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Improving the TeenInk site

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I’ve been writing and publishing on TeenInk.com for a while now, and, while I like the site very much, I think that there are a few critical flaws in the format of the site that make it difficult for writers to effectively reach a reader base, and for readers to get quality material that relates to them. I’m not trying to be negative, or to offend whoever is doing the webmastering at TeenInk.com, but I think some constructive criticism would greatly help improve the layout.

Please note, before I begin, that I have no professional experience in web design or programming. I have some amateur experience in forum code, digital art, theory of design, and I’m quasi-literate in html code, but my suggestions are far from being above criticism. I’ve tried to ape layout concepts from places like YouTube, Wikipedia, Reddit, Facebook, Twitter, and Internet forums in my suggestions, in the hopes that the tried and true mechanics they have will function as well on the TeenInk site.

Part 1: The Main Page

The goal of the main page for TeenInk should, in my opinion, be to provide a visually interesting hub through which readers can find content that is both of exceptional quality and relatively new to the site. The visually interesting thing is accomplished relatively well; the voting is nice, the twitter feed is a solid touch and the margin ads are unobtrusive. However, the second goal falls flat on its face. That isn’t to say there aren’t articles. Obviously the page has a wide variety, and the cycling display in the center of the page helps ensure that as many as possible get screen time, but the articles that hold a spot on the main page are ancient. There are comments from as early as 2008 on some of them, so these articles are so old that there’re fair odds their authors aren’t even teens anymore. Not to mention the fact that these ancient articles haven’t been switching places with other ones. This leads to a twofold problem: regular visitors to the TeenInk site have to search a lot harder to find new, interesting content and these elderly articles are soaking up valuable user interest long past the point where they gain any benefit from it.

The solution here is to change up the method by which the front-page content is determined.

An editor from each section of the magazine should choose their favorite article in the mag that month to be put in the “From Our Print Magazine” spot, or, if the article is determined automatically, set the code so that the published article with the most (or least) number of pageviews that month gets the front page.

The “Todays Most Popular” section needs an artificial limiter on what can be considered for placement. Something along the lines of ‘only articles submitted for the upcoming months magazine’ or ‘only articles published in the last day/week/month’ or ‘only articles which have spent less than 24 total hours in the “Todays Most Popular” section.’

Additionally, “Most Popular” could mean most pageviews, most comments, or highest ranking. Each has their advantages and drawbacks. A system based on most comments encourages discussion of articles but creates an environment in which articles that start flame wars, receive pandering complements, or unnecessarily request that their readers comment flourish; most pageviews ranks strictly on how eye catching to the reader an article is, but encourages users to spam links of their articles to other sites, repeatedly refresh their or view the page through changing proxies in order to generate pageviews, and doesn’t allow readers any way to qualitatively judge the piece; and highest ranking creates a democratic system of article election, and ensures that the best loved articles will be viewed by as many people as possible, but it discourages discussion of controversial subjects, encourages the same proxy manipulation as the most pageviews option, can cause obscure or unpopular pages with a five star rating to steal the front page, and sometimes leads to readers only rating 1 star or 5 stars in order to increase the value of their vote. Personally I think that highest ranking is the best of the three, but I also believe that some sort of aggregate score could be valuable, possibly giving equal weight to every metric, or measuring each section by a different standard (highest rated for Fiction, most comments for Discussion, most pageviews for Art & Photos, etc.).

The “Movers and Shakers” section is a tough nut to crack, in that it’s not clear what the design intent of it is. It would work as a high score table for the people with the most views or comments, the highest ratings, the most pieces contributed, the most people following their work, or any combination thereof. It could be a place where new or unknown users randomly get positive exposure, basically winning a tiny lottery of peer response. It has the potential to be the place where the users who most recently had their work approved get rewarded for making something new through exposure of their entire body of work. It also might be useful as a sort of hall of fame for magazine-published individuals, with their profiles entered into the lineup of candidates to be randomly put on the front page, and possibly with recent, consecutive, or numerous magazine published pieces increasing their odds. The point, though, is that this area has a lot of potential, and just needs to be directed in one way or another. It’s a tabula rasa that needs to be shaped to serve any one utility, but could prove incredibly useful in a variety of roles.


As far as other content on the front page, I’m hesitant to suggest adding more. All the bases seem to be covered in terms of social networking, FAQ’s, user response, store access, and third party links, and I’m afraid that adding and more will leave things crowded. The margin ads already in use push things to the ragged edge, especially since they’re two columns wide. If I were to change two things for sake of clarity, I would alter the margin ads so there was some sort of physical border between them and the rest of the page and I would make them all stacked on top of one another. However, I realize that existing advertisement contracts may make that infeasible.

Part 2: Sections, Categories, and Articles
These three elements of the TeekInk site are all lumped together because they all serve the same basic goal: to assist the user in narrowing down the specific categories of things they want to browse. While the current system does provide a significant amount of media, it has some of the same critical flaws as the main page, as well as a few flaws of its own.

The sections of the site, as the first line of classification of articles, should be the primary focus of any design for ensuring that users get to where they want to. The largest and simplest problem they have is that all of the categories other than “Most Recent” are suffering the same sort of old article bloating that the “From Our Print Magazine” front page area is. They should be pruned in a similar manner. However, they need to have some form of system by which a user can set how they’re limited, either in the Articles’ sections and subsections or in the categories themselves. Users should be able to set an upper limit, either to the date of the articles release or of the votes, comments, and views that count towards its score. There should also be an option, preferably near “View articles printed in MAG only” option, that does the exact opposite.

Article pages themselves are well designed in terms of putting text in front of the viewer, but complementary content interconnected between articles would benefit everyone involved. Readers would be able to seamlessly transition from one article to the next and authors would have additional opportunities to gather readers. As far as implementation goes, articles could be connected to other articles through tags they share, patterns of high ratings from users, articles the author liked or favorited, and time period in which they were written. Obviously these have different difficulties of implementation, but even using some of them will help readers to have access to more articles they like.


Part 3: The Forums, Comments, and other forms of response

There are a few parts of the TeenInk site that I believe should be specifically keyed towards promoting communication and collaboration among authors and readers. For the sake of specificity, when I’m talking about the forums here I’d like to be clear that I mean only the writing critique sections of the forums, not the general conversation forums.


I’d like to say something that, while controversial, I believe would be a boon towards every TeenInker: I think we should be allowed to link to other sites. I know that this could lead to negative content being linked or spambots harassing the site, but keep in mind that spambots will always innovate past any filter. There are many ways to do it, but I’d like to avoid typing them here so I don’t give anyone any ideas. Not to mention there are a lot of very good things that can be linked. TED talks, YouTube videos, other writing forums, workshops, guides, by removing the ability to link to these valuable resources we’re essentially closing ourselves off from the rest of the internet, and this isolationism hurts us all.


Additionally, I think that there should be some means of prioritizing comments under an article or other piece of work. Maybe something similar to YouTube’s top comments section, or a Reddit style system of upvoting and downvoting, perhaps some sort of highlighting of all of the comments to which the author has responded. There are a lot of ways to execute this, and they all have merits.


Another thing I feel like mentioning is the possibility of establishing TeenInkers themselves as moderators for some of the subforums. Obviously they wouldn’t be given the same authority as the actual moderators, but if TeenInk staff wanted some extra manpower we would, I believe, be glad to help. There’s the risk that these junior moderators might abuse their power, but I believe that most of us are mature enough to not be jerks.



Hopefully these comments and suggestions have been helpful, and I would be glad to hear back from anyone, be they a TeenInk staff member, a fellow writer, or just someone who felt like commenting. I think it’d be amazing if we could start a conversation on exactly what it is we all want TeenInk to become, and how the site can be improved to help everyone to read, write, critique, and grow as a community.




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This article has 1 comment. Post your own!

Markus This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. said...
Jan. 31, 2012 at 11:37 am:
One thing to keep in mind is that the star rating system could be exploited using a proxy server, assuming that the ability to vote is regulated through setting a time delay on how frequently any one IP address can vote on an article.
 
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