Comments are dead, but we’re talking more than ever

UK2 Group, 2014 – on VPS.net

Screen Shot 2015-02-10 at 21.03.19Comments are dead, but we’re talking more than ever
The comment section is dying. Not because people don’t want to discuss the things they read anymore, but conversation is definitely moving elsewhere. Readers are less inclined to want to hash out their views with strangers underneath a blog post or news piece, preferring instead to take this conversation to their friends on Facebook and Twitter. This social media-dominated approach also affects how readers come to content, meaning the homepage is rarely the gateway anymore. What all this means is that websites need to deploy different tactics to facilitate discussion, as getting people talking is still the best way to get more people to click. Here are some recent trends for how websites are encouraging visitors to get the conversation going.

– Comments are dead! Long live comments!
While the general trend is that people are taking the conversation elsewhere, a quick look at any major news site will show there’s still a hard core who likes to comment under articles and blog posts. But what’s changing is that comment threads are increasingly moderated, primarily to prevent a few loud and angry voices from ruining it for everybody. Last year, ‘Popular Science’ even went as far as shutting down comments altogether, after research showed readers’ perception of stories could become affected by reading polarised comments.

“A politically motivated, decades-long war on expertise has eroded the popular consensus on a wide variety of scientifically validated topics. Everything, from evolution to the origins of climate change, is mistakenly up for grabs again,” wrote Suzanne LaBarre, then-online content director, as ‘Popular Science’ announced its decision to no longer provide a space for this debate to take place on its site. “Commenters shape public opinion; public opinion shapes public policy; public policy shapes how and whether and what research gets funded – you start to see why we feel compelled to hit the ‘off’ switch.”

While this could arguably sound like censorship, editors have come to the conclusion they may need to suppress those who’re only there to provoke or upset, in order to get an intelligent conversation going. The Guardian’s argument for moderation is to ensure the comment space is “safe and inclusive, […] a place on the net where you will always find lively, entertaining and, above all, intelligent discussion”. Moderation can also stop a comment thread from being hijacked by an irrelevant point. For example, comments on an article on the iCloud security leak could easily become derailed by posters arguing about whether people should save sensitive information in the cloud at all – rather than focusing on the issue at hand: data security.

– Tweet this: Sharing is caring
If you don’t have the buttons ready for people who want to share content, you’re doing it wrong. This could just be a basic Twitter button that clips the link for tweeting, but some websites are taking Twitter-baiting to the next level. ‘Forbes; is among sites that highlight soundbites of Twitter-friendly length, suggesting they may be good for sharing. Whether or not people like being nudged to share quite so directly is arguable, but ‘WordPress’ has actually created a dedicated plug-in for this feature. Another innovative interaction feature can be found at ‘Medium’, where readers don’t even have to scroll to the bottom to comment but can do so in little comment boxes in the margins of each paragraph.

Dao Nguyen, head of data and growth at ‘BuzzFeed’, has been credited for quadrupling traffic to the site in two years, much of this through tweaking how people are encouraged to share content. Nguyen discovered that email was the second-most common sharing method by readers (after Facebook), but sharing over email required several taps and lots of navigation by users accessing the site via mobile phones. Realising she could make this process more streamlined, Nguyen made the “share via email” button more prominent and accessible, and within one week, email shares had doubled.

– Homepage? Who cares!
‘The New York Times’ has seen visits to its homepage, nytimes.com, halve in two years, as readers are finding the site’s articles through other sources instead. This means that instead of going to the homepage to browse, readers are discovering individual articles on Facebook and Twitter, as well as on what publishers call “dark social” sources like email and chat.

What this means for content producers is that they don’t set the agenda quite so easily anymore. Instead the readers do this themselves, by clicking only on what interests them – and the statistics show people like celebrity gossip and personality quizzes a lot more than they like hard news. This is arguably troublesome, both for content producers who have to create ever-more collections of animals who look hungover, and for readers who may well find themselves eating a very unhealthy media diet. So do the world a favour and don’t just post cat videos on Facebook – post some news or social commentary there too.

– Newsletters are back!
Who would have thought it: email is back. After years of being hailed as ready for extinction, email is having a resurgence in the form of the email newsletter. This is a very personal kind of reader interaction, who will hit that ‘unsubscribe’ button very fast if they’re not feeling it. What this means is that newsletter subscribers tend to be superfans rather than casual readers. Brands aren’t really onto this yet, and it remains to be seen if they can do it well – because the reason newsletters are working at the moment is because they are quirky and personal.

Many of the most popular newsletters are sent via TinyLetter, one of these being ‘Five Intriguing Things’ by Alexis Madrigal. This daily newsletter contains five links to articles Madrigal liked, culled from all over the internet – even though Madrigal is an editor at ‘The Atlantic’. Another popular newsletter is Rena Tom’s ‘Hardly Working’, a chatty letter about stuff the author likes. While Tom’s day job is running ‘Makeshift Society’, a coworking business, her newsletter has few direct links to this, hence it feels genuine. Let’s hope that if brands do pick up this trend, they’ll follow Tom’s lead and keep the branding subtle.

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