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Thursday, July 12, 2007

Can social news sites survive the very openness that makes them thrive?

Can social news sites survive the very openness that makes them thrive?

Devotees of "crowdsourced" media sites love to equate social editing with democracy, and they've got at least one part of the comparison right: social editing is every bit as raucous, messy and enthralling as the electoral process. For the latest proof, look no further than the much-debated DVD hack posted at social-editing titan

In case you missed it, last month a user posted a link to instructions on cracking the digital copyright protections encrypted into HD-DVDs. Digg removed the link, then was so swamped with users reposting the story that the site temporarily shut down. After some soul-searching about the rights of free-speech versus those of privacy and intellectual property, Digg allowed the link to go back up, and the site's founder, Kevin Rose, wrote in Digg's blog that, "now, after seeing hundreds of stories and reading thousands of comments, you've made it clear. You'd rather see Digg go down fighting than bow down to a bigger company… If we lose, then what the hell, at least we died trying." No one ever said the media revolution would be bloodless.

The explosive growth of social editing or social news sites such as, and , has made a pressing issue of these debates about the virtues of an unedited public sphere and the control of information. That's because social editing web sites allow users to source, debate and prioritize content without intervention from an editorial staff. Most of the stories at social news sites are not written by users but instead are "seeded" content, or links to stories posted elsewhere in mainstream media or on blogs. Thanks to the sea of information floating around on-line, members can seed nearly any imaginable idea — truthful or libelous, insightful or illegal — to a social news site and let the community vote on it. On any given day, readers at social news sites might find completely unresearched blog rants struggling for creditability alongside front-page news from the New York Times. The idea is that the "wisdom of the crowd," to borrow James Surowiecki's term, will sort the information more effectively and more responsively to the public's needs than an editorial staff. Andrew Sorcini, who spends some 10-15 hours a week on Digg, calls the process a way of making the community "collective arbiters of taste."

The jury is still out on the public's ability to vet information, but the very existence of social editing indicates that a fundamental shift is occurring in way people think about news. Users of social editing sites are no longer passive media consumers. Instead they see media as a live discussion in which the public deserves a voice equal to that of an editor. Skepticism of mainstream reporting runs rampant at these sites, where community members use the social editing platform to engage each other in a debate over the meaning and validity of news. In the best case scenario, then, social editing morphs the public into a giant fact-checker; in the worst case, it means that traditional goals like objectivity and responsibility are replaced by an on-line popularity contest. It matters less if an idea is provably valid than if it's popular.

Posted by Ajay :: 9:37 AM :: 0 comments

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