Whose humility?

Tech Life

Matt Gemmell has posted Comments Commentary, a very interesting follow-up to Comments Still Off, his other follow-up on his decision to switch comments off for his website. Since I’ve been offline for about nine days, I’m still catching up with dozens of unread articles, and was about to mention Gemmell’s Comments Still Off piece, basically to confirm Matt’s positive experience after disabling comments on my website.

Comments Commentary, however, is even more thorough and incorporates some thought-provoking reactions to Gemmell’s previous piece; if it’s too long for you to follow all the links included there, at least Matt’s final thoughts are really worth a read.

Matt writes:

I think at this point that we can see the general thrust of the arguments on both sides.

For me, there are two ideas of primary interest, which have cropped up repeatedly: humility of the writer, and the purpose of your blog.

The two issues are interlinked, because misunderstanding the author’s purpose for his or her blog can lead to a perception that they lack humility; a perception that manifests itself as all sorts of tortured arguments about the importance of comments themselves, whereas in fact the underlying sentiment is an accusation of rampant egocentrism.


So, to humility. Putting aside the unpalatable but nevertheless true fact that there’s no requirement for you to be humble on your blog in the first place, I do understand and agree that no reader wants to feel patronised, or that the writer is intolerably arrogant. I feel the same way about the blogs that I read.

The aspect of the blogger’s humility was mainly raised by Josh Constine’s piece Blogs need comments. Gemmell reports this quote:

Comments keep bloggers humble, honest, accurate, and in touch with their audience. Personally, I enjoy debating with people who think I’m wrong, as long as they’re civil. I really value my commenters and often update my articles with thoughts they’ve inspired or corrections they’ve cited.

It’s not the first time I hear pro-comments people speak of this humility of the blog’s author. As I replied to Matt Gemmell via Twitter, I’ve noticed that many people who favour a ‘comments enabled’ policy seem to give more importance to the comments themselves rather than the original article. I have many blogs and tech sites that allow comments in my reading list, and the instances where some comments have proven to be equally insightful or more insightful than the original article are quite rare. I’ve read ‘me-too’ comments and ‘first!’ comments, polite comments showing agreement or disagreement with the original piece (which are probably the best category), and then a lot of snarky, rude, disrespectful, holier-than-thou, patronising comments, which do not have value nor generate any healthy discussion. They’re toxic waste coming from people with an ego problem.

And the original author should allow this drivel because it keeps him/her humble? Where’s the commenter’s humility?

I’ve seen a lot, a lot of arrogance in most comments I’ve come across on the Web in the last ten years. From people taking advantage of anonymity and the great ease offered by most comment systems to basically tell the blog author that he/she is an idiot and how he/she should approach the things he/she is writing about. Condescending attitudes from strangers who leave their mark on your site or blog to show you how informed, how smart, how savvy they are.

Again I ask, if comments “keep bloggers humble, honest, accurate and in touch with their audience”, what keeps commenters humble, honest, accurate, etc.? We are in dire need of a change of attitude as commenters, and ought to start showing humility when we enter someone else’s space to voice our opinion. We as commenters must realise that maybe what we do or think is not The Revealed Truth, that maybe everything is not black or white. Think about this before ‘demanding’ humility from a blog or website’s author.

I don’t know if my writing strikes you as particularly humble or arrogant. What I can say with a reasonable degree of certainty is that I do my best to write original essays and observations with professionalism, avoiding superficiality and, most of all, avoiding covering things I don’t know much about. I do what I do here because I love it and because I want to provide quality content. This, not leaving comments enabled, is what drives my writing and what keeps me humble, honest, accurate. And judging from how some readers have reacted after I closed comments here — they kept writing me via email or Twitter — I can say I haven’t lost touch with my audience.

Finally, this is the part where I most agree with Matt Gemmell, and the key to understand both my and his decision to disable comments:

I don’t feel, personally, that a blog must have comments — but it seems that many people do. The reason, I believe, is that many see the purpose of a blog to be a kind of noticeboard of thoughts. Something that’s implicitly in the public domain, and thus fair game for on-site comments and such. Something that exists outside the personal domain of its author; indeed, a public extension of that person.

Others, including myself, have a different purpose in mind. To me, a blog is an extremely personal thing. It’s entirely within my personal domain, and is far more like a collection of essays than a noticeboard. I put a great deal of effort into these pieces, and I have a correspondingly proprietorial view of the blog itself. I don’t think that’s an unreasonable position.

So, to those who see no-comments as a violation of democracy, I see no such democracy here. You imagine that I’m trying to remove your right to attach a note to a public noticeboard, or to participate in a town-hall debate (which would indeed be reprehensible of me, and a violation), but from my perspective, I’m asking you not to scribble on my newspaper, or to be boorish at my dinner party. It’s simply down to a different perception of the purpose, and thus degree of ownership, of a blog as a whole. To me, this is my home on the internet. You’re most welcome to visit as often as you like, and to stay for as long as you like, and I’m sure you’ll understand if I retain the right to set the rules while you’re here.

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