Reader Survey Results Part 3: 95 percent of you never (or rarely) comment!

Why do you comment on Savage Minds. Or why don’t you comment on Savage Minds? Are the comments good? Do they suck? Do you even care? Can internet comments save the future of the human species? These were some of the questions we tried to answer with our reader survey earlier this year. Ok, well, we didn’t actually ask that last one about saving the human species–that was just to see if you’re still paying attention and not frittering away on Twitter while “reading” Savage Minds. I know you’re out there! Anyway, here are some of the answers to this riveting survey. Bonus: Star Wars reference if you reach the end. How can you resist reading this post now? Answer: Don’t even try.

About twelve percent of you never read the comments, period. The majority, about 73 percent, said they read our comments “sometimes.” About fifteen percent said they always read them.

But when it comes to posting comments, about 95 percent of people said they never or very rarely leave comments. Nearly five percent said they comment occasionally. Only 0.2% (one person out of 430 responses) said they comment regularly.

Less than one percent of you regularly posts comments! What’s up with that?

When it comes to rating our comments, about one percent of you said that ours are worse than average. Another 51% percent chose the middle ground option between “worse than average” and “better than average.” I guess that can either mean they are satisfied or don’t really care–hard to tell. But I’m not picking up a ton of enthusiasm there. A final 46.7% said that our comments are better than average.

When we asked you what you like about our comments, more than 3/4 (76%) said it was because of the “informed contributions.” Almost fifty percent noted the “thoughtful questions.” Another 46% percent said it was the “lively debate.” About 20 percent chose “funny repartee” as the reason why they like the comments. A final 12% said they like the comments because of the strict enforcement of our comment policy.

So what do our readers dislike about the comments? About fifty percent said it’s all the “pointless debate” going on. Another 46% said it’s the ill-informed contributions. About 20% said the bad jokes are a turn off. And nearly 14% said it’s all the stupid questions. A final 3.6% said it’s the strict comment policies that turn them off. A final 18.7% chose “other.” It’s hard not to wonder what that could mean. Don’t you wish you knew? I do.

Ok, so that was the basic rundown. We also asked how we could improve our comments. Your answers were all over the map. Lots of people said everything’s fine and we’re doing a great job. Many others said they simply don’t read the comments. Others shared the popular sentiment most comments on blogs are a waste of time, like this reader who said “All blogs should eliminate comments.” Along similar lines, another reader wrote:

Is there anything that can be done about comments on any internet site? If you can fix the problem of inanity, trolling, soapboxes, etc. then you win the internet. I think SM’s comments are about the best you can hope for. So maybe anthropologists win the internet.

Have we won the internets?!? Maybe.

We definitely have our pessimists, optimists–and nihilists–when it comes to the comments. Here’s one of our happy optimists:

I love reading the comments almost as much as the articles themselves. It feels to me like we have a good community here, which I appreciate even more now that I am not explicitly working in the field, (or am I really “in the field”? Hmm. ) and have limited contact with other anthropologists.

We did have many readers say that they appreciate the new comment policies and enforcement. One reader wrote, “I think the revised commenting standards/increased moderation (about one year ago-give or take) were a wise choice. I’d like to see these standards upheld with a bit more rigor at times. Particularly on topics that draw folks in from all corners of the web.”

Another added, “I thought clarifying the comments policy a few months ago actually improve the readability of the comments quite a bit.” In a similar vein, one person wrote:

Generally speaking comments sections on Savage Minds tend to be pretty interesting. The only time my eyes glaze over or start rolling is when SM authors start pissing on each other … or commenters engage in some serious self ego stroking with really transparent attempts at looking like the smartest kid in the room (lots of jargon and lots me, my and I).  Otherwise – seriously the comments sections are pretty good – and thankfully – oh so very thankfully SM really does seem to both attract a better quality of comments and strive hard to keep the environment collegial and non-toxic – so thanks for that.

Yet others seemed to want something a little different, such as a scoring system that allowed the readers themselves to vote comments up or down. Other readers suggested some kind of scoring system like you see on other sites. As one reader put it, they’d like to see a “peer review of comments.”

A number of you mentioned the lack of comments. For example, one person wrote:

I agree that before the strict enforcement of comments policy there was a tendency for the some commenters to be excessive, however now the trend is that no one comments, there is very little debate. I find it interesting that the most heated comment section since the policy change was an article about a Tibetan sect of foreigners disagreement with the Dalai Lama. It became a political thread and had very little to do with anthropology … The balance between good comment control and a free flowing arena of ideas is not easy, but the current policy has been a detriment to the site in my opinion. If you don’t like what people say, ignore it.

Along similar lines, another reader wrote:

I suppose SM is primarily a blog by academics for academics, so no one really wants to stick their neck out. Everyone is too focused on tone and politeness and not on being right, and that’s a very strange thing for an academic blog. The point of the academy isn’t to find a career and get ahead. It’s to find out about the world and communicate that understanding to others. If you can’t scrap about ideas and claims on a blog, where else can you do it? In a seminar? Not really – people have too much to lose.

I can respect David Graeber because he’s willing to get into the kind of arguments that people can learn from. I think some of what he says is wrong, but he’s willing to get out there and defend his ideas. He doesn’t play it safe and doesn’t hedge. I would like to see more of that in the SM comments section. I realise how unpopular that view is, though.

Yet another reader expressed a desire for more “lively commentary”:

I have no idea how to encourage this, except to say that I have noticed that Savage Minds posts tend not to have a lively commentary associated with them and that’s something I desire. I think if the comment section were more active I would be more inclined to contribute, as I am a long-time and fairly dedicated reader of the site.

Several people said there isn’t much we can do about improving the comments, since it’s mostly a matter of what the readers chose to do: “I don’t think you can [improve the comments], since they are made by others, and you can’t control that. But by moderating them they are far better than what you might see on other webpages.” Yet another reader agreed, adding “I don’t know that there is much to do. It is more about community engagement than about SM crew.”

The community engagement angle is intriguing. One reader suggested we could ask “stimulating questions for discussion could help promote productive comments sections.” Yet another person said that “a format more like Reddit would be shocking and fun.” One wrote that we could “Feature content that draws in a more diverse group of anthropologists as readers, who will then bring a wider range of perspectives to the comments section.” Here was another idea:

It would be cool to have the authors’ on board to do Q&A sessions on their pieces, so the reader could leave questions and you’d know responses and maybe discussion (if that was relevant) would be coming. One of the reasons I don’t often comment is that it feels like a waste of time if you’re not going to have your question answered or comment responded to.

Several other readers shared a very simple, elegant suggestion for encouraging comments: “Explicitly inviting readers to comment by posing an open question at the end of articles, for instance.”

Duly noted. Not a bad idea. So here goes. This one goes out to the 95% of you who never or rarely comment: So what’s your (anthropological) take on internet comment sections? Wretched hives of scum and villainy–or a rowdy, democratic hope for the future?


Ryan Anderson is a cultural and environmental anthropologist. His current research focuses on coastal conservation, sustainability, and development in the Californias. He also writes about politics, economics, and media. You can reach him at ryan AT savageminds dot org or @anthropologia on twitter.

16 thoughts on “Reader Survey Results Part 3: 95 percent of you never (or rarely) comment!

  1. I use to enjoy Savage Minds and commented from time to time, but was emailed directly and asked to not participate because, I was told, Savage Minds isn’t for undergraduate students. I check in from time to time (Im no longer ‘just’ an undergraduate student). But the elitism really soured me to the group in general. Otherwise I would love to be more involved.

  2. As someone who comments altogether too much, let me try to explain why. I am an independent scholar, an odd beast who enjoys academic debate while living and working outside the academy. To me, Savage Minds and the Open Anthropology Cooperative are the college and colleagues I miss. In my best of all possible worlds, sites like Savage Minds are places to float ideas and observations and hear how people respond to them. I have recently begun, however, to question the cut-and-thrust approach that results in emotional bloodletting and people feeling insulted, who then go away. I am now aiming for a more congenial, we are all in this together, tone. I don’t always succeed. I am human, I have hot-button issues. That said, my life would be far less rich without the back and forth I experience in my best days on Savage Minds.

  3. Thanks Kerim for sharing that link. It’s a good read for thinking a bit more about comments and what they mean.

    Joshua, thanks for your comment. As far as I’m concerned, undergrads are always welcome. Anthropology is not just for grad students and profs, and it’s not just for those folks who are inside the world of academia. Anthropology is larger than that. Thanks again for your comment. I hope to see you posting more comments and taking part in more discussions.

    John, thanks for sharing what taking part in Savage Minds means to you. I can relate with your change of heart when it comes to comments–when I first started commenting on (mostly political) blogs about 10 years ago, I viewed the comment sections as a sort of battleground of ideas in which I was trying to assert my own. Now I see things a bit differently–this has probably come from some of my experiences here at SM and over at the OAC.

  4. Anthropology generally has veered far away from what most interested me when I first began studying in this field. And I have a strong suspicion I’m not alone. Thanks to my skepticism, I have very mixed feelings about blogs such as this. Once upon a time I tried expressing my feelings of disappointment in comments posted here. But since nothing much has changed, I more or less gave up.

    For me, a blog such as Dieneke’s Anthropology Blog is what anthropology (and archaeology) should really be about, as it digs pretty deeply into some very fundamental issues dealing with the nature of human origins and evolution, and keeps its readers up to date on the latest publications.

    But Dienekes is primarily concerned with population genetics. That suits me fine, because that’s a field that interests me as well. But I’d love to see a blog like that focused on cultural anthropology. Not the sort of thing usually featured here, by the way, which for me is just sort of a watered down sociology. But cultural anthropology as it once was in the past, only reflecting the most recent developments, thoughts, and findings.

  5. Ryan, nice observation about the battleground of ideas. For me, at least, that habitus was formed in graduate school, where I learned in seminars to lurk and object and, unless forced to present, speak up only to tear down what somebody else was saying. On the other side, when forced to present, I was tense and defensive. In large part this was just me, grounded in Oedipal tangles with a father whose world view was conservative max. But I do see a lot of behavior similar to mine on the net.

  6. Relevant link from John Postill on Twitter:

    Article Title: Does Web 3.0 come after Web 2.0? Deconstructing theoretical assumptions through practice

    Here’s the abstract: “Current internet research has been influenced by application developers and computer engineers who see the development of the Web as being divided into three different stages: Web 1.0, Web 2.0 and Web 3.0. This article will argue that this understanding – although important when analysing the political economy of the Web – can have serious limitations when applied to everyday contexts and the lived experience of technologies. Drawing from the context of the Italian student movement, we show that the division between Web 1.0, Web 2.0 and Web 3.0 is often deconstructed by activists’ media practices. Therefore, we highlight the importance of developing an approach that – by focusing on practice – draws attention to the interplay between Web platforms rather than their transition. This approach, we believe, is essential to the understanding of the complex relationship between Web developments, human negotiations and everyday social contexts.”

  7. Comments do affect the functionality of website. They are the best source to know feedbacks about our site from the ultimate users.Thanks for sharing this blog, a wider insight on comments and its importance.

  8. As I mentioned to Ryan (on Twitter) I will generally post a link to the post (on Twitter) and then comment there (on Twitter). It is more of a conversation that way. I guess it would be nice for impact case studies and whatnot to gather everything in one place, but if I wanted to have a one-on-one dialog with the author, I’d send an email.

  9. Having the comments attached to the blog makes for a nice package of opinions. Distributing them on twitter is also great but is very ephemeral. I often get a decent number of comments because, I think, I like to respond to them & so create a sort of community feel; I don’t have a moderation queue so instant gratification for posters; I rarely delete any comments unless truly offensive; I often explicitly invite comments.

    I mean, I’d like even more comments and maybe it’s puzzling there aren’t even more, but very seldom do I have no comments. Most get 5-10 and some over a hundred.

    Some sites can exhibit a sort of pack mentality in the comments and I’m not a fighty person. I rarely comment on other blogs either I think partly because, well, who cares? But mostly because when I do there is very seldom any response, which makes it feel like I just pissed into the wind a little, and why bother.

  10. Thanks Colleen. While I was writing this post one of the articles I was reading was your 2015 introduction (with Judith Winters) to the Critical Blogging in Archaeology issue. You wrote about the articles as “the beginning of a conversation,” arguing that comments and tweets “serve as a supplementary peer review.” I already knew that the number of readers that actually post comments (on almost any blog) is relatively low, but seeing the 95% stat from our reader survey was still surprising. It makes me think a lot about how information moves, and how to bring various strands together. Thinking about comments and tweets as early forms of review (or just brainstorming) is intriguing. Sometimes I think I think about comments too much–but then the whole point of blogging and alternative media is to do things differently than old media etc. Figuring out how to do it is the hard part. What I did find encouraging, though, is that many of the readers do seem to want something a little more participatory–so much of it could be a matter of rethinking S.O.P. when it comes to writing, sharing, publishing, and interacting with readers. Thanks again for posting your comment here!

  11. Thanks qmackie. Building a sense of community with people who read and comment is important. There has to be some sense of connection. But I think that many people don’t comment on certain blogs because of the lack of response, which makes it feel like a) you’re talking to yourself or b) it’s pretty much pointless. I’m not sure who told me this, but I once heard someone say that comments are like a garden, and they have to be tended in order to grow. I think that’s definitely true and I like the sentiment. This stuff doesn’t just happen by itself. Most of the sites that I see with a LOT of comments and regular readers also have a strong sense of community (and many readers often have a certain sense of ownership of the site). Anyway, thanks for the comment. Lots to think about.

  12. These are general impressions because I’m pretty new to this online discussion business. Until a couple of years ago I had only vague notions of what “posts,” “blogs” and “threads” were, so take these remarks with that in mind.
    One impression, based on following SM episodically for those couple of years, is that it is mostly American and academic. The list of “Contributors,” which seems to function as an editorial board of sorts, fits that description. I think SM is a very good thing, but a reader / commenter should recognize its topical focus and audience. Since anthropology is a global undertaking it would be nice to see the site acquire a more international flavor. Especially now that we have our friends at Google Translate standing by, articles and comments not in English should be available to a general audience.
    As Ryan observes, articles (blogs? posts?) tend to attract few if any Comments. Ten or twelve seems a high number. I wonder if that’s due in part to the practice of “moderating” comments. Based on my very limited experience, it seems to take about a day between “Leave a Reply” and that reply appearing on the website. Of course, that’s blindingly fast compared with the months (or years) required by peer review and eventual publication, but in the instant gratification world of social media, that delay may stifle the flow of comments.
    Finally, a tech problem I’ve run into – which is probably a function of my creaky old computer: When I click on a comment in the list under “Recent Activity” that indeed brings up the comment – but then my computer freezes up. I can’t scroll up or down, and trying to leave that screen is a long, drawn-out process. Don’t know if others have this problem; if so it would surely discourage responding to comments.

  13. Idea for the geeks among us — an app that rounds up all of the comments in different media streams related to a particular discussion. Stage 1 could start with a single URL (a Savage Mind post, for example) and use a web crawler to hunt down every mention of it in all social media. Stage 2 could add AI, using key words or semantic network analysis, to identify related discussions. . . . . Possible benefit — being able to demonstrate how often a particular blog post has been mentioned across the full spectrum of social media. Might come in handy for job hunters and folks up for tenure or promotion decisions.

  14. Joshua Smith wrote that he “was emailed directly and asked to not participate because, I was told, Savage Minds isn’t for undergraduate students.” I just want to make clear that this is not site policy and we are trying to understand what happened with this exchange. I have written to Joshua directly asking for more information. Undergraduates are certainly most welcome to participate on Savage Minds.

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