The New York Times and the Washington Post announced today that they are partnering with Mozilla to develop a new comment platform. The initiative is being funded by a $3.9 million grant from the Miami-based John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, a philanthropic organization that supports journalism and media projects. The platform is expected to take two years to complete, and will be made available to other web publications for free once it is complete.

As described by the Times and the Post, the yet-to-be-developed platform sounds a lot like Gawker Media’s Kinja—a flattening and shortening of the distance between readers and writers, commenters and publishers. The platform is also expected to include tools that will, hopefully, ameliorate news organizations’ troll problem. “The most ambitious aim of the project is to create a feature that would efficiently highlight the most relevant and pertinent reader comments on an article, perhaps through word-recognition software,” writes the Washington Post. “Another feature would categorize and rank commenters according to their previous postings.”

Not everyone is so optimistic, however.

I spoke to media commentator extraordinaire Rusty Foster, founder of kuro5hin.org and proprietor of Today In Tabs (and—full disclosure—a friend), about why he thinks this venture is doomed.

Hi Rusty! So, why is this going to fail?

Because we’ve been doing this on the web for a long time, and “new tools” are never the answer. The way to build good reader communities is to have good moderators and clear rules. The important factors are people and purpose. If you have those, any crappy web forum will do, and if you don’t have those, no number of millions will save you.

Why not just get rid of comments altogether? As Jess Zimmerman tweeted, “Why would you spend $3.9 million to improve comments when you could disable them for free?”

I think this project is trying to get away from the idea that it’s a “comment” platform.

They’re looking for “reader engagement.”

Right, which is something that sounds nice to companies struggling to find revenue on the web, but it’s still the wrong thing. What they want is “community ownership”—a large group of people with a sense of investment in the community, around the NYT or the Post or whatever. But the only way to do that is to give up a lot of control to the community, and I don’t think what has to be done to really build community ownership is compatible with the mission of a news organization. Essentially the NYT should not be Reddit. The NYT, just by being what it is, already is a million times more valuable to humanity than Reddit—becoming Reddit is not the way forward.

This balance is what Gawker has been struggling to find all this time too, and I think Nick Denton is a true believer in the idea of community ownership, and he’s also a very smart guy. But it’s hard to argue he’s figured it out yet

I feel like commenting culture—at least on smaller sites—was a more vibrant and substantive thing in the late ‘00s and early ‘10s. You still see it at publications like The Toast. But broadly speaking it’s pretty barren.

Yeah. Social media ate all of that up, which in my opinion is a good thing. Social media tools turn out to be far better at conversation around media than anything any web site ever built. Social media works because people organize their conversations around people, not media properties. I have my group of friends, and we talk about NYT articles, and Vox articles, and whatever. I don’t want to have separate communities at each of those places

We’re talking about stories with other people. The needs of the New York Times or Kinja as ‘platforms’ mean less than nothing to anyone outside those companies. If anything, the more media organizations bid for us to “Join the community!” the more they look like big pitcher plants.

I mean, Facebook is a big trap too, but people join Facebook because their friends go, “Hey come see the party pictures I took on Facebook!” No one joins Facebook because ~Facebook~ asks them to.

So if you want your news site to work, as a reader community, it has to be so great that actual people will put their own social capital on the line for you. And tell their friends to come join them there. It is my contention that that will not happen ever, for Gawker, or the NYT, or any news site

Why?

Those days are over. We have places now that we can talk about anything in. We have twitter and Facebook and a billion messaging apps. We all already have homes. I don’t want a timeshare at the New York Times-Washington Post-Mozilla commenting platform.

Thanks Rusty!

Photo via Peter G Trimming (CC BY 2.0)