Nobody wants to read 1,000 comments

Patrick Lagacé brought up a point about comments on blogs, and how he’s not entirely sure what good they do him. Being a popular blog, it gets a lot of trolls and other pointless and unhelpful commentary. Comments easily reach into the dozens, sometimes hundreds.

That was also the subject of an interview Pat did on CIBL with Michel Dumais (Mario Asselin has the details) in which Pat totally name-drops me (near the end of the audio clip):

Dumais: … Vous êtes très fréquenté, vous générez beaucoup de commentaires. Mais ça serait pas intéressant pour vous peut-être de commencer à fréquenter aussi des autres blogues et à laisser des commentaires? …

Lagacé: Oui, j’essai de faire un peu. En fait le seul blogue ou je le fait, j’estime que c’est le meilleur blogue de couverture médiatique à Montréal, c’est le blogue de Steve Faguaiylle … Faguy… son blogue c’est Fagstein — qui couvre les médias montréalais, surtout anglo, mais un peu québecois… francophone aussi. C’est le seul ou je vais. Les autres, je sais pas. Un peu de manque de temps, un peu de manque d’intérêt.

(If my blog were a movie, that quote would go at the top of the poster.)

Although the number of comments on Pat’s blog causes a bit of professional jealousy on my part (second only to hair jealousy), it’s very rare that I’ll read the comments attached to one of his posts. Not so much because of the trolling (though it is apparent), but because there’s just so darn many of them. I don’t have time to read all the posts on blogs I’m subscribed to as it is. I certainly don’t have time to read 50 comments attached to each post, especially when they don’t have anything interesting to add.

And then there’s situations when the number of comments simply gets out of hand. The decapitation-on-a-bus story I talked about earlier now has 1,700 comments, most of which are repetitive. Has anyone read them all?

One easy solution is to stop approving troll comments. We set minimum limits (usually legal ones) for the types of comments we approve in moderation, but why set the barrier so low? Why not set them to the same level as we do letters to the editor? Just because there is space for more doesn’t mean we should bury any truly interesting comments in a pile of useless junk.

But even then, the number of comments can still be unbearable in very popular blogs or news stories or anywhere else one might have an attached discussion forum. When that happens, it’s time to start removing comments that aren’t really interesting (comments that simply agree, disagree, approve, disapprove, or otherwise give a comment without explaining it or adding anything new, as well as those that repeat things already said by others).

The standard response to that is: That’s censorship. It’s not though, it’s moderation. Nobody’s stopping you from posting your useless comments about my blog post on your blog or on some other forum somewhere. When I disapprove a comment it’s because I find it of no use to my readership.

But some still think that’s too far. So is there another method to get these runaway comments under control?

Well, Slashdot answered that question years ago with its comment system. The website, whose format looks very similar to blogs even though it predates them, has a threaded comment system, so comments can be traced back to their parents and sorted according to thread. This level of organization (and the ability to turn it on or off as needed) helps a big deal when dealing with a large number of comments.

More importantly, though, Slashdot has a peer moderation system that allows users to rate each others’ comments. Positive reviews increase a comment’s rating, and negative reviews decrease it. The result is that each comment is assigned a numerical rating (from -1 to +5), and readers can filter comments based on that rating. Set it to zero to get rid of just the trolls. Set it to +5 to get only the dozen or so truly exceptional or interesting or useful comments you need.

I’m surprised that every large-scale blogging system ever made hasn’t copied this system in some way. Instead, you see unthreaded comments with no rating system. The only judgment made is whether they meet the minimum requirements for posting, and that’s not good enough when our attention is so limited.

My blog, though it gets quite a few comments, doesn’t get near enough to start implementing stricter screening or peer moderation, but if I had 500 comments a day, I would certainly seriously consider it.

11 thoughts on “Nobody wants to read 1,000 comments

  1. Fagstein Post author

    @Philippe-A.: Your blog, like mine, has a low number of comments per post. I’m not advocating being so ruthless with comments on low-traffic blogs. But when you’re getting hundreds of comments, knowing that 30 people I’ve never met agree with you (without an explanation why) is kind of useless. I’d rather get to the comments that bring up something interesting and new.

    Reply
  2. Karine

    Once a the number goes past 3, you already start seeing comments that echo each other unless it turns into a private conversation between commenters trying to shout each other down. At that point I look around to see if my comment would add anything to the topic, if not, I move on. The peer review thing would work in a fair and honest world but judging by what happens whenever André Pratte talks federalism or whenever Marie-Claude Lortie writes the word “woman” on their blogs, I have a feeling that certain views would be an organized gang who will make their duty to systematically give low scores to views or commenters they don’t like…

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  3. Karine

    Correction on the last sentence: I have a feeling that an organized gang who will make it’s duty to systematically give low scores to views or commenters they don’t like…

    Reply
  4. Fadi

    Salon.com has an interesting attitude towards comments (they call them “letters to the editor”). From Salon’s Letter FAQ (http://letters.salon.com/about/index.html):

    Salon’s editors will review the letters posted to an article and mark those they feel are most worth readers’ attention as “Editors’ Choice.”

    You can then opt to see all comments (default) or just the Editors’ Choice letters. In my experience, Salon’s editors do a good job of highligthing the better comments. Anybody who’s been reading political blogs knows that at some point discussions devolve to a “dialogue de sourds” and Salon’s system enables you to cut that cr*p out of your screen.
    This system adds to the blog overhead, as you need staff to filter comments, but if you’re already filtering for trolls (legal minimum limits), why not elevate the best comments?

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  5. Pingback: Blogues et commentaires : un mal vraiment nécessaire? — Michael Carpentier.com

  6. Jill

    I think we should never turn away genuine comments, even if they echo the thoughts of others. Considering that there are a zillion Internet forums in which people can participate, we should feel honoured that people take the time to read OUR blogs and respond to them. They respond because they want to participate — you, the blogger, inspired them. For some people, responding to a blog and seeing it posted is a very special thing — a sense of accomplishment, the feeling that they have made contributions. And if a debate ensues in the comments, all the better.

    And it’s nice of bloggers to acknowledge their contributors sometimes, too.

    Just my two cents worth.

    Cheers

    Reply
  7. Jon Husband

    The comments thread are often the most interesting, if not the most valuable, part of a given blog post, and I often read thenm all. That said, the value of good moderation policy on “mature” blogs cannot be overstated.

    Many blogs do not employ moderation … those that regularly receive significant numbers of comments would do well to consider moderation. Done well, it’s an art that adds value. Done poorly, it’s heavy-handed and often discourages potentially valuable insight and amplification.

    Your last 4 or 5 paragraphs point that out, I believe.

    Reply
  8. Alexandre Lahos

    I’d already suggested the use of peer moderation à la Youtube on a moderated blog about a year ago, and guess what… My comment was edited!

    Reply

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