This week I was discussing blog comment systems with a developer. Over the years I've looked at various blog commenting systems. None provided enough of my desired features to warrant a switch from native WordPress. I'm open to being persuaded but, ultimately, I won't switch unless you give me a compelling reason to do so by solving problems and providing features.
Below are the things I would like to see in a comment system. Some are imperative and others just niceties. Please share what you use and why in the comments!
Blog Comment System Features
No Signup Required
When I began blogging on January 1, 2003, I did so manually (meaning I had a static web site, linked to posts on the home page in reverse chronological order, and added emailed comments by hand—seriously).
Soon I discovered and converted to WordPress but I didn't like blog commenting, as I found it disjointed (with one conversation per post). To ameliorate that problem, I hacked WordPress native comments into a message board. I used the Vanilla Forum and coded it so that when a new post was created, a new forum topic (linked both back and forth) was also created and opened. Forum members who were logged in could post either in the comment threads or create topics on their own.
Coming from a paradigm where message boards were the common discussion mechanism, this seemed intuitive to my readers. Mormon Momma had hundreds and hundreds of commenters.
As blogging caught on, the norm switched from the login/forum model to the name/email/URL-optional model with comments directly on the post itself. Even though my signup/login process was quick and simple, it was seen as an annoyance barrier to participation.
As login requirements became less common—and as I got more and more complaints about it—I “unhacked” the site and moved all the post-forum comments back to their proper posts. (This was not easy. You're welcome.) This move revitalized commenting on the blog.
From personal experience on the reader end, I cannot count the dozens of times I have been deterred from leaving a comment by the commenting system itself. Either the system was buggy, I couldn't get the proper account logged in, I didn't want to go through yet another registration process with yet another account to manage, or something else. It was just too much trouble. Never mind. As one person said:
If a user is required to create an account with your site before they can comment, you might as well ask them to fetch you a soda from mars. It’s probably not going to happen. However, if you can give them the option to comment with an account they’ve already set up, then you will be much more likely to get some interaction.
Comment systems that use social media accounts as the login mechanism can help, but they can be troublesome as well. In spite of the popularity of social media, the majority of humans still don't use it. Even then, logging in from work might be impossible. Some companies block such services to prevent their employees from whiling away the hours. (Don't we all know someone to whom we would like to say, “Um…yea…haven't you been at ‘work' for the last two hours? Why are you spending my taxpayer dollars tweeting about the Kardashians? Is that really in your job description?”)
Conversely, corporate firewalls often block access to reading comments posted using social media logins.
While I would appreciate the option for readers to login to a comment system—while providing incentives and perks for doing so—my blog depends on the ability for readers to comment easily and quickly. Forcing reader to create an account and login is a deal killer for me. And, apparently, for others:
I never comment on sites that require me to use facebook or signup. The last thing I need is another account.
I don't like being required to log into an unrelated account, regardless of how many accounts I'm allowed to choose from.
I don't know how many we are but I'm the kind of person who will never comment on your website if you force me to use Facebook.
Even TechCrunch, a company that publicized its adoption of Facebook commenting on its site, admitted the model's failure. Requiring users to login and (see below) use their real identities killed commenting. They removed the system.
Anonymity and Pseudonimity
- Increasingly potential employers do internet searches. Will all your bold opinions be welcome and appreciated by your dream company?
- If you've discussed health issues in an online forum, do you want your potential employer to know how hiring you might impact their health care costs?
- Do you ever plan to run for office or hold a public position? Will your opinions be misconstrued and used against you?
Many posts here at Mormon Momma are about religion (obviously) and politics. As important as these are, not everyone wants their real identity attached to a controversial subject. (Although, come on, if you agree with me you should be fine, because I'm right. 🙂 ) Some with valid points of view still don't want to have the endless battle of being labeled or marginalized. Many want to discuss their ideas without being forced to die on the hill that idea produces.
…78% of people who comment anonymously won’t engage if they are forced to use their real identities…
This kind of mass exodus would be the death of many blogs.
There are many reasons people feel this way. One is they simply don't want their information sold or used for purposes they haven't agreed to.
Used to comment a good bit at TorrentFreak until they turned it over to Disqus. After that I never made another comment as I hate being datamined.
When volunteering your information to a service you lose some privacy. The same would be true for the info you enter into a comment system. Having such a system fully disclose how and where they intend to use the generated data is paramount.
Many users like to segment their online presence. They might use one name for social engagement, another for professional interaction, and a third for intensely debated topics. This approach requires the ability to use pseudonyms. Livefyre, again:
…88% still use their real identities online at least some of the time. Site-specific identities gives brands and publishers a middle ground to safely ramp up engagement while maintaining their high-standards of moderation.
Interestingly, even Facebook—the leader in promoting use of real names in social media—is developing an anonymity app.
Identification as Problem Solver
Many people demand the use of real names as a means to mollify abuse, bullying, and offensive behavior. But does this work? Anyone who has spent enough time in the “real name” social space knows that:
- It doesn't prevent trolling.
- The trolling can be more personal and damaging because the troll often has access to personal information.
As one person said:
I wish I were free to be brave. I wish I didn't have to be concerned about future employers knowing my thoughts about IP or trolls trying to make my AFK [away from keyboard] life hell just because they disagree with me. I wish my love for and my duty to my family didn't require me to shy away from proclaiming out loud all these things I believe with my name proudly attached to the letterhead. Sincerity and honesty are some of my most valued ideals in life. It's unfortunate that the honesty of my identity has to take a backseat to the liability of being honest in a world where the people with money and power believe that greed is a virtue, control is a right of the unethical, and apathy is a shield against the conscience they try to drown with money.
An ideal comment system won't just remove barriers to commenting, but will encourage readers to stay and engage. Here are some possible ways to approach that issue.
First and foremost, the name field needs to link back to the (optional) URL. This is expected blog behavior and gives a small hat tip to the reader taking the time to comment.
For years I have used CommentLuv on my blogs. This provides a more robust linkback feature and social linking (as well as other functions). I love it and offer it to all my clients. I want to maintain this functionality for my readers.
This higher level linkback might be a proper incentive for those who take the time to login to the comment system.
Another premium for members who login could be the ability to rate the comments/commenters. This rating system would be part of a larger “reputation economy” movement, where readers earn clout and/or site perks based on their level of quality participation.
Initially the Facebook “like” system seemed foreign to me. I wondered why there wasn't a “dislike” or down vote button. Over the years, I've come to understand the wisdom. You can show approval for a comment, or ignore it altogether, but you can't slaughter someone just because you disagree with them.
A good ratings system needs some way to rate quality of comment rather than just alignment with personal opinion. Particularly, again, when you get into the religion/politics realm, comments are judged not so much on the content, thoughtfulness, or validity, but whether they match the worldview of the reader. (As a female, conservative, feminist, LDS blogger, trust me on this!)
Another ratings problem occurs when a comment is rated on a percentage scale in particular categories. Given it's prevalence, it's unlikely we'll ever get away from feeling as though we are part of a school grading system. Giving someone a 70% will always feel like a C, which is pretty lousy (or at least “average”). This will lend to as much questioning and arguing about the ratings as it will to discussion of the actual post topic. It will also lend itself to retaliation if the rater's identity is known.
“What? I spent hours on that comment! Why did you only give me a B?”
“Because you're totally wrong and you're an idiot!”
“Here, 30% rating back at you.”
Customizable Look and Feel
Many (most? all?) commenting systems look like foreign entities pulled from another sphere (which, really, they are). They don't look or work like the rest of the site.
Facebook comments match Facebook, but not most blogs. So if you have a really clean site, with the currently popular bold colors, large print, prominent images, and lots of nice white space, you don't want your comment system to be a blue Facebook rectangle with a tiny (mismatched) font and all the other Facebookish accoutrements. You want one with the right fonts, colors, and scale to bring continuity, so your post flows seamlessly into the comments.
A comment system that brings in the desired features while allowing it to visually integrate into the site is a big plus.
Integration of Social Media Comments
One of the most frustrating things about social media is the dispersal of the discussion. A post goes live and people begin commenting. If a post is linked on Facebook, a conversation starts there as well. Add Twitter, G+, and LinkedIn and three more conversations begin. Even Pinterest has comments that sometimes are substantive.
Keeping track of and responding appropriately in so many spaces can be a real headache. Often the most substantive discussions happen on social media and end up scrolling off to be lost in the ether.
Sure, discussions have been fragmented throughout history. If I gave a speech at a conference, people could go home and talk about it. But we have the technology to make much of the digital conversation easier to manage. Having a commenting section that pulls the social media comments into the blog would be fabulous. (Think Livefyre's SocialSync feature.)
Personally, I'd rather not simply integrate the social comments in with the blog comments chronologically. (That would be disjointed with various conversations intermingled.) Ideally, the comment section could default to the on-blog comments, but include tabs that could reveal the social comments as a group. (i.e. a tab each for Facebook, Google+, Twitter, LinkedIn, and perhaps Pinterest.)
Flat and Threaded Commenting Options
Out of the box WordPress allows some threading options. From the setup of this blog you can probably tell I don't like them. I support having the option of threading, but would not want to use a comment system that forced threading. Here are my reasons:
- Threading can make it very hard to find and respond to new comments. Generally you have to search through the entire comment section, searching for additions to tangential threads and hoping you won't miss them—rather than just scrolling to the last comment read and moving down.
- WordPress threading depth maxes out at ten levels. While this is often adequate, in-depth discussions often go deeper. When levels run out, replies can end up just about anywhere, some commenters will go up a single level, some will reply to the top-level comment, or simply add a new top-level comment.
- Often as not, readers will use the threading as a means to keep their own comment at the top of the comment section, where it is more likely to be seen. In other words, the threading “nests” get filled up by people who are not actually replying to a top-level comment, they are merely using the reply feature on one of the first top-level comments to get their own comment to stay on top of all subsequent top-level comments.
My preferred commenting setup is something I've hacked here at Mormon Momma. (It doesn't work perfectly, but I'm not willing to fix the plugins creating the problems…yet.) On this blog, at this writing, threading is only two levels deep and only the post author can reply to a comment. This gives the author the ability to clearly respond to a particular comment, without muddying the waters incredibly with all sorts of conversational sidelines. All other comments remain only on the top level.
To facilitate flat commenting on long, involved threads, having the ability to easily quote a previous comment and link back to the comment one is replying to is very helpful. This functionality is readily available in most message forums and could work just as well in blog comments.
Including a simple check box at the bottom of a comment that will allow readers to create an email subscription to notify them of additional comments on the post provides convenience and continuity.
Notifying the author of incoming comments (either moderated or posted) helps the author keep up with the conversation.
Handle Existing Comments
With tens of thousands of comments on my blog—comments that contain valuable, searchable content—the only way I would ever convert from the native WordPress commenting system is if following two functions were easily accessible:
- Import of all existing comments into the new system.
- Export of existing and new comments back into native WordPress commenting should I decided to abandon the commenting system.
Social Media Sharing
Providing an uncluttered way for commenters to share their own (or other's) comments on social media can make promotion easy.
Aggregation of User Comments
Allowing users the ability to easily search their own comments on any post on a blog (or any post on any blog that uses the same commenting system) would be a wonderful way for people to keep track of their own conversations.
How often have you written a comment that is precisely applicable elsewhere and you'd love to copy and paste with only a little editing, but you can't remember where you made the profound comment? Such an aggregation system would allow readers some level of ownership of their own comments by cataloging them and attaching them to the identity.
Authors must be able to manage the content on their own sites. The tone and atmosphere in the comment sections if part of branding. Here at Mormon Momma I encourage many different views and don't mind a hearty debate, some bloggers want to present only opinions that align with their own, others want everyone to play nice and get along splendidly. Both authors and administrators need to be able to remove any comment that doesn't fit their vision for the site. What do you need for your site moderation?
The ability to block comments by name, email, URL, IP, or word is essential to keep repeat offenders from mucking up the comments. This could also be a feature that is implemented (at author discretion) for commenters with too many down votes.
Allowing readers to hide a particular comment or block all comments from another reader helps improve reader experience. (Think Facebook's “I don't want to see this” and user blocking features.)
Inline Author Moderation
This allows authors to remove any comment from view quickly and easily on the front end.
Short-term comment editing: This gives the commenter to make edits to their own comments for a few minutes after publishing. (Haven't we all seen the glaring typo immediately after hitting the submit button?)
Including some kind of general spam filtering (such as Akismet) on blogs is helpful. There can be many levels of intensity but it must include levels that don't use Captcha. (Am I the only human who regularly fails the Captcha test? Augh!)
Current Blog System Competition
There are many commenting systems on the market today, but none do all the things many users want. Some use multiple comment solutions in tandem. Here are some options to compare:
- Native WordPress Commenting
- Jetpack Comments
- The World Table Comment System
- Facebook Comments
- Comments Evolved (formerly Google+ Comments)
- Vicomi Comments
- Echo Comments
- Inline Comments
- Turn off commenting
What is Your Perfect Blog Commenting System?
Please share your thoughts on blog commenting below. Here are some starting point questions, but any input is welcome!
- What commenting system do you use on your blog(s)?
- What features do you love?
- What features do you hate?
- What features do you wish worked better/differently?
- What features do you wish could be added?