Eli Dourado

Is the blogosphere a common-pool resource?

Pete Boettke asks for essays addressing this question; I’ll give him a blog post instead.

From the content of Pete’s post, it’s clear that he’s not asking if the blogosphere is a common-pool resource; rather, he’s asking about the comments that appear on blog posts. Furthermore, I don’t think he’s suggesting that by reading (i.e., consuming) comments anyone is inhibiting others' ability also to read comments. So I’ll refine the question: Does some people’s use of the comments section at the margin inhibit its use by others?

In some cases, the answer is clearly yes. Attention is the scarce resource. Some comments consume attention without contributing anything (or something sufficiently!) positive.

To understand where this problem occurs and how to solve it effectively, one first needs to understand that this is what is known as a first world problem. This is true in two senses. First, in the literal “people are dying of wars and poverty and famine and we are worried about blog comments?” sense. Second, and more importantly for our purposes, we ought to recognize that most bloggers do not sit around and worry about all the comments they are receiving. The median blog post gets zero comments. Most bloggers are concerned with trying to encourage, rather than inhibit, commenting.

The commenting dynamic is very different on small blogs than it is on popular blogs. On small blogs, people typically comment when they have something to contribute or ask that is relevant to the post. These are frequently of high quality (relatively speaking; recall Sturgeon’s Law: 90 percent of everything is crap). On more popular blogs, this positive commenting dynamic is confounded by the presence of eyeballs. Every post is read by many thousands of people. For the self-involved who could never attract such a large audience on their own, this is an irresistible forum for expounding pet hypotheses, axe-grinding, and generally shouting at or expressing meaningless agreement with the celebrity post-authors.

The first step, therefore, to higher quality comments is “be more niche.” Discourage your marginal readers with technical language, obscure references, and lengthy posts. Your marginal readers are not of high value anyway, and driving them away is an excellent way to improve the average comment of your inframarginal readers.

If you cannot bring yourself to do this, or you have delusions about being the next mainstream blog, then you must adopt some sort of rules to govern commenting. Because the incentives for commenting on blogs vary with the popularity and other characteristics of the blog, different blogs should use different rules to govern commenting (straightforward application of Ostrom 1990). Most smaller blogs probably do not need any sort of rules at all. My own blog, unpopular as it is, gets consistently high-quality comments with virtually no rules or policing. The comments section at the blogs of major media outlets (such as the New York Times), however, are a sewer. Again, there are too many eyeballs.

The kinds of rules that might be adopted are not particularly interesting in and of themselves. Many forums require registration to prevent fully anonymous comments. Pete mentions banning both anonymous and pseudonymous comments. Requiring users to log in with Twitter or Facebook accounts accomplishes basically the same thing. Users can rate comments and the better ones can float to the top. Commenters can compete for reputation or “karma.” I’ve opted not to do these things on my blog because I’d still prefer more comments, not fewer.

The structure of the comments themselves can aggravate the problem. For example, many sites are now using threaded comments, in which users can reply directly to another comment and the comments can be grouped together. While this may be fine for small sites, it is death to the comments section on bigger sites because it rewards the self-involved commenter with comments on his comments. It increases the payoff for piggybacking on the blog’s popularity.

As a final observation, I will note that banning comments is pretty nearly weakly dominated by unmoderated commenting. The reason is simple: if the comments are a sewer, then readers won’t wade in the sewer. The amount of time wasted reading bad comments is small relative to the value of the good comments, even if there are few good comments, because people ignore the comments sections on blogs with bad comments sections. I myself never read the comments on a post if there are more than 30 comments already, and rarely if there are even 20. This is a useful heuristic: if there are many comments, they probably aren’t any good. Banning comments doesn’t typically help and could possibly cause harm.

Comments are open.