Ceci n'est pas un comment ("This is not a comment")

A commentary on my blog on the state of comments, inspired by a series of comments on a website for people to comment on blog posts.

May 9, 2013
Jonathan Libov

Kicking off a great discussion on Quibb on Building a Blogging Audience, Ryan Hoover made a few interesting observations:

  • Between Svbtle, Medium, and perhaps soon Ghost, we're witnessing the "second coming of blogging".
  • It's challenging to build an audience for your blog, particular when the effort to attract readers is spread across various delivery mechanisms: RSS, social media (mostly Twitter) sharing, follower-based services (e.g., Quora), email.

While the thrust of the original post was, "How does a blogger increase the number of people he delivers his content to?", the discussion also ventured into the question of "How do we grapple with the myriad ways that content is consumed and commented upon outside of the blogger's own domain?"

Let's take Andrew Chen's thought-provoking post on "Why developers are leaving the Facebook platform" to illustrate how confusing it is to understand what a comment is these days.

  • The canonical post is on his domain, where as of today, May 9, he's received 34 comments. Disqus also reports that he got 755 "reactions", which is effectively the number of times the post was tweeted.
  • A short time after the post was published, it reached #1 on Hacker News, where it received a boatload of comments, outpacing the comments on his own blog. At one point when there were only three comments on Andrew's domain, there were 46 comments about the post on HN.
  • The Twitter conversation emanating from Andrew's two tweets about the post (here and here) resulted in 22 replies, many of which are effectively comments. I'm sure it was posted on LinkedIn and Facebook and many other places I can't be bothered to check. Chances are he got at least a few more comments there.
  • Andrew posted a preview of the post on Quibb a day or two before he published it on his own blog. The preview post on Quibb received 4 comments. It was posted on Quibb once the final version was published. It received 3 comments there.

You get the idea. And of course I'm hardly the first person to observe how broken commenting is...

...or how difficult it is to grasp the full breadth of the conversation around the web (there are hundred-million dollar social media companies which make a living analyzing this).

Disqus does an admirable job in trying to make comments more digestible through the upvoting system and default sorting by "Best" comments. In fact it works exactly as it should on Andrew's post:

Yet I don't know who in the world the "Reactions" tab is serving. It's an endless list in reverse chronological order of the title of the blog post and the t.co link generated by the tweet (which is a link to the page you're currently viewing!).

Fred Wilson uses Disqus on AVC, the blog I want to comment on most frequently, but the sheer volume of comments there is off-putting. On the occasions where I do endeavor to participate in the conversation, it's like the moment when you're at a crowded concert, hold your breath, and start slithering through the crowd in order to get a drink at the bar. Ugh.

What's in store?

With respect to the "second coming of blogging", it's not a coincidence that Svbtle and Medium blogs have eschewed comments. Medium did introduce a novel twist on comments with Notes, although Marco Arment observes that it still retains some of the same drawbacks that comments do.

And while we're talking about Marco's blog, what about "Linked List" style blogs? Marco's post is only three brief paragraphs, shorter than many comments! Not to mention that clicking on the title of his post links to the blog post he's commenting blogging about.

We're also seeing a rising class of annotation systems, RapGenius and TL;DR that crowdsource information about webpages and passages within webpages on top of the page. As RapGenius noted on their blog when they announced the Andreessen Horowitz funding:

Only a handful of people know that the big missing feature from the web browser – the feature that was supposed to be in from the start but didn't make it – is the ability to annotate any page on the Internet with commentary and additional information.

Is this the future of commenting? Should it already be the present? As Ben Horowitz annotated on this post (a post about the future of annotation), Andreessen simply "ran out of time" before he could add these features into the browser he invented, Netscape.

And whether it's poignant or post-modern, it's at least funny that I got thinking on this topic from a series of comments on a post on website which provides an alternative commenting forum for a community of people who comment on blog posts.

If you're not as mentally exhausted as I am at the end of this post and have something to add, please leave a comment (here or in the HN discussion).


As you'll notice, I do a sort of proxy for comments by embedding a Branch conversation. It suits me because it's nicely controlled (I've never seen spam on Branch) and the conversation continues fluidly outside my domain. That is to say, anyone who comments via Branch on my blog or in the conversation Branch's domain takes part in a single, unique discussion. But my reading audience is quite small, so I don't have much of a sample size to say if this is really a good option.

Ryan Hoover (mentioned at the beginning of this post) pointed me to an excellent post by Tyler Hayes of Disqus on comments. I don't agree with everything there, but I think the idea that "everything is a comment" aligns well with my post. Tyler also links to an excellent discussion on Branch.