The Best Platform For Online Discussion Doesn’t Exist Yet

Blog commenting systems are bizarre, broken and dated. TechCrunch recently switched from Facebook Comments to Livefyre – a change that, for the record, I had no say in. I’m not sure I see value. I don’t agree with some of the sentiment expressed here, which almost makes it sound like this site, and all its authors, missed the trolling days of TechCrunch Past. We don’t.

What was really missing, at least in my opinion, was the sense of community that blog comments once provided. But there’s no system alive that can bring that back, because that era of the web is over. And it has been for a long, long time.

In the early days of tech blogging in particular, comments were a value-add to a website. They were a way a blogger found others who shared their same passions and interests. They were a place to discover new authors – people whose sites you would read and then add to your blogroll.

Remember those? Blogrolls? Where you would link to people in your sidebar for free?

Commenting sections back then were a place for questions and answers. Sometimes, for a continued story. For personal experiences related to the subject at hand from regular readers. For agreements and disagreements, but ones without death threats or the extremely aggressive trolling of tech blog fanboism. (That’s something I really don’t understand. I’m enthusiastic enough about technology to make it a living, but people seem ready to kill over choice in mobile operating system or productivity suite.)

This older era of commenting – blogging 2.0, if you will – was in many ways a simpler time. It was a time when posts even had trackbacks, so you could see who had linked to you from their own blog. Trackbacks were a great solution for building and discovering your blog community until the spammers ruined them.

Just like they ruined commenting.

I do sometimes miss those early days. And I miss the trackbacks in particular because they were a technological implementation that accurately reflected the reality of online discourse. What I mean by that is that some of the most thoughtful commentary about an article doesn’t appear in the comment section. Someone with a longer thought than “yeah, Apple sucks!” (or whatever) used to take to their own website to write out their thoughts, linking back in the process. This would then appear as a trackback to the original post.

It was an important part of online discussion which is lacking today because the person who takes the time to read an article then write out their thoughts long-form is more likely adding value to a conversation than someone who simply logs in and writes a few lines. It was a signal – maybe a small signal, yes – but one that helped you identify the thought leaders. Those who spoke and said things that mattered.

We need that sort of signaling mechanism today, if not a better one, and we need it desperately.

The best thing about the Internet is that it has democratized access to creating, discovering and sharing information. The worst thing about the Internet is that it has democratized access to creating, discovering and sharing information.

We need something that tells you whose opinions have more weight. Because the dirty little secret which the new, new Internet aims to obscure – something which John Biggs alluded to here – is that some people’s opinions just matter more. Some people are experts in their field. Some people have inside knowledge. Some people are better educated. Some people have 30 years of life experience on top of your 15. Some stories don’t have two sides. Some people have access to more data from which to make an informed opinion.

And so on.

The problem, which the Internet hasn’t solved at all, and has in fact even made worse, is that opinions are not created equal and therefore shouldn’t be considered in equal measure. The Internet has put people on such an even playing field that we now have to create entirely new systems to verify who’s worth listening to. From Google rankings to Techmeme headlines to retweets and number of followers, we’re still struggling to figure out who deserves to be heard.

Although I miss the days where a handful of trackbacks let you navigate an online discussion, it was a system that would have eventually failed because it was based on a flawed premise: that everyone would have a blog, and would want to contribute to a discussion via a long-form blog post.

This is not the case.

And that’s why Tumblr is an incredible disruption. It supports everything from the lengthier, trackbacked discussion to the silent but powerful reblog and the pithiness of a tweet.

Meanwhile “proper” blog commenting systems, like Facebook Comments, Livefyre or Disqus, compete on features like threaded discussions, email replies, social profiles and crowdsourced anti-spam techniques. None of those really improve the nature of online discussion, though. That’s because no system truly addresses how to give weight to the thoughts and the people who matter.

Sure, some things are more annoying now that we have Livefyre. And some things are better. But swapping out the plumbing of one commenting system didn’t really change that much. According to our internal data, our commenting averages are up, but it’s hard to compare the two systems because Facebook Comments doesn’t count replies. However, even if you add 15 percent on top of the total number of Facebook Comments per week, then the two systems are basically equal on weekly comment count averages: Pageviews per visit are the same post-Livefyre launch; pageviews per unique are the same; bounce rates are stable; Facebook referrals are stable.

The real change that commenting sections need, both here on TechCrunch and elsewhere on the web, isn’t ripping out one old, outdated technology and replacing it with another. We’re ready for a radical overhaul that reflects how people are communicating and sharing information today; one that shows which comments or shares have resonated and why, and one that understands who deserves to be heard.