Troll-slayer or name layer? How the Times/Post/Mozilla project could matter


Last week’s announcement of the latest big Knight-Foundation-funded effort to build a better digital mousetrap for news organizations prompted a wave of coverage that framed it as the latest effort to “solve the comments problem.” The new collaboration between developers at the New York Times and the Washington Post will be overseen by the folks at Mozilla Open News and funded by $3.9 million from the Knight Foundation.

Despite the announcement’s promise of providing readers with tools to “submit pictures, links and other media; track discussions; and manage their contributions and online identities,” virtually every story dubbed the project as a “new comments system” that would help large news sites like the Times and the Post surface the best reader comments algorithmically (the way Gawker’s Kinja platform does) — and maybe reduce the population of trolls and spammers.

Certainly, all this seems to be part of the project’s portfolio. But it is not — as the Washington Post’s piece put it — the “most ambitious aim” here. Coverage huddles around that idea only because we’ve collectively narrowed our understanding of the ways newsrooms can open themselves up. If the only thing readers can do is post a comment, then managing “reader engagement” boils down to catching trolls and starring valuable contributions.

But it looks like there’s a much broader ambition at work in this enterprise. “This isn’t another commenting platform for publishers; it’s a publishing platform for readers,” the Post’s Greg Barber says. Mozilla’s Dan Sinker, who will lead the project, writes on his own blog that the plan is to create “building blocks for engaging communities throughout the web” and that the resulting platform will be “open source at its core, and focused on giving users unprecedented control over their identity and contributions.”

See how this word “identity” keeps rearing its head? That’s because it’s the key to understanding the scope and promise of the project’s ambition. If you’re building a toolkit for two big competing newspapers to share (and for other publishers to adopt), you know that these institutions are never going to share user information. So this project can’t rely on any single proprietary approach to user accounts and identities. It will need some kind of open authentication standard or model.

In the past, news sites have typically either handled this problem in a one-off way on their own. Or they’ve handed it off to a third-party platform like Disqus or (increasingly today) Facebook.

There’s good reason for this! The technical community has long understood identity across systems as a profoundly difficult challenge. (Talk to the good people at the Internet Identity Workshop, who have been pursuing solutions for a decade.) Meanwhile, the business community has recently concluded that this game is over and Facebook won.

But if the Internet is going to serve us well in the future as a public sphere and a platform for self-expression, we must solve this problem with an approach that no single company owns and that everyone — from big publishers to individuals — can use.

This is what’s most exciting about the Times/Post/Mozilla project. Sinker seems to agree. “To me, the loftiest of these goals is the potential for an open identity layer for the web,” he told Nieman Lab. On Twitter, in an exchange with Jay Rosen, he said: “Comments isn’t really the focus of the project… identity and user ownership/control of same is a key element.”

This is important. If this project aims not just to “fix comments” but to become a new kind of platform for news organizations to apply Dan Gillmor’s “my readers know more than I do” principle, then the individual readers matter, and it matters who they are. They’re not just eyeballs or pageview-generators, they’re experts and sources and contributors and critics (and, yes, spitball-throwers and grudge-bearers, too). The most valuable contributions won’t get made by the most knowledgeable contributors unless they have some sense of ownership and control. We’ve all been there and done that; we won’t get fooled again. (Yeah, fingers crossed on that one.)

The value to readers is clear; why should publishers want such a system? Because the alternatives — led by Facebook — trap them in somebody else’s system. Though publishers may wish they could “own” their readers as customers, they’re coming to understand how impossible that has become. But at least they don’t have to hand their readers over for some other company to own.

The Times embraced RSS early on in its spread, in 2002, helping that open model for content-sharing become a key part of the Web’s infrastructure today. Today the Times, Post, and Mozilla together are in a position to kickstart a similarly valuable standard for user identity, if they get it right.

It will be anything but easy. The project has all the markers of a potential software trainwreck: multiple stakeholders with conflicting interests. Broad but somewhat fuzzy goals. Lots of ideals and principles everyone wants to honor. And a pot of money.

The ingredients look familiar to me because they overlap a lot with those of the Chandler project that I wrote about in Dreaming in Code. Chandler is essentially dead today but a lot of good came out of it, including stuff like the CalDAV standard that’s now widely used in group calendaring.

If two years from now, the headline verdicts on the Times/Post/Mozilla collaboration complain that it didn’t “fix comments,” I won’t be terribly surprised. But what if, in the meantime, we emerge with some useful steps towards an independent, open, usable online identity system? Then, I think, the Knight Foundation will have gotten every penny’s worth of its investment and more.

Other comments on the project:

Dave Winer says fixing comments isn’t the problem. At GigaOm, Mathew Ingram is cautiously optimistic. In the Daily Dot, Rusty Foster is not.

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