Professional Bookmarking: New Road, Expect Bumps

UPDATE JULY 27: The Washington Post article in which I’m quoted is now online. The reporter, Sara Goo, Did a great job. See: Changes at Netscape Foreshadow AOL’s Evolution. I’m quoted on page 2.

A reporter from a major national newspaper just interviewed me for my perspective on Netscape’s recent offer to pay talented people for their “social bookmarking rights.”

I wondered: “Netscape? Are they still around?” I assumed they were resting on the scrap heap of the the 20th century. So I told the reporter, “Give me an hour to look into this so I can give you an informed opinion.”

Here’s what I’ve learned, and what I think…

It turns out that I’ve missed some pretty major developments at Netscape. (Hey, it happens.) Weblogs Inc. founder Jason Calcanis is now at the helm there. There’s recently been a major and controversial overhaul of Netscape’s services. The most notable addition is that Netscape has created its own version of Digg.

If you haven’t used Digg, it’s worth checking out. This model has endless potential applications.

Basically, Digg users (who apparently have a strong sense of community) bookmark news stories, blog postings, and other kinds of fresh content. Digg then tabulates which stories have been “dugg” by the most members. Then, the front page of Digg represents an up-to-the-minute tally of the most popular stories.

You get a sense of what this community thinks is important by seeing what gets “dugg” the most. It’s an editing-by-consensus approach.

CHANGE IS ALWAYS UNCOMFORTABLE

Digg used to be only about tech news, but recently this service had its own controversial expansion into a handful of other general categories such as “World & Business” and “Sports.” As far as I understand it, this move broadened Digg’s advertiser base but also disgruntled several longtime Digg fans. That flap seems to be sorting itself out after the inevitable change-related grumbles.

In adopting the Digg approach to news aggregation, Netscape offers a broader range of topics, including some distinctly nongeeky choices like “Family” and “Women.”

Digg definitely is kicking Netscape’s butt so far in terms of sheer numbers. But then, Digg’s been working on this model longer and has grown an extraordinarily devoted community.

Growing communities always takes time.

JUMP START WITH A TALENT BUYOFF

Calcanis realized that ultimately the measure of any collaborative editing venture is quality, not quantity. I agree with this strongly, but I also realize that quality is a very subjective thing that can be viewed and measured in different ways.

Digg generally manages to achieve high quality — at least as reckoned by its current core user communities, if not among the population at large — through high participation rates. That is, Digg users love to “digg,” and they love seeing what others have “dugg” up. They’ll spend vast amounts of their free time “digging” for the sheer reward of interaction.

Knowing that Netscape’s news service hasn’t yet attracted sufficient numbers to yield quality comparable to Digg in its current selections in each topic area, Calcanis has proposed buying the exclusive “social bookmarking rights” of people with a proven ability to be prolific and prescient social bookmarkers.

Here’s the offer:

“Before launching the new Netscape I realized that Reddit, NewsVine, Delicious, and DIGG were all driven by a small number of highly-active users. …I have an offer to the top 50 users on any of the major social news/bookmarking sites: [Netscape] will pay you $1,000 a month for your “social bookmarking” rights. Put in at least 150 stories a month and we’ll give you $12,000 a year. (note: most of these folks put in 250-400 stories a month, so that 150 baseline is just that – -a baseline).”

Very clever — he’s basically offering to hire away core volunteers from Netscape’s more established competitors in this field, and to lock their efforts up in Netscape-exclusive deals.

CULTURE VS. CASH

Not surprisingly this offer sparked outrage from many Digg users who claim allegiance first to their homegrown community of volunteers. And I believe that outrage is genuine.

Still, we’ll see how long that outrage lasts. $1000/month just for social bookmarking is a considerable offer. I’d probably consider it — but the exclusivity thing would be a problem for me.

Still, Calcanis would have to choose his paid “Navigators” (as he proposed to call them) very carefully. What these people are already doing in the context of Digg or similar services might not easily translate to a less developed community.

Yes, I know there’s a strong community of Netscape users, but a service like this needs to develop its own user community and culture. I wouldn’t expect to get top quality offerings, or subsequent traffic, right off the bat. This effort will take time.

I think it helps that Netscape’s service attempts to cover a much broader range of topics than Digg. I think it will attract a different and more diverse kind of community, with a different culture.

The cultural aspect of this is where I think the money might get tricky after a while.

If you’re really trying to grow a sustainable community, permanent subsidies to a chosen few institutes a class system. And class systems usually yield tension and fragmentation in the long run — which undermines communities that are not bound together by an external structure (like a corporation, the Catholic Church, or the military).

If I were Calcanis, I’d propose making this offer in, say, three- or six-month arrangements to “seed” the new community — and also to clarify that this is not intended to create a permanent class system.

Also, I think it’s actually counterproductive to make this offer exclusive to Netscape. All of these social bookmarking services are different enough that they have tremendous collaborative potential. Why create resentment between communities (potential collaborators) by trying to buy off and lock up their leaders?

…Especially with geeks — they tend to hold grudges.

THE DAWN OF THE PROFESSIONAL AGGREGATOR

In the bigger picture, as collaborative and conversational media become more prominent and influential, we’re seeing the rise of a new profession: the professional aggregator.

We’ve always had people playing the aggregator role, collecting and sharing tidbits and links. Many have even made a living from it.

Some people, like my friend Randy Cassingham who publishes This Is True (a newsletter that aggregates funny true news stories, supplemented with his pithy commentary), have been making a good living from coupling savvy aggregation with good fact-checking, editing, and writing skills.

Also, there’s a long history in publishing and library science of people working as professional bibliographers — a job closely related to social bookmarking, if you think about it.

Of course, many people use their weblogs as aggregation venues — notably people who are fond of link blogging.

But even mainstream news organizations sometimes offer aggregations of related coverage from elsewhere. For the Christian Science Monitor, Tom Regan writes a daily update on news coverage of Terrorism and Security. Ditto with Jefferson Morley’s World Opinion Roundup blog on washingtonpost.com. Both are great example of news organizations transcending competitive tunnel vision to exercise their cooperative potential.

The aggregation task can be automated to some extent, too. Witness the “Who’s Blogging” and “Save and Share” sidebar boxes on any washingtonpost.com story — content supported by interfaces with Technorati and del.icio.us, respectively

Meanwhile, I’ve heard anecdotally of people sharing their del.icio.us pages (or certain tags or tag combinations from those pages) with colleagues or project teams — a clear example of the business value of aggregation service.

As media in general becomes more participatory, conversational, and collaborative, the cream will continue to rise to the top. And really good cream is worth paying for. High-quality, dedicated social bookmarkers (aggregators) create real value and myriad opportunities for organizations and communities.

I think Calcanis is on the right track for deliberately trying to professionalize aggregation services. And it will be interesting to watch how he navigates the thorny community politics within Netscape — and on the net at large.

Good luck, Jason …but maybe rethink the long-term plan a bit. Promising someone you’ll pay them for a whole year online sounds like a lifetime subsidy. Just a thought.

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