Bit by bit, feature by feature, Facebook is making inroads into sites that live outside of Facebook.com. Major publishers now sprinkle their sites with Facebook plug-ins, from fan page widgets to friend recommendations to the ubiquitous “Like” thumbs-up. And hey, why not? It’s a win-win, with publishers getting more engagement and increased traffic from Facebook News Feeds, and Facebook getting more embedded in more of the web.

So it is not a bit surprising that along comes a Facebook Comments plug-in upgrade, offering added moderation for comments on publishers’ sites with these very nifty features:

> Simple upgrade: Publishers only need to add one line of code to their site for the new comments box.

> Enhanced moderation: Publishers get control to make specific comments private (only seen by the commenter and their friends); or publishers can delete comments and blacklist users.

> Commenting in the News Feed: Users can now share the comments they’ve made on publishers’ sites in their Facebook News Feed; their friends’ comments on the News Feed update are automatically posted back to the publishers’ sites.

The last feature is perhaps the most important viral/social element of the Comments system — the chance to get comments to reach beyond a website and into the Facebook social stream and bounce back to the website itself. That kind of easy sharing was missing from comments previously.

So, for instance, when I posted a comment on the Facebook blog, I made sure to share it with my News Feed on Facebook, as you can see here:

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And then, when Jen Lee Reeves and I commented on that comment on my News Feed, our comments were posted both on the News Feed, as seen above, and on the original Facebook blog post, as seen here:

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Plus, there’s the much vaunted advantage of making people comment with their real names and affiliations showing, cutting down on trolls and ne’erdowells. (At least, that’s the hope — until they figure out a way to create fake Facebook accounts and return with their invective flowing.)

The new Comments upgrade was announced yesterday, with publishers such as Sporting News, Examiner.com and Discovery jumping on board (and TechCrunch is trying a test as well). According to a discussion summary at Quora, the pros of Facebook Comments on TechCrunch so far are real identities, while the cons are loss of anonymous comments by people who are uncomfortable saying who they are. And more troubling is that you can’t log in to Facebook Comments with Twitter or Google.

I spoke to Facebook media guy Justin Osofsky yesterday to do a quick interview about the release of the upgraded Comments. Below is the full audio interview, and the edited transcript of that call, including one interjection by Facebook spokesperson Jillian Carroll.

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Q&A

What was your overarching goal with the update of Comments?

Justin Osofsky: We’re always working to iterate on our products, and this update is a natural evolution of our existing plug-in, which we first launched in February 2009. Over the past couple years, we worked really closely with partners, and listen to their feedback all the time. One of the consistent themes we heard related to Comments was that partners wanted a system with great moderation, which led to a quality discussion on their site and provided great distribution. That was the spirit behind the product we released today as an upgrade.

My team works with media partners, and listens to their feedback and helps them understand how to use Facebook’s tools to derive value for their business. In regards to Comments, we heard two themes from [publishers] outside of moderation. One is they use Facebook as a distribution platform. Comments offer a great opportunity to get distribution. Users can easily share their comments back to Facebook; the average user on Facebook has 130 friends, so they can extend the conversation around the web.

The other theme we heard from partners is that they really wanted a quality conversation around their content. They cared more about quality than quantity. And as the number of blogs and content sites we visit every day grows, it should be easy to see the highest quality comments first — based on feedback from your friends and the rankings from other readers.

Many people have said, including social media power user Robert Scoble, that they like the new Comments feature because it will lead to more civilized discourse because people have their names associated with comments. But I’ve seen the opposite on well trafficked Facebook pages because people can punch in their comments so easily without having to register first. Sometimes they will throw things out quicker than they should.

Osofsky: We think we can facilitate a higher quality conversation. The Comments plug-in makes commenting online more like having a conversation in the real world by leveraging authentic and persistent identities to create more quality and meaningful dialogue across the web. We think that will lead to a higher quality conversation when it’s your real identity and you’re representing your real self in the comments you’re making.

How have you seen publishers adopting the new Comments plug-in? Are they using just Facebook Comments on stories, or using other types of commenting systems as well?

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Justin Osofsky

Osofsky: We’re seeing a lot of publishers who adopted Facebook’s commenting system as the exclusive commenting system on their site. Sites like SportingNews.com and Discovery Communication and SBNation launched with Facebook Comments today.

You allow either Facebook or Yahoo log-ins now to comment on these sites. Where are you at with allowing people to use Google or Twitter log-ins?

Osofsky: As part of the update, we added Yahoo as a third-party log-in and we hope to add additional major providers in the future. We’re always looking for ways to improve the product and add more flexibility for partners, but we have nothing further to announce today.

Who do you see as the main competition for your Comments plug-in? Do you think there’s a way for you to co-exist with established players like Disqus (used on MediaShift), Echo, and others?

Osofsky: When we develop products, we focus on meeting the needs of our users and developers in creating really good solutions. Basically, this release is based on feedback from users and developers and partners. We plan on continuing to iterate on it, but we think that the greater moderation that’s built into this product, the distribution of reaching Facebook’s more than 500 million users, the higher engagement through the conversations — threading on both the publisher’s site and on Facebook itself — and the quality makes us a really compelling product for publishers.

One of the features that’s interesting is that when you see someone’s comment, a friend of yours, on your News Feed on Facebook, you can respond to it, with the comment going back on the third party site. Do you think that might take people a little while to get used to?

Osofsky: I think users will understand the natural conversation. What’s cool about this product is the most interesting content on Facebook is the stuff I discover through my friends. Over 30 billion pieces of content are shared on Facebook each month. It’s a way to find content through friends and other people.

What the commenting system enables now is — when I am commenting on an article on, say, MediaShift — I immediately have social context and the opinion of my friend that is being delivered on whatever the article is on your site. From that, I think there’s a very natural discussion that takes place that’s unified on both sites. So users will see that lead to a richer, authentic dialogue on publishers’ sites and on Facebook.

One thing I’d like to see is all the conversations happening about an article all over the web in one place. And Facebook has FriendFeed, which does that a little bit. Can you see sometime down the road that this might be a unified comment system that brings together comments from other sites too? So you’d see them all in your Facebook News Feed?

Osofsky: We see the News Feed as a way of discovering content from your friends. So if I comment on an article on the Sporting News and Discover and the Examiner, my friends can now see it on their News Feed. So it’s a great way to discover the conversations that are happening among the friends you are most interested in.

But as far as being an aggregator of comments from other systems, you don’t see that happening at some point?

Osofsky: No. The News Feed will always be a good way to make social discovery of content, but that’s the way we view it. You go to Facebook to find out what your friends like. When you show up to Facebook.com and I show up to Facebook.com — even though we typed in an identical URL — we’re having fundamentally different experiences because we have different friends and different interests, and they are sharing different things about their lives and from publisher sites. That’s the experience that will continue on Facebook.

When I look in my Facebook News Feed I can see when people connect their tweets to their status updates. So I am seeing things from other services outside of Facebook. That’s why I’m wondering whether other comments could be brought into the News Feed like that.

Osofsky: When we launched the platform in 2007, we basically opened it up for developers to allow people to connect with the things they care most about, and the entities they care most about — whether it’s a sports team, whether it’s a celebrity. And because of that, I think that Facebook is a great way to find things in your life, and that’s the way that Facebook works, and that’s the way it’s going to continue to work going forward.

When you talk about comment moderation, you said comments from friends and top-rated comments would rise to the top. Some comment systems have a “thumbs up” or “thumbs down.” Will you continue to have just the thumbs up or would you consider a thumbs down as well?

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Osofsky: We will listen to feedback on how to best surface the best and most relevant comments. We have no immediate plans to change what we launched today. But essentially we want users to see a really quality conversation, and we think the way you do it is you first see the comments from your friends and then the comments ranked highly from other readers on a publisher’s site.

There is a way to block comments that you don’t like, or report them?

Osofsky: As you’re reading, you can mark comments as spam or report them as being abusive.

And it’s up to the publisher to decide what to do with those reports?

Osofsky: We will naturally surface the most highly ranked comments, those will be the ones you’ll see more than other comments. And we also give moderation controls to publishers. Based on their feedback, we added a lot of moderation controls as well as “blacklist” controls so website administrators can control the visibility of a comment from making it private [i.e., only shown to the commenter and their friends] to hiding it completely. Or they they can block content or specific words — such as foul language and spam — all from their own moderation dashboard.

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Will a reader see a highly rated comment above their friends’ comments or which one comes first? And can the publisher adjust that?

Osofsky: Each individual reader that goes to a publisher’s site, on the site, they would see a different view. Just like you or I have different friends, from that, what you see in a comments box and I see would be different. The publisher has an administrative dashboard that also shows the comments that are being made on their site.

So which would be ranked higher, the friends’ comments or the ones ranked high by readers?

Osofsky: The product seeks to surface the highest quality comments first, and the way in which we built it, we’ll continue to evolve our approach to this to make sure there’s really quality conversation.

Part of what you see with the comments is the person’s affiliation or where they went to college. Is there a way to adjust what shows there alongside a person’s name next to a comment?

Jillian Carroll (Facebook Communications): It’s an interesting situation. If you made your school network public but not your work, then your school would show up even if it’s more relevant where you work. Part of this will be addressed by privacy controls and people adjusting those.

Osofsky: When we release products, we respect people’s privacy settings. And if they want to change their privacy settings, we give them the control to do that.

One other piece of feedback I heard was that TechCrunch had implemented Facebook Comments and they’re not seeing a number on the number of comments for each article, that there are “48 comments” or whatever. Is that something you will be adding?

Osofsky: We believe our product encourages quality instead of quantity of comments. What I think you’re seeing today on publisher sites is a very real and interesting dialogue in the comments section. One of the consistent things we heard from publishers, who we’ve been talking to the past couple years, is you often get so many comments, one can’t surface the relevant and interesting comments. That’s what this product is trying to address.

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DigitalJournal.com has a hybrid commenting system with Facebook Comments and their own system

What about people who aren’t on Facebook? Would they still be able to comment on a story?

Osofsky: You can log in on Facebook or you can log in on Yahoo, and we’ll be looking to add additional flexibility going forward in terms of log-in providers.

So at the moment if you don’t have Yahoo and you don’t have Facebook, then you’re not able to make comments in the system.

Osofsky: The two ways to comment in the system is through Yahoo and Facebook, correct.

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What do you think about the upgraded Facebook Comments plug-in? If you run a site, would you use it? What do you see as its strong points and drawbacks? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Mark Glaser is executive editor of MediaShift and Idea Lab. He also writes the bi-weekly OPA Intelligence Report email newsletter for the Online Publishers Association. He lives in San Francisco with his son Julian. You can follow him on Twitter @mediatwit.