Blogs and Comments

Joel Spolsky cites with approval Dave Winer's post "The unedited voice of a person":

Do comments make it a blog? Do the lack of comments make it not a blog? Well actually, my opinion is different from many, but it still is my opinion that it does not follow that a blog must have comments, in fact, 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.

We already had mail lists before we had blogs. The whole notion that blogs should evolve to become mail lists seems to waste the blogs. Comments are very much mail-list-like things. A few voices can drown out all others. The cool thing about blogs is that while they may be quiet, and it may be hard to find what you're looking for, at least you can say what you think without being shouted down. This makes it possible for unpopular ideas to be expressed. And if you know history, the most important ideas often are the unpopular ones.:

Joel then turns to the destructive nature of comments:

When a blog allows comments right below the writer's post, what you get is a bunch of interesting ideas, carefully constructed, followed by a long spew of noise, filth, and anonymous rubbish that nobody ... nobody ... would say out loud if they had to take ownership of their words.

Although noting that comments have their down side, Clay Shirky disagrees:

This can be true, all true, as any casual read of blog comments can attest. BoingBoing turned off their comments years ago, because they’d long since passed the scale where polite conversation was possible. The Tragedy of the Conversational Commons that comes from being able to hijack an audience to get attention for your own views becomes too persistently tempting when that audience is large. At large scale, John Gabriel’s Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory cannot be repealed.

But the uselessness of comments it is not the universal truth that Dave or Joel make it out to be, for two reasons. First, posting and conversation are different kinds of things — same keyboard, same text box, same web page, different modes of expression. Second, the sites that suffer most from anonymous postings and drivel are the ones operating at large scale.

If you are operating below that scale, comments can be quite good, in a way not replicable in any “everyone post to their own blog”.

Shirky has a point that scale matters, as does the content and quality of the initial post, which I've mentioned earlier in Rethinking Comments and Trackback:

Over at weblogg-ed [original post link misplaced], 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.

Different factors do affect the quality of comments, some of which are scale, subject matter, quality of post, and tone. And Shirky's concluding remarks are pertinent:

the question to ask about comments is not whether they are available, but how a community uses them. The value in in blogs as communities of practice is considerable, and its a mistake to write off comment threads on those kinds of blogs just because, in other environments, comments are lame.

Thus, for educators, we need to ask, How will our communities of students use comments. Will a majority of them use comments to offer new insights or useful contributions to their classmates' posts? Or will most simply say, "I agree"? No doubt, students' ages and levels of maturity can make a difference, so that it wouldn't necessarily be one size fits all. Thus, on a case by case basis, the primary consideration should be, Will comments enable learning or disable it?

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