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Robert Scoble, the blogosphere’s historical cheerleader extraordinaire, seems to be in a bit of a state.
He’s published an overview of all the things he considers wrong with tech blogging, a list that includes negative reader comments, conflicts of interest, a lack of focus on writing follow-up articles, and so on. Poor chap: he’s quite the grump.
Scoble might be right about a number of things, but he’s got it a little bit wrong when it comes to ‘negative comments’. He blames, among other things, the various tools employed to stop spam, claiming these hurdles prevent mass interaction. There’s a bit more to it than that...
“Only the most motivated will leave comments. That’s usually someone with an axe to grind. I’m so tired of those kinds of conversations: ‘Scoble, you’re an idiot’. Hey, I already know that, remember my conversation with Jurvetson and Williams? Why can’t commenters be nice, the way they probably would be if they were face to face? That’s cause we’ve failed you. We haven’t moderated jerks out of our commenting system so now no normal person would go close to anything resembling a modern commenting system.”
Sure, only the most motivated will leave comments, but then people who aren’t especially motivated shouldn’t be commenting anyway. People are only moved to add a comment if they agree strongly or disagree strongly. It’s as simple as that. And nobody should care a jot about the masses of opinion-lite fence-sitters. Who wants to read through every reader's comment, when the vast majority will be the equivalent of ‘meh’?
As to the technology barriers, well… this is a bit of a curve ball. You’ll just pull in less comments, full stop, if your tech sucks. It's got far less to do with bad Captchas (hands up: ours is a bit rubbish) and spam filters than Scoble suggests. Motivated people, be they trolls or wingmen, are to be admired for their gumption.
But more than anything, it is the nature of the post that determines the kind of comments you’ll attract.
In my mind there are, broadly, three kinds of blog posts favoured by tech bloggers:
These posts deal in facts and observations. They are informative, well-researched, and tell the reader something new. They will often attract positive comments, as well as comments that extend the discussion and broaden the understanding of the subject. This is when user participation really benefits everybody. These posts take longer to write, but they’re worth it.
You are far more likely to attract negative reader feedback if your post contains a strong opinion, because one way or another, strong opinions are there to polarise people. So naturally they are also to be encouraged, but as a blogger you’ll need a thick skin (just like Scoble, who back in 2006 was "a nice guy with a thick skin"... methinks his skin is thinning). And if you don’t believe me, write something even vaguely anti-Apple and seed it on Digg.
The copycat (aka the ‘meh’ post)
Scoble points out that many blogs have mastered the art of 'reblogging', aka ‘Quick, Techcrunch has just reported about rumour X so let’s cover it! Quick!’. This sort of thing can be filed under bandwagon jumping, typically to share some of the limelight (eg via Techmeme) and generate page impressions. And remember that the second wave is often bigger than the first, depending on the time of day, and the reactions that follow breaking ‘news’. But these posts leave little scope for opinion, principally because writers churn them out very quickly in order to catch that second wave. Since everybody just read about this story on Techcrunch - and since your story didn’t bother to join up any more dots / reveal anything new - few people can be bothered to comment. A classic case of ‘meh’.
Like Scoble, we've done the copycat posts too, though earlier this year we decided to tone down our coverage of 'news'. Why? Well, why bother reblogging unless you can add some new angle, analysis or information? Why not create some unique content instead?
So nowadays our posts take longer to compile, but we’re aiming for quality rather than quantity, and for us it is very much about attracting the right kind of reader (that said, our business isn't reliant on ad revenue, so we're not fishing for vast amounts of page impressions in order to pay salaries). There’s also a long-term play at work here, since Google often indexes these posts highly, and informative posts have more long-term value than news items, which can fade away in the search listings.
The net effect? More quality comments, and more positive comments. Less pageviews than if we’d kept up with the reblogging, but we can live with that, given our business model and aims. A site redesign will further improve usability and interaction, not least by removing some of the tech headaches such as a second-rate Captcha tool.
Ultimately, it is worth remembering that forums have always been flamed and blog comments normally always include some negative remarks. It's just human nature. If you don’t like them just do what Seth Godin does, by turning comments off altogether.
The irony here is that Scoble's considered rant, which is heavy on opinion, has attracted 180 comments, with the first 50 or so being hugely positive ('wow! great post!', 'I really loved this post', 'bravo', etc). I stopped reading them after that. What does that suggest? It suggests that a) he's onto something, b) he has plenty of fanboys, and c) I don't like watching somebody else's ass being kissed more than 50 times. It also suggests that the value of comments is in the swing of opinion, and that value is somewhat lost if everybody agrees or disagrees with you.
PS, if you work in e-commerce then you may have noted a converse parallel between blog comments and customer reviews, which are typically positive. The average score for a customer review is 4.3 out of 5. With reviews, people normally only bother to write something if they've had a great experience with a product, or service. They're evangelists. They liked a product so much they thought they'd tell the world. Funny how it doesn't work so much the other way around...