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March 19, 2008

Should I stop allowing readers to comment?


In Lee Gomes's March 12, 2008 Wall Street Journal column he explored why it is that the web is so endlessly alluring.

He noted in passing Andrew Sullivan's recent reader poll asking if he (Sullivan) should allow comments (currently he doesn't).

The result: readers responded 60-40 against allowing them.


If it's good enough for Andrew Sullivan it's good enough for me.

Should I continue to allow unfiltered comments or should I bag this feature?

Here's the WSJ piece.

    Why We're Powerless To Resist Grazing On Endless Web Data

    While there is a certain grand mystery to some aspects of human behavior, others can be easily explained. Just find yourself a garden-variety house cat, along with a $10 laser pointer.

    Many cat owners know that the lasers are the easiest way to keep the pet amused. The cats will ceaselessly, maniacally chase it as it's beamed about the room, literally climbing the walls to capture what they surely regard as some form of ultimate prey.

    Obviously, cats are hard-wired to hunt down small, bright objects, like birds. But since nothing in nature is as bright as a laser, they are powerless to resist its charms.

    Cats and lasers are useful in explaining some of the more addictive aspects of Web use, including a recent occurrence on the site for Andrew Sullivan, a popular political blogger. Mr. Sullivan's blog doesn't follow the standard practice of making room for readers to add their own comments after each blog item. Curious if he should change his policy, he put the question to a vote.

    Readers responded 60-40 against allowing comments. Even more striking than the fact that these readers were denying themselves a voice was the reason some of them gave for declining the offer: Like cats chasing a laser, they wouldn't be able to stop themselves.

    "In truth we would rarely opt not to read them," said one reader. "Blog comments have the power to hammerlock one's attention.... We'd be impotent to resist looking over the rantings and counter-rantings.... Not only would comments be an incredible drain on one's time (especially if we check your blog several times a day from work), but it also exposes readers to the nasty underbelly of blogging."

    What is it about a Web site that might make it literally irresistible? Clues are offered by research conducted by Irving Biederman, a neuroscientist at the University of Southern California, who is interested in the evolutionary and biological basis of the human need for information.

    Dr. Biederman first showed a collection of photographs to volunteer test subjects, and found they said they preferred certain kinds of pictures (monkeys in a tree or a group of houses along a river) over others (an empty parking lot or a pile of old paint cans).

    The preferred pictures had certain common features, including a good vantage on a landscape and an element of mystery. In one way or another, said Dr. Biederman, they all presented new information that somehow needed to be interpreted.

    When he hooked up volunteers to a brain-scanning machine, the preferred pictures were shown to generate much more brain activity than the unpreferred shots. While researchers don't yet know what exactly these brain scans signify, a likely possibility involves increased production of the brain's pleasure-enhancing neurotransmitters called opioids.

    In other words, coming across what Dr. Biederman calls new and richly interpretable information triggers a chemical reaction that makes us feel good, which in turn causes us to seek out even more of it. The reverse is true as well: We want to avoid not getting those hits because, for one, we are so averse to boredom.

    It is something we seem hard-wired to do, says Dr. Biederman. When you find new information, you get an opioid hit, and we are junkies for those. You might call us 'infovores.' "

    For most of human history, there was little chance of overdosing on information, because any one day in the Olduvai Gorge was a lot like any other. Today, though, we can find in the course of a few hours online more information than our ancient ancestors could in their whole lives.

    Just like the laser and the cat, technology is playing a trick on us. We are programmed for scarcity and can't dial back when something is abundant.

    The same happens with food: Because at one time we never knew when the next saber-toothed tiger might come along for food, it made sense to pack on the calories whenever we chanced upon them. That's not much help in today's world of snack aisles and super sizes.

    Using computers traditionally has been associated with Mr. Spock-style cerebration, the ultimate kind of left-brain activity. But Dr. Biederman is just one of many researchers now linking it with some of the oldest parts of the human brain.

    A group of Stanford University researchers, for example, recently found gender differences in the brains of computer gamers. Males showed more neural firings, suggesting that they were physically experiencing the game in a manner different from women.

    Watching a cat play with a laser, you realize the cat never learns there is no real "prey" there. You can show the cat the pointer, clicking it off and on, and it will remain transfixed.

    Indeed, while cats find a causal link between the pointer and the shimmering light, they come to a wrong conclusion. They believe the pointer is the container that holds the prey, and that the critter is released once the cat's owner gets the pen down from the shelf and starts to wave it around.

    People presumably are smarter than cats, and as we become more familiar with the Web and its torrent of information, maybe we'll do a better job learning what is useful and what isn't.

March 19, 2008 at 02:01 PM | Permalink


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The comments here are like a much awaited encore. Why would you want to cut the performance short? Plus, I don't think you have the meanness necessary to deprive me of Clifyt and Flautist's comments. Then again, perhaps you do. You strike me as one of those people who is eminently capable of crushing it, if you know what I mean...

Posted by: Milena | Mar 21, 2008 12:23:35 PM

"Many groups are utterly ruined by idiot posters"

Can I be the designated idiot poster???? Please??? Ya'll only need one...and just to scare away the rest!!!

Posted by: clifyt | Mar 21, 2008 12:14:51 PM

For anyone who uses usenet this won't come as a surprise. Many groups are utterly ruined by idiot posters, but some are little oases of pleasantry with rare (and generally shortlived) intrusions of twits. uk.rec.sheds is a good example. Fine upstanding people (I've met a dozen or more in the flesh) make the core of a friendly place where trolls wither away.

foundmagazine seems to be very stable, too.

Ultimately it's about whether we want a bland uniform world, or one with lots of nooks and crannies. Me, I'll take the wiggly web, not the smooth web.

Posted by: Skipweasel | Mar 20, 2008 7:38:37 PM

Worthwhile comments on a blog system is all about the culture you create. In the beginning you have to be clear enough in the direction you want the blog to take, so you only end up attracting people who actually want a conversation , not just make random uneducated comments and walk away.

Being prepared to answer a question is a must.

After a while admin has to do little work , as other bloggers make unwelcome anyone varying from this path.

Posted by: Lloyd Shaw | Mar 20, 2008 7:12:07 PM

It's interesting to me that the folks on a site that doesn't allow commenting didn't want to be allowed, and we who are allowed to comment (even those of us who rarely exercise the option) want to keep it that way.

Maybe it's that something in human nature that causes us to cling maniacally to the status quo.

Posted by: Ginger | Mar 20, 2008 3:49:46 PM

No Comment = Tyranny For You

Posted by: Rocketboy | Mar 20, 2008 11:59:16 AM

Still here, then.

I really like reading the comments. A whole bunch. With the notable exception of myself, boj does seem to attract a more erudite, cultured, discriminating, dazzling & sparkling bunch of miscreants than your average Brand X blog.

And what Avogadro said up there. That's right. I would ask, what makes someone start to blog in the first place? If not money, what do you get out of it? Why keep it up? What place do readers' comments play in that? As old Dr. Phil would say, what's the payoff? And also -- why would anyone feel compelled to comment? What's THAT all about? Why?

'Cause it's FUN!


Posted by: Flautist | Mar 20, 2008 11:00:45 AM

Keep the coments, its a fun way of interacting and discussing the stories. and lets you know who likes what.

Posted by: amy | Mar 20, 2008 10:12:29 AM

Prizes? You have prizes?

Posted by: 6.02*10^23 | Mar 20, 2008 9:52:53 AM

Comments are great yet some of us still want prizes!

Posted by: Nick | Mar 20, 2008 9:24:23 AM

Also, regarding registering to comment... That kills the conversation. Few people (me not included) bother with that. Unless the topic is REALLY interesting, I wouldn't register.

Also, why is your captcha on the next page? I always forget, push 'post', wander off to another tab and find the captcha waiting for me 10 minutes later.

Posted by: Jen | Mar 20, 2008 7:13:33 AM

The one reason blogs are so successful is commenting. I like to talk to people and blogs let me meet many people I wouldn't have interacted with in another way. For me personally, not being able to comment makes me lose interest.

Posted by: Jen | Mar 20, 2008 7:11:40 AM

Please....don't send us away. We won't eat much and we promise to be good.

Posted by: tamra | Mar 20, 2008 2:18:50 AM

Allowing comments makes a blog more conversational, more interactive. My vote is to leave 'em enabled.

Posted by: Rob O. | Mar 20, 2008 12:00:50 AM

if it weren't for your comments, i would have never found your blog. i like what i read here, a lot... check my feed often. i also enjoy the potentiality of this little box at the bottom of each post, makes me all optimistic.

i do wonder, as you know, about your structure relative to the content tho and so i'd love to see you wrangle with cliffyt's questions. or, maybe you've hashed that out earlier and i just need to go to the archive...

i really enjoy bookofjoe so, whatever you decide, consider me a fan!

Posted by: jo | Mar 19, 2008 7:42:24 PM

Don't even think such a thing! You'll have no audience left! The only reason I look at BookofJoe so faithfully is to see what Flautist has to say!!!!!!!!!

Posted by: Bill | Mar 19, 2008 7:04:27 PM

Eliminate the comments and take the life out of the blog. Why not just keep a personal journal? Authoritarian lunatics who cannot stand any sound but their own voice eliminate comments.

Me? I know where you live. The U.S. Post will carry the day....

Posted by: 6.02*10^23 | Mar 19, 2008 6:31:24 PM

I enjoy the comments greatly when they deal with the content of the blog. You've got a pretty educated group out there unlike most.

If the comments read like they were from a Woot flame war, I'd say get rid of them.

And yea, xboxes s***.

Hah! the spam blocker got me because I tried to use Su**!

Posted by: Ray | Mar 19, 2008 6:23:40 PM


Today's would be the last "What Is It?", then.


Posted by: Flautist | Mar 19, 2008 4:33:46 PM

BTW -- love the Front 242 graphic :-) What a way to bring back the late '80s industrial scene!

Posted by: clifyt | Mar 19, 2008 3:29:24 PM


What are you looking at doing in a website? Is it a new aggregator? Is it first run pieces of original content? Are you running a catalogue? Are you trying to foster a community? Maybe looking at simply hit and run readers?

There isn't a right or wrong answer.

The one thing I've love to see would be that only registered users could post. There is a buy-in to that act of registration that you don't get from open, unfiltered posting.

And not everything needs to be commentable, even as you have it.

Lots of ways to go about it...I use to worry about this sort of thing on my site, and I've worked with academic groups researching interaction on the web. And the thing you have to remember is that it is your site to run how you want, but you have to ask what is more important -- control or community. The answer is going to be somewhere in the middle.

Posted by: clifyt | Mar 19, 2008 3:27:49 PM

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