Comments on comments

Bare with me today. I’m going to quickly go from quantum mechanics to usability to web design.

Like many thinking people, I have an interest in the who’s and why’s of life. My questioning and reading has introduced me to quantum mechanics. I’ve discovered that I have a real interest in physics (seeing as I never took science or math past the tenth grade, this is a big deal). I’ve read a number of very interesting, approachable books on the topic, and can recommend them if anyone is interested.

One of the many fascinating things that I’ve learned is the way discoveries in all fields of science tend to work: a bunch of people spread around the globe, often in isolation from each other work on a problem. One will come up with a solution, and almost immediately afterwards, a number of the others will come to the same conclusion. It’s as though once the solution becomes known, it enters our collective knowledge, and is accessible to any one looking for it.

I’m redesigning a site that gets a *ton* of comments. Usually it gets 50 to 200 a day. So far, in the past 24 hours it’s received *1223* (the particularly adept of you ought to be able to figure out what sector this blog is in based on that info).

The less spiritual mumbo jumbo version says “well duh! They were all working on the same problem. Since there’s only one right solution, it’s just a matter of time before the researchers came to the same conclusion.” Personally, I prefer the one-collective-mind version. It’s a better story. And I’m a hopeless romantic and idealist, as you know…

h2. Why the interest in comments?

Perhaps its that same idealism that’s got me so hot and bothered about blogs (how’s that for a segue?). I’ve been thinking a fair bit about comments and comment systems lately. I’m not the only one. Look at what “Jonathan”:http://www.snook.ca/archives/000365.html has done (hint: scroll down), and check out the star system that “Weblogs Inc”:http://www.tuaw.com/2005/05/11/star-wars-attack-of-tuaws-new-comment-system/ is rolling out. And of course “Dunstan Orchard”:http://www.1976design.com sets the bar very high with his comment relationships.

My interest in comments is three fold: first, I’m interested in how comments on our personal sites can help us do our jobs. For example, I’m hoping that a few of you might comment on this post with feedback on a concept I’ll get to in a couple of paragraphs.

Second, I’m very interested to see how companies will use/abuse comments on their business blogs. Brave companies will embrace them and recognize their barrier busting potential. Scared companies will turn comments off (or not blog at all) for fear of hearing the truth. Of course the truth is floating around on other people’s blogs, only now the company has no control over it.

Third, I’m redesigning a site that gets a *ton* of comments. Usually it gets 50 to 200 a day. So far, in the past 24 hours it’s received 1223 (the particularly adept of you ought to be able to figure out what sector this blog is in based on that info). This massive volume offers some rather interesting challenges to me as a designer, and to the site owner.

h2. Bobbing for apples in a barrel of poo

As you can imagine, when you have a couple of hundred comments on a single post the conversation tends to wander a bit off topic. My overall goal is to help keep the comments relative, while avoiding stifling the interesting off-shoots a conversation can spark. I’m also trying to make the comments more useful. It’s hard to find the nuggets, or even to follow the bouncing ball through a morass of tangled threads.

“Dunstan’s”http://www.1976design.com/blog goes a long way towards offering a solution. Check out how his comments work. It is very, very cool. It’s also not quite there, at least in this situation. What it’s missing is a visual top-down view of the various conversations going on, and a way to navigate them. I’m working on a system that piggybacks on Dunstan’s idea and creates a map of the conversation like so:

The right column uses position:fixed like Jonathan’s site, so the map is always on screen. Clicking on a name will jump the left column to the respective comment. This allows the user to follow the thread of the conversation rather than scroll linearly through the whole mess. I’ll use “Adam’s”:http://www.axentric.com fade anything technique (again, like Jonathan’s done) to temporarily highlight the newly selected comment.

This makes pretty heavy duty use of javascript, but will degrade to a “normal” comment list if the user has js off.

By giving the site users the ability to conduct branching conversations in a navigable way, it’s my hope that the level of intelligent engagements increases.

The map also lets users jump directly to a favorite poster’s comment, again adding to the functionality of the site.

h2. Power to the People!

So we’ve made the morass a bit easier to navigate. But what about all the chaff? When you’re getting a thousand comments, you can bet they’re not all of the highest caliber or value. One option is to limit comments to invited “members”. This may work with a startup blog, but there are already hundreds of people who are accustomed to regularly posting on this site. Telling them they no longer can won’t go over well.

Individually blacklisting people isn’t a manageable situation either. This is not a full time endeavor for the site owner, and he simply doesn’t have time to manage all the loonies. Weblogs Inc offers an interesting option. Their star system allows users to assign positive or negative values to each other’s comments. Receive a certain number of negative scores, and you’re blacklisted for a period. Receive a high number of positive scores, and be rewarded with a mention on the home page, and all the referred traffic that goes with it.

Certain safeguards need to be put in place to avoid abusers, but dedicated assholes will always find a way around the system. That’s the cost of public discourse though.

I’ve been working on this for a bit, so it was a bit of a shock when Weblogs went live with their system last week. But we’re all moving through this process at the same time, so it’s only natural that a couple of us may have stumbled onto the same solution.

I expect that both of these measures will have an impact on the community feel of the site. Users should have a sense that the site is theirs. I believe this will result in more frequent visits, and more valuable discussions.

h2. Your turn

This is *way* too much information for one post. I’ve only skimmed the subject matter, and will get more into it as the project progresses. What I’d love to get from you though is a sense of where you think comments are going (if anywhere). Also, feel free to comment on the gee-whiz nature of all the javascript stuff going on at the moment. Could this be the result of a maturing standards community? I think so…

Musical Baton

My turn with the baton.

*Total volume of music files on my computer:* 35.49 gigabytes. Given how much music means to me, it’s odd that I haven’t written about it more. My tastes range from Indie/punk to jazz to heavy, heavy rock to classical to reggae to, well, you get it. I like pretty well everything with the exception of new country.

*The last CD I bought was:* Physical CD? I can’t remember. “Rufus Wainwright”:http://www.rufuswainwright.com/ Want One I think.

*Song playing right now:* _Black Star_ by Radiohead (on my top 10 for sure).

Five songs I listen to a lot, or that mean a lot to me:

* _Paranoid Android_ — Radiohead
* _Parabola_ — Tool
* _Looks Just Like the Sun_ — Broken Social Scene
* _Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)_ — The Arcade Fire
* _Down Under_ — Blonde Redhead

Five people to whom I’m passing the baton:

* “Adam Michela”:http://axentric.com/
* “Darren Rowse”:http://www.problogger.net/
* “Mike Stickel”:http://screenflicker.com/
* “Mike Kirkpatrick”:http://www.coreit.to/weblog/
* “Adam Thody”:http://www.thodyconsulting.com/

So THAT's a business blog: take 2

I’ve had some interesting response from “yesterday’s”:http://www.peterflaschner.com/index.php?id=139#comment post about defining business blogs. The problem stems from the fact that business blogs can do so many different things. My definition doesn’t factor comments in, and ignoring the two way nature of blogs is a rather large aspect to just _forget_.

In my experience though, most business people go deathly pale at the thought off their customers being able to (*gasp*) speak their minds. Once one is comfortable with the blogosphere [_note to self: must, *MUST* com up with a better name_] the concept of comments makes a ton of sense. To the uninitiated though, it’s the scariest thing since the girl in The Crying Game dropped her pants.

Business blogs can and will be used in all kinds of ways (that statement is right up there with “water is wet”). As far as I can see though, they all fit into my neat little world view.

Opinions? Thoughts? Threats?

So THAT's a business blog…

_Cross posted from “The Blog Studio”:http://www.theblogstudio.com/blog blog_

It may come as no surprise to many of you that after explaining what it is that I do I’m often met with a blank, glazed look. Most folks in North America have *heard* of blogs, but most have absolutely no idea what a business blog is. I’ve been searching for a concise way to describe it. I may have found the answer.

Most cities and towns have free neighbourhood newspapers. In mine, we have columns about investing, real estate, and fitness written by local experts. The columns are written as straight news and information – no selling or schilling at all. At the end of the article there is a line to the effect that _John Smith is a financial adviser for Smith, Smith and Smith_.

I have always thought that this was probably the best possible form of advertising. The writer gets in front of interested people on a regular basis, and demonstrates his knowledge, skill and style. He earns their trust and respect over time. He becomes the go to person in his field.

A blog is *exactly* that column. Only better.

Blogs are the Yoga of the internet

I admit it. I’m a shameless optimist. I think we’re really on to something here. The massive growth in social software is making a change in the lives of millions of people. A *positive* change. Not a financial change. Not a standard of living change. But an emotional and spiritual change.

If you haven’t already, head over to “Change This”:http://www.changethis.com and read “Is the Truth the Next Big Truth”:http://www.changethis.com/13.Truth. You don’t need to ask me what I think about it. I’m betting my livelihood on it.

The more time I spend reading, the more I realize just how similar and connected we are. Yesterday, “Erik”:http://kartooner.com/ wrote about finding out his “daughter”:http://www.kartooner.com/archives/2005/05/12/the-call/ was hurt. I wanted to jump through the net and give this guy a hug. And I’ve never met him before.

The tools to connect people online are not new. Check out “this”:http://www.7nights.com/asterisk/archives05/2005/05/new-blood#comment15 comment on “asterisk”:http://www.7nights.com/asterisk/ for a bit of perspective. What is new is the massive craving for connection that I see going on around me. Spirituality is on the rise. Yoga ads are plaster every lamppost.

And blogs are the yoga of the internet. Both are hard. Both take work, commitment, and perseverance. And both make you feel lighter, more connected to the world, and dare I say it, *happier*. Writing this blog forces me to be mentally flexible. I find that I’ve become more observant of my life, looking for the connections in the random acts that make up my day. The parallels between my craft and my life draw increasingly close. Thanks in part to my mental yoga.

And then they became small and numerous

As wonderful as “hopped up index cards”:http://www.peterflaschner.com/?id=129 may be, they’re kind of hard to carry around. Having completed my brain dump/basement redecorating, I copied the relevant action items from each concept sheet [for those not playing along at home, I plastered my basement with a bunch of big sheets of newsprint. Each sheet was a concept related to getting “TBS”:http://www.theblogstudio.com off the ground, ie Pricing, Tech issues, Marketing plan, etc] onto an index card. This was an essentially random process; I was’t concerned with the order the actions would have to follow, just with getting them down.


Next, I lay them all out on the floor. There were roughly 40 actions all together, in other words 40 mini projects that I need to complete to get TBS ready for launch. Four groups emerged from trying to put the cards on a timeline: *Stage 1*, stuff that has to be done before I can start to design the site, *Stage 2*, the design, build, and test process, *Stage 3*, the after launch stuff, and *Delegate*, stuff I can hand off to my trusted partner (hi mom!).

The magic here is that I’ve now got a pile of 17 Stage 1 cards that I can choose from at random. Pick one, don’t feel like tackling that, put it back and re-shuffle. Better yet, I can pick a card I don’t feel like tackling, and pretend it’s fate forcing me to face my fears (Oooooo, spooky).

Maybe none of this is interesting or new to you, but it’s blowing me away. I’ve taken a complex, hard to grasp concept and broken it down into manageable chunks. *I appreciate the irony that this is what we’re supposed to do as designers.* I’ve just never applied it offline to such success before.

Trip down memory lane.

The traffic from the last few days plus the “article”:http://www.theblogstudio.com/blog/why-is-a-blog-so-good-for-your-brand I wrote at TBS blog has me thinking about far my web skills have come since I started almost cool 7 measly months ago. It’s interesting to look back and find that I’ve advanced a lot in my web work, but at the cost of some of my “print”:http://www.flashlightdesign.com/index.php?s=id skills. I haven’t done anything interesting with Illustrator for months, and that’s kind of sad.

I did come across something I’d managed to completely forget. As my graduating project last April (_was it only a year ago?_) I wrote and designed a little book to distribute to potential employers. After the fact I decided to turn it into a flash project.

It was my first time playing with flash, and I really got into it. The book is called “Patterns Emerged”:http://www.flashlightdesign.com/pages/patterns.htm. It’s a tad self-involved, but I was in quite an introspective period. It’s all flash, so you’ve been warned. The music is by my annoyingly talented younger brother. He’s a professional guitarist. And a doctor. And better looking. I’ll be featuring some more of his music. Just as soon as he stops saving lives for long enough to send me a cd.

I'm a *

I’m really quite freaked out. My little corner of the web has been receiving a fair bit of recognition the last couple of days. Recognition is good. But this recognition has come from some of my favorite writers and designers, and that just blows me away.

It all started with “9rules”:http://www.9rules.com of course. Thank you so much you guys. A whole bunch of people started reading and linking in. Big thanks to “nv30.com”:http://www.nv30.com/mt/blogomania/ and “txpmagazine.kbbu.de”:http://txpmagazine.kbbu.de/all_sites/ for mentioning me. Then “Merlin Mann”:http://www.43folders.com picked up my article about my “hipsterPDA”:http://www.peterflaschner.com/?id=121. After that I nearly shot milk out my nose when I saw visitors coming in from “Jason Kottke”:http://www.kottke.org/ (click _more links_ under the right hand sidebar). When I saw folks coming in from “Cameron Moll”:http://www.cameronmoll.com I had to call my wife in to pick me up off the floor. Then today Keith from “asterisk”:http://www.7nights.com/asterisk/archives05/2005/05/new-blood listed almost cool along with 5 of my favorite sites as part of ‘the new blood’ in blogging. Frankly just being mentioned in the same sentence as “subtraction”:http://www.subtraction.com makes me weak in the knees.

This is all a bit much! I’m flabbergasted, flustered, and very, very pleased. I highly recommend reading the comments at “Keith’s”:http://www.7nights.com/asterisk/archives05/2005/05/new-blood.php site. There are some great reading tips there.

My big tip, in the unlikely event you haven’t already seen it is “Niggle”:http://www.penandthink.com/niggle/. Check out the links section above for my blogroll.

Thanks to everyone. I’m buying the first round.

_Edit: forgot my other favorite, “Wishingline”:http://www.wishingline.com/. Check it out_

Help me find my effects palette

Ok smarty pants readers, I need your help (for a change). A couple of weeks back I broke the bank and bought a G5. I did the ‘transfer-everything-over-firewire’ trick from my powerbook (which is reason enough to switch to apple) and all was good. Until I fired up photoshop and tried to apply a drop shadow. *Where is my effects palette?* No where to be found.

I was running my laptop with an external monitor, and I guess I left the palette on the ‘other’ monitor. When I transfered the settings to the G5, the off-screen setting went with it. The powerbook is fine – the palette is right where its supposed to be.

I’ve deleted photoshop and re-installed it to no avail. I imagine there’s a library file I’ve got to wipe out, but I’m a tad nervous to randomly start deleting. I know just enough to be dangerous. My good friends at adobe want a minimum of $40US to help me fix this. I’d far rather buy one of you a beer!

Any takers?

Stepping off the cliff

Well, I’ve done it. I’ve cut my hours at work down to 1/2 time in order to concetrate on “The Blog Studio”:http://www.theblogstudio. I know quite a number of you are thinking ‘this guy had a job?’ I assure you I did – or rather do. I just have no life.

Thank god I have such a supportive family. My wife, parents, and friends have been just amazingly supportive and encouraging. While I’m certainly not abandoning “bicilog”:http://www.bicilog.com, “dadlog”:http://www.dadlog.com, or “a quiver of quills”:http://www.aquiverofquills.com, I will be slowing down posting a bit on those sites over the next 3 weeks while I get TBS in order.

This also means that I’m having to temporarily step back from “my idea”:http://www.peterflaschner.com/?id=125, which frankly sucks a camel’s behind. But short of starting to take speed, I’m up against the physical limits of a 24 hour day. If you contacted me about the NDA, I’ll be in touch over the next day or so with a promise to get the process underway shortly.

As I promised before, this TBS thing is going to be as open source as I can make it, so you’ll be hearing a fair bit from me on that subject, as well as on the tricks and hacks I’m using to keep myself on track and on target. I’ll be posting at the “TBS blog”:http://www.theblogstudio.com/blog/ as well, and will cross post if there’s anything particularly interesting.

So… wish me luck! I’m gonna need it.