LearnBlogging is broken


writes on April 5, 2007

The Bath Carson Systems Team (Andrew is based in California & Alex and Marat are in Russia) went out to lunch yesterday and we had a really interesting discussion.

We were discussing Kathy Sierra’s post about the death threats she’s recieved and I feel like we came across something interesting: a blog starts to breakdown when it gets too many readers.

As soon as a blog gets large, it’s starts fracturing and becomes a hostile environment. I’d guess that this number is around 50,000+ RSS subscribers.

A small to medium sized blog has ‘family’ feel about it. This is accentuated by tools like MyBlogLog. You start to get to know the faces and opinions of the other folks. I definitely feel that way about Carsonified. We’re at about 4,000 RSS subscribers (including the folks still subscribed to BNA) and I think it’s a nice place to ‘visit’. People respect each other’s opinions around here.

But blogs like TechCrunch are a whole other world. As many of you saw, I got a barrage of plain nasty comments there. There wasn’t a sense of mutual respect.

So what’s really going on

I believe that this happens because trolls can slip in and out unnoticed. They can spread their vitriol and negativity, and then just disappear into the masses. There isn’t that sense of responsibility.

I know that Six Apart (and specifically Mena) has tried to fix this with Vox. I’d be interested to hear how they’re doing and if their signups are on the increase.


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14 Responses to “Blogging is broken”

  1. This is where some kind of karma-system in combination with OpenID could really do some magik 🙂

    In the meanwhile heavy moderation of the comments in combination with a way for the site-moderator to block trolls from commenting is the only solution. Too bad far too many people turn into fuckwits when they’re under the impression of being anonymous.

  2. I think openID could fix it a little because you can’t just put random details about yourself and then post crap. however this would be a barrier to people posting if they had to login.

    I actually have a solution but I am not sharing as it is far to valuable :p

    Nah only joking.

    Look at what automattic have done with askismet and spam. Now if you took this idea and created a webservice that would track user feedback on each commenter the system could then filter out the nasty people. I could go on in detail like using http://www.readware.com/ for getting the tone of comment but I won’t…

  3. I’ve seen this again on the web. A Liverpool FC fan site I use has suffered from growing as well. When it started it was small with a core of knowledgeable posters who made it all worthwhile. Since then its grown with daily threads about random speculation on which players are coming or going etc.

    However, surely the hateful idiots who abuse people would write to people who work for magazines if they didn’t have blogs.

  4. I think the problem with trying to control this stuff is by starting too soon.

    Small blogs (IE: Blogs that don’t have this problem yet) should be solely monitored and controlled by a single person.

    Large blogs almost become social networks in and of themselves. At that point you need to make it difficult to be a one time anonymous hater. The technology needs to become more complex as the community does.

    Registration is generally hideously annoying, but if the site is really all that popular, the people who care _will_ register.

    Registration and logging in before commenting on these large blogs also removes the anonymity to a degree, since you can’t be a whole new person for each comment you make.

    Then add in some slashdot-esque karma system or even a digg-like simple page-based karma and it should all work out a lot nicer.

    I’m sure there are places out there doing just that, how well has it worked for them? Know of anyone off the top of your head?

    Ok, I guess Digg and slashdot are terrible examples of this kind of thing actually “working” but it all depends on the class of visitors I suppose.

  5. Maintaining quality comments beyond a certain audience size is tough and often comes down to one key factor: The ability of the site owner to moderate.

    Many people running a blog just don’t have the time to clean up and control the quality of comments beyond a certain point. As a result, once a few people do it, and it’s not reprimanded, then it’ll continue unabated. In the case of Techcrunch, from what I’ve read, it almost seems supported.

    The number of comments is another issue but one that’s more difficult to control, especially if the comments are civil. People who may have commented likely won’t beyond a certain point fearing that their comments will simply be ignored; nobody wants to be ignored.

    I predict that an active site owner who continually responds to comments left on the site is more likely to have others continue to contribute.

    In both scenarios here, though, it depends on a heavily active site owner to maintain that community. The ability to use the wisdom of crowds to vote up or down comments still isn’t a quality solution, in my opinion, because it can support a mob mentality which really isn’t any better.

  6. This isn’t a problem unique to large blogs – it’s a problem with online communities in general. Scaling communities effectively is very difficult. It’s possible to have a large community which stays interesting and constructive but it’s a really hard problem. MetaFilter is a great example of a site that manages this, maintaining a high level of quality both through paid accounts (an account costs $5 for life – a powerful deterrent to trolls who get their accounts banned) and more generally through setting high expectations for behaviour as a whole.

  7. This is an opinion I’ve also held for a while.

    Several blogs I frequent have become less interesting with more readers – or, I should say, more commenters. To paraphrase one that I’m talking about; the signal vs noise ratio goes way down. There are just too many haters and people that don’t add anything to the conversation.

    Another example, I think, is http://www.codinghorror.com which, although the post quality is generally good, is actually made less interesting by the comments. Many posts now have 100+ comments, and I just don’t have the time or inclination to read them all, so I generally skip them altogether. This has the effect of ‘turning me off’ the blog, as something of the community feel is lost. I’ve read that blog since the early days, and I don’t get nearly so much from it now.

    Also – and I don’t level this at anyone in particular – I find that if a blog becomes really successful and the writer gains notoriety in their field, then ego becomes a factor and posts sometimes have a self-serving slant to them.

    Some blogs, and bloggers, are victims of their own success.

  8. I don’t think Vox fixes the problem, they only keep the brakes on from it ever becoming close to a problem. Vox slows down the original adoption and virality of a blog in the first place, which is fine if it’s just family, but if it’s voice piece, you’ve really limiting your voice.

    A popular blog is a hungry beast, end of story. Your only option is to turn the comments off and hope when you can’t control the conversation, or try and keep your blog from not becoming the well read blog you set out to make it be

  9. I’ve said too much already. 😉 Nah, just kidding. Not that I know of…

  10. Idea: What if blog comment systems were more like forums?

    Interesting idea Aaron. Is anyone doing this right now?

  11. I think this is true of any group in society though, its just not possible to keep the same group dynamics as the size of the group increases.

    From a few things Kevin Rose has said about digg, it seems they understand this problem and are looking at building in tools that break up the large group they have currently into smaller sub-sections for people with similar tastes and interests. This makes perfect sense and I hope as a result the comments sections will become useful for genuine discussion rather than a free for all.

    I agree with you that as the audience of a blog increases it becomes easier for a troll to slip in and out. I also think that the size of this audience is important because a troll wants attention, the more people they provoke a reaction from the better. Its a little like the argument some people use for there being no viruses on macs – because the mac audience isn’t big enough for a virus writer to bother with. I don’t necessarily agree with this argument but I think it applies to trolls.

    Theres some interesting psychological theories about crowd behaviour that I think apply equally to crowds online. One that springs to mind is the concept of deindividualisation. “Deindividualisation refers to a weakened sense of personal responsibility. In other words, since people feel anonymous in a crowd, they often act irresponsibly and without care for others.” (http://www.psy.uq.edu.au/student/highschool/Learn/crowd.html)

    Its an interesting topic and one I think is going to increase in importance as more and more people take up blogging. I’ve just ordered a copy of this book: http://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=k0Z2-I0zrDgC&oi=fnd&pg=RA4-PA1&dq=crowd+psychology+online&ots=pbeld21OFa&sig=2uGq3rJgEaq9iBBtFm1ijnEd4Jw which seems as though it may provide a deeper insight into these types of behaviours, theres a few more very cheap copies on Amazon.

  12. Ultimately the solution has to be something involving karma. The community needs to have ways to bury trolls, and people need ways to say “I don’t want to see this person’s comments anymore”.

    Perhaps the solution is to require memberships. Comment systems could display publicly by default only comments by users with a certain number of comments, etc.

    Idea: What if blog comment systems were more like forums?

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