Writing about securing media coverage for one of the chapters in 101 Ways To Win An Election, I was reminded of the old research finding about British newspapers: that the letters pages are consistently one of the best read parts of (the printed version of) newspapers.
Letters pages used to face all sorts of practical difficulties, such as the time taken to post in a letter or the cumbersome nature of exchanges back and forth having to span different days, without all readers necessarily having read or remembered the earlier letters in the exchange.
Enter then the internet and online commenting, which at a stroke removed many of these obstacles.
And yet, and yet…
Are the comments at the foot of posts one of the most popular parts of newspaper websites? Certainly not; if anything, they have become the exact opposite – from one of the most popular to one of the least popular parts of a newspaper.
Going online and turning some of your most popular content into some of your least popular content is a remarkable transformation for the newspaper industry to have pulled off.
Underlying it has been a change of purpose. Letters pages used to be there primarily for the readers, and hence the use of editorial selection looking for interesting or amusing, high quality letters. Sure they offered something for letter writers and editorial ethics too, but readers came first.
Now, however, comments threads are frequently there for the commenters, without even the cost of a postage stamp to act as a barrier to the trivial. Commenters are often a valuable group of readers for a site, but are almost always only a tiny subset of a site’s readers. Of course site readers can ignore comments threads if they don’t like them, but no-one used to argue that the standards of newspaper letters pages did not matter just because newspaper readers could skip past that page.
The reasons for this switch from printed success to online failure are various – including the principled (embracing the internet’s openness to contributions from many more), the self-interested (it takes time and so can cost money to moderate comment threads) and the cynical (high volume comment threads generate more page views for adverts).
It is therefore no wonder that increasing numbers of news sites are thinking again about the purpose of comments threads. One of the most interesting recent experiments comes from Gawker, as Clay Shirky reports:
Most news sites have come to treat comments as little more than a necessary evil, a kind of padded room where the third estate can vent, largely at will, and tolerated mainly as a way of generating pageviews. This exhausted consensus makes what Gawker is doing so important. Nick Denton, Gawker’s founder and publisher, Thomas Plunkett, head of technology, and the technical staff have re-designed Gawker to serve the people reading the comments, rather than the people writing them.
The technical choices here are simple, but their social ramifications are not. The new design dispenses with the tyranny of time order. On most systems, the most prominent comments are posted either by the most obsessed users (when comments are posted oldest first) or the drive-bys (newest first).
Instead, a small number of comments get picked out for highlighting alongside the story, with the rest buried away where the dedicated reader can get to them if they really want to. That means Gawker can relax its moderation of comments, because what appears buried away matters far less, and instead put effort into pulling out a few comments that add the most (in their view, of course) to the discussion.
All a bit like the old days of letters pages printing a selection of the letters received. As so often with technology, the problems and solutions it raises often have a rather familiar air once you get under their skin.