Switching Comments Off

Internet commenting is a mixed bag. Depending on who you ask, comments can either be the most constructive portion of a weblog, or some sort of hellish pit of human emotion. My perspective, both as a reader and a writer, tends to reside somewhere in the middle ground.

With the rise of Twitter, I've begun to doubt the relevance of comments. If people want to get in touch with me regarding my arguments or the site, they can easily reach out in a public, direct manner. In my opinion, that is far more desirable than posting inflammatory comments at the end of an article.

The topic has been widely discussed in recent weeks -- most prominently by Matt Gemmell who, just over a month ago, turned off comments for his weblog. Today, Gemmell has taken the time to reflect on his decision:

In a nutshell, it was definitely the right move. For the first few days I did miss the validation of getting a flurry of comments on each new article, but I quickly realised that I was enjoying the peace and quiet.

Gemmell goes onto explain that in the time since, he has begun to receive "far more thoughtful" messages via email and Twitter.

From my perspective, I can corroborate Gemmell's results. I switched off comments a few weeks ago, and have not looked back. While the daily volume of comments was still relatively small when I turned them off, I have noticed a drastic increase in users reaching out to me using other means to express opinions, ask questions, and to provide feedback.

Considering the site is only two months old, I find far more value in thoughtful comments and insight from my readers than I do in sparse and often aggressive responses to some of my articles. Turning off comments has instigated this process, and I'm thrilled to be hearing from a lot of different people.

Perhaps the only downside I've encountered so far is being kept from the majority of negative comments.

When writing polarizing articles a month ago, I would often receive comments unequivocally asserting my ignorance. Although it's not the most tactful approach, the comments are nevertheless useful, and provide much-needed contextual awareness. Since switching comments off, I have received none of these negative comments.

Of course, this may be because I have yet to annoy people enough that they feel compelled to send their negative thoughts to me. I'll work on that.

The true problem with commenting systems is anonymity and the perceived sense of "security" therein. Individuals feel comfortable voicing their often over-the-top viewpoints because there's no semblance of accountability. Removing that ability, users are forced to interact with you in a public manner on Twitter (or similar), or via email where they must sufficiently justify their arguments. Such options foster an environment in which only intelligent, thoughtful, and constructive feedback can seep through. Blind negativity is stunted and undercut.

Gemmell updated his original article with an email response he sent to a reader. This particular snippet jumped out at me:

Some people will say that comments are what make blogs (or the web as a whole) interesting and edifying and social and so on. That's fine, but it's a bit simplistic - the truth is that most comments don't actually add any value.

Gemmell is right - comments do not tend to add value. There are commenters that are the exception to the rule (I've certainly had a few here), but the vast majority provide basic noise devoid of any useful criticism or opinion.

I value the minimalism and voice of my website. I believe the two are complimentary of each other. I write my perspective, and I value criticism and feedback. Having said that, sheer voracious ignorance and assaults have no place on my site, and I do not foresee their reintroduction any time soon.

My website is a balancing act between content and design. Commenting, whether you like it or not, contributes to this aesthetic experience. Perhaps it's a controlling issue on my part, but I feel confident knowing I have control over all aspects of the site and that my readers have an untainted experience. If sacrificing comments facilitates that experience, saves me time, and filters out aggressive ignorance, then that's certainly a worthwhile endeavor.