Reasons To Say “No Comments”

by Robby Slaughter - January 4th, 2010

As Turning Left Against Traffic barrels into another year, readers and dissenters seem to offer one unifying query. Why does this blog refuse to permit comments? For the answer to this puzzling question, you will need to head down an electronic rabbit hole. Namely: venturing past this teaser paragraph into the heart of the post.

Let Me Count The Ways

We present myriad objections to blog comments, ranging from reasoned arguments to simple whining. The overarching justification, though, is that blog comments are a case of gilding the lily. Some wondrous and prodigious architects have already built us a glorious hack that not only lets you use eBay to auction off sartorial tragedies but also provides for the most powerful and democratic self-publishing platform in all of human history. With only a whiff of bandwidth and the most paltry of hardware, practically anyone can offer commentary on any topic. We can use blogs to talk about anything, including other blogs. Yet another technology for commentary is redundant.

Technology Stinks

The easiest reason to avoid using something is out of frustration. (Note: I frequently rant about miserable failures in visual, interface and technical design.) Blog comment technology, however, stands out as an exceedingly pathetic segment of the source code of the web. Among the rich tapestry of discourse and the inconceivable diversity of content, commerce and cacophony online, blog comments emerge as squat rectangles stapled to other web pages. They comprise a tower of bland, daisy-chained Post-It™ notes stuck to the bottom rail of everything.

A blog post is an entire canvas, yet we must craft a response while scrunched up inside a tiny box. Each reply is made in isolation, unaware of other comments being typed at the same time on the same topic. Most blog comment systems require yet another username and password. And just like email, blog comments are plagued by spam, so bloggers must fritter away time moderating incoming messages. This punctuated agony is further extended when bloggers leap to their own defense in their own comments. The circle does not end. The center cannot hold.

The most embarrassing aspect of comment technology is best understood through contrast with comparable systems. Writing on a computer is called word processing, a term in use for a mere 39 years. When you produce a document via keyboard and mouse, you don’t just type plain text into form fields. For decades, software has imbued users with god-like control over every imaginable aspect of layout, color, typeface and imagery. We have long enjoyed revision control, collaborative editing and the ability to freely track changes and mark up any part of any document with asides, suggestions or invectives. Yet blog comments rarely offer any of these venerated features. They are hasty scrawls appended to complete works, which makes about as much sense as responding to a moving musical performance with a spontaneous a cappella howled into an long, echoing tube. One form does not befit the other.

Put Up Your Dukes, Mullenweg

Another reason to lament the technology of comments: the software behind Turning Left Against Traffic is home grown (and closed-source out of shame), so someone who makes highly successful open-source blogging software is my nemesis.

Blog comments also ruin the most pervasive and least understood acronym of our times. The U stands for uniform and the R for resource, and thus a web address is supposed to point towards a place which retains its essence and utility for all eternity. Comments often outweigh the original post—like a mob carrying off a random artifact. And the L for location (or more properly, I for identifier) ought to suggest the address form a suitable preview of what the page author intended. Yet URLs that reference blog comments may no longer reflect the tiny minority of words at the top now overshadowed by the barnacle-encrusted hull. That cruft grows ever downward. Your comments haphazardly glued onto my commentary is just bad tech.

What Plato Said

We interrupt this post for a Latin phrase: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who will watch the watchers? Who will guard the guardians? Such questions not only stump overachievers in freshman philosophy courses but also highlight a fundamental weakness of blog comments: moderation requires adjudication. If there are messages that can be inserted and censored, how can anyone know whether the chain of comments reveal the whole truth?

The mere presence of comments breeds suspicion. Letting some people through the gate implies there are others forced to wait outside. Publishing supportive comments suggests that you may have trimmed or entirely rejected some long-winded, thoroughly-researched diatribe. If people can post comments on your blog, people will also wonder if there are other comments from other visitors that mysteriously fail to appear.

Also: sockpuppets. If commentary implies authority and relevance, a blogger can easily generate a few fake personas to serve as an artificial cheerleading squad. Perhaps no self-respecting ethical individual would blather on their own blog using a made-up name, but there is no way for a reader to tell the difference between an earnest comment and a willful deception. At best, enabling blog comments suggests the potential for malfeasance. At worst, your every visitor sees your green pastures as astroturf.

Disparity of Discourse

All writers share the curse of ego. We think we have something to say and thus concoct tasty phrases in hopes of finding thirsty minds. That you can type a few words of encouragement, hatred or profanity does not establish parity in our respective efforts. Blogging is writing, and writing is the craft of words. Commenting is scribbling notes in the electronic margin. Why should I publish the half-hearted work of a few seconds alongside what I labored for hours to produce? To call upon our mutual education at Sesame Street, “One of these things is not like the other.”

Because You’re Loved

Plus, your locally grown, wholly organic edition of Turning Left Against Traffic has all kinds of juicy extras. These include Photoshop hack jobs such as how-to books, award plaques, coin-op car stereos, federal seals, ravenous cellphones and headstones for pink bunnies.

You get interactive educational demos which illustrate programmer incompetence and measure francophilia. There’s amateur musicology and branded versus badges. You get complete holiday parodies and code deconstructions. There’s even the occasional use of propositional logic on corporate groupthink. Plus, a screencast is coming! Can you really produce a commensurate response from the inside of a text-only black rectangle?

Get Your Own Damn Blog

It used to be that the web was an elite space, reserved for those with a stunning combination of erudition and technical wizardry. To post online required not only a complete knowledge of obscure industry acronyms but a split infinitive or spliced comma would generate a debris field of digital scorn. Back then, the web was occupied by a few. No longer are we alone. In the words of Clay Shirky: “Here Comes Everybody.”
Today, anybody can get a blog without any technical knowledge or even a credit card. Why should I give you a broken crayon to mark up one corner of my masterpiece when you can get your own canvas for free? Feel free to comment on my blog, but don’t expect to do it at my blog. Instead, take one minute and ten seconds to a blog of your own (direct link):

Solid Water in Gehenna

One great way to look foolish is to fiendishly cling to a principle and then later sheepishly recant. I might do that. Dave Winer (who has been at this so long that the BBC calls him the “father of blogging”) once explained his perspective on why he did not allow others to write notes on his blog: Comments interfere with the natural expression of the unedited voice of an individual. A few months later, he flip-flopped on the subject and published a statement on his deletion policy. If the protoblogger can change his mind, I can too.

Concluding, Predicting

Since you’ve endured to the bottom of this knowing that you won’t be able to leave a comment, at least allow me to summarize my points. The whole purpose of blogging is for anybody to be able to talk about anything without fear of censorship and without any additional technical limitations. Comments are a weak, unnecessary duplication of this invention, not only because they attract spam, personal attacks and drivel, but especially since making your own blog is easy and free.

As the web continues to trend away from publication and toward conversation, I believe comments will become less prevalent. The worst place to store your ideas is on someone else’s site. The best and safest way to talk is to ensure that you are only responsible for what you say, not for managing scores of messages hanging off your site like shimmering algae.

Finally, we must dismiss the seductive trap that suggests without blog comments there can be no “community.” This claim is nonsense. Human connections do not arise from the method by which we connect, but despite the limitations of that method. That’s why the best conversations happen in the hall after the lecture, why the parody is often more endearing than the original. We must stop obsessing over enabling self-expression via tiny boxes. We must instead have faith that those with something to say will use the most free and uncensored medium of all time to find a way to say it—without anyone’s permission.

Comments limit discourse. They require that we constrain our speech to the pathetic features of their technology and the whims and policies of the host. Start your own blog. Join the conversation. Control what you contribute.

Read the original at: http://www.robbyslaughter.com/blog/?2009-11-28

Robby Slaughter
Slaughter Development, LLC
317.670.4563
rslaughter@slaughterdevelopment.com

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