The User Experience (UX) Of Comments vs. Conversation
Posted October 8, 2010 at 4:45 PM by Ben Nadel
Yesterday, Happy Cog launched a blog - Cognition - to contain thoughts that were too big for Twitter and too small for A-List-Apart (their online magazine "for people who make websites"). The blog does have a comments system; however, they've decided to try experimenting with comments in a radical new way: limiting responses to a tweetable length of 120 characters.
In the introduction to the new blog, Jeffrey Zeldman explains the experiment as such:
Speaking of experiments, there's our comments section. Everybody knows inline blog comments are going the way of the BBS and Gopher sites of yore. We're not ready to say "comments are dead" (we'll leave that for Wired Magazine's next cover story) but we have noticed the smell, and we're doing something about it.
Kids today are more likely to respond to a blog post on Twitter than in the article's comments section; so we've collocated our comments on Twitter. Share a tweet-length response here, and, with your permission, it will go there. If you are moved to respond with more than 140 characters, post the response on your website, and it will show up here. Clever, these Americans.
I had to read these two paragraphs about 8 times before I could hone in on exactly what I was feeling at a gut level. At first, I wanted to begrudge this concept entirely; but, after further reflection, I have to say that I entirely agree with what Zeldman is saying - that is, of course, depending on how exactly you interpret what he is saying.
I agree that comments are dead. Or, at least they should be - they serve little value. Conversations, on the other hand, are very much alive and are, I whole-heartedly believe, the future of all things web. In my own experience, the conversations with other people that I've had on this blog - bennadel.com - have been one of the main driving forces behind its continual growth. They serve to create a sense of community and provide a continuous stream of insight and inspiration. A good number of the blog posts that I write are actually based on the conversations that I've had in existing blog posts.
At the time of this writing, I have 27,290 comments posted live on this site. Sure, not all of these comments have lead to conversation; but, I would argue that the vast majority of them have contributed to the collective conversation in thoughtful and, often times, profound ways. The things people have discussed on this site have influenced the way I think about everything from technology to love to movies and to a work-life balance (just to name a few topics).
Of course, conversation is, by nature, bi-directional. That is, it requires talking just as much as it requires listening. As such, it necessarily has to become my personal responsibility to cultivate conversations on this site. That is, I have to actively engage with people who leave "comments" in order to help create "conversation" and a sense of community.
This is what I love to do - this is the only way I ever want to experience this website.
This is the only way I want others to experience this website.
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Comments on blog posts can be better than the content in the post. I can remember many times comment sections would take the conversation to a new level. This is especially true on scienceblogs and other sites like that where people are passionate about their field.
We geeks tend to have less passion about the topics since there are no right ways to do a lot of things, only the most efficient or logical.
One thing that does bother me is that some have said they have trouble communicating in text. I am not sure why that is the case, but I do have some thoughts about it. Does coding make people lose the use of their written language? I would think that blogging would help people express themselves better, but it may be more quantity rather than quality.
I agree completely that comments can often be more interesting than the blog post itself. And, I think this makes sense because it brings in different and provocative points of view.
You touch on a very interesting point, though - whether or not a topic *is* open to discussion. I think there are topics that lend more easily to conversation than other. On this site, where I explore approaches to problem solving, often times, there is a LOT of room for conversation based on the experience that others have had.
However, if I were to read something like a "product review" on Amazon.com, the opportunity for conversation might be much more limited. Sure, people can talk about the product and its effectiveness; but, at the end of the day, the product is a "fact." That is, the product itself is not open to debate.
As far as whether or not it's hard to express one's self, I think that comes down to experience. The more you write, the easier it is to articular yourself in writing. Maybe??
I think that the ability to express oneself textually is partly based on experience/practice, and partly on one's natural affinity for writing, as well as knowledge of the language. I think often when people have trouble communicating via text, it's because they aren't familiar with how to succinctly express their message without body language and immediate feedback. (e.g. "You know what I mean? Like...")
As a long-time programmer who does very little writing, but likes to think he's pretty decent at it, I'd say that coding does not detract from one's ability to use written language as a form of expression. In fact, I believe that my penchant for structured programming languages has actually increased the technical aspect of my English writing.
Perhaps not actually adding to the conversation in any discernibly constructive way, but I just wanted to drop in and say that I completely agree with everything you've said. Comments are dead - long live conversations (and the relationships they forge as a result). One of the reasons I comment so seldomly is that I know that i'm not prepared to commit to the conversation that could/should ensue. Some might call that lazy, I call it judicious.
In fact I would go as far as to argue that the shorter the comment, the LESS value it is to the audience as a whole. Interesting little research project waiting to happen...
I would agree that body language probably has something to do with it. I know when I talk, I use a lot of gesturing to help facilitate the flow of the conversation. Not having that as a device can definitely be limiting (until you start writing a lot). I know that when I record my voice, I still do a lot of gesturing, even though no physical representation of me is recorded.
Speaking of the relationships that it forges, this reminds me of the quote you relayed to me once. To paraphrase (as I don't actually remember it):
People don't mind being used - they just don't want to be forgotten.
I think the embracing of conversation takes this mentality to heart. When we choose to engage with people, it makes a strong statement that we are not forgetting about them, which of course, makes all kind of other unspoken statements.
Wow, I must really be out of it because I had no idea that "inline" blog comments were going away. I guess I'm backwards anyway, because I'm not into Twitter and if I have anything useful to say, I usually can't express it in 140 characters or less.
In other words, I totally agree with you. One of the things that I love about blogs is the conversation that can ensue in the comments. Some blog authors more focused on marketing may end up valuing the Twitterized approach to blog comments, but as long as full-length blog comments still serve a purpose, they aren't going to go away.
I also found the "going away" remark to be a bit odd; but, I suppose it struck us as odd because we don't see there use like other people do. I certainly don't want to get rid of them; like you, it is precisely the conversational environment that I love (and with to help establish).
But, since you bring up "Marketing," I do have to say that having people tweet their comments is a stroke of marketing genius! When you do that, you don't just own the eyeball's of the people reading your article - you own the eyeballs of all the friends of the eyeballs reading your article.... which is, of course, exponentially greater.
It's like the Facebook "Like" button on steroids because it operates on the same principle; but, it operates in an environment (Twitter) that doesn't require mutually friending (like Facebook does). So, as much as I love conversation, I do have to give merit the marketing power of the tweetable comment.
Sorry, this is off-topic.Last couple of weeks I am getting an error like "An error occured" when I click on discussion links in your blog...also when I typed the main url bennadel.com also, I got the same...but this is happening sometimes...
just like the right one in which I typed also gave me the same...but refreshing leaves that error...I am writing this to get your attention on this, probably you know this...I am a regular reader of this blog....
Thanks for reading...
Thank my man - between 4am and 5am something eats up my database processing and a lot of requests tend to timeout waiting for a CFLock that I have round some of the data caching. I'm still trying to get to the bottom of it. I think it's a spidering issue.
@Ben et al,
I love this site because:
1) I learn something -- from Ben and from others
1b) It's great reference
2) Ad-less (or ads within reason. No annoying ads that you need to play Missle Command with as they float across)
3) Community. I never post a comment. Um. Wait. I'm doing that now. You know what I mean: I don't post meaningless, "<Opposite viewpoint> is stupid. <Personal viewpoint> is right." Or, "I'm angry and wanted to vent on this comment."
Maybe useless self-promotion is dying? I barely touch Twitter and am using FaceBook about 1/10th of what I used to.
My minor criticism of BenNadel Comments is that it might be nice to have color-coding available for notable/less notable comments. If I write, "LOL!" and that's it, how about we shade the comment's heading gray? If it's noteworthy code (a good question, a good answer, etc), the heading might have a green background. In short, "is this comment useful or just filler?" You see variations of this idea on other sites (collapsed, if abusive).
I'll just vote for this comment to be shaded gray. ;-)
It fills me with joy to hear that you like this site because of the content and the community that it provides. That's what I like about curating it and I'm glad that comes through. And, I appreciate the way in which you participate.
Your point about conversations being bi-directional, and therefore the inherent obligation of the site owner to cultivate them is spot on.
For many bloggers, the sheer time involved with replying/cultivating multiple conversations must be incredibly time consuming!
I wonder if Facebook pages have help authors/communities to strike a good balance between 'comment and response, and the cultivation of conversation'? What I mean is, that the initial statement and all subsequent comments and reply comments can actually be quite short, and posted easily.
Is this what Happy Cog are trying to emulate?
It is *definitely* time consuming to keep the conversation going. To be completely transparent, I am losing the battle to some degree. I have over 1,000 emails in my inbox right now, many of which are comments posted to blog entries that I have yet to respond to. Part of that is just from laziness; part of it is from being busy. Part of it is from spending waaaaay too much time watching Law & Order (OMG that's such an awesome show!).
I think the solution is just to be more dedicated - not to stop having the conversation.
I'm still trying to figure it all out :)
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