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Kill your antiquated article structure not your comments

The tyranny of the comment box

David Higgerson published an interesting meditation on comments under articles yesterday. “Are comments under articles worth doing?” he asks, and flirts with the answer “no”, without coming to a definitive conclusion. The post, and the comments underneath (ironically) are well worth reading.

There are, I think, a couple of issues that arise from this. Firstly, if you have a problem with your comments, did you invest in community management resources before you enabled comments? If not, well, there’s part of your problem.

Secondly, the closer you get to general interest, the more of a problem you’re likely to have with comments. There’s less consequence for commenters, and often less personal investment in the subject. And, in my experience, the more mainstream the journalist, the more likely they’re to see themselves as above interacting with the hoi polloi readership…

Most importantly, though, I think there’s a structural issue which David gets very close to identifying here:

If you look at a blog by a sports journalist, you’ll see a much higher quality of comment than you will under the same sports journalist’s stories elsewhere on the site – and the quality will be even higher if the sports journalist responds to the comments.

A journalist and a reader will get infinitely more out of an open relationship via Twitter than they will via comments under a story. Maybe it’s the 140-character limit keeping you brief, or maybe it’s because on social media you expect the journalist to see what you’ve said. Or maybe it’s the fact that on Twitter – and even more so on Facebook – you’re more likely to use your real name.

Here’s the thing: most article formats are designed for the print age. The sites they sit on are structured in ways not unlike that of print, a medium where there is no inherent ability for the reader to react straight back to the author. Articles are designed to be complete in of themselves, not open-ended and prone to discussion. The author is a long way down the list of priority in “ownership” of the page. None of these are creating social signals that promote a good discussion.

A blog is a lot more than just a series of articles with comments under it. There are issues of ownership, identity and community that just can’t arise out of the more loosely collated structure that articles are publishing in online. A blog is a social construct. A website with a series of articles on it is not. Too often, attaching comments to a traditional form articles is like attaching an internal combustion engine to a bicycle: you can probably hack together something that goes, but you’re undermining the strengths of each of the two parts…

However, I’m not saying just rip comments off articles, and forget the whole thing. I’m suggesting that you need to rethink your articles more completely for the digital era. You build a motorbike by attacking an internal combustion engine to a frame that was designed for it. The problem isn’t that comments are broken, it’s that our site structures are still too wedded in print.

I’m more interested in rethinking site structures and article formats for the social publishing age than deciding if comments “work”…

The BBC’s revamped blogs are a road crash


I’ve been watching the revamp of the BBC’s blogs with a mix of horror and awe. It feels as if they’ve decided to go back and make all the mistakes that most big media organisations make the first time they try social media. Maybe they feel they missed out.

Some changes make a certain sense. Moving off Movable Type? Many have done so. We may make the same decision later in the year.

Moving to a generic non-blog platform? Not so smart. Function begets form, sometimes, and blog platforms are designed to facilitate blogging, rather than other forms of content production. They’re using a spanner for a screwdriver’s job.

Headline-only RSS feeds? Great way to lose all your RSS readers!

But this I find incomprehensible:

With some news stories each day having comments on them, there may be times when a story and correspondent’s analysis cover the same subject. To avoid unnecessary duplication and even confusion, generally we will seek to have comments on one or the other. So correspondents’ pieces may not always include comments. In addition, in our new system, comments have a maximum length of 400 characters. It’s my view that this makes for sharper contributions, though I know some disagree.

The reaction, across all the blogs, has been uniformly negative.

From Nick Robinson’s blog:

I believe he (and other Editors) looks on the commenters on his blog as idiots.


The new format was not imposed for our benefit. The intention is to stifle serious debate. And frivolous debate.


This is no longer a blog. What a shame.


Tellingly, Robinson himself has only posted once since the switch to the new format.

This shows such a fundemental disrespect for the commenting community that they would have been better saying “we can’t handle the comment load, we’re turning off comments”. Some blogs function perfectly well like this – Daring Fireball, The Dish – but this half-arsed solution with the newest comment at the top, breaking any conversational continuity? Horrible. It feels like someone who has never written, used or commented on a blog outside the BBC’s own has taken charge of their blogging technology, and ignored the accumulated experience of hundreds and thousands of bloggers big and small worldwide. That’s a powerful fusion of arrogance and stupidity right there.

Prediction: they’ll either revert to a more traditional blog form, or end up turning off comments within six months.

Ed Yong

Science Online: Bloggers, Commenters and the Reputation Game

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I dropped into one of the unconference sessions, looking at engaging with your readers (of obvious interest to me). The panel did a sterling job of giving a beginner’s guide to managing comments and commenters, from different scales (personal blogs to Ars Technica). I thought Ed Yong‘s comments about building a commenter community around your personal blog were particularly good – and the delurking thread idea is one I intend to nick.

But the audience, once the questions started, took the conversation in an entirely different direction, about the reputation of scientists and (to a degree) to the on-going problem of poor scientific reporting. Now, as a journalist, a profession usually in the top three least trusted professions, I’m not entirely clear why scientists are so concerned, but there’s clearly a strong feeling fo disconnect between the scientific community and the general public. There was some attempt in the conversation to shape blogs into the answer to that. However, I think there were two key misconceptions percolating through the discussion. The first was the idea that blogging is inherently publishing to the mainstream – a question was asked that pre-supposed that a science blog that wasn’t reaching a non-specialist audience was, in some way, failing. And I disagree strongly with that sentiment. Some of the best blogs I know have small, but highly specialised audiences. A highly specialised science blog is just as valuable as a generalist science communicator  blog – they’re just performing different functions.

The second that was a blog is something that “you have to go to” – Ed started to address that point, describing how people share links to interesting articles on Twitter and Facebook (feel free to use the buttons below, folks ;-)) and that creates an ecosystem of content that is pushed outside its traditional content.

To me, this suggests that many within the scientific community are somewhere between three and four years behind the “cutting edge” of social media – much of the focus is still on blogging, and the rise of the social networking systems has yet to have as much of an impact. But I could be wrong in that. It occurs that scientists are used to describing their work in written form – it’s an inherent part of the current systems. And perhaps the barrier of entry to blogging is slightly lower here, which means that blogging hasn’t been so supplanted by the Twitter/Facebook world. What do you think?

Things I Failed To Blog About

Just clearing down some tabs that I meant to blog about – but never got around to. They’re worth a look, though.

  1. Some really interesting stuff about journalists as programmers. Bet nobody clicks that link on a sunny Friday afternoon with the pubs open…
  2. The good and bad side of enforcing real name on comments. Another reason why “one size fits all” approaches fail.
  3. A video in which Arianna Huffington will annoy a lot of people by talking about her business model. You might not agree with her philosophy – but it’s interesting. 
  4. James gets wound up by The Times’ paywall model. Why am I posting these sorts of links on a Friday evening? Who knows.
  5. Look, have some Wurzels and let’s call it quits.