Third Party Comment Systems Go Mainstream

Last summer, I got an email from Paul Graham saying that one of the Y Combinator teams wanted to launch something on this blog. It was a third party comment system called Disqus. I love getting my hands on new technology, particularly new social media technology, so I said yes without thinking through all the implications.

The Disqus founders, Daniel and Jason, did the work for me and the next day this blog had a new comment system. It took a while for me to get used to it and it took even longer for the readers of this blog to get used to it. But in time I came to realize that using a different web service to host my comments made a lot of sense.

And in March of last year, our firm made an investment in Disqus, about 7 months after they launched at YC demo day and after they’d convinced thousands of bloggers to make the switch. As I explained in that post last March announcing our investment:

Disqus “abstracts” both the comments and the commenters from the blog hosting system. This allows the comments to go anywhere and everywhere where there
is an audience for them. Abstracting comments from the blog hosting
platform does for comments what RSS has done for content; it allows the
comments to flow freely to whatever place it should most logically be
consumed.

I should have said "third party comment systems abstract the comments and the commenters from the blog hosting system."  Because by the time we made the investment in disqus, there were a number of third party comment systems in the market; disqus, intense debate, js-kit, and sezwho are the ones I’ve heard most about. You can see the development of the third party comment system market on this compete graph.

I would venture to guess that between 50,000 and 100,000 blogs are using third party comment systems now and they are concentrated in the top end of the market. Clearly third party comment systems are creating value for bloggers and commenters alike.

Yesterday was a big day for the third party comment system market as WordPress, the top blogging service, announced they had acquired Intense Debate, the number two player in the market according to the compete graph above.

This is great news for everyone in the market. WordPress will invest in and improve Intense Debate, which will remain a third party service that can be used on all the popular blogging services (Six Apart, Blogger, etc). And WordPress will incorporate some of the most popular features of Intense Debate into the default WordPress comment service. The feature that wordpress bloggers who have not converted to a third party service will enjoy the most is the email reply to comments service. I asked Daniel and Jason to build that the first day I met them. It’s a huge part of the value of the Disqus service and most of the competitors have added it as well. Being able to read and reply to comments via email is a "quantum leap" improvement in comment services and now this feature will be a standard in the market. That’s huge.

There’s been some discussion in the tech blogs that this acquisition is bad news for Disqus. I don’t think so and neither does Disqus. They posted the following on their blog yesterday.

So what does this mean for us? The Disqus comment system is still the
largest third-party comment system on WordPress, yet those blogs
represent under 5% of all websites using Disqus. We pride ourselves on
being an independent cross-platform service. Disqus will continue to
innovate and provide the best discussion experience on blogs. Our
company’s entire focus is on increasing the number and quality of your
comments and that will never change.

I firmly believe that most innovation comes from companies that are fighting for their survival and new customers without a safety net. And that certainly describes Disqus. With many of the benefits of Intense Debate and Disqus coming to WordPress’ proprietary comment system, it may be harder to attract bloggers on WordPress to a third party comment service and that’s unfortunate for the entire market. But there are a lot of blogs out there that aren’t on WordPress and new innovative blogging platforms like Tumblr, Posterous, and Soup.io keep coming to market.

So this is not a game over moment in my opinion. But it is very much a game changing moment. Third party comment services have been validated and some of the features they offer are going to become "must haves". And that’s a very good thing for everyone.

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