On Private Commenting Systems

Jan-Lukas wrote about an article by Matt from Write.as called Towards a Commenting System. The article describes a commenting system with two flavour: private and public. For private comments, an e-mail to the author is used; for public comments, one is prompted to publish the comment on their own space first and then notify the original post. It feels very IndieWeb friendly.

Then, Jan-Lukas points out his own site already does this with webmention (as does mine), and that he also has a contact form, which people could use to reply private (at the time of writing I have no contact form).

I like the idea of private comments taking another route than public comments. Just having a contact page is not the same though: to complete the idea you can link it with a call-to-action underneath your posts. Let’s not have illusions here: most people will probably not read my posts on my site but in their reader or some other syndicated copy. But, it would give a nice UX for those on my site.

It also reminds me of how stories on Instagram work. There is a text box underneath it, which the user can tab to type a message. This message is then sent as a direct message to the creator of the story, and not visible to anyone but the creator and the commenter. It seems to work in that context: I do reply to friends in that way sometimes, because it feels very personal.

Another point is that this keeps private comments easier to implement for some and actually possible for those with static generated sites. My site has a way for visitors to log in, and I can build some form of private comments in that way. It is, however, way more work to build and maintain a site that does this, and not everyone is willing to do so. Doing private comments via a different channel makes it easier to have them.

The flip-side is that private comments cannot be shared among a group in this way. If you open a post to a certain circle of friends on, say, Facebook, all those friends can comment and also comment on each other’s comments. This kind of interaction is very hard to do, though, if you don’t have the luxury of a central service that guards access to all the posts — like Facebook does.

The conversation is also more likely to be ephemeral, for there are only two readers, both responsible for keeping their copies, with no help of, say, the Internet Archive.

I remember a moment at IndieWebCamp Brighton when a session about private posts was about to start. Jeremy Keith walked out of the room while making a comment that he didn’t see private pages as something the Web needed. This does not mean I can’t have them, but it did make me think about why I want them and what they would mean to the Web and the world.

By putting the private comments on a separate channel, you are also removing them from the Web. This makes the Web a place for open and public conversations again. (Again: one could argue that thing on the ‘Private Web’ are not on the Web either.) The last few months I’ve been reading more blogs and I must say I really enjoy that open Web.

The separation of private comments creates a clearer boundary between the open and the private, and maybe that’s a good thing. It makes an easier question: it’s harder to answer “which people should be able to read this post?”, than it is to answer “does this concern only me and the author, or could there possibly be someone out there who’s interested?”.

No real plans for removal yet, but I keep being torn about private posts.

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