Google+ and Commenting

Twitter isn’t built for conversation, the interface just doesn’t support it – snippets of 140 characters largely floating in a groundless ether of chatter. But Google+ does (to some extent) and I’ve recently begun pondering what this means for the future of commenting online, especially around news media where I’ve done research.

One difference I see moving forward is a transition away from commenting being dictated primarily by the content, to a world where online comment threads are heavily influenced by both the content and the person sharing the content. How does the same content posted by different people lead to different conversations evolving around that content? If a conservative blogger and a liberal blogger share the same link to a news article on Google+, how do their circles react differently to that article and how does that affect the conversation? And if we aggregate these conversations back together somehow does this lead to a more interesting, engaging, or insightful experience for users? How can online publishers harness this as an opportunity?

On Google+ people post in all kinds of different ways: status updates, entire blog posts (e.g. Guy Kawasaki), or just sharing news and rich media links. Here I’ll focus on commenting around links to media since that’s most relevant to online publishers. The diversion of commenting attention and activity to platforms other than the publisher’s (e.g. Google+ or Facebook) could be seen as a threat, but it could also be an opportunity. Platform APIs can harvest this activity and aggregate it back to the publisher’s site. The opportunity is in harnessing the activity on social platforms to provide new, more sticky interfaces for keeping users engaged on the publisher’s content page. For the designers out there: what are novel ways of organizing and presenting online conversations that are enabled by new features on social networks like Google+?

One idea, for opinion oriented news articles, would be for a publisher to aggregate threads of Google+ comments from two or more well-known bloggers who have attracted a lot of commentary. These could be selected by the users, editors, or, eventually by algorithms which identify “interesting” Google+ threads. These algorithms could, for instance, identify threads with people from diverse backgrounds, from particular geographies, with particular relevant occupations, or with a pro/con stance. These threads would help tell the story from different conversational perspectives anchored around particular people sharing the original content. The threads could be embedded directly on the publisher’s site as a way to keep users there longer, perhaps getting them more interested in the debates that are happening out on social media.

Another idea would be to organize commentary by network distance, providing a view of the commentary that is personalized to an individual. Let’s say I share a link on Google+ and 20 people comment (generous to myself, I know), but then 2 of those people re-share it to their circles and 50 more people comment, and from those 50, 5 of them share it and 100 people comment, and so on. At each step of re-sharing that’s a bit further away from me (the originator) in the network. Other people in the network can also share the link (as originators) and it will diffuse. All of this activity can be aggregated and presented to me based on how many hops away in the network a comment falls. I may be interested in comments that are 1 hop away, and maybe 2 (friends of friends) but maybe not further than that. Network distance from the user could end up being a powerful social filter.

There’s lots to try here and while I think it’s great that new platforms for commenting are emerging, it’s time for publishers to think about how to tap into these to improve the user experience either by enabling new ways of seeing discussion or new ways to learn and socialize with others around content.