Cultivating Conversations

I go to a website and read an article. Man, that was really great. I’d like to comment and ask the author a question. I scroll down… 384 comments. Ugh. Screw this.

This seems to happen more often these days. I only have so much available cognitive time I want to invest before participating in a conversation. The longer the amount of time, the greater chance I will give up. The problem is, this doesn’t relieve my desire to comment or ask a question, just my desire to participate. But there is a fine line between investment and work.

What’s the average reader to do when faced with a glut of comments that precede them? Is there a way to make comment threads more useful, and more usable?

Where We Are

Authors spend a good chunk of time and attention writing articles, but so little attention is given to the conversation that happens afterward. Most of the time readers are left to fend for themselves in a comment wasteland. As the comment count soars into the tens and hundreds for an article on a popular news or personal website, the chances of anyone reading both an article and the comments that follow before contributing plummet. This doesn’t stop people from commenting, but after a certain point, most people appear to be commenting blindly. They acknowledge they didn’t read all the previous comments. Sometimes they even apologize if they are raising a duplicate question or point. Doesn’t this just exacerbate the problem?

Hey, Over Here!

When I am reading a personal blog, I often look for highlighted comments from the author in a thread. If an author comments on his or her own post, it’s usually to respond to an important question or point raised in the ensuing conversation. When that author’s comments are highlighted, they form a natural series of milemarkers in the discussion; chances are if something important happened, the author came back to address it. Skimming through the author’s comments and the comments they reference gives you a quick image of the shape of the conversation.

Some sites also have systems that ask users to rate or vote up/down comments to let the good stuff rise to the top. But this is yet another task that requires more of the reader’s time. I rarely find these systems to be very useful because I scarcely find them ever actually being used. These ideas are overkill for most sites, but just as a site or community grows large enough to need a community manager, information can grow so massive that a means for organization is required.

Stop, Contextualize and Listen

What if we could take the idea of highlighting author comments a step further and set real milemarkers in comment threads? On most large sites, comment threads are followed by editors, authors, or community managers already. Any of these people could write milemarkers that summarize important parts of the conversation. In the same way a TV show can catch you up on the story with a 30 second recap, we can give people the important pieces of the conversation so that they can join in without having to read everything, thus bringing the conversation into context. And by intelligently linking the relevant parts of the comment recap, we give readers the ability to quickly get to the details of the comments being referenced.

An example milemarker

Milemarker, 11:08am Dec 3, 2008 Rob W and Suzie Q asked if this was the same technique used last article. Chet answered yes and pointed out a similar technique by John Mango.

Obviously, this is a very simplistic example, but the idea could be very useful. In a thread of 200 comments, reading 10-20 or so blocks like this wouldn’t take very long at all. It could help us take steps towards contributing to the conversation in more informed ways. Yes, it’s idealist, but I feel we need to take steps to taming these huge lists of information. Good conversation can happen, but we need to give people the tools to make it a useful experience.

Summarizing

I don’t know if this is something that could be automated, or at least not yet. In the meantime, we could make some of our CMSs more assistive to approaches like this. Comment milemarkers like the above example could be sprinkled throughout a comment thread as the conversation requires. Perhaps they appear inline with other comments, or off to the side in an easily scannable setup. Those are really design problems tied more to how this could be applied, but the real goal would be to lower the barrier to entry a little. This isn’t a proposal to slight writers or commenters, or take an unearned shortcut, it’s a matter of having smarter conversations.


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