December 21, 2006

Are weblog comments always hazardous?

I had an interesting chat yesterday with an industry leader who thought my me-too piling-on with 37 Signals on blog comments was harsh.

One message of the post was intended to be, I've been saying this for years, I've given two blog conference keynotes where this seemed to be the message people remembered (whether I wanted that or not). When they write the history, I'd like a footnote, please. Thanks!

But my friend had an interesting point. I argue that blog comments are dangerous because they lead to bad, boring, and destructive writing. You can ignore an insult or a lie, but it's harder to ignore in your own home -- or in the pages of your own blog. If you want to comment on a weblog post, the right place to comment is either in private correspondence with the author or on your own weblog.

My friend's point is simple: doesn't my insistence that the right place to comment is on your own weblog mean that the "rich" — people who have weblogs and whose weblogs have readers — may comment while the "poor" may not?

Why not simply ignore the lies and insults? This is easy, as long as you don't care very much. But caring deeply about something is usually a prerequisite for writing a decent blog, so that’s no answer. You could simply delete the lies and insults, but there's been a social sanction against deleting posts. If you're perfectly free to revise or delete comments, then comments are far less dangerous to the blogosphere.

The decline of Feedster, PubSub, and Technorati reinforces my friend's point. Part of my belief in commenting on your own weblog was confidence that modern blogosphere search tools would readily bring your writing to the attention of those who were following the discussion. PubSub is dead, and in my experience Feedster and Technorati are so riddled with spam blogs that they seldom find useful links. I still read my vanity feeds, but I rarely discover much besides spam.

The rise of social bookmarking, like and ma.gnol.ia, and the new prominence of social navigation tools like digg and reddit, partially compensates for our loss. But digg and reddit by definition reward mostly the rich; it's much easier for celebrities to generate digg momentum than it is for kids or scholars. Still, these social systems resist spam, and conceivably could fill part of the gap left by the collapse of specialized blog search.

We could fix this. For starters, the blog search tools could find a better way to kill spam blogs. It's not easy, because the spam blogs are also targeting Google, and since Google competes with blog search it might not mind seeing waves of pollution swamping their competitors' indexes. But one answer might be to discriminate modestly against blog hosts that shelter blog farms. Blog farms could be discouraged by charging a modest fee to set up a blog — perhaps refunded automatically after a few months good behavior — or by banning violators, or some other way. This might mean (temporarily) discriminating against Blogger blogs, which once would have been unthinkable. But desperate times call for desperate measures, and the collapse of blog search (and trackback) and the sudden popularity of private blog enclaves suggest that the public blogosphere is in trouble.