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May 31 2007 3:22 PM

Fix-the-Fray Blog

Updates on our project to repair the Slate message boards.

(Continued from Page 3)

—Daniel Engber

Let's talk about user ratings. 


OK, I'll admit this wasn't a well-designed poll. First, it's not clear whether the rating systems listed would be applied by users or by Fray editors. Does "checkmarks only" refer to the status quo—in which the Fray editors flag high-quality posts—or to some newfangled arrangement where users hand out their own checkmarks? And would "no ratings at all" mean stripping away all the stars and checkmarks we have now?

That said, it's clear that well over half of the respondents favored a new system of rating posts, in addition to the editors' picks.

Among active Fraysters, sentiment against user ratings has been building since we first discussed the possibility last year. Their concern makes a lot of sense: A rating system makes us vulnerable to packs of like-minded individuals, who could bid up their own posts and swamp those of their enemies. Social cliques and political blocs might develop disproportionate power, and brilliant writers who happen to have unpopular views could sink into an obscurity of negative ratings.

But the arguments in favor of such a system are too important to ignore. Right now, the Fray is full of lively and thoughtful discussion, but it's almost impossible for newbies to find it. Editors can flag a handful of quality posters and posts, but they can look at only a small sample of the new content that pops up every day.  They have even less time to prune the boards of posts that are downright abusive or obscene.

We can solve this problem by giving Fraysters the chance to recommend good messages and mark bad ones. The point here would be to make the site easier to navigate, not to rate every post on some arbitrary numerical scale (like one to five stars). That's why we're going to have just two options: recommended and not recommended. We're not interested in nuanced judgments about the quality of a post; we just want to know whether it's worth reading. We want users to recommend a message if it's particularly interesting or thoughtful, and recommend against if it's irrelevant or abusive. And for posts that are anywhere in between, we'd rather see no rating at all.

Of course there will be those who exploit the user ratings to critique an argument they don't agree with or to boost up the visibility of their friends. We expect the system will be more useful in some forums than in others. Polarizing political topics, for example, will surely get more than their share of ratings hacks. But for the rest of the Fray, the recommendations should prove to be a valuable navigation tool.