TimesPeople: Nice, but not enough

The venerable New York Times has launched a new social-networking style feature to its site, called TimesPeople. In its early incarnation, it involves downloading an extension to use with Firefox (interestingly enough, the site doesn’t seem to care about Internet Exploder users — only going after the early adopters, apparently). Once you install it, you get a toolbar that you can use to save or recommend stories from the Times website, and other users with the extension can see what you’ve saved. In other words, a kind of del.icio.us plugin for the New York Times cognoscenti. On the TimesPeople information site, it says that with a future release, no browser plugin will be required.

I don’t want to be too hard on the Times — I think adding social-browsing and social-networking elements is a great idea, and I don’t want to dissuade either the NYT or anyone else from giving them a shot. But the NYT effort feels like it doesn’t go far enough. Why? Because the service contains exactly what it says on the tin: TimesPeople, and only TimesPeople. In other words, it’s for people who just read the New York Times, and all they really care about is what other people who read the New York Times care about.

I’m not saying that isn’t a valuable thing — at the Globe and Mail site, we do something similar by allowing users to click a button and recommend a story, and then see the most recommended (and most emailed, and most commented) on a “most popular” aggregation page. And I think that has value for regular readers. But what about connecting the site to the rest of the Web? The Times has taken a step in that direction with its integration of BlogRunner on its technology page, but there is so much more that could be done. And while TimesPeople connects one way (through RSS feeds of saved content) it doesn’t look like anything feeds back in the other direction. Why just show people the popular NYT content — why not the most popular from elsewhere? Why not integrate something like Scott Karp’s Publish 2.0 tool?

I guess my problem with the feature is that, like so many of the things that mainstream media sites such as the Times do (and I’m including the Globe in this), it plays to the traditional — and, I think, flawed — “portal” strategy, which assumes that everyone comes to the site as a destination and spends most of their time there, and is only interested in what happens there. I think that describes a relatively small (and declining) segment of the online population.

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