Communities & Comment Sections Require Care
As a Product Designer working for Disqus, the commenting software, I’m always watching the feed for stories related to comments. I’ve read them all: stories regarding the trolls that live within the software I’ve helped build, or about insanely rich discussions on sites like A.V. Club and IGN, even those about the ways other social giants handle “discussions” on the web. While I wouldn’t venture to say I’m an expert on the whole field of commenting online, I can say with confidence that I’ve probably thought about it more than most designers.
The main issue in treating comments as individual entities is that it does not value the comment section as a community.
Community vs. Comments
While St. Pierre’s criticisms of the types of comments appearing on BrandNew are justified, his reasonings for why they appear and how to fix them are flawed. A comment, singular, is just a stand-alone thought. Add more comments, with no relation to each other beyond speaking to the content they appear beneath and you’re still just left with “comments.” Once a comment replies to another, or the content author adds a follow up response in relation to a series of comments, a discussion is born. The final, most often neglected step, is to nurture these discussions in to an active community.
I would define a community in relation to comments as being comprised of the following 5 elements:
- A basic set of rules defined by the website(no profanity, comments must be on topic or they will be removed, etc.)
- Present and active moderator(s)
- Frequent return commenters
- Unspoken rules developed by frequent commenters about how to self-police the comment section. This includes when to flag a comment to a site moderator, why to upvote or downvote comments, how to respond to newcomers unfamiliar with the way the community flows, etc.
- Active participation by content authors
When website owners take the time to add a comments section, many don’t think about the effort involved in building a community around their content. While the effort involved for a large site like BrandNew might seem a bit daunting to begin with, once the pieces are in place most site moderators can let the machine run with tune ups here and there. Many of the strongest communities using Disqus go a bit further to reward and highlight commenters with exemplary responses. On The Mary Sue and Destructoid for example, they regularly feature the top comments in the past week. This type of participation by the site owners goes a long way to show they read their own comment sections and care about the community.
Design as an industry is not immune to fly-by-commenters, trolls, newbies, or even people who are “incredibly lackluster.” As St. Pierre mentioned he is not classically trained, but through time he has learned the ins and outs of the industry. He is one type of commenter on BrandNew, which has a giant audience in the design world. Those who are well-versed in the field often forget about students getting into design, people changing careers and wanting to learn, and even passers-by ready to drop a remark about a new corporate logo they dislike. BrandNew could benefit from a few of its most active participants, like St. Pierre, banding together to adjust the conversations to be more thoughtful, critical and on-topic. Perhaps instead of criticizing Ralph Winn for his comment “Incredibly lackluster,” St. Pierre could have replied and asked “Which aspects of the design are you not responding to?” or “I think the logo was successful, but the applications of the logo don’t really push the metaphor they were after for reason 1… 2… 3…”
In other words, don’t just criticize the comments without trying to help start the conversation you’d like to have. I’d even go as far as to say by doing so, you’re not any better than the lazy commenter. It’s just as easy.
This may not be an overnight solution, but this is frequently how the very best communities online are born. Design has had thoughtful and important discussions in past and still does today. Under Consideration used to host one of the very best discourse sites in the past with Speak Up. We as an industry can drive these intelligent conversations, but you can never expect everyone to provide a thoughtful voice on every subject. I hope more people pick up the reigns to lead discussions and build communities around design. I will definitely do my part.