Here are some problems I see with the implementation of the commenting system on the New York Times web site. Assuming that they want the discussions about their content to be taking place on their site. The way things stand now, I suspect that they’re actively sending many readers to Facebook instead of keeping them on nytimes.com.
- How come some articles allow comment and others don’t? Is the policy of which articles get comments explained anywhere? Arriving at Times content from a link, I’m confused about whether I can expect a good discussion or just broadcast.
- Even for articles that we are allowed to comment on, the comments are hidden. Sometimes there’s a pull-out quote (which is cool!) but more often we see only this:
- The number of comments on each article is not visible from the front page or the section pages. There’s no way for readers to see, at a glance, which discussions are hot.
- The “recommend” button on each comment is welcome, and serves as a useful way to filter comments. The “highlight” button which seems to appear on the more recommended comments is a little more obscure — does it just put the comment in the “highlight” list, or is there editor moderation involved? The “what’s this” tip doesn’t clear this up (click image below for larger)
- There is no comment view that is sorted for both relevance and freshness, which is the most useful way to track a discussion. Digg and others get this right by adding a time-weighting to a comment’s position in the list.
- There is no way to reply to someone else’s comment. This makes it impossible to have a real discussion on the site. Many other commenting systems organize comments into threads. By not supporting this, the Times is saying that we can talk to them, but not to each other.
- The comments on an article close after a certain point. Although I can see that this might be due to moderator workload issues, it’s also a way to drive away future traffic — as when that link goes viral a week later, or the discussion lasts for months.
- Speaking of which, the comments are moderated. This topic’s a little more complex: there are advantages and disadvantages to this. But I’d like to note that there are plenty of civil discussions happening on the internet in unmoderated places. The strategy of putting a “flag this” link on each comment that sends it for human review is relevant here.
- From the comments FAQ: “We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent by e-mail.” Really? Why? Wouldn’t claims of possible errors of fact be the among the first things you’d want readers to see? Your comments are moderated anyway. And I’d like to point out that your own journalists and editors read the site too — you need those corrections up quickly for internal communication (see: the hilarious Washington Post vs. Public Enemy “911” correction saga.)
In short, the comment system seems to be to have been designed by someone who has never responded to a message that says “there’s a great discussion about that going on at [link].”