The For Immediate Release (FIR) Podcast recently covered the release of Google Sidewiki, a browser plugin that allows you to add and share comments on any page on the web. The service comes bundled with the enhanced features of the Google Toolbar (available for Internet Explorer and Firefox, but notably not Google Chrome), allowing you to open a sidebar next to any page to see previous comments and add your own.
Commenting on web pages has become a part of our online lives since being popularized by the growth in blogs and has been adopted by many web publishers for other types of content. Google Sidewiki extends this feature beyond the reach of web publishers, allowing visitors to comment on any page across the web (as long as you have Google Sidewiki installed).For instance, here are the comments on Microsoft Bing, a major Google competitor in the search space:
This tool raises a number of issues such as comment moderation and ranking (Google says it uses automated scripts and the nebulous measure of authority for this), and the ability of web publishers to control commenting on their pages. However, I’d like to center on one issue that is by no means restricted to Google Sidewiki but is definitely highlighted by this service. That is the issue of comment and feedback proliferation.
Proliferation of commenting systems
As was pointed out in the FIR podcast, there are already a number of ways of sharing comments on content. Let’s highlight some of these:
- A website’s own commenting system (as ships as standard with most blogging platforms)
- Social networks such as Twitter, Facebook, Friendfeed, Posterous, etc.
Comment networks like Disqus
- And now browser-based systems like Google Sidewiki
Will Google Sidewiki be the last entrant into this space? Probably not. The upshot is that it becomes increasingly difficult to monitor these conversations and the multiple threads that can roll out of them. These systems are by their very nature distributed and autonomous. If, for instance, a comment thread grows on Google Sidewiki, someone browsing through the Disqus comments on a blog page who doesn’t happen to have Google Toolbar would remain blissfully unaware of this.
The problem has been around for some time on social networks. For instance, there are a number of services that allow you to post to Facebook from Twitter, so your Tweets appear to both audiences. Now if a Tweet that appears on Facebook attracts a number of comments, these aren’t passed back to your Twitter followers. So although your original missives are shared across the networks, the ensuing comments and conversations are not.
No easy solution presents itself, largely due a lack of standards when it comes to this form of communications. Going back to that earlier example, comments on Facebook are a completely different format and can be much longer than a reply on Twitter. Now throwing Google Sidewiki into the equation complicates the situation further, given that this system is browser-based and not strictly web-based.
So whilst Google Sidewiki throws up an enticing proposition (that of being able to comment on any page across the web), it really adds to the growing problem of comment system proliferation. Are we just building ourselves a fresh new Tower of Babel where online streams of conversations grow up in isolation of each other?
More on Google Sidewiki