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Comments — The Weakest Part of Blogs, the Weakest Part of Online Journals

Андрей Родионов

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A new report confirms that blogs and social media are now the main things people spend time with online.

Blogs? Aren’t those so five years ago?

Hardly. In fact, blogs are growing faster than many headline-grabbing social media sites, and they’re everywhere.

How pervasive are blogs today? Three of the top 10 social networking sites measured in a recent Nielsen report on the state of the media are blog providers — Blogspot, WordPress, and Tumblr. (By the way, the entire Nielsen report is worth reading — it’s slick, and covers a lot of the digital landscape.) There are now more than 181 million blogs, up from 36 million in 2006, when blogging was cool.

Blogs may not be cool in that same way they were in 2006, but they’re growing faster than Facebook, and that’s noteworthy. Also, half of all bloggers are between 18-34, making it a young medium as well as a growing one.

Most bloggers are female, and bloggers are more apt to post in other online forums.

Yet, despite their popularity and potential, blogs are hindered by a sad reality — the bigger they get, the more unmanageable and crude the comments become.

In an interesting discussion of how blogs can improve, Anil Dash and others talk about the flaws with comments:

It seems like some of the basic elements of the form, such as comments, have been stuck in a model that doesn’t work very well to encourage quality responses [Dash] . . . .  I don’t care what most people have to say . . . [o]f course, I care a lot about what some limited number of people have to say. [Williams]

This “I care a lot about what some limited number of people have to say” sentiment must be in the air. Perhaps it’s the fatigue bloggers feel fending off comments that can be boorish, off-topic, and downright nasty. As Nick Denton of Gawker Media said in an interview with CNN:

I don’t like going into the comments. . . . For every two comments that are interesting — even if they’re critical, you want to engage with them — there will be eight that are off-topic or just toxic.

Denton also notes that as sites get more popular, it’s harder to control the comments, which get nastier as the audience drifts from its core community. We’ve experienced this here — as our traffic has increased, comment threads have gotten longer (fine), wilder (usually fine), and nastier (not so fine).

Denton now feels that the notion that comments can generate a thoughtful discussion is “laughable.”

Denton has an alternative, one that sounds an awful lot like a mass media version of peer-review — hand-picked experts to comment instead of the open throngs:

Denton said his sites are planning to post some stories that allow only a hand-picked, pre-approved group of people to comment on them. That, he said, would make the comment section an extension of the story and allow people, like Charney in the above example, to have their say without fear of being piled onto by others. . . . “What I want is, I want the sources — I want the experts to be able to comment in these discussions.”

Comments in online scientific journals have been notoriously poor — either too much material of uneven quality or too little discussion to amount to a hill of beans. All too often, commenting has to be shut down because internecine and tiresome debates break out, creating more noise than signal. The best comments are scholarly, and borrow extensively from the form of letters to the editor.

After more than a decade and millions of blogs, it seems one main lesson practitioners are learning — myself included — is that dreams of what we would call “post-publication peer-review” need to be reimagined. Not only is commenting failing overall, but communicators striving for a high standard are reinventing the wheel of invited experts to help improve materials.

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About Kent Anderson

I am the CEO/Publisher of the STRIATUS/JBJS, Inc., the home of the Journal of Bone & Joint Surgery, JBJS Case Connector, JBJS Reviews, JBJS Essential Surgical Techniques, the JBJS Recertification Course, PRE-val, and SocialCite. Prior to this, I was an executive at the New England Journal of Medicine. I also was Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Discussion

13 thoughts on “Comments — The Weakest Part of Blogs, the Weakest Part of Online Journals

  1. I think the key observation is this one: “the bigger they get, the more unmanageable and crude the comments become”.

    For smallish blogs — such as my own Sauropod Vertebra Picture of the Week, which averages maybe 1000 hits a day — a community develops where you can easily recognise the names of a core group, where where newcomers are welcome and welcomed, and where discussion is informed and productive. (Having published 396 posts in four and a half years, we’ve only once had to shut down a comment thread, and that had become a back-and-forth between two individuals rather than a discussion; having attracted 6550 comments, I think we have deleted about two.)

    But I’m under no illusion that that level of civility and insight would scale if we were getting 10,000 or 100,000 readers a day. And I and my co-authors would certainly not have the time or desire to police comment threads of that size.

    Happily there is little danger of this happening to a blog that is about something as nichey as sauropod vertebrae. So the answer in general seems to be that special-interest blogs are going to be more rewarding than mass-market ones. Not a big surprise, I guess.

    The real kicker here is the near-complete failure, so far at least, for commenting on actual journal articles to take off. In his Open and Shut interview, Michael Eisen described this as his biggest disappointment with PLoS, and I’d agree. There are plenty of changes that could be made to facilitate this, but whether they will be enough to catalyse an actual community is far from clear.

    Posted by Mike Taylor | Mar 14, 2012, 7:14 am
    • I agree that commenting on scholarly papers hasn’t done very well in general, but there are some exceptions. I have a long-standing respect for BMJ’s extraordinarily successful response section (nearly 87 thousand since 1998): http://www.bmj.com/comment/rapid-responses . I’ve always wondered what the secret to their success might be!
      The journal I work for, Annals of Family Medicine, is doing pretty well on its smaller scale: over 2200 comments from about 1100 total published articles/editorials: http://www.annfammed.org/letters. I think our success with civility is similar to yours, Mike, in that the audience is more specific.

      Posted by Laura | Mar 14, 2012, 1:12 pm
    • Kathleen Fitzpatrick has some good ideas about how to make post-publication peer review work in her book “Planned Obsolescence” (NYU, 2011), which I am now reviewing for ther Journal of Scholarly Publishing. Success of such a system, she observes, depends on “prioritizing members’ work on behalf of the community.” So, e.g., ability to publish in this system might be based on how “helpful” one is in participating in group discussion,” i.e., on reviewing the reviewers. The system would “require a phenomenal amount of labor,” she admits, but if “reviewing were a prerequisite for publishing, we’d likely see more scholars become better reviewers, which would in turn allow for a greater diversity of opinion and a greater distribution of the labor involved.” This could work for scholarly journals, where significant rewards could be offered for participation of high quality, but likely would not apply to blogs.

      Posted by Sandy Thatcher | Mar 14, 2012, 3:02 pm
  2. This post deserves a comment, but comments are pointless. :-)

    Posted by Dave Pullin | Mar 14, 2012, 7:24 am
  3. I hesitate to comment lest it be taken as more evidence that comments are failing, whatever that might mean. More specifically claiming that comments are failing is like having a theory of reasoning that says most people are irrational. It just shows that one has a false standard. Blogs and people are what they are.

    Controlled debate by a few experts is a fine idea as an experimental publication. It is just not a blog. I have what I call Gresham’s law of blogs, which is that bad arguments drive out the good. But this is a fact not a criticism. It just means if you are looking for good arguments you have to know how to find them. And sometimes it is the bad arguments are what you want, because this is how a lot of people think. So it depends on what one is looking for. Think about it.

    Posted by David Wojick | Mar 14, 2012, 7:37 am
  4. Just as I suspected…no comments.

    Posted by Fred | Mar 14, 2012, 9:01 am
  5. I like the philosophy, “My blog; my rules”. Which means if I ran a popular blog I’d have no hesitation about deleting comments and blocking toxic commenters. I know that doesn’t work for some people–they get really pissed off about it (especially in the US, for some reason)–but, hey: my blog; my rules.

    Posted by rpg | Mar 14, 2012, 9:52 am
  6. Saturday Night Live has a great skit about this. In this one instance, I am pro censorship. Comments are that deemed inappropriate due to language, or threats etc., should be deleted by the host. Some of the comments people make are just plain horrific, and there is absolutely no cause for it.

    Posted by Jess | Mar 14, 2012, 11:02 am
  7. Great observations. We’ve beginning to see caustic comments on our blog, AJNOfftheCharts.com , a nursing blog. Initially, we didn’t think we’d need to moderate comments – after all, our audience is nursing professionals and we imagined cogent arguments and comments on issues and trends. But as we found with one recent “hot” issue, those comments can be toxic and attacking and arguments may be little more than emotional rants. But are blogs just reflecting what seems to be happening elsewhere? Seems we’re back to a society where differing opinions arent tolerated and the person opining a different way of thinking is fair game for abuse. Or was I thinking of Congress…..

    Posted by Shawn Kennedy | Mar 14, 2012, 12:53 pm
  8. it’s a factor of time as well, eh? I mean people are busy and no one is more busy than the actual expert on x….. so that’s the least likely person to actually make an insightful and interesting comment.

    Obviously I’m no expert….

    Posted by Rachel | Mar 14, 2012, 1:50 pm
  9. You’ve pointed out the two types of “failures”: no participation and off-topic (or off-color) participation.

    I find it useful to frame the first issue in terms of the cost/risk versus benefit decision of a potential commenter: if I comment, what are the chances that I’m going to get something valuable back (build my reputation, get a useful response to a question, etc.). Different features / tactics in blogs and community sites focus on both sides of the equation, but it’s a hard balance: e.g., anonymous commenting lowers the cost/risk for participation, but in many ways also lowers the potential value of comments and commenting. The biggest factor in environments with low participation is the “valley of death” — the fact that a lack of comments leads to the correct perception that posting that first comment isn’t likely to return value (no one will look or respond).

    The second issue (off-topic or off-color comments) has upended a lot of efforts from STM publishers. Here there are more tactics to employ (e.g., having ‘closed’ communities with commenting restricted to select participants) and lots to learn from the consumer space (e.g., reputation systems tied to commenting privileges, empowering the community to vote down and effectively hide “bad” comments), but again a tradeoff between restrictions and participation. One interesting lesson is that norms can be play a bigger role than rules to set the tone and ‘quality’ in contributions: good quality comments beget further good quality comments, as contributors look for guidance about how to comment from the comments that precede them. The corollary about bad quality contributions is of course true as well.

    I’m optimistic about all this. I think there is a very valuable form of knowledge sharing that is a little less formal and a lot more conversational than a traditional letter to the editor.

    Posted by Alex Frost | Mar 16, 2012, 10:27 am

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