The debate over Facebook Comments

Last March, popular Internet technology blogs, including  Tech Crunch and Paid Content, and insider blogs tracking Facebook, including Inside Facebook and All Facebook, announced the roll-out of Facebook’s new Comments plug-in (pictured below). And, with it, Facebook has muscled in on the not so glamorous world of global social commenting.

facebook-comments-plugin
Facebook Comments Plugin

With its entré into the space, Facebook, the world’s most popular social network with over 800 Million registered users, is now directly competing with the current crop of services, including Intense Debate, a product of Automattic, creators of WordPress; Disqus, an independent service backed by Y Combinator, Knight’s Bridge Capital Partners, and Union Square Ventures; and Echo, a social application development company who’s real-time social applications are employed by companies ranging from Hearst, The Washington Post, and Slate to Reuters, CNet, and Newsweek.

All of these companies readily deployed Facebook Connect, a product Facebook provides to web publishers enabling single sign-on capability.  Wikipedia defines single sign-on (SSO) as: “a property of access control of multiple related, but independent software systems. With this property a user logs in once and gains access to all systems without being prompted to login again at each of them.”

Based in Web 2.0 philosophy of open access, single sign-on reduces the friction to login to many sites with their credentials from a single service. The technology doesn’t actually fully register the user with a new user name and password. It simulates a login using the single sign-on credentials, so that users may identify themselves to the system without having to fully register. Once signed in,  a user generally may do what a registered user can do, with the possibility of some exceptions. For example, because their email address is not required to login using single sign-on, they would not be added to the systems post-notification database, which sends registered users emails whenever there is a new post to a site.

Intense Debate comment form with single sign-on (SSO)
Intense Debate comment form with single sign-on (SSO)

Why is this important?

You may have thought global social comments were an afterthought, but it’s quite clear the market believes there is a business in it somewhere. Wherever content–in this case comments–appear on a web page, someone somewhere is thinking about how to control and package the conversation; either to monetize the content itself and available real estate around which the content lives, or to analyze the data embedded in comments for companies, governments, and other actors who have an interest in tracking, analyzing, and deciphering the online conversation.

For Facebook, it means adding global social comments to its social graph. But, the land grab to be top dog in social comment comes with its own set of unique challenges and many unanswered questions. Will content owners give control of their comments over to Facebook? Where do all the comments go if Facebook disconnects the service? Will site visitors who comment anonymously or under pseudonyms want their posts to be visible to friends and family in a Facebook news feed? Or, will frequent commenters engage with posts by a user operating an alternate Facebook profile commonly used by brands, artists, and musicians called Facebook Pages?

According to Facebook, when operating as a Page, “you can navigate and interact with other areas of Facebook as your Page. This means you can choose to receive notifications about fan activity, Like and comment on other Pages as your Page, and get your own News Feed where you can engage with the latest and most important news from other Pages you like.”

Where comments on news sites are a school yard corporations rarely play in, what happens to a site or blog who’s stories are then inundated with generic corporate responses? Authenticity is a critical aspect of social comments. We’ve already seen a backlash against generic Twitter posts. If corporations similarly abuse Facebook Comments, could a Facebook backlash be far behind?

In posting about its test of the Facebook Comments plug-in, TechCrunch, a popular technology blog, completes its assessment under the sub-header, “One Big Flaw.” Why? “The big reason,” says blogger, Jason Kincaid, is “there are a lot of people who won’t want to use Facebook to leave comments.”

In a response to the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s anonymous commenter ban last year, ZombieJournalism.com said, in the case of TheCleve.com, commenters were, “less likely to share opinions under their real names because they don’t want their bosses and neighbors to know their political leanings, what they watch on TV, where they live or what they REALLY think of their jobs.” According to the blog, “It isn’t that they have something to hide or have such outrageous opinions they’d never want their names attached – they just want the modicum of privacy they feel the Internet has provided in the last decade or so.”

Angela Connor, former Managing Editor of User Generated Content for Raleigh, North Carolina-based, WRAL.com, confirms in a July 2010 blog post entitled: “8 Reasons People Rarely Login to News Sites Using Facebook,” that more people use Facebook to log-in and share links, but “when using a third-party login to post (comments) on a news site, Twitter is the clear winner, with only 25% using Facebook.” The measurement was taken well before Facebook Comments rolled out, but it is indicative about how people feel about using Facebook’s single sign-on utility to post.

If a user stumbles upon a site which employs Facebook comments and they are logged into Facebook, the plug-in presents a logged-in view. Absent the restriction to log-in with any credentials, the user could easily post a comment, which many argue increases audience engagement. While the tool does have a check-box, which asks the user if they want to share the post into Facebook, it’s default is set to yes.  It becomes that much easier to use your Facebook log-in to comment on a web site, blog, or mobile application, because novice users might be unaware of cross posting on their personal page.

Facebook Comments Box – Logged In View
Facebook Comments Box – Logged In View

Facebook may be placing a bet that most people don’t seem to know (or don’t care?). But, this time, it’s not just Facebook users who will challenge Zuckerberg & Company in their quest for social media domination–it’s the content publishers that control the real estate who will ultimately decide whether giving control of comments to Facebook is a good idea.

How important are community comments?

Web sites and blogs across the media spectrum employ user generated comments not as a revenue driver, but more a barometer of community engagement with stories. From sites to blogs and now mobile apps that employ comments, a large number of relevant comments posted by the site’s readership against a story are are certainly a measure of interest in or the stickiness of a story. Comments from readers might provide supporting statements or offer challenges to a story’s factual accuracy.

Depending on the overall popularity of a web site or blog, the absence of comments on stories with certain characteristics expecting it to be popular, could indicate to an editor that readers have not picked up on or abandoned a story. While the reasons for this are many, for example, the story may not have been marketed through social media channels, or it was not well positioned on the site, frequent comments are a valuable tool for site editors and business owners to measure audience engagement.

There are some who frequently leave comments that are stars in their own right, taking the initiative to provide counterpoints or supporting arguments, where others are lurkers. Many services now provide ratings tools for comments, which surface higher rated comments to the top of a “conversation thread.”

As popular blogs have proliferated, onerous registration processes saw declines in audience engagement, resulting in fewer high quality comments. Before SSO, many blogs and sites required users to register to comment. Registering for multiple sites in an incovenience, especially for frequent, high-volume commenters, who would then have to manage different log in credentials for each site (something made music easier today by companies like Last Pass).

Prior to Facebook Connect, Disqus developed a system to build a standardized commenting widget many blogs adopted in order to offload the responsibility that comes with managing comments. The net benefit is that frequent commenters could sign up for a single service, yet post with their user ID across multiple blogs. Of course, this was and still remains dependent on blog operators to implement the Disqus software.

Seeing an opportunity, Automattic, the for-profit WordPress software and support company, entered the social commenting arena with its own product: Intense Debate. Competing services  similar problem ensued. All of these services quickly pivoted from forcing users to register with them, to providing Facebook Connect (and a similar Twitter Connect and OpenID single sign-in) as a primary way to connect.

Using Facebook Connect, a user can avoid the annoying sign up process for every site  log in to many different sites with only their Facebook ID, instead of having to register for each one. The goal is to increase audience engagement by providing a single sign-on system, and at the same time, authenticate all users while limiting the impact of “trolls,” who comment anonymously and leave behind a trail of comment trash, which diminishes ongoing conversation.

Screenshot of Facebook Single Sign-On – Intense Debate
Screenshot of Facebook Single Sign-On – Intense Debate

When Facebook released it’s Facebook Connect single sign-on script, global social commenting providers quickly moved to utilize this free tool. For Facebook, providing a single sign on utility helps ties the service to the fundamental underpinnings of the web, making a Facebook account indispensable for its users. Blogs and web sites were happy, because they could pass off the management of comment spam to a 3rd party provider. Exhausted users who previously signed into individual sites cound finally log-in to multiple destinations with a single Facebook ID.

For many blogs, preventing or limiting comment spam has become a job unto itself. Hackers have developed various exploits to attack a blog’s commenting system, in an attempt to fill it with anonymous posts or posts with false identities promoting counterfeit Viagra pills, porn advertisements, and online banking scams. Instead of spending hours on cleaning up comment spam, blog operators quickly adopted global social commenting tools, relieving themselves of policing trolls while simultaneously creating a new industry. In 2008, Disqus brought in a $500,000 investment round from Union Square Ventures.

A secondary, but no less important issue is the fight to control commenters to post, while simultaneously attempting to limit anonymous commenting, which for many blogs has become a plague. They then added Twitter, Yahoo!, and Google authentication plug-ins, which enhance opportunities for audience engagement, but at the same time clutter the comment area dashboard with multiple single-sign on buttons. At some point, there could be too many SSO services occupying valuable site real estate, which may serve more niches, but becomes confusing to the user, because they would then have to remember which service they used their last time on the site. Did you have that conversation using your Facebook login? Your Twitter login?

On ReeseNews.org, the digital publication I work on as Lead Developer at UNC Chapel Hill School of Journalism and Mass Communication, site visitors have posted more than 700 comments since our launch in November 2010 using the Intense Debate tool. While I don’t have the ability to track statistics on which visitor signed in with using an SSO, the site has not received a single request by our readers to employ Facebook Comments. While ReeseNews certainly enjoys traffic from Facebook after our multimedia journalists cross post our stories into our Facebook Page news stream, there is very little engagement with the story on our Facebook page in the form of comments. If there were, those comments would appear both on our site and in our Facebook Page news feed through the Wordbooker plug-in.

Since I have yet to test Facebook comments on a story, there’s no specific data to measure an increase audience engagement. Further research is needed, which would include testing the Facebook Comments system on a single post. For most websites, the ability to test Facebook Comments on a single post is left to the realm of the site’s developers. For small news organizations, it may not be a priority or within budget to test.

Issues of control

A critically important issue news organization face when deploying Facebook Comments is control over comments. When a user leaves a comment on a news story, that comment is then logged and registered in an integrated “Comments” control panel in a website’s content management system. Each content management system and each social commenting engine handle comments in different ways. Because Intense Debate is a product of Automattic, it  is a fully integrated solution, which registers comments in the WordPress database and adopts the style of the native WordPress Comments administration area (shown below).

In my experience, I have found this to be the most integrated solution to date, allowing the moderator to easily control comments within the site’s WordPress administration area, with the knowledge that while Intense Debate controls the display of those comments on the website, they are safely stored in the site’s database (shown below).

Storing and displaying user comments directly from the site’s database has a direct impact on Google Search results and search engine optimization. A concern with Facebook comments, is that comments are stored only in Facebook’s database. The site owner has very limited control over the comments, including how they are displayed and in what order. Facebook provides a feed for your comments (see example below).

Facebook Open Graph API for Facebook Comments
Facebook Open Graph API for Facebook Comments

While it’s beneficial to have this feed, Facebook admits that their comments are not searchable by Google on your site, which has a direct impact on your SEO. They offer a solution to float the feed in an iFrame behind the Facebook Comments widget to allow Google to search the comments and target where they appear. I have not yet researched the advantages of disadvantages of this model, but it does have a cost associated with it in development hours.

Generally, comments are displayed in reverse chronological order, with follow-up comments displayed in-line in a parent-child relationship. Facebook does not follow this rule and surface the most relevant comments based on an algorithm. What happens if this method fails to surface and important comment or pushes down comments from some in favor of comments from others? This is a risky way to handle user generated content. Once you start deciding for your users how you are going to surface their content, it could cause ethical issues, especially for news sites that follow a time/date stamp format. For news, time and date are important functions. For general blogs, that may not be so important. Employing Facebook Comments could impact your overall site strategy and how your audience participates. It’s prudent to first assess how Facebook Comments will affect your site and readers, before deploying this tool.

The Google Effect

Now that we’ve gone over the pros and cons of implementing Facebook Comments, let’s focus on how Google factors into this equation. I started writing this post before Google launched its Google+ social network and updated it a few times since, before publishing it. The web moves fast. Every day, new technology reveals itself that could be a game-changer. Google’s new product certainly impacts one’s decision to deploy Facebook Comments.

First, Google and Facebook are enforcing what is known as a “Real Name” policy, where identification is good and anonymous comments are inherently bad. Both companies agree on forcing you to use your real name when engaging in their social media products. The theory is that it increases civility. Some argue that it decreases engagement. In response, the Geek Feminism Wiki was created. It’s purpose is to list: “groups of people who are disadvantaged by any policy which bans Pseudonymity and requires so-called “Real names” (more properly, legal names).”

Whether you’re for or against Real Names, the point is, Google has now entered the world of social networking with it’s Google+ product. Now there are two. Deploy Facebook comments and hope all your readers aren’t abandoning Facebook for Google+. Or, hope that your Google+ readers won’t abandon you because they no longer engage in Facebook.

We have yet to see an integrated social commenting plug-in from Google, but if they do release one, it becomes even riskier to tie your organization to a social network, instead of staying independent with other products in the market.

Correction: The Facebook Comments to WordPress 1.5 plug-in states that it has the ability to post Facebook comments to the WordPress database. A user in the forums confirms this. I have not tested this plug-in. There is another plug-in for Facebook, Facebook Comments for WordPress 3.1.3, which has importing comments to the WordPress database on its road map.

I also misquoted the article from Zombiejournalism.com. The Cleveland Plain Dealer did not “ban” anonymous comments. They “outed” an anonymous commenter. The blogger wrote: “recent outing of an anonymous commenter on their site.” And, I confused TheCleve.com with Cleveland.com. My apologies to John Kroll and thanks for the correction.

I have also updated this post to reflect “I” and not “we,” as this is my personal blog and my opinions are my own and not that of UNC Chapel Hill or Reesenews.org. I am not a journalist. I’m a digital strategist. Cut me some slack!

3 comments

  1. John Kroll says:

    A correction: Your reference to The Plain Dealer banning anonymous comments is wrong. The story you link reports on a different situation, and on one columnist's opinion. Also, the website that contains Plain Dealer stories is cleveland.com, not TheCleve.com. You were misled by the quote of a commenter's shorthand.

    • djtonyz says:

      I updated the post with a correction at the bottom. I was certainly confused by the writers shorthand and misquoted the article. I hope the correction sets the record straight.

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