I’ve gotten a couple of e-mails over the last couple of days asking me if I have any opinion about the slapfight currently going on between The New Republic and Daily Kos. The answer is no, not really, because I’m not entirely sure I understand what the hell it’s about, or even why I should care. At its heart it boils down to “print media writer gets annoyed at blog; blog returns hostility,” and, well, isn’t that a little 2002? Who gives a crap? Let TNR and Daily Kos have their fun, but let’s not pretend it matters.
Nevertheless, there’s a side issue to this whole pointless hoofraw which interests me. Probably the most cogent discussion of it comes from Josh Marshall, who chalks up the TNR overreaction to whatever it was overreacting about (I’m still not entirely sure, although here’s the (ironically) TNR blog entry in which it occurs) by noting that people at tiny political magazines might get a letter or two in response to something they write, whereas when you post on a blog and immediately you start accruing responses in comments and e-mails, and if you’re popular and controversial enough, you’ll get dozens and possibly hundreds of comments.
Josh makes a good point. Like Josh, I work in print and I work online. My offline writing regularly goes out to about half a million people in aggregate; I almost never get any comments about it. This site pulls in between 15 and 20 K people a day; I’m not sure I can remember the last time an entry didn’t elict a comment of some sort. I could put up an entry which, in its entirety, reads “I enjoy toast” and people would leave comments (indeed, I suspect that would be a lively comment thread). What’s more, after a certain and I suspect very low level of visitation, comments happen regardless. When I switched over to the Movable Type software in March 2003 (thus gaining the ability to allow comments) this site got about a tenth of the visitors it has now; nevertheless, nearly every entry then has comments too. There are LiveJournals which have 1% the audience I do which I’d bet get as many comments as this site gets. That’s what this medium is about. And I guess if you’re not used to that, maybe it looks like blogs are being attacked by monkeys. I don’t know.
One thing that I think is true about comments on a blog or site is that there are two factors which are highly significant regarding the overall quality of comments and of comment threads. The first factor is the size of the blog’s audience; basically, the larger the blog, the more people will comment. This means that two things are more likely to happen: One, the sheer number of morons and nutbags in the blog’s audience who feel compelled to respond will go up, dropping their little comment turds in the thread. These turds must be negotiated around; too many of these turds in a comment thread and suddenly the whole thread looks bad regardless of any substantitive discussion which might be happening, because even The Hermitage would look terrible covered in crap.
Two, when there are a large number of people commenting, the narrative of the thread becomes increasingly fragmented — people are responding to comments that happened four or five posts upthread, and none of the comments between those have anything to do with that conversation. This fragmenting can be mitigated by quoting from previous comments or by threading, but it still offers a herky-jerky reading experience.
The second factor is whether the blog is monotopical (all about politics, or open source, or ponies, or whatever); essentially my theory is that the fewer topics you cover in your blog, the more likely you are to have higher percentage of morons, nutbags and just plain obsessives among your commenters. Read the most popular political or tech blogs and you’ll see this most clearly, but I suspect (without having done any useful research on the subject of course) that any single-subject blog will get a disproportionate numbers of morons/nutbags/obsessives among the commenters.
Now, combine those two factors above — have a very popular, monotopical site — and you’ve got real trouble in the comment threads. There is likely to be substantive discussion, but the signal/noise ratio eventually becomes hard to manage. And this is without considering other factors, such as whether the blog’s proprietor is completely off his or her nut (because whackjob bloggers will attract whackjob commenters) or whether said blogger has notoriety outside or independent the blogosphere (in which case you add “crazed fanboys” to the mix of morons/nutbags/obsessives) or whether the blogger is an attractive woman, in which case you get an extra added helping of passive-aggressive creeps among the commenters. Really, such a fascinating melange of insanity!
Some very popular, monotopical bloggers don’t even bother turning on their comments most of the time. I think that’s an entirely reasonable solution, actually, particularly if the blogger has a life outside of blogging and doesn’t want to deal with the bother of moderating comments. Because if you are a popular, monotopical blogger (who is not also entirely insane) and you want to keep your comment threads from evolving into a miasmic stew of the lowest common rhetorical denominator, that’s what you have do. There are many who don’t, however, and their comment threads are, from a point of readability, a pure waste of time.
How does all this relate to this site? Well, you know. I actually think this place is reasonably good with the comments. It has an audience which is large (for the blog world) but which is not unwieldly. I cover a lot of topics, so the people who are genuine obsessives on one particular topic don’t tend to stick around. I don’t think I’m personally insane, nor do most the commenters seem that way, and while I have notoriety outside the Blog world, it’s not a notoriety so outsized that it comes with its own core of stalkers. And also, of course, I’m not a pretty girl, drat the luck. So the factors that trend a site toward monkey-like commenting are not greatly in evidence here.
Also, I spend a lot of time in my comment threads, which I think matters. I’m not a strident moderator, but I do think I help establish a tone, and I do think the people who comment here over a reasonable period of time reinforce that tone. Whether that tone is always a congenial one is of course a matter of debate, and not evey comment thread is a model of deep thought and civility. But I think by and large the commenting here is varying degrees of intelligent, substantive and fun. I think overall the Whatever has excellent commenters and comment threads, and that reading the comment threads adds to the value of the site rather than detracts from it, which I think is the case in many places.
Yes, I’m patting myself on the back for having a good reader base. Thank you all, you make me look good.
Is the general high level of comment quality on the Whatever sustainable? Well, that’s an interesting question, isn’t it? The site’s attendence is still growing, and we may get to the point where it the audience is so large that the signal-to-noise ratio in the comment threads gets to be too much. But then again, as they say in financial services commercial, past performance is not a promise of future gains. There’s no assurance growth will continue. I doubt this blog will ever become Daily Kos-sized or LittleGreenFootballs-sized, primarily because it’s not a monotopic blog, and I have no ambitions for it to be so, or to be anything more than what it is now — a place for me to blather. I suspect this is eventually a growth limiter (this is where it would have been useful to be a pretty girl).
However, even if the site does have its readership grow extensively from here out, I suspect its growth will happen as it has for most of its existence, which is, relatively slowly. The Whatever has never grown by leaps and bounds; it’s been a steady accumulation. I think this sort of growth produces a generally thoughtful class of commentors, although again, this is just an anecdotal observation. I have no rigorous data to back it up. But if it is true, then I think there’s also a good chance the comments and comment threads will continue to be of a general high quality. We’ll have to see over time.