Interview with the Economist on Netscape and Social News

The social news press machine marches on… here is an interview I just did with an Economist journo/blogger. 🙂

best j

> Why did Netscape decide to opt for the social news model?

We had two editor-driven portals in AOL and Netscape. They were two of the top six English-speaking portals in the world, but while was growing Netscape was not (traffic dropped by 1/3rd over the past year on Netscape).

Since there clearly is a demand for social news, we felt we had an opportunity to turn around the traffic on Netscape while building a service that will grow in the future.

> How has your traffic (and readership) responded since then?

The majority of users are excited about it. A small number of users preferred the old style, which of course we expected. This is a big conceptual jump for people, and many folks just don’t want to participate in the news process. We respect that.

However, we have AOL.COM for those folks, and we’re considering building an editor driven version of Netscape from the same dataset for those users.

Of course, many users who started out hating it are emailing us back saying they really like that they can vote and comment.

In terms of traffic it’s too soon to tell (30 days in), you have to look at these things over six months to see a trend.

> What are the key differences between what you do and what Digg does?

DIGG has no editorial staff, we have eight full-time anchors which do meta-journalism. We also are paying some of the top “bookmarkers” (or coolhunters), bu that is in the experimental stages.

> A key part of a ‘social news’ site is having a community of readers who
> get what it’s about and take the time to read, submit and rate stories.
> Does Netscape have this? And if not, is there a way to build it?

In one month we’ve had over 20,000 stories submitted and over 35,000 registered users (important to note: users don’t have to register, and millions of people simply come to the site to read it). We’re adding 1,000 registered users a day and getting over 500 stories submitted–so that is amazing.

It takes months for a community to build around this process, and we see the community starting to gel already. You see this in people commenting on each others posts and sending each other messages through the site.

> At the time of writing, the home page has no stories about the
> Israel/Lebanon story, but stories about ultra-hot chilli sauce and
> Nintendo reliquaries. What does this tell us about your readership and
> value as a news source?

The Israel/Lebanon story has dominated the home page for weeks, so it’s an anomaly. Right now there are very significant stories on Iraq (like three), nuclear proliferation, and the environment. The home page changes quickly, so you can’t check it once to get an idea of how this works–that’s like looking at the stock ticker on CNBC for 30 seconds.

The stories on the homepage are very balanced on average, and we have the ability to make the most popular list include a certain number of
news stories. We also have the Anchors section up top where we select important stories that might slip through the cracks.

Also, there are channels for things like news and autos, as well as tagging, if you want to go deeper.

> 40 votes is enough to make the today’s hottest stories page. Do you have
> concerns about people spamming the site to promote their stories?

This is very, very easy to detect and stop. Every day dozens of folks try this and only one or two folks are able to game it a week, and those folks are caught within five minutes and their accounts and stories are killed.

It is simply too hard to game 40 votes, and over time it becomes impossible to game 100-200 votes (which is where we are heading).

It is a total non-issue since we have computers and humans watching what hits the home page.

> Do you consider the move to a social news model a success?
> Why (not)?

Clearly the social news process allows for more participation and diversity. It doesn’t replace traditional journalism in any way, it’s complimentary. As you know, all of the stories out there are dumped into the “news cloud” and the users develop their own front page. This doesn’t mean they don’t still check the New York Times or CNN front page.

It’s a huge success for AOL to be pioneering a space like this. No one else in our peer group (Google, Yahoo, MSN, etc) have tried this yet. So, we get to make all the mistakes and solve the problems first–that’s a great felling and it’s happening more and more at AOL.

You know I’m a startup guy (I sold Weblogs, Inc. to AOL in November–that’s how I got here), and as a startup guy I’m like to go into the developing areas and try and figure them out.

You might have seen that we announce a free 5GIG backup service. We beat Google, Yahoo, and MSN on that service as well. We’re fighting hard to figure out what the future services are so we can build them and learn faster. That’s exciting, and it’s a big change from the scale access business we’ve been managing for so many years.

Great questions! I’m gonna post these on my blog (… if you want I’ll wait for your story to come out.

best regards,


Leave a Reply