Nieman Foundation at Harvard
Higher ed and public radio are enmeshed. So what happens when the culture wars come?
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Nov. 9, 2015, 2:46 p.m.
Audience & Social

Meet “dialogue,” the new front in the Internet commenting wars

Discussions > social media > comments?

Internet comments have a pretty terrible reputation these days, and every couple of weeks or so we see another news site drop them. One of the justifications for that decision is often that most quality conversations are taking place on social media now.

Social media “is just a better place to engage a smart audience that’s not trolling,” Kara Swisher, the executive editor of Recode, told Nieman Lab recently.

People who advocate for comments on social media rather than on websites often argue that Twitter and Facebook engender higher-quality discussion in part because commenters are (usually) attached to real names and can’t quite as easily troll behind anonymous avatars.

Still, it’s not as if the barrier to social media entry is particularly high. Twitter trolls are rampant, too. And a retweet or quick comment isn’t exactly the same as a thoughtful response. So recently we’ve seen a couple other platforms experimenting with different ways of commenting, generally in the form of Q&A’s (see: Digg Dialog and Product Hunt Live).

Medium has always existed somewhere in the middle of the platform-publisher continuum, and further evidence that it’s embracing that position comes with a new series, You Tell Me. The series kicked off on October 21 with a post on ageism in Silicon Valley by Backchannel editor Steven Levy. On Monday there was a new entry in the series: “Tech Is Eating Media. Now What?” by Awl editor and media columnist John Herrman.

Herrman’s post is modeled after one of his recent columns, “Extremely Public Relations,” that he wrote for The Awl. He and Medium worked in advance to solicit a couple of written responses, from Poynter’s Katie Hawkins-Gaar and Serious Eats’ Chris Mohney, which were posted to Medium shortly after Herrman’s story. Other responses have trickled in throughout the day, from Jay Rosen and Jill Abramson, among others.

“I’m especially receptive to trying this out because we get a lot of feedback and discussion around our stories, but not the kind that really begs for response,” Herrman told me via Gchat on Monday. “This is a weird thing that has happened in a lot of places, and I think there’s an effort to rein it back in: ‘Interactions’ or whatever have skyrocketed, but they take place out of view, or in such a way that precludes further argument.”

And, as noted above, social media has its own limitations when it comes to commenting and responding. “I’ve been writing these manic blogs about CONTENT garbage forever, and I hurl them out onto Twitter and Facebook and they get attention,” Herrman said. “But the sharing behavior, even for something that’s making claim after claim and argument after argument, is either like ‘yea AGREE’ or ‘shut up’…There really isn’t a natural place for the kinds of things we do to unfold into discussion.”

You Tell Me is an effort by Medium to remind users of the fact that Medium isn’t just for writing posts, but also for responding. “We haven’t always been good at saying that Medium allows for conversation, debate, and dialogue,” said Medium editor Sophie Moura. “We haven’t been as good at explaining how responses work as we should be. The You Tell Me series is designed to role-model how the platform can be used.” From the top, “Tech Is Eating Media” looks a lot like a straightforward Medium post, with the addition of a You Tell Me logo. At the bottom of the post, though, are bolded questions and featured responses.

Every few weeks — there’s not a concrete schedule yet — Medium will invite “a very smart, well-regarded expert in his or her field” to share an opinion on the platform, “then take the question back to a group of people and generate a dialogue that might not come about otherwise.”

Moving the discussion to Medium instead of Facebook or Twitter obviously doesn’t quell concerns that, by giving up on comments, publishers are ceding too much control to outside platforms. But so far on Monday Herrman thought the concept was working well.

“So far it’s been lively, which is an unusual feeling,” he said. “You’re AWARE of a bunch of retweets or Facebook shares in a sort of limbic MY CONTENT IS TINGLING sense, but so far, here, I feel a pleasant pressure to respond. Seems like other people do, too. I can’t wait to find out how exactly I’m totally wrong!”

Image of woman talking to a rock by Kačka a Ondra used under a creative commons license.

POSTED     Nov. 9, 2015, 2:46 p.m.
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