Echo won’t kill comments — they’re already dead

This is a guest post by Nicolas Holzapfel of stealth mode startup Yoomoot. Throughout the summer we’re running guest posts we like – exclusive to TechCrunch Europe – written by people on the tech scene in Europe. If you’d like to contribute get in touch.

Widget developer JS-Kit recently proclaimed the “death of comments”. How so? By way of its innovative comment management system Echo, that’s how. This would-be executioner pulls together disparate comments across the Web about a particular article and places them amid the conventional comments below the article. If it takes off, popular sites like TechCrunch could end up with hundreds if not thousands of additional comments. And therein lies the problem. How many of us can be bothered to read through more than the first few dozen or so comments on an article?

Not more than a handful I’m sure; a handful that won’t be made any bigger by Echo’s invading army of snippets from Twitter, FriendFeed, Facebook, Digg and Delicious. It may be nice for the article’s author to conveniently track every last mention of his or her article, but for the reader it just means hundreds more comments to not-read.

That’s not to say that Echo doesn’t benefit readers at all. Seeing new comments appear without having to refresh the page is handy, but not game-changing. Being able to post images and videos, log-in via OpenID and conveniently share our content across our different networks are all nice touches, though really these are just basics we’ve come to expect everywhere, not the stuff of epic comment mass-murder which Echo trumpets.

In reality an aspiration to be the death of comments is doomed to failure because it ignores the fact that comments, where they become at all numerous, have long been doing just fine at killing themselves by way of drowning in their own popularity.

Lots of comments amounts to an enormous long list of entirely unstructured text. There are no dividers or subheadings, no logical progression of arguments or groupings of opinion and no distinction between unique, intelligent insights and throwaway expressions of approval and opposition. Because nobody can be bothered to read through such a mess before they add their own comment, there isn’t even the structure of a coherent conversation. Instead, there is endless, pointless repetition; conversations emerge, peter out and then re-emerge 50 comments later with new participants who haven’t noticed that the same issues were discussed 50 comments ago. And these are the more productive comment threads. Much more often comments are unreplied-to and unacknowledged: futile, audience-less clamours and lonely questions without a hope of ever being answered.

By massively increasing the volume of comments and taking them from many different social networks, Echo will only exacerbate this problem: completing the transformation of comments into a disjointed stream of mutually-ignoring cries into the void, each destined for a brief flicker of prominence before vanishing without trace under the weight of a thousand tweets.

I don’t say any of this because I dislike comments but because I’m disappointed with how comments are handled. To my mind, the Internet should be the world’s parliament. It should be a massive conversation, a democratizing collective debate which abolishes the distinction between authors and readers – the active opinion-producer and the passive opinion-consumer. Unfortunately that’s not going to happen if all that the readers author is a garbled, unstructured mess that nobody reads.

Some people believe that comments on popular articles will always be like this because many-to-many conversations are impossible. They believe that if we want coherence we must content ourselves with either conversations in small groups (few-to-few) or one-way conversations whereby a throng of admirers hang on the words of an admired expert (one-to-many).

I disagree.

I believe that the Internet offers the potential for coherent many-to-many conversations for the first time in the history of humanity. As MG Siegler points out, today’s “commenting structure [has] been in place basically since blogging began”. What is needed is an evolutionary shift which is suitably adapted to the Internet’s unique potential and pitfalls. We need something that allows massive numbers of comments to be navigated quickly and easily so that coherent mass conversations can emerge.

We don’t need amplified echoes of what already exists.