Comments and reader engagement
Summary: I contemplate whether I should resume the comments feature to my website and blog.
A few months back, I temporarily removed comments from my blog. The decision was partly technical but mostly ethical because I didn’t feel comfortable with forcing people to sign up to Disqus.
Unlike most bloggers, I use a static-site engine to manage and publish my blog. This engine, Pelican, works by processing markdown files into a functioning HTML website. It’s called static because every page and post represents a physical HTML file on the server; it doesn’t change until I replace it.
In contrast, most blogs operate on WordPress. WordPress is a PHP web app that stores content in a database. When you visit a WordPress blog, WordPress queries its database and renders the page you requested into HTML on the fly.
Commenting is built into WordPress. It has all the mechanisms it needs to store, manage, curate and display comments posted either by anonymous users or those with logins on the site.
In a static site, there’s no database and no server-side interpreter running code, everything is rendered locally by your browser. That makes it very difficult to deploy a comments system using the static-site engine itself.
That’s what I did, until I learnt that Disqus does some pretty shady stuff with people’s data. So I dropped them, promising I’d restore the comments feature when I worked out another way to do it with a self-hosted system.
Technically, it’s not a difficult problem. I can replace Disqus with self-hosted open-source alternatives; there’s even plugins for Pelican that will create a static, non-real-time commenting system. However, in researching solutions I discovered a debate among bloggers (and their readers) about the merits of allowing comments on blogs.
It’s a debate that’s given me pause for thought.
The pros of allowing comments are that it can foster engagement between you and your readers. Having someone comment positively and constructively on your writing or your thoughts is a rewarding experience. That’s one of the reasons writers write; we want people to enjoy and engage with our work.
The cons meanwhile are mostly to do with maintenance: maintaining the system, fighting spam and, perhaps controversially, curating the comments themselves to maintain decorum and civility – two things generally lacking on the internet.
As a percentage of a site’s visitors, very few people take the time to comment. So as others have done, I do wonder if the overhead is worth the return. I’m not a professional blogger. This site does not earn me a cent; I don’t advertise here and nor do I offer paid memberships or subscriptions. As with my fiction, blogging is something I do in my spare time because I enjoy it.
Therefore, I don’t feel compelled to spend the precious time I have to maintain a comments system to a standard I feel is appropriate.
More than that, this site has become a highly personal experience for me. It’s my own little corner of the internet where I can write what I want on subjects that interest me. It is not a public forum or noticeboard.
Does that mean that I do not want reader engagement? Of course not, quite the opposite.
I maintain several social media accounts. I am very active on Facebook and Twitter. I cross-post to both platforms and welcome engagement there either generally or in response to specific articles. I even use Google+, though not frequently.
For those who do not, or prefer not, to use those services, you are welcome to email me. I don’t post my email publicly (I don’t want spam bots finding it), but if you sign up to my newsletter, you’ll receive it that way1. Feel free to unsubscribe2 at any time.
Social media and email is better equipped for engagement; that kind of functionality is core to their experience. There’s also a lot of technology and infrastructure behind them that make it more convenient for me to reply. When I receive a Tweet or email, my phone notifies me at once and I can respond in seconds (assuming it’s not the middle of the night or I’m driving).
By contrast, my engagement with my own site is very different to yours. I seldom read my own site; it’s an endpoint in my writing and publishing process. Again this is because of the differences between static-site generators and Wordpress. I don’t have to login to my site to create or post an article. I draft them on my tablet or laptop, they sync automatically to my server and it handles the build and publication process at scheduled times.
Finally, if you want to write a direct response on your own blog or other space, to anything I’ve said, I welcome that too. A considered, well-reasoned post is much more satisfying to me as a writer and reader than a drive-by anonymous comment. Let me know if you do; I’d love to read it and will very likely link to it.
On this specific issue, that is the reinstatement of comments, I’d love to hear your opinions on that too. If enough people reach out and request the feature is returned, I’ll give it serious consideration.