I’m going to start with a fairly well understood, slightly boring truth here: Comments online are fundamentally broken. Big surprise. It’s been the trend of the last few years to say that, and then propose various fixes, like:
Message board style commenting
Commenting with vote up/down systems
…none of which have seemed to measurably fix this problem of comments being fundamentally broken. Sure, with Facebook comments you get less hateful spam, with gamified comments you end up with knee-jerk or funny comments at the top of a post, etc, etc, but very few people are satisfied with these systems, as insight and community are lost in the mix.
Which, to me, is absolutely ridiculous. If the Internet is supposed to be this revolutionary platform to help people communicate, why the hell can’t we figure out how to actually use it for that? It’s massively disappointing that you have to either follow a professional or semi-professional blog/news- site/etc or dig massively deep into the stack of boring user-produced crap to get anything resembling decent content.
I’ve been running StoriTell, a site for anonymous story-sharing, for about a year and a half now. While the quality of the stories themselves have wavered between great and not-so-great, I’ve been fairly impressed with the comments on the site. Why is that? StoriTell is not a popular site, I’ll definitely be the first to admit that, especially looking at the somewhat abysmal traffic lately. This tiny number of users might give it a more community-oriented vibe. Nick Denton realized the same thing at his SXSWi talk on commenters, suggesting that Gawker might create isolated groups of commenters to foster a similar atmosphere. But why does that particular feeling lend itself to better comments, even in stories about controversial topics like abortion and mental disorders?
I’m thinking it has something to do with ownership and purpose. People need to feel like the content they provide is giving value to the site as whole, that they own a ‘share’, so to speak, of the site itself. If people believe their contributions have value, I think you can entice them out of mediocrity. Even if they have completely opposite viewpoints to one another on the subject. Another site that frequently has high-quality discussions is The Verge. They have an excellent forums section which allows people to write their own articles, ask questions, and build community around that. It’s encouraging valuable contributions, without just being a “look at these cool gadgets I have” or “should I buy this” type of thing (link to gdgt). Then, every so often, the members of the Verge staff on Twitter (mostly @joshuatopo lsky) will post links back to that content, featuring it like they would a news story. The commenters have a feeling that they’re helping build this great source of information on a topic. The site’s status as sort of a new player in the tech- blog sphere might help this too; people want to be there at the beginning, contributing valuable content to help build up their new favorite tech site.
Vote-up systems don’t really help with this; they encourage personal point- gathering for the sake of points rather than contributing to some greater whole. It’s less about providing content that is inherently valuable than it is about providing content people agree with. I’d also like to point out that anonymity doesn’t have to be sacrificed for the type of ownership I’m talking about here. It’s not about having a name attached to an individual piece of content, it’s about collectively identifying with a site or section within a site.
I don’t have any specifics for how to build a commenting system that can help enforce this kind of thinking. Right now, these are just general ideas for what works and what doesn’t. StoriTell was a great experiment for running a community, but it has fairly limited appeal and, when faced with lots of users, will probably run into the same problems as any other big site. I’d be interested to see how commenting systems mature over the next few years though, and maybe I’ll be able to contribute at some point.