In Defense of Comments

Monday, June 28th, 2010 | Opinion

About two weeks ago, part of the online tech community erupted in a debate about comments. The most well known site that does not have them is Daring Fireball. There was a site back in January called DaringFireballWithComments.net, but that was taken down since it stole all of John Gruber’s writing. Others joined in the hate against comments. I’m here to defend them.

In this defense, I’m going to reference three articles:

First off, I must address Derek’s title as a baseline for my argument (John makes similar statements in his article). Of course anybody who hosts their own website can decide whether or not they want to allow comments, and if so how much commenting they allow. I am not assuming I have a “right” to comment on anybody’s articles on their website. That’s a stupid argument, and its a strawman from those arguing against comments. I am not arguing that anybody must allow comments, I’m arguing that as a good internet citizen, they should allow comments.

Now with that out of the way, let’s get into the meat of the debate. John writes

You write on your site; I write on mine. That’s a response. I don’t use comments on Wilcox’s site to respond publicly to his pieces, but somehow it’s unfair that he can’t use comments on my site to respond to mine? What kind of sense is that even supposed to make? And if there aren’t any comments on DF, how are DF readers “adding to the noise”?

This is one of the main arguments those who hate comments trot out. “I’ll write here, you write there.” Okay, but then he describes Daring Fireball as a “conversationalist” website. Well, conversations have two sides. In this case, one is the writer, the other is the reader. The best part of the internet, is that with comments, the reader can have a voice. They can offer feedback- and that feedback can be seen.

That last part is the key. Emailing the writer makes the counter-argument hidden. Writing a response on another blog makes it near hidden, because most readers don’t have the notoriety of John. None of the other readers is likely to see that response. And while there are many bad commenters out there, there are also many commenters who can make coherent arguments against a position. Shutting them out kills the conversation, and the community loses in the end.

Marco disagrees:

I also disagree with the widespread notion that comments are “discussion”, or that they form a “community”. Discussion and communities require mechanics such as listening and following up that are rarely present in comments.

As does John:

Comments, at least on popular websites, aren’t conversations. They’re cacophonous shouting matches. DF is a curated conversation, to be sure, but that’s the whole premise.

Sure sometimes they aren’t conversation. I’m not arguing there aren’t bad commenters. But those commenters can be handled. Methods such as no anonymous posting, verified email addresses, and yes, banning bad commenters. The thing is when people see what others are getting away with, they push the bounds further. And further. But when they see others getting punished for bad comments, they stop. And they behave.

I think Derek has it right here:

I may enable comments again someday. But what I really want to do is fundamentally redesign the commenting experience. Most comment systems are practically designed to create stupidity. I know there’s a better way. But that’s another post.

Certainly there are systems that are horrible at maintain the level of discourse internet society should expect. And he is right, its not an on or off question. But I think there shouldn’t be an off. Especially when he says things like this:

But I’ve seen incredible communities form in the confines of comment forms. I’ve seen funny, helpful, informative, intimate, amazing conversations. I’ve seen groups of people come together using the crudest of tools to form intense personal bonds. I’ve seen it literally change lives for the better.

And as John Siracusa as remarked

Not a day goes by where I don’t read a comment that’s at least as interesting, entertaining, or insightful as the text it’s attached to.”

And I find the same thing. I skip over the rif-raf and find interesting points and arguments. I find back and forth debate and see both sides. The idea of allowing comments is not about shouting a point, its about expressing it, and possible convincing somebody to see a different point of view. That’s the beauty of debate. If hones arguments and builds better ones.

Finally, I’ll end with this: those who do not allow comments make it appear they do not want that debate. They want their experience free of people questioning them. John has said it doesn’t fit in with his experience. I think that says a lot about his arguments. Of course, even if they don’t mind the debate, not having comments proves they would rather not deal with it. And that’s not good for the internet.