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Are comments a wretched hive of scum and villainy or an underused resource for publishers?

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There seem to be two competing views of website and blog comments at the moment: By far the most popular one is that reader comments — particularly on traditional media sites — are useless cesspools populated by trolls and hate-mongers who can actually do far more harm than good. The other view is that comments are a potential source not just of high-quality thought or opinion, but of writers who might be worthy of the same profile as a site’s salaried staff, not to mention a potential business model.

It should probably come as no surprise that Gawker Media is in the latter camp, since founder Nick Denton has a penchant for zigging while others are zagging, and is more than happy to rip up much of his existing network in order to try something new. The latest new thing is the Kinja discussion platform, which Denton talked about with me last year just before it launched — describing it as the core of the Gawker empire’s future. The latest version of the platform was just rolled out to users at Jalopnik.

Gawker comments1

Every commenter now becomes a blogger

As Tim Carmody at The Verge describes in a post on the new features, the platform essentially turns every commenter into a blogger. Prior to the latest change, readers had a profile page that showed their latest contributions, but now they have what amounts to a full-fledged blog with publishing ability — complete with their own custom address at And editor Matt Hardigree says that the site, and by extension other Gawker sites, will be looking at the comments as a source of content and even future hires:

“If you want, you’ll also be able to republish articles from our site (and eventually all Gawker sites) and we’ll be able to do the same. If we do republish something you created you’ll get the byline, the credit, and it’ll be clear where it came from. When we look for the next generation of writers for our site, and other sites, we’ll be looking at who does well in Kinja.”

It’s worth noting that Gawker already has a history of hiring writers from its comment section, something that the political blog network Daily Kos has also done a number of times. And it’s not just blogs: Yoni Appelbaum, a PhD candidate in history, commented so intelligently on Ta-Nehisi Coates’ posts at The Atlantic that he was eventually made a guest blogger.

Denton’s plan with Kinja isn’t just to create platforms for Gawker readers to hold forth on whatever they wish — the new system is also designed to function as a potential marketing vehicle, with advertisers and brands encouraged to participate (and possibly even sponsor) discussions that begin in the comments on a story. This is just one of a number of revenue-generating experiments that Gawker is rolling out over the next little while, Denton says.

Gawker comments

Others also want to turn readers into bloggers

And Gawker isn’t the only new-media entity that is trying to reinvent reader contributions: The Verge, which is published by Vox Media, has turned its discussion forums into content hubs of their own, and often highlights them on the front page (Note: Vox Media founder Jim Bankoff will be speaking at our paidContent Live conference on April 17 in New York).

The question-and-answer site Quora, meanwhile, has launched something that is like an amalgam of Gawker’s approach and The Verge’s: the site recently turned its reader forums into blogs — which means that every contributor to those forums now has a blog page. And as my colleague Jeff Roberts recently described, The Huffington Post has launched a “Conversations” feature that gives popular discussion threads their own webpage.

In a sense, these efforts are just an evolution of the approach that the Huffington Post took when it first launched, which was to give almost anyone who wanted it the ability to publish a blog post. Will these new players produce anything valuable, or just a lot of sound and fury?

Images courtesy of Flickr users Jeremy King and Pew Center

10 Responses to “Are comments a wretched hive of scum and villainy or an underused resource for publishers?”

  1. cas127

    Speaking of wretched scum, isn’t that Paul “ALL YOUR QE-DILUTED SAVINGS BELONGS TO US” Krugman and “Zimbabwe Ben” Bernanke in the photo – circa 2020, post inflationary apocalypse?

  2. I have always said two things: “Comments are content” – not just during breaking news, when commenters can contribute new information, observations, etc., but also for stories that need more digging, such as an ongoing issue here – a story we broke – police installing federally funded surveillance cameras without community consultation first; commenters have dug up more information, even gone out for a closer look at the cameras. #2 – NO ONLINE ENTERPRISE OF ANY SIZE HAS ANY EXCUSE FOR NOT HAVING/ENFORCING RULES. The only reason comments are a sewer on any site is because the site owner/s abdicated their responsibility. I understand there may be the occasional site that really wants to see a mudfight (or worse) among certain readers. Otherwise, if you can afford to run a website, you can afford to keep watch on your comments. And don’t just make it the province of a “community manager” or “moderators.” On news sites, every reporter should be responsible for her/his stories’ discussion section. Etc.

  3. Jacquelyn McBain

    These comments about comments have been useful…giving me links I hadn’t considered. Saw Ta-Nehisi Coates’ on UP…interesting to learn where he came from.
    The commodifying side of comments is something that might best occur further down the line…when someone’s comments get attention and you get hired!
    But finding truth is what it’s about, isn’t it? And when there’s money to be had, corruption and distortion take off like plagues, especially without a healthy societal immune system, like a good, functioning FCC. I think that’s why bad comments in the Wall Street Journal are frequent…it’s the domain of the dollar first and ideas are there to support that end rather than the pursuit of truth untethered by this goal.
    Beyond money, these segues are the healthy tissue of discourse…group think. This might become a better immune system and less corruptible than governmental agencies many of which are currently, willfully hampered or which function in name only.

  4. Martin Belam

    The trouble is I often find myself holding the “two competing views of website and blog comments” at the same time – really useful on small digital-only publications, often really dreadful on large traditional sites that don’t resource managing them well. I’ve got a lot of time for the community management teams at the big players, I think they often do a lot of good work with very little support.

  5. David Thomas

    Its the fundamental difference between qualitative and quantitative marketing data — the qualitative has to be evaluated with a lot of scrutiny and skepticism. As in a previous commentary, MI explored the issue of veracity which can’t be assessed very well — new approaches adopt a merit badge approach (ala foursquare, etc.). The key is not to over value comments — treat them as windows to inferences that can be assessed by data studies, not a sampling of majority sentiment.

  6. Cool – the previous 2 comments illustrate both ends of the spectrum.

    To avoid falling into that trap let me say that, even though I have to wade through a lot of garbage to find it, comments can sometimes provide the best information, or at least important context for the stories they follow.

    But different publications and comment systems seem to collect wildly varying quality. Wall Street Journal and Yahoo! seem to bring the worst comments. Slate used to be near the top, until their experiment with Facebook’s comments engine. Ars Tecnica seem pretty good. Newsvine had a great system for a while (star comments, and a way to see only these), but I haven’t checked back in a while.

    Who does comments best now?

    • It’s interesting that you say the Wall Street Journal has the worst comments — I would have expected them to be better, since it has a paywall. For me, some of the best comments appear on personal blogs like Union Square Ventures partner Fred Wilson’s AVC blog, or Ta-Nehisi Coates’ stuff at the Atlantic.

      • Kevin Horne

        Not sure if NYTimes is the same, but you can comment without being a subscriber. So even when you hit the paywall in a set time period, the comments tab on the article is still there for you to access…which might be why the comments might not always be of high quality (i.e., people who comment without reading the whole artilce ;-)

  7. Great Post…..In my opinion Comments do add “Value” and there is a possibility that they can be leveraged to add revenues

    Interesting to see how aggressively companies create and extend technology to; extract value, “softly” encircle, and commoditize community created content.