The community blog

What I want to see in Medium.com — discussion in situ!

In May 2016 I had a bicycle accident, and was incapacitated for a few days. I used the opportunity to start working a long-planned biography, describing the fairly exciting life I have led, telling people about the interesting subjects I have dealt with. The way to do that today is not flat-out write things chronologically, but to do it bit by bit, write about different things whenever they occur to you. On any of a vast variety of subjects. My son Tommy set me up in Medium.com — a process that took just a couple of minutes. The genesis of the project and the stories I have told are described here (with a full index). I have just counted: since 2016 I have, in my free time, posted 160 articles in The Friedel Chronicles.

Medium has served me well, but there are a few things that can be improved — things that would add new functionality to this excellent service. First let me tell you what brought it up.

At some stage I notice that people can highlight passages in my stories. Take for instance my article on how to quit smoking. Reader Ji Han Hong found many things in it that he considered noteworthy and highlighted them, giving them a green background. Doesn’t that ruin the visual appearance of the page?

Then I discovered, to my intense relief, that only I could see Han Hong’s highlighting — because I am the author of that article. Apparently highlights become visible to other readers only if a certain number of people have highlighted the same passages. That is clever and acceptable. Especially since the commenter can leave a note to tell me why the word or passage was highlighted. This is only visible to the author of the article.

So why not go further and allow people to highlight passages post comments for the general public? This is what was planned in a project I started over a decade ago: to create a communicative blog site. We worked out most of the details, but never got around to actually building it. I was too involved in running my software company and editing the news page there.

One reason why the blog project did not materialize was that is it very hard and very time-consuming to make a truly user-friendly editor, one that it is a pleasure to use and produces clean, elegant output. Wait a minute, someone has done exactly that: Medium.com! It is pretty much what we had in mind — except for an additional function which I will now describe.

First of all, readers should be able to highlight a word or passage and type in a comment (in articles that permit comments). After that the highlighted text becomes a link, with a very subtle colour, e.g. it becomes slightly greenish or gets a very light green background. The next reader can click on the link and sees the commentary, in a pop-up window. He or she can also highlight a word or passage in the comment, and add remarks, in the same way to that. This can lead to a scrollable dialogue, and makes it particularly easy for an author to directly answer questions posed by readers.

Crowd evaluation

Now come the second important part we designed: when you click on a link and see a comment you get back to the article not by pressing Esc or tapping outside the comment window, but by clicking or tapping on one of the five stars that are shown below the text (we were thinking of using smilies, which at the time had started to become popular). This is an evaluation of the comment. If it was interesting or informative you gave it five stars, if it was junk just one (or click on a frownie). In the first case that would cause the link in the text to become more and more conspicuous, depending on the number of approval taps, in the second case the link would become less and less obvious — until many negative clicks would cause the comment to be eliminated completely.

How is all this better than the normal reader comments? These are usually at the bottom of the page, and often require you to quote a section you want to address. Someone reacting to your comment has to quote it as well (“Reader xxx said “….”), since he may be many comments remote for what he is answering. My commentary method tells you exactly what is being addressed, and can be read in situ — in the location that is being addressed.

I will not go through all the functions we designed, I will just give you an example of what the present system requires me to do. Two years ago I wrote an article entitled Rain forests — lungs of the Earth? In it I described my discussion with a forest scientist and in conclusion wrote:

Are the hundred billion tons of carbon stored by the rain forests being basically recycled and renewed, while doing little for the overall carbon balance of the earth? This was my genuine question to Heinz, who was visibly distressed. I could not resist turning the screw a little further: “It seems to me that if we really wanted to extract substantial amounts of carbon from the atmosphere, the best strategy would be to chop down all the rainforests and bury the wood and foliage. New trees would grow and capture hundreds of billions of tons of new carbon, from the atmosphere?!”

To this I got into a discussion with a student of ecology, which I summarized in an add-on passage in the article:

Addendum: A friendly young ecology student, Emma, drew my attention to the fact that “burying” the wood would not achieve much, if anything. “Bacteria and fungi are present everywhere, and unless you enclosed all of that organic matter in an airtight container, nature would take its course and break it down.” You are right, Emma, but I meant exactly that by “bury” — not store it in the soil but in anaerobic caverns, where it could turn into oil and coal and stay permanently stored. The earth has been doing this for hundreds of millions of years.

This led to further exchanges by participants of our email discussion. It would have been so much more appropriate to conduct that in public.

Emma could have highlighted the sentence “…chop down all the rainforests and bury the wood and foliage” and added her thoughts, to which I would have answered in the same way, creating a commentary chain. People could have added comments to what Emma had said, or to my reply. And everything would be linked to the appropriate passage in my original text, scrollable, in a pop-up window. No need for anyone to re-summarize what was being discussed. And it would all be happening exactly in the place where the discussion originated.

I do not expect that Medium will say: “Great idea, Fred, we will be implementing this in our CMS. Expect it by August.” And my son Martin advised me to snoop around the Internet to see if, as is always the case, this is being used in a community blog already.

But I had to get it off my chess, and have now at least done that.

Written by

Frederic Alois Friedel, born in 1945, science journalist, co-founder of ChessBase, studied Philosophy and Linguistics at the University of Hamburg and Oxford.

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