Tuesday, September 04, 2007

The problems with social news

I recently launched my own 'social news' application, call Wildfire. I did this because looking around at existing social news sites like Digg and Reddit I felt like they left a lot to be desired.

Before telling you about Wildfire, let me tell you what I think it wrong with social news as it stands:

1. The Wisdom of Crowds incorrectly implemented

It seems to me that most people who use the phrase "Wisdom of Crowds" haven't read the book, or if they have read the book they haven't understood the concept. For me, social news sites fail to produce interesting links because they rely more on herd mentality than WoC.

If you visit the front page of Digg or Reddit you are being presented with already filtered news and you are offered the opportunity to 'digg' stories you like. This is on the on-line equivalent of going to the same restaurant as everyone else, just because it's full. Digging a front page story is pointless.

The WoC partly relies on not knowing what other people think. Galton's ox-weight-guessing relied on averaging the opinions people gave of an ox's weight without collaboration. All current social news sites fail because they expose other people's votes to readers.

If social news sites really wanted the WoC they'd present users with a random selection of news stories and ask them to vote. Then they'd get to see the top stories without a chance to vote. Of course, no site is likely to do that, what people want is an instant page of links.

2. Misplaced downvoting

Reddit has the ability to downvote a story. This has a two-fold effect: it reduces the number of votes on a story (and thus its position on Reddit) and it trains the collaborative filter that Reddit uses to give recommended use. This is a mistake.

Either downvoting is a way of telling the world you think a story is unworthy, or it's for personalization. You might think they are the same thing: surely if enough people don't want a story then their personalization is the same as the global view. Wrong. Only if you can assume that my world view is your world view. Which leads me to...

3. No social aspects

There isn't one society. Society is covered (in a topological sense :-) by many overlapping societies. Yet social news sites have a 'one size fits all' mentality.

Each social news site has a personality and you have to choose the site that best fits your views. Reddit is very left learning and, frankly, a bit snobbish. Digg is younger, more raw, and more low brow.

You shouldn't have to choose the site that fits your personality. The site should tailor to you.

4. No homophily

We tend to associate with people who have similar tastes and views to us. This is known as homophily. Current social news sites fail to deliver on the power of homophily. The reality is that my interests are closely aligned with my friends' interests, and not with some one size fits all view of the web.

Currently with their badly implemented WoC, missing social aspects and lack of homophily social news doesn't deliver.

Sure, social news is hot: any filter is better than having none, but that doesn't make it good. Which brings me to Wildfire.


Wildfire is a social news application built inside Facebook. It works as follows:

  • Wildfire users submit stories by giving a URL and a title (just like any news site)
  • Submitted stories are automatically spread to the submitter's friends (and appear in the friends' profiles)
  • Friends can choose to further spread news they receive to their friends. When the do this the original submitter (and every up the chain who spread the news) get a point of karma. This means that karma is only gained when your friends think a story you spread (or submitted) is worth spreading further.
  • You see two views of stories: those that were spread to you (and hence should be relevant because of homophily) and the 'global view' (called Major Fires) which are the top stories across all users.

Wildfire is designed to deliver you a small number of stories that you'll care about. These appear in your Facebook profile. Currently, I have not submitted Wildfire to Facebook for approval because it needs testing. If you use Facebook and want to try it out please add Wildfire and give me your feedback.


Bill said...

This is an interesting approach, but it doesn't seem to address WoC requirements either. It's not independent, since you only are passed what others enjoy (similar to the front page on digg). I wouldn't think it encourages diversity, unless you make friends with people unlike yourself.

That's not to say your idea isn't cool from a networked system perspective.

John Graham-Cumming said...

There's an unexposed 'tab' which is a random selection of stories for you to consider. Once I get enough of a user base I'll be switching it on. That way we'll get some more WoCness.


Andrey Cherezov said...

I'm unable to spread fires from 'global view' to my friends?

Anonymous said...

Is there a way we can feed URLs into wildfire from outside Facebook via some kind of API? I currently feed my link log into del.icio.us and my Facebook "notes" this way, so it would be good if I could frob my script to support Wildfire.