Yes, blog comments are still worth the effort

Every so often, a storm erupts in the blogosphere over comments, and whether they are worth having or not. The latest entrant in this ongoing debate is TechCrunch writer-turned-venture-capitalist MG Siegler, who doesn’t have comments on his blog and has written several posts defending his decision, saying they are 99-percent bile and a waste of his time. On the other side of the debate is fellow VC Fred Wilson, who says Siegler is missing a lot by not allowing comments. I think Wilson is right — while comments can be a royal pain at times, they are a crucial part of what makes a blog more than just a bully pulpit.
Siegler’s blog posts were triggered by another blogger’s decision to turn off comments: developer and user-interface designer Matt Gemmell made the move a month ago, and recently posted an update about his decision, in which he recommended that all bloggers take the same step (Siegler hasn’t allowed comments for some time). Gemmell reiterated some of the arguments made against comments, including: They are only used by a tiny minority, they allow anonymity — which he said “encourages unhealthy behavior” — they don’t contribute much and they place a burden on the blogger.

Comments get in the way and are mostly noise

In his follow-up post, Gemmell says that since he dropped comments, he has gotten more considered responses to his posts (via e-mail mostly), has seen no reduction in traffic, his website loads faster and he doesn’t have to spend any time moderating. “If you have a blog, I’d advise you to consider switching off comments too,” he concludes. Siegler, meanwhile, says that he realizes many people like the ability to comment, but he has no intention of allowing comments because they are a waste of time:

Here’s the thing: while some try to paint comments as a form of democracy, that’s bullshit. 99.9% of comments are bile. I’ve heard the counter arguments about how you need to curate and manage your comments — okay, I’m doing that by not allowing any.

Obviously, Siegler (whom I consider a friend) is entitled to his opinion about whether comments are worthwhile or not, just as Gemmell is. And they have plenty of illustrious company when it comes to refusing comments: one of the most popular examples is John Gruber, author of the blog Daring Fireball, who has turned his one-man Apple commentary into a thriving business. Other notables include Instapaper creator Marco Arment and marketing guru Seth Godin — who wrote a post five years ago saying he found them distracting and was afraid they would change the way he writes.
Let’s be honest — there’s no shortage of reasons not to allow comments. They are annoying and distracting, they are often filled with sound and fury but signify little (in part because of anonymity or pseudonymity, many critics argue), they take a lot of time and energy to moderate, and there are flaws in almost all the major commenting systems — including third-party solutions like Disqus and external providers like Facebook, which is a special kind of Faustian bargain unto itself. All that said, however, I still agree with Fred Wilson that blogs — and bloggers — are better off having them.

A blog without comments is simply a soap-box

The most compelling reason to have comments is that you actually care what other people think. It’s true, as Siegler and others argue, that readers can find other ways to comment: they can post a remark on Twitter with a link, they can do the same on Facebook or Google+, they can send an e-mail, or they can write a response on their own blog. But doesn’t that make it even harder for a blogger to find and respond to all of the thoughtful comments, since they will have to check all of those other sources? I think in most cases, bloggers who shut down comments don’t do this — they simply don’t respond.

Is there another way? There is, and Fred Wilson’s blog is as good an example of it as anyone, as even MG admits. The Union Square Ventures co-founder has one of the highest signal-to-noise ratios in the tech blogosphere, and one of the main reasons for that is he makes a point of reading and responding to the comments he gets — and not just now and then, but regularly, and at length. As Anil Dash of Expert Labs (and formerly blog platform Moveable Type) noted in a post, the only one to blame for a blog whose comment section is a cesspool is the blogger whose name is on the top of the masthead.
I have my own history with comments, since a big part of my previous job as the social-media editor of a large daily newspaper was promoting comments, writing and enforcing a comment policy and dealing with moderation wars. I’ve lost count of the number of conversations I’ve had about how useless comments are, how we shouldn’t bother, how most commenters are morons, etc. But I still defend comments as a crucial element of what blogging is, and more than that I defend anonymity as well.
A blog without comments is a soap-box, plain and simple. Not having comments says you are only interested in passing on your wisdom, without testing it against any external source (at least not where others can watch you do so) or leaving open the opportunity to actually learn something from those who don’t have their own blogs, or aren’t on Twitter or Google+. That may make for a nicer experience for you the blogger, and it may make your blog load faster, but it is still a loss — for you, and for your readers.
Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Jeremy King and Nany Mata