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Introducing Commentariat & the POI Taskforce Report

commentariat - WP theme

I’ve written before about the perennial problem of publishing documents online for comment. The solutions either seem to be clunky, laborious to setup or use, or problematically inaccessible to users without Javascript.

The problem remains, but there’s an extra option now, in the shape of Commentariat, a customised WordPress theme we’ve developed at DIUS and been using for a couple of months now on an internal project and which we’re making freely available for anyone to use and adapt. I’ve also been helping the Power of Information Taskforce to implement it as part of the publication of their new Report.

What’s it do? Rather than make every single paragraph commentable as CommentPress (sadly still offline) does, Commentariat is about meaningful chunks and sections.

  • You define a commentable chunk within a section (in WordPress terms, a post within a category)
  • Chunks within a section have ‘Next’ and ‘Previous’ buttons linking them together, plus a drop down menu at the top powered by the Drop Down Post List plugin, to make it easy to get between pages
  • The comment form is to the side, rather than at the bottom, and floats (in modern browsers) so it’s easily accessible at all times. Comments are listed at the bottom in the conventional way
  • The footer contains RSS feeds for comments on the chunk itself, all comments and all chunk content, making it easier for readers to keep track of the discussion or even grab chunks of the document to mashup in new ways. I’d recommend the excellent Subscribe to Comments plugin so commenters can get email alerts of new comments added to the thread
  • There’s a print stylesheet to make the content print in a plain, simple way; and for geek appeal, it seems to work more or less OK on an iPhone

I think this is a small step forward from CommentPress and CoComment in terms of accessibility, Javascript independence and browser compatibility. It’s also marginally less laborious and slightly more purpose-built than the approach Ofcom took to their commentable consultations. And hopefully its muted style is slightly more pleasing to aesthetes than tools like CommentOnThis. WordPress gurus will spot plenty of holes – not least the rather squiffy way RSS is used to display post comments – as always, I’m grateful for ideas and feedback.

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34 Comments

  1. This is a great piece of work, Steph. I’ve just been through the document, every single chunk, and commented liberally… and that’s the first time I’ve ever done that. Which says something in itself.

    Of course, I’m chuffed to see it done in WordPress again. It just underlines why I’m so evangelical about the product: it’s the fact that it lets people like you do stuff like that.

    It’d be great to see the theme offered ‘properly’ on wordpress.org – and for you, and HM Government, to take credit for it. Practising what we’re preaching… who’d have thought it? :)

  2. This is lovely – as you say, a real step forward from the Ofcom hosted Typepad approach. Great work.

    Now, all that needs to happen is for wordpress to offer a decent customisable hosting service for £10 a month…

  3. Nice job Steph.

    We liked CommentPress idea so much we built (nearly complete) a .NET version CommentPress, pluggable to most .NET CMS (drag and drop). Nearly RTM, currently testing with 10,000+ pages on 10 sites running from single db.

  4. Definite thanks from here too. I’d like more navigation at the bottom of pages as I tend to scroll right down and read others comments and then leave my own then want to move on to next section.

  5. @Tom L: Oooh, good spot. I do rather like Dreamhost (the people who host this blog) even if they’re a shady, too-good-to-be-true Californian outfit. Reliability isn’t bad, control panel is the best I’ve used and customer support is friendly, effective and helpful.

  6. I love the theme and would like to use it for a document we have – is the theme 2.6 compatible? Unfortunately I can’t get 2.7 to install through our IT admin at the moment but can get 2.6. I’ve had a quick look at Commentariat on 2.6 but the comment form does no appear – can’t see an obvious reason why and wonder if this is a symptom of it not being 2.6 compatible.

  7. @Gardner: should work with 2.7 and 2.7.1 (I’ve used both with the theme recently). By all means send me a URL to take a look at via the contact form on this site.

  8. @Steph: I’m clearly doing something wrong on my end. I keep getting this error when I click either on a chunk comment link or on a “read more” link:

    Fatal error: Call to undefined function ddpl_list() in /home1/gardnerc/public_html/texasfdn/wp-content/themes/commentariat/index.php on line 20

  9. Historien om gardiner. Her er informationerne om gardiner. Gardiner har en store betydning for vores dagligdag. Hvor meget kender vi til gardiner som vi dagligt bruger. Vi bliv nysgerrig over udvikling af historien om gardiner i tidernes l

  10. Nah, it’s just a plugin. You activate it and fill out some options If you know your LDAP / Active Directory details, it’s pretty straightforward. I’ve found that LDAP plugins for different software can use different terminology, which is the most confusing thing, but once you get over that, there’s not much to it. Mail me if you run into any problems. I might be able to help. (Any chance of you using the Subscribe to Comments plugin on here? A useful way of staying in the conversation).

    This comment was originally posted on Puffbox.com

  11. Lovely work, and very nice of you to still credit us for an original concept you’ve taken so much further since. I’m impressed by the 500 comments on the poverty consultation – that’s a phenomenal response, and I’d be interested to know how that was promoted.

    The other big challenge for consultations is the ‘workflow’ aspect from designed-for-print document to living web version. Your great platform takes away some of the interface development work for future exercises, but the cut and paste work remains. Can there ever be a way to avoid that?

    This comment was originally posted on Puffbox.com

  12. Steph,

    I’ve been testing (and will continue to do so) XML-RPC clients for desktop publishing to WordPress. Quite successful. Copy an entire document from Word2007 in one go, paste into MS Live Writer (free to download/use) and publish to WordPress:
    http://remotepub.jiscpress.org/2009/08/07/jisc-strategy-ms-live-writer-with-tables-copy-and-paste-from-word-2007/

    Ignore the headings and the table mess on the site. It’s a bug in the DigressIt plugin/theme. Otherwise, it very clean and accurate. Getting there. Now you just need to dump IE 6 and install MS Live Writer

    I’m documenting my tests for the JISCPress project here:
    http://code.google.com/p/jiscpress/wiki/RemotePublishing

    It’ll be all wrapped up by end of November.

    This comment was originally posted on Puffbox.com

  13. By popular demand, the ’subscribe to comments’ plugin is hereby restored. I had a few problems with it previously, but I think that was prior to some server reconfiguration.

    This comment was originally posted on Puffbox.com

  14. @Steph I’m more than happy to keep the Commentariat hat-tip in place. I’ve always felt Commentariat’s major contribution to The Cause wasn’t so much its functionality, but the fact that it happened, and how it happened. So I think it’s a good thing for people to see the trail of innovation, from your work into mine, and onwards. And all because it was open-sourced in the first place.

    This comment was originally posted on Puffbox.com

  15. To add a few points to answer @Steph’s question, the consultation you mention, which was the first time we in DFID had used this framework to invite people to comment online, was publicised widely among the community of people interested in international development. It was part of an approach which included a series of formal events around the UK and in some countries where we work and regular mentions in all our other communication channels – especially via a feature on the home page of the main website.

    We had good anecdotal evidence from participants at live events that they valued this channel in particular becasue it meant they had thinking time and could revisit the questions we were asking, and answer them in their own time. Others said they liked the idea of an alternative forum to the slightly intimidating environment of a meeting room with lots of "experts".

    One follow up that I am very pleased the team who were working on this initiative put together, was a summary of all the responses they received – from all channels, that they then published openly. This will I hope demonstrate to people that they were listened to (I think always potentially a challenge when governments consult). This document can be found at http://www.dfid.gov.uk/Documents/whitepaper/White-Paper-Public-Consultation-Summary.pdf

    Finally – a huge vote of thanks to Simon for the additional work he has put in to develop this framework so that we now have something flexible and re-usable. I hope it will encourage colleagues across the organisation to see that this form of open interactive consultation is something that adds value to their work when they want to canvas opinion from a wide audience, and will request it as a matter of course. And of course, echo the thought that in the long run this is a cost effective way for the department to run them (while sympathising with the sentiment that he has in fact done himself out of any more work in this particular area!).

    This comment was originally posted on Puffbox.com

    • Jon

      They’re quite different beasts really – in fact the most recently CommentPress release comes as a plugin rather than a theme.

      If you want detailed feedback on a document, I’d suggest CommentPress. If you need flexibility/simplicity and only have a short and fairly simple document you want discussion around, try Commentariat.

      But in answer to your question, no, I’ve not tried :-)