Last week we spent a good deal of our free time in the office arguing whether we should open comments on Undercurrent.com. We have a fair bit of anecdotal, historical evidence – much of it from our own blogs – that suggests we should. So why haven't we? In a post over on my blog, I posited the idea that comment functionality is not a requirement of the internet – not having comments isn't "doing it wrong" – and that in many cases comment sections are either ghost towns or noisy town squares.
It is my hypothesis that effective comment sections are borne out of a combination of obsession, intelligence and available source material, ideally in a setting where the future is uncertain. Further, comment sections are best when participants have a shared mission that revolves around solving a problem. When they’re outside of this range, you get ESPN.com – 5,000+ comments, all of it drivel. (As an aside, this is a great example of scale not being “it” when it comes to engagement.)
So what’s the point?
My own blog has comments, mostly because it has since I started it. I’m not sure I would have them today (on my blog or on any other) for the following reasons:
- On most business blogs/sites, the authors and readers aren’t really solving anything. And it’s not clear that they have a shared mission. In most cases, the individual money-making mission trumps the shared make-the-world-better-with-the-internet mission.
- In the marketing/business space, especially on more popular blogs, comments sections turn into the Q+A session after a talk: “Two part question: Firstly, have you read my book/blog/essay? Secondly, you, popular/respected speaker/author, have made many bad assumptions. I’ll tell you about them now.” Put more succinctly by John Gruber, “Comments, at least on popular websites, aren’t conversations. They’re cacophonous shouting matches.”
- We’re now at a point where more mature discussion experiences exist at a scale that makes them useful. Comment threads, even when awesome-ified by Disqus, don’t hold a candle to Twitter, Facebook, and Google Plus. The discussion has moved to those places and I don’t think it’s coming back.
That said, it is likely we'll host comments here at Undercurrent.com, but the way we build our system is still up in the air. We're considering three key things as we develop that part of the site, and I encourage you to do the same.
It is my hypothesis that effective comment sections are borne out of a combination of obsession, intelligence and available source material, ideally in a setting where the future is uncertain.
- Authority: Ranging from Facebook's authentication to 4chan's socially incentivized anonymity, what level of authority is provided to the community through the interface?
- Input: From full-text commenting to editorially selected multiple-choice responses (i.e. Buzzfeed's badge system), through to binary sentiment selectors (i.e. the Facebook Like), what level of creativity and time investment is required of community to participate?
- Display/Impact: Comments can be used to dramatically impact the feel of a digital experience; ranging from chronological lists beneath original posts to homepage reflections of activity deep within the site, how does the community affect the content of the site? Massive opportunities exist here. Consider Stack Overflow's reputation system, which all but guarantees quality responses from the crowd.
Stack Overflow's reputation system helps filter good comments from bad.
Huge range of choices. Huge impact on what happens in the comment section. It's likely we'll appropriate some of Buzzfeed's reaction badges functionality, require some sort of authentication/identification, and ideally create a homepage that feels a bit like The Verge, where activity on each post changes its color on the homepage.
- Kinship: To what extent does the community agree with one another?
- Mission: Do they share a mission?
- Material: To what extent can they appropriate outside material to push the discourse toward a successful completion of that mission?
For Undercurrent.com, this is the space I'm least clear on. I'm not sure that our community – composed of agency folks from (most of) our previous lives, people who we've connected with on social platforms, current and prospective clients, UC alumni, and potential recruits – agree with each other. I'm increasingly less certain that there is a common mission shared among all those people, spread across various segments of the marketing world. However, it is absolutely true that there is a wealth of transportable knowledge that can be brought to life on our site.
- For the community: What value do they derive from the comments section?
- For the business: What additional value, above that of the original content, do they receive for opening and/or participating in a comments section?
It's absolutely clear that business value is created by having a comment section if it is populated with even a small (~20 people) group of enthusiastic participants. If it's just UCers commenting on UCers, that affords our site a sense of social proof, improves the overall quality of our thinking-in-public skills, and subtly hints at a deep bench. Further, as many have mentioned on my blog and elsewhere, readers are more likely to share a post that they've commented on. It's also likely that we'll find smarties that we want to hire. For the community, I'd say that it all depends on the alignment of the three points in their section, above.
Adapted from a post by Clay Parker Jones at exitcreative.