Google Discovers Comments, But Commenters Can't Yet Discover Google

Tuesday's unveiling by Google of another beta feature for its Google News service has sparked a new round of ethical discussions whose tone harks back to the 1950s and '60s, when TV broadcasters debated the ethics and phraseology of the FCC's Fairness Doctrine. One of the purposes of that document was to compel broadcasters to offer free air time to parties seeking to rebut viewpoints or challenges made against them by their programs.

The initial round of Google News' comments will be limited in such a way as to give only the parties mentioned in an article whose headline is posted on Google News, an opportunity to respond using Google's space.

As Google's Dan Meredith and Andy Golding wrote for their company blog on Tuesday, "From bloggers to mainstream journalists, the journalists who help create the news we read every day occupy a critical place in the information age. But we're hoping that by adding this feature, we can help enhance the news experience for readers, testing the hypothesis that - whether they're penguin researchers or presidential candidates - a personal view can sometimes add a whole new dimension to the story."

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Of course, that hypothesis was first tested three decades ago on a service called Usenet, with what many observers would say were successful results.

But as this Google News topic discovered by TechCrunch's Michael Arrington demonstrates, the early adopters for Google's "whole new dimension" appear to be representatives of companies mentioned in a story who aren't always certain the picture that story paints of their company is copacetic...or, in this case, digestible.

Arrington's example appeared in a blog post citing Techmeme's Gabe Rivera, who dissected the new comments section's source code only to discover it contains "opt-out" instructions that prevent aggregators from indexing them, so that they appear in their own sites. In other words, Google News wants to be the single source of comments generated on its site, while at the same time it aggregates news stories with comments that appear on their own respective sites.

There are already Web sites (perhaps you've read one or two of them yourself) whose primary service is hosting commentary about stories that appear elsewhere. On Digg.com, for instance, a small discussion has begun about this blog post from AMediaCirc.us, which stops just short of praising Google for having invented the concept of responding to online articles.

While any individual can't yet respond to any story (say, from The New York Times or BetaNews) on Google News just yet, the ability to do so is what Google has in mind. As Meredith and Golding wrote, "Our long-term vision is that any participant will be able to send in their comments, and we'll show them next to the articles about the story. Comments will be published in full, without any edits, but marked as 'comments' so readers know it's the individual's perspective, rather than part of a journalist's report."

That description, if it's accurate, points to the likelihood of a future system where a linked story appears in one frame, and Google News' original content appears in another - not unlike Google Video Search today. There, one might also find links to others' stories...and perhaps a few ads.

It's a poorly kept secret in the online news business: Google News is responsible for a surprisingly large chunk of many news sites' page views. For many sites whose stories generate tens of thousands of independent reads per day, more readers find a story through Google News than from its originating site's own home page.

To some extent today, online readers are more interested in the news itself than in who's reporting it - which is dramatically different than the situation for cable TV news, whose viewers are often more interested in who's purporting to bring the news than in the quality of its content.

But does this new situation absolve a news publisher from the responsibility of providing its own outlets for commentary? While it's nice that Google may have discovered (or, in the minds of some, invented) civic responsibility, the question arises of how far it should go to assume the responsibilities of journalists' publications and blogs.

That question was posed - albeit meekly - by The Wall Street Journal this morning to media consultant Jeff Jarvis, who responded, "What's really a shame is news organizations have not made this effort long ago and waited for yet another disruptive move by an online company."

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