Times People: Another Social Network for Adults

Times PeopleThe New York Times* just soft-launched “Times People,” a simple and compelling social networking tool. By following other Times People users you can see stories they recommend, their ratings of movies and restaurants, and their comments on stories and blog posts. In turn people following you can see your Times activity. I’ve been using it for a few weeks, and I love it.

It’s available right now as a Firefox plugin; support for other browsers may come later. There’s also a Facebook app, which ties Times People into your mini-feed.

While I applaud the decision to keep this first release dead simple, I hope it evolves into a proper profile system for the Times, and replaces the existing “member center,” which needs to be put out to pasture.

The Times has launched some cool stuff lately, and this is by far my favorite. It’s elegantly straightforward and truly useful. Unlike most social networks, where adding to your contact list doesn’t give you much more than the queasy sense of being an acquisitive stalker**, your Times People network gives you something immediately useful, in the form of great stuff to read.

*I work at the Times, but wasn’t involved with this, other than as fanboy. The project was lead by Derek Gottfrid, the same guy who wrote TimesMachine.

** One reason Wordie doesn’t have ‘friends.’ Everybody stalks everybody.

Takes All Types

One more digression: Takes All Types is the best Facebook app I’ve ever seen. It takes our social networks and uses them as the basis for a national blood donation network. Sign up, let them know your blood type, and they’ll notify you when blood is needed in your area. Such a simple idea, but so powerful.

Now back to our regularly scheduled programming.

The New York Times Should Be a Social Network

The New York Times web site has gotten much better in the past year, but that hasn’t stopped their stock price from sinking like they have rocks in their pockets. And the sale of the Wall Street Journal shows that family ownership is no bulwark against predatory forces.

To survive in recognizable form the Times needs to accelerate their transition from a newspaper company to an information company. They need to find a sustainable business model before someone buys them and either remakes the company in their own image, or bleeds it dry.

One important step they should take: become a social network.

Social networks benefit from an organizing principle. MySpace sprang from the natural aggregators of bands and music, Facebook from academic communities. News as an organizing principle is potentially larger and stickier than either of those, and has the potential to foster a more engaged, less inane community, a social network for adults. In the real world the Times already facilitates social networking: people talk about what’s in the news, and they especially talk about what’s in the Times.

There has been an enormous amount of me-too bandwagoneering around social networks, but in the case of the Times this move makes strategic sense, and can be accomplished gracefully and incrementally. First, allow users to create public profiles, tied to their comments and other site activities. Allow comments on news stories as well as blog posts. Let readers vote up good comments, à la Amazon (and USA Today). Let readers create and join interest groups, and talk to each other.

In practice the Times would be a confederacy of networks. The people talking about books on Paper Cuts and about parenting on Judith Warner’s blog would not be the same polemicists attacking each other on the op-ed pages. This is a good thing. With the depth of content on the Times, there’s something for everyone.

Two things they should not change: the requirement that commenters register, and editorial oversight of comments. The air of gravitas that hangs over the Times is a feature, not a bug, and high standards are and should remain a positive differentiator.

How does journalism fit into this? As it always has: professional journalism should remain the heart of the Times endeavor. But creating an ecology of engaged readers around the professional content could significantly extend the Times reach, raise traffic levels, and create the possibility for significant new revenue streams. A social networking strategy works hand in hand with the Times historic mission of democratizing information, and it would dovetail nicely with recent experiments like My Times.

Other changes that should accompany this shift:

  • Nix mandatory registration. The slight benefit it offers (to advertisers; it doesn’t benefit readers at all) is far outweighed by the downsides. Create an engaging network and people will register on their own.
  • Get people who have led successful Internet companies on the board and in senior management. See my previous post on Marc Andreessen’s piece (which is what got me thinking about all this in the first place).
  • Enter the local news arena. Partner with the likes of Outside.in, EveryBlock, or my employer, Curbed.com. The web excels at local and neighborhood information, and there are ad dollars to be had. Again this would work nicely with My Times.
  • Seriously improve search. Partner with Google.

Right now NYTimes.com traffic is dwarfed by MySpace and Facebook. The Times has national and international reach, fantastic content, and an incredible brand. It can and should be one of the most popular sites on the web, rather than the 201st, which is where Alexa ranks it today.

There is a way out of the morass of the past year, and social networking, with the benefits it would bring to both readers and the company, is one step towards it.

The iPhone and the Death of Social Media

This post actually has nothing to do with social media, its death, or the iPhone, I just thought a sensational title that was also a transparent lie would drive traffic*. What this is really about is pimping my own post in the Silicon Alley Insider. Which is not a transparent lie (neither the fact of the post, nor its contents), but it is, like the title above, a naked, grasping attempt to drive traffic to Wordie/Errata, and to get my name in a blog I like.

* This will be the title of all Errata posts from now on.

Unsocial Sites

Here’s a cautionary tale about how social sites can lose their way, and then their audience. The writer abandoned Digg for Reddit, then Reddit for Fark. Wordie is small and intended for a specific audience, but still, it’s social software, and it’s growing, so it’s good to think about these things. Hopefully we as a community can avoid the kind of mistakes that Digg in particular made. Better to have a smaller community of, you know, brilliant, witty (and very good looking, I’m sure!) people, than appeal to a brazillion trolls. Thanks to npydyuan for the link.

Wordie hearts Facebook

I just added Facebook as an “also on” service, so you can connect your Facebook profile to your Wordie profile. I registered for Facebook a while ago and ignored it until it exploded recently, but I quickly got addicted once I realized that practically everyone I’ve met in the last five years is on there. I was late to this party, but it’s amazing to see that it actually sort of lives up to the hype. Unlike, say, MySpace, which I loathe, or LinkedIn, the suburban corporate office park of social networks. Or even Twitter, which is rad, but even more pointless than Wordie. Which is part of the appeal of both, I suppose.

It brings up a question, though. I plan on building a Wordie Facebook app in the coming weeks. I could just port over the existing blog widgets, and may, as a sort of warmup. But an app that takes better advantage of the platform might be more fun. I have some ideas percolating, but would love to hear suggestions. I’m thinking of something that would tie into both the friend connections on Facebook, and the word connections on Wordie, and that was simple and fun to boot, is the direction we should look in. If anyone has any brilliant ideas, please post them in the comments.