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    TimesPeople a Puzzling Piece of NYT Development

    by Ryan Sholin
    June 20, 2008

    TimesPeople is the beginning of a social network from the New York Times.

    Sort of.

    It’s a pleasant interface and a clever application, living in the browser as a Firefox add-on that doesn’t get in the way of my NYT browsing.

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    It’s simple: Hit the recommend button on any story or blog post and a link shows up in your activity stream and your friends can see that you recommended a story. The app is supposed to notice when I rate a restaurant or add a comment to a story, too, although I don’t see that happening after a quick test this morning.

    And that’s all it does.

    Which isn’t much.

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    Here’s a short list of features I’d like to see — After this list, I’ll get to the point of this post by pointing out where you can find all these features in different social applications, some of which are already running at the NYT site.

    1. The ability to recommend links from anywhere on the Web, perhaps via a bookmarklet.
    2. The ability to comment on recommendations, a la Friendfeed.
    3. Show us the Most Recommended links (today, all-time, this week, etc.)
    4. Show us blog posts that reference our recommended links.

    OK, now the reveal: NYTimes.com already does most of this, if not all of it.

    TimesFile is a social bookmarking tool that allows you to “Save” stories from NYTimes.com, tag them, view a list of most recommended links, and — wait for it — bookmark links from anywhere on the Web using a bookmarklet.

    If TimesFile and TimesPeople were integrated, that would take care of #1 and #3 on my list.

    (Judging by the .JSP extension on the TimesFile pages, I’m not going to hold my breath waiting for that integration to happen, although it should be easy enough to export the XML feed of a user’s saved bookmarks to the People activity feed, right?)

    The second item on my list doesn’t seem to be hiding anywhere, although the TimesPeople FAQ mentions it as a possibility down the road.

    But the data behind #4 exists at the Annotated New York Times, a product of BlogRunner, a company the NYT bought a couple years back. I’ve mentioned it before, usually in the context of being puzzled over why they don’t link back to the blogs that reference their stories.

    I’m still puzzled about that, but perhaps the TimesPeople app might be a nice place to allow users to opt in. If I’m interested enough in a story to recommend it to my friends, odds are I would read a blog post or two that continues the discussion.

    So what’s the verdict?

    Hey, this is fun, and here I am spending more time at the NYT site than I usually would, but these disparate threads of development really need to be tied together to be useful enough to keep me coming back.

    I’m glad to see developers working in their labs and turning out applications, trying new things, but if any of these are going to last, long-term, it might make sense to choose a platform and stick with it, making it marginally easier to put the puzzle together when they find the features that stick with users.

    Ryan Sholin is thinking hard about iterative Web development and choosing the right platform for a social network while he builds ReportingOn, his Knight News Challenge project.

    Tagged: new york times social networking timespeople web development
    • I’d also like to see an easy, generic way to share stories and sites discovered on mobile phones such as the iPhone, Treo or Blackberry.

      “Bookmarklets” in toolbars don’t work on these platforms. There’s a hack for this via del.icio.us, but it’s clunky and not created specifically for a phone’s form factor.

      This kind of feature may be a little narrow, but maybe not after the new iPhone comes out on July 11. It’s not just about the iPhone — in general I think more and more media consumption is happening on mobile devices. iPhone interfaces (and similar interfaces on other devices) will only fuel that fire.

      The problem with mobile is that, aside from text messaging and some clunky e-mail gateways, it’s still very focused on consumption. Participation, especially in a community setting, is a lot harder. This seems like the perfect area for a company with international appeal like the New York Times to exploit.

      I should add — the New York Times has one of the best mobile sites around, so they clearly see the mobile opportunity. But I read and share content from everywhere. Making something generic is the key.

    • You make some good points, and I would say that what you see in TimesPeople is a starting point.

      The approach is to build something simple and fast. Wait and see what the response is, gather requests and determine the direction. It is a very iterative approach and avoids the longer process of investing a year (or more) in a product that has all the bells/whistles but misses the mark entirely.

      Next steps are still open, and in the coming days and weeks we’re going over both user response and the big picture in terms of where we go next.

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