The Lifecycle of Comments

The blawgosphere lives.  Which also means it evolves, and it’s evolving right before our eyes.  What started as a discussion has evolved, little by little, into a form of ordered chaos, and is now changing again into more limited and less interesting conversation.  It’s a shame, and it’s a necessity.

Above the Law posted a major change to its comment policy.

As the Above the Law community continues to grow, more people are posting absurd, inane, and arguably offensive comments. And more people are complaining about those comments — in the comments, as well by email and other means.

There isn’t a great deal of overlap between readers of Simple Justice and Above the Law.  For those unfamiliar, ATL deals largely with issues that interest younger associates at Biglaw, focusing on layoffs and bonuses, with a side order of infantile sexual issues amongst young lawyers.  It’s devolved since David Lat handed over the reins to Elie Mystal, whereas it once looked closely at the sex lives of hottie judges, it now discusses the dating problems of associates with acne.

Despite, or because of, this focus, ATL has a huge audience, dwarfing blawgs like Simple Justice.  One might suspect that these “best and brightest” of the Slackoisie would offer some thoughtful comments, challenging each other to show who was the bestest and brightest.  Nope.  Instead, their comments prove that even the former editor of law review is blithering idiot.  The comments section was a wasteland of childish stupidity, with the first half dozen usually relegated to the commenter who desperately hoped to be “first” to the latter commenters randomly inserting the meaningless language for which one would smack their fifth grader.  It was not merely worthless, but truly embarrassing. 

At the same time, Lawprof Jack Balkan had enough of the vitriol in comments at Balkanization, and decided that the new default status would be to close comments altogether.

[T]he comments sections are populated by regular trolls and many threads have turned into little more than name-calling. There is very rarely any serious analysis; mostly there is point scoring and vitriol. Many regular readers have written to say that they find the comments section a distraction and think the blog would be far better without it.

Dan Solove at Co-Op notes the decline in worthiness of comments, but that the “comment culture” of various blawgs differ so greatly.  His blawg, which is far more academic in tone and content, has yet to see its commentary devolve to the point of being problematic, while Orin Kerr at Volokh and Walter Olson at  Secular Right have had very different experiences.  I’ve thrashed about to find a way to encourage discussion while discouraging problems.  I’ve been largely unsuccessful, in that no one thinks they are a problem and many demand their right to post whatever they want.

Here, the trend has taken another curious shift in the past few weeks.  This time, the evolution has been closer to revolution, as it has happened with such ferocious speed that it was impossible to miss.  Despite more than 8000 comments at Simple Justice since its inception, there has been a sudden falling off of discussion by many of the “regulars” on the internal comment section here.  It seems that the community that developed has moved from Simple Justice, and blawgs in general, to a new home: Twitter.

It’s not that the subjects aren’t being discussed, but that they are being discussed elsewhere.  This presents a problem for blawgs, as the discussion on twitter about subjects on blawgs means that many are left out, the discussion isn’t memorialized along with the post and the depth of discussion is necessarily shallow, given the limitations twitter imposes on anything resembling actual thought.  If all of your ideas can be stated in 140 characters or less, you are either the most succinct writer in the world or your thoughts aren’t very profound. 

The reason for this shift is clear:  community.  My primary community, the criminal defense lawyers in the practical blawgosphere, spends a lot more time on twitter these days.  Some can be found there every evening, twitting away.  I tend to jump in and out in short bursts, then move to another activity that involves flesh and blood people, but that’s my choice.  Others find the virtual community more comforting, more addictive. 

Unlike the comment section on blawgs, twitter is self-moderating.  If someone’s twits either lack interest or annoy, you simply unfollow and, poof, they disappear from your screen.  To the extent my efforts to clamp down on comments stifled people who had things that needed saying, twitter provides a place where no one can stop them.  Now every person has their very own soap box, and they can twit to their heart’s content.

Of course, as the lifecycle of twitter is far more accelerated than anywhere else online, there have been mass deletions of spammers from time to time, who comprise many of the “followers” of lawyers in the hopes that you’ll follow them in return as a matter of etiquette.  Just yesterday, twenty of my “followers” suddenly disappeared, all of them spammers.  The twittersphere is rife with abusive potential, flagrant marketing, self-promotion and lies.  But no one can make you follow anyone you don’t want to, and most of the more aggressive marketers look far more painfully desperate than they realize, giving rise to some humor and little persuasion.

This plus for twitter, though, is a minus for the blawgosphere.  It reduces the value of blawgs by siphoning off the valuable discussion and leaving either a void or a palette to be painted by the nuttier folks who file in and out.  There are still plenty of nuts around to comment, even if the more thoughtful people have gone elsewhere for their discussions.  Statistics here show that readership remains high, and increasing, while discussion wanes. 

Ironically, other blawgers who have been less successful in gaining readership have had far greater success gaining exposure on twitter.  Twitting requires little thought and a happy face for someone to succeed in becoming popular.  Twit regularly and be supportive of other twits and people will follow.  It’s the perfect laboratory for observing the mechanics of positive human interaction, despite it being a substantive wasteland.  But community doesn’t require substance, just pleasant co-existence.

I don’t know what this means for the blawgosphere, where the discussion was a large part of the fun.  I don’t find the twittersphere anywhere near as fulfilling as others do, and have no plans to spend my evenings twitting from now on.  Perhaps this is a leading indicator of the death of the blawgosphere, even as those marketing to lawyers who are terminally behind the curve that they need to start a blawg to market themselves to death.  If you have to “sell” people on using new technology, it’s probably neither new nor cool anymore, and the cook kids have moved on to something else.

Be thankful that the readers/commenters at Above the Law haven’t brought their idiocy to twitter yet.  Check out the comments to the change notification post to get a sense of just how awful they are and how little they contribute.  And these children are paid $160,000 base salary?  Would they follow each other on twitter to see who wrote “first” or “asslobster” (one of the favorite expressions, apparently, amongst the Slackoisie)?  I can’t imagine that anyone would tolerate this nonsense, but then I’m not a card-carrying member of the Slackoisie. 

As I write for the sake of writing, I may well be the last person standing in the practical blawgosphere when all the cool kids have long since moved on.  But like the others who have suffered the evolution of blawg comments, I am sorry to see the discussion either devolve or flow elsewhere.  It’s part of the benefit and enjoyment of blawging.  But the good people will go where the community exists, and if it ceases to be here, then there’s little that can be done about.

As twitter (at least for the moment) continues its spectacular growth, it drains the blawgosphere of life.  Whether this means the blawgosphere is nearing the end of its lifecycle, I don’t know.  But it is most assuredly evolving.

21 thoughts on “The Lifecycle of Comments

  1. Patrick

    Above the Law asked for this problem, by allowing anonymous comments and failing to moderate in the first place. Arguably the lack of a comment is what made the site so big (apart from stories on judicial hotties) was the comment policy, which encourages gangs of idiots to engage in flamewars against one another. There are lots of idiots on the internet, and they gravitate to a site which tells them, through its comment policy, that they’ve found a home.

  2. Grandy Peace

    SHG, Patrick is dead on. It’s critically important to moderate, and IMO allowing anonymous comments is foolish. Yes, having to get another login//password can be annoying (though things like openID continue to get wider adoption), but it also acts as a first-contact filter against the truly awful stuff. Even with an “ID” (a virtual face, if you will), people often misbehave online. Without even that. . . well you’ve seen it.

    You’ve got to provide a means for a given community to (1) self-moderate and (2) fall back on a higher power to deal with the true jack holes. The interesting thing with blog comments is they’re about as technologically backwards as communication gets in this medium. That’s going to change eventually; features like reputation/voting/etc will make their way into the comment component of blog software is my guess. Or, there will be tighter integration with other channels, channels like Twitter. There are some blogware packages that integrate directly with forums, for example (not a perfect solution for reasons I’ll not get into at this time).

    These things help make a group of like-minded folks (even if that’s just in one particular subject) a community (they aren’t the only thing, mind you). If you[editorial] don’t foster that sense of community you are more likely to wind up with a cesspool.

    And no, blogs aren’t going anywhere. I think there are a variety of reasons for this – it provides a reading medium that is both familiar and effective. It allows for longer, more detailed writing and discussion will sometimes reflect that (tweets must be 140 characters or less, which provides benefits and drawbacks, and makes Twitter a very different communication medium). It’s more akin to stepping to a podium in a lecture hall, or perhaps better stated as getting the floor inside the Senate.

    We just need smart ways to merge the channels where it makes sense to do so.

  3. SHG

    I agree, but it doesn’t explain the phenomenon elsewhere.  Plenty of blawgs allowed anon comments, such as Volokh, but the culture of the blawg comments was substantially different.  And yet each devolved in its own way, but still devolved.

    While strong moderation can control the sort of garbage that became routine at ATL, it can also stifle the desire to others to comment for fear that they too will get smacked.  A think I’ve done that here.  Despite my attempts to encourage discussion, my intolerance for stupidity has made some reluctant to tempt fate.  But the alternative, having such useless, nasty, infantile comments as ATL, was unacceptable as well.  It’s not easy.

  4. SHG

    I love Popehat, but it’s still a relatively new blog and early in its own lifecycle.  Your thoughts may well change over time as you begin to experience the pleasures of increasing readership, and new and unanticipated problems arise with readers and commenters.  What seems clear and obvious to you now may well become increasingly muddy as Popehat develops and the problems less simple, the solutions less simplistic and the burden increasingly heavy, time-consuming and annoying.

    Give it some time.  When you write “And no, blogs aren’t going anywhere,” this may be a naive statement.  Everything changes, and blogs will most assuredly go “somewhere” and perhaps disappear altogether when the “next big thing” comes along.  The question is where, and the answer is unknown at the moment,  Give it time, and keep an eye on the trends.  In time, you will begin to see them.

  5. Grandy Peace

    SHG, I’m an old hat when it comes to online communities, and this is very much a subject of interest for me (I recommend Mr Shirky if you aren’t familiar with him). Popehat is new(ish), but I’ve help run several moderately sized web fora (and participated in several more), and I’ve been participating in some way shape or form online since the early 90s (BBSs, discussion groups, email lists, web forums, and even telepathy – oops, I’m not supposed to discuss that one).

    I’ve got more than my fair share of experience observing communities as they ebb and flow, both from an administrative standpoint and as a participant. I’ve watched the decay that settles in even as growth takes place. I’ve seen what happens when moderation is too lax and when it is too heavy handed. I’ve see what happens when it is mostly gotten right (and how once you get big enough, there’s always going to be a vocal group complaining). I’ve seen communities stagnate and the perils that come with it. I’ve seen and battled more trolls that I care to count, ranging from moronic to clever. I’ve seen the absolute dregs of humanity attempt to invade communities. I’ve watched the fascinating ways people interact online.

    While message board communities are somewhat different beasts, they are kin. I already have an idea of the kinds problems Popehat will experience if readership (and commenter participation) does in fact increase (and even explode), and the kind of work that goes along with making an effort to keep the place looking spiffy. I don’t say this to brag, and do not consider myself an expert by any stretch. I say it all because I do have an understanding of what may come, and those battles will be similar to battles I’ve already fought. I have the scars to prove it.

    And you’re absolutely 100% correct – moderation is *work*. It’s no fun at all. It can deter honest discussion and the missteps made in moderation tend to have deeper impact than those made as a civilian. Communication is inherently more difficult in the digital world than face-to-face and there are a lot of casualties because of this, especially since so many people treat it like face-to-face communication (or try to).

    As for blogs, we may be having a semantic discussion here. They may well evolve, in fact they almost certainly will at some point. But there will never be one single method of communication that dominates the tubes (e.g. just Twitter or the Cyberdine Systems version of Twitter from the future that seeks to enslave us all), and right now Blogging meets certain needs better than anything else. Any replacement needs to meet those needs as well as (while providing other benefits) or better than blogging.

  6. SHG

    I’m going to have to take your word on your past lives since you’re anonymous here, but I’m happy to do so since experiences vary and time will tell regardless of what either of us think today.

  7. Patrick

    Which reminds me of your post the other day on parking ticket enforcement (at least that’s what the comment crowd made it) in which the lunatics came out in force, with claims about the illegitimacy of courtrooms which display the gold-fringed flag of war.

    It’s true we don’t attract that crowd (often – we have had run-ins with Serbian advocates for Balkan genocide, and an invasion inspired by Bill White, the online Nazi who was recently indicted for threatening a federal judge), but we’ll get there.

    As for Grandy, I can vouch for his experience moderating touchy people at a site larger than almost any blog, including Dr. Derek Smart, one of the most famous trolls in the history of the internet.

  8. SHG

    The funny thing about the lunatics is that they can be absolutely sincere and believe that they’re questions/doubts/issues are extremely well founded.  When we lawyers “dismiss” them out of hand, that just proves how the cabal exists to put down the little guy and that we’re all part of a grand conspiracy to subvert justice.  It can be exasperating.

    As for Grandy, I didn’t doubt him.  It’s just hard to say for sure without a score card.  I’m of the general view that people should use their true identities if they want to assert credibility or experience aside from the merit of their stand-alone ideas, but I realize that many can’t or won’t for personal reasons.  I note that simply because of the obvious problems created when one is left to guess as to how much, if any, credit to give them.  After all, they could be one of the lunatics.  You never know.

  9. Windypundit

    I haven’t fled the comments for Twitter, because Twitter doesn’t do much for me. I don’t see the attraction and I don’t like the interruptions.

    As for comments, I leave them pretty wide open. For whatever reason, my blog hasn’t attracted much of a community, so trolls aren’t a problem. I almost wish for trolls. At least it wouldn’t be so lonely. Sniff.

  10. SHG

    I too wonder why that is.  I suppose it’s because your posts are so astute and complete that there isn’t much to add, most of us just reading with admiration and wondering why we didn’t write it ourselves.

    As for me, I often wonder why I give out far more link love than I get back.  Sniff.

  11. Jdog

    Part of the fare (in at least two senses) ’round here is the snarking. If one can’t take a shot or two, this ain’t the place to stick one’s body parts out. If such things are painful to the eye, the eyes will probably want to go elsewhere.

    If one enjoys a good-natured snark every now and then — or more often — that need can get met, often with much the same cast of characters, on twitter, or even both by a bit of metasnarking.

    That said, even if one accepts twitter as art, it’s still haiku art, and a mind does not live on haiku — nor snark — alone.

  12. Windypundit

    Hey! I like that theory.

    Maybe you don’t get more links because those other bloggers are afraid their readers will not want to return to a blog of lesser quality after having read yours.

  13. Jdog

    Sure. Didn’t mean to imply “all,” as I don’t think that’s the case, and try to avoid lying, except out of necessity or for profit.

  14. Gritsforbreakfast

    For decades the dead-tree daily newspaper was important (and still is) with ZERO comment functions, and even now comments on MSM sites are notoriously nonconstructive and trollish. I consider commenters welcome, but I’m not writing to attract them and will mercilessly oust them when they misbehave.

    If twits and trolls are migrating to Twitter to discuss my blog, more power to them. I DO happen to allow anonymous comments, mostly because I have a lot of state agency readers who couldn’t use their own names to discuss state issues, but I also aggressively moderate for trollish behavior. If somebody doesn’t like what I’ve written on Grits, I’m quite happy for them to leave their opinions somewhere else.

  15. SHG

    I can’t begin to imagine the problems faced when being critical of particular police officers.  It takes gut to face the possible consequences.  I admire you greatly for standing your ground. 

  16. Philip Gusterson

    Blogs will evolve to work with Twitter. We will see more and more bloggers adding Tweetbacks to their blog posts that show what tweeters are saying about the post, and mixing these with the more substantial comments. Perhaps these succinct tweets will prompt deeper comments. If they just spark off more tweets I have to agree that the conversation will just never be as satisfying as a good comment thread.

    One thing I have to wonder is whether lawyers will really have the time to evolve their blogs in this way as social media becomes more time-consuming alongside becoming more engaging.

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