Nothing left to say? The decline and fall of blog comments

It’s fair to say that blogs like this one have experienced a dip in comments of late. Social media shares remain high, emails still bulge in our inboxes, subscribers continue to sign up for newsletters, but the comment section of individual articles is conspicuously bare.

As a general trend, Twitter mentions tend to outweigh comments by 100 to 1, which leads one to ask: “Do we really need comments at all?”

There was a time when email was fun; back when you set up your first Hotmail account, and received your first mail. Then, about two minutes later, our inboxes were flooded with spam. What happened when sorting through the dross in our inboxes became too time-consuming? We turned to social networks for our messaging, and the same process is now being applied to blog comments; where once we posted a thoughtful response, now we tweet a short quip.

 

Who’s that trip-trapping across my blog?

Ask anyone involved in a moderately successful blog and they’ll tell you their number one problem: Without moderation our comment sections are unreadable; we don’t delete comments that disagree with us—most bloggers see disagreement and debate as very healthy—we don’t even remove factually inaccurate comments, all we do is delete the staggering amount of spam that is fired at us on a daily basis.

I’m one of several members of staff who moderate comments for WebdesignerDepot and I spend around an entire working week, each year, managing comments. This is the principle argument used by bloggers to turn off comments on their sites. However, it’s an argument that misses the point entirely. If the amount of spam delivered to your blog is rendering comments unviable, then your problem isn’t comments, it’s spam.

Whilst spam is infuriating for bloggers, it’s laboriously removed and doesn’t affect the volume of comments being posted because commenters rarely see it. What does negatively affect comments is trolling.

A recent study by Canadian psychologists has confirmed that trolls tend to be narcissistic, machiavellian, sadistic and psychopathic. Whilst it’s gratifying to find academics confirming exactly what we all suspected, it’s no comfort to the thousands of people who are abused everyday via the largely anonymous medium of blog comments.

As your mother probably told you: “If you ignore them, they’ll go away.” Unfortunately it seems for many people, the only way not to feed trolls is not to comment at all.

 

Micro-comments

When comments are enabled on a blog, the blog owner, or editorial team have the responsibility for curating everyone’s opinion. Social media on the other hand is self-curating.

The edge that social media has over blog comments—apart from the ability to block trolls and spammers—is kudos. Whether it’s your follower count, your friends, or your plus ones; engaging with a blog via social media increases your perceived value to the community.

To comment on a blog is to enhance the blog, to tweet about a blog is to enhance yourself. Social media enables us to generate our own micro-comments; we get the credit for our time and our ideas.

The deal is not one-sided of course. Blogs may lose a lot of valuable content that would once have graced their comment sections, but in its place they receive tens of thousands of personal endorsements. Google, Facebook, StumbleUpon, Twitter, et al may have built the APIs but it’s site owners that rushed to integrate them.

Social media is a great liberator, it provides individuals with the opportunity to be tribal, the chance to tell the world what they think. Commenting on a blog is like wearing a political T-shirt beneath a sweater: very few people will ever know where you stand.

 

A comment by any other name would smell as sweet

We love reading comments from readers, we really do. Even when a comment points out a typo, or a technical mistake, that connection with an audience is why writers write. A blog, at its heart, isn’t a magazine; it’s a community. There are thousands of books and video tutorials available on web design, but the value of this blog—in fact any blog—is that it’s a two-way conversation. If we lose that conversation, we lose the essence of what makes the blog worthwhile.

This is why, whilst approaches to comments are changing, and methods of implementing them differ, comments are still integral to most blogs. Medium, for example, famously doesn’t use comments; they have notes instead, which are simply comments posted to the side of the article instead of the bottom.

There is also a rise in the number of casual bloggers. Taking a cue from the self-interest of social media there is a growing trend for people to maintain blogs purely for the purpose of responding to other blogs. The responses are more considered, the SEO benefits for both parties are obvious, and the commenter retains control of their ideas.

The future of blog comments is almost certainly intimately entwined with social media. In place of a comments section you’ll start to see a whole timeline of embedded tweets, with one user replying to another in chains of ideas conducted elsewhere, and simply reproduced on the blog concerned.

The challenge then, for anyone who runs a blog, is not to address the decline of comments; but rather, to engage with their audience via new comments channels.

 

If a tree falls in the forest…

The logic of turning off comments permanently, and taking all audience-engagement onto social media has undeniable benefits; from easy spam and troll management, to reader motivation, it’s the way the online landscape is shifting.

However, one thought keeps returning to me: That is, that an article with no comments is one individual’s ideas; when comments are introduced the ideas become truly public domain. Sure, you can tweet WebdesignerDepot, or even me personally, but the immediacy of Twitter is also an impermanence. When comments are attached to an article, it creates a repository for the ideas to be recorded and to grow.

If social media commoditizes individuals, then comments commoditize ideas. If we value the community over individuals, we won’t make the leap to social media just yet.

Do you comment on blogs or prefer social media? Should WebdesignerDepot remove its comments section? Let us know your thoughts in the comments (or on social media).

Featured image/thumbnail, ghost town image via Shutterstock.

  • evo

    Luckily you guys don’t require a login for your comments, many many sites now do, I think this trend of requiring users to sign up or use a social media account, coupled with the rise of retweeting and reblogging is forcing many people to not bother with commenting anymore. I saw the fall of discussion begin when forums fell out of favor and were overtaken by blogs. The more we move away from forms of technolgoy that were explicitly designed to facilitate direct communication, the fall of that communication can only be expected.

    • Michael Meininger

      +1000

  • Nasia

    Very interesting blog post. I believe that the comment section should stay and probably be enhanced with a section of referrals from social media. I think there is still many people that cannot be bothered to tweet about a blog they read, but don’t mind dropping a line in the comment section (like me).

    Also, according to what you say above you don’t mind someone commenting on typos you may have.So, I think you could change in your text the word “loose” to”lose” (http://www.ross.net/notes/loose.shtml).

    • http://www.webdesignerdepot.com/ Benjie — WebdesignerDepot

      Oops, just testing :)

      Thanks, we’ve corrected it.

  • toychicken

    Seriously, I never read the comments, usually because the mechanisms are poor. I prefer reddit / google+ / twitter etc because it’s easier to steer clear of the trolls.

  • Theresa Sheridan

    Comments on my blog have completely gone away, but I think it’s in part because I spend more time on my social media pages and don’t post as regularly to my blog any longer. But even the types of posts that used to get a bunch of comments, don’t get any now, so I do think it’s a trend.
    And I almost never comment on other blogs…just don’t have the time.

  • SBA

    Your points are well taken. Don’t remove your comments section. The few pearls you get will be worth it. I hate spam and do all sorts of things to trap it (Askimet, captcha, moderation.. ) and sometimes kick myself for becoming obsessed with ‘getting them’ (lol). I’ve written blog articles about strategies for detecting the ‘smart ones’ who leave those genuine looking hammy comments. My favorite is the one who pleaded their case with me as to why they ‘had to spam’ my blog.

    True, people tend to use social media- it’s quick and shares directly with friends, while a comment is seen mostly by author (some don’t read or reply). When I leave a comment on other blogs, there is often no way to know if someone replied to it, which I expect in a real ‘dialog’.
    Agree with Evo’s comment about requiring login – you use Disqus, I selected Twitter but still asked to create disqus account, so I selected guest with anonymous mystery man avatar! Things are moving to the point of least resistance in today’s fast paced world!

    Today’s audience likes putting tweet out there for world to find and respond or retweet. Social media indexing also brings readers searching for your topic.

    Would love to see more optional integration with social media, maybe giving an excerpt of the comment with link to read more. I add comment on google as an incentive for friends to actually go to the blog. I don’t see this as ‘enhancing myself’ but pointing them to something useful — again these are clients or friends.

    There are so many good blogs that it’s impossible to personally keep up with them, much less engage in dialog. We need filters with option to dig deeper.

  • FartNoMore

    This is not a blog comment.

  • http://www.isadoradesign.com/ Isadora Design

    There is something that many comment sections miss out on these days, and that is seeking a wider reader audience by posting the article on social media (LinkedIn, for instance), and the discussion taking off in the comments there. I agree with many that the comment feature should never be removed – it’s still a viable and important aspect to a post. A blog post that doesn’t allow comments is like saying, “Here’s what we think. We don’t care what you think. Talk amongst your own channels, but not ours.” I agree that spam is a massive issue to tackle – but there’s spam on social media too (LOTS of it). Thank you for keeping your comments section alive and well, I love reading AND engaging on your website.

    Cassandra
    Isadora Design – Handcrafted Web Design Company

  • Rakel

    I actually don’t like tying comments with social media, but I’ve noticed more and more force me to log in with some platform…some don’t even offer the option of using a traditional name/email scenario. I’m not a troll, but sometimes I want to say something without broadcasting it to everyone I know. Everything is searchable these days and I’m a private person. But, alas, here I am, using my twitter account to post a comment on this blog. It certainly is easy, click, authenticate and go! I actually like reading the comments of a post as long as there aren’t too many trolls. Sometimes the comments are more insightful than the original article!

  • http://cowandsheep.co.za/ theamoeba

    In the olden days of newspapers people didn’t comment on articles directly they wrote letters to the editor. Perhaps we are seeing a return of that just instead of letters people are using social media?

  • bgbs

    Creating a comment is hard when you are greeted with a login wall. I call it a huge usability problem, an “elephant in the room” so to speak. In the past, this wasn’t the case because logins were few. Now, everywhere you turn there is some kind of authentication wall that you have to climb over to give voice. On one hand I understand the purpose of login, on the other hand the more logins you create, the more footprint you leave, and in this transparent world, people have concerns, and little time to tinker with login issues. Now a days, people to do prioritize their activities on the web, and they ask, does it makes sense for me to jump the login/registration hoop to leave a comment or not?

    I do appreciate the fact that this blog uses Disquis, but what I do not appreciate is that after leaving 100 comments on this blog, my comments still have to be approved, which to me stands as a usability problem. I think I’ve already proved my self to be a real person, and not a troll, why are my comments waiting for approval? Nothing kills a good comment like an approval processes.

    Twitter or any form of social media cannot replace forums or blog comments.
    Forums are used for problem solving, blog comments are used to extend the scope of article, and twitter is used to report gossip. Each has its own place and cannot replace one or the other more effectively.

  • http://www.webdesignerdepot.com/ Benjie — WebdesignerDepot

    How ironic :)

    Comments are down industry-wide, hence the article.

    We don’t like moderating comments, we have so much spam that without moderation the comments section would be useless. And we’ve never banned anyone, ever, that wasn’t posting spam.

    As for ‘trend-humping articles’, we’re not a university or library, we report design news; so it’s natural to expect us to cover new things.

    • James

      “Comments are down industry-wide, hence the article.”
      Except for Smashing, brand new, a list apart, the next web etc etc.

      “And we’ve never banned anyone, ever, that wasn’t posting spam.”
      I would think very hard on that statement and ask yourself “could someone prove I am lying about this?”

      Trend-humping and “[reporting] design news” are two different things. Please see above sites for examples of informative articles.

      Don’t take it personally, this is a great time to take stock and re-evaluate WDD’s position in the industry – to continue down the path you are going, or to try to reclaim some of WDD’s former glory. Best of luck!

      • http://www.webdesignerdepot.com/ Benjie — WebdesignerDepot

        No exceptions, comments are down industry wide. There are obviously still plenty of comments across many sites, but the proportion on comments to other forms of engagement is decreasing. We’re not the first to identify the trend.

        We’ve never banned anyone that wasn’t posting spam. We have every right to do so of course, but we haven’t — at least not in the time I’ve been editing.

        Thanks for your best wishes, but given our continued steady growth, we’re certainly not concerned about a general decline.

      • James

        No exceptions you say. I just provided some. Care to provide some of your source material for backing up that claim? No? didn’t think so…

      • http://www.webdesignerdepot.com/ Benjie — WebdesignerDepot

        Happy to. Go to the sites that you’ve mentioned and compare the ratio of comments to other interaction now, and two years ago. You’ll find there’s an industry trend away from comments.

        You wanting to be contrary doesn’t change the numbers.

      • James

        What? How does the ratio of comments to other interaction indicate “comments are down industry wide”?
        The hard numbers haven’t changed – That is just non-sequitur (or a poor back-pedal at best?).

      • http://www.webdesignerdepot.com/ Benjie — WebdesignerDepot

        Read the article above and all will miraculously become clear.

      • James

        I did, Benjie, and all I saw was a hypothesis based on assumptions and anecdotal evidence being presented as fact, with no hard data to back it up. Hence why I commented in the first place.

      • http://www.webdesignerdepot.com/ Benjie — WebdesignerDepot

        James you posted for the same reason you always do, with exactly the same result.

        It’s an editorial. If you want something other than an editorial approach don’t read an editorial.

      • James

        Exactly. It is your OPINION. You have NO hard data to back it up – So stop preaching it like it is fact. You went from “comments are down industry wide” to “the ratio of social media is up” to “it’s an editorial” – and you wonder why I am giving you a hard time? I think we are done here.

      • http://www.webdesignerdepot.com/ Benjie — WebdesignerDepot

        Sorry James, I didn’t realise you were trying to give me a hard time :)

        The bottom line is that I’m correct in my assertions, as witnessed by myriad blogs and dozens of comments here.

        I know it’s hard to pick a fight and lose, but surely you’re used to it by now?

  • Keith

    As a web designer, I love blog commenting, but I always find that when I really feel passionate about posting a comment, the blog doesn’t allow comments OR they require you to log in to social media to comment. I don’t mind the spammer hoops, the logins or other spam detecting details, but I don’t like to mix my blogging with social media, in the way of comments. Not yet, anyway. I am sure that soon, you’ll have to login via social media or never be able to comment at all!

  • Tim

    There’s lot of comments on this article ;)
    I would actually put forth that the number of comments are going down as well as social interaction. This has to do with the quality of writing and the topics written about. Blogs are hiring writers directly out of college (or even still in college), as well as from foreign countries where they can read and write in English, but not all that well. This is taking a toll on the overall content quality.

    I will cite 1stwebdesigner.com as the perfect example. They used to have informative, well written articles targeted at the web design community. Now they have people writing blogs from other countries that are constantly making grammatical and spelling errors. It doesn’t help that they changed their website to be responsive and in that process reduced the quality of the site design as well.

    This, incidentally, is a trend I also see happening a lot – blogs converting over to a responsive layout, but not caring about the actual design. They just choose a template that is responsive and modify it a tiny bit to match their brand. They think that they NEED to be responsive in order to be readable, hip, and at the forefront of technology. To any blog operators reading this, please note that your readers care much more about your content then about your site being responsive.
    To top things off, the vast majority of blogs out there do not have content editors (or if they do they are not doing a very good job of editing). Blogs need to be treated just like printed articles. They need people to spell check, grammar check, and

    When your readers are seeing that the quality of writing is going down and the website quality overall is going down, there will be less of a tendency to comment on the site as well as on that site’s social media, except for possible negative comments about said quality.
    These are just my observations about blogs at large.

    • http://www.webdesignerdepot.com/ Benjie — WebdesignerDepot

      I agree up to a point.

      But if you take this blog as an example, our readership has increased over the last couple of years, but our comments have fallen. If the fall in comments was due to quality I’d expect to see a similar dip in social media tweets/likes and a drop in newsletter subscribers.

      Also, there are some truly excellent bloggers out there, maintaining their own sites who are reporting a similar dip in article comments, but no dip in social media interaction.

    • Ferris

      Do you still read posts from 1stwebdesigner.com then?

  • http://www.webdesignerdepot.com/ Benjie — WebdesignerDepot

    That’s a great point, thanks!

  • Jamie

    In my opinion, I like blog comment.

  • Lyndsay Peters

    I think it’s a mixture of logins and comment fatigue that has contributed to the drop in comments we’re seeing on blogs. If I post an article link on twitter, the comments I’m going to get in return will more likely be from people I actually know and care about – if I post a comment here, I can’t be as sure of that (and I can’t even be sure that they will treat me with basic kindness or respect!). The internet is just getting bigger, and people who are great at engagement are being more and more careful about who is going to see their words and pay attention.

    I wrote a how-to post about this last year when we pulled down our login wall on our own blog.

  • Nicklas

    I blame Disqus, honestly. A lot of people refuse to comment because of the Disqus commenting system. That includes me, in many cases.

  • http://www.webdesignerdepot.com/ Benjie — WebdesignerDepot

    See you next week James ;)

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