Comments, the fine line between relevance and trash

By Razib Khan | January 13, 2013 4:33 pm

John Hawks, Online communication biases upon the public perception of science:

Anyone who reads comments sections following news articles surely will have noticed the rotten wealth of trolls and other idiots who inhabit such forums. I thought about Brossard and Scheufele’s piece again today when I read a post by Dan Conover at Xark: “Why I shut down comments”. The post reflects on how blog communities have changed since the early days of blogging in 2005. This timeframe has coincided with the growth of social media of other types, such as Facebook and Twitter, which have given many people a closed community for sharing comments and perspectives with like-minded folks. Conover observes that the trolls and spam are more persistent, causing a rapid degradation of the value of comment sections of many blogs.

This isn’t of course universal. Many blogs continue to have rich and varied comment sections with their posts, and some (like mine) never had any comments at all….

To which Chris Mims graciously observes:

Unfortunately, due to the switch to a backward comment system this is applicable, if at all true, in the past tense. Before moving to the new set up I spent ~50% of my time related to this blog on the comments. I’d say now that that has gone down to ~10%, being generous. One might surmise from this that more time is devoted to generating content, but if you’ve kept track of this weblog you know that that’s not true. Rather, what seems to have happened is that the pulling away of engagement from the comments dampened my enthusiasm to write. This is a side aspect of my life, and I have other professional and personal commitments. I can see that plenty of people are reading from the Analytics, but the feedback seems critical to motivating me.

So what happened? In a proximate sense a few minor changes in technology resulted in a shift in the human dimension of engagement, and the whole system’s equilibrium was thrown off! I find it somewhat amusing that people talk about 2005 as the early days of blogging. This is technically true, but I’d been blogging for 3 years then, and some of the commenters on this weblog even go back to that 2002 era. Over the past 10 years I’ve developed a set of heuristics, but the new system makes it much more difficult for me to enforce them. Why?

First, I don’t know when comments are coming in. Clicking each post, and waiting for the comments to load is onerous. There isn’t even a sidebar where new comments are displayed. In the old system whenever I logged into the dashboard I could see comments, including the first sentence or two. In other words gauging the temperature of the commentary was extremely easy, with a low barrier to entry in terms of time commitments. Second, initially I couldn’t even moderate the comments rapidly (as I can now, finally).  So the two essential activities relating to comments were hobbled by the new system: read & response.

For young comment threads I would at least see very quickly the beginnings of almost all posts. And when a response was necessary I would react very quickly. What sort of response was needful? I removed trolls and banned them immediately without any warning. This happened every single day. Extremely low quality comments drive away engagement. Second, I also tended to draw commenters out, and demand more of them, than they might be willing to give initially. Why? Because people need to see that their contribution to a discussion will result in genuine dialogue and exchange. If commenters got out of line, but not necessarily in a conventional trollish fashion, I felt it within my rights to track them down on Facebook and demand answers. This was usually trivially easy, and those who took upon haughty airs invariably expressed humility or remorse when called out by their real name by another human being.

And it is the synthesis of the human and technological that is critical. Technology needs to enable genuine human engagement. It can’t force it, though it can squelch it. The current registration system sets the bar too high, and the blog has been beset a bit by empty restaurant syndrome. Once the switch to Disqus happens I’ll try and kickstart discussion again by reengaging. We’ll see if there’s still life in the comment community.


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This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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