Learning Technology jottings at Goldsmiths

Thoughts and deeds

The problem with comments on the web…

with 2 comments

When I have a spare moment, I make quick passes over the web and journals to see if I can find any research on who actually reads comments below blog posts and other web pieces, and how readers learn from these discussions. I haven’t found much, although I think it must be out there – there is so much interest now in engaging and organising people online, like Neighbourhood 2.0, Talk About Local, and that kind of thing.

Asynchronous text discussion, in which I am a silent participant or sometimes just a reader of a conversational fossil, has given me some of my most profound learning experiences. For subjects which interest me, to observe an argument unfold, see the misunderstandings, areas of tension, different styles, different priorities, moderating approaches, is absolutely engrossing. On an active site with an informed and diverse readership you get a real sense of the scope of a debate. So these days I bookmark entire discussion threads and annotate them using Diigo.

But according to this TechCrunch piece by Nicholas Holzapfel, I’m in the minority. Or maybe it’s that I read blogs which attract considerate and thoughtful commenters, who refer back to each others’ work and help the potentially formless and inappropriately linear threads to cohere.

There’s one blog I administrate which attracts quite a lot of sometimes contentious comments. I’ve enabled threading of comments (the blogging platform is WordPress). This indents replies and helps to provide a visual representation of the discussion. But the indentations only go 7 deep, which is frequently insufficient. This is one reason I think Nicholas Holzapfel is right to call for development of the technology which underpins commenting.

He ends on an empowering note:

“Some people believe that comments on popular articles will always be like this because many-to-many conversations are impossible. They believe that if we want coherence we must content ourselves with either conversations in small groups (few-to-few) or one-way conversations whereby a throng of admirers hang on the words of an admired expert (one-to-many).

I disagree.

I believe that the Internet offers the potential for coherent many-to-many conversations for the first time in the history of humanity. As MG Siegler points out, today’s “commenting structure [has] been in place basically since blogging began”. What is needed is an evolutionary shift which is suitably adapted to the Internet’s unique potential and pitfalls. We need something that allows massive numbers of comments to be navigated quickly and easily so that coherent mass conversations can emerge.”

Update: in the comments below, Nicholas directs us to yoomoot, a new direction in commenting which is launching in the near future. Meanwhile here’s the pre-launch blog.

Update 2: Andy Newman has a hunch that a high proportion of page views to visitors may be attributable to readers opening up the pages to view the comments (rather than viewing the posts as they appear on the front page). But if you were arriving via a feed reader, you’d also open the page. Not sure how his logs are presented, and I’m not a very sophisticated analyst of log files, but it might be worth looking. Then again, if you look at the character of the blog, it’s probably that the readers would be interested in the comments.

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Written by Mira Vogel

August 27, 2009 at 10:57

Posted in peer learning, social networking

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2 Responses

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  1. I must admit that my article was based on anecdotal observation, not quantitative research, although I’d be willing to bet a lot of money that you are indeed part of a very small minority. Also, as I said in the article, I was only bewailing the state of very long comment threads. If there’s only a dozen or so comments I don’t think there’s a problem.

    It’s gratifying to come across someone else who is apparently as obsessed with online discussions as I have come to be. I’d be fascinated to hear what you make of yoomoot (http://www.yoomoot.com) when it launches, in light of all your observations.

    nicolasholzapfel

    August 28, 2009 at 00:45

  2. Anecdotally too, I think you are right. Established ideas about authority kick in, perhaps, and – unless they are contributing themselves – people consider the discussion subordinate to the post which triggered it. But sometimes, on important blogs, you come across a discussion thread which has pulled in the movers, shapers and intelligent commentators on all sides of a debate. If I am familiar with the debate, these seem to me a bit like benchmarks – historically (in a record-keeping sense, with an eye on the future) I’m certain they’re extremely important – intellectual big guns going head to head – but they are treated as ephemera.

    There are so many questions to ask about who participates and the degree to which they are representative of people who actually go out on the street and change things, or the degree to which they influence those people and, if so, how that influence works.

    Thanks for the yoomoot tip – I’ve found your yoomoot pre-launch blog and look forward to keeping up with it.

    Mira Vogel

    August 28, 2009 at 09:44


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