by Michael O'Neill
September 26th, 2013

As far as digital media is concerned content is king, but consider room on the throne for conversation.

Elevating the quality of discourse and reader collaboration is a big media topic surrounding Advertising Week 2013, exemplified by Gawker Media’s introduction of Kinja platform updates at a private event Monday.

The New York Times first reported details on the changes, which empower readers to create and curate their own versions of Gawker Media stories and corresponding discussions. It’s all part of an effort to increase the quality and quantity of discourse without sacrificing what founder Nick Denton calls “intimacy.”

“When I first fell into blogging, I thought we’d have this all figured out by now,” said Denton in his pitch. “But it turns out that reconciling the reach of a global media organisation with the reader’s desire to have a personal experience and a meaningful conversation with the author is really difficult.”

His hope is that enabling readers to put their perspective above the fold in their own versions of stories across Gawker’s properties, including Gizmodo, Lifehacker and Deadspin via Kinja, will make this reconciliation possible.

Online discussion has been a primary element of the internet from the start, from Usenet in 1980 to the popular bulletin board systems of the 1990’s. Commenting on news stories has been widespread on the web for over a decade, but is often avoided by readers who feel turned off by its often toxic tone.

According to a study by Weber Shandwick, the lack of civility in tone of conversation is reaching epidemic proportions. Nearly half of Americans (48%) have defended, blocked or hidden someone online, nearly four in ten have stopped going to an online site because it made them uncomfortable (36%) and one-third (33%) opted out of an online discussion altogether.

So while sites like Reddit, Amazon and Huffington Post effectively use community participation, most media organisations have yet to put meaningful discussion on par with content they publish. Some have even gone so far as to shut down comments all together, exemplified by Popular Science turning off comments on all new articles starting today.

According to Ro Gupta, vice-president for Business Development of commenting hosting service Disqus, overlooking comments as premium content can be short sighted. “In most cases, the journalists or editorial management don’t recognise it as such, and don’t participate themselves,” said Gupta. “Sometimes that’s appropriate given the publication’s voice and goals. But often it’s legacy thinking or tunnel vision dismissiveness and a missed opportunity.”

The minds behind platforms like Disqus and Kinja plan to challenge the still-young conventions on how commenting is implemented. In the process they  hope to deliver on what social web pioneers had in mind when online communities gained prominence – use conversation to radically change the media equation.

Leveraging scale while providing safer havens for discussion is the delicate balance to deliver on the promise.

Disqus’ system supports media, blogs and communities reaching 1.2 billion monthly unique visitors. By providing standardisation and persistent identity through its scale, Disqus plans to help users to navigate topical discussions and content across a range of media that matter to them, other than through pure serendipity.

YouTube also announced necessary changes this week to its commenting system. According to The Verge the space below YouTube videos will transform to what Google is calling “conversations that matter to you.” But they will also be tied to Google+ accounts — a step that could alienate users as it promises to supply the social network with new content.

Other publishers are testing ways to monetize comments through new advertising venues. This summer, The Washington Post launched a native ad unit called Sponsored Views, which allows companies to sponsor a prominently placed top-level comment within an individual article. And Huffington Post, in a progressive move to merge content with conversation, rolled its comments section into a full-fledged live news feed through the HuffPost Live network.

Beyond cashing in through new ad formats, Denton has bigger plans to change media economics, seeing production and engagement leverage that can potentially deliver profitability on par with magazines in their heyday. But he says we have to get over the notion of sole authorship and get into a collaborative media environment where people draft off, build on and send media content into different directions.

He added there is no way we’re going to get a good conversation in the current set up.

Chris Perry is president, digital, at Weber Shandwick

This article first appeared on Forbes.com

(Disclaimer: Weber Shandwick has a commercial relationship with Disqus)

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