Website comment sections can be both a blessing and a curse.
For some they offer a point of contact with readers and enhance an audience’s feeling it’s being listened to and cared about.
For others they represent a barren wasteland of nastiness and misinformation which has led some – such as Popular Science – to remove them altogether.
But while some might be shutting comment sections down, a collaboration between The New York Times, Washington Post and Mozilla is looking to create a new platform that allows greater levels of audience interaction.
The as yet un-named venture has received $3.89 million (£2.28 million) in funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.
Mozilla’s Dan Sinker, head of the Knight-Mozilla Open News initiative, said:
“The Web offers all sorts of new and exciting ways of engaging with communities far beyond the ubiquitous – and often terrible – comments sections at the bottom of articles. With this collaboration, we’re bringing together top talent to build new tools for newsrooms to engage.”
That’s all well and good, and community engagement is an important part of the publishing process, but as CEO of comment platform Livefyre, Jordan Kretchmer, told TheMediaBriefing, there are some hefty caveats to be aware of, not least the fact that the platform is supposed to take two years to build:
“I just don’t think it’s ever going to launch.”
“Why? Because they’re already talking about how it’s going to take them two years to build it and they think it’s going to cost them $4 million dollars and they’re bragging about how it’s going to have photo upload – that people have done for 10 years.”
“I know my customers very, very well, and they’ve all emailed me laughing about it.”
Technology changes fast, and Kretchmer has a point about the two years development time – will comment sections have already evolved above and beyond what the Knight-Mozilla collaboration is offering?
Open source: advantage or disadvantage?
But what about the fact it’s open source? Apart from being free, there’s also the fact that any number of developers can cast their eyes over the code and upgrade and update. That can mean less buggy, faster-evolving software that can be customised to fit your needs while playing nice with other vendors’ offerings.
However, Kretchmer says that also means a lack of a support channel if something goes wrong:
“The fact that it’s open source doesn’t mean “Oh my god it’s open source – we should totally use that!” What does open source actually mean and why is that valuable?”
“You don’t get any support, you don’t get any enterprise-level services to help you execute or build.”
“Our customers use us and others like us because they don’t want to have to build stuff. They’re trying to go into the cloud so that we can innovate for them. They come to us and say “Hey, we have this idea” and then we build it.”
Kretchmer obviously has his own platform to protect and promote, but he raises valid points about the announcement of a comment platform that will take a long time to build and is currently short on supposedly disruptive detail.
“[Knight Mozilla] have missed the point entirely and I don’t think it will ever launch and most people seem to agree. It’s a massive experiment. Why they would announce this thing two years of even thinking they can launch it is so weird to me. That’s why I’m laughing, not because I’m sick of talking about it, only because I don’t understand it and I know the market fairly well.
The New York Times has always had this “build it here” mentality to everything. To me it’s a non issue at all. It’s not even worth talking about until two years from now when they supposedly launch something.”