Weblogs and Wikis are authoring tools that enable everyday people to write to the Web. However one part of the Writeable Web is often overlooked: weblog comments. Often some of the best nuggets of content can be found buried in a comment attached to a weblog post. I’ve even coined a phrase for this: Microcontent Wiki, which is defined as: Weblog Post + Comments. It’s microcontent because it’s usually content based around a single theme or topic (defined by the weblog post). And it’s like a Wiki because anyone can write a comment on a weblog, so it has a similar collaborative feel to a Wiki. The problem is, currently we don’t have an easy way to track Microcontent Wikis. We can subscribe to RSS feeds for weblogs and even topics (k-collector), but weblog comments aren’t as simple to aggregate.

As Paul Everitt wrote:

“Today I was browsing around one of the sites in the world of Zope. On one page someone asked a question which, as is rarely the case, I actually had an intelligent answer. However, providing the answer required me to register and login. Meaning yet another stinking password to remember, and another URL to periodically revist for follow ups.

Needless to say, I didn’t. And that’s one of the big problems of today’s mostly-non-writeable web. You usually have to put your words in a place where people will find them, which usually means you put your words all over the place. There is too tight a coupling between content and location.

Tight coupling of content and location is an issue that has been bothering me too. I often write comments on weblog posts, but in order to track the conversation I have to bookmark the post and check back periodically. i.e. like Paul says, I need to continually go back to the location of the comment in order to see what other people may have contributed. Tools like Trackback enable you to comment on someone’s post on your own weblog (like I’m doing with Paul’s post here), but you still need to visit the original location to read what other people have written. So it’s often easier to write a comment on the other person’s weblog. And if you’re commenting on popular weblogs, like Mark Pilgrim’s for example, then it’s likely to be read by many more people than if you’d written it on your own weblog.

One tool that I’ve found helpful is Phil Pearson’s Comment monitoring service, which allows you to sign up to an RSS feed of comments on your weblog. And today I discovered that Radio Userland are in the midst of implementing an email notification service for when comments are posted to your site. But great as they are, these services are geared towards tracking comments on your own site. I’d like to be able to track comments on other peoples sites, but post-by-post only. In other words I’d like to de-couple bits of content from their various locations – particularly if they’re buried in a weblog comments system – and collect them together in my RSS Aggregator.

It’s interesting to consider the differences of weblogs and wikis in this context. A weblog is the voice of a single person, or sometimes a group of people – e.g. the Corante Many-to-Many weblog is a collective of 5 people including Clay Shirky. The key thing is that weblogs are owned by 1 or more people and it is the publishing vehicle for them. Further, weblogs are “the unedited voice of a person” according to Dave Winer’s definition. For example my own weblog, Read/Write Web, is my own publishing environment and nobody else has privileges to post here.

Wikis on the other hand are collaborative publishing environments and in most cases anyone can write on them. Like weblogs they are “unedited”, but the difference is no one person or group of persons “owns” the content. But there is an interesting correlative between wikis and weblog comments. When a blogger posts something on their weblog and they have comments enabled, anyone who then reads the post is able to write a comment. i.e. essentially any reader can publish on the weblog. It’s like a Wiki-on-the-fly!

This concept can be expressed as the following equation:

Weblog Post + Comments = Microcontent Wiki

Currently RSS makes it easy to subscribe to a whole weblog feed, but it isn’t so easy yet to subscribe to bits of a weblog. Tools such as k-collector enable you to subscribe to topics, which is close to the ideal of subscribing to microcontent, but it doesn’t aggregate comments attached to weblog posts. Some webloggers have created RSS feeds for their comments systems, e.g. Sam Ruby has comments feeds and its even possible to subscribe to individual posts. But RSS comments feeds are far from widely adopted. 

Two bloggers that generate interesting comments from their readers are Don Park and Robert Scoble. But to track comments on their weblogs, I need to bookmark the post in my weblog browser (ie I have to go outside my RSS Aggregator), and periodically click “Refresh” on that webpage to see if any new comments have been written. This is a big time waster for me. Wouldn’t it be great if I could simply subscribe to an RSS feed of that post’s comments? For example when I click on the “Comments” URL and view the comments, I’d love to see a simple “Subscribe to these comments” button that generates an RSS file. Then I could add that to my RSS Aggregator and bob’s my uncle – all the comments from that weblog post would automatically be streamed to me. Weblog authoring tools vendors – consider this a feature request 😉

Content is always going to be tightly coupled to location. This is especially so in a weblog, where the location will be a URL – eg http://www.readwriteweb.com in my case. But even in a Wiki, or a Microcontent Wiki as I’ve described it (weblog post + comments), there is a central location where content on a specific topic is aggregated. The key is to make it easy to subscribe to all the “locations” that interest you. Currently it’s easy to subscribe to weblogs using RSS. Now we want to make it easy to subscribe to microcontent.