commenting

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 At large scale, John Gabriel’s Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory cannot be repealed.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?

Related posts:

What does one say? Where does one begin? You probably have heard that Kathy Sierra did not go to ETech due to death threat comments, along with "disturbing threats of violence and sex posted on two other blogs" against her. And as she noted, these posts included ones by "prominent bloggers." She wrote:

I do not want to be part of a culture--the Blogosphere--where this is considered acceptable. Where the price for being a blogger is kevlar-coated skin and daughters who are tough enough to not have their "widdy biddy sensibilities offended" when they see their own mother Photoshopped into nothing more than an objectified sexual orifice, possibly suffocated as part of some sexual fetish. (And of course all coming on the heels of more explicit threats)

I agree. I don't want to be part of such a culture, either. I prefer to read blogs like Kathy's, blogs that are positive and helpful. We cannot undo what has been done. But we can follow her advice:

If you want to do something about it--do not tolerate the kind of abuse that includes threats or even suggestions of violence (especially sexual violence). Do not put these people on a pedestal. Do not let them get away with calling this "social commentary", "protected speech", or simply "criticism". I would never be for censoring speech--these people can say all the misogynistic, vile, tasteless things they like--but we must preserve that line where words and images become threats of violence. Freedom of speech--however distasteful and rude the speech may be, is crucial. But when those words contain threats of harm or death, they can destroy a life.

Updates:

Chris Locke's response to Kathy Sierra's initial post.
Kathy Sierra and Chris Locke: "Coordinated Statements on the Recent Events"
Nancy White: Hate, Threats and the Culture of Love
Kim Cameron: One very sad story
Mitch Ratcliffe: Identity rape and mob mentality
Tim Reilly: Call for a Blogger's Code of Conduct
Richard Koman (Silicon Valley Watcher), About that Code of Conduct (a response to Tim Reilly)
Richard Koman (Silicon Valley Watcher), Blogger Guidelines and a Call for Censure (a follow-up response to Tim Reilly)
Fractals of Change, Anonymous Cowards and Infamous Scribblers (an interesting post noting the "uncivil" and "pseudonym[ous]" discourse of the U.S. founding fathers)
Jeff Jarvis (BuzzMachine), No Twinkie Badgers Here

Although comments may be appropriate for some purposes, for classes, it is better to use comment-disabled blogs. Students, when commenting upon a classmate's blog, tend to give supportive comments, such as "I agree!" without following them with some substance. When responding to a classmate from their own blog, students can acquire habits of citing others, summarizing/paraphrasing classmates' points, and writing more substantive contributions to a class conversation. In addition, when all are using RSS feeds (and news readers, such as bloglines), students can see how many others write and respond, and learn from them.

I outright LOATHE blogs that don’t permit comments.
—Chris Brogan

Is a blog without comments a blog? According to many, no. Chris Brogan (at Lifehack.org) SHOUTS:

I outright LOATHE blogs that don’t permit comments. It’s the opposite of a blog. As Shel Israel said the day before yesterday (if not further back), “It has been the dialog vs. the monologue.”

While not shouting, Michael Arrington (TechCrunch) is just as adamant:

I believe the term “blog” means more than an online journal. I believe a blog is a conversation. People go to blogs to read AND write, not just consume. We’ve allowed comments here on TechCrunch since it started. At times, user comments can be painful to deal with. But they also keep the writer honest, and make the content vastly more interesting.

Should the definitions of “blog” be revised to exclude journals that do not allow reader comments? Yeah, absolutely.

Like Brogan, Arrington believes that the conversation must be limited to one writing space, at least if you want to consider it a blogging conversation. But is it so? Brogan's claim, for instance, implies that the monologuers live in a cave, never reading what others are saying, never responding to the web conversation on their own blog. Arrington suggests that disabling comments somehow prevents others from writing on their own blogs and that enabling comments acts as some sort of anti-dishonesty ointment. Now, they're not actually saying it that way, but it seems to be a logical conclusion of their claims. Plus, they don't seem to consider what other types of conversations are available to bloggers besides comment-enabled ones. George Siemens (Connectivism) does:

Dialogue does not need to be direct in order to be effective. Dialogue of greatest value is what I call parallel, or dialogue of awareness. At this level, the comments and views of others are within our cognitive network (i.e. we know they exist) and their influence weighs in our reasoning and thought formation. It's the same way we come to know people. We have a sense of how a colleague or family member will react to something we say or do because we function with an awareness of their views, personality, and character. This is not to say that we lose our identity in consideration of others. We affirm the value and individuality of others not by changing our mind sets to reflect theirs, but rather by creating our world views with an understanding of the world views of others.

Hmm. Reminds me of the greater processing power of computers in parallel.

blogging should not become ... "more a medium of exchange than reflection."

By "effective," Siemens, like myself, is thinking in terms of learning. From an educator's perspective, blogging should not become, as Joshua Marshall wrote, "more a medium of exchange than reflection." I've posted on this issue before, too, also noting the value of parallel conversations in preventing confirmation bias and in promoting a "measured pace of weblog response" (Mark Bernstein)—not to mention that "blog comments seem to bring out the worst in people" (Matt Linderman).

The fact is, far too many people comment simply to talk, to "twitter", as Kathy Sierra put it, not so much to learn from others or to make the conversation worthwhile. Listen to Allen Stern's (CenterNetworks) trackback post:

For example, Seth Godin has comments off. So I read his posts, I may have good insight or reaction, but I can go nowhere with it. Instead it is almost like attending a seminar in that we listen to what he has to say, grab our coat and head back home. I want a chance for Seth to hear my thoughts and views just as I hear his.

Note that I and everyone else who read Stern's post were able to hear his "thoughts and views." The problem is that Stern wants Seth to hear them, to have his opinion at a level equal to Godin's. Excluding comments is seen as excluding equality and the desired social relationship (see "The Social Nature of Blog Comments"). But why should it be seen this way?

What is making the conversation "vastly more interesting" apparently isn't the content, but simply the feel-good socializing taking place among "peers." 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." As Dave Winer (comment #116 on Arrington's post) said:

Dave, I don’t see much moderation here, nor do I see much conversation. Most people state their point of view without relating it to what other people said.

Now, if the purpose of the comments is simply to socialize, then comments are fine. And I can think of other purposes for which comments might work well. The "context, the author, the audience, and the subject all" do affect the nature and quality of comments. But far too often, it seems that if the purpose is to add content to the conversation, then comments don't work well.

Most people who support comments claim they do so because they want a conversation or dialogue. Where's the conversation when the overwhelming majority of commenters add nothing to the conversation? Where's the dialogue when most do not relate their comments to others'. Just imagine the following face-to-face "conversation" between two friends:

Friend 1: What'd you think of the movie Aragon ?

Friend 2: I got the new MacPro yesterday.

Friend 1: The special effects were great.

Friend 2: It's much more user-friendly than my PC was.

Why not rethink how we should conduct our conversations? Just as weblogs have taken us past the simple broadcasts of websites, other tools such as RSS, trackback, and search engines can take us past the simple monologues found in comment sections. From Siemens again:

The space of dialogue has changed. Instead of a physical or even virtual space (newspaper, TV, radio, classroom, or discussion forum), the connections we form have now become the space. The connection is the space. In direct dialogue we still hold control of voice (through filtering and silencing)...because the ownership of the space rests in the hands of one individual (or a particular group of people). In parallel dialogue, we separate the control of the space from the conversation. The separation of space from dialogue allows each individual to form the connections they find of interest. The formation of their network results in the creation of their own space - a space not held or controlled by others.

It's not an issue of "the dialog vs. the monologue." It's the multilog vs. the dialog.

Obviously, my post here is an example of how the "space of dialogue has changed." It's not a "monologue" because it's a response to and drawing upon the writing of quite a few other bloggers. And it need not be limited to just this website. Others who come here to "read" can "write" on their own blogs, continuing the "conversation." It's not an issue of "the dialog vs. the monologue." It's the multilog vs. the dialog.

Instead of fixating on old forms of conversation, why not have our forms of conversation evolve along with the new tools available? Why not move beyond impoverished conversations full of empty comments to rich conversations across the blogosphere? Not that there aren't empty blog posts in the blogosphere, but rather we can select the nodes we wish to create networks of conversations rich in content. Responding to a commenter, Brogan said,

It's all a matter of what you want.

What evidence is there that a direct conversation is generally more effective than a parallel one?

For myself, a rich conversation is what I want. For those who feel the old ways are better, What evidence is there that a direct conversation is generally more effective than a parallel one?

For related posts on commenting, see my website with links to my earlier posts on commenting and Mark Bernstein's many posts on this issue as follows:

Update: For a balanced, pro-comment perspective, read "Blogging Basics: The Convenience of Comments" (Nongeek Perspective).

Much of my posting on comments on blogs has been that they often end up confirming biases, primarily those in the original post. However, they can also simply confirm the commenter's biases.

On David Warlick's post for questions on blog posts, he noted that the conversation can be "polarizing". Indeed, it was. Rather than reflecting on what was said and building on it, quite a few commenters and trackbackers, chained to their previous experiences, reacted. Not that there weren't good ideas contained in the comments. Having comments from a variety of perspectives--college professors, K-12 teachers, IT managers, and others--helps to provide the "disconfirming evidence" that can facilitate reflecting on one's own "chained" perspective, as long as one can brush away the tone of the comments to see the content.

As noted in "Rethinking Comments and Trackbacks", although trackbacks should provide more time for thought than comments, it seems that the content of the post (along with the author's expertise and the comment's tone/register) has more to do with the nature of the response: reflective vs. spontaneous, confirming vs. disconfirming, building constructively vs. destructively tearing down, and so on. So, I'm still pondering whether it's better to enable or disable comments. There's the hope of more disconfirming evidence, but that can be obtained just as easily through trackbacks. There's also the realization that Seth was apparently right when he said that comments "changes the way [one] writes". Perhaps, this is part of what learning is about.

There is also the beauty of the blog, of one's thoughts. Mark Bernstein wrote,

Comments let idiots deface your weblog, and that's intolerable.

Although Haloscan has the comments in a separate window, thus creating a distance from one's weblog, and lets one delete comments, which controls the problem of idiots, one still needs to monitor them. Hmm. Time to go back to the pondering board.

As I mentioned in my last post on commenting, Seth Godin was seen as arrogant when he disabled comments on his blog. Some asserted that blogging was about the conversation. Although I earlier said that it wasn't about the conversation, in a way, it is. More precisely, it's about the social relations between people that conversation enables. In looking at how Seth's post triggered a blogospheric uproar, we might consider how his post violated people's perceptions of the social relationships "required" in blogging from the perspective of social relational models, a theoretical model for social interaction posited by Alan Fiske, Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Fiske proposes that four relational models in various combinations govern all social interactions. These models are Communal Sharing, Authority Ranking, Equality Matching, and Market Pricing. Although I've posted before on these social relations (see "The Internet and Ownership" and "Academic Blogging"), it's been a while. So, I'll review those models and then look at how they can explain people's reactions to disabling comments.

Communal Sharing is a relationship among a bounded group of people in which members are considered equivalent and have equal access to the group's resources, such as in the case of family members having equal access to the refrigerator regardless of who purchased the food or students having equal access to library resources regardless of whether they are on full scholarship, paying in-state tuition, or out-of state tuition. In communal sharing, people identify with their group and conform to its characteristics and behavior.

Authority Ranking is a linear, hierarchical relationship in which one person is above or below another person instead of being equivalent. The higher person has more privileges, status, and control, while the lower person is entitled to protection and care. It is not a matter of power, which is an asocial relationship, but of a social model that supports legitimate authority. Those in subordinate positions grant their leaders authority. That authority may be allowed in one situation but not in another. For example, students generally follow a teacher’s rules and directions. However, it is not uncommon for students to disagree with their teacher when they hold expertise in a particular area. In ESL (English as a second language) writing courses, for instance, graduate students accept grammatical corrections from their teachers but may reject content corrections in discipline-related papers because they consider themselves to have more authority with respect to their discipline. And Authority Ranking can co-exist with Communal Sharing as in the case of parents in a family.

Equality Matching is a relationship in which there is a one-to-one correspondence in the transfer of resources, often with a delay in response, such as when a someone extends a favor, which is expected eventually to be returned in kind. Unlike in Communal Sharing relationships in which accounts are not kept, they are in Equality Matching. Consequently, if too many favors are owed, an Equality Matching relationship can turn into an Authority Ranking relationship.

In contrast, Market Pricing is an exchange of resources based on proportionality, that is, a ratio or rate, such as exchanging goods or services in return for money. People want to get the best deal for themselves, or at least a fair deal.

In any particular action, more than one of these are usually operating, although it is normal for more than one to be more prominent than the others.

In addition to the social relational models, there are also asocial models in which people either ignore others or use others as a means to some end. Having evolved and emerged from psychological mechanisms, Fiske’s social relational models are the building blocks of cultures. Just as the four building blocks of DNA account for the diversity of species, so, too, do the four social relational models account for the diversity of cultures.

When we look at the many comments about Seth Godin, one word that comes up is "arrogant." Why? The tone does seem flippant. By itself, however, such a tone from most bloggers wouldn't have triggered such a response. More likely, the response resulted from his violating the Communal Sharing model. Although the blogging community does not have a uniform opinion on commenting, the overwhelming majority believe that to be a blog, it should have comments. Previously, bloggers had access to posting their opinions at Seth's site, and now they don't. Previously, they were part of Seth's "bounded group," wide-open as it may have been. Now they aren't. By unilaterally disabling comments, Seth was also violating the Authority Ranking model. That is, he was perceived to be acting from a position of authority that they did not grant (when not granted, it is considered an abuse of power). The combination of breaking off from the community and asserting authority, both actions violating social relational models, led to the blogging community's strong reaction.

Seth, on the other hand,might have been treating it as a Market Pricing relationship: He figured that the uproar would increase his traffic and was worth the backlash, thus an attempt to make the best deal for himself. Or, perhaps as he wrote:

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.

Just looking at his previous post on "On how to get traffic for your blog", you can see 113 comments and 76 trackbacks. Plus, Seth often writes 4 or more posts in a day. Commenters expect some interaction, as EFL Geek wrote:

If an author choose to disable comments I think that is fine, I don’t really support it, but that’s a fair choice. What bothers me is that authors who have comments enabled but never respond to any comments by their readership.

It doesn't seem likely that anyone would expect that Seth would respond to all commenters. Still, it's rather easy to imagine that he may have thought that he wasn't getting a good enough deal out of the comments to make it worth his while to keep them and respond to them. It's also possible that an Equality Matching model played some part. That is, when someone comments on your blog, you feel the obligation, as Seth said, to respond in kind. Obviously, he couldn't do so, and rather than feel uncomfortable about not fulfilling the social obligation of matching the comment, he simply withdrew from the conversation that maintained the relationship.

When people use different social relational models to their interactions with one another, conflict is likely to ensue. However, although the people involved may attribute their reactions to a variety of causes, they are governed unconsciously just as much, if not more, by underlying psychological mechanisms that guide social relations.

Obviously, these mechanisms can affect the learning that occurs in the classroom. Just consider the aversion of many students to peer reviewing essays and the social relational models that are likely underlying that aversion. However, that's a topic for a later post.

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.

Daniel Mangrum in his post "Comments “On” or “Off”?" wrote:

I’ve been in a sort of dialogue with Charles on the issue of having comments enabled or disabled on one’s blog. His post on the question makes for a good read. I approached it with the assumption that I should come away either convince or unconvinced, but now I see that I don’t have to be either.

Although I'm mostly convinced, I'm still muddling my way through quite a few questions.

We mostly agree that enabling comments in a blog is to provide interaction between writers and readers. Is such direct interaction, however, the best form of interaction? As I mentioned earlier, much depends on the blog's purpose. For educators and learners, learning should play the prevailing role. Daniel himself wants to "improve [his] teaching", or in other words, learn to become a better teacher. In such a case, Which form of interaction has greater potential to facilitate learning? Direct comments on one's blog? Or, an exchange of "measured responses" at a distance? In what ways can the environment affect this choice? In what sorts of environments would it be better to enable comments? To disable them?

Daniel, like most of us, doesn't "see so much traffic ... [that we are] in danger of being over run by inane commentary". In such a case, does simply having any traffic (i.e., direct comments on one's blog) outweigh the possibility of confirmation bias? Although most blogs never become one of the Top 500, obviously some do. If the traffic became too much, would it be possible to turn off comments without creating a backlash, as Seth Godin has done? Or simply not respond to comments without creating alienation (see, for example, EFL Geek's comment here).

With these possibilities plus others mentioned earlier, why do people prefer direct commenting on blogs? The main rationale that comes to my mind is the motivation that comes from social interaction. One of the three pillars of Deci and Ryan's self-determination theory of motivation is social relatedness. We are simply more motivated to do something when we have a positive relationship with others. But why would that positive relationship prefer direct comments to "measured discoursed" at a distance? Is it that one seems more "immediate" than the other, and so closer in social relatedness? Or is it simply that it is easier to have a conversation when everyone is in the same room, that is, on the same blog?

Daniel wrote that my blog is about my learning. It is. However, learning is facilitated through social interaction, and the rate of my learning depends considerably upon the rate of learning for all bloggers. Consequently, whether or not comments are enabled or disabled should take into consideration the effect on the blogging community, or more specifically for this conversation, the educational blogging community. 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?

The environment affects all of these points. Daniel's blog, for instance, doesn't include trackback. So, I'm not able to provide a link to his blog on my most recent comments on his post. If I wish to increase my range of interaction with others on this topic, others who are reading his blog, then I must use his comment feature to lead them to my posts, where my blog, which disables commenting, enables trackback, which lets me and others know that they've linked to your post and provides the address of their post.

Actually, it's no more difficult to interact via RSS feeds and trackback than it is through direct comments. Haloscan is a free service that provides not only commenting (which I've disabled) but also trackback. For RSS feeds, one can use Bloglines, if an online service is preferred, or one can download free applications, such as RSS Bandit (for PC users) or NetNewsWire Lite (for Mac users). Using news readers saves time. Instead of clicking on each blog individually to see whether or not someone has posted, new posts are automatically delivered to one's news reader. For more on RSS possibilities, see my brief intro with resource links here, and for more on RSS readers, read Richard MacManus' post last week, "Rich RSS Readers: best of breed picks". Richard's post seems to be a good counter to my position, a post where the comments work well. What's the difference between this sort of post with comments and the ones I've been talking about? Or is there a difference here that makes a difference?

As the purpose changes, so does the environment. How would answers to these questions change as we consider having our students use blogs?

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?