Sunday, September 13, 2009

How To Generate Comments On Your Blog

A very close friend of mine recently dropped out of law school and began work on his Masters Degree in Literary Studies. I was asking him how the transition was going and he explained that the biggest shift was just the attitude adjustment from the adversarial style of discourse. People just sort of talk and float ideas, voicing them in the group and letting others wrestle with them. As someone disagrees with a concept, another builds on it or takes it in a different direction. Since you are often dealing with abstract concepts being correct is not really a factor, expanding the scope of the discussion is favored and even necessary. In law school, you are trained to think of being wrong as a calculable factor in an argument and to minimize it. If the facts are on your side, argue those. If that fails, argue for applying the laws in question as intended by their creator. If that fails, wave your arms and shout.

These distinctions are important to understand the basic difference between making a statement versus generating a conversation. Michael Abbott’s Brainy Gamer gives us an interesting variety of essays to see both comment heavy and non-comment heavy pieces. Just looking at what’s recently been posted, the most comment heavy article is TCBAGS at 47 posts. The article ends with Abbott asking if anyone else has experienced a TCBAG, a ‘This Could Be a Game Syndrome’ moment where you pretend an activity in your life is a game. The lowest comment count is an announcement for the upcoming podcast series. Broader concepts like POV, Emergent Design, and enjoying simple games generate a range of about 30 comments while narrower focuses on individual games such as Devil Survivor or The Sims 3 fall into 20 or so. A post on Little King’s Story pulls into the 30 range while an essay on cinematography, which you could argue is a narrow field, falls into the 20’s. To contrast this sample, look at Leigh Alexander’s Sexy Video GameLand. A post on her write-up on the Hot Coffee lawsuit pulls in 16, a post on FF7’s music nets 24, while one on the viability of the FPS pulls 47. The FPS piece also ends with a question. A post on Shadow Complex and the Orson Scott Card issues nets 40 and ends on a similar note. A mirror post to an article on nostalgia pulls in 9.

Many of the articles I’ve referenced have repeat posters debating the issues raised in the essay. We’re also only looking at two blogs, chosen because they are examples of isolated audiences engaging with a single author and topic, instead of a broader webzine or forum. I think, perhaps, the pattern still applies even when dealing with larger audiences. Let’s look at a larger website like Destructoid. A post on worn-out archetypes in video games pulls in 120 comments. A post recommending an individual game generates 9. Chiptunes article gets 43, a newsbite on the Wii price cut 32, and a newsbite that Prototype will be appearing in Entourage pulls in 51.

Obviously asking a question at the end of your post tends to encourage people to speak up. Discussing an abstract or broad concept like zombies in games or quirky moments in life means more people will have personal experience and thus more likely to comment. The point of this post is to correct an odd assumption I see occasionally on Twitter and in other bloggers. The number of comments on your essay are not indicative of how popular you are or how many people are reading your work. I say this because my own work is a prime example of the distinction I made at the beginning of the post: I don’t leave many loose ends. As a consequence, I only get the occasional comment. Which is fine, I’m happy to chat with anyone, but it’s not something I actively seek out. This is just a personal decision about what I want to contribute to the video game discussion, I don't think any one method alone is superior.

What is important is to point out that if you really want people to talk on your blog, there are a variety of writing techniques that ought to generate a comment or two. I just wouldn’t confuse this with being a viable indicator of the quality of your work. Is the subject of your post narrow or broad? If it’s about an individual game, it’s unlikely that all your readers have played it and will have something to add. A refined game design concept is a bit broader but probably not as much as something as large and abstract as ‘Best Racing Game Ever’. One should also not confuse having a lot of comments on an essay as necessarily being a sign of success. You might’ve just pissed someone off.

Unfortunately, if I knew how to reliably attract more readers to your website and thus proportionally more comments, I’d be in a different line of work. The only advice I have for getting more readers is to ask yourself a question: what do you want to write about?


Josh "unangbangkay" Tolentino said...

Excellent post! As a writer myself I have to keep reminding myself not to use my comment count as a value judgment for my writing. If I did, I'd be no better than forum users that judge the validity of someone's statement based on the person's profile.

Chris Dahlen said...

Nice topic. So relatable! :)

I have the same problem as you - I write like a newspaper columnist, and my stuff always ties everything up at the end and almost never ends with a question. Also I'm shy, so most of my pieces toss out an idea and then I hide around the corner before anyone can come and talk to me about it.

But I'm trying to fix that, and the "ask a question" thing and the "talk about broad concepts" thing are both great tips. Of course, the downside is that a lot of the comments read as if they barely even skimmed the original post. In Chuck Klostermann's recent piece for the AV Club about the Beatles reissues, most people seemed to jump down to the comments thread so they could talk about the Beatles reissues. Not many of them read, let alone got the joke behind Klostermann's piece.

I guess the real winner would be to ask a question and also write about something controversial, so that you also get the haters. Like: "I think we need more graphic rape in games. What do you think?"

Chris Carter said...

I completely agree with the sentiments Josh echoed.

Sometimes I'll strike a hit comment-wise, but most of the time it's hard to garner interest.

I bookmarked this piece, and I'll be sure to let it marinate for months to come as my editing career progresses.

Ben Abraham said...

FIRST PO... oh, that's not how this works is it?

I'll echo what's said above and say very interesting post and it's quite an interesting topic. I've been thinking about how useful comments are and what they provide a blog with for a while now, and I've toyed with turning the comments off on my blog and committing to just knowing (and making sure of!) the strength of the stuff I write myself.

We actually turned comments off on the Crit-Dist link-out posts for a not-too-dissimilar reason. CD was supposed to be about encouraging the blogosphere, not about a new place to comment on it, and they just weren't generating comments very much anyway. It also means we don't have to worry about trolling in the comments so that was also a plus.

Anyway, thanks for this LB.

Daniel said...

You could always try a top 10 list. I hear bloggers like them.

Oh, also, you could try and categorise every blog within a particular slice of the blogosphere by linking out to them in a single post. Yeah, that's a good idea for cheap hits. Can't think of anyone who's done that kind of awesome post.*

On a more serious note, I think you're fairly correct that bloggers have several archetypes for generating more discussion. Hell, there are blogs set up to help people bring in more hits and discussion, and asking a question is always, always up there. But it doesn't necessarily make for a good blog. If it's discussion I want, I can go to a message board; good blogging requires more than good topic-setting.

*For the record, I hate, hate, hate that post of Subject Navigator. Hate.


L.B. Jeffries said...

Heh, I guess another method would be to shamelessly create a title that will throw Google's Search system for a loop. Thank you very much for the comments, the impulse to write this piece just sorta came over me and I'm glad people are enjoying it.

Craig said...

I've got to admit that those "ask a question" posts usually strike me as far too intentionally traffic-generating. Or, worse, lazy. I always get the idea that the writer threw that up there and is sitting back to watch how popular they are.

It can be done differently, though. Even when he ends with a question, Abbott has usually written a post that is essentially his own answer to the question. That's fair, because at least then there's something to read.

But then I think sometimes that I'm too "old school" by turning to blogs for someone else's perspective. I think the majority see blogs as conversational and dialogue-based from the beginning, with increasingly little difference between the blog itself and the comments. After all, how many blog comments already say, "your post made me post on my own blog about this topic"? The distinction starts to blur...

Craig said...

Oh, and tell your ex-law-school-turned-lit-student that he should consider himself lucky. I've been in plenty of graduate literature seminars that were more contentious than AM radio. Having no "right answer" doesn't prevent people from taking sides.

L.B. Jeffries said...

I don't exactly dislike a blog that is more interested in blurring itself with traditional forum styles of writing, but like a forum post their longterm value seems negligible. I'm approaching this from the fact that most of my writing can be categorized as a sort of stylized aggregate mixed with my own thoughts. The posts I select are culled from Googling and looking for something relevant to my own ideas. I usually dig through dozens of posts before I find a diamond in the sand.

I'm not sure I can totally explain how I spot when someone has made a really good point or articulated a concept. Often I will see the same idea repeated by multiple people but select one because the phrasing is the best of the bunch. I suppose that's the sixth sense aspect of writing, the part I can't put into words.

Question posts are a weird kind of inverse to that. They aren't answers, they launch topics. I've written a fair number of posts in response to Brainy Gamer ones, so I won't deny the usefulness for this. But I invest in this particular method of writing because I think that it is what the internet will look like in a few years. It's not what you're writing about, it's the context, the who, the what, and the why.

Question posts, by themselves, fall into this context but it is the responses to them that people actually read. At least that's my approach.

Spencer Greenwood said...

I think it's important to say that the value of a blog post isn't equal to the number of replies it receives, and even though comments were a big part of what made writing Noble Carrots an enjoyable experience for me, I think that just talking critically about art into a vacuum has its own merit.

It's nice to spread a message, and it's nice to engage in conversations, but I have no beef with those bloggers who close comments on their entries. I barely ever read them anyway.