The online version of USA Today has undergone a major redesign, adding a bunch of social features to allow readers to create a profile, write a blog, comment and vote on articles, upload images (citizen journalism-style), and send each other messages. The general response throughout the tech-blogosphere has been positive, but, perhaps unsurprisingly, many USA Today readers seem unhappy with the changes. As Mathew Ingram notes, "some people just don’t like change". My initial reaction is mixed.
Social features are a commodity, but community isn't and never will beWith regards to commenting on articles, I'm inclined to ask "what took them so long?". I've never understood why all online newspapers don't provide a way for readers to discuss what's been reported. Instead, commenting is often confined to the 'blog' sections of a paper or isn't allowed at all. Perhaps it's just easier to manage that way (in terms of spam or inappropriate comments), though more likely it's a reflection of the old-media tradition of keeping 'opinion' and 'news' separate, and where reader-feedback is consigned to the letters page.
Profiles are also welcome. I think there is a lot of value in letting readers (and editors) learn a little about the person who has left a comment, and reader-profiles are the best way of doing this. It follows on that readers should have a way of communicating directly with each other too.
Other features such as voting and blogging seem half done or misguided. Users are encouraged to 'recommend' an article by giving it a Digg-style thumbs up, but unlike the social news site, the votes don't appear to influence what appears on the front page -- so what's the point? Similarly, the ability for readers to write a blog, seems misguided, at least in the way it's been implemented. Why would I blog on USA Today? Am I being asked to become a citizen journalist for the paper? Do my posts have a chance of being aggregated to the front-page? And (as Steve Boywd asks) can I earn a share of revenue generated by my work? The same questions can also be asked with regards to the ability for readers to uploads images. Additionally (and this needs to be fixed immediately) there appears to be no RSS feed for reader blogs.
The redesign also raises an interesting question of where you draw the line between becoming a fully-fledged social network and simply adding social media features -- especially as we move into a post-social networking site era, where the software has become a commodity, and users run the risk of social network fatigue.
Of course I'd argue that every online newspaper should experiment with and add social features -- to create a two-way street. But the USA Today redesign is a reminder that online media should resist the urge to roll out any or all 2.0-style social features -- just because they can -- but should first think long and hard about what added value they want to bring to their readers, and what they can expect in return. Sure, social features are a commodity, but community isn't and never will be.