death of comment
A change of pace this week, as I want to talk about some observed trends in internet usage patterns and the impact that they have on sites like Campaign Mastery. This is not only directly relevant to the value that I can offer our readers, but – since many RPGs are set in the ‘now’ or ‘near-now’ – are also relevant to game backgrounds.

Likes, Tweets, and the dying of comments

Over the last five years, there has been a pronounced drop-off in the number of (non-spam) comments made to sites like mine. The prevalent trend is to Like something via facebook, Tweet that you have read or are reading something via Twitter, or something similar. This essentially informs the public at large and particularly the social circle of the individual (which presumably includes those of similar interests) of the existence of something interesting, with minimum effort by the reader. We’ve become something of a pushbutton internet.

Smartphones and Tablets

Part of the reason may well be the rise in popularity, even to the point of dominance, of internet-capable devices that usually don’t have a hardware keyboard. I don’t consider it a coincidence that these two trends are coinciding. If you don’t have a physical keyboard, composing any sort of text message is a lot more work in comparison to simply pushing a button and letting the site’s social media plugins compose the message for you.

Upsides

There are a number of compelling advantages to the user in this behavior. It’s easier (as noted already), and it’s much faster. Two clicks and you’re done.

It’s anonymous, so far as the site is concerned – they can maintain a nose count of the number of people who have done so, including any retweets or likes of likes, but that’s about it. In modern times, personal data security is a genuine concern for a lot of people (or should be), and the anonymity is therefore a definite advantage to them.

And it’s not bad news for the site, either, because it publicizes the site in a focused manner to what is hopefully a target audience interested in the subject, and can therefore generate immediate traffic to the site. I have already noted a strong correlation between “extra traffic” (over and above the usual minimum) and social media responses to articles. What’s more, this tends to be an immediate hit, within 24 hours at the most (arguably less – much less).

In The Middle

One consequence is a change in the sense of positive reinforcement. In broad, Likes and Tweets can be considered the equivalent of compliments and kudos, at least until you look more closely. All those tweets might be about how unsatisfactory the article is, or how the author failed his spot-the-bleeding-obvious skill check. Likes are a little more significant as an indicator, therefore, because they are only positive statements.

But even there, there’s a problem. What if thee-quarters of an article is brilliant but the author has crashed-and-burned in the final part? What if there’s a problem that readers are willing to overlook because a post is top-quality in every other respect?

There’s no specificity. If an article is popular, the author no longer gets feedback on what they did right to make it so, and where they can improve. All they can do is try to capture the same genie in the same bottle, or take a chance that their next article is not going to be as popular as their last.

And make no mistake, there is a momentum to success. One hit after another has a compounding effect on site popularity, while a string of misses has a dampening effect. “People say X is great, but I was disappointed the last time I went there, so maybe I won’t bother right now, I’ll look at it some other time when I’m not so busy.” It’s very easy to go from a must-read to a maybe-I’ll-read – and the result is that in any given week, half the potential readership don’t show up.

So, while it’s easier to offer general encouragement and positive reinforcement, it’s a lot harder to get specific feedback and therefore to improve.

Downsides

The transition from textual comments has some pronounced downsides. To start with, both Tweets and Likes tend to be transitory, visible for only a brief time (unless one digs for them), while comments remain visible with the article forever (or until deleted). That means that the traffic boost that is received from social media also tends to be transitory; at the very least, you would have to describe it as ‘volatile’. You could also describe this as a deterioration in Site Loyalty relative to Casual Readership.

One capacity that has largely been lost in consequence of the change is the potential for a lasting dialogue. I’ve been looking over a lot of our older articles lately, and time after time I have observed a dialogue in the comments that extends, enhances, or clarifies the content. These days, such discussions seem to take place within social media if at all, and as such, they are also transitory, and not a resource that the casual reader can benefit from in a year or two, and something that the site author may never even hear about.

Finally, one of the things that used to happen in the comments was the provision by readers of links to other relevant articles, blog posts, and resources. The ‘web’ was self-assembling, with crosslinks to other relevant material. These days, the web consists of more centralized hubs without the richness of those crosslinks (except where the author has provided them). Twitter is a hub. Facebook is a hub. Tweet Aggregators are hubs. Google is a hub. The casual visitor comes from one of these hubs to a site that looks interesting, but then has nowhere to go except along paths the author has defined, or back to the hub.

In the ‘old days’ of the web, the wealth of cross-connections were able to extend the knowledge of the author as well as the reader, and web-surfing took you from one site to another related site. The result is the increasing isolation of the author, which in turn restricts his growth and hence impacts the quality of the material he is able to offer. It gets harder to write something of quality, and more of the author’s creative time is consumed by research.

This is a self-accelerating phenomenon; the harder it becomes to contribute something of value, the less frequently it will happen, and the more reliant the public become on those centralizing hubs to separate wheat from chaff, making it even harder to contribute something of value.

Long-term impacts

In my original draft of this article, that was about as far as it went. But the penalty for being of an analytic bent, philosophically-inclined, and used to extrapolating from the known or assumed to a bigger picture, is that first drafts are usually only a small fraction of the content; I kept moving the goal-posts of the article as I found more things to say on the subject. I started this downhill slide by asking myself, “What are the long-term implications of this trend and the associated consequences that I have identified?”

Reduction of long-term traffic flows

Here’s how the web used to work: A site would publish a new piece of content. After a day or three of peak traffic brought in by the newness of the content, it would get replaced with something else that was the newest content on the site, and the older piece of content would begin generating residual traffic. That residual traffic stemmed from other websites referring to the content, from search engines referring readers to the content, from internal links contained within newer content by the same author, and by the occasional reader who explored the site’s archives. In general, it would be a fraction of the initial traffic, but it would persist for years, if not forever. The more content that you provided, the more these fractions would accumulate to increase the site’s overall traffic. Comments and pingbacks were significant sources of some of that residual traffic.

I might post an article, and someone else would be inspired to write an article based on something I had written in that article, and that would inspire someone else in turn, and we would all tell each other about those articles in the comments sections. Traffic to any one of those sites would connect through the links within the comments to each of the other pages. Particularly valuable in that respect were sites where an author would aggregate and review links to the content that he had discovered during the last week. There used to be lots of them, but most are now gone, killed by the instant (quicker and easier) push of a like or tweet button and changing priorities.

The result is that residual traffic sources are shrinking, with one exception: search engine results. Even these depreciate over time, but relevance remains a primary factor. This in turn has several flow-on effects.

Reduced economic and social viability of websites

Websites take time to create and maintain. Campaign Mastery is my sole source of income outside a disability pension. That income is proportionate to the traffic that a site generates. Anything that reduces the long-term traffic flow to the site reduces the economic viability of the website and the ability of the site’s authors to justify the time and expense of maintaining that website and adding new content. Dozens of sites devoted to the RPG ‘niche’ have gone dark over the last few years; it used to be that for every site that died, one or more would take their place. That doesn’t seem to happen as often anymore, because they are simply not as viable as they once were.

I remember when almost every internet user seemed to have a personal website. Those days are gone; the web is shrinking in diversity. Does that mean that those users no longer have something to contribute? No. It just means that they are making that contribution through social media, or youTube, or podcasts, instead. Transitory media, generating transitory traffic. (Podcasts are amongst the worst problems in this respect; you can’t embed a hyperlink in them, they aren’t searchable, and there is no direct traffic generation as a result. But it’s easier to talk about something than it is to write about something, and the results have an immediacy, so they aren’t going to go away).

They were replaced by, or have evolved into, subject-oriented specialist sites like Campaign Mastery. Or they have simply stopped, as hard economic realities dictate that a time-consuming hobby becomes less worthwhile than something that is more fun and less expensive.

Greater reliance on SEO and search-engine traffic

As other forms of residual traffic dry up, sites become increasingly reliant on the few that remain. That means an increasing reliance on the relevance of search engine results and search engine placements. And that means that SEO (“Search Engine Optimization”) becomes a critical consideration.

Just what website owners didn’t need – another overhead to worry about. SEO either adds to the administrative burden of the site, or it adds to the economic pressure on the sites viability if a consultant does it for you. Or you can largely ignore it, and continue to focus on generating relevant and interesting content – and watch your site’s residual traffic diminish over time. But if one site does it, everyone has to; those who don’t will fall off the front pages of results.

‘Content-is-king’ replaced by ‘Publish-or-perish’ paradigm

This inevitably leads to a fundamental shift in the operational principles of websites. An increased reliance on the initial surge of readers from the newness of content to maintain viability promotes a change from “Content Is King” to “Publish Or Perish.” The newness value of a post is more important than the depth and long-term value of the content. Hit-and-run articles become the norm – something quick and concise and easily-digested.

Economics-driven publishing

What this amounts to is more cutthroat economics-driven publishing designed to appeal to a wider audience and less hobbyist/special-interest niche content. Reduced Feedback equals less encouragement for mavericks and individualization and more ‘lowest common denominator’ editorial direction. This trend can be summed up as “The homogenization of the web.”

I don’t yet know of any website owners who choose what to publish in any given week based on what will give them the biggest hit in the search engine results, but the increased emphasis on SEO leads to an increased awareness of what is popular, and an increased temptation to pander to that popularity. There is an analogy to be made, comparing this with the transition of television from 1950s and 60s – when it was easier for individual visions to make it to the screen, and networks would take chances and see what worked – to the television of the 1970s onwards, where networks lived and died by the ratings. It might seem a long step to go from the shift to social media expressions of approval to viewing SEO as ‘pandering to the ratings’ and ‘publishing by the numbers for mass appeal’, but the path seems clear.

Worst-case prognostication

Extrapolating a little further leads to the death of the web as we know it today, reduced to function-driven websites or ‘virtual apps’ linked by search engines and other traffic hubs.

What do I mean by “virtual apps”? I mean that content is function-driven. Visitors only go to that site when they want to employ that specific ‘function’. The transitory traffic becomes all-important.

Do I think that this is what’s going to happen”? Yes and no. Let’s consider an alternative long-term view.

An alternative future

Sites become forced to optimize their subject matter to rely on ever-more-targeted search engine results. SEO therefore forces websites to specialize in increasingly-narrow niches within even a specialist subject (excluding e-commerce sites, of course): a site that specializes only in maps, a site that specializes only in Science-Fiction gaming, a site that specializes in world-creation, a site that only deals in encounters.

It can be argued that the reduction in ‘link review’ sites/series that has taken place is a sign of this narrowing of focus on the part of those sites. ‘Content is king’ thus becomes ‘publish-or-perish’ without sites changing anything that they are doing other than narrowing their definition of ‘content’.

But this future holds more scope for synergies amongst web conglomerates resulting in site mergers. Megasites that, like a shopping mall, consist of sub-sites dedicated to each specialty subject within the general. There’s an analogy here to what happened to business in the 1980s and 90s – corporate takeovers and mergers, with shared overheads reducing the economic burden and increasing the economic viability of the sub-sites. I would also point to the rise of book and media merchants who rely on Amazon for point-of-sale services. These have nothing but “back ends” and use a third party for the showrooms of their products. There’s a clear similarity between this business model and this projected future of the internet.

The narrowing of focus will mean that the content gap, where articles bridge one part of a hobby or interest to another, becomes wider. Gaps will open up, creating opportunities for new sites. However, the reduced economic viability of individual sites means only the real anoraks of a sub-industry, driven by personal interest and not by economics, will be willing to take a chance on exploiting them. This will produce a model more reminiscent of the glory days of the web, where start-ups could produce rags-to-riches stories – but for every over-the-top survivor gone-viral success story, 100 others will fail and vanish, or be absorbed into the conglomerate sites.

Ultimately this leads to the same worst-case prognostications by a different road.

A Personal view

I sure hope I’m wrong. I like the way the web was, even 3 or 4 years ago. People contributed more. The blogosphere and internet in general feel colder and its components more isolated, these days. There’s less of a sense of community, and less of an opportunity to explore; the better the SEO-and-search-engine marriage becomes at filtering out the not-quite-relevant, the less scope there is for the accidental discovery.

Avoiding the worst-case

By nature, another of my personal attributes is that I’m a problem-solver. Having identified what I perceive as a growing problem, I had to turn my attention to possible solutions.

The reduction in comments simply makes each comment received, each favorable review of a piece of your content, that much more valuable to a site owner. Right now, a tweet or like is worth roughly the same as a comment, but this ratio is dropping.

So the most immediate action you can take to avoid the worst-case and to combat this trend is this: If you have something to say, don’t just commit it to a perishable visible-today-gone-tomorrow social media mention, post it to the website as well.

Tell someone you like what they have done. Tell someone if you have a different idea. Ask a question. Criticize if that’s warranted.

And get into the habit of doing so, before rising spam levels lead sites to stop accepting comments at all.

But that’s a short-term behavioral solution, and the problem is really a technological one. What we really need is a technological solution.

A search engine for old social media mentions that works

I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to search for something on twitter. The results are the worst, most literal, that it is possible to conceive. There’s no relevance ranking, there’s no context, there’s not even a sorting so that items with multiple keyword matches are at the top of the results. The search functions are primitive at best.

Searching for something on facebook is worse.

I know of absolutely no way to find out what people on facebook are saying about a site that they like. I know of no way to even find out who liked it.

This seems strange to me; if we both like the same thing, it seems likely that we have at least a chance of wanting to become followers of each other’s accounts. If I like an article, I have something in common with others who also like that article. Failing to provide a way to identify those people with whom I have a common interest seems a fundamental hole in the services provided by Facebook.

I’m not talking about a Google web search, which can include tweets and facebook mentions. I’m talking about a dedicated and optimized search engine dedicated to showing “what people are saying about [search subject]“, with a full range of tools for narrowing the results.

Automatic Feedback

Next, as part of this solution, we need a way for those mention results to connect related posts and replies within that search engine, so that site owners (and the general internet user) can see the whole conversation – the whole iceberg – and not just the mention (the tip of the iceberg).

It then becomes a simple matter for site owners to include a pushbutton “see what others are saying” on the content page.

The Lasting Conversation

Finally, we need a plug-in for websites that permanently and automatically attaches those search results to the comments section of the site via the original “tweet” or “like”. This represents a genuine coming-together of the social-media pushbutton and the comment so that sites can automatically capture, store, and display those social media conversations AS comments on the content – essentially, self-generating forums powered by social media as part of the site platform.

Right now, the internet and social media are like a couple on their first date, only barely connecting with each other, a little shy and awkward, and a little clumsy in their connection. They need to become more tightly married together, to integrate into a more seamless whole.

Put all three of these developments together, and social media comments can become a true replacement for old-style “manual” comments. All those negative and gloomy prognostications go away.

To make this happen

Part of the problem is that social media platforms change the way they do things all the time. Twitter Apps need to be constantly rewritten and revised to deal with changes in the way Twitter works “under the hood”, and that is difficult and time-consuming. To make these solutions viable, what’s really needed is a way to monetize this platform integration feature, so that investing the time and effort into maintaining the service becomes profitable. Alas, that’s where I get stuck.

So it’s over to those more qualified in the relevant technologies than I am. Experts in the configuration of blogging platforms. Experts in SEO and search-engine software. Experts in Social Media Apps and Add-ons. The future of the internet is in your hands. Don’t break it.

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