In last weekend’s NYTimes Magazine, Michael Erard writes about the history of online comments. Even though I was involved with blogging from its earliest days, it surprised me to remember that comments, permalinks, comments, and trackbacks were all later innovations. Erard’s historical lens is helpful in showing how what we now think of as a typical comment system – a line of reader feedback in reverse chronological order underneath content – grew out of technological restraints. It was easiest to code this sort of system. The model was bulletin boards and, before that, “guestbooks” that sat on websites.
Many of these same constraints and models underlay blogs as a whole. Most blog home pages don’t feature the most post popular posts or the one the writer might think most important. No, they show the most recent. As in comments, the entries are ordered in reverse chronological order. The pressure on writers is to repeat themselves so that their main talking points regularly show up on the homepage. There are ways around this (pinned posts, a list of important posts, plug-ins that will show what’s most popular or getting the most comments), but they’re rarely implemented and all have drawbacks.
Here’s the dilemma: the regular readers who follow your blog (read your magazine, subscribe to your Youtube, etc.) probably already know where you stand on particular issue. They generally share many of your opinions and even when they don’t, they’re still coming to your site for some sort of confirmation.
The times when blogs and websites change lives – and they do sometimes – is when someone comes by to whom your message is new. Your arguments or viewpoint helps them make sense of some growing realization that they’ve intuited but can’t quite name or define. The writing and conversation provides a piece of the puzzle of a growing identity.
(The same is true of someone walking into a new church; it’s almost a cliché of Friends that a newcomer feels “as if I’ve been Quaker my whole life and didn’t know it!” If taught gently, the Quaker ethos and metaphors give shape to an identity that’s been bubbling up for some time.)
So if we’re rethinking the mechanical default of comments, why not rethink blogs? I know projects such as Medium are trying to do that. But would it be possible to retrofit existing online publications and blogs in a way that was both future-proof and didn’t require inordinate amounts of categorization time?