Care to Comment?

Today's thoughts are about online discussions. BBSes and USENET are the granddaddies of online discussion. They've since given way to web boards, blog sites with comments, and Google Groups. These might seem like different beasts, but the common thread amongst them is they are...

  • Usually Short

  • Topical and Specific

  • Conversational

Blog comments are just like message board topics, only the commenters don't get to start the thread. That honor resides with the blogger.

Web boards are big. You need not go any further than Big-Boards to see that online forums are a huge deal. You'll see single boards with hunderds of millions of posts. You can find a board for whatever floats your boat. Cars, computers, kids, they're all there.

Blog sites are the hot thing right now. Slashdot has enjoyed success for quite some time, but recently it has had to share the playground with Engadget, Digg, and Gizmodo. The problem with the newcomers is their comment systems suck. Engadget is a mess, even with their recent improvements. They still lack threading, moderation, and identity. These are all things that Slashdot has had for years and the reason I still visit there. Plenty will complain about the poor editing at Slashdot. Slashdot isn't about the stories. Slashdot is about the comments. The stories are just there to get people kicked off. Engadget claims to have a new comment system in the works. I'm quite curious to see what they bring. An innovative comment system might be enough to pull posters away from Slashdot.

So what's an innovative comment system? This would be a system that solves many of the problems with comment systems today.

  • Comment spam, which leads to captchas

  • Trolling

  • First Post

  • Whether you can edit a comment or not

  • Offtopic and downright disruptive comments

  • Requirement to join a site to comment

  • Username overlap

  • Conversations without a critical mass

  • Poster reputation

Quality of posts is a large concern. Mark Cuban has a very successful blog site. His posts have a critical mass of commenters, but recently, during the NBA playoffs, the noise in the comments grew to a deafing roar and made Mr. Cuban turn off comments completely,
"For the record, Im not turning on comments, they have devolved to the point where they add no value."
This is very sad as the comments on his posts had good people posting interesting and informative things. Will comments come back to Blog Maverick? Maybe, but take a look at this post to see why comments were turned off.

Sites that allow comments have come up with many ways to build poster reputation. You can see post counts, "star" ratings, whether the poster has friends or foes, moderator status, and on and on. The problem is, the systems each have their own touch and they are specific to that site. Blogger has a moderation system, sort of. Their moderation consists of letting the blogger approve or disapprove comments. That's not a moderator, that's a censor.

As you know, I'm big on identity. I want a comment system where I can take my identity with me from site to site. For instance, you can read through the various Apple computer boards and see conversations from a common username. This could be the same person, but then again it might not be. If I trust (or don't trust) the content coming from that person, why don't I have the ability to apply that trust to things they say on other sites?

Ezboard has the best identity of comment systems on the net. They actually do have accounts that can be used across boards within their community. They are currently working on their next generation, Yuku system. Yuku will add blorums. Blorums are a blog and forum in one. What does that mean? Well, it sure sounds like comments on a blog post, but organized a little better, and hopefully with a critical mass to make discussion worthwhile. While it is nice that Ezboard and Yuku let you maintain one account across multiple forums, I want the reverse as well. I want multiple sites to be able to participate in a single conversation.

I'd say that most blogs, like this one, lack the critical mass necessary to have a meaningful conversation. 1 or 2 comments saying "I agree" or "this is a good post" stroke the ego of the blogger, but don't do much to encourage discourse. What if the brilliant minds (and venture capital) of the web got together and made a way for connecting the small conversations in to larger ones. This would be a bit like TrackBack, but perhaps with some AJAX yumminess to make it easier to use and manage.

I want a YouTube style drop-in for comments. I don't want to install and run my own message board. For awhile I ran a YABB board. It was ok, until it ran for a few months and then had critical vulnerabilities that could be exploited. I don't have time to keep up with the content on sites I run and visit. You think I have time to sysadmin my own board too? That's one of the reasons blogs are so popular. I get automatic site creation and integrated comment handling for free. People have abandoned useful websites for the convenience of blogs. Blogging software exists to integrate with your owned domains, but what about those folks that don't own a domain, and don't even know what owning a domain means? Perhaps Google will spin off a Google Discussion out of Google Groups. Insert a discussion ID in your web page and instant managed comments. This would allow for the added benefit of cross-site identity and opportunities for moderation that isn't site specific.

Of course, there is a downside to identity and single sign-on. People like to be anonymous. Sometimes it's because they want to be a jerk. Sometimes they don't want their online life tied to their real life job. Sometimes they just want to be someone else online as an escape. This means people might have to be a little more careful about what they say and to who they say it. Is that a bad thing though? If you wouldn't say it in real life, should you be saying it online? Just because you can hide on the net, is it ethical and moral to do so?

Finally, we have the evil hacker angle. The stronger the identity you build on the web, the easier it is to learn things about you that can be used to socially engineer you, attack your computer, or even steal your identity, offline or otherwise.

Now, as you digest what I've said and decide whether to comment or not, think about all of the crap you will deal with if you do comment. You'll have to login. You'll have to use whatever tools Blogger has allowed you for communicating your ideas. You'll have to enter a captcha (I was getting too much comment spam). You comment will sit along side a handful of other comments (at most) and fade with time in to search-only land and your friends and fans won't know you've even said anything unless you link them here or they already happen to be here.



Jason said...

Alright, I'll be the first to comment on the comment post.

I agree, I would like something to be done to help enable more sites to have active discussion. I like reading blogs, but commenting is often not worthwhile, because it won't lead anywhere.

One example similar to BBS and newsgroups that exists are mailing lists. Like websites, these vary wildly, but I am on some active mailing lists that are really interesting. However, email is definately not my preferred format.

I would like to see identities span multiple sites, along with pulling in comments from more than one location. Get a better general idea of what a person likes to say, and also increase the amount of discussion on any one site.

As usual though, unless this is all going to be owned and one by Google, it is nearly impossible to get varied websites to cooperate to implement features.

I would really like to see a probation-type of action for new accounts. Perhaps this would eliminate spamming enough to kill captchas once and for all.

---ryan said...

The probation period is a good idea. I have seen some web forums restrict the user from posting links until they have reached X number of posts, with X being something greater than 10. This is a simple and effective way to combat the accounts created just to drop spam links.