Turning inner space into outer space

January 13, 2013

It's time to be more innovative with commenting systems

Staff at newspapers with websites typically think of the comments as a nuisance. There are a lot of anonymous people out there with anger management issues, and each and every one of their comments has to be dealt with one way or another.

Still, we shouldn’t let this stop us from using our commenting systems in innovative ways. After all, the software used to run these systems is quite powerful. Surely, there is more that can be done other than bolt them onto the end of stories.

With that in mind, I’ve come up with three ideas stolen from other venues:

Ask Me Anything

At Reddit, anyone can introduce themselves and invite people to ask them anything. Sometimes they set limits, sometimes it’s a free-for-all. Everyone knows about Barack Obama’s foray during the U.S. election campaign, but there have been many other interesting ones. For example, a man living on a First Nations reserve in Canada invited readers to ask questions, and I have to say I was impressed with the genuine seeking of knowledge about his life.

Reddit, of course, is a forum. But Ask Me Anything could be adapted into a commenting system as well. For example, someone in the community with an interesting job — maybe a nurse or a firefighter or an artist — could be introduced through a short article, then invite questions in the comments. They could be kept anonymous to protect their privacy. Another possibility might be local politicians inviting the public to ask them about a particular topic.

Lounge and Thunderdome

PZ Myers has a blog called Pharyngula where he regularly opens up threads for people to talk about any subject they want. He introduces them with a short article and sets the rules. For the Lounge, kind words only are allowed and moderation is tight. For Thunderdome, anything goes and moderation is loose. These are great ways to mix things up. I can see newspaper editors balking at Thunderdome because it would be sure to get out of hand, and even loose moderation could suck up their time. But the Lounge might make for a welcome relief and perhaps even encourage kinds words in other threads.

Are there other ways to be innovative with comments? We really need to think about how they can be used to our advantage.