There’s been several questions and comments about the site over the last couple of days, so I thought it would be a good time to do a very meta but thorough description of what it’s all about and how things work.
The overall goal of the site is to give neighbors a place to read, post, and discuss various topics about the CD and its immediate surroundings. There’s a lot of stuff that happens around here that doesn’t get mentioned in the major papers or on TV. We hope this site can fill that gap. But unlike most blogs, the site is designed so that anyone can participate. We don’t want it to be just me or cdguy posting stories. We want anyone with something interesting to say to be able to log in and create a story, including pictures, videos, or documents if they’re available. All it takes to join is an email address, and it’s really easy to post things to the site. If you’re not a member, just go to the signup page to create your account.
Now obviously if anyone can post anything, over time you’ll get content of wildly varying quality. The question then is how do you highlight the good stuff for readers and allow people to avoid the bad? We have two mechanisms. The first is editorial controls that are currently only held by myself and cdguy. When someone first posts a story, it doesn’t show up on the front page of the site. But anyone can still find it in chronological order on the stories page. We then have the option of taking those stories and promoting them to the front page of the site.
There’s no hard and fast rules about what will get promoted. It’s a very subjective judgement call on our part. First of all it needs to be of interest to the larger community. And there’s also a variety of stylistic things that could be taken into account. For example, it needs to be generally well-written because we don’t want poorly written stories to reflect poorly on the overall site. STORIES IN ALL CAPS will never be promoted because I just don’t like to look at it. Cut-and-paste jobs from forwarded emails or press releases are not very likely to get promoted. We expect people to take a few minutes to write things in their own words and with the proper context for people who might be unfamiliar with the issue at hand. Direct appeals for money or commercial messages, even if well-intentioned, usually won’t be promoted.
If you’ve got a link to another story or something you’d like to share, please post it as a story. But make it interesting – do more than just include the link. Give people a good summary of what you’re linking to, and try to excerpt the most important points.
The second way we manage content is by listening to the larger community of users. Anyone who joins the site can rate content with 1 to 5 stars. What that means is up to the person rating it. If you think a post is interesting and you’d like to see more like them, give it 5 stars. If you felt like it was a waste of time and you’d rather not see something like that again, give it 1 star. If it was something that was spam or completely offensive in a racist or threating way, then click the “report abuse” link instead. The more you in the community participate to rate things, the more we can develop automated algorithms to promote or even delete content based on your input. And you can even subscribe to a list of the top-rated content using the browse tools of the stories page.
The rating system applies to comments too. It’s not a new thing in the world of the internet. It was probably pioneered on sites like Slashdot, but has since spread to a number of different places. The problem with online discussions is that they tend to get out of hand. People make off-topic comments, or you get trolls who only participate with the purpose of annoying the other users of the site. So we use the 5-star ratings to give the community control over discussions. If enough people give a comment a low rating, the system will start to hide the text of the comment. It’s still accessible to anyone, but they have to click a link to expand it. A reader just pointed out that there’s a bug in the system because a hidden comment doesn’t get un-hidden if the votes for it improves. We’re working on fixing that. And the underlying algorithms will need tweaking over time to make sure the system is working in the best way possible. But there’s nothing malicious about the system or the way it is designed to work.
And once again the way comments are rated is up to the person doing the rating. Five-stars could be “I agree” or “Great point”. One star could be “I hate all caps” or “that offends me.” But the real reason is up to the individual rater.
As editors, we also have the ability to completely delete content so that no one will see it. That’s something we’ve only had to do a couple of times, and is generally limited to spam and explicitly racist or threatening content. There’s some things that have come close recently, and they’ve tended to be in the area of “I think you [black|white|asian|hispanic|rich|poor] people are messing up MY neighborhood”. So please be careful of that kind of overtly divisive talk or we might get more aggressive with the delete button. After all, no one wants to hear their neighbors say that they are unwanted in their own neighborhood.
Someone made the point that most neighborhood discussion forums don’t work this way with ratings and the community-generated nature of it. That’s true and it’s intentional. We’re trying to do something new here that hasn’t been done before on a neighborhood scale. And that by itself makes it inherently experimental. Over time we’ll find that some things work and some don’t and we’ll make changes as necessary. In the meantime, if you’ve got an opinion or suggestion, please let us know.
Finally, we really want as many people as possible to be active participants on the site. So if you’ve been just a reader so far, please become a member and add your own ratings to the things you read. And don’t be afraid to become a poster too. If something interests you, it’s likely to interest other people too, so speak up and create a story about it. And if you’ve got a local business or spot that you’d like to share with your neighbors, please make use of our new reviews system and post a review for whatever place you’re passionate about.
Thanks to everyone for participating over the last several months, and we hope to hear a lot more from all of you in the months to come! And if you have an questions about the site, please leave a comment below.
And P.S. – This site isn’t our full-time job. We spend most of our time writing the software that this site runs on. In many ways, centraldistrictnews.com is like our beta testing platform where we can play with our creation and see how things work in the real world. But if anyone else is interested in setting up a similar site, you can do so at instantjournalist.com.