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January 12 2012

19:30

What would a Google News Plus Your World look like?

How soon until we get a Google News “Plus Your World?”

With the introduction of the oddly extraterrestrial-sounding Google “Search Plus Your World”, the company proclaimed their latest experiment is “transforming Google into a search engine that understands not only content, but also people and relationships.” The world of search gets split up and re-filtered through the things Google knows you like and information from the people around you.

Now, since the announcement there’s been much controversy over how “the things Google knows you like” seems to be driven almost entirely by Google+, not larger competitors Facebook and Twitter, which has led to cries for an antitrust inquiry. But let’s set that aside for a moment and think about what the underlying idea of Search Plus Your World could mean for Google News.

Here’s what we know of how Search Plus Your World works:

1. Personal Results, which enable you to find information just for you, such as Google+ photos and posts—both your own and those shared specifically with you, that only you will be able to see on your results page;

2. Profiles in Search, both in autocomplete and results, which enable you to immediately find people you’re close to or might be interested in following; and,

3. People and Pages, which help you find people profiles and Google+ pages related to a specific topic or area of interest, and enable you to follow them with just a few clicks. Because behind most every query is a community.

Let’s say you were interested in Republican frontrunner Mitt Romney. Taking the normal route through Google News, you’d most likely try searching for “mitt romney” or click on the newly added Elections header and get links to stories from usual suspects like USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and more.

If you dropped a “Search Plus” layer to that, what might you expect? If your Google+ friends are sharing stories about Romney, they might get shoved to the top. That would likely mean they’d be more closely aligned to your friends’ political perspectives; your liberal friends are probably sharing anti-Romney pieces, your conservative ones pro-Romney ones. (Well, unless they’re conservatives who don’t like Romney, but that’s another issue.) You might also see individual Google+ pages from Romney, other G.O.P. candidates — and maybe even the G+ pages of individual reporters who are covering the campaign and writing some of the stories you’re being shown.

That probably sounds a little familiar to what we’ve come accustom to seeing on Twitter and Facebook. But neither of those sites is fueled by the same combination of search and network. Twitter search looks at everybody’s tweets; Facebook’s news feed just flows on by, driven by Facebook’s algorithms rather than your search interests. Google has the search DNA, the news-crawling infrastructure, and at least the start of the network knowledge that could combine to make something new.

Those are pretty powerful assets and remain the reason Google still inspires animosity in some news executives and antitrust lawyers. A Google News Plus Your World (let’s call it “Google News+” for the sake of brevity) could in theory provide users a social news service that (whether they like it or not) knows about their browsing habits and social graph while also filtering “news” product out of the larger mass of the web.

Google News already provides tools for customization, but most (though not all) rely on users’ being interested in fiddling — yes to business, no to entertainment, more Wall Street Journal, less Cat Fancy. The genius of the social news feed is that it bases those decisions off of network data. You just need to build a network.

But let’s stretch the speculation just a bit further: the toggle. One of the more clever aspects of Search Plus is the ability to shift back and forth between normal and personalized search with one little switch. The toggle is a way to dodge the backlash that comes when any product is seemingly irreversibly redesigned (and built on seemingly self-serving decisions of the sort that gets lawyers involved).

For a notional Google News+, that little switch would be a dividing line for readers between the fire hose and a curated feed. It could also be, as Steven Levy points out over at Wired, the pin that pops Eli Pariser’s Filter Bubble. That kind of freedom, to jump back and forth between the personalized feed and the raw stream, is not common on news sites. The toggle is a promise of serendipity, but also the comfort of your favorite, trusted news service, which, if you are someone still mourning the transformation of Google Reader, could harken back to glory days of the RSS service.

One bit of groundwork is already laid for something like Google News+: the integration of journalists Google+ profiles into Google News. Connecting authorship to identity is an ongoing Google interest, beginning with the authorship markup language that spotlighted writers in search results. As Google tries to integrate social into every corner of their business, a fully social-fied Google News would seem like a logical next step.

July 26 2011

20:49

How badges help news websites build community, make money

Poynter :: The Huffington Post uses badges in its “social news” system to encourage users to follow each other, share stories and flag inappropriate comments. Mashable awards badges to users who share content and subscribe to news topics. Just recently, Google News added a simple badge system to track the subjects a user reads frequently. Badges can serve many purposes, but the biggest is to help a news organization define and grow its relationship with each reader.

How they work - continue to read Jeff Sonderman, www.poynter.org

February 24 2011

17:00

Professor Pablo Boczkowski on news consumption — and how when you read affects what you read

We wrote in September about Pablo Boczkowski’s new book, News at Work: Imitation in an Age of Newsroom Abundance. During a talk at Harvard’s Kennedy School, the Northwestern communications professor discussed the effects of imitation in the news space, highlighting a troubling paradox: Though we live in a time of abundant information, we also live in a time of homogenization. Repetition is everywhere.

It’s an intriguing phenomenon, but it’s not the only one in Boczkowski is studying. Another fascinating aspect of the professor’s research — the aspect, in fact, for which the book is named — is the study he conducted of the environments in which people consume their news. People tend to read the news at work; and that, in turn, skews the news content they consume. (For more on that idea — and for the broader trends it suggests about information consumption and civic life — check out the talk Boczkowski will be giving this evening, with the Lab’s own Josh Benton, as part of MIT’s Communications Forum. If you’re in the Cambridge area, the discussion will take place from 5 to 7 on the MIT campus; it’ll also be recorded and archived.)

When it comes to news, how does where we consume affect what what we consume? Above is a video, shot back in 2009 by former Lab-er Ted Delaney, of Boczkowski discussing the “news at work” ideas and implications; below is its transcript.


…is that the time and place of work has become a very important temporal and spacial location of online news consumption for a fairly large number of people who get the news online. Whereas in the case of traditional media — like print newspapers, television newscasts, radio newscasts — you would get the news before or after work, or going to and from work, but not at the time and place of work. Now, a sizable proportion of the people who get the news online get the news at work. And that has been changing how we get the news, what kind of news we get when we’re at work, and whom we talk to — the person, the people we talk to — when we talk to people about the news at work.

So, for instance, just to give you some examples, when people are at work, they tend to spend first some time, the first time that they visit the news sites during the day, or a number of news sites during the day, they tend to spend time looking at those sites in a routine, comprehensive fashion: They scan the home pages, they click on some stories, and so on and so forth. And then any subsequent visits after that are of much shorter duration, more focused on particular issues. Usually not clicking after that, just browsing on the homepage, looking at a particular story. A coworker said, “Oh, there is a big fire in this neighborhood; oh, have you looked at these poll results from that kind of competition.” People go online, check 15, 20 seconds, maybe a minute — maybe they will look at the first paragraph of the story, then they leave the site.

And the other thing that has happened is that because of the social norms of the workplace, usually it’s not well seen to have conversations with coworkers about politically, for instance, sensitive, or culturally sensitive or contentious issues. And because the people we talk to tend to influence the kinds of news that we get — sometimes to the point that we look at particular news stories because we anticipate having conversations about those stories with, in this case, the people with whom we work.

That tends to steer people away from the consumption of politically sensitive topics, and move them towards consumption of sports stories, stories celebrity stories — topics that are more innocuous, and lighter in terms of workplace conversations. And that also marks an interesting shift to people who for example work in a home environment, in a home office, versus the people who work in an office environment, with many other coworkers. The people who tend to work in an office environment, with other coworkers, and get the news online at work, tend to identify the consumption of online news with the workplace. So when they leave the office, right, because there is that symbolic association between the consumption of news and the workplace, they don’t want, when they’re at home, or it’s the weekend, they don’t want to get the news online. They’re less predisposed, because, at home, it’s not work, so they shouldn’t be doing work-related stuff. Versus the people who work in the home environment, they keep checking news sites after they finish working, right — or, at least, they have a higher chance of doing that — and also spending time looking at news during the weekend.

So these are some of the ways in which the consumption of online news at work has changed some of the habitualized, some of the routine patterns of news consumption that we have seen in traditional media. Sometimes major changes, sometimes intensifying pre-existing habits, and sometimes conforming to what we have known before. For instance, this issue that the people we talk to, the most proximate social relations, are a major factor in shaping what news we get and the kinds of things we talk about.

December 09 2010

20:00

Aron Pilhofer and Jennifer Preston on the new shape of social in The New York Times’ newsroom

In some ways, the most successful social media editor is an obsolete social media editor. The better you do your job — integrate social media into your newsroom, make it a seamless part of your organization’s workflow — the less you’re required to actually, you know, do your job.

By that measure, Jennifer Preston’s work as The New York Times’ first social media editor has been a resounding success — as evidenced by the fact that she will also likely be the outlet’s last social media editor. Earlier this week, the paper announced that it’s scrapping its SM editor role, instead folding responsibility for the Times’ social media oversight into the paper’s Interactive News division, under the leadership of Interactive News Editor Aron Pilhofer.

Pilhofer’s team is composed of developers who are at the vanguard of the journo-hacker movement (we wrote a bit about their intriguing backgrounds this summer), and they’ve already had a big hand in developing some of the Times’ most notable forays into social media: creative commenting systems like Health Care Conversations (which uses what the team internally calls a “bento box” structure to visualize commentary); crowdsourcing efforts like Survival Strategies, which asked for readers’ approaches to coping with the recessed economy; and other efforts. The move into social, in fact, isn’t a move at all. As Pilhofer notes, “It’s really more of an expansion of something that we’re already deeply involved in.”

That expansion has been met with general approval from the Twittersphere and elsewhere: The idea of diffusing the responsibility for social media, shifting it from one person to a team and a newsroom, makes eminent sense. And Preston, for her part — who will continue in the Times’ long tradition of editors-returning-to-reporting, helping to cover, fittingly, the social media beat — likes what the shift to Interactive means for the Times’ future. “That’s where social media belongs, and that’s the direction we have been taking it,” she told me. “And I am thrilled — I am just so delighted — that social media is now going to sit in Aron Pilhofer’s group.”

Evolving toward obsolescence

The shift marks something of a victory for social media at the paper of record — and the news organization where some of the most exciting interplays between tradition and technology are being developed. Social media, at the Times as everywhere else, has undergone an evolution — something that’s been in the works long before Preston took the social media editor role. “The New York Times had a very robust presence in the social media space before I took on that role,” she notes; for the past year and a half, Preston has been not only overseeing the paper’s efforts when it comes to social media, but also playing a get-the-word out role within the Times’ newsroom itself.

One of her great successes in that respect has actually been a quiet one: She has, in a way, normalized the newsroom’s relationship with social media, taking it from a somewhat controversial presence — that newfangled tool of the Twitters — into something now generally accepted as part of the new way of doing journalism. “When I took on the role of social media editor last summer, my primary responsibility was to be an evangelist among our journalists,” Preston told me.

Increasingly, though, that role is becoming obsolete: “Our journalists get it,” she says. “Which has just been so exciting.”

Now, under Pilhofer, social media’s presence will be even more widely distributed throughout the newsroom — and, thus, even more finely integrated within it. “A lot of people, I think, think of engagement as just comments,” Preston notes. “And we have to do such a better job in that area, which everyone is aware of, and we’re really focused on making improvements there. But there’s so many other ways that you can engage people and use social to help drive that.”

In taking over Preston’s general social media responsibilities, Pilhofer told me, he’ll still be playing a training role, introducing Times journalists to new tools for social engagement — Twitter, Facebook, whatever’s next. “We are now at a point when we can start pushing these ideas, and these tools, and responsibilities, and getting this out into the newsroom to continue what Jennifer was doing so effectively for so long.” Pilhofer agrees with Preston, though: It won’t be about evangelism. In fact, “I’m always looking for other words besides ‘evangelizing,’” he notes. “I don’t like it because [social media] is not faith-based. There are very clear, very demonstrable, empirical data we can point to, if that’s what it comes to, to convince somebody that this is worth taking very, very seriously and building into your reporting process. We can show you that. You don’t have to take our word for it.”

And the job of trainer/advocate, going forward, will be distributed. “I think, to some degree, we’re going to be relying on folks who have — to continue the metaphor — ‘gotten the religion’ to continue that,” Pilhofer says. “And one of those people, obviously, is going to be Jen.”

“A seamless mix”

Another aspect of social media’s diffusion into the newsroom will be a broad definition of what “social media” means in the first place. “When this first came up, I was very clear that I wanted to think about all things social — not just a handful of websites that we now talk about,” Pilhofer says. Social media, he points out, “is the entire conversation: It is anywhere readers are talking about us, talking with us, talking with one another, talking about issues that are important — things we’re covering — whether that occurs on NYTimes.com or off. To me, that’s a continuum of things. It’s not just one thing.”

Included in that is an idea that’s especially exciting for future-of-newsies: social-media-as-reporting-tool. “Social media,” as Pilhofer construes the term, includes “a lot of really, really cool new tools that are coming online to help more effectively filter the flow of information — and home in on those interesting tidbits that could turn into great stories.” (Preston echoes that: “I think it’s a mistake just to think of Facebook as a platform just to push out — as a distribution tool. I think it’s just a real opportunity for news organizations to use it to seed communities around your content,” she notes.) And — Pilhofer again — “helping reporters do that, I think, will be very much a part of our responsibility.”

Pilhofer’s team is used to working with text reporters, web producers, business side-ers, and other members of the Times’ organization to accomplish its goals. Interactivity, increasingly, touches every corner of the building. And the entire group of journo-hackers will be involved in making the interpersonal connections within the newsroom that, hopefully, will translate to interpersonal connections in the world beyond its walls. “In effect,” Pilhofer notes, “the responsibilities are coming under the team, and into the team.” The community-building strategies and the technological strategies, currently somewhat separate, are going to be folded into Interactive News. The vision? “A seamless mix of technologists working with journalists to accomplish those kinds of goals. That’ll happen inside the group, but it’ll happen outside the group, as well.”

November 09 2010

15:00

Loose ties vs. strong: Pinyadda’s platform finds that shared interests trump friendships in “social news”

There isn’t a silver bullet for monetizing digital news, but if there were, it would likely involve centralization: the creation of a single space where the frenzied aspects of our online lives — information sharing, social networking, exploration, recommendation — live together in one conveniently streamlined platform. A Boston-based startup called Pinyadda wants to be that space: to make news a pivotal element of social interaction, and vice versa. Think Facebook. Meets Twitter. Meets Foursquare. Meets Tumblr. Meets Digg.

Owned by Streetwise Media — the owner as well of BostInnovation, the Boston-based startup hub — Pinyadda launched last year with plans to be a central, social spot for gathering, customizing, and sharing news and information. The idea, at first, was to be an “ideal system of news” that would serve users in three ways:

1. it should gather information from the sites and blogs they read regularly;

2. it should mimic the experience of receiving links and comments from the people in their personal networks; and

3. it should be continually searching for information about subjects they were interested in. This pool of content could then be ranked and presented to users in a consistent, easily browsed stream.

Again, centralization. And a particular kind of centralization: a socialized version. Information doesn’t simply want to be free, the thinking went; it also wants to be social. The initial idea for Pinyadda was that leveraging the social side of the news — making it easy to share with friends; facilitating conversations with them — would also be a way to leverage the value of news. Which ties into the conventional wisdom about the distributive power of social news. In her recent NYRB review of The Social Network, Zadie Smith articulates that wisdom when it comes to Facebook’s Open Graph — a feature, she wrote, that “allows you to see everything your friends are reading, watching, eating, so that you might read and watch and eat as they do.”

What Pinyadda’s designers have discovered, though, is that “social” news doesn’t necessarily mean “shared with friends.” Instead, Pinyadda has found that extra-familiar relationships fuel news consumption and sharing in its network: Social news isn’t about the people you know so much as the people with whom you share interests.

Pinyadda’s business model was based on the idea that the social approach to news — and the personalization it relied on — would allow the platform to create a new value-capture mechanism for news. The platform itself, its product design and development lead, Austin Gardner-Smith, told me — with its built-in social networks and its capacity for recommendation and conversation — bolsters news content’s value with the experiential good that is community — since a “central point of consumption” tends to give the content being consumed worth by proximity.

The idea, in other words, was to take a holistic approach to monetization. Pinyadda aimed to take advantage of the platform’s built-in capacity for personalization — via behavioral tracking, or, less nefariously, paying attention to their individual users — to sell targeted ads against its content. “Post-intent” advertising is interest-based advertising — and thus, the thinking goes, more effective/less annoying advertising. That thinking still holds; in fact, the insight that common interests, rather than familiarity, fuels news consumption could ratifies it. As Dan Kennedy put it, writing about the startup after they presented at a Hacks/Hackers meetup this summer: “Pinyadda may be groping its way toward a just-right space between Digg (too dumb) and NewsTrust (too hard).” The question will be whether news consumers, so many of them already juggling relationships with Facebook and Twitter and Tumblr and Posterous and other such sites, can make room for another one. And the extent to which the relationships fostered in those networks — connections that are fundamentally personal — are the types that drive the social side of news.

September 14 2010

17:30

Why SEO and audience tracking won’t kill journalism as we know it

[I'm happy to introduce Nikki Usher, a new contributor here at the Lab. Nikki is a Ph.D. candidate at USC Annenberg and, before academia, was a reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer and elsewhere. Here she tackles the question of using metrics in journalism; later today, we'll have a different take on the same topic from C.W. Anderson. —Josh]

Last week, The New York Times featured the scary tale of how some newspapers, including The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal, are (shockingly!) changing their coverage after using online metrics to figure out what their audience wants to read. And Gene Weingarten, in an amusing takedown of search engine optimization, insinuated earlier in the summer that just by putting Lady Gaga in his column, he’d get more hits.

Jeremy W. Peters had another Times piece about much the same concern: young journalists doing “anything that will impress Google algorithms and draw readers their way” and the scary “big board” that Gawker keeps in its newsroom tracking the 10 most popular blog posts, along with pageviews per hour.

This concern that audience tracking, writing for Google, and SEO will somehow destroy the ability of news organizations to keep news judgment apart from audience demands is misplaced. Instead, being more attentive to audience demands may actually be the best thing that news organizations can do to remain relevant and vital sources of news.

With monetization tied to clicks, and real-time Omniture data a feature of more and more newsrooms, it’s easy to worry that audiences will dictate news coverage. But how about the opposite argument: that journalists, for too long, have been writing about what they think their readers ought to know, and not enough about what their audiences want to know.

Journalism has always depended on having an audience to consume its work and has spent much of the past century trying to figure out exactly what that audience wants to know. Now, journalists have better tools than ever to figure out who their audiences are, learn what they want, and in real time, track their behaviors in order to be more responsive to their needs. This isn’t a bad thing — it turns journalism away from the elitism of writing for itself and back to writing what people are actually looking for.

But what about the concerns that journalists are going to spend all their time writing about pets, or Lady Gaga? The truth is that many of the newsrooms I’ve spoken with are smarter than that. They aren’t abandoning journalism principles; they see metrics as a way to ensure their journalism will be read.

SEO at the Christian Science Monitor

In my academic work, I’ve been following the evolution of The Christian Science Monitor as it has moved from a print daily to a website with a print weekly. Over the course of this evolution, I’ve watched the newsroom grow increasingly sophisticated about audience tracking. When I asked John Yemma about his views on SEO, he had this to say in an email about its impact on the newsroom:

Search engines remain a powerful and preferred tool for online readers. We have no choice but to become adept at SEO if it helps us reach readers where they are. This is nothing new in the news business. In the pre-Web days, newspapers periodically redesigned and reformatted. Editors frequently admonished reporters to write shorter, to use simple and direct language, to “think art” when they were on an assignment — all in the interest of reaching readers.

SEO, at its essence, is about editors thinking the way readers think when they are searching for news. At the Monitor, as at almost every other publication, we work diligently to emphasize key words. But that is only one tool in the toolkit. We try to respond quickly when a subject we know well (international news, for instance) is trending. This gives us an opportunity to offer related links that invite readers to dive deeper into our content. If SEO is about acquisition, related links are about retention. In the past year, we have tripled our online traffic with this strategy.

Does that mean we just write plain-vanilla headlines or merely follow Google/Trends? No. A clever headline can still be a powerful draw, especially on our home-page or in social media. And we still report stories that we know are important even if readers don’t agree. But we are much more attuned these days to what readers will respond to. If our journalism is not read, our work is not effective.

Trend tracking at TheStreet.com

At TheStreet.com, the organization has hired a full-time “SEO guy,” John DeFeo, to monitor trends on Omniture, watch search terms, and optimize TheStreet’s content after it is written so it can be found via search.

The result: Traffic has improved. When I was in TheStreet’s newsroom conducting field research, I did see DeFeo make a suggestion that someone bang out a quick story on a children’s Tylenol recall after seeing it trend on Yahoo. But should we see that as being overly responsive to audience demands? Or should we see it instead as a chance for TheStreet to provide its unique comment on what such a recall might mean for Johnson & Johnson stockholders — and at the same time know that the story will have a chance at reaching an audience because it is trending?

Glenn Hall, Editor at TheStreet, defends SEO journalism as being the core of the basic principles of journalism itself. In an interview, Hall said:

Good journalism is not mutually exclusive with SEO. We have proven over and over again that our best journalism tends to get the best page views. SEO is a tool to make sure the best stories get noticed…SEO increases visibility where users are looking. People consume content differently than they used to through a newspaper.

Hall explains to his staff that SEO is in line with the best practices of journalism. He believes that simple declarative sentences, clear and to the point, makes good sense for both journalism and SEO. And, as he notes, SEO doesn’t have the final say on a story’s success or failure: “It doesn’t matter how good the SEO is if the content isn’t good.”

The new news is social

Nick Bilton, the Times tech blogger, writes in his new book, I Live in the Future & Here’s How It Works about the “consumnivore” — an information-hungry consumer who wants the latest news now. But for this new information consumer, information isn’t just a quest for information. It’s also a social experience, shared with people from Twitter, Facebook, email, or other social media. In other words, if you aren’t looking for news, the news will find you. Good journalism will still be found, even without the high-energy SEO pumping of a daily newsroom — largely, I think, because of the new power of news as a social experience.

This isn’t a myth. At the Pulitzer celebration at The New York Times on April 12, 2010, New York Times Magazine editor Gerald Marzorati noted the following in his celebratory speech for sharing the Pulitzer with Propublica for Investigative Reporting for a story about a New Orleans hospital during Katrina: “[Long form journalism is] our most viewed and most emailed…It does matter to readers. It stops the reader. It slows the reader down.”

Was Memorial Medical Center, the hospital in the story, a hot search term? Probably not. Were 13,000 words likely to produce the quick hits of information that the consumnivore hungers for? No. But the story still reached a substantial audience, person to person. And as it was read by more and more people, it likely climbed up Google’s rankings for those people who were searching for articles about Katrina.

So, if used properly, SEO and audience tracking make newsrooms more accountable to their readers without dictating bad content decisions — and it can help newsrooms focus on reader needs. What is a story if it is never read? SEO won’t kill journalism; it will only enhance how we find and use news.

August 04 2010

10:41

Nieman: French journalists experiment with social network newsgathering

A radio journalist who took part in a week-long social media experiment – confining herself and four other journalists from French-speaking stations to an isolated cabin where their only news sources would be Twitter and Facebook – has detailed her findings on the Nieman Journalism Lab.

Janic Tremblay documents the highs and lows of following events via the two platforms whilst trying to build a strong network of reliable news sources.

On our first night in France, I went online and came across tweets from a man who had been arrested during a demonstration in Moscow earlier that day. He had been jailed for many hours and was tweeting about what was happening. I did not know him. Clearly we lived in different universes, but it turned out that a member of his social network is also part of mine. When my social networking friend retweeted his posts, he showed up in my Twitter feed, and there we were—connected, with me in a French farmhouse and he in jail in Moscow.

(…) With the traditional tools of journalists, the odds of me finding this man would have been close to zero. However, I believe situations like this one happen rarely, as best I can tell from my experience and that of my colleagues.

See the full post here…Similar Posts:



July 13 2010

16:00

Spotery’s relaunch: some lessons in crowd curation

This morning, the social news aggregator formerly known as Ispotastory relaunched with a new name and a modified approach to social news. The site — now rechristened and re-URLed Spotery.com — builds on Ispotastory’s basic infrastructure: crowd-curated content overseen by human editors. (Think Digg with more editorial oversight.)

The original Ispotastory launched in 2009, and the changes it’s implementing today reflect the knowledge the site’s editors have gained — about balancing crowd curation and external oversight, about balancing social sensibilities and editorial — since then. I spoke with Spotery’s CEO, Limor Elkayam, about those changes; here are some of the most instructive shifts:

Old: emphasis on the algorithm
New: emphasis on human curation

Ispotastory, in its first form, “was always going to be a user-generated site,” Elkayam told me — one complemented by human editorial oversight. But when the staff simplified the site’s UI after is launch, so that users could more easily submit stories, submissions increased — and the site’s content experienced what Digg and similar sites have: curation of the open web on the one hand, but self-promotion and clever system-gaming on the other.

The site’s editors, Elkayam says, realized that the free-for-all element of content promotion was undermining the overall experience — and, to some extent, defeating the site’s initial purpose: to filter the web in a way that’s useful, and comprehensible, to users. So the question became: “How do we please people by giving them a place to share news without it diluting the content on the site?”

The answer, Elkayam says, was a more rigorous role for Spotery’s human editors by way of mitigating the influence of the algorithm. (This is similar to the Techmeme model that combines algorithmic and editorial authority in curating stories.) While individual users’ profile pages will feature all the stories they’ve “spotted,” unfiltered and without editorial intervention…on the communal homepage, “nothing makes the site unless an editor promotes it.”

In other words: “We don’t let our users dictate the content that’s going to be on the site. We filter and monitor what’s submitted and then we decide what to promote up and down.” As a result: “There’s really no gaming the system.”

Old: lots of narrow content categories
New: a few broad content categories

Initially, Ispotastory had around 40 categories for classifying the stories it curated, Elkayam told me. Which led to…some confusion. Would the LeBron James move to Miami be a “sports” story? A “business” one? An “entertainment” one?

The relaunched site features, instead, broader, familiar verticals — “Lifestyle,” “Entertainment,” “Technology,” etc. — along with verticals appropriate to a social news site (there are sections for both “Funny” and “Offbeat”). As Elkayam explains of the shift: “We just figured that people have been used to seeing those categories for a long time. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel here.”

Under the simplified categories, it’s actually difficult for editors to make a mistake in classification, Elkayam points out. With the former lots-of-categories infrastructure, the Lindsay Lohan jail-sentencing, for example, might have been filed under “movies” or “gossip” or even “law”; now, it simply gets filed under “entertainment.”

That category-broadening makes sense from a workflow perspective, as well, Elkayam notes. The site’s four editors focus on particular verticals, with everyone splitting the “Offbeat” and “Funny” oversights — encouraging “everyone to own their categories,” she says. A streamlining that’s “better than too many people working on too many categories.”

Old: “friend” framework of social news
New: “follow” framework of social news

Ispotastory launched as a social news site — complete with profile pages with Facebook-like friending capabilities. Spotery, though, has updated the infrastructure of the social relationships it’s built into its site, shifting from a “friend” framework to a “follow” one. “We realized that, with news, you don’t really have to be friends with the person; you just have to be interested in the stories that they’re spotting,” Elkayam says. Now, the site operates under a Twitter-like follow functionality — prioritizing one-way relationships among users versus two-way. “I can follow you,” Elkayam says; “you don’t have to follow me back.”

In other words, the shift in site functionality is a recognition that social news isn’t just about user interaction; it’s about user curation more generally. The old conventional wisdom — that people want to interact over the news — is slowly giving way to a broader assumption: that people simply want to share the news, in whatever form the “sharing” may take.

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