. This is a point that Derek Powazek makes well:
“I turned off comments in the last redesign of powazek.com because I needed a place online that was just for me. With comments on, when I sat down to write, I’d preemptively hear the comments I’d inevitably get. It made writing a chore, and eventually I stopped writing altogether. Turning comments off was like taking a weight off my shoulders. It freed me to write again.”
Derek’s site is Derek’s voice. And having comments on it, and knowing that those comments would be there, prevented him from truly exercising that voice. I suspect the same would be true for John, too.
The comment as ego massage
Mark’s argument is something that I just find weird. Mark is clearly passionate about his vision of what web publishing is about. He’s also a veteran, and that’s what I find most troubling about what he’s saying – because he must know that many big, early blogs didn’t have comments, including Dave Winer’s Scripting.com which only gained comments relatively recently.
And to my perspective, comments preserve a centralised, egotistical model of web publishing that’s entirely against the fundamental principles of a truly distributed web. Rather than encouraging writing responses and linking, they encourage you to reply on the “original” post. As Dave Winer once put it, they convert web pages into something much more like a mailing list.
So perhaps no surprise that people who have grown up converting amateur blogging into professional web publishing, see comments as essential. Comments add to page views, which adds to revenue. A lively comment stream means people come back again and again to joust, delivering multiple page views per user per article and inflating the numbers while requiring minimal extra work. While liking to other people’s work drives “users” away, comments keep them on your site, and keep them coming back for more.
Comments also massage your ego. “Look,” you can say, “500 comments! I’m popular! And successful!” Comments also break the link economy, because they encourage others to comment directly on your site rather than writing on their own site, linking to you, and potentially getting linked to in return. John sums this process up perfectly in his post:
“When I link, though, I try to send my readers away. I share every bit of my traffic that I can. Do I tend to link more frequently to pieces with which I agree, or which I think are correct? Of course, because those are the ones I tend to consider most worth my readers’ time. But it’s certainly not true that I never link to pieces with which I disagree — or which are written by people who disagree with me.”
He writes something. You can respond to him – on your own site. And if he thinks what you’re writing is worth responding to, he will write a response and link back – which is exactly what he’s done with me, on many occasions, and what he’s done with Joe too. I’m living proof that John links to people he disagrees with.
“But hold on… you have comments!”
It won’t escape your attention that I have comments on this blog. Given that I think they’re anti-web, isn’t that a little hypocritical? Well, yes. But to me, comments have served a particular purpose: I’ve found some really cool, interesting people by people commenting here. I don’t get enough comments to make them useful to inflate page views, but I have found some interesting folk, some of whom I now call friends.
So I’m being a little selfish with them. But I’d encourage everyone who really wants to comment on what I write to get their own blog fired up, and write. You never know, you might enjoy it enough to end up being more widely-read than John Gruber.
UPDATE: Joe’s posted an interesting and thoughtful response to John’s post. And he’s trying an experiment – no comments for a couple of weeks. I’ll be curious to find out how that goes.