Comments on Blogs: Left vs. Right

Although the timing is perhaps a bit unfortunate, given the overnight onslaught of comment spam that hit many blogs, Duncan “Atrios” Black and Kevin Drum make a very interesting observation: Many bloggers who laud the “self-corrective” nature of the blogosphere lack comments sections.

Kevin goes further, though, and spots an ideological correlation: “the longtime aversion of conservative bloggers to comment hosting, which is the only genuine self-correction mechanism in the blogosphere.” Amusingly, I recall a discussion around the right blogosphere some time back making the opposite charge–that most of the popular liberal sites were comment free. But Kevin points out that,

But take a look at the Ecosystem. As I write this, the top ten conservative blogs are Instapundit, Powerline, LGF, Malkin, Captain’s Quarters, Sullivan, Hewitt, Volokh, Wizbang, and The Corner. Of those, only three have comments, and the LGF folks do everything in their power to keep anyone outside their own sycophantic fan base from contributing. There aren’t enough liberals in the top 30 to even make a top ten , but the top six are Kos, Marshall, Atrios, Washington Monthly, Crooked Timber, and Yglesias. All but one host comments — and if we could just get Josh off his butt we could make it a clean sweep.

After noting that Hugh Hewitt, who has published books on the power of blogs, also doesn’t allow comments, Kevin concludes,

Tight message control has always been a key characteristic of conservative politics. It’s emerged as a key characteristic of the conservative blogosphere too.

I think a simpler answer, though, is that we’re comparing apples and oranges. Most of the blogs at the top of the Ecosystem, including Kevin’s, have radically more traffic than those just a few rungs down. The difference between an InstaPundit or DailyKos (#1 and 2) and A Small Victory or OTB (#29 and 30) is tremendous:

SiteRankInbound LinksDaily Visits

As sites get more popular, comments sections get harder to maintain. Not only do they almost invariably devolve, as Kevin concedes his own has, into screamfests “full of trolls and their vitriol,” but they suck up enough bandwidth to actually make maintaining them ridiculously expensive. For example, until he got started getting serious outside money, Kos was really struggling to maintain his site because of these charges, paying well over $1000 a month. Atrios is on blogspot and not paying for his bandwidth. Kevin is hosted by a magazine, although he had comments when he was paying out of pocket. CT and Yglesias are both excellent sites that I read often, but their linkage far exceeds their relative traffic; they’re running in OTB circles, not with InstaPundit or DailyKos.

A much larger sample is needed to make the comparison and it’s more work than it’s worth right now for me to do it. (Not to mention that I’m not familiar enough with all the sites to make a reasonable left-right coding decision.) Anecdotally, though, I’ve not noticed any grand trends in blog comments among the dozens of sites that I frequent. And, as Ogged notes, there are reasons other than bandwidth costs for sites to eschew unmoderated comments sections.

On a related matter, I disagree that comments sections on-site are the only feedback mechanism in the blogosphere. Most of the substantive discussion of blog posts I’ve seen comes from cross-discussion on other sites. Indeed–again, ironic given this morning’s episode–I’m more annoyed with sites that lack TrackBack than with those without comments sections.

Update: Ann Althouse and Steven Taylor engage in a related discussion about the poor quality of discourse in the blogosphere.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Bithead says:

    I daresay Reynolds for example, figures it this way; He has neither the time, nor the inclination to keep the fruitbats in line as to content. A look at the DU will give a fair enough idea what becomes the site once comments are opened.

    And of course the bandwidth is an issue.

    And your comment that cross-blog threads are part of the self-correctives is spot on. Of course if they acknowledge this, their arugment is totally shot.

  2. Todd Pearson says:

    Glenn and the Powerline guys get plenty of comments; they just aren’t accessible by everyone. The comments come by email, and I am sure that that email is full of “corrections.”

  3. Agreed. Trackback is far more important than comments.

  4. John says:

    While I have open comments, I also have to spend time deleting the 200-or-so pieces of comment spam that make it through my filters daily. I’m certainly not in the top-ten (in fact, recently demoted from “large mammal” to “rodent”), but keeping the comments clean is more work than I really want to be doing.

  5. JMOORE says:

    I reject the argument that “they are hard to maintain” or that it could be too costly. Funding is actually pretty easy to come by(see Google Adsense). It seems as though a direct correlation would occur between traffic, number of comments, and ad funds. When one goes up, they all go up.

    More at

  6. Chris says:

    I don’t see trackbacks as particularly important at all. In fact, I’ve had to shut mine down as I’ve been getting hammered by tb spam. If somebody links to me and writes further Technorati will generally pick it up within a couple of days. I’m curious about who links to me, but I’m certainly not obsessive enough about it to endure the spam. I leave comments open for 7 days – which is usually enough time for the conversation to start and stop naturally without getting found by the spambots.

    I don’t use site meter so Ecosystem does not pick up my traffic numbers, but I too am a rodent in the Ecosystem.

  7. OJ says:

    I am not sure if trackbacks are important or not – we don’t use them.
    Our comment section does get some ‘trollage’ but if it were all back-slapping, ‘yea you are right’ it would get stale and boring pretty quickly.

  8. bryan says:

    I’m sure the folks at Google really love all the bandwidth Atrios is sucking out of them for nothing.

    But I don’t recall Reynolds ever having comments enabled. I do know that he at least looks at his e-mail, which serves the same purpose and keeps out the obvious intra-comment back-biting that can occur.

    Honestly, this is another one of those “blogs v. journalism” topics that seems to arise every so often when someone doesn’t have anything else to write about.

  9. Cassandra says:

    I agree with the point about high traffic and open comments being incompatible.

    What makes comments enjoyable is having (hopefully) an intelligent readership who know each other so one can maintain some element of decorum.

    I don’t get huge amounts of traffic – 1100 visits a day at the height of the election madness over at JetNoise and I’m down to more like 300-350 now that I just started VC and no one knows where I am 🙂

    But I have a comment-heavy blog and even with no traffic, I’ve been amazed how one troll can totally disrupt a conversation. And unfortunately, I’ve noticed that for whatever reason, whenever I link to a post on a liberal site, I get pummeled by people who come over and post ugly notes about “how many Iraqi babies did your husband kill today?” Not exactly the best ambassadors for the Left side of the blogosphere, especially as we’ve had (and welcomed) spirited and intelligent debate with even antagonistic commenters from the liberal side.

    With large numbers comes an increased likelihood of the fringe element showing up – it becomes less worth it to have comments turned on.