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Pay attention to what Nick Denton is doing with comments

The NYU professor thinks Gawker is on to something with its attempts to surface quality comments.

As comment bait goes, I’m a Gay Mormon Who’s Been Happily Married for 10 Years is a corker. That’s Gawker’s headline for a piece by Joshua Weed (excerpted from a longer version posted on Weed’s own site) about how he balances his homosexuality, his marriage to a woman, and his Mormon identity. Once up on Gawker, it quickly attracted several hundred comments.

As you might imagine, some of those comments are moronic. One read, in its entirety, “lol mormons.” Some are grating: “…the idea of putting something in a slimy vagina is not sexy” (a comment since dismissed). Some are ad hominem: “This article is bullshit, by a self loathing brainwashed moron.” Of the hundreds of replies, however, the seven currently highlighted on the article page form a conversation between Weed himself and and a handful of other users; the replies are civil, thoughtful, and even, mirabile dictu, spell-checked. These seven replies don’t just happen to be highlighted — they are highlighted because they are part of a conversation.

Most news sites have come to treat comments as little more than a necessary evil, a kind of padded room where the third estate can vent, largely at will, and tolerated mainly as a way of generating pageviews. This exhausted consensus makes what Gawker is doing so important. Nick Denton, Gawker’s founder and publisher, Thomas Plunkett, head of technology, and the technical staff have re-designed Gawker to serve the people reading the comments, rather than the people writing them.

The technical choices here are simple, but their social ramifications are not. The new design dispenses with the tyranny of time order. On most systems, the most prominent comments are posted either by the most obsessed users (when comments are posted oldest first) or the drive-bys (newest first). On Gawker, a user who replies to an existing comment is likelier to get her contribution seen than an earlier user who added another reaction directly to the original post.

Gawker’s default assumption is that most comments won’t ever appear on the article page — like the Slashdot comment system, they are all there, but only accessible with extra work by the reader. This ensures that there is, by design, no way for regular participants (the Commentariat, a group Denton loathes) to use either volume or aggression to maximize attention. On Gawker (and, soon, on its seven sister sites), anyone can still say anything, but it’s no longer the case that anyone can say anything to everyone.

This lets Gawker to do less policing overall. If vapid or aggro comments are unlikely to make the main article page, Gawker can expand its support for anonymous comments, as with its burner accounts (a nod to the phones favored by drug dealers) and its instructions about how to report information anonymously.

They have been rolling out this system in pieces — burners and the ability of commenters to accept or dismiss replies came in April, shifting most comments off the main page happened in mid-June, and comment search is still coming. Remarkably, as the system has rolled out, it has proven to work even retroactively — a lovely Gawker piece by Maureen O’Connor, When My Mother and I Were Obsessed with Death, acquired its comments back in May, under the old system, but when the replies are sorted under the new system, the three featured comments (out of a hundred) add up to a heartfelt thousand-word coda, written by other women grappling with the same issues. If you view the same hundred comments in time order, you come across someone hitting on the author — “maureen you are so attractive, death-obsession is just the icing on the cake” — long before you find anything you’d care to read.

Gawker’s plan might fail, of course. When there are complicated user reactions to big posts, as with the Gay Mormon piece or John Cook’s recent Watergate post, the system buries many replies that are, to my eye, more thoughtful and engaged than the ones that made it to the main page, including many interesting replies by the posts’ authors, one of the things Denton explicitly hopes to highlight.

There are also real design challenges — the reader is supposed to understand that a grayed-out comment placed next to a featured one is an alternate response to the same parent comment. (It was confusing even to write that sentence; the current design doesn’t make it much clearer.) Conversations now have URLs, so readers can send traffic directly to a particular set of replies, but few people seem to understand or use this function. Comment search has yet to be launched. All these things will affect reader reactions.

There could also be deeper problems. On the list titled “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things On The Internet,” Item #1 has always been human nature. The Commentariat, who know little about the subject of any given post, still have a lot of time on their hands, and they may yet come to dominate the new system. It may also be that readers are in fact as horrible as industry consensus has it, that without the bread and circuses of cursing and trolling, commenting will lose its appeal.

Many news sites seemed to have entered an endgame with their comment sections a year or so ago: give up on any real participation, give up on anonymity, fall back to “Login With Facebook.” This reaction has come about in part because comments on news sites have been stagnant for a long time. Gawker is demonstrating that a good part of that stagnation came about because the way readers have been asked to participate has been stagnant for a long time too.

Nick Denton photo by Matt Haughey used under a Creative Commons license.

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  • RyanMJones

    I’m a gay mormon who’s been happily married 10 years so I’m really getting a kick out of most of these replies…..

  • Abdallah Al-Hakim

    The volume of comments on a particular post could be overwhelming sometimes (this current post is an example). However, buried within these comments are some valuable advice ro suggestions. The problem for me has always been finding a way to quickly browse the comments and identify most interesting ones for me. I think the process revolves around the individuals producing the comments – I always make an effort of following those (on disqus) that generally produce interesting comments (in my viewpoint) and they are ones that I pay attention to first when reading comments. Also, comments that become conversations also get my attention. This process has become a bit easier now with Engagio which allows me to track social conversations from individuals that I have had contact with in the past – this gives me a further layer of filtering when visiting a new post. I would be interested to see how Gawker improves on the commenting systems.

  • Kevin_Kelly

    Clay, you did not quite explain the mechanism for how readers upvoted the top comments on Gawker, so I am confused as to how it is different from Slashdot, and for that matter Digg and Reddit. In the comments, some of this surfaces, but it is still unclear to me — since in truth I really don’t understand how Digg and Reddit work! I’m still waiting for that grand conceptual comparative anatomy piece. This would make Gawker’s accomplishment more useful to folks like me who hope to emulate it.

  • TedNista

    Trying to understand how this phrase works: 
    but it’s no longer the case that anyone can say anything to everyone.
    are you saying that say I write a comment, Only I can “reply” to reply’s to My comments? typically I think anyone can reply to a comment, but they can reply to My comment. Otherwise, i mean it’s weird.i just tried it out and it seems to be that it does a sort of “endless comment scroll” but you need to click “continue conversation” – “jack014 says asd.f..dfas”

  • Random finite

    “no sir…no sir, I don’t like it”
      – Anonymous

  • Ben

    hey, anything dispensing of the “tyranny of time order” has got my vote.  time, foe of the comment thread, you are no friend of mine.

  • JP

    Reddit has been doing a version of this for quite some time. 

  • Synonomau5

    The new system destroys the ‘community’ that existed on the sites. Users no longer receive replies to their posts from other readers/online friends, because the odds of anyone seeing what you post is so inconceivably low (compared to the previous system). 

    Therefore fewer people bother posting, and fewer users interact, destroying the lifeblood of the community: social interaction. And if there’s one thing that should be highly valued in this day and age, it’s user interaction. That’s where the money is.

    To wit, many people spent a good deal of time reading through the comments, which increases time-on-page stats, and we all know the value of that… Furthering the effect, they check back to see if their comments have been replied to, and spend time reading and replying. 

    It’s like having a robot as a doorman at your club, selecting people on individual traits, and breaking up groups in the process. Who cares if I’m selected, but my friends have to stay on the other side of the glass? And every article – or every night out – is a new selection process. You might be ‘featured’ one time, and not the next dozen times. So people are now expected to comment, without knowing whether there’s a carrot on the end of the stick or not. 

    To hell with that… ‘comment’ time is better spent on facebook or reddit.

    It seems, overall, that this system was designed to suit Nick Denton’s personal needs, but he’s cutting off his nose to spite his face. 

  • Lodewijk Gonggrijp

    The way Gawker handles comments now is shit.
    I read io9 FOR the comments.
    Now I have to click 2000 thousand times to read all the discussion.
    It totally blows.

  • HelloSalty

    Facebook comments are the worst thing to happen ever. By defaulting to real names you do filter out most nuisance trolling, but you also filter out the small but important percentage of trollish posts which are clever or thought provoking, not to mention a significant percetage of serious comments that people do not want prospective employers to connect with their real names. Further, it does not by itself at least do anything to filter out trollish posts by blowhards who are too stupid to realize they are trolls.

    As for nested comments and upvotes, if your tech people.couldn’t find an alternative solution you need new tech guys.

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  • Jezzer

    From what I’ve seen, Gawker’s idea of “elevating the discourse” consists of eliminating dissenting viewpoints. Several of their writers just want to hear about how clever and pretty they are from a devoted fanbase who crawl all over them, licking and piddling like a basket of puppies, and disagreeing with them, no matter how politely worded, is a one-way ticket to the grays.

  • Spook SEO

    Hi Matt, it’s so good to recognize that Gawker is used to serve the people reading comments. If you have got more updates on this please share it with us.