I’ve identified four main types of commenting systems:
- Traditional – threads at the bottom of a story
- Structured comments – requires an extra structural step to comment
- Annotated comments – inline threads
- Stand-alone discussion platforms with user-generated threads
Many of these systems incorporate elements of the others. A news organization might have what appears to be a traditional commenting system, but also include functionalities associated with social media sites, such as including a “share” button, or it could include a voting or ranking feature to sort comments in ways other than by their timestamps.
According to the recent APME survey on comments, which was shared with me for this research, 94 percent of respondents’ news organizations allow readers to post comments at the end of stories and columns posted on their websites.
“For the most part the structure, format, and technical requirements/output of comments have been the same since the start of blogging,” said Aram Zucker-Scharff, content strategist at CFO Publishing, who also works in new media consulting and web development. “We’ve made them faster, real-time, and given them more sign-ins, but DISQUS is perhaps the most ‘advanced’ commenting tool out there and about three features differentiate it from the most drop-dead simple commenting platforms out there. It’s not much.”
Many of us are familiar with and accustomed to seeing this type of “box” – displayed beneath the article – where readers can input their comments and see other comments in the chronological order they were posted. For the sake of simplicity, I’ll call this a traditional commenting structure.
Dooling, who works in audience development, writes that readers understand their place in this structure is “delegated to a small section beneath piles of ads, videos, banners, and slideshows.” After all, it’s not new. Blogger has been around more than 15 years. “[Readers] feel that no one is listening, and so, they come in angry, flailing wildly, begging to be heard with outrageous statements in caps lock,” writes Dooling.
To cope with this dynamic, some news organizations have moved to third party tools and services, like using a social network plugin. The Huffington Post recently adopted this strategy in June when it transitioned from custom-built comments to using Facebook’s plugin, Comments. Using this commenting service requires that anyone who comments must be a registered Facebook member. Comments are stored and shared on Facebook’s servers. Facebook comments discourage spam and provide easy interactions on the page.
Using Facebook comments can be a way to drive traffic to your website as well as limit bullying and potentially decrease incivility by eliminating anonymity. However, in eliminating anonymity, news organizations using Facebook comments might also see a decline in participation.
DataUniverse reports that Facebook is the most used service to provide comments to websites, but other commenting system variations also represent a large portion of the marketshare: Disqus currently holds the number two spot, CommentLuv number three and Livefyre number four.
These variations can cut across platforms, support “comprehensive comment managing” and often integrate social media and offer customization options. Disqus, the comment hosting service that publications such as ProPublica use, is designed to build communities. Crunchbase describes the service as a “platform for social integration, social networking, user profiles, analytics and more.” Livefyre, which The Seattle Times now uses, offers a “suite of real-time products” to increase traffic, revenue and user engagement. Livefyre captures “the conversations” about your posts across Facebook and Twitter, to “pull” more people into the conversation.
Over the last couple years, some news organizations are incorporating comments that are less “free for all.” Structured comments add an extra layer in the commenting system to help organize readers’ responses. For example, before the reader can post his comment, he must answer the question prompted. This question could address the reader’s opinion of the article topic; this is how The New York Times and The Washington Post structured comments around their coverage of the Defence of Marriage Act (DOMA) ruling in 2013. In many designs, structured comments help readers and editors see and better understand the overall audience and the viewpoints expressed.
How the Washington Post structured reader comments around the Supreme Court’s ruling on gay marriage.
Other publishers like Quartz focused efforts around annotated comments, which are comments appended at the paragraph level rather than the bottom of the story.
Quartz attributes its idea for annotated comments to the 17th and 18th century newspaper tradition of leaving space in the margins for readers to write down their thoughts and ideas. “Annotations are an extension of that tradition,” according to Quartz’s website. The idea behind this system is that readers can input their thoughts directly into the relevant parts of the content, which can help keep related comments together.
A critique of this type of system, and similar systems such as Genius.com (previously Rap Genius), is that the annotations can become distracting, especially when the platform is relatively new. Quartz hides the text of the annotations themselves and uses a subtle icon to signal that a paragraph has an annotation available.
Other news sites have built stand-alone discussion platforms with user-generated threads, such as Gawker’s Kinja, which Gawker says allows readers “the power to curate the conversation” by using the same tools and their functionalities — replying, dismissing, following, liking and sharing — as editors.