Meta on Comment Sections

>> Friday, November 28, 2008

this is a meta diary on the effects of comment sections and the way they impacted the bloggosphere. Commenting, for all its pluses and minuses is here to stay. What effect thought has the ability to comment on a persons blog had on the writer and the way an internet conversation develops?

I am taking this primarily from the exchange between Kevin Drum and Jacob T. Levy. It began when Levy posted on the perceived change in blogging due to comments.

I'm one of the last of the oldline blogluddists who thinks that the decline of civility and decency the blogosphere can be traced to two events, one of which I won't tell you but one of which was the creation of comments sections. In particular, I remember thinking that the opening of comments at Kevin Drum's then-site, CalPundit, changed things rather a lot. Almost every high-traffic site I've been reading since before the introduction of comments seems to me to have suffered from the development, except for Crooked Timber.

Invoking the name of Kevin Drum of course summoned him from the tubes and he responded.

This deserves explication. Does Jacob think that opening a comment section changed my actual blogging? Or did the blogging remain the same but the mere existence of raucous commenters changed things? If the latter, why not just ignore the comments? If the former, how?

I've heard this general complaint many times, and I've never really understood it. My own view of comments is that they don't exist mainly for my benefit, or even for my readers' benefit, but for my commenters' benefit. In the same way that blogging gave me a platform to mouth off in public that I otherwise wouldn't have gotten, I figure that comment sections give an entirely different group of people the same opportunity. So I'm happy to provide it, even if it often gets out of hand. It's not like anyone's holding a gun to our heads and forcing us to read them, after all. (And anyway, the comment section here has improved considerably over the past couple of years thanks to my steely and implacable moderators. Thanks guys!)

On a more general note, Jacob's post reminds me that I've always been a little puzzled by the number of times readers have told me that I've "changed" thanks to something or other. When I opened comments. When I started accepting ads. When I moved to the Washington Monthly. When I moved to MoJo. Etc. For a variety of reasons, it's unlikely in the extreme that any of these events changed anything about my writing at all, but people sure think they do with fair regularity. I don't doubt that my writing has evolved since I started doing this six years ago, but I very much doubt that there was any particular event that's been responsible for it. More likely it was just six years of writing and learning and getting progressively more annoyed with the modern Republican Party.

Levy obliged Mr. Drum and with a response of his won outlining in greater detail what he saw as the impact of comments on the world of blogging. He starts with the general shock of switching from a civil post into a pie fight but i think this is the relevant section that deserves attention,

.[B]ut I also think that comments sections have encouraged intra-blog rather than inter-blog conversations.

As a lecturer, I'm at least somewhat responsive to my audience and their reactions. I do notice when the students' eyes are glazing over, when they seem alert, what makes them ask questions, what puts them to sleep. I don't respond to that in a Pavlovian way-- that way lies the professor-as-standup-comic, and I'm pretty sure that my vocation doesn't lie in that direction even if I wanted to try it. But I do respond, consciously and unconsciously-- speaking to a live audience is interactive in a way that writing an article for future publication is not. I'm sure that makes me a better teacher than if I ignored my audience-- but it also makes my lectures a little bit more homogenous, and a little bit more geared to what I think my students already find interesting or congenial.

Blogging's interactive, too. If nothing else, I suspect that choice of blogging topics gets influenced by the enthusiasm for some topics shown by one's commentators, when comments sections are on. That by itself makes the medium a little bit less idiosyncratically personal; it encourages blogging about hot topics over blogging about one's cat (to take an old CalPundit example)-- whereas as a reader I enjoy the idiosyncratically personal voices.

But there's probably something beyond even that. Comments crowds tend to be more aligned with the blog-author than do other blog-writers. And I think that conversations among blog authors across ideological lines started to fall off after comments sections came into being. Opportunity costs of time kick in-- most blog-authors do read their own comments sections, and that surely changes the overall ideological balance of who they're spending time online reading. The objections one starts to notice to one's own position come from one's loyal readers-- so a center-left blogger will start to encounter primarily objections from the left, and vice-versa. That has an effect of its own. At least for some bloggers, the effect is a predictable echo-chamber one, and the positions become more extreme.

The main question here that underpins Levy's argument is what drives a blogger? Everyone wants to be liked. So when composing a post topic the author of a blog with comments tends to trend towards topics that receive greater attention and interest from the readers and commenters. As commenting is an effective form of feedback it has a great impact on where a blogger chooses to go with their blog. In a vacuum the decisions on posting and writing style of a blogger would be different and, Levy seems to believe, better.

I believe that what Levy is advocating here is the big fish small pond blogging. a blogger becomes too rapped up in his own blogs importance and that becomes his world. Validation comes from his or her own readership and not from the wider net. I am reluctant to embrace this view for a couple of reasons.

The first is that i think that the most popular bloggers became so because what they were doing already appealed to the readers. The audience is not captive like the professor and the students. Certainly their is a pressure to keep an audience once you have it and derive you lively hood from it but you would never have built that audience if what you were offering was simple echo level writing and i doubt you would keep it if you descended to that level. There is too much competition and desire for quality work for bloggers to stay on top if they lose what made them worth reading. The writers lead and the commenters follow in a majority of the best blogs. At least imo.

I also contend that the level of interblog discourse is not any less than back in the day but the ideological separation is. Several quality bloggers like John Cole and even Andrew Sullivan were once conservative bloggers. However as Bush has run that side of the ideological world into the ground the quality conservative bloggers are just not numerous or prominent enough to engage in blog to blog level discussions of issues. In fact John Cole does often have interblog discussions with Daniel Larrison on numerous topics. Also, the liberal side of the blogosphere is always quoting and responding to one another. You can find evidence in this of the Turkey good or bad threads from Ezra and Matt Yglesias and John Cole. The liberal side is often responding to one another. They just dont want to touch the crazy of K-Lo in a serious manner.

I think commenting has also provided a required means of feedback on an authors thoughts that can help to fill in gaps in logic or general knowledge on any topic. This does carry the danger that Levy describes if your readers are all left of center and carry you off to their position but the best bloggers are going to be capable of evaluating any commenter arguments and sorting the quality from the crazy. How is a writer supposed to improve their writing if they never get the feedback from the readers?

Also, note that Kevin Drum does friday cat blogging and John Cole often has pet related posts while Yglesias talks about the NBA. Ezra Klein does food. So while Levy makes an interesting argument about comments leading to a change in blogging im not sure it holds up. Thoughts or dare i say comments?


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