Commenting? Follow my advice …

Tom van Aardt, Communities Editor at BBC’s Future Media & Technology department works terribly hard. I know because of his various twitter updates and because from time to time he and I have meetings. (He’s terribly busy, terribly effecient and frightfully reliable by the way).

Just this weekend he’s been working on a blog posting about the future of commenting across BBC Online.

Just how should the BBC cater for members of the public to comment via the BBC’s online provision? What does the audience think?

I hesitated before I left a comment, partly because I was reading the posting shortly after he’d published it, partly because as BBC staff it may look a little odd if I’m the first person responding, but mostly because the thing uppermost in my mind was the best one minute of radio I’ve ever heard from comedy gods Mitchell and Webb.

Not only did I hesitate before posting a link to a YouTube video which I think perfectly sums up a few people’s preoccupation with finding out what the audience thinks, the blogging technology used by the BBC actually prevented me from including any links too. Thank God for that. My job should be safe (for the time being at least).

Still, Tom’s question got me thinking about the very same issue I’ve been confronting since Christmas 2007. Do I allow comments after I’ve approved them? Do I allow them automatically? Or do I prevent anyone from leaving comments full stop?

Last Christmas I was a serial Yahoo 360 blogger. There was a network attached to it. I established what felt like strong friendships with a number of random people across the world. I loved my Yahoo blog. People started leaving comments for each posting. I felt encouraged to blog more. I grew to appreciate the network of friends I established on it. One hand washed the other.

But something went wrong around Christmas 2007. In the run up to my most sensitive time of year I began to read quite a few sneery remarks being left by a handful of people. I hated that. I was caught between being painfully aware of my own ability at projecting emotions and having to grapple with the very real possibility that there were some people out there who relished the opportunity of leaving derogatory comments on my posts.

I was only writing to satisfy my own creative urges, not to satisfy an audience. So to read those potentially (almost certainly) negative comments pissed me off no end.

If you’ve not got anything nice to say don’t say anything. Don’t attack me. I’m only writing this stuff because I like writing.

Inevitably, I dealt with the situation in a fairly predictably *adult* way. I disabled all commenting and shut down my blog. I’ll lick my wounds, I thought. Sod them.

A few months went by. I start realising I miss blogging and then I set up this wordpress blog making sure I tick the “don’t allow comments” box when I set it all up.

It’s only recently I’ve unchecked the box, pressured into doing so by an internal voice urging me that if I don’t I’m unlikely to get any links back to my blog and thus will spectacularly fail in driving any traffic to my work.

It was a difficult decision to enable commenting. What if noone left a comment? Would people drop by my blog, read a posting and then think “Well, he’s obviously not very good at what he thinks he’s good at .. he’s got noone commenting. If he’s got noone commenting then noone can be reading this twaddle.”

That’s how I’m gradually seeing commenting, you see. It’s one way of an audience measuring just how popular a blogger is. It’s a way of determining whether this blog you’re reading is really worth reading. After all, if noone else is reading it, what’s the point in sticking with it?

But there’s another, slightly more worrying aspect to commenting and audience interaction which I’ve observed in the past twenty-four hours.

Only yesterday a newly-discovered blogger left a comment on a posting of mine about Mumbai. Despite my protestations, my heart races when someone does leave a comment. There is, quite unexpectedly, a flutter when you see that someone – for what ever reason – has felt they want to leave a comment. It’s a stroke, an encouraging gesture. It flicks a switch in the back of your head which says “keep looking around for stuff to write about.”

As someone who loves writing that feeling is terribly important. But given that I am my own worst enemy and one who understands himself better than any psychiatrist, I’m at pains to point out that the blogger/reader relationship may seem useful initially, but it will only lead to a dangerously dependant relationship in the future.

Frankly, I’d prefer to be self-sufficient.

2 thoughts to “Commenting? Follow my advice …”

  1. I’m so glad you have decided to enable comments again. I absolutely appreciate why you decided to turn them off in the first place, but as a reader it could be a little frustrating to read something provocative? revelatory? ridiculous? and not to have the chance to say “yes yes my man you understand the human condition completely” or (a la Harry Enfield) “Oi! Jacob! No!”

    In the same way you get a heart-flutter if you get a comment back, as a non-blogger I can get a heart-flutter if a comment I make is acknowledged. It’s the same on facebook too, as well as on a blog. However, if you’re on the receiving end of a hard-nosed, cynical comment back, you feel you’ve failed, and publicly too. A tricky balance.

  2. Hopefully I wasn’t one of those people who left comments that made you want to quit taking comments altogether from back on 360. I always found your posts thoughtful and well written and one could sense the joy you got out of putting them together, a gift not many people have when putting pen to paper, or cursor to blank screen as the case were. I’ll admit I didn’t comment on all of them, there were more that passed through that I didn’t comment on than those I did, but I rather enjoyed following along with the narrative that is your life and sometimes a comment just gets in the way of that rather than enhances it.
    That being said, anytime you blog you run the risk of interacting with those people that are either greater or lesser than yourself, you hope that you reach the greater ones, because it makes for a better page in the long run and for the wisdom to dismiss the lesser ones without letting the page fall to their level.
    I can’t speak for everyone you used to know over at 360, but I know your words meant enough to me that I was happy to once again be able to find them, for whatever that is worth and I am glad that I was able to comment and tell you so.

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