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How Can We Improve Our Social Networking Tools?

by Andy Carvin
Oct 1, 2008

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Andy Carvin

As you probably have seen by now, we rolled out several new community tools on the NPR Web site this week, including user profiles and discussion threads for all of our stories. The feedback so far has been very positive, and a number of you have shared some great suggestions on how we can fine-tune these tools. I thought I'd recap some of the highlights and offer some feedback of my own.

One suggestion I've heard more than any other, from people like ElizS and Ken, is creating a way for people to search for each other on the social network. I couldn't agree more. Right now, it's possible to browse a directory of NPR staff members on the social network, but there's no way to browse or search for members of the public. This is definitely something we've wanted to do but weren't able to include in the rollout this week. Initially, it might be something as simple as a search field where you can type in a user's name or login and find them. Eventually, we might be able to allow users to submit their Yahoo, Gmail or Facebook login info and automatically search for other users in their contact lists, but that's probably a much bigger project. Still, a basic search tool is a personal priority for me, so I hope we'll be able to tackle it within the next month or so.

We're also talking about creating better URLs for user profiles. So rather than having npr.org/templates/community/persona.php?uidt=1222779359 as my profile's URL, it might be something like community.npr.org/acarvin or npr.org/users/acarvin. Please let me know if you have any other short-term or long-term suggestions for this particular issue.

Speaking of Facebook, YarnMaven suggested that we make it easier for people to share information about their accounts on other social networks, like Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, etc. As a quick fix, you can do what I did - edit your "about me" section of your profile and include links to your other social networking profiles. That way, I was able to include links to my @acarvin account on Twitter, my Facebook profile, etc. It's not the most elegant solution, but it works in a pinch. But I definitely take YarnMaven's point about improving the way we allow users to share these links. For example, it might be cool to allow users to add their own fields where they identify the social network in particular and input their user name for that site, and have our system automatically link to the right page. Again, that would take a significant bit of work on our part, so we'd have to get a sense of whether users see something like this as a priority or not. Then, we could figure out how long it might take to implement it.

Ken also suggested we allow users to import content from their other social networks into their NPR profiles. It's a really intriguing idea, and there are a number of projects out there seeking to make user data more portable between social networks. It's something I'm following closely and want to explore more for our own site, but it's definitely a longer-term goal rather than a short-term fix.

Another good idea comes from JohnTynan. He suggested that when a user clicks a favorite book, movie, etc on a user profile, it should go to a page that shows information about the topic, user reviews and the like. This is something we hope to do at some point. The way the system currently works, when you add something to your favorites list, it generates a page showing all the other NPR.org users who have added the same favorite to their profile page. It will also generate a list of NPR stories related to that favorite, assuming we have any in our database. For example, you can see all the people who have added Tom Waits to their list of music favorites, as well as stories we've done on him. (So far there are 12 of us, but I'm sure that number will skyrocket, of course.) John also suggested adding a separate favorites field for non-NPR programs, like TV shows and video blogs. Actually, you can list anything you want in the Favorite Programs field. For example, I've included The Wire and the video blog Ask A Ninja and it works just fine.

Eventually, I hope these "bridge pages," as we call them, will be even more robust, with user reviews, bio info and the like, but this will entail a major project. NPR would have to gain access to a number of bio databases and integrate them - no small task - or have a wiki-like tool for users to create the bios themselves. One thing that will be easier, though, is user-generated reviews. The tool we're using for social networking has a review feature, but we haven't implemented it yet. It's definitely something that could be very exciting for a lot of people. I just don't have a sense yet of when we'll be able to roll that out.

Halemikale suggested we allow users to display their favorite NPR member stations on their profile. As you may have noticed, when you click the "Your Account" link that's displayed at the top right of any NPR.org while you're logged in, it lets you edit your list of favorite stations. So naturally, it would be great to have those stations listed on your profile page, and link to a page showing other users who've favorited those stations as well. We couldn't agree more. Later this fall, we'll add this feature to user profile pages. Not only will you be able to see other users who have favorited a particular station or network of stations, the stations will be able to take advantage of a number of community tools, like discussion boards, event listings and user-generated photo/video galleries. We also plan to create similar community groups for NPR-related programs and projects.

Meanwhile, betterliving, Eddie and A.J. all suggested that users be able to edit or preview their comments before posting them. Once again, I totally agree, but I'll have to talk with the developers to see how feasible this actually is. I think a lot of users would appreciate it, since we all occasionally mistype something and need to edit it. We just need to figure out if the tools we're using will allow for it. If not, I wouldn't hold my breath just yet.

One big question, though, would be whether this is simply a preview/edit function while you're creating your comment, or if you could go back at a later date and edit or remove your own comment. That one is tougher from an editorial perspective; some users have valid reasons for having a comment removed, but there's also the argument that it's a matter of public record and you should be held accountable for it. I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on this one, as it's a pretty big policy question.

Eddie also suggested that we find a way to allow for threaded discussions. "I would like to be able to respond specifically to individuals' comments," he said. "I know it works to do the @ thing, but I'm thinking something like the commenting structure at Engadget, where it indents responses." (The "@ thing" Eddie is referring to is the practice of beginning a comment with an @ symbol followed by the user's login name, as is customary on Twitter and other communities.) Unfortunately, the social networking software we're using doesn't have a threaded discussion option built into it. There might be a way for us to make it easier for users to quote a previous commenter, or at least link back to their original comment. I'll talk to the team and see what's feasible.

Here's a suggestion from DavidPots:

please add a way for us to add NPR stories to our "favorite" or "starred" (etc) story list! I assumed this would be the very first thing such a NPR service would add, and am a little bit bummed to see it isn't there (unless I'm missing something). Sharing NPR stories with friends is something I've wanted for so long; currently, the "Share..." button works well enough to send items to Facebook.

No, you're not missing something, but I think you're talking about two different, but related, things. At the top of a story page, users can click a "share" button that lets them send the story to Facebook, Digg, etc. Meanwhile, there's also a "recommend" button that lets them raise the profile of the story on our home page and elsewhere on the site. Unfortunately, we don't have the capability yet to allow the share tool to bookmark your favorite stories on your NPR.org profile, nor can you have your recommended stories appear on your profile page. But that doesn't mean they're not good ideas. We'll definitely look into it.

Over on Twitter, Knownhuman made another suggestion: "NPR matches you up with similar listeners based on what you've recommended, commented on!" That'd definitely be cool, no doubt about it. In some ways, this already takes place, albeit in a rudimentary way, when you click a favorite and see others who share that favorite. But what he's talking about is something more sophisticated - an algorithm that compares users' inputs on the site and matches them up based on those contributions. Certainly a killer idea, but our tools currently don't do that. We've talked about the idea on several occasions, though, so we'll continue to investigate if it's feasible eventually.

Lastly, users have made a lot of comments regarding the use of full names on the Web site. This is both a technical and an editorial issue, so I'm going to dedicate my next blog post to this topic. In the meantime, please let me know what you think about the suggestions I've discussed here, and feel free to make other suggestions of ways we can improve the site. Like it says on the community home page, we're merely in beta at this point, so we're just getting warmed up. :-)

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