Updates on our project to fix up the Slate message boards.

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May 31 2007 3:22 PM

Fix-the-Fray Blog

Updates on our project to repair the Slate message boards.

Illustration by Nina Frenkel. Click image to expand.

The Fray has been shut down and will remain off-line through the weekend. On Monday, we'll launch a new and much-improved version.

Scroll down this page for more details on our project to fix the Fray.

—Daniel Engber

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May 31, 2007

OK, slight change of plans: Instead of launching the new Fray tomorrow, we're going to wait until Monday, June 4. In preparation for the switch, we'll shut down the old one at some point on Thursday, May 31. That means we won't have any message boards at all from Thursday through Sunday. Come Monday morning, you'll be able to pop right into your favorite discussion areas in the new system. (Remember, the message archives will be off-line for a week or two while we work on getting them up into a read-only format.)

—Daniel Engber

We're almost done: The old Fray will shut down on May 29, and the new Fray will open for business on May 30. We've told you quite a bit about what will change and what will stay the same. And we've asked you to start reserving your usernames for the launch.

But we haven't yet addressed the fate of the old Fray. Will the archived posts be integrated into the new system? Will they be kept around for reference, as part of a read-only version of the old Fray? Or will they disappear altogether?

Here's the plan:

When all is said and done, the new version of the Fray will contain all of the archives from the old version. The history of the message boards will be preserved, and you'll be able to pick up any discussions you're having now exactly where you left off.

But we're not going to be able to import all the old data right away. For about a week after the launch, the archives will be offline. Then we'll have them back up in the form of a temporary, read-only Fray museum. From there it will take us at least three more weeks to get them loaded into the new system. During that time, you'll still have access to the old posts, but you'll have to leave the "regular" Fray to find them. And you won't be able to post any new responses.

Since the archives won't immediately be a part of the new system, you might want to prepare for the switchover. Start wrapping up your ongoing discussions—you can get back to them when we bring the data over. Or think about which messages you'd want to repost in the new Fray so the conversations can keep going.

Username migration update:

Good news—we've got the username script up and running again. The whole database of entries from our last attempt has been wiped out, soanyone who tried to reserve a name before must repeat the process.

Here's what happened: The script lets you reserve only one username per Microsoft Passport account, or the unique ID number associated with that account. If a Frayster tried to use a Passport ID that was already in the database, the script returned an error.

The bug occurred because those ID numbers were being truncated. Since the truncated numbers were not unique, some people got error messages even on their first attempts to reserve a username.

This shouldn't be a problem in the new version.

Two more notes about how this all works:

First, the username and password you choose for the new Fray are completely independent of the one you're using now. For each Passport account you have, you're allowed to reserve one username. You can choose the same username and password you've been using all along, or you can change your username. Or you can pick the same username but change your password. It's up to you.

Second, you can reserve multiple usernames for the new Fray. To do this, you'll need to run the script from different Passport accounts. In other words, you'll have to a) reserve your first username, b) log out of Passport, c) log back into another account, and then d) return to the script to reserve a second name.

—Daniel Engber

May 15, 2007

A month ago, I kicked off this blog by announcing what—for me, at least—was the top priority in fixing the Fray:

First, the sign-in bug: This long-standing system glitch creates a hassle for our veteran users and makes recruiting new members almost impossible.  To fix this problem—and we absolutely will fix it—we're going to abandon the Microsoft Passport network altogether.

To fix the sign-in bug, we're going to need everyone to re-register their accounts. Last week, we tried to get a head start on this process and invited you to reserve your usernames in our brand-new Fray database.

I'm sorry to say that this user migration script was itself a bit buggy. Some Fraysters were told that their names had already been reserved, and others had trouble reserving names from multiple accounts.

Don't worry!  No one will miss out on the chance to save his or her usernames. We're working on the problems with the script, and we should have a functional version up by the end of the week.

There is a chance that we'll have to wipe out the entries that have been collected so far and start over from scratch. To all of you who succeeded in reserving your usernames, we apologize for the inconvenience.

—Daniel Engber

Let's talk about user ratings. 

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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.

This is a big step, and we're not sure exactly how it will turn out. We encourage you to use the ratings if they help you to find good posts. And we hope you'll ignore them if they don't. (You will also have the option to turn off the ratings altogether.)

One more thing: If you'd prefer a more objective measure of public opinion, we'll also have readership counters for each post. You'll be able to sort through the boards to find the threads that received the most views from other users.

Finally, a note on your Fray accounts: Starting this week, we should have a script up and running to help you migrate from the old system to the new one. You'll be prompted to reserve your user name and password for the relaunch in June. The Fray editors will be available to help resolve any difficulties caused by the new script. If you have trouble logging in next week, shoot them a message at frayeditor@slate.com.

—Daniel Engber

Time to address the issue of "star posters." In theory, the star-shaped icons in the Fray are supposed to flag the work of our best and most thoughtful reader-commentators. They reward the top users and help the rest of us sift through to the work of the certified pros.

The poll results on this were a tossup, with a slight majority in favor of keeping the current system.

Fray Star poster poll results

Those who'd have us keep the star icons appreciate them for raising the level of discourse on the boards. Not only do the stars make it easier to find good posts, but they also inspire better writing and more thoughtful ideas from other users (hoping to earn their own stars).

But not all of these un-starred Fraysters are dying to join the in-crowd. Many find the star-poster system elitist or unfair. They wonder how the Fray editors decide who gets a star and who doesn't. A few starred users even lament the responsibility of toting around the icon on every post.

Both sides make excellent points, but ultimately, we've decidedto abolish the star system.

In the future, we'll try to make it easier to sort by the quality of individual posts, rather than the quality of the poster. The Fray editors will still be evaluating posters indirectly by adding "checkmarks" to their most interesting messages. That means you'll be able to find a list of the Fraysters who earn the most checkmarks—i.e., those who would have been most likely to earn stars in the old system.

—Daniel Engber

Today and next week we'll be sharing the results of the polls and discussing how we're approaching some of the touchier issues in the redesign.

First, the question of whether users should be able to delete their own posts. Here are the poll results:

Poll Results Summary

More than two-thirds of the people who voted wanted the ability to delete their own posts. In the Fray, users pointed out that the ability to edit or delete posts would reduce the number of typos and the number of messages that get filed in the wrong place. It would also allow people to take down messages that turned out to be more inflammatory or personal than they'd intended. In some ways, at least, self-deleting posts could make the Fray a cleaner, more user-friendly place.

On the other hand, some Fraysters felt that deleting or editing posts would be an utter disaster. The power to take things back invites all sorts of abuse: A user might revise his or her posting history in the midst of a debate. Furthermore, a single deletion from the middle of a back-and-forth might make subsequent messages unintelligible.

Is there some sort of compromise? Some users suggested we allow editing and deletion, but only via strikethrough text. We prefer the idea of setting a time limit for self-deletion. One way to do this would be to let people delete their own posts, but only until someone else replies to that post. You'd be able to clear the record if you quickly realized you'd made a glaring mistake or said something you shouldn't have. But once someone responds to your message, it's locked in.

—Daniel Engber

April 17, 2007

Thank you for your comments.

We've reached the end of the discussion phase of our project to fix up the Fray. Over the past two weeks, you answered our call for comments by sending us almost 900 e-mails, posting another 900 comments on the "Fix the Fray" message board, and voting 2,451 times in our online polls.

Illustration by Nina Frenkel. Click image to expand.

Now it's time to review our notes and work up the plans for the new system. Right off the bat, I'd like to address a few of the complaints that came up again and again:

First, the sign-in bug: This long-standing system glitch creates a hassle for our veteran users and makes recruiting new members almost impossible. To fix this problem—and we absolutely will fix it—we're going to abandon the Microsoft Passport network altogether. That comes with a cost: At some point, we'll have to move all our users over to the new system. There's a good chance we'll have to ask all of you to re-register over the next few months. (More details on this to come.)

Second, many of you pointed out that the current Fray makes it very hard to tell which posts go with which Slate pieces. Anyone who clicks into the boards from the bottom of an article page gets taken to a general discussion area for an entire department—threads are arranged chronologically, instead of by topic. The upgraded Fray will make it easier to see only those posts that are associated with a specific article. At the same time, we will keep department-wide boards open for more general discussion topics.

Third, we will provide a rich-text editor and allow users to quote material automatically when replying to a post.

Fourth, we will provide a much-improved search engine that makes it easier to scan postings by specific authors on specific dates.

Fifth, we will fix up the Fray main page so that it highlights interesting discussion topics and discussion areas that are most active.

Next week, we'll have an update on the results from the polls and how we plan to address some of the more controversial issues related to the redesign—like user ratings, star posters, and self-editing

—Daniel Engber

April 2, 2007

Last summer, we celebrated the magazine's 10th birthday by shoring up the site with a cleaner layout and a brand-new design. Even with all the changes, some parts of Slate were left in the dark ages of the Internet. For years, our reader discussion area—"the Fray"—has languished with buggy software and overloaded database servers. Now—with support from Cisco—we'll finally have the chance to fix up the creaky message boards.

But we can't do this without you. The success of the Fray has always depended on the dedication and insight of the people who use it. If we're going to build a new platform for reader discussion and debate, we need to know exactly what our readers want. How should we fix the Fray? For the next two weeks, between April 2 and April 16, we'll be collecting your ideas via e-mail, online polls, and the "Fix the Fray" discussion area. (Click here to read our official announcement of the project.)

In the meantime, keep an eye on this page for updates as we move along in the project. During the two-week discussion phase, we'll post new design questions for you to think about, and give you the results from our online polls. Then, over the course of the development phase, we'll let you know how we're using your input, and what problems we're encountering along the way. (We may need to ask you for more help as we go.) Finally, we'll explain how we can all move our discussion from the old system to the new. And then, at last, we'll pull the curtains on the next generation of the Fray.

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