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…