May 2011 | Status: First Draft
Back in 2002, Dave Winer (one of the first and most prolific bloggers in the world) made a $2,000 bet with Martin Nisenholtz (then CEO of New York Times Digital). Winer argued that in 5 years, blog posts would rank higher than NYT articles in a Google search of the year’s top 5 stories. On December 31, 2007, the results were tallied. Google ranked blog posts higher than NYT articles for 4 of that year’s top 5 stories as determined by the Associated Press, ranging from Virginia Tech Killings to Oil Prices to Chinese Exports. Winer won, and the money was donated to the World Wide Web Consortium. (This result should be taken with a grain of salt because, in two of the four search results in 2007 where blog posts outranked NYT articles, those blog posts were outranked in turn by articles from other commercial sources. After all, NYT is not the only newspaper out there.)
Phenomena like this prompted some self-styled critics of “Web 2.0”, such as Nicholas Carr and Andrew Keen, to denounce the new Web for its “narcissistic amateurism”, unchecked partiality, and its potential to undercut professional journalism and entertainment with free offerings.
Wikipedia might be a pale shadow of the Britannica, but because it’s created by amateurs rather than professionals, it’s free. And free trumps quality all the time. So what happens to those poor saps who write encyclopedias for a living? They wither and die. — Nicholas Carr
Without an elite mainstream media, we will lose our memory for things learnt, read, experienced, or heard. The cultural consequences of this are dire… Every defunct record label, or laid-off newspaper reporter, or bankrupt independent bookstore is a consequence of “free” user-generated Internet content. — Andrew Keen
These arguments generated a lot of controversy when they were first published 5-6 years ago, and the perceived dichotomy between “professionals” and “amateur bloggers” still sways many discussions of the Internet. For example, a recent academic conference at which I presented a version of this blog post mentioned Carr and Keen in its CFP. Tech folks might have forgotten about it already, but we academics love to chew on topics for a long time.
Why Even Care?
It’s easy to dismiss Web 2.0 skeptics (or is it 3.0 already?) by pointing out that they seem to be subscribing to a rather simplistic understanding of how information works in social, cultural, and economic settings. Keen’s article, in addition, appeared in a neo-conservative news site, which might be enough of a reason for the card-carrying progressives among us to brush off his complaints has just another attempt to maintain the status quo.
But if that’s how you plan to respond to the Internet’s detractors, this quote from the philosopher Habermas should give you pause:
The price we pay for the growth in egalitarianism offered by the Internet is the decentralized access to unedited stories. In this medium, contributions by intellectuals lose their power to create a focus. — Jürgen Habermas
Habermas is no conservative. Sure, he’s a bit old to be saying serious things about the Internet, but he probably couldn’t care less if some multi-billion-dollar news corporation went out of business. What he does care about, however, is the quality of public discourse in a democratic society. The real concern about the competition between amateur and professional content producers, not only for Habermas but also for the conservative critics, is that we as a society might lose something valuable if news, the bread and butter of democratic discourse, gets hijacked by people who don’t know what they’re doing.
But it simply is not true that amateur content is taking over the world. At least not yet. Although Wikipedia now appears at or near the top of any Google search, this doesn’t mean that Internet users are abandoning traditional content producers in droves. In fact, my little research (see below) appears to suggest that, insofar as news is concerned, traditional media and user-created content are stabilizing into a complementary relationship. In other words, even Habermas need not worry.
The Example: Reddit
Reddit is one of the better known players in the social media scene, with millions of users and over 1 billion page views per month as of early this year. When Reddit users come across interesting content elsewhere on the Internet, such as the latest news article, an informative blog post, or a funny video, they post the URL of the content on Reddit so that others can also visit it. Redditors can then vote it up or down depending on how useful they think it is, and also engage in a lively discussion about the content. Reddit is one of the sites that Web 2.0 critics hate the most, because every last piece of content there is submitted and evaluated by users, with very little administrative intervention.
Reddit is a mirror of our most banal interests. It makes a mockery of traditional news media and turns current events into a childish game of Trivial Pursuit. — Andrew Keen
Even the subsections (called subreddits) are not predetermined; anybody can create a new subreddit. As a matter fact, the front page of Reddit these days can get pretty embarrassing. Especially after last summer when Digg users revolted at Digg’s new policy privileging professional content and moved to Reddit in large numbers, you might not be surprised by this. Indeed, it won’t be unreasonable to expect Redditors to be the first people to abandon the established media in favor of user-generated content.
However, the surface appearance of a social media website can be misleading. As soon as you unsubscribe from those silly humor sections, you are in for a surprise.
The front page of each subreddit displays 25 of the latest submissions, weighted by the number of votes they received and time elapsed since submission. A survey of the front page at any given time is therefore a reasonably good indicator of what users of that subreddit consider to be quality content at that time.
Between March 3 and April 6 of this year, I used a simple bash script to collect links from the front pages of the News, World News, Politics, and Economics subreddits every 2 hours. These are some of the top subreddits insofar as content pertaining to current events is concerned.
I ended up with 6,383 links, not counting “self posts” and links to imgur (which are essentially self posts with images). The reason for excluding self posts is that different news-oriented subreddits have wildly different policies regarding them. If I made any significant conclusions about the prevalence of self posts on Reddit, I would be merely observing the effects of these different policies.
The links featured content from 1,541 different domains, with a very long tail: 1,011 domains were only featured once. The top 20 domains, listed here, account for about 33% of the links.
|The New York Times||212||3.32%|
|The Wall Street Journal||97||1.52%|
|The Washington Post||83||1.30%|
|The Huffington Post||69||1.08%|
|National Public Radio||57||0.89%|
Significant events that took place during the research period include the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear crisis in Japan; an uprising in Libya leading to NATO’s imposition of a no-fly zone, as well as major democratization movements in several other Middle Eastern and North African countries; controversy and protests in Wisconsin and Michigan concerning the latest budget; and the announcement of the upcoming Canadian election.
And where do Redditors turn for news on these major occasions? BBC, probably one of the most professional news agencies in the world.
The only website on that list which contains predominantly user-generated content is YouTube. (AmericaBlog is clearly run by professionals, not your average lolcat lover.) All Blogger blogs combined would rank just below the Washington Post, and even then, about 1/3 of those links are to Mish’s Global Economic Trend Analysis, a professional site by any measure. Similarly, All WordPress.com blogs combined would rank just above The Independent, but half of that is Newsdesk International, another professional site. The vast majority of news links on Reddit still point to professional news agencies that are pretty well established.
So it seems that 6 years after the “Web 2.0” critics sounded their alarms, one of the most UGC-friendly communities in the world still turns to BBC and NYT for reliable news. User-generated content is not replacing them; it’s just another alternative alongside the established players. Want the latest information (in English) about the earthquake in Japan? Watch BBC. Want to know how the Middle Eastern protests are going? Watch the Al Jazeera. Want to see it from the shaking camera of a Syrian protester whose neighbor has just been shot in the chest? Watch YouTube, and don’t blame YouTube if you find the video disturbing, because you got plenty of warning from other users.
Why even allow yourself to get dragged into an argument about the potential ideological motivations of people with whom you disagree, when you can just show them facts and tell them in their face, “hey, false alarm”?
Now, to the more pressing concern: What the hell do we do with Fox News?