A few weeks ago, during a Times+ event to promote her new book (which you can wach in full here), Caitlin Moran spoke briefly on the topic of comments under articles. Joshing with colleague David Aaronovitch about the value of them and how they often diminushed a well-crafted article in two short disparaging lines, Caitlin declared that she didn’t actually mind them on the basis it was a bit like karaoke – that it allowed people who don’t usually have the chance to voice their opinion to have their say. It was an interesting comparison.

More recently, the X Factor came to a conclusion as James Arthur, a down-to-earth chap from near Middlesbrough winning the public vote. Now I’m not a big X Factor fan but I like the format of the show, it’s simplicity and the narrative that it creates. I wondered if the same format could be applied to comments on a news website, as Caitlin had intimated through her karaoke analogy, and what it would look like if it was.

1. Open auditions offer the chance of fame

The basic premise of the X Factor is to find new singing talent (for news websites, I’d say it’s talented writers). The means by which they do that is two-fold: by promising a £1 million record contract to the winner (a permanent paid job is unlikely for a first-rate commenter but although being paid to write is possible) and offering everyone else some exposure and the opportunity of 15 minutes of fame (more realistic).

Some news websites try to put their users front and centre but don’t quite get it right. The Sun has Your View and The Telegraph has My Telegraph (their blogs community) but both feel detached from the main sites and are hard to find. The Guardian do a good job on Comment is Free of pulling out good comments in the What You’re Saying block but it doesn’t seem enough. It’s something we know is lacking at The Times and that we’re looking at ways of fixing.

At the moment it feels like news sites are expecting fantastic contributions below the line without the £1 million contract or the offer of fame. Commenters on websites are effectively being auditioned for the world’s best backing singer, asked to contribute but with the understanding that it will only ever be second fiddle to the journalism under which it sits.

The equivalent of putting normal people, some of whom can’t sing, onto national TV in a primetime Saturday slot is giving them their own space, on or one click away from the homepage and editorially curated to distinguish it from forums and other self-sustaining community sites. This gives users something to aim for, a reason to participate, and will gives us the combination out of tune, badly dressed auditions and fantastic talented singers that make the open auditions so watchable.

Photo courtesy of rocor

2. Bootcamp as a way to reward consistently interesting users

From the open auditions, around 200 acts make it through to bootcamp where they sing again (sometimes together) for a place in the final 25. Judges obviously reward talent but also consistency of performance so if someone doesn’t sing well at this stage, it decreases their chance of going through to the penultimate stage.

To me, this equates to special privileges for users and could be anything from an Editor’s pick badge on individual comments (something the Guardian does), to badges (reddit does this nicely with its Trophy Case graphics on user’s profile pages) to allowing comments to be published without moderation (a sign of trust) or even becoming part of the moderation team. It’s basically anything that publicly demonstrates a person is held in high esteem within that community.

Ensuring that the reward retains its value is important. If users are given privileges which are then flaunted or not taken seriously (whether it be Collagen Westwood or a grumpy user who suddenly goes around spouting off), others will question this stage of the process and it loses credibility.

3. Judge’s houses offer a taste of how it could be

After culling the contestants, the remaining 25 or so are given the chance to go to judge’s houses and perform for a place in the final. It’s good TV because you’re watching the reactions of people who don’t get to experience palatial surroundings very often. The result is usually that they’re more determined to win the competition and more understanding of the process.

I think news sites could trigger the same effect by offering a select few commenters (perhaps five or ten a month) the opportunity to come into the offices, have a tour and perhaps meet some senior staff or writers they admire. I’ve blogged before about how an events model could be fruitful as a way of deepening ties with existing readers and obviously that is hard to scale (it would be impossible to get even a fraction of Times commenters through the door in any one year). But it’s not just about footfall: it’s about the better behaviour you encourage as everyone tries to earn a trip to News International to see how the operation works and to meet people they admire. In the X Factor, those that have just missed out on the judge’s houses are doubly determined to get to that stage next year and, when they do get there, they’re overwhelmed.

Photo courtesy of donkeyjacket45

4. Live final as a celebration of the best commenters

The final 12 acts make it through to the live final and are voted off, one by one, until a winner emerges to claim the record contract, fame and obligatory Christmas single.

The Sun have their Column Idol competition and The Times also offers the opportunity to write a column, both of which are fantastic opportunities, but they’re initiatives aimed at attracting more readers, not rewarding the current ones. I’d like to see an invite-only awards event, streamed to those who couldn’t make it or live too far away, where those who have consistently added value to the journalism we produce are commended for their work. Just like there are awards for best Political Commentator at all of the large media awards, there should be one for best Political Commenter for the person who picks apart coalition policy below the line. It wouldn’t attract the viewers that X Factor final does but it would bring some interesting personalities to the fore and attract new users who might be interested in the limelight themselves or at least engaging with those they’ve met.