It seems like almost annually John Gruber must defend his choice to disallow comments on his popular blog Daring Fireball. In a way I'm sort of dispassionate on the issue generally. If John doesn't want comments on his blog, that's his prerogative, it is his site after all! Further, from a free market perspective, John doesn't seem to be suffering due to this omission. What's interesting to me are the reasons people give for allowing comments on a website.
Some people suggest that you need to have a conversation and actively engage readers and without on site comments you can't do this. John's response to this critique is basically that you can have a conversation without on site comments, and in his case he uses Twitter and Email to great effect. Clearly, a conversation doesn't require some technical implementation to be called a true conversation. The point here is that feedback is good and communication is good, so make sure you have good feedback and communication. Pretty hard to argue with that. (I think a case can be made for building a website that is valuable without a conversation, but that's probably more of an academic argument.) What's most harmful to this argument is that there are examples of on site comments that are wonderful and on site comments that are terrible. Similarly, there are email lists that tend toward a conversation that is positive and productive and email lists that tend toward shouting matches. It turns out, there are phone calls that are productive and engender communication and phone calls that make understanding, a distant goal, even more distant. I hope you see the point, it's not the technology, it's the people.
There are of course other problems with on site comments, for example dealing with spam and the extra work involved with moderating and responding to the comment threads. That said I think there is an even larger problem with on site comments and it has to do with the way it affects the author, not the audience. I first heard this idea from Seth Godin, another popular author that doesn't allow comments on his blog. He said it this way:
I think comments are terrific, and they are the key attraction for some blogs and some bloggers. Not for me, though. First, I feel compelled to clarify or to answer every objection or to point out every flaw in reasoning. Second, it takes way too much of my time to even think about them, never mind curate them. And finally, and most important for you, it permanently changes the way I write. Instead of writing for everyone, I find myself writing in anticipation of the commenters. I'm already itching to rewrite my traffic post below. So, given a choice between a blog with comments or no blog at all, I think I'd have to choose the latter. So, bloggers who like comments, blog on. Commenters, feel free. But not here. Sorry.
I don't think Seth is alone in feeling negatively influenced by comments. It's natural. People love validation, and putting yourself out there is a scary thing. But the very feedback that comments allow can cause you to change your voice, and that is the most destructive thing of all. Love him or hate him, John Gruber has a voice. He is not a me-too artist. Is it because he doesn't have on site comments? Hard to say for sure, but I think it has helped. Over the years it has been one less distraction that has allowed for that little bit of extra focus.