Learning about comments from an ancient source

If we want to understand the principles at work within the user-driven, blog-centric information explosion of the last several years, we would do well to take a quick history lesson.  The main dynamics that are at work are all visible in the make-up of the Talmud.

Talmud page color coded
Source: Dickinson College

Arguably, the longest-running cycle of comments in Western Civilization is represented by Talmudic scholarship; the Talmud itself being a collection of comments on comments, which today still spurs additional comments!  (The Talmud page shown above is color-coded to show which parts were added as commentary on previous parts; altogether, the page has contributions from the 3rd, 6th, 11th, 12th, 13th and 16th centuries.)

The key features of this are all present in the commenting landscape today: controversial issues frequently are discussed (the ancient Talmud even debates birth control methods!); a diversity of counter opinion arises in reaction to an original opinion; and often there is no clear consensus in the end, but rather the trajectory of comments seems to fork in several directions, all of which have no foreseeable end.  Sound familiar?

But what is different with Talmudic commentary is that we see a carefully selected batch of well-established, and incredibly learned rabbis — not the riffraff crowds.  It’s a rather elite batch of commenters, and that’s why it makes for worthy reading.  If you were to let everybody and their sister chime in, the result would hardly be something worthy of post-graduate study.

That seems to be the point of many organizations that have recently turned off comments.  But instead of going Talmudic — calling up the best stuff from the best commenters — they just turned it off entirely.  Such a drastic reaction seems like throwing the baby out with the bathwater.  Rarely do publishers give their audiences an explanation when they are chucking their entire user commenting apparatus, though the Popular Science website was a notable exception.

How do we do better?  If the Talmud is any guide, then the answer is curation.  At every level, the Talmud was curated by qualified editors.  Even the original reference material on which the oldest passages are based — the Hebrew Bible itself — was curated by sages of earlier centuries.

With today’s giant commenting platforms (e.g., Disqus, Livefyre, Facebook Social Plug-In), we are seeing a range of different strategies on curation, ranging from human monitoring to crowd-based curation (upvotes/downvotes) to no curation at all.  In an upcoming post, we’ll examine how these various methods stack up.

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