Notes in the Margin

On the intersection of web apps, digital content and social media

Clay Shirky via Joho: Why do comments suck?

Clay Shirky gave a presentation last week at Social Computing Symposium 2013, a small invitation-only conference run by Microsoft Research.

The exclusive event may have been inaccessible to most of us, but David Weinberger was there and captured some raw notes, live blogging the Clay Shirky session, which asked the pithy and relevant question “Why do comments suck?” The raw notes are available on David’s Joho site: Joho the Blog » Clay Shirky: Why do comments suck?.

It’s great to see someone of Shirky’s renown and insight asking the pointed question  that is frankly somewhat  embarrassing to social business advocates. Experience indicates that commenting has never been effective, nor has it lived up to the hype around user-generated content.

Comments these days are still generally simple and sequential (unthreaded) though Lotus Notes introduced threaded discussions in the late 80s. Yet even when the discussions were / are threaded, they are notoriously difficult to parse and track. Hence the old Notes melancholy expression, “Death by discussion database.”

It’s most likely that commenting will live up to its hype and potential through some new user interface, most likely on some mobile device, that enables tracking threads as trains of thought, even when the authors often stray from the point and (very often) add unhelpful crass or otherwise self-serving content.

Shirky points out that many sites that feature commenting – especially publishing sites – actually aren’t looking for quality content in the thread, but are just looking for increasing the number of viewers. In these cases, including YouTube, the goal is quantity not quality.

It sounds like the essential point to Shirky is that sites can define and refine the quality of comments by focusing on “commenters as a community, not as individuals asserting “First Amendment” rights.” Via Weinberger, Shirky also asserts that platforms can do a more effective job, ala Gawker, who ” uses an algorithm that features comments based on the richness of the thread.”.

So, at one level it comes down to community management: treating participants, which includes commenters, as valued members of a community.


Written by tstaley

January 20, 2013 at 3:53 am

Posted in Collaboration

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