The article by Michael Erard discusses comments on the web, including a long look back at the history of interactivity on the site.
When we complain about comments, I’ve noticed, we do so as if we’re dealing with some emanation of human nature or the lusty democratic energies of the American soul. But when I went digging into the history of the Web to find out where online comments really came from, it’s clear that they’re the consequences of what was technically feasible at a certain point and how that feasibility was subsequently implemented. We tend to think that comments represent the culture, but in fact the distinct culture of commenting grew out of digital constraints. Given what Web users had to work with, comments were bound to get weedy.
Most fascinating are the perceptions about web interactivity over the years. Here are some examples from the article:
“I once showed a comments section to a man in Reno, just to watch him cry.” – Game designer, Shane Liesegang
“Too bad coders can’t be like rock stars and get their money for nothing and their chicks for free.” – Considered the first comment ever posted on a blog in software developer, Dave Winer’s discussion board
“Having the comments at the bottom of the page — people feel that…they’re not as legitimate a voice as the original post.” – Travis Nichols, moderator of a Poetry Foundation blog
“When we had to be more aggressive in deleting comments that violated our commenting policy, I got far more complaints about deleting comments than I did about the level of discourse…We’ve got a 160-year tradition of no comments on our stories in the newspaper, so it’s not surprising it took a little bit of time to get comfortable with that idea.” – Bill Adee, The Chicago Tribune’s vice president of digital operations
“People come to us all the time and say, ‘Here’s a problem with people behaving badly, we want a tech solution.’ We tell them that human problems require human judgment.” – Paul Bausch, MetaFilter forum developer
Adee is right that it will take time for all of us to become more comfortable with the idea of comments giving anyone the ability to have their say freely. Honestly, I look forward to the day when bullies are pushed off the web and the promise it once had for transparency and openness will return as we learn to get past our prejudices, and mean-spirits.
In a similar article in the Bits/Technology section of the New York Times, “Disruptions: Gawker Wants to Encourage More Voices Online, but With Less Yelling,” Nick Bilton talks about the attempts by the founder of Gawker, Nick Denton, and his Kinja company and tool for creating an aggregator and clearing house of sorts for comments you make on the web, helping the cream comments rise to the top.
When people sign up for Kinja, they are given their own Web address on the Gawker platform — similar to a Tumblr Web site — which becomes a collection of that person’s comments on stories. Kinja will also enable readers to write headlines and summaries — comments that have graduated from college, if you will — for stories on Gawker and even from other sites. Readers will then be able to use Kinja as a central hub for discussion on these stories, almost like their own chat room protected from the commenting maelstrom.
It appears that the Kinja project has three goals. The first is, clearly, to make money from advertising. The second is to make comments into legitimate content, hopefully clearly out the junk and spam comments, and recognizing valid conversations and conversationalists online. The other is to make commenters part of the story, editorial contributors so to speak.
Mr. Denton said the seeds of Kinja were planted in the late ’90s, when he was a journalist with The Financial Times in London. “The real story was never the one in the newspaper,” Mr. Denton said in an interview. “It was the discussion between the writers afterwards at a bar when someone said, ‘So, what really happened?’
“The dream of the early blogs was that through conversation we could tell the truth, and if we could discover the truth, we could then have conversations around that truth,” Mr. Denton said.
Sadly, it didn’t work out that way. As anyone who has slogged through YouTube or an article about anything even remotely contentious online knows, commenters are often like the drunken uncle no one wants to invite to the house for Christmas, but he shows up anyway.
“People forward stories they like and comment on stories they hate,” said Clay Shirky, an associate professor at the Interactive Telecommunications Program at New York University and the author of “Here Comes Everybody.” “Part of this comes from the fact that people in the media business regard comments only as consumers and they’ve never been able to accept the idea of participation.”
He added: “Nick wants to completely break that taboo by highlighting comments and placing them above the fold.”
Fascinating thoughts on comments, all around.
Your blog exercise today is to examine your perspectives on comments.
When people define the difference between a blog and a website, they usually site comments as the distinguishing characteristic of a blog. Comments and blogs go together for many. “Two peas in a pod,” said one of my students on the subject. “You can’t separate the two. They need each other.”
This put a new light on the subject for me. Blogging is synonymous with sharing in my mind. Comments expand the sharing, allowing the reader to share back, give feedback, expand the topic. For me, comments are vitally important to the conversation, though I’ve grown callous enough over 20+ years of blogging to not measure my self-worth by the number of comments on a post. It’s about balance, understanding the need to share without expectation of return, that keeps me in balance.
I’ve written much on the subject of blog comments and comment spam, helping you see the joy and woes in interactivity and the social web. Some of you have told me that you have turned on comments after having them turned off for a long time, seeing renewed value in them. Others have told me that they now appreciate the fact that not every post needs to have open comments. Others have turned off moderation and closing comments after a specific time period, and the fun discovering that past topics still have value for discussion today. I’m honored by your positive and thoughtful comments on the subject.
Still, it’s important to examine our thoughts and feelings about comments in general. The two articles above are great examples of the persistent beliefs about comments, and how comments have also changed the web, giving anyone a chance to have their say on any subject.
Denton admits in the article that he hopes people will comment more, challenging content providers.
“It’s going to be uncomfortable, yet at the end of the process it’s going to make for much better journalism and much better journalists.”
…“There are scandals in companies, local governments and in towns too small to have a newspaper,” he said. Kinja will give people a voice on Gawker to “help bring transparency to even the murkiest corners of corporations and government,” he said.
And Mr. Denton, it seems, is hoping that the murkiest corners of the Web, the comment sections, might be the place to solve those problems.
Take a moment today to consider comments on your site. How do they make you feel? How do they influence your blogging and self-esteem? Are they more trouble than they are worth, or are they special to you? What do comments mean to you?
With tools like Kinja coming out, and similar attempts with Disqus and Intense Debate to expand the functionality and features of the comment box, where do comments belong on your blog if you could change their value and placement within your site’s design as content? The blog is evolving, and comments may change right along with it.
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