The Rise of Disqus – Is Social Media Commenting a Natural Monopoly?

Seeing as how I haven’t posted anything all that serious in a while, I decided to give this blog a bit more legitimacy by talking about something relevant instead of vikings or zombie shows. Don’t worry though, there will be plenty more of that in the future.

Without a doubt more and more people are heading online to get their news. According to Pew half of the country now gets their news digitally, but you hardly need their survey to notice the rise and growth (and eventual acquisition) of sites like Huffington Post, or the rise of online programming from already-established cable news networks, or that every local anchorperson, journalist, and meteorologist is on Twitter. Less visible are the communities that flock to digital news for social interaction.

Many, if not nearly all news sites have at least a forum to discuss the stories of the day, most will allow comments directly underneath a posted story. These comments allow an immediate response to breaking news, a chance of rebuttal to any opinion story, and, more importantly, a formation of news communities. Many news sites use their own internal commenting system and therefore have their own internal communities, others will allow users to login with other accounts like their Yahoo or Facebook profiles, yet for news sites and blogs using a third-party commenting system there’s a diversity drop-off. According to a 2011 study by Lijit, the commenting platform Disqus controls 75% of that market, destroying its competitors Livefyre and Echo. Disqus is now used on such prominent news sites as CNN, The Atlantic, Wired, Abrams Media, NPR, and the Onion’s A.V. Club to just name a few.

Disqus’s success, or the rise of third-party commenting platforms in general, might best be explained as a natural monopoly. People going to a variety of news sites would be burdened if they had to register on a different platform every time they wanted to comment. The more diffusion of Disqus, both by publishers and consumers, the more economies of scale are created and a trajectory established. Third-party commenting also allows users to visit a variety of sites for a variety of news while staying within the same social community. In this sense the online community shifts from being periodical or site-centric to being interest-centric, however subtle that shift may be. The community forms around the platform, pulling stories of interest from the web and creating a conglomeration of social news media.

Perhaps the biggest competition facing third-party commenting platforms are not sites that cling to an internal commenting system, but already entrenched social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. Disqus has made efforts to mitigate this competition by allowing users to integrate their account with their Twitter or Facebook or link to comments directly from either platform. Yet there is an elephant in the forum, one that persistently lifts its trunk to separate news commenting from social media, and that elephant’s name is anonymous.

Facebook and Twitter, while certainly allowing for discussion and commentary, are first and foremost self-branding platforms. Facebook began as strictly non-anonymous, being used solely by universities and their enrolled students. While that has certainly changed as businesses, organizations, and a whole slew of fictional characters now have Facebook pages, a core culture of non-anonymity prevails. Twitter shares that culture, thriving off non-anonymous easily-identifiable people whose Twitter popularity and fame follows their real-world exposure instead of vice versa.

Social news media follows different rules. Whereas Facebook and Twitter serve as self-branding tools, news comment sections are about exchanging ideas (even if such exchanges lead to extreme vitriol). These discussions see people using aliases or are outright anonymous, yet Disqus, like other platforms, allows people to follow other commentators and rate their comments. The Huffington Post perhaps does the most to promote this type of anonymous social media with a fairly detailed hierarchy of titles and badges commentators can earn. However, there is still that anonymity gap separating news media commentary and self-branding social media, and it has its effects.

One survey shows that people who comment through Facebook tend to make better comments and get more referrals. The author explained it as the lack of anonymity making people more thoughtful and less “troll”-like. However, Disqus also claims that people using pseudonyms leave better comments than those logged in with a Facebook account. While it’s best not to put too much weight on either study as the basic premise is already somewhat subjective, both are not mutually exclusive. When commenting on news stories (often political) people feel the need to separate topics that cause controversy from their online image. In other words, people are good at self-branding and news commentary poses too much a risk to either employment or social acceptance. Comments made through Facebook might be more thought-out and more reserved, while comments made through a social news community may be more relevant and more informed in the context of news discussions.

While most barriers to digital technology integration are artificial such as incompatibility, social news media is segregated from their non-anonymous counterparts through a natural social response. Third party commenting platforms like Disqus take advantage of the inability of more traditional social media to capture news discussion markets and serves to explain why online publishers have flocked to a larger and more anonymous social news community platform.

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