The Great Comment Challenge

Knight-Mozilla’s initiative to reinvent online news discussions

It’s easy to complain about the comment sections of news websites. It’s harder to improve them. They’re as problematic as they are essential, and no single website seems to have gotten the balance just right. Comment moderation is time-consuming, and often more trouble than it’s worth—especially for sites with relatively low traffic. Spammers and troublemakers can discourage meaningful dialogue between writers and readers just as easily as poorly-designed and confusing commenting software can.

Meanwhile, the traditional news story format is stretching and evolving to include blogs, explainers updated in real time, and automatically “Storified” aggregation of social media content. It doesn’t make sense to leave the comment thread behind.

“Beyond Comment Threads” is a Knight-Mozilla challenge to radically reimagine the traditional comment format—and they’re doing it by imagining they are starting from a blank slate. Along the way, everything that has gradually become commonplace over time must be questioned. For instance: Why do so many sites display comments chronologically, when it makes so much more sense to group them in thematic conversations? Why should a comment written on the bottom of one story always be associated with just that one story, isolated from the rest of the online conversation that’s happening externally from that website?

The Knight-Mozilla News Technology Partnership—called MoJo for short, a combination of Mozilla and Journalism—is a new collaboration between the Knight Foundation and the Mozilla Foundation (the nonprofit creators of the open-source browser Firefox) to explore new technology for online news production. It is looking to find fifteen fellows to place in newsrooms around the world. This year’s news partners include Al Jazeera, the BBC, The Guardian, Germany’s daily paper Die Zeit, and The Boston Globe.

Other projects that the MoJo partnership is exploring include the future of web video technology and of the production of “People-Powered News.” But a reimagination of the comment thread was an obvious first choice: it’s something that the news partners were the most interested in, and the challenge seemed a good match for the technical interests of Mozilla’s developers.

“Obviously, you could say, ‘Comments on most sites are a wasteland,’” says Ben Moskowitz, MoJo’s media program officer, who also teaches at NYU’s ITP program. “And not only on news sites, but everywhere on the web…the natural impulse that you get from people is ugly sometimes. Go to YouTube; the YouTube commenters will really open your eyes.” So, he says, the goal of this particular initiative is to figure out how to improve both the social dynamics of web commenting, as well as the technical and design aspects of the comment systems themselves.

“So we are looking at the role of anonymity, the role of persistent identity, how you enforce social norms, and how you reinforce good behavior,” says Moskowitz. “But also the technical architecture of commenting, and what we can do to make comments more contextualized. Because it’s not the whole story just to say, ‘We want respectful and intelligent comments.’ We also want well-contextualized comments.”

One of the ways that comments could be better contextualized, Moskowitz explains, would be by creating a program that would facilitate “global commenting.” That is, a program that would embed comments with metadata—about the comment’s author, the topic of the piece the comment was attached to, even the commenter’s particular point of view—that could then allow that comment to be automatically incorporated into other relevant online conversations outside of the particular thread where it first appeared.

There’s quite a wide range of ideas being batted around on the “Beyond Comment Threads” webpage. One contributor advocates making commenters pay for the privilege, while another suggests that commenters should get a share of the ad revenue generated by the page on which they are posting. Another person imagines a very complex-sounding three-dimensional visualization of comments displayed in various levels of brightness and color.

Here are just a few excerpts of some other suggestions from the site:

”[I]t is much too important that one or two companies control such a vast amount of user contributed data. Portability will also be solved by this. I should be able to do a one-click download of all the comments and posts I’ve made everywhere.” —Matt Terenzio

“[C]omments could also move up INTO articles as citations, annotations, quips, scrapbook clippings, rewrites, adjunct op-eds, etc. The goal is remixable, platform-agnostic commenting that can drive meaning, context and dialogue up into the article, across to other articles, and out of the ‘comment backwaters.’” —Josh Wilson

“Argument Maps: Organization by topic, not time: Logical arguments can be fostered by organizing discussions by topic instead of time. Contributions are classified as 1) Issue (a problem that needs to be solved) 2) Idea (an approach for addressing that issue) 3) Argument (a point for (pro) or against (con) an idea).” —matessa

“A Wiki for contentious topics.” —Majesty of the Commons

“News sites need two channels for comments: real time, and edited. Real time comments should be open, while edited comments should face the same scrutiny as traditional letters to the editor.” —Ersun Warncke

“Add a ‘topic cloud’ to the top of each comment thread, using text mining of the thread (updated each time a comment is added) to identify key phrases or concepts that appear in a comment thread.” —steveouting

After the submission period is closed on June 5, a community voting process will commence, as well as a review panel of some well-respected open-source and journo folks (Amanda Hickman of DocumentCloud and Amanda Michel of ProPublica among them). From that feedback, MoJo will select the few projects that will go on for software development and implementation.

Until then, though, the MoJo site is open for ideas, so weigh in while you can. The site invites you to share “Anything! We are interested in your ideas. Communicate them through a blog post, a napkin sketch, a slidecast, or a semi-functional mockup. It’s up to you.”

And for readers in the New York City area: Hacks/Hackers NYC is hosting an event to generate ideas on this topic on Thursday, May 26 at NYU. It looks like the event is full up at the moment, but see details here to get on the waiting list and to learn about similar events in the future.

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Lauren Kirchner is a freelance writer covering digital security for CJR. Find her on Twitter at @lkirchner