Reddit’ers at the back of the class

Sunday 23 March 2008This is more than 15 years old. Be careful.

Two days ago I wrote Is it a cache?, and like many of my programming posts, it was posted to, where it attracted 37 comments. Looking at the comments on reddit and the comments on the blog post, they are of different natures. The blog comments were of basically one kind. They all addressed the technical issues, and whether they agreed or disagreed, were civil and respectful.

The reddit comments, on the other hand, fall into three classes:

  1. Responses to the post, mostly civil.
  2. Silly jokes.
  3. Dismissive comments about my hosting or my profession.

I can understand why people post comments on reddit for links to pages that don’t support comments. If you want to discuss a news story from CNN, for example, where else can you? CNN doesn’t provide for commenting, so external sites like reddit do. But why would someone follow a link from reddit to a blog post, and then, instead of adding a comment on the blog post, go back to reddit to comment there?

Actually, looking at the three kinds of comments I got, it isn’t such a mystery. Types 2 and 3 would be disruptive to add directly on the post. I don’t know who reddit user prockcore is, but he’s probably not the type of person to say to someone’s face,

Who gives a shit? It’s penny-ante arguments like this that give programmers their well-deserved reputation for being know-it-all assholes.

The blunter comments of type 1 would also be a bit awkward to add to the post:

In my opinion, that’s a crappy post..

In these ways, reddit users are like the kids at the back of the class. Rather than participate in a discussion, they prefer to snipe in private. By staying out of earshot of the speaker, they don’t have to modulate their emotions or opinions, for fear of offending.

Except everyone must realize that bloggers know about reddit, and are generally aware that they’ve been linked to. They must know that the author will see their comments in any case. Reddit commenters are not out of earshot.

I realize this may sound cranky, like my feelings have been hurt by the meanies. I’m not, and they’re not, I’m just trying to understand why some people comment on the blog while others go back to reddit. Is there a community there? I don’t get the sense that reddit’ers recognize each other and build relationships, however slight, as they do in other forums. Is this just the online version of saying something behind someone’s back you wouldn’t say to their face, or is there something else going on I don’t understand?


I think it's funny too. I don't think it's terribly inaccurate to call Redditors 'back of the class' material, and it's probably fine that they stay that way. The thing I don't like about it is that I find that blogging is very hard without feedback of some kind. GOod or bad, it's nice to know that a real person is reading your posts. For that reason, I tend to make an effort to comment on posts in feeds that I'm subscribed to and read a lot. Even if I haven't got a whole lot to say, I think it's good support for blogger X to keep writing.
My first though was to post exactly what Dave did.

Before it all went to crap, I did recognize some reddit names - and appreciated being able to check one place for comments and replies, but now... yeesh.
I think they just expect more people to see their comment on Reddit than on the blog. They think they're being incredibly clever and witty, and they want everyone to know it. They don't care if *you* know it, though - just the kewl kids on reddit.
I thought I might be missing something by never visiting reddit until I saw this post. Now I'll stay away even more determinedly (and frankly I could care less what they say about my blogs, which are written for a more thoughtful readership).
Well written, Ned. I've had my share of idiotic comments -- just make sure you don't take them personally!
We need a rule to describe this effect:
"Given a sufficiently large audience, the people most likely to comment on an article are the ones you least want to hear."

I'm sure this could be given some semi-bogus psychomathematical justification using Gaussian distributions and a study of what motivates people to comment on articles. But, generally speaking, if I compare comments on blogs I read to Slashdot to large news sites like BBC/CNN, I find noise comes to dominate the channel as the number of eyeballs increases. A small fraction of smart-asses have a much higher probability of commenting than the potentially larger number of people with something interesting (or at least average) to say.
It's mainly about convenience for me. Not everybody has blog comments enabled. They have various markups and other requirements. Some let you be notified of follow-up comments, others don't. Rarely is there a threaded discussion system.

Places like reddit offer a consistent way to discuss articles. I don't have to type in my name and e-mail address every time I want to comment somewhere and I get notified of any responses in a consistent manner (without e-mails.)

I don't think you're wrong in that some people use it as you described. Many people with multiple agendas will find different uses for the same thing.
I think reddit is a bit better than some people feel -- it's not all bad. There can be good comments there.

You mention CNN articles: most news stories actually have comments these days. But I would never write a comment there. Especially on a political article, where there is just a stream of meaningless comments directed at no one, written without even any attention paid to previous comments. The reddit comments will invariably be of higher quality (with this admittedly low bar).

I'd say there's two good reasons for commenting on reddit: (a) redditers have a shared perspective of sorts, in part because of who reddit attracts, and in part because of the shared stream of articles that people read. And (b) the comment system has threads.

The shared perspective is important, because you can discuss things without going back to the basics about your beliefs. Of course the readers of this blog have a shared perspective too, and it's not substantially different.

Threaded comments remain unusual, and this is quite unfortunate. You can't have a good discussion with flat comments. All comments seem to be direct responses to the author, not to each other. There's a back-of-the-class aspect to commenting just for each other's eyes, not intending to get responses from the author. But often the people responding actually do have something useful to say or respond to, and blogs don't give people a reasonable forum for that.

Also there's a certain deference to commenting on the site, and not all people want to show that deference, especially if they are just going to say shit about your post. But as many people have noticed these comments tend not to have much value anyway. They lack appropriate self-editing.

Though there are cases -- e.g., calling out a science article for being inaccurate -- where you really don't want to defer to the author, who you may validly be calling a liar.
The asinine comments are made on reddit, not here, because the authors are interested in impressing other members of their community. Joking around or belittling others are ways to gain rank within a group.

The reason even the constructive comments on reddit were not made here is because groups like to talk amongst themselves. There was a good post on this recently by Paul Buchheit: Is fragmentation bad?.

FWIW, I think your original post was spot on.
They're all a bunch of doody-heads. I probably wouldn't say that to their faces though...
Jay's comment made sense to me (and I was looking for a way to upmod it ;-)
Well said, Ned. It matches my experience completely. Many comments were of low quality (being generous here), but some comments were insightful (my blog doesn't have comments). My overall feeling is that reddit is not a very good source of input, but it can be used for guidance in selecting interesting posts — the up/down count has proved to be a good indicator of true feelings of the audience. Not everyone bothers to comment, but much more people use arrows.
I think there's also a crowd effect at work. Once things start going downhill, it's the only way it will continue, since there's no real incentive for the clueful to participate in the spit balling. But if the comments are on-topic and intelligent, it seems to attract similar comments. My experience here is pretty limited, since, like most people in this thread, I've found the negative outweighs the positive, but every now and again when I check the comments on an article I've had posted, I'm surprised by the quality.
Brandon Corfman 7:59 AM on 24 Mar 2008
+1 to jay. :)
Thanks, all, for the support and/or insight. I'd never heard the term Eternal September before somehow, it might be the key to the whole thing. And the threaded comments and single log-on are definitely a difference between reddit and the blogosphere. The threaded comments in particular may be a huge reason. As pointed out above, threaded comments allow the commenters to talk amongst themselves, while a single thread somewhat forces everyone to face forward with their hands on the desk.

Rather than "face forward", maybe "face the center of the circle" is more accurate? My blogger blog uses flat comments, and the posters talk to each other, as well as me. They also have less of a tendency to wander off down the garden path to unrelated topics. The reader pays attention to all of the comments, so it becomes a group conversation.

Sniping like you describe here isn't participation.
Harrowell's theory of communication; in any given channel, the total volume of valuable information is fixed in the short term. However, the human propensity to communicate has increasing returns to scale. Increasing the available bandwidth will therefore increase the noise fraction once 100 per cent of the short-term information is communicated.

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