Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Comparing the User-Generated News Websites: Digg, Reddit, and Slashdot

When most of us start our day in front of our computers, we usually each have a small handful of websites that we visit. Maybe the New York Times, definitely one or two email accounts, Facebook, a fantasy football website, or whatever. Personally, my daily addiction has become user-generated news websites like Digg, Reddit, and Slashdot.

The idea behind these websites is that, contrary to traditional news organizations like the NY Times or CNN, ordinary people submit news stories which they've read somewhere on the internet and found interesting enough to share. In order to help others sift through the muck, people then vote on which stories they like best, and the stories with the most votes get listed on the front page. Call it media democracy.

The results have proven fascinating. Often, while the main headline in the NY Times is yet another article on the politics of Iraq, the front page headline on the user-generated news site might be a new research study on climate change (which was buried on page 18 of the Times, but people voted it among the top news stories of the day).

However, differences among these user-generated news sites certainly do exist, and they are substantial - both in terms of their end-results as well as their overriding philosophies. To summarize:

  • Digg - people "digg" a story by casting a vote for it. One person, one vote - nice and simple on the surface. But just like in American politics and reminiscent of our newfound buzzword of the year, "superdelegates", not all votes are ultimately treated equally. Digg has been criticized by its users because the algorithm it uses to determine which stories are put on the front page doesn't only look at the number of votes, but also whether certain "power users" have submitted them. The bottom line, though, is it reliably generates some pretty terrific lists of interesting news stories.

  • Reddit - based on the same principles as Digg, only with a cleaner interface and one functional difference: "Redditors" not only can vote up for stories they like, but they can also vote down for stories that they don't. This seemingly small and inconsequential characteristic actually produces very big differences in the types of stories that get the most points on Reddit. Front page stories tend to favor viewpoints that are more outlandish (which can be entertaining) and politically extreme. It's made me wonder just how different the presidential election would look like if people had the choice of either voting up a candidate or voting down another. My guess is Obama would be destroying Hillary. Additionally, the vote-down capability makes it much harder to acquire points for your story submission because the net total (up-votes minus down-votes) is what counts. Sometimes it's tough just to stay in positive number territory.

  • Slashdot - completely different philosophically from the other two. While Slashdot also relies on user-generated submissions, people do not get to vote on which stories become displayed. Rather, traditional editors make the decisions. This might be more in line with the CNNs and other elite news organizations of the world than it is with the Web 2.0 ethos, however their stories usually are more "newsworthy", in the traditional sense.

Out of the three, if I had to pick one then I would unquestionably go with Digg. But in reality, I still subscribe to all three using my RSS reader (Netvibes) so that I can read the daily headlines of what ordinary people find the most interesting news stories of the day. Plus, submitting stories to these sites is a terrific way of generating additional web traffic.
  

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