Phillip Smith

Comments: The Trojan Horse

Trojan Horse

I've been harping on for a while now (to anybody that will listen) about third-party comment systems. (I have concerns in general, but this rant is about just one or two of them.)

I usually start the conversation like this: "How do you feel about Demand Media?" "Demand Media? The content farm? The end of information on the Internet as we know it? ..." "Yes, that Demand Media." "Well, I think they're evil, of course."

I then ask, "So why is your national news Web site using them to power your comments?" The response inevitably is: "We don't use Demand Media for comments, we use Pluck." At which point I pull out my Nexus One and search on "Demand Media buys Pluck" and worried looks ensue.

No, seriously, why are the very organizations that think that Demand Media is a danger to the production of quality content letting that same company have access to their Web site analytics, comment analytics, and user profile data? Think about it: if you have Pluck running on every story page on your site, they get access to very same information that they need to feed their secret content farm algorithms -- the same algorithms that are targeting your readers with cheaply-produced content. And, the best part of it all? These organizations are paying Demand Media, not vice-versa.

Now enter the latest player into this shell game: Facebook. Like Demand Media, Facebook sees comments as another way to get their hooks into the life-blood of the Web, i.e.: those sites that actually produce the bulk of the Web's original content, news organizations. And, like Demand Media, Facebook is not doing it because we're all lamenting the lousy state of site-specific comment systems (which is a problem, to be sure).

No need to dig too deep, really, one just has to follow the money. Facebook, like Apple (and Second Life), will likely head toward a "tax" model -- first by pushing their Facebook Credits payment system, and then enabling Facebook users to make "in-app" purchases for goods like music and, well, "content."

The other currency that Facebook trades in is attention. More Facebook users equates to more attention currency. Just the top 100 US newspaper alone reach an enormous audience each day (daily print circulation of more than 20,000,000 according to Wikipedia -- not to mention Web traffic). Facebook's mission to grow requires a near-endless supply of new users and any moves they make to provide a plug-and-play comment system for large publishers is surely a subtle play to extend their reach and to become the de facto identity standard on the Web.

Along with identity and comments comes rich engagement data: what content is popular, how people are interacting with the content, what content is the most viral or sticky or what-have-you (think analytics on steroids). This is the ambient data that companies like Amazon pioneered years ago, and that Facebook is still trying to innovate on, and perfect a business model for.

Some forward-thinking publishers like the New York Times are experimenting with their own engagement-powered personalization experiences, but -- somewhat sadly -- they have not steered clear of letting Facebook collect data on their turf. To me, this looks like a better deal for Facebook than it is for the NYT or its users.

The landscape is not limited to just Facebook and Demand Media. There are lots of other players in the comments-first-identity-next game: Twitter tested the water with its @Anywhere API, while Disqus quickly grew from the ground up by focusing on blogs and other small publishers first, then slowly built out their white label offering. Intense Debate, one of the first well-developed third-party comments systems, is curiously nowhere to be seen since being purchased by Automattic, the folks behind Wordpress. Latecomer, JS-kit (now Echo) did a 180 degree turn to focus on the white label market and seems to have deepened its adoption with large publishers. Nonetheless, this seemingly diverse ecosystem of options is surprisingly small for something as vast and generative as the Web. And, with that smallness, comes all of the dangers of a system that is vulnerable to a quick consolidation into a monopoly.

I wish I could point to vibrant green shoots of open-source activity in this area, or some promising signs on the horizon that might offer publishers a choice between stand-alone systems, roll-your-own options, or this apparent deal with the Devils. Unfortunately, there doesn't appear to be much happening. So, where do we go from here?

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Hi, I'm Phillip Smith, a veteran digital publishing consultant, online advocacy specialist, and strategic convener. If you enjoyed reading this, find me on Twitter and I'll keep you updated.


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