The NYT tries to get its readers to ‘level up’

The New York Times (s nyt) launched a new commenting system this week that has a number of features, but by far, the most significant one is that certain readers with a history of good behavior will be awarded “trusted” status, which allows them to post comments without having them 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 like the 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 for threaded comments, so readers can respond to other commenters. Like many other web-based commenting systems (including ours at GigaOM) the new Times version allows readers to share their comments to Facebook or Twitter, and comments are also included on the actual story or blog page, whereas before, readers had to click through to a separate page. Trusted readers get a small check-mark next to their names to show they have graduated to this 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 that newspapers have never really been very good at, although whether it will actually do this remains to be seen.

Facebook integration draws fire from readers

As with most redesigns and feature changes, the new system sparked an outpouring of criticism from readers. Many complained they had to repeatedly click on the “show more” button in order to see new comments, and some said they preferred it when they had to click through to a separate page. Others didn’t like the clutter of the Facebook and Twitter buttons, or that comments are no longer numbered and therefore can’t be referred to except via a link.

But by far, the biggest criticism is that to achieve “trusted” status and post comments without moderation, Times readers have to connect their Facebook accounts to their New York Times account. As the FAQ on the new system confirms, those who don’t belong to Facebook are effectively excluded from the new feature. This sparked a significant amount of 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 just to get access to this new relationship status.

As that comment suggests, this reliance on Facebook to validate a user’s account is more evidence that the social network has become a kind of social utility — with services such as Spotify and now the NYT making a Facebook account a requirement to even use the service (although in the case of the Times it only applies to a feature rather than the entire commenting system). Some newspapers and websites have gone even farther and effectively handed over their entire commenting function to Facebook, in part because doing so outsources the function of verifying a reader’s identity and also makes it easier to share content throughout the giant social network.

One of the risks of connecting something like the new Times “trusted” status to Facebook is that it makes those without Facebook accounts feel like second-class citizens (some readers complained that creating a “trusted” level at all made them feel inadequate, since it implies they are not trustworthy). Whether that’s a risk the NYT wants to take is not clear.

Despite the criticisms, the NYT’s changes make sense

That said, however, 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 of the ways to encourage interaction and improve the quality of reader behavior is by giving users incentives to behave intelligently (and also penalties for doing otherwise). Karma points, which Slashdot uses, reward commenters for being smart, and also reward them for flagging other comments that are offensive or stupid — something I hope the New York Times is considering as well as it adds features to the system.

Gawker Media is also a pioneer, at least in the media world, in using this kind of tiered approach. The network, which is run by New York’s mini media mogul Nick Denton, launched a new commenting system in 2009 that had many of the same features the New York Times just announced, including graduating to unmoderated status by invitation only. (Reuters (s tri) launched a similar VIP system last year). The Gawker model also has some features the NYT 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 massively multi-player online games such as World of Warcraft (s atvi) do: in other words, it creates incentives for good behavior by allowing users to “level up” — that is, improve their online character, add features, etc. — and that investment by users creates 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 it really wants to walk the walk, it should get its writers to respond to comments more often, instead of treating them like a ghetto where NYT staffers are rarely seen or heard from. But the new changes are at least a start.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Jeremy King and jphilipg