Slate’s Fray: Making the Most of Discussion

The online magazine Slate has long attracted a vocal, devoted community to its public discussion forum, The Fray. The trouble is, those forums were pretty ugly and clunky to use. It’s a credit to the Slate community that so many people persisted in having discussions there.

A few months ago, Slate announced a forum overhaul project called Fix the Fray, and specifically encouraged Fray users to help decide which changes and upgrades to make.

On June 4, Slate launched the new and improved Fray. It’s definitely not perfect — in particular, certain aspects of the forum display oddly on Firefox and Safari for the Mac, I’ve found. But it is a bit easier to use than before, overall. And it’s worth a look.

What can news organizations learn from The Fray? A lot about how to make the most of online community. It’s really not so much about technology, usability, or design — it’s about people skills. Consider these points:

  • Highlight best contributions. The main page of The Fray highlights selected recent posts according to three criteria: editors’ picks, most read, and highest rated. This is extremely valuable for a forum where topics and threads are voluminous and diverse. It gives newcomers and veterans alike an easy way to orient themselves to current discussions. In particular, highlighting editors’ picks appears to be a pretty effective positive incentive for constructive, insightful posts.

  • Join the discussion, don’t just host it. Slate associate editor Daniel Engber, who oversees The Fray, regularly starts and contributes to conversations there. I’ve also seen other Slate staffers pop in to The Fray from time to time. This kind of direct interaction seems to inspire interest and even respect from many Fray users. In my opinion, it demonstrates that Slate’s staff values what readers think, and thus might tend to encourage a mutual sense of investment in these public conversations.

The Fray still has ample room for improvement, as the ongoing Fraywatch forum discussions indicate. Still, I think Slate has been setting a pretty good example of how to generally bring out the best in an online community.

What other examples of fostering constructive public conversation have you seen? What more could your news organization be doing on this front? Please comment below.

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