Dealing with the dilemma of blog post comments
There is an interesting divergence between the online and offline world when it comes to comments and letters. In traditional print newspapers, the 'letters to the editor' page was often one of the most popular pieces of content. However, the online comments section of newspapers is generally one of the most despised and little read elements.
I can attest to this. I find nothing quite so depressing as reading a story on the Guardian news website and then reading through hundreds of generally highly opinionated, subjective and sometimes downright moronic comments that have appeared below. This is a web phenomenon, of course, not specific to the Guardian.
It's not that you don't get some thoughtful, well-expressed views in amongst the dross - it's just that you have to scroll through lots of dross to get there, and most people don't bother.
Letters pages for the newspapers traditionally had a higher barrier to entry. You actually had to put pen to paper, put a stamp on it and get it into the post. But, most importantly, there was then an editorial process that - on behalf of the reader - selected those letters that were most interesting. As Mark Pack observes - letters in newspapers were for the readers. On the other hand, comments on blogs and news websites are for the commenters. And with no barriers to commenting, and the ability to do so pretty much anonymously, comments forms have become vehicles for streams of drivel.
But Gawker is now trying something new. It has redesigned its site so that featured comments only appear on the page with the original story, whilst all other comments are still freely allowed and able to be accessed with an extra click. Featured comments are those that attract a conversation, and commenters can accept or dismiss responses.
That means that the site is no longer exposed to the downside of the timeline. Sites that organise comments most recent first will often have earlier, thoughtful posts drowned by people who's anger or obsession for a subject leads them to post in volume.
Gawker's model is interesting - a compromise between the editorial selection of thoughtful, interesting responses and the 'free for all' ethos of the online community. It may well become a model for news sites and others that attract high volumes of comments of varying levels of quality.
It may also be a device that companies should consider on sites like corporate responsibility sites. For most companies, these attract few responses anyway and the corporate mindset is such that allowing critical comments to appear on your own website is something never to be tried. But for some companies - particularly those that attract more critical attention and who have developed thicker skins - it could well be that the ability to focus attention on well-considered commentary (with the company's own responses, developing into a dialogue) whilst allowing all comers to say what they think - well, perhaps that could work extremely well.
In any case, it is overdue that we saw a response to the challenge of website comments. We should follow Gawker's experiment with interest, and look out for other experiments as they take place.