July 2, 2011

Connor O’Brien, on why we don’t need comment boxes everywhere.

Several days after I decided to disable commenting on my blog, a friend approached me at the pub and called me a fascist. This friend runs his own weblog with a lively community of commenters (myself amongst them). Why had I shut down the ability for readers to disagree with me, he wanted to know. Why was I trying to kill the conversation? Was I just a big wuss? “Um,” I replied. Disabling comments made sense for me. It wasn’t as though I was retreating from webby society – I had my Twitter username plastered right there, on my home page!

To him, though, refusing comments represented me flipping the bird at my readers. I was establishing a distinction between ‘Author’ and ‘Audience’ in a realm where we were all supposed to be floating together in one great primordial soup. I was erecting a barrier to observer participation in an inherently participatory medium. This was all, I was led to believe, Very Bad Indeed.

The truth was that little comment field underneath every one of my posts made me anxious. It was changing the way I wrote. Instead of writing sincerely, every post became an experiment: what can I tap out today that will generate the most comments? I searched back over old entries and realised I was writing with the intention of stirring the pot, instead of taking the time to craft deeper, ‘quieter’ pieces that mightn’t provoke immediate discussion. The existence of that comment field was leading me to write with the rabble-rousing mindset of a tabloid opinion columnist, when I really wanted to approach topics with focus and intelligence.

So I killed it.

In a presentation given early last year, interaction designer Ben Fullerton argued for creating new spaces for contemplative solitude. “We have an assumption that connected equals good,” Fullerton began. “That’s not to say that assumption is incorrect, but there’s an alternate state that needs just as much attention, and that’s the state of disconnection.”

A blog without comment boxes is akin, in some ways, to a library: you enter to disconnect and reflect, to better engage in conversation later, elsewhere. John Gruber, who runs Daring Fireball, a Mac-centric blog with an audience of half a million readers, has never enabled commenting. He says his site succeeds precisely because it isn’t noisy.

Still, blogs without comment boxes are apt to make some readers angry. That’s because, supposedly, the internet marks the end of the Tyranny of Print, and a return to an oral tradition that is Wholesome and Immediate and Wholly Good. The absence of the comment box is one indication a blogger is operating from an antiquated mindset, steeped in the moth-balled conventions of print. Tech evangelists like Clay Shirky suggest that cultural works that split author from audience and don’t invite immediate participation represent “a passive or fixed or canned experience” . In other words, we’re beginning to believe that there are only two modes of engaging with media, one of passive consumption (bad!), the other of active participation (good!). The print or broadcast tradition promotes passivity, which the re-emergence of the oral tradition promises to liberate us from. Or so the narrative goes.

We are justifiably excited by web services providing us with new opportunities to speak, to comment, to converse. On Twitter, stories emerge in the aggregate, with every 140-character post subtly shifting the direction of discourse. The premise for a gag, once hash-tagged, can be built upon or dismantled. Twitter can function as a game of Chinese Whispers, an illicit note snuck around the global classroom, a news ticker, or dream dinner party.

Evidently, the oral, conversational tradition is re-emerging in wonderful new forms, but the mistake right now is to suppose that the oral and print traditions are locked into a kind of battle to the death. For conversation to win, sustained, solitary thought (the kind long-form reading makes possible) doesn’t have to lose: the two can coexist.

In the realm of ebooks, you hear some odd proclamations from those who really should know better. Take the CEO of Penguin, John Makinson, who, following the launch of the iPad, declared that, “We will be embedding audio, video and streaming in to everything we do. The EPUB format, which is the standard for ebooks at the present, is designed to support traditional narrative text, but not this cool stuff that we’re now talking about.” It’s exciting to be able to play around with the concept of what a ‘book’ might be, but you get the sense that Makinson was almost apologetic for controlling a company until then dedicated to something as wholly uncool as publishing ‘traditional narrative text’. But if ebooks become conversational, where do we head to simply sit and read and reflect?

So, why did I junk my blog’s comment box? Not because I don’t believe in conversation. I tweet! I chat! I Skype! I text! Instead, I killed the comment box because, as much as I believe in conversation, I also believe in contemplation; in creating new spaces online where the norm isn’t conversing, but reflecting.

We tend to believe that books not being ‘interactive’ is a fault – a technological limitation that can now, finally, be overcome. As we begin to find ourselves growing tired of constant conversations, though, I think we’ll come to understand the perceived ‘anti-social’ limitations of print are actually features, cleverly disguised.
Connor O'Brien is a researcher, designer, and creative type interested in the intersection between technology and the written word. He edits The Bright Young.
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