The Medill grad students at the Crunchberry Project have a good post examining the various ways of getting comments from readers. Interestingly (and smartly), they define “comments” broadly to include any sort of feedback from the audience — including polls, star ratings, Slashdot-style up/down voting, Salon’s letters to the editor, and even Mad Libs-style fill-in-the-blanks.
I like the way they’re thinking, and I think providing structure to the commenting process is worth exploring, for two reasons.
First, not to get all McLuhanish, but I suspect the tone and quality of comments would be affected — maybe even for the better. A lot of commenter behavior is based on social modeling; think of it as the Broken Windows thesis applied to web sites. If a site has lots of high-quality comments and a community of users who really care about the place, it’s a lot less likely that some bozo will come along and dump nonsense all over the place. Conversely, if a site is known far and wide for the junk in its comments, it’s very hard to raise the standard of conversation.
The form of the commenting system is important in setting those guidelines. For instance, Salon’s system requires user accounts and explicitly rewards good comments with prominent display. It also uses a metaphor (“letters to the editor”) that evokes a time when time lapsed between when a thought crossed your mind and when it appeared before a reading audience. It also, on every comment, provides a link to all of that user’s other comments — making it clear that he will be connected to his dumb tossed-off slander for ever and ever. All of these structural systems conspire to create relatively high-quality comments.
Another example: When you leave a comment on the blogging platform Vox, you’re given the opportunity to check a box marked “[this is good].” (Note the Mad Men reference in that last link.) It’s a very small detail (and an obscure reference to a old-school web site), but I’d wager the availability of a small and easy way to express a positive emotion makes the comment quality a little bit better. There’s no blanket answer on how to make comments better, but I’d sure like to see more experimentation around structured response in comment systems.
And the second reason? Data. Anytime you provide structure to comments, you generate data that can be used in interesting ways. Think of it as a corollary to Holovaty’s Law — it then becomes trivial to detect trends in your commenters that might be of interest to your audience or your writers, if packaged correctly.