FIRST POST! How the first comment sets the tone for the entire conversation

Updated Oct 12 2015 (Posted Dec 13 2010)
Lost cause
Photo by VJ Beauchamp used by CC license

Back in the early days of blogging, readers of especially popular blogs started competing with each other to see who could be the first to comment on a post.

"FIRST POST!" would come the digital shout, the equivalent of a big of blog commenting graffiti, sort of like a tagger plastering his name on a wall. Nothing actually was said. It doesn't relate to the post at all. The poster has just established that they were here first.

Folks typing FIRST POST miss a huge opportunity, because as the first commenter they have a lot of power. It's important to understand how the first comment on a post has the ability to define the mood of the entire conversation. It's the first comments that I tend to watch most closely in my moderation process.

Here's one example: A couple months ago, we wrote a sponsored post on Offbeat Families about an online baby registry tool that allows parents to register for cash they can use for services and experiential gifts. The very first comment was from someone who simply wanted to say that they hated the idea of registries. They had no opinion about this specific registry tool, but were against the whole concept of registering for gifts anywhere.

Every commenter after that first comment felt the need to weigh in on how THEY felt about baby registries. Were they ok for the first child? What about the fourth? Was a cash registry any less tacky than any other registry? Because the first comment was A) negative and B) focused on a meta-issue, the discussion was completely derailed from the specifics of the product we were talking about … of into a sneaky spiral of snarking over big picture issues.

The very first comment was not in accordance with our commenting policy, but since we didn't catch it in time, the entire thread of comments slid off track. (both my editor and I were busy for a few hours that afternoon — that'll teach us to EVER leave our laptops! Heh.) The first commenter effectively said, "I don't really care about this specific post, but I'd like to use this comment section to debate a larger issue."

When you're publishing a post on a topic you know is going to be controversial, you can actually step in and make the first comment yourself. On Offbeat Bride, we recently ran a guest post criticizing the state of many wedding photographer's websites. The post was constructive, but I anticipated and negative pile-on in the comments, and so immediately after the post went live, I left the first comment myself:

Offbeat Brides, you know we're not about bashing anyone here. So please keep your comments constructive. Photographers are our friends, and we want to help them make their websites better — not bitch about them.

In this way, I made it clear in the context of the comments exactly what kind of discussion we WEREN'T looking for. (Of course, after 100+ comments, the discussion eventually went there anyway … but at least we got in 100 comments before the inevitable snarking began!)

As I've mentioned in past posts, comments on my sites are moderated aggressively — they're high traffic sites, and the positive tone of posts and comments is part of my branding. This is all to say, not every blog will need to watch their FIRST POST! comments quite as closely as we do on Offbeat Bride and Offbeat Mama … but especially if you're posting about something controversial, watching that first comment carefully is a worthy use of your time.