Tutorial 18: how to have fruitful discussions in your blog’s comments
March 22, 2012
A short one, because I’ve been commenting on other people’s blogs a lot recently (Scholarly Kitchen, Open and Shut, The Scientist) and it infuriates me how hard it is get a good back-and-forth discussion going in those venues.
The contrast of course is with SV-POW! itself, where we’ve often had excellent, busy, informative comment-threads (example 1, example 2, example 3) that have resulted in us learning a lot from our commenters. So why is it that some blogs’ comment streams are lively and productive, whereas others are relatively sterile?
Here’s how to do it right.
1. Turn on comments. It should be no-brainer, I know, but it always brings me up short when I find a blog post with commenting disabled. When a blog keeps doing it, it’s one of the most likely factors that will make me give up on the blog altogether. If it’s just one person preaching, it’s much less interesting than a discussion.
2. Do not require registration. This one, too, should be too obvious to need stating. Notoriously, the Scientific American blogs require you to register before you can comment, hence the fact that the SciAm incarnation of Tetrapod Zoology gets less than half as many comments as the old Science Blogs version used to get. And that in turn is why even now, eight months after Darren stopped posting at the old site, it’s still Google’s top hit for “tetrapod zoology”.
Science Blogs lets you comment just by filling in your details on the comment form, and of course browsers do that for you, so the process is painless. “But registration is fast and free”, say the SciAm people. Doesn’t matter: it’s a road-bump. At any given moment, the point someone wants to make in a comment is probably not enough to push them over that bump. So don’t make them do it. They just won’t.
There are various open-ID schemes that different blog platforms support. Most people by now have at least one of a Google, FaceBook or Twitter account. If you let people use those as their commenting identity, the problem goes away. If your blogging platform doesn’t support this, you might have chosen the wrong platform. (Why SciAm decided they needed to build their own, I can’t begin to imagine.)
3. Do not use CAPCHA. I can’t tell you how much I loathe this. I type a comment, try to submit it, and am met with this brain-damage:
What the heck does that say? Is that “ri” or “n”? Is that a “t” or and “f” just before that other thing that might be “1” or “l”? And why are you putting me through this when I am trying to contribute to your blog?
Again: people will just shrug and walk away.
Bloggers who use blogger.com tell me that they have no choice about this, that the platform imposes it. If that’s really true, then ditch blogger.com. It’s just broken.
4. Do not moderate comments. This is the potentially controversial one, because up till this point I don’t think I’ve said anything that anyone reasonable would disagree with. But this one is counter-intuitive. When you start a blog, the natural thing is to want to feel that you’re in control of it, and that means controlling what can be posted there. But that’s a mistake. Moderation means that people can’t see their own comments, which is alienating; but more importantly, it means other people can’t see them, which in turn means that all discussion grinds to a halt until such time as you happen to moderate.
What that means is that the site is only really alive when you’re at the keyboard, constantly checking your inbox, so that you notice moderation requests as soon as they come in. It means you’ll never have the experience of waking up in the morning and finding that a discussion has broken out on your blog.
But what about spam? On a good platform, it’s not a problem. Since we started SV-POW!, 6,539 comments have been posted, and 3,552 spam comments have been automatically detected and help for moderation. My and Matt’s manual moderation of those suspected-spam comments shows that detection has been 99.92% accurate: there have been only three false negatives in five and a half years. There have been 63 false positives, i.e. comments that looked like spam but weren’t. Those were held for moderation, and passed.
So. You don’t need to moderate to filter spam, and you don’t want to moderate to control discussion. Just open it up.
5. Allow subscription to followups. Some platforms let commenters tick a box or click a link to ask that they be emailed when someone posts a followup comment. That’s a very valuable feature, because it makes people aware of how the conversation they’ve joined is progressing, and gives them a chance to respond.
6. Reply. A very obvious one: engage with the comments yourself. You want to be a part of the conversation, as well as having the privileged position of setting the agenda.
7. Oh, and write something interesting. Your posts catalyse the comments. Once a comment stream is up and running, it has its own momentum, but it will only get started if you give it a push. Now I am not suggesting that you deliberately set out to write controversial articles, or really that you set out to write anything other than what interests you. There is really no point in writing about anything that doesn’t interest you — if you’re not enjoying your blog, then no-one else will, either.
Now that I come to review, I almost wish I’d said less — because one of these seven points is the burden of my message, and that one may have got a bit lost in the middle. It will come as no surprise to anyone that if you want fruitful discussions in your blog’s comments, you need to turn on comments, avoid speed-bumps like registration and CAPCHA, let people subscribe to followup comments, reply, and write interesting articles. The only remotely controversial part is do not moderate comments, and that’s the main point I want to make.
So here it is again: do not moderate comments.