Buzz, the increasingly mainstream site Mixx announced more funding and Digg held its first ever town hall meeting. Meanwhile a screenshot of the soon to be aggregated service Tumblr has been leaked, my email inbox is filling up with friend notifications from the $5 million richer FriendFeed and BricaBox launched a social content service. Those are just the highlights over the last two days, there's even more related news I'll pass over for now.The social news space is developing at a mind-boggling pace. Just in the last 48 hours Yahoo! launched its new site
There are two ends of a spectrum emerging - Digg,Mixx and Buzz are offering general interest social news about a variety of topics and fueled by large groups of users, whereas services like FriendFeed, the social media marketing site Sphinnn and sites like the Twitter-sliver Pulse of Open Source offer news from a targeted group of users and/or on very specific topics.
If general or specific are two ways to categorize social news sites, let's look at these two categories in terms of:
- Quality of news
- Speed of news
- Detail of news
- Community feel
Quality of news
In theory, big social news sites have the advantage of using large groups of people and correspondingly strong algorithms to discover and vet high quality content on any topic. In reality, though, this effect is often mitigated by the imperative to limit coverage to a single story concerning each news event. The big sites usually see the first good story on a topic promoted to the front page and subsequent quality coverage is left in the dust. The fact that something happened at all becomes much more important than deliberation over which coverage of that event is most worth reading.
The small niche social news sites don't suffer from this dilemma but depending on the breadth of your social network or niche userbase, important news may simply go unnoticed and not be covered at all. That's a risk you run on these kinds of sites, but on the other hand the wealth of resources that your friends can share is often much richer. Small social news sites don't care about repeat coverage of common events and don't revert to a "lowest common denominator" method of determining what's important.
From the outside niche sites may turn up a lot of content that doesn't look important at all, but the closer you are to a topic - the more important the details become.
If you can find a niche site for your niche, or an active set of like-minded contributers as contacts on a site like FriendFeed - then the quality of news will be vastly superior. Otherwise, and to supplement those small social news experiences, the big sites work well enough.
It's notable that Digg has been trying to create those kinds of small experiences within the big site, but I don't think it's worked very well so far. The Digg user experience is just not built for small communities of interest.
On the small social news side, two things worth checking out are FriendFeed's fantastically executed friend recommendation feature (it just goes on and on with suggestions) and social bookmarking site Ma.gnolia's seemless implementation of groups. Both are great examples of how to nail a small social news feature.
Speed of News
Nobody likes being the last to know about important news, so speed is an important metric. Sometimes, very rarely, the big general interest sites see something burn up the charts and hit the front page in less than an hour after submission. Far more common, at least at Digg, is for news to take 6 to 24 hours to get to the most visible place on the site. Big social news sites are so reliant on explicit user validation of news as important, and require that this goes on in the context of a terrible signal to noise ratio, that these are not the sites to go to for early news if being early is important to you.
Traditional mainstream news sites beat big social news sites on stories all day long, and if our new web can't beat the old-school then I don't know what it's good for. Joking aside, there are many things more important than being fast, but it is important in a news source.
All those criticisms being as they are, check out the Propeller Tracker on the right hand side of that site for a good example of a big site tackling the speed problem.
Small social news sites are much faster at unearthing news, if someone happens to catch that news at all early in the news cycle. Different sites handle this in different ways, though.
FriendFeed gives you a firehose and doesn't privilege the important stuff over everything else. The new Tumblr looks like it is going to highlight content as soon as a handful of people have linked to it, that's great and something I'll bet other sites will start doing soon. Sphinnn, the online marketing version of Digg, falls somewhere in between. Less populated voting sites have a lower threshold for popularity but less energy driving good news forward fast, too.
Detail of news
Big sites ought to have rich discussions in comments and offer greater detail on the news, but they rarely do. Slashdot and Propeller might be the exceptions so far. How's discussion over at Newsvine? I don't know, perhaps someone can let us know in comments.
For the most part though, mainstream audiences are still often not used to, don't feel compelled to or are unable to leave high-quality comments on social news stories. That's where the richness in detail comes from in the current model. How hard would it be to pull in related content on these news topics from sites like Del.icio.us and Twitter? Not very hard. That would be cool.
Niche social news sites lose out on some detail because of the smaller sample set of contributors, but they are clearly better for detail overall. There are more and more finely grained links discoverable on topics of interest to you in a niche site that suits your needs. Like the question of quality, detail is a criteria that niche sites clearly win on if a healthy niche site is appropriate or available for you at all.
I prefer to spend my time in the company of people who have the same interests and who already agree with me about things that are important. I'm just kidding about that.
That's the trade-off you often make when choosing to spend your time on a niche social news site. You trade opportunities to make new and diverse social connections for the opportunity to develop a closer connection to a smaller, more homogeneous group of news lovers. Both have their place, I wouldn't want one and not the other in my life.
The complimentary nature of community on big and little social news sites is a good snapshot of what's probably true in all of the above questions - getting the best of both worlds is ideal.
I find myself spending about 75% of my news consumption time in niche social news sites (Twitter and Ma.gnolia mostly) and 25% in big social news sites. I wish I had more time for both. I intend to spend some more time on FriendFeed and I'm jealous every time I see a good Tumblr blog.
We've been having some slow times at Digg lately, so I'm interested in checking out Mixx.
What does all this mean? I think it means that big social news sites are at risk of losing substantial amounts of user engagement once users discover that more targeted news environments are available to them. Big sites will probably always be big, but the social news landscape is quickly growing richer day by day.