When I started this particular site in 1999 it was one of only a few hundred active personal weblogs in the world. Every time a new interesting site was discovered, everyone in the community linked to them. I met a lot of really nice and intelligent people in that early community, many of whom I’m still friends with. I mention this to demonstrate that it was possible to have a community of people who liked and got on with one another, communicating primarily through their sites but doing so completely without the benefit of blog comments systems.
I feel like my grandfather when I lurch into language like this, but in those days when people wanted to respond to someone else’s post, they wrote something on their own sites and stuck in a link. In many ways I think that we should have stuck with that way of handling communication through webloggia, that we should have dug around and find new ways to optimise that process (√° la Technorati), but when I look online today it’s not where we find ourselves. One way or another we have to make do and work to improve the environment in which we find ourselves.
The first systems I saw which allowed people to comment on blog posts were completely orthogonal to the blog posting services themselves. Sites like Haloscan were support crews for installations primarily built on top of Blogger. A link on the individual weblog entry would trigger a pop-up that was hosted in an entirely different place. Comments and posts weren’t stored in the same databases–sometimes they weren’t even stored on the same continents. And because they were held so distinctly, and because weblogs were so new, they weren’t exactly highly evolved bits of technology.
But still–even then–no message board would have allowed someone to start posting without a registration process or e-mail confirmations. These approaches were (and remain) some of the best ways to weed out the casually abusive. So why weren’t these features on blogs? Because many people’s interactions with a particular site were often desperately slight. You might find yourself visiting dozens of sites in a day. Some of those sites you might want to respond to, but you’d probably never visit again. The overhead for signing up with each one was just too substantial. So these comment systems kept themselves for the most part open and vulnerable, and simply hoped for the best. And for a time, everything was fine.
I switched my site to Movable Type fairly late in the game compared to other people in the community. The big selling point at the time was built-in comments and an individual page per post. I understood the attraction of the individual pages, but was far from convinced about comments. When I first turned them on, it felt very strange indeed. It felt as if I were opening up my home so that other people could come in and draw on the walls. And some people drew very rude things indeed. But on the whole the things were people’s opinions, they put effort into writing them and I had to respect that at least.
I think for me the real turning point was when the slow trickle of spam that had been coming into many MT sites for a while turning into a torrent of Trackback abuse, and I felt that it had got so bad I was forced to turn the whole mechanism off: Trackback is dead. Are comments dead too?. Trackback is still around a bit today in some forms on some sites, but for the most part once the spammers figured out that it meant that you could easily infect other people’s sites with links to your viagra-farm they leapt into action like a vampire spotting a ripe young neck. I don’t want to be mean to Six Apart here. MT was the most vulnerable to this kind of behaviour, because MT had pioneered the standard. A lovely idea crumbled under the weight of vicious cynicism from a few dozen vampires.
And then the comments. The dominance of a few key platforms meant that it was now possible to automate comment posting at a tremendous scale. I ended up getting a dedicated server at pair.com to host plasticbag.org and barbelith, convinced that the popular online community was causing everything else to slow down. Instead it turned out to be continual fake comments coming into plasticbag.org several times a second, talking about mother/daughter incest and bestiality. I ran to the people who developed anti-spam measures and installed MT-Blacklist and did everything I could, and still to this day–even with many tens of thousands of spam-comments automatically blocked–I need to plough through forty or fifty spam posts a day. Hundreds of thousands of comments have been spammed without me even seeing them, but still the ones that get through have lowered my opinion of humanity quite significantly.
It’s for these reasons that I’ve decided to do what maybe I should have done years ago – switch from allowing anonymous and blog-style comments through to requiring that people sign up before they post. And this is possible because of a range of new services that make the need to ‘sign-up’ everywhere less of an issue. From now on you’ll need to be registered using OpenID, Vox, Livejournal or Typekey to post a comment to plasticbag.org. They’re all services that have originated with SixApart, the same people who came up with Movable Type in the first place. Of all of them OpenID is the most open and the most interesting, in that anyone can host an Open ID service and you can sign in using those services to an Open ID enabled site in the world. The old problems of overhead have semi-evaporated and that’s why I feel I’m able to take the risk and make leaving a comment just that little bit harder. Hopefully I won’t put too many of you off.
I’ve done this finally because I’m trying to fight to win back my site. I want to recover the pleasure I used to get from the place, a pleasure that has been despoiled by cynical, money-grubbing bastards. It’s part of a process of working out why I’ve stopped playing in this glorious communal space and looking at how I can fix it rather than putting up with it. Stage one is fixing the comments problem. For a few months at least–until the spammers catch up–I’m not going to spend any time each day looking at people trying to sell men dreams of fantastically terrifying erections. I can barely cope with how happy that makes me.
After that I’m going to look at another problem that’s been stopping me from enjoying myself online – people who think my voice is for sale, and that my site is nothing more or less than a ‘vehicle for their messaging’. That’s going to have to stop too, and I’ll be writing about it shortly. In the meantime you can get a sense of my current mood on the thread surrounding this Flickr picture. In a nutshell, this is not a brothel – there are no prostitutes here.
And what can you do? You can reassure me by checking that the new comments stuff works. I’ve still got a few things around error messages and preview screens that at the moment are completely broken, but I need to know that in the meantime there aren’t any major ways that you would like to post that just don’t work. And I’d like to hear how you have dealt with your own spam problems on your own sites, and how spam has affected your writing and your blog. I’m looking forward to hearing from you!