Comments

I’ve been interested in commenting systems, comment spam in blogs, and whether it’s a good idea to have comments on this site. I once asked on Facebook:

What are the advantages and disadvantages of the various commenting systems used on websites? Some qualities one can pick out: whether to have nested comments, the size of the unit of language on which one can comment (e.g. comments for a whole article versus comments for each paragraph, or even smaller units), voting (and whether to display who voted), displaying who has seen the comments, which markup language to use, and so on.

It’s rather interesting how many different commenting systems one can find, and is natural to ask which one works best. And if that is an ill-defined question, then one can at least try to ask what one should use on one’s own website.

It might be worthwhile to list all the possible parameters (i.e. to extend the list I came up with in the Facebook post).

Some questions to ask:

Comments for personal sites

Cons

On social media like Facebook and Quora, and even on WordPress blogs, it is not necessary to think too much on commenting, since this is all provided upstream. When I first started using a static site generator to make my website, I followed gwern and used Disqus. However, currently this site has no comments. My reasoning is that, ever since I’ve become active on Facebook, I’ve realized that most of the useful discussions about an article happen there, instead of on the original article’s comments section. More directly, in his answer to “Why are people more willing to comment on a Facebook post sharing an article rather than in the comments section of the article itself?”, Andrew Ho writes:

To answer the question directly, it is because the comments section of the article is full of inane and worthless chatter that has zero intellectual value whatsoever. However, my Facebook friends are mostly fairly intelligent people, so usually they have something insightful to say about the article and/or participating in the discussion that they prompt is enjoyable and interesting.

This obviously does not happen on every site. In fact, I get the impression that small personal sites tend to have the highest-quality comments, while large news sites tend to have the worst, with blogs somewhere in the middle.

The other issue is with having to moderate the comments. Quora and Facebook are convenient because they require real names, and thus are able to keep out non-human spam (for the most part). Disqus does seem to have anti-spam measures, but verifying the identities of commenters may be more difficult since people can choose to post anonymously (and also because Disqus isn’t as widely-used as Facebook).

It’s probably worth thinking about why we have comments in the first place. Comments are useful chiefly because they are a means to provide feedback for the author. But this can be done via email or messaging (see my contact information for how); better yet, for minor things like pointing out typos, I have an “edit page” link at the top of each page that will allow people with GitHub accounts to fork the site repo and submit a pull request.

There is also the problem of security. Since it’s not possible to support native comments using purely static HTML, one must rely on something like PHP or Javascript. PHP can be unsafe to use, and relying on some external Javascript like Disqus means that it won’t work for people with Javascript disabled and comments might suddenly disappear (if Disqus goes away).

Another idea: having comments could mean more flame. When people on a site see that others are complaining about something, they might jump on that and add more flame1. (This, of course, relates to the problem of the burden of moderation.) Even seemingly innocuous content on an otherwise unknown site could become the target of a torrent of verbal attacks, and dealing with this seems highly stressful. Forcing people to email in their attacks could have a dampening effect. Of course, this doesn’t prevent public attacks happening on Twitter, Tumblr, and elsewhere.

Pros

One idea in favor of having comments is so criticisms are out in the open. But there are other ways to do this2, and in any case, how can one trust a site owner to be honest about the comments posted on their own site (since they usually have the power to delete any comment, or even edit them in the case of sites using WordPress)?

Another idea is that there is a natural presumption that commenting on a site is enabled. This site itself is the most natural place to have a discussion about the content on the site, and also provides an obvious place for readers to interact with each other; who am I to take this zone of exchange away?

Some convincing ideas for me are:

I also do have a GitHub repository for this site, where anyone can open an issue, which is viewable publicly.

A variety of people have discussed whether to have comments on their site. Here are some of the better ones.

As of 2018, I still feel like commenting on websites is an unsolved problem. I want something that has low friction, revision history (or append-only), support for archival, no spam, and static. WordPress with Akismet for spam might be good, but composing posts on WordPress is unpleasant.


  1. I wouldn’t compare this site to Slate Star Codex, but just look at any post there to see the problem of unending arguments.

  2. gwern has an “External links” section for his page On Stress that links to a reddit discussion of the page. I can do the same with Facebook discussions or when I crosspost to Quora.

  3. In response to “What about [archiving] the comments here?”, gwern writes:

    Likely to die, I’m afraid. I do back up my Disqus comments on a regular basis, but there’s no guarantee that I’ll migrate them to the next commenting system. (On the plus side, I try to address any issues comments bring up, quote ones which add to the article, etc, so the losses won’t be too great.)