Content without comments is a losing battle

When people talk about the future of media with bold predictions about how technology will affect it, they often underestimate the importance of content and its effects on how people interact with it. The two major topics of debate in new media is commenting on news articles and aggregation of content.

Most media companies focus on whether or not requiring users to use real names, with a service such as facebook comments increases the quality of discussions. But just as important as the quality of the comments is whether or not your content is discussion worthy.

I also want to talk briefly about new media companies such as buzzfeed, which I wrote about previously and Business Insider that specialize in aggregating and curating content, as opposed to a more traditional editorial approach. But first let me talk about commenting.

When companies enable facebook comments in the hope that the discussion quality will increase or more commonly, that facebook would be a “safe” way to embrace comments they are often disappointed. Its not unusual to find a site with facebook comments enabled and no comments. This is not cultural, I’ve seen it happen in both Japan and the west.

The alternative to facebook comments are anonymous commenting systems, systems that don’t use real names. In Japan with paranoia around around 2ch like discussions, many Japanese media companies are extremely worried about this approach.

My company Land Rush Group built a sudo anonymous with sankei called re:mark, the system allows users to comment using their facebook or twitter account, but also has an “alias” feature so while their account is associated with a real social identity, they aren’t required to disclose their name in public forums.

In America the New York Times uses an anonymous system that only requires email registration. There is also the major technology blog, Techcrunch that started with a semi anonymous commenting system like re:mark and then switched to facebook comments in an effort to combat trolls writing negative or abusive comments. After nearly three years or so using facebook comments they switched back to a semi anonymous system because, well, the trolls made the comment discussions more interesting.

While the discussion at techcrunch with facebook comments enabled was more intelligent it wasn’t as entertaining and the number of people commenting decreased dramatically. The end result was that users stopped coming back to articles to read the comments.

For a website an active commenting section can increase pageviews when commenters or those following the discussion come back to that page multiple times throughout the day to track the progress of discussions. Another hard reality is that anonymous or semi anonymous commenters are often the ones to provide insights that can’t be found within real name commenting systems.

Techcrunch articles about potential fraud at technology companies often had anonymous comments from employees and former employees with inside information, while there is the potential that those comments could be pure lies, a high number of related accusations, anonymous or not, definitely gives insight into a company that just can’t be done in traditional reporting.

The much ignored truth, facebook comments, semi anonymous comments or anonymous comments matter little if the content is not discussion worthy. The content most likely to be comment worthy is the same content that some media companies are nervous about having comments on.

If you take for example the New York times op-ed on the Senkaku ownership which had more than 140 comments on it. The New York Times doesn’t require real names, and while the majority of the comments were anonymous some commenters used their real names including one Hong Kong resident who responded to more than 20 comments in defense of China. Another article on The New York Times about the tragic shooting in connecticut had more than 2000 comments. The matter of debate within those 2000 comments wasn’t about the shooting itself but about gun control in America.

Both articles were highly controversial. What drove intelligent discussion was the content, not the commenting system. Controversial content will generate controversial comments, if a publisher enables facebook comments simply because they don’t want to risk controversial comments they are missing the point completely. Its not the commenting system its the content.

Controversial content, drives controversial discussions which drives pageviews which drives advertising revenue. That’s the simple recipe.

Which brings me to content aggregators. Sites like buzzfeed, Business Insider and originally Huffington Post were driven in large part by content created by other media companies and individuals. Effectively what they are good at is identifying the most controversial and trending topics, embracing its controversy with more glaring headlines and stances.

So we wonder why new media companies have a advantage over traditional media companies when it comes to the internet? Its because they embrace the controversy because they live and die by impressions, not print subscriptions, not paper advertisements, controversy and impressions.

The best aggregators are taking a larger story, summarizing it in half the space used by the original source and encouraging discussion around it, in my opinion this proves that the discussions are equally as important as the content itself and that a successful news site requires both.

If a publisher is building great content without discussion they will eventually lose their audience to those that do have the discussions whether those discussions are social or anonymous, but obviously the lower the barrier to joining the discussion the better off the company will be in the long term.

It took techcrunch three years to realize this but now they have once again opened the gates of discussion to the trolls of the internet, hopefully they will be more behaved this time.