Can Livefyre’s annotations tool fix commenting?

Livefyre wants to bring its social commenting system not only to every story on the Web, but also to every paragraph, block quote and image. With its new Sidenotes feature launching today at Salon and Fox Business, annotations — essentially paragraph-by-paragraph commenting — could be poised to go mainstream.

It’s not a new concept: Many news outlets, including Poynter, have tested a service called ReadrBoard, and Quartz and Medium have notably developed their own in-the-margins commenting systems. News Genius got some attention lately for hosting an annotation-based rebuttal to Newsweek’s controversial cover story on bitcoin’s founder.

But Livefyre has more than 650 clients, with its social tools living on almost 100,000 sites. With that kind of scale, it hopes Sidenotes can be adopted quickly across the Web.

And when it is, Livefyre CEO Jordan Kretchmer told Poynter via phone, it could go a long way toward cleaning up the nastiness that plagues many comment sections. (The Chicago Sun-Times has disabled commenting on its site until it can find a way to cut down on bad behavior.)

“They become topical in nature very quickly,” Kretchmer said of traditional, bottom-of-page comments. “They’re rarely about the article itself. That’s why conversations degrade so quickly.”

When Sidenotes is installed onto page templates, Livefyre looks at the page structure and generates a customizable commenting icon for each “social object” it identifies — paragaphs, pullquotes and images in the “out of the box” experience. Tapping the icon opens a comments window right next to the content, taking a cue from The New York Times’ new commenting system.

Not included by default: a way to aggregate all those comments into one feed, although that’s achievable through an API. Kretchmer said beta testing showed it didn’t make sense to separate annotations from their original context.

That raises concerns about fragmenting discussion and possibly making individual comments less visible and discoverable, but Kretchmer said the goal of Sidenotes isn’t to kill traditional commenting. The two forms can coexist.

New audience insights?

Besides providing a new reader service that could elevate the quality of discussion, Sidenotes also offers what are essentially new real-time analytics.

Ideally, a site with a large commenting base can watch in real-time as some parts of an article draw more buzz than others. Through an API, that could lead to any number of actionables, like automatically generating new pullquotes based on passages getting a lot of commenting attention.

Social media editors also could be able to recognize that a particular quote might be a good bet for sharing on Twitter or Facebook, and Sidenotes facilitates reader sharing, too. Just highlight a passage and you’ll be prompted to share.

A tool for writers too?

A columnist unafraid of alternative storyforms could use Sidenotes to annotate a press conference or presidential speech. The tool could also be an elegant way for authors to solicit reaction to individual points, or include more citations.

It could also be a way to add value to ad units by facilitating discussion — although one can see how that could backfire for brands.

Crucially, Sidenotes is a mobile-first feature, with comments presented in an expandable, swipeable carousel on smartphones. The bite-size concept is perfectly suited for mobile, Kretchmer said, where the experience of commenting has never been anything short of terrible. That’s one more element of what Livefyre thinks will be a paradigm shift.

“By the end of this year I hope every user on the Web expects this kind of experience and understands it as though its second nature and part of the everyday Web,” Kretchmer said.


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