Notes on Comments

About two weeks ago, Claire Thompson, upon finding that I didn't allow comments initially was "aghast" and wrote,

On my blog comments were my riason d’etre. What was wrong with this guy? If only I could give him a piece of my mind…"

I'm glad that I wasn't close at hand then. :)

She then went on to a brief but thoughtful consideration of the pros and cons of having comments. One point she made that I hadn't given much thought to before was that many readers are not likely to follow trackbacks. Comments have a time advantage by having the entire conversation in one place.

I'm not sure why readers don't follow trackbacks, but I believe that many want to skim something quickly, and if it attracts them enough, they will slow down to think about it. Going after trackbacks simply doesn't have a sufficient level of catalytic attraction to get them to click. That applies to me, too, because often all trackbacks do is quote part of a post from which I can't determine if it's worth my time to click on it. Trackbacks need to have a few words that indicate the value/substance of the reply sufficiently so that I want to see what they have to say. As Christine Martell, one of the commenters on Claire's post, stated,

I don’t check out trackbacks on others posts unless the blogger points them out in a subsequent post. I’m even clicking on less and less links in a post unless the blogger gives me a sense of why I should. I’ve just gone down too many paths of check out this post only to find out it doesn’t add a lot of value for me.

Similarly, the large majority of readers do not want to expend the time and energy in writing a lenghty and thoughtful comment. In the two years since I initially gave my rationale for no comments, not one reader has taken me up on my invitation to send me by email a thoughtful and measured response to anything I've written for posting on my blog. (Before that time, two individuals did post lengthy responses on my blog, one, a colleague whose response I invited.)

Now I do think that some blogs are meant for comments. Technical ones are a good example, in which a large number of people can bring together isolated pieces of information, giving readers a much better grasp of possibilities for resolving some problem. And some blogs seem to encourage good comments, such as the Becker-Posner Blog.

But many blogs (I would say most), for whatever the reason, have too many comments that add nothing but feelings. As Claire noted, this post

by Will Richardson has garnered 68 blog reactions and 166 comments to date. What could someone possibly add to the conversation at comment 166? I don’t know, but they must feel pretty stongly to add their 2 cents worth.

For these reasons, I don't think comments are best for students because they often take the path of least resistance due to time pressures, such as work, family, and so on. The goal for blogs used in classes has to be learning, but the instantaneous nature of comments inhibit reflection. Then, again, as Mary Hillis wrote,

commenting is a skill that students need some guidance on.

From this perspective, with guidance, perhaps commenting can be a learning endeavor. Before assuming that comments or no comments are better, we should be able to answer questions like these:

  • Is commenting as effective for learning as writing a post on one's own blog and trackbacking to the initial post.
  • Does posting on one's own blog reduce the tendency of confirmation bias that is found in comments?
  • Does the social nature of commenting (compared to trackbacks) motivate students more to continue their learning via blogs after the class ends?

Each of these questions would make for a good study, and at the least require some thought before assuming that comments are important for learning.

Although I lean against commenting, I do not see it as black and white. There's no research along these lines that I am aware of that can give definitive answers according to type of blog, context, and so on. But for those of us who are educators, I would say that we need to be careful about being sidetracked by the social contagion of commenting and instead keep the goal of learning in the foreground of our blogging and of our students' blogging.

Related posts can be found at Why I don't have comments.