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Commenting on Comments

Virginia Heffernan has a blog post up about comments and how generally awful they are, especially on big news websites. I think her observation is fair, and raises a good larger question: What’s the future of comments on the web? I think they’re pretty broken right now, especially at scale. They’re not really conversations at all; they’re a cross between an old-school web guestbook (people merely registering their existence) and a black hole (scraps of text flung into the void, never to be seen or heard from again).

But, let’s not talk about it here.

I left a comment on the post, and I think you should do the same. Snarkmarket readers know something about commenting; I think we’ve got some of the best commenters around, and together we have some of the best conversations.

And there’s something delightfully meta about this post about bad comments having the best comments ever.

Let’s make it happen.

P.S. I believe, broadly, in the value of moderation, but man, it’s annoying that my comment is not posted over on the NYT yet. If you don’t see it, wait a few minutes. Not a few hours, I hope.

April 24, 2009 / Uncategorized


Didn’t you have a post a while back about Twitter being the future of comments? Or was that a conversation we had? Can’t find it in the ‘matrix.

Yeah, offline. I actually saw someone implement it. Will dig up the link. Kinda cool… not super-cool.

Question remains: How else could you support & map out a conversation on a web page? The ultimate solution simply cannot, CANNOT, be a vertical list of comments. Like, uh, this.

This site has a Twitter Reaction bookmarklet:

Sticks whatever url you are on into a search. You get to see who is passing the link on, but not too much info there.

My friend Garrick is experimenting with a little system he and Tom Elko are calling Comment via Cullect. (Cullect is Garrick’s info-sharing/RSS-reading/URL-shortening/world-encompassing app/project/life partner.) They’re putting a comment box under the posts on Tom’s blog that posts the comment to a social network of your choice. I’m not sure how those comments get represented on the blog item itself.

I don’t know, Ro, vertical lists of comments have been pretty durable. Although I can sort of picture a system of thoughts and responses all arranged in a zooming, recursive, minimalist fashion. 🙂

What are the primary limitations of this system?

One primary limitation is scale.

Sure, linear comments work on Snarkmarket, with 10-20 super-smart volleys total. I would say they do NOT work on blogs like Engadget, or on any newspaper site. The huge lists are impossible to process. Site authors can’t (won’t) engage in, and respond to, the conversation. And it’s difficult to follow threads. (Note that threaded comments aren’t the solution there; in fact I think that format splinters the conversation, making it even HARDER to follow instead of easier.)

I mean, maybe there’s a deeper principle at work: Conversations (real conversations — speaking, listening, modulating as you go) simply don’t happen in groups larger than 10-20! The best you can hope for is a sort of orderly, parallel barfing of ideas. But if that’s what you’re expecting, you should design around that. All comment fields might look like little installations of Google Moderator.

I mean, I’m biased, but I think the Snarkmarket formula is pretty perfect. Take an item from, say, the NYT. Bring it into this (smaller) context. Have a conversation *here*, not over there. From time to time, the author actually *does* show up and engage. And in fact, there’s a sort of imperative to have a smart, cogent conversation: That’s what will *entice* him/her over here to participate!

I guess Snarkmarket ought to show/enable trackbacks, then? 😉

I think there’s another way in which this structure of commenting is right on principle, not just in practice. If you really want to have a discussion about [whatever], you don’t want to just talk about it with the author or the people on popular site X. You want to talk about it with your friends. And in front of your friends, you might not be quite as willing to make an ass of yourself.

In other words, go ahead and have a party if you really want to have a party. Get trashed, even. But do it at your house.

This does, however, play into the “everybody should be a blogger” argument, which I am skeptical of. “Everybody should be a linkblogger/shared bookmarker” — okay, maybe that’s not such a bad idea.

The snarkmatrix awaits you

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