My friend Jared W. Smith recently sent me a link to and asked for my thoughts on an article on TechCrunch by Sarah Perez, “The Best Platform for Online Discussion Doesn’t Exist Yet.”
Ms. Perez laments the current state of online comments and discussion, saying that TechCrunch has been missing the “sense of community that blog comments once provided.” Hence their switch to Livefyre. “But there’s no system alive that can bring that [sense of community] back, because that era of the web is over. And it has been for a long, long time.”
Tired of short comments and noise, she wishes that more people would take the time to read an article and comment in long form. The proposed solution is some sort of system that tells you whose opinion’s carry more weight. Ms. Perez criticizes commenting systems for “competing on features” like crowdsourced anti-spam techniques because they don’t “really improve the nature of online discussion.”
“The real change that commenting sections need, both here on TechCrunch and elsewhere on the web, isn’t ripping out one old, outdated technology and replacing it with another,” she concludes. “We’re ready for a radical overhaul that reflects how people are communicating and sharing information today; one that shows which comments or shares have resonated and why, and one that understands who deserves to be heard.” Read her full article for all of the context.
I definitely believe there is an issue when it comes to noise. How big of an issue it is depends on you personally. Most of the time when I see someone comment on something that requires expertise to comment, I believe that the commenter isn’t actually qualified to comment. As Nas once said, a caterpillar can’t relate to what an eagle envisions. But you have a lot of caterpillars commenting on eagles.
I disagree with it being a platform problem, though. It’s a people problem. Platforms have limits. The best that you’re looking at, speaking of highlighting quality comments as Ms. Perez describes, is some sort of reputation system that is either site-based or is decided by various data point or a mix of both. It’s a feature and features are where discussion platforms evolve. That’s nothing really revolutionary. We’ve seen systems like that and they have flaws.
Instead, this is a people problem. The world is populated with people who believe anything, who feel they are entitled to comment on anything, who retweet anything that sounds like it is worthwhile and who spread messages that are written by poorly qualified individuals.
How do you beat the people problem? On a truly large scale (larger than TechCrunch), who knows? Think about the discourse regarding the government and law. What can you really do without people yelling that you are censoring them or public advocacy groups accusing you of bias? “You’re only listening to those people! What about these?” But, on a small scale, you fight for it.
“Sense of community” isn’t the platform you choose, it’s the people you choose to associate with and what you do to make it happen. You want long comments? You want credible discourse? You don’t expect it will simply happen in front of you like magic. You fight for it. You moderate and delete that which doesn’t fit. You make some people mad, you make them complain online for deleting their comments and blocking them. You say, “I don’t want that traffic.” You focus and admit that you don’t cater to everyone and then you vigorously go after your audience. Online community is about culture.
You dedicate resources (money) to actual community management and moderation, not just surface stuff. You have to pair people with tools. Tools get us some of the way there, people drive home the nuances and the details where community is really made. People who constantly curate, spotlight, moderate, delete and ban in order to cultivate the right environment. Moderation is essential. A great sense of community doesn’t happen by itself. It takes hard work and must be defended constantly.