Monday, March 28, 2016

Universal Comments Reborn

I was recently talking to a friend of mine about an old Google tool which let users comment on any website---not in that website's comment section, but in a superimposed sidebar which allows commenting on any page, even (and especially) ones which don't allow embedded comments. It was called Sidewiki.  There's a demo of it embedded below:

It was launched in 2009 and scrapped in 2011.  Why was it scrapped?  I'm not sure, and the announcement was made along with the shutdown of other Google services.  There was a lot of public concern over it while it was live.  Jeff Jarvis wrote while it was active:
Google is trying to take interactivity away from the source and centralize it. This isn’t like Disqus, which enables me to add comment functionality on my blog. It takes comments away from my blog and puts them on Google. That sets up Google in channel conflict vs me. It robs my site of much of its value (if the real conversation about WWGD? had occurred on Google instead of at Buzzmachine, how does that help me?). On a practical level, only people who use the Google Toolbar will see the comments left using it and so it bifurcates the conversation and puts some of it behind a hedge. Ethically, this is like other services that tried to frame a source’s content or that tried to add advertising to a site via a browser (see the evil Gator, which lost its fight vs publishers).
His issue seems to have been that Google was crossing a line as far as the types of service it was providing.  I understand his POV but I'm not sure that I agree with the assertion that most conversation about your blog taking place somewhere else robs it of any value.  Danny Sullivan wrote an extremely in-depth look at the plugin, if you're curious.  Andy Beal chimed in to say he wasn't scared.

While none of these articles seem to be worried about bullying or misuse per se, I do remember some posts at the time worried that it could be used for harassment or trolling purposes.  And it seems that is still the pressing worry around existing universal comment systems.

Imagine that you're the kind of shitposter who spends hours flooding a web site with vitriol, only to be blocked from interacting on that site.  What next?  Well, you could take to twitter, or reddit.  You could create your own blog to talk shit on the site that blocked you.  With Sidewiki, you could continue posting your vitriol right there, adjacent to the very page that blocked you.

Back to the start of this post, I telling my friend I found it strange that another universal commenting tool hasn't established itself, especially with so many blogs and even major news sites disabling comments site-wide.  I'm writing this post now because I just saw an article about a new tool performing such a task.  The tool is called "Genius" (and actually in researching Genius I've found a few more trying to gain popularity as well.  I won't be discussing those here).

I couldn't find an official video showcasing Genius. They have at least two youtube channels dedicated to severe autofellatio, but no overviews I could find which showed the tool in action.  Here's a video of someone using the tool to annotate poetry.

It was this Ella Dawson article which brought Genius to my attention:
Opening my post using Genius was like discovering graffiti over some of my most personal work. Annotations display more like passive aggressive Post-It notes, but for someone who has been gaslit by partners, diminished by journalists, and harassed by mobs online, Genius annotations are an invasive violation. The design itself doesn’t help in this regard. I expect line edits from my actual editor, a thesis advisor, or even a friend sharing their thoughts on an early draft; I have no established relationship of trust and respect with the denizens of the internet.
Is this a good idea?  I don't know.  First I have to tamp down the statement: "for someone who has been gaslit by partners, diminished by journalists, and harassed by mobs online, Genius annotations are an invasive violation."  You could say the same thing about (irl) bulletin boards, online message boards, text messages, critical reviews, phone calls and both snail and electronic mail.  You could say that about literally any informational or communicative progress, because anything which makes people's lives easier tends to raise all boats---making both good and bad actions easier.

Debating whether such a service is good or bad is probably a silly waste of time, unless such a debate is followed by a discussion on how to minimize any identified harm.  My gut feeling is that this is just one of those things that will keep being attempted until it finds success, either in a small service most people aren't aware of, because maybe it didn't have legs after all, or by spreading like wildfire across the internet.  Just like the MPAA/RIAA could stop Napster but not bittorrent, bloggers can maybe slow down or stop a few forms of universal commenting but can they kill them all?  This is an idea with too much potential, too easy to immediately grasp for it not to keep pushing itself up through various forms until one finally sticks.  That's not to say it's destined to get huge, but I'd guess it'll be sticking around in some form indefinitely.

I feel similarly about those people review services (such as Peeple) that are floated every now and then, generally resulting in them being beaten down by the scorn of the internet.  While scary to many, the idea is also greatly appealing to others and it appears reasonably straightforward to implement.  On the internet that means you're not going to be able to stop it.  I don't necessarily like the idea, because history has shown anybody can be made to look like a bad person in any situation, even if they were being entirely moral.  Especially on the internet.

(And let's be honest, it's rarely as simple as being "good people" or "bad people".  The vast majority of us think we are good, but some of us have decided as the situation escalates around us that our interests would be better or more easily served if we stopped acting politely or in good faith. There are some people who readily conclude that their circumstances, no matter how dire or benign, entitles them to abandon politeness or good faith.  These people may have a tendency to ruin things for everybody else, and I would bet there are always people worse off who somehow manage to be kinder and better behaved, but that's the closest I think I would ever get to defining someone as a "bad person" or a "good person".)

It is worth pointing out that Sidewiki and Genius are two different implementations of a similar idea.  Genius, originally Rap Genius, was designed to annotate rap lyrics, then poetry and literature, and now web sites.  One of the comments of Ella Dawson's article notes that Genius seems to scrape content and host it on its own site, where as Sidewiki was just a sidebar that served comments from elsewhere.  I'm curious if that distinction could get Genius into some DMCA trouble.

And returning to the question of this being this a good or a bad thing, it occurs to me that it's probably a little of both.  Like most new online services, people seem to gravitate between either rolling their eyes or proclaiming the world forever changed.  Remember how people reacted to Twitter?  It hasn't changed the world much, but it certainly has changed the internet, at least a little bit.  The truth is Genius sounds like it would be catnip to most shitposters, which means that any average person checking it out, if it gains any traction, could be inundated by shitposts and as a result take anything read there with a grain of salt.

Thinking about another site that attracts shitposters, Reddit, we see that by providing a large variety of community-moderated gardens Reddit generally succeeds in keeping the shitposters in their own designated spaces.  I don't know how such a model would apply to Genius, and I can't imagine that it will be easy to discourage the abuse of such a potentially spiteful megaphone, short of implementing constant site-wide moderation.  And indeed some of the comments Ella Dawson found offensive were posted directly by an employee of News Genius.

Another lesson, which occurred to me only after I was making a cursory proofreading pass over this article, is this:  If we accept that people being hugely opposed to something like Genius or Peeple will have little effect on its success or failure, then surely we can imagine a world where products like Peeple or Genius have very little effect on a person or website's success.  At best they will be services which allow us to cut through noise to find better information, at worst they will contribute through the noise and only be patronized by the people who enjoy that particular type of noise.

We'll find out someday.  Til then,



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