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John Gruber, Joe Wilcox, and why comments are anti-web

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.

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  • Dave Winer

    Hi Ian, scripting.com was probably the first blog to have comments, we had an integrated discussion group starting in 1998. It’s archived at discuss.Userland.com. Every scripting.com post appeared in the group and often stimulated lively discussions. Don’t know why the myth developed that I was against comments, I’m not. I think not having them is a legitimate choice.

  • Ian Betteridge

    Hi Dave – well you did say (in your post I linked to above) that “to the extent that comments interfere with the natural expression of the unedited voice of an individual, comments may act to make something not a blog.” Of course, not being a blog isn’t bad :)

  • http://akatsuki.co.uk akatsuki

    Trackbacks were the attempt to solve this problem – but the little excerpts stunk, didn’t actually engage anyone in discussion beyond the 1-2, and basically never caught on.

    Ideally I’d like a system where we could aggregate threads/forum posts/etc into distributed discussions. Something like an RSS reader would let us finally take ownership of our very scattered online identity.

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  • hapa

    “Ideally I’d like a system where we could aggregate threads/forum posts/etc into distributed discussions.”

    semantic web is a lot of work

  • Wesley

    This is where I come in and say not only that I think you’re wrong in saying “comments are anti-web”, but the concept of “anti-web” is silly. First, what other medium gives someone the ability to place commentary or respond to something on the thing itself? The system of replying to something by creating something else has been the way of things before the internet. You write a book. I write a counter-book or an essay or critique. You make a movie. I write a review in a newspaper. You write a column in a newspaper or magazine. I write a letter to the editor later.

    Commenting directly on a thing is pretty much a web-only phenomena, so I can’t buy it as somehow anti-web. It’s something more of criticizing behavior that one doesn’t like. Now, this is where I think the use of anti-web/pro-web is bad. I think you and many others use anti-web to slam things/behaviors you don’t like, whereas pro-web is anything that is good which one attributes to the web, no matter whether the good has predated the web. Anti-web is almost a cudgel as powerful as anti-progress or anti-open.

    Anyway, I suspect the tenor of blog comments are determined by the tone of the blog author more than anything else. Roger Ebert has crowed about how he has the greatest commenter at his blog. In most cases, I believe thoughtfulness breeds thoughtfulness. On that, I think Gruber is right in not accepting comments. He’s more of a taunter and snarker. (See: “Jackass of the week”.) Though there are probably several subjects where the well has been too poisoned to get good comments — at least not without a lot of effort. Technology, especially involving Apple, Microsoft and Google are probably one of those poisonous subjects (so Gruber has more reason to avoid comments).

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  • http://www.electrictoolbox.com/ Chris Hope

    I delete the ego comments like “great post” and “thanks a lot” and blah de blah blah blah because I don’t care (plus half the time it’s someone trying to get a link back to their website). I don’t want that crap on my blog. To be perfectly honest when I get a notification about a comment on my blog I think “Oh great, now what?” But I keep them because about 1/5 of the people add something interesting, make me think about a problem in a different way, or give me something else to write about. I only added comments a few months ago, and while they piss me off, I wouldn’t remove them.

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    I try to make my websites compatible to the semantic web as possible, but it requires a lot of work. So for small websites it is not worth the time.

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  • matt

    @chris – im guessing that you get relatively few comments on your blog, if youre able to evaluate each one like that. not practical for very popular blogs.

  • http://danielmclark.com Daniel M. Clark

    In the A-list world of bloggers, certainly, writing and posting (and linking) a response on one’s own blog makes a lot of sense. For someone like me though, who routinely attracts tens of visitors and can all but guarantee that if I wrote-posted-linked a response to your article… well, you’d never see it.

    That, to me, is the importance of comments. It’s more than just dropping links back to the commenter’s site, it’s more than the misguided sense of “community” that some people have – more than anything, it’s a way for little guys to get face time (maybe… a little…) with the big guys and the folks who orbit the big guys. Some of us are trying to create a little gravity of our own, after all.

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  • Ian Betteridge

    Daniel, I can see your point and I think what you’re saying used to be true. But there’s plenty of tools available now to ensure that you can see any and all posts commenting on something you write, from trackbacks through to automated vanity searches. And isn’t a link from a high-traffic blog to yours – even if rare – worth far more than a single comment in a huge stream of comments?

  • http://danielmclark.com Daniel M. Clark

    Ian, thanks for your response. I think you’re right – as the search engines are ever becoming more accurate and more fully indexed, it is getting easier to see where you’re being talked about. Couple that with WordPress’ inbound links view (those that use WordPress, anyway) and you can get a pretty clear picture.

    And I think you’re right too about the value of the link. I’m convinced that links in comments aren’t weighted nearly as much as some would have us believe. I think that a link in the body of the post itself – even a link in a sidebar or a footer – is worth far more.

    Thanks again. Food for thought, for sure.

  • http://marianlibrarian.com Marian Schembari

    There’s this super-specific blogging community that you only understand if you’re knee-deep in the trenches. So maybe my friends don’t 100% get why I dig comments, but anyone else with a blog understands how vital they are to not only your site’s survival, but to your sanity/ego/motivation to move forward with your life.

    We judge a blog entirely on its comments. I could give less of a sh*t if you get millions of readers every month, but if you’re getting 100 comments per post you are the cat’s pajamas. If you’re in PR you understand that reaching out to bloggers is important. But which bloggers do you contact? Those who are part of something bigger? The columnists for AOL? The biggies on HuffPo? Or do you go to the ones who have established their own little “cult followings”? People like The Bloggess or Marie Forleo…

    To be perfectly honest, the reason I comment on blogs isn’t because people ask. From my experience, both with my own comments and seeing why other people write, here are the top reasons I comment a blog post:

    * The blogger has said something I agree or disagree with strongly
    * I want to congratulate someone on a new job/baby/engagement/personal success
    * Something is hilarious and I want to add my own experience
    * Something is so amazing I couldn’t possibly leave the website without letting the blogger know how amazing they are but am too lazy to write an email (There is a fine line. Remember that.)
    * There’s some form of list, usually in advice-form, where I have something to contribute

    This is a great post!

  • http://CommentFlock.com Ian from CommentFlock

    Hey!

    Not trying to be a jerk but Derek’s comment “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.” is a little backwards to me… being a blogger (and online in general) means you want to be seen and heard – getting feedback on what you have to say is part of the game.

    It’s like when celebrities complain about the paparazzi following them around. It comes with the job.

    Just my opinion!
    Ian

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    I beleieve it depends on the content. We should encourge the conent

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    I have a blog where I leave the comments on but I spend a lot of time sifting through and moderating comments. Sometimes I’ve thought about turning them off, but comments do provide new content without me having to write a new post. Take a look at my blog: http://www.ama.dk or any othwer WP installation with the comments on.

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