NY Times Does Social Bookmarking with TimesPeople

The New York Times is starting to push a new social bookmarking service called TimesPeople. It’s intended to make it easier for users of its site to share and recommend news stories with each other. I’m not sure if they’re rolling this out in buckets (selected subsets of users) or to specific users (or only users who have registered, etc.) but I thought the user experience was pretty interesting so I took some screen shots.

You can see here that they’re pushing users pretty hard to check out TimesPeople. They’ve placed a banner on top of every page with the option to join. You can also click on “No, thanks” to get rid of the banner. On my laptop I accidentally clicked on “No thanks” without reading it because it looked like an ad or a survey request; I’m not sure how to get it back now that I’ve signed up on another computer.

Clicking on the “What’s this?” link gets you this explanation (in a dynamic HTML pop-up). The description is pretty concise and simple, but I suspect for social networking novices who send each other links to stories today via email, this isn’t going to be quite enough to convey the benefit of TimesPeople up front.

The next step after you click on the “Get Started” button is to “sign up”, although this isn’t really a signup, you’re really just associating a permanent screen name and location to the account that you’re presumably already logged in as.

After you’ve signed up you get the ubiquitous contact import page which lets you get your contacts from the big three contact stores that provide third-party contact APIs (Google, Yahoo, and Windows Live) using each services’ token-based authentication so you don’t have to give the times your Gmail or Yahoo password, which is good. There are also options to view other stuff such as “Activity,” “News Feed,” etc.

Eureka! Out of my 1000+ contacts it found three people. One of them happens to be me, whoops. The other two are people I’m not sure I know because TimesPeople uses the maddening practice (also used by social sites like Goodreads) of only using peoples’ first names. Is this a privacy tactic? Do people really trust sites more if they think their first name is going to be published online, and does the gigantic usability hit make up for the perceived increase in privacy?

Clicking on the navigational links is pretty unsatisfying. There’s no indication of what I’m supposed to do and it doesn’t give me any clue as to what “activities” are or why I’d want them. (“Activities” — hmm. Seems like a synonym for “work” to me.)

Clicking on News Feed says I also have no activities. Are Activities and News Feed items the same thing? And hey, while we’re at it, you’re the newspaper, you’re the one who’s supposed to be giving me the news. If I have nothing in my news feed it’s your fault.

Clicking on “Following” and “Followers” also gives me nada, although the display (“1-1”?) changes. At this point I’m starting to get the sense that this thing is broken.

OK, then, now we’re getting somewhere, sorta. I should have clicked on “Live Snapshot” (one of the least prominent links on the page) to get the sweet, sweet news I was looking for. Here it looks like they’ve given us a feed of stories recommended by people who are probably not my friends (the word “strangers” seems so judgemental). I wonder why they don’t just give you this in the (seemingly common) case when you don’t yet have any friends on TimesPeople to swap story recommendations with?

So even though I don’t yet have any connections to friends on the site, maybe it’s possible to go through the rest of the site and recommend stories to my soon-to-be contacts. When you’ve signed up for TimesPeople you get what appears to be a permanent toolbar on the top of each page which provides links to settings, My Activity, and contacts. Clicking on an unassuming (and unlabeled) arrow on that toolbar causes box containing Latest Activity to pop up, which is profoundly unimpressive if you don’t actually have any activity. Again, I’m a pretty sophisticated user, and at this point I still don’t know what Activity is, why it’s useful, or how to get some.

Most maddeningly, the money shot for TimesPeople — the ability to actually recommend stories — is nowhere to be seen in this new toolbar. They stuck it in an unbelievably subtle place — the little link box used to print, email, and comment on stories. The “RECOMMEND” link gives you no sense that you’re “recommending” this story to your TimesPeople friends (because it doesn’t say TimesPeople anywhere) and you don’t have the ability to add anything to the link (like tags, comments, etc.) after you recommend it — it just pops into your list of links and presumably pops up on your friends’ toolbars. If you have any friends. Sniff.

Once you figure out how to recommend a story, now this bad boy is starting to make sense — it displays the story you recommended on the TimesPeople toolbar, and that “Latest Activity” drop-down that was annoyingly blank before is now starting to flower into usefulness. Should it be displaying stories that you recommended to yourself? I guess so, that gives you a sense that it’s working, sort of like social networking scrubbing bubbles.

So overall, I think this is an interesting new foray into the area of social bookmarking by the NY Times. There are definitely a few rough edges to this, but nothing that couldn’t be polished fairly easily. The big problem (as with all social features) is attracting a critical mass of users. It’s not going to be very interesting to me to use this kind of walled-garden bookmarking service if I can’t share it with anyone, anywhere, and it’s always very difficult to compete with copying and pasting something into email (or posting it to Twitter as I more often do these days). Ultimately I would find it much more interesting to have a single-click to save a story to any destination (currently the NY Times supports a related “Share” feature that targets LinkedIn, Digg, Facebook, Mixx, Yahoo! Buzz). I had a strong urge to customize this box (to get rid of sites that I don’t use for sharing like LinkedIn and Mixx, write adaptors for sites that I do use like Tinyurl, Twitter and Ma.gnolia). Having this would also enable me to reclaim the approximately 36 pixels of vertical space on the page that needs to be sacrificed to TimesPeople.

Another thing I’d love to see with this is the ability to have semi-private discussion threads associated with saved bookmarks. I’m constantly disappointed by the fairly mindless tenor of comments on the NY Times site, and the fact that most of America reads the paper three hours before I even wake up means that nearly any story on the site has about 150 mostly dumb comments on it before I even hit the “comment” link. If I could restrict the comments to only people I know (the way Facebook does), I’d read and write comments a whole lot more.