Earlier this month, Medium announced that a number of high-profile publishing companies, including Fusion, Mic and MSNBC, are relying on Medium tools to drive discussion and conversation. This worries me.
A lot of content produced by these companies and others originates “on social” – that is, work created by others on publicly available platforms. What is journalism’s responsibility towards those on whose content we rely? How important is it to give people whose work has been appropriated the ability to respond alongside that work?
However contentious and terrible comments are in their worst incarnations, they are a response to a piece of journalism that is usually pretty easy to create, and exists in the same space as the content. With comments I have the option of going to the same website that is using my content in order to respond. If my tweets are taken and used in a way that I don’t agree with, I can leave a comment beneath the article.
Medium is still evolving as a platform, and recently it announced that, in part to combat trolling, it it was turning comments into something that lives apart from the article, with only author-recommended responses being displayed. This may increase civility, but it also diminishes accountability and presents road blocks to offering divergent opinions to a reader.
In addition, if you want to comment on a Medium post, you need to sign up for a Medium account, which means on mobile having a smartphone advanced enough to handle its app or website, and on any platform, having the knowledge of how to create a blog-style response on its platform, which is not immediately clear or easy to understand. Their earlier concept of comment as annotation has also become a private note only, removing this visually dynamic way of graphically “touching” the texts with your own words.
Medium has its own goals around content, community, and journalism, but there is a broader point here about technology, design, and access. The discussion around comments and contributions needs to go beyond questions of civility to also focus on access and diversity. Not everyone is American, not everyone speaks English or has access to the new technology. If you live in a country where social media is heavily monitored to discourage dissent and where participation is already dangerous, it shouldn’t also be technologically complicated to achieve.
Another of the main contentions with current comment systems is that diverse voices are scared away by what they see. All of us in this space need to think about how our decisions to redesign our systems will improve or worsen homogeneity. The tenor of the comments is important, but so is accessibility and connection to the content their commenting about.
The central question for publishers should be this: do you want to be having conversations at all? If readers can’t respond on the same page, interact with each other, or have clear knowledge of the response process, is it even a conversation any more? Are you trying to understand what it takes to encourage a real exchange of ideas or merely trying to inure our readers to limited engagement by calling it conversation, when the communication is almost entirely one way? The decision to not have things open is a valid one, but platforms and media need be clear about how they arrived at that position, and what its consequences are, both positive and negative, to the goals of its journalism. When we pretend otherwise, the audience’s distrust is understandable.
Comments systems, as well as straightforward ways to provide onsite feedback and contributions, have an important democratic function. As we at The Coral Project seek to reinvent such systems, we have to consider that while their design may be ultimately changeable and disposable, their function of building engaged community around journalism should not be easily discarded.