Discover more from Productive Flourishing
Why We're Still Leaving Comments Open
My long-time friends over at Copyblogger shook up the blogging world yet again by announcing they were removing comments from their blog. A few weeks prior to that, I noticed that Bernadette Jiwa also closed the comments section on her blog, too. Both posts touched on many of the reasons why I've been considering removing comments from PF since 2012.
Statistically speaking, you probably won't care whether comments are open here or anywhere else on the web. If you're one of the 7 out of 10 people who don't care, no worries - you can stop reading and go on to something else that matters to you.
A few years ago, I wrote Why I Leave Comments Open, and much of that post remains true and relevant. As I mentioned in that post, every few years some influential blogger or blog closes their comments and there's a dust-up about it. In a world of hyperpresent publishing, it's easy to forget that this isn't a new discussion; there are just new voices in a new medium to a much, much older conversation that creatives have been having for millennia.
Before we go on, though, I want to highlight the point that Sonia made in her announcement on Copyblogger and what I said a few years ago: there is no one perspective on blog comments that works for every blog and blogger. This also isn't a "big blog" versus "little blog" discussion, either. It's a discussion about how comments fit into your communication strategy and creative process. (Click to tweet - thanks!)
You might notice some tension between my earlier admission that I've been considering closing comments and me saying a few sentences later that my earlier position remains mostly true and relevant. Whence the tension?
When I wrote that earlier post, the particular catalytic moment was fused to my growing frustration at having to choose between responding to comments or writing more. That post was written in August 2010 and that was right at the point in which social media really took off as far as mass adoption goes. "The conversation" shifted from blogs, websites, and forums to Twitter and Facebook, and, later, to Google+. Those platforms simply had a much lower barrier to entry and relevance to the majority of people; people didn't have to become bloggers to join the global conversation.
Aside: you'll hear me talk about "global trends," as I mean to take more of a sociological-historical view of the trends we're experiencing. There are many tribes still having lively on-blog discussions, especially in those communities that find social media to either be distracting, juvenile, or insufficient for their expressive and connective needs. If you're a new blogger, be careful to not assume you're going to be one of those community hubs.
Since readers were increasingly sharing, commenting, and connecting with bloggers on social media, most bloggers went where their readers were. In some ways, the mass adoption of social media was the death knell for commenting on blogs as normative practice in much the same way that video killed the radio star. I would argue along with Brian Clark that it also lured many creatives into digital sharecropping, which only accelerated more and more conversations happening on Social Media.
So, in many ways, the Copyblogger team's decision just affirmed what many of us have seen going on since 2008 anyway: the majority of "the conversation" is happening on Social Media.
The Sophistication of Spammers
At the same time that on-blog commenting was starting its rapid decline, spammers became all the more sophisticated. As much as I want to avoid the big blog vs. little blog discussion, what must be pointed out is that big blogs are heavily targeted by spammers, scrapers, and hackers. Productive Flourishing isn't a HUGE blog, but it's big enough that we have 3-7 spam comments get through a day out of about 1500 spam attempts per day. Based on some quick analysis, Copyblogger gets roughly 5 times the amount of visitors per day as we do, so you can bet the order of magnitude of their spam problem tracks that.
Or, look at it this way: they'd get more spam comments per day than the amount of real comments that most bloggers get per month.
And that's just accounting for mechanical spam. Copyblogger has considerably more people comment for the express purpose of either building backlinks to their site or to pull people from Copyblogger to their own site. So they have to read beyond the Russian wives spam comments (are there really that many Russian brides available?) to make tough calls about whether some real person is legitimately engaging or comment-jacking.
So, when they say that it takes a lot of work, I don't have to take it as an article of faith. We've had to build more and more processes here to keep up with spam, too, and we're barely keeping up. I also know that as our traffic and readership continues to grow, we'll have to spend more and more time keeping out spam.
And, honestly, it's easy to start wondering whether you're better off just closing comments if you're having to spend an hour in soft costs to get rid of spam when, in reality, readers rarely comment on your website anymore.
It's an interesting turn of events. Whereas my past tension was about not having time to both create and respond to comments, the current tension we have here at PFHQ is whether we'd rather spend the time engaging on Social Media rather than fight spam. Two different options, coming from one source: comments.
It's About More Than Social Media Though
While thus far I've named Social Media as the driving factor for the demise of on-blog commenting, we also need to recognize some other contributing developments since the time of its creation and rise as it relates to commenting. Here are a few to consider:
Blogging was considerably harder and micro-blogging services like Tumblr and Posterous were either absent or in their nascent form. Given that blogging was harder and less understood - I remember the days when admitting you were a blogger was on par to admitting that you played D&D - fewer people were doing it, so it was easier to keep up as a reader simply because there were fewer voices in less of an echo chamber.
RSS-to-email technology hadn't been developed or wasn't used to the degree it is now. People were reading on the web, via RSS, or getting newsletters with a rollup of content. Without Social Media, RSS-to-email capabilities/norms, and microblogging platforms, the path of least resistance to respond to a blogger if you felt compelled to do so was via web comments, and the smaller number of active blogs made it more likely that people would comment on the 15-20 that they actually read and cared about.
Monetizing blogs was still an emerging science. Some of the earliest lightning-rod conversations at Copyblogger revolved around their audacity to try to show an ethical way to monetize a blog. Newsletters and other media were fine, but blogs were thought to be sacred space. People sold less and shared and conversed more because the values of the community were different, the tools weren't as easy to use, and the science of selling via blogs was simply too nascent. And because bloggers gave more without asking for an economic exchange, readers gave more and didn't feel like a customer-in-process.
That little historical diversion highlights the fact that, while it's true that the mass adoption of Social Media was likely the biggest contributing factor to the neglect of commenting on-blog as a global practice, it was the most powerful of many converging factors which need to be accounted for. The first two of the highlighted factors changed the methods of engagement, and the last one changed the motives of engagement.
Whether you consider this period - roughly 2007 - 2010 - the Good Old Days or the Dark Ages, there's no going back. I recognize how odd it sounds that 7 years ago could be ancient history, but that's a hallmark of the hypertimes we live in. Think about it: that was before the economic crash of 2008, President Obama's historic election, the iPad, and Jobs' and Mandela's passing.
My how the world seems to change so quickly.
What's the Value of Comments, Anyway?
It's interesting to live and work in a rapidly evolving medium. Just about the time you get something figured out, the landscape changes, and you have to start figuring that out. In a real sense, you're either always behind trends or ahead of trends, but never quite in lockstep with them.
And one of the ways we get tripped up is not seeing when there's been a change in the instrumental value of things we've been going after. The value of comments possibly shifted without us realizing they had. I think Copyblogger's lightning rod post exposed this value shift and we're having to rethink some of our past assumptions.
Before Social Media, comments were a source of community, social proof, and customer feedback/research. You knew who your core readers were because they talked to you, for they didn't have either the quick dispersion vehicle of Social Media or the amount of distractions it provides. Having a lot of commenters was also social proof that your blog was popular; we readers and bloggers simply paid more attention to posts that had more comments (I'd say we still do). And, lastly, you knew that you were onto something when people talked about it a lot. Leaving a comment wasn't like a click of a share button and most people don't like just saying "great post!", so they actually took some time to write a substantial reply, even if that reply was only a few sentences.
While comments were never necessary for building community, social proof, and customer feedback/research - people have been getting those for millennia prior to blogs and comments - they were often sufficient. The funny thing is that once you look at it from a place of sufficiency rather than necessity, you start seeing that there are other way to go about getting those same three things AND you wonder about the efficacy of the particular method in question.
Or, more clearly, we can now ask: "Is there a better way to build community, show social proof, and get customer feedback/research than comments?" Clearly, Copyblogger thinks so. They have a sufficiently large social media network that's already engaging with them, a well-read and popular blog, and feedback mechanisms through Authority and direct customer engagement. The fact that they've caused such a ruckus - and that other bloggers like myself are reacting on our blogs - is proof of concept for them.
Suffice it to say, many of us don't have those factors working for us. This is why it's important to take inspiration from other online publishers and consider their tactics, but not necessarily attempt their strategies. The nature of online viral effects are such that they amplify successful publishers' strengths and advantages; they get exponentially better results than other, less-established people who try the same things they do. It's not just "your mileage may vary," but, rather, "your car may need a different kind of fuel."
It's About More than the Comments or Commenters
I mentioned at the outset that 7 out of 10 people wouldn't care about this topic. They neither read comments nor leave them. As I was reflecting about our current options of keeping comments open or closing them, I took stock of who would actually be affected and who would care.
Interestingly, my original estimate was 1 in 10 readers, but that was based on commenters alone. We generally assume that 10% readers actually engage with our content in different ways based on the well-supported 90-9-1 rule. To recap, that rule shows that only 10% of the people who read your site actively engage with the content via commenting and sharing. (I've translated the findings of that rule from forums to websites, in general. There do seem to be ways to alter the amount of people who actively engage with your content and the rule doesn't apply to every community, but it's a decent enough assumption to start with until the data tells you otherwise.)
While it may be true that only 10% of people would be inclined to leave comments, that doesn't account for people who enjoy reading comments but don't leave them. There are a host of reasons people do this, but many readers tell me later on that they actually found Productive Flourishing through comments elsewhere or that they've been actively reading comments but didn't really feel inspired or comfortable to say anything until the point in which they're talking to me.
One of the things you have to get comfortable with as a blogger and author is the fact that you won't always see the effects your actions are having on your reader. There's a small minority of people who actively interact with you and, given that you're human, it's easy to only count what you see. But just because you can't see the effects doesn't mean they're not happening.
Comments fall under this type of "unseen value" for me. It's hard to quantify how many people actually read the comments without leaving them - we could, if we wanted to bad enough - but it's likely to be around another 20%.
So let's say it's 30% of readers who actually care about whether there are comments open here. A statistician would rightly point out that that leaves 70% of people who don't care.
What the statistician would miss is that those 30% of people are the ones who probably care most about us and our community of readers. They're the ones that are going to reach out to other readers and support them. They're the ones who are going to pipe up and say something when the time is right for them. They're the ones who see that what we're doing here transcends a content vending machine. They're the ones keeping our lights on.
So, it's important to me that we keep the on-site conversation open.
Do Unto Others
I still read Copyblogger and likely will continue to do so, but it's now a more hollow and transactional experience for me. As any given post starts wrapping up, I start checking out, even though there's a part of me that's used to jumping past the post gutter to see the conversation that follows.
I don't want to wade through Google+ or Twitter to follow the thread. More than it being inconvenient for me is that it's easy for me to get distracted and lose the train of thought that the author worked so hard to keep me on. It's like going from a nice, quiet orchestra hall and stepping into Times Square.
Likewise, I don't take their decision to remove comments personally. They haven't betrayed me or the relationship we've had since way, way back. I haven't removed them from my phone and I'll still goad Brian into a rant about digital sharecropping if I see that he hasn't had one in a couple of weeks. They did what made sense for them, all things considered, which I'd encourage anyone to do.
But their choice has removed some of the joy that I used to have as part of the Copyblogger experience.
That's something I don't want to do for you. I want you to get what you need here, whether it's insight and ideas divorced from conversation, a place that's easy to have conversations about things that interest you, a chance to see what other people like you are saying, or just the reassurance that you have a voice here, even if you choose not to use it.
Is it work to fight the spammers off? Yep. Have trends changed such that people don't comment as much as they used to? Yep. Are there alternatives to comments that we could use? Yep.
But does it align with our values and intentions to close comments? No.
So open they stay.