The best blogs are written with conversation in mind, writes Steve Bowbrick in The Guardian. "Weblogs can approach the quality and texture of real conversations. Great bloggers leave lots of gaps and readers rush to fill them, producing insight in the synthesis of the original words and the reader's response. The whole really is greater than the sum of the parts."
Comments are altering our approach to blogging; the comment-free blogs of 2000 looked and felt a little different. I use my own comments as a place for footnotes and follow-ups that once would have been short new entries, giving the main page a less ephemeral, less partially-developed feel.
I suspect that what Bowbrick is saying is truest in the case of popular bloggers who get dozens of comments on any one entry. I've seen long-time favourites reduce their posting schedule dramatically in a feedback response to increased commenting: the longer the gap between entries, the more comments an entry gets; the more comments, the less that feeling of (self-imposed) pressure to say something new to keep the audience amused (they're keeping themselves amused). It's like pausing onstage during a stand-up routine to give the audience a chance to laugh. The pauses are longer for blogs, but make them too long and the laughs (and comments?) will die down.
But this only really holds if you get a lot of comments. My own blogging style hasn't changed as much as it might have, because I'm so used to seeing the big 0. (As for trackbacks, pfeh.)
One thing that does seem to have dwindled a bit is the cross-blog conversation, where blog A posts about something, blog B posts a response, etc. Everyone now seems to cluster into their own comments-based communities with themselves as the focus. There can be a fair bit of overlap of these communities in particular clusters of blogs, but it's never total, so you have to assume that each one is an island—and so we all drift apart...
Worse, when you have a cluster of blogs where you all read each other's words regularly, is the feeling that you shouldn't really link to individual entries on each others' blogs because your main audience (your fellow bloggers) will have seen them anyway; the entry's comments box is seen as the appropriate place to comment. By being considerate of the audience in this way, we lose some of the capacity of blogs to keep track of noteworthy things for ourselves—some of the best things I'll read in any one week will be individual blog entries. And worthy blogs lose their best chance for some valuable word-of-mouth publicity. A link to an entry is worth more than a blogroll link in these days of mile-long blogrolls.
I'm not saying this is a universal problem, but there's a kind of anti-blog-entry linking bias. Look at MetaFilter, and what happens nowadays if someone posts a single blog entry link on its front page. No matter how interesting and discussion-worthy it is, the #87546336 at the end of the URL is a cue to many readers that it isn't worthwhile. It's as if blogging culture, having grown out of the mighty Chunk, has grown uneasy with its chunky origins. Nowadays blogs have to be considered as a whole rather than as some of their parts. But how many bloggers have more than a handful of readers who read everything they post, and so can judge the whole?
So, getting back to Bowbrick, I think his observations are valid enough if you're looking at high-profile blogs, but less so for the rest of us—we might aspire to having blogs like that, but never quite get there. But I did like the fact that here was a mainstream newspaper talking about blogging culture as any one of us might do in our own blogs—a discussion among peers, rather than the usual beginner's guide to "Web logs".
I think trackbacks (or trackback-like features) are a step in the right direction to bringing back cross-blog conversations. It would be nice if comments could appear in multiple places at once ... In this case it makes sense for everyone to post every comment to their own weblog, and send a ping with the text to the originating site. ... Why can't comments be both local and remote? ¶ posted by pb
Maybe, but shoving every comment you'd leave anywhere online into the one weblog would make blogs even more confusing to newcomers—not just newcomers to blogs, but newcomers to that particular blog. It would throw any sense of controlling your tone and style for a particular audience out of the window. I know the idea of authorial control is contrary to the idealistic blogging spirit of "anything goes, post everything", but every long-time blogger that I know exercises it. Otherwise we might as well post RSS feeds of our browser history files. (Is the linking side-blog perhaps an outlet valve for bloggers who have moved on to more fully-developed writing and argument in their main blogs, but feel they're letting the original "Spirit of '99" down?)
As a writer I like the idea of "bringing it all back home", but if blogs are intended for readers and not just writers, dumping every single word you write in front of them at once isn't going to win them over. It might work a little better as another side-blog—a "Comments Elsewhere" blog—but that would then defeat the attempt to put everything together on the main stage.
Blogroots admin Matt Haughey subsequently implemented the external comments side-blog idea on his site, which was good to see.
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