Online comments need an overhaul, but what exactly should be done?

Onlinecomments

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. 

Moving on…

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 ;-)

9 Comments

  1. Reply
    Anonymous August 23, 2010

    I think in general that comments need to be looked at with some fresh ideas, not based on the current structure: post at the top, comments at the bottom. We all know that comments on some sites are better than the posts themselves. They add value. Why not make them more integrated into the site display? I picture this almost like Google’s Side Wiki, but even more integrated. Imagine being able to highlight specific bits of content in a post and comment on that portion of the post. Perhaps in the design sense they would be highlighted with an icon next to the passage, or maybe even in hovercards, or floating blurbs at the side of the piece. This could not only make comments more integrated (especially ones that provide more context), but also display them in a way that adds more value.

  2. Reply
    Steve Earley August 23, 2010

    My hopeful prediction is that soon enough comments aren’t something individual site owners will need to concern themselves with.

    If you think about it, islands of comments cut off from the rest of the Web and regulated by individual publishers is very Web 1.0. So, why should this survive into Web 3.0?

    In Facebook, Twitter and other modern social media — which, let’s face it, themselves may not be around 10 or 20 years from now — networked third-party services are already playing a major role in online commenting. Many users comment under a network identity, as I’m doing here via my Posterous account. Many more, of course, comment on a network — a tweet, a Facebook wall post — rather than on the originating site or blog.

    I see all of this merging, where commenting on the network and commenting on the site will be one in the same. With heavy input from their users, the developers of these networks, rather than individual site owners, will tackle the many issues your post mentions. Users and site owners will then be able to opt-in and opt-out of various options to create the commenting experience most agreeable to them. A user, for example, might choose to view only the “cleaned up” version after a 24 hour waiting period, while a less busy/less sensitive friend might take the good, bad and the ugly as soon as it starts streaming in.

  3. Reply
    Anna Tarkov August 23, 2010

    Vadim, as I said on Twitter, I think that’s a great idea. By the way, that was funny how the Marginize CEO responded. Did you respond back to him?

    Steve, that’s a genius idea! I mean, like you said it shouldn’t be such a leap to imagine this as it’s somewhat happening already. But you summarized the concept really well. I suppose in the future we’ll have many of these services and they will compete as to who can provide the best value for site publishers. Which means that they won’t be free, right? I wonder how publishers of small independent blogs will fare? I suppose there will be some Wal-Mart version for them, right? :) Super low cost, but still functional. Actually, imagine the implications! It would set a small price barrier to publishing online if you want to enable comments. Those who can’t afford even that meager amount could still publish without comments. Could be a good thing, no?

  4. Reply
    David Kennedy August 23, 2010

    There are a ton of great ideas here. I think we’ve seen online comments evolve to some degree. We have the like button, retweet button, digg button and a multitude of sharing options. In some ways, many people have started using these rather than just saying, “Great post.” That’s a good thing.

    However, like Steve, I’d love to see a more unified (with options) approach to commenting. I think giving people a choice is almost always an effective way to approach things. While I think anonymous comments have their place in some cases, I wonder if blog posts, articles and the like would get even more added value if everyone was required to man up, and be themselves. I know I find that more appealing when I’m reading things online. I read about a newspaper recently (can’t remember which one, or find the link) that now requires all readers to give their real names.

  5. Reply
    Anonymous August 23, 2010

    I never thought about idea two–leaving comments invisible to others for a certain period of time. I agree with you, people might become less interested after awhile but it might lead to a more civil dialogue that addresses the actual topic. But I can see how one could become easily frustrated with the limits Salon imposes.

    I like this blog post because just like you said comments need a refresher. Most news sites use discussions boards just because and without real thought as to why or how to better utilize them. I’m not sure I have the answer but newsrooms should begin a dialogue about this issue.

  6. Reply
    Stephen L. Harlow August 23, 2010

    I think Dave’s solution cuts out the conversational quality of commenting, which I think is the most productive part of having a Read/Write web.

    I’d prefer an advanced form of commenting systems like Intense Debate and Disqus where I could choose to follow the comments of people I want across sites. And choose not to see those of some I don’t like. I’d like verified identities across the internet, with up / down voting by readers forming a reputation badge that accompanies the name.

    I agree with Vadim Lavrusik on the display of comments. And I agree with Steve Earley’s desire and prediction that comments sync across locations, become a network responsibility, not the individual poster.

  7. Reply
    Anna Tarkov August 23, 2010

    Definitely. Stephen, as we’ve discussed before, we need a better social graph in general. Facebook’s “Like” buttons everywhere are NOT it for me since I’m not on Facebook anymore and have no desire to return. Again, I agree (or, more accurately, hope) that it will be third-party services like Disqus and Intense Debate that will evolve to the point where we could have the functionality you’re talking about. I would absolutely LOVE to be able to follow the comments of people I respect across different sites. In fact, even though I don’t really use RSS, it would be nice to the do the same with authors who write at more than one place (increasingly common these days).

    Sam, newsrooms are already starting to have these discussions in some cases. It’s definitely not a priority for some though and change is slow in coming. As you said, some sites are requiring a real name, in some cases an address even, to verify the identity of a commenter. I forget which of the British news orgs (Daily Mail or the Independent) has an entire team devoted to comment moderation. I think it’s for each news org to individually decide what approach they take. It all depends on what kind of interaction they want to have with their readers and what sort of debate they want to foster (or not foster). As we all know, many newsrooms have so much else on their plates that they don’t even have time to think about all these things.

    As for the anonymous or not debate, that’s a tough one. I was always against anonymity, but that Salon piece made a great point I thought. Here’s all that’s wrong with humanity, laid bare for all the world to see. In a sense, that’s a very journalistic impulse; to shine a light on that which is ugly and often hidden. There just has to be a way for those commenters to not ruin the experience of the ones who want a civil discussion. Maybe these third party services will have 2 registration options: one anonymous, one not. Then one could choose to see only anonymous comments, only verified ones or both on any given article.

  8. Reply
    Anonymous August 23, 2010

    These suggestions suck

  9. Reply
    Anna Tarkov August 23, 2010

    Ok., Don. If these suggestions suck, do you have some of your own to offer?

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