When the sides become the entree

Glynn Marshes writes: crowd with hands (640x480)Perhaps other online publications are doing this as well, but this is the first time I’ve noticed it: at Gawker, reader comments are now arranged in a two-column format.

I was almost startled when I first encountered this. I’m so used to the way comments are generally handled by major online pubs: tacked onto the end of the articles like pinned donkey tails, narrow strips of text that scroll down practically forever. And almost always unanswered by the authors of the article.

Gawker’s  two-column format, on the other hand, causes the comments to appear as if they are part of — not the article, exactly — but the page’s content experience for sure. To my eye, it has the effect of elevating the importance of the comments. It dignifies them. It suggests, as well, a conversation rather than a string of solitary remarks.

(Note that sometimes ads are sandwiched between the body of the article and the comments, but sometimes not; the full impact is more obvious in the latter case.)

In the early days of the interwebs, of course, there was much agonizing over comments. Mainstream pubs were already in a bit of a snit about being forced to put content online; they soon found themselves wrestling with how to accommodate the cacophonous polarized everyone’s-a-writer often-obnoxious culture the blogosphere had spawned. They were used to broadcasting, not conversing. Would permitting comments amount to endorsing the commenters’ views? Should certain comments be deleted or commenters banned — and if so, where to draw the line?

What I don’t recall anyone anticipating, however, is that comments might actually become part of the readers’ experience of an article — whether they’re intended to (as w/ the Gawker site) or not. From the New York Times:

Half of our sample was exposed to civil reader comments and the other half to rude ones — though the actual content, length and intensity of the comments, which varied from being supportive of the new technology to being wary of the risks, were consistent across both groups. The only difference was that the rude ones contained epithets or curse words, as in: “If you don’t see the benefits of using nanotechnology in these kinds of products, you’re an idiot” and “You’re stupid if you’re not thinking of the risks for the fish and other plants and animals in water tainted with silver.”

The results were both surprising and disturbing. Uncivil comments not only polarized readers, but they often changed a participant’s interpretation of the news story itself.

(eep, pass the smelling salts . . .)

In most respects, the early agonizing about comments has apparently settled down. Comment guidelines have long been established. People are used to them.

And yet, they are still a “problem,” aren’t they. Because even moderated comment threads have the potential to taint the dish, apparently . . .

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6 Responses to When the sides become the entree

  1. I’m puzzled. The comments on the article you’ve linked to appear at the bottom for me.

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  2. Glynn Marshes says:

    They follow the article, yes, but they’re in a two-column format versus one column. The presentation is more integrated with the rest of the page.

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  3. I love comments. For me, oftentimes articles and blogpostings serve mainly as a pretext for getting a good comments-thread going. And some of my favorite online entities are inspired commenters. I don’t know why the great commenters haven’t gotten more widespread recognition as virtuosos, thinkers and entertainers than they have.

    I don’t know how I feel about the new two-column approach to commenting, though. I can’t follow the “conversation” dimension of what’s going on — I have no idea why the comments are organized the way they are. Seems like some editor and graphic designer’s bad idea. Does it work for you?

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    • Glynn Marshes says:

      Anytime you’re ready to put together a “best of” compilation of online commenters, say the word 😉

      Re: the 2 column approach — it definitely doesn’t work in terms of “getting” that there’s a conversation. So poor marks for usability, for sure!

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