Can media organizations leverage the social web to get story tips faster than they could through traditional methods? A number of news aggregators believe so and are looking to Twitter for tips.
Six weeks ago popular tech news aggregator Techmeme began accepting story tips submitted on Twitter. Today PopURLs, an older and more diverse aggregator, began doing the same thing. This is probably just the beginning; so many journalists are on Twitter that it only makes sense that people will systematize the harvesting of news tips. The early experiment at Techmeme indicates though that the long tail of Twitter tips may not be so long after all. A handful of Twitter users are dominating the system.
Everybody Wants in the Game
Techmeme and PopURLs won't be the last organizations to lean on Twitter for news. We've learned that Techmeme competitor Techfuga will roll out the same feature next week and Firefox bookmarking plug-in Shareaholic will be including a button to send tips to Techmeme as well. Techfuga will be building its index using Twitter tips, which is similar to how the already established Techmeme is using the system.
Allen Stern at CenterNetworks has added a "techmeme tip" button at the end of all his blog posts and a handful of other top tech blogs have said they will be doing the same. Just like mainstream media outlets have added "Digg this" buttons to their sites, we're sure they'll be leveraging Twitter for tips soon as well.
How Are Sites Dealing With Twitter Tips?
its new human editor Megan McCarthy. Tips are submitted to the site via Twitter by adding "tips @techmeme" to any post with a link in it. McCarthy's exact role in putting stories on the front page of the site is mysterious but she's got some hand in it. Tipped headlines are sometimes pushed to the site manually and sometimes they make it there automatically, site founder Gabe Rivera told us.Techmeme is a flurry of activity, updating every 5 minutes most hours day and night. It's edited primarily by a complex algorithm years in the works and in part by
PopURLS, on the other hand, doesn't use any human intervention. Twitter tips there just augment the company's existing Twitter hotness tracker. That site then feeds into PopURLs.
Who is Doing the Tipping?
We've gathered the numbers below from the last 7 days of Twitter tips to Techmeme.
We looked at the last 500 tweeted tips and here's what we saw.
- They were submitted by 110 different people.
- 44% of those submissions came from one man, a Bay Area engineer in the health insurance industry named Atul Arora. (Atul submitted 224 tips to Techmeme in the last week.)
- 17% of the tips came from Mrinal Desai, an early LinkedIn employee and now co-founder at tech help company CrossLoop.
- Those two men make 61% of the tips to Techmeme. The remaining 39% of the tips come from a list of 108 other people, most of whom have only made one or two tips in the last week.
How are those tips working out? Do Arora and Desai dominate the accepted submissions as well? In fact they do, though only a small percentage of their tips go up on Techmeme.
- Techmeme founder Gabe Rivera pushed some buttons and told us that 19 submitters have had 91 tips hit Techmeme in the last week.
- We went through each day's archive at noon and midnight PST and were able to identify 66 tipped stories contributed by 14 people.
- Atul Arora submitted 52% of those headlines, giving him a 15% success rate.
- Mrinal Desai submitted 21% of the tipped headlines, giving him a 16% success rate.
- Jeff Crites (BrickandClick), the community manager at Army.mil, submitted 5% of the tipped stories we found.
- That means that 78% of the tipped stories on Techmeme came from 3 out of 110 people who submitted tips over the last 7 days.
Those seem to us like numbers that could discourage most people from submitting tips, but maybe discouragement is unwarranted. Rivera says that the top tippers have a lot more visibility than they have influence. Many of the stories they submit would have made it on to the site anyway because they are from major news outlets whose big stories get discussed on other blogs already - that's the primary way that stories have always hit Techmeme.
Indeed Atul Arora acknowledges this. In an email this afternoon he told us:
WSJ & NY Times push articles to wsj.com/tech and nytimes.com/tech late in the evening PST. You can always tip these articles and have your name show up on techmeme. I am guilty of doing so a number of times. Even if I don't tip some of these articles will show up on Techmeme because sites like NYTimes/WSJ are probably trusted sources for Techmeme. I am sure Gabe and Megan do look out for such behavior and make sure that this method of tipping is not abused.
Gabe and Megan are watching out for abuses of the system. Rivera says the best tips are to relatively obscure sites that Techmeme wouldn't have found otherwise and points to a number of cases where that's exactly what Atul and Desai have done.
Is This System Good for the Media Getting Tips?
We wonder though, whether the system really is proving effective at Techmeme. 110 people posting tips in 7 days doesn't seem like a lot to us for a site with as many readers as Techmeme has, but it's hard to know how to judge that number. For tips and hits to be so dominated by a small number of tipsters, some of whom are posting a lot of tips to news that the system would have found anyway could be discouraging to new tipsters.
"I hope people don't get that impression because the 'top' tippers actually hold no fundamental advantage," Rivera told us. He expects more people will start tipping the big stories and that will both speed up Techmeme and give those tipsters increased visibility. Neither tipping a lot nor success in tipping gives extra impact to a person's Techmeme tips in the future. "Both [Arora and Desai] also uncover somewhat more obscure things," Rivera told us. "That's where their influence is."
That's where the hope for Twitter tips lies, too. People discovering obscure news and sharing it with their favorite news outlet. Hopefully that's something that an increasing number and diversity of people will start doing. Rivera is convinced that Twitter tips are good for Techmeme, but so far we're not sure how well they're working.
"Remember, unlike Digg, Techmeme doesn't need submissions to work," Rivera adds. "So tips only serve to fill in gaps. They're a modest remedy to a modest problem. Since they help improve Techmeme a little every day, it's clear they're helpful, and I expect their benefit to grow as more people become aware of them. When you tip Techmeme, you're making a little bit of a wager in public. You're telling all of your followers that you think a story should get on Techmeme. I think that discourages many people from tipping enough that we'll never see Digg-volume submissions. But it does serve to improve the quality of the average tip."
It's early days and Twitter is an incredibly dynamic phenomenon. You can help Twitter and Techmeme become even better by adding "tip @techmeme" to the hot tech news posts you Twitter about. You can give a good story a bump on PopURLs by Tweeting "@popurls here goes the title http://example.com". Whether the practice will catch on remains to be seen.