24 Feb 2010
There's been a lot of great discussion about Meedan this week since our Monday release which has helped get our message and our product out and about.
But for users of Meedan who've known the project for some time, what's different from the beta version?
The great news is that we've taken account of user experiences to improve this product. What you see is the result of a sustained effort to understand what our users need and how we will encourage uptake of a pretty unusual idea.
After all, it's often said that the likes of Twitter, Facebook and Google have gained so much traction because at heart they make basic interactions or tasks we need to perform every day radically easy through the web. In that sense they simply build out of existing user behaviours.
But Meedan is different: we're seeking to create a new form of behaviour - a cross-language conversation where every piece of content on the site is accessible across Arabic and English.
That means in many many ways, we're looking to enter territory which, if not new, is hardly well-trodden (think scaled social translation, cross-cultural moderation, mass web-based volunteerism rooted in the Middle East).
The process of listening and refining Meedan won't stop here - if anything we want it to grow in momentum.
For that process to work best, it's important for users to understand the trajectory we've been on. So here it is, five improvements we've made with the new Meedan interface:
1. This is a cross-language site, don't forget it
With the new look Meedan, we've made a simple switch that's had huge repercussions.
Instead of trying to present an English version of the site over here and an Arabic version of the site over there, we've pretty much removed the toggle.
You can now view the English and Arabic content side by side horizontally on most pages - event pages, the links page, search, the translate tab.
The traditional thinking is a foreign language on the page is wasted real estate. Not so. In our view, this design is a constant reminder that we are engaging in a cross-language interaction. And this is THE key message of the site.
And it's also great, as we'll see, for indicating the original content clearly and encouraging users to take up translation.
2. Wow, I just responded to a guy who wrote in Arabic.
In our beta version, an English language speaker would have a hard time knowing which comments were originally written in English and which were originally written in Arabic.
The information was there - but it was buried somewhat by the fact that the site was trying to make you believe you were looking at a single-language site.
But knowing the original language of a comment is pretty crucial information, particularly if we're trying to create opportunities for dialogue across languages. It could influence how you understand a particular comment and is a really important visual cue for translators.
With the new look Meedan, the interface tells you very clearly which comments and links were originally in English. The original appears on a bright white background, the translation on a grey background. An arrow helps explain the direction of translation and the relationship between the two items.
And the great thing about this is - once you've got the grasp of the design, it works wherever you see the template on the site, whether in a links page or a comments page.
3. Who's the author, who's the translator?
In our beta version, it was always a task to demonstrate whether a comment had been human or machine translated, and if human translated who that translator was.
After all - why make a big deal out of this information if you're trying to create a single-language experience for the user? What difference does it make to them.
Actually, we realized it makes a big big difference.
Knowing that someone has translated your comment is important. Translators have an enormous role binding the two language communities together, and a very important editorial role in rendering your words in another language. We need to give them credit, and expose their role in the exchange.
We also need to help you get to the content that is most valuable.
Machine Translation gets you so far reading an article or a comment (and as you may not know, it's improving with every translation contribution on our site), but it's most fun to read what human translators have translated.
With our new interface, this becomes so much easier to show.
The author's identity of a comment is displayed above the original, just as the source's identity is displayed above an article posted on the site. The translator's identity is displayed above the translation on the other side of the page. If it's MT - there's a big machine icon to demonstrate that this isn't yet a human translation (so read it with caution). If it's human - you'll see the latest translator to save the edit.
4. Open up, I want to get in!
Many people who hear about Meedan say, you're too idealistic. It's unrealistic to expect a cross-language dialogue could be possible.
What they often don't realize is there is a plan for growing the right kind of community.
We make very clear in our terms that we seek to create a respectful environment for discussion - if you want a turf war go elsewhere. We're not trying to tell anyone how to think, but to improve our willingness to listen. That's why we take community moderation seriously.
But it's also why we keep some editorial control over how the site is run. Every day, a trained team of editors - mostly based in the Middle East - seeds discussions about emerging events and collate varied commentary on those events from the Arabic and English web.
At some point it would be great to open this up - but for now we are building that community that can help self moderate these discussions and enable others to take part without feeling threatened.
So it's a gradual process of building our community and opening up how content is generated.
And in that respect, we've made two big changes with this new release.
First, we've opened up the 'Translate' tab to any registered user. It means you can join our professional translators in monitoring incoming comments, assigning them into feeds for translation, and editing the translations. We want to help scale social translation between Arabic and English by encouraging more users with language skills to take part. Much like Wikipedia, many people performing small tasks can have an enormous impact.
Second, we've created a 'Links' page. This page not only shows all the latest links being posted into Events, with information about the source and who has translated them, it also allows you to post any link you want for translation.
So you could post your latest blog update, your favourite columnist, or an interesting article from a new source you've discovered, and see that link in Machine Translation on the IBM Transbrowser. You are also making that link available for human translation.
5. Who wrote this headline?
One important change we've made is to be clearer about the role of our team of editors.
Editors seed discussions on Meedan by tracking emerging events, writing headlines and short intros, and posting links and commentary collated from the Arabic and English web.
Before some users thought we were paying people to comment on our site. We were not - we were employing a team of web journalists to help curate and moderate discussions of important news on the Middle East region.
We're clearer about that now.
On the homepage you'll see the full list of editors, with a direct link to their profile pages.
And in each event you'll see some text at the top saying something like 'Event summarized by Meedan moderator Simba 4 hours ago' with a link to the editor on the page.
Meedan has come a long way with this release - and for that a huge amount of credit has to go to our design lead Chris Blow. Also we have to mention the incredible energy and input of Anas Tawileh, Nina Curley, Kit Sharma and Troy Thompson.
But most of all, we all recognize that this is only the beginning. We now need your help to take Meedan forward. So if you have features you think we need, or ideas for mashups and partnerships that could help the project grow, or if you find a bug that needs to be fixed, let us know at @meedan on Twitter or firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also contact me on the site itself - I'm George Weyman.