2011: The Year Social Media Gave Traditional Publishers a Pedestal

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Several major social-media sites have rolled out redesigns intended to give brand-name media outlets a special place in their ecosystems

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The Internet has long been regarded as a place where everyone has an opportunity to publish their thoughts and reach a vast audience. But this year, the site redesigns of YouTube, Twitter, and StumbleUpon -- major drivers of the web's traffic -- gave pride of place to big-name publishers. Let's take a closer look at some of them.

This publisher-centric redesign isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it is not always popular with users. Digg rolled out the much-maligned "Digg v4" in August 2010 and was met with a vocal and forceful backlash from the community, partially because of technical glitches and site instability, but primarily because of how it gave special treatment to media organizations. Within the first few days, the front page of Digg -- then the premiere social news site -- was comprised primarily of links to Mashable, Engadget, the BBC, Wired, and CollegeHumor.com.

What lesson can other social-media sites learn from Digg's redesign troubles? The main takeaway is that users desire a fair system. For most of these sites, you have to earn your say, with the status of "power users" generally determined by their number of followers or other measures of influence and activity. Everyone is measured the same way, regardless of who they are in the real world. So, any structural changes that benefit one type of user over another are generally seen as unfair. This was not the case for the Digg redesign, because Digg users didn't enjoy seeing the frontpage flooded with stories from Mashable and Read Write Web.

In their redesigns, YouTube, StumbleUpon, and Twitter all promise that they'll make it easier for consumers to discover interesting content that's related to their interests. In terms of personalization, this is great, especially for those who may use StumbleUpon or Twitter as their primary way of consuming information. But for those who prefer following news aggregated by the serendipity and collective idiosyncrasies of their fellow travelers, social news sites need to protect their ability to do so. If these sites can't deliver on that, they'll stand in violation of the principles that make social communities worth visiting -- and face the judgement of their audience.


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Jared Keller is a former associate editor for The Atlantic and The Atlantic Wire and has also written for Lapham's Quarterly's Deja Vu blog, National Journal's The Hotline, Boston's Weekly Dig, and Preservation magazine. 

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