Imagine the scenario: They Who Must Be Obeyed want feedback on the new report they’re publishing next week. It’s a dozen or so pages long with fairly basic formatting (yes, I do indeed live in a dream world). Let’s assume for now that they genuinely do want feedback, and want it fast and cheap. The question is therefore how best to publish this document online for comment.
Image credit: Matthew Oliphant
The conventional approach would be to turn it into a PDF, upload it to the corporate site linked from a page with some details on how to send in comments by email. Maybe whip together a feedback form or a quick SurveyMonkey questionnaire. In most cases, this is probably a good idea anyway, providing a long term record, a printable version and a baseline of information in accessible form (you tag your PDFs, don’t you?). But with social media tools, we can do better.
An interesting call with Colin McKay got me thinking about some of the different tools available which I thought I’d write up here:
1. WordPress + Commentpress
Examples: Innovation Nation: Interactive, Open Rights Group internal consultation on legislative options to address illicit P2P file-sharing
Pros: cheap, can do in-house on your own servers running WordPress, nice functionality
Cons: a big WordPress hack, can be slow on large documents, not fully accessible, can require some CSS fiddling to make it look presentable, hard to ‘close’ commenting
A typical blog category page lists all the posts in that category in reverse chronological order, right? And each post has its own comments? So: if you want to make each paragraph or section commentable, just upload it as a post in the appropriate chapter, working backwards from the end of the document. That’s the brilliantly simple approach Ofcom took to their recent consultations, based on the Typepad hosted blogging platform.
Pros: simple, no fancy themes needed, accessible, can do on any blogging platform
Cons: laborious to set up, marginally more effort for readers to leave comments
Example: generic text example at Co-ment.net
Co-ment is an interesting open-source and hosted tool which offers an experience more like tracked changes online. Upload your document and set up the preferences, and then readers can select and comment on the exact words and phrases they choose.
Pros: sophisticated, embeddable on your own site
Cons: rather minimalist aesthetic, self-hosted option not for the feint-hearted, not fully accessible
Example: information risk assessment template
If speed is of the essence, the formatting is complicated and document-level commenting is fine, Scribd offers Slideshare-like functionality, turning a PDF or Office document into a rich Flash box, complete with zoom, search and comments.
Pros: sophisticated, quick, embeddable on your own site, can deal with tricky document layouts
Cons: not fully accessible, externally hosted
Finally, of course you could post the text so it is not only commentable but editable too. Probably only suitable for certain documents, your wiki may allow you to lock the original text but allow discussion of it within the ‘Comment’ or ‘Discuss’ tab which sits behind the editable page itself. Google Docs allows you and your invited collaborators to add Word-style yellow comments to the document, giving you some of the benefits of Tracked Changes but without the multiple versions headaches.
Pros: potentially cheap, flexible, good for a trusted group, possibly embeddable on your own site
Cons: harder for readers to use, may require logins, if the text is editable then becomes harder to moderate and manage
What other ways can you think of for making documents commentable online? Let me know in the comments.
UPDATE: 1 Feb ’09: I’ve added a sixth way – using a customised WordPress theme – described over here.