Online comments are often funnier (intentionally or otherwise) than the piece they’re referring to. But most of the time, that section, far away at the bottom of the page, is best waded into in full SEAL Team 6 combat gear. But rather than relegating reader comments to the end of the piece or handing them over to Facebook and Twitter, some online publications are running in headlong, and trying to shake up their online commenting systems. They’re betting that there’s value in a loyal, personally invested readership, who can talk to the writer and each other all over the page, so to speak.
When Gawker Media announced plans to overhaul its comment section last year, founder Nick Denton expressed a desire to erase the Internet class system. That is, to break down the barriers between the journalists who write the articles and the commenters who want to express their opinions. The new comment blogging platform, Kinja, included features like the ability to follow and block other commenters and to annotate pictures. Jalopnik editor Matt Hardigree told his readers, “Today you can be a writer, an arbiter, an editor, and a publisher. You’ll still read, but now you can also contribute.”
Gawker took it a step further this July, announcing a new Kinja functionality—giving readers the ability to reblog Gawker stories and to add their own headlines and introductions.
Now Quartz, a business site that is part of Atlantic Media, has announced an innovation of its own. After a period of having no comments at all, Quartz will allow registered commenters to “annotate” articles alongside the text, effectively handing over the margins to readers. Comments will appear next to the paragraph in question in a little thought bubble when the reader hovers the cursor. The release said,
“Annotations are an experiment, and we consider this a beta release of the feature. The idea is to encourage thoughtful commentary and substantive contributions. Because you are annotating a specific paragraph, the discussion ought to be much more directed than usual.”
Digital comment sections are undeniably rough places, once prompting an ex-Gawker Media editor to say, “It seems like every so often the comments at Gizmodo fill up with entitled, half-witted thinkers, like a boil taut with ignorance.” Numerous online writers, especially women, have drawn attention to the shellacking they’ve received, racist, sexist, or otherwise, from anonymous armchair critics at the bottom of the page.
Quartz is apparently betting that it can get a better, more civil discussion going. To do this it’s hoping you’ll reject anonymity and use your real name, and also be comfortable having its editors monitor the comments, with the ability to remove them if they’re inappropriate or off-topic, or reward them with greater visibility.
So will readers’ comments be any good after all this trouble? Will these highly integrated comment sections be worth the effort and money (Denton had 30 staffers working full-time on the Kinja project for the past year) they take to run? Time will tell—but we can trust commenters to tell the world what they think, in the strongest possible terms.