Last night, reading a TechCrunch profile of the weeks-old startup Zaarly, it was possible to imagine that the company — whose mobile app connects people with things that they don’t have the time or resources to secure themselves – could be the next Foursquare. It wasn’t just the piece itself was bullish. But the absence of anything but rosy comments to follow – “clever,” “cool,” and “much more likely [than Kozmo] to scale this time” – quickly became conspicuous.
The same has been true of many stories since early last week, when TechCrunch decided to sideline its commenting platform, Disqus, and test out a new Facebook commenting plug-in that makes it impossible to comment anonymously. Now, every comment left at the site is tied to a Facebook account. Except for those who ask their comments not be posted to their profile pages, comments are also appearing there and in the commenters’ news feeds, too.
Given that TechCrunch covers Facebook so closely, its experiment makes sense. But I’ll be surprised if it presages a big change in online media — no matter how big an uproar it has caused. From what I’ve seen so far, Facebook is sucking the life out of the site, whose anonymous commenters — while often crass, cruel, or unintelligible — also regularly provided valuable, unvarnished, views and insights.
Let’s go back to Zaarly, whose proposition right now sounds fun, but thin. Using Zaarly, for example, you can offer to pay $200 for front-row seats at a Cleveland Cavaliers game to anyone else on the Zarly platform who happens to be within five miles of you. While novel, the idea doesn’t seem to offer a lot of utility. Another use case that was cited in TechCrunch – that you can request that someone at a nearby Starbucks bring you coffee for a pre-agreed amount – isn’t much more convincing.
At the old TechCrunch, one could have counted on reading some healthy skepticism in the comments, possibly focused on Zaarly’s apparent lack of a business model. With its new commenting system, the most negative thing someone said of Zaarly was, “I dunno. This sounds like one of those clever ideas that nobody will actually use.”
No wonder Daniel Ha, the co-founder of the four-year-old, 20-person startup Disqus, isn’t terribly concerned about Facebook comments. At least, not yet.
“We think of Facebook as a competent competitor,” Ha told me late yesterday. “They’ve put a stake in the ground – they see a lot of value in what we do. But we haven’t seen [Facebook] make a dent in our traction, which is why we aren’t shaking in our boots.”
Disqus isn’t so easy to slow down. Ha says the company, backed $4.5 million, including from Y Combinator and Union Square Ventures, has over the past year grown each of its core metrics — from traffic to users, to the number of publishers using its platform — by 500 to 600 percent.
More telling, Disqus, which is already the commenting platform for more than 700,000 “communities,” including CNN, Fox News, Al Jazeera and the popular blog AllThingsD — has been seeing “30 to 40 percent growth in daily installs” since Facebook began its public relations push.
“I think we can credit [Facebook] with driving traffic to Disqus,” said Ha.
Maybe so. Like it or not, one of the reasons that people appreciate the Web is their ability to maintain some degree of anonymity. Not everyone wants to subscribe to Facebook’s high school hegemony. I hope media outlets keep that in mind.