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'New York Times' Nudges Readers to ‘Level Up’

The New York Times launched a new commenting system with a number of features this week. By far, the most significant is that certain readers with a history of good behavior will be awarded “trusted” status allowing them to post comments without their first having been moderated. Not surprisingly, the system has drawn fire from some readers—in part because graduating to this new level requires a Facebook account—but the motivation behind the move is sound. If media companies such as the New York Times (NYT) really want to behave like communities (which they should), then they need to encourage their readers to “level up.”

New York Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson described in a note to readers how the new system—which she said was intended to “improve the community experience”—allows threaded comments so readers can respond to comments by others. Like many other web-based commenting systems (including ours at GigaOM) the Times‘s new version allows readers to share their comments to Facebook or Twitter. Comments are also included on the actual story or blog page, whereas readers previously had to click through to a separate page. Trusted readers get a small check mark next to their names to indicate they have graduated to preferred status.

Among other things, the Times said it hoped the changes, such as the addition of threaded comments, would make it easier for reporters to respond to comments, something newspapers have never been very good at.

As with most redesigns and feature changes, the paper’s new system sparked much criticism. Many complained they had to repeatedly click on the “show more” button in order to see fresh comments; some said they preferred having to click through to a separate page. Others didn’t like the clutter of the Facebook and Twitter buttons or complained that comments are no longer numbered and can no longer be referred to, except via links.

Readers Slam Facebook Integration

By far the greatest criticism was stirred by the requirement that New York Times readers connect Facebook accounts to their Times account to achieve “trusted” status. As the FAQ on the new system confirms, those who don’t belong to Facebook are excluded. This sparked significant outrage, not just in the comments on Abramson’s note to readers but also on Twitter, where readers said they resented being forced to sign up for Facebook to qualify.

As an additional comment on Twitter suggests, reliance on Facebook to validate a user’s account is further evidence that the social network has become a kind of social utility. Services such as Spotify and now the Times are making a Facebook account a requirement to use at least certain services. Some newspapers and websites have gone even further, effectively handing over their entire commenting function to Facebook, in part because doing so outsources the function of verifying reader identities and makes it easier to share content throughout the giant social network.

One risk is that it makes those without Facebook accounts feel like second-class citizens. Some readers complained that simply creating a “trusted” level made them feel inadequate by implying they are untrustworthy.

The Times‘s Changes Make Sense

That said, I think the rationale behind the creation of a new level of reader engagement is a good one. For years, leading web communities such as Slashdot have shown that one way to encourage interaction and improve the quality of reader behavior is by giving users incentives to behave intelligently (along with penalties for doing otherwise). Slashdot uses karma points that reward commenters for being smart and for flagging comments that are offensive or stupid—something I hope the New York Times will consider doing as it adds features.

Gawker Media is also a pioneer, at least in the media world, in using this kind of tiered approach. In 2009 the network, which is run by New York mini media mogul Nick Denton, launched a new commenting system with many of the same features the Times just announced, including graduating to unmoderated status by invitation. (Reuters launched a similar VIP system last year.) The Gawker model has features the Times might want to consider, such as allowing readers to automatically hide comments that don’t get a specified number of votes.

As I’ve mentioned before, this kind of tiered system takes the same approach to community that big multi-player online games such as World of Warcraft do: It creates incentives for good behavior by allowing users to “level up”—that is, improve their online character, add features, and so forth—with the investment by users creating a stronger bond between them and the community.

There are plenty of things the New York Times needs to do if it really wants to pursue this approach, including giving “trusted” readers the ability to moderate comments, as Slashdot does. And if the paper really wants to walk the walk, it should get its writers to respond to comments more often, instead of treating reader expression like a ghetto rarely visited by Times staffers. The new changes are at least a start.

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