Has Nick Denton really reinvented comments?

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Gawker Media and founder Nick Denton got a lot of attention earlier this year, including some from us at GigaOM, when the blog network launched a new commenting system called Kinja. At the time, Denton said he had grown dissatisfied with the state of comments — both at Gawker and on the internet in general — and wanted to reinvent them as a form of communication between a site and its users. In effect, the Gawker founder said he hoped to turn traditional publishing on its head and make comments the primary feature of a story rather than an afterthought. After a few months of operation, Denton has told the Nieman Lab that he is happy with the way the new system is working. But has he really reinvented comments?

In an interview with me just before the launch of the new platform, the Gawker founder and media gadfly said that his previous attempt to reinvent comments on the network — which awarded regular commenters points and virtual badges for good behavior, similar to the “karma points” that Slashdot gives to readers — was a failure. Why? Because it encouraged exactly the wrong kinds of commenters, he said. Instead of professional social-media users, Denton said he wanted to appeal to the actual subjects of stories, so that a critical post about someone like Dov Charney of American Apparel might see Charney himself wade into the comments. Said Denton:

It was a terrible mistake. It doesn’t work because people game it — and the people who game it are the people with time and social-media expertise, and those are not the people with information or insight.

As far as I can tell, Charney hasn’t shown up in the comments section at Gawker yet, but Andrew Phelps at Nieman Lab says there have been at least a few incidents that have come close — including a recent post at Jalopnik, in which the author of a review of the Tesla S electric sports car at the Wall Street Journal showed up to address the criticisms that Jalopnik’s editor-in-chief had. It apparently took a private Facebook message from the editor to get the WSJ writer to actually show up at the site, but at least he provided an extensive rebuttal to the Jalopnik post, and other readers weighed in with some fairly thoughtful and intelligent responses.

In an email to Phelps, Denton also provides some other examples — including one that saw Gizmodo readers do a live Q & A session with the pilot of a top-secret U.S. spy plane called the A-12, another question-and-answer session with two game developers on the gaming site Kotaku, and a post that saw Gawker writer Max Read wade into the comments to debate a reader about the relative wealth of people living in the East Hamptons, after Read criticized some lame interviews that rich people gave at a Mitt Romney fundraiser.

Has Denton reinvented comments? Not really

So is this convincing evidence of the reinvention of comments? In some ways, perhaps. It’s certainly a positive step to see writers responding to readers in the comments section of a post (although Denton has apparently outlawed the use of the term “comments”). This is something we try hard to do with every post at GigaOM, because we see those comments as an important way of interacting with — and learning from — our readers, or what journalism professor Jay Rosen likes to call “the people formerly known as the audience.” Some have dismissed comments as cesspools filled with bile and not worth their time, but we disagree, and it’s nice to see that Denton does too.

That said, however, much of the evidence that Denton provides consists of Q & A sessions with interview subjects like the game developers and the A-12 pilot — events that are very similar to the “Ask Me Anything” features that the web community Reddit does regularly, but don’t seem to work quite as well because of the way that Gawker’s system threads (or doesn’t thread) replies to comments. And is hosting the occasional question-and-answer session proof that comments have been reinvented? Not really.

There are plenty of other attempts to reimagine what a discussion platform for the web should look like: the comment platform Disqus has been rolling out enhancements and adding features, and so has competitor Livefyre, and many sites such as Talking Points Memo have chosen to go with Facebook-hosted comments (although I’ve argued that doing so is a double-edged sword). Then there are newer experiments like Branch, the New York-based startup that is trying to host invitation-only discussions, and all-in-one social comment inbox experiments like Engagio.

If there’s one thing that new media and traditional media players can agree on, it’s that comments on the internet can be an incredibly frustrating experience at the best of times, and no one really knows how to fix them. Denton should get some credit for trying (repeatedly, as Phelps’ post at Nieman Lab notes), but the real solution has yet to be found. And the only thing that seems to work in the interim — as media blogger Anil Dash has pointed out in the past — is for writers to own the comments on their stories and blog posts, instead of seeing them as an afterthought.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr user Tony Margiocchi and Gawker Media

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