Can blog commenting be revived?

I frequently complain about people responding to my posts on Twitter rather than in comments. Literally everything about Twitter militates against good conversation — space constraints (made worse if including multiple @-handles), inadequate threading, near-impossibility of finding conversations later, near-impossibility of following them unless you are involved “in the moment,” etc., etc. Yet time and time again people insist on commenting on Twitter and often get angry at me for suggesting they do otherwise.

This is undeniably a systemic problem, and systemic problems have systemic causes. I have two possible causes in mind, which have been suggested to me by multiple sources in my frequent complaints about this phenomenon:

  • Technological obstacles tied to the hegemony of cell phones: Despite the difficulties surrounding Twitter as a conversational tool, it is nevertheless much easier to post a tweet from your phone than to leave a blog comment. Working with online forms in the phone browser is cumbersome and error-prone, and the multiplicity of blog services makes it difficult to imagine a single app that could solve this problem. In other words, an obviously inadequate format like Twitter could only triumph because the problematic nature of blog-commenting on a phone makes it the least-bad option.
  • Changing expectations about online space: Tools like Twitter and Facebook allow us to experience the Internet as increasingly “our own” space, cultivated and curated according to our own preferences. A blog, by contrast, is the author’s own space, where you don’t have control over the content posted (it could be deleted, for instance) nor over who you will be in dialogue with. Hence there is a natural bias in favor of keeping the conversation on your own terms, which in many online circles is strengthened by explicit attention to the power dynamics at work when the less-privileged enter into spaces controlled by the privileged (for instance, a white guy’s blog comments).

I have resigned myself to the secular decline in blog commenting, only insisting on blog comments vs. Twitter responses if it’s something where I want a ready reference (primarily book recommendations). Blog comments do seem to me to have obvious advantages over Twitter especially, and even over Facebook — greater public accessibility, for instance, and easier categorization for later reference. (And here I’ll admit that my principled refusal to use Facebook — I only signed up for an account in order to gain access to Spotify and never check it — may be artificially biasing me toward blog comments as the natural alternative to Twitter, even though Facebook is also free of Twitter’s space constraints.)

As a blogging veteran of over a decade, however, I have to admit to the sad truth that blog comment conversations are seldom good enough that the availability of easy archiving and public access is a significant consideration. In all too many cases, it may even be advantageous for the discussions to be lost in the sands of time! In any case, it’s clear that those unique qualities of blog comments, which are well-known to most online discussants, are insufficient to overcome the other disadvantages (technological, habitual, political) that blog comments bring with them in our current situation.

And so, in a possible performative contradiction, I ask you readers: can blog commenting be revived? Should we even want to?

11 Responses to “Can blog commenting be revived?”

  1. Beatrice Marovich Says:

    Don’t you think that part of what makes the blog comment unappealing is precisely the highly public and permanent nature of it? Facebook can be (and most often is) made private, you have a greater degree of control over who sees your posts and comments. And with Twitter, even if you don’t make your feed private, the shelf life of a tweet is generally so short that it’s relatively unlikely that what you tweet today will even be functionally existent in a week or two. Unless it’s one of those freak tweets that’s retweeted so many times, it refuses to die.

    Additionally, I also suspect that many people want their comment to be seen and responded to. In spite of the fact that there are many of us who read comments, there’s also a kind of popular dogma that one should *never read the comments*, otherwise they will be deeply sorry, right? People always talk about reading news stories, for instance, and then scrolling down to check out the comments and being *so sorry* afterwards. Because they are reminded of the fact that the world is full of cranks, people with horrific opinions, or miscreants without manners. In the most mainstream of settings, the comment section has become the lair of trolls, and decent people are supposed to avoid them. It seems to me that this has influenced the valuation of comments in general, including comments on a blog post.

  2. Sylvia Says:

    Yup. And I think the technical barriers are the biggest problem. The answer is obvious, though, and already implemented on many sites: logon with Twitter or Facebook. Then only cookie-blocking nerds will have to fill in forms, which is probably how we like it anyway. ;)

  3. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Beatrice, you make two good points — two more systemic causes dooming this already questionable enterprise…

  4. Christopher Adamson Says:

    This may not add much to Beatrice’s point but Twitter is the lowest stress of the three. There’s an invitation to interact but its okay if less engagement happens. Facebook on the other hand can have the highest stress since other users may have per-existing relationships and can see the last time their friends logged on.

    But I love the idea of more dialogue in society. I’m trying to make my blog more collaborative, but I’m still struggling with creating the tone that will be most effective for that.

    I wonder if being on WordPress helps mitigate the commenting problems and the concerns about power dynamics. We already have a but of a built in community through being on a shared platform. It would be interesting to see if there are subculture differences between WordPress, Patheos, or Blogspot blogs.

  5. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I’ve always found WordPress’s attempts to build loyalty to the platform as such artificial.

  6. Joe Calandrino Says:

    The nature of comments to blogposts speaks to the purpose of blogging. We blog to do several things: raise stuff up a flagpole to see if anyone salutes; communicate events that otherwise are likely to go uncommunicated (like the next Subverting the Norm); provide a forum for voices likely to go unheard; build a community of individuals who still see the validity of this mode of communication. There are other purposes and effects, but these are the ones that come quickly to mind. Yes, giving reign to every kooky commentator is riskly business, but truly offensive material can be deleted.

  7. Chris S Says:

    Well, essentially the comments always ended up being from a self selecting set people – a thing the group/community blogs thrive on.

    You could argue fairly convincingly that a lot of those would be better as forums, and a lot of *those* as newsgroups.

  8. Matt Frost Says:

    Many of these objections apply also to internet forum posting (the prior generation of blogging with comments, still limping along). Much of the value of blog comments is due to the community inspired and regulated by the site. A high signal to noise ratio is hard to get, but places that manage to maintain one are valuable to their audience because of it. AUFS, for me, has long been one such place. From the outside, I think this place works because it already has internal community. My blog will never manage that; Travis McMaken managed it at DerEvTh by opening up authorship in many of the same ways as it’s been done here. Two Friars and a Fool had it for a while, in more the mode Syndicate seems to be working with, and fell off, and returned to being more monolithically bloggy. But the advantages of internally-normative community open to the outside reproduce many of the virtues of a well-run forum. On the other hand, the higher signal to noise ratio on a blog/forum like this is also maintained by that social pressure to conform to a standard. Twitter is easier, but higher-noise, and that can be handled by self-selecting community, but the noise also manages to wash out through the ephemeral nature of Twitter conversation.

  9. Charles R Says:

    Blog comments and tweets, as with reddit and online fora, are the playground for experiments with intelligent machines, psyop subversion, and directed advertising. The techniques gained and improved move across the platforms of new speech, now evident in Tinder, Snapchat, Yik Yak, or all the usual places where the teens once were and since moved on while 20-somethings linger. Whereas action, using Arendt’s distinctions, requires the ephemeral and the transitory for motivating a person towards the immortal— to say something in the right way at the right time to change the mind of many others to effect history’s pivotal turn still motivates many writers, thinkers, the hopeful—for the average user today, the transitory quality of the messages is more a result of the deluge of supposed meaningless communication combined with all the usual suspects of “noise”: hatred, apathy, bigotry, conformity, &c; and nobody has time for that. We drown in the volume of uselessness, so the story goes, but if only, when only, just only, we could get back to some time of golden voices and incredulous ears… when real talk meant something…

    But if we do pay attention to the larger patterns of what’s happening with speech today, all those living experiments the psyops, the spam, and the bots perform prepares the way for much larger movements. The last decade has seen greater and more refined developments in controlling the flows and directions of speech, developments much more technical, pervasive, and clever than previous attempts. By segmenting informationally-bound communities into silos, then placing them in dynamic oppositions against one another along predictable social rhythms, the group synergies, like the muscle groups needed to move the body, move larger cultural trends at the exact moment individuals come to believe they have no power, no life, no hope, no capacity to change their social world. Compare this with its inversion in Arendt’s own insight that machines made it possible for humans to finally be delivered (passive voice here is important) from labor just as the society lifted labor power to its highest collective virtue, where everyone’s self-styled importance is to be another laborer for the people and their will.

    From the standpoint of evolution, we’re past changing the social world as ourselves. Individuals do not change the social world. Or, more precisely, it is not a single human being who will change the social world. Rather, individual synergistic communities acting as one do change it, but in the way one muscle pulling on bone moves the world. The command and control systems are evolving all around the social world, just as they grow and develop inside our own bodies and teach them how to move, how to consume, how to drive themselves towards the goals the command and control systems set in place. The individual cells inside our human bodies do not need to know anything of the totality for life to reach the level of complaining about blog comments or tweets or the lack of civility among the uncivilized. All the cells need to do is their job, just as all each of us need to do, now.

    And our job? Complain about the other guys. Muscles need tension for both large and precise movements; social life needs tension for all its movements, too. All your complaints and insights, rants and Good Posts, increase the dynamism of our tension.

    We can spend a lot of wasted time thinking about particular “vs” situations, pairing off the binaries and trying to settle them in favor of whichever we think is right, more virtuous, longer lasting, healthier, or whatever value pushes us. Or we can spend even more time trying to look at the larger effects of all these ‘microtensionsintersecting as they do across individual persons. Or we can slow way down and get far removed from the pace of modern life, accept the social organisms are not only alive but now moving across the minds of millions of active, living participants, and watch them walk and talk with one another at their layer of reality. I wonder about the corporations—those with the resources and insights and intentions to see those higher dimensions of speech acts taking place and to effect the changes they want in our new Platonic cyberbeasts. Have they learned the lessons of the 20th century?

    Of course, which is why this message is brought to you by . . .

    A postscript to think about, using an obscure article from an obscure person, using the ideas of another obscure person using obscure ideas:

    A few final words. The coming years will produce a smaller expeditionary force geared toward meeting varied threats. If this force is to succeed, it must be able to adapt, cope, and reorganize faster than its potential foes. This can only be achieved by flexible, mobile, and survivable command and control. If, as we have done here, we liken armed forces to living biological organisms, then we must understand that whenever they meet there will be a form of military Darwinism at work. The best C2 [command and control], effectively used, ensures survival and prosperity.

    From earlier in that article:

    The goal, contends Boyd, is to “collapse [the] adversary’s system into confusion and disorder by causing him to over and under react to activity that appears simultaneously menacing as well as ambiguous, chaotic, or misleading.” The idea of fast-tempo operations aimed at creating confusion and disorder has found its latest expression in the concept of “hyperwar.” As the name implies, this concept hinges on “high tempo round-the-clock operations.” Upon reflection, we can see that this is nothing more than maximum rate O-O-D-A cycle attack.

    Agility and redirecting the flow of engagement along a different axis, increasing the dimensionalities of one’s self-organization, is not at all a bad thing. As the tempo of modern life accelerates, that ‘maximum rate’ of attack also increases, and so will the selection pressures on the larger social organisms. We will have to all stick and move, move and stick, until we get sick. The goal of tweeting ephemerally, in the right hands at the right time at the right moment, is analogous to the virus finally finding a dwelling to replicate within the host. But few people want to think of themselves as the virus that took down a corporation, another embodiment, right?

    It’s hard enough for them to think of themselves as zombies, bots, swarms, hives, even though they will immerse and habituate/habilitate themselves in media built upon those themes, all to find themselves in the end outside the life process itself overtaking them.

    . . .

  10. JoeL Says:

    This is a question that I also grapple with. As someone who works with both Blogging and Facebooking as a means to generate discussion, I have had far more success with Facebook. This is the case for various reasons. But I have a friend who is a professor at a CEGEP in Montreal (John Faithful Hamer) and he has a phenomenal ability to generate discussion of Facebook; practically all of his posts generate a dozen or so responses at minimum. His most successful posts generate over a hundred (productive!) comments. I’ve asked him numerous times what his secret is. He says, “be charitable, have a sense of humor and participate in other discussions that are not your own.” He found that this has been successful ONLY on Facebook. With Blogging, he hasn’t had much success with the same strategy (I have also found this). When you comment and like other people’s Facebook posts, they will comment and like your own. It’s ridiculous how well this works.

    I heard about this blog from a friend who said that it has had a ridiculous amount of success, generated phenomenal discussion, contributed much to many disciplines etc. And I do see a great deal of great commenting on this Blog, but I don’t see it in many other places. Twitter seems to be used for zinging people, not for discussion.

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