The New York Times is developing a new system for social interaction on its website, with big changes to begin arriving this fall.
Following up on speculation that its TimesPeople social network had been shuttered, I spoke with Marc Frons, the Times’ chief technology officer for digital operations. It turns out, that’s not the whole story.
“What we decided to do is remove the TimesPeople toolbar, but TimesPeople itself isn’t really going away,” Frons said. “We’re using the platform — people’s profiles, their recommendation streams — we’re going to keep those alive indefinitely because we’re going to use them for a new … more integrated offering around social interaction that we’re doing in the fall.”
TimesPeople launched in 2008, part of the larger TimesOpen initiative that enabled developers to access NYTimes.com content in their applications. It started as a Firefox add-on, then the recommendations toolbar became a standard feature on every page on the website.
But the toolbar proved less useful docked at the top of the page than other sharing and recommendation modules embedded within the pages, Frons said. The top of the page seems like prime real estate, but it’s easily overlooked and becomes invisible as soon as a reader scrolls down the page.
The new project recognizes that.
“It has to do with increasing the sense of identity and reputation on the site, making it easier to find your social actions and follow others. That is the main thrust of it,” Frons said. “At the same time, we want to be smarter about encouraging our best commenters, our best contributors, and figuring out how to recognize them on the website.”
In its current form, TimesPeople is a rather simple network where Times users follow other users and recommend articles or other content to each other. The new product still embraces content sharing, but also attempts to unlock the value of user contributions and connections.
These are important advances for the Times, which has long been an authoritative source for news but has trailed others, notably the Huffington Post, in building the community and discussion around it. Creating a system of persistent identity, public reputation and curated comments is the key to this. It’s how you go from setting the agenda to actually hosting the meeting.
It also could make NYTimes.com a stickier site, increasing frequency of visits and numbers of article views, which may push more users to the 20-articles-a-month limit and create more digital subscribers. A user’s status as a digital subscriber could even become a reputation signal that gives them more social prominence on the site (Frons said they had not decided yet whether to include that information).
Frons wasn’t ready to talk about many specific features, noting that they’re still in development. But he told me there’s a new focus on trying “to give more people a voice” on the site. That means not just letting hundreds of people comment on a story, but highlighting the best and giving each reader ways to filter those comments and find the ones that interest them, along with social context about who posted it.
“We really want to make these (comments) more visible and more enduring and figure out ways to categorize them so that they’re just more useful for people and more interesting, and stimulate even more discussion,” he said.
Content sharing will get an overhaul as well. The Times seems poised to focus on getting articles shared to major social networks like Facebook or Twitter, while still capturing that activity as part of the user’s Times profile. There will be less focus on Times users recommending stories directly to each other (though that may still be possible).
“There are a lot of other networks out there that are things we want to tap into and integrate with, rather than try and only have our own,” Frons said. “We continue to think it’s really important that our users have a sense of individual identity on our site that is unique to them, it’s just that we want to integrate that with their identities on Facebook or Google+ or Twitter.”
When TimesPeople was conceived in 2008, Facebook had 100 million users and was just surpassing MySpace as the most-trafficked social networking site. In 2011, Facebook has more than 750 million active users, plus Twitter has emerged with at least a couple hundred million of its own.
“As these become the standards for community and networking, it’s hard for one individual publication to say, ‘We just have our own,’ unless there’s something very specific and unique that they have to offer,” Frons said. “Either way… you have to be a part of a larger ecosystem.”
How far will the Times take this new social approach? I asked Frons whether the Times planned a fundamental transformation for NYTimes.com — from a news provider with social features into a social network with news. Definitely not, he said.
“The reporting drives the community. Our journalism is always going to be front and center. At the same time, you have to embrace the community and make them a part of that.”