Comments: The Lifeblood of Community (part 1)

A recent post by my friend metahacker reminded me of a basic lesson of online conversation: commenting is not only good, it’s essential.  So I’m going to use it as the jumping-off point for my first series of articles.  This will cover a lot of topics, most of which will get more-detailed discussions later.

Over the next few posts, I’m going to talk about comments: why you should comment regularly, how to comment productively, a little on what kinds of comments suit what kinds of conversations, and some thoughts on the future of comment technology.  None of this is exactly rocket science, but I’m going to pull together a bunch of lessons I’ve learned, both on my own and from friends (especially on LiveJournal, that hotbed of geek-think).

I’m going to talk about “comments” as a concept here, but those work very differently from system to system.  For purposes of this discussion, a “comment” is a message you send that is specifically in response to a message that you’ve received.  That might be anything from a threaded reply in LiveJournal, to an “@”-reply in Twitter.  Keep in mind that I’m not just talking about forums here.

Part 1: Why to Comment

Okay, let’s ask the most basic question first: why comment?  It’s not as obvious as it might appear at first glance.  Sure, you comment because you have something to say.  But there’s another aspect of commenting, that’s at least as important: comments are the social glue that holds online communities together.

Any good online community is always engaged in a large-scale “conversation” that crosses over all the individual little chats.  That conversation is mostly social in nature: who knows each other, how they know each other, how they interact, who likes who and why.  This is simply part of being human: when we talk, we are talking with people, and trying to think of it otherwise is delusion.  The social component of any conversation is essential.

From that point of view, it looks kind of weird to just make top-posts and never comment — it’s like being the person in a face-to-face conversation who just sits there and talks about what he wants, without every really engaging with the other people around him.  It’s not quite as bad online (in person, it’s downright boorish), but it still comes across as kind of disconnected.

Keep in mind that, in a face-to-face conversation, there’s a lot of subtle interaction.  We use body language, facial expressions, and little verbal cues to indicate that we’re listening — that we’re part of the conversation, and interested.  Eye contact helps, as do little “uh-huh”s: they may have no semantic value, but they have social weight: they indicate that you’re still engaged.  Online (at least in text media) you have to be more explicit about it — the only way to let the speaker know that you’re listening is to tell them.

Reciprocity also comes into this.  Put simply: the more you comment, the more comments you’re likely to get.  If you comment, people come to think of you as someone to talk to, not just someone to listen to.  There is a close correlation between who you comment to and who comments to you.

Moreover, commenting is how people find each other, and build online relationships.  Not only is the person you’re responding to more likely to seek you out, the people reading the interaction are as well.  There’s a lot of blather nowadays about social networks, but the most important “network” is people finding others who they think are interesting, regardless of the technology they use.  Many online friendships start from reading each others’ comments.

Most importantly: most people like to receive comments.  There’s a real element of “warm fuzzies” here that shouldn’t be discounted.  We’re social animals, and stroking each other a little is very important to any community.

So as it says at the top, comments are social glue — they are essential to turning a bunch of random people online into a community.

Next time: I’ll talk a bit about How to Comment effectively.

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11 Responses to “Comments: The Lifeblood of Community (part 1)”

  1. dsr Says:

    Things I hate about comments:
    – Me too!
    – Spam
    – pointless rambles

    All of these, I think, are related to the major reason why I don’t leave comments as often as I might: I have nothing useful to say.

  2. Justin Says:

    Me too!

    While I partly agree, there are times when “Me, too” is exactly the thing for it. I’ll talk about that more later on.

    Spam

    Invoke the devil and he shall hear — I just got the first couple of spam comments on this blog. I suppose I should be happy that at least the spiders are finding it. Let’s hear it for good spam-detectors…

  3. metahacker Says:

    Obligatory reference, if we’re going to talk about “what are comments”: Illocutionary acts

    …more later when wrists cooperate.

  4. Monica Says:

    Some posts/threads are conversations, with back-and-forth, and some are many-to-one (someone posts good or bad news and gets a flurry of congrats/condolences). The guidelines for these feel different to me. In particular, for the latter type, is it expected that the original poster will reply individually to thank each commenter? If a comment is conversational I think it’s generally expected that the original poster will respond (you started the conversation, you need to participate).

  5. Justin Says:

    In particular, for the latter type, is it expected that the original poster will reply individually to thank each commenter?

    Good question. I should talk a little about that in the next article; thanks for pointing it out.

    I’d say the jury is still out on these points — we’re still learning and figuring out the appropriate etiquette. I’ve seen it done both ways, and neither is obviously the “right” thing quite yet, but I’ve been gradually leaning towards saying “Thanks” individually. (A habit I picked up from you, I believe.) One point that I’ve already got in the next article is that we tend not to say “Thank you” enough online, and it’s generally a worthwhile thing to do.

    If a comment is conversational I think it’s generally expected that the original poster will respond (you started the conversation, you need to participate).

    True, although you shouldn’t carry it to an extreme. I’d say that it is often good to respond to messages in the conversation, but not specifically a responsibility. Especially if others are holding down the fort nicely, I often find it most appropriate to not butt in. (Indeed, I still sometimes think I’m a little too active in my own conversations typically, but I’m a loudmouth.)

    There’s a very fine line between being actively involved in your own conversation and getting over-bearing. I can’t say I’ve always been sure where to draw that line myself…

  6. Justin Says:

    Illocutionary acts…

    A fine example of why I hope you’ll be able to contribute articles here. There’s a lot of formal knowledge and experience out there on this subject, but boy — wading through the jargon is tough going for the layman…

  7. Monica Says:

    True, although you shouldn’t carry it to an extreme. I’d say that it is often good to respond to messages in the conversation, but not specifically a responsibility. Especially if others are holding down the fort nicely, I often find it most appropriate to not butt in. (Indeed, I still sometimes think I’m a little too active in my own conversations typically, but I’m a loudmouth.)

    Good points, and I tend to agree. I guess it’s more that — at least initially — I feel a responsibility to see that comments with real content get *some* answer. I’ve happily watched long conversations in my journal from the sidelines. But I figure if someone went to all the trouble to leave me a thoughtful top-level comment, I should try to say something in reply if no one else does (and occasionally anyway). My mental model for my journal is that I am a host, and certain things are good manners for hosts.

  8. Justin Says:

    My mental model for my journal is that I am a host, and certain things are good manners for hosts.

    Heh — I have an article in early draft on *exactly* this topic. (Well, the article started out as being about how to moderate conversations, but somewhere along the line it developed a section on hosting; that might yet get broken out into an article by itself.)

    I’ve just added a note to that article, to return to this idea of the responsibility to make sure that good commenters feel noticed — it’s a fine point.

    Hmm. I wonder if there is an Emily Post for Conversations waiting to be written? It would certainly be controversial — there are few hard-and-fast rules for online conversation yet, and lots of people who will resist the slightest suggestion of even guidelines. But this is the second comment I’ve addressed today on the subject of conversation etiquette, so it’s clearly a fertile topic. Maybe I’ll start a thread on that point…

  9. Justin Says:

    I have an article in early draft on *exactly* this topic.

    And to my amusement, when I went back to prep Part 2 for final editing, I found that I’m already referring to it there. You were clearly on exactly the same wavelength as me here…

  10. omshantihandcrafts Says:

    Thank you for putting clearly into words what I’ve felt intuitively for a while — I believe I’m going to thoroughly enjoy reading this blog as it develops.

    Kate

  11. Justin Says:

    You’re welcome, and welcome to the conversation!

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