Right tool for the right job

Most people who do any sort of software development have probably read something from Joel on Software. This week, Joel Spolsky commented on the idea that blogs shouldn’t have comments, an idea that Dave Winer had written about previously.

Comments on any item can tend to end up as just meaningless drivel as soon as a certain type of person, ie. those who revel in the anonymity of the Internet, start “contributing”. You just have to look at the example given by Joel, or in fact pretty much any video on YouTube, or any link on Digg, Reddit, or similar sites that allow commenting. Somebody creates interesting content, and assuming it gets published widely then it will be inundated with a mass of comments – mostly one liners, probably slagging off the content in some way. Eventually the whole thing descends into a slanging match.

I believe that the problem with blog comments is that they are the wrong type of tool for the job. If people want to discuss a posting, they should do that in a place more suitable for discussions, such as a forum. Forum software has been around for ages and provides a much better environment for discussion than the simple comments system most blogs have. Typically forums allow a much better, threaded structure for discussion and better administrative controls than any blog does.

Most forum software isn’t perfect though. Slashdot is an example of a site that effectively provides forum-like discussion on the back of each article posted. They have long had to deal with the problem of inane comments, trolling etc. and so have developed a heavily customised system where the community moderates itself (or at least tries to). I still read Slashdot partly because it is relatively easy to scan through the newest articles, but also because when you look at the discussion I can quickly find the best comments and ignore the rubbish.

Joel actually follows this tactic himself – no comments on blog entries, but the site has a forum system where people can comment. Unfortunately there is still a lot of rubbish in there, but it’s a lot better than just a linear comments system attached to each blog entry. Of course it’s just a fairly vanilla forum system, as are most out there. Improving forums is probably a discussion for another day though.