WaPo Develops Visual Commenting System

Conversation on the Web can be a tricky little thing for news outlets to facilitate. At their best, stories’ commenting platforms are engaging; at their very best, they’re also meritocratic, allowing the worthiest—the smartest, or the funniest, or generally the most interesting—stuff to rise to the top and be seen. But most outlets use fairly basic interfaces that are text-based and chronological (or, increasingly: reverse-chronological). Meritocracy is a challenge, particularly when it’s most needed: for high-traffic posts that elicit high volumes of reader commentary.

Behold, then, WebCom—Washingtonpost.com’s new visual commenting system, which arranges comments according to a visual metaphor (a web, fittingly enough) that, in turn, arranges itself according to comments’ popularity and to the discussion they spur. (The platform’s designers have also developed an algorithm that marries the two metrics.) WebCom is currently exclusive to WaPo’s Flash-based video features—onBeing and Scene In—and will be extended, Poynter’s Patrick Thornton reports, to other videos later this year.

Thornton explains in more detail how WebCom works:

The web changes as users post new comments, as discussions develop and as users vote on the quality of comments. Comments that spur responses gravitate to the center of the web. Those rated highest by fellow users appear larger, while those with low ratings appear very small. And comments that are well-liked and garner a lot of responses are both larger and closer to the center. Comments are color-coded to help returning users see what’s new.

The color-coding also distinguishes between reader comments and WaPo staff comments—so, for example, you can easily see which comment is an author response to audience commentary.

The Post currently plans to keep WebCom exclusive to its visual content; still, one can easily imagine such a visual platform becoming the norm for Web commentary. Check out how it works, below:

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.