Generating Good Comments

Participation Inequality

Most people are lurkers. Jakob Nielsen, writing on participation inequality, states:

  • 90% of users are lurkers (i.e., read or observe, but don't contribute).
  • 9% of users contribute from time to time, but other priorities dominate their time.
  • 1% of users participate a lot and account for most contributions: it can seem as if they don't have lives because they often post just minutes after whatever event they're commenting on occurs.

These percentages vary somewhat according to type of site (see Quantitative Analysis of User-Generated Content on the Web by Ochoa and Duval via Robert Hughes). Nielsen notes,

Blogs have even worse participation inequality than is evident in the 90-9-1 rule that characterizes most online communities. With blogs, the rule is more like 95-5-0.1.

Participation inequality is a fact of life. Suw Carman adds that in and of itself, is not a problem.

Still, it is possible to decrease the number of lurkers a little by making it easier for them to participate. Conversely, of course, the percentage of lurkers is likely to increase as the difficulty to contribute increases. In the case of trackbacks, as posting on one's own website requires more time than simply rushing off an "I agree" comment, the number of trackbacks will be smaller as they are more difficult than commenting. Looking at EFL Geek's statistics (before his new redesign), we see that he had written 1007 posts, received 1924 comments, 50 trackbacks, and 184 members. These statistics support the previous post's speculation that trackbacks took too much energy for people to use as compared to commenting.

Comments are Uninteresting

On enabling comments, Nielsen writes,

I would say to only allow comments if you have the time to moderate them. Otherwise, your site will suffer information pollution and waste readers' time because of the dominance of uninteresting comments.

I don't imagine that this site would ever have so many comments as to require much time to moderate them, but as, he notes, most comments are just "uninteresting." However, that assertion also has qualifiers. In analyzing the collaborative nature of the Web, he compares chat and discussion forums, writing that although most discussion forum posting are "uninteresting,"

the longer postings [in discussion forums] typically lead people to include some arguments and not just pure name-calling [compared to chat rooms]

This is in line with my earlier posts concerning commenting. In Monologic and Empty Comments vs. Parallel Conversations, I looked at comments on the sites of two well-known bloggers:

When I counted, out of the 58 comments on Brogan's post, perhaps 20% of them said something that added "content." Out of the 141 on Arrington's (not including trackback, which have a higher percentage of "content"), it seemed to be a little more than 20%. (I stopped counting quickly as my eyes glazed over.) Now, a few of the 20% were very good. Still, most comments were simply thanks, pats on the back, or repetition of something already said, without reference to others in the "conversation."

Learning from comments like these, which are fairly normal, is about as easy as learning in a room full of speakers, each with a megaphone shouting out their own opinion.

Generating Quality Comments

The exceptions to these types of comments tend to be found on blogs like that of the Becker-Posner Blog. The more serious the tone, the more knowledgeable the article, the more specific the focus of the blog the more specific, knowledgeable, and serious the responses will be. As mentioned two years ago in Rethinking Comments and Trackbacks, comments differed quite a bit, depending on the blog:

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.

So, quality comments are possible, depending on the quality of the post. One other factor in getting quality comments is your responses to commenters. Referring to business, Nielsen writes,

Promote quality contributors. If you display all contributions equally, then people who post only when they have something important to say will be drowned out by the torrent of material from the hyperactive 1%. Instead, give extra prominence to good contributions and to contributions from people who've proven their value

Applying that to education blogs, respond in kind to comments that add some new insight into the topic at hand, and ignore those that add nothing.

Learning through Comments

For our students, Mary Hillis has a suggestion:

After the first week of the Book and Literature Circle Blog, I found that students wrote short comments, and there was no flow between contributions in the comment area. During the second week (this week), I specifically asked students to think about how they could connect their comments to previous ones and build up a conversation.

Thinking about participating in academic discussions, and synthesizing sources in academic writing assignments, I think that by challenging students to make connections between their comments and their classmates' comments, they are learning a valuable communication skill that they may be able to apply to other types of assignments.

This approach fits in well with Graff and Birkenstein's book They Say / I say, which

shows how academic argument is a dialogue in which an individual acknowledges what others are saying and at the same time makes a space for what s/he is saying.

As Mary noted in her other post on comments,

commenting is a skill that students need some guidance on

So, along the lines of making connections and synthesizing, I would help the students consider how to remix their comments and those of others (and of course giving credit appropriately) with the goal of coming up with new insights into the issue at hand. Perhaps, in this way, good comments can be generated, and learning might take place.