There's no doubt that one of the greatest challenges of internet technology has been emulating the experience of in-person interactions. Whether it is meeting, dating, playing games, socializing or simply conversing; there are countless "naturally human" cues that control and direct these interactions.
As you can see from the above emoticon: I'm sad.
Yup, that's pretty much the best we've got, lmfao.
As you can see from the above internet slang: I'm either hysterically laughing while losing my rear end---or---I'm a teenaged douchebag. #YOLO
As ridiculous as they might seem, these devices more-or-less get our general points, emotions, tone and context across in internet conversations. However, the element of conversation that almost no one can seem to figure out is the flow of conversation. In other words, it's like you just walked into a crowded room and everyone is trying to talk about the same thing at once. Who do we start with? How long do we travel down their point before receiving a fresh perspective? Should we hear from everyone or a select few?
The Lonely Few Platforms
Numerous brave souls have attempted to solve the conversation continuity epidemic that plagues popular blogs everwhere, and only a few have survived. Among the most popular are:
- Facebook Comments
...as well as proprietary commenting platforms that come along with popular content management systems such as WordPress or home-grown systems built into some of the internet's biggest and brightest sites.
There are numerous blogs picking apart the pros and cons of each of these, but I don't want to bore you with those.
What I will do is lay out a list of features that should be sought after when selecting a comment platform for your site or blog.
Repeat after me: "An ideal comment platform should..."
- Provide multiple options to "Comment as." Don't make me sign up for a new comment platform, let me use one of the many accounts I've already set up elsewhere; be it Facebook, Google, Twitter or other.
- Provide multple options to sort comments. Don't assume your magic formula for which comments are of most interest to me is the only way I want to see them.
- Provide some sort of upvote/downvote option. And no, the "Upvote only" option is terrible. Crap rises and there needs to be a way to flush it down (perhaps the most profound thing I've said today).
- Limited replies that are viewable by default. There is no need to make me scroll for 30 seconds just to get past the reactions to the guy that wrote "OMG My brother did that once, LOLZ!!!"
- Nested comments. It's the only understandable way to break apart who is replying to what. Unfortunately, some blogs go too few levels deep while others go to many. In this case, I'd say the magic number depends on your site design (if it can handle the width of a reply-to-a-reply-to-a-reply) and what makes sense to a reader.
Mental health tip: Whenever you encounter a site that uses Facebook commenting, don't read the comments.
— Chris Guillebeau (@chrisguillebeau) March 31, 2013
The worst comment section (in terms of function and flow) that I have come across is Disqus. This, I realize, is not a popular opinion. Disqus does check some items off the list above and has even won awards for its usability.
My beef? That the most "popular" comments rule the page with far too many visible replies. In some cases, depending on how many comments are shown before the "Load more comments" button, you might see nothing but responses to a single, ignorant troll comment.
Take, for example, this recent article on CNN.com regarding a comment made by Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt. At the time of my viewing, the top 32 comments were replies and mini-conversations based off a single comment. It was plenty far down the page before a fresh perspective was found.
I know---I'm full of surprises. Just take a look at this recent article, for an example. What I like are the sorting options (Popular Now, Newest, Oldest, Most Replied) and the fact that all replied are hidden by default. With this setup, users are able to scan several perspectives and choose where to start or join a conversation based on a particular angle.
Their comment platform isn't perfect, of course. The "Post As" feature only has a few options (yet still very popular options) and replies only go one level deep; however users are able to get around this by using the @ symbol to direct their comment to a specific user.
The community aspect of a blog can define its success. A few months ago, Techcrunch admitted its blunder in switching to Facebook Comments and called for commenters to return after they rolled out Livefyre. Some bloggers even go so far as to completely disable comments.
It's clear that there is no perfect solution, and there likely never will be. There is simply no substitute for in-person engagement and that, of course, that would require commenters to show their faces---and people who hang out in internet comment sections aren't exactly known for wanting to do such a thing.
What comment platforms or particular blog comment sections do you think flow well? Sound off in our beautifully streamlined <ahem> default WordPress comment section.