Your right to comment ends at my front door.
John Gruber of Daring Fireball posted a response to critic who took him to task for not having comments on his site (skip down to “As for Wilcox’s arguments regarding user-submitted comments”). My humble site has a tiny fraction of the traffic of Daring Fireball, but in this latest incarnation, I also decided to go without comments. Here’s why.
I agree wholeheartedly with John that the decision to add comments to your site begins and ends with the site’s owner. I also agree that his site is a “curated conversation.” Conversations have been happening between weblogs since the advent of the permalink. Joe Wilcox, who obviously has a bone to pick with John, has no right to pick that bone on John’s site.
The wonderful thing about the web is that anyone can contribute to it. If you have something to say, there are plenty of places to say it. But your right to post to someone else’s site rests with that someone else.
This is so painfully obvious, anyone who doesn’t get it must simply have an axe to grind. It’s like assuming you have the right to go inside any house you can see from the street, and pee on the carpet.
I differ from John in one way. I get the sense from his post and his comments elsewhere that he sees no value in comments at all. John Gruber is to online comments as Steve Jobs is to Flash.
But I’ve seen incredible communities form in the confines of comment forms. I’ve seen funny, helpful, informative, intimate, amazing conversations. I’ve seen groups of people come together using the crudest of tools to form intense personal bonds. I’ve seen it literally change lives for the better.
Of course, I’ve also seen comments on YouTube.
I don’t think the problem is that people are stupid. I think that people, when given crappy tools, with almost no oversight, no incentive to behave, and no semblance of real identity, often behave stupidly.
The choice is not really to have comments on or off. The choice is: What is the level of community interaction you want to foster on your site? What’s the purpose of the site, and is community interaction part of that purpose? Too many people don’t think about these questions as deeply as John Gruber clearly has.
I turned off comments in the last redesign of powazek.com because I needed a place online that was just for me. With comments on, when I sat down to write, I’d preemptively hear the comments I’d inevitably get. It made writing a chore, and eventually I stopped writing altogether. Turning comments off was like taking a weight off my shoulders. It freed me to write again.
I may enable comments again someday. But what I really want to do is fundamentally redesign the commenting experience. Most comment systems are practically designed to create stupidity. I know there’s a better way. But that’s another post.
Update: John Gruber responded: “It’s not that I haven’t included comments on DF because I dislike the concept of comments; it’s that comments would not fit with what I have in mind for DF as an experience.” I stand corrected. (And hey! Look at us having a conversation without comment forms. Ain’t it grand living in the future?)
See Also: 10 Ways Newspapers Can Improve Comments