Not to put too fine a point on it, but comment sections on blogs and news websites can be pretty terrible. All too often, they’re filled with fragmented, off-topic discussions and unconstructive, anonymous attacks. But an online challenge from the non-profit Mozilla Foundation (makers of the Firefox web browser) and the Knight Foundation aims to improve the state of web comments.
The initiative is called Beyond Comment Threads, and its aim is to re-imagine online news comments, which Mozilla’s executive director Mark Surman describes generally as "broken."
"They're just a bunch of noise, a kind of blather," Surman told me. "And certainly, they're a magnet for trolls and people who have nothing better to do than complain and bitch."
To date, the challenge has received almost 200 submissions. The deadline is June 5, and after that a panel of journalists and programmers will choose 60 of the best participants and put them all together in what they're describing as an online learning lab to further workshop the ideas.
Some will win a trip to Berlin to collaborate with Mozilla's team, and the most viable ideas will be turned into actual working software projects.
In addition, "We're going to take the cream of the crop, the very best people, and we're going to place them in newsrooms around the world," says Mozilla's Ben Moskowitz. "So we're going to have embedded fellows at Al Jazeera English, the BBC, the Guardian, ZEIT Online, The Boston Globe."
Browsing through the submissions, I came across several promising ideas, many of which challenge the traditional model of online commenting. In his submission, Enric Senabre Hidalgo writes: "Why should comments usually be at the end of the article? Let's link them to any sentence or word, like Google Docs let you do now."
Other submissions talked about the role of personalization technologies, using social filters and sentiment analysis to let relevant comments rise to the top.
One of my favourite suggestions comes from Travis Kriplean, based on an existing project called Reflect. Kriplean’s submission asks the question: "Can an interface nudge people to listen better? What if there were not just a comment box, but also a listen box?"
The idea is that part of the commenting process could include restating someone else's opinion to show that you had read and acknowledged it, prompting a more thoughtful, reflective responses.
An intriguing idea, for sure, but definitely more complicated than, "Fill out this text box and hit submit."
Root of the problem
As I browsed through challenge submissions, I had to wonder: are the issues with comments a technical problem? Or a human behaviour problem?
According to Mozilla’s Mark Surman, they're both.
And perhaps that’s what makes improving web comments such an interesting challenge, one that brings together geeks, journalists and newsjunkies alike.
Dealing with cranks, complainers and trolls is most definitely a human dynamics challenge. But it’s also a technical challenge, particularly when viewed through the lens of comment system interfaces and design. Do people have to log in to leave a comment? Do they have to use their real names? Is there a reputation system? These are definitely technical considerations.
According to Surman, how you ask people to participate through comments or online conversation can have a big impact on the quality of responses.
A boilerplate "What do you think?" question followed by a large empty text field and a submit button may not necessarily produce fruitful discussion, he says. "Whereas if you give people a much more directed task like, 'Help us find facts around this story,' or, 'Help us see the different sides to this story,' or, 'Help us find other stories that are related to this,' people will come and participate and comment in a much more productive way."
Striking a balance
To me, the real challenges with online commenting have to do with balance. Balance between the advantages of using real names versus pseudonyms (or leaving anonymous comments). Or, the balance between the desire for personalization in comments, and the risk of living in an echo chamber. Or, the balance between filters and information overload.
As more of us turn primarily to the web to get news, information, and opinion, the opportunities to collaborate and participate are huge. We just need the right tools to participate in a meaningful way.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go comment on a few comments about commenting.