Back when I was in graduate school getting my masters in journalism and mass communication, I worked on various "lab projects" which were challenges faced by media organizations that they wanted to tackle but didn't have the means or the resources to do so. So basically, the students at my school were a think tank for the local media. One of the first issues we were tasked with investigating was finding a new way to allow comments for online news stories to be more efficient and less offensive.
The problem faced by most online news sites is that the anonymous nature of the Internet makes it very easy for vulgarity and off-putting comments to be posted, and for some sites, these types of comments pervade their site. Many of today's popular sites with comments have integrated systems to where readers can vote down bad comments while promoting good comments, which helps the bad stuff to be filtered out. Others have tried blocking fowl language with asterisks or by deleting the comment automatically, but this has only lead users to find unique ways of spelling their beloved curse words.
Some startups, like Disqus, have made it much easier to manage comments, and identity tools like OpenID and Facebook Connect have helped to lower the amount of anonymous commenters on the web, but anonymity is a fundamental cornerstone of Internet culture. Or is it?
In a recent New York Times article about how many news sites are starting to remove anonymous commenting, Arianna Huffington of The Huffington Post said she thinks that anonymity is losing its once exalted position atop the foundation of the Web.
"Anonymity is just the way things are done. It's an accepted part of the Internet, but there's no question that people hide behind anonymity to make vile or controversial comments," says Huffington.
"I feel that this is almost like an education process. As the rules of the road are changing and the Internet is growing up, the trend is away from anonymity."
Fred Wilson of Union Square Ventures says there is plenty of room for innovation within comment boards. Wilson uses Disqus on his blog and has some suggestions for features they could include to make the commenting experience better, but he believes one of the ways to innovate in the space is to introduce game mechanics into commenting.
"Game mechanics will reward the kind of behavior the community wants and will punish the kind of behavior the community does not want," writes Wilson on his blog. "The anonymous commenter who has valuable information but can't publish in their own name will be rewarded. The anonymous commenter who leaves a hostile name calling piece of crap will be punished. And the comment thread and community will be better off for it."
Entrepreneurs that strive to create a truly innovative product usually first start with a problem that needs solving, and comment systems are certainly a problem that needs solving. Therefore by some transitive property, innovation in the commenting space seems to be an open door of opportunity for startups to walk through and offer a solution.
Are there other companies like Disqus that may be looking to disrupt the traditional comment system, or do you have an idea for making the process more user friendly? Let us know your thoughts on the state of comments and how you would change them in our very own comments section below!
Disclosure: The New York Times is a syndication partner of ReadWriteWeb.