Cognition Comments Considered Harmful

I was looking forward to writing a post this weekend about Happy Cog’s new commenting system on their otherwise excellent new blog, but the sage minds at Full Stop interactive beat me to it. You should read Nate’s whole post. It’s spot-on.

It’s interesting to me that Happy Cog is trying to eliminate the negative things associated with commenting by encouraging brevity, while for several years, the secret sauce I’ve cooked up to prevent comment spam has involved just the opposite: measuring the amount of time you spend typing and only entering your comment into the database if you spend more than a few seconds on it. It works like a charm and eliminates 99.9% of comment spam before it even gets in the front door.

In my opinion, what Happy Cog has created is useful. Let’s just not confuse it with a commenting system for a blog.

It doesn’t encourage community, it doesn’t encourage conversation, and for the most part, it’s not accretive in any way. What it does do is create a lot of linkbacks to your blog on Twitter. Is this valuable? Sure. But is it as valuable as free-flowing, insightful, conversations which elevate ordinary posts into conversation pieces?

Not for me it’s not.

For all the great things about Twitter — and there are many — one of the worst things about it is that it’s making us lazy ambassadors of our thoughts. Why spend an hour on a blog post when we can tweet out our main thesis in ten seconds? Why allow conversations on our blogs when we can just hear the first 140 characters of our readers’ opinions?

We know short attention spans are bad for our intellectual development. We should be creating solutions that fight against this threat… not feed into it.

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16 Responses:

  1. I agree with you 100%, but I think it’s important to note that Happy Cog are certainly not the first to try this Twitter-as-comments idea. Several other blogs have done it before them. Let’s not pretend Happy Cog is doing something novel, here. They saw others try it, saw it generate a lot of traffic but no real conversation, and decided that was what they wanted. More power to them, I suppose.

  2. Jason says:


    You mind explaining more about your spam prevention code (and maybe show some source code).

    I’d like to use the same.

    And if it’s simply a plugin, would you mind pointing me to it.


  3. Christian says:

    “Why spend an hour on a blog post when we can tweet out our main thesis in ten seconds?”

    This cuts both ways.

    Why spend ten minutes reading a poorly-written blog post or comment if its thesis states the main point succinctly and the rest of the content is filler? Your argument is valid so long as the author, or commenter, writes well and has something valuable to say. Historically on the Web, and especially in comments, that’s the exception rather than the rule.

    Happy Cog’s Twitter system solves two problems: The rambling comment that could have been shorter (such as this one, perhaps) and the inability to track follow-up comments in a useful, non-email way without re-visiting the site.

    Brevity encourages spam, to be sure, but it also skims off a lot of the time-wasting writing and reading that’s also damaging to the ecology of the Web.

  4. Mike D. says:

    Jeff: Good point. I thought I remember seeing something like it somewhere else. Can’t remember where.

    Jason: Sure. It’s a simple javascript timer. View source on this page and look for “setTimeout” and you can see exactly what it does. I don’t want to release it as a plug-in or otherwise heavily publicize it because I’d like to keep the Russian Spam Army off the scent for as long as possible. Seems to have worked so far, and I get over 100,000 page views a month on this blog.

    Christian: I find that to be the case only on the largest of properties. Most of us run pretty small operations and our readership is more thoughtful than, say, the run-and-gun population of large general news sites. I fully understand why a blog like Daring Fireball doesn’t turn comments on, because it’s SO big and so full of readers who want to argue every last point with John, but for 99% of us, that just isn’t a problem. I also don’t consider a rambling off-topic comment thread harmful to the blog entry itself. It’s just extra information at the bottom of it. If you want to read it, great. If you don’t, you can always move on.

  5. The other thing that really bugs me about this particular implementation is that they’ve chosen NOT to use @ replies, so that it liters the streams of people who aren’t interested. They should have set up an account like @cognition and made every Twitter-based comment a reply to that, so those who are interested in following the discussion can simply follow @cognition and those who aren’t can be free of the timeline spam.

    Choosing not to use @ replies makes it feel like a desperate attempt to drive traffic their way, rather than a way to engage the community in meaningful discussion.

  6. Jason says:


    About setTimeout, all the places I see it referenced is mainly in:

    And that code is minified.

    You mind pasting the setTimeout function code to the comment section so that I can read the human version of it?


  7. Mike D. says:

    Jason: Really? If I hit Command-F on this page, I see a setTimeout for a function called changeAction.

  8. Jason says:

    Whoops, I didn’t realize setTimeout was a built-in JavaScript function.

    Sorry, thanks

  9. Firstly, I am not yet a fan of the Twitter-for-comments idea. It alienates everyone who doesn’t use Twitter! Myself included at the time of writing. So I can no longer comment on, say, Jon Hicks’ website.

    Secondly, your timer idea is a good one Mike, but on some sites I’ve spent a long time carefully editing my comment to the point that I’ve actually used a separate text editor so I can keep saving it. I can then go to the website and just paste it in. What happens then with your system? I assume the timer would show one second or less, and my comment would be wrongly marked as spam.

  10. Mike D. says:

    Chris: Yep, that sort of workflow would be collateral damage of my system. You’d probably notice the comment wasn’t posted though and hopefully mess around trying to re-post.

  11. Brade says:

    I thought the same thing when I saw the Cog announcement. Classic case of out-thinking the room…

  12. Greg Hoy says:

    Totally hear you guys and appreciate the feedback. We do enable/encourage people to comment on their own blog, like you’ve done here, Mike. It’s not a Tweet-or-nothing deal. We pull those comments into our response thread. I think people are missing it, and we’ll address that.

  13. Mike D. says:

    Greg: Thanks for popping in. To be clear, I am always pro-experimentation. It’s a good experiment. I just don’t like the results, and it’s not your responsibility to make me like the results.

    To echo a commenter somewhere else, I like the “authenticate with Twitter” comment model better than the “tweet your comment” model. Little bits of peanut gallerying will just never do it for me.

  14. Collin says:

    How much does the comment system really matter when it comes to creating community and intelligent conversation? If the comments are for a political opinion piece then you will surely get either left and right rhetoric being spewed without any real dialog. If the sites visitors are sourced by a big news company with an agenda then you will see that agenda spewed by loyal mindless followers and whatever side is suppressed the most (or sometimes both) will eagerly turn hostile.

    The only time you will have a chance at real and productive conversation is if the post is about design or some sort of skilled trade where the visitors are tying to grow or show off their skill.

    There really doesn’t seem to be a place where people of different ideas and views can come together and discuss and share views peacefully. The worst part about comments online is not simply that the users have short attention span, it’s that they are the same people talking AT each other on the street.

  15. “There really doesn’t seem to be a place where people of different ideas and views can come together and discuss and share views peacefully.”

    I think you just summed up the internet :-)

  16. Isaac Lin says:

    If we set aside the exact mechanism (and thus its specific limitations), this is a way to let people comment on a blog entry on their own page, and still rollup the comments on the blog page. It is somewhat akin to assembling people’s photos of an event by linking to them from one page. Though this particular implementation may not be ideal, it is a glimpse into how the web’s ability to reuse content through linking can be applied to conversation as well, creating multiple intersecting discussions.

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