If you’ve gone through the comments on a YouTube video or even here on nowtoronto.com, you know the experience leaves much to be desired.
At best it’s entertaining, and at worst leaves a pit in your stomach knowing how low some commenters sink to to prove their points or get attention.
Nick Denton, the brains behind the Gawker network of websites, has a plan to fix this. He’s redoing comments on Gawker.com in about six weeks, and, he thinks, the rest of the web will follow.
Alongside interviewer Anil Dash, Denton recalls the early promise of publishing on the internet. Content would be iteratively created by crowds rather than behind the scenes by one writer and then published as a 2000 word story when it was done. Most publishers have long moved on from this early dream.
Comments came about as a means of bringing audience input into the flow.
As Denton points out, in the far reaches of the web useful discussions still occur in places like the lesser traveled threads of Chowhound.
But at a certain scale – Gawker scale, they still work, he says, at “small” publications like The Atlantic – comments fail.
When pressed by Dash about whether the tone of the content had any impact on the type of comments received, Denton admitted that feel good sites like Lifehacker generally have good commenters, but maintained that beyond a certain threshold any site will suffer the fates of the nasty poster.
Over the years there have been many attempts at improving comments, many of them involving some sort of reward system. Comment votes, user rankings, flags, likes and more – all flawed systems as they promote regular commenters. The problem with this approach is the most compelling comments are often from first time posters who are moved or outraged by what they’ve just read.
Gawker, like most websites, wants a better way to surface good conversation for a few reasons. The obvious desire is to create more engaged readers and thus boost page views.
On the flip side Denton says that, “There are stories our writers are afraid to write because they’re afraid of jeers from the commenters.” In his business, being scared to write controversial content is a detriment to the bottom line.
The solution gawker.com is about to deploy to clean the comment wasteland involves making commenters responsible for their own content. Each comment can be spun off into separate discussions where the commenter has the power to lead the conversation.
“We want to create rights and responsibilities within threads,” Denton says. Another piece of this system is something Denton dubbed “fractional commenting”.
Much like SoundCloud or Flickr allow comments to be made on a portion of a piece of audio or area of a photo, Gawker will allow users to comment on paragraphs or photos in an attempt to focus the conversations being had.
Not as a big a move as the re-design of the Gawker network but still substantial, Denton’s new comment system could be a huge step toward creating more valuable chatter online.
Even still, on a site who’s owner declares “gossip is just the news your really want”, no doubt the trolls will still find a way to make themselves heard.