Social News Sites, an Act of Journalism?

If a journalist is just a trafficker of information, then what is a social bookmarker?

Is socially bookmarking for sites like Digg, Netscape or Reddit an act of journalism?

As a “Top Digger” and a Netscape Navigator, still active on both sites and also a practicing freelance journalist — this is a question that crosses my mind regularly.

Let’s examine:

A journalist (professional or blogger) goes out in the world, gathers information. Distills and filters that information, boiling it down to the essentials. And finally, they present that data to the reader. In the past the presentation meant the artistic element of writing a story, maybe including a photograph. But on the Web this means taking into consideration design, reader interaction and new media elements (video, audio, flash etc).

The problem from the reader’s perspective: Even with Google there is just too much information out there. News organizations are fighting like hell for our attention — and we don’t want to waste our time trolling the major papers (the Post, The NY Times, the LA Times, etc,) to try and find the most informative and best presented story possible. We want that story to come to us.

Enter the freelance news recommender

Some call this the expert social bookmarker. The final layer of information trafficking is spreading the URL of a good piece of journalism. In a world with seemingly limitless information to sift through, it’s increasingly an important job. This is
something everyone has done instinctively anyways. Since the Web started we sent URL’s via email. But today, we do this in an organized and public fashion. Technology has given us a good tool through which to pool our collective judgment, in real time.

I won’t bother to write about the befefits of relying on the wisdom of the crowd to filter the news, plenty of other blogs can do that much better.

But the meat of the question remains: Is socially bookmarking an act of journalism?

I’ve defined a “journalist” as a trafficker of information.

Anyone can do this — a blogger or someone from the Times, but it requires more than just ranting about your opinion. It’s  about adding to the flow of information with original data. Certainly social bookmarking doesn’t require this. So, one point (a big point) against the social bookmarker as journalist.

Needed Functionality
: There is a layer of citizen journalism, however, achieved when a journalist opens up their work to commenting. While the average comment is an opinion or general comment, some add extra information to the story. On a social news site, where eyes are concentrated, the same effect takes place. As they say in open source, all bugs are shallow. But too often the commenting feature on social news sites is left vague, for general comments.

Newsvine allows members to not only “seed” stories, but to write their own articles and submit those for social voting. And on most social news sites, modding comments up or down is standard.

So why not create two types of commenting features? One for the standard comment and for for what Netscape calls Meta-journalism, or journalism done over the original story.

I’m a big fan of the idea behind meta-journalism: If a story hits the front page of Netscape, it means the people have voted it particularly important or engaging — and this means they want more information, and that’s what Netscape Anchors provide.

But the citizen journalist evangelist in me wonders: Why limit it just to anchors?

Point is: It is possible to create a means for journalism to be done in any social news site: Add one point to the social bookmarker as journalist.

But let’s take another step back:
A friend once told me that art which is not shared with the world is not really art. That stuck with me. I used to record songs on a digital home recorder, and never really let other people listen to them. As far as the rest of the world was concerned those songs, or that “information” — if you grant it to me), never really existed. Similarly — if a good piece of journalism, or information, is never shared — can we really call it journalism? Does it achieve the goals of the fourth estate? I realize this is a bit of a philosophical conundrum — “if a tree falls in the forest,” but it’s there nonetheless. Socially bookmarking a story, or sharing information helps a piece of journalism reach its potential — to inform.

And back to the definition of a journalist: Again, to me a journalist today is just a trafficker of information. I am in the information business. I find it, I filter it and I present it. In a classic newspaper, the end product goes through several stages. The reporter gathers the information. Sometimes they don’t even write it up, they call it in to the writer, who sits at their desk to filter it. A copy editor checks it for clarity and mistakes and the page editor presents it on paper. Meanwhile editors make cuts and decisions about what stories are going to run.

In the 24-hour news-cycle today, reporters are increasingly doing all of the above. Especially the lone journalist. But the full life-cycle of a news item doesn’t just exist within the realms of one person. The Web is about connectivity, and a piece of information, opinion or journalism, relies on the means through which it travels on the Web.

I’m not exactly sure what analogous role the social bookmaker plays in the living newspaper of the Web. In my mind it’s close to the page editor, deciding what goes to the front and what get’s buried on page 12b. But a role is played nonetheless in shaping how information is transfered and absorbed. Add a point for social bookmarking as an act of journalism.

In the end there is no simple answer (sorry, I hope you weren’t looking for a yes or no).

Social news sites definitely change the way readers find the news, engage with the news, and decimate the news. Even if they don’t find, filter and present that information themselves, they are now a part of the process. And as the information trafficking business evolves and changes, these groups of hive minds will become increasingly powerful forces.

To be a member of these crowds is to hold a certain amount of social capital. From there, it’s all how you use it.

5 thoughts on “Social News Sites, an Act of Journalism?”

  1. Similar questions have been asked regarding curators and artists. Is being a curator a similar practice to that of being an artist? Can a mixtape be an artwork in itself?

    I think the majority of answers have been coming down in favor of social bookmarkers, curators and mixtapers. It IS possible to have a mixtape be so intelligently put together that it gives songs new meanings and contexts, it IS possible to exhibit two artists next to each other, each adding to some larger theme or collective meaning, and it IS possible to collect news stories to and build some higher theme or meaning!

    Now if only every digger and social bookmarker fulfilled this potential…

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