The One True Comment Section

But what if we could build a commenting system that gives commenters a real sense of ownership? What if readers could manage their online identity and contributions across news sites under a single sign-in? What if they could contribute pictures, links, even their own stories? What if they could track discussions and form friendships with one another? Wouldn’t that system build a sense of community and lead to self-policing and civility?

“But what if” seems to be the impetus behind the Knight Foundation’s $4 million grant to a joint New York Times, Washington Post and Mozilla Foundation project to fix, save, or salvage internet commenting. What’s missing from this proposal is the uncomfortable fact that comments have already been saved; in fact, in the power struggle between commenters and publishers, commenters are easily winning. It’s just a matter of perspective!

The online publishing narrative of the last few years, crudely, is this: Social networks are increasingly where people find things to read; people use social networks most often on their phones. It follows, then, that an increasing number — on some sites, a majority — of readers are coming to articles through comments, which command them to click on or tap all manner of internet objects, including but not limited to acts of journalism. Reading news on Facebook is like reading the old internet upside down and inside out; it’s sort of like an infinite scrolling front page composed exclusively of reader comments, which are responsible for leading you, backwards, to the articles they reference. The lunatics run things now — they write the first headlines. They also happen to be your friends.

This means that publishers are not really in a position to solve the problem of comments — it’s the commenters deciding, day in and day out and with no sense of duty or preciousness, what is to be done with news. (It is to be ignored, mostly.) The comments this project refers to, the ones it’s trying to save, are comments in an older sense; words tacked onto the side or bottom of stories written by professionals for very popular websites, written for everybody and nobody at once.

Anyway, it’s very nice of the Knight Foundation to take ownership of the Comment Problem for a couple years, giving everyone else the space to think about literally anything else. Not even God knows what the internet will look like by then.