I’ve been following the Knight-Mozilla Challenges (Drumbeat: Knight Mozilla News Technology Partnership), and the second challenge is about improving online commenting and discussion.
Comments are Normal
In thinking about that challenge, the first thing that occurs to me is that the quality of any given comment will follow a normal distribution. Most comments will be of an average quality. Some will suck. Some will rock.
Many of the solutions that exist today focus on changing the output. They basically seek to filter the whole set of comments so that the shape of the curve for the visible comments changes.
I question if that’s the best approach. Can and should sites seek to improve the quality of the average post instead? That is, if they could constrain the input in some ways, to elicit better comments, would that be better? If so, what would that look like?
It might take the form of a series of explicit prompts for comments. Instead of having (only) a general discussion, you would have some particular aspects that you could comment on and discuss. The idea would be to frame particular discussions around more specific aspects, to avoid the drift that occurs in more general discussions.
You might give users a choice to create a directed discussion topic or participate in an existing one. You would give only a small group of users the opportunity to create directed discussions to avoid an overabundance of them and have them simply become roots of threads.
If you seek to participate online, that is almost entirely restricted to a two basic tasks. One is commenting directly. Another is curating comments of others (via either direct voting, rating, moderation, or linking).
It seems like that misses some opportunities. My hunch is that there are other participatory means that would enhance commenting, but also some opportunities aside from commenting that could be added. One possible idea in that vein is paraphrasing.
In visiting a story, I read and comprehend it, and any comment on it will reflect my own interpretation. One opportunity that is separate to comments but related is paraphrasing or summarizing the original content. That would give users alternative interpretations to read before commenting. It might better-inform the discussion, provided the summaries were strictly non-commentary.
As above, the idea would be to only have a small fraction of the users to provide summaries.
Commonality in These Ideas
Both of the ideas above express a common theme of moving away from general discussion threads. They focus on subtly shifting the discussion toward less self-directed content. This isn’t to say that people can’t self-direct their comments, but it’s an extraneous step in many cases.
By moving a small number of users out of the comment pool and into a different layer of the discussion/participation system, you provide an opportunity for different behaviors to emerge. That harkens back to the initial point I made: shifting the quality of the comments rather than filtering the whole pool. There are too many users stuck in the same behaviors of commenting, and the web offers an opportunity to focus on diversity of activity.
I’m encouraged that the Knight Foundation and Mozilla are working on enhancing the role of journalism on the web, and I am definitely looking forward to finding out what sort of innovations come from it.