AOL's social news site relaunched today under the new name Propeller. No longer "the new Netscape", Propeller seems on face like a clone of a clone. There may, though, be much more going on underneath the surface.
The news of the move was received quietly, deemed proof by some critics that the project was just a failed Digg-clone; that its paid editors, friendly design and broad topic areas just didn't have the raw masculine power to discover great stories that Digg offers in its wild, untamed model of social news. That sounds ridiculous to me, but I don't spend any time on Netscape, either - I like Digg. (See also TechCrunch's mockery of Propeller, pirate style.)
Paid Editor Model Working Well, Says Project Head
The way the service works is interesting. For those unfamiliar, news on Netscape/Propeller is submitted by users but highlighted and shepherded by a team of paid power-users and editors. That paid team also does some original writing.
The whole arrangement has been highly controversial since it launched in June of 2006. Paying power users was a move widely criticized, and not because they were hired away from other sites like Digg. Critics alleged that news discovery was best done for the love of it.
A social news site that hired people to tend the news also attracted users old enough to have jobs. Project head Tom Drapeau confirmed for me today that the user demographics of the site are older than other social news sites, something he says leads to a "better perspective on news." He also told me that the number of paid Anchors and Scouts (the two job types) has almost tripled since the program was put in place.
The Future of Propeller: Personalization
What does the future of Propeller look like? Drapeau says the company is working on a new social news platform that will increase usability and put personal relevance at the center of the user experience. It would be great to see a whole new site that adds personalization based on user profiles to the combination of editorial control and group decision making that's there now. Automated personalization or recommendations are things Digg doesn't offer at all.
Digg underwent its own set of changes today, expanding user profiles to resemble a traditional social networking site. I asked Drapeau about those changes to Digg. He said he hadn't had a chance to see them live yet but that communication between users via sitemail has been a very popular feature at Netscape. Did you know, by the way, that Propeller also supports login by OpenID? It's a little clunky - but Digg's been waiting for OpenID 2.0 to go live before implementing it.
Perhaps then the Netscape team got a few things right after all. Digg's turn towards social networking looks to me like a move toward a more standard model. If Propeller can successfully build a new system powered by personalization algorithms - they could become the innovation leaders in the social news space.