New York Times: More innovation in commenting

As I wrote recently, news organisations have only begun to scratch the surface in terms of innovative interfaces that could encourage readers to explore the rich content on their sites and also increase and improve reader interaction. When I wrote that post, the Washington Post had debuted a Django-based commenting system called WebCom that reminded me of ThinkMap’s Visual Thesaurs. WebCom reflects comment popularity, which can become a self-reinforcing cycle. I will be interested to see if they might add another layer to the interface that allows people to explore the conversation based on themes or topics. This could be easily achieved by using Thomson-Reuter’s Calais semantic analysis system to expose themes in the comments.

Now the New York Times has debuted a new visual commenting tool. It’s debut is being used to help people discuss and explore some of the issues regarding the healthcare (some might argue the health insurance) debate in the US. The boxes all relate to an issue in the debate, and a drop-down menu allows you to jump to that topic and see a brief overview of the issue. The relative size of the boxes reflect the number of comments, and hovering over the people icons at the bottom of the boxes allow you to quickly see a bit of the comment. You can also also easily jump to replies to comments that you have left. It appears that the topics aren’t generated organically by the discussion but are created by the New York Times editorial staff. In some ways, it’s a slightly advanced, and somewhat stilted form of threading. It’s almost more of a discussion system than it is strictly a commenting system. nytimesdebate.gif

At the time of writing this post, there are few comments so it’s difficult to see how it will work both conversationally and technically as the volume of comments increases. That will be the real test of the system because one of the reasons why news sites need interface innovation in commenting systems is because of the volume of comments on media sites.

Here on Strange Attractor, the comments tend to be more off-site, posts written in response to what Suw and I write. Very rarely do we have a high volume of comments on the blog, which makes it easy for us to manage and for our readers to engage with. We don’t write about politics or hot button social issues. Rather, we write about a very specialist, niche topic. The conversations tend to be pretty high level, and we love our readers because of the level of intelligence that they bring.

On news sites, the volume of comments on the posts is much, much higher, and it quickly becomes difficult for journalists and readers to follow the discussion and have any meaningful interaction. The comments tend not to respond to each other but rather are usually a string of unrelated statements. Most of the current solutions all have their drawbacks. Threading has its issues because it tends to fragment the discussion, which is what I fear this New York Times interface will do. Voting up, or down, Digg-style helps in some ways but suffers from the same issues of the self-reinforcing popularity that WebCom faces. Again, a few criticisms don’t mean I think these experiments aren’t worthwhile. Far from that, I think it’s great to finally see some interface exploration in terms of commenting and not just content presentation by news websites. Hopefully, this is a sign of things to come. It’s long past time that news organisations realise that the volume of comments they receive requires something more than flat, linear comment threads below blog posts or articles. Done right, it will help increase participation, user experience, interaction and maybe even the quality of the conversation.

Should we provide incentives for engagement with social technology?

It may seem odd, but a question I get asked quite a bit is “Should we pay our staff extra, or provide some sort of bonus, for engaging with social media?” Sometimes it’s asked in the context of getting people to use an internal wiki or blog, sometimes it’s about getting them to engage externally with business-relevant communities.

My answer is always the same: No.

I have based this answer on an understanding of what drives people to engage with social tools, an understanding I have developed over the years through experience and observation. People generally use social tools because they find them useful or helpful in some way, because to do so increases their status amongst their peers or wished-for peers, because they are curious, or because the tools are enjoyable to use, amongst other reasons.

Putting a financial value on the use of social tools feels wrong. Not to mention simplistic, patronising and a gross misunderstanding of what social software is all about. I think it feels that way because social media is all about relationships, and we don’t explicitly “incentivise” (what a horrible word!) the creation and maintenance of relationships in any other context, so why would social media be different?

If I said to you, “I’ll give you £5 for every friend you make” you would rightly understand that this incentive both encourages you to be promiscuous in your friendship making (quantity over quality) and implies that you are incapable of going out and making some friends without financial reward. For some people the incentive itself would devalue the action that it is designed to encourage, thus leading to contrary behaviour.

This interpretation of my gut feeling turns out to be correct, as Samuel Bowles explains in the Harvard Business Review article, When Economic Incentives Backfire:

Experimental economists have found that offering to pay women for donating blood decreases the number willing to donate by almost half, and that letting them contribute the payment to charity reverses the effect. Consider another example: When six day-care centers in Haifa, Israel, began fining parents for late pickups, the number of tardy parents doubled. The fine seems to have reduced their ethical obligation to avoid inconveniencing the teachers and led them to think of lateness as simply a commodity they could purchase.

It seems that scenarios where altruistic, or other social behaviours, are involved a financial incentive devalues the behaviour to the level of an economic transaction, removing the moral and ethical aspect and making it easier to behave badly.

The psychology of social tools has not been adequately* examined, but I suspect there is an altruistic component, despite the fact that I often appeal to self-interest when discussing adoption. When you look at a healthy wiki, some people spend time tidying up other people’s work for no real recognition or reward, a behaviour that could easily be interpreted as altruistic. There are similar altruistic or semi-altruistic behaviours in other tools too. Using tags/categories on blog posts to enable discovery could be an altruistic behaviour if the author themselves never actually benefits from having used tags/categories, e.g. never goes back to look a their old entries.

To social media people, all this is blindingly obvious, but the incentive question is one that I get asked often enough that it’s something I feel we need to address and nip in the bud.

* Did I say ‘adequately’? Aah, the wonders of British understatement.

links for 2009-10-01

  • Kevin: There has been an ongoing discussion about the Washington Post's new social media policy, and it's stirred up a rather predicable discussion about objectivity and credibility, which I'm still rolling over in my head. However, I think that Michele McLellan at the Knight Digital Media Center who says the basic message to journalists is not to try social media. "The Washington Post’s new social media guidelines seem destined to send this message to the newsroom: Social media – Don’t go there."
  • Kevin: What does it take to be a journalism entrepreneur? They should be great a research and networking, which should be skills that most journalists have, but Serra Media also suggests journalists finding success as entreprenuers "Can work cheap: Bootstrapping a company is a lot like journalism since it often means working for peanuts to pursue your calling." While I agree that's probably the reality, I might also suggest that journalists reeling from the recession probably don't want to hear this and don't want to work for cheap.
  • Kevin: An overview of how media organisations in the US including, ESPN, and BusinessWeek, are struggling with how to deal with Twitter and social media. It's a good article looking at how several organisations are dealing with staff use of social media. Sadly, I fear, it will mean less use, when it really should be about better use of social media.