Friday, July 29, 2011

The Evolution of Edhat

Let me ask you a question. When you're not reading a newspaper like the Montecito Messenger, where do you go online for local news? If you're like a lot of locals, you may be a regular visitor to

Edhat has been around for seven or eight years and is constantly evolving. Originally, it promoted itself as being made up of "provocative contests, intriguing tidbits and local insight about Santa Barbara." It also had regular restaurant reviews.

As more and more people transitioned from traditional newspapers to online websites and blogs, Edhat became an aggregator of links to local news stories. In recent months, Edhat has seemed to become inundated with people seeking referrals for goods and services. And then of course there are those comments by readers.

According to Peter Sklar, the creator and owner of Edhat, the site is at the height of its popularity having nearly doubled its number of visitors in the last year. Sklar takes exception to the term "aggregator" and to the notion that the site's emphasis has moved away from news. Over coffee on a weekend morning, he pointed out that "95 percent of the content on the site is Edhat's own" and that a lot of breaking news is posted on Edhat.

Indeed a lot of that breaking news is crime news and comes from a fellow who goes by the name of "Roger" who has a police radio, a laptop, and a lot of time on his hands to listen and type. The result is an unfiltered stream of reports on what emergency calls local law enforcement is responding to.

"Roger" (who refuses to reveal his real name) is reputed to be a person who is living on the fringe. According to Sklar, he's a guy who's had a miserable life but nevertheless has a heart of gold. Sklar credits him with being a huge factor in the increased traffic to Edhat. Besides being the site's de facto crime reporter, Roger also gets actively involved in commenting on many of the stories and links that are posted on Edhat. "I love it when Roger becomes the voice of reason on the comment board," Sklar told me.

Those Edhat comment boards can be a rough and tumble place. As an example, links to stories about stabbings sometimes attract bigoted comments about immigration and Latino youth. Stories about local politics sometimes leads to name calling among commenters. Most people leaving comments at Edhat take advantage of the opportunity Edhat gives them to be anonymous. I have long suspected that anonymity leads to animosity and I asked Sklar if he thought requiring people to post comments using their actual identity might lead to a kinder, gentler comments section.

Sklar defended letting readers post anonymously saying, "If we made people post their names, we wouldn't get as many comments." Indeed, according to Sklar, Edhat gets 300 to 400 comments a day or in the range of 10,000 comments per month. He also sees anonymity as a way to encourage commenters to talk to the crowd and not to each other. "It's not about people who comment," said Sklar, "it's about community."

Indeed, if there is one overarching goal Sklar appears to have for Edhat it is to create a community around it. By way of contrast, Sklar points out that, "Facebook is not a community builder, Facebook is a group of friends."

Well, if Facebook is a group of friends, then, besides being a community, what is Edhat? According to Sklar, "It's a set of rules." He says that with a smile and to be sure, Sklar creates those rules. There are no less than a dozen rules covering comments alone, including, for example, "No direct insults of other commenters and no criticizing of writing style, punctuation, spelling, or grammar of commenters or columnists." (If I could only get my editor to agree to that last rule.) Violating these rules will get a comment deleted, but it's not really deleted. There's a link at the bottom of each comment thread that you can click on to see the deleted comments that really weren’t deleted. (You following me camera guy?) I asked Sklar about this, after all, if you can still view the comment why bother taking it out of the thread?

Sklar justifies making the deleted comments available for viewing as part of his effort to be transparent. "We're the most transparent website in town," he insisted.

Sklar, who has a mathematics background, points out that Edhat gets a million and a half hits each month, which would put it at or near the top in terms of traffic in comparison to just about any other local website.

So what kind of posts attracts the most traffic? Photos for sure. Send Edhat a photo of just about anything and they will post it. "We don't make judgments about what's important and what's not." As an experiment, Sklar suggested that I snap a photo with my iPhone of a dog sitting near us and send it in. I did and I submitted the photo, which was completely unremarkable, to Edhat. It went up on the site at 9am the next day and within four hours four hundred people had viewed it and four people had commented on it. By the end of the day nearly 700 people had viewed it and eight had left comments. And there was one negative comment scolding the owner of the dog for leaving it there unattended.

Speaking of dogs, I had a pet peeve to ask Sklar about. Although Edhat links to news stories on the websites of local print publications, he won’t link to columnists. For example, he doesn’t post links to the columns of Starshine Roshell or Barney Brantingham on the Independent’s website and he won’t link to my column in this paper. He explained the policy of not linking to columnists as being a "branding" thing and that Edhat had a number of regular contributors of column-like material of its own.

But isn’t it all about community! Maybe I should start posting a photo of a dog along with my newspaper column?

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