John Scalzi wrote an insightful post about the utility of blog comments with the way the Internet works nowadays . He starts out focusing on hate comments that could reasonably be described as terrorism (death threats with the aim of preventing people writing about politics meet any reasonable definition of “terrorism”). Terrorists on the Internet are a significant problem but it’s one that doesn’t get much attention as it generally only affects people who aren’t straight-acting white men.
Blogging About Technology
One corner case that John doesn’t seem to consider is that of writing about technology. Issues related to programming often aren’t related to politics and are often testable so comments will be based on things that have been shown to work rather than stuff people invent or want to believe. I’ve received many useful and educational comments on my technical posts with little hostility. Even getting a snarky comment is rare when writing a strictly technical blog post.
The comments problem for technology blogging is spam. I’ve been using the WordPress plugin Block Spam by Math  (which is obsolete but still works) for years. Initially it stopped almost all spam, but now I’m getting at least 20 spam comments a day.
Extremely Popular Blogs
The comments section of a blog is sometimes described as a “conversation”. When a blog post gets comments from less than 10 people it is possible for them to have something that resembles a conversation with the author that is of benefit to other readers and doesn’t take excessive amounts of time for the author. When a blog is very popular and every post gets comments from 50+ people it’s not really possible. So a traditional blog comment section seems to work best when the blog is primarily read by a small well connected group of people who sometimes comment and some casual readers who never comment (but sometimes find value in the comments of others).
Discussions of blog comment systems usually include a reference to a post written by someone who disabled comments on their blog and found it to be a good thing, it always seems that the person who writes such a post has a large and varied audience who’s comments would take a lot of time to moderate. John followed the usual form in this regard by linking to a reasonably popular SF author who would presumably have a lot of fans with good net access.
I’m not going to criticise anyone for disabling comments when their blog becomes really popular, but any advice that they have to offer about such things won’t apply to the vast majority of blogs. Due to the long-tail effect the small blogs would probably comprise the majority of all comments so in terms of the way the blog environment works I don’t think it makes much difference when the small minority of very popular blogs disable comments. The vast majority of blogs that I regularly read only have a small number of comments.
One thing that should be noted is that getting a lot of readers shouldn’t be the only factor for writing a successful blog. For example some of my blog posts about SE Linux are aimed at a small audience of Linux programmers and have an even smaller number of people who are qualified to comment. When I write a post that can only receive comments other than “please explain more because I don’t understand” from a few dozen people that doesn’t make it any less important. Sometimes the few dozen people who know a topic well need to work together to educate the few thousand who can implement the ideas for the benefit of millions of users of the software.
Disabling Comments on Contentious Posts
One interesting method John uses is to disable comments early when posting about contentious issues. It’s a general practice when running a blog to disable comments on posts after a certain period of time (3 months to 1 year seem to be common time limits for comments). This means that the moderators can concentrate on recent posts and not be bothered with spam bots hitting ancient posts as the interest in writing legitimate comments on an old post is vanishingly small. John has a practice of disabling comments after a couple of days when the comments start to lose quality.
No matter how contentious the issue is I’m not likely to get the 400+ comments that John gets. But the idea of closing comments quickly still has some merit for my blog and other blogs with less traffic.
Not Accepting Comments While Asleep
John has a practice of closing comments while he’s asleep to avoid allowing a troll to get 8 hours of viewing for a nasty comment. The most immediate down-side to that is that it inconveniences people who don’t want to wait 8 hours to comment and prioritises comments from people in the same time zone, this makes me think of Cory Doctorow’s novel Eastern Standard Tribe (which is available for free download and I highly recommend reading it) . It seems that a better solution to that problem would be to have a team of moderators to watch things 24*7 which is what a lot of popular blogs that allow comments do. The WordPress capabilities model doesn’t support granting a user no special privileges other than moderating comments , as WordPress is the most popular self-hosted blog software this limits the possibilities for people moderating comments on other people’s blogs.
No variation of this would work for me. I have lots of things that require my ongoing attention and don’t want to add my blog to the list. If I have other things to work on for a few days I want to just not bother with my blog. This means that my blog needs to be able to run on autopilot for days at a time – however I do monitor my blog closely after publishing a post that is likely to attract nasty comments. One extra problem that I have is that the Android client for WordPress has problems in synchronising comments.
Using a Forum for Comments
Popular Planet installations such as Planet Debian and Planet Linux Australia syndicate more than a few blogs that have comments disabled. A forum installation for such a Planet would be useful to allow people to comment on all posts and also support bloggers who are thinking of disabling comments. While the use of a forum for blog comments has been proven to work well for Boing Boing forums have their own issues of spam and anti-social behavior.
Debian already has a forum , if a section of that was devoted to discussing blog posts from Planet Debian then it shouldn’t make much of an increase to the work of the forum administrators while providing a benefit to the community. Also if the Debian forum had such a section it would probably attract use from more Debian Developers, I would use that forum if it was a place to comment on blogs that don’t have a comment section and I might also comment on other forum discussions.
It would be good if there was a forum for discussing Linux in Australia. I’m not volunteering to run it but I would help out if someone else wants to be the main sysadmin and I can offer free hosting.