Business, Featured - Written by on Tuesday, May 20, 2008 9:06 - 8 Comments

Denis Hancock
Looking into the blogosphere through a sporting lens: part I

For the last couple of weeks the blogosphere has been abuzz about a little piece that was on Costas Now. On the program a professional athlete (Braylen Edwards), the creator of a Deadspin (Will Leitch, representing the blogosphere), well-respected TV sports commentator (and host) Bob Costas, and Pulitzer Prize winning writer (and creator of Friday Night Lights) Buzz Bissinger sat down to talk about the pros and cons of the blogosphere in relation to sports journalism.

It was the right group of people for a great conversation – and it is the conversation that should have been that I hope to build on in this post. Unfortunately, what made this a story was that the actual conversation did not go particularly well. The professional athlete and the representative of the blogopshere did there part by participating as articulate, thoughtful individuals; Bob Costas was also articulate, but seemed more interested in piling on during a poorly conceived attack on Will then engaging in a thoughtful conversation; and Pulitzer prize winning Buzz Bissinger came across as a raving lunatic.

(note: once the people start talking after the long intro, it only takes about a minute for this to be established. Will starts saying a few things, Bob Costas quickly expresses surprise over Will being “very palatable” in person (even likable!!), and then the Pulitzer prize winner interjects with ”I feel very strongly about this. I really think you’re full of s$%$.” It does not get better after that).

If Buzzinger and Costas had sat down to do a parody of the worst of the blogosphere on a TV program, they could hardly have done a better job. I’ve watched it a few times now, and read Buzz’s thoughtful follow-up interview from last week (among other stories on the subject) – suffice to say he is suitably embarrased. It makes the product that was turned out that much more unfortunate, as there seems to be plenty of material there for some thoughtful conversations on some interesting issues.

The first, and the one I’m going to begin exploring today, is the role and the value of comments. Every blogger loves comments, and in the age of mass collaboration every company and media outlet seems to be inviting any-and-everyone to “join the conversation.” In his follow-on interview, it becomes clear that a lot of what Buzz was complaining about was in regards to the comments on blogs. To quote:

I still maintain that the majority of blogs are founded upon mockery and maliciousness. And yes, a lot of those are the comments, but the comments go hand in hand with the posts. I know the difference, and let’s face it, the more provocative the blog is, the more comments it gets, the more hits it gets, the more traffic it gets, the more chances you get of getting advertising, which is what all bloggers want.

Given that it seems everyone in the blogosphere is arguing that the comments section is the key to a successful post, it’s clear that Buzz has a point- they appear to go hand and hand. Put another way, it’s hard to say that having people “join the conversation” is one of the strengths of the blogosphere, and then turn around and argue that blogs should not be held accountable for the conversation they stimulate. So it seems valid to look at the value created by the “conversations”, and particularly whether it exceeds the “mockery and maliciousness” that comment sections seem to invite, particularly on sports-themed blogs.

Let’s begin by focusing on the word “conversation.” I know for a fact that all of my best conversations involve exactly two people. I was also at a conference last week where they reminded me that our “assignment teams” couldn’t be larger than eight people – research shows that anything more is counterproductive. Text-based online conversations may be able to handle more people than that in a “conversation”, particularly if they build slowly. I’d be just guessing what this number would be, but whatever it is, I’m quite sure it’s less than the hundreds or thousands of comments that (for example) posts on the ESPN Conversation Beta routinely get. Can you really have a valuable “conversation” with this many people trying to talk at once?

I would argue no – particularly on “hot news” topics that tend to have a short shelf life. Now the ESPN Conversation Beta (I chose it as an example because it’s one of the better ones) does appear to be reasonably moderated, so many of the malicious attacks you see on many other sites (and that Buzz complains about) aren’t neccesarily there. There also doesn’t tend to be an annoying collection of people vying to have the first post by typing in “FIRST!!” and pressing submit as soon as a story goes up (or at least they are moderated out). But just because it’s better doesn’t mean it’s valuable to me. If I read through the 5,983 comments (and counting) on stories like this one (the Patriots are cheaters!), I might find 5-10% of them insightful and interesting, several times that many somewhat offensive, and many more just annoying – in addition to all those that are simply redundant. In turn, I never, ever look at them – unless researching a post like this one. I do spend sometime wondering what incents someone to provide comment 786 or 5,786 – weird, no?

So what is the value of the comments section to the vast majority of people looking for sports stories? Probably quite small, and on many, many sites the comments section devolves into exactly what Buzz was talking about. To articulate it more clearly, conversations do not scale well. In what appears to be a bit of a paradox, the more popular a post is, the less likely the follow-on conversation is to be interesting. Moreover, when hundreds of comments flood onto a page within hours (as often happens on the sports blogs), there is no coherence to it – it reads more like random people yelling somewhat random things at each other than an actual conversation.

How might this be addressed? One simple option is for more blogs to develop “threaded conversations”, akin to traditional message boards. It’s simple really – enable people to respond to individual comments, where the reader can follow along a particular thread of interest. This allows readers to (hopefully) engage in smaller, more targeted conversations on something they find interesting -and/or start a new one with a few people if another thread gets overrun. At some level a scale issue will obviously develop again, but for all but the most popular blogs I think there is some value here – and not very many sites seem to be doing it.

Another thing that I would like to see, and what sports writers might be more interested in, is a step beyond “moderated” comments sections to (for lack of a better term) “exclusive conversations”. In this model, you’d pre-select a small group of people (say, mostly staff writers of differing opinions) to engage in a conversation with each other in response to a particular article. It’s not “mass collaboration” by any stretch of the imagination, but I know that I’d find a debate between five thoughtful writers to be a more valuable offering than current comments sections – and you could always allow threaded conversations connected to. Again, it’s an opportunity that the “blogosphere” enables that few sites seem to be taking advantage of.

Finally, right now I find the best way to proxy an interesting “conversation” on a given topic that’s been written about online is to search for other complete blog posts that either link to, or directly reference, the main article. Might some media outlets create additional value by monitoring all the related posts in the blogosphere for a given topic, and provide them as links to their readers at the bottom of articles? Some very interesting “conversations” could be generated this way, “commenters” are incented to be thoughtful rather than just quick – and if the original writer responds to certain ones, all the better. In such a case, the original creator of the content creates additional value for readers, and keeps them engaged, by not only linking directly into the “blogosphere ecosystem”, but by helping filter for them as well.

That’s just a couple of ideas, but it’s worthwhile for everyone involved in the blogosphere to think about how “conversation” might be reframed to create more value for readers. Conversations are good, but they don’t scale particularly well – and as such they could use some better structure and management to make them more valuable. Are there a few people here (hopefully not 4,200 of you :) ) that have some thoughts on the issue?



8 Comments

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Ken Leebow
May 20, 2008 13:31

Thank you for turning me on to the Costa’s video — very entertaining.

I marvel at the number of comments that are on blog postings.

It makes me realize that people really aren’t — busy, busy, busy, as they profess.

Whether it’s politics or any other blog, I find comments to be a waste of time. Trying to find the insightful and useful comments is like trying to find a needle in a haystack. Or about as interesting as following Twitter postings.

Denis Hancock
May 20, 2008 14:33

But do you think that there is a way to find those “needles in the haystack”, and highlight them / make them useful in a way that each reader doesn’t have to pick through it?

As you can probably tell, I think that there is theoretically a way – but I’m not 100% sure how it would work. At any given time I have about 5 destinations I go to on the web where the comments/ conversations add an incredible amount of value to the posts. However, as they inevitably get more popular, those 5 get over run… and I end up with a new 5. It’s a never ending cycle I would like to break somehow!

Ken Leebow
May 20, 2008 15:00

You’re asking for a different system…sort of a hybrid between “old” edited “media” and the almost totally open system of the Internet.

It’s a very long explanation and since I rarely comment (and even I don’t care about my opinion), I have to end it here.

And, going back to the video. The gentleman from old media (I forget his name), if he really cares about the future of media, should become one of the credible bloggers.

Denis Hancock
May 20, 2008 15:21

Fair enough – I realize there is some irony built into a post asking for comments about the (possible) lack of value in comments!

But if you did decide to offer up the long explanation some day, I’d be more than happy to link to it/ cross publish it…

Ken Leebow
May 22, 2008 18:02

Denis,

It looks like we have our own personal thread here. After watching Jeff Zucker on Charlie Rose, I think all of this boils down to one thing: Fear.

Over the long haul, there’s no way “old media” can withstand the onslaught of free or near free and the reality is that there is so much good and creative content online. For example, look at the recent Bill O’Reilly video and the mashups that followed it.

The bottom line is that old media can’t create that type of innovation.

And, like Craigslist, as an example, many people on the Net do not have a profit motive as their “mode of operandi”.

Although, I do believe that at some point, Craigslist will be sold for billions.

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