To Comment or Not to Comment:
Blogging to Confirm vs. Blogging to Learn

Not having comments means I don't get the point of blogging, at least according to The Carnival of English Language Teaching:

Bloggers who don’t allow comments seem to be missing the point, don’t you think? I started to add this guy’s link to the blogroll but stopped when I realized that he doesn’t allow comments at his site [italics are mine; original has strikethrough] you have to e-mail your comments to him directly as opposed to the normal way through the blog. Recently, I found myself back by his blog and couldn’t resist sharing this post about the value of hard work versus student IQ. I guess you’ll have to send the guy an e-mail or just keep your opinion to yourself.

Clicking on the link, you can see that I'm the one "missing the point." With all the emphasis on blogging as social software, as a way of interacting with others, as a conversation, you might easily agree: This guy is missing the point. Not too long ago, I would have agreed. After all, there is something to be said for comments building on one another. On more than one occasion, I've been in a face-to-face group discussion in which one comment triggered another comment triggered another one and so on until what emerged was much, much better than the initial comment.

So, why don't I allow comments now? Actually, the initial reason is rather mundane. At first, I did have Haloscan commenting on my previous blogs here and here, but I had problems implementing it, no doubt due to density on my part, and so commenting slowly faded from my mind. More lately, I've thought about having the time to respond to many comments, unlikely as it may be that this blog would ever become a Technorati 500. Even so, I would feel obligated to participate in a conversation that I began or at least read it. There would be the ones that, thoughtfully disagreeing, would make me think, but there would also be the many that would simply join a chorus of agreement, a sort of social feel-good bonding that does nothing but promote confirmation bias (see below).

A few others have a similar position. Author Seth Godin recently posted (via Mark Bernstein, creator of Tinderbox) "Why I don't have comments":

I think comments are terrific, and they are the key attraction for some blogs and some bloggers. Not for me, though. First, I feel compelled to clarify or to answer every objection or to point out every flaw in reasoning. Second, it takes way too much of my time to even think about them, never mind curate them. And finally, and most important for you, it permanently changes the way I write. Instead of writing for everyone, I find myself writing in anticipation of the commenters. I'm already itching to rewrite my traffic post below. So, given a choice between a blog with comments or no blog at all, I think I'd have to choose the latter.

I doubt that Seth can escape from including some anticipation in his posts, but if you want to read more about the pros and cons, Seth has quite a few trackbacks to bloggers mostly "conning" on his not including comments.

Mark Bernstein goes further than Seth and argues against including comments on a weblog:

Comments don't belong in weblogs.

The measured pace of weblog response, and the distance between rival weblogs, makes measured discourse possible. Comments let idiots deface your weblog, and that's intolerable. Because you can't tolerate it, you have to do something. And that means the idiots have to do something, too.

For example, Kathryn has been doing some interesting sleuth-work on last month's mysterious African rent-a-coup, and so her weblog has been immersed in spam, bickering, and legal threats. (You know it's getting complicated with you see Comments (158) | TrackBack (0) )

Mark is arguing against comments because of flame wars, which can destroy a blog. Still, as Angela Thomas, a lecturer in English Education at the University of Sydney, responds in "Commenting on Academic Blogs", flame wars aren't as common on blogs like mine. Yet, academics are not immune to them. Margaret Syverson in her dissertation (now the book "The Wealth of Reality: An Ecology of Composition") reported on the Gulf War's effect on an email discussion group:

In 1991, a collegial group of social scientists sharing ideas in a computer forum became embroiled in a bitter conflict about the Gulf War, which threatened to destroy long-standing research partnerships and nearly terminated the group.

Moreover, any blog can receive comments from fictitious bloggers, as Mark Glaser at Mediashift writes in his article "Bloggers Must Be Vigilant Against Astroturf Comments":

The issue came up here on MediaShift when a number of people (or what appeared to be a number of people) expressed their opposition to Net neutrality legislation. Timothy Karr, campaign director of Free Press , did a little basic sleuthing to find a coordinated campaign by various blog and forum posters who gave talking points from telecom companies opposed to Net neutrality. I followed up and wondered whether this campaign was indeed coming from telecom companies or people they paid.

While I have seen a lot of evidence pointing toward certain individuals who post time and again against Net neutrality, I haven’t found a “smoking gun” that proves without a doubt that this campaign is paid for by telecom companies. But it does speak volumes that none of these individuals would respond to my queries or those of other bloggers interested in this topic. If they are not being paid, and are not working in a concerted effort as it appears, then why not at least deny it?

Glaser ends by noting the imperfection of commenting systems, stating:

The best defense we have is to check and double-check what people say, and work together as a community of bloggers to out the people who would try to use sock puppetry, astroturf or other means to deceive us.

How many of us have the time to "check and double-check"?

Actually, I'm not expecting flame wars or astroturf comments on my blog. They aren't the main reasons I don't allow comments here. My main reasons, as odd as it may sound at first, are linked directly to my blogging goal of learning.

First, there's something to be said for "measured discourse" at a distance. I read the post at The Carnival of English Language Teaching, reflected on it for quite a few days, and am now responding on my blog much more thoughtfully than I would have done by dashing off a quick sound bite (and I was motivated to learn and implement HaloScan's trackback system). As pleasurable as social interaction is (and I do enjoy comments as much as anyone else), learning is more important. And I learn more when I take time to reflect.

Second, a measured response at a distance can dilute the effect of confirmation bias. In his book "Cognition in the Wild", Edwin Hutchins, a cultural anthropologist at UCSD, writes about confirmation bias, "a propensity to affirm prior interpretations and to discount, ignore, or reinterpret evidence that runs counter to an already-formed interpretation" (p. 239). When communication is "too rich" in a network, the confirmation bias tendency leads to groupthink rather than a diversity of opinions. For networks to avoid groupthink (and also solipsistic-individual-think), they need two modes of communication:

Where there is a need for both exploration of an interpretation space and consensus of interpretation, a system typically has two modes of operation. One mode trades off the ability to reach a decision in favor of diversity of interpretation. The participants in the system proceed in relative isolation and in parallel. Each may be subject to confirmation bias, but because they proceed independently, the system as a whole does not manifest confirmation bias. The second mode breaks the isolation of the participants and exposes the interpretations to disconfirming evidence, the goal being to avoid erroneous perseverence on an interpretation when a better one is available. This mode trades off diversity in favor of the commitment to a single, interpretation that will stand as the new reality of the situation. (p. 261)

Consequently, blogs with comments are more likely to develop confirmation bias than blogs without comments because they are not sufficiently independent. (Flaming also confirms biases because emotion overrules reason. See my brief posts on reasoning here.)

In contrast, a blog without comments is in a mode of being somewhat isolated and in parallel with other blogs writing on similar topics, while at any time, the blogger can break that "isolation" and get "disconfirming evidence" by using search engines, RSS feeds, email, Technorati, trackback, pingback, and so on. Thus, blogs without commenting sections can more easily promote a diversity of interpretations that may lead to new ways of thinking about blogging and or other issues. Naturally, no-comment blogs may lack reflection while blogs with comments may have diverse, reflective responses. However, most comments on blogs tend to be social and supportive (or perhaps flaming) rather than substantive: They seldom challenge us to think out of the box. Thus, the structure of no-comment blogs in parallel has a greater potential to promote learning.

Back to "missing the point." "Missing the point" implies that one size fits all, that a blogging conversation can take only one form, that all bloggers have the same purpose in blogging. But they don't. Bloggers occupy different niches in various ecologies and have different purposes. Some blog to participate in social interaction. Some do it to enhance their business or be their business. Others simply like to write. Others still have more than one purpose. And so on. Direct comments on a blog might support some goals, but not others as well. It's not "about the conversation," as Matthew Ingram and many others claim. It's about the blog's purpose. The "conversation" plays a supporting role, and its form should serve the blog's purpose(s).

For me, as my blog's title states, the purpose is learning rather than confirming my biases. For educators and learners, shouldn't that be the point?