Farhad Divecha, Director of AccuraCast interviewed Matt Colebourne, CEO of coComment to find out more about his company, the advantages of unified conversation management and the future of blogging worldwide. The conversation took some very interesting turns, especially when the discussion turned to censorship and how services like coComment could help or hurt vulnerable groups in third world countries.
coComment allows users to keep track of all the comments and discussions they are participating in or observing on the web. Users get notified when someone adds to their comment stream or discussion. And, if they’re bloggers, the users can display the comments they make elsewhere back on their own blog.
Farhad Divecha: Let’s start with a quick introduction of what coComment is all about…
Matt Colebourne: Certainly, we are one stop shop to track, manage, share,and explore conversations on the Web. We can keep track of all the conversations that an individual is having, and so they can place comments on 50 different sites, local forums and whole bunch of different places. We will follow all those conversation and they will receive updates. We would also allow them to share those conversations with other people via, say their Facebook profile or any other profile for that matter. Currently we have about fourteen and a half million that we are tracking on a thousands of different sites.
Farhad: So could you essentially pick conversations from a number of places and syndicate or show them on any other place that you wanted to?
Matt: Yes, exactly. And all of your conversation will show up on your profile page on coComment.
Farhad: Can users then decide who can see these conversations and who cannot or is everything just public information?
Matt: Users can decide. The new version gives users the opportunity, should they wish to control who can see everything they say.
Farhad: Let’s talk a bit about the social aspect of this. I find this concept quite interesting because one of the problems that I personally face, and in fact quite a few of the people I have spoken to recently also face, is the problem of too much social variety. We all have profiles on a number of different networks and blogs that we visit regularly.
You start talking in one place about one thing; you like the discussion there and you might share it with a few friends by then starting a new conversation elsewhere about the same topic. A little bit down the line you see somebody else talking about the same topic, and you pipe in there. Soon you have participated in a conversation on the same topic in 10 different places with 10 different people, and you start losing track of what you have said. How does coComment’s offering tie in that social aspect and does it rely in some ways on everybody who is conversing with you also using it?
Matt: No not necessarily; because you can bring people in the conversation using a range of third-party tools such as Twitter but I think what makes a great conversation the first thing is the topic should be something that the audience is interested in, and the other thing is that people who participate in the conversation. For example you could visit a cathedral and just have a look around, which isn’t the most exciting thing for me. However, if the tour guide I appointed was absolutely mesmerising and told me the history of the place and really brought it to life, I would have had a different experience and enjoyed the same activity thoroughly.
For us the question was therefore, if that is what makes a good conversation, how do we bring this model online? We are not trying to build a social network. What we are doing is allowing the natural conversational behaviour to operate on the Internet, allowing people to share stories and getting others to participate.
Farhad: In some ways, though, that still leaves one slight problem unsolved … if you have these conversations in 10 different places, and they might be conversations around a really interesting topic and in each of those places you have two or three really interesting participants with whom you want to carry on the conversation, you still have to go to 10 different places to carry on that conversation, or somehow get all of them to converge in one place.
Matt: Bear in mind that all of those conversation are tracked in a single location, so you are only ever 1 click away from each one. What the system will also do is tell you who your neighbours are, and so therefore point out to you that they are commenting on the four different blogs that you’re commenting on, and therefore you should possibly connect to them. What coComment cannot do is take the user away from the site. So while you can’t bring the conversations together, what you can do is view them all in the same location so that it becomes much easier.
Farhad: That’s good because it does take the pain away to a great degree.
Now let’s talk a little bit now about the reason we actually got in touch in the first place. A post that we published in mid-January talked about the Government of India’s plans to regulate blogging and whether that was a good idea. Also, in recent times we have had a lot of different stories come up in the news from countries like Russia, China and Iraq where people do not enjoy freedom of speech as we do. People in these countries use blogs to voice their opinions and use search engines like Google to find information.
In countries like Iraq where people are not typically connected, even now, to the World Wide Web, and the newspapers are controlled by the government or the dictatorships, people use blogs and the Internet in general to voice opinions that otherwise would never be heard.
How is coComment changing that, or making it easier to give a voice to individuals from the various parts of the world where normally one would never have heard their opinions?
Matt: Firstly the biggest one, probably, is access to a larger audience. What could have been a small cry lost in the wilderness could now be heard by millions if what the individual was saying was relevant.
There is also the bigger issue of freedom of speech. What people who oppose that individual’s freedom of speech tend to use as defence is the disruption created and the impact on other individuals. What we’re doing here is saying “let’s turn things round a little bit.” What we say to people is “let us not impinge on what people want to say,” we say this to publishers, brand owners and corporations as well, “because if the users don’t say it here, they will say it somewhere else, and you may never know about it.”
Rather than censoring on behalf of individuals, we let the other individuals react and take the first person down. We should treat bloggers and their visitors as adult. Users then think about the social consequences of saying something and that makes each user choose what they do or not say. This is a far, far better solution than trying to get an employee or officer or a censor board to moderate on behalf of individuals.
I think we support the freedom of the individual to say what they want and we also support the freedom of the reader to choose what to read.
Farhad: Just playing the devil’s advocate here, one could make the argument that a system like yours could also work very well for those who want to stifle freedom of speech.
Instead of having to monitor a hundred thousand different venues where a person or a dissident could go and speak. Now all they need to do is to come to one place and monitor all the conversations. In some ways, this system is making it easier for dictatorships or governmental regimes who do not advocate freedom of speech and try to thwart it.
It becomes so much easier for the government of China or a dictator or a Communist President to pinpoint who the particular dissident is and where they are voicing those opinions and shut them down by whatever means. And what’s worse is that the means these guys use tend to be a lot more drastic than just banning conversations or user profile or giving them lower trust ranks.
What would your response be to that sort of a counter argument, I mean, it is making things easier, isn’t it?
Matt: We did not make things easier. To be honest with you we do not do anything that could not already be done. We just present conversations in a way that benefit the end user. We have not built anything that can be employed by people who want to abuse freedom of speech to do something they cannot already do.
Farhad: Yes absolutely, you are right there. You have not made it possible, but you have made it easier
Matt: Well we have made it slightly, but bear in mind we certainly mitigated the very small potential for misuse because we don’t require the users to tell us who they are, we don’t require them to be registered for three days and can use the guest id for that period, but also we don’t assume any ownership of the content; The content either belongs to the site that hosts it or to the end user, and what that means is that we believe the content is the user’s content and we will protect their rights to it, and to do whatever they need to with it without heed to any kind of oppressive government.
Farhad: Alright, could you tell me a little bit more about the data privacy aspect. You touched upon this yourself when you said that users don’t need to identify themselves on your website but very often most other websites do require users to identify themselves before they start placing comments also most comment systems will very easily track the IP Address etcetera. So is there some way that users could use the coComment system to hide their identities?
Matt: I wouldn’t say they can actively use it to hide because obviously they’re still commenting on the site and not on coComment. They can essentially use something called meta conversations where the person can write a comment on any website anywhere in the world and it looks like it’s on the site, but actually it is hosted on coComment. Now if they do that those conversations can be public or private. If it’s public, any other coCommenter can see it. If it is private, only the people that you select will see it.
Farhad: When people can see your comments, though, would they also be able to run a backwards check or who is and figure out where you are coming from?
Matt: The point is, that they won’t even see the conversation unless you’ve chosen to let them see it. They won’t even know the conversation is there.
Farhad: But you see, at times with people who want to voice their opinions, they want to share their views but not necessarily be found. Someone who is against the Russian Premier right now, or against the Iraqi government, would want everybody else to hear what his thoughts are but still not necessarily be want to be found.
Matt: In which case this would be perfect. They would set up the system to make the comments public to coComment, make that available to a limited audience, such that those people who are interested get notified and then select whom they want to allow to participate.
Farhad: It would be interesting to know how many people are aware of such things in the third world, and can use it. And with knowledge of such a system whether countries like India and China would even be having debates about regulating blogs because they would then realise that they can’t do much, since there is always going to be a way around it.
Matt: Yes, it is quite a neat way around it, because even though the content appears to be sitting on the site, to end users and the search engines, it is actually sitting on our servers and getting sent direct to the end users.
Farhad: I now have just two last questions – what is the future going to hold for coComment and what do you think is the future of blogging, conversations and social networking online? Which way are we headed? Which way are you guys headed? And which way is the entire blogosphere and the Internet headed, in your opinion?
Matt: Our opinion is that the whole aspect of commenting or conversations is going to become bigger, because essentially Web 2.0 is about interaction, people interacting online is becoming ubiquitous – even my 70-year old mother is going onto website and commenting rather than writing letters. This space is absolutely exploding, and rightly so, because what it does is it enables people to find out more information, to say what they think about it and defend there views publicly in front of thousands, in a way that was never possible before. That can only be a good thing.
Farhad: Well, it has been very interesting talking to you. I think the conversation has touched upon some very interesting topics. For us here it does not seem as much of a minefield as it does out in the East right now. We take this freedom for granted. I would have been shocked if the UK government or the US or Canadian government ever even considered regulating blogs or any other form of social networking, but there are people out there who see blogging as the only venue to air their views. I hope that this right is never taken away from them.
Screenshot of a coComment user profile