Commentary and Communication

We live in a cacophony of constant commentary. Whether it's talking heads on TV, buzzing smartphones, status updates, blog posts, social media mentions or retweets or reblogs or comments or likes, we're surrounded by opinion and reaction.

When it comes to software that enables the spread of commentary, we need to remember the human side. That's what I'm hoping to do with our upcoming product, Remark.as.

As an individual, sometimes this kind of modern commentary improves our lives. Someone might post about a new band they discovered on their Facebook page, which might lead to you discovering some new music you like. They might say that some local event seems interesting, and might lead to you going and meeting people or otherwise enjoying yourself. Particularly when “sharing” (as our social / surveillance platforms call it) is done with other people in mind, it's largely beneficial. I think this is the original promise of social media — and a good one, at that.

But too much commentary can take a toll on us. Watching too much TV filled only with commentary (especially on “news” channels) can make us start to think the world is a certain way. Enough of this commentary can make us forget reality, and our own experiences. The same goes for consuming too much talk radio, YouTube, social media, or podcasts or blogs.

As social creatures we crave the opinions of others in order to enrich our own lives and open our minds to others' experiences, so that we may make them part of our own. But today we're too often detached from the context around these opinions that help us correctly determine how much weight to give to them. Anyone who consumes media today receives more opinions from people they don't personally know than who they do. Instead of hearing mostly from acquaintances and close friends and family — our “tribe” — we hear from TV and internet personalities we've never met before. I, too, am participating in this machine right now by spelling out my opinions for you, a reader I have probably never met before.

And this “meeting” thing is a pretty important standard for human interaction, because it grounds relationships in the natural world. There is so much we intuitively gain from real-world interactions (even if we can't put it into words) that we lose in the digital environment — this world is truly unnatural to us. We haven't been this detached from facial expressions, vocal tone, intonation, and immediate physical responses from other humans in all of our history. Yes, we've had letters and remote correspondence since the dawn of written language, but we've never had so much interaction on a daily basis where we aren't physically in another person's presence, hearing their voice or seeing their face.

We're starting to feel the downsides of this world only a few decades into the information age, and I personally think it'll only become clearer and elicit stronger resistance from people over time.

What to do

But if we are to enjoy the upsides of our digital, globally-connected world, I think the tools that operate on it need to consider these issues. They should understand that communication online is not a perfect substitute for interaction in the natural world — and indeed the digital realm will always be an inferior medium for this. If we're going to live through the information age, we should also have control over the amount of daily information we have to wade through.

These are my general ideas as I think about creating our first product that enables one-on-one interaction, called Remark.as. Already, Write.as and Snap.as are one-to-many tools that I think work well for the digital medium. They let you publish “books” (or “picture books”) of the digital age.

Remark.as will enable comments on Write.as blogs. But I don't want to clone other commenting systems, say it's “the same, but with privacy,” and call it a day. I have some different ideas in mind that come from questioning this type of product at its core.

For one, by having public comments on a blog post, each post essentially becomes its own blogging platform for anyone to come and give their commentary to the world (not just to the author). Besides the moderation and spam issues that come with this model, from a design perspective, it's redundant — a multi-author blog within a single author's blog post.

To use the book analogy, it's like opening a used book where different people have all written in the margins. There's generally little cohesion between each person's commentary, besides the vague connection to the book itself. Without social context or physical responses, people can ramble on about whatever they want, without any regard for what other readers care about.

Then there are certain intrinsic qualities about current comment systems that ensure they cause problems for both authors and readers. The public mode of blog comments introduces certain incentives for commentators — the comment section is great for spam, because the post has a built-in audience. The same goes for trolls — not only is there an audience, but offended people can quickly and easily respond, enabling more trolling. Spreading misinformation is frictionless, as an article with factual information can easily be filled with conspiracy theories and opinions that muddy the waters of consensus for future readers.

With public comments, a writer must take on new jobs outside of their primary pursuit: curating commentary from and for strangers, and defending against bad actors.

Comment sections are also a great place for unconstructive criticism. Whereas in the natural world we're hesitant to tell people directly that we didn't like their creative work, online we're detached from the unspoken expressions of hurt feelings, disappointment, anger, etc. This lets us say things to other people without the natural social self-regulation we've evolved to have over millennia. We can criticize, attack, and harass people without the repercussions we'd normally receive in the physical world.

Lastly, as an author, you simply might not care about what others have to say. You might be writing only for yourself, and putting it out into the world for the chance that someone else might relate to it. And I think that's okay — actually, it's much more than okay. We shouldn't be forced to hear everyone's opinions on everything we do or create. We shouldn't be forced to respect the opinions of people we don't know (and that don't know us), especially when it comes to the highly personal, creative work we're making. Expecting that of everyone is accepting tyranny for everyone.

A solution

Especially in our age of information overload, as writers we need control over who we listen to, and the ability to have conversations that are as human as possible.

Solving the first issue starts by having commentary off by default. Again, no one is obligated to hear from the peanut gallery. Then for writers who do want to receive commentary, it means making the process of commenting a non-trivial process for the commentator. No one should be able to effortlessly leave a comment that says “you suck” and then move on with their life. Before the internet, readers had to find a mailing address, pull out a piece of paper and pen, write a physical letter, get postage, put the letter in an envelope, put the envelope in a mailbox, and then maybe wait to get a response from an author. We need a similarly taxing digital experience that requires thought and effort for the commentator.

To make commenting more human, it needs to become conversation rather than commentary. Someone talking at you through a television or lonely comment on a blog isn't natural and human; a conversation is. If you want to talk to an author, you should be able to do that directly — no public side is needed. Then, if your conversation turns out to be of interest or use to more people, you should be able to make it public, where it can stand as a work in itself.

This is what I hope to do with Remark.as. Like Write.as, it'll be built on a philosophy instead of the status quo. And if the philosophy is right, hopefully it'll enable a new kind of interaction on the web. We're still in the design stages right now, but I hope to release this new platform this year. If you'd like to give your input and help shape what this platform becomes, I'd love to hear your feedback over on our forum!