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 Kuhn, Brendan 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.