THE BLOG AS COMMUNITY
Well, the header to this “clog” (Comments Log) has a short explanation but more can be said on this subject. In the mid-80s when Personal Computers (PC’s, and not Player Characters for you gamer types) and modems became readily available and cheap enough to purchase, people started to set up a program on their home computer attached to the mighty 300 baud modem that let people dial in and look around. This sharing was done without any profit or hope of reward, it was just fun to set up something that people were interested in and share files. Small local Bulletin Boards (or BBS’) as they were called began to pop up in many towns and cities.
As time went on, small games could be played, the modems went to amazing 1200 and even the lofty 2400 baud speeds! Along with these advancements the message board began to develop. At first it was simply a literal bulletin board, just a way to to post notices and talk to friends. These rapidly developed into small communities around the theme or idea of the BBS, posting comments and ideas. Some even had stories told by whoever posted the next part or role playing games ran one move at a time as people posted and the GM responded.
This was the origin of what we see today on the internet blog. A blog is simply a personal journal reacting to and noting events, information, ideas, and files focused on an area of interest or hobby just like the old BBS. Comment sections were added over time to replace message boards and old guest books to give people a chance to react and add to what they read.
So many blogs have a comment section that it seems almost like a requirement for a successful effort. But some do not, notably Michelle Malkin's blog and blogs like Country Store. What does having comments do for a blog, and how do they effect the internet blogosphere? [see also this article at Microcontent News for more thoughts on the blogosphere]
Something regular readers (assuming there are any) may have noticed at this Clog is that I tend to post from a few blogs more often than others.This is due not to any particular partiality, but rather because some blogs have a more active and capable commenter community than others. There are some great blogs out there, some small and some big that have wonderful articles, interesting bits of information and hilarious things to say. But without a good comments section, they aren’t much use to what I do on this clog. I still browse through dozens of them every day to find something, because even tiny blogs can have a good comment. I’m always on the lookout for unusual sites and interesting bits of information.
But the truth is, really good blogs will almost always include good commenters. To be fair, this can take a while to build up. Let’s examine one example. Right Wing News is so big and successful now the site has been mentioned on national shows like Rush Limbaugh, gets interviews with major names and John Hawkins even gets asked for guest commentary by Associatd Press news service.
Right Wing News started with a comment section, and over the years has built in popularity and number of registered commenters. John Hawkins notes that his blog has over nine thousand people registered to comment, although by my count fewer than 100 comment on an average day. Many of these names will be trolls or spammers creating accounts so that they can flood the blog with their ideas. Several commenters come on under different names, at least one notably posting comments then logging in with a different name to agree with what he just said! That said, Right Wing News has a lot of commenters by any definition.
This kind of community takes time to earn, for a blog. It can be done only by consistently interesting and entertaining articles, especially the kind that other, more popular blogs will link to and tell people about. As people become more interested in your site and occasionally comment on what you have to say, others will read comments and have their say. Over time this can build to enormous numbers, such as what Little Green Footballs or The Daily Kos enjoys. This community is built up slowly and naturally by having a quality product and intelligent, interesting readers to comment on it.
A way to encourage commenters is to let them know they have had something good to say, especially if it influences a blogger’s articles in some way. On Right Wing news, John has in the past updated posts based on things commenters bring up, and has even had articles in the past where comments are quoted to show a mood or common theme in what people have said in the comment section. In fact, John noted comments play a “small, but significant role.”
Sometimes I update or clarify things I've said based on comments. I may also pick a certain topic to talk about later because people in the comments section mentioned it… I thought [comments were] a good way to get instant feedback and [to] also help build up a sense of community on the blog.
When I asked how often he posts in the comment sections or interacts with commenters, John replied
Seldom, outside of Q&A Fridays, which is where I take questions from RWN readers and answer them on the page. The reason that's the case is my philosophy is that if I'm going to write something, I want it to be seen by the maximum number of people. So, rather than writing in the comments section, where only a few of my readers can see it, I want to write on the main page where all of them can read what I have to say.
Right Wing News is not unique in this. Bloggers write for their blog primarily and often have little time to spend reading all comments and typing there. As John noted, a broader audience is reached on the main page, and that’s the most efficient way to reach readers. On this blog I tend not to have comments by bloggers from that site because they’ve had their say with the main article.
But the key thing John mentioned about Right Wing News’ comment sections is that he thought "…it was a good way to get instant feedback and it also helps build up a sense of community on the blog." And indeed, that is the strongest contribution that comments will have to a blog. People who comment regularly read regularly, looking for something interesting to learn and have their say about. A good commenter community will not only bring success to a blog by showing up regularly, but add to the information and entertainment at that blog.
There are, however, some blogs, notably World Magazine Blog, that will deliberately post articles or questions to the reader designed to pack as many comments in as possible. Intentionally provocative or controversial topics are written about, with the intent to get people to visit and comment. Why? Because each new person who comments has visited the site, which increases the number of unique visitors to the site, making it more popular and attractive to advertisers. Long, involved arguments and fights in the comment section mean people are coming to the site and staying, returning to see what was said and to post again and again.
In this kind of repeated fight (the topics that bring the most attention are usually a small number that are repeated, such as gay rights) it is rare anything new is brought up by a commenter, it most often ends up being a continuous repeat of the same arguments with nobody paying the other any particular heed. This kind of thing does not build community well if at all, but it can build animosity and personal dislike.
Another problem that can happen to disrupt the community of a blog is either poor or a complete lack of moderation. Such a situation often ends up with the worst elements coming in greater numbers, creating dissent, spamming, trolling, advertising, and committing other internet “sins” that will tend to chase off intelligent or beneficial commenters to other places.
Merely getting a lot of hits and readers from commenters is useful in a marketing sense, but having interesting commenters who contribute to a blog is more important and beneficial to that blog in the long run. Comments are a subtle part of the internet, but like message boards such as Democratic Underground, form a useful way of meeting like minds, exchanging information and ideas, and form communities on the internet. A blog’s comment section can sometimes be as or more interesting than the blog its self, if you’re not reading one, you’re missing out on a lot.
Jeff from Protein Wisdom said it well when, in a comment on another blog, he ended with this thought about how commenters add to the discussion of the blogosphere:
In short, I think there’s more critical thinking than simply criticism happening out there. You just have to learn the new grammar of blog reading to find it.I couldn’t have said it better myself.