Commenting on Aggregated Items

Philipp Lenssen posted on the new Google News commenting feature, where people can submit comments for news items that show up at news.google.com.

The folks of Google describe this procedure, as soliciting commentary from those people ‘involved’:

We’ll be trying out a mechanism for publishing comments from a special subset of readers: those people or organizations who were actual participants in the story in question. Our long-term vision is that any participant will be able to send in their comments, and we’ll show them next to the articles about the story. Comments will be published in full, without any edits, but marked as “comments” so readers know it’s the individual’s perspective, rather than part of a journalist’s report.

This makes little sense, because Google News is an aggregator of news, not an originator of news. The appropriate place for comments would be at the origination of the material, not within an aggregation of such. Will we begin to see comments attached to items on Google search in the future? Perhaps at Google Reader?

This move follows through on the Google “vision” of Web 3.0 I mentioned, briefly, yesterday, where Google is beginning to see itself as a cloud–the intermediary between those who read and those who produce. Except rather than passing people on through, it now wants to trap people at its sites in a move that could alter how people perceive the original news once–if–they do click through.

Anything that makes Steve Rubel happy is bound to dissatisfy me, and this is no exception. He writes:

This is certainly a boon for PR professionals who have longed for a way to respond to what is largely an automated system. Wikipedia needs a similar mechanism. Google is also fairly liberal in the sources it aggregates. It includes lots of homegrown sites and blogs. This approach, while managed manually, certainly gives companies and subjects a voice on a critical site that is increasingly a big gateway for lots of news/blog content.

(Incidental to this story, my response to his comment on Wikipedia is, huh? Largely automated system? What?)

Rubel’s only discontent is that the site doesn’t allow comments from everyone, everyone in this case, we presume to be the aforementioned PR people.

Philipp writes that the process of providing comments on news items at Google news will allow missing perspectives to be attached to a story, but it doesn’t, really. If the person arrives at the story outside of Google News they won’t see the writing. If they come in from Yahoo they won’t see the commentary. If they come in from link from one of us, they won’t see the commentary.

Any commentary should either be added as comment to the original story, or via a separate web site and linked in, which means that anyone can access this information at a later time regardless of how they found the story, and which search engine or news aggregator they use.

More importantly, to repeat what I wrote earlier, attaching a comment to the link to the story could influence perception of the story and that gives Google a dangerous level of power. We may attach commentary to links ourselves, but none of us bill ourselves as the source of information on the web.

Update

Citizen Media wrote on this:

The fact that Google is trying this is, in one sense, testament to an abject failure on the part of traditional news operations. With the Net, they could have given people the chance to comment in this way — above and beyond the standard comment published as part of a story or a letter to the editor. They didn’t, and left this opening.

Actually, this isn’t necessarily all that true nowadays. All but some of the larger publications now allows comments, or some form of feedback. The St. Louis Today site provides both a forum and Talkback.

This isn’t the little guy triumphing over the Big Media Companies–this is one very large, rather controlling, and not necessarily always ethical business working to keep you in their pages that much longer.

Google is larger and has more control over the flow of information than many of the so-called Big Media companies. Do not treat this company like it is one of us.

Another danger in all this? I found the Citizen Media link in Techmeme, a site that filters based on some form of ‘worth’, a type of worth that almost invariably eliminates most of the more unique viewpoints (including those of women). We do not need another gatekeeper applying its own Silicon Valley, white, affluent male view on who is or is not a ‘credible’ commenter.

Right now, anyone can get a space online and link to a story and comment on the story and all search bots can find such and include in their search archives. Searching for links to a story returns all the commentary, and the comments persist as long as you want. You don’t have to ask anyone’s permission, and it does not require a gatekeeper. This way to comment certainly doesn’t require Google. This is the ‘little guy’ (or in most cases, little woman) having their say.

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11 Responses to Commenting on Aggregated Items

  1. Scott Reynen says:

    This makes little sense, because Google News is an aggregator of news, not an originator of news.

    Hmm, that looks like a false dichotomy. There are millions of blogs that post links to news articles, add commentary ranging from extensive to nothing, and then invite comments. Where do we draw the line? If Google published “Here’s an interesting article:” before every link on Google News, would it then be okay to allow comments? What about Newsvine.com? Don’t they do the exact same thing? It seems like the only difference is in your last sentence: that Google bills itself as the information source. I suspect that’s the fundamental problem here, not the comments.

  2. Seth Russell says:

    I think this is going to be a great thing. How often have you read a story and wished to be able to hear the other side of the story at the same time. Obama’s recent comments comes swiftly to mind.

  3. Shelley says:

    I’m really not familiar with Newsvine, but as for our link and commentary that is available after the fact via all search engines because all the bots scarf up our material and a search on links in either Yahoo or Google should return such.

    The same can’t be said about comments attached specifically to an aggregator, which doesn’t get returned in search results or based on the links: directive. Not even Google’s aggregated news item returns when you do a search in Google, or at least I’ve never seen such.

    The only purpose I can see is to keep people in the gateway longer, and the only advantage I can see to that is Google wants to hold us in its pages longer, probably to sell us something.

    A dangerous side effect (I don’t think it’s the intent) is that Google can have an inordinate influence on the news, and that is really wrong.

    Seth, you can easily hear other views, just by searching on the links to the article. Or looking at comments attached to the article. Your post has comments, and people can comment there.

  4. Perhaps (an idea I read on Google Operating System) the comments can one day be added as some expanding gadget to the Google Toolbar. You’re on News Article XYZ at xyz.com and there will be a little icon, “Comments on this story exists,” which you can expand…

  5. Shelley says:

    I’m expecting this in two days, Philipp. Again, though — think about the dangers inherent to this. Why would we ever want to go _anywhere_ else for news, when we can get it all at Google.

    I have an add on to this, must post….

  6. Scott Reynen says:

    Of course the purpose is to keep people in Google longer. Did you previously think Google was providing their news service for the greater good of society? I completely agree that we shouldn’t give Google any more trust than any other big company, but I don’t see how adding comments changes the amount of skepticism required. Google News was already selectively filtering sources based on someone’s bias about what makes a credible news source. And every news source does filtering. Newspapers choose their stories from AP and Reuters feeds, so they’re just as much aggregators as Google is, and with people doing the filtering, there’s always bias involved. If people previously thought Google News was immune to bias, the mythical “fair and balanced,” and now realize it’s not, I think that’s a good thing.

  7. Shelley says:

    Good point, Scott.

  8. Hmm. I would have been more interested in a feature that aggregated the comment threads hosted by the news sources themselves, rather than independent comment threads hosted by Google. But I suppose that would require per-article comment feeds, and permission from, and therefore a large amount of clue on the part of, the news sources.

    As it is, limiting comments to ‘participants in the story’, which based on the description may or may not include bloviating pundits who happened to get quoted, seems to offer a lot of potential for mischief like astroturfing, greenwashing, and spin, all in the name of letting folks ‘set the story straight’, without any of the benefit of actually allowing wider perspectives.

    However, all this is rather off the cuff. For all I know ‘people or organizations who were actual participants in the story in question’ might include ‘Google users that live in the relevant zipcode’. I’ll be interested in seeing what the feature actually looks like and who gets to comment.

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  10. Seth Russell says:

    I finally spotted one of these comments and documented it here.

    Shelley, searching is hit or miss, this is far more direct. If it works it will tend to keep journalists honest because they will know that their story may appear next to an involved individuals comments which may refute their spin. I think this is quite a revolutionary feature and it will be interesting to see how it will pan out.

  11. Seth, while I am sure that it will exert negative pressure on the practice of ‘quote mining’ (but weblogs generally can already do that), it gives rise in turn to an equal increased incentive for ‘quote salting’, especially by the aforementioned bloviating pundits and spin-masters (ie. the ‘comment’ can include material that was never even mentioned to the reporter in the first place).

    I don’t think this is a very good trade-off.

    Unless this new feature can somehow include perspectives that were omitted entirely, for example people who were interviewed but not quoted, and people who were ‘involved’ but not mentioned or interviewed, I don’t really see how this helps in the aggregate.

    Except… well, I can sort-of imagine that if this takes off it will prompt the creation of additional ‘news sources’ (in effect, massaged aggregates of more-or-less primary sources that resemble PRNewsWire and the like) that exist primarily to leverage the Google system by wedging mentions and quotes from additional people into it, thereby giving them ‘comment’ privileges. That might have a net positive benefit in terms of expanding the public record, even if the primary users are just trying to game the system.