A big thumbs up for the Daily Mail's comment rating system
I've been for some time meaning to write a series of blog posts along the lines of 'things I like about online newspapers' looking at what they do well, but I wanted to pre-empt that with a look at one thing in particular on the Mail's website. It is a very simple interaction that they added in December, but one that I think really enhances the site. I'm talking about the ability for users to give comments a virtual 'thumbs up' or 'thumbs down'.
It doesn't seem to have much functional impact - it doesn't reorder the comments for example, or allow users to block comments from being viewed, but it adds a whole layer of interactivity to the site which gives visitors a sense of the depth of feeling their audience has for an issue.
The number of comments an article attracts is one way of measuring user engagement with an article or editorial line, but the number of people who approve or disapprove of the views expressed takes this further. In this week's story about Carol Thatcher the level of approval for comments suggesting that the BBC had over-reacted to 'private' remarks showed an emphatic strength of feeling amongst Mail readers.
Users who expressed a contrary view, that the use of racist language, even in private, was unacceptable, received the 'thumbs down'.
However, users are not simply sheep following the Mail's editorial line. This week has seen another chapter in the paper's coverage of Jonathan Ross, where they have re-printed comments Gwyneth Paltrow gave to Elle magazine about her appearance on his show back in April 2008. Here, users, and their votes, are quite clear that this appears for them to be a tired and predictable re-hash of old news.
This is of a great value to the Mail. Their success has been built on being closely attuned to the interests and concerns of their audience. This system gives them a very quick way of measuring where that audience stands on particular issues. We are all familiar with the models that suggest that only a small percentage of users will leave a comment, but the voting system vastly increases that number.
On the Carol Thatcher story, at the time I took the screengrabs on Wednesday, there had been 125 comments published, but at least 54,000 'thumbs up' or 'thumbs down' votes received on the first page of comments alone - a staggering increase in interactivity. This is assisted by the fact that voting is 'light touch' - unlike the recommendations on the BBC's Have Your Say site, for example, you don't have to be registered with the Mail to participate.
The voting mechanism also empowers the audience to show their feelings about each other. On the same day that Carol Thatcher was in the news, the Mail was carrying a story about a sixteen year old who was killed in an accident whilst sledging in the snow. The first couple of comments left on the site were Richard Littlejohn style jokes about 'elf'n'safety. Other readers were able to quickly to show their disapproval that the teenagers tragic death was being used for political point-scoring.
Of course, like any online voting system, it is open to some abuse, but I really think it helps bring the comments on the Daily Mail site to life, and encourages a much wider range of online participation from the Mail's readership.
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