<i>Washington Post</i> Develops Visual, Web-like Commenting System

Washingtonpost.com has developed a new commenting interface dubbed "WebCom" that arranges comments in a web based on which ones are most-liked by readers and spur the most discussion.

It's the latest effort to solve a problem that has persisted since news sites first enabled users to comment on stories: how to foster better conversations and help users find them.

Some commenting systems allow users to vote comments up or down. Some let users respond directly to each other and display the threads of discussions. But on most sites, comments are presented in the same basic way: chronological or reverse-chronological lists. Those lists don't do much to help users find the best comments, especially when hundreds of people have responded to a single post.

WebCom is washingtonpost.com's visual solution to the problem of knowing which comments create the best conversation, said Steven King, the site's editor of innovations and product development.

Note: If you're receiving this via e-mail newsletter and have trouble viewing the video, please use the video player on the Poynter Online article.

WebCom displays comments in a dynamic web instead of a traditional list. As new comments come in, the web gets bigger. The web, however, is not organized by chronology. King and his team believe that the most valuable comments are those that are rated highly by peers and those that spur responses. WebCom uses those criteria to organize the web.

The web changes as users post new comments, as discussions develop and as users vote on the quality of comments. Comments that spur responses gravitate to the center of the web. Those rated highest by fellow users appear larger, while those with low ratings appear very small. And comments that are well-liked and garner a lot of responses are both larger and closer to the center. Comments are color-coded to help returning users see what's new.

This visual metaphor should make it easier for people to jump into developed comment threads, and King hopes that it will lead to more and better discussions.

It's a radical departure from most commenting systems, but King said he has gotten few complaints. Editors, on the other hand, were a harder sell. At their request, King and his team developed a traditional threaded list view as a second display option.

The new commenting was introduced in May on Flash-based video features such as onBeing and Scene In. King said the site will start using WebCom on other videos later this year. There are no plans to use it for articles and other text content.

"We have seen that, just like every other news site, that we don't get a lot of comments on video in comparison to articles," King said, but he hopes WebCom will change that.

The commenting system was built in two weeks by two developers at washingtonpost.com. A front-end developer worked on the user interface, while a back-end developer created the database and commenting framework in Django. Because the user interface was built in one language -- Flash's ActionScript 3 -- and the back-end in another, the Post can take this technology and put it on different parts of washingtonpost.com with different user interfaces.

While WebCom's technology and presentation are impressive, King acknowledged that there is a downside. For instance, it doesn't work on mobile browsers. "Once all the mobile devices have the ability to use the new Flash 10," he said, "I think that will totally change development for mobile devices."

And users with older and low-powered computers may struggle to view WebCom. King said his team aims to deliver a full experience to 85 percent of users, with the other 15 percent getting a usable, but somewhat degraded, experience.

"If we're pushing innovation, we can't make it work for 100 percent of users," he said.

What do you think of this commenting system? Would you like to see WebCom used for other types of content?


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