July 01, 2004

Comments: progress and prospects

We're experimenting with comments here at Language Log. So far, reviews are mixed.

There are some positive comments on comments:

I have nothing to say on the subject; but I'm delighted at your decision to enable comments.

I would like to second Ray Girvan's delight. Well done, o brave Loggers!

And some negative ones:

Come on guys, how about some security here? I love languagelog.org because of its quality content. Having to be bothered by a bunch of trolls is going to detract from the site.

Ray Girvan wrote:
"I have nothing to say on the subject; but I'm delighted at your decision to enable comments."

Oh yes, because this won't be abused. ::cough::

Please fix the comment posting system before LanguageLog turns into Slashdot at -1.

Following both these lines of commentary at once, we'll continue to experiment, while intervening occasionally to keep the SNR up. Our current plan is to go to a typekey-based system for keeping out comments spam.

However, I'm less interested in the negative/defensive aspects -- the struggle with spammers, trolls and fools -- than in ways to foster productive and/or interesting discussions. Over the course of the summer, I hope to try some experiments that will go beyond enabling comments on the blog site, both in terms of technical structure and in terms of content.

Here are a couple of ideas, varied in form and content.

(1) Start off a limited-time discussion with a provocative post. The discussion could take place on an off-blog site that would maintain a threading posting structure, for easier posting and reading. Other language blogs could participate with posts on their own sites, using some kind of RSS arrangement to collect the distributed contributions. Or perhaps the kick-off could be orchestrated in advance by an ad hoc confederation of linguabloggers, who would post their individual provocations independently but simultaneously. After a few days, the discussion site would shut down and the originators (and others) could comment via new blog posts on whatever aspects of the discussion interested them.

(2) Try a weblog-mediated "journal club" or "book club", where from time to time (once a month?) an interesting article or book would be featured for discussion. Of course it would be available on line. Ad hoc support by linguabloggers might include informal tutorial explanations of technical aspects, or accounts of the intellectual context of the research. Some sort of open or semi-open threaded discussion should also be part of this.

The idea is not to make anyone do significantly more work, but rather to introduce a minimal amount of maximally informal coordination, so as to enable existing posting and reading and commenting to interact in a way that is more productive and more fun.

Please feel free to comment on these ideas here, and also on your own sites where appropriate.

Posted by Mark Liberman at July 1, 2004 09:18 AM

I will admit that the comments area provides a more convenient way to give feedback than having to check to see who wrote the article and then tracking down an email address. (Which isn’t hard, just mildly tedious.)

I’m worried about neither tolls nor idiots; I’m worried most about how quickly comments will get buried, since I myself don’t go back and reread recent LL posts. If Ray Girvan does find something to say on a subject, I know I’ll be interested in seeing it, but if I read a post before he comments, I fear I never will.

An off-site, threaded arena for comments may better suit the site--and provide a better sense of LL community and a better method for an exchange of ideas (both of which I suppose one can otherwise get by going to the LSA meeting in January, but that’s only practical for some readers).

Posted by: Lance Nathan at July 1, 2004 10:06 AM

(Er, trolls. An off-site board could also provide a way for us typo-prone folk to edit our posts...)

Posted by: Lance Nathan at July 1, 2004 10:07 AM

If only URL syntax had been designed so that random nntp servers could be specified on a link by link basis, and blog comment boards were accessible with Your Newsreader Of Choice! (USENET's s/n problems derive from the global shared froup hierarchy - the tools we have are first-rate.)

You _could_ always simulpost* to sci.lang, which is already there doing at least 80% of what you want, at least 80 times better than any threaded web interface I've ever seen...

* With a little help from CPAN it should be easy enough to get this to happen automagically, although I don't know from Movable Type.

Posted by: des von bladet at July 1, 2004 10:24 AM

Most annoying: Baldie Enterprises was planning to provide a system for commenting LL stuff along these lines so that future drinking holidays would be financed by the advertising.

Posted by: Kaleboel at July 1, 2004 10:36 AM

I have been experimenting with comments in my blog. I didn't like comments being used for long arguments, because I don't think this is a convenient discussion medium. So a week ago, I changed it. I limited the size of comments allowed, urging people to use it only for short additions or corrections. I ask people to go to usenet if they want to have a discussion about what I wrote, and I point them to a few newsgroups were they can find me. (Until now, nobody started such a discussion.)

You people at Language Log might want to consider this option. Usenet is still the best medium for having discussions with a larger group of people. You could 'adopt' europa.linguas as your mirror group. At the moment, that group is not too crowded. And if the need arises, it isn't that hard to start a new group in the europa.* hierarchy.

Posted by: Peter Kleiweg at July 1, 2004 10:38 AM

Excellent, comments! I don't have something to say that often, but when I do, the tedium of tracking down email addresses and switching to a mail client means I spend the rest of my coffee break doing something else. So, yeah, they're good.

Posted by: Aidan Kehoe at July 1, 2004 11:38 AM

Oh, and you should look into serving the site (and the comments boxes) as UTF-8. It makes cross-writing-script input distinctly easier.

Posted by: Aidan Kehoe at July 1, 2004 11:39 AM

"a typekey-based system for keeping out comments spam"

That looks worth doing.

"ways to foster productive and/or interesting discussions"

If you've encountered such systems working well elsewhere, maybe - otherwise, I wonder if it's unnecessarily forcing an unfamiliar discussion format on people. Given the topic matter and readership, I think the quantity and quality of discussion here is likely to be similar to that on LanguageHat, and that seems pretty manageable.

Posted by: Ray Girvan at July 1, 2004 11:53 AM

I've often been frustrated by the difficulty of passing some gem on to you. I know that people can get as testy about language as about anything else, but I suspect that flame wars would not last long.

As for spammers, there are ways to deter them; for example, several sites use a visual-recognition scheme that requires input from a live human being before a comment can be posted.

Posted by: Theophylact at July 1, 2004 02:32 PM

Well, my comments on 'the prosperity of the posterity' were deleted or vanished upon unknown causes.

Posted by: Tony Marmo at July 1, 2004 02:39 PM

"I've often been frustrated by the difficulty of passing some gem on to you".

It's not so much that it's physically difficult; I just feel a strong inhibition about directly e-mailing linguistics perfessers. I worry about being intrusive or stupid, what salutation to use, whether I'm making unwanted demands on their time with amateur questions, etc. A comments forum bypasses all that angst.

Posted by: Ray Girvan at July 1, 2004 02:57 PM

You know how I feel about comments Mark, because I've asked you for them before. I urged you previously that LL have comments, even if they were opened only to the members of this group blog, and not its readers, which would keep down superfluous or verbose comments and outside interference, and would keep the scholarly level high; I am pleased to see them open to everyone. But below I make the case for modes of working with comments that I hope you'll consider.

To me, the main benefit of comments here will be to reduce the number of posts which are about other posts, which have always meant a lot of repetition on the part of LL, and for my part, a lot of trundling back and forth, trying to figure out which of my open windows (or tabs) held the next or last thread in the conversation. Comments resolve this. The awful paradigm of call-and-response posts should be abandoned now that you are permitting comments. Comments attached to threads remain the best way for the scholarly discussion to take place here.

I implore you, too, not to time-limit threads. The information is still good, and new information does come along. Keep the threads open. If you are worried about spammers adding comments to old threads which are not being monitored, then employ registered users, captcha, or user validation to stop or block the comment spam. To permit visitors to keep up on active conversations in old threads which have scrolled down or off the main page, I recommend links in the sidebar to threads active in the last N days, or to recent comments, or even a user-specified preference which permits the posts to be reordered with the most-recently active at the top.

Taking the discussion off-site to a free BBS or to Usenet would be a mistake. Content-wise and readability-wise, there are no advantages to taking the discussion elsewhere. Now, you could implement a different forum (one which permits post-editing, for example) of course, but I hope you would do it as a part of LL, and not as a link to another host. (I recognize that this is affected by what server-side tools and languages are available to you.)

As for integrating the conversations happening elsewhere (such as on Language Hat or Semantic Compositions) which concern LL posts, I recommend you look into some of the more advanced Trackback implementations in which the comments made on other sites don't just show up as a link on LL, but as a fully sanctioned comment, threaded in with the rest.

Posted by: Grant Barrett at July 1, 2004 03:35 PM

Grant Barrett gives some advice I can fully disagree with. Having a discussion hanging on each primary post indefinitely is anything but readable. I might read the comments in this section for a few days, if I really have time to burn, but I can't and won't spend days tracking all comments on all posts on all blogs. If the contributers of Language Log themselves have something worth adding to a message, I hope they will write a new, regular blog entry, or I and many other people will just not see it. Unless you start putting comments in the rss feeds, but having old messages turn up as new in my feed reader just because something thought it necessary to write "this really stinks" is also very annoying.

You want a discussion people can keep tabs on, take it to usenet. There is nothing as convenient as that.

And don't use trackback. It's a needlessly complicated.

Posted by: Peter Kleiweg at July 1, 2004 03:59 PM

I recognize Peter's point of view is valid for some, though I don't agree with it much.

Maybe we could get completely geeky and come up with an MT-to-Usenet feed which mirrors all comments and posts to a newsgroup. That'd certainly be a nice trick. Some kind of RSS2 or Atom feed might be the proper medium.

Of course, the problem with Usenet is that, outside of Google Groups, posts die. Comments on a weblog can live forever, as long as the hosting and domain bills are paid. As fond as I am of the kids at Google, I try not to rely on third parties for my archiving.

Posted by: Grant Barrett at July 1, 2004 05:26 PM

Bravo! I am very pleased to see comments enabled on language log.

For ease of following comments to a thread you could install the subscribe to comments plug-in: http://mt-plugins.org/archives/entry/subtocomments.php

It works great, I used it before I switched from MT - any one has the option to unsubscribe later if they choose. I highly recommend this plug-in.

Also changing to UTF-8 as suggested by Aidan is a good idea, and just involves opening up the config file and changing one line - I don't know which line off-hand.

Posted by: Blinger at July 1, 2004 06:23 PM

I infinitely prefer comment threads (such as I am used to on my blog and others); if discussions were carried on at Usenet, I would probably never see them. Convenience is in the eye of the beholder.

Posted by: language hat at July 1, 2004 10:06 PM

Why not have comments selectively enabled? Allow bloggers to choose whether they want comments enabled on a post or not.

My thinking here is that some topics may lend themselves to discussion and others may not, or may lend themselves to futile flame wars.

Posted by: Danny Yee at July 4, 2004 01:29 AM