07/25/12 | Uncategorized

Commenting On The Web Is Broken

When we came up with ReadSocial, we knew it was solving a big problem but it wasn’t necessarily an obvious problem.
By Travis Alber (Founder, ReadSocial)

Commenting is broken. I don’t want to sound too harsh, realizing there are comments at the end of this article and that it’s technically possible to use them. The paradigm for commenting on the web hasn’t changed in 15 years, but how we communicate online has. We communicate in the moment. We share our thoughts. Talk about it.

But just like we’ve done for more than a decade, we talk about it somewhere else. We scroll 30 paragraphs down the article and type in a little box at the end. Or open a separate tab. Sometimes we comment on a separate social network with just a link to send people back to what we’re talking about.

Although we live in a world where we want to discuss things in the moment, it is somehow nearly impossible to discuss it in context. In a world where we have more ways to get information and more ways to share it, why don’t we have the ability to talk about it in context, where that information lives?

The Power of Context

Discussing things in the moment, as it’s being read, is powerful. It’s the closest to how we communicate in real life. The best things that the web has created, the most successful startups, mirror the way we live our lives in real life.

Online conversations, particularly around news and education, should have the option of working that way too. You should be able to read through a document and share your reaction with others in the moment, as if those other readers are sitting next to you.

In October 2010, my co-founder and I started conceptualizing a solution to that problem.

ReadSocial and Context

When we came up with ReadSocial, we knew it was solving a big problem but it wasn’t necessarily an obvious problem. It was easy to see how communication patterns had changed. What we set out to build is an API that adds the conversation back into context.

That’s what ReadSocial is – an API that publishers and developers can use to add paragraph-level discussions to their content. It also offers reading groups based on tags, so that people can have several different types of conversations on top of the same article. Or a webpage. Or inside an ebook. And the developer can alter it accordingly, sticking to two important themes: contextual discussion and simplicity.

Simple is Hard

We spent 3 months working toward that goal – those two features of paragraph discussions and groups. They sounded simple, but the back end was complex.

And we had it all wrong. We added multiple levels of privacy, multiple levels of group sharing, complex ways to create a group. We considered all kinds of edge-cases. And built for them. We basically wasted three months.

I remember it clearly. We were whiteboarding a new iteration of the web UI (which I was using to visualize how our core feature set would work for the average user) when I stopped and looked at my co-founder, Aaron Miller. I said “No one is going to use this. How many decisions do you want to make to write a comment? We’re stuck in seventh-circle of hell, surrounded by an endless number of of Facebook-style privacy settings.” He agreed that this needed to be simple. And fun. Something we would want to use. We started over.

Tossing that much work to restructure an idea is like a root-canal: painful and terrifying, but you know deep down it’s much worse if you don’t do it. It was the right decision. We created something simple, which I’m incredibly proud of.


We’re not the first people to do social, or even contextual. But while most people build discussion around a certain platform, we’re the first to build a distributed, connected system based on content alone.

  1. We track the content itself, the substance of it. This allows conversations to travel wherever ReadSocial is installed.
  2. We have groups. Groups are hard to keep simple but boundaries are necessary in social discussions.
  3. We’re an API and while we like our client libraries, we think other people out there can definitely improve on them.

Inevitable Changes

In the end, these changes are inevitable. People want to comment in the moment, at the content level; it’s in line with how we communicate online. Now is the time to start working on new paradigms for doing that.

There are a few other companies thinking about how to do this. Tumblr has a robust system where notifications follow content as moves through the network. Tumblr hasn’t broken out of the blog-paradigm yet, though, and for lengthy content those discussions are buried.

Facebook, the king of social, is always thinking about discussion, and it lets people comment on practically anything at any time. Unfortunately, Facebook conversations are always stripped of their context. All those videos and articles are only links back to the real content (or they live at the end of an article), so discussion is far-removed from the source.

In both cases, content is siloed inside each respective network, restricting the flow of conversation across systems, but that’s a topic for another post.

We are pleased to see that ReadSocial works on both (it’s an API after all) and in ebooks too. Solving the problem of contextual discussion is going to be huge over the next three years, and we’re excited to be a part of it.

Editor’s note: Got a question for our guest blogger? Leave a message in the comments below.
Photo credit: BookGlutton on Flickr.
About the guest blogger: Travis Alber is Co-Founder of ReadSocial, adding conversations inside content at the paragraph level. She is a girl (surprise!) addicted to publishing innovation. Although she’s based in NYC, she has been working for 15 years on both coasts on a number of web and mobile-related projects. Before founding her first startup in 2007, Travis worked as a creative director at a rich media firm. She comments on publishing, startup and user experience news. Follow her on Twitter at @screenkapture.



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