Livefyre Works to Bring Web Comment Sections Back to Life

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raise the general quality of discussion. It does that in part by awarding points to users whose comments get lots of positive votes from other users, and subtracting them when people vote comments down. The system also subtracts points when users leave anonymous comments, thereby encouraging users to post using their real names.

If enough commenters have voted a comment down, or if the commenter himself has a big point deficit, his comment or comments will hidden from view by default, although other users will still be able to view them by clicking a button. It’s all a way to surface the most highly rated comments while submerging, but not censoring, the nasty invective. “We do not expect our system to kill trolls single-handedly,” Kretchmer says. “What we do want to do is increase the overall quality of conversation.”

Livefyre will frequently remind users about all the details of the point system, Kretchmer says. “The rules might change over time as the community grows and gets more intricate, but they will always be very transparent,” he says. (Kretchmer says the design of Livefyre’s point system was inspired by that of StackOverflow, a collaboratively edited question-and-answer site for software engineers.)

While the real-time, IM-like behavior of Livefyre may inspire some publishers to monitor their comment areas more obsessively, the overall idea is to reduce the burden of maintaining a comments section, Kretchmer says. For example, by setting a certain point threshold, publishers can screen out all comments from users who have poor reputations on Livefyre, which would presumably have the side benefit of weeding out most spam. “The ideal would be that you are so comfortable with the quality of the conversation you know you’ll get on Livefyre that you’ll be willing to just let it happen,” Kretchmer says. “The idea is to take the onus off the publisher.”

Another pair of interesting features is intended to weave disparate conversations together and give Livefyre itself viral appeal. If Livefyre users check off an option in their profiles, they can receive e-mails about Livefyre-powered conversations on topics related to comments they’ve already posted, even if those conversations are occurring at sites they’ve never visited before. The system also ties directly into Twitter and Facebook, by presenting users with drop-down menus that make it easy to notify the social-networking friends or contacts who are mentioned by name in comments. “We think that’s going to encourage much more connectivity outside of the same little conversation that you’re in,” Kretchmer says.

Perhaps in recognition of its many talents, Karneges and Kretchmer nicknamed the brain of Livefyre’s system Hydra, after the many-headed serpent of Greek myth. Investors have been impressed enough by the system to feed the seven-employee startup $800,000 in Series A financing, in a round that closed last week. Hillsven Capital was in the lead, joined by Zelkova Ventures, ff Asset Management, and angel investors Paige Craig and Travis Kalanick.

For now, the startup is housed at Kicklabs, a new venture incubator run by San Francisco-based Transmedia Capital in a former salami factory on Brannan Street. But if the startup grows according to plan, it will have to start looking for its own space within about six months, Kretchmer says.

For many Web publishers, the idea of turning off the comment systems built into their existing content management systems and substituting an unproven new system, residing on far-away servers, may sound like folly. Kretchmer says he knows the company has a lot to prove, and that’s why it’s starting small, to make sure the Livefyre platform will hold up under pressure. But XMPP was built to handle millions of simultaneous messages, so scalability shouldn’t be a problem in the long run, he says.

Once the company has tested the free blogger version of the service, it hopes to begin working with much larger publishers to test the paid version and customized white-label versions—Kretchmer lists the Wall Street Journal, CNN, and ESPN as the types of customers Livefyre wants to pursue. It’s also working on versions of the service that will work with Google’s Blogger platform and with the open-source Drupal publishing platform.

“The one overriding thing that differentiates us on competitive level is simplicity,” Kretchmer says. “Everything about it is simple—the embedding process, the administrative pane, moderation. We have tried to remove all of the complications of other commenting systems and design the thing to be as clean and simple and easy to understand as possible for users and publishers.” Commenters themselves may end up ruling on whether the startup has succeeded.

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

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