Comments as content: The medium hinders the message
When articles were published in hard-copy newspapers, reader response was left to the ultimate in asynchronous communication: letters to the editor for differences of opinion, and corrections when a mistake was discovered. As brick-and-mortar newspapers moved into the digital realm, the static publishing model initially stuck, albeit with an easier method for correcting mistakes.
When we digest a story published by a large newspaper, be it in digital or dead tree form, we assign the strongest signal to the content of the article. In exchange for giving the journalist our full attention, we expect that the news organization has put significant effort to researching, writing, and editing the story. Newspapers rarely put uncurated content front-and-center because they trust their own vetted content more, and in part to justify the expense that went into their refined content.
Along the path from single-source hard copies of stories to the everyone-gets-a-voice world of microblogging, we got comments. Blogs frequently display discussion threads following each entry, and sites such as Digg, Reddit, and Hacker News provide us with another forum to chat with the community about articles we find interesting.
Many blogging outfits, including those run by organizations as large as the New York Times, now employ comment systems beyond their purpose as a meta-article discussion medium. One often finds blog entries that end with prompts such as “What has your experience been? Let us know in the comments!” Or “If you know more about this late-breaking story, leave a comment below!” In the same way that live-blogging has taken blog entries from static entities to up-to-the-minute documents, comments sometimes become a necessary part of the stories which they adjoin. Slashdot sometimes takes this one step further: when a topic of wide interest appears, the editors open an essentially content-free story with the express purpose of leaving a place for comments.
If comments can sometimes be the content of a story, then why are they always relegated to the bottom of the story? What is the user interface for displaying articles where readers are assigned a reporter’s role? How do we assign prominence to the most informative fragments of story and user-generated content? Flickr and Facebook have figured this out to some extent–you can annotate photos and witness the result in situ. Youtube lets users embed annotations in videos. How do we apply this concept to text media? What tools already do this, and what ideas do you have for improvement? Leave your comment below!