Comments On Comments

Comments are turned off on new posts.

For now.

“Why?” you might ask. You scan the rest of the virtual room, giving everybody else the stink eye. Which one of you posted that comment that made Andy want to turn comments off? Was it you? I know it was you. Oh, I had you pegged from the moment you walked in…

No, it’s nothing like that. This is an experiment.

As a creator, you have goals for a project. Perhaps “goals” is the wrong word. You have an idea in your head about how you’d like to see something go, and as you build and maintain it, you always keep comparing it to that original conceptual sketch.

I do like active discussion. And yet I don’t read it or engage in it on the pieces I write for commercial sites.

When I write reviews or commentary, I keep this thought in mind: “I have one shot at expressing my point of view. This is my sole opportunity to tell this story.” It’s a good motivator. It makes me ask myself all of the questions that I believe a reader will be asking as they read my piece, and spurs me to consider all of the arguments that he or she will make. It makes me continue to look at the subject from multiple angles, in case there’s a perspective I hadn’t considered. Do I really believe that this new phone is the very best in its broad class of devices? Yes? Whoosh. All right, well, just make sure you’ve made that case completely and convincingly.

Which isn’t to say that everything I publish is a Gem of pure Truth, Beauty and Wisdom. But that’s the goal and if I were to let myself think “I missed anything or included any half-formed thoughts, no problem: someone will bring it up in comments, and I can fix it there” it’d bruise my process.

And it isn’t to say that it’s even possible for me to consider every angle on even the simplest idea. More brains almost always equal more thought, and any topic can stand having a few more brains thrown at it.

Comments are valuable. I still don’t like to participate in those threads, though.

First, because I feel as though I’ll negatively influence the discussion. The beauty of a good comment thread is that it’s all about a flow of ideas (before Godwin’s Law is invoked). I sure don’t want it to become a flat, desaturated landscape of “the author of the piece responds to your comments.”

Secondly, I ought to be moving on to the next thing I need to write instead of hovering over the thing I published three or four days ago.

(Thirdly, I have at times cough Android Switch series cough been told by editors that, um, I really shouldn’t read the comments.)

Other authors have different attitudes. I respect that. This is just what works for me. My feeling is that if someone wants to engage me directly, I’m easy to find on Twitter and at least when people try to say mean things they need to engage the part of their brains that can count to 140.

The Concept Sketch for CWoB’s reader comments was something like Roger Ebert’s blog, with a highly-active commentary thread on every post. That never really coalesced. Hey, no regrets! But as I look again at CWoB and the comment traffic, it prompts me to respond in one of two different ways:

  1. Figure out why the Concept didn’t become reality, and develop and then execute a plan to correct the situation, or
  2. Take a step back and ask what the original goal of that Concept was. Determine whether or not this original definition is the only way to reach that goal or if instead it’s just a single possible articulation that’s not worth obsessing over.

This is a good template for life. You dream of becoming a working actor. You’re 30 and it hasn’t happened. It’s time to either redouble your effort or think about what it was about that work that drew you to it. If you want milk and there are no cows around, move on and start looking for goats. Unless your goal really is to milk a cow.

It turns out I just want the milk, so I’m going for Option Two. Though it’s quite ego-fortifying to have tangible evidence that the tens of thousands of people who read a piece are backed up by hundreds of people who are eager to discuss it, what I truly enjoy about the overall idea of reader comments is that it presents me with an opportunity to learn. Other folks might express some interesting thoughts, reactions, corrections, or solutions that I wouldn’t have been exposed to if I hadn’t put my own thoughts out there on the blog.

I’m not sure that I want to go the route of other blogs, and eliminate visible feedback entirely. That’s not the right answer for me.

Styling the Comments bit of the current blog was a major pain, as is authentication and spam filtering. That’s out.

There’s Disqus, but I sometimes find it to be a pain in the butt as a user of others’ sites and the idea of forcing my users to interact with yet another “it’s free and please don’t think about how they’re generating revenue from this activity” service moves the needle on my skeeve-meter a little bit. Out.

I’m not sure what the perfect answer is. I’m going to start by stealing an idea from my friend Mark Evanier, one of TIME Magazine’s 25 Best Bloggers of 2013.

News From ME has no comment system. But a “Contact ME” link is right there in the sidebar and Mark has set up a mail address for people who have a reaction to one of his posts and who don’t mind if he shares that reaction with the rest of the blog’s readers.

So that’s what I’m going to try. I’ve set up a new Gmail account specifically for feedback. At minimum, I’ll do what Mark does and share selected emails with the rest of the class. The new Concept Sketch regarding comments involves my having a regular Ombud feature in which I post regular batches of feedback with my own comments.

I’m not sure that I’m ready to take the wraps off of that new address just yet. I’m thinking the mechanism will be: there’ll be a link/button at the bottom of every post that takes the reader to a feedback page that explains the concept and which keeps the actual address secret (so: no spam, and no chance that people will start using that address for business or personal-related messages).

But let’s make this fun. The first reader to guess it correctly (by sending me an email there) gets a vintage tech-related tee shirt of my choice (laundered) from my staggeringly large collection of same. The lone hint: it’s @gmail.com.

Oh, and: sending me mail there implies that I have permission to use your name and the email. And don’t put anything in that email that you wouldn’t like a stranger to read. Remember, you’re only taking a guess that it’s the right email address.

Update: We have a winner! Jay H. correctly guessed the Secret Commenting Email Address. Congrats! I will select and launder a shirt from the Classic Tee Shirt Archives and send it out shortly.