By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Commenting on comments

My two cents’ worth on the “to comment or not to comment” debate, which Jay Fitzgerald captures here and here.

Glenn Reynolds once told me that he thought blog comments work best at medium-size sites. Too small, and comments are too rare to be worthwhile. Too big, and you get overwhelmed. Reynolds’ blog, InstaPundit, is ranked 14th by Technorati. Thus, if Reynolds turned comments on, it’s pretty much guaranteed that his site would be flooded with more posts than anyone could possibly read. Not much value there.

Take a look at David Corn’s site. Paging down the list this morning, I see 31 comments to one post, 109 to another, and 263 to another. Now, what good is that? When I go to Corn’s blog, I want to read what he has to say, not what’s rattling around in the brains of hundreds of other folks. There may be some wheat in there, but I can’t possibly take the time to sift through the chaff. More important, there could be some genuinely nutty, irresponsible comments. Is Corn supposed to screen them all?

Jay Rosen, who is as obsessive as he is smart, actually does take the time to sort through the comments in his PressThink blog. Once he’s posted an item, he’ll go back and write an “After Matter” roundup of reaction by other blogs and the best of his commenters. It’s got great value, but who, other than Rosen, has the time to do that? (I doubt Rosen has the time to do it, either. He just does it.)

Media Nation probably falls into the “medium size” category that Reynolds was referring to. I generally get somewhere between two or three comments or 15 to 25, depending on the topic. It’s not so tiny as to look foolish, but it’s also not so huge as to be useless. I’ve often been able to correct my posts thanks to smart commenters. Depending on how much time I have, I’ll post responses. Still, I find comments far from ideal. A few observations:

  • I don’t like anonymous comments, and would turn them off if I could. I could restrict commenters to those willing to register with Blogger, but I don’t see much point to it, since people could still post anonymously.
  • The late David Brudnoy taught me an unfortunate truth about talk radio: that the callers tend to be dumber than listeners who never call, making it a challenge for the host to keep matters elevated enough not to alienate the audience. Media Nation certainly gets its share of thoughtful, intelligent comments, and I appreciate those. But Brudnoy’s observation has obvious applicability to blogs, including this one.
  • Commenters can commit libel, issue threats and engage in all manner of antisocial behavior, and it’s unclear how much responsibility I bear legally. I can delete comments, but I can’t always do it quickly. And if I delete one comment but fail to delete another, doesn’t that somehow make me liable for the one I let go? Maybe, maybe not. I’d just as soon not find out.

My bottom-line take on all this is that a blogger’s site is his or her own, and it has to be an individual decision whether to allow comments or not. I don’t think a lack of comments reflects on a blogger’s credibility in any way. After all, if you’ve got something to say, you can always start your own blog.

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Standing head


How’s that trade working out? (VII)


  1. Rick in Duxbury

    DK,Thanks for reminding me of Bruds. At a time when the the party of our Junior Senator supports an attack ad campaign against the Lt. Gov. for marrying money,(SEIU, big ad buy),it may be time for everyone to step back and take a deep breath. Ratcheting up heat rather than light just says, (tacitly) that the demagogue doing so doesn’t really believe what (s)he is saying. Otherwise, the facts would see the light of day. Pretty tough to call out Ann Coulter while apeing her. Perhaps a little civility in memory of Bruds?

  2. Bryan Person

    But what about, Dan? This was what got me going on the need for blog comments in the first place, which drew some criticism from Jay.As a main news organization in this city, how can and the Globe purport to be trying to “faciliate a regular, public conversation between those who read the Globe (or its website) and those who produce the Globe” (see this on the description of Richard Chacon’s old blog) without enabling blog comments?It very much makes these blog less credible in my eyes. Mark Briggs, editor of in Tacoma, Washington, agrees, and proposes that this is one of the reasons that excellent Globe blogger Mike Reiss didn’t win an EPpy for best media-affiliated sports blog.Happy to read the opinions of others.

  3. Anonymous

    Given that pretty much all Instapundit really does is provide links when he’s not ripping huge block quotes out of the other’s work, commens on his site would be useless. There is precious little to comment about on his site. However, I do think it is a responsibility dodge as well. He never has to face his readers who agree or disagree with him and lord knows he’s been wrong many, many times. Without comments however, he doesn’t have to admit it. Same goes for Malkin, Powerline, and the rest of the conservative bloggers who seem to prefer authoritarian modes of information dissemination rather than collaborative modes. Hey, if it works for the White House…

  4. Brigid

    I agree (for once!) with Glenn, but I also think that the narrowness of your readership makes a difference. A lot of comments on political blogs are useless. Why even bother if all you’re going to say is “Wankers!”? On the other hand, my blog is about manga (Japanese comics), so most of my readers are serious comics fans, and sometimes the discussions in comments are more interesting than the original post. I think your blog fits into that narrow-focus category, and most of your regular commenters seem pretty solid. In short, for both your blog and mine, comments add value.

  5. Anonymous

    Dan, one (anonymous) comment -I suspect many of your regular visitors here may be in a situation that is similar to mine – they either work in media or are close to someone who does, and their strong opinions could get them in trouble.

  6. Neil

    A blog without comments is functionally identical to your “personal website”, circa 1995. The only difference is that now there’s free technology that lets you update your website more easily. In other words, from a reader’s point of view, what makes a blog a blog rather than a plain website, other than the possibility of interactivity? Nothing.Dan you may not think a lack of comments reflects on a blogger’s credibility. But it’s not a matter of credibility. The difference between a blog and publishing to a plain website is that you have (implicitly) agreed to oversee a little community that includes members of the dumbass unwashed masses (ie, your readers), because you think it’s worth it despite the hassle. This willingness to go to the bit of bother says something about a person’s interest in those who are interested in them. You seem actually interested not only in what your readers think, but in the ways that your ideas trigger discussion among your readers. Keller, Chacon etc. obviously do not. This to me reflects not on their credibility, but on their value as members of the local media. I think Keller is as credible as you, but he doesn’t have as much value to me as you do.Some of your blog entries (like “Standing Head”) seem posted for the specific purpose of generating comments. You initiate conversations. Keller, Chacon et. al. publish pronouncements. That’s the difference.Obviously you can have your own blog and I do. Nobody reads it but it’s there. It’s my place to rant in private. That’s okay. Everybody can’t read everybody else’s blog. Some blogs, often because the owner has become a public figure in some other way, percolate upward and become popular enough that other bloggers aggregate around them, and behold, new little communities spring up! That’s better than millions of isolated pockets. I like your writing Dan but what makes your site appealing are the couple of dozen regulars whose points of view when seen together result in a whole greater than the sum of its parts. I don’t often read their separate blogs. The suggestion to go start your own blog is glib and is more “atomization” which is inefficient and isolating and which our society does too much of already. We need more communities, not more isolated pockets.If you only want to publish your personal journalistic stylings a la Keller, you don’t need comments. But don’t call yourself a blogger then. Just say you publish your thoughts on the web, and leave the word “blogger” for people willing to interactive with the community of their readers.

  7. Anonymous

    Really popular blogs that get too many comments to be useful could benifit from a message board. Look at sons of sam horn. Those threads are often better than anything you find in the Sox columns/articles in Boston newspapers. I have to admit, The Huffington Post allows comments, and occasionally there are very good threads of comments; sometimes the comments make for more interesting reads than the initial blog post.

  8. Anonymous

    Screw you, you wankers!Just kidding.

  9. Don

    I’m not anonymous. Do you read me and hate it, or do you just not read me?

  10. Stella

    The whole thing is nothing more than an electronic Speaker’s Corner. Rave ON!

  11. Dan Kennedy

    Hatlo — I read your posts and appreciate them. But though you’re not anonymous, you are pseudonymous. You’re an example of why I haven’t bothered to make people register with Blogger. We still don’t know who you are.

  12. Anonymous

    Wait a minute — people actually *read* Jay Fitzgerald’s blog? You can get almost identical analysis from any random middle aged guy in any random neighborhood bar in the area. Comments are beside the point.

  13. Neil

    Taking a break from the garden, to shovel a different kind of manure for a minute…I don’t know who Jay Fitzgerald is either but I see that he has taken a sentence out of my earlier comment here, posted it on his blog, and commented on it. A bit of irony I suppose. Since he doesn’t allow comments, I can’t respond there. Since he cribbed the comment from here though, I’ll respond here. (Don’t worry I don’t think it’ll take up too much disk space.) Jay takes issue with my belief that bloggers have “(implicitly) agreed to oversee a little community”. “I did?” he said. “OK, thanks for telling me.”Since he doesn’t allow comments, then (by my definition) he has made no such agreement. Then (again, by my definition), it’s not a blog, it’s just a plain website. By responding to commenters from another blog on his site, without letting them respond, he gets the best of both worlds. He lets Dan rassle directly with the unruly readers, while he takes potshots from the safety of the sidelines, in classic chicken-hawk style.To repeat the question: If you don’t allow comments, how is what you are doing any different from simply publishing to your web site? Answer, again: it isn’t any different. So why does it have a new name?Of course, I could start my own blog…And of course, I’m in a teeny minority (but so what) in thinking that a blog with no possibility of interactivity isn’t a blog. What then is it? Merely a more frequent posting to your website, than you used to be able to do ten years ago, when you had to update your little HTML webpages then upload them yourself to your service provider’s server.But this is only a difference in frequency, not in kind. If “publish to the web, with greater frequency than I used to,” because now you have easy-upload software, is all that “blog” means, then sure, everybody’s a blogger! And the word means everything and therefore nothing. “Yeah I publish on the web, and I update my site every day!” Big fat deal. Nothingburger.What is actually new about the technology? Comments. The distinction I make is that some sites initiate and support conversations (this is new), while others do not. To me, in most cases, one has more value than the other, spam/chaff etc. notwithstanding. A few writers, Mickey Kaus comes to mind, maybe Sullivan, Alex Beam, I read regardless of the format they publish in. For the vast majority of writers though, who don’t have that kind of talent, the possibility of a public conversation with them makes what they have to write and say more appealing. Otherwise eh, just another voice in the crowd. This is true for the same reason the computer is better than the TV. Two-way is better than one-way. Finally, spam and libel are pissant concerns. For one thing, don’t assume your site is of sufficient interest to have the problem. If it does happen, take steps. Enable the word verification widget. And be thankful that your blog attracts enough interest that you even have this problem. Jay said he “just doesn’t have the time or the inclination to deal with it.” If you have the inclination to want to interact with your readers, then you have the time.

  14. Anonymous

    Well, that’s the point. Jay is basically Cliffy from Cheers freed from ever having to listen. Hub Blog, like so many others, is just an outlet for your basic loud mouthed middle aged conservative without an original idea in his head. Just look at his inciteful “flip flopping” critique of John Kerry. Comments would just force him to actually have a reasoned opinion. It’s the last thing he wants.Again, the shocking thing is Dan bothers to read him. i only went over there because of the link here. It’s been a long time since I’ve encountered that much drivel in one place.

  15. jjdaley

    OK Neil, we get it. Your opinion is clear. I don’t agree, but I think it’s safe to say that we get it: a blog is a website but a website is not necessarily a blog, unless it is. Now maybe next you’ll define online conversation for us. As to anonymous’ comments, i do read Jay Fitzgerald as do lots of others. You don’t. So what’s your point? If it’s that you don’t like Jay Fitzgerald posts, well that’s not a comment, that’s a freestanding opinion. Start your own blog with quality insights like that and see how many readers you get. I apologize for the snarky tone, but I guess I’m just trying to fit in here.

  16. Anonymous

    1 CommentsI don’t think a Blog has to have comments to be a Blog. It’s a contraction of Web Log. That’s all. Just because “all” the popular WebLog tools allow you to have comments doesn’t require a WebLog to have comments.I hope you find some of your commentors more erudite than some of Brud’s callers 🙂2. LibelIANAL, but regarding Commenters can commit libel, … and it’s unclear how much responsibility I bear legally. I can delete comments, but … if I delete one comment but fail to delete another, doesn’t that somehow make me liable for the one I let go?If the AOL case applies to you personally — IANAL — then yes, it would. Your choices as I see them are (a) put all assets in your good wife’s name and keep her very happy, (b) don’t edit comments and rely precedent; (c) set comments to Logged-in only so morons are less likely to sue you (but see below); (d) turn off comments; (e) moderate all comments before they appear (lame); (f) have the blog published somewhere where the publisher assumes responsibility.Consult an online-libel attorney (not an online libel-attorney) if in doubt!If you choose to require Blog-ger ID for comments, you’ll drive my comments back to email. I can’t agree to clause 13 of Blogger’s TOS, wherein I’m supposed to Indemnify them for their “reasonable attorneys fees”, should someone sue them based on my behavior. Their failure to follow or assert AOL precedent shield should not be my cost, and I am not an insurance company. For this reason alone, I would be extra wary of editing some but not all comments on Blog-ger. But I’m a little surprised that anyone with any assets keeps their blog there, period, given that TOS.I wonder if Blog-ger TOS censors will allow this comment to stand … maybe if I insert hyphenation they won’t notice.REPEAT — IANAL. Consult an online libel/slander specialist attorney at law.Cheers,Bill R

  17. Anonymous


  18. Lisa

    Personally, I think “distributed conversation” — that is, blockquoting some part of someone’s original post, then following it with a response and a link to the original — is more vital than comments per se.It’s the distributed conversation that gives the blogosphere its vitality (and because of the dense interlinking, its prominent Google ranking). Furthermore, the “distributed conversation” can’t be repressed. The Globe might zap my comment but they can’t prevent me from writing about them on my own weblog.

  19. Aaron Read

    A few days ago I received an email from Radio Open Source (Chris Lydon’s show on WGBH, et al) mentioning how they no longer take live calls during the show. I don’t think it was solely because of the stated reason (that it’s unfair to folks listening on time-delay or not in the Eastern Time Zone)…although certainly the hallmark of ROS is its all-inclusiveness via the blog. Anyways, I suspect it’s also because, as you mentioned, Brudnoy’s Axiom is true…and also that it’s a TON of work to screen live callers with a tremendous amount of risk. However, ROS has found an exceedingly clever solution: Odeo’s online/Flash-based voicemail system. So they will still “take calls” but they won’t be live. Which means they can pick which calls will be most relevant and sound the best, and even edit them if desired (since even intelligent callers tend to be less than concise).

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