Monday, April 09, 2007

Fixing the Fray (i.e. Slate)

Dear Slate:

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.

17 comments:

Catnapping said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
JohnMcG said...

Following my metaphor of the Fray "surge"...

When the Fray first started, it was ahead of the field, and through inattention fell behind.

My suspicion is that, through this effort Slate would like to again put the Fray ahead of the comment features of other boards, so they won't be satisfied with pulling even with HuffPo and other forums.

I also suspect that they enjoy that there is a community that considers the Fray their online home, and would rather not evict them.

I'm not sure if this is wise or not, but it seems unlikely they'd be doing this blitz just to be like everyone else.

Dawn Coyote said...

Subject: And my beloved fray*?
From: DawnCoyote
Date: Apr 9 2007 4:46AM

What will become of it?

Should I start pulling the posts I want to keep off the site and saving them elsewhere? Perhaps you know someone who might build a bot that can do this? You'd tell us if our archive was doomed, wouldn't you?

Please don't say something like, "it's always a good idea to keep copies of posts you value."

Honesty is always appreciated.

I don't recall how serious I was, but you're right--I did suggest passing the hat [fray.slate.com] to fix the fray.

* m=19033187

— — —

Subject: If it's dear to you, make a backup copy.
From: Freditor_G
Date: Apr 9 2007 9:10PM

I couldn't say one way or another. But, as a merely prudential suggestion...

Schadenfreude said...

I hear you, Dawn. (eg)

Bite oftheweek said...

Was that yours, schad?

Schadenfreude said...

No, not at all - I just thought it was a prescient post (but not as prescient as Yukon's from a week earlier).

Schadenfreude said...

And again, the Fray gett no respect:

Slate deputy editor David Plotz will be online Thursday, April 12, at 3 p.m. ET to discuss his Blogging the Bible series. Do you have a question for him? Submit your questions and comments before or during the discussion.

Where do you go to talk to David Plotz? Here (the Washington Post).

Schadenfreude said...

"gets", not "gett"

august said...

Schad,
It gets better. I submitted a question and got an error message.

JohnMcG said...

Perhaps your ban extends there? Can't be too careful -- you might submit a question in all CAPS.

Schadenfreude said...

John:

It's not only possible that I would use all caps. I would say that it's virtually assured.

I don't think I could help myself.

Schadenfreude said...

PS. Go to hell, David Plotz:

"Chapter 17
God is not a big fan of schadenfreude: "Those who are glad at calamity will not go unpunished."

bright said...

But Schad, at least he knows what schadenfreude is...

bEnder said...

"august"

bright said...

Update

JohnMcG said...

Looks like more evolutionary than revolutionary

Schadenfreude said...

What it looks like to me:

1. New software - a canned package.
2. Survey questions were about simple setting changes.
3. Login and search come with the package.
4. Archives may or may not be accessible (I'm betting not).