Knight-Mozilla Initiative: Challenge 2 – Beyond Comment Threads

Over the next few weeks, the Knight Foundation and Mozilla are running a series of news innovation challenges. The goal: get the world’s smartest hackers, designers, and tech-savvy journalists thinking about how news organizations can harness the open web.

We announced the first challenge a few weeks back. It was all about “Unlocking Video“ — bringing the best qualities of the web to the staid medium of news video.

Today, submissions are open for the next news innovation challenge. The topic: ‘Beyond Comment Threads‘. This is a chance to show off your best ideas about how to create more dynamic spaces for online news discussion. You could end up with a paid fellowship to work on this problem inside Al Jazeera, the BBC,, the Guardian, or Zeit Online.

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Beyond Comment Threads

One of the best things about the web is that it enables new voices to be heard. Blogs, forums, comment threads, and social networks like Twitter empower people to take part in new kinds of discussion, dialogue, and debate.

But if you take a look below the fold — The best discussions around the web can be pretty isolated. Take comments, tweets, and other fragments out of their original context, and they can become meaningless or lost in the clutter. Also, comment threads all over the web – including CNN, political blogs, and YouTube — you’ll often find that the loudest, most irrational, most hateful voices drown everyone else out.

At the same time, media is moving beyond the traditional “news story” as the only unit for commenting and interaction, stretching to include narrative arcs of multiple stories over periods of time, “explainers” that provide background knowledge for strings of stories, “streams” that include initial reports followed by updates and corrections, and more.

With all that activity happening across the web, how do we enable more coherent, elevated discussion? How can news organizations improve the signal-to-noise ratio in public news commentary?

What technologies would you use to make two-way news discussion better? The best challenge entries will go beyond technology, and tackle some deeper questions.

Questions like:

  • What is the role of anonymity in online discussion?
  • Would persistent identity lead to more civil debate, or discourage unpopular positions?
  • To what degree is political polarization “part of human nature?”
  • What are the dangers of filtering and crowd control?
  • Where have moderated threads succeeded, and can those concepts scale?

“We do a good job getting people to comment on things like the royal wedding,” says Amanda Hickman of DocumentCloud. “But we all have insights on things like how our city works or where our food comes from. News could be doing more to get audiences weighing in on real policy issues.”

Eric Schoenborn, community manager at the Knight Foundation, elaborates: “We need to get online discussion past the lowest common denominator. We need a way to get people who actually care about democracy engaging online.”

How to Enter

To enter, simply submit a rough idea or napkin sketch. You can do this however you see fit. For this first stage, we’re interested in learning how you would tackle the problem. We can work together to advance your ideas.

For some inspiration, check out the full challenge brief, which includes links to some interesting ideas and technologies.

Winners of the first round go on to build prototypes, attend a news innovation workshop in Berlin, and may even take on a one-year paid fellowship to build their apps.

You have until May 22nd at 11:59 ET (GMT -5) to make your submission. Good luck!