Too Many Unproductive Comments

It seems as though there is an epidemic across the web. Bad comments. Not spam, not flames, not even rude remarks… just plain drivel. I spent the last few weeks reading all the comments (or as many as I could stand) on the hundreds of blog articles I read every week. They fall into two major categories, which I’ll discuss below.

I’ve linked to this in the past but I’ve really taken it to heart: Your Shit Does Stink — Good Friends Are Hard to Find.

What the gentlemen at Less Everything were saying has just continually amplified in my mind over these last few (dare I say “trying”) weeks. Their article is short, and worth the jump, but to put it in context:

It’s easier to just smile and nod and say, “that’s great,” and that’s what most of us do. But a true friend will tell you to polish it up or go make changes or start again.

The same applies to comments on a blog post. The idea is to inspire discussion, clarify points, etc. eventually enriching the value of the article itself. Instead, in a number of sites I’m seeing “fluff” comments, which just make the entire experience of reading comments a downright drag when I’m actually interested in the content. So, I counted…

I took a well written article with over 100 comments and counted more then 50% of the comments were of this “fluff” nature. Although not directly from the article where I calculated my statistics, I pulled this paragon of an example:

Useless Comment

I made little effort to hide the identity of the user and the website (which I have the highest respect for). The fact of the matter is that this comment is not only worthless, it pollutes the pot of potentially worthy comments and thus detracts from the value of the article itself. In this particular example the commenter actually admits to not reading the article but then claims he knows it will be awesome?!?! Give me a break. Hell, if I was the author of the article I would be upset at such an ignominious comment (yah, I looked that one up).

I’ve gone years on this blog without making a rant. This is my first. So, admittedly, I did not hold back. However, eventually I calmed down and tried to really think about this “problem.”

From the author’s perspective this simple “praise” is uplifting. For those offering the praise its quite simply that… many want to portray honest thanks and support to the author. This is all well and good. However, there are still many reading the article intending to engage in discussion. Undoubtably the author should both encourage and look forward to this kind of discussion; even more so then the praise!! Why? Because its in our nature. We write so that others can read. We enable comments so others can tell us what they think. If we didn’t care for other’s opinions or views then comments could just as easily be disabled.

So, essentially there are two categories of comments, Praise and Discussion. So, I think that this should become a model. The more recent up/down voting scheme is not the model to use for most blog articles. It works well on ranking sites like StackOverflow and Reddit where correctness or opinion influences the votes. However in this case there is:

  • Praise – essentially always an “up-vote.”

  • Discussion – a level playing field likely to contain constructive criticism as well as support for the article.

Both avenues should be available so that the author and all the commenters have the freedom to interact with whichever degree they feel is appropriate. In the end the discussion is separated from the “fluff” and everyone wins.

I’m thinking of the current system of WordPress with comments and trackbacks/pings. They are handled separately, but that is because fundamentally they are different. To make a system like I’ve suggested work would either require user action, moderation, or a (likely) sophisticated action. Two of those don’t scale and the last is probably too complex to be reliable. If I’ve learned anything from StackOverflow its that they have actively crafted and trained their community of users to “do good” and do all of this low level work willingly and it has paid off very well.

For starters “commenters” must at least be given the choice: to contribute to a discussion, or to thank the author for a well written article. I don’t intend on building this system yet, because I personally don’t have the influence or the popularity to make an impact. Yet.

Just keep this in mind the next time you comment. Actually try to “add value.” To rip off the Army… The whole world can read what you’re writing. Is it worth reading?

Cheers?

5 Responses

1

reboltutorial on June 19, 2009 at 2:57 am  #

“If I’ve learned anything from StackOverflow its that they have actively crafted and trained their community of users to “do good””

Did you watch this ?
Learning from StackOverflow.com
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NWHfY_lvKIQ

2

Joseph Pecoraro on June 19, 2009 at 10:11 am  #

@reboltutorial: I actually have watched it. Joel actually always has the ability to surprise me when he talks. I’m been following their podcast, off and on, and I’m always impressed with it, because I end up learning something. I think they have done a great job all around; with not only the site itself but also their openness about the design, problems, policy changes, etc. The podcast and talks like this are very cool.

3

Judy on June 19, 2009 at 11:19 am  #

Joe, Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I agree that most comment systems have too much noises and not much content. I don’t think the fault is solely at “commenters” though.

First, how can we assume that the authors or the publishers always expect and appreciate in-depth discussion and comments on their articles? Perhaps, they only care that they get good reviews and feedbacks from their readers? In this case, wouldn’t authors care more about the ratings on their articles in formats such as “like or dislike” or “thumbs up or thumbs down” or the number of stars?

Second, most of us are “readers” and not “authors”. As a reader/commenter, after reading an article or a blog, I might not have a lot of things to say or don’t really care to say. When I read your article, I liked the article enough and knew you enough to write probably “unnecessarily” lengthy comment. ;-) But if you weren’t the author of the article, I might just agree and move on to a next article unless there was a way for me to give you a quick feedback like “thumbs up”.

So, this got me thinking some more between the diaper changing time…If the comment system is built so that it allows the authors and publishers to design how they get their feedbacks from their users? For example, if they want their readers to leave any comment, the comment has to be of a certain length? In a similar context, can the comment system allow the “readers” filter the comments of the article? For example, if I want to read only the comments that have a certain rating and content size greater than 1k?

Little David is crying now, so I’d better go. Thumbs up, Joe!

4

Joseph Pecoraro on June 19, 2009 at 4:03 pm  #

@Judy: Thanks for the feedback. Sorry for the lengthy response (below). Say “whats up” to Little David! Oh and good luck getting some sleep!

“how can we assume that the authors or the publishers always expect and appreciate in-depth discussion and comments on their articles?” – This is a valid point. I don’t have any examples, because I don’t really come across this behavior too often. But if this is really how an author felt I’d like to ask them why they are writing at all. What is the point?

“Perhaps, they only care that they get good reviews and feedbacks from their readers?” – I think, especially in the technical community, the quality of an article reigns supreme. The higher the quality, the more likely readers will want to contribute their thoughts. This discussion will likely fuel more visitors, more discussion, and more likes/up-votes. I’ve seen plenty of scenarios where a comment on an article brought the article more ratings. At this point, if the author chooses to sit out its up to them. I think it would be a big mistake for the author not to participate, but its not necessarily required.

Its always smart to tailor your content to your audience. If the author intends to get high ratings they are going to write slightly different then they would for another audience. Unfortunately, the tech crowd really seems to embrace buzzwords, etc (see Digg). But if you look in the right places the articles that are rated higher are of a higher caliber (see Reddit).

Again, what is the end goal from getting high ratings? If something gets highly rated people *will* come. People coming means there will be different viewpoints and different opinions that inevitably they will want to share. If not with the author then with others (3rd party sites). To me, high ratings and discussion seem inseparable.

To address your second point. A thumbs up is the simplest form of praise. Its like Facebook’s “like” feature. It does so in a nice simple way. I’m aware my current blog system isn’t ideal and I’m okay with that (for now).

The choice to leave a comment is always up to the commenter. For me it depends on numerous variables such as time, willingness, privacy, concern, questions, expected responses, feelings (emotion), etc. Sometimes you just feel compelled to give a comment, and everyone is better for it. The best example I can come up with is this recent article. A student blogs about a teacher’s assignment, and the teacher actually responds with a comment (apparently its unusual for him to do so):
http://blog.thetonk.com/archives/dont-be-lazy-dont-use-eval

Your final idea has some good and some bad. The problem I see with most rating systems is that someone can downvote what someone else upvotes. Some systems have simply moved to upvotes and I think they are better for it. When its only upvotes then users have the ability to filter what they see based on a minimum vote level. Trends tend to converge better. Your idea to let the authors control how they get feedback is brilliant and really opens some neat doors.

Its funny to think that as long as they have been around, commenting systems still have so many problems.

5

BogoJoker » mod_rewrite Tutorial on Nettuts on September 14, 2009 at 2:30 pm  #

[…] to any visitors, if you decide to comment please contribute to the article in some way. I’m not interested in fluff comments. With that said, you can check out the tutorial itself […]

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