Personal Publishing

Trackbacks and Simple Comments…

I posted a while back about the artificiality of treating Trackbacks as something distinct when we were developing the design of our weblog pages. I wrote at the time:

” …the only reason we’re segregating [Trackback] from the body of our posts is because it’s got a different name. Most of my site is comprised of ‘includes’ of one kind or another, but I never feel the need to draw attention to that fact. And I don’t think one should do that with trackback either.”

My assumption was that Trackback should be incorporated into the bodies of one’s posts. They should appear in context on the front page of your site as if they were always part of the post they were attached to. In this way, I felt, they could be elegantly assimilated into the flow of formless and unstructured content that constitutes a ‘post’ rather than being assigned or allocated a piece of typological real estate to sit within.

Another particular anxiety of mine was the way that one structured the link-text when one had so many specific types of information and functionality to hang off the link. Assuming that (in defiance of Movable Type‘s standard templates) you’re not prepared to commit the sin of navigational pop-up windows, then link-text becomes a significant problem. One inevitably seems to end up with the unstructured (overstructured?) permalinks of the kind that can be seen at Because all the information pertaining to a post is to contained on the same individual archive page, each link to that page has to carry the date of that post, a link to its permanent URL, it has to gesture to the existence of comments functionality, and separately to Trackback functionality. It also has to make it clear that you can see these comments and Trackbacks and that you can add to them. And it has to tell you the number of Trackbacks and comments as well. Link-text overload.

The metaphor of the link is of a connection between a word/phrase and a document – the word simultaneously acting as the link origin and a description of the destination. This relationship often gets stretched under the weight of weblogging, but shouldn’t have to bear the burden of so many ostensible destinations… By pulling the trackbacks into the body of the post itself, I hoped to be able to strip that element from the links – there would no longer be trackbacks / permalink (entry) / comments, but just the more manageable and self-explanatory entry (mine) and occasionally comments (everyones).

Recently I came across Simple Comments – which is a Movable Type plugin that clearly responds to the same anxieties of UI, but which attempts to solve them by moving in the other direction. Rather than incorporating the trackbacks into the body of the post, Simple Comments attaches them to the comments facility. It’s a very neat solution to the issue, but I think it’s misguided. My main reason for concern? Rather than ending up with a discrete post followed by a readable interchange between interested parties (an asynchronous conversation through time, all contained on one page and with a clear means of response – much like you’d get in a thread on a discussion board like Barbelith), you end up with a set of responses interspersed by decontextualised and truncated posts from other sites. As a result, I think the tendency is to encourage a form of interaction where the visitor responds to the initial post itself, rather than participating in an ongoing conversation or debate.

Your visitors will learn nothing – because nothing emerges – from the simple ability to express their opinion about your initial post. An actual community though – whatever content it may hang off – is another matter entirely. Active and significant discussion can emerge – people can express their opinions about one another’s arguments, finding interesting ideas and running with them, developing them further. It might not be the kind of interaction you might expect on a site designed to help you express yourself, but while it might cause problems of its own, it’s a good deal more satisfying and constructive an interaction than simply soliciting (positive or negative) criticism…