Yes, Comments Are Still Relevant, But We Need a Better System

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.

The ability to easily opt in or out of a commenting system is merely one change that needs to happen. Something as basic as an in-context comment list view is a must for easier moderation. The Tavern still uses Stephen Cronin’s Show Comment Parent plugin for this. Even a basic JavaScript-based front-end submission form would go a long way toward modernizing the commenting system. Does anyone enjoy a full page reload when leaving a comment?

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.


37 responses to “Yes, Comments Are Still Relevant, But We Need a Better System”

  1. 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.

  2. I have to disagree. I rarely read sites that don’t have comments enabled. When I see that comments are disabled or non-existent, then I simply close the tab. Nothing worth reading there. Sure, that’s just me, but that’s my view.

  3. I am drawn back to WordPress from other blogging platforms because of the built-in comments system. There is nothing really stopping me from using static sites but we use blogs because we want to be the owner of the content and we want to drive conversation in our own circle. Instead of giving up on it I think it should be developed further.

  4. I build WordPress sites for small businesses and such. I have to say, the first thing we install is a plugin to disable the comments. I’d say maybe 1% or less of the hundreds of sites we’ve built actually have comments enabled. For us WordPress is a CMS first, a blogging platform second. While many see that order reversed out of nostalgia I don’t believe that is why it’s used by 40% of the internet at this point. The comment system should be revamped but having it as a modular system would make the most sense as WordPress matures. It’s grown beyond being just a blogging platform.

    • Agreed. I also work for many small businesses, small non-profits, and solopreneurs. For them, the comment system is basically a trap. They don’t know how much they’re taking on by having comments open on their site.

      It takes either plenty of traffic or an existing engaged community to produce even a few genuine comments. People who have that are generally putting significant effort into their site and are much more able to turn the feature on or add plugins.

      Granted, I also run a blog with lots of comments, and we use the built-in features pretty heavily. If they were turned off by default, they would probably be even less supported than they are now. Still, maybe robust third party services are simply a better match for this usage.

  5. I subscribe to comments on a lot of blogs, including this one, and to replies, and I manage a couple of WordPress sites and do not find moderation onerous—did not even with busier sites. Sadly, my new sites are for small organizations that do not have a lot of commentary, but I agree that having comments is intrinsic to blogs and I would be disturbed by much change to the default system. (O.K., I tend to not like change and am an amateur at this stuff, so my vision might be limited, but I am comfortable with the comments system as it is now.)

  6. What an interesting topic to bring up.

    Could it be that comments somehow remind us about the forums of the past?

    With the exception of archives and administrative pages, every page of a forum was a thread that you could get involved with (publicly) and get responses from people. Everyone could leave a mark.
    If you spent some time reading an opinion or a thread of opinions, you were rewarded with the right to participate.
    Now, reading a blog post and not having that reward feels emptier.

    Could it be nostalgia? Maybe.

  7. For me, comments on my blog are just a way to add a to-do to my already too-long list of to-dos. What is the to-do? To review the comments marked as spam because about once every 100 comments or so is a legitimate comment marked as spam. And I don’t want to just cancel those.

    To fix commenting, we need a better solution than Akismet. I want more than probable spam, I want certain spam vs. maybe spam. I see comments that are absolutely spam — 100 links, or mentions of porn, etc — and they are listed in the admin as spam, no different than the false positives. Worse, I’ll see the same comment posted to multiple posts.

    It seems like a better solution would be a system that collaborates in the background with other websites — like a bittorrent for comment spam identification somehow — that can improve itself with a human component.

    I know that is supposedly what Akismet does, but with a central server instead of peer-to-peer, but have they really done anything to improve it in the many years since they bought Akismet?

    But of course since a central server-based subscription is a revenue source for Automattic and a non-gated peer-to-peer system is not, I don’t hold out much hope for anything improving.

    P.S. I would definitely blog more if I could control comment spam, but even thinking about blogging reminds me of how much comment spam I have to deal with and then I loose interest.

  8. H Justin,

    I second you in your thoughts that comments option should be provided by WordPress by default. Can’t Imagine the blogging world without it, there would be some plugin which will have 10 comments free, & prompt us the take premium later. Thanks for your post.

  9. Great post, Justin, thanks!

    Disabling comments with a click of a button would be great! That could make the whole comment-related admin interface disappear. Useful to make things more user-friendly for website-owners that don’t need comments.

    However, I love comments. How would we otherwise all share our valuable feedback? ;-)

    Seriously, some more support for comments in core, and comment types specifically, would be interesting. Having comment types (register_comment_type like register_post_type?) would be a great gateway for supporting different kind of interactions from visitors/subscribers. Think about likes, ratings, web mentions indeed, … It could make websites more interactive and social?

  10. @Mike Schinkel : Askimet is probably the worst spam filter system for WP I know because it does not work on robot behavior but looks for content. And so the false positive problem. There are much more efficient solution for spam in WP without Askimet annoyances.

    And thanks for this post, Mr Tadlock. Comments give me some courage to go on with my own blog.

  11. In regards to “comments should be a plugin”, that ship has sailed. If that goes through, we might end up in a situation like the link-manager, where it is just rotting away in WP Core and people have to choose which of the different plugins they might want. I suggest to leave it in Core and develop it further.

    I do agree with cleaning up the settingspage, and one button “to rule them all”, with comments fully off or not.

    By the way, I do like the status of “maybe spam” but is that not practically the same as “pending”?

  12. It’s understandable that the folks who develop core have other priorities. But the comment feature has languished. Basic (or what I see as basic) improvements to moderation, settings and the front end UI could do a lot towards encouraging folks to use it.

    I’d also love to see some basic, built-in spam protection – something that doesn’t require site owners to register with a service like Akismet. To me, that is the biggest issue. Web professionals understand the need to install some protection, but I doubt other users realize that.

    No matter how good or easy to use the comment system becomes, a deluge of spam is going to make it not worth the trouble for a lot of users.

  13. After reading the comments here, I think it all depends on what WordPress sees as its future. Is it mostly businesses? Then no comments needed. Is it mostly (or at least a good chunk) bloggers? Then comments should be a first-class citizen. As others have said, I find it frustrating when I’m reading a blog post and can’t comment. Sometimes I want to congratulate the author. Other times I want to ask a question for clarification. At this point in my life, if I disagree, I just leave it alone.

    On my own blog I’ve mostly had very positive comments and have learned a lot from the comments. I wish WP was better at brining in comments that happen outside the blog – like Twitter mentions, reddit, etc.

    As for the webmention – how does that differ from pingbacks and trackbacks? Those were great for a bit and then pretty much everyone turned them off.

  14. The fact that we all are commenting on here says a lot about the use of and need for comments. And this, while a blog, is still a business site. Comments are often not just purely commentary, often they are reviews, feedback, contest entries, etc. So while I wholeheartedly agree that comments need work, I also wholeheartedly feel that we need them and the basics of them should be in core.

  15. I started my blog allowing comments. But I turned them off a few years ago, because I got too much spam AND had a fair number of trolls.

    All that garbage was hard to moderate, and it probably made for lower ranking by search engines.

    Most of the blog comments now happen on social media, mainly my Facebook page or groups that share my posts.

    A lot of my posts are shared on NextDoor, so I’m not able to participate in the discussion.

    Since I turned off comments on my website, I actually get a lot more views, readers, and followers.

    My posts include an email address in the by-line, so anyone can contact me with questions or comments.

  16. It thrilled me to see this topic come up and the way it is presented (both the article and the comments so far). I have used systems like Replyable to help manage comments on the go and receive comments via email.

    The absence of comments affects my impression of sites. It can range from a “oh so you just profess that and don’t allow anyone to give their opinion” to a NYTimes “damn I can’t read that many comments”, “oh thank god they have selected the best ones”.

    I do also feel that comments as a function has been abandoned by WP for years with Akismet as the only tool provided to mitigate spam. I’m currently testing a system similar in concept to CloudFlare, and that is supposed to specifically prevent scraping and spam. Plugins have claimed this before and I had people saying it blocked them from leaving comments so I’m hesitant but hey let’s see…

    My main thought is, I was so glad to see this brought up, as I find comments like on this site, can often be just as interesting as the articles. Fostering a community that takes part and share their ideas often to the benefit of all is something worth pushing for :)

  17. I love the idea of Webmention becoming part of core.

    One of the benefits I’ve seen with it is that to comment on my site, you need to post it on your own site first to send me the notification. People are much less likely to publicly spam me when they have to host the spam for themselves and associate it with their identity directly. (I’ll admit that this doesn’t get rid of all spam, but it does help to significantly cut back on it. To date, I don’t believe there’s been any Webmention spam seen in the wild.) If anything I’ve actually seen more civil and substantive conversations from those using Webmention. It’d be interesting to see WP Tavern support it.

    Reframing the design, UI, prevention of abuse, and set up of how comments are done on the web is certainly a laudable goal and one which could use some rebuilding from the ground up.

  18. It’s surprising and fascinating to see how many people in this comments stream say they love comments and won’t even read a blog that doesn’t have comments enabled. However, I think it’s good to keep in mind that when it comes to this topic especially, commenters are definitely not a random sample of the population : )

    • I typically read gardening and recipe blogs. For those particular niches, comments add a bit of authority to the post. For example, if I’m reading a particular recipe that says use 1/2 a tsp of salt and a few commenters say to double that, I know I may need to adjust the recipe. That conversation helps the blog owner and readers.

      For other types of blogs, it depends. But, for cooking and gardening, I like to hear what folks say.

  19. To comment or not to comment, is the question that has plagued many blog sites for years. There are many who won’t come back to a website if they see blog posts empty or lack interaction; everyone has their reasons.

    This can be problematic like a catch22. A blog needs a lot of traffic to garner comments from readers, but if you don’t have the traffic, people will move on and not comment.

    Like my site, the blog does not get a lot of traffic to it; most visitors are checking out/buying themes instead. Based on traffic stats, theme sections are roughly 90% where the blog is 10%. I’m actually wondering if I should convert the blog to be specific to “theme” based topics–such as updates and quick announcements of new releases. In the last day or two, I’m realizing theme development is taking most of my attention.

    …which brings me to another point about comments…if a blog is not excessively active, comments will not be active as well.

  20. The challenges for improving the WordPress comment system are many and hard to tackle. I totally agree that the settings panel for comments is outdated and hard to grasp. I’m also on board with the fact that most new WordPress users have a hard time understanding what each setting does—I still struggle, although I don’t consider myself a beginner.

    Besides that, there’s still work to be done in improving the commenting experience. I think that not having a modern editor to bring some life into the thoughts we share (linking to a resource, basic text formatting, etc.) is a big missed opportunity. Not to mention that it’s hard to keep a conversation going without the ability to link to certain comments or mention people. If people don’t activate post notifications, everyone looking to engage with them (or challenge them) will just be left hanging. I also talked about these challenges in extenso –

    We tackled this challenge of improving the comment system and turning it into an actual conversation system, with a conversation starter to get the ball rolling, a place for people to share their background for more transparency, comment highlight. However, there’s more work to be done, and some things might be hard to accomplish without WordPress making the first move.

  21. The comment area and development is at it’s most basic now.
    It is there, it works. Thats all that can be said about it.

    Customising takes hours of inplementing function.php codes.
    The most plugins I tried did not work for me.

    I would love to see more options, and at first: the OFF button for sites that do not use the comment area. And not only “not visible at the front-end” but also blocking the function spammers use to inject comments that still show up in the admin. (At the moment I use the “disable all comments” plugin for that.)

    As mentioned in this article, an ajax function would be great. No refreshing the page.

    Ps: for spam use Akismet AND activate the api key!

  22. In the end I killed comments on my site for three reasons.

    First, the ratio of comment spam to real comments was high. While tools like Akismet do a decent job, there were still fake or spammy comments I was letting through only to realise later I’d been conned.

    Second, real people would abuse the comments. If, say, I had a story that mentioned 5G cellular networks, comments would appear on the site promoting various conspiracies and misinformation.

    Third, it became clear people were somehow able to inject comments without reading the story. I tried an experiment and created a story that received comments but didn’t have any reads.

    That incident was the final straw.

    I’d like to return to having comments, but it needs to be better, more secure and easier to manage than the stock WordPress approach.


Subscribe Via Email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.