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Hi, I’m Brad Feld, a managing director at the Foundry Group who lives in Boulder, Colorado. I invest in software and Internet companies around the US, run marathons and read a lot.

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The Dark Matter of the Blogosphere

Comments (27)

I’ve been fascinated with blog comments since I started blogging.  The “blogging is a conversion meme” is a long standing one and the notion of engaging a real community around a blog is fascinating and a lot of fun.

However, the blog commenting infrastructure sucks.  While data entry is fine, authentication and identity are miserable (anyone can be anyone just by entering a name), conversations are generally impossible to manage, blog spam is pervasive, and tracking conversations is difficult.  Oh – and comments are rarely indexed so they have become the dark matter of the blogosphere. While there were some early attempts like TypeKey, nothing really stuck.

Wouldn’t it be nice if the comments – one of the most pervasive examples of user-generated content on the web today – actually were organized in a broadly useful way?  Or if identity was actually managed, so you could look and see all the comments that Brad Feld made, regardless of which blogs they were on.  Or – if you could search horizontally across all blog comments for topics like you can with the blogs themselves.  Or you could rate comments and give them authority based on reputation? 

Why is the comment infrastructure so different than the blog infrastructure in the first place?  Joel Spolsky has a great rant on it and Dave Winer has some clear thoughts on it. Mark Andreesen quickly turned off comments on his brilliant new blog.  Fred Wilson expressed the opposite perspective – “Comments are where it’s at in blogging.”  And on and on it goes.  Just like theoretical physics or politics – everyone has an opinion and they often conflict or – better yet – worlds collide.

Over the past year, I’ve made a few early stage investments in companies that address the comment infrastructure.  While they are still all young, they are addressing different parts of the problem and I’m learning a ton from each of them.  Intense Debate – one of the TechStars companies – is about to launch with a full replacement system for comments.  BigSwerve is working on indexing all of the comments everywhere.  Lijit is waiting patiently for the right data source to include within their search infrastructure.  And TrustPlus is well positioned to address the authentication / trust part of the equation.

It feels like it’s time to shine some light on this dark matter.

  • http://www.faradaymedia.com Chris Saad

    There is also Tangler.com which allows real-time (AJAX) conversation. I believe they have an embedded version coming which can compliment or replace blog comments.

    If they mix in RSS (to help with indexing) and Identity/Reputation it could be a powerful alternative.

  • http://www.digitalgoggles.com mike

    I’m glad to see at least someone is trying to bring innovation to blog commenting. I couldn’t agree more that the current state of affairs is sorry at best.

    -Mike

  • http://www.intensedebate.com Josh

    thx for the link, brad. you touch on one point I want to add emphasis to in that blog commenting systems of today certainly dont cultivate an environment for conversation…which, as you said, is one of the primary functions of a blog. this area is crying out for innovation.

  • http://www.Tech-Surf-Blog.com Graeme Thickins

    Chris, how’s Tangler’s performance these days? I’ve found it to be spotty. But I’ve been impressed with the steady number of users/topics they’ve been adding…

  • http://www.adaptiveblue.com Alex Iskold

    Definitively an big issue. There are a lot of good things that could come from this ranging from see comments of particular user from the blogosphere to autotagging and automatically concluding what users said on a particular post.

    Alex

  • http://www.viget.com Brian Williams

    This is an interesting area — in part because it’s more about behavior than technical challenges. Threaded message boards are a much better “technology” for discussion, but clearly the best discussions online happen on blogs right now. Anonymity doesn’t happen in off-line conversations, but people still want to hold on to it online (which won’t last). Scale is an issue as well. Scott Adams routinely gets 300+ comments per post — that’s a lot of people talking at each other, and it’s impossible to follow.

    There are tons of features that come to mind as you point out in your post. PublicSquare has the concept of “reputation points” which I’ve found useful on BoxesandArrows.com. It’s a logical concept — authority at a glance — that acts as a quick filter for skimming comment-heavy posts.

    This is certainly an evolving issue worth fixing, and I’d say that your startups should keep in mind the most basic of human behaviors: if it’s not painless and simple, users won’t use it. If it discourages comments, bloggers (generally) won’t use it. The solution can (and will) be complex behind the scenes, but the user experience has to be drop dead easy to gain traction. That means keep it simple, and make it elegant.

  • http://blog.supernaturalagency.com Martin Edic

    Brad,
    Isn’t it a temptation to suggest that these companies you’re investing in work together on this problem rather than building piecemeal? You’ve identified the components of a comment schema that all of us would embrace (excepting the Anonymous Cowards of course) but it needs to be a complete solution that doesn’t require us, as bloggers, to piece together our own models from a variety of tactical approaches.
    I hated to see Marc turn off his comments but understand why he had to.

  • http://www.fafarazzi.com Chris Keller

    There’s also coComment who’s doing some interesting things in this space where basically everyone’s comments are loaded to a central repository and thought more as an api.

    Another decent example within its own ecosystem is Facebook with their wall to wall so you can exclusively see the “public conversation” between two people. They’re one step away from what you want internal to their site.

    Chris

  • http://www.Tech-Surf-Blog.com Graeme Thickins

    Brad, what do you think of SezWho, which just launched its beta?

    http://www.readwriteweb.com/archives/sezwho_comments_community.php

  • http://blog.supernaturalagency.com Martin Edic

    Just ran into this: http://www.sezwho.com/faq.php
    Interesting approach if it works. Looks early stage (WordPress only)

  • http://blog.phonefactor.net Steve Dispensa

    We just released a product called PhoneFactor that two-factor to regular phones using a confirmation phone call (answer and press # to confirm an in-progress login). We’ve discussed using it as either a better CAPTHCA or as a full identity verifier in blog comments, perhaps connected with something like OpenID.

  • http://www.feld.com Brad Feld

    @Graeme – I just played with it and read the review on ReadWriteWeb. http://www.readwriteweb.com/archives/sezwho_comments_community.php
    Very interesting / nicely put together. I’m looking forward to trying it out when they have a Movable Type version.

  • http://www.feld.com Brad Feld

    @Martin – this urge is definitely in my head. I like to start off slow on this and encourage folks to work together / get to know each other. In a lot of cases the visions / goals diverge pretty quickly; in some cases there is a clear logical fit. As an investor, I try to never force anyone to work together, but I “encourage strongly” with substantive data / suggestions.

  • http://www.stillsecureafteralltheseyears.com Alan Shimel

    Brad- this is something I have asked the feedburner guys for. I think this would be an excellent addition to their networks, a common comment section for all network member articles.

  • http://www.artifacting.com/blog hubs

    cocomment has been around for a while and addresses many of these issues.

  • http://www.sezwho.com/blog Jitendra

    Brad,

    SezWho does have an MT version…In fact ReadWriteWeb is using the MT version of the product.

    Check out the details at

    http://www.sezwho.com/install_mt.php

    Thanks,
    Jitendra
    SezWho.com

  • http://www.martinjwells.com Martin Wells

    You’re right on Tangler performance, but we’re working hard on it. Made some huge improvements over the past few releases. More to come.

  • http://www.ajira.com Nari Kannan

    A blog with no comments allowed is an “Article”. That’s what the press and columnists do. Blog is inherently an unstructured column that expresses a point of view. Replies to blogs add to the fun concersational nature of the medium.

    At the same time digressions, rat holes and anonymous postings for mischief end up cheapening the whole medium.

    Currently blog replies are ordered purely by time and in some cases in reverse order. The blog authors and other readers should have some control over brushing aside irrelevant asides and those that add something to the conversation. Some kind of blog author and reader actions while moderating indicating to the readers what they found interesting either as adding or counterpoints to the main topic or spawning off as a subtopic in its own right could be good.

    Semantic properties of replies should be there that dynamically present reordering of the replies as more come in could be an interesting variation of current blog software!

  • http://www.feld.com Brad Feld

    @Jitendra – thanks for the heads up. I see it and will play around with it tomorrow.

  • http://blog.mercury-rac.com Jed Christiansen

    I’ve always been impressed by the comments system on the Scoop (http://scoop.kuro5hin.org/) blogging platform. It’s meant to foster a community, and many left-leaning political sites use it for that exact purpose. DailyKos (http://www.dailykos.com) is the most prominent of these.

    Scoop has threaded comments, users can rate each others comments, and you can easily search and see all of the comments any user has made, and trace back to the associated parent and child comments. It’s fantastic!

    In my opinion, all WP/MT/Blogger blogs are wretched when you’re dealing with more than 20-30 comments or so. Scoop is the only thing that works for that, but unfortunately it’s not a particularly appropriate platform for non-community blogs.

  • http://www.cocomment.com/comments/blackblade Matt Colebourne

    Hi all,

    Since several people kindly mentioned us I just thought that I’d point out that coComment is just about to releases Version 2.0 Beta to production.

    However, in the interim, we do have a private beta test that we’re offering to key users whose feedback we’d appreciate.

    If you’re interested in getting access then please drop us a line at beta@cocomment.com and we’ll send you the details.

    Best,

    Matt. (CEO, coComment)

  • http://broderick.wordpress.com Shawn Broderick

    Dark Matter is going to become more and more important…
    http://broderick.wordpress.com/2007/07/23/wondrous-dark-matter/

  • Marc

    Hey Brad, excellent points! I’m one of the original employees of Multiply.com, which launched back in 2004 to specifically address some of the issues you raise. We wanted a better way to blog, share media and generally keep in touch with friends, family and associates.

    We built the entire service around discussions that you can easily track on a central message board, which feeds you all the conversations involving the people in your life… even tracking new comments added to existing conversations. As far as identity, people who comment on your blog entries (and photo albums, video posts, etc.) are identified by name and by their relationship to you, so everyone knows who is whom, and why they should care about what they have to say.

    Those relationships are what underlie the whole application — you know who’s commenting on your stuff and, because there’s a known, shared relationship between commenter and author, spam or flame comments are almost unheard of.

  • http://www.annehelmond.nl Anne Helmond

    I’ve been using coComments for a while now to keep track of my commenting distributed across the blogosphere.

    Google pretty much introduced this separation by introducing the nofollow which pushed comments into the Dark Matter.

  • http://barefootmeg.multiply.com meg

    I have to agree with Marc. Multiply has the best system for replies that I’ve seen yet in any blogging universe that I’ve visited or used. As a result, I find that conversations on Multiply tend to be far more substantive than anything I’ve seen on Orkut, Facebook, Myspace, Blogger or Xanga.

    In fact, I’ve noticed that when friends on Multiply turn off replies on their posts (essentially posting articles) I stop visiting. Posts are good, but a solid conversation following a post is even better.

  • http://www.ventureblogalist.com ventureblogalist

    tracking comment streams is not as easy as subscribing to rss feeds and it should be even easier than that. Cocomment UI is not there yet.

    Has anyone seen a poster indexer? For example, tell me the URLs of every commenter on techcrunch. This is a great source for finding new blogs but currently is too manual a process to research..I would guess 50% of commenters on techrunch link to their own blog in their comment.

  • http://www.ventureblogalist.com ventureblogalist

    Brad, I have an interesting technology partnership to suggest for TrustPlus. Could you send me appropriate contact details or get in touch to vet my suggestion.

    Thanks,
    Rob

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