Blogging creates a sense of community amongst commenters by giving them a topic, TV show or news item to discuss. These discussions help form a community in the commenting section of blogs, which can be helpful and nurturing or funny and acerbic.
My favorite site to talk, discuss and make funny jokes with other commenters is The Onion’s AV Club, or more specifically, the TV section of the site (called, of course, TV Club). This section is currently edited by Todd VanDerWeff (TVDW), who has encouraged a culture that is reader- and commenter-focused.
Here are several key reasons, besides quality writing, why I believe this is such a successful blog.
Writers who are also active commenters: I got so excited when TVDW replied to one of my comments! Really, the writers are so passionate about TV that several of them get actively involved in the comments section, responding to queries and defending their writing. I haven’t seen all of the writers comment as much as Todd and some others, but that is probably because they are freelance writers who have other time commitments.
Controversial writing: Some people might say this kind of writing is comment-bating, but I love the challenging essays incite anger and passion. Todd writes most of these. Two of my favorites are “How Girls challenges the masculine expectations of ‘good tv'” (written after TVDW became increasingly frustrated at the sexist comments in his Girls recaps) and “How the live-action cartoon Suburgatory became one of TV’s best dramas”. I think the way he uses the word “how” at the start of these posts is very interesting. He is making a declaration, a statement he will support in the essay with lots of research and specific references to the shows themselves.
The Girls piece also references thirteen current and past shows that the site recaps, therefore giving notifications for those thirteen shows. This drives traffic to the essay, and potentially, more comments.
Notifications (discussed elsewhere): These create awareness around shows the commenters already know and love. They likely already have something to say about the show since they just watched it.
Timing: Most TV shows give sites like TV Club advanced screeners so the reviewers can talk up the show on social media and post reviews shortly after the show ends (live reality shows, which the site generally doesn’t cover too well, are amongst the only exceptions). This way, the show is fresh in the commenters’ minds, and combined with the notification system, readers are sent to the recaps to read and comment.
Commenters themselves: AV Club commenters have a reputation as being the wittiest and snarkiest on the web. They often try to one up each other with jokes. I love to read the comments about my favorite shows. For instance, Happy Endings reviews always devolve into a series of commenters quoting their favorite lines. Mad Men threads are full of thoughtful analysis and discussion. I haven’t read the books, but I have peeked at The Game of Thrones (Experts) recaps, where commenters compare the action in the show to what has happened in the George R.R. Martin books in great detail. And it’s totally fascinating.
Comprehensive writing: TV Club combines news articles with recaps and features, creating a comprehensive site. Therefore, the readers and commenters don’t need to go to many other sites, except to read reviews of reality shows and other programs the site does not cover for various reasons (not enough viewership, writers/commenters not passionate enough about it).
Community of Community
This AV Club post on Community from December of 2011 has over 39K comments. Community seems to have the most fervent fans online and it shows in the number of comments of every post. Editor Todd Van Der Weff dared commenters to reach 10K comments, which would have been a record (the other most popular shows, Mad Men and Game of Thrones, get 1000-2500 comments per episode review). But they kept talking–about themselves, about the show they really love, making random funny comments the site is known for–and are STILL TALKING. The post has grown into a living, changing organism that is itself its own community (no pun intended with the show). Connectivist theory
That was the first milestone. Since then, Community reviews have kind of become a big thing, culminating in this thread from review of the last three episodes of season 3. Todd concluded the review with Now, c’mon. 100,000. You know you can do it. Commenters have risen to that challenge as well–the post has an astounding 129,000 comments and is growing. The show is on hiatus until February, so fans needed an outlet for their obsession.
Oftentimes, blogs will post “open threads” where commenters can discuss anything they want. The Community posts turned into open threads. Often there is a starting off topic–for a while, Jezebel’s Friday open threads (this was before regular late night/weekend posting commenced) were about food (prompted by National Donut Day, National Pizza Day, etc). I have seen people ask personal questions about their love life or health.
Commenters turn these open threads into their own personal learning networks–they feel they’re relatively anonymous and the diverse group of people that is available to them might be more helpful than their own group of homogenous friends.
In this open thread about actress and activist Martha Plimpton alone, there were discussions about a childhood home burning down, making friends in a new city, cat litter issues, exploring one’s sexuality and so much more.
The site now has regular open threads about specific topics–the Olympics, holidays–but the number of comments have drastically dropped from the thousands to the hundreds. Due to Gawker Media’s new commenting system, tracking the number of comments on these old posts has proven impossible.
One of the things I am noticing is that many of the newer women-centered blogs, perhaps as a reaction to Jezebel’s selective cadre of writers, get much of their content from commenters and other bloggers. Here are three of them.
Persephone: This blog was formed by frustrated Jezebel commenters, and as far as I can tell none of the editors are writers by trade. This allows them to have regular features about mental illness, feminism, education and more.
Hello Giggles: Founded by actress Zooey Deschanel, HG is a younger, hipper blog than many of the other female-centered blogs. It never feels like an exclusive Hollywood club, because other bloggers and writers are invited to post. HG is one of the most active blogs in my Reader.
xoJane: I did not read this blog at all until I posted about this project on Twitter and two different friends suggested it to me (an excellent use of my PLN). The editor is former magazine EIC Jane Pratt, and the commenting community is very supportive and vocal. The readers and commenters of xoJane create many of the posts under the heading “It Happened to Me,” a column from Pratt’s days at Sassy. An email, firstname.lastname@example.org, was created just for these post ideas. A friend of mine, who teaches in the Department of Corrections, wrote about her job on xoJane.
xoJane’s tagline is “where women go when they are being selfish, and where their selfishness is applauded.” Just that phrase alone helps readers know that this is an open community where people are encouraged to share.
These blogs offer more diverse voices than the blogs in the Gawker or Awl groups. The writers are not blogging industry insiders who live in New York City. There is a wider array of backgrounds, education and careers. Blogs like this builds a stronger community because commenters feel they know each other from their own posts.
Granted, none of these sites has replaced Jezebel’s political or entertainment news for me, but they all offer different voices that extend the community of commenters and bloggers.
Community of Bloggers
While I wanted to focus this project on the commenting community, I would be remiss not to mention to community that forms between bloggers, creating a larger online network. From BlogHer to the Independent Fashion Bloggers to the forums and conferences that regularly take place, having a supporting network of other bloggers increases site traffic, encourages the best content and yes, even nurtures a commenting community.