The kids aren’t alright Jul 17th, 2006
I was flying on a business trip some ten years ago. As the captain announced over the intercom that we were cleared for takeoff, I went through my usual ritual of grinding my teeth to powder, taking excessive deep breathes and generally attempting to obliterate the seat handles into dust like I was Hulk.
At that inopportune moment a young boy probably no older than four or five years old began kicking the seat behind me. Not soft love taps either. I mean all out foot in the spine muscle spasms. After 30 seconds of this torture during the preliminary phases of an oncoming panic attack, I finally turned around and asked the child’s mother if she could please get her son to stop kicking my seat.
She looked at me and said simply, “What do you expect me to do about it?”
At that point, I replied in as clear a tone as I could muster given that my entire body was beginning to get sucked into the seat as the engines roared to life. “If you don’t discipline your son, I will. And I guarantee you that given the two choices in his short life thus far, your son would prefer to be disciplined by you than by me. Further, you’re supposed to be the adult in charge, not him.”
I admit, I made that last bit up. While I did indeed give the woman the evil eye, I said nothing. I politely turned back to face front and took many more deep breathes as the airplane roared down the runway and lifted into the air, waiting for the moment when the airplane’s starboard engine would promptly explode thus sending me to my fiery death. All the while with this damn kid kicking me in the back.
Why do I tell you this? And how does this relate to design, web sites or software?
If you’re a blogger or a business that runs a web site that allows people to post comments on it, then it is very likely that you are the parent in my story. That is to say, you’ve got a serious problem keeping the kids in line, and in most circumstances you’re probably just letting them run rampant, screwing up everyone else’s daily panic attacks.
Unlike ten years ago however, this time I’m not going to keep quiet about it.
One bad apple
These days, it’s hard to not find a web product that has some sort of social networking feature built into it. While I’m all for being more connected to those around me, I have to admit that I find the power of the masses fetish exhibited by the latest wave of high-tech web offerings to be quite useless on the whole.
Websites like Digg are created on the premise that I should somehow trust what other people think is relevant. Newsvine has a “seed” feature that allows stories like “Bush Caused France to Lose World Cup??” to hit the top seed on the cover page. Yahoo! Answers even goes so far as to try and let random strangers tell us what the best love song a girl can sing to a guy might be.
It’s not that these products or others like them don’t have the right intentions at heart. Reading people’s opinions or listening to other points of view is generally a good thing. But all it takes to ruin a movie is one asshole talking to his friend about how much the movie sucks in a voice louder than the Dolby sound system instead of simply getting up and leaving the theater so the rest of the audience can enjoy it.
If I’ve never spoken to or met you in person, I don’t presume you’re the next Einstein. Given that, why should I trust your opinion combined with a bunch other non-Einstein’s to help guide me in my never ending quest to avoid work while browsing the Internet?
One of the beauties of being in the technology field is that you can’t hide behind empty rhetoric. It’s one thing to say something and quite another to actually do it. Within the design blogosphere, this generally translates into a sort of natural Darwinian selection model. If a designer’s blog is also supposed to be an example of what the designer is capable of, then once you claim to be a designer your web site better be up to snuff in both design and content.
Generally speaking, that Darwinian selection model is lost in the blogosphere at large. Especially within the political blogosphere it seems. Without some way to control unfettered asshatism piling up on so many blogs and web sites these days, I fear that the blogosphere is on a collision course towards digital irrelevancy as the signal to noise ratio becomes a fever pitch. Unless of course I’m the only one who can’t withstand the onslaught of two hundred fifty plus comments at the end of a post while also staying coolheaded enough to tolerate the collective bile spewed into the Metaverse.
At some point, everyone will just stop caring if they haven’t already.
Presumed ignorant until proven intelligent
I realize that bloggers aren’t engineers, so ranting at them to keep their commentators in line when the tools they use currently lack the features to actually mitigate the problem is not going to solve the core issue. How comment systems are designed currently takes power away from the blogger to some degree.
Comments are generally posted and appended to the bottom of a blog entry. If the blogger deletes or removes the comment for whatever reason they deem appropriate, it’s usually seen as some act fascism. This then puts an undue burden on the blogger to allow any asshole to effectively add their opinion to the core blog entry, forever changing the article to something it wasn’t when the blogger posted it, unless the blogger is willing to take a credibility hit by deleting comments after the fact.
With that in mind, I’d like to a propose a feature design to change the way comments work on blogs. It goes like this:
First, I’d like to see a comment system that presumes the purpose of the blog is that people are interested in what the blogger has to say, not some anonymous idiot who thinks posting “First!” is ubercool. In that regard, comment systems should presume all comments are basically useless on their own without any feedback from the blogger. The default behavior then would be to move comments away entirely from the story putting them onto a “holding pen” page so they are accessible to anyone who wishes to wade through the sewage while not clogging up the blog itself.
Every blog would then have a holding pen for all new comments on every entry rolled up into a single page.
Comment tracking would be sent to the blogger by their method of choice to review comments. Email generally works well for this. If the blogger thinks the commentator has an interesting point that actually contributes to their post, they tag it by responding in the email “Yes” for blogworthy. Only when a comment has been deemed blogworthy does it then become attached to the bottom of the post and displayed like normal comments are in today’s blogosphere. For bonus points, the blogger should actually respond to the comment.
Finally, the blogger is given a timeframe to review comments to their liking. (Mine would probably be seven days.) If a comment has not been deemed blogworthy by the blogger within the specified timeframe, the comment is purged from the bloggers database forever as if it never existed, freeing up more disk space for more blogworthy commentary in the future and clearing Google’s cache of a lot of useless crap.
I realize the above proposal is only moderately different in behavior from simply turning on full comment moderation in blog software like WordPress. However, the key difference is a compromise in default behavior that also changes the focus of comments dramatically. That is to say, moderation completely hides comments by default while my proposed behavior relegates comments to a holding pen where the inmates are more than welcome to throw around insults at each other all they want for a small period of time before their useless blather is forever nuked from the blog. In doing so, only commentary that the blogger finds interesting is added to an article while not putting undue pressure on the blogger to look like a hater of free speech.
One last thought
Some may argue that the nature of blogging requires that comments move fast and furious in an unregulated, uncensored fashion; that the blogger can’t really keep up in enabling comments to be turned on quick enough to keep the conversation going. Others may argue that my feature suggestion goes against the principals of free speech or the big tent approach in a digital world. And finally, others may argue that my blogworthy comment system proposal completely neglects the fact that a large part of the success and rise of the blogs as a new media alternative is specifically that anyone and everyone feels like they can be a part of the conversation.
My only reaction to that line of debate is that I don’t care.
The current comment system as designed let’s the children — whether they be spammers, paper lions or the random “First!” asshat — effectively run rampant all over the classroom. There’s simply no accountability. And as much as I want to chide bloggers for not keeping their children in line, I also recognize that they need the proper tools to do so.
But be warned bloggers, if by some miracle you are finally given the proper tools to do the job, you better keep your kids from ruining my next perfectly timed panic attack.