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Clay Shirky: Why do comments suck?

At SCS13, Clay Shirky says that “Why do comments suck so bad?” is one of the questions that is perpetually asked in public discussions. So, what’s the answer?

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

Clay points to YouTube as the “basement” of conversation, even in comments on innocuous videos, but there are sites discussing contentious issues that are quite civil and useful. And Google owns YouTube, and they have lots of money and an Internet sensibility, but still YouTube comments suck.

Explanation #1: The world is filled with trolls. But in fact, some sites with good commenting sections moderate comments, thinking about the commenters as a community, not as individuals asserting “First Amendment” rights.

Explanation #2: “Good. Big. Cheap. Pick two.” YouTube’s scale is “an attractive nuiscance.” If you have a publishing frame, then you want to let as many people in. If you have a community view, you are ok with limiting page views. E.g., Gawker uses an algorithm that features comments based on the richness of the thread. (The lower-ranked comments are still there.)

Explanation #3: “What do you want the users to do?” Publishing sites actually want people to forward the article to a million friends and then read another article. They often relegate the comments to the bottom of the page. E.g., the NYT says “Share your thoughts,” which is incredibly generic. No guidance is given. The result are responses that read like letters to the editor, without interaction or conversation. The NYT gives you actionable info for shows, but not for candidates: no links to their sites, no way to donate, etc. “The NYT is much better at helping consumers plug into markets than citizens to plug into politics.”

Explanation #4. “Institutions dodnot have the full range of either social technical solutions available to them culturally.” They can’t think of their commenters as a community instead of as a way of generating low-cost page views.

Q&A

Clay would like newspapers to have a dashboard of options they can use when constructing commenting sections, each customized to the article.

Q: [Anil Dash] Why ascribe this to ignorance instead of malice. Many of this institutions are served by making their readers look stupid.

Clay: That’s one of my a priori assumptions. I don’t think the individuals making choices are purposefully trying to keep the comments shallow and to prevent collective action. Rather, “letters to the editor” is a comfortable place for them.

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More Stories By David Weinberger

David is the author of JOHO the blog (www.hyperorg.com/blogger). He is an independent marketing consultant and a frequent speaker at various conferences. "All I can promise is that I will be honest with you and never write something I don't believe in because someone is paying me as part of a relationship you don't know about. Put differently: All I'll hide are the irrelevancies."