Getting More Feedback from Actual Readers
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Apr. 17th, 2010 | 11:07 am
One promising thing about the Web that (as far as I've seen) generally doesn't come to fruition is the idea that someone could read something you've written and then easily respond. This would make writing more of a two-way street, and could help many of us understand much better what does and doesn't work for our readers, and why.
The dream is that, say, a story of yours gets published in Strange Horizons or Asimov's, and at the bottom of the story in SH is a comment box, while at the bottom of the story in Asimov's is a link to a page with a comment box. Dozens of readers would take advantage of that easily-clicked link to say what they think about the story, whether they liked it or not.
Ideally, even someone who stopped reading the story after a few paragraphs would skip down to the comment link and make a brief note: "For some reason I really didn't like the kangaroo thing and just stopped reading." It seems to me that people who didn't like something are far less likely to respond than people who did, giving a skewed view among respondents when there are any, unless the person absolutely despised the piece.
In the real world, of course it's easy for publishers to have such links, and they often do, but hardly anyone ever replies--and when they do, they're much more likely to be a family member, friend, acquaintance, or fellow writer, none of whose feedback is really the same as that of an unbiased reader who doesn't know you.
The two categories of posted material on the Web I can think of that do seem to garner a lot of response are controversial material and posts by people who are very Web-social (i.e., read and comment on a lot of other blogs, etc.). Neither of these helps us much as writers, unless you follow the "controversial" approach and your goal as a writer is to produce outrage or echoed support.
The barriers to responding, it seems to me, include
- Habit: people aren't used to feeling like they can just tell the author of a short story, novel, or magazine article what they think. They also may tend to be used to giving longer responses (e.g., in e-mail or on friends' blogs) and not think of giving a one-sentence reply.
- Anonymity: people often have at least mild reservations about posting anything that gives any kind of identifying information, even a screen name, unless there's some benefit to them. They also dislike giving out their e-mail address, even if they're being assured it won't be posted.
- Time and effort: Even though it may take only 30 seconds to type a brief response, if there's nothing in it for the responder, that's 30 seconds "thrown away."
- Lack of perfect ease: If there's anything even slightly confusing or delaying about commenting, people appear to be much less likely to comment in a low-stakes situation like the kind I'm talking about. This includes having to click to get to another page instead of commenting on-page; having to use captcha; having to sign into anything, etc.
Do you think there's any hope for the Web becoming a better source of feedback from the average reader? If so, what do you think are the best ways to foster this kind of thing?
I didn't have any ideas before I started writing this post, but after writing down some of the obstacles, I have some thoughts. My theory is that most systems that offer commenting are eager to capture as much information from the user as possible, and by trying to do so scare off most potential commenters. The solution would be to tailor the entire system for the greatest possible ease of use for the commenter.
Here's my suggestion. What I'm talking about may already exist, but if so I've never heard of it, and I'd love to know about it. Keep in mind that this isn't meant to replace commenting systems in general, but rather to be a feedback system for writing made available online, something existing comment systems aren't good at.
An ideal response system would offer the user a simple 1-5 star rating type of system plus a brief comment box that could be expanded immediately below the piece itself, without any requirement to go somewhere else or even expand anything.
The comment box would be self-evidentally optional, and its size would imply that a very brief comment would be appropriate. However, there would be a little expansion icon next to it, which if clicked would expand the tiny box into a larger one for a substantial post.
Like everything else, the rating would be optional: someone could rate, comment, or both. There would be no place to fill in name, e-mail, etc.: if the user wanted to share these things, they would do it through the login system, described below. There would be no place anywhere in the comment to include a Web site address: this would simply not be supported (thus cutting down on spam and on self-interested, empty comments).
There would be no security, required log-in, or Capcha. However, users could already be signed into some system (possibly OpenID, although I've always found that a little bit of a pain to sign into) that, if they used it, would give them the option of being non-anonymous. They would also be able to click an icon that would pop up a small login form from the trusted login system. Logging in would allow them to optionally share their name and/or photo and/or automatically link to their profile on the login system (which could have a Web site and other information on it if they choose). It might also allow things like favoriting, tweeting, etc., and even a scoring system that would reward commenting in lots of places, something like the Amazon reviewer system. Importantly, all of these extra pieces of information and features would be kept out of the comment form itself (unless perhaps they were configurable through the login system and appeared only for logged-in users who specifically wanted them).
From a technical point of view, the system would be made available through simple-to-include HTML that would sense its context to know what was being commented on and that could be simply slapped in at the bottom of any piece or post, or else included in a template. Another inserted chunk of HTML would show all comments for that piece. All functions of the system would happen within the page rather than requiring a link or page reload (except for the pop-up login form).
The system that handled the commenting would remove most spam in a manner similar to Askimet (used with WordPress blogs), and wouldn't allow saving a comment that had a URL or e-mail address in it.
So overall, this system would be optimized to make it as inviting to comment or rate as possible, with everything else being secondary to that. It might look a little like this (although ideally it would make it clearer that the comment part isn't required, and might have other interface refinements):