I think we can all agree on the fact that comments need to be re-thought. But how exactly?
Dave Winer has posted his views on what changes he thinks ought to be made. Since he has disallowed comments there for the specific purpose of people’s thoughts coming in the form of their own blog posts, I am complying and posting my response here.
First of all, I completely agree with the pretext for Dave’s post and most people know that this is a not a brand new discussion. Online commenting has indeed degenerated on many sites into a tar pit that few dare wade into. While some have been trying to figure out if comment anonymity is the problem, other gleefully embrace it. But perhaps the problem is the nature of comments themselves?
Let’s take a look at Dave’s prescriptions one by one:
1. A fixed commenting period for each post of 24 hours.
In essence, this already exists on some sites. RedState for example rigorously regulates comments and, more importantly, new accounts. I don’t recall the exact rules, but new accounts cannot comment on posts right away. This is designed to cut down on “drive-by” commenting and, as I suspect Dave also intends with this suggestion, serve as a cooling off period. Just as gun purchases require a waiting period so should perhaps commenting?
I’m not certain if there are other sites employing this method. I can tell you that as a potential commenter, it’s tremendously frustrating when you want to post a comment, but cannot. However, what I’m sure it helps to do is build a very committed and engaged community and there is often another way to contact the author; via e-mail or Twitter for example.
Dave’s second suggestion is along the same lines:
2. Until the period expires, none of the comments would be visible to other commenters.
This would probably cut down on comment viciousness, but might also hamper the performance of sites like Gawker’s Jezebel which, as this points out, lives on the venom of its visitors. Whether such a handicap would be good or bad for the Internet overall is a separate matter. The question is, how would publishers feel about their commenters being less passionate after 24 hours?
3. You could edit and refine your comments during the period.
This I have no problem with. In fact, it would be nice if one could edit one’s comments even after this period, so long as the edits were somehow visible. This would, among other things, help cut down on lengthy comment threads that no human being could ever hope to read in their entirety.
4. There would be a length limit of 1000 characters to keep people from using comments in place of a blog post. No one is going to read a blog post in a comment.
While the idea of limiting comment length is interesting, I think the assertion that no one is willing to read lengthy comments is categorically untrue. I can only say for certain that it is untrue of myself, but I feel sure that there are others who share my view. How do I know? Because I have seen lengthy comments responded to with their own lengthy comments. In fact, it’s happening right now on a Chicago Reader post I’ve been commenting on.
Furthermore, not everyone has their own blog on which to write their missives. Some people are perfectly content to do so on the blogs of others. Why should we take away this option?
5. After the commenting period is over, the comments would become visible, and no further comments would be permitted.
Again, some sites already do this. The example that immediately comes to mind is Salon. I’m not certain how the time period is determined for each article and some may never close comments, but they are often shut off. I’ve experienced this situation when wanting to write a comment and I can say that while it’s frustrating, it taught me the lesson that if I want to comment, I had better be one of the first to read the piece. But is that really a good lesson? It may engender loyalty to a site’s content, yes, but does it not rob other commenters of the benefit of a new thought or idea that no one else has yet recorded?
This last question gets to the issue of what the purpose of comments really is. As Dave writes, many people view blogs as conversations. He does not share in this view however. To him, blogs are publications only. I bet I know several newspaper editors who share this notion. As regards comments on newspaper sites, it’s a much larger conversation and if I could make every newspaper publisher comply with a single standard, I would allow all comments on all stories, but only in a specific forum designed especially for this purpose. In other words, all possible comments on a newspaper website would be funneled to a single location. But I digress…
In any event, what’s important to ask is why someone takes the time to comment on something they read online? For many people, the purpose might be to just sound off. These are people who are not seeking discussion, greater understanding, opposing viewpoints, etc. Other people however are seeking a conversation on the topic at hand. There of course all manner of degrees between these two groups. So how to allow the various groups to co-exist without changing commenting for everyone?
This is where we get into the realm of the imagination. Nothing has yet been invented to tackle this. I can dream up a few ideas, but I’m more interested in hearing yours in the comments below