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Joel on Software

Learning from Dave Winer

by Joel Spolsky
Friday, July 20, 2007

Even if you never read a single thing Dave Winer wrote in his 439 years of blogging, it's worth taking time to study his ideas about comments on blogs (he doesn't allow them).

"...to the extent that comments interfere with the natural expression of the unedited voice of an individual, comments may act to make something not a blog.... The cool thing about blogs is that while they may be quiet, and it may be hard to find what you're looking for, at least you can say what you think without being shouted down. This makes it possible for unpopular ideas to be expressed. And if you know history, the most important ideas often are the unpopular ones.... That's what's important about blogs, not that people can comment on your ideas. As long as they can start their own blog, there will be no shortage of places to comment."

The important thing to notice here is that Dave does not see blog comments as productive to the free exchange of ideas. They are a part of the problem, not the solution. You don't have a right to post your thoughts at the bottom of someone else's thoughts. That's not freedom of expression, that's an infringement on their freedom of expression. Get your own space, write compelling things, and if your ideas are smart, they'll be linked to, and Google will notice, and you'll move up in PageRank, and you'll have influence and your ideas will have power.

When a blog allows comments right below the writer's post, what you get is a bunch of interesting ideas, carefully constructed, followed by a long spew of noise, filth, and anonymous rubbish that nobody ... nobody ... would say out loud if they had to take ownership of their words. Look at this innocent post on a real estate blog. By comment #6 you're already seeing complete noise. By #13 you have someone cursing and saying "go kill yourself." On a real estate blog. #18 and #23 have launched into a middle eastern nuclear conflageration which continues for 100 posts. They're proving John Gabriel's Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory every day. Pathetic. On a real estate blog. Lockhart Steele, is this what you want Curbed to look like? Really? It's not fun, freewheeling freedom of expression, yay first amendment!. It's mostly anonymous hate speech.

OK, that's an extreme example... or is it? I don't know how many times I've read a brilliant article someone wrote on a blog. By the end of the article, I'm excited, I'm impressed, it was a great article. And then you get the dribble of morbid, meaningless, thoughtless comments. If the article, for example, mentions anything in anyway related to Microsoft, you get some kind of open source nuclear war. If the article mentions web browsing in any way, there's always some person without an outbound filter who feels compelled to tell you about how he uses Opera, so he doesn't have this problem, although, frankly, I could care less what Anonymous uses. He's not even human to me, he's anonymous. What web browser he uses doesn't amount to a hill of beans. It's not a single bean. It's not even the memory of last week's huevos rancheros. It's just noise. Useless noise. Thoughtless drivel written by some anonymous non-entity who really didn't read the article very carefully and didn't come close to understanding it and who has no ability whatsoever to control his typing diarrhea if the site's software doesn't physically prevent him from posting.

Dave is absolutely right. The way to give people freedom of expression is to give them a quiet place to post their ideas. If other people disagree, they're welcome to do so... on their own blogs, where they have to take ownership of their words.

I'm really losing patience with anonymous posts, "anon", "anon for this one," people who don't even have the energy to sign their messages with a made up name and leave the whole signature blank. Frankly if every anonymous post disappeared from the Joel on Software discussion group, the overall quality of the conversation would go up, way up, and the discussion would be way more interesting. Try this as an experiment: read through the last few dozen topics on the discussion group, and imagine that all the "anonymous" and signed-blank posts just disappeared. Would the quality of conversation be higher? Would that be a place you'd be more likely to want to spend time in?


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About the author.

I’m Joel Spolsky, co-founder of Fog Creek Software, a New York company that proves that you can treat programmers well and still be highly profitable. Programmers get private offices, free lunch, and work 40 hours a week. Customers only pay for software if they’re delighted. We make Trello, which lets you organize anything, together, FogBugz, enlightened issue tracking software for bug tracking, and Kiln, which provides distributed version control and code reviews. I’m also the co-founder and CEO of Stack Exchange. More about me.

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