More and more, open comments are becoming a thing of the past. Large news organizations have kicked them to the curb. Frustrated bloggers who no longer desire all of the hassles with moderation shut down their forms. The conversations have moved to corporate-controlled social media.
It is hard to pinpoint the exact moment much of the web devolved into chaos. It was probably more of a gradual thing. The tools that we built fostered the darkest side of humanity. Far too often, people let out their worst unfiltered thoughts without regard to decency and kindness. If we dig deep enough, social media is likely the culprit that spawned this growing experience. However, it is also entrenched in the blogging world.
Now, with the ubiquity of mobile phones, everyone has a voice. And, far too often, the vocal minority drives the masses from discussion to ad hominem. Or, maybe the majority was always looking for a justification.
There is a bright side. Commenting on and discussing ideas in an open forum can change hearts and minds. It can lead to discoveries and create life-long friendships — I still routinely chat with people I met through blogs and their comments from nearly two decades ago.
Ryan McCue, a core contributor to WordPress, said that comments should be a plugin.
There are few things I could think that would hurt the blogging community more. Comments are the lifeblood of many WordPress-built sites. Without them as part of the core experience, how many new users will venture out to find a commenting plugin? Such a change would sign the death warrant for commenting on a large part of the web, moving more discussion away from blogs into the waiting arms of social networks.
McCue’s response was to a tweet by Brian Krogsgard, the Post Status creator and editor. “WordPress should have one singular button that says: Turn off all comments and comment displays. This is so hilariously complicated, it’s absurd.”
He is not wrong.
The WordPress comment settings screen is so complex that I rarely change anything other than a setting or two, even when I want comments enabled for a site. There are around two dozen individual options on that screen, and none of them just allow users to turn it all off.
Eric Karkovack explores this same topic in his piece for Speckyboy titled Is the WordPress Comment System Still Relevant? He concluded:
So, where does this leave the default comment system? It still offers the basics and can be extended. Yet it seems a bit antiquated when compared to what other services are offering. To remain a compelling option, improvements are in order.
There’s certainly no harm in keeping it around. But, short of a renewed effort to improve the out-of-the-box functionality, perhaps it shouldn’t be as front-and-center within WordPress as it is now.
WordPress has failed to iterate on its commenting feature in recent years.
“Like most things, [Full Site Editing] will change things there,” wrote WordPress Themes Team rep Ari Stathopoulos in the Post Status Slack. “Want comments? Add the comment-form block in your template. Don’t want them? Don’t add it.”
While that is partly true, it only handles things on the front end of the site. All the commenting-related features would still be there in the admin. However, it is a step in the right direction.
However, there is more that we could be doing. For a platform that prides itself on democratizing publishing and owning your content, a ticket for supporting webmentions has had virtually no movement in five years.
A Webmention is a standardized protocol for mentions and conversations across the web. It is a part of a goal for a decentralized social “network” of sorts where everyone owns and controls their content. While the Webmention plugin by Matthias Pfefferle takes care of this feature, universal adoption would be a far more realistic goal as part of WordPress.
We should also have some serious conversations about what tools publishers need to build thriving communities via their comments. For example, is comment moderation easy enough? If not, what can we do to improve it?
WordPress is more than simply a blogging platform. Users can build any kind of site they want today, with or without the comments. However, commenting is part of the software’s history and identity. It is a gateway to discussion — often as important or even more so than a site’s content.
Comments will always be relevant. Whether it is a response to a blog post, tweet, Slack thread, or some new thing we have yet to think of, the web is all about connecting and communicating with others. We should constantly reevaluate whether WordPress is leading the pack, creating the tools to enable more discussion.
Nice summary Justin. The comments system could definitely use more attention.
In relation to the initial part of the post, for a while I think site owners didn’t realize the need for aggressive moderation to support community standards. There was a fear of censoring which instead let inappropriate speech through. I think this has improved.
One way that some sites have tried to cut down on spam is to require commenting by logging in with a social media account. That helps to cut down on anonymous emotional dumps, but doesn’t require users to create an account on the individual site. There are plugins that offer this feature.