Doomed to Fail: Nick Denton’s New Commenting System
At this year’s South by Southwest festival, Nick Denton, boss of Gawker Media, and Anil Dash, blog pioneer, drew a large audience to hear their reflections on an important subject: the failure of comments and Denton’s plan to save them.
Comments, as you know, are that space below the articles you read online, where as a public service, content publishers allow society’s demented to mash their knuckles against their keyboards so as to reduce the incidence of violent crime.
Denton reminded the audience that in the early days of the web there was the hope that online, it would be possible to capture the intelligence of a readership. There was a dream that reporting could be iterative, stories would live and breathe, and that good conversations would take place between journalists and readers. But it was not to be. Discussions became vitriolic, insipid, and fell to the level of the lowest common denominator. He called this “the tragedy of the comments.”
Eight days ago, Gawker Media announced the imminent release of a new commenting system for (internally codenamed “Pow-Wow”). It is impossible to know exactly what it will look like, but from what Denton said at SXSW, and the little he has written elsewhere, there seem to be two key features to his approach.
The first is what he called “fractional commenting,” whereby the initiator of a thread would be handed the power to moderate the comments that he or she provokes in response (would this delegation of power go on ad infinitum? It’s unclear). Every comments section would thus have many moderators, ideally competing with one another to provide the best atmosphere for discussion.
The second would appear to be an algorithm that is designed to punish boring commenters. Each comment and thread would be evaluated by machine and by human, and unless the commenter is generating audience response, or has been explicitly approved by the author of the post, they could find themselves locked out of the discussion, while certain valued contributors, invited in advance, could be given priority.
The stated goal of Nick Denton’s new commenting system is to promote intelligent discussion. He proposes that a high-traffic site can also have high-quality comments without a large team of paid moderators. He will fail, and here is why.
As Joel Johnson points out in an excellent article about comments in ANIMAL, Denton is pursuing a contradictory goal – encouraging expert comments, while simultaneously encouraging everyone to comment. At SXSW, Denton expressed the hope that one day celebrities would one day use the new system to weigh in directly on Gawker, instead of bothering the staff with direct emails and phone calls. At the same time, he admitted that the best commenters “don’t have Klout scores” and are often anonymous.
Another test is one that Nick Denton and all online publishers will have to face. Empirical evidence suggests that people simply don’t like to and don’t want to leave comments on content. Far fewer than 1% of any given web audience will take the trouble to leave their opinions in this form. Just as very few people feel the need to shout out their feelings in movie theaters or scrawl in the margins of library books, practically no one feels the need to weigh in on the massive river of content that we all manage daily.
Let us imagine a child giving a piano recital in front of an audience of a few hundred. If one person were to stand up and yell “FIRST!” and another heckler were to exclaim, “Tiffany, you suck!” we would rightly view this behavior at best as extremely impolite, and at worst as symptomatic of a malfunctioning brain.
Denton pointed out in his talk that the impulse to comment is generally outrage. Online publishers who have chosen to give comments extremely prominent real estate on their properties should not be surprised that angry people choose to treat their sites like a bathroom stall.
The most difficult challenge for Denton’s new system is the most foreseeable – scale. The most watched Youtube video of all time is Justin Bieber’s song Baby. It has 730 million views. Beneath this video are 7.8 million comments. If we assume the average comment is five words long, that comes out to 39 million words, or about fifty King James Bible-sized volumes. No human can make sense of that. Nick Denton does not yet have quite so many monthly pageviews, but that’s definitely where he wants to go. He might as well get ready.
The goal of encouraging intelligent discussion online is a noble one, and Nick Denton deserves praise for stepping up to try to solve the comments problem. He is correct in asserting, as he did in Austin, that the proper software can make things better, but unfortunately, with his new system he is trying to fix comments with more comments. One does not fight fire with oil.
We who wish to improve online discourse must move beyond methods that have already failed. Comments have always been broken and there is no point in trying to fix them. For the last week, comments have been disabled across all Gawker sites. Has anyone noticed? Does anyone care? When they are turned back on, Nick Denton will quickly realize that his efforts have been in vain.