As I wrote recently, news organisations have only begun to scratch the surface in terms of innovative interfaces that could encourage readers to explore the rich content on their sites and also increase and improve reader interaction. When I wrote that post, the Washington Post had debuted a Django-based commenting system called WebCom that reminded me of ThinkMap’s Visual Thesaurs. WebCom reflects comment popularity, which can become a self-reinforcing cycle. I will be interested to see if they might add another layer to the interface that allows people to explore the conversation based on themes or topics. This could be easily achieved by using Thomson-Reuter’s Calais semantic analysis system to expose themes in the comments.
Now the New York Times has debuted a new visual commenting tool. It’s debut is being used to help people discuss and explore some of the issues regarding the healthcare (some might argue the health insurance) debate in the US. The boxes all relate to an issue in the debate, and a drop-down menu allows you to jump to that topic and see a brief overview of the issue. The relative size of the boxes reflect the number of comments, and hovering over the people icons at the bottom of the boxes allow you to quickly see a bit of the comment. You can also also easily jump to replies to comments that you have left. It appears that the topics aren’t generated organically by the discussion but are created by the New York Times editorial staff. In some ways, it’s a slightly advanced, and somewhat stilted form of threading. It’s almost more of a discussion system than it is strictly a commenting system.
At the time of writing this post, there are few comments so it’s difficult to see how it will work both conversationally and technically as the volume of comments increases. That will be the real test of the system because one of the reasons why news sites need interface innovation in commenting systems is because of the volume of comments on media sites.
Here on Strange Attractor, the comments tend to be more off-site, posts written in response to what Suw and I write. Very rarely do we have a high volume of comments on the blog, which makes it easy for us to manage and for our readers to engage with. We don’t write about politics or hot button social issues. Rather, we write about a very specialist, niche topic. The conversations tend to be pretty high level, and we love our readers because of the level of intelligence that they bring.
On news sites, the volume of comments on the posts is much, much higher, and it quickly becomes difficult for journalists and readers to follow the discussion and have any meaningful interaction. The comments tend not to respond to each other but rather are usually a string of unrelated statements. Most of the current solutions all have their drawbacks. Threading has its issues because it tends to fragment the discussion, which is what I fear this New York Times interface will do. Voting up, or down, Digg-style helps in some ways but suffers from the same issues of the self-reinforcing popularity that WebCom faces. Again, a few criticisms don’t mean I think these experiments aren’t worthwhile. Far from that, I think it’s great to finally see some interface exploration in terms of commenting and not just content presentation by news websites. Hopefully, this is a sign of things to come. It’s long past time that news organisations realise that the volume of comments they receive requires something more than flat, linear comment threads below blog posts or articles. Done right, it will help increase participation, user experience, interaction and maybe even the quality of the conversation.