Social networks: All around the Net, but underused by news sites

In the last two years social networking sites mushroomed across the net, heavily fertilized by hype and the promise of six degrees of connection between socially dispersed people who shared common interests or friends. Now companies actively apply social networking principles to shift more stock and lure more clickthrus to their site.

In 2003, social networking sites Friendster, and LinkedIn started business. Now there are up to 200 social networking sites covering everything from business contacts to dating. In New York and Boston mobile service Dodgeball informs users when a friend of a friend (FOAF) is within 10 blocks. FOAF is now also the name of web-based software protocol that describes people and their friends.

Eurekster is a search engine that matches your search terms with pages viewed by your friends and FOAFs. In December Netflix launched a new tool, where members can see recommendations from their friends. Delicious Library, a hugely popular book, CD and DVD inventory management program for the Mac will include social networking tools in the next version so friends can share their tastes.

The concepts, then, are all around the Net, but what are social networks, really? How do they work, and what’s their relevance to the news business?

There are two flavours of social network: the broad and the deep. Broad social networks are any form of on-going interaction between people, and they have existed since the emergence of tribes in human evolution.

“There’s a whole spectrum of relationships,” said Howard Rheingold, who in 1993 wrote a book about social networks and virtual communities. “For example, somebody in the store, whose name you don’t know but from whom you might buy regularly, they are part of your social network, the person who delivers your mail, your friends and family. There are all sorts of degrees of relationships within social networks.”

This sociological definition comprises a broad matrix of relationships that feeds one of the most powerful appetites in people: the hunger to connect with others through a common goal, shared interests or mutual benefit.

The deep definition refers to the increasingly common online practice of developing tools to leverage the friends of a friend for mutual benefit. “I think the use of the term social networks has changed. Since Friendster, I think it’s come to mean services like Friendster. Of course, the term pre-dates the Internet,” said Rheingold.

On the Internet, social networks are old news. In the early days of the Arpanet, originally designed for military communication, designers saw the new network as a means of collaboration between researchers. Collaboration was one of the ideas that inspired Tim Berners-Lee to develop the World Wide Web.

“Social Networks, codified or not, provide a mechanism for prioritization and filtering of information, including news,” said Tony Gentile in an e-mail interview. Gentile, a strategic marketing consultant for Internet companies, runs, where he writes about emerging technologies and trends.

Technologies, like bulletin boards, Internet forums, e-mail, chat, and instant messaging are all social networking tools. Amazon recommendations, its listmania, reader’s reviews and ‘people who bought …’ listings all serve as relevant context and timely information in a world of virtually unlimited choice. They are simple and basic functions that tap into low level, or broad, networking concepts.

Deeper social networking is emerging with weblogs, where people start a conversation and, often, invite others to comment. Add trackback into the mix and you get the formation of conversations, relationships and networks. Sites like LiveJournal exist to enable blog networks. Rathergate, Easongate and the Tsunami disaster are all examples of how elaborate social networks develop spontaneously around the news, with people sharing news, evidence and analysis.

“In the case of blogs and feeds, your social network may do more than simply refer content to you; they may annotate it with their own analysis and commentary,” said Buzzhit’s Gentile. “This combination of social networking, blogging, referral and annotation is at the heart of service likes Rojo.”

Similarly, wikis such as Wikipedia and open source software development, like Linux or Firefox, draw together a network of disparate individuals into a shared goal.

Again, all this is old news, but now companies want to develop ever more elaborate social networking components into their software and services. The Netflix and planned Delicious Library tools are significant advances on Amazon’s ratings, for example.

So far, most newspapers have done little to develop the tools required to enable interesting, broad networks needed to foster ongoing relationships with their readers. Most newspaper innovation stopped with ‘e-mail this story’ and subscription models. Even less exists for deep networks.

“I know of very few major U.S. newspaper sites that allow readers to comment on articles. Most channel interaction is through ‘Letter to the Editor’ from posts or e-mail addresses,” said Buzzhit’s Gentile. “And that’s a big issue. Providing the tools is the easy part. Encouraging usage, that is, building community, starting a conversation, is far harder. So, yes, newspapers need to provide the tools … but fundamentally, they must reinvent their relationship with their readers.”

But now some newspapers, too, are beginning to deploy social networking tools and components into their core services. The experiment by The Washington Post and Knight-Ridder is an attempt to shore up the rapidly disappearing newspaper classified market and to engage more meaningfully with readers.

In the UK,, like other news sites, encourages reader comments on every story. Those comments sometimes generate stories in their own right. The UK’s Guardian uses discussion groups and regularly invites readers to chat and pose questions to newsmakers and journalists on its live talk section. Additionally, it has a lively set of message boards where readers can exchange views. offers its own blogging service. In citizen journalism, sites like the Northwest Voice develop networks around local news, combining aspects of a blog and a wiki. Across Netspace newspapers are beginning to deploy social networking tools that connect readers more directly to the paper and each other.

At Yahoo News, for example, the ‘Most Popular’ section gets the greatest number of visitors. Yahoo doesn’t break down the numbers to the ‘most popular’ page, but the News site overall received 23 million visitors in January.

“We have three flavours of ‘most popular’: most e-mailed, most viewed and highest rated, and also we’re looking at ‘most searched,’ and we may find ways to start using that data on the site as well,” said Neil Budde, Yahoo’s Director of News. “With over 20 million visitors each month it provides information about what’s interesting to a wide swath of people.”

Right now Budde wants to look at ways social networking could enhance traffic data and reader experience.

“What we would look for down the road is ordering stories more dynamically, based on not just an editor’s view or a mass view, but maybe take social networking, like ordering stories based on a reader’s group of friends, or on people who have similar interests to your own,” he said. He thinks similar tools could be developed around readers’ comments.

But are social networking tools worth all the fuss? Will it have an impact?

“Are you asking me if there’s a way to make money off of a cost-effectively, virally acquired audience of above-average participatory users who produce metadata based on their activities? I think the answer is clear ;-),” said Buzzhit’s Gentile. “… (Benefits are) audience growth, participation and metadata. All of which should ultimately improve monetization.”

That’s worth pondering. In January the New York Times carried a story by Eric Dash about how the Dow Jones’ purchase of CBS Market Watch was prompted by concerns over growing ad revenues: The online WSJ was running out of space for the ads. Even though the WSJ can add an infinite number of pages to its site, advertisers only like the popular ones. The thriving connection with readers outlined by Gentile is one way of maximizing the value of the pages newspapers already have.

Still, not all are convinced that news is an exciting proposition for social networking.

“The question is … is it already too late? Content distribution is gravitating toward feeds, and feed readers are integrating social networking. Newspaper sites might be able to integrate SN via FOAF, or similar open frameworks, but the likelihood of a consumer inviting 30 friends to a newspaper site seems … remote,” said Gentile.

Right now, I have a feeling Gentile is right. ‘People who read this story also read … ‘. It doesn’t work for me. But there’s no reason why it shouldn’t.

Every subject under the sun has a history; likewise every subject under the sun has news. For dating, it’s the hot new singles bar; for cinema, it’s the latest releases and their reviews. Can’t newspapers develop as a node that taps into people’s desire to network, by sharing interests and information across all topics? Can newspapers open their pages to readers and seed the conversation with content they already produce? (see sidebar, some imaginative speculation).

Whether newspapers can effectively deploy social network technologies, and what effect they may have, are moot points. But according to Yahoo News’ Budde, one thing is sure:

“Social networks are going to continue to evolve, and all the media need to pay attention to it.”

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  1. How is the ‘social networks’ buzz any different from the ‘interactivity’ buzz of two years ago and the ‘organic content’ buzz of two years before that? It’s all the same.

  2. I wouldn’t dismiss any of those concepts as mere “buzz.” They represent fundamental changes in the way that consumers *could* get and distribute news. The catch is that they are most often currently implemented not by journalists, but by lay people who are fumbling their way through the gathering and reporting of accurate information, rather than opinion and hearsay.

    A great opportunity awaits journalists who can figure out how to use interactivity, social networking and other emerging technologies to report and deliver real news at a much lower cost and with “good enough” quality compared with a traditional newsroom.

  3. I did not mean to dismiss the ideas by calling them ‘buzz’, but to dismiss the idea that there is something new here. News websites have been struggling with these issues for years (and, admittedly, largely ignoring them). But newspapers are large businesses, and getting them to jump into new paradigms is very difficult.

  4. Point taken. You’re absolutely right. Which is why I find the work being done by non-newspaper sites so fascinating.

  5. Could online presence of readers and writers be something to consider for newspapers. Like sitting next to each other reading the news and commenting on it on the spot.