Friday, November 28, 2008


I'm one of the last of the oldline blogluddists who thinks that the decline of civility and decency the blogosphere can be traced to two events, one of which I won't tell you but one of which was the creation of comments sections. In particular, I remember thinking that the opening of comments at Kevin Drum's then-site, CalPundit, changed things rather a lot. Almost every high-traffic site I've been reading since before the introduction of comments seems to me to have suffered on net from the development, except for Crooked Timber.

1) This is a very low-traffic site, compared with my former digs chez Volokh or chez TNR. I'ts far below the traffic of sites with comments sections I really enjoy-- i.e. John and Belle, or PTN.

2) I'm going to be hosting a blogevent in the near future that will require comments, and I figured that I ought to start figuring out how to accommodate a comments section before rather than during that event.

So I'll be opening comments around here, at least temporarily. I hereby incorporate by reference Brad DeLong's comments policy, pending the evolution of relevant local norms. I don't intend to moderate in advance a la Leiter.

So, all twenty of my loyal readers: talk away!


So much for low traffic! Welcome to Kevin Drum's reader's. I invite you to stick around and read a post that's actually about something (e.g.).

And, NB: People generally don't, or shouldn't refer to themselves as luddites about some modern technology without making fun of themselves, and I was certainly trying to do that. It's a silly view that says technology c. 2002-2003 was just right, and that the years since have been a fall from grace. It is true that my experience of blogging and reading blogs came to feel different after comments sections opened, and obviously I've made a deliberate decision to leave comments off until now-- but I'd still ask you not to take my opening paragraph above too seriously. (By the way, saying "one of which I won't tell you" was meant to be more honest than just attributing the whole change to comments sections. I know it looks like I'm trying to be coy or cute but that wasn't the idea.)

Kevin quite reasonably says, "This deserves explication. Does Jacob think that opening a comment section changed my actual blogging? Or did the blogging remain the same but the mere existence of raucous commenters changed things? If the latter, why not just ignore the comments? If the former, how?"

Unfortunately I can't quite disentangle the two. This is a matter of impressionistic memory of events 5-6 years past, and many things change at the same time. With or without comments Kevin's one of the blogosphere's best on a number of dimensions, and I certainly don't mean that he became uncivil-- he continues to stand out for his civility and graciousness. So maybe it's just that I found one of my favorite blogs marred by the raucousness below the posts, that I couldn't quite discipline myself to look away from. And CalPundit probably stands out in my memory partly because the contrast between Kevin's posts and the raucousness below them was so dramatic; if I didn't look away, it meant that my experience of reading the blog changed very suddenly. I think that's mostly where this impression in my memory comes from.

But I also think that comments sections have encouraged intra-blog rather than inter-blog conversations.

As a lecturer, I'm at least somewhat responsive to my audience and their reactions. I do notice when the students' eyes are glazing over, when they seem alert, what makes them ask questions, what puts them to sleep. I don't respond to that in a Pavlovian way-- that way lies the professor-as-standup-comic, and I'm pretty sure that my vocation doesn't lie in that direction even if I wanted to try it. But I do respond, consciously and unconsciously-- speaking to a live audience is interactive in a way that writing an article for future publication is not. I'm sure that makes me a better teacher than if I ignored my audience-- but it also makes my lectures a little bit more homogenous, and a little bit more geared to what I think my students already find interesting or congenial.

Blogging's interactive, too. If nothing else, I suspect that choice of blogging topics gets influenced by the enthusiasm for some topics shown by one's commentators, when comments sections are on. That by itself makes the medium a little bit less idiosyncratically personal; it encourages blogging about hot topics over blogging about one's cat (to take an old CalPundit example)-- whereas as a reader I enjoy the idiosyncratically personal voices.

But there's probably something beyond even that. Comments crowds tend to be more aligned with the blog-author than do other blog-writers. And I think that conversations among blog authors across ideological lines started to fall off after comments sections came into being. Opportunity costs of time kick in-- most blog-authors do read their own comments sections, and that surely changes the overall ideological balance of who they're spending time online reading. The objections one starts to notice to one's own position come from one's loyal readers-- so a center-left blogger will start to encounter primarily objections from the left, and vice-versa. That has an effect of its own. At least for some bloggers, the effect is a predictable echo-chamber one, and the positions become more extreme.

One other thing about all this:

2002-03 of course had more going on in it than blogstuff. I do think that, as the war in Iraq became more likely, and then happened, politics in general became somewhat more polarized and nastier in the US, certainly than it had been for a while after 9/11.

One thing I worry about in my memory is... well, for comparison I think about Andrew Sullivan and Paul Krugman. Sullivan famously called Krugman as a "shrill" critic of Bush, back in the days when Sullivan was broadly supportive of Bush. Now that pretty much everything Krugman said about Bush has proven an understatement, and now that Sullivan is fully on board as a critic, I wonder how he remembers Krugman c. 2000-2003? My guess is that he still remembers them as shrill. Krugman was, from Sullivan's perspective, prematurely anti-Bush-- and like the premature anti-Fascists of 1939 and 1940, those who were prematurely anti-Bush tend not to get much love from the latecomers. (I think that Brad DeLong's long-running "order of the shrill" feature was actually a pretty important device-- it reminded the latecomers that they were coming around to views Krugman had long since put forward, and views that they had once found irritating in him.)

From my perspective as I lived it, some of the left blogosphere was prematurely anti-war. What that means is: they were right and I was wrong. They saw important things before I did. But it's very difficult to change the emotional valence of memory. It's likely that some of my memory is colored by that-- I found off-putting some commentary that was right, but that I didn't agree with then. I don't think that that directly plays very much into my wariness about comments sections, but that's the sort of thing it would be hard to know for sure about oneself. It probably does play into my overall memory of a change in blogspheric tone in that era.

For what it's worth, I don't think that I'm the only one who was struck by Kevin's comments section in the old days; in the post linked to above, Brad DeLong relies on "Kevin Drum's comments section" as a shorthand for something to be avoided: "trolls must be squashed quickly, or the space turns into... Kevin Drum's comment section." I see that Kevin's got moderators these days, and that it makes a difference, but, again, memories are hard to shake.


Will Roberts said...

I claim this land in the name of God, and of the Queen of Spain!

Jennie said...

ooh ... what kind of a blogevent?

Jacob T. Levy said...

I claim this planet in the name of Mars!

There'll be a book symposium hereabouts.

thersites said...

I'm resisting the temptation to leave a rude comment just for fun.
I came here from Drum's blog just wondered:
a) "Changed things considerably:" in what way exactly?
b) "One of which I won't tell you:" that's kind of cute.

cerebus said...

You're right about comments dragging down the quality/civility of a blog, tho Daniel Davies thinks not having them goes against the spirit of the medium.

Shame Will Baude no longer provides the public service of documenting Jacob Levy's comments, wading thru the surrounding swamp so we don't have to!

Surely the other event was the rapid growth and consequent polarisation of the 'sphere. To pick on someone fairly randomly, the Chris Bertram I remember at Junius was a more generous, less angry and partisan, writer than the one at CT.

alex said...

On the other hand, I think the negative effects of comments only arise when the numbers of comments reaches a critical mass. A relatively small number of commenters will only enhance quality. I don't have any particular reason why this is so, but I have noticed this happening.

Anonymous said...

"From my perspective as I lived it, some of the left blogosphere was prematurely anti-war. What that means is: they were right and I was wrong"

No, they were reflexively, unthinkingly opposed, regardless of facts or circumstances.

The fact that they ended up being right (in your opinion) was dumb luck.

Anonymous said...

The Crooked Timber effect is worth considering. Our host is right--except for Crooked Timber, only small blogs have comments worth reading. But CT is a fairly large blog--why do its comments remain so good?

My guess--CT is offputting to mainstream readers. It assumes too much economics or political theory. It gets most people with the necessary background, but excludes others.

Any other guesses?

Anonymous said...

Certainly having a comments section can't help but have some kind of affect on the blogger over time, but how would you be able to determine/measure it? It's somewhat similar to what scientists must consider when conducting experiments; how do they influence events by trying to observe them?
As an occasional commenter on various blogs, I just like being able to voice an opinion or make an observation, probably because so much of what occurs in this country is well beyond most of our control. Sure, it can and inevitably does get a little rowdy, but hopefully one can get in on the discussion before it deteriorates too much! Some blogs I once read on a daily basis are just too large and cumbersome now, with too many 'diaries' or columns written by people who fancy themselves to be better writers than they actually are, so I find I seek out those blogs that are still fairly small. Like Kevin's.

MN said...

Considering that most of comments on Drum are about criticizing him...

Look one of the things that I detest about Sullivan is his terror of comments. Some bloggers certainly don't read comments much, but comments exist mainly for commentors to inform the blogger that they are wrong and how and force the blogger to actually confront another view.

But that depends on the blogger.

So really, all comments do is expose the gutlessness or fortitude of the blogger and having no comments is fear.

Or you know, not. I hate cats.

Robert S. Porter said...

I've always felt that to blog without comments defeats the purpose. It seems to me that blogging is about communication and dialogue, not mere pontificating. Perhaps I'm too much of a utopian and accepting of the supposed "Web 2.0", but I think that comments add the essential element that makes a blog more than a simple website.

I look at it like the difference between Marginal Revolution and Greg Mankiw. The former is good and the latter has declined severely since dropping the comments.

Obviously you can run your blog how you like, but I think comments would help greatly.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Oh man, you had to install comments over American Thanksgiving, huh? And here I am late to the party.

Anyway, congratulations on the upgrade. I used to feel the same as you, but I've learned to live with, enjoy, and benefit from comments over the years. And note: I actually take Luddism (somewhat) seriously. So I suppose there's hope for us all. Of course, I probably don't have a tenth of the traffic you have...

Looking forward to the book symposium!

djw said...

I suspect that choice of blogging topics gets influenced by the enthusiasm for some topics shown by one's commentators,

This cuts both ways, at least for me. As a very occasional contributor to a moderately traffic blog, I find myself thinking about posting about the deep wrongheadedness of the Harris/Hitchens/Dawkins/Myers brand of atheism, a subject that interests me and lets me blog a bit more about political theory than most topics. Those posts generate a tremendous amount of comments at LGM, generally running at least 2:1 against my position. I know I'll find the ensuing thread time-consuming and frustrating, and that I won't be able to stay out of it, so if I don't anticipate having the time or energy to take this on I'll just skip the post.

Anyway, welcome to the world of blog comments. Should be fun.

PG said...

I remember debating whether comments were good or bad with Will Baude before he put them on Crescat. My own blogs always have been either narrowly focused (law student blogs En Banc and De Novo) or personal and with a truly 20-reader audience (Half the Sins), so comments always have been good for me. I get new information and some opposition that helps to keep me honest. I also prefer reading blogs that allow comments so long as the comments are on average of good quality (I admit that I don't read Drum or Volokh regularly anymore, but I'd plead that it's because I've lost some interest in liberal politics (Drum) and didn't like the increasingly conservative tone at Volokh, though some of the latter may well have been due to the comments sections' being overrun with conservatives who aren't exactly the second coming of William F. Buckley.

Nick Chira said...

It shocks and horrifies me that this site has such a low readership, because of all the names in the world, your name sounds the most deserving of fame.

If I ever write an incredibly badly written Great American Novel, my protagonist demands your name.