This is a slightly older interview (2008) that I was able to retrieve from the shattered remains of the mailbox I used during that year; the host got taken out by a configuration error, and it was some time before I was able to fix it and point the mail stream to the right location.
Matt Colebourne, CEO of CoComment, a leading company in outsourced discussion management for blogs and content management systems, gave a few answers on how anonymity on the web is obsolete — but how that’s not a bad thing. In fact, it could be the beginnings of something grand.
Take some time to check out his service at www.coComment.com and enjoy the interview.
Anonymity is necessary for certain types of communication, like whistleblowing, but it can also have its downside. In your view, what is that downside?
The downside is that it is hard to assess the credibility of an anonymous commenter. One way to remedy that is for the commenter to build a body of comments that allows others to determine how much weight to give their comments. However, the commenter who is prepared to backup their comment by coming forward and identifying themselves is still more likely to command attention.
Do you think that ISPs, webhosts and web sites will be held responsible for the comments of their users, and have they been already? How do we differentiate between users and casual commenters, as happen on many blogs?
In some jurisdictions, the UK for example, this has already occurred. This is actually one of our pitch points; by using a third party commenting solution like coComment we are then able to indemnify a site because we are a service rather than a publisher. The law in most countries differentiates between a service provider and a publisher with the former being held to removing comments only after the fact and only becoming liable in the event that libelous ones are not removed. Comments are not like ‘letters to the editor’ and should not be treated as such legally.
I don’t really see why one would want to differentiate between users and casual commenters from a legalistic perspective; it doesn’t really change the position in that respect.
What open source software does your business use, and what have the advantages been to using it? The disadvantages?
We are a big Linux, Java and Python user. The big advantages are that when problems are encountered there is a lot of readily available advice and support and people are prepared to share. We’ve also had keen users actually suggest improved coding to meet specific needs or to make the product work on particular sites. The disadvantages … well, very little that we’ve encountered so I’d have to consider those as more theoretical.
On open comment sites, a signal/noise problem emerges where for every informative bit of information published, a long series of flame wars and bickering comments follow. Does your service offer a deterrent to this behavior?
Yes and no. Sites can implement moderation and can also create bespoke banned word and phrase libraries that the comment system will block but we frequently advise sites against that because of the risks of then being held accountable for the comments themselves. We prefer to focus on giving the end user the tools to avoid having to read the flame wars which is why we’ve just launched ranking of comments. The idea is that, in future, end users will be able to choose to view only comments from commenters with a reasonable quality rating. If you like, it’s the equivalent to enabling the same behaviour as one would employ in the real world; the ability to ignore the idiot spouting off on a street corner and instead to focus on the quality conversations.
How will coComment make money? Not to ask too crassly “What is your business model?” but what’s the long-term plan, and what indicators do you see that the public is ready for this?
We have a two part business model. The first is from advertisements delivered on our site and on all the windows that are opened in other locations. We are going to, shortly, offer an ad-free service to end users for $5 per annum or $15 in perpetuity. The second business model is selling the research and management of conversations to brand owners. We will be launching that product, coComment Professional, to our beta partners in Q4 and to general release in Q1 09.
What other services involved with user participation do you think businesses will be willing to outsource?
I think that depends on which bit you mean about outsourcing … I think quite a lot of technology will be outsourced because it’s quite specialist, keeps changing and is non-core. However, the issue of interacting with your users is something that can only be outsourced to someone who really understands your brand values and how you want to present yourself to the world. Customers and users want to interact with someone who speaks for the company and can therefore commit to action and can speak with authority.
Do you feel competition from social networking sites, which seek to trap all the user participation they can, and enforce social rules through a lack of anonymity? How do you think the recent Lori Drew case will affect this?
Not at all. We are, in fact, in discussion with several with a view to working with them on the commenting side. I think that they are slowly realizing that whilst the “don’t let them out” mantra is effective in the short term it is far less so long term. Historically, walled gardens usually get demolished sooner or later and businesses which, instead, are open at both ends actually benefit more longer term.
In regard to the Lori Drew case, I think it would be unfortunate if this resulted in more legislation. The current law and practice provided enough data to locate the alleged perpetrator and we will see if it is also sufficient to secure a conviction. However, clearly, if it has provided that data and a prosecution is now ongoing it has worked effectively. It comes back to the personal responsibility issue again really; I think we are, and should, be moving to a situation where individuals are responsible for what they say and do online in just the same way as they are offline. Anonymity is important and should be protected but, as soon as you commit an offence, you forego that right to anonymity. If we, for example, store data about one of our users comments we would never seek to associate that with their real-world identity and we have no mechanism to do so. However, most people are aware that it is possible for law enforcement to make such an association and thereby ‘break through’ the anonymity.