Livefyre Works to Bring Web Comment Sections Back to Life
[Corrected, see page 2] Publishing on the Web was always supposed to be a many-to-many affair, not a one-to-many lecture like so much of radio, TV, and newspaper content. But much of the burden of keeping the Web bidirectional falls on the familiar comment sections below most news articles and blog posts. And comments, in case you haven’t been following the blogosphere lately, are in poor health.
Too often, comment sections fill up with spam and anonymous backstabbing—to the point that some online publishers have given up on them, disabling comments entirely. Of course, many valuable comment threads are still generated around the Web every day, but they’re often frustratingly siloed and fragmented: a raging debate about an Xconomy article might be taking place on Slashdot or Y Combinator Hacker News, for example, and visitors to Xconomy itself would never know it.
Holding commenters more accountable for what they write, and connecting them into unified conversations, are two of the goals at Livefyre, a San Francisco startup that’s launching a private beta test of its real-time commenting platform today. On blogs that have turned on Livefyre, comments pop up on the page as soon as they’re submitted, without forcing users to reload an article page. That makes the comment areas of these blogs resemble instant-message logs or Twitter feeds—which isn’t an accident, as Livefyre’s system is built on XMPP, the Extensible Messaging and Presence Protocol, an open protocol originally designed for the IM world.
But in addition to being the only comment system built around instant messaging, Livefyre is also implementing a reputation and rating system designed to reward people who post high-quality comments and push trolls out of view. And on top of all that, Livefyre will optionally notify commenters who have signed up to use Livefyre-powered comment sections (which they can do using their Twitter or Facebook credentials) about conversations that might interest them elsewhere on the Web.
Livefyre didn’t actually start out as a commenting tool. Kretchmer—an ad-industry veteran who worked for Mullen Advertising in Boston and Butler Shine Stern in San Francisco—says he first started thinking about online conversations while doing a short stint as vice president of brand at the multiplatform news producer CurrentTV, in San Francisco.
“When I was at CurrentTV, I joined Twitter and started being more active in forums, and what jumped out at me was 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 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.