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://stickyslides.blogspot.com Jan Schultink

    Well-said Mark. Your blog is a community, but not every blog is:
    - Blogs need to be focussed on a narrow subject/narrow reader segment
    - Blogs need to be consistent, keep the same focus post after post
    - Blogs need to be updated frequently
    - Blogs need a clear leader to moderate comments, who steps in frequently (you and Fred Wilson for example do a great job in this)
    - Blog frequent visitors should be more or less on the same stage of a learning curve: complete newbies, and complete experts do not create good discussion with each other
    - Blog communities should not become too big: the magic disappears… Techcrunch is not a community anymore for example

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    As always, spot on Jan. You're right – I don't consider TechCrunch a community. Nor do I consider many websites like the NYTimes that are filled with comments. I think moderation is key; which is why I love Disqus. But I also agree that blogs need to be focused around topics. Appreciate the input.

  • http://lmframework.com David Semeria

    I once made an off-the-cuff comment on Fred Wilson’s blog that Diqus “turns comments into communities” – Arnold Waldstein liked it, and wrote an interesting post about it (http://arnoldwaldstein.com/2009/10/comments-conversations-and-community).

    I think it’s really interesting that we’re discussing similar ideas here, and with many of the same people. It seems to me that it’s the nature of the conversation itself (rather than the location or the medium) which brings us together – and I think this could be a small pointer as to how things will develop in the future….

  • http://lmframework.com/blog/about David Semeria

    I once made an off-the-cuff comment on Fred Wilson's blog that Diqus “turns comments into communities” – Arnold Waldstein liked it, and wrote an interesting post about it on his blog.

    I think it's really interesting that we're discussing similar ideas here, and with many of the same people. It seems to me that it's the nature of the conversation itself (rather than the location or the medium) which brings us together – and I think this could be a small pointer as to how things will develop in the future….

  • http://shanacarp.com/essays ShanaC

    I still remember that day. That was the day I realized I was part of something bigger than myself, and that I had impact. In reality, by myself, I'm small. It was also the day I became totally sure that being in Tech was what I wanted to do, and I would figure out how. I think also at that moment that blog super-cememented into a community, which was extremely interesting to see. I can say that people know me, even if they never met me. It's different, very different. I maintain a life outside of it, but still.

    I think underneath it is why I developed that AVC-People-List, which caused some interesting effects…those commentators (sorry if I haven't added you @shanacarp if you think you should be on it) know more about each other now if they feel like following the list. About a 1/4 do, and they talk to each other even more because of it…

    so I think you are very right. It is just hard, because you need critical mass and a way of connecting. And a way of further cemementing the connections once they are made. That is what makes Disqus successful, since it helps bind the connections as a starting point, but in the long run, seeing what is happening, it can't be the only tool in your toolbox. Communities have to be forged very carefully in order to be maintained and survive in the long haul. As much as I hate to admit it, what would happen if there was no Fred Wilson. That could eventually happen. There needs to be a tipping point of the brand where the community is self sustaining of its own choice. And that is the most difficult work to find out how to do. Find how to make self sustaining communities.

    difficult work in the internet generation indeed.

  • http://blog.ideatransplant.com Jan Schultink

    Well-said Mark. Your blog is a community, but not every blog is:
    - Blogs need to be focussed on a narrow subject/narrow reader segment
    - Blogs need to be consistent, keep the same focus post after post
    - Blogs need to be updated frequently
    - Blogs need a clear leader to moderate comments, who steps in frequently (you and Fred Wilson for example do a great job in this)
    - Blog frequent visitors should be more or less on the same stage of a learning curve: complete newbies, and complete experts do not create good discussion with each other
    - Blog communities should not become too big: the magic disappears… Techcrunch is not a community anymore for example

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    As always, spot on Jan. You’re right – I don’t consider TechCrunch a community. Nor do I consider many websites like the NYTimes that are filled with comments. I think moderation is key; which is why I love Disqus. But I also agree that blogs need to be focused around topics. Appreciate the input.

  • http://uniquevisitor.net Jeff Pester

    Agreed, it's the nature of the conversation itself; The subject matter, the author's participation, and the contribution of everyone that chimes in. But the best part for me is the level at which the discussion takes place. Quality not only attracts quality, it simultaneously repels the trolls.

    BTW, your “turning comments in to communities” line back in mid-October really helped us focus our efforts on our current project. Thx.

  • http://avc.com fredwilson

    yes, comments turn into communities on places like this blog, but how do we get more people to join these communities?

    i have between 70,000 and 100,000 people who read at least one of my posts a month (don't know the exact number because i don't have uniques on my feed).

    the AVC community probably numbers in the thousands and the hard core is a couple hundred

    that's what i'm thinking about right now

  • http://twitter.com/UniqueVisitor Jeff Pester

    Agreed, it’s the nature of the conversation itself; The subject matter, the author’s participation, and the contribution of everyone that chimes in. But the best part for me is the level at which the discussion takes place. Quality not only attracts quality, it simultaneously repels trolls.BTW, your “turning comments in to communities” line back in mid-October really helped us focus our efforts on our current project. Thx.

  • http://lmframework.com/blog/about David Semeria

    In your post which Mark linked to you describe AVC as a bar where people drop in from time to time and share their thoughts, idiosyncrasies (Mark Swan!) and stories (JLM). Personally, I see it more like a jazz bar.

    When I was a student I used to go regularly to Ronnie Scott's in London. Frequently, at the tables next to mine there would be Members of Parliament, or other accomplished people. Everyone got on just fine, there was no snobbery or bother – it was a great leveler. I always felt 'part of something' – even though I couldn't put my finger on it.

    So, I'll answer your question with one of my own: would you (or Mark, we're in his house after all!) prefer the atmosphere in Ronnie's (or CBGB's) – to that of a mega concert in some soulless stadium?

  • http://twitter.com/davidsmuts David Smuts

    Mark, credit to you for bringing this community together, I know this has been a lot of work (seriously). It's been a great networking tool for me personally as I've been connected with some amazing people here. I only see this community getting stronger and stronger!

  • http://lmframework.com/blog/about David Semeria

    Glad to be of assistance ;-)

  • http://twitter.com/davidsmuts David Smuts

    My vote's for CBGB/Ronnie Scott, or a night in the Groucho club, or better yet…., why doesn't everyone come over to my house and we'll watch Dumb and Dumber and then Spinal Tap and then off to my local pub and end up in the curry house

  • http://bit.ly/19kduZ Greg4

    Wow, Mark, way to ratchet up the pressure on commenters. Now I'm going to have to find another, less stressful way to procrastinate. ;-)

    You're right, of course.

  • http://bit.ly/19kduZ Greg4

    I find the quality of comments on a site a fascinating metric. TechCrunch comments, I hate to say, are just about the worst I've ever seen, maybe worse than Slashdot. For the NYT, there's a weird mix of excellent, ok, and awful comments. But I think their main problem is a different one. The discussion is too big. You can't really make yourself heard, and you mostly have no clue who all those other people are. They need to figure out a way to segment the comments to keep people more tied in – maybe by location?

  • http://arnoldwaldstein.com awaldstein

    Mark

    Thnx much for the nod above.

    And thanks for pulling this community together and creating a spot for us to hang out.

    I'm a big fan of Disqus as a platform for online conversations that has the oomph to let them turn into communities. With dynamic glue like Disqus, a rock star blogger to lead, and a smart and opiniated community, we can hash things out and the world is more manageable somehow.

  • http://lmframework.com David Semeria

    Glad to be of assistance ;-)

  • http://arnoldwaldstein.com awaldstein

    David,

    Thanks for the kind words.

    You are the catalyst for a lot of ideas. And yes, 'Comments into communities' did spur some thinking on my part…http://bit.ly/1bfHWf …that drew real parallels between Disqus today and what early communities have been trying to solve for decades.

  • http://arnoldwaldstein.com awaldstein

    David,

    Thanks for the kind words.

    You are the catalyst for a lot of ideas. And yes, 'Comments into communities' did spur some thinking on my part…http://bit.ly/1bfHWf …that drew real parallels between Disqus today and what early communities have been trying to solve for decades.

  • http://twitter.com/davidsmuts David Smuts

    My vote’s for CBGB/Ronnie Scott, or a night in the Groucho club, or better yet…., why doesn’t everyone come over to my house and we’ll watch Dumb and Dumber and then Spinal Tap and then off to my local pub and end up in the curry house

  • http://www.brekiri.com/ Greg4

    I find the quality of comments on a site a fascinating metric. TechCrunch comments, I hate to say, are just about the worst I’ve ever seen, maybe worse than Slashdot. For the NYT, there’s a weird mix of excellent, ok, and awful comments. But to echo Jan, I think their main problem is that the discussion is too big. You can’t really make yourself heard, and you mostly have no clue who all those other people are. They need to figure out a way to segment the comments to keep people more tied in – maybe by location?

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    True. And they get a lot of hate comments, spam and self promotional shite. I wonder how they can deal with that?

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    And there are clearly related blogs that cover similar topics and it would be great if there was a cross-blog way to discuss topics more seamlessly.

    My Google analytics show about 40,000 / month to this blog and my “community” is probably 1,000 with hard-core more like 75-100. I find analytics very complicated because my WordPress analytics show about 30% higher numbers.

    I also publish on other sites as I'm sure you must and it would be great to have one big integrated set of comments. It's hard to always go and check CloudAve, Silicon Angle, VentureHacks, BusinessInsider, etc. I now need to be on a mission to get more people using Disqus.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    I used to go to Ronnie Scots all the time, too! Thing is, I mostly was there with several cocktails so I still think of this venue as more great independent coffee house ;-)

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    And it was your comments on my last post the spurred the ideas for this one. Thank you.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    You're right. It's an investment in creating new content all the time and you have to double-down to make sure you read all the comments, add back and keep the conversation going. I personally enjoy it. I'm sure Fred does or he wouldn't be able to maintain it as long as he has. But you do need some people committed to a community – just like in real life.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Thanks, David. And add you to the people I've been lucky enough to meet in person as a result of conversations started here!

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Ha. I had to find a way to flush people out of consume-only mode and get some comments going!

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    True. And they get a lot of hate comments, spam and self promotional shite. I wonder how they can deal with that?

  • http://lmframework.com/blog/about David Semeria

    I once made an off-the-cuff comment on Fred Wilson's blog that Diqus “turns comments into communities” – Arnold Waldstein liked it, and wrote an interesting post about it on his blog.

    I think it's really interesting that we're discussing similar ideas here, and with many of the same people. It seems to me that it's the nature of the conversation itself (rather than the location or the medium) which brings us together – and I think this could be a small pointer as to how things will develop in the future….

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    I used to go to Ronnie Scots all the time, too! Thing is, I mostly was there with several cocktails so I still think of this venue as more great independent coffee house ;-)

  • http://giffconstable.com giffc

    nice comment Jan.

    You can tell a lot about a person by how they blog or behave in an online forum. I think Mark and Fred in particular invite a community by the tone of writing and active participation in the comments.

  • http://shanacarp.com/essays ShanaC

    I still remember that day. That was the day I realized I was part of something bigger than myself, and that I had impact. In reality, by myself, I'm small. It was also the day I became totally sure that being in Tech was what I wanted to do, and I would figure out how. I think also at that moment that blog super-cememented into a community, which was extremely interesting to see. I can say that people know me, even if they never met me. It's different, very different. I maintain a life outside of it, but still.

    I think underneath it is why I developed that AVC-People-List, which caused some interesting effects…those commentators (sorry if I haven't added you @shanacarp if you think you should be on it) know more about each other now if they feel like following the list. About a 1/4 do, and they talk to each other even more because of it…

    so I think you are very right. It is just hard, because you need critical mass and a way of connecting. And a way of further cemementing the connections once they are made. That is what makes Disqus successful, since it helps bind the connections as a starting point, but in the long run, seeing what is happening, it can't be the only tool in your toolbox. Communities have to be forged very carefully in order to be maintained and survive in the long haul. As much as I hate to admit it, what would happen if there was no Fred Wilson. That could eventually happen. There needs to be a tipping point of the brand where the community is self sustaining of its own choice. And that is the most difficult work to find out how to do. Find how to make self sustaining communities.

    difficult work in the internet generation indeed.

  • http://snowcrashing.com Antonella

    Very thoughtful post. A simple and yet very effective Online Presence Management guide.

  • http://giffconstable.com giffc

    nice comment Jan.

    You can tell a lot about a person by how they blog or behave in an online forum. I think Mark and Fred in particular invite a community by the tone of writing and active participation in the comments.

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

    Thanks for the nod for me too. I wonder at what stage in my career my exuberant profile picture starts to become a liability…. maybe that's how I'll know it's time to stop doing whatever, and go back to starting companies ;)

    Another trick I use apart from Facebook to build relationships via IM is to try to get the Gmail address of the person, since Gmail automatically adds you to Gchat even after you send emails.

    I really think IM is incredibly useful to build relationships – its a natural, low-pressure step in between emails/comments and phone calls/meetings. I wish it was actually seen as more 'professional' by older folks, and used in business more often. I can't imagine a VC saying 'stay in touch! I'd love to help! ….oh and here's my IM info so you can message me when you have questions' NEVER happens

    I try to get as many other founders of companies on my IM list as possible, so I can ask questions, do reference checks or just bitch about startup life ;) This is basically the only time-efficient way to build these relationships beyond casual acquaintances – there is no time at conferences, and exclusive meetings without a defined purpose are costly in many ways. (Why meet to shoot the breeze when you could be coding the next big feature or preparing sales materials?)

    Finally, at any given time on my computer, I have Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Gmail and Skype open each with their own contact lists and message streams. First thing in the morning I check each one in turn. It'd be nice to have all that on one platform, but maybe it'll never happen??

  • http://avc.com fredwilson

    yes, comments turn into communities on places like this blog, but how do we get more people to join these communities?

    i have between 70,000 and 100,000 people who read at least one of my posts a month (don't know the exact number because i don't have uniques on my feed).

    the AVC community probably numbers in the thousands and the hard core is a couple hundred

    that's what i'm thinking about right now

  • http://www.marketing.fm EricFriedman

    Comments also allow you to see how someone frames a problem or issue and responds to it. Whether agreeing or disagreeing over something its the “something” that counts vs. the typical banter when you first meet someone that doesn't show you how they effectively think through a problem or topic.

    Unless you are in an interview setting it can be tough to pry some of that critical thinking out.

    By creating good seed topics that have many answers or possibilities is a great way to spark a conversation on your blog – something that is happening now within this thread.

  • http://arnoldwaldstein.com awaldstein

    I trust that this exchange will continue on and spur other ideas for both of us.

    Again, thnx for the gracious nod.

  • http://lmframework.com/blog/about David Semeria

    In your post which Mark linked to you describe AVC as a bar where people drop in from time to time and share their thoughts, idiosyncrasies (Mark Swan!) and stories (JLM). Personally, I see it more like a jazz bar.

    When I was a student I used to go regularly to Ronnie Scott's in London. Frequently, at the tables next to mine there would be Members of Parliament, or other accomplished people. Everyone got on just fine, there was no snobbery or bother – it was a great leveler. I always felt 'part of something' – even though I couldn't put my finger on it.

    So, I'll answer your question with one of my own: would you (or Mark, we're in his house after all!) prefer the atmosphere in Ronnie's (or CBGB's) – to that of a mega concert in some soulless stadium?

  • http://twitter.com/davidsmuts David Smuts

    Mark, credit to you for bringing this community together, I know this has been a lot of work (seriously). It's been a great networking tool for me personally as I've been connected with some amazing people here. I only see this community getting stronger and stronger!

  • http://www.brekiri.com/blog/ Greg4

    Wow, Mark, way to ratchet up the pressure on commenters. Now I'm going to have to find another, less stressful way to procrastinate. ;-)

    You're right, of course.

  • http://shanacarp.com/essays ShanaC

    I still wish I knew who that hard cores' twitter ids were….

  • http://shanacarp.com/essays ShanaC

    I prefer smalls personally when I am NY….

  • http://shanacarp.com/essays ShanaC

    I'm currently trying that with places I know have strong communal activity- problem is they are very SEO concious and they are complaining of rumors that Javascript linking is beating them down. And they don't have your profile either…

    Suggestions?

  • http://shanacarp.com/essays ShanaC

    Thank you for the complement. I'm bad about making content on my own blog. I prefer to comment, to be part of growing communities. It's an important way to be active in work. Free flowing thought is extremely difficult. Comments at least give you a way of getting started. It, along with wikis and other collaborative tools, are a great way of getting started about some topic or problem. It's just hard to implement well. We'll see how this all develops long run.

    I'm glad you enjoy it. It's not for everyone. I just wish disqus brought back permalinking from within the comments. Some of them I would stick in a resume -they tell more of a story about me and many people I interact with that I think it would be useful to have back.

  • http://shanacarp.com/essays ShanaC

    Oh you deserve it.

  • http://arnoldwaldstein.com awaldstein

    Mark

    Thnx much for the nod above.

    And thanks for pulling this community together and creating a spot for us to hang out.

    I'm a big fan of Disqus as a platform for online conversations that has the oomph to let them turn into communities. With dynamic glue like Disqus, a rock star blogger to lead, and a smart and opinionated community, we can hash things out and the world benefits somehow.

  • http://zaneology.com zaneology

    Now wearing Black. :)

    Great Post. I enjoyed your “early” '06 references…