Comments are the New Black

Posted on Dec 13, 2009 | 181 comments


black sweaterI’ve been thinking a lot about comments lately.  I recently wrote a post about how to get access to people at conferences and how to connect with people on social networks.  These posts encouraged groups of people to provide their thoughts on these topics.  As usual we began a dialog with lots of people sharing their points of view.

Arnold Waldstein, who stops by periodically on my blog and always leaves relevant comments, made the observation that, “if I want to connect with you, I’ll arnold waldstein fbengage with you on this blog …from there, a follow on Twitter, a link on LinkedIn are closing the loop of connection rather that opening a cold door.”  This is so true.

I got to thinking more broadly about social networks and the real-time web.  Many people who want to get to know me send me a LinkedIn invite, connect on Facebook or more recently follow me on Twitter.  On LinkedIn we rarely communicate with each other.  So being Linked seems nothing more than a status symbol.  Occasionally I’ll get an LinkedIn email from somebody saying, “I see you know such-and-such, would you mind connecting me?”  In a way, LinkedIn has become mostly a chore for me – a place to provide intros for two people that I know.

Facebook has much more value to me as a networking tool.  When I sent out 300 invites in early 2006 people thought I was crazy.  Given that I’m 41 most of the people I invited were 35-45 and hadn’t done much social networking other than LinkedIn.  At the time I proclaimed Facebook the new LinkedIn because you could do so much more and people were actually communicating rather than just having static links.  The power to me was that I had already been blogging about my personal life and my children as well as separately about my startup.  But I constantly had to remind people every time I updated my blog (very few non-technical people were using RSS readers and nobody had even heard of Twitter) and I thought Facebook provided a way for me to publish pictures, blogs or random thoughts into a community rather than the community having to remember to find me.  Powerful stuff.

And Facebook continued to innovate while all this time I have continued to wonder WTF LinkedIn was up to.  Facebook added obvious features like IM.  The smartest of networkers have realized that IM through Facebook, if used appropriately, is the best way to get through to people.  Send me an email and it goes to the bottom of a very big stack of inbound communications for which I’m already weeks behind.  Send me a sychronous IM when you already know that I’m online by my presence (side note: Facebook seems to often say I’m there when I’m not) and you have a greater chance of engaging me.

rajatThis is exactly how Rajat Suri uses Facebook as he outlined in his comment here on my blog.  Rajat and I have become friends this way and have now switched over to occasional phone calls.  It’s also how Jason Nazar and I started communicating.  He noticed that I’m often on my computer at midnight and he would shoot my little one liners about the great progress that DocStoc was making.

But you can’t really IM somebody you have zero connection with.  At least in my age & demagraphic it’s considered too forward – kind of like calling on me on my mobile phone unsolicited.  You have to establish a pretty good connection with somebody before you IM them.

And then there’s Twitter.  I’ve already spoke about one of the things I love the most about Twitter is that it is asymmetrical and doesn’t require a two-way follow to connect.  Using the @ command anybody who follows me (or even if they don’t) can send a little message that will go into my @ mailbox on Twitter.  I read almost all of these.  For any clever comment from somebody who I don’t know I will often click through to their bio.  If there’s a link I’ll often look at their blog or LinkedIn profile (depending on where the link sends me) and I’ll look at their Twitter stream to see if they’ve said anything interesting.

This phenomenon led Jan Schultink to comment that we increasingly size people up online in a Malcom Gladwell “Blink” sort of way and establish a sense of trust based on what we read about the individual, the type of comments they make and what they write about in their blogs.  This is how I met Tristan Walker.  He left me a comment on Twitter.  I clicked through to his blog from his Twitter profile and in a Blink evaluation decided to follow him back on Twitter and comment back to him.

trispic2One day I was in Palo Alto with an hour to kill.  I Tweeted that I’d like to meet somebody for coffee and had 6 responses in 60 seconds.  One was from Tristan.  We’d never met IRL but I felt that I knew he was a good guy from my Blink impression online.  We spent an hour together and then started doing occasional phone calls.  I love his initiative and now consider him a friend.  Strange – we’ve only met in person once.

So how does this all tie back into comments?  As Fred Wilson pointed out, there is a community that forms on blogs.  Many of the same people turn up and they comment on my posts.  Sometimes they offer words of encouragement, sometimes they disagree with me and sometimes they form conversations with other people that regularly turn up.

It is far easier to build a relationship with me on my blog by commenting then it is to connect on a social network.  I see Arnold here all the time – more than I ever would on Facebook where I don’t spend as much time.  I see David Smuts, David Semeria, Eric Jackson and the many, many more people that stop by to leave their views.  I have now met many of these people IRL.

Comments are a gateway.  They enable you to more easily connect to people in more personal ways like Facebook.  They give you more permission to IM somebody through that channel.  They allow you to get to know how somebody thinks and draw you into wanting to know them better.  They are more than Blink – they are deep dive, continual and built over time.  Comments are the coffee shop banter that we miss being in this busy and digital world.

Disqus has enabled all this.  In a way, I think that the information that you can find in the “stream” of Disqus comments is far more valuable than that which you will find in Twitter.  It is a real conversation.  It is threaded.  It is already organized around vertical niches and topics.  And because Disqus has been built in a clever way it is portable, searchable and ready to be broadcast out via Twitter or other social networks.

Yeah, once we’re friends on Disqus through comments you can connect with me more easily on Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn.  But I think we’ll always know each other better here in my comments section.  Or yours.  Comments are the new black.

  • http://www.uncorkedventures.com wine clubs

    I do think that in many ways exchanging user generated content is the wave of the future. No longer do people expect to be told what the best vacuum is, they like to hear about other people's experience.

  • http://arnoldwaldstein.com awaldstein

    Go for it ;)

  • http://obscurelyfamous.com Daniel Ha

    I read “Comments are the New Black” and I find it amusing. Not because I disagree (of course not), but because at first thought it's hard to imagine that comments are new. But I know exactly what you mean.

    Comments has been this concept that we always knew was very important, but it was previously important in this boring way. Subpar experience, high barriers to say anything–short or long–, and supported by websites in a way that is ignoring the rest of the web. That's why I'm loving what we're doing here with Disqus in shifting this notion.

    Of course community is more that comments. You'll quickly learn that it's hard to get passive readers to become active commenters (although it's not impossible), and that's why light engagement (I think Fred popped up in here and mentioned that) is important.

    Comments is that classic black sweater, familiar but worn in a new way that reminds you why it was so great in the first place.

  • http://openswipe.com/ Casey Allen

    A sweet user experience is mypeoplemaps.com. Find all the ways, and the strength of each way, you're connected to a person you need to meet. It literally produces a map for you. It's a very cool thing.

    whodoyouknowat.com greases the wheels too, but in a little more walled fashion, which might be good for some people.

    Due to everyone's network being consolidated in one or two API-friendly spots, I think we'll see 9 services per year start coming out, which will be helpful yet annoying.*

    *Just like networking.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Thanks, Derek. Yeah, I don't think I'm shy about taking a point-of-view – even if controversial. But I think inviting people to comment with questions is probably the right approach as people have requested.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Yeah, I'd be interested to understand what plans Disqus has to make the product more “social” going forward. I'd bet they are aware of this requirement.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    thanks for the input, Ryan. I can't imagine the point of a blog if you didn't make it a conversation. Otherwise you're just an old-school publisher.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    David, I have that planned as a future blog post. If I don't do it in the next 30 days feel free to remind me.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Yeah, true. Not new but done much better. Well done, Daniel. But I think my analogy still holds. Every year purple is the new black. Brown is the new black. It's always just a retread of future seasons. At least in your case there's true innovation.

  • http://thedreaminaction.com/ Ryan Graves

    Totally agree. It will be nice to see big publishers start to use commenting
    systems and turn “articles” into discussions…in due time.

  • http://obscurelyfamous.com Daniel Ha

    Agreed. Definitely won't argue with that. ;)

  • http://shanacarp.com/essays ShanaC

    Why are we all heading here? This is an interesting merger of communities right now?

  • http://shanacarp.com/essays ShanaC

    It's a great goal. One of the reasons I ended up on AVC.com was because I found it intellectually stimulating. Asking questions that way might expand that level of commentary. Just remember, be a polite party host. (I admit to being a little scared of communities that I'm not invited to sometimes- people can be brutal when you don't know something.)

  • http://shanacarp.com/essays ShanaC

    I have to do more of that….

  • http://shanacarp.com/essays ShanaC

    I don't necessarily think that is a bad thing: It's how those communities intersect that becomes important over time. We're all part of multidimensional communities, and are multidimensional people- most of my friends don't even know that I do this. It might be good to develop a broad way of smaller groups to interact rather than trying to make everyone interact on large scale parties.

    Easier to handle too.

  • http://shanacarp.com/essays ShanaC

    There is a good reason for that…

    If you wear monochrome of a dark color (especially black) you look thinner and it shows off the rest of what you wear in the way of accessories better. So it makes it easy to look put together cheaply and potentially very interestingly if you know what you are doing.

    And this is how you know I'm a girl…

  • http://arnoldwaldstein.com awaldstein

    Go for it ;)

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  • http://howhealthyisyourpersonalfinance.blogspot.com/2009/11/challenges-of-online-small-business.html scheng1

    Looking forward, I foresee the day when employers/headhunters use social networking sites to recruit employees.
    People often reveal their motives/thoughts/values through social networking, without realizing that information in cyberworld has the potential to linger forever.

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  • http://twitter.com/mikeschinkel Mike Schinkel

    Mark,

    Interesting perspective. However, I wonder if it is true in general? With your role as a VC many people want to connect with you. That's a lot more demand than the average person sees. I'm wondering if your thoughts are really most appropriate for the niche celebrity who blog vs. the broader spectrum of bloggers or even people?

    JMTCW.

  • http://joejoomla.com JoeJoomla

    I think that people that use the same social media tools figure they must have something more in common than just the topic a blog is centered around. Humans, being social creatures, also want to be popular or in the crowd that's trendy and making a big impact. Remember ICQ? At one time it seemed that everyone online had an ICQ number. Who's using it anymore? Disqus is good, and it also happens to be trendy.

    Disqus is like that old bulletin board discussion but spread all over instead of in one location. People who like to comment use it. That's something that Disqus does, it brings commenters together. Where do the lurkers hang out? ;-)

  • http://rafer.tumblr.com rafer

    It's worth strongly stating that all the above maxims for networking and self-promotion also apply the the marketing of products. Comments generates distribution and revenue if you take it seriously.

  • doctorbilal

    hi my friend how r u?

  • doctorbilal

    hi my friend how r u?

  • http://www.victusspiritus.com/ Mark Essel

    This is a big hit Mark. Giving a shout out to regulars is always appreciated by a community. When you mentioned Disqus, I thought about Arnold Waldstein, and David Semeria. I've gotten to share comments, tweets, emails with these gents and feel much more at ease piping up here.

    It's a wide wonderful world, but the folks that really care about forging businesses in this space is pretty tight. I look forward to learning more about your unique experiences.

  • toddnichols

    Great post Mark,

    As an aspiring entrepreneur I appreciated the insight into networking and connecting with those who have much more experience than I. We stand on the shoulders of giants :)

  • geoffmamlet

    Rajat, come on, not ALL of us Boston-area VCs are out there on Hamburger Hill (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Hamburge…). Our firm is right across the street from MIT, and we welcome conversations with entrepreneurs. Not just when they're ready to talk about investment, but also when they're still trying to figure out their business.

    And we are not alone. The number of venture firms in Kendall Square is growing, and there are still a fair number of firms in downtown Boston as well.

    Personally, email works better for me than IM or Twitter, but perhaps that's because I also have regular interactions with lots of entrepreneurs on a daily basis, face to face, in a very low-pressure setting, at CIC.

  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/rajatsuri rajatsuri

    No worries Geoff, I'm a fan – I'm pretty sure you're geographically the closest firm to MIT? I like your 'casual' setting for an office too. One thing that sometimes weirds me out is the overly opulent and cold settings for many VC offices. I understand firms like to show how successful they are, but personally I'm not that impressed with fancy furniture and layers of personal assistants – I see a lot of it as 'big company' / 'we've-made-it' thinking and something to avoid.

  • http://navfund.com/team/geoff-mamlet Geoff Mamlet

    Rajat, come on, not ALL of us Boston-area VCs are out there on Hamburger Hill (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Hamburge…). Our firm is right across the street from MIT, and we welcome conversations with entrepreneurs. Not just when they're ready to talk about investment, but also when they're still trying to figure out their business.

    And we are not alone. The number of venture firms in Kendall Square is growing, and there are still a fair number of firms in downtown Boston as well.

    Personally, email works better for me than IM or Twitter, but perhaps that's because I also have regular interactions with lots of entrepreneurs on a daily basis, face to face, in a very low-pressure setting, at CIC.

  • http://navfund.com/team/geoff-mamlet Geoff Mamlet

    Rajat, come on, not ALL of us Boston-area VCs are out there on Hamburger Hill (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Hamburge…). Our firm is right across the street from MIT, and we welcome conversations with entrepreneurs. Not just when they're ready to talk about investment, but also when they're still trying to figure out their business.

    And we are not alone. The number of venture firms in Kendall Square is growing, and there are still a fair number of firms in downtown Boston as well.

    Personally, email works better for me than IM or Twitter, but perhaps that's because I also have regular interactions with lots of entrepreneurs on a daily basis, face to face, in a very low-pressure setting, at CIC.

  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/rajatsuri rajatsuri

    No worries Geoff, I'm a fan – I'm pretty sure you're geographically the closest firm to MIT? I like your 'casual' setting for an office too. One thing that sometimes weirds me out is the overly opulent and cold settings for many VC offices. I understand firms like to show how successful they are, but personally I'm not that impressed with fancy furniture and layers of personal assistants – I see a lot of it as 'big company' / 'we've-made-it' thinking and something to avoid.

  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/rajatsuri rajatsuri

    No worries Geoff, I'm a fan – I'm pretty sure you're geographically the closest firm to MIT? I like your 'casual' setting for an office too. One thing that sometimes weirds me out is the overly opulent and cold settings for many VC offices. I understand firms like to show how successful they are, but personally I'm not that impressed with fancy furniture and layers of personal assistants – I see a lot of it as 'big company' / 'we've-made-it' thinking and something to avoid.

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