Hidden comments

13 April 2008

A bunch of people are up in arms about yet another social site that hoovers up newsfeeds so that people can collect all their comments into one place. The two big problems that some blog owners have are these: it's an infringement of copyright as content is being sucked into another site wholesale; and it encourages people to comment on posts away from the source blog, so that the blog owner can't get to see them without subscribing to this new site.

The first point is a tricky one. You could argue that it is an infringement of copyright. However, if you are providing full feeds then Shyftr is really only acting like an online newsreader. The name Shyftr doesn't really help the service's image but, if you don't want copy hoovered up in this way, don't provide full feeds. As this blog isn't ad-supported, it is not that big a deal where the material is read as long as it's attributed to me. Sure, I'd like to know how many people are reading. Owners of sites such as Shyftr would buy themselves a bit more slack if they ponied up readership stats to the people who provide the actual content. But it's not in evil country yet. Anyway, if you're that worried about content leeching, just used a bit of Apache mod_rewriting to serve up partial feeds, or a list of links to Rick Astley videos, to those service's spiders – assuming they've been good and announced themselves.

The second 'problem' is an indication of how misguided some bloggers are when it comes to the subject of The Conversation, although I think there is a small, subtle issue with a site like Shyftr. Because comments appear on blogs, it is easy to be misled into thinking that is where all the action is happening.

Take Scoble, for example, who can be relied upon in these circumstances to come out with this sort of line: "The era when bloggers could control where the discussion of their stuff took place is totally over."

And bloggers had control before? How so? Is that like how nobody discussed what appeared in the papers before blogs came along? Pubs and cafés were eerily quiet as people digested their daily news in total silence, fearing to talk about it because the nasty media had all that control?

The ratio of comments on blogs to page views is very low: I don't think 1 per cent is an unreasonable number and that's after weeding out obvious spiders. The referrer logs often show up links from webmail accounts, forums and sometimes intranets. Have the people asking for some kind of comment aggregation system so that "the blogger can see all the conversation" actually thought about the problem for a moment? You can't see it all. Because, even if you designed a superspider able to track down and parse links to blogs so that it could extract relevant comments, it still wouldn't be enough.

Are you going to bug people's email accounts? The water cooler? Even if you did have such a piece of spider software, the thing would just be the most powerful spam magnet ever invented. It would be stuffed full of poker and pills ads in minutes.

And does it matter? If people want to make a point to the blogger, they go to the blog and post a comment there. This is where I can see something like Shyftr being a problem: the site makes it look as though the home for comments for a blog is there. It doesn't even attempt to locate comments on the source blog because it's working from the RSS or Atom feed. So, I can see people posting points on Shyftr thinking they are being made to the blog's writer when those comments are, in fact, invisible to them.

Shyftr might do itself some good by coming up with some kind of widget - assuming its programmers haven't done this already - to at least show where comments on a post might be located. Perhaps they could even feed the comments back to the site. However, the second option sounds dangerous even just typing it in now. It has cross-site scripting vulnerability written all over it. After all, who is going to weed the spam out of Shyftr comments? The blog owner can't do it. It doesn't look as though Shyftr users can do it. The man and his dog at Shyfter's owner Upshot Interactive (and I'm not convinced there's a dog)? Good luck with that.