Here's a test for Web 2.0. Cuba's Fidel Castro announced yesterday morning that he is resigning from his post as ruler of that communist country. What better way to celebrate the departure of an authoritarian dictator than to look at how the free flow of information in online social media provided coverage of the event? Or, depending on your take on Castro, what better way to celebrate a populist leader in the international fight for social justice and against imperialism than to look at the people-powered social media reaction?
Unfortunately, we could use some better results.
Either way, let's look at how the internet reacted. Did Web 2.0's social news deliver? What social news site can break the news, offer quality background resources and stay relevant for a global 24 hours news cycle? So far, no one but mainstream media has proven able to do that.
Most of the world isn't looking to official state agencies for their news anymore and even that paradigm's successor, big corporate controlled media, is losing its grip on the public mind. A new class of news organization is emerging, perhaps to replace and perhaps to augment old models. Social news sites on the web use voting and/or mathematical algorithms to determine what's news and whose coverage to highlight.
How are those sites doing, though? I think that an event as central to the last half of the 20th century as Castro stepping down, 50 years after the Cuban revolution, provides an opportunity to evaluate the leading social news sites in the quality of coverage or aggregation they provide.
Below are some notes on seven of those sites, chosen for their market leadership or representation of a larger sub-paradigm within the social news milieu. I looked at their coverage of Castro's resignation at first in the early morning (West Coast, US time) and then again at the end of the work day (again old paradigm, that means 5 pm.) It's important to recognize that not only is the whole world not reading on the US schedule - people deserve quality coverage of epochal news events later in the day than just the first few hours after said news breaks.
To summarize conclusions from the notes below: Twitter is the best place to learn about news first but is an awful place to look for in-depth coverage. Mahalo would be a great place to look for early or mid-day coverage if there is meaningful participation by users and editors. Wikipedia is the best place to see detailed, in-depth reporting evolve over the day.
Over all, Web 2.0 fails in this case study. See the sites below, see populist web 1.5 site IndyMedia.org where leftist psuedo technologists have failed to post more than two feature stories in 48 hours. Go to CNN.com or the mainstream's news.google.com for your news, they are doing a better job.
Incidentally, none of these sources provided or pointed to coverage as good as what was available from one source, Amy Goodman's DemocracyNow. See that site's ten minute interview with Latin American analyst Peter Kornbluh from the National Security Archives at George Washington University if you want detailed and up to date perspective from someone who has been paying attention for a long time. As commenters allege, Democracy Now seems decidedly leftist - but listen hard to their show and you'll see that for much of their coverage they work hard at sticking to the facts. Like it or not, it's award-winning journalism that anyone ought to have respect for and which no one will be injured by. Presumably more mainstream media outlets will also provide lengthy analysis of the Castro resignation over the weekend.
Note also that I take the fail meme from Uncov, a site that creates legacy analysis without a link to the founders' current startup project. Failure (10% technical?) aside, here's a review of some social news sites that have traction and their coverage of the Castro announcement.
Social News Survey
The poster-child of the social news revolution, Digg isn't a place you'd want to visit for coverage if you already know the basic premise of the news. One mainstream outlet's coverage of the event appeared quickly on the front page but there is no collection of high-quality supporting coverage, few intelligent comments on the story and nothing but a handful of usernames of people who "have blogged about this story." Even that much is very unusual for Digg.
Ten hours later, the story is not visible at all on the front page, though it is at the top of the stories in the World News section with the most votes. No more value is available at that time than was the case initially, probably less in fact since it's not on the front page.
Mahalo has the decency to put a link to its Castro coverage at the top left hand of the site's front page - higher billing even than Lindsay Lohan's topless photos from yesterday. (Note to readers in the distant future, if you are here, do you know who Linday Lohan was? She was a bit like Britney.)
Inside Mahalo coverage you'll find a handful of links, mostly to big, mainstream news coverage and a nice collection of embedded video clips from LiveLeak.
There's a lot of potential here, but even ten hours later there's only a few more links and nothing in the user submitted column. When your top story is still a "stub" what does that mean? Minimal participation - despite (incidental) growing traffic.
The only comment on the page is one left by the page moderator as bait. Could we get a link to the Memeorandum anchor for the discussion perhaps? Admitedly, I didn't suggest this either. There is no OpenID login and I, like other users, don't care enough to log in otherwise in order to contribute. 20 hours later, there is one suggested link from a user. Fail.
Memeorandum, the political sister site of Techmeme, is a great place to find out what's hot in the political blogosphere. If you know already, though, it's not so good. Castro coverage was easy to find at first, at the top of the site, but ten hours later it's gone. Twenty hours later there's some conversation on the site around a CNN story but is that a reliable way to discover coverage of an important event? Sorry, Europe, it's not.
There's not any advertisers on Memeorandum this month, so maybe it doesn't matter to Gabe Rivera, founder of the site. He admits he doesn't check this property often but what's of more signifigance, long term, this or Techmeme?
Perhaps the point is, as far as the US is concerned, Gabe's sites are best for short term and tech. See also Memeorandum River/ if you're real serious about it.
The grand dady of social news, Slashdot is only worth so much once the site's moderators finally recognize this as news. Luckily this was news that broke 50 years ago - Cuba is communist - so Slashdot isn't late on this news. That said, comments here are better than Digg, but related stories delivers nothing.
Ten hours later, it's still on the front page - but I don't know if that's anthing to brag about. On the up-side, comments have been replied to and moderated. Slashdot remains good for tech savvy, smart comments. That's about it, though.
The site that put blog search on the map says it gets 9 million visitors a month, but when the Castro news broke it wasn't on the front page of Technorati. This site isn't clearly organized, it doesn't make direct links intuitive to find and the whole place is difficult to navigate.
It is organized around blogs, which is nice, though those are anchored around the mainstream sites they link to. You can discern the relative "authority" of the blogs participating in the conversation, another plus.
Ten, twenty hours later there is nothing. Sorry, Europe, Africa, Asia.
Let me pick on one of my favorite web apps for a moment. There is nothing on the front page if you're not logged in, you can't search if not logged in for example. Search, back after a week of near 404, is only for profiles, is never mentioned in the Explore! (!) section of the site. Go search twitter at Terraminds if you can remember that more easily than TweetScan.
If you use Twitter you probably learned about this and other news first on Twitter. That said, it sucks past discovery. Links are obscured by TinyURL or similar stupid-service. (Invaluable if they worked 100% - dangerous since they don't. Maybe we should wait to do business until there is an enterprise SLA on web apps - as if!.)
Twitter is all about speed, perhaps a glance at emotional reaction, but it's not good for analysis.
Castro news is on the front page of Wikipedia - even 20 hours after the news broke. That's good.
Succinct it is not. There is a nice selection of links in the relevant section, the 6th of 7. It would be nice if current events were better highlighted in a legacy article on the site.
That said, the Wikipedia article on the issue keeps getting better over time. Ten, twenty hours later - even in the first few hours there are enough people on the site, the community is active enough that the coverage is well developed. I'd call it the best combination of historical and real-time coverage available in fact. It is certainly better than coverage at WikiNews, because for some reason no one cares about WikiNews.
Conclusion Upon Conclusion
"Web Two Point Oh" has a whole lot of potential, and when it comes to niches or your life in particular it can do a good job. If you want to learn about the world at large, though, this case study says that no single social news site has done it all. Put a couple together and you're in business if you want summarize for your friends and family but otherwise, go to the oldschool corporate media. For a combination of reasons, they appear to be doing a better job.