If content platforms are the engine of the Internet, comments are the grease. Good grease is necessary for the proper function of machinery. Bad grease can cause things to seize up a bit and stop functioning.
You’ve probably noticed that I don’t have comments enabled on this blog. That is by design. I thought about enabling them at first. I thought long and hard about it, believe me. But because of the nature of things I plan to discuss on this site, I think it’s better for both of us if I leave them turned off. That isn’t to say I won’t enable them at some point in the future. It’s possible you’ll see a little comment widget down below by the time you get around to reading this post. But for now, they’re going to be turned off.
Lowering the Signal-to-noise Ratio
Due to the nature of how easy it usually is to comment on most mediums, like a blog, comments often have a very low signal-to-noise ratio. What this means is that the noisy obnoxious sorts of comments tend to be much more prolific than high quality contributions. Furthermore, this is not an industry-specific blog. This is just the soapbox of some random dude on the Internet who occasionally likes to jot down whatever happens to pop up in his head. I’m a technophile of sorts, with interests all over the place, so go here if you’re into that sort of thing. I have comments available on my tech blog, mostly for professional reasons.
Here, however, is another story. Some of my posts might be inflammatory. Some of them may provoke emotion. By removing comments, I short circuit the human need to respond immediately to negative stimulus. If you find something overly provocative, I’d highly recommend that you write a response on your own blog linking to whatever it was that you found interesting. It’s actually better for us to do it this way, because the quality of content we can share when we’ve both taken time to hash out our thoughts improves the Internet as a whole.
That’s the real problem with comments, generally speaking. They’re the path of least resistance and therefore take very little time to plan out. It’s easier to write a short one liner in anger than it is to consider why the text you’re responding to provoked an emotional response. That’s really one of the downsides of the “instant world” we live in. We don’t take time to pause and reflect. We become highly reactive, wishing to share our displeasure immediately. We should strive to become more reflective in our interactions, taking a moment to consider why we feel as we do. This is important for particularly inflammatory topics, like politics (or religion), because most of us simply never spend any time considering the why more than the how we feel.
Thus, to improve the signal-to-noise ratio, I’ll try this as an experiment. If it doesn’t work out, no big deal. I’ll enable comments and we’ll be back to where we started. It seems to work out rather well for a number of other blogs and such.
Speaking of unwanted noise, I’d like to take a moment to illustrate what sorts of comments are useless. I’d suggest reading Web of Pretentiousness first.
The obviously useless comment is the insult. It comes in a wide variety of flavors, ranging from outright cut downs to more thinly veiled or well articulated stings. It’s useless because its intent is to provoke an emotional response.
Distantly related but equally as common because it encompasses a wide variety of material is the troll. Troll comments are often intended to incite a variety of things, including emotional responses like insults, but also add little to a debate.
Grammar or spelling corrections might seem innocuous at first, but do they really add anything to the conversation? I’m a proponent of accuracy in communication (and very often fail miserably), but stopping the train just to fix a chip in the paint is a bit excessive.
Corrections made to information or inaccuracies are better. If grammar is ambiguous dramatically changing the meaning of a statement, it’s obviously in need of repair. Likewise, wrong or outright misleading information is bad to the reader, so comments intended to improve the quality of a work can be useful. The same applies to comments that instigate meaningful discourse. These are a good thing.
Nitpicking on Grammar
Let me pause here for a minute, because I want to talk a little bit about comments that attempt to correct grammatical or spelling errors. It used to be tolerable, years ago, to content with one or two comments that offered suggestions for improving clarity and quality of the typeset. However, these same comments are often used somewhat pretentiously in effort to troll. I’m not sure if the intent is to discredit the author (such a basic mistake! he’s clearly an idiot!) or to derail the conversation. In either case, it’s not especially useful. For one, if the author even catches the comment, it’s unlikely that he’ll make the necessary corrections if it’s a particularly ancient post. Likewise, it’s impossible to tell if the person leaving the comment is an authority on English grammar. After all, you can be anything you want to be on the Internet, including a doctorate in English–without the doctorate.
Insofar as mistakes go, I do my best to correct them as they’re discovered. Sometimes, though, they slip through the cracks. As such, my most common mistakes tend to be usage errors due in part to either 1) thinking about a particular phrase followed in quick succession by another, mangling the two together or 2) going back through during an edit and interrupting myself in the middle of a change creating something that makes very little sense. Both of these are quite easy to fix and are easy to discover on the first or second read through. If they’re present, it doesn’t mean the author is a complete idiot. It simply means that they weren’t noticed.
To end this section: Just because you’ve found a mistake doesn’t mean you’re a brilliant student of the English language. It means your fresh eyes were more readily able to detect something found in a text you haven’t written. This is why nearly all published material passes the text through an editor. It’s amazing what someone else can see when they weren’t the ones to produce the work.
Curiously, this is due in part to the nature of your noggin’. The human brain gets bored pretty easily, so if you pass the same phrase through it time and time again, it gives up because it has more interesting cruft to think about. It’s a phenomenon that’s similar to what happens if you stare at a word long enough. You’ve had that happen. You look at a familiar word over and over again, then it suddenly becomes unfamiliar and alien. There are a few words to describe this, either as “lexical fatigue,” “semantic satiation (typically in terms of hearing the same phrase repeated again and again), or orthographic incredulity (usually the most common when you get bored of a word). These are the enemy of accuracy, because when your brain gives up, your copy editing skills diminish.
Nitpicking for the Sake of It
Of course, it isn’t just grammar some denizens of the Interwebs find as their obsession. Others hone in on inconsequential minutiae blowing its vastly out of proportion. The devil is in the details, they might speculate, but such speculation is wrought with complexity. Is it really of the utmost importance to aim your focus at something that lends little meaning to the overall point?
The worst of these offenders are those who take a single statement and quote it, completely without context. They do so often for their own convenience, because if they had included context, it would render their argument meaningless or severely handicapped. The extremist will outright bend and contort the original words to mean what they like, sometimes with success, in effort to muddy the waters of debate. It isn’t unusual for this to degrade into a mud-slinging contest of sorts that inevitably diverges from the original post so much as to have no obvious lineage thereof.
There are some that mean well, of course, and simply take it one sentence at a time. These are usually the more sensible communicators who are interested in picking apart a discussion one point at a time. I’ve done this on more occasions than I care to admit. This methodology is still a form of nitpicking, but it’s also the most successful at dealing specifically with the crux of the debate.
Unfortunately, some people (like me) are so hopelessly verbose that the point-by-point method of debate wears down the opposition and ruining the fun for everyone. Usually, less energetic opponents simply stand down (occasionally, but not always, with an insult) and give up. The debate dies on the vine, unsettled, and everyone goes home. If it’s a comment on a blog, this manner of nitpicking can easily attain several dozen pages in length almost overnight and frighten off anyone new who might want to chime in. Although it’s information sharing at its extreme, is substantially increases the noise floor and mutes most other contributions.
What I’ve illustrated (and more) applies strictly to my reasoning for disabling comments for the time being. I emphasize that I may revisit this decision in the future. For now, this blog will be exclusively my voice on matters that are tangentially related to things I discuss on my technical blog. If you find something particularly goading, you can direct a message at me on Twitter, but don’t be surprised if I respond to you in another post.
Ultimately, my goal isn’t to squelch or dismiss opposition to my opinions. Neither am I so narcissistic that I would believe mine is the One True Way. Instead, I encourage you to write a response to things you read here on your own blog. Think up a reasoned response. Spend a significant amount of time formulating your opinion and constructing your thoughts. The longer the chronological separate between the time you read my post and the time you reply, the more likely it becomes that reason, not emotion, is the overriding motivator.
Quality is a bit of a give-and-take. Only if we’re willing to give back what we take can we improve online discourse. That’s not to say the occasional tongue-in-cheek mildly inflammatory remarks are all that bad. They’re not; well placed, they can be quite humorous and insightful! They can also be badly misplaced and abused.
Thus, for now, comments will be better left and an exercise to the reader.