The Waning Conversation

Back at the dawn of the century, when the web was a new frontier and we were making it all up as we went along, a lot of what was written about in the nascent weblogs of the day (did we even call them that?) was blogging itself (we might have just called it “writing”). These days we tend to treat blogs as though they’ve always been here: there’s nothing novel about them, and the basics of the form — posts sorted in reverse chronological order written in a personal tone — has largely remained frozen for the last 10 years.

That’s a good thing — how long would your interest be kept up by a prime time TV lineup that consisted of shows about the prime time TV lineup? — but it’s also a bad thing, as it means that if you want to write on the web you basically do it in a blog-like format or you don’t do it at all.

Meanwhile, I just keep blogging along: it’s become part of the DNA of my everyday life, and it would be hard to stop doing it, as it’s an integral part of how I process my thoughts and ideas, and, increasingly, it’s how I remind myself of where I’ve been and where I’m going.

One of the things that has changed in this space is the degree of what they call “user engagement” in the business. As a reader, your opportunity to “participate in the dialog,” such as it is, has been through your ability to comment on each post (when we all thought that eventually everybody would have a blog we had visions of an interconnected network of cross-linked blogs; that idea has largely died out and comments are what’s left over). Here’s a graph of the number of comments per month here on from July 2003 to October 2001. The peak was that first month, with 532 comments; the valley was March, 2010 with 21 comments. And the trend is, unmistakenably, down.

Graph showing comments, by month, from July 2003 to November 2011 on the website; graph shows comments decreasing every month, from a high of 532 in July 2003 to a low of 56 in November 2011

You’d think that this trend might simply reflect a decrease in the number of visitors to the weblog, but that has remained scarily consistent over the this period; here’s a Google Analytics graph of visitors by month from 2007 to present:

The number of visitors per month hovers just around 30,000 and the number of pageviews per month around 50,000.

So you’re all visiting and reading just as much as you ever did, you just have less to say. There are a whole host of reasons I imagine that this might be true:

  • I’m writing less interesting, or at least less-comment-worth (less inflamatory, less gripping) posts; it’s easy to chime in when I get coffee thrown at me; perhaps I’m the only person on earth with as intense an interest in Charlottetown building permits?
  • It’s become harder to comment: various anti-spam mechanisms that are in place now to combat the ceaseless torrent of comment-spammers may have the unintended side-effect of making it harder for real people with real things to say.
  • The Guardian and the CBC ruined commenting: it’s generally acknowledged that the comments section of both news outlets’ websites are fetid cesspools of ad hominem attack and anonymous name-calling; perhaps the very act of web-commenting has suffered as a result.
  • Facebook et al is where all the conversations are happening. It’s no secret that I think of Facebook, Google+ and all the other walled parallel Internets as a wrong turn on the information superhighway, but there’s no arguing that they’ve made “user engagement” painless and integrated into a whole host of other everyday activities (all with the goal to making us more highly-valued advertising targets, but that’s another story). Who wants to hang out on a creaky old blog in this new world?

At the risk of encouraging comments-about-commenting, I’d be interested to know more about what your actual reasons for reading-but-not-writing here are.


Deryl gallant's picture
Deryl gallant on October 31, 2011 - 16:15

Facebook is my guess — I recently posted a blog that received a bit of attention. I posted it on Facebook, Google+, and twitter. 2 twitter responses, about 4 blog comments and over 20 facebook comments.

Deryl gallant's picture
Deryl gallant on October 31, 2011 - 16:17

Also took 3 tries to submit this comment on my iPod Touch . The web URL needed http:// …your lucky this isn’t a CBC or guardian website or I’d leave some really useless negative anonymous comments that would sound really lame where I was thinking I was really smart an cool :)

Ann Thurlow's picture
Ann Thurlow on October 31, 2011 - 16:18

Plus, when you started your blog, there was no tweeting. I think the defogging glasses post proves that point.

Daley Mikalson's picture
Daley Mikalson on October 31, 2011 - 16:41

I think it has a lot to do with facebook. Especially with the posting of full blog posts/articles there. Comments can be put right there for “everybody” to see and there is no need to even visit the blog.

It is true that news site comments have made commenting seem like a trivial activity. Perhaps people are starting to feel like commenting on all sites is as trivial as doing so on news sites. Personally, I sometimes like reading news site comments just to see how wildly off topic and irrelevant to the story they become.

Steven Garrity's picture
Steven Garrity on October 31, 2011 - 16:54

Perhaps it’s just that there is more to do online. Ten years ago, only a handful of people knew were publishing online, now every one is publishing online (even if it’s behind a login on Facebook). You’re competing with everyone’s grandmothers and baby photos.

boostventilator's picture
boostventilator on October 31, 2011 - 16:56


No wait…I think I did that wrong.

I think I’d just be echoing the other comments plus reinforcing what you said about mainstream media ruining comments. Plus YouTube. I don’t even bother looking anymore unless I trust the site a little more. This can come in handy (, although it causes trouble when you forget you have it enabled.

Shawn Bowman's picture
Shawn Bowman on October 31, 2011 - 17:10

Hello Peter;

As I’m one of those folks who is a regular reader here at (but not one who’s ever written a comment to anything I’ve read, so far as I know), I feel as though your question is directed specifically my way (though you likely don’t know me by name).

Why do I read your blog (and others) and almost never (as a rule) write a comment as a response?

Mostly, I think, because I tend not to be prolific in general where online comments are concerned. I read this blog and tend not to respond for all sorts of reasons, but most of these tend toward the intangible — based mostly in my personality type, I suppose, which generally prefers to avoid being a center of attention.

It might be that I would comment more often if I felt I knew you personally — one of the (very) few blogs I can occasionally be found posting on would be Rob Paterson’s, and even there I’m almost always a reader-but-not-a-poster. Any resonance of interest I might feel with his actual content quite aside (though this was what brought me to his blog initially), I comment very seldom for the regularity of my reading. The comment-to-read ratio has definitely increased since I’ve gotten to know Rob personally, but even then I just don’t tend to be the “type” who comments very often. If I read something here on your blog that I find raises interesting thoughts, I do tend to keep them to myself. If we happened to encounter one another someplace, sometime, out and about around Our Island, I feel we’d likely have some interesting conversations — but “conversation” (to me) is just something that happens face-to-face (first) and not through the technological intermediary until we actually knew one another.

Maybe this speaks a bit to your original question of why blog commenting has diminished in favor of interaction through venues like Facebook — there, the realm of total readership is limited to the filter of those people you know already. Maybe what’s changed from those halcyon days of the early weblogs is just the fact that people might like to read a blog, but prefer to actually interact directly only with those people who they already have a personal relationship with.

Of course, I’m notoriously unwilling to be an active participant on Facebook, either — much of my use there consists of seeing what folks in my network are up to…and then writing a direct email to them. And, just lately, with the proliferation of Farmville and the like, I tend to avoid Facebook too — the signal to noise ratio has become annoying, so to speak.

So there’s the fact that I don’t know you at all, personally, and so feel as though commenting here is something akin to stepping into the middle of a conversation without being invited — I understand that commenting on a blog (by definition) ISN’T that, but the feeling persists (again, maybe because of my personality? Who knows?) and so generally keeps me from commenting.

There’s also that aspect of my personal nature that sees all of these various channels of new communication as too voyeuristic — that part of me that prefers my conversation to be of substance and personal also has a natural dislike for conversations that are there for anyone and everyone to ‘eavesdrop’ upon…I guess I’m just of such a private nature that the notion of making lots of public comments just doesn’t appeal.

And then there’s the fact that, when I DO write a comment…I write a book. Sorry. :D

Keep writing, and I’ll keep reading…I just won’t likely say very much!

~ Shawn Bowman

Shawn Bowman's picture
Shawn Bowman on October 31, 2011 - 17:13

See? I comment so little that I didn’t even get my post right — all my formatting gone, and no way to edit it back in (apologies about the lack of spaces and new paragraphs)!

Rob's picture
Rob on October 31, 2011 - 18:44

Peter, I’ve always subscribed to your comments RSS feed but after your migraton to Drupal the title of each comment in the feed is simply the first x number of characters in the comment. Previously, in your home-brewed system, the title would be something like “Comment on Charlottetown Building Permits…”
Consequently, it’s difficult to scan the feed in Google Reader and know if there’s a conversation I want to join.

David Upton's picture
David Upton on October 31, 2011 - 23:38

I have dropped in on your blog for years (the first I ever checked regularly) and still enjoy it. I’m not always interested in what your are saying but I enjoy looking through your blog window and reading about your eclectic interests. I haven’t commented in years (and even then, rarely) because how many people really have much to say about moving a 100 year printing machine or the learning sessions put on by the courts in PEI.

That having been said, I often enjoy what you write. I guess it comes down to this, “Keep dancing (ok, writing) like nobody is watching.” Judging by your page visits a good number of folks find your comments enjoyable. Thanks!

dw's picture
dw on November 1, 2011 - 01:00

I have a theory:

feed readers

Not that the Facebook (ugh) theory isn’t correct, but I can pretty much guarantee that feed readers are to blame in some way (‘cause I’m guilty in this respect, myself). People don’t click through to the post anymore and you need to do that in order to leave a comment.

I would also agree that Yahoo News’s and CBC’s comment pages are also a major turn-off. People are fed up with being confronted with the dregs of society every time they let their eyes wander down to the comments section.

Heather M's picture
Heather M on November 1, 2011 - 02:26

I miss your comments as well. As I found reading their views were very much part of the visit to the blog. I have been making more of an effort to leave comments — although it could be my love for old type and fresh ink. There is certainly so much garbage that is grabbing everyone’s attention each day and responses are snippets…or “likes”. I feel your blog is like a virtual community of an eclectic online world.

Peter Rukavina's picture
Peter Rukavina on November 1, 2011 - 16:02

I’ve corrected the paragraph formatting in your comment, and will work to make it clearer how comments can be formatted so that this doesn’t happen to you and others again. Thanks!

Peter Rukavina's picture
Peter Rukavina on November 1, 2011 - 16:05

Thanks for your comments, Rob. I’ve modified the Comments RSS Feed to better match the old-school way of presenting the information (the URL for the feed remains the same). This had always bothered me to, and the Views RSS module came to the rescue here: it allows much more customization of the fields that appear in RSS feeds (stock Drupal Views RSS display is canned, and doesn’t allow any customization).

Happy (and, now, able) to make additional adjustments to the RSS to suit; just let me know.

<img alt=”Recent reader comments from” height=”449” src=”” width=”499”/>

Peter Rukavina's picture
Peter Rukavina on November 1, 2011 - 18:08

Okay, there’s now a WYSIWYG-ish text editor — CKEditor for those of you playing the home game — in place for entering comments. Not only should this make it easier to format comments into paragraphs, etc., but also allows for bold, italics, lists and links.

Joshua Biggley's picture
Joshua Biggley on November 1, 2011 - 18:57

I think Poe said it best, <font face=”georgia, bookman old style, palatino linotype, book antiqua, palatino, trebuchet ms, helvetica, garamond, sans-serif, arial, verdana, avante garde, century gothic, comic sans ms, times, times new roman, serif”>”The true genius shudders at incompleteness — and usually prefers silence to saying something which is not everything it should be.”</font>

Ok, in all seriousness I think that sometimes it is just better to listen to the narrative than to attempt to contribute to it in some way.  It is, as you have pointed out, that failure to establish a narrative that has destroyed the discussions on major media sites. 

Personally, I would rejoice that your readership continues to chug merrily along while we all nod in agreement. 

Lisa's picture
Lisa on November 2, 2011 - 04:04

I used to be one of those annoying people who would write some useless negative comment that I hoped would spark debate, but was just as often a thread killer. 

Steve Muskie's picture
Steve Muskie on November 2, 2011 - 17:36


There… I&#39ve commented. Now leave me alone!

Lori's picture
Lori on November 3, 2011 - 02:01

I&#39m onto this discussion late, and most of my thoughts have already been expressed…but I have to reiterate my main sentiment:  There&#39s a lot of interesting things posted at, but many of them really don&#39t require much comment:  what can I add to a post about the letterpress being moved or the issuing of building permits.  Not to say that these aren&#39t blog-worthy, I just don&#39t know much about them—though I did enquire of my transport-company-owning husband if he knew of a better way to move said printing press.  Unfortunately, he did not.

I do comment on the occassional post.  I almost feel that if the blog writer goes to the work of creating an intellingent blog that I, as a reader/lurker, owe it to him/her to come out of hiding every now and then and leave a comment or two in return.  Maybe it&#39s my WASP up-bringing?  Generally, though, I just don&#39t have much to contribute to the converstation that I feel is going to move the conversation, as it were, forward.

Had I been a blog reader back when you had coffee thrown at you, I&#39m sure I would have had LOTS to say then…..

Pat Martel's picture
Pat Martel on November 4, 2011 - 16:08

Hi Peter,


 I have on my tool bar — both at work and at home. I don&#39t usually comment, for many of the reason already expressed.

 But I was thinking that perhaps if you had a LIKE button (I know, Facebook), that I could click on when I found an article interesting. As well a DISLIKE button(which Facebook SHOULD have)  if I didn&#39t agree with what&#39s being said.

 This way, you&#39d get some feedback, as well.   Keep on writing !!


Peter Rukavina's picture
Peter Rukavina on November 4, 2011 - 21:14

A few additional tweaks here:

I’ve moved the RSS feeds, both for Posts and Comments, over to Feedburner. They’re still generated by Drupal here, but sending them through Feedburner allows me to turn on their “PingShot” service, which is a pubsubhubbub service that should allow comments and posts to show up sooner in Google Reader and other services. (Don’t worry, if you’re already subscribed the old non-Feedburner links should auto-redirect).</li>
I’ve added the ability, again through FeedBurner, to subscribe to Posts (subscribe) and/or Comments (subscribe) via email.</li>
I’ve added an “Add Comment” link to the bottom of each post in the RSS feed to make commenting for readers to experience the site exclusively via RSS easier.</li>

Peter Rukavina's picture
Peter Rukavina on November 4, 2011 - 22:11

I made a few additional behind-the-scenes adjustments to make the realtime updating promised by pubsubhubbub possible. Still tweaking.

Peter Rukavina's picture
Peter Rukavina on November 4, 2011 - 22:19

Okay, I think this is working now. Here’s what’s happening:

Whenever I publish a new post, or a reader submits a new comment, and automatic ping goes to FeedBurner.</li>
The ping triggers a pull of the raw RSS feed data from this server; these files aren’t cached (via the CacheExclude module so new items are available to FeedBurner right away).</li>
FeedBurner does its PingShot magic, via pubsubhubbub and and Google Reader (et al) gets notified of the new content.</li>

The end result for you, gentle reader, is that if you experience the site via RSS via Google Reader you should see new content right away (as opposed to with the former up-to-6-hour delay).

Ben W's picture
Ben W on November 4, 2011 - 23:16

The changes look interesting, but the “instant” nature of the feeds doesn&#39t appear to have been realized. I&#39m not sure if that&#39s a fault of the site, feedburner, Google Reader, or something else, but now, ~30 minutes after the “The Catherine and Oliver Bag” was posted, it&#39s still not in my feed. Not that I truly care to have your musings delivered instantly (I don&#39t fear for my existence when your posts arrive, as I would, potentially, if a news agency posted a breaking story), but there may still be something going awry.

Peter Rukavina's picture
Peter Rukavina on November 6, 2011 - 19:14

Thanks for the feedback, Ben. I’ll do some more testing to see where in the process things are breaking down.

Peter Rukavina's picture
Peter Rukavina on November 6, 2011 - 19:19

After that last comment, I did see FeedBurner, which gets pinged on comment-submission, immediately request an updated Comments RSS feed: - - [06/Nov/2011:14:16:56 -0400] \
"GET obfusfacted HTTP/1.1" 200 6545 "-" \
"FeedBurner/1.0 ("

So FeedBurner seems to be doing its part. And, indeed, a few minutes later Google Reader shows the new comments, and its “last updated” information shows the feed has been updated recently:

<img alt=”” src=”…” style=”width: 433px; height: 241px;”/>


Peter Rukavina's picture
Peter Rukavina on November 6, 2011 - 19:44

Well, not so fast, Pete: that second-last comment did update in Google Reader almost-instantly, but this last one didn’t.

Peter Rukavina's picture
Peter Rukavina on November 6, 2011 - 19:44

Oh, I’m wrong, it is happening instantly. Perhaps. Leaving this along for a while to see how it goes.

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