Kill your antiquated article structure not your comments

Adam Tinworth
Adam Tinworth

The tyranny of the comment box

David Higgerson published an interesting meditation on comments under articles yesterday. “Are comments under articles worth doing?” he asks, and flirts with the answer “no”, without coming to a definitive conclusion. The post, and the comments underneath (ironically) are well worth reading.

There are, I think, a couple of issues that arise from this. Firstly, if you have a problem with your comments, did you invest in community management resources before you enabled comments? If not, well, there’s part of your problem.

Secondly, the closer you get to general interest, the more of a problem you’re likely to have with comments. There’s less consequence for commenters, and often less personal investment in the subject. And, in my experience, the more mainstream the journalist, the more likely they’re to see themselves as above interacting with the hoi polloi readership…

Most importantly, though, I think there’s a structural issue which David gets very close to identifying here:

If you look at a blog by a sports journalist, you’ll see a much higher quality of comment than you will under the same sports journalist’s stories elsewhere on the site – and the quality will be even higher if the sports journalist responds to the comments.

A journalist and a reader will get infinitely more out of an open relationship via Twitter than they will via comments under a story. Maybe it’s the 140-character limit keeping you brief, or maybe it’s because on social media you expect the journalist to see what you’ve said. Or maybe it’s the fact that on Twitter – and even more so on Facebook – you’re more likely to use your real name.

Here’s the thing: most article formats are designed for the print age. The sites they sit on are structured in ways not unlike that of print, a medium where there is no inherent ability for the reader to react straight back to the author. Articles are designed to be complete in of themselves, not open-ended and prone to discussion. The author is a long way down the list of priority in “ownership” of the page. None of these are creating social signals that promote a good discussion.

A blog is a lot more than just a series of articles with comments under it. There are issues of ownership, identity and community that just can’t arise out of the more loosely collated structure that articles are publishing in online. A blog is a social construct. A website with a series of articles on it is not. Too often, attaching comments to a traditional form articles is like attaching an internal combustion engine to a bicycle: you can probably hack together something that goes, but you’re undermining the strengths of each of the two parts…

However, I’m not saying just rip comments off articles, and forget the whole thing. I’m suggesting that you need to rethink your articles more completely for the digital era. You build a motorbike by attacking an internal combustion engine to a frame that was designed for it. The problem isn’t that comments are broken, it’s that our site structures are still too wedded in print.

I’m more interested in rethinking site structures and article formats for the social publishing age than deciding if comments “work”…

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Adam is a lecturer, trainer and writer. He's been a blogger for over 20 years, and a journalist for more than 30. He lectures on audience strategy and engagement at City, University of London.