On Thursday, October 3rd 2019, Inside Higher Ed (IHE) ran an unplanned experiment.  This experiment tested what happens to a news and opinion website when commenting is disabled.

I don’t know the details, but due to some technical glitch, the Disqus commenting system that IHE’s uses did not show any comments the entire day. Every article and opinion piece looked like it had zero comments.

From what I can tell, readers were still able to comment – and the comments appeared sometime late on 10/3 or 10/4. But for most of the day, reader responses at the bottom of IHE articles were absent.

What was your reaction to IHE’s unplanned comment-free experiment?

Here were my reactions:

Reaction 1: Wow, IHE seems smaller and less relevant without comments.

Inside Higher Ed brands itself as “the go-to online source for higher education news, thought leadership, careers and resources.” 

What is missing in this self-description of IHE is anything about user-generated content. Yet, what a day without comments reveals is that the majority of IHE content is user-generated.

Someone should fact check this assertion that readers generate more words each day, on average, than IHE reporters and opinion writers and bloggers. If I’m right (or close to right), then it would be hard to argue with the assertion that IHE is at least as much a community platform as it is a news and opinion site.

Lacking the ideas, expertise, and reactions of the readers – I find IHE on 10/3/19 to be surprisingly sterile. The news and opinion pieces were, to my eyes, less interesting without the reactions of those reading them.

Moreover, the content on IHE felt less relevant to our higher education community when the community could not participate in a conversation around the content.

What makes IHE relevant is not its content alone, but instead, it is the interaction of content and community. The readership of IHE comes to IHE not only because of the articles and blog posts, but because that readership is connected (in some way) to the higher education ecosystem.

IHE is not a site for the general reader. IHE is a place for those with a strong interest, and often expertise, in higher education.

This does not mean that every comment is informative, cogently argued, or posted with collegial goodwill. This is the internet, after all. But most of the comments on IHE are offered with the intent of contributing to the conversation. Most commentators on IHE are motivated to be constructive participants in our community.

Without comments, IHE is a less smart and less interesting place to visit.

Reaction 2: Hmm, I wonder how commenting could be better?

If the contributions of readers are such a critical aspect of the Inside Higher Ed value proposition, then what might this insight mean for the design of IHE?

Here I’ll offer some ideas from the safe vantage point of both relative ignorance and the absence of responsibility. I have little doubt that every suggestion below has been thought of by the people who make IHE run. I make no claims around originality or feasibility.

But….here is what I’d like to suggest:

Twitter?:

Is there any way that Disqus can be integrated with Twitter?  Integrated so as that a comment on IHE generates a new tweet (if that easy option is checked), based on a hashtag that ties the comment back to the article? Or working the other way, can a tweet automatically show up as a comment?

The best conversations around IHE content often end up on Twitter. Twitter is a far more visible, accessible, and broad platform to discuss IHE content than the Disqus IHE commenting tools. Can these two platforms be integrated?

Or maybe Disqus and Twitter are already well integrated, and I don’t how to use either platform well?

Visibility?:

At IHE, like everywhere else, the room as a whole is smarter than any single individual in the room. There is more knowledge and insight in the collective thinking of the IHE community than in the writing of any single reporter or Views writer or blogger.

The challenge for IHE readers is finding those insights.

Smart comments on IHE can be stranded in a sea of weirdness. Like all web-based commenting systems, the price we pay for the wisdom of the crowd is the incivility of the troll. So you read through the chaff to get to the wheat.

What IHE needs is a mechanism to make the best comments more visible. The up-voting in Disqus is not cutting it.

I would recommend that the IHE editors choose the best 5 or 10 comments on any single day, and promote those to an original View piece. Put the best comments on the top of the page, rather than buried underneath the stories.

Or maybe put the best comments alongside the articles and opinion pieces. Do something to reward readers when they take the time and effort to make a detailed argument.

These ideas are intended to recognize that the value of IHE derives from its community, not its content.

Embracing this community means both a commitment to design for its needs, and a willingness to live with all the complexities of human interaction.

What did you think of IHE without comments?

How would you improve the design of IHE to build on the expertise of its community of readers?



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