Comments, the Social Web & Privacy

As I’ve mentioned a few times in recent days we’re about to relaunch the TPM website on a new publishing platform. This will include a full relaunch of TPMPrime, with a lot of new cool stuff including a cleaner less ad-filled version of the site and new long-form pieces. But what we’re launching affects the entirety of the site, whether you’re a member of not, and among other things dramatically increases the site’s download speed for everyone. But I wanted to take a moment to discuss some significant changes we’re making with comments.

Put simply, we’re moving off the Disqus commenting system and on to our own in-house comment system. So to comment at TPM you’ll need a TPM login and ID. It’s free and totally easy. Just pick a username and password. Simple. Nothing more to it than that.

Let me explain why we’re doing this.One major reason we’re making the change is that as we’ve used different commenting platforms over the years we’ve always had a decent minority of users (hard to say how many since people who don’t like it speak up) who don’t like having to join some other system in order to comment at TPM. They don’t want to sign up with Disqus or Facebook or Twitter or whatever else. For some it’s a privacy issue. For others it’s just a matter of not wanting to be part of the social web or have their TPM commenting be part of their Facebook profile or whatever else. For still others, I think it just makes their TPM experience seem less intimate or distinct. If you’ve been in this category for whatever reason, you’ll like this change a lot.

Another major consideration is just what we’re trying to prioritize with comments and how we best achieve those aims. From a pure publishing economics standpoint, most publications want to maximize the number of comments and the ease of commenting (which increases that number). More comments, more clicks, more engagement – all pluses from one point of view.

But that’s not all we want to prioritize. We want comments to be spirited and free-wheeling but not insane and toxic. Getting the former rather than the latter is a never-ending battle. But requiring a TPM login/account will add a small hurdle in the way of people who show up for the first time and troll or scream racist epithets or just need attention to feed their need for rage. Recently we had one story that generated several thousand comments – most of it racially charged, most from first time commenters and then our regulars going toe to toe with them and it was just a vitriolic mess.

That’s an extreme case. But this will give us more ability to deal with that and the lesser, but also corrosive kinds of commenting craziness. It will also allow us – though we haven’t decided if we’re going to do this – to have a probationary system for new commenters. So for instance, maybe when you sign up for an account you can only make three comments in the first 24 hours. Again, not magic, but gives us a little more control over people showing up out of nowhere to fight or disrupt. We’ll see how the new system goes first to see if this is necessary or seems like it would be a positive change.

Finally, there’s the over-arching reason we’re making this change, which incorporates both these reasons but is part of a broader change we’re trying to make. At TPM we’ve simply never had the kind of publishing platform that lives up to the articles we publish or the community of people who’ve congregated around the site for years. There are some simple things like drastically reducing how long the site takes to download and other pretty basic features and improvements. The more thorough-going changes have to do with the TPM community and how we present what we publish.

In the first category, you probably know that we’ve always made our readers a big focus of tips, commentary and sleuthing. You see this in the emails I frequently publish. Our emailers are still the primary way I get my news – in the sense that I personally usually find out about new stories from emailers. It’s a great fringe benefit of this job. This, for instance, is why I’ve never put comments on the Editor’s Blog even though they’re on the rest of the site. I don’t want anything to disrupt that stream of emails as the primary way people communicate and interact with the site. For me, it’s really the lifeblood of the whole publication. But I want to find a way to have that fascinating and diverse group of voices have some public role and conversation on the site. And that means finding a way to make the site itself a seedbed for that. The reader forums we have in TPMPrime is part of that. Comments in theory should be part of that. But there’s too much yelling and angry voices for the discussions to be all they could be. Thus, the changes I’ve described above and a number of new features and tools we’ll be releasing over the coming months.

The second category is about how you find things and follow the stories we report on at TPM. Most of you who’ve read for any length of time know that TPM’s wheel house is a certain kind of story that we narrate in posts, and editor’s blogs and livewires over days or weeks, in some cases even years. They tend to be character driven narratives where some underlying policy question or social issue or maybe just something odd or broken about the human condition drives the thing forward. If you’re an obsessive TPM reader you know this because you read everything and you see the stories take shape. But you have to know them by reading because the site doesn’t really organize these storylines together in any way. There’s search and you can use tags and keywords. But none of these really capture how these storylines operate on TPM. So the new platform will allow us to create new features that gather those stories together in a way that’s simple, easy to navigate and intuitive.

All of it comes down to having a site (or a publishing platform, to use the technical jargon) that is as good as the reporters, editors and stories who make the site possible. The switch we’re going to flip later this month will just be the start of that. But it will be the foundation we build that better site in the months to come. And to come back to the beginning of the discussion, having that ‘native’ TPM comment login will be one small part of the equation.

Ed.Note: After reading some of the reactions to this post, I realized I should make one thing clear. This isn’t a big redesign of the site. There will be some changes in layout. But relatively minor. If you’re not a close reader of the site you may not see much visual difference at all. The initial changes are mainly to the architecture of the site – download speed, how you log in or don’t, etc. Just want to be clear on that point: this is not what people generally refer to as a ‘redesign’ kind of relaunch.