It wasn’t too long ago that blogs were a startling new fad that was going to change the world.
I remember coming into the medium during its early days. It had received its first big boost after the September 11 terrorist attacks, when people started setting up blogs so that loved ones could check on each other. In the years that followed, the proponents of blogs took on a bellicose stance, saying that we were the new vanguard of public journalism. To paraphrase Stuart McLean, we may not be big, but we were small. We carried our own biases on our sleeve, and we found the audiences that the mainstream media tended to ignore.
Then, in 2006, the web comic User Friendly pointed out that the Emperor had no clothes. Blogs, Illiad said, were the new usenet.
I think Illiad hit the nail on the head. I too am old enough to remember Usenet. A fair amount of my social life at university was consumed by logging in on my school’s computer and visiting those online newsgroups where people talked about shared interests like urban transit, urban planning and Doctor Who. Blogs, like Usenet, had quickly fostered communities of individuals who would not otherwise have connected. Remarkable friendships were forged and new ideas were flung into the ether. But by 2006, there was a darkside to blogs, as there had been to Usenet as early as 1995.
Disruptive individuals like trolls and, worse still, spammers, where slowly choking the life out of these new communities by drowning the signal with their noise. By the end of the 1990s, interest in Usenet was on the wane. Remember the search engine Deja-Vu, which allowed you to access old newsgroup conversations? It was eventually bought out by Google. How often do you query for old newsgroup postings these days?
Blogs were even one of the things that helped kill Usenet newsgroups, along with online forums, as people who still wanted to talk about shared interests migrated to such sites where the spam and the trolls could be controlled. Unfortunately, while it is always possible to keep trolls from tainting the discussion going on on your web site, the sad truth is that the spammer, now taking advantage of the blog’s comment field, has become such a problem that it is at times a chore to keep blogs up and running on the Internet. This is why blogs are fading, as people migrate to Twitter and Facebook. The big advantage of those sites is that comment spam either isn’t a problem, or it is somebody else’s responsibility.
You’ve probably all noticed a change in the commenting system used here on this blog. For the first time since I switched from Blogger to Movable Type over eight years ago, I’ve decided to abandon Movable Type’s in-house commenting system and have outsourced the responsibility to a free system known as Disqus. I was motivated to make the move after witnessing the experience one of my friends and fellow blogger had with comment spam.
For some reason, Jack Cluth at What Would Jack Do has always been a target for comment spammers. I thought that this was a shame. He wrote with passion and humour, and it was sad seeing the discussion of his posts being drowned out with irrelevant posts on replica handbags, cheap prescription drugs and the like. And I mean really drowned out. When I offered to come and have a look at his set-up with an eye to cleaning things up, I discovered that the poor man had 55,000 comments on his system. Only 5,000 were legitimate. Fortunately, I was able to clean things up.
The various blog software manufacturers out there, from Six Apart (Movable Type) to Wordpress, have all taken big steps towards controlling the spam problem. The spam filter on my blog now works well enough that no spam comment ever appears on my site, and most of it is chucked into my spam filter without my having to notice it or take any action. Recently, however, a spammer in China has gotten active. He has bombarded Dr. Dawg’s site with ream upon ream of spam, and he has also bombarded Jack.
Again, the spam filters caught the spam and prevented it from appearing on the site, but each spam sent requires some attention from the Movable Type software in order to process, and each little process taxes the servers on our webhost a bit more. I don’t know if it’s something wrong with Jack’s installation, or if the spammers have been particularly prolific, but the load on Jack’s installation has periodically been such that our webhost has had to move in and suspend the overworked script, shutting off comments on Jack’s site. This past week, it happened one time too many, forcing Hostgator to suggest to Jack that maybe he should consider upgrading his webhosting service to a private server (incidentally upping his charge from $9.95 per month to $175 per month).
This is when I intervened with Disqus. By changing Jack’s site over to a commenting system that works on Disqus’s servers rather than Jack’s own, I saved Hostgator a lot of processing time, and they seemed satisfied with the result. Jack gets to stay on their servers for $9.95 per month. But the incident has got me thinking. I’m using Hostgator as well. Dr. Dawg is sharing my server. He’s being hit by the same comment spammer. So far, Hostgator has seen no need to suspend Movable Type’s comment script, but one has to ask: why wait for that to happen?
Using myself as a guinea pig, I managed a full change-over from Movable Type’s in-house commenting system to Disqus. All of the old comments have been imported onto Disqus’s servers, and now appear in their proper place on the over 2,400 posts within this web site. I’m quite pleased with myself that I was able to make this happen. It will allow Dr. Dawg, Jack and myself to continue blogging for the foreseeable future.
However, I can’t help but feel considerable frustration at how much damage comment spammers have done to the community of blogs. Yes, there are other reasons why bloggers have abandoned blogs for Facebook and Twitter, but the growth of comment spam has gradually reduced some of the functionality that made blogs great in the old days. It’s impossible to use trackback anymore, and now it seems that it’s getting harder and harder maintaining an open site where just anybody can comment (the problem is that just anybody can).
There’s not much point to this rant except to let off some steam. I guess what I’m saying is, ‘this is why we can’t have nice things’. I’m not usually a violent man, but I can’t help but hope that these comment spammers get what’s coming to them.
Still, I’m blogging, and I intend to keep blogging. And that’s because blogging, for me, is still a Nice Thing (tm). And it’s a nice thing because of you, the reader. Let me just say that I greatly appreciate knowing that we’re having this conversation, and I look forward to talking with you again.