Alex Payne writes online here.

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Why I Don’t Allow Comments, and More on Everything Buckets

I don’t allow comments on this site. I have my reasons.

There are certain types of sites for which comments work well. Metafilter is probably the best example of a long-lived web community that still boasts valuable, cogent comments. Investor Fred Wilson’s A VC blog also consistently has friendly, insightful discussions about finance, music, and more. I’m willing to admit that comments can be done right.

For most sites, though, comments are worse than useless. The anonymity of the Internet inspires hit-and-run attacks, unintelligible ramblings, and truckloads of spam. I believe that comments are evil by default, and the sites above that seem to have healthy communities are blessed flukes.

That’s all secondary, though. The main reason I don’t allow comments is that I want to inspire debate. I think people do their best writing when they’re forced to defend their ideas on their own turf. It’s one thing to leave a comment on someone else’s blog, but quite another to put your argument in front of your own readers. It forces a level of consideration that, without fail, results in a higher quality exchange of ideas.

I couldn’t have been happier with the reactions to my Case Against Everything Buckets. For one, it spawned way more discussion than I was ever expecting. But what’s more, it was a great discussion. I love being told I’m wrong, and I love it even more when I’m being told I’m wrong by smart people who write well. And, for the most part, that’s exactly what happened.

The Reactions

My favorite (mostly) positive reaction was from Adam Rice, in no small part for archly and correctly dubbing my piece “ranty and prescriptivist”. While a future in which meaning is extracted from unorganized data may be coming, it’s not here yet, and Adam elaborates on that beautifully.

The developer of ShoveBox, one of the applications I called out, wrote a thoughtful piece that defends his product as a kind of experimental inbox. He makes some great points about the awkwardness of the desktop metaphor, and in doing so brings up a glaring flaw in my piece: I sort of assumed people realized that I use the Terminal for a lot of this stuff, and spent too much time suggesting that the Finder is the way to go for most file creation/manipulation/organization tasks.

The developer of Tinderbox, a visual information organizer, made a compelling argument that Everything Buckets are best used for data that may have future use. My personal filing system overlooks this, for the most part. As I’ve written before, I mostly eschew that which I can’t immediately put into a contextually appropriate tool. Some data – quotations, for example – don’t fit this model. They need to age, to mature, to eventually find a context and a use. Flat files work reliably for storing this data, but they don’t add anything to it. Point taken.

Longtime blog buddy Buzz Anderson wrote a defense of VoodooPad against my argument. I enjoyed reading it, but I’m afraid it was unnecessary. I specifically didn’t call out VoodooPad because I don’t think it’s an Everything Bucket. It’s a great application for writing hypertext, and hypertext is structured data (at least more structured than plain text). VoodooPad may encourage you to “put your brain in it”, but it also suggests sane boundaries about what belongs in it and what doesn’t. So while I appreciate what Buzz has to say, he’s preaching to the choir on this one. Michael McCracken picked up on this too.

At the same time, though, I won’t apologize for my “condescending, engineering-centric view of the world” when it comes to recommending the use of structured data. Basically, I’m trying to be the neighborhood greasemonkey, flatly stating that if you learned how your goddamn car actually works, you’d get better mileage and take it to the shop less often. Sure, I’d love to live in a future where users can input their data as finger-painting and get meaningful results back, but as Adam Rice recognizes above, we’re just not there yet. Tut-tut.

Funny, too, that Buzz talks about VoodooPad – which requires each new page to be named by the user – as a “frictionless” tool when John Gruber takes pains to discuss Untitled Document Syndrome, in which having to figure out what to call a file is an affront to humanity. I actually liked Gruber’s response a great deal, and took a sobering look at the applications in my dock after reading it. Except for the tools I use for programming, none of them require me to explicitly create and title documents. The “library paradigm” domination Gruber wants to see might already be here today.

All of that speaks to why I don’t allow comments. Maybe those rebuttals would have been written if I did, but I can’t be sure. What I do know is that the authors took the time to call me out on their own turf, and I think it made for some great debate.

Addendum: A Bucket I Can Live With

I went furniture shopping this past weekend. It was a reconnaissance mission, scouting ahead for potential purchases when I move house in the coming months. En route, I realized with some chagrin that I needed an Everything Bucket. I needed a place in which I could put both text and photos, numbers and labels. I needed a flexible organization scheme. I needed a way to gather a variety of information while mobile and then sort through that information on my Mac when I got home.

While heading over the bridge to Emeryville, I downloaded Evernote. I used it to snap pictures of items and price tags, and to note down in text what couldn’t be captured photographically. For the most part, it worked great. When I got home, I downloaded the desktop Evernote client and got everything in (gasp) sync. I can’t see putting everything in Evernote, but it’s certainly handy to have a mixed-media data capture system when you need one.

I’d like to think that my original point still stands: you should pick the best tool for the job, the one that’s going to do the most for your data. Some jobs require tools that can be misused. It’d be possible to dump all sorts of things into Evernote that it doesn’t handle particularly well, like to-do lists. But for a certain type of job, used with discipline, a potential Everything Bucket like Evernote really works. I’ll be keeping it around.