Rethinking Comments and Trackbacks

Recently, my son and I read The Old Woman and the Eagle. In some ways, it reminds me of the recent spate of comments on Seth Godin's post "Why I don't have comments". Here are some excerpts concerning an eagle who landed at the front door of an old woman, who said,

"Oh my, what a funny pigeon you are!"

She figured he was a pigeon, you see, because although she had never seen an eagle, she had seen lots of pigeons. ...

[Despite the eagle's protests, the old woman continued.]

"Nonsense!" said the old woman. "I've lived for more years than you've got feathers in your wings, and I know a pigeon when I see one."

This story, like the Three Tradesmen in "Chains of Experience", illustrates our natural disposition to be chained to our experience. We read people who have seen lots of blogs and are saying, "I know a blog when I see one. They must have comments." Like the old woman, their argument is based on personal experience, not on thoughtful reasoning. Consider, for example, this excerpt from a curriculum consultant:

At least Godin turns trackbacks on which, if you’ll look, has generated quite a bit of discussion and I suppose is part of the conversation. It just comes across as arrogant. (a term that comes up quite a bit in these trackbacks)

“it changes the way I write”…. that’s the point. Writing for yourself is important but I believe blogs are about conversations and not simply individuals writing their experiences and ideas. I don’t write for everyone and hope I’m confident enough to write about what matters to me but also consider what matters to others. It’s like going to a dinner party and only talking about things you like and not allowing others to share their thoughts. A blog without comments is more like a diary and that’s just what we as educators are trying to dismiss.

For someone who is supposed to be cutting edge he’s pretty old school.

This excerpt is rife with fallacies. Trackback is "old school" while comments aren't? Seth Godin is arrogant, an ad hominem attack that doesn't address the arguments of, Is a blog without comments a blog? Or, Is blogging only about one type of conversation?

Another point is some "educators" are trying to "dismiss" other types of conversation. Now, I'm at a loss for why certain educators are dismissing diaries, but in the field of composition and rhetoric, many instructors promote journals (i.e., diaries) as a way of getting students to observe and reflect on their learning. Check out, for example, the Learning Record Online, a portfolio system in which "observations" and self-"evaluation" are pillars of the portfolio system.

A third point is that he "believes" blogs are about conversations and "supposes" trackbacks can be part of the conversation, implying that trackbacks are not much of a conversation. In other words, real conversations can take only one form, that is, via comments. One of the commenters on this consultant's post stated, "I won't read a blog without comments." Imagine someone saying, "I won't read a book without comments." Such positions are not based on logic but emotional "belief" systems.

Belief systems, like that of the old woman's, can hinder people from engaging in critical thinking. The sanctity of a "comment-enabled conversation" precludes entertaining the notion of "comment-disabled conversations." It's rather ironic in a way. We talk about the value of diversity all the time, but when it comes to innovation with respect to diverse forms of conversation, many are resistant, as seen on this issue.

It would be nice to have some empirical data comparing trackback posts to comment posts to see if there is a difference that makes a difference, to see which type of blog has more confirmation bias or more measured discourse to an extent that it outweighs social expectations concerning blogs. And we would need to see if there are differences with respect to the subject matter of blogs (and even emotional involvement). As we turn to blogs that entertain more subjective interpretations, the potential for confirmation bias increases while that for measured discourse decreases. This occurs regardless of whether posts occur as comments or as trackbacks (again just look at Seth Godin's post with its trackbacks), which makes me wonder if the subject matter has a stronger pull toward confirmation bias than does the post format.

As mentioned earlier (I wrongly attributed the post to Richard MacManus, the site's owner, but the author was actually Ryan Stewart, a guest blogger writing about RSS Readers), comments do seem to work on some types of blogs, in particular on blogs that offer solutions to practical problems, that have more facts than opinions, that have points easily proved or disproved, whose subjects do not require much reflection. But do comments work as well on more subjective type blogs, blogs whose topics more easily invite shallow comments or confirmation of biases?

Let's ignore the controversial topics and blogs and focus on education blogs, at both teacher/researcher and student levels. At the student level, my experience in first-year composition has been that student comments are generally supportive without offering constructive comment. Many ESL students do not feel comfortable offering constructive critique in general, and in such a public forum, they likely will feel more uncomfortable. Trackback offers some distance, along with the notion that rather than critiquing a post, they would be creating their own perspective on the topic. Whether trackback on direct comments, students need some direction. Anne Davis gives a few pointers with respect to her fifth grade students in "Significant Comments".

At the teacher/researcher level, I perused different blogs to get a feel for how comments seemed to be going. EFL Geek, out of 718 posts, had 1313 comments and 50 trackbacks. So, it's only about 2 comments per post, certainly not overwhelming as on some blogs.

Over at weblogg-ed, I looked at the first 30 comments. The overwhelming majority of comments were in agreement with Will's position, sometimes adding a twist on it, but mostly agreeing.

At Creating Passionate Users, we see a different picture on one post, "Intuition", which had 15 comments when I looked at it. Three comments added nothing, but the majority added some point that was slightly new or gave a different perspective.

At "Half an Hour," Stephen Downes writes about "Adults and MySpace". It's a long article: 1758 words. It has two comments, one with 78 words that doesn't add much, and another with 280 words that adds new insight into the issue of adults on MySpace.

It's interesting to compare Will's post on Stephen's article. Will's post was only 219 words (not including the quotation from Stephen), fewer than even the long comment on Stephen's article, but it drew 8 responses, including one that I would call a trackback, as it was a link to the author's lengthy essay (1084 words) in District Administration, an online magazine for administrators. Of the other 7 comments, 4 added nothing at all, 1 added nothing really, 1 ranted, and 1 asked a question that might be further explored. But none questioned Will's concluding sentence:

The dirty little secret is that we as a society are all up in arms about MySpace not because it’s not safe but because it’s making visible the extent to which we are failing our kids.

As a parent, I might get upset about MySpace and I might feel that I'm failing my child, but it would never have occurred to me that I was upset because my failing had become visible. It seems that confirmation bias buttons were pushed instead of critical thinking ones. Stephen's article is much more nuanced, and the one response corresponded in kind to those subtleties. Apparently, the content and nature of the post, even when on the same topic, affects the comments.

Initially, my focus was limited to the structuring effect of comments and trackbacks with respect to confirmation bias. However, from these few and non-randomly selected examples, as Daniel commented, "there is no real dichotomy". Instead, it's multi-dimensional with the context, the author, the audience, and the subject all playing a role in the quality of comments and trackbacks.

In an earlier post of questions on blog commenting, I asked,

What would the blogging community be like if the majority of bloggers moved to a "measured discourse" mode of commenting on the ideas in other blogs? Would we learn more? Would we become better, more thoughtful bloggers? Or not?

Perhaps the analogy of the maturing brain might be a suitable answer. That is, children's brains have many more neurons than adults do. Part of brain development is the pruning of unneeded neurons and circuits. From Philip Seeman on "Brain Development" in the Journal of American Psychiatry, we read:

The developmental task of childhood years from an anatomic point of view is to prune and to select the most useful (perhaps the most used) neurons, synapses, and dendrites to preserve for the adult brain. This process of pruning continues through the early teen years. Presumably, the pruning is accomplished "wisely." This would mean that synapses that are most important to survival and optimal function flourish whereas useless connections vanish.

The structural media of commenting has some effect on the nature of those comments. Still, whether via comments or trackback, a development of "measured discourse" in blogs might have the effect of pruning less useful biased sound bites, resulting in "optimal" thoughtful discourse. Probably, that will never occur. Despite the desirability of engaging in thoughtful discourse and learning, people are social beings and find it difficult to escape from social relations and expectations. I'll talk about that in a later post.