Introducing Speed of Light Discussions

Today I’m happy to announce I’ve added a discussions section to the website, directly below each article. Here you’ll be able to directly respond to what you’ve just read, share your thoughts, and have a discussion with other readers of my site. Today’s post is going to take a bit of a look inside why I’m doing this and how discussions work.

Why?

For many years, the blogging community I’m a part of (especially the Apple blogging community) has more or less subscribed to the “we just don’t do comments” line. Primarily, big names like John Gruber (who many of us copied) decided not to have comments, and so many of us decided not to too.

The arguments against blog comments go something like this:

  • It’s my site with my content. I want to control every word.
  • If you want to respond, do so on your own website and tell me.
  • Comments sections often become shouting matches or spam-riddled.
  • Twitter, Reddit, Hacker News (etc) are my comments section.

I think this mostly captures what Gruber’s written about, what Ash Furrow has written about, and heck, even what I’ve written about on the subject.

And I think these are mostly fair and valid arguments. Any author is entitled to what they do or don’t want on their own website. Comments often devolve into messy arguments, and it’s much easier to just tell people to comment on Hacker News or Twitter instead.

But I feel like I’ve been brainwashed by that party line, that “we just don’t do comments” and that’s held me back from even considering adding them to my website. For a website the size and popularity of Daring Fireball, it’d probably be madness to foster any kind of coherent conversation. But for a website the size of mine, it’s a different story. So let’s consider why I might want to add them, instead.

Primarily, it’s about having a conversation with my readers, a conversation that I just currently don’t feel happening these days. Earlier this year, I wrote:

When I started my website in 2010, I was really excited to jump in to writing on the web. There were blog conversations all over the place: Somebody would post something, then other blogs would react to it, adding their own thoughts, then the original poster would link to those reactions and respond likewise, etc. It became a whole conversation and I couldn’t wait to participate.

But I’ve never really had much of a conversation on my website. I’ve reacted to others’ posts, but I’ve never felt it reciprocated. I never felt like I was talking with anyone or anyone’s website, but more like I was spewing words out into the void. Some people definitely enjoy what I write, some agree and some even disagree with it, but the feedback has always been private, there’s never been much public conversation.

My readers are ridiculously smart and I respect the hell out of them. They have great insights, they share all kinds of connections to the things I write, and they often challenge my thinking for the better. But many of them don’t keep blogs of their own, or if they do, there’s never any cross-blog-conversation.

The “conversation” ends up on Twitter, which is a horrible medium for it. Twitter’s critical flaw is, of course, it’s comically small post length limit. It’s really hard to have a thoughtful discussion 140 characters at a time. This is compounded by its terribly reply threading and its complete lack of formatting. It’s 2016 and this is the place for conversation on the web? Fuck that.

So instead, I’m adding my own space for conversations.

Discussions

First and foremost, I’m referring to this space as a discussions section, not a comments section. While technically they’re essentially the same thing, by calling it a discussions section, I hope to foster the idea it’s a place for having meaningful conversation with me and other readers. A “comments” section to me implies more one-off drive-by replies that are more about the commenter than they are about the discussion itself.

Secondly, while Twitter, Hacker News, etc allow for minimal-to-no formatting options, this discussion system uses a rich text editor. You can make inline links, bold and italicize text, insert images, use lists and quotes, etc. Essentially I want to give readers writing tools to help them actually make decent conversation. It’s so frustrating that our popular tools for conversing, in 2016, are so damn neutered. Discussions here are still only HTML under the hood, but it’s a lot better than plain text.

Third, everything in the discussion section’s got to be more than 140 characters. I’m setting this bare minimum because I think it’s difficult (not impossible, but difficult) to have meaningful conversation in anything less. It has the added benefit of making one-word smart-ass posts impossible.

Great kinds of replies might include (but not limited to):

  • Related points the original post made you think of (related topics, articles, books, etc)
  • Counter-points (do you disagree with something in the post? explain your perspective)
  • A finer discussion about the original post (asking for clarification, perhaps)
  • Replies to other people who have participated in the discussion (for any of the same reasons as apply to the original post)

Other than that, they’re basically your run of the mill discussion system. Individual replies have permalinks and time stamps and avatars (which use Gravatar). Each post has a flag link on it, so if you see something objectionable, you can let me know.

Signing up and logging in are the same thing. When you post for the first time, I’ll send you an email asking you to confirm. Once you do that, your post will be visible. This way, I don’t have to keep any passwords.

Most importantly, I’ve got discussion guidelines which I ask you to follow. I want to keep these discussions going constructively, and I hope you do too.

Let’s Discuss

I hope you enjoy using the discussion section as much as I’ve enjoyed making it. There’s still lots to be done, but it should be mostly solid by now. Please let me know of any bugs you encounter (other than slow page loads; I’m working on that).

Anyway, is this a good idea? Are there better ways to foster discussions that I’m missing? I’m happy to say, you can now let me know below.

Join the Discussion 👂🤔✍️

Ash Furrow
Nice, makes sense. I like how you laid out the original motivation behind not having them and examined them in the current online-discussions context.
Nick Doyle
All too often I scroll a little too far on a CBC news article. Every single time I ask myself how comments could be improved because, today, almost every comments section is a cesspool.

While I'm not sure your proposed system would work well in scenarios like large news sites or YouTube, I think it could work great for smaller sites like this.

The 140 character minimum won't defeat long copy-pasta spam but will help defeat baseless or unsupported snark. I also think the email verification also adds just enough friction against making posts with little to no real content; it's a good idea.

I'd love to see a system like this used more in blogs and smaller scale sites and see how it could evolve to promote even better discussions.
daiyi
I do think this is a community-building problem! A small forum of friends and friends-of-friends is intimate, but when the community expands further and the social net is looser, quality by association is lost. Why can't we just have nice big things (':
Also, perhaps related to your interests: https://indieweb.org/ and associated https://indieauth.com/ (a way for blogs to talk to each other)
Jason Brennan
All too often I scroll a little too far on a CBC news article. Every single time I ask myself how comments could be improved because, today, almost every comments section is a cesspool.

While I'm not sure your proposed system would work well in scenarios like large news sites or YouTube, I think it could work great for smaller sites like this.
Yes! Often comments sections become a total nightmare, and I suspect that’s because when you get too many people together, an otherwise unchecked comments section amplifies the bad stuff rather quickly.

I do think this is a community-building problem! A small forum of friends and friends-of-friends is intimate, but when the community expands further and the social net is looser, quality by association is lost. Why can't we just have nice big things (':
Intimacy is such a key word here, that’s exactly my hope for the discussions here. I figure my blog’s only-moderate-popularity can work to my advantage. I’m hoping it becomes more like a local bar / café than it does a huge venue.

I don’t want it to become just an in-crowd of people, but I hope it can be a place where people feel welcomed to get to know each other a bit.

Please read the Discussion Guidelines before replying.

☑️ Email me when someone replies.

Speed of Light