Saturday, March 25, 2017


Comments underneath posts are notoriously bad, and the more popular the website, the more absolutely infuriating commenters it attracts.  Most good sites attract at least some good commenters, however.

Which site has the best commenters? What do you think creates that?


Sam L. said...

I have no idea, but your commenters are usually pretty rational, and you don't seem to attract trolls (see Zachriel at Maggie's Farm), or long-form answerers (see Ares Olympus at Had Enough Therapy). I note that According to Hoyt has good commenters, and a very few negative ones. My theory is that you normally eschew politics, and she attracts fans of science fiction and fantasy who are not welded to social justice.

james said...

I learn a lot here, at Grim, and at Rantburg when I have time to read it. The site needs to attract a critical mass of flexible people with relevant domain knowledge, or else an eagerness to learn. You know about your own site and Grim's, and Maggies, and others I don't see.

Obviously if the owner(s) don't interact with the commenters, they don't get useful commenters. But I don't think the site really grows unless the commenters interact with each other. I don't know how that happens. The essays need to be somewhat open-ended, but not too much so, and the disrespectful squelched.

Rantburg is a news aggregator, with sources from all over the world. The moderators contribute stories, and so do some of the regulars. A lot of the regulars' comments are "me too" or "what horrible nuts those people are", and not worth attention, but some of them are current or retired pros with a lot of domain knowledge, who can put news stories into perspective. It grew because it provided news not easily found elsewhere, starting with one man and his own server.

Back in the day Instapundit provided links and not much punditry (value-added?) and I've no idea at all why it got to be so popular--maybe it was the aggregation that was the value-added. I much preferred the Belmont Club/USS Clueless model--but it takes so long to write those kind of things that I have done rather little myself.

Maybe part of it is cross-fertilization, where the commenters are bloggers in their own right. Getting stats on that kind of thing might be a little hard--what's a good sample size, and how many comments do you have to read to get a feel for the quality?

Althouse' commenters seem to be a mix of non-bloggers and bloggers. She gives value-added with frequent posting, legal meets social analysis, and professional constitutional legal analysis. She also puts in a lot of pop stuff for people to argue about. Which came first? I'd have to go back through the archives to see.

Christopher B said...

I'd vote for Althouse and Megan McArdle, who seems to attract good participation wherever she goes.

I think it's a combination of a writer with strong principles but expresses them in a reasonable manner combined with a willingness to engage with readers from time to time. Commenters who engage trolls with humor help immensely.

Roy Lofquist said...

Add my vote for Althouse, Belmont Club, Instapundit. one not mentioned, Power Line.

james said...

A quick spot-checking of older Althouse posts suggests that she's been doing pretty much the same thing all along. And she started off slow.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I don't engage with Instapundit commenting all that often. He does have some good ones, but too many who are just echo chamber and rather oversimplified. I used to read the Volokh Conspiracy comments before they switched to the facebook method of identification. Those were quite good. Domain knowledge, as James points out can be very useful.

As for political commentary, I try to provide value-added by looking at some distance or through other lenses. I don't post greatly in favor or opposed to particular candidates or groups, partly because I don't even like the people I like all that much. I may not be good at writing about other angles, but I'm good at remembering to do it, and that is often enough for an intelligent audience.

You are mentioning sites I don't visit that often. Perhaps it is time to shake things up a bit. Good list.

As for Copithorne, he lived about an hour away, and I asked a few people in the area if they knew him. None did. One knew his mother, who was on a mental-health board somewhere, but not well enough to offer much opinion. Copithorne had something of an obsessional quality that undermined what was clearly a fair intelligence. I always wondered if he had some OCD or Aspergery tendency. Not a good mix for a site of mine, as I have something of that myself. As for Zachriel over at Maggie's, I have wondered if he is a she even though he feels very male in interaction. I have also wondered if he is more than one person.

Unknown said...

McArdle's commenters on some of the more interesting seem to have a sizable proportion of people just saying that she is heartless/a corporate shill/uninformed rather than engaging with what she has written. I suppose those are easy to filter out as a reader. I'd agree that the quality of commenting when Volokh became part of the WaPo took a nosedive. There is high quality on Schneier, but that is a niche blog.

Trimegistus said...

Ace of Spades HQ. The "Moron Horde" are funny, fearless, and very sharp.

Sam L. said...

AVI, I often/usually refer to Zach as The Gang of Z. Never thought of him/them as female. As for Powerline, I don't want to have anything to do with Facebook.

jaed said...

Disorganized thoughts:

What creates good commenters, I think, is community. Or better, what we mean when we say a site has good commenters is that it has a good commenting community, which is not quite the same thing. A fellow-feeling among commenters, a feeling that this is a place to hang out and argue with other souls, leading to valuing the integrity of the place, leading to squelching one's own worser instincts (and also squelching those of others).

What creates that feeling of community is commenters behaving like they're in a community. (Self-referentiality ho!) One of my hobbyhorses is that people tend to model their behavior on what they see around them. In any situation, they look to others to see how they're expected to act, and most people are profoundly influenced by the people around them. Which implies that polite, honest commenters can form a critical mass, and tend to either drive away or positively influence others who join later who possibly are not naturally inclined to honesty or politeness, but can manage it. Or vice versa, of course.

See "Usenet every September", and the September That Never Ended (when AOL gave its users Usenet access). The community itself educates newcomers, ideally, who then assimilate to the norms there.

Also one technological fact, which I have to admit astonishes me: one way to promote community feeling is to keep track of which comments everyone has read, and show just the new ones (in context). A system I was on had software from the 1970s that did this. And no one in the web comments business does it! Plus some of the comment system designs positively encourage drive-by posting—by putting the "add a comment" box at the top, or not showing all the comments by default, or failing to enforce a consistent commenter identity. These are anti-community design patterns and I am convinced that they account for a great deal of the toxicity of typical comment sections (and why people who land in a good comment community are always plaintively asking for recommendations for other such. They're rare.)

Donna B. said...

Years ago, I decided to not look at comments when they numbered over 100. I've lowered that to 50, so it's a rare occasion that I read comments at Althouse or Megan McArdle now. I too miss the pre-wapo Volokh.

Neoneocon's comments are good. As James mentioned, blogger participation is very important.

I guess it's just a matter of taste, but I can barely tolerate AoS commenters.

And double ditto what jaed says about the technology.

Boxty said...

From the alt-right, Vox Popoli and Steve Sailer's blog.

Scott Adam's blog has interesting comment threads too.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

This was a rather off-hand post that has turned into something rather more interesting. It was inspired by the high quality of commenters at Slate Star Codex (McArdle is a commenter), though there are just so many that by the time I get there it is never worth my while. that's one big cocktail party. I am intrigued by jaed's comments about the technology. Please elaborate about how comments were displayed and why this might have a strong effect.

Donna, i have similarly gone down from 100, but only to 75. Though I am considering 30.

jaed said...

The 70s system was terminal-based (of course), pure text. The system was divided into conferences (usually a subject area, sometimes something more whimsical). Each conference could have any number of topics, and anyone could start a topic.

So typically, you'd log in, go to a conference, and ask for the new posts. This gave you new posts - ones you hadn't seen yet - for each topic (that had any), in order. New posts were a page at a time. At the end of a topic, it paused, and you could either respond, or go on to the next topic with new posts. (You could also read a topic from the beginning, skip to the end of a topic without reading, and so on, but these were not typical interaction flows. The easiest thing to do, the path of least resistance, was to read new comments, then respond if you wanted, then go on to the next topic.)

This did a number of things.

- It encouraged posters to read all the posts before responding, and thus discouraged drive-by posting. It couldn't enforce reading, obviously, but the design made it clear that you were expected to read the posts before adding a comment.

- No threading made for a conversational back-and-forth that's harder with a threaded layout. Since anyone could start a new topic, large digressions had a place to go without derailing the original conversation.

I think this was a key and underestimated aspect: ongoing conversations make for community, and tossing posts up on the board with no interaction between them is not conversation.

- Because any new comments were automatically brought to users' attention, topics could and did go on for years. This gave the conferences a sense of history—important in socializing new users. (I think history is a key part of developing a sense of community.) It also made reinventing the wheel less likely, because if someone wanted to discuss N again, and there was already a topic for N, adding to it made more sense than starting afresh.

Consistency of identity is also a key thing. (In this system, real names were required, but those were more innocent days on these here intarwebz, and I think a stable pseudonym works just as well.) One of the things that consistent identity did on this system was enable people to encounter others in a variety of ways, because the conferences were very different—different subject matter and often very different culturally. Bluntly put, it's harder to demonize the person you're arguing politics with if you were having a friendly discussion of rose gardening (in the gardening conference) or teething (in the parenting conference) or the true nature of puns (in the jokes conference) yesterday. Or simultaneously. It meant that frequent participants tended to know each other on multiple levels.

You could email a poster privately, too. I'm not sure whether that's critical, but it was definitely helpful at times.

Christopher B said...

Re Zach.

Some of the Maggie's commenters think multiple people post under that name as well, and I seem to remember an admission to that effect made by Zach at one point though I doubt you'd get a straight answer at this point.

Texan99 said...

I enjoy many of the comments at McArdle's site, which is among my favorites. Slate Star Codex is good. David Foster's place, Chicago Boys, is often extremely good. I really miss Cassandra's site, Villainous Company, for its comments as well as for her pieces.

Grim said...

In terms of your second question -- 'what do you think creates good comment sections?' -- I think two things are crucial.

1) Enforce a policy that all people commenting must treat each other with mutual respect. It's fine to say "Barack Obama is an idiot," or "Donald Trump is an idiot," but not that other people present are idiots (even if they are). That way you have an atmosphere in which people are less likely to get defensive, and more likely to be thoughtful in their expressions.

2) Engage the commenters. That turns a one-off expression of opinion into a conversation, and makes them feel like joining other conversations as well.

RichardJohnson said...

Christopher B.
Re Zach,Some of the Maggie's commenters think multiple people post under that name as well, and I seem to remember an admission to that effect made by Zach at one point though I doubt you'd get a straight answer at this point.

Zach is definitely a collective endeavor. 1) Zach often uses "we" to refer to himself. I doubt Zach is referring to the royal "we." 2)At times Zach's replies are so quick and voluminous that I doubt that one person could have constructed a reply with that volume so quickly. Conclusion: at times a comment from Zach is a team effort. That was my conclusion about Zach before he began commenting at Maggie's Farm.

Which is why Zach has been called Z-Team of Gang of Z.

I liked the way AVI dealt with Zach not long ago. It appears that stopped Zach from commenting - or did AVI block any further comments?

Donna B.
Years ago, I decided to not look at comments when they numbered over 100. I've lowered that to 50,so it's a rare occasion that I read comments at Althouse or Megan McArdle now.
We may disagree on the cutoff points, but I agree that it is best to ignore posts with a high volume of comments. I note that when I do comment at Althouse, it is generally a waste of time, such as pointing out an inaccurate comment and getting no reply.

I used to read the Volokh Conspiracy comments before they switched to the facebook method of identification.
Ditto re Facebook.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I did not block anything further from Zachriel.

Part of the difficulty at Maggie's is the number of people who continue to engage - though I am also guilty, and a couple of you are as well. But thee are these long sections with mudbug and Gone With The Wind that are just pointless.

Sam L. said...

Yes, AVI, too many Maggie readers feed the Zachs.

charlie said...

Two blogs that obviously have superior comments are

1. Arnold Kling's askblog

2. WestHunter (Greg Cochrane and the late Henry Harpending)

Why are the comments so good?

1. self-selection of commenters, relative absence of trolls, small number overall.

2. personality of the bloggers might help as well. Arnold seems almost invariably fairminded yet skeptical, and generous in trying to understand. Greg Cochrane strikes me as impatient with bullsh*t and perhaps cranky--definitely impatient with cluelessness and ignorance.

Thanks for blogging!

Charles W. Abbott