Comments restricted to 1500 characters

Just now I implemented a 1500 characters maximum length for all comments on my QuirksBlog and Bug Report. Part of this reworking is a script that politely alerts the user when he exceeds this limit. I already discussed such a script in general terms in my JavaScript Triggers article on A List Apart, and of course I added a page that explains the script for all curious JavaScripters.

To comment or not to comment?

I've been thinking about the comments on my blog (and comments on blogs in general) for quite a while now. When I was about to launch QuirksBlog I seriously considered disabling them altogether, because I felt — and feel — that comments on blogs in general don't have sufficient quality.

In the end I decided to allow comments after all, more to follow the general rule that Blogs Should Have A Commenting System than because I enthousiastically embraced them. In the end I'm moderately — but only moderately — happy with my decision: a few comments on my entries were worthwhile to me, and a few more will be worthwhile to my visitors.

Nonetheless I remain unconvinced that the commenting system as it exists now is a Good Thing. There are too many people who only comment to hear themselves talk, and these comments will quickly overwhelm the real, sensible, ones. Ideally I'd like to see a commenting system that only allows people to link to articles of their own on their own sites. This forces would-be commenters to really think about their replies, since they'd become articles instead of comments, and it weeds out the script-kiddies who scream and shout but don't have any site of their own to show.

A compromise

Apart from technical problems, such a system would not work because the current commenting system has become an ingrained part of How Blogs Work. Therefore I decided on a compromise: a maximum length.

Long comments are never interesting: if you have a point to make you can do it in a couple of hundred characters. If you want to seriously criticise an entry, you should publish an article on your own site and use the comment to link to your article.

Therefore I took a good look at the longer comments on my blog and decided on 1500 characters as the maximum length. I wrote a script that keeps track of the number of characters the user has typed, but I leave the actual enforcing of my maximum length to the Movable Type trim_to="1500" attribute. If I'd enforce it by JavaScript, someone would certainly switch off JavaScript before writing an enormous comment, probably to criticise my decision (funny! clever!). Far better to do the enforcing server side, where no one can mess with it.

For the same reason my script only gives a polite warning when the user exceeds the maxlength. This allows him to finish his comment and then edit it to get it below the maximum.

A few existing comments are longer than 1500 characters; they now appear in trimmed form.

Maybe I'll restrict comments even further later on; I'm not yet sure if 1500 characters isn't too long. It certainly isn't too short, though, and I will definitely not increase the maximum length.

This is the blog of Peter-Paul Koch, mobile platform strategist, consultant, and trainer. You can also follow him on Twitter.
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1 Posted by Jacob on 7 May 2005 | Permalink

"A few existing comments are longer than 1500 characters; they now appear in trimmed form." - this is your decision, but should existing comments not remain as they are? I personally think that it is unfair to trim people's past comments, even if they are too long-winded.
W.r.t. new comments, a max length is probably a wise move, and I'm surprised that such a system wasn't already in use!

2 Posted by ppk on 7 May 2005 | Permalink

"should existing comments not remain as they are?"

Probably, but that's technically impossible.

3 Posted by Dante on 7 May 2005 | Permalink

I think Jacob is right. I mean, I wouldn't like to see a comment that ends with "anyway the meaning if life is...."; would you?

I'm not completely happy with the custom attribute solution (since it would be nice to have valid code here and there), but I don't see any other feasible solution.

4 Posted by Jacob on 7 May 2005 | Permalink

"Probably, but that's technically impossible." - I don't know how you did your cgi script or how you store comments, but unless the comments are stored in a fixed length database field or something like that, can the script not just clip comments as they are submitted?
Of course, if you've already clipped all the comments, there's probably no way to get them back...

5 Posted by An on 7 May 2005 | Permalink

I quote the siteowner: There are too many people who only comment to hear themselves talk ...

I am no sceptic nor cynic person but I see that too many people here - are giving praise to each other sitting in their own little world . Nothing wrong with that but open-minded to others - it is more like: Hey you are as good a webdeveloper-technical writer as I am - maybe you could start a friend's club??

A fact that remains: this site offers good info about webdevelopment so it should be but step off your horses and relax a little you all.

6 Posted by Doeke Zanstra on 7 May 2005 | Permalink

A max length is a funny instrument to let your guests behave a bit (but it feels like typing an SMS-message). It might work out great.

Other people try to guide discussions to. Joel Polsky for example uses a forum to guide the discussion (http://www.joelonsoftware.com/ ). Dave Hyatt sometimes switches of comments and permits only trackbacks(http://weblogs.mozillazine.org/hyatt/ ). Obvious there are scoring/ranking systems (tweakers.net and slashdot.org), but those are more beneficial to the visitors, not the webmaster.

But internet is a public place. With your tone I keep thinking if I'm the one who likes to hear himself talking... Think about this.

7 Posted by Alberto on 9 May 2005 | Permalink

"Ideally I'd like to see a commenting system that only allows people to link to articles of their own on their own sites."

Isn't this more or less what TrackBack does?

8 Posted by John Hansen on 9 May 2005 | Permalink

"But internet is a public place. With your tone I keep thinking if I'm the one who likes to hear himself talking..."

As I understand it, quirksmode.org is not a site owned by the public, but by ppk. he has the right to say as he pleases, and moderate YOU as he pleases. Have some respect.

Personally I am surprised he was generous enough to allow 1500 characters. I don't think I would have allowed as many.

Good decision, ppk.

9 Posted by David on 9 May 2005 | Permalink

PPK, you said, "Ideally I'd like to see a commenting system that only allows people to link to articles of their own on their own sites. This forces would-be commenters to really think about their replies, since they'd become articles instead of comments, and it weeds out the script-kiddies who scream and shout but don't have any site of their own to show."

This doesn't really follow. Under your "ideal" system, one could spam the same url (say, hamsterdance.com) over and over again, with even less thought than it takes to write up a comment trying to convince people to click on a link. If all one sees is a URL, unless it's blatant, they need to follow it to see what the commenter's point is. If, instead, someone needs to put in a brief summary, and others are able to quickly post "Don't follow that link, it's completely off topic and most likely extremely offensive", most of your users are protected from abuses.

Personally, I like comments systems; I've often learned as much from the comments as from the articles (on many sites). Especially when the subject is an emerging technology, or how to implement a cool feature in a way that degrades gracefully, as is generally the case on quirksmode.

All of that said, if you're having problems with excessively windy posters, you're definitely within your rights to impose a limit. Which I'm fast approaching, so I'll get off my soapbox now.