In “Comment is King,” Virginia Heffernan writes in the New York Times, “What commenters don’t do is provide a sustained or inventive analysis of Applebaum’s work. In fact, critics hardly seem to connect one column to the next.” She notes that comments are often vitriolic and ignorant, which will hardly surprise those used to reading large, public forums.”
She’s right. But part of the issue is that newspapers seem to encourage hit-and-run commenting because of their sheer size and, because of their attempt to be universal, also often hit the lowest common denominator. The latter is also one reason why Hacker News has a vastly better signal-to-noise ratio than, say, Digg.com.
In addition, think about this: if you’re going to incisively, laboriously, and knowledgeably comment on someone’s post or column, you’re probably better off getting your own blog and linking to the person’s post, thus developing a following of your own. It’s not really worth spending forty five minutes or an hour on an extensive critique that’s not likely to be read or remember by many people as a comment. When it becomes part of an ongoing narrative, however, it becomes more meaningful and important to the person who is writing.
That’s not to say comments have no place in blogs or newspapers, and I always read the comments on The Story’s Story and Grant Writing Confidential with care and attention. But I also understand the incentives against careful commenting and for trolling. Furthermore, in a typical comments section, it’s hard to tell who is a lunatic, who is worth listening to, who has background on the subject, and so forth. “Comment in King” now has five pages of comments attached, and I don’t feel like wading through them. With a single blog, however, I can relatively easily evaluate a handful of posts and decide if the rest are worth reading. Therefore I’m more likely to invest in a blog post replying to a story than I am a comment on that story.
You might notice that I’m not responding to Heffernan’s article in the comments section of the New York Times—but I might post a link to this response. Or maybe I’ll send her an e-mail. Heffernan might want to hear from me.
As a tangential point, comments that cite books or substantive articles are almost always better than blue-sky comments; maybe encouraging people to cite their sources would improve online discourse.