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11 April, 2013

“A Blog Without Comments Is Not a Blog”. So reads the title of an article by Jeff Atwood published in 2006, in which he argues that disabling comments on a blog is tantamount to preaching a sermon; it is a one way delivery of content that doesn’t facilitate further discussion or user engagement.

But let’s think about what value a comment form actually adds to a site. Should we simply assume that because comments bring added engagement that they are always a good thing? When you reach the end of this article, you will notice there are no comments. It’s a decision that I have made both as a designer looking to optimise the user experience of my site and as a writer looking to foster discussion in a wider sphere.

Keep scrollin’ scrollin’ scrollin’ scrollin’

When was the last time you stopped scrolling when you reached the end of an article you felt engaged with? If there’s content below that article then the likelihood is that you’re going to read that too - or at least skim it.

This is because of a key principle in the study of HCI called Information Foraging. It’s the same instinctive nature that makes animals follow a scent to find food in the wild. On a computer, if we’re following an information trail and receiving clues that it is taking us closer to what we’re searching for, then we’ll keep going. From Jakob Nielsen:

“Informavores will keep clicking as long as they sense that they’re “getting warmer” – the scent must keep getting stronger and stronger, or people give up.”

Let’s think about this theory in terms of content on a single web page. Someone is reading your article and it elicits in them a response, negative or positive, that either encourages them to keep scrolling or to leave (let’s assume they keep scrolling). The more they scroll, the more content is revealed and the more the user’s desire to keep reading is satisfied. When they reach the end of the article, what will they do if there’s more content below it? Keep going. It’s a natural, subconscious reflex. They’ve been scrolling down for the past five minutes and have been lavished with juicy blog goodness, why stop now?

Before the user has had a chance to process what they’ve read and form their own opinion, the content of the article has blurred into the responses of others. The stream of information that was so fervently stimulating their grey matter mere seconds ago has descended into a clattering of opinions that rapidly drowns out the intended message of the article. It’s the equivalent of reaching the end of a book and having a mob of other readers immediately descend on you, everyone trying to make their review heard above the fray. They could all have valid opinions on what you’ve just read, but with everyone shouting over each other it’s more likely to inhibit your ability to process information than it is to aid it.

The real kicker of this is that the content below the article is likely to have a greater power of retention than the article itself. This is thanks to another psychological phenomenon known as Recency Effect, an observation that people are more likely to recall the items at the end of a list than the items preceding them. Coupled with compulsive ‘overflow’ scrolling this means users are most likely walking away with someone else’s message; not ideal if you’re trying to inform or make a point. (This is especially bad news for vote-based comment systems that see less popular comments get pushed to the bottom.)

A comment is not a discussion

Of course, this logic flies in the face of modern-day thinking around democratised content - in which user engagement is to be prized above all else. But even you do consider this to be the holy grail, there still remains another problem: the traditional format of comments is terrible for discussion.

Let me bring this back to you, dear reader, by way of example. After all, you’re an intelligent individual who’s just read 685 whole words of prose and probably has valid opinions coming out the wazoo. Say you get to the end of this article and pen the most eloquent, rational comment that makes everything I’ve written look like pseudo-intellectual drivel. What’s the likelihood that a) you will have read the comments of every other user before leaving yours and b), that you will come back and check for a reply to your comment, or even read a reply if you are notified of one? Most comments are simply drive-by arguments, and with everyone doing it we’re not cultivating valuable engagement.

Even if you were to find yourself in a discussion with one or more other readers, this thread is likely to take a tangential course fairly quickly - most likely flanked by several other discussions also going off in different directions. For new readers wanting to weigh in with their thoughts, or consider the article in the light of other people’s views, it’s like turning up sober to a party after everyone else has got drunk; you probably won’t understand what anyone is saying and will quickly forget why you even wanted to go in the first place.

By disabling comments an author is not denying the right to discuss what she has written, she is ensuring that the signal isn’t drowned out by noise.

I’m not saying comments are inherently bad and that no site should have them. There are plenty of scenarios in which providing a centralised point of discussion is the right thing to do. I understand that it’s not always appropriate for people to post their responses in external fora, especially when issues of anonymity and community are considered. But if an article contributes to a wider sphere of reasoning then I don’t think that having a comment form below it does anything substantial to further that debate. Conversely, it’s not regressive to encourage people to take their thoughts into the wider world instead of leaving them at the bottom of a webpage.

If you feel compelled to comment on this article, please do so. Tweet about it, email me, rant at your spouse/child/cat for a few minutes. Discussion is healthy. But as soon as it degrades into noise, it’s probably time to change the topic.