It's just not easy to build a system that allows for smart ongoing conversations among large groups of people
So many things about the Internet have become pretty awesome over the past decade or so, but there is one thing, however, that remains dysfunctional: comments. They continue to be terrible, and it's not only because of trolls and morons. Internet comments are hard to read and harder to engage with. Even in places with smart, thoughtful readers, the comment sections tend to be more like lists of unconnected ideas than genuine conversations. The problem is simply that it's hard to build a system that allows for smart ongoing conversations among large groups of people. It's a harder problem, fundamentally, than how to present and create good content.
But systems are improving: The New York Times has rolled out some tweaks to its commenting process this week, allowing "trusted commenters" to post without vetting, a system they hope will encourage more rapid feedback and reward people for positive contributions. Additionally, the new system will allow for "nested" responses (a pretty standard feature) and in-comment sharing to Facebook and Twitter, which the Times editors home will entice people to revisit comments after posting, encouraging more conversations with actual back and forth. Other sites, such as Reddit, allow for comments to be sorted by a variety of qualities, including "best," based on a voting system. As a result, interesting conversations float to the top, and you don't have to wade through dozens of posts to find them. This seems to be one of the more effective strategies for culling smart conversations; the Reddit comment threads are some of the best on the web.
In part this may be because Reddit treats comments as more of a feature than a side-show, an afterthought tacked on to the end of an article. Tumblr's Mark Coatney discussed this problem last spring, saying "Commenting on most sites is badly done, because it treats commenters as second class citizens. Usually, if you look at most websites the commenting page is down way at the bottom after all the links to other stories and the ads and other stuff. Down way at the bottom is this little tiny box with a tiny font with no extra tools that says leave your comment here. That already sends the message that the publication doesn't value commenters as much as they value their own stuff."
It's possible to imagine a system that takes this to heart and allows comments to appear linked to the text of a piece, either through a footnoting system or marginalia. Readers could toggle the comments on and off, and even choose to see only the comments of other readers they have chosen to follow.
Right now, there's only one tried-and-true system: a human being thoughtfully and consistently engaging with a community. If you want to see what that can yield, check out our colleague Ta-Nehisi Coates' blog. His commenters are a marvel even to us who work with him, and we're all working with the same technical tools.