I remember seeing blog comments for the first time in the 90s, thinking they were so awesome. The whole world could tell me what they thought, not just about anything, but about my own stuff specifically. Wow.

Then came YouTube. No, that’s not quite right; YouTube is just the holy grail of awful Internet comments.

So the cool kids of the Internet don’t like comment posts. This has come up a lot recently, and there’s a minor backlash. The analogy to comments in real-world situations - Q&A sessions, business meetings, performance art - is helpful, but only if we can figure out…

… some similarities between Internet comments and real-world comments:

  • They can be moderated heavily (confirmed users/registering with real contact info), moderately (anonymously registered users/Q&A session) or not at all (direct, anonymous posting/shouting match).
  • They can be very useful (additional information, provocative or inspiring questions), bland (making the speaker repeat points already made, going off on tangents) or harmful (vicious arguments, heckling, trolling).
  • Even at their best, they are often missed (by people who don’t stick around for the Q&A/don’t read comments); even at their worst, they can do some good (by showing how the speaker handles stress, by making them clarify their message as they restate it, by illustrating what not to do).

Some differences between real-world comments and Internet comments:

  • Public comments are far from anonymous. We can all see you, dude. Notice that some forms of public comments allow more anonymity: talk shows on the radio and TV, for instance. Also notice that the quality of this type of feedback isn’t always great (“Hi, I don’t have a question, just a comment…”)
  • Leaving a troll-y post on a blog or forum takes a few seconds of rage, three or four clicks, and some unedited typing. After that, the troll can go on with their day as if nothing happened. Contrast that with the heckler, or even someone who asks an incendiary question at a conference/talk: they now have to deal with the entire crowd, and maybe even with a bouncer.
  • Public comments are transient; Internet comments stick around and bait every new visitor.

Consider this:

The single worst Internet “feedback” I have ever seen was a YouTube comment on a video of a family visiting the zoo. As they watch bear cubs play, the three-year-old says, “awww, they’re like little kitties!” The comment, plainly visible on the first page: “kitties? they’re bears you stupid bitch”

Can you imagine a public forum - a tech convention, a book signing, a high school debate - where a lone sociopath could get away with this sort of thing?

Some people do better in collaborative, challenging environments. Others prefer to work in peace and solitude. Some writers and directors read reviews of their work, others don’t. There’s likely no rational answer to the question of whether comments on the Internet are a good thing or not. Managing comments is the best we can hope for, but this is where the technological temptation rears its head (“just throw better PHP at it”). Captchas, user registration (including banning), comment moderation, and community guidelines all help, but not everyone wants to spend time running their blog like a night club. Some people just want to, you know, write.