Back in December, as a team of Medill students (including the first two Knight News Challenge "programmer-journalists") was developing the News Mixer project, I wrote an IdeaLab post called "The Revolution in Social Software is Finally Here." It captured my thoughts based on my experience of working with the students on the News Mixer project, which offered new approaches to news commenting driven by the capabilities of the Facebook Connect service.
News Mixer was one of the first Web sites to take advantage of Facebook Connect to build an engaging social experience around news. It won praise from people interested in conversations around news and, more recently, was recognized by the Association for Education in Journalism & Mass Communication (AEJMC) and the Knight-Batten Awards for Innovation in Journalism.
News Mixer, though, was just a demonstration Web site, a prototype designed to show the potential for increasing engagement and improving the caliber of news conversations. This week, one of the top news sites on the Web — the Huffington Post — launched a new service (HuffPost Social News) that delivers on that potential. I’ve been playing around with Social News this week, and it’s quite compelling.
As you can see in the screenshot I’ve posted on the right, now that I’ve registered for Social News, every page of huffingtonpost.com displays recent activity by my Facebook friends on the site. I can see what my friends are reading and the most popular stories among members of my Facebook network. I can also choose to highlight my Facebook friends’ comments on each story, rather than see comments from every user.
Furthermore, as you can see from my second screenshot at the end of the article, each user’s profile page looks very much like the one the News Mixer team created. It displays recent activity by your Facebook friends and a list of friends who have accounts on the Huffington Post.
Why is all this important? Because the biggest problem facing content creators today is what I call the "awareness gap." This refers to the fact that every piece of online content reaches only a fraction of the people who would find it interesting or relevant. On the Web, because the volume of content continues to grow dramatically, many others who might be interested in a particular piece of content never know that it exists.
How can we close the awareness gap? For a long time we’ve been waiting for better personalization engines to produce the "Daily Me" predicted in the 1990s by Nicholas Negroponte of MIT. The problem is that it’s hard to build a good personalization algorithm. Just because I found one article on a topic interesting doesn’t mean I want another one on the same topic. But I’m very likely to be interested in content my friends are interested in, in part because my friends and I inevitably share some content interests, and in part because I’m inclined to keep up with what my friends are interested in so we have a common converational foundation.
Filtering news based on my friends’ interests does raise some troubling issues — especially the risk that my friends and I will build an echo chamber in which we close ourselves off from information that challenges our preconceptions, or that relates to topics that are important but not interesting to us. But the more I look at HuffPo Social News, the more I agree with Chadwick Matlin of Slate’s The Big Money that it is in part "the future of journalism."