Wisdom on Comments

Wisdom from Eli Dourado:

On small blogs, people typically comment when they have something to contribute or ask that is relevant to the post. These are frequently of high quality. … On more popular blogs, this positive commenting dynamic is confounded by the presence of eyeballs. Every post is read by many thousands of people. For the self-involved who could never attract such a large audience on their own, this is an irresistible forum for expounding pet hypotheses, axe-grinding, and generally shouting at or expressing meaningless agreement with the celebrity post-authors.

The first step, therefore, to higher quality comments is “be more niche.” Discourage your marginal readers with technical language, obscure references, and lengthy posts. Your marginal readers are not of high value anyway, and driving them away is an excellent way to improve the average comment of your inframarginal readers.

If you cannot bring yourself to do this, or you have delusions about being the next mainstream blog, then you must adopt some sort of rules to govern commenting. … The kinds of rules that might be adopted are not particularly interesting in and of themselves. …  Many sites are now using threaded comments, in which users can reply directly to another comment and the comments can be grouped together. While this may be fine for small sites, it is death to the comments section on bigger sites because it rewards the self-involved commenter with comments on his comments. It increases the payoff for piggybacking on the blog’s popularity.

As a final observation, I will note that banning comments is pretty nearly weakly dominated by unmoderated commenting. The reason is simple: if the comments are a sewer, then readers won’t wade in the sewer.

Yup, yup, yup, and yup.

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  • david

    On a related note.

    I wonder what Dourado thinks of karma systems like Slashdot’s; he mentions that registration discourages commenting (which is true) but there is no need for commenters to register in a karma-driven system – only to upvote/downvote. See also: Slashdot, etc.

  • Isn’t relationship between comment quality and comment count just regression towards the mean? There’s a lot of content that has low number of extremely bad comments – this just isn’t kind of content we tend to check often.

  • kevin

    Conforming with Dourado’s ideas: the comments section at AOL.com. It is a big venue, but the comments are incredibly bad (or at least it used to be that way). No matter what the topic of the article, the comments always turn into a screaming match about race and politics.

    One example of a big site with a huge comments section is Tim Ferriss’s “4 Hour Blog”. Comments are usually constructive and positive in spite of the fact that hundreds of people often comment. Ferriss is very clear that you have to nip unproductive comments in the bud, or they just hijack the discussion and make contributing pointless.

  • vozworth

    the relationship of the 2 links is the depth of the signal.

    one might assume that something I am reading is important, and because I think it adds value to the discussion it is worth regarding a moment of my time.

    How about, something that is interesting to me in the comments on a “small” blog are more important than the insignificant comments are to me on a “large” blog,

    trying to scale comments on any level is workmanlike, at best. thus the ownership of moderation.

  • I agree.

  • Eric Falkenstein

    Well, on a quest for the truth, finding a forum without dilettantes and partisans is very important. One problem is, whether your group’s parochial interests do not take you down an intellectual cul-de-sac. I’m sure lots of smart people wasted their lives on Marxist Hegelianism, and how the laws of motion for society were so much more objective and scientific than alternatives. These people not only abetted tyrants, but wasted their lives. Marx did not seriously debate with those he considered ‘wrong’.

    So, how does one discipline oneself to acknowledge opinions that may keep you from such a mistake? It’s not obvious, because most people disagree with you for the wrong reasons (eg, partisans who don’t like some implication).

    Of course, given most discourse is not to find truth but to build coalitions, etc, the consideration of contrary opinions in that strategy is perhaps trivial.

  • Making Light is an example of a high traffic blog with generally high signal comments. It’s necessary to register, though pseudonyms are permitted. It isn’t niche at all. It’s very actively moderated.

    The comments are in a single thread, not a reply system. No karma system.

  • You favor total-utilitarianism over average-utilitarianism. How about total quality of comments vs average quality?

    The New York Times fact-checker has noticed and written about the snarky nature of comments.

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