It's fair to say that blogs like this one have experienced a dip in comments of late. Social media shares remain high, emails still bulge in our inboxes, subscribers continue to sign up for newsletters, but the comment section of individual articles is conspicuously bare.
As a general trend, Twitter mentions tend to outweigh comments by 100 to 1, which leads one to ask: "Do we really need comments at all?"
There was a time when email was fun; back when you set up your first Hotmail account, and received your first mail. Then, about two minutes later, our inboxes were flooded with spam. What happened when sorting through the dross in our inboxes became too time-consuming? We turned to social networks for our messaging, and the same process is now being applied to blog comments; where once we posted a thoughtful response, now we tweet a short quip.
Who's that trip-trapping across my blog?
Ask anyone involved in a moderately successful blog and they'll tell you their number one problem: Without moderation our comment sections are unreadable; we don't delete comments that disagree with us—most bloggers see disagreement and debate as very healthy—we don't even remove factually inaccurate comments, all we do is delete the staggering amount of spam that is fired at us on a daily basis.
I'm one of several members of staff who moderate comments for WebdesignerDepot and I spend around an entire working week, each year, managing comments. This is the principle argument used by bloggers to turn off comments on their sites. However, it's an argument that misses the point entirely. If the amount of spam delivered to your blog is rendering comments unviable, then your problem isn't comments, it's spam.
Whilst spam is infuriating for bloggers, it's laboriously removed and doesn't affect the volume of comments being posted because commenters rarely see it. What does negatively affect comments is trolling.
A recent study by Canadian psychologists has confirmed that trolls tend to be narcissistic, machiavellian, sadistic and psychopathic. Whilst it's gratifying to find academics confirming exactly what we all suspected, it's no comfort to the thousands of people who are abused everyday via the largely anonymous medium of blog comments.
As your mother probably told you: "If you ignore them, they'll go away." Unfortunately it seems for many people, the only way not to feed trolls is not to comment at all.
When comments are enabled on a blog, the blog owner, or editorial team have the responsibility for curating everyone's opinion. Social media on the other hand is self-curating.
The edge that social media has over blog comments—apart from the ability to block trolls and spammers—is kudos. Whether it's your follower count, your friends, or your plus ones; engaging with a blog via social media increases your perceived value to the community.
To comment on a blog is to enhance the blog, to tweet about a blog is to enhance yourself. Social media enables us to generate our own micro-comments; we get the credit for our time and our ideas.
The deal is not one-sided of course. Blogs may lose a lot of valuable content that would once have graced their comment sections, but in its place they receive tens of thousands of personal endorsements. Google, Facebook, StumbleUpon, Twitter, et al may have built the APIs but it's site owners that rushed to integrate them.
Social media is a great liberator, it provides individuals with the opportunity to be tribal, the chance to tell the world what they think. Commenting on a blog is like wearing a political T-shirt beneath a sweater: very few people will ever know where you stand.
A comment by any other name would smell as sweet
We love reading comments from readers, we really do. Even when a comment points out a typo, or a technical mistake, that connection with an audience is why writers write. A blog, at its heart, isn't a magazine; it's a community. There are thousands of books and video tutorials available on web design, but the value of this blog—in fact any blog—is that it's a two-way conversation. If we lose that conversation, we lose the essence of what makes the blog worthwhile.
This is why, whilst approaches to comments are changing, and methods of implementing them differ, comments are still integral to most blogs. Medium, for example, famously doesn't use comments; they have notes instead, which are simply comments posted to the side of the article instead of the bottom.
There is also a rise in the number of casual bloggers. Taking a cue from the self-interest of social media there is a growing trend for people to maintain blogs purely for the purpose of responding to other blogs. The responses are more considered, the SEO benefits for both parties are obvious, and the commenter retains control of their ideas.
The future of blog comments is almost certainly intimately entwined with social media. In place of a comments section you'll start to see a whole timeline of embedded tweets, with one user replying to another in chains of ideas conducted elsewhere, and simply reproduced on the blog concerned.
The challenge then, for anyone who runs a blog, is not to address the decline of comments; but rather, to engage with their audience via new comments channels.
If a tree falls in the forest...
The logic of turning off comments permanently, and taking all audience-engagement onto social media has undeniable benefits; from easy spam and troll management, to reader motivation, it's the way the online landscape is shifting.
However, one thought keeps returning to me: That is, that an article with no comments is one individual's ideas; when comments are introduced the ideas become truly public domain. Sure, you can tweet WebdesignerDepot, or even me personally, but the immediacy of Twitter is also an impermanence. When comments are attached to an article, it creates a repository for the ideas to be recorded and to grow.
If social media commoditizes individuals, then comments commoditize ideas. If we value the community over individuals, we won't make the leap to social media just yet.
By Benjie Moss