No one’s listening

Comments. Over the past decade, the Internet has become inundated with them. Ten years, ago, the concept of a “blog” was considered cutting edge, by those who even knew what they were. Now, they’re everywhere, and their general format — a dated archive of topical posts by one or a small number of authors, each of which is trailed by a string of reader comments — has become the standard structure for most news and information websites.

But… comments. Oh, comments. They help turn a one-sided online journal into a thriving community of engaged individuals. Or not. By now, the true nature of most comment threads — a bunch of morons yelling “FIRST” followed by a bunch of even bigger morons ranting at each other without ever engaging — is so well-known, so obvious, that it’s boring even to mention and somewhere between tiresome and excruciating to experience.

So, how long will it be before comments go the way of Internet Explorer 6 and Flash? (Oops… have I spoken too soon?) I think the day is coming soon.

Comment ça va?

Many prominent blogs, Daring Fireball for instance, have long eschewed comments (although the persistent commenters have found a way around that). Others are following suit. And now, it’s easier than ever for frustrated readers to take things into their own hands and silence comments wherever they go online.

I can’t tell you how tempting shutup.css is. I’ve spent more time angrily scrolling through insipid comment threads than I care to remember… but it’s driven me to rant before.

Jumpin’ Jack Flash

But, just like Flashblock (or, for you Safari users, ClickToFlash), I think if I were to try it, I would quickly go back, no matter how annoying the comments are.

Don’t get me wrong: I feel the same way about comments as I do about Flash. Both have potential, but far more often than not they are just intrusive and annoying rather than useful. I tried Flashblock for a few days last week, and I was happy not to be intruded upon with overlaid advertisements, intro animations, and other bandwidth- and time-wasting nonsense. But turning off Flash also meant I had to click an extra button to watch most videos, and even worse, to upload files on my WordPress blogs… not to mention the client sites I’m developing that have JWPlayer and YUI Uploader embedded in them. So, as much as I want to be rid of Flash, and as content as I am not to have it in iPhone OS, I decided I needed to turn it back on in Firefox on my MacBook.

The same goes for comments, but I don’t even need to try shutup.css to know I wouldn’t want to keep it. Sure, I hate the comments on most news and tech sites I read, but I like them on my own site, and I like them on the sites that I want to comment on.

Turn it on again

So, with both Flash and comments, there are proponents and opponents. It seems in the recent dust-up over Flash (or the lack thereof) on the iPhone and iPad, the most fervent supporters of Flash are Flash developers, or people who just hate Apple. And with comments, well, it’s pretty obvious: people who like comments (or, more specifically, like to make them) want them, and just about everyone else doesn’t. It’s clear to me that comments rarely add value, and they often detract from the sites they’re on. On the other hand, allowing comments on my sites has for the most part added value to them, and, critically, commenting on other sites has driven traffic to my sites.

Does this mean that the act of commenting is purely, or at least primarily, an act of shameless self-promotion? Perhaps. I wouldn’t post a comment if I didn’t think the comment had merit on its own, but I’ve also consciously posted comments on some sites knowing that doing so was a prime opportunity to bring some of those sites’ readers over to my sites.

And in the end…

By now it is becoming increasingly apparent to me that both Flash and comments are facing their demise. At least someone at Adobe gets it: Adobe is not in the Flash business, they’re in the “helping people communicate” business. Flash has been a tremendous tool for allowing people to communicate online for a long time where open standards have lagged behind. But by its nature, Flash is fundamentally opposed to what the web is really about. Nobody “owns” HTML or CSS or JavaScript. They’re open standards, and they’re the foundation of the web. Proprietary, closed technologies limit the web’s growth. Flash requires a plug-in (even if just about every computer comes with it preinstalled); Flash files are a “black box” to search engines and text-based systems; the technology resides in the hands of a single company whose fate will dictate the fate of all of the content locked into the format, and the fortunes of the creators of that content.

Comments, too, are about helping people communicate. But it’s become clear that — more or less, depending on the particular site — few people who engage in comments on a blog are really all that interested in communication. If comments cease to be seen as communication and instead become an ugly, depressing wasteland at the bottom of web pages, then they’ll die off too.

Looking forward into a new decade, I am beginning to see the old alignments of the Internet as we’ve known it falling away. There’s a convergence of new standards, new devices, and new means of communicating. And this naturally means that certain older ways, “standards” or not, will fade from our day-to-day experience. I’ll certainly be happier to see Flash go than comments, but then again, I think I’ll do just fine either way. Let me know what you think. Or not.

9 thoughts on “No one’s listening

  1. I’m not a huge fan of comments in most cases, but the resultant dialogues (or consecutive monologues, really) can sometimes be very entertaining.

    I try not to be an all or nothing person most of the time, though admittedly I fail at this often. For the bloggish sites I build I usually just have a checkbox for comments/no comments, so that some posts can go comment-free when the author does not intend for there to be a discussion. I like that style.

    In a world of facebook and twitter, I don’t really see comments going away… that’s all people want to do now is put in their ha’penny. Colbert’s segment on the subject earlier this week hit the nail on the head.

  2. Ha! Thanks for mentioning the Colbert bit. I was actually intending to include it here, but I was writing this post with kids screaming in my ear to get them milk and turn on DVDs so I probably only got half of my point across.

  3. I enjoy reading the discussions even the trolls on many of the blogs I read. This is the only blog I have ever posted on though. I like your topics and enjoy the sometimes lively discussions “Jw” and “room34.com” and I get into. I guess I feel pretty safe commenting on here, possibly due to the work you do to keep other stuff off your comment system. Thanks! Keep it up.

  4. What I don’t understand—and I may simply be ignorant—is why the presence of comments can be bothersome at all. Is it not as simple as simply not reading them? Don’t you never have to wade through comments to get to the post/article/whatever?

    Moreover, kudos for scoring Rael’s endorsement!

  5. But I can’t “simply not read them.” I am compelled by a force greater than my own will to resist.

    Re: Rael, I suppose I should have posted a disclaimer that the opinions expressed herein are not those of airbrushed mouthless Peter Gabriel.

    (That is Peter Gabriel, right? I always assumed it was but now that I really look at it, I’m not so sure.)

  6. I can understand the oddball here and there unable to tear themselves away from reading all text on any given web page in front of them, but I just can’t imagine this being a widespread enough problem that calls for serious technological solutions. But I’m probably wrong.

    No, I seem to recall something in the liner notes about thanking Omar for modelling as Rael. It’s not Gabriel. It’s Omar. Whoever that is. Should have been Pete though. Definitely. Though I guess that wouldn’t have helped the whole Peter Gabriel and his backup band issue that was brewing at the time. But I digress.

  7. Interesting to read this old post. I remember discussing the issue of comments on one of our recent podcasts. I wonder, thinking about the issue of comments 2 years later, have your thoughts changed much? Has the internet and comments changed much?

  8. Ah, the wonders of my “On This Day” plugin. Yes, it’s interesting to look back on this, especially in light of the recent discussions of going comment-free that we talked about on episode 2.

    One thing I’ve noticed is that “FIRST!!!!” is a lot less common now. I guess the 13-year-olds who were doing that grew up. The strongest reaction I have though is “WOW, that was TWO YEARS ago?” It doesn’t seem like things have changed on the Internet as much in the past 2 years as they had in the 2-3 preceding years.

    Most of my focus on the evolving web in that time has been on mobile-first, responsive web design, not the content itself.

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