Connecting people to people

The missing link in the concept of “community” on news organizations’ Web sites: Who are these people? New media consultant Marshall Kirkpatrick says you can add the necessary social glue without trying to look like a cheesy Facebook imitator:

… instead of adding a social network to their site, they should just add rich user profile pages, site-mail (user-to-user messaging) and the ability for users to track each other’s content. Add personal publishing to this list … and what have you got? All the useful traits of a social network, without the Yet Another Social Network baggage.

What this affords is an automatic accountability filter. If “Mr. Z” is always talking trash in the comments on your site, that’s going to be obvious to anyone who clicks his name on the comment — because the click will lead straightaway to his user profile, where you can see links to all his previous trash.

Kirkpatrick suggests that instead of trying to reinvent the wheel, you should use one of the “white label social network vendors” such as Ning.

I see the profile system working very well on sites such as Yelp — where, before a recent trip to New York, I checked out all the Chinatown recommendations by one very prolific reviewer there, Genevieve D. She seems quite credible to me because of the variety of reviews she has posted and the specific comments she makes. (Thanks to her, I ate a delicious roti canai and bought a jar of coconut egg jam to bring home.)

Howard Owens wrote a good post on the same topic earlier this week: Real identity helps foster healthy online communities. He goes a little further than I would and says the news organization ought to require real identities and not allow handles or pseudonyms. I’m not in favor of that, because we don’t live in small towns anymore. If you want to have a real conversation about, for example, the U.S. immigration questions, you’re going to freeze out too many voices if they have to use their real names.

I think the high value of open debate trumps the need to know exactly who the speaker is. I don’t need to know Genevieve D.’s real name to judge her accuracy and reliability on the topics she has chosen to write about. Her consistent online identity as “Genevieve D.” allows me to judge how credible she is.

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