Why we need to rethink comments

By Tom Limongello, Guest Contributor , written on September 9, 2013

From The News Desk

When is disruptive innovation just too disruptive?

The most basic of features, commenting on digital media, has evolved slowly in the 30 years of the internet. User-generated information is still an important part of the two-way publishing environment, yet commenting as a feature is not keeping pace with user interface design -- in fact, it's not even keeping pace with Hollywood and TV, where we are already getting used to directors pasting scripted text messages, thoughts, and more on-screen.

There have been breakthroughs in making user-generated comments more relevant, like Twitter’s 140 character limitation and Facebook’s enforcement of real identity, which have improved the quality of comments. As user interfaces include more video and move to mobile and tablet devices, however, comments have fallen by the wayside.

Whenever there's an update to Facebook's user interface, no matter how small, millions rage against the machine, and Twitter's recent change to “conversations” was so minuscule that even mainstream news outlets must have been bored by the user backlash.

We should be looking to earlier stage startups for this sort of disruption, but we don’t see it in the likely places. Sure, Medium, Quartz, and Branch have moved comments from the bottom of the page to the sides of paragraphs to provide better context in longer form writing, although not everyone welcomes the change.

The conservatism that we see from the dominant US social platforms stem from user experience considerations, but in the rest of the world where Facebook and YouTube have less sway, startups are making progress in innovating how comments make their way into user experiences.

If we venture to Europe we see platforms like SoundCloud pack in two types of information into the same space; sight and sound via an orange wave that displays an exegesis of comments against time. Move over to the Middle East and we can point to Waze, from Israel, which figured out how to put comments on maps and get people to actually use them.

If we go farther east, we start to see all sorts of innovation from Japanese companies related to user-generated content on video. That may seem strange, because it seems we all agreed a long time ago when we were only watching videos on YouTube pages from our laptops that YouTube comments are problematic, if not totally devoid of value. Now that we are just as often watching them from our phones and tablets, there’s just no room for comments and, it seems, we’re fine with that.

Cities like Tokyo deal with visual constraints differently, though. Japanese signs display text in both horizontal and vertical  directions and Japanese advertisers continually push the boundaries of what constitutes usable space. One Tokyo-based Japanese video platform, Nico Nico Douga, has been offering horizontal-scrolling text comment overlays on videos since 2007 in what would be considered by user experience gurus in the US to be a horror much scarier than anything Godzilla could muster.

Nico Nico Douga, part of Tokyo listed Dwango, unchained comments from the page and put them right on top of videos. Shinya Kuroda, product manager at Dwango, explained that the sustained popularity of BBS chat in Japan was the basis for the marriage of video and comments. Specifically, the highly negative was *the* place to go to comment while watching TV, and so an enterprising NicoNico engineer prototyped the feature to make it easier to consume comments without navigating away from the video content.

Shinya went on to say that by putting comments on videos you get the necessary context to quickly understand them as a reaction to a certain point in the video. Users could "share their passion (not reviews) with other audience easily, and also the uploaders could get direct response from their fans… We are trying to expand this experience from video to other medias such as manga illustrations in ebooks, and so on."

In fact, if you watch this interview with NicoNico's CEO from 2011 you can see that the company has been focusing on premium subscribers where it enables hyper commenting on first-run TV and movies. Nobuo Kawakami cited that NicoNico had great success with a first run of a Harry Potter episode in Japan. To me, the idea of cult fans viewing and commenting simultaneously is exactly the type of experience that Hunter Walk discussed when he sketched out how to reinvent the movie theater and a perfect fit for a niche type of video consumption, yet here in the US we revolted at the idea.

Simply putting the text on screen or even more stylized VH1 pop-up video comments may not be the only way to incorporate user-generated comments. Picture-in-picture video is an interesting alternative, where user reactions can be shown in smaller video windows within a video player.

PiP may seem like a FaceTime gimmick to us, but if we consider how broadly it is used in Japanese reality TV to show character reactions, then it may seem more natural. In fact, NYC startup Frontback, is starting to get us used to putting two perspectives on images, by cleverly making use of your phone’s front and back camera to generate a single, multi-perspective image. Buzzfeed's reaction cam is also a fun way to capture your facial expression into a simple animated gif for sentimental distribution across the web.

Still, both of these attempts to train users into bringing more multimedia interactions into the digital stream are a step behind using full video as a commenting tool. In Japan, multimedia reactions are a part of everyday TV programming. If we look at this video that shows people's mute reactions as PiP segments within videos, we do not have to resign ourselves to the clutter of text comments.

Reece Pacheco, founder of, recently wrote that the video curation space has taken a long time to take off despite a lot of experimentation in how to filter content. But he’s optimistic that all the data algorithm work will soon start to bear out in the video user experience.

"With online video content creation rising exponentially, the need for tools to sift the signal from the noise is more important than ever,” he says. “That goes for the content itself, as well as the context/comments around it. So I think we'll see services that create an experience that shows the end viewer the content/videos they care about with comments that are actually relevant to them personally."

Despite Reece’s optimism, I think we seem stuck, hemmed in by the tyranny of good design. We see value in having information on screen, but we don’t want a lot of junk littering up our video experience. Is it possible that video commenting is actually too disruptive?  Do we think the world is ready for Mystery Science Theater 3000 as a platform, where text, audio or video commenting solutions can coexist with content? Will the European or Japanese theaters continue to out innovate us, or will the US platforms finally enter the war?

My advice is to tune in to Tokyo.

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