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Changing online communities: 10 good questions with The Coral Project’s Greg Barber

The Coral Project aims to change how publishers, contributors and readers think about interacting in online communities — and it wants to do so with anyone interested.

headshotThe project, funded by a grant from The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, is a collaborative, open-source effort led by The Washington Post, The New York Times and Mozilla. It’s designed to further opportunities for online engagement, extending beyond comments into conversations and contributor contributions. Since the project was announced in June 2014, team members have been solidifying project details and conducting research. The team is currently in the hiring process but plans to soon begin coding software.

The goal of the open-source software is to enable publishers to better manage contributions and understand contributors. The project also aims to build stronger relationships between contributors and publishers to create a better online environment for all. The other goal of the project’s efforts will be a set of best practices for approaching these interactive spaces and integrating them into newsroom culture.

We talked with Washington Post lead Greg Barber, who’s also working on the project’s strategies and partnerships, about the latest developments on the project. Among other things, he discusses what the goals of the project are, how it will change how people approach interactivity and whom they’re working with to make this happen.

What’s the goal of The Coral Project?

We’re looking at The Coral Project from three perspectives. One is the publisher’s perspective, so ensuring the publishers are able to manage and scale their interactive spaces in ways that further their goals. We’ve been talking for the past year with publishers large and small, and one of those goals that we’ve heard a lot about is connecting with audiences — actually making personal connections and growing audience loyalty. That’s one of the things we want to be able to support, is helping publishers understand who are the most thoughtful contributors in their audiences, understand which users are their most trusted users, and then to be able to deepen and strengthen the relationships they have with those users.

The other perspectives are contributors and readers. We want to allow them to manage their contributions and also manage their identities, and have a much more equal standing in their relationship with the publishers.

They’ll be building a personality. They’ll be able to really connect. We want to facilitate that.

Where we think that is going to help increase quality is that contributors will then have something of value that they’re creating rather than scrawling notes on blades of grass. They’ll be potentially building something in the same way that they can on Twitter and in other social media. They’ll be building a personality. They’ll be able to really connect. We want to facilitate that.

Then, for readers, what they’ve been telling us they want out of comments sections and other interactive spaces is something that gives more depth on the news and how real people react to it, interact with it, and real stories that people have. What we want to be able to do is facilitate that for readers — create a more civil space, a more interesting space, more fun space for readers to get deeper into stories and learn more about the world.

What will the end product be?

The end product will be in two pieces. One is open-source software; we want to create software that actually allows publishers to better manage their contributions and better understand and sort their contributors. It’s going to be a federated series of apps that talk to each other though APIs, with the goal there being that publishers could decide to take everything we’ve created and use it all together, or take pieces of what we’ve created and use them separately with the technology that they already have.

The other piece is the new best practices. The more that we’ve talked with publishers and others about interactivity, the more that we understand that it’s not just a software problem. It’s also a people problem. It’s also a problem that needs to be approached by evolving newsroom culture and approaching these interactive spaces in a different way, in a more strategic way. We want to work together with publishers to crowdsource the best kinds of new best practices that we can to get us thinking more strategically about interactive spaces. What do we want out of them? What’s best for readers? What’s best for contributors? To take another look at what we’ve been doing in interactivity and improve it.

What is your role?

I have a dual role within the project. I’m The Washington Post’s lead on the project, which means that I’m the connection between the project and The Washington Post’s newsroom. I’m also doing work for the project on strategies and partnerships, so that means that I’ve been working with our project lead, Andrew Losowsky, on what the day-to-day at Coral would look like; he’ll be leading that. I’ve also been talking with publishers, contributors, readers, developers, designers, community managers and other folks interested in the space to make sure we’ve got as wide a view of the challenges in this space as possible and that we are setting ourselves up to best be able to approach it.

You’ve talked about about how three principles — transparency, consistency and authenticity — are guiding the creation process. How will these shape a better product?

I think that authenticity in communication is one of the hallmarks we’ve tried to do here. We’ve been trying to communicate throughout the process exactly what we’re doing — this is also transparency — and what our goals are. We hope to be able to make all of that even more apparent as we hire our team because one of the roles that we’re filling is a community lead role, and that person’s job is going to be ensuring that we’re communicating as transparently as possible about what we’re up to, but then also try to host a conversation about interactivity so that all of the brilliant people who we’ve met throughout this process, and brilliant people we haven’t met yet, can get together and try to help us strike one for the whole industry.

Where are you currently in the creation process?

We’re at the stage where we’re hiring our team; we’ve hired Losowsky. He came to us after several stints at places like News Corp and The Huffington Post. He’s been a digital thinker for many years and really blew us away. He is attacking his role with zest and gusto. One of the things that he’s got on his plate straight away is hiring the rest of our team. Once we have those folks in place, then it’s onto bringing on developers. Hopefully, then we start coding as soon as we can.

Can you talk about the research you’re conducting for this project?

We’ve worked with Machine, a consultancy company in New York, and they helped us to do market research, but also audience research. We (Machine, with us helping out) talked with quite a few publishers, some readers and some contributors and asked questions: What are their concerns? What are their needs? What are their challenges? For the contributors and the readers, what did they want out of interactive spaces, and what kinds of relationships do they want to have with news organizations?

In what we got back, the contributors were contributing to participate and have their voices heard, to become a part of the conversation. In a lot of cases, the contributors were telling us they really did want to hear back from journalists, thought leaders and other folks deep in the topic they were discussing. It was a way to get deeper into the conversation, to get deeper into the topic, to understand more about the news and to bat around ideas. They were really excited to be able to do that to the extent that the news organizations they were interacting with allowed them to do that; they found that really heartening.

Readers told us that they were looking for more depth and character around the news. One of the things that did for me is get me thinking about the commenting and reading experience as two separate experiences. It isn’t necessarily that we want to take comment readers and turn them into commenters. In some research that we did here at The Washington Post, we asked readers what it would take to get them to become a commenter, and some of them said, “You’ll never get me to do that. I’m not interested in that. I’m much more interested in reading.” So thinking about it that way — that there are people who are just looking to consume the interactivity as content — was really interesting to me because I hadn’t thought of it that way.

We have two Knight-Mozilla Fellows, Tara Adiseshan and Francis Tseng, and they are both working on research projects. Francis came to us after having done some work on his own on comment quality and trying to measure the quality of contributions that came into comment threads, so he comes already having done some work there.

How do you expect The Coral Project will change how comments are moderated?

Hopefully, working with publishers, we’ll be able to change a lot of things about how we approach interactivity — coming at it from the perspective of thinking about interactive spaces more strategically, thinking about interactive spaces less as reactive, necessarily, on the user side. My hope would be that publishers would approach an interactive space by thinking, what are our goals here? Is it that we would like to give a space for contributors to be able to opine about a topic? Would we like to give a space for contributors to give us their personal stories about a topic? Are we just looking for an up-down vote, and in that case, would maybe a poll be a better solution here than a comment thread?

That’s one of the things that has me very excited about the community we’re hoping to build around interactivity and around Coral. We want to be able to bring community managers together so that we can try to come up with solutions that help bring us all into a better space.

One of the other things we want to do is that if publishers understand who their most thoughtful contributors are, then we can change the whole paradigm of how we manage contributions. What we’d be able to do is say, OK, these are our trusted users. Once we understand who those folks are, we can give them special assignments. We can ask them for multimedia if they happen to be in a place where they would be potentially experiencing a news event.

We want to be able to bring community managers together so that we can try to come up with solutions that help bring us all into a better space.

One of the other things that we can do is, by creating a paradigm, we are rewarding thoughtful contributions. We can improve the tenor of the contributions we get overall. If someone walks into a pie fight, they’re likely to pick up a pie; if they walk into a thoughtful discussion and they see the way to have their contributions noticed and validated is to contribute something thoughtful, then they’ll be more likely to do that.

One of the things we’ve noticed at the Post is when we reach out to a contributor who might have violated our discussion policy and say, “Hey, what you’ve done is actually a violation of our discussion policy; we don’t really allow that,” in a lot of cases, when we do that with a bit of a personal touch rather than something that’s automated, or just banning a user, we find that it actually changes behavior.

What if we were able to do that preemptively — instead of taking up all that staff time with vetting, emails and all of that, spend more time looking at and highlighting the best contributions, and showing users that thoughtful contributions are the way to get our attention and the way to be validated? That creates something really valuable for a user, and in the end, more thoughtful content creates something more valuable for publishers.

The Coral Project needs to be widely used to make a difference. How do you plan to get media organizations to adopt the software?

By letting them know as soon as possible what they’d be getting. We’ve been talking with a lot of publishers one-on-one. We’ve been at different conferences, and we’re planning to roll out a digital presence that’s going to allow publishers to see what we’re building, what our goals are, and understand how what we build could interact with their digital property.

What we also want to do is open-source our process in addition to open-sourcing our product. We want to allow publishers as early as possible to be able to see what we’re working on, to get it from GitHub, to test it in their spaces. We’re working with publishers to formalize that a bit, so that we have publishers outside of The New York Times and The Washington Post who are testing what we’ve got from the beginning.

We don’t want anything to be a giant surprise; we want publishers to be involved from the beginning of the process and to help us make the software we create, the best practices we come up with, as good as they can be.

We’re looking at Coral as being bigger than comments. Comments are one form of interactivity. When done properly, they’re a perfectly decent one, but they’re not the only one, and I think they’re an overused one. What we’d really like is to work with publishers on creating more nuanced interactive spaces so that we can connect with users in a way that makes sense given the topic at hand or the goal of the experience we want to create. I don’t think that a publisher having shut off comments necessarily means that they’re not interested in hearing from their users. I certainly hope not.

How do you plan to educate online communities about posting content?

Where we may come up with some ideas for publishers through The Coral Project, it’s really going to be up to the publisher to decide what the tone of their community spaces should be and how they want to interact with users. We want to give publishers tools that will make that process as effective and efficient as possible, but it’s the publisher relationship with readers and contributors that we’re really hoping to bolster here.

What’s next for The Coral Project, and if people or organizations want to get involved, how can they do that?

We’re hiring our team, so people can get involved in a very direct way by applying for a job. You can find all of our job postings at coralproject.net. Anyone who’s interested in hearing more about the project should sign up for our newsletter. We’re also on Twitter.

We’re developing some software. We hope to begin coding over the summer, then testing some things. We want to have an iterative process, an open process of what we’re building, what we should build. We also want to facilitate discussion about how to improve interactivity on the Internet.

Certainly what we’ve been hearing from publishers is that they’re excited about being able to evolve these spaces. Publishers generally understand the importance of connecting with users. It’s one of the things that makes us different from aggregators or social media, taken as a whole: We’re people. We’re people users can interact with. We can use what we learn from contributors and readers to drive our journalism forward, to ask better questions, to talk to that person or that civic leader we might not have thought to talk to if it hadn’t been for this. Interactive spaces can be a tremendous opportunity for users, for people who don’t work in journalism, to influence what we do in journalism. We’re excited, publishers are excited about the prospect of being able to dig into those spaces and make them work as well as we hope they can.

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