This is not rhetorical because Engadget has just done it, at least temporarily. The editors of the popular tech blog explained their decision yesterday by saying: "What is normally a charged -- but fun -- environment for our users and editors has become mean, ugly, pointless, and frankly threatening in some situations... and that's just not acceptable." (I first read about this on Mashable, where people have, of course, commented on it. Maybe this is a bit obvious, but the Engadget post was closed to comments about shutting down comments.)
As a blogger in several locations, I'm intrigued by this issue, partly because it gets at a central question about what a blog is: is it a publishing platform first and a social media platform second? And also, do comments add anything to the experience? Most of the time, when people comment on my posts, I'm pretty damn happy about it, but sometimes I just wish I had the phone number of a good psychiatrist so I could have a few of the nut jobs who've stalked me work out their problems in a private environment. Ha!
I can't answer these questions in a straightforward way because I don't know the answers. It does seem, however, that blogs are increasingly publishing platforms first and foremost. They are easy to use, and any business and/or aspiring publisher of real-time content can quickly get up and running. In that context, comments are a value-add.
For an example of what I mean, let's compare comments on The New York Times' Media Decoder blog to those on "Bitten," the food blog written by Mark Bittman. Does it mean a whole lot that "Bitten" seems to be getting a lot more comments than "Media Decoder?" Not necessarily. I put two posts from the last 24 hours on both blogs through tracking on bit.ly.
Here are the results: it turns out that a blog about the retraction of a Reuters story has been clicked on via bit.ly links 503 times and so far has gotten one comment. A recipe for coconut-braised beef has been clicked on via bit.ly links 209 times and got 10 comments. Which post would you rather call yours?
There are other questions raised, such as whether we're so busy sharing links that we have no time to comment on them -- maybe sharing is a form of commenting in and of itself. But let's get back to another question. Are we substantially worse off if comments, particularly on some of the more-incendiary blogs, sometimes go away? As a reader, checking out comments can sometimes be an incredibly amusing diversion. It can also be anxiety-producing and depressing. It is, for me anyway, almost always a time-suck that brings little to my personal bottom line or the bottom line of the blog I'm reading. It's a huge job just to stay on top of comments at some of the larger blogs, with limited reward except for silencing a troll now and then.
And it's not as though the voice of the people would be muted if what Engadget just did became a trend. As Mashable asks: "How important are comments in this age where a lot of commenting is happening off-site -- on Twitter, Facebook and other social networks?"
So now it's your turn. If a blog decides not to have comments, is it still a blog?