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More on Commenting

by Joe Loong on March 24, 2009

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(Note that the title is a homophonic phrase that stays valid, even in milk.)

Here’s a followup to my post, This Entry Is Full of Silent Failure (incidentally, one of my more favorite headlines) — I got a Facebook message from a reader who pointed out that this blog included some silent failure of its own: When commenters submit their comments, they’re held for moderation, so the comments don’t show up immediately. However, we didn’t have a notice to that effect, so to would-be commenters, it looked like an actual posting problem — sssshh, silent failure.

I passed this along to Shashi, so now there’s notice telling people about the post moderation (along with this blog’s terms of use), just above the comment field, which should help a little bit.

Now, from what we know of participation inequality, it’s usually hard enough to get people to comment (unless you’re YouTube and your problem is too many morons) so you want to make sure you’re not putting up unnecessary barriers that drive people away from commenting.

Here are a few other thoughts about how you can make commenting easier and better for your readers and yourself (noting full well that I’m in a glass house throwing stones, though I’ve made a few suggestions to the team on how we can improve the commenting here).

* Registration: Let’s face it — requiring registration to comment is a fact of life. (Especially for higher trafficked blogs. Thank you, spammers and trolls.) The problem is that there’s a difference between requiring a valid e-mail address, and making people register for yet another account, with another password I’m going to forget immediately (unless I do what I’m not supposed to do and use the same password all over the place).

Theoretically, this is where Open ID would really shine, although it’s still not living up to its promise. We’re seeing some comment registration portability by platform (register once and your WordPress or Blogger identity carries across the network), but there are still a lot of one-off blog registrations, especially on news sites.

I tell you, I have to be really motivated to register for Yet Another Blog Commenting System. Though this is also mitigated by…

* Centralized commenting systems: Not only do comment aggregation and centralization services (like Disqus, which we use here) help reduce the need for one-off registrations, but they also help take fragmented conversations, siloed in disparate blogs, and turn them into a more unified conversations. Theoretically, anyway — there’s a lot of room for improvement here.

Related (and available as a separate set of tools are)…

* Comment tracking: When you get notified when someone replies to your comment, it helps close the conversational loop. coComment and Commentful are services available to users, though even with browser extensions or bookmarklets, it’s up to the user to remember to use them. (I still forget to track my comments with annoying regularity.)

More and more, though, we’re seeing blog and other Web publishing platforms provide the built-in option to notify commenters via e-mail when there’s a reply. It helps turn one-way postings (à la guestbooks) into something more like two-way discussions.

* Comment activity indicators: The benefit to this are pretty straightforward: No one likes talking to an empty room, so things like comment counts and recently posted comments help show where people are talking.

* Comment preview: Different commenting systems allow different things. Some accept HTML tags (like <b></b> and <i></i>), some don’t; others automatically turn URLs into hyperlinks; others don’t allow anything except plain text. If you don’t have the ability to preview comments, you run the risk of looking like a n00b because your HTML link code is visible (oh, and also broke your link). People generally don’t like looking dumb.

Like I always say, a blog that doesn’t allow commenting isn’t a blog, it’s just kind of blog-ish. Even though accepting comments opens a whole lot of headaches, they’re still valuable and part of what makes the platform so valuable, so it behooves us to make the commenting process as smooth and as valuable as possible.

Got your own thoughts about improving the commenting experience? Please feel free to… leave a comment. (Duh.)

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