Yesterday I saw a tweet from Josh Felser, an investor based in SF that spared a pretty lively debate around comments:
The spam in the #tcdisrupt live video comments is beyond annoying. makes comments unusable.— Josh Felser (@Joshmedia) September 10, 2012
So I jumped into the discussion and started adding some of my own thoughts:
Blog comments are driven by ego in my opinion. I think @branch is rad because users care about a discussion, not bragging about themselves.— Matt Galligan (@mg) September 10, 2012
More on Branch later.
One of the biggest issues with comments is that they typically exist in places that aren’t directly connected to ones identity and simply linking to an identity elsewhere isn’t enough. I can add a comment to something – be it useful or drivel – with little or no recourse to myself my credibility as a contributor. And therein lies the problem.
Allowing comments on publisher sites is the equivalent of giving anybody an open mic for a moment without any consideration towards quality, content, or impact on the audience. Sure comments can be deleted if there’s anything that’s truly bad, but even comment moderation has its own issues.
As I stated in the above tweet, ego seems to be the primary driver for comments. It’s a way for someone to sound smart to a particular community, or just troll. But it’s a kind of ego stroking can be largely left unchecked. Here on the internets we’re given soapboxes to jump on and say anything that we want to no consequence and largely.
Who benefits from commenting?
From a publisher’s perspective I see comments as being a benefit for two main reasons – community engagement or real discussion. For the most part when I look at blogs I tend to get the gist that the comments aren’t at all there for the benefit of the community, or to drive a real discussion – they’re there to drive engagement for that particular publisher. Within blog commenting systems like Facebook’s or LiveFyre’s, a lot of the focus seems to be placed on publishing the comments back to the individuals’ feeds – thereby increasing engagement around the publisher’s content.
Here the ego is the publisher’s ego, not the individual’s. It’s about pumping up the content from the publisher and trying to find a greater audience by spreading their reach through external means. Growing audiences are a constant problem for publishers, but I feel like many times comments lead to a degradation of quality of community.
One exception to this is Fred Wilson’s blog where he does a fantastic job of curating a community that seems to truly engage around the content he produces. But I consider this to be a major except – not the rule by a longshot.
Comments as content
A while back I was enjoying a conversation with Tumblr founder David Karp and asked him why there weren’t publicly facing comments on Tumblr blogs. His perspective was that Tumblr already had comments and that the community had invented how it was done – by adding additional content to a reblog people •were* commenting. But there’s a careful distinction here – the commentary is happening on that individual’s soapbox. Therefore the individual is responsible for that content and not the publisher.
Another great example of this methodology is over at MacRumors. Comments don’t happen in-line with the content itself but rather in their forums. Every new bit of content that’s added to their blog auto-generates a new discussion thread within the forum itself. This is brilliant to me because it doesn’t adulterate the blog posts with random commentary from the community and yet still provides an outlet for their audience to chat about the content.
The MacRumors forums can therefore be self-policing. The community is then responsible for making sure the commentary remains on-discussion and high quality. The responsibility for community curation no longer falls on the shoulders of the publisher – and arguably they just want more content than more better content – it becomes an integral part of the community.
This brings me to Branch). The idea behind it is that I can take any website, any tweet, any blog post and turn that into its own “Branch” – a self-contained discussion where I become the moderator.
I’m fascinated by this approach because I believe it’s a net win for everyone involved. A real discussion begins, it’s moderated by the individual that actually cares about the discussion, and the individual contributors don’t have the same ego-stroking mentality that seems to go on with traditional comment systems.
I’m not of the belief that comments are particularly useful. The net benefit seems to squarely be on a publisher’s side – which is negative because commenting provides a short term win in terms of engagement, but at the potential loss of community cohesion and quality.
Note: I’ve since removed comments from my this blog.
Keeping this discussion alive
As part of an experiment, I’d love to see if those that read this blog are interested in discussing the ideas further, but keeping the discussions to specific posts. The idea is that I’ll embed a Branch with a handful of my posts and encourage a discussion to happen. I’m genuinely interested in what some of the community has to say and frankly also want people to call bullshit on the words I write. I realize this is dangerously close to looking like asking for comments – I don’t have a great answer other than I see this as different and feel like it’s more of a discussion than just blog comments.
Let’s chat a bit more and I’ll embed the Branch for this post on the permalink page.