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.
Chris Aldrich
Jason your blogpost does a great job of laying out the values (and distractions) of comments on blogs and why someone would want to have them. I particularly like your choice to call this area of his personal site a "Discussion" area instead of the traditional "Comments" moniker most would give it.

Some of your early discussion reminded me of articles by Audrey Watters in which she delineated pieces of why she's turned off comments on her site and why she also turned off annotations recently. It's definitely important to have control and agency over one's own domain, which she also writes about rather eloquently in A Domain of One's Own in a Post-Ownership Society.

While you use the oft-quoted statement (usually said in a dismissive tone in my experience):

If you want to respond, do so on your own website and tell me.

in the section espousing not allowing comments, I realize that this long-held concept of writing on your own website not only has significant value, but that the Indieweb way of replying and utilizing Webmentions (with moderation enabled if one prefers) for the notifications portion adds even more tremendous value.

Far too often, either in a blog's comments section or even within social media, it's all too easy to post an ill-conceived or hurtful drive-by response. It takes little time and thought to say "me too", "I hate you", "insert slur here", or even click an innocuous "like" button many which do nothing for the conversation or discussion being proffered by the site owner. Worse, a very small portion of the world will see that a reader took these actions because they don't really reflect heavily, if at all, within the reader's own online presence--who searches for comments others have made online? How would you easily? It's usually in these interactions that only the writer who spent some significant time trying to communicate can be crushed by overwhelming negativity rather than being showered with the intelligence, logic, or forethought they deserve for putting themselves out there, much less receiving praise for their work. It's no wonder that people prefer to turn off comments.

Earlier this evening as I was reviewing the online discussion from the San Francisco Homebrew Website Club, I saw a comment from bdesham captured by Tantek Çelik, "I heard not having comments on Tumblr was a deliberate design, to avoid abuse, so to comment you have to reblog?" I recall having an HWC at Yahoo's LA headquarters and hearing from someone within Yahoo that indeed this was exactly the reason that drove this piece of UX/UI. If you wanted to comment on Tumblr, you had to repost the content to your own front page along with the comment. This meant that you had to take true ownership of your words as they appeared front and center on your own site there. Who wants to publicly mark themselves with a proverbial Scarlet Letter just to be mean? (Some will, but increasingly many won't because it redounds directly to their reputation.) Perhaps this is why some of the most marginalized people on the internet heavily use Tumblr and feel safe within their communities there?

As some will know, for the past few years I've been using the W3C's recommended Webmention specification, a sort of cross-website universal @mention or @reply, which I've implemented on WordPress with the Webmention plugin and a few others, to accept replies/comments and other associated interactions on my blog in addition to the traditional comments box. While the traditional comment box has largely been unused on my site--making it often feel in the early days like I was "spewing words out into the void" as Jason describes--the Webmention piece seems to have made a far larger difference to me.

The majority of the interaction my site receives comes via Webmentions from Brid.gy in the form of short one-offs or simple "likes" which are backfed from Facebook, Twitter, or Google+. However a growing number of interactions are actually interesting and more substantive discussions. It's these more "traditional" replies via Webmention that have the most value to me. They are better thought out replies and helpful commentary, which almost always appear front and center on the commenter's own site (much the way Tumblr designed theirs) before they ever appear on my site  as a comment. As Jason astutely points out, having comments that are longer than 140 characters can be very valuable as well; since my commenters are posting on their own sites where they have ultimate freedom, most of them aren't constrained in any way except perhaps for the amount of time they wish to take.

So here you are Jason, I've commented by posting on my own site first and notifying you by manually copying it to your discussion section where others can participate as well. (If you supported receiving Webmentions, the interaction would be automatic and nearly seamless.) I'm curious if you'd consider implementing the Webmention spec (both sending and receiving) on your website and if you think it would have the same intended effect you meant when you enabled "Discussions" on yours?--I know it feels like it has on mine.

If you care to reply back, feel free to reply on your own site, include a permalink to my original and use the manual Webmention form (below the traditional comment box) and click "Ping Me!" Of course, if you're old school, feel free to dust off the old comment box and give that a whirl too!




Some additional miscellaneous thoughts, highlights, and short comments on Jason's post:

Comments sections often become shouting matches or spam-riddled.

They can also become filled with "me too" type of commentary which more than often doesn't add anything substantive to the conversation.

One of my all-time favorite comment moderation notes comes from the FAQ section of Peter Woit's blog under "Why Did you Delete my comment?" He writes:

I delete a lot of the comments submitted here. For some postings, the majority of submitted comments get deleted. I don't delete comments because the commenter disagrees with me, actually comments agreeing with me are deleted far more often than ones that disagree with me. The overall goal is to try and maintain a comment section worth reading, so comments should ideally be well-informed and tell us something true that we didn't already know. The most common reason for deleting a comment is that it's off-topic. Often people are inspired by something in a posting to start discussing something else that interests them and that they feel is likely to interest others here. Unfortunately I have neither the time nor inclination to take on the thankless job of running a general discussion forum here.

I hope my thoughts pass the Woit-comment-test for Jason.

 

For a website the size and popularity of Daring Fireball, it’d probably be madness to foster any kind of coherent conversation.

Certainly to do it without a staff would be difficult... Again here, Audrey Watter's post about turning off comments indicates to some extent that even though she views her site as her personal blog, it's audience, like that of Daring Fireball, has gotten so large that it's not just friends, family, and community, but something beyond "community" (beyond the pale) that changes the dynamic of accepting comments.

 

I never felt like I was talking with anyone or anyone’s website, but more like I was spewing words out into the void.

I often feel this way, but supporting Webmentions and backfeed has largely negated these feelings for me in the last few years. I can now communicate directly with websites (and their authors) that support these open protocols.

 

It has the added benefit of making one-word smart-ass posts impossible.

I do remember the days of old, when people would comment "First!", but beyond that #OneWordSmartAss is usually overrated unless you're a professional comedian like Jon Stewart.

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Speed of Light