NPR opens the doors on its social network

NPR's got people, as in "NPR people" -- listeners whose fondness for National Public Radio is shorthand for who they are. Now they have their own social network.

An intensely loyal fan base is a great place to start a social network, but that didn't necessarily speed up the launch process for NPR's latest venture, which appears on its Web site under the Community banner.

"We are later in the sense that other news organizations were earlier," says Andy Carvin, the digital-divide guru who came to NPR two years ago as a social-media strategist. Carvin told BetaNews today that planning for this venture began about a year and a half ago. The project launched this week.

Though NPR has a well-tended presence on Facebook and several popular Twitter feeds, listener commentary on the mothership site was limited until now to about a dozen blogs. With the changeover, every news story now allows for comments, and NPR's staff and reporters are encouraged to discuss their coverage with readers. In the first three days, says Carvin, 150 of NPR's journalists have jumped into the fray.

Carvin, well-known for earlier work on digital-divide issues, says that building a social network for NPR's demographic is of a piece with his efforts to get Internet access for all: "It's about improving democracy." He describes three steps to that process: ensuring net access, building net-use skills, and developing suitable platform and content. The NPR effort, he says, is step three.

The site is based on Pluck's SiteLife social-media platform, also used media sites such as USAToday.com, Reuters, The Economist, and The Wall Street Journal. On the continuum between wide-open comment permissions and rigorously monitored threads, Carvin says NPR is "taking a post-moderation approach," allowing registered users' words to appear in real time. Other readers can flag questionable comments, and those are reviewed by staff to see if they're genuinely inappropriate or simply not to the liking of the complainant.

Efforts to get high-quality comments are already underway. For instance, the site looks to the crowd to help monitor the truthfulness of statements in real time during Thursday evening's vice-presidential debate. Readers of the the site's Vox Politics blogs or @nprpolitics Twitter stream are encouraged to listen closely and, if a candidate stretches or bends or folds or spindles or mutilates the truth, to send a fact-checking message (including links to primary source material) to the group.

"We are," says Carvin of this real-time fisking, "hoping to get the public involved in us doing journalism better."

Analysis being catnip to many NPR listeners, the very first comment on the thread announcing the real-time analysis suggested that NPR's keepers be sure to analyze the analysis itself: "Let's be sure to discuss results and impact." That sounds if nothing else like a sure way to keep page view counters spinning, but Carvin says the addition of social networking isn't just some cynical attempt to increase page views ("though page views are always great!"). Adding comments to all stories provided hundreds of new soapboxes, but it means that conversations are now "more diffuse" than in the days of the first twelve blogs to accept comment.

That may continue down the road, when NPR builds Facebook Groups-style pages for each of its member stations. Ambitious stations can develop their pages even further, but that's 860 more venues for conversation, perhaps intensely local conversation.

Signup is free, and though the site doesn't ask for much personal information, Carvin hopes that users will provide it in their profiles -- not to fill out NPR's online demographic picture, but to give each other a fuller sense of who the online "NPR people" are.

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