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.

  • RichardForster

    it's the same dilemma that a bar or restaurant has in a way isn't it Fred? You will always get hard core regulars that drop by more frequently and like to occupy the same spot at the bar and those people that drop by because they are thirsty/hungry at any particular point in time and by whatever stimuli are attracted to walk in off the street .

    In the same way that there are those that want and enjoy taking part in your community there are those that just see your posts as articles to be consumed like a newspaper. The problem seems to me that the vast majority of internet content is just consumed, one way, by the masses. It will change gradually over time but to speed up that shift to interact with the content, it requires mainstream media to adopt the Disqus type of model along with a real desire to create discussion rather than paying lip service with an anonymous “type your comment here” box.

    Probably more significant, I think, is the time constraint of joining and participating in a community. Something that is mirrored off line. It's easy to read a blog and take what you want from it rather than sit down, think about what you want to say and type it out. (You could argue that Disqus may actually be putting people off contributing because it's easier to bang out thoughtless comment into a commentary system a la TC)

  • http://thedreaminaction.com/ Ryan Graves

    I totally agree with Ken McArthur in that the reason disqus is valuable is that the people who choose to implement it are interested in two-way conversation.

    Folks who aren't interested in making comments easy aren't interested in conversation.

    You do a great job of keeping the interaction two-way and engaging and responding to folks who post relevant comments, so kudos to you my friend.

  • davidshore

    Another great post, Mark. Thanks!

    Here's a question and a follow-up to this post. I'd love your thoughts on why CEOs should blog – to their online community, users of their site, employees, investors. What are the benefits of taking the time to get into a routine to do so?

  • ldmangin

    I think it also comes down to what type of community and comments you want to attract. Personally, I see a blog as a very space – this is your blog and everyone comes here to read your thoughts first and foremost. I would say it is up to blogger to take the first step in breaking down those barriers and drawing the community in to an active contribution.

    The outreach can occur in lots of different ways: from encouraging comments about the blog as a whole, as you mention, to drawing people in on a comment by comment basis by asking for feedback on specific posts/events. For instance, easy to ask people to relate a successful example of social networking (or one gone horribly wrong).

    Some of the underlying functionality of the blog can also go a long way, as I agree with Ro that there is a limit to active participation – but i could envisage some little features that encourage the 'read only' part of the community to express themselves with a lower level of participation then a full comment.

  • http://cameradojo.com kgarrison

    The problem is information overload. While these tools and technologies enable this level of communication and the ability to follow your friend's thoughts and movements, often it is just too much to be able to follow in a cohesive and effective manner. It's going to take a lot more research, design, and testing to really make this seamless and time-effective.

  • http://markgslater.wordpress.com markslater

    love disqus

  • http://arnoldwaldstein.com awaldstein

    Hey there Kerry, good to see you in this conversation.

    I agree…somewhat. Information flow will only increase. Smart filters that can be personalized, and made smarter by the process itself, will let us sit on top of all this flow and manage our networks from our own personalize vantage point.

    It's a dream that is getting closer all the time.

  • http://cameradojo.com kgarrison

    Exactly. The information influx is outpacing the development of the tools to which to manage the information right now. Given time, this will change although I can't imagine what this will look like in the end. Some people already know that they are missing out on valuable conversations every day but there simply isn't the tools to follow it all yet.

    Where's my personal digital Agent that both Microsoft and Apple promised us over a decade ago?

  • http://www.logicalconsensus.com Lucas Dailey

    Private email eh? A couple of months ago I wrote a letter to you about a framework for the PC-to-Web based software transition, prompted by something you mentioned on TWiST. I couldn’t find an email of yours so I put it on a generic webpage and tweeted you a link http://bit.ly/rXI1L . (Honestly, not a great note but maybe it had an interesting thought about Nintendo’s future and the perceived value of personal workflow efficiency)

    I don’t bring this up as a complaint, but to raise an interesting issue.

    Now that comments have created a community that is integral to the value of a post, there is still a missing piece: the ability for commentators to start a conversational thread in the community.

    Currently, community members will write a post on their own blog, or send you an email/IM/tweet with a thought, but there is no church door for someone to nail the beginning of a meme.

    For a blog community to strengthen it must have the ability to proactively raise an issue, not just react to each thread.

    I don’t know how this would happen, but IdeaScale comes to mind as something that could approximate it.

    Using your blog community to triage topics for you to address, easily.

  • http://www.dantiernan.com/blog/ dantinpa

    I'm betting you have a lot more hard core readers than a couple of hundred. A LOT of people, like me, probably read and enjoy – but don't write alot. What can you do to make it easier for people to comment on contribute in the conversation in someway? simple surveys?

  • http://avc.com fredwilson

    hmm. that's like clay shirkey's assertion that social nets are like
    parties. they are great until they get too big

  • http://avc.com fredwilson

    talk to daniel at disqus about one comment thread for multiple cross posts

    i've been asking for that feature for years and it's available via a hack
    (business insider uses the hack when they run my posts there)

    i think if it were productized, it would be huge for bloggers like us

  • http://avc.com fredwilson

    that's the question i've been pondering

    on tumblr, people like and reblog as lightweight ways to interact that don't
    require as much time as a comment

  • http://www.dantiernan.com/blog/ dantinpa

    The best thing about Linkedin, unlike the others, is that it is GREAT for helping you find/connect with people that have special skills or knowledge outside your domain. If you are focused on a certain market, industry, etc., this is not as much value. However, if you are getting into pharma marketing analytics and you need to find someone with this experience, it is much better than Facebook or anything else. I connected with the head of Informatics for Kasier Permanente in CA via a friend in MN like this. I also found an amazing marketing guy with HR/recruiting app credentials in Seattle who was 2 degrees away.

  • http://twitter.com/KenMcArthur Ken McArthur

    Fred,

    I'm pretty hard-core for reading your blog. It's the first thing I do every day, but this is the first comment I've made — and it's on another blog.

    That's not because I'm not hard-core. It's because I want to make sure that the value of whatever relationship we develop remains high.

    Increasing the community is about having a two-way conversation that compels people to chime in and tell others.

    It's a value proposition and a factor of the viral coefficient. If there is no value in spreading the word the community won't grow. To make it grow it need to have a viral coefficient above 1.0.

    The value can be an outlet for anger and frustration or a chance to spread our own self-importance. Or it can be the wonderful feeling that we get from having a chance to help others.

    The types of value we get from communities is endless, but whatever the value needs to be pointed out and nurtured. At my joint venture events the conversation is all about the family and not so much about the dollars. I point out that value every time talk about the community.

    It doesn't always build the comments, but it does expand the community.

    All the best,

    Ken

  • http://arnoldwaldstein.com awaldstein

    “Cross blog way to discuss topics more seemlessly”–interesting.

    I can follow my friends movements by subscribing to their Disqus page I believe and see what they are commenting about. But the other side is intersecting communities, sort of a crowd sourced information community where topics aggregate into a new hub. Technically feasible. Dynamics are a bit boggling to imagine.

  • http://stickyslides.blogspot.com Jan Schultink

    I think I agree with you Lucas.

    Having said that, I also think that you do fit in the learning curve segment of this blog: beyond the basics of starting a company/VC funding, but not yet the serial entrepreneur/VC investor with 30 years of successful exits under the belt.

    I must admit that my comment about the learning curve stage was more inspired by my hobby: wine, and the many discussion forums in that sector. People that want to know whether to serve a red or white with salmon and people that are interested in whether 1996 white Burgundies are really oxidizing at a higher than average rate simply do not want to talk to each other that much.

  • Tony Karrer

    Mark – I agree with a lot of what you are saying, but have a different experience with LinkedIn. You said – “In a way, LinkedIn has become mostly a chore for me – a place to provide intros for two people that I know.”

    Maybe you don't reach out much for expertise in particular areas (which would surprise me), but the ability to search and create conversations in LinkedIn with people who have very specific expertise is invaluable.

    I agree that it's not a good place for conversation, but as the front-end for tapping expertise … it's incredible.

    LinkedIn Guide for Knowledge Workers

  • 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://www.logicalconsensus.com Lucas Dailey

    Right on. And I'm definitely still at the very early beginning of the spectrum, just far enough to look behind me and see others.

    How finely different developmental stages are divided is a factor, but more important is whether the subject matter has value universally in its industry.

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

    I think I agree with you Lucas.

    Having said that, I also think that you do fit in the learning curve segment of this blog: beyond the basics of starting a company/VC funding, but not yet the serial entrepreneur/VC investor with 30 years of successful exits under the belt.

    I must admit that my comment about the learning curve stage was more inspired by my hobby: wine, and the many discussion forums in that sector. People that want to know whether to serve a red or white with salmon and people that are interested in whether 1996 white Burgundies are really oxidizing at a higher than average rate simply do not want to talk to each other that much.

  • http://www.giarty.it Francesco Giartosio

    Mark – your blog, including the comments, is becoming a lot of work, just after Mashable. Thanks for the Disqus hint, precious, and the whole Comments Cloud concept.

    May I take advantage of your post to ask a side question (to anyone who wishes to answer): should I use Facebook Connect or Disqus to build traction for an online community I’m launching? From the above comments it seems Disqus has the same advantages of FB Connect (in particular it leverages the strength of FB, though with a couple more clicks) without the disadvantages (other networks are allowed, and I own the comments – no more risk of losing everything any moment).

    Thanks.

    (P.S.: I feel an idiot but I don’t understand what black means …)

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    You're right. Occasionally I'll end a post with, “what do you think” but in general I sort of assume that people will feel like they can add any comments to what I write. Often people expand on the topic in ways that I wish I would have in the post so it's very helpful. But I'll keep in mind that I need to be more explicit about asking questions. As I said, one goal for 2010!

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Yeah, you're right. There are many great reasons to use LinkedIn and I didn't publish all the ways I use it. But I will in a future post. The thing is – it's more of a networking database for finding sales leads than it is a social network IMHO.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    thanks for the input, Ken. And make sure to leave similar comments over at avc.com!

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    I think Disqus (commenting system for blogs) and FBConnect (the ability to scrape a pre-existing social graph) have very different use cases so make sure what you want to achieve and map the functionality to that. They are quite different products.

    re: “black” … well … Everybody in New York (or many urban environments) seems to wear black all the time. So every year designers would come out and say things like, “brown is the new black” or “purple is the new black” as in the staple you wear all the time. I'm sure somebody can give a better explanation than that but that's how we use it in the Suster household. It's the new staple you're going to use everyday. And we now use it mostly jokingly.

  • http://www.logicalconsensus.com Lucas Dailey

    Right on. And I’m definitely still at the very early beginning of the spectrum, just far enough to look behind me and see others.

    How finely different developmental stages are divided is a factor, but more important is whether the subject matter has value universally in its industry.

  • dereklicciardi

    The other way to engender conversation is to simply take a stand. When a binary topic presents itself to you and you feel like blogging about it, take a stand and pick a side. Blogs are personal. Leave the unbiased reporting to Fox News and CNN. (yes I know that's an oxymoron) I don't read blogs for a description of the problem space. I read blogs for someone's opinion on how to approach the problem space with a solution. It can be about starting a company, building a web site or designing a user interface to a game. All that matters is that the author take a stand and clearly define his/her position on the topic. If your blog has a following, then that in and of itself should be enough to get people to agree or disagree and talk about it in the comments.

    For what it's worth, you seem to already do this so continue to do it. :)

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

    Facebook Connect is a useful authentication tool. It allows you to quickly sign-in to dedicated commenting systems, such as Disqus.

    Black refers to the dippy fashion industry, where every year a new colour is deemed “the new black”.

  • http://www.startupboyo.com/ RichardForster

    The combination of Disqus and a blog owner that tends to the comments is hugely powerful in creating a community.

    Personally I think Disqus could add on a bunch of social tools that would make it far more attractive to me as a social network than the current combination of Twitter/Facebook/LinkedIn, all of which I find unsatisfactory to a large part in interacting with people on a professional level.

  • 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 always 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.

    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://www.startupboyo.com/ RichardForster

    it's the same dilemma that a bar or restaurant has in a way isn't it Fred? You will always get hard core regulars that drop by more frequently and like to occupy the same spot at the bar and those people that drop by because they are thirsty/hungry at any particular point in time and by whatever stimuli are attracted to walk in off the street .

    In the same way that there are those that want and enjoy taking part in your community there are those that just see your posts as articles to be consumed like a newspaper. The problem seems to me that the vast majority of internet content is just consumed, one way, by the masses. It will change gradually over time but to speed up that shift to interact with the content, it requires mainstream media to adopt the Disqus type of model along with a real desire to create discussion rather than paying lip service with an anonymous “type your comment here” box.

    Probably more significant, I think, is the time constraint of joining and participating in a community. Something that is mirrored off line. It's easy to read a blog and take what you want from it rather than sit down, think about what you want to say and type it out. (You could argue that Disqus may actually be putting people off contributing because it's easier to bang out thoughtless comment into a commentary system a la TC)

  • http://thedreaminaction.com/ Ryan Graves

    I totally agree with Ken McArthur in that the reason disqus is valuable is that the people who choose to implement it are interested in two-way conversation.

    Folks who aren't interested in making comments easy aren't interested in conversation.

    You do a great job of keeping the interaction two-way and engaging and responding to folks who post relevant comments, so kudos to you my friend.

  • davidshore

    Another great post, Mark. Thanks!

    Here's a question and a follow-up to this post. I'd love your thoughts on why CEOs should blog – to their online community, users of their site, employees, investors. What are the benefits of taking the time to get into a routine to do so?

  • 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.

  • ldmangin

    I think it also comes down to what type of community and comments you want to attract. Personally, I see a blog as a very private space – this is your blog and everyone comes here to read your thoughts first and foremost. I would say it is up to blogger to take the first step in breaking down those barriers and drawing the community in to an active contribution.

    The outreach can occur in lots of different ways: from encouraging comments about the blog as a whole, as you mention, to drawing people in on a comment by comment basis by asking for feedback on specific posts/events. For instance, easy to ask people to relate a successful example of social networking (or one gone horribly wrong).

    Some of the underlying functionality of the blog can also go a long way, as I agree with Ro that there is a limit to active participation – but i could envisage some little features that encourage the 'read only' part of the community to express themselves with a lower level of participation then a full comment.

  • 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://cameradojo.com kgarrison

    The problem is information overload. While these tools and technologies enable this level of communication and the ability to follow your friend's thoughts and movements, often it is just too much to be able to follow in a cohesive and effective manner. It's going to take a lot more research, design, and testing to really make this seamless and time-effective.

  • 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://markgslater.wordpress.com/ markslater

    love disqus

  • http://arnoldwaldstein.com awaldstein

    Hey there Kerry, good to see you in this conversation.

    I agree to a point. Information flow will only increase. Smart filters that can be personalized, and made smarter by the process itself, will let us sit on top of all this flow and manage our networks from our own individual vantage point.

    It's a dream that is getting closer all the time.

  • 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://cameradojo.com kgarrison

    Exactly. The information influx is outpacing the development of the tools to which to manage the information right now. Given time, this will change although I can't imagine what this will look like in the end. Some people already know that they are missing out on valuable conversations every day but there simply isn't the tools to follow it all yet.

    Where's my personal digital Agent that both Microsoft and Apple promised us over a decade ago?

  • 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

    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…