Results tagged “comments”

Toward Better Conversations

January 14, 2013

Today, my friends at Branch announced that their fun and pretty little conversation platform is now open to the world, available for you to bring your friends in and talk about what matters to you. (I'm an advisor, and became one because I liked the product when it was in beta.)

It's an exciting moment for me, not just because of the usual here's-our-new-features-check-it-out moment that startups live for (though you should read about all the new features!) Instead, I'm really optimistic about this moment of making a concerted effort to bring back meaningful, heartfelt conversation on the web.

This isn't a new fixation for me; when I was lamenting the web we lost, one of the fundamental underpinnings of my frustration was that we've lost the idea as a culture that positive, affirming web conversations are even possible. Hundreds of millions of people have come to the social web without ever knowing the era of making real human connections through open commenting online.

Making Friends and Influencing People

Why does it matter? Take my life: Most of the people who attended my wedding were people I'd first interacted with through conversations on the web, taking us from strangers to close friends over the course of a relatively short period of time. Most of the doors that have been opened to me happened because some of the folks whose sites or blogs or threads I commented on found my thoughts worthwhile enough to be willing to extend me an opportunity.

Those doors stay closed in the web we have today, where extreme abuse and acts of emotional violence are treated as common or even expected on most web forums. I've said it before, but it bears repeating: If your website's full of assholes, it's your fault. But for those of us who make tools and technology, it's also our fault in a profound way, making it hard to actively manage your conversation and community toward a positive outcome.

Branch is thinking of this problem from the standpoint of individuals who want to host conversations with a group of their friends all the way up to publishers who want to integrate thoughtful conversations from a set of invited contributors to become part of their offerings.

It's still early. Ideas like being able to highlight parts of a thread in order to emphasize it for others are still nascent, and it remains to be seen whether they'll work. But the important part is that someone's trying. There must be the ambition, the radical belief, that says the ability for the web to connect everyone doesn't intrinsically require that it be a brutal, unpleasant or even upsetting experience.

So as Branch takes its first tentative steps out into the larger world, I'm rooting for it to succeed, and for it to help inspire many other similar efforts, whether within individual sites or on standalone platforms, to provide a way for others to not just get as much out of the web as I was able to in the past, but to make real connections in a way that we couldn't have imagined.

Why you can't trust tech press to teach you about the tech industry

April 30, 2012

If there were one lesson I'd want to impress upon people who are interested in succeeding in the technology industry, it would be, as I've said before, know your shit. Know the discipline you're in, know the history of those who've done your kind of work before, understand the lessons of their efforts, and in general look beyond the things that are making noise right now in order to understand bigger patterns of how technology works, both literally and socially.

This is a difficult challenge, because today's media about the technology industry will not teach entrepreneurs and creators what they need to know about the history of the technology industry.

I don't just mean this in the obvious way — nobody thinks you can earn a PhD in computer science by reading a tech blog. But I mean the broader landscape of sites that attract attention from technology developers and startup aficionados are woefully myopic in their understanding and perspective of the disciplines they cover. [Disclaimer: This post mentions lots of sites that write about tech; I write for Wired (ostensibly a competitor) and advise Vox Media (parent of The Verge, mentioned below), as explained on my about page.]

Open For Comment

Let's take one example from a month ago. A blogger named Saud Alhawawi reported (judging by Google's translation) that Google is going to introduce a blog commenting system powered by their Google+ platform. If you work at a company which makes tools for feedback on sites, or if you care about the quality of comments on the web, this would be important news, so it's a great thing that it got picked up by WebProNews and TheNextWeb.

Given that Google generally refuses to comment on such pronouncements, and therefore would be unlikely to confirm or deny Alhawawi's blog post, the burden is thus on the rest of the tech blogosphere to explain to their readers the implications and importance that such a product would have, if Google were to launch it.

Fortunately, we have a very good record of how the major tech blogs covered this story, if they did. Techmeme has admirably preserved links to the many pieces written a month ago about this story. As you might expect, most were regurgitating the original stories, with a few mentioning Alhawawi's source post. These reposts showed up all over the place: 9to5 Google, BetaBeat, Business Insider, CNET (which oddly credits ReadWriteWeb but links to TNW), DailyTech, MarketingLand, Marketing Pilgrim, MarketingVox, MemeBurn, SlashGear, The Verge and VentureBeat.

Lots of linking with just the barest amount of original reporting, which is actually a fairly efficient way of getting a story out. But while I admire many of the smart people who work at a lot of these outlets, apparently no one who was linking to this story has more than the slightest bit of knowledge about the discipline they were covering.

What's Missing?

As you might expect, nearly every story mentioned that Facebook has a commenting widget similar to what Google is presumably creating. Google and Facebook are competitors, so that's a wise inclusion. Most also mentioned DIsqus, and sure, that's relevant since they're a big independent player. I don't expect that these stories would be comprehensive overviews of the commenting space, so it's fine that other minor players might get overlooked.

What is ridiculous, and absurd, is that not a single one of these outlets mentioned that Google itself had provided this exact type of commenting functionality and then shut it down. Google provided this service for years. And that last Google commenting service, called Friend Connect, was shut down just three weeks prior to this news about a new commenting service being launched.

That's insane. Whether you're a user trying to understand if it's worth trusting a commenting service, a developer judging whether to build on its API, an entrepreneur deciding if you should incorporate the service or worry about competing with it, or an investor who wanted to evaluate Google's seriousness about the space, the single most salient fact about Google's attempt to create this new product was omitted from every single story that covered it.

Worse, the sites themselves suffered for this omission — when everyone is covering the exact same story, if one site had gone with a headline that said "Google's New Commenting Service: The Secret History of How They've Failed Before!" they could have actually gotten more page views and distinguished themselves from the endless TheNextWeb regurgitation.

This isn't a case where a few lesser outlets omitted a minor point about a headline. It's a case where a story that was interesting enough to earn a full Techmeme pile-on was lacking in coverage that would be necessary for understanding the story at even the most superficial level. As you might expect, a few of the larger outlets have big enough audiences that their commenter communities were able to add the missing salient facts to the story, but on both The Verge and Business Insider, the comments which mentioned Friend Connect were buried in their respective threads and, as of a month later, not highlighted in the original posts.

Do Your Homework

Fortunately, whether or not Google makes a commenting widget isn't that big a deal on its own. Maybe they will or maybe they won't, and maybe it'll fail again or maybe it won't. But the key lesson to take away here is that we know a few things are wrong with the trade press in the technology world:

  • In tech financial coverage, there is a focus on valuation, deals and funding instead of markets, costs, profits, losses, revenues and sustainability.
  • In tech executive coverage, there is a focus on personalities and drama instead of capabilities and execution.
  • In tech product coverage, there is a focus on features and announcements instead of evaluating whether a product is meaningful and worthwhile.
  • Technology trade press doesn't treat our industry as a business, so much as a "scene"; If our industry had magazines, we'd have a lot of People but no Variety, a Rolling Stone, but no Billboard.

There are many more examples of the flaws, but these are obvious ones. What we may not know, though is that there's another flaw:
* For all but the biggest tech stories, any individual article likely lacks enough information to make a decision about the topic of that article.

Imagine if Apple launched a new version of the iPad and a story did not mention that any prior versions of the iPad existed. This is the level of analysis we frequently get from second-tier tech stories in our industry. And that's true despite the fact that technology trade press is actually getting better.

We need a tech industry that values history, perspective, and a long-term view. Today, we don't have that. But I'm optimistic, because I see that people who do value those things have a decided advantage over the course of their careers. One place to start is by filling in the blanks on the stories we read ourselves, perhaps by making use of a comment form?

We Have To Make The Web We Want

March 14, 2012

On Sunday, I interviewed Nick Denton at SXSW about Gawker Media, commenting culture on the web, and a good bit of the history of professional blogging.

In advance of the conversation, I began a conversation with Elizabeth Spiers, Choire Sicha, Lockhart Steele, Jake Dobkin and Gina Trapani asking whether comments on the web have "failed", as the SXSW session's title proclaimed. Their responses, as expected, were both insightful and hilarious. Gawker naturally picked up the conversation and posed the same question to its commenters. I quite enjoyed the results!

Then to the main event. We had a terrific turnout within the room, and responses to the interview started almost immediately. Within the room, Andrew Federman was illustrating our conversation for Ogilvy's visual notes series:

Mat Honan also followed up almost immediately on Gizmodo, with a series of curated tweets that managed to capture a lot of the highlights of the conversation.

Tom Lee also started documenting the interview while it was still going on. And Owen Thomas summed up much of the spirit of the conversation while also watching us from the first row. Adweek offers up some straightforward coverage, as did Now Toronto, CNN manages to cover the interview without mentioning that I was doing the interviewing, Liz Gannes at All Things D focuses on comment moderation, and perhaps most interesting was Doree Shafrir's take at Buzzfeed, which was informed by her stint at Gawker:

I wouldn't say we exactly lived in fear of the commenters when I was at Gawker, but they were always there, looming, and no matter how many times we told ourselves not to look at them, it was impossible not to. The tone of a comment thread was set within 30 seconds of your post going up, and more often than not, what you wrote — particularly if it was personal — felt like an attack by a thousand spikes all piercing you at the same time. (That said, I think working at Gawker at the height of the obsessive Gawker commenter gave me a much thicker skin than most people who write online, so, thanks, everyone!)

The Gawker commenters had their own community, their own inside jokes. They knew each other by their handles. At yesterday's panel, a former Gawker commenter got up to ask a question, and informed the crowd that he had
once been named Commenter of the Year around the time I was there. (Former Jezebel editor Irin Carmon and I had simultaneous and similar responses, which were basically: Oh my god.)

But all the hand-wringing aside, and regardless of whether Gawker's new experiment in commenting succeeds, the thing that excites me here is that Nick is still experimenting, still trying new things. For too long, the fundamental assumptions and format of blogging have been stagnating, and the technology has barely been advancing. At the same time, there's been almost a casual acceptance of the shoddiness of conversations on and between blogs.

Worse, those who used to decry the incivility and snarkiness and, well, unproductive nature of much of what passes of comments on the web today are instead just participating in that culture themselves:

It's not enough for us to decry the worst things about the web. We have to actively work to change them. For my part, I think encouraging the conversation about these issues, getting those who have influence about them to publicly commit to making changes, and then working on promoting those experiments is the most productive thing I can do. Because if the web we have today isn't the one we always imagined we'd be working on, then we have to make the web we want.

Related

If You Blogged It, It Did Happen

September 6, 2011

At the beginning of this year, I wrote a piece called if you didn't blog it, it didn't happen, about how your thoughts, ideas and conversations need a place to live permanently over time if they're going to inspire a useful discourse. And while today's social networks don't really enable that potential, we have some fantastic examples of how these conversations can bubble up across blogs even in a world of short attention spans.

  • My brief musings about what tech entrepreneurs should aspire to, influenced by Dave Winer's thoughts and aided by some riffing over dinner helped nudge Caterina Fake into writing Make Things, an all-time classic even in the context of her truly formidable blogging career. This in turn inspired additional phenomenal responses like Chad Dickerson's. From Dave to me to Caterina to Chad to dozens more people — this is exactly how blogging's supposed to work!
  • I mused a bit on what they're "protecting" us from when pointing out that many of the characteristics that describe Steve Jobs are exactly the traits that would keep many from allowing him the opportunity to succeed in America. Now, admittedly, I buried that point in the title of the post, but many mistook my point to be that Apple itself is somehow a bastion of liberal policies, as adequately refuted by Andrew Leonard's piece in Salon. To be fair, I've been strongly critical of Apple when appropriate, so I'm not at all arguing the company is the perfect representation of progressive ideals, but rather that regressive policies would prohibit it from existing in the first place, which is relevant in a time when every viable political candidate from one of the major political parties would try to enact those prohibitions if possible.
  • And going back over a few different pieces in the past several years, John Battelle's cry for an identity aggregator links to a few pieces that I've written about identity. There's something particularly gratifying to realizing that independent thoughts I've had at various times can evolve into a coherent body of thought when seen through the lens of another person's writing.
  • Finally, in response to an offhanded tweet of mine and a curmudgeonly request, Alpesh Shah made "We Have A Mobile Site! It's a quick and fun Tumblr where we can all catalog examples of "newsicide", that bizarre phenomenon where big news sites actively turn away parts of their audience by denying incoming mobile users the ability to read a story by redirecting instead to a homepage or ill-conceived mobile landing page. It's exasperating, but maybe a good catalog of such examples can help curtail the practice.

In short, by blogging the right things, and connecting the links together when a conversation gets going, we can really make things happen. That's still exciting.

If your website's full of assholes, it's your fault

July 20, 2011

We're twenty years in to this world wide web thing. Today, I myself celebrate twelve years of writing this blog. And yet those of us who love this medium, who've had our lives changed by the possibility of publishing our words to the world without having to ask permission, are constantly charged with defending this wonderful, expressive medium in a way that creators in every other discipline seldom find themselves obligated to do.

Some of this is because the medium is new, of course. But in large part, it's because so many of the most visible, prominent, and popular places on the web are full of unkindness and hateful behavior.

The examples are already part of pop culture mythology: We can post a harmless video of a child's birthday party and be treated to profoundly racist non-sequiturs in the comments. We can read about a minor local traffic accident on a newspaper's website and see vicious personal attacks on the parties involved. A popular blog can write about harmless topics like real estate, restaurants or sports and see dozens of vitriolic, hate-filled spewings within just a few hours.

But that's just the web, right? Shouldn't we just keep shrugging our shoulders and shaking our heads and being disappointed in how terrible our fellow humans are?

Expecting Rain Before Rest

This is a solved problem

As it turns out, we have a way to prevent gangs of humans from acting like savage packs of animals. In fact, we've developed entire disciplines based around this goal over thousands of years. We just ignore most of the lessons that have been learned when we create our communities online. But, by simply learning from disciplines like urban planning, zoning regulations, crowd control, effective and humane policing, and the simple practices it takes to stage an effective public event, we can come up with a set of principles to prevent the overwhelming majority of the worst behaviors on the Internet.

If you run a website, you need to follow these steps. if you don't, you're making the web, and the world, a worse place. And it's your fault. Put another way, take some goddamn responsibility for what you unleash on the world.

How many times have you seen a website say "We're not responsible for the content of our comments."? I know that when you webmasters put that up on your sites, you're trying to address your legal obligation. Well, let me tell you about your moral obligation: Hell yes, you are responsible. You absolutely are. When people are saying ruinously cruel things about each other, and you're the person who made it possible, it's 100% your fault. If you aren't willing to be a grown-up about that, then that's okay, but you're not ready to have a web business. Businesses that run cruise ships have to buy life preservers. Companies that sell alcohol have to keep it away from kids. And people who make communities on the web have to moderate them.

  • You should have real humans dedicated to monitoring and responding to your community. One of the easiest ways to ensure valuable contributions on your site is to make people responsible by having dedicated, engaged, involved community moderators who have the power to delete comments and ban users (in the worst case) but also to answer questions and guide conversations for people who are unsure of appropriate behavior (in the best cases). Sites that do this, like MetaFilter and Stack Exchange sites (disclosure, I'm a proud board member of Stack Exchange) get good results. Those that don't, don't. If you can't afford to invest the time or money in grooming and rewarding good community moderators? Then maybe don't have comments. And keep in mind: You need lots of these moderators. The sites with the best communities have a really low ratio of community members to moderators.
  • You should have community policies about what is and isn't acceptable behavior. Your community policy should be short, written in plain language, easily accessible, and phrased in flexible terms so people aren't trying to nitpick the details of the rules when they break them. And then back them up with significant consequences when people break them: Either temporary or permanent bans on participation.
  • Your site should have accountable identities. No, people don't have to use their real names, or log in with Google or Facebook or Twitter unless you want them to. But truly anonymous commenting often makes it really easy to have a pile of shit on your website, especially if you don't have dedicated community moderators. When do newspapers publish anonymous sources? When the journalists know the actual identity and credibility of the person, and decide it is a public good to protect their identity. You may wish to follow the same principles, or you can embrace one of my favorite methods of identity: Persistent pseudonyms. Let users pick a handle that is attached to all of their contributions in a consistent way where other people can see what they've done on the site. Don't make reputation a number or a score, make it an actual representation of the person's behavior. And of course, if appropriate, don't be afraid to attach people's real names to their comments and contributions. But you'll find "real" identities are no cure for assholes showing up in your comments if you aren't following the rest of the principles described here.
  • You should have the technology to easily identify and stop bad behaviors. If you have a community that's of decent size, it can be hard for even a sufficient number of moderators to read every single conversation thread. So a way for people to flag behavior that violates guidelines, and a simple set of tools for allowing moderators to respond quickly and appropriately, are a must-have so that people don't get overwhelmed.
  • You should make a budget that supports having a good community, or you should find another line of work. Every single person who's going to object to these ideas is going to talk about how they can't afford to hire a community manager, or how it's so expensive to develop good tools for managing comments. Okay, then save money by turning off your web server. Or enjoy your city where you presumably don't want to pay for police because they're so expensive.

Just a start

Those are, of course, just a few starting points for how to have a successful community. You need many more key factors for a community to truly thrive, and I hope others can suggest them in the comments. (Yep, I know I'm asking for it by having comments on this post.)

But as I reflected back on the wonderful, meaningful conversations I've had in the last dozen years of this blog, I realized that one of the reasons people don't understand how I've had such a wonderful response from all of you over the years is because they simply don't believe great conversations can happen on the web. Fortunately, I have seen so much proof to the contrary.

Why are they so cynical about conversation on the web? Because a company like Google thinks it's okay to sell video ads on YouTube above conversations that are filled with vile, anonymous comments. Because almost every great newspaper in America believes that it's more important to get a few more page views on their website than to encourage meaningful discourse about current events within their community, even if many of those page views will be off-putting to the good people who are offended by the content of the comments. And because lots of publishers think that any conversation is good if it boosts traffic stats.

Well, the odds are I've been doing this blogging thing longer than you, so let me tell you what I've learned: When you engage with a community online in a constructive way, it can be one of the most meaningful experiences of your life. It doesn't have to be polite, or neat and tidy, or full of everyone agreeing with each other. It just has to not be hateful and destructive.

In that spirit, I've tried to hold off on actually naming names of people who run sites that encourage hateful horrible communities. Mostly because the people actually running the sites aren't being granted the resources or power to make the choices they need to make to have a fruitful community. But I'm lucky enough after all these years that my words sometimes get in front of those who do have the power to fix the web's worst communities.

So, I beseech you: Fix your communities. Stop allowing and excusing destructive and pointless conversations to be the fuel for your business. Advertisers, hold sites accountable if your advertising appears next to this hateful stuff. Take accountability for this medium so we can save it from the vilification that it still faces in our culture.

Because if your website is full of assholes, it's your fault. And if you have the power to fix it and don't do something about it, you're one of them.

Thank you to John Fraissinet for the image.

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