Why Comments Still Matter

photo credit: DaveFayram - cc
photo credit: DaveFayramcc

Earlier this year Copyblogger set the blogosphere ablaze with its controversial decision to turn off comments. The announcement cited the burden of moderation, spam, and the availability of other conversation “outposts” as the main reasons for closing comments. It also gave the impression that Copyblogger had in many ways outgrown comments:

Blog comments are an amazing resource for any blog when it’s getting started. It’s a super convenient way to take the pulse of your audience…. And for eight years, comments have been a fantastic thing here on Copyblogger.

We’re fortunate enough (mainly because Copyblogger’s been around for so long now) that we have a lot of thriving “outposts” where conversation happens.

Copyblogger isn’t the only site to turn the lights off on commenters. Popular Science, powered by Drupal, shut off comments in September 2013, citing trolls, spambots, and a “fractious minority” detracting from its ability to foster intelligent conversation and debate. The editors felt that commenters often cast aspersion on the the validity of the science presented, prefacing the announcment with: “Comments can be bad for science. That’s why, here at PopularScience.com, we’re shutting them off.”

The Rising Trend of Turning Comments Off

Copyblogger is likely the most influential WordPress site to adopt a comments-off approach to blogging, and many other sites have followed suit.

The other day I noticed an influx of comment-killing plugins coming into the WordPress Plugin Directory. Simple No Comments is a plugin that turns them off upon activation. WP Disable Comments entered the directory right around the same time with more fine-grained control for disabling comments globally or for specific post types, categories, tags, referrers, etc. Hear No Evil is a relatively new one that blocks comments for a WordPress site or on a site-by-site basis in a multisite network.

WordPress users are constantly on the hunt for better tools to help manage commenting and mitigate the unrelenting onslaught of spam. Publications turn comments off for different reasons, but it’s rarely due to the fact that they do not appreciate the comments left by genuine community members. Oftentimes the burden of spam moderation becomes greater than the benefit of conversation on posts.

Comment moderation was introduced in WordPress 1.0 in 2004 but at that time spammers were operating at a fraction of their current strength. Akismet reports that the amount of spam it caught in May 2014 is up 4% from April, and up 269% from May 2012. This burden increases every year and even with powerful spam-blocking plugins in place, many will slip through the cracks.

The solution for sites where interaction isn’t critical? Turn the comments off. Unfortunately, many sites do not have this luxury.

Removing Comments Suffocates Conversation

Traditionally, a blog post has been an invitation to a conversation. The weblog medium soared to popularity because of its interactive nature, which allowed readers to leave comments. Some might contend that this singular feature distinguishes the medium from other informational, static websites.

Conversation and community are the natural byproducts of allowing open comments. They aren’t a utility to propel your blog to a state of maturity where you finally shed comments in a burst of enlightenment. They have intrinsic value. Open comments are the affirmation that your blog is a conversation and not a soapbox. Ultimately, allowing comments on your posts is about valuing conversation. Encouraging interaction on other social channels, while turning it off at home on your blog, sends a mixed message.

When Copyblogger turned off comments, it encouraged readers to take the conversation to social networks and to write responses on their own blogs as an alternative to commenting on Copyblogger.com. How can you ask your readers to promote you on social networks and link to you from their blogs, when they’re not welcome at your home on the web? This is a conversation killer for those who have no motivation to write their own response posts or participate on social networks.

Removing Comments Fragments the Conversation

photo credit: Nils Geylen - cc
photo credit: Nils Geylencc

Allowing social media to be the primary outposts for conversation on your content may bring some decent interaction for a short time, but posts sent via these channels soon disappear under the heavy stream of cat pictures, location checkins, Candy Crush invitations and every form of distraction.

Furthermore, a conversation happening in many different places becomes severely fragmented, diluted, and difficult to track. The quality of the conversation starts to plummet. However, with comments open on your website, you have the opportunity for the brightest minds to respond to each other in one public location, not limited to x number of characters or the commenter’s social connections.

If your blog is your home on the web, then everything important that you have to say should be said in your posts and in their comments. Social networks come and go but your blog is forever. If all the resulting conversations of your content are happening on social networks, what will you do when those data silos move on and all that content is lost?

Sonia Simone, co-founder of Copyblogger Media, commented on a blog responding to their announcement about removing comments, indicating that she isn’t concerned if the exchange of ideas is ultimately lost on social networks:

Basically, philosophically, I think it comes down to the fact that I don’t feel a need to own or preserve my conversations. What endures about a conversation is how I grow and learn from it — and that can’t be taken away.

If twitter or Facebook or G+ gets taken out by a meteor tomorrow and I lose those conversations, that’s all right with me — because the important part is how the conversations have changed me.

What about the millions of others who could learn from or be changed by reading those conversations? Those who read a post months or years after its publish date will probably miss the corresponding social network post and will not have the opportunity to interact with others who have expertise and related knowledge to share on the topic.

At times it can be disheartening for writers to see an empty comments section on an influential post with a wildly active conversation that moves straight to Twitter. Writers are then forced to chase the conversation in multiple places on the web and must be willing to follow wherever it goes. Many valuable responses are lost in social network posts that quickly evaporate and aren’t easy to search.

Blog comments, however, are an enduring home for conversations, many of which result in the exchange of knowledge and ideas. Providing a home for conversations is unfortunately accompanied by the great burden of combating spam and moderating comments. Don’t give up, though. Our anti-spam tools continue to get better and someday you’ll be glad that you fought through all the bots to keep real communication alive in your comments. These conversations are the true gold of the internet.

Open Comments Are for Those Who Know They Haven’t Arrived

In years of working with WordPress, I’ve probably learned just as much from blog comments as I have from reading an author’s original post. At the Tavern, we’re strong advocates of commenting, because it’s often there that you’ll find the rest of the story unfolds. Multiple perspectives combine to form the big picture and the full story emerges when you have the community engaged.

In online journalism, comments present a huge advantage over the traditional paper newspaper. They enable any citizen to correct misinformation and offer expertise that the author may be missing. You can’t know everything and you can’t see every side of a story. The comments section gives the story an opportunity to have a life of its own.

Many users have expressed dissatisfaction with WordPress’ native comment system, and third party systems like Disqus don’t enjoy a much better reputation. These are all part of the growing pains of comments evolving on the web, but don’t let their drawbacks drive you to close comments completely.

Leaving comments open on blogs is an adventure. Sure, you may have to deal with spam, vitriol, and people who wrongly assume your blog’s comments are a support forum. But for the breakthrough gems of real communication and exchange, we leave comments open. It’s the readers who make a blog worthwhile. You can never outgrow conversation with them, no matter how big your brand or blog becomes.

Who is Sarah Gooding


Sarah Gooding is an Editorial Ninja at Audrey Capital. When not writing about WordPress, she enjoys baking, knitting, judging beer competitions and spending time with her Italian Greyhound.

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