August 16th, 2007

The Huffington Post Allows Top Commenters To Become Bloggers

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The Huffington Post has unveiled a new comment system that allows top commenters to become featured bloggers on the site. I interviewed Arianna Huffington about the new system — our Q&A appears below. First, a few thoughts on the idea of promoting commenters to bloggers.

Every media company is experimenting with “user-generated content,” and comment-enabled content is now ubiquitous, but most media companies treat those “users” as an undifferentiated mass (as the distasteful term “user” implies) and the content they “generate” as one big bucket of “stuff.”

But the reality is that online publishers who have succeeded in creating a vibrant community of commenters, as the Huffington Post has, typically find that a relatively small number of highly active participants generate a disproportionate amount of the value — it’s striking how such self-organizing systems invariably create hierarchies. Comment may be free, but most people choose not to avail themselves of the opportunity — and of those that do, some are clearly better at it than others.

The Huffington Post has recognized the hierarchy that has naturally formed among their community of commenters and has created a system to elevate some of the top commenters to the position of blogger, where they can have a more powerful platform to create value for the rest of the community. (It’s worth noting that, while blogging has now gone mainstream at nearly every media company, just a year or two ago, most still turned their noses up — so it’s striking to see the role of blogger being held up as a privilege.)

I was, not surprisingly, intrigued by this approach. The Huffington Post could have stayed with the more traditional media model of only “anointing” bloggers who have the type of professional credentials that makes HuffPost’s stable of bloggers immediately recognizable as an impressive collection of voices. Or they could have taken the ideological Web 2.0 path and created an open system where anyone and everyone can have a blog on Huffington Post — which would likely have destroyed a lot of value because being a Huffington Post blogger would have ceased to mean anything.

Instead, they took a middle path, opening up an opportunity for ANYONE who actively comments on Huffington Post to become a blogger — but with one caveat…they have to EARN it. Or put another way — they are leveraging the power of the network, while still creating boundaries to channel value.

Here’s how the Huffington Post announced the new system:

The Huffington Post’s community of users has been one of the keys to our site’s success. Since launching in May 2005, we’ve received more than 2.7 million comments, posted by over 115,000 commenters. Our commenters have been active and engaged writers — and now they have the chance to become a featured HuffPost blogger.

Reading through the comments on our site, we realized that our commenters are a tremendous — and underutilized — resource. So we’ve created a process whereby we will choose one commenter a month to become part of our group blog.

Our decision will be based on how many fans a commenter has, how often their comment is selected as a Favorite, and our moderators’ preferences. Every comment now has an “I’m A Fan Of” link and a “Favorite” link, so start voting for the comments and commenters you like best. We will announce the first commenter-turned-HuffPost-blogger in the next few weeks.

Here is my Q&A with Arianna Huffington:

Publishing 2.0: What are the qualifications of a Huffington Post blogger? Is there a standard set of qualifications, or does it does it vary?

Arianna Huffington: There is no HuffPost blogger litmus test, per se – but we only invite people who have interesting points of view and the ability to express themselves in a compelling way.

P2: How will your new comment system enable you to identify people with the right qualifications to be a Huffington Post blogger?

Arianna: By using a “groupsourcing” method to highlight well-received commenters — from whom we’ll be able to choose new bloggers — we’re leveraging the power of the HuffPost community to serve as a filter, highlighting strong writers who have something to add to our group blog mix.

P2: Do you consider all or some Huffington Post bloggers to be journalists, specifically in the writing they do for Huffington Post? What are the hallmarks of Huffington Post journalism?

Arianna: Our bloggers are practicing opinion journalism, offering their takes on the top stories of the day – whether political, business, media, or entertainment. In our Living Now section, our bloggers offer takes on everything that effects our lives – relationships, health, spirituality, parenting, etc. We are also in the process of expanding our original reporting. And HuffPost is partnering with NYU’s Jay Rosen on OffTheBus.net, an initiative aimed at bringing in “citizen journalists” who can serve as a valuable resource in covering the ’08 Presidential campaign.

P2: Do you consider any of your top commenters to be acting “journalistically,” e.g. adding to the fact base of a story?

Arianna: Although it is not the usual role of a commenter, there are times when a commenter might add to the fact base of a story (that’s what happened with the commenters at Josh Marshall’s sites when they collectively helped move the US Attorney firing scandal story forward). But, in general, the real value of a commenter is similar to that of a blogger – the obsessive way in which he or she focuses on something that’s being overlooked by the mainstream media, relentlessly drawing attention to something until it can no longer be ignored.

P2: Do the roles of “commenter,” “blogger,” and “journalist” exist on a continuum, or is it more complicated than that?

Arianna: These are all different roles, especially if we define “journalist” in this context as someone who is doing actual reporting.

P2: What percentage of your active commenters would you expect to convert into bloggers? How does this fit with your long-term vision for the site?

Arianna: At the moment, the plan is to invite one commenter a month to become a blogger, but we are definitely open to adding many more. Our new comments platform is a win-win for HuffPost: it gives our community the opportunity to play an even more important role in our site, while also allowing us the chance to discover new bloggers who have already proven to be popular with our readers.

P2: Can other news organizations use a similar model to expand their staff of reporters or bloggers?

Arianna: Sure. One thing that we’ve seen throughout the growth of the blogosphere is that you can never tell where a great blogger will come from. People like Josh Marshall, Jane Hamsher, and Jeralyn Merritt were all pursuing other careers before they turned into star bloggers. That’s one of the greatest things about the Internet, it has brought down many of the traditional barriers that have kept people from reaching a mass audience or gaining entry into the traditional bastions of the mainstream media.

—–

I’m of course intrigued by a number of ideas in Arianna’s responses:

  • Promoting commenters to bloggers by using the community to “highlighting strong writers who have something to add” to the Huffington Post group blog
  • Bloggers as “opinion journalists”
  • Defining a journalist as someone who is doing actual reporting

It makes a whole lot of sense to use the community of readers and commenters to determine which commenters should become bloggers. Which leads me to wonder:

  • What does it take for a blogger to become an “opinion journalist”?
  • Can a blogger become a “journalist” by doing “actual reporting,” even if they don’t work for a media company and have no editor, no copy editor, and no staff of fact checkers?

What do you think?

  • ben12345

    I thinkit's a great idea, but it definitely brings into play major issues of moderation and fairness.

  • 75revenuesharingforum

    This sounds like a great idea!

  • Some commenters are just looking for a backlink to their site. So other blog owners treat them as spam. But they have to realize that commenting is a give and take relationship. Blog owner's increase in readership and increase in the search engine ranking at the same time giving backlinks to the commenter's blog or site that he/she is promoting.

  • There will always be people who are sceptical of new ideas but I think fair play to Huffington Post for embracing web 2.0. Some people don't care about being paid, they just want their voice heard. So if they want to talk and have interesting things to say then let them evangelise your site and become a blogger for you.

    Other news sites like Manchester Evening News in the UK have a high activity rate in terms of comments, so it should take note of what Huffington Post is doing. In times like this when social media outlets such as Twitter and Facebook are becoming just as important than the traditional marketing avenues then the thing to do is to embrace it.

    Nice work Huffington Post!

  • The problem with this system is that the masses nominate the bloggers - which, as one post commented- leads to a male, white skewing in voices. In most online communities dissenting voices of a certain type are often shunned. I find this particularly prevalent when feminist women question the sexism, (or racism), inherent in a liberal discussion dominated by white men. Some white men will be loathe to favorably vote for the dissenting voice's comment, especially if they have been called out for their sexism. This further enforces the status quo, even amongst left leaning communities. This needs to be addressed for a fair blogging community to be established.

    I find a similar problem with online reviews on amazon.com. I write quite a few customer reviews, and Amazon uses a similar system as Huffington Post to nominate popular reviewers (those with the most useful votes) to various titles like "Vine Reviewer".

    I've noticed, quite clearly, that what garners the most useful votes for a review is not the content, but if your review is positive and not negative. No matter how well written, I will always get more useful votes if I said I liked the book or movie. Critiques are never as popular as supportive, fluffy reviews. This leads to people who like everything and gush about everything in a review to garner the most useful review votes.

    These systems are obviously flawed, and valid critique sinks to the bottom...

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