Livefyre Works to Bring Web Comment Sections Back to Life

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how broken the entire system was,” Kretchmer says. “When I started thinking about why, I thought about two things, the idea of quality, and the idea of real-time—that was what was really intriguing to me about Twitter.”

The first version of Livefyre was built last year to address those two points. It was a centralized website where visitors could share links and start IM-like conversations, called “fyres,” around articles or other Web content. “I wanted to feel like I was actually having a conversation and not just posting something into a vacuum, with no idea if anyone was looking at it or responding to it,” Kretchmer says.

To ensure quality, the early site only allowed users who had earned “fyre starter” badges, through highly-rated comments in other threads, to start new conversations. (This TechCrunch piece from December 2009 describes Kretchmer’s original vision in more detail.)

But Kretchmer soon realized that the Web didn’t need yet another forum-based site. “Very quickly I decided that if I really wanted to fix this problem I had to amass a community,” he says. “I had to think about ‘Why am I trying to become a central destination for conversation when there are millions of conversations happening around the Web right now in the form of comments sections and forums and live chats?'”

Among existing comment-system providers, such as Disqus, Echo, and Intense Debate (now owned by Automattic, the maker of WordPress), both Disqus and Echo can provide a Twitter-like, real-time experience. [Update and correction, 2:00 p.m., 7/14/10: This paragraph originally stated that aside from Livefyre, only Echo provides real-time comments, I regret having omitted Disqus.–WR] Kretchmer thought he could go the competition one better by including a reputation system. But it was when Kretchmer started talking with potential investors about the idea of weaving conversations together, by processing comment streams through a central administrative point and making the participants in distributed conversations more aware of each other, that investor interest really started to perk up, he says.

To build a system that could actually do this, Kretchmer had to ditch everything he had built and bring in some help in the form of Justin Karneges, who’s now Livefyre’s chief technology officer. Karneges is one of the world experts on XMPP, having written the popular open source Psi IM application back in 2001. “When I pitched him on this vision,” Kretchmer recounts, “he went like this [rolling his eyes up], and I thought he was drifting off. But that was just him thinking. He goes, ‘I can build that.’ And I said, ‘Are you sure?’ And he said, ‘It’s never been built before, but I can build that.'”

Karneges had to pull off some difficult technical tricks. For one thing, the Livefyre system has to collect all comments in a central database, in order to identify common topics and feed new comments back to all viewers’ browsers simultaneously. Yet at the same time the system must make it possible for Google and other search engines to associate each comment with the appropriate article. (Comments sections are, after all, the source of much search-generated traffic.) Also, many browsers don’t allow live data to be pushed to a Web page from a domain other than that of the page itself. The company solved that problem too. “I won’t tell you how, but XMPP is responsible for allowing all of that to happen,” says Kretchmer.

There’s also a new reputation system, based on points rather than badges. Kretchmer says the goal of the point system is to … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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