Thursday, April 05, 2007

Poll: Tech Diggers - How Long Does It Take to Code a Reader’s Forum?

Slate.com is updating its long neglected reader’s forum. Naturally, Slate’s long neglected readers are skeptical. One suggests that given the timeline, the call for reader input via email, polls and posts is a ruse, and that the new look and function of the forum has already been decided. What say you web developers, coders, designers? Can you code a fully functional reader’s forum for a major online magazine in just 14 days 6 weeks?












Click on image to go to Slate article.

Background: WikiFray (this blog) owes its existence, in part, to Slate’s neglect. It’s Slate’s reader’s reaction to being left in the dark ages while Web 2.0 came and went. You may not have an opinion as to how long it takes to code a reader’s forum, but since you’re here, how about an opinion on what a reader’s forum for a preeminent online magazine should look like in this day and age? Here is Slate’s official announcement, but as a veteran of Slate, I would suggest your input is more likely to get noticed on this blog or on Digg than in Slate’s reader’s forum.

Lastly--and this is actually the good part--if you’re a web developer, coder or designer and are interested in showing Slate (i.e. self-important journalists) how the 1% roll, I’d like to hear from you. Drop me a line at aka_alias@msn.com.

24 comments:

JohnMcG said...

I'm a coder, but not a web developer.

The hard part of software development isn't the actual coding, it's in grinding out the requirments and iterating to ensure they are met, and coming to an agreement whether they have in fact been met.

So, if someone told me to "code a message board," I could probably come back with something that was, in fact, a message board, in two weeks. Whether that was what the person who gave me the assignment was invisioning is another matter.

That might work if I was putting something together for my personal website. But for Slate, there are a number on constituencies that have to be made happy, in rough order of importance:

-- Advertisers
-- WaPo management
-- New readers' expectations
-- Slate writers
-- Current readers

I don't think it's possible that something could be built from scratch in six weeks that would please each of these constituencies.

That being the case, I think there are three possibilities:

-- The other constituencies have already been consulted, and their input has been integrated.
-- This is an incremental "fix" rather than something new, so there won't be any big new features.
-- Those in charge don't know anything about development.
-- Cisco has a very flexible framework for this sort of thing, so that whatever conclusions come from this are paramaters to this framework rather than new development.

twiffer said...

to answer your question: no.

JohnMcG said...

Completing my above post, I think the answer is a mic of my first and last options.

It may be the case that cisco's framework is very felxible, but what it can do is obviously finite. Those limitations had to be acceptable to the other stakeholders in order for them to choose it. If it can't do, say, video uploads, then that must be acceptable to the advertisers and WaPo.

twiffer said...

john, you forget that your second to last point is always in effect.

besides, if you're rolling out a major upgrade or enhancement, you want to have at the very least, 2 weeks for QA testing. sure, it tends to get cut down to 2 days, but as far as the initial project plan goes...

bEnder said...

Impute is one thing, but how about criticism.

Obscure Note: From time to time I’ve happened upon obscure Slate material (that which was never published) using Slate’s Search. What happens--as best I can tell--is these items are indexed no matter whether they eventually make it to the font page of Slate. Using this method, it is in theory possible to get the jump on a column before Slate officially adds it to the magazine. For “Fix the Fray” purposes, it’s inevitable that any article on this topic will include “the fray”. Simply plug it, with quotes, into the search engine and sort by date.

Using this method I see there is some beta testing for a thing called “Fray Landing”. This is undoubtedly Geoff’s Fray Porch, an idea that is more than a year old (i.e. ancient). Here then is an opportunity. Rather than Slate--as is their practice--springing their bright ideas for the fray on us only after they’ve adopted them (see: “candidate icons” “club fray”), we have a chance to critique this “Fray Landing” before it becomes a permanent fixture of the fray.

Not that it will do any good mind you. But, there it is anyway.

Personally, I have lots of ideas for the fray that are more than a year old, but really none of them are still good ones. So the idea that Geoff’s first fully fleshed out concept for the fray is the winning entry suggests to me that either Geoff is scared to start the process over again given how long it’s taken this one to gain momentum, or that the minds entrusted with guiding the fray’s transformation regard it as a task worth putting behind them as opposed to a job worthy of their passion.

Schadenfreude said...

That would be missing the point. My guess: this whole human network thing is an attempt to capture the YouTube/MySpace dynamic.

In other words, they're not building it for you, the tired, old, burned-out Frayster. They're building it for the new, young, hip semi-literate Frayster (who won't come because he's already got his MySpace friends and uploaded all of his videos to YouTube. Right now, he's too busy twittering his friends in leet on his cellphone to worry about reading some obsolete political magazine. He will no more read Slate than he'll read Time, except maybe when he goes to the dentist.

MsZilla said...

Depends entirely on just how much they're willing to change.

If they're just fixing the authentication and re-arranging the deckchairs on the Titanic by adding skin features to please the idiots into thinking this is a phbb board, then yes.

If they're going to do this right, heck no. There are core database structural problems in this thing (large part of why search is so screwed up) that are a legacy from back in the day.

Also, remember this whole damned mess has to mesh with their content management system, too. Integration is going to be a nightmare.

Then add in this insane review loop they've got.

I've worked in editorial environments like this before. And I have nothing but the fondest sympathy for Geoff and Chantay and the rest as they try to stop their bosses from determinedly pounding their square heads up against the round hole with 175,000 Fraysters screaming in their other ear.

I'm trying to put together some ideas, but this is a hard one.

Schadenfreude said...

If this is genuine, then I think this is basically a con job (ie. my post is way off). With all respect to MsZilla, a basic forum is off the shelf stuff. If it has its own database, it's pretty simple to just link article pages to it by category. The survey questions are just about point and click decisions.

Assuming, of course, that they aren't terribly worried about the archives.

Anonymous said...

I've often thought about the Fray and how it could be improved over the last couple of years. I got more motivated about it when the problems with access and login started earlier this year.

I went as far as registering a couple of domain names and started creating a database structure for the application. I even thought of contacting you to see if you would have any interest in creating a user driven board that would be ad supported, including revenue sharing with the equivalent of star posters. I of course did not do that, and part of the reason was the plain fact, proven here, that if you are associated there are some who will simply refuse to participate.

I was attracted to this post primarily because I had started a reply to your post on Slate which I had tentatively titled "The Die is cast" explaining how there was no way that they were collecting requirements and subsequently developing a system in such a short time. I even had to go check my MBTU to make sure that I did not accidentally submit the unfinished post.

If the effort was greenfield, it would be possible to put out a simple system in only a couple of weeks, leaving the more interesting aspects for later.

There are so many interesting things that could be done with smart writers and current tech, it is such a shame the WaPo is wasting the opportunity.

Elbo Ruum said...

As a coder myself, John's comments are correct.

Belies the problem, though. The fact is that the Fray suffers from its backward leaning tendencies because it doesn't do two things required for it's update:

1) Draw new readership to Slate and therefore increase revenue by attracting new advertisers.
2) Cement the media's darling view of the opinionated masses as no real threat to their job security.

As to the first...

Is it any wonder that the best message board technologies are on sites which are run for fun eeking out a subsistence living, barely enough dough to pay for the bandwidth?

Forums are a labor of love, and there really is no love in your average media conglomerate. It's about product and profit, and a dinky message board where your average schlub can air his dirty laundry or misdirected philosophies is no source of real profit. Shit, it doesn't even cover the overhead.

One may carefully assume that this carefully crafted version of reality has not been redirected by any spiritual epiphanies by the higher up and that the budget has remained the same. Oh, alright. Maybe they coughed up the extra scratch for a new coat of wax on the primered old beater, but the attitude has remained the same: Slate is for actual "columnnists" and the Fray is the proverbial pearl cast before the swine.

How many of Slate's editorship and columnists are regular Fray contributors? Not many. If any.

BOTF is a bit or arcana, the holy grail of Fray links. If you weren't there three years ago, you probably wouldn't even know it was there if somebody didn't point you to it.

My tinfoil hat is on the shelf, but doesn't it seem that there has always been a bit of an adversarial attitude towards the prolific and thought-provoking Fray contributors by the Slate editors? Perhaps taking aim at the true enemy? My, that tinfoil hat is looking really shiny...

As to the second...

To me, the Fray is the bellwether of the media's attitude toward blogging: you aren't one of us. Sure you sound like us, and you act like us, and you are about as well-reasoned, which is to say "not much," but you can't afford the membership dues. You are upstarts, dilletantes, and amateurs. After all, do you get paid to say what you say? No? Well, the only true measure of "opinion and fact" (often the same thing in the media's view) is how much coin it fetches on the open market. The second we find that people are reading you more than us, well, we're still at the helm, and you'll be slowly jettisoned with the garbage out the nearest airlock. When we want your opinion, we'll give it to you.

So no rush to make the Fray a forum with all the bells and whistles you'll find in an average forum circa 2003. Why bother. We'll just keep pissing you off until you just get fed up and leave. Problem solved. Hey, Milton... what's happening? Ok, I'm going to need you to just go ahead and move your things down to storage 2. And why don't you just go ahead and get a can of Raid and help us with our cockroach problem...

I was going somewhere with this, but it got lost somewhere in my angry victimization complex.

JohnMcG said...

elbo,

That being the case - then what do you think this effort it is -- just a creative way to squeeze some revenue out of the Fray by making this project a platform for advertising bys cisco? This comment suggests as much.

My tagging this "the Fray surge" is seeming increasingly apt.

bEnder said...

Anon: While I suspect there are probably actual examples of posters who, but for my involvement, would be participating here, I don’t think that particular issue is unique to the fray/me/wikifray, i.e. it’s equally true that there are a lot more people not participating at DailyKos because of Kos than there are people not joining WikiFray because of me. In that light, what’s “proven here” is what’s worth proving, which is not that the social dynamics of our enclave aren’t unique (all you have to do is look at Flame Warriors to know that), but that they are unique, relatively speaking, considering how many have opted to participate in spite of my involvement, and in spite of the involvement of others who not only don’t share their philosophies, but openly mock them. A side effect of the fray as filter. You’re either attracted to it because of the wide-ranging opinion, or it teaches you the value/tolerate sharp criticism.

Not sure what your other reasons for not following through were, but having considered ideas similar to yours, I have a few ideas. I’d like to here about them though. If you feel like sharing, see my email address above.

MsZilla said...

schad, you don't know this, but before it left MS I've been in the brains of the Fray, and also the Golbergian nightmare under the hood of their content management system.

The rearragement of the deck chairs on the skin last year didn't touch the Fray except for a coat of mascara and a touchup of the eyeshadow. It's all the same under the hood.

Yeah, sure, if they were willing to drop the archives, the Star system, and just about everything else they could deploy vBulletin in six weeks and it could even handle the stress load.

But they aren't going to get it integrated with the articles the way they do with the current system, or anything else. And that's what drives their ad revenue. I don't see that as being a negotiable feature.

Schadenfreude said...

Hi, MsZilla. I understand what you're saying. But, I remember something Geoff said a while back - words to the effect of "Don't be too attached to the old Fray - watch this space" kind of thing. Naturally, the search engine can't find it.

I don't think they're all too fussed about the archives. Surely it's not too difficult for the Fray to share the same frame (for ads and links) as the rest of the magazine?

Schadenfreude said...

PS. Know anything about dotnetnuke?

MsZilla said...

Do you mean "Do I know anything about PostNuke?" or "Do I know anything about .NET?" If it's neither of those, you'll have to give me more to go on.

I know that PostNuke is a crawling abomination from the nameless dark pits of the Open Source soul. I'd rather use Cold Fusion. And as far as .NET, yes (and I have about the same opinion today).

What did you need to know?

If all they were doing was building each page they could do it with little difficulty. But what it's easy to do by hand isn't so easy to do by code with the Seven Banana Brothers doing the data entry. It's the dynamic aspects of it that are a nightmare. And this thing was not built with that in mind at all.

Maybe they're willing to dump the Fray's archive. Maybe, but I doubt it. It's their legitimacy - starting over looses them that.

Schadenfreude said...

I mean these guys.

I cannot get the site I've designed with their software to run on my website (it runs fine on my laptop). I think I'm missing something, either in my web.config file, or in my site SQL server. When I ask questions, though, the answers go about 4 miles over my head.

MsZilla said...

Sorry - I've just elided a whole lot of pointed language out of the top here.

If you want to send me the error message you get, your web.config, and any of those answers you got I can try to translate them into a human tongue.

Anonymous said...

bEnder said, "[T]here are a lot more people not participating at DailyKos because of Kos than there are people not joining WikiFray because of me."

Yes, that would be axiomatic if you're thinking in terms of absolute numbers, wouldn't it? It would also be meaningless.

If you're thinking in terms of relative numbers, though, I do wonder whether you based the statement on some sort of evidence (which would seem difficult to acquire) or simply pulled it out of your ass.

Anonymous said...

JohnMcG said, "I could probably come back with something that was, in fact, a message board, in two weeks. Whether that was what the person who gave me the assignment was invisioning is another matter."

Maybe the person was Invisioning 2.2!
(Funny misspelling!)

Schadenfreude said...

MsZ: Apparently, my hosting service gave me the wrong connection string [grr]. I'll give it another shot before I use up any of your time.

Anon: Your argument seems a bit empty. If you're aiming at capturing any significant segment of the web market, the 20 people from BOTF who don't like ender would seem...insignificant.

maximo said...

there's a good chance that they already know what they're going to do and how they're going to do it.

the "fix the fray" polls may simply determine which options will be switched on/off.

i'm not reading the open solicitation to be a straight-up "tell us what you want us to do". rather, it's simply a public hearing of the sort meant to recognize the value of expression. (little of what's said will be new. and only in the case of earthshattering insight will they really need to rethink what they've already designed. and even then, there's implicit, "you can't please everyone.")

i still say the technical gimmickry is secondary to interesting articles. for myself, i'll jump through tech hoops as long as there's something interesting to comment on. but the easiest and most functional tech features are pointless if i've nothing to critique.

fft.

Anonymous said...

Schadenfreude, irony is thy name.

Schadenfreude said...

Hey, anon.

You're telegraphing your loserdom. Every loser's favourite excuse: it's someone else's fault.

Failure to act on a good idea because someone doesn't like some random stranger on the internet is just about the most bizarre act of rationalization I've ever witnessed.

You really should just tattoo a big L on your forehead (not that you need to - everybody already knows).