The Death of Blog Comments?

comments.jpgOver at Above the Law, a new comment policy has been implemented:

As the Above the Law community continues to grow, more people are posting absurd, inane, and arguably offensive comments. And more people are complaining about those comments — in the comments, as well by email and other means. . . .

[W]e’ll be changing our site design so that comments will default to “hidden.” If you want to see the comments, you must affirmatively opt-in, by clicking a button to reveal them (either the “show them anyway” button within the post, or the “comments” button / counter on the front page).

I think that this is a wise step, as many of the comments at Above the Law are quite crude, and they seem to have been getting worse over time.

At Balkinization, a more radical change has been implemented — comments have been turned off for many posts. Jack Balkin writes:

Since last week I have implemented a new policy on the blog. The default rule is that comments are turned off. Each author will decide individually whether to turn the comments on for his or her postings. . . .

[T]he comments sections are populated by regular trolls and many threads have turned into little more than name-calling. There is very rarely any serious analysis; mostly there is point scoring and vitriol. Many regular readers have written to say that they find the comments section a distraction and think the blog would be far better without it.

I’ve always believed that the comment sections of blog posts shouldn’t be wild west free speech zones. Ideally, the comments provide an interesting and thoughtful discussion, even where commenters strongly disagree with a post. Comments that are rude, off-topic, uncivil, and unnecessarily snarky or nasty don’t have much value in my opinion. It appears as though more and more bloggers are starting to get fed up with obnoxious comments. A few years ago, it seemed to me that the blogosphere had a much more permissive view toward comments than it does now.

Fortunately, the commenters here at Concurring Opinions are generally quite thoughtful and civil. I, for one, really hope this continues. I greatly enjoy many of the comments here, and I hope we don’t ever have to resort to limiting or hiding comments. It seems to me that different blog commenting cultures arise on different blogs. I bet that the readership for Balkinization and Concurring Opinions overlaps quite a bit, yet I have noticed that the comments at Balkinization are much as Jack describes them. Why have commenting cultures developed so differently at different blogs? I don’t really know the answer, and it would be interesting to figure out why commenting cultures develop in the ways that they do.

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7 Responses

  1. Dave says:

    I think Co-Op and Balkinization are quite different in their readership, or at least their commenting readership. Balkinization tends to focus on meat-and-potatoes federalism, separation of powers and war on terror issues and that seemingly attracts a crowd of ideologue commenters, including a number of non-lawyers who seem to be less interested in the legal issues as they are in the political issues. Co-op is much more esoteric and “lawyerly.” Folks looking for red meat aren’t likely to find it here. By no means is that an invitation for you to be more provocative… I think you suit your readership just fine.

  2. Jack Oliphant says:

    The quality of the comments is inversely proportional to the partisanship of the post.

  3. Brett Bellmore says:

    Balkinization is dominated by exchanges where somebody on one side makes a civil, substantive remark, and is then subjected to dozens of name calling attacks by the same usual crew of posters who do nothing else. Heck, some of them have even chosen their online names to reflect that! Why, if you were going to have any moderation at all, would you tolerate that?

    I think Balkinization might be over the tipping point, where one partisan viewpoint dominates to the extent that they give up on engaging the other side, and switch instead to driving it off. When the other side refuses to be driven off, it gets vicious.

  4. It’s all about social norms, typically as influenced strongly by early patterns. If people come to a site and see respectful extended arguments, they learn that norm of commenting. If they see illiterate YouTube-ish babble, they add their own bleats. And if they see nasty personal attacks, they say nasty things. Most highly successful online communities with positive norms had someone who took a very active early role in setting a good tone. (Metafilter and Flickr are well-known examples.) Once a norm is in place, it tends to stay in place, because visitors self-select into participating in communities with norms they like, and because regular visitors enforce compliance with the norms.

    The details and the nuances of online community moderation are much more complex, of course, but there’s a lot of support for this basic tipping-point story.

  5. Aaron Titus says:

    There are one or two “trolls” at Concurring Opinions. However, in general I find the quality of discussion quite refreshing. It is one of the major reasons I am a regular reader.

    Blog comments are a first step in Web 2.0 self moderation. Perhaps the next step would be a Wiki approach: Let fellow readers flag, rate, demote, or delete useless or vitriolic comments.

  6. Brett Bellmore says:

    That’s a ghastly suggestion, which would swiftly result in a mind numbing enforcement of somebody’s orthodoxy. Anybody’s guess whose orthodoxy, but enforcement of anybody’s would be mind numbing.