Airbag Industries

Babylon.

Last week we launched Cognition, a studio blog, that replaced the traditional open-mic text area commenting system with two options: Either post a response via your own Twitter account or link to a post on your own blog. To kick things off Jeffrey took the honor of writing the first post and introduced our experiment. He wrote:

Kids today are more likely to respond to a blog post on Twitter than in the article’s comments section; so we’ve collocated our comments on Twitter. Share a tweet-length response here, and, with your permission, it will go there. If you are moved to respond with more than 140 characters, post the response on your website, and it will show up here.

Hundreds of readers replied with support, curiosity, and doubt. All-in-all it has been the best response we could have hoped for. A lot of the responses pertained to the Twitter integration. I suspect most of the comments we received were the result of people just kicking the tires but there were a few who questioned our motive and intentions via Twitter and blogs. As someone who has led this project from the very first day let me walk you through our thought process.

In some very early discussion about Cognition the topic of comments came up. I suggested that we try to find a way to integrate Twitter and comments instead of having them be two separate pieces of functionality. Mr. Unger (Director of User Experience), playing the much needed devil’s advocate, questioned the idea of how we would integrate Twitter, “if comments are restricted to 140 characters, it does not seem that format would allow for much substance.” To which I replied, “The idea of using Twitter from comments came from the fact that comments on most blogs are dead. There are a few blogs that have productive comments from their users but otherwise we have all seen a shift from blog comments to Twitter comments. The idea was to embrace this shift and a format the encourages brevity or responsive blog posts (for those who always want to write a short essay as a comment). It would be cool to find a way to incorporate reader’s Twitter comments but after a month if it sucks then we’ll just move on.”

None of us could imagine creating a blog without comments—but we have all observed that commenting on blogs, in general, has decreased since the use of twitter has increased. Of course there are exceptions—there will always been exceptions—but it seems that these days most readers will respond almost exclusively via Twitter instead of leaving a blog comment. Because of this it seems that blog comment threads are rarely engaging on the majority of websites today. Sure, there are some cases where every now and then a blog post will actually foster a good comment thread but as long time Airbag reader Thibaut noted:

“My personal experience on blog comments is that the longer a comment thread is, the less likely I will take time to read each one of them.”

Of course this applies to Twitter comments as James Young observed on his blog:

I’m sure once the article has been open for a few weeks, there will literally be thousands of tweets and retweets to filter through [Ed. note: Thousands! #thousands]. Tricky and of little potential value if you’re trying to follow a discussion or ask questions/report/fix bugs etc.

The problem with most comment threads is that they can reach that useless tipping point very quickly. Without having an active moderator to keep up with all of the various threads it’s practically impossible to provide any sort of conversational value.

Meanwhile we have also informally noticed a decline in blog usage since the wider adoption of Twitter within our community. Sites like Airbag have been rotting away like the Soviet’s Pacific Fleet in the 90’s, their glory days seemingly behind them while waiting for their room assignment at Sunset Estate. Happy Cog loves blogs. So much so that I think almost everyone of us has at least one and the majority of us have three or more. What if we could help bring some life back into the old network by encouraging people to write blog posts when they have more to say than what can fit into one-hundred-and-forty characters? Anything we can do to bring writers back to their blogs would be a “big win” win.

With all of this in mind here is our pre-launch strategy in a nutshell: Let’s use Twitter for what it’s good for: quick and disposable comments and let’s encourage more thoughtful responses on blogs. We’ll have harnessed Twitter in an appropriate way while, hopefully, bringing new life to old blogs (or maybe even start a few).

It’s a little early to say whether commenting-via-twitter-and-blogs works or not but the sheer numbers of positive comments tells us that we’re on to something with this idea. After a few days it’s already evident that some tweaks are needed. For starters, we realize the design needs to provide equal emphasis on promoting a blogged response as much as one via Twitter—if not more so. And blog comments/links should be given more emphasis because we should reward those who take the time to write out a longer response. Meanwhile, we’ve already started mapping out how to filter out retweets, reposts, etc.—that should help improve the signal-to-noise ratio.

We’ll keep working at this until we either get this right or end up turning to a different solution. However this shakes out, we’re already learning from trying something new which ultimately means adds value for our clients, our friends, and our community.

UPDATE My friend and colleague Greg Hoy comments on the user response thus far and our approach for making changes.