If you’ve visited the site in the last week or so, you may have noticed that I’m experimenting with Campfire as a replacement for comments. This is a quick retrospective about how it’s gone.

The Campfire experiment is now well underway, and while it’s had its ups and downs, I’m pretty optimistic. So with one week down, it’s time for the retrospective. Overall, it has potential, but it’s going to take some work to really get it going.

In Theory

I initially hoped that just as the redesign would enable better content, a more immediate and open forum would enable better discussion. For the most part that has been true–when people are present. However, the most frequent scenario is that people check-in and check-out. Unfortunately, given my modest amount of traffic, there just isn’t a large enough audience to sustain a conversation for long. So it’s good when it happens, but it doesn’t happen frequently enough

One of the biggest benefits so far is that I don’t have to worry about spam. That may change in the future, but for now that’s a pretty attractive feature of using Campfire. My disdain for spam has grown exponentially in the last year, and this was a very significant reason for opening the redesign without comments.

In Practice

Given that Campfire isn’t really built specifically to replace comments, there are a couple of drawbacks to accept. The first is that the archives aren’t viewable by guests, so the dialogue lacks the visible permanence that traditional comments provide. This is unfortunate, but I do feel it’s acceptable for the time being. I can easily add comments later to compliment Campfire and solve this problem to a certain extent.

The other challenge is the lack of any presence indicators on the site. Without following the link, there’s no way to know whether or not anybody else is around. This can make people turn away before really giving it a chance, and that’s no good.

While basic comments don’t imply any immediacy of responses, the use of a chat room lends itself to both an assumption that I’m in the room and also that I’ll respond quickly if I am around.

The final issue is that It can be distracting. While basic comments don’t imply any immediacy of responses, the use of a chat room lends itself to both an assumption that I’m in the room and also that I’ll respond quickly if I am around. As much as I’d like to be around all of the time, it’s just not feasible for me to do that. Ideally, I wouldn’t need to be present for a conversation or exchange of ideas to take place, but I haven’t done a good job communicating that.

So What’s Next?

Going forward, we’ll probably see a mix of comments and Campfire, but for the time being, I’d like to stay focused on Campfire and see if I can make it work. So, for the short term, I thought I’d put together a list of ideas and encouragement to help make it more useful.

  1. Real names help. If you stop by, please use your real name and a last initial at a minimum. Unlike comments, we don’t have URL’s or e-mail addresses to distinguish and know who is who, so this helps everyone.
  2. Stick around. If you stop in, give it a few minutes before taking off. This just makes it more likely that paths will cross. Most visitors to the site share a very focused set of interests, and it’s likely you’ll find good discussion with anyone who stops by.
  3. Speak up. Even if nobody is around, and you have some thoughts, leave them along with any contact information if you’re interested in hearing back. I still see all of the archives, so it won’t go unnoticed.
  4. Talk amongst yourselves. Please don’t feel like I need to be in the room for discussion to happen. Everyone is here because of a fairly focused set of interests. Go ahead and talk.

In the meantime, I’ll make some updates to make the link to the room more prominent and hopefully draw in more participants. I’m also exploring a way to only have the room open during the few hours after a post is published. I think the combination of those two aspects will help ensure that when you see the link, it’s a safe bet there’s some conversation going on.

I think there’s a lot of potential here, but it will definitely take a little participation by everyone. If it doesn’t work out, that’s fine too, but I want to make sure it gets a fighting chance. So what are you waiting for? Come on in!