In the competitive social news market, Digg has gotten a lot of attention for its recommendation engine and Mixx continues to release new features (it has launched communities and an API recently). However it seems like Reddit is not getting the attention it deserves. Its open source initiative was well received, but there are other interesting aspects to Reddit.

Here's a look at why the idea of a social news site front page that is newspaper-like and presents information in reverse chronological presentation has to change - and how Reddit is flirting with the answer.

Let's firstly review the current state of content promotion on social news sites. The best site to use as an example of why the current system may be failing us, is Digg. This is because not only is Digg the biggest and most active social news sites, it's the site that has most rigidly stuck with the current formula. Also by looking at Digg we can see what unique problems other sites are going to have when they try to scale their platform to meet the demands of their ever growing communities.

The Social Hodgepodge

Almost all social news sites that exist today have a nearly-identical foundation. People submit, vote, and comment on stories, the ones that are the most active, get promoted to the site's front-page. This process repeats itself and newer stories get promoted to the site's front page and older ones get pushed down. Over time old stories get pushed deeper and deeper in to the archives and newer stories (presumably more timely and relevant) replace them. The most popular sites that follow this as a basic formula are Digg, Propeller, Reddit, Mixx, and even the social bookmarking site Del.icio.us.

This kind of a system is great if you have a small and homogenous community. For example, this worked great on Digg about 2 years ago when the site was one-tenth the size and focused heavily on technology. As these sites grow, the problems with this kind of a system become apparent. First, as communities grow , more gets submitted to the social news sites, and secondly, the content being submitted gets more and more diverse. A single, all-important front page, as you will just see, doesn't scale well, and doesn't function well under a diverse community.

When the front page is the part of the news site that has all the new and fresh content, that is the part of the news site that gets the most traffic, that is where all the content producers want to be, and that is the place everyone links to. But there is only so much content you can feature on this page.

Even if you assume that one article is promoted every 5 minutes and there are a total of 15 slots on a news site's front page. That means that at any given time, the oldest story on the front page will be no older than 1 hours and 25 minutes old. Sounds about accurate, the Digg home page as of this writing shows the oldest story, the 15th one to be 1 hour and 36 minutes old. This also means that at this rate, and assuming that stories are promoted at a constant pace, only 288 stories will be promoted to the front page per day. These stories are divided over 60 different subcategories and three types of media (text, pictures, and videos).

Furthermore, based on the current front page a story gets 1 hour and 25 minutes on the front page before it is deemed practically irrelevant. The amount of people that go to the second page after the front page are about 30% of overall front page traffic, and in comparison an insignificant number of people go from the second to the third page. What this means is that if a story is not viewed by someone within the first 75 minutes, 2 in 3 readers wont see it, and if no one sees the story in the first 3 hours, almost no one will see the story. Of course some people will check it out from the Digg RSS feed, but compared to the power of the site, that is insignificant.

At the same time however, there is an exponentially greater amount of content created everyday and much faster than older content is deemed expired or irrelevant.

So the problem, basically is that there is more viable content created everyday than can be shown and would actually be seen by a large number of people on the site (based on the current front page). And the content that does make it through, isn't on the front page nearly long enough to make a significant impact. On average, 300 stories a day get about 1 hour and 25 minutes to get the bulk of attention, after which they are gone from human eyes forever.

The Newspaper That Works

The answer to the problem is quite simple. In fact the right answer has been around for quite a while and it's called StumbleUpon. StumbleUpon has pages akin to the traditional social news sites' front pages, but for a majority of the users, StumbleUpon is not a destination site. You install a browser toolbar, select your preferences, and you never have to visit the actual site ever again (unless you want to change settings or post to your blog). The toolbar sends you directly to pages that match your preferences and your voting habits. The more you use it, the better the pages you get.

At the same time, however, there is no time-stamp on articles that are submitted to StumbleUpon. You may be shown an article from 5 minutes ago, or an article from 5 years ago - just depends on if it matches your (and your friends') preferences and voting habits. This ensures that every piece of content submitted to the site will get a shot at being judged by the community and that there is no limit to how much exposure something can get. In the process, StumbleUpon has also certainly diminished potential information cascades based on what seems like social proof (e.g. people vote on some stories simply because they already have votes, but you can beg, borrow, and pay for those initial votes), and they have also reduced blind voting because StumbleUpon sends you to a website before you vote on it.

The problem with this system, however, is that because it works so efficiently, and because the user experience is so genuine, intuitive, and non-intrusive, only a fraction of the community using the toolbar ever has to interact with StumbleUpon as a destination site. Therefore, it is very hard to monetize the system based on current (ad based) business models. Even though StumbleUpon has a business model that seems to be working, it's doubtful that (superior as it is) the site can be more profitable than Digg. At $0.05 per visitor, StumbleUpon asks for $50 CPM. Even for the best monetized blogs that traffic isn't worth the cost.

The Newspaper That Will Have To Suffice

From a business perspective, the idea of a monetized destination site, at least in the current Web 2.0 economy, seems to be the right answer, so let's go with that. They can't copy StumbleUpon so that's out. They don't want to move away from a destination-site business model so an off-site mechanism is also out. What if, we crossbred the two ideas?

For example, Reddit already has a StumbleUpon-like toolbar. The only difference is that this toolbar only allows shows up when you visit the Reddit front page and then click an external link from there. And the toolbar only allows you to vote on the story. If you want to do anything else, back to the Reddit front page you go.

Reddit already has a 'recommended' page so we can effectively emulate the StumbleUpon experience by using a combination of the recommendations and the toolbar, we only need to make sure that all users use the toolbar rather than voting directly from the Reddit submission page. Perhaps move voting completely to the toolbar while maintaining story rankings on the front page? The only part we're left with is the 24-hour restriction.

For that we can use an interesting new feature that Reddit recently implemented. If you go to the front page, you'll see a module at the top that rotates between some of the stories from the upcoming section, allowing you to vote on them directly from the front page (the most heavily trafficked section of the site.

What if we rethink the previous two features and reuse the module so it shows 5 random recommendations for you (regardless of upcoming or promoted, just based on your preferences and whether you've already read them or not? That way, the module can cycle between old and new, promoted and still in the queue, and you don't have to worry about missing any good stories on your favorite social newspaper. As for the final problem of scaling with diversity, Reddit solved this problem a few months ago when they introduced normalization to their front page through their unique use of subreddits.

The future of content consumption on the social web is entirely based in personalized recommendations, and this re-conceptualization of Reddit creates a better environment for fighting information cascades and blind voting, and ensures that you will see the content most relevant to you regardless of votes or time-stamps. Recommended stories are only removed once you have either read them or discarded them and content has an infinite lifespan. By integrating the model into a destination site, it also remains an easily monetizable venture.

Reddit has all the pieces to the puzzle, they just haven't figured out how to fit them together.

This is a guest post by Muhammad Saleem, a social media consultant and a top-ranked community member on multiple social news sites. You can follow Muhammad on Twitter.