Sunday, 6 June 2004

Last comment on comments

Will Baude still maintains his objections to comments on heavily-trafficked blogs, but concedes there may be some merit to comments in the less-traveled-by portions of the blogosophere. The interesting questions to me are: why do comment sections turn to sludge, and what’s the inflection point where sludge control efforts can no longer be fruitful?

My working hypothesis is that comments sections turn to sludge when the expected number of eyeballs that might read a comment on someone else’s blog exceeds the number of eyeballs that might see J. Random Jackass’s post to his own blog.

Assuming J. Random Jackass can get 30 hits/day by just setting up a blog, that means that any blog that gets, on average, more than 30 hits/full post is vulnerable to being “sludged.” There are, however, some sludge rate caveats:

  • Completely inline comments will massively increase the odds of getting sludged. If a blog’s comments are visible on the front page, and thus will be read by every visitor, it will probably be sludged at a much lower threshold. (See, e.g. Daily Pundit.)
  • “Hide/show inline comments” will somewhat increase the odds of being sludged, though—as most readers won’t bother clicking the “Expand comments” button—the risk is significantly lower than for fully inlined comments. (PoliBlog, Wizbang)
  • Pop-up only comments (e.g. Haloscan and other services for pre-2.0 Blogger) will significantly decrease the odds of being sludged, as even permalinks to the post will not include the comments, unlike the default templates for Movable Type, WordPress, and most other tools.

Empirical testing of this hypothesis is encouraged.

As far as the inflection point goes, I suspect it is very close to the actual sludge threshold. Should your blog reach the inflection point, my (normative) suggestion is to disable comments rather than attempt to implement technological fixes (IP bans, content analysis) that will work marginally well, if at all.

Tuesday, 29 June 2004

Bullies in the blogosphere

Laura of Apartment 11D is understandably quite annoyed at the public response that at least one (presumably prominent, although I haven’t seen the post in question) blogger gave to her survey.

I generally agree that, ethically, a good blogger will provide readers with an opportunity to have opposing views heard, at least in the form of trackbacks. It is disappointing that many “big boys” of the Blogosphere like Glenn Reynolds, Josh Marshall, the Volokh Conspiracy, and Andrew Sullivan don’t use “real” Trackbacks—Volokh relies on Technorati, which isn’t a proper pingback/trackback service, while Reynolds, Marshall, and Sullivan don’t even go that far; Sullivan accepts “reader mail,” but much of it is buried and all is stripped of any way to tell how authoritative the response is.

Laura cites Usenet as a more “democratic” medium; it is, in the sense that it does facilitate conversation more readily, but there are significant drawbacks to it—most notably, no inherent ability to enforce strong identities of participants in the discussion, which leads to the sort of trollish behavior that one finds at the comment sections of some prominent weblogs (or inmate-run asylums like Slashdot and K5), not to mention issues of spam, off-topic discussion, gratuitous vulgarity, and other vices large and small. The “decline of Usenet,” mind you, has been a staple of Internet discussion since at least 1992, when I was first exposed to it, so it has proven to be more resiliant than one might have thought.

Tuesday, 6 July 2004

Sludge control

James Joyner echos my month-old hypothesis on weblog comments, writing in response to the decision to shut down comments at The Command Post:

Unfortunately, there seems to be a strange variation on the Gas Law with regard to blog comments: As blog readership expands, the quality of comments declines geometrically. When OTB had 500 readers a day, the vast majority of the comments—whether from people who agreed or disagreed with me—were quite good. With readership in the 5000–10,000 range, most comments are crap. Reading—let alone policing—the comments gets to be more trouble than it’s worth.

For my part, at least, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the lack of acrimony and vitriol since enabling comments here at Signifying Nothing, but—then again—our little corner of the blogosphere only attracts about 1/40th of James’ daily readership.

Civility and sludge

Dan Drezner ties together the twin themes of less-than-civil bloggers and bad comment hoodoo recently discussed in these parts.

One thing I will say, as a veteran of online fora in general (as an ex-MUD administrator and someone who’s been a part of Usenet since 1992), social problems rarely have good technical solutions. Technology can help—particularly when battling other forms of technology, like comment spam—but dealing with people and their idiosyncracies is a whole other beast.

As far as the negativity Dan has observed and been subjected to in academia, I have to say I’ve largely been spared it (although I will say I was deeply annoyed with the completely worthless one-line review I received for a manuscript once); I don’t know if that’s a function of one’s subdiscipline or perhaps just an example of my relative youth in things academic.

Update: More on this theme from Matt Stinson, who's strongly tempting me to join him in the media black hole that is mainland China.