Who will fix blog comments?

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at: lawrence@krubner.com

If parts of the following make no sense, it’s because I’m trying to hide my disappointment and occasional anger, both with others and with myself.

Taryn East writes:

I’ve recently read the Jeff Atwood’s post: A blog without comments is not a blog, and realised that, while I don’t have comments turned off – I don’t exactly go out of my way to encourage much commenting on this blog.

I’d just like to say that I really do want to hear your opinions on the stuff I say. I’m frequently quite opinionated, and more often wrong than I like.

Slightly off-topic, but this reminds me of something that I dislike about blog comments, and that is their anonymous nature. I’d like to be able to lock conversations down to people who have identified themselves, preferably people who are posting something on a blog they own. I think conversations on Facebook tend to be smooth as it is people who know each other who are talking, rather than anonymous trolls.

I would shut down comments on this blog, if it was easy for folks to post their thoughts on their own blog, and then ping me, but it isn’t. The only systems now in place for allowing this are also open to abuse by spam. There is no easy system that would allow anyone deserving to ping my site.

I am frustrated with the sad decline of Technorati and the lost opportunity that was there. If Dave Sifry had done his job, then blog comments would no longer be necessary, as we could simply talk on our blogs and use a widget via Technorati to understand what comments people were leaving about our blog posts. This is what I thought Technorati was trying to do circa 2005, and then they just quit and gave up. I find that frustrating.

Frankly, if Technorati had simply lived up to its potential, then the world would never have needed Twitter. But Twitter is not a replacement for what Technorati was originally trying to do.

Someone needs to do this. The world still needs that service that allows blogs to operate true conversations with other blogs, without the use of comments. In an ideal world, everyone would post on their own blog, sort of like on Twitter everyone posts on their own page, but with a mechanism for notifying the other blogs that someone is talking at them.

SixApart was also a very great failure. They were among the early innovators of blogging and I expected great things of them. But then they sort of disappeared. Whatever happened to Mena Trott? This is not Facebook:

Pen: Mom, when is your birthday?
Me: September 16th
Pen: Mom, when is dad’s birthday?
Me: September 22nd.
Pen: Mom, when is Sarah’s birthday?
Me: July something. I don’t know for sure.
Pen: Mom, when is Kristin’s birthday?
Me: November something. The same as Sylvia’s. I think the 17th.
Pen: Mom, when is your birthday?
Me: I already told you.
Pen: When is dad’s birthday?
Me: I’m not doing this again.
Pen: Mom, when is Abe’s birthday?
Me: (Silence)
Pen: Mom, when is Abe’s birthday?
Me: Pen, stop asking about birthdays! No more today!
Pen: Okay.
Pen: Mom?
Me: (exasperated) Yes, Pen?
Pen: What day did Sarah have her baby?

Why is Mena writing about her child on her blog? Isn’t that what Facebook is for? What about photos of the children:

Seriously, why not post this to Facebook? An unwillingness to admit how much one has failed? Or just habits from another era? The original blogger uses tools she got used to in 1999?

Mena Trott, of course, was put on stage by her choice, but also by accident and luck, and she was uncomfortable on stage. She had not set out to be an entrepreneur, she was not good at it, and she ended up in some very awkward situations. All the same, if you and your husband are newly married, and someone suddenly offers you $23 million, you’d be a fool not to take it. But then you end making a fool of yourself, and dealing with the likes of Ben Metcalfe:

Les Blogs: Me + Mena

(Health Warning: this is a rant)

Mena Trott (co-founder and president of Six Apart) gave, in my opinion, a badly toned and way-off-base speech at the Les Blogs conference in which she requested for more civility in the blogosphere. She appealed to bloggers to be kinder in their commenting, and think about the feelings of the person they are communicating with.

I found it very jarring on many levels. For a start, this was a European blogging conference – and one of the underlying challenges I took away from it was how we mediate the different cultural approaches to blogging across the different European countries. And that’s before you factor in the various different American cultures too (there were more Americans at this conference than anyone other than the French!).

How people comment and how people relate to one another on the blogosphere is a cultural issue – and it seemed strange for Mena to be advocating what sounded like a very ‘West-Coast America’ approach to a conference of Europeans. Europeans are, if anything, known for their frank exchanges during conversation – certainly more than the Americans.

It was also unfortunate that the examples Mena gave mainly concentrated on a post by Jeremy Zawodny (another Californian). Her examples also seemed to be indicating factual inaccuracies rather than matters of “civility”.

But overall I just found the presentation to be simply ill judged for the audience she was addressing. Sure, it might be a positive aspiration for everyone to be “nicer”, but surely that’s not an issue for the blogosphere? Surely if people don’t relate to each other in a nice way all the time, that’s a matter for society in general?

I certainly didn’t think it had any place at a blogging conference. Even more so when you consider blogging is still a niche and is being driven into the mainstream by the very type of people who are opinionated and want to get the conversation and debate started – and opinionated views aren’t always “nice” to one the parties being discussed. Asking bloggers to water down what they are saying – and how they say it – seems very counter-productive.

It’s is my understanding that Mena has come under for some criticism on the blogosphere – both professional and person. Professional stuff, such as picking over business decisions she/Six Apart has made seems fair game to me – that’s business. Even more so you choose to take a figure-head role in a company pioneering, by definition, a highly opinionated market. If you don’t like it, step down, take yourself out of the limelight, etc.

However, I understand that there have been a number of personal comments written about Mena too. I’m not aware of what’s been written, so it’s difficult for me to comment on that – but what I would say is that people writing nasty personal things about each other in every medium – it’s case in point for why this is a matter for society, not specifically the blogosphere. People have written some pretty awful comments about me – and you just have to roll with the punches.

I would say that at times it did sound like she was speaking from a very emotional and personal position – clearly upset by what has been said about her. However, she was introduced as “Mena Trott – president of Six Apart” and as such I felt it just wasn’t appropriate to ‘make it personal’ within the environment and context she was addressing.

Whilst all of this was going on, we were making our thoughts known on the conference backchannel (like we did for every session, good or bad). From what others were saying it was clear her speech was getting a lot of other people’s backs up too, not just mine. I wrote several times that I found elements of the speech patronising – especially when the idea was floated about a suggested “terms and conditions” for commenting.

During the backchannel conversation I did finally loose my cool and describe what she was saying as “bullshit” – which I concede is a strong word to have used. However, this was a backchannel environment and as such I feel it went up to, but didn’t cross the line, of what you can reasonably expect from “backchannel discourse”. I also want to reemphasise that that the tone and content of Mena’s speech was so unbelievably way off what was appropriate given the nature of the audience. This sentiment has been backed up by others someone even described it as “startlingly naïve” during a post-session chat about it.

Shelley Powers does a wonderful job of remembering, circa 2007, how disappointing it was to look back and think about what might have been:

Once upon a time Burningbird ran under Movable Type. In fact, the weblog ran under Movable Type for at least a couple of years. But then, I also ran a Radio weblog, one through Blogger, my own form of WordPress (Wordform), and WordPress off and on–currently on.

At one time, Movable Type was the princess to Blogger’s Queen, a potential successor to the kingdom of Blog, Blog Away. Ben and Mena Trott were feted and fawned over. They were even invited to contribute to the book on weblogging that O’Reilly published, and to which I contributed.

Then that new darling, that rapscallion, WordPress came along with that era’s latest incarnation of wunderkid. Combined with Movable Type’s new, and loathed, licensing system and performance issues, MT still stayed a princess, but of what kingdom, no one really knew.

Today, nudged by Arthur in comments, and announced by Read/Write, Movable Type version 4.0 is on the way out to thee and me, and with its Typepad inspired performance enhancements, and hip, Web 2.0 interface, comes the politically astute move: Movable Type 4.0 will be open sourced.

On the downside, my first reaction reading this was, “I’d give anything for a really exciting tech story, right now.” Movable Type is part of another era. An era where releasing a new version of MT would cause the news to shoot to the top of Daypop. Remember Daypop? I bet most people reading this do not. They’ll remember Mena and cries of “Asshole!”, but not necessarily the tool that built the castle that is Six Apart.

It was surprising to hear that MT is being open sourced. Surprising, also, to read that Anil Dash is vice president of Six Apart now (when did that happen?) More surprising to see a positive review by Duncan Riley.

It was good, though, to be reminded of this princess that time forgot. To see her crown polished, and her sequined gown fluffed out and shiny. Too bad that she returns to the dance so late; many of us have already left the ball.

Eventually SixApart died.

But let’s back up.

This is about saving blog comments.

Technorati had a chance, but failed.

Ben and Mena Trott also had a chance. They also failed. Ant’s Eye View wrote the best bit of satire regarding pingback:

[The setting: the still-not-a-corporation-yet “offices” of Six Apart, circa 2002. BEN and MENA TROTT are sitting at computers next to each other, typing away.]

BEN: Honey pie?

MENA: Yes, sugar bear?

BEN: Do you ever get the feeling that it’s too much trouble to leave a comment with a link if you want to tell someone that you wrote about their post?

MENA: Not really, sweetums.

BEN: Hm. Well, I do. It sure would be nice if there was some way my blog could just tell the other blog that I wrote about it automatically…

MENA: Would something like that be hard to do?

BEN: Wait a sec… [typing quickly] Done!

MENA: How exciting! Blogs automatically notifying each other of updates. What would you call such a thing?

BEN: I was thinking “Auto Blog Notifier Pro”.


BEN: How about “Auto Blog Notifier XP”?

MENA: Those names both suck, snuggle bunny. How about “TrackBack”.

BEN: Ooh, that is good, pookie.

[As the lights go down, they kiss. Diabetics in the audience begin to go into sugar-shock.]

Act II

[The setting: The Blogosphere, one week later. We see two anonymous bloggers, clad in pajamas, begin playing with TrackBack.]

BLOGGER 1: Wow, this is cool! Automated post notification.

BLOGGER 2: Hm. How does your blog know I am who I say I am?

BLOGGER 1: Eh wha?

BLOGGER 2: How does your blog know that when it gets a ping from mine, that it actually came from me, and not someone else?

BLOGGER 1: Well, it doesn’t actually.

BLOGGER 2: Hm. And how does your blog know which pings to display and which to throw out?

BLOGGER 1: Throw out?

BLOGGER 2: Oh dear. It’s at least complicated to send a ping, right? So you couldn’t send huge amounts of them at once?

BLOGGER 1: What? Complicated? Nah, it’s just an HTTP POST.

BLOGGER 2: I sense trouble ahead.

BLOGGER 1: You’re just paranoid, pookie bear.

BLOGGER 2: What did you just call me?


[The setting: Six Apart, two years later. BEN and MENA are typing away on their computers.]

MENA: Oh look, tootsie-wootsie! I just got 548 TrackBack pings! Who knew that my once-a-year update on the corporate blog would be so popular?

BEN: Cool! Where are they from?

MENA: Let’s see… one from Anil’s blog… one from Jay Allen’s blog… and 546 from cialis-casino.com.

BEN: What?

MENA: That’s what it says. “cialis-casino.com”.

BEN: That’s not right.

MENA: And look, now I’m getting pings from cialis-casino.com on ALL my posts!

BEN: Oof.

MENA: There’s an easy way to block these, right, buttercup? And to remove the ones that have now been sprayed all over my site?

BEN: …

MENA: You ASS. [MENA produces a fire axe from beneath her desk and buries it in BEN’s skull. THE END.]

Fail, fail, fail.

But the need remains. It should be possible for 2 people to have a decent conversation while posting to the 2 blogs they own, each posting to their own blog. More so, it should be possible for n number of people to be able to have a conversation, each posting to their own blogs, yet the overall conversation should be easy to follow, despite it being spread across a very large number of blogs. And there should be a social mechanism that weeds out spam and trolls. For highly technical discussions, like breakthroughs in genetics research, it should be possible for the lab that makes the discovery to be able to post the discovery to their blog, and for that blog to be seen as the starting point of the conversation that follows, and it should be clear when some other lab or researcher of similar rank responds. In fact, the whole process of peer review of research, in the pre-publishing form that its had for 400 years, should now end and be replaced by a service that sorts the validity of comments left in response to an announcement. That is, post-publishing peer review.

This is where I thought everything was going in the summer of 2005. The implication was there in the writings of people like Clay Shirky. And yet, even in 2011, this obvious need has still not been met.

Late in 2005, Darren Hoyt and I developed Accumulist, which is now offline. This was a simple linking site, like del.icio.us and digg, but I hoped to develop it in the direction that I’m describing here, a site that could arbitrate the validity of people’s contributions to a debate. We were working for the entrepreneur Peter Agelasto, who then ended funding for the project. Sometimes a computer programmer needs to fire their entrepreneur. I now wish I’d taken off on my own to work on Accumulist full time.

And yet, even now, in 2011, the need for this kind of service in unmet.

Someone should build this.