Why Blog II: The Comments

I began drafting this series a few weeks ago, before the current controversy over blog comments brewed. I agree with much of what both Jack Balkin and Dan Solove have said on the matter, and it may be an exhausted topic at this point. But I thought I’d just add a few additional thoughts.

Sometimes a blog audience wants to keep a blog clear of comments. For instance, Andrew Sullivan has surveyed his readers on whether they want comments on his very popular blog, and all the votes I’ve seen have been negative. One of his readers writes:

Readers of your blog could opt to not read the comments section, but in truth we would rarely opt not to read them — on your blog or any other blog. Blog comments have the power to hammerlock one’s attention. I think, humans being highway rubberneckers, we’d be impotent to resist looking over the rantings and counter-rantings that would make their way into your Comments Section. Not only would comments be an incredible drain on one’s time . . . but it also exposes readers to the nasty underbelly of blogging.

While most of the current discussion focuses on what can go wrong with comments, there is much that can go right. The comment section allows readers to “glom on” and add a lot to the conversation. I am indebted to many terrific commenters who consistently alert me to interesting sources of information, flaws in my arguments, or material that supports the original post. Even just hearing someone say “great post!” can be really encouraging. Hence my Blackstone ratio of blog commenting: one positive or helpful comment is worth ten negative ones.

But what to do about negative, irrelevant, kvetching, or cavilling comments? I have a few approaches, depending on the identity of the commenter and the nature of the comments.

First, if somebody who frequently has constructive things to say finds something I write troubling or bad, I take it seriously. I try to respond as well as I can, given my time constraints. Just as I’ve been turned off bad article topics by critical conference audiences, I can be turned off a given line of blogging by a good criticism–or at least led to rethink it. To give but a few examples, commenter Daniel Goldberg has forced me to rethink the therapy/enhancement distinction in bioethics; A.J. Sutter’s reading suggestions have led me to European thought that requires me to rethink any sweeping critiques of economics as a discipline; and Patrick S. O’Donnell consistently demonstrates the ongoing relevance and vitality of thinkers frequently dismissed by the bien pensant majority as outside the mainstream. Vigorous debate can enliven many topics:

Properly considered, the blogosphere represents the closest equivalent to the Republic of Letters that we have today. … Over the next 10 years, blogs and bloglike forms of exchange are likely to transform how we think of ourselves as scholars. While blogging won’t replace academic publishing, it builds a space for serious conversation around and between the more considered articles and monographs that we write.

This type of conversation is to be treasured, especially because it is open to those outside the academy.

However, for those who always seem to have something negative to say, I have less patience. At one time I aspired to be a bodhisattva of the blogosphere, offering sweet reason to one and all. No longer. Some disputes are about fundamentally different values, not facts. As Mary Ann Case’s fascinating work Feminist Fundamentalism reveals, one of the key rhetorical tropes certain groups employ is to try to portray their own values as unquestionable, while dismissing those of others (or, sadly, the “othered”) as contingent, destructive, or trivial. When a blog commenter tries that move on me, I usually ignore it.

But I also realize that sparring can be fun. Any student of the American political system knows that many elections and changes in public opinion are based on pithy memes that capture the public imagination. Blog post sparring can be a great place to refine such messages for an increasingly ADD culture. Admittedly, you shouldn’t try to trash or perplex the comments of anyone you know (a mistake I’ve made a few times, and regretted.) But snappy, sassy, or sarcastic comebacks are the perfect antidote to a tiresome malcontent.

Links to Series on “Why Blog?”


Why Blog I: The Story

Why Blog II [above]

Why Blog III: The Audience (upcoming)

Why Blog IV: A Participatory Public Sphere (upcoming)

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