Blogging isn’t dead, but blog commenting is

Here’s the second of my two short presentations for Computers & Writing 2011. (And the first one.) This will be part of a roundtable, “Is Blogging Dead?” with the award winning (yay!) Steve Krause, Virginia KuhnBrendan Riley, Carrie Lamanna, Brian McNely, Aaron Barlow, Liz Losh, and Andre Peltier.

My bit is: blog commenting is in a bad way because of trolling (for large blogs) and social media’s tendency to fracture communities (for small ones). Here’s the whole thing, which I want to cut down a little to ensure it fits in the three minute window I’ll have to speak.

When weblogs first emerged, both collections of original writing and aggregation-model blogs like Slashdot, I remember thinking blogs were going to revolutionize online discussions. Sophisticated moderation and rating systems would prevent the legendary problems of Usenet newsgroups. Comments would be, to borrow Slashdot’s moderation categories, funny, insightful, interesting, and informative, with off-topic, troll, flamebait, and redundant discourse pushed aside.

Of course, this didn’t happen. Blogging was able, in large part, to overcome spamming. But blog commenting leaves much to be desired. Sure, there are some pockets of success. Relatively small weblogs, like many of those in our field–Alex Reid’s, or Steve’s, or Brendan’s–still have success with comments. Brendan, for example, often has authors commenting on book reviews he writes. But overall, blog commenting is in a bad way. Does that mean it’s dead? And if it’s the interactivity of comments that makes blogs different from plain old web sites, then what? If the interactivity is gone, is a blog a blog?

I see two things hurting blog comments, for two different kinds of blogs:

For big blogs, trolling lowers the quality of discourse and discourages participation. I’m talking not only about trolling proper–4chan-style stirring the pot for laughs at someone else’s expense–but posts which are made with little regard for any politeness or community. Aggressive, hastily written, disrespectful, whatever. A visit to any large blog, or site which has adopted the comment-after-story style of blogging will show this: Huffington Post, ESPN.com, or scores of newspaper sites. Moderation can tame trolling, but the investment required is considerable. And many blogs and sites which seek to emulate blog style have simply shut down commenting in response. Frankly, I’m not sure what alternative they have.

For small blogs, aggregation by other media has affected public spaces on blogs. Back when I used to write on my weblog more than once a month, I enjoyed robust discussions regularly. But these discussions fractured when I started replicating my posts on Facebook as notes. I’ve watched many blogs make the same transition. Similarly, for Twitter users, retweets or directed messages can replace trackbacks or comments, splitting up what used to be one community. Yes, in some cases, the frequency and depth of discussions increases when blogs are aggregated in other places. But at the least, the gated-community effect of Facebook and Twitter moves some discourse from blogs to parent sites. There’s room for more research here: how are these services affecting blogs “native” comment and trackback interfaces? This would be interesting to consider for large sites, too.

I’ve talked about blogs big and small, which implies, of course, that there’s a middle space where commenting can thrive. And perhaps services like Disqus or Facebook Connect will end up finding it. Blogging is still a young medium, and the social media interacting with it are even younger. So perhaps five years from now things will be very different.

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9 Responses to Blogging isn’t dead, but blog commenting is

  1. I blame Google Reader. The Facebook post showed up 40 minutes before your blog post showed up in Google Reader.

    The speed with which the feeds show up ends up causing some of the fracturing. I would have commented here originally, had I had this post, because your blog is public, while Facebook it gated. That said, part of the fault lies in my not just searching out the blog entry even though you say in the post that you’re cross-posting. Mea culpa there. The Facebook note came first, and didn’t require any work on my part. Something makes me think it comes back round to “ease” — a topic you’re well-acquainted with.

    • cbd says:

      I usually have the reverse problem–Facebook takes waaaay longer to see my post than Google. Last year, I had ten or fifteen posts pile up then one day appear on my Fb profile all at once. No fault, I think; the same question could apply to any cross-posting: where to engage?

  2. Mark Crane says:

    If blog commenting is dead, and I leave a comment, does that mean I’m dead as well? This looks like an excellent session.

  3. Jacob says:

    There should be a way of connecting all them together. An example is there are a few blogs where posts on twitter show up under link-backs to try and stay relevant. Would be nice if there was some kind of cross API that would post comments on wordpress/blogger etc on facebook/twitter and vice versa. Yes, fractured – but not everyone likes to read posts on facebook, or on wordpress, or linked through twitter so there is a conversation brought to where folks feel most comfortable.

    • cbd says:

      There are some services which try to do that. The problem is folks who don’t want to cooperate, like Facebook — try to get an outgoing RSS stream from them. They used to make them available, but as far as I can tell, no more (though I have a few still going). My guess is they prefer the traffic and therefore the ad impressions.

  4. mcs says:

    Thanks for the post Bradley. I will share it with my blogging class tomorrow (as we talk about ethical strategies for posting comments and interacting with people on forums).

    • cbd says:

      Thanks, Marc. Even if it’s too late for your students, I’ll post a link to my notes from the session here as well.

      If you haven’t seen it already, check out what Karl Stolley has to say about the ethics of social media in his web book.

  5. Pingback: Our blogging roundtable | cbd

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