Comments are an integral part of the internet. They have evolved over the years but the core experience remains the same. It is still our single greatest device for engaging online, bringing to life the promise of uninhibited discourse. For a device this powerful, the notion of control is misplaced and the whole system forces us to make to trade-offs.
Since its inception, comments have been controlled by content owners. They monitor discussion and police what we write. This approach has its merits, the content owners ensure that comments are not misused and that the discussion is kept civil. More importantly, they have the right to delete comments they see unfit or disallow a comment system in the first place. They also host the comments on their end and since comments are so intricately tied to their content, giving content creators control of comments seems legitimate.
Except when its not. The argument for content owners censoring discussion on their website quickly loses steam the moment we abstract the notion of commenting as something meta and disassociated from the site itself. More importantly, we do not have the power to comment on websites that warrant serious discourse. For instance, a press release on a government foreign policy website warrants internet scrutiny but chances are they do not have a comment system. Comments are often not for everyone and when websites display comments of lower quality, it hampers the overall experience. There is an obvious need to disassociate comments from websites themselves. Each website has their own comment system too. You need to register and provide varying degrees of personal information for each service. Comments need to be self-censored by the community and the quality of discussion can be collectively decided by the kind of people that for the community. These are the reasons why comments need to be decentralized.
This is already happening in a certain way. Reddit for instance, allows self censorship to a large degree and the commenting system is fairly democratic. The best comments are shown first and a down votes push the content the With subreddits acting as discussion enablers and individual threads allowing for more specific discussion. However, this requires a significant buy in from users. Only when you’re invested in a community would you check out the associated subreddit. An answer to this is comments enabled by a Facebook plugin. They already have a large amount of user buy in. Again they take away from the pseudo-anonymous nature of the commenters and arguably that’s a bad thing.
The first design decision I had to take was the structure of comments that would be used. I had the option of building something conversational with replies. This allows for a flow of context to be mantained. Facebook has a similar structure. The glaring disadvantage is that relevant threads cannot be mantanined. Conversation can take different directions. Even though the experience is more immersive and personal, it is hard to keep track of a single sub-thread. It works well for Facebook because the comments do not really serve the purpose of encouraging structured discussion but focus on one off personal comments towards the central content. Thus I took a more HackerNews/Reddit style approach where discussion is more structured and context is mantained.