Comments, No-Comments Debate gets Noisy

People love catfights, which perhaps explains some of the interest in the comments/no-comments debate between me and Mac blogger John Gruber. It’s a pseudo-debate, really, since the only engagement is blog posting. John and I haven’t directly communicated.

I started it all, by calling out John for not having comments on his blog. I told him to “Be a man,” which I actually meant with some backslapping good nature. But some people are morally offended. Stacia Van Doll reblogged the post as: “QUIT being a douchebag Joe Wilcox.”She writes:

Does this guy Joe Wilcox think he’s some sort of ancient barbarian man or something?Give me a break. What’s wrong with the world today is everything that stems from shallow, unintelligent macho bullshit like Wilcox’s.

No one has ever accused me of being macho before. I can’t bring myself to be insulted. Whoa, is this irony or what? Look what popped up on Twitter seconds after I wrote the first sentences of this paragraph—from Mark Dagon Hughes: “What I want to know is, what has @joewilcox ever done that was so manly he can make a mortal insult to someone over fucking blog comments?”

Overnight, John answered my post with “I’ll Tell You What’s Fair,” and I responded with “Blogging: Is Curation or Comments Better?” With my post, I removed from this blog, as a 14-day experiment trying it John’s way. John described comments as “cacophonous shouting matches” and his Daring Fireball blog as a “curated conversation.” I want to see how right John is and to stir up some meaningful discussion about comments and whether they add or detract from the storytelling. I don’t expect a pat answer, but it’s only Day 1.

Other folks are piping in about the value of comments. I tweeted these earlier today:

A Refreshing Start
My first experiences with curation are surprisingly positive. For the six days Disqus was active on the “Be a Man” post, the majority of comments were rude or condescending. With comments off, I started getting responses by email. Nearly all are civil and well-articulated, regardless of their position about commenting or reaction to the “Be a Man” post. In a future post, after asking permission, I will share some of the emails. I treat all emails as private conservations unless the other party gives permission for the contents to be revealed.

Today, I also extended the interaction, by tweeting more often than usual—and predominately about the comments/no-comments topic. I see Twitter as a potentially good alternative to commenting for three reasons:

  1. The 140-character limit restricts just how much people can say. They have to be concise.
  2. Tweets are more visible than comments tucked away in some blog post, which should make most people more restrained.
  3. Twitter easily leads to conversations that many people can join, which extends the reach of the original narrative and its storytelling.

That leads to a confession about comments. Much changed in my thinking about them between my June 10 “Be a Man” post and John’s June 16 “What’s Fair” response; I had already been rethinking comments’ value. It’s a major reason why I so suddenly changed direction and turned on the turn-off comments experiment. Catalyst: Nicholas Carr’s new book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. Nicholas’ discourse led to my writing three related blog posts since June 10:

Nicholas’ book has an unintended affect on me. I’m a writer, a journalist, storyteller—and it is in these roles I interpret The Shallows. Nicholas’ research raises questions about the web as a training place for distraction. But I see media consumption’s purpose being immersion. The consumer immerses in a good book or movie. In that context, I’m troubled by comments as distractions to the narrative, which admittedly contradicts what I wrote in the “Be a Man” post about comments adding to the narrative. To be clear: Comments would be just one of many distracting elements someone would see on most any website.

I’m not retreating my position, certainly not on Day 1 of the no-comments experiment. I have long opposed anonymous commenting. If you’ve got something to say, then don’t shout it from the back of the room. Stand in front. Let others see who you are. Don’t cowardly hide behind anonymous comments, which often are the most obnoxious ones. I am now questioning registered-user or moderated comments for many blogs, but not all.

Comments and Process Journalism
One place where comments do make sense, at least as I see them today, is when the Website encourages readers to participate in the storytelling process. TechCrunch practices what founder Michael Arrington calls “Process Journalism,” a concept he picked up from Jeff Jarvis. In summer 2009 post “Process Journalism and Original Reporting,” I explained that many TechCrunch news stories are posted incomplete—later to be extended and expanded through subsequent posts, as more information is available. Readers help shape the story by their comments, other interactions and tips. I further explained:

For TechCrunch, the process can be surprisingly good reading. I haven’t done an official count, but I’d guess that TechCrunch posts more unfinished stories than the more complete kind published by, say, the New York Times. TechCrunch stories evolve—and, I must assert, too often from unsubstantiated rumors. It’s a process I must grudgingly acknowledge that TechCrunch can be quite transparent about. The process, of the story unfolding over time, produces original content that often is interesting reading…[TechCrunch] readers participate in that process, through comments and other social media tools…Social media—reader participation in the evolving story—is crucial to process journalism.

This evening I asked Doreen Marchionni over Twitter: ”Do you see Conversational Journalism value to comments as part of ongoing stories; e.g. TechCrunch’s Process Journalism.” She responded: “You bet there’s value. Whether readers interact via comments or Twitter or whatever works for me.”

Doreen is sharing her “dissertation on journalism as a conversation,” and she has lots of good advice for bloggers or reporters. The distinction I made in my question is process—an ongoing story, as opposed to one that is finished. As part of an ongoing story, comments can sharpen the reporting, make the narrative better reading and keep readers coming back for the next update, whether the main post or additional comments. Using TechCrunch as example, the process builds community and audience of loyal, participatory readers.

That’s a wrap. It has been a long day writing.

Note, June 17, 2010: Original version stated that Doreen is writing her dissertation. She kindly sent a note informing that she completed the dissertation last summer.

Photo Credit: Wil Blanche, courtesy of US National Archives

[Editor’s Note: This post was moved to from on Sept. 27, 2010.]

Do you have a story about Web comments that you’d like told? Please email Joe Wilcox: joewilcox at gmail dot com.