Recently, Facebook rolled out a refreshed version of its Comments Box social plugin.

The free plugin makes it easy for publishers to add
Facebook-themed commenting functionality to their websites. And it gives
Facebook yet another hook into the web that exists outside its walled
garden.

The improvements Facebook made to Comments Box, which include a “social relevance” filter and better administrative tools, have enticed a number of popular sites to implement Facebook Comments. One such site: the popular tech blog, TechCrunch.

So how are Facebook Comments working out? By TechCrunch’s own admission, the number of comments being posted has “fallen dramatically” since the AOL-owned blog added the plugin.

But TechCrunch isn’t yet sure that’s such a bad thing: according to MG Siegler, “roughly half” of the comments left before were “more or less useless,” and the new system has thus far driven away many of the “trolls who used to leave those worthless comments.

Of course, not all TechCrunch readers see it the same way. One commenter writes:

TC “trolls” for the most part aren’t true trolls — they’re cynical and smart people who state their true opinions (not pimply teenagers, perhaps the worst kind of troll.)

By getting rid of Disqus, You haven’t really gotten rid of trolls (because you didn’t REALLY have a troll problem in the first place. Articles with faults got roasted, good articles received near unanimous praised.) You’ve just gotten rid of people who state their true opinions.

Trolls aside, others point out the obvious privacy concerns present when using Facebook Comments, and some note that not everyone has a Facebook account.

Perhaps an even more insightful discussion about Facebook Comments, however, can be found in a post by entrepreneur Steve Cheney. He observes:

People yearn to be individuals. They want to be authentic. They have numerous different groups of real-life friends. They stylize conversations. They are emotional and have an innate need to connect on different levels with different people.

What does this have to do with Facebook’s new commenting system?

…forcing people to comment – and more broadly speaking to log-on – with one identity puts a massive stranglehold on our very nature. I’m not too worried about FB Comments in isolation, but the writing is on the wall: all of this off-site encroachment of the Facebook graph portends where FB is really going in pushing one identity. And a uniform identity defies us.

It’s a good point: as Facebook interjects itself into more and more online activities, there’s a good chance that some will curtail certain activities lest they risk broadcasting those activities to their social graphs.

One TechCrunch comment highlights this dilemma:

My facebook account is strictly for my personal life – it’s not professional, and it’s not supposed to be. This commenting systems forces me to integrate the two, which I won’t.

Needless to say, all of this has potentially significant implications for publishers. Naturally, many are attracted to Facebook’s offering.

Facebook is a huge part of the internet for so many people and Facebook Comments in theory offers an easy way to reduce barriers to entry in building on-site engagement.

There’s also the attraction of having comments posted to the network’s social stream, which could increase traffic from Facebook referrals.

But before publishers jump on the Facebook bandwagon, there are some factors that should be considered. Several of the most important:

  • Ownership. Needless to say, outsourcing comments to Facebook essentially means sharing ownership of your users’ comments with Facebook. This may or may not be a good idea and the decision to do so shouldn’t be taken lightly.
  • Reliability. In using this comments plugin, publishers place a lot of trust in Facebook.

    If the site becomes inaccessible for any reason, a publisher using this plugin loses comments. Even assuming that downtime won’t be an issue, one should understand that there’s no guarantee that Facebook Comments, which are JavaScript-based, will offer optimal performance.

  • Identity. Depending on the nature of a publisher’s audience, requiring that users engage with a site and its other users through Facebook may be disadvantageous.

So should publishers take the plunge?

At this point, it’s not clear. TechCrunch’s experience is hardly inspiring, even if it’s not an obvious ‘fail.’ In my opinion, however, publishers should probably be on the skeptical side.

After all, Facebook Comments is easy to set up, but it largely limits a publisher’s ability to create unique and engaging user experiences.

At a time when internet users are only becoming more sophisticated and their expectations are rising, letting Facebook decide how users should engage with a website seems like a huge step back for publishers focused on creating great experiences.