by Mike Shea on 7 May 2013
Fifteen years ago it was important to include a comment system in a website or blog if you wanted to build a community. These days, websites are no longer the hub of your community, social networks are. Websites and articles now float around these centralized hubs, linked and shared through the core social networks we've built surrounding our particular topic. Blogs don't need comment systems anymore and removing them offers many advantages. Removing comments makes your website simpler, easier to maintain, safer to run, and requires no moderation. Anyone who wants to share an opinion has a thousand services to do so.
The web is a very different place than it was fifteen years ago. Online communities don't swirl around particular websites. Instead, readers post the articles they like across their social network of choice; Twitter, Facebook, or Google Plus. Communities now centralize in these social networks and our beloved articles hang off of them at the edges. Articles are now an extension of a conversation, not the beginning or end of one. Someone writes an article, readers share and comment on it on their social network of choice, other people read it and write their own articles, those articles are shared, and the cycle continues.
As ubiquitous as comment systems are and as long as they've been used, they are still very difficult to maintain. As a website developer, you have a choice of going with a hosted solution such as Wordpress.com or Blogger, or running your own software. Most bloggers choose WordPress to run their blogs, but WordPress is notoriously hard to keep up to date and fiddly when it comes to plug-ins and custom templates. After using it for years, I finally gave it up and wrote my own simplified software, Pueblo.
When you remove comments, you remove all need to run CGI scripts on the open web — a common vector for hacking attempts. You also remove any ability for a spammer to fill your site up with links for online gambling, drugs, and porn. When you remove comments, the whole operation of running a blog gets a lot easier.
When we build a website, we fight for every reader that comes by to read our post. We fight for this by writing great content, writing it consistently, writing things that people actually want to read, and engaging with the community of people who might be interested. We drive every pixel on our page to provide something interesting and valuable to those who spend their time reading our work.
Yet when we put comments on our site, we're giving up our own site to those who haven't earned any right to get the visibility we're giving them. When I hear pro-comment arguments, I often feel like I hear that the argument is for exactly that, that every reader has a right to have their opinions read at the same level as the original work. That's simply not true. Content creators fight for every reader yet commenters don't have to do anything at all other than post a comment to get nearly the same level of attention.
There's no lack of places for people to write their opinions. Numerous websites offer free blogging packages, the most common being either Tumblr or WordPress.com.
There's no reason someone can't make their opinions heard on any topic. If their opinion is interesting enough or valuable enough to get attention, it will. If someone reads something on one site, disagrees with it, and writes up their own opinion on their Tumblr site, they will get the level of attention they deserve.
Popular Science recently published their reasoning for removing comments in their article Why We're Shutting Off Our Comments which cites actual research published in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication in a paper entitled The "Nasty Effect:" Online Incivility and Risk Perceptions of Emerging Technologies. Here are some relevant quotes:
We found that exposure to uncivil blog comments can polarize risk perceptions of nanotechnology along the lines of religiosity and issue support.
Online communication and discussion of new topics such as emerging technologies has the potential to enrich public deliberation. Nevertheless, this study's findings show that online incivility may impede this democratic goal. Much in the same way that watching uncivil politicians argue on television causes polarization among individuals, impolite and incensed blog comments can polarize online users based on value predispositions utilized as heuristics when processing the blog's information.
Aside from their continuing use of the word "utilize", there's actual data here. Incivility in comments ends up eroding the original message, regardless of its original merit. I was lucky enough never to have to deal with hostility in comments, but why open the door in the first place.
Not having comments doesn't mean we don't have to listen to our readers and engage with our community. I have an open email address on every page I write and I get lots of good and interesting email related to the topics about which I write. I also spend a fair bit of time on Twitter and a little less time on Google Plus. These are great places to talk to people with like minds and interesting opinions. Like the web itself, those worthy of attention often get the attention they deserve. More importantly, everyone can engage at the same level in the same space.
Everyone in the free world has a chance to speak on the net. It isn't the responsibility of every website to offer up space, time, money, and attention for it.