Blog comments don’t really encourage robust discussion. (The only people who look twice at the comments are the original author and readers with an axe to grind.) But ad hoc multi-party discussion does happen on Twitter. I’m experimenting with promoting Twitter to a first-class blog comments system.
I’m not the first to notice this, but blog comments are awkward. Many excellent blogs have eschewed them for various reasons; Jason Kottke doesn’t want the babysitting chore of dealing with a large, vocal community. Alex Payne doesn’t think good conversations emerge from blog comments because they encourage “hit-and-run attacks, unintelligible ramblings, and truckloads of spam.” John Gruber simply prefers a streamlined reading environment.1 It’s not that they’re uninterested in discussion; rather, they’d prefer it happen elsewhere:
- On your own time and property (viz., on your blog), or
- In some neutral forum (Reddit, Twitter, etc.).
Option #1—the promise of a blogosphere criscrossed with scintillating conversation—is the reason TrackBack exists: without it, the author and readers alike have no way of knowing where on the web to find the next response. Unfortunately, because it allows untrusted parties to post links and content to your blog automatically, TrackBack is an enormous spam magnet and has therefore fallen into disuse.2 A number of ad-hoc techniques replace it, exemplified by the convention of promulgating choice responses (received out-of-band, e.g. by email or IM) by appending them, simply, under the heading UPDATE.
A few conscientious bloggers—even those that, nominally, want you to Get Your Comments Off My Lawn—carefully comb their referrer logs for links to well-considered responses from other bloggers, which they will then compile into a “Responses” post. Twitter hacker Alex Payne, for example, recently rounded up the rebuttals to his “ranty”3 article of a few weeks prior. It is his claim that, because each of those bloggers chose to respond on his own blog—taking full responsibility for his opinions under his own masthead and in front of his own readers, rather than leaving a comment “off the record” on a distant site—those perspectives were more thoughtful and more clearly articulated.
This leaves us with option #2: Comments in the Neutral Zone. Assuming you have a high-profile discussion-free blog4 and also read Reddit, this works pretty well: your adherents and detractors have a sandbox in which to have it out, and you can drop in occasionally to poke the discussion. Unfortunately, the stars must align for this technique to result in interesting conversation; the likelihood is that some essential piece of the conversation—either author or readers—is not looking at your shiny new Reddit thread.5 In fact, the only thing that ties the group together is the original blog post, which puts us right back where we started: blog discussion, it would seem, must occur—or at least appear—on the blog itself.
But this is still insufficient, because while the ideal discussion group for a given blog is defined as a blog’s readership, we have only solved the problem in space, not in time. How often do you check the same blog post to see if there are exciting new comments? As a reader, I hardly have the time to leave a single comment, let alone check back to see if there are interesting responses. I find this to be true of readers of dsandler.org as well: it’s fruitless for me to respond to your comment with one of my own, because you’re unlikely ever to visit this post again to read it.
This is what I think of when Alex Payne refers to “hit-and-run attacks”—a natural side-effect of the fact that most readers will look at a blog post (and the current state of the discussion) at most once. The only people who look twice at the same blog entry’s comments are the author (who has the luxury—or compulsion—to respond to each and every one) and anyone with an axe to grind. All others, if they comment at all, will leave a single comment and then never return. This is not conducive to discussion.
And yet, discussion happens
I’m increasingly getting feedback about blog posts on Twitter (with good reason: I mention the post on Twitter myself, explicitly inviting a conversation). For example, when I finally deployed the recent redesign of dsandler.org late last year, I mentioned it on Twitter (where a few people had already been offering complaints about my intentionally awful interim design). I received a few comments on the blog post itself, but just as many via Twitter, so I decided to (laboriously!) copy some of those messages into the text of the post (see UPDATE).
Wouldn’t it be nice if such a thing were done automatically? For bloggers whose controversial articles (picking on @al3x again here) spawn a lot of Twitter discussion, could we actually promote Twitter to a first-class discussion mechanism?
Yesterday I threw together some code to go search Twitter for any messages including the URL of the current page and display them as if they were comments. I had considered creating a unique keyword for each post on the fly (possibly using a hashtag, like “#dsandler_post_5″) that would string the conversation together, but the URL seems more natural (because people will put that into responses anyway, and besides, the TinyURL version is usually every bit as short as a hashtag).
Blindly including the results of a search on your blog is an easy way to get spammed, of course,6 so we’ll have to see how this goes. Note, however, that because the tweets are fetched by the client, they never actually appear in the blog when it’s crawled by search engines, so you can’t mess with my PageRank (or boost your own) by abusing this system—all you can do is cause grief. (So. Don’t.)
So, let the experiment begin: follow the link below to pre-populate a Twitter post about this entry (or simply include the URL or TinyURL in your message). Try to include the (Tiny)URL in any tweets that have to do with this post, insofar as that’s practical.
Oh, and: regular blog comments are turned off.
5 March: I’m working on a new post to document the results of this little experiment. For now, I’m turning off the live Twitter search results and ossifying the state of the conversation as it stands today by including the results statically below.
This is a nice way of saying “Daring Fireball is intended to be The John Gruber Show—Starring John Gruber—A John Gruber Production—Filmed In Grubervision,” a sentiment with which I think John would agree. ↩
Sometimes an eager reader is so helpful as to [volunteer for the position of Comments Czar, though unless the original author sanctions and links to this outsourced comments system, any discussion that takes place there will be doomed to obscurity. ↩