It looks like you have your hearts set on a “forum”. You’re invested. It’s too late to backtrack now. There’s no point in thinking outside the fray box. I suspect. So, I’ll talk about fixing the fray, but first, I’d like to talk about why a “forum” is a mistake you needn’t make a third time.
To do that, I first need to convince you of the validity of questioning the very existence of a forum. As luck would have it, that particular task is best handled by your peers and benefactor. Salon has “comments” in response to articles. The Washington Post has “comments” in response to articles. Even the up and comers like The Huffington Post have “comments” in response to articles. So if comments are the standard, why does Slate have a forum? Is Slate purposely trying to be different? Is keeping the fray a conscious calculation? I suspect not. I suspect that the fray is simply so engrained into our idea of Slate, that its continued utility is never truly questioned. But once you honestly question why Slate sends comments to a separate url, and a forum, it doesn’t take long to recognize that the reasons have more to do with the way things were back in the youthful days of Slate and the internet (the 90’s), and virtually nothing to do with the way things are in this day and age.
I don’t know for a fact, but I find it perfectly reasonable to suspect that in those early days, the technology for “comments” either didn’t exist, or wasn’t yet proven. So instead Slate turned to the standard at the time--forum software--to meet their needs. Needs still rooted in the print media’s model--an electronic substitute for “Letters to the Editor”--and the print media’s mentality--the need to distinguish and filter reader’s opinion from that of the publication. Uncharted territory back then, but not now. Now, allowing readers to publish their comments and trackbacks on the same page as the article they are responding to isn’t a cause for hand wringing anywhere but, it would appear, at Slate, where they still call those comments “appends”, as if there’s still something special and exclusive about that formerly rarified space at the foot of articles. As a result, fewer and fewer people are spending their time commenting on and linking to Slate. Preferring instead to invest their energies on sites where their comments and trackbacks are treated as assets (see Google/Web 2.0) by allowing them to share the page with the content they are engaging. How else to explain how an upstart like The huffingtonpost.com enjoys the same PageRank as the venerable old slate.com. In fact, given all of Slate’s advantages, including the butterfly effect, you begin to wonder if the fray hasn’t been more than just a drain on resources and personnel. You begin to see that the fray has been worse than a distraction because of what it’s distracting you from. Because the fray doesn’t cut it outside a select group who have special knowledge of it, Slate has been without a mechanism for readers and writers to respond for years now. To the outside world, Slate might as well be an echo chamber.
Lastly--and if you’re objective about it this really is the lynchpin of the case against using a forum for reader feedback--switching to the industry standard of comments and trackbacks within each article not only puts Slate back on a level playing field with its competition, it solves, in one fell swoop, the raft of “issues” your Fix the Fray project is attempting to address, as well as all the “issues” that are inherent to online forums for which there simply are no solutions. No more off topic posting. No more squatters trading insults 24/7. No more social engineering. The list goes on. Yes, there will be some fallout. But you have to ask, who are these people who would complain about the loss of the fray? Are they your target demographic, or are they a minute, ragtag group of socialites upset by the loss of their little fiefdoms? It’s the latter. And the few worth keeping happy? Well, they’ll be happy to “append” their comments to the articles or be among the first to blog about what Slate is saying in the hopes their trackbacks on Slate will catch a bit of that butterfly’s breeze.
That’s my case. As for fixing the forum, if you really must have one, simply follow the example of the most popular forums out there. Forums appeal to a certain type. The most popular forums are flat (not threaded). They feature avatars, emoticons and the ability to post pictures. Change the fray to include those 4 elements, and you’ll be well on your way to claiming a share of the forum seeking public.
Monday, April 09, 2007