|It should be possible for anyone to add comments to any page on the Web. It's a single change that would make a tremendous difference to what our media will be like for years to come. Making it happen would be easier than you might think.|
Comments and The Future of the Web
Implementation: How Comments Might Work
Viability: Who Would Pay for it?|
Current Projects and Readings
|The Net is rushing into the mainstream, and Internet technologies are likely to define mass media for years to come. Given the influence of media on our political life, we are at a critical moment, one where we can hack politics by hacking technology- the right software changes here and there could have profound impacts on our culture.|
| ||The right change is to bring a little Usenet to the Web. New software could allow users to add comments to any web page. This won't matter much today, when the web is still on the fringes of communication. But it will matter tremendously when the web becomes a legitimate and important part of commercial mass media.|
to the Web
|In this paper, I describe how a web-commenting system might work and argue that it is technologically and economically viable. The system would store comments in an independent database, ensuring that any could be commented on without the involvement of the page's maintainer. A browser plug-in would provide an easy-to-use interface to create the impression of a seamless connection between web pages and the comments database. Software filters would sort comments for relevance and credibility.|
|One-way mass media have become an ever-more important force in our culture. We have a change to change that dramatically, by adding the capacity for large-scale many-to-many discussion to our next mass medium. This paper is divided into separate sections on the political importance of a commenting system, and its technical implemenation, but these elements are inseparable. Systems for web-comments are a polically critical. Their politics should not be left up to technological accident.|
|Comments and The Future of The Web|
|Everyone who cares about the future of the net has their own visions of what it might someday become. Here is what fueled my first fantasies of the future of a mainstream net: I remember watching TV after I'd first discovered the newsgroups. Everything I saw seemed to scream for a Usenet-style response. I watched an infomercial for a hundred-dollar machine that would let you do sit-ups and another selling five-dollar-a-minute psychic advice to people with financial troubles. I watched one-sided political "debates". I watched ad after ad and news story after news story, itching to read the follow-up article. There wasn't one. Seized by technological utopianism that was a little less embarrassing in '92, I imagined that some day the Net would merge with our TV sets, sit front and center in our living rooms, and transform broadcast media with many-to-many forums. Some day everything would be published on the Internet. You would have the option of reading what other people have said whenever you read a newspaper editorial, or a political speech, or an advertisement, and be able to add your own comments, too.|
to our lives
|Back then, the idea that someday everything would be published on the net was just a dream. Today, that dream is shared by entertainment conglomerates and technology juggernauts who are investing millions of dollars in making it come true. If they're right, the net's acceleration into the mainstream of media life will indeed continue until it is as central to our lives as television is today.|
|But the Worldwide Web has transformed what that dream might mean. Just a couple of years ago, when people said they read something on the Internet, they typically meant the Usenet groups. Now they mean the Web. This is a terrible shame. For all its wonders, the Web missed out on what was most exciting about the Usenet: The newsgroups offer something that has never existed on the scale in which they function: they are truly a many-to-many medium: You can respond to any message you read. And so can anyone else. Anyone with a threaded newsreader sees the responses immediately adjacent to the original post. You're accountable for everything you say on Usenet, and it's hard to get away with bullshitting.|
|There are mechanisms for response on the Web, of course. They're just not very good. You can put up a page responding to something you've seen, but will only be read by those who take conscious (and often difficult) steps to find it. There are lots of technologies that allow sites to include discussions on their pages, but the pages that most merit comment will are likely never to include them- neither lunatic fringe holocaust deniers nor mainstream corporate marketers are likely to take special steps to allow their claims to be refuted. On the Web, adding and finding comments is hard. On the Usenet, there's no way to create post in such a way that it cannot be responded to.|
|radio hackers could|
never have imagined
we cannot imagine
|So far, we have only seen the first tiny steps of the Web's transformation into a commercial mass medium. Early radio hackers building their own transmitters could never have imagined the evolution of broadcast toward licensed radio and then ad-supported network television. We are equally unable to imagine what will happen when the web becomes big business. A good guess, though, is that it will become more like the big business of previous media.|
|As the marketplace of ideas merges with the marketplace of money, attention goes those who can pay for it. The Opentext Web search engine may be giving us a taste of the net's future with their policy of giving higher rankings to sites willing (and able) to pay for the privilege, pushing underfunded ideas further and further down the list. Regardless of how it happens, well-funded corporate sites that can afford to publicize themselves heavily will do what they can to ensure that their ideas are broadly received. It was once the norm for web pages to link to whatever related material the maintainer could find online. Now links (and, thus, our attention) are bought and sold. Why would Time online link to a site that wasn't owned by Time-Warner or paid for by a sponsor? As web audiences grow larger, interest in affecting what they do and don't see will grow, and the politics and economies of that interest will be felt more strongly.|
|the point is not|
to provide a
the point is
design our nascent
media to include
as many opinions
|There will always be forums for group communication online. But the point of a web commenting system is not to provide a separate forum for open discussion. The point is to weave discussion and debate as tightly as we can into the fabric of the Web, to consciously design our nascent media technologies to allow for as many opinions as possible. We can tweak the quality of open discussion at the fringes of the media. But the real challenge is to provide open discussion at the media's core. The Web is where increasingly large portions of our culture will proceed- It is where newspapers will (and already do) publish their articles, where advertisers will (and already do) make their pitches, where political rhetoric will be (and already is) published. Without the possibility of comment, the fact that they are on the net only makes them easier to find- they are as prone as always to the usual lies, half-truths, and biases.|
|We are used to thinking of the Web as a one-way medium. But it needn't stay that way. It would be possible to create a system that would allow anyone to add comments to any page on the Web, and retain the Internet's former promise of mainstream many-to-many media. It will always be possible for money to buy large audiences. It shouldn't be possible for money to buy the right to the last word.|
|Implementation: How it Could Work|
This section isn't meant to be an argument for a single specific method of implementing web comments, nor is it a full technical specification for how web comments would work. I want to show that they can work, and to generate ideas about how they might be implemented in ways that would be sustainable. Most importantly, I want to define a set of goals for how a web-commenting system might look, if designed with the conscious political goals of transforming the web into a more level playing field for discourse and debate.
The system meets the following goals:
stored in an
A browser plug-in allows users to easily add and view comments on any web page. Comment information is stored independently of the pages being responded to, but the software creates the impression of a seamless connection.
The system serving the web document plays no role in the commenting process.
The comments and their addresses are all handled by a separate database- Any
page with a stable address is commentable, regardless of the capabilities of
the server or the desires of the site maintainer.
|FAQ: Could people make their pages comment-proof?|
The Usenet operates in very different cultural space than the Web does- one where advertising is taboo, where users don't pay to publish, and where community interests create powerful norms. The Web is much more about commerce and much less about cooperation. Spam and noise are already problems on the Usenet. Without the historical Usenet culture to protect it, a web commenting system would be much worse. This difference will likely grow larger as the Web becomes more popular, raising the stakes both politically and economically.
A filtering system could help protect comments from noise and malicious
Users rate the quality of comments.
Personalized ratings are calculated based on affinity of taste.
Greater importance is given to ratings submitted by people considered to be trustworthy.
This makes it critical to include a filtering system to help sort messages.
While filtering is not in principal essential to a web-commenting system, a
system without filtering wouldn't be useful for long.
||FAQ: Would ratings really work?|
Challenges of Scale
Conceptually, the software's pretty simple. But to support a universally-commentable Web, the database would have to be enormous, as it would include the address of every commented page on the Web and information about every comment added to every page.
That's a big database, but probably not much bigger than other existing freely-accessible databases. Search engines like Digital Equipment's Alta Vista index the entire text of very large percentage of the Web. If the database only stored the address of comments, leaving the responsibility of storing the comments themselves to users' ISP's (as a transparent feature of the comment software), the database would likely be smaller than those maintained by the more popular search engines- the list of comments on a page would probably constitute less information than all the information on the page itself.
In addition to the size of the database, the number of requests would be a
challenge. If viewing and adding comments became a popular part of using the
Web, the database would have to process requests at a staggering rate.|
To reduce this demand, the database could be distributed across many servers, as Usenet currently is. ISPs could host local copies of the comments database much as they currently do for Usenet. Altruistically-minded institutions could also host publicly accessible databases as they currently do with ftp mirror sites, which would allow users whose ISPs do not (yet) run a comments server to participate in web-commenting.
|Viability: Who Would Pay For It?|
|A web-commenting system would be too expensive to be implemented out of a lone hacker's basement, but it's well within the scale of projects that are already out there. This system would need a lot of storage space and processor power- both expensive commodities when required in such large amounts. It would also require the labor of software developers which, while sometimes free, is still scarce.|
|A) In a distributed system, the costs would be paid, typically indirectly, by the users of the system. A portion of your ISP fee (or your tuition, or your employer's technology budget) would pay to run the comments server. Such systems have worked well in the past, but the increasing trend on the net seems to be for new large services to be centrally run by businesses.|
system as an
|B) As a centralized web business, the system could be funded the way so many new net services are- by selling the attention of its users to advertisers. A company could set up a web-comments system in such a way that viewing comments entailed seeing web-based ads. Like the net search engines, they would be "giving away" large amounts of processor power and storage in exchange for equally enormous numbers of impressions. Banner ads could be displayed and updated in the comments window. This is a potential net business that could deliver more impressions than search engines if it became popular, at a lower computational cost per impression. The first successful comment-server would also have a more stable lock on its market than a successful search engine: Owning a large collection of existing comments would prove a serious barrier to entry for would-be competitors. A business plan that would no doubt stir controversy would be to allow companies to pay for the privilege of being able to create comments that would be given prominent display, much as Yahoo sells banners on its category pages. How much would Microsoft pay for a banner comment on the Netscape home page? Or vice versa?|
C) A third possibility would be to try to piggyback the
database onto existing publicly accessible databases, to create a workable
hack. For example, the commenting software could put comment texts into a
special-purpose alt newsgroup, posting through the users NNTP server, and
including unique codes to provide any other information the database would
need. The software would handle comment retrieval by searching Deja News
(which plans to store Usenet messages indefinitely) for the unique codes and
formatting the returned information for inclusion in the comments frame.
Other piggyback methods may well be possible. The advantage here, of course,
all that would be needed to build a web-commenting system would be the
custom client software- no new large database would have to be created or
funded. At this low level of costs, the system could well be funded entirely
out of individual altruism or interest. I doubt that this could work well in
the long term, but might be helpful in developing a critical mass of
interest in web comments.|
|Current Projects and Reading|
Issues of annotation are being discussed by the Annotation Working Group of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). The focus of the group now seems to be firmly placed on providing distributed working groups tools through which to use the Web for collaboration- a notion called "annotation sets" would provide small-to-medium sized groups with tools for sharing web annotations.
|FAQ: What's wrong with annotation sets?|
Like the W3C-annot proposal, ComMentor is a proposed system for annotation sets, and does not seem to allow for the possibility of seeing all the comments that have been added to a given page.
Web4Groups is an EU-funded project which includes the goal of adding discussion buttons to web pages. Information can be found on the Web4Groups Page and in Jacob Palme's paper Linking Conferences to Web Pages (available only as an Acrobat PDF file). Like the W3C-Annot group, Palme seems more concerned with providing better forums for group discussions than with challenging the authority of web publishers- he specifically includes, for instance, a tag to identify pages whose publishers do not want comments, and to prevent discussions from being added to those pages.
|FAQ: Should people be allowed to keep comments off their pages?|
Other technical sources|
A lot of the technological inspiration for this article comes from A Protocol for Scalable Group and Public Annotations by Daniel LaLiberte and Alan Braverman, both of the NCSA. LaLiberte and Braverman have set aside the plan in favour of the Annotations Sets idea proposed by W3C-Annot. I've also taken many ideas about how annotations might work from Wayne Gramlich's page of annotation issues. The idea of using a distributed, Usenet-like database for making annotations public was originally proposed by Marc Andreesen in 1993. Times have changed.
Visions of hypertext: History
Earlier roots of hypertext vision can be found in Vannevar Bush's 1945 article "As We May Think".
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