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November 30th, 2011 was yet another monumental day in digital media history that will swiftly fade from memory: the New York Times changed its comments section. 

In the past few years, while the development of video content, photo galleries, and other interactive features raced ahead, the comments section continued to resemble something from the pre-iPhone days.

No longer! 

These new capabilities, better maximizing the potential the web has to offer, are…

Removing commenters from the ghetto and placing them on the same page as the article. The elimination of this barrier is rather banal news, but it’s symbolically important – for the first time, outside writers can now occupy the same space as those who have been vetted by the process and become capital J-journalists.

The creation of a class of invitation-only Trusted commenters, who will not be moderated in advance. The goal here is to encourage and elevate commenters with “a lengthy history of comments that are thoughtful, discuss the issues politely and address the topics covered in the article or blog post”.

One can safely presume that the Times will also be courting and featuring notable authors and other public figures.

Facebook sign-in. “We require you to connect your Facebook account and your commenting profile to verify your name and location.” The New York Times steps squarely and confidently towards a future without anonymity, where all action that takes place on the Internet is signed with our real names.

Many commenters are upset about the loss of privacy, but really, it’s too early to tell what the broader implications of this will be. Perhaps the resulting digital communities will be both safer and more inclusive (and perhaps not). Either way: it’s happening.

Comments are shareable to Facebook & Twitter. This could be called “letting people increase your traffic”.

Adding threading, enabling commenters to respond to one another. (What year is this?).

And despite the usual complainers, it certainly looks good:

The New York Times’ commenting system is prioritized to uncover and filter quality contributions being made by a large number of commenters, while simultaneously controlling the appearance of the page and its contents. 

The newspaper article is still idealized as a ‘final document’ – onto which comments are intrusions of the living internet. Spaced apart from the authority of the paper, the unknown is quarantined, held to wriggle at the bottom of the frame.

The system that has been implemented is less oriented towards the commenters themselves, and their possible desires for community, than it is towards the Times’ prerogatives, as it understands them.

Even comments that land in the “All” section are vetted first by moderators. The social layer within The New York Times website is thin. For example, it is not possible to follow a commenter without going to their profile page, which displays nothing.

Learning from the infrequently used “Times People” social network attempt, The NYT is counting on readers to bring the paper back to their own community using Facebook, rather than attempting so much to create one for them.

This is a bit different from the rich, smaller, community that has been successfully nurtured by Gawker Media. The comment section is given the same width of the page as the article, and frequently outlasts it in lengthy crowd-sourced trenchancy.

There is some editorial control. All viewers of the page are first directed towards a “Featured” comment and thread. Quality commenters are given stars by the editors, and subsequently are always displayed in solid black.

Approved but unstarred commenters appear, but in pale gray unless they are promoted by a starred commenter, or until they are given a star in turn. All commenters can be hearted by one another, connecting and encouraging both positive feedback for quality contributions, as well as sycophancy amongst the classes.

The best comment of the day is featured in the evening as an article; the worst commenters are rounded up weekly and banned en masse.

The effect of this is a tight relationship between the editors and the commenters, with a clear power structure, but lots of exciting social rewards that surely keep people typing away during their working hours.

It’s fascinating to watch. I understand that it has a different job, but I wish the NYT luck on crafting a community that is equal to its reportage.

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Published 5 December, 2011 by Sam Dwyer

Sam Dwyer is an Analyst based in Econsultancy's New York office. He can be followed on Twitter @sammydwyer.

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Comments (1)

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Franklin Conor

It is very important that the New York Times improve where they have gone wrong because even thought comments may seem trivial, the ability to provoke discussion drives engagement with your content which ultimately is the aim.

almost 4 years ago

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