This was the year social networks turned into news organizations

Social networks are the overworked writer’s best friend. It’s easy to observe the latest outrage on Twitter, grab a few good jokes from Reddit, or screen cap the ridiculous things people write on Facebook and turn them into blog posts. Writers used to have to find stories to chase — now they just have to be willing to sift through gargantuan masses of shit to find a few nuggets of social media gold.
There are a few problems with this: the people whose content has been lifted don’t always like someone else taking credit for their words, photos, or videos; relying on outside platforms can lead to the meat of a publisher’s blog posts falling right out of their sandwich of context and witticism; and social networks don’t need writers to surface their best content. They can collect it themselves.
That’s what many decided to do this year. Reddit created a publication called Upvoted to highlight the stories that propagate on its service. Twitter introduced Moments to aggregate tweets about breaking news and entertainment alike. Snapchat got into the news business during the San Bernardino shooting. This was the year social networks tried to establish some control over social media.
The reasoning behind this shift, as well as each company’s approach to it, has varied. Upvoted resembles a traditional publication that just happens to pull its stories from the Reddit platform. It’s designed at least partly to redirect some of the traffic that would’ve otherwise gone to other sites back to Reddit itself. But, as Gigaom’s Tom Cheredar wrote, it’s also meant to humanize the community:

Right now, Reddit is viewed by advertisers with caution. The reasons for this are well-documented. But there’s no denying that Reddit is popular enough that you’d be crazy not to try and get in front of its audience. The problem is that it’s often hard to predict how the discussion will form on Reddit by its community, and that’s a risk many advertisers aren’t willing to justify should things go sour — deserved or not.

Upvoted can soften those fears by enhancing the top submitted content on Reddit proper (as explained above). On other news sites that may credit a Reddit user for submitting a piece of content that gets written up in an article, usually there’s no desire to go beyond the user name. But doing so could help humanize the submitters, which might help advertisers overcome some of the negative characterizations of the overall Reddit community.

Twitter’s Moments feature (not to be confused with the Facebook photo app of the same name) has a different motivation. It’s supposed to find the best tweets so people never have to wonder why they should visit Twitter. It’s also supposed to make it easier for new users to understand what Twitter is about — a way to distill the chaos into a manageable form so normal people can interact with it.

But the implementation is very different from Upvoted. Moments doesn’t look anything like a traditional publication. Instead it looks like just another feature on Twitter’s navigation bar, making it harder to tell that serious editorial talent, like New York Times editor at large Marcus Mabry, are in charge of its content. Its team is a dedicated newsroom masquerading as part of the Twitter machine.

Snapchat’s foray into breaking news took yet a different form. Its staffers gathered content shared to public “Stories” and made them available to anyone near the area affected by the San Bernardino mass shooting of December 2. Small updates about the investigation were written by these same staffers, but for the most part, the company simply shared what its users were experiencing.

I argued that this approach, combined with the ephemeral nature of Snapchat’s service, is a refreshing departure from the majority of breaking news reporting:

It’s easy for misinformation to spread on the web. Hitting “like” or “retweet” on a false report doesn’t require much effort — certainly less than it does to spend a few seconds looking for accurate information or sharing new info as it becomes available. That misinformation often remains until someone goes through and deletes it, which is another opportunity for someone to get the wrong idea about something, share that idea, and keep the perpetual ignorance machine going.

Snapchat’s self-deleting updates don’t afford this opportunity. There’s no perpetuity. It’s a bit like talking on the phone with someone: Unless they’ve taken extra steps to record whatever was said, the information is passed along once before it disappears into the aether. The photo-and-video-based nature of the service also lends itself to eyewitness accounts, which limits the claims people can make. (Not that video or photo evidence on social media is infallible.)

These are three very different approaches, but the underlying goal is the same: Gathering user-generated content before writers aggregate it themselves. So I’m left to wonder when other social companies will get around to creating their own publications instead of waiting for writers to swoop in, gather all the free content lying around, and turn it into something that could lead to millions of pageviews.

There are some obvious contenders. Vine’s users already provide a glimpse into what’s happening during important events, so it would be trivial for the service to collect the best coverage and make it available to users. The same could be said of Periscope — instead of showing things in six-second loops, it offers live-streamed video. Twitter could editorialize both services without much effort.

Another less obvious one might be Product Hunt. That site is like a gift from the tech journalist’s gods. (That is assuming tech journalists have gods willing to serve their — sorry, our — wretched souls.) Need to find something cool to write about? Go to Product Hunt! It’s got everything from software to podcasts, and many founders use the platform to answer questions about their products.

Talk about manna from tech journo heaven. New products? Public statements? Links to the app store, animated GIFs, and ready-to-use images? Product Hunt is one dedicated “news” section away from putting a good number of tech writers out of their jobs. Let’s all take a moment to thank chief executive Ryan Hoover for sparing us from such a grisly end to our careers — at least for the moment.

Aggregating content from social networks has created a weird loop that takes something from those networks, puts it on another website, and then inevitably shares it to the same networks and other platforms. (I, and probably many other Redditors, encounter many links to BuzzFeed stories containing jokes I read a week ago.) These efforts are merely the result of social networks closing the loop.

Reddit’s Upvoted is about humanizing the community, not (just) ads

There’s a ton of discussion being had about Reddit’s recent launch of Upvoted, the company’s new news site focused on adding more to stories made popular on Reddit proper. Much of it has to do with either the ethics of Reddit becoming its own news publication, or the impact Upvoted will have on the business of news.
Why? Well, Reddit has a massive audience but has never been very good at making money. The same is true for news businesses, although for the last several years news publications have heavily relied on producing articles derived from content aggregators like Reddit — which drove lots of traffic and, in turn, ad revenue. Therefore, everyone is watching Reddit’s Inception-like* plan to produce news coverage of itself. However, there are some generally accepted conclusions about Upvoted’s launch that merit deeper analysis — three, to be more specific.

Comment sections & ‘stealing’ traffic back

The first is that Reddit’s decision not to allow commenting on stories published on Upvoted is somehow indicative of comment sections branded as useless and no longer valuable enough to justify managing. This is dead wrong. If anything, the move only strengthens the argument that comment sections are extremely valuable, at least to Reddit. If people do want to comment on a story from Upvoted, Reddit certainly doesn’t want to dilute the original submission on Reddit proper by creating a new forum for discussion elsewhere, one that ignores original submission/comment page. I fully expect popular Upvoted articles to get submitted to Reddit proper**, just like news articles from other publications. The same is true for voting on a story — Upvoted doesn’t want to take anything away from the main site, so you can’t vote on anything unless you submit to that site. Upvoted’s main purpose is to add value to Reddit, which has the added and equally beneficial bonus of also making Reddit’s content more attractive to advertisers. (More on that in a bit.)
The second, and less discussed topic about Upvoted is that it was created in large part to “steal back” some of the traffic being sent to digital publications that often translate top Reddit submissions into listicles or features — such as what’s been done on sites like BuzzFeed, Distractify, and many others. I can say with near certainty that Reddit really isn’t concerned with driving traffic back to its main site, which has seen near regular traffic growth for the last several years.
Reddit the company, however, is highly motivated to produce a version of those listicle-like posts that actually compels people to click through to the original source on Reddit. And the best way to do this, according to Reddit, is to provide added value by reaching out to original submitters of that content and providing further explanation if necessary/valid/helpful. That’s something most millennial-targeted publications don’t do, nor have they really needed to. The content that gets voted to the top of Reddit is often compelling enough on its own, so news publications don’t really need to try much harder to add more value when covering it. (Although if Upvoted is successful, it’ll force other publications to step up their game, making more of an effort to include information about Reddit users who first submitted or produced the content being written about.)

It’s the community, stupid.

Lastly, and probably most in need of further discussion, is that Upvoted will become a potentially important source of advertising revenue to Reddit proper. This one is absolutely true, but possibly not in the way you’d think. I don’t expect Upvoted’s traffic to come anywhere near the numbers of Reddit’s main site, limiting its ability to make money from advertising. (Smaller audience, less lucrative.) But if this strategy works, it may create a safer path for advertisers across all of Reddit’s properties.
Right now, Reddit is viewed by advertisers with caution. The reasons for this are well-documented. But there’s no denying that Reddit is popular enough that you’d be crazy not to try and get in front of its audience. The problem is that it’s often hard to predict how the discussion will form on Reddit by its community, and that’s a risk many advertisers aren’t willing to justify should things go sour — deserved or not.
Upvoted can soften those fears by enhancing the top submitted content on Reddit proper (as explained above). On other news sites that may credit a Reddit user for submitting a piece of content that gets written up in an article, usually there’s no desire to go beyond the user name. But doing so could help humanize the submitters, which might help advertisers overcome some of the negative characterizations of the overall Reddit community. But to do so will also require Upvoted to exercise a journalistic set of ethics for the times when it cannot ignore something toxic or controversial.
It’ll be on Reddit to make sure the site acts like a news organization in that regard, but more than likely I can’t see that being much of an issue. Reddit users as a whole produce so much interesting and compelling content that you could easily focus coverage on without ever touching the controversial stuff. I love a thorough media circus as much as the next guy (actually, no I don’t) but the tech press is doing a thorough job of covering the controversies and negative aspects of Reddit. To me, that alone would justify Upvoted to leave the controversy to others, while having the company itself address criticisms publicly — just like it has done in the past.

What Upvoted means for the future of news publications, (if anything)

Since plenty of words have already been written about what Reddit’s Upvoted strategy may mean for the future of the news and media business, I’ll be brief. Reddit is an aggregator that realized its community was producing content on par — or better than — professionals at news publications. Now, Reddit is finally trying to do something to utilize that content without taking away from the people responsible for producing it to begin with.
For other sites like BuzzFeed and Upworthy, the decision to shift from content aggregators to full-on news production was much different. (Both began primarily as aggregators, but later saw value in expanding into original news/content.)
Neither of those organizations were able to develop and sustain a community of regular users. I can’t really think of many digital publications that have on the scale of Reddit. (No, having a huge social media following doesn’t count. If you don’t own your distribution channels, you don’t really own the comments or discussions.) Original content production was the only alternative for Upworthy and BuzzFeed. But for Reddit, this is just what comes next.
* Upvoted: A Reddit within a Reddit…
**…within another Reddit = Reddit Inception?!?

Reddit plans to ‘quarantine’ toxic communities, boost transparency

Reddit will soon start treating some of its more controversial communities differently than others, according to newly minted Reddit CEO and co-founder Steve Huffman.

Huffman took to the site today to share some updates that will be rolling out over the next few weeks, including a plan to “quarantine” subreddits (aka communities operating within Reddit) that do not comply with the company’s new content policy. These changes are somewhat necessary as major advertisers likely won’t be interested in doing business with Reddit until it puts some distance between those toxic communities that participate in illegal behavior or harassing strangers due to their appearance, race, sexuality, etc. It’s also deplorable to allow such harassing activity to continue if Reddit is to remain a healthy forum for discussion.

The move is the latest to support the company’s new mission to limit harassment on the site. Last month Reddit took heat from some users after it banned the subreddit “Fat People Shame,” “Tales of Fat Hate,” and many other copycats, which essentially shamed fat people in a public forum. It’s hardly the only toxic community Reddit harbors, but it seems like the company is finally coming to terms with how to deal with them moving forward.

“You’ll need to explicitly opt-in [to quarantined subreddits]. There will be a handful of restrictions, but it’s still in flux, so we’ll share when it’s nearly complete,” Huffman wrote, adding that this won’t be a black and white process when determining which communities get placed under a quarantine. “We’ll need to handle on a case-by-case basis. The purpose of this technique is to give us a way to contain and distance ourselves from communities that we would rather not exist but aren’t overtly violating any of our stated rules.”

Reddit said it also plans to limit user harassment from private messages by adding an option for Reddit users to report offensive or harassing behavior to the site’s administrators. Considering that Reddit has an average of 3.7 million logged in users per day, this seems like a rather cumbersome task to pull off, but it’s certainly a step in the right direction.

But that isn’t the only thing Reddit wants to do. It’s also revising how it handles banning users, which was previously done discretely — allowing a banned user to continue using the site but hiding most of their activity (called shadow banned). In the near future, Huffman said that process will change: “A straight-up, ‘you are banned because of X’ is the first thing we need.”

I’ve reached out to Reddit with a few followup questions about how the quarantine process will work, and will update this post with anything new.

GIF all the things: Imgur unveils video-to-GIF converter

Imgur just gave itself an early birthday present: One week before the popular image hosting service celebrates its sixth anniversary, it unveiled a web-based video to GIF conversion tool Thursday. The new tool makes it easy to create GIFs from any video clip hosted at YouTube or more than 500 other video sites. Imgur bills the converter as the next step to help its users tell stories — but it’s also a bit of a Trojan horse to give Imgur a bigger foothold in mobile.

Imgur's new video to Gif converter.

Imgur’s new video to Gif converter.

The new conversion tool is a remarkably simple way to run videos into GIFs: Users just have to paste a video’s URL into a form field, select a segment of up to 15 seconds, add an optional caption and then let the Imgur servers do their work. As always with Imgur, users don’t have to register, and the result can be freely shared across the web and social networks.

That no-frills approach has helped to turn Imgur into one of the most popular image-hosting destinations on the web. Product and growth director Sam Gerstenzang told me that the site now generates more than 5 billion page views from over 150 million unique users a month. Initially, most of that activity came from Reddit, where Imgur quickly became the most popular image-hosting resource after launching six years ago.

Gerstenzang said that over all of those years, Imgur really just built tools that the community has been asking for, the latest being the new video-to-GIF converter. And it’s true: Animated GIFs have been celebrating a huge comeback over the last few years, fueled largely by Tumblr and Reddit. But by giving people a tool to create GIFs more easily, Imgur is also cleverly embracing another online media shift: People are increasingly consuming their news and feeds on mobile devices, on the go — and chances are that they don’t always have their headphones on.

That’s why some publishers and platforms have started to embrace muted videos. Just think of those clips on Facebook that auto-play, muted, or take a look at the content that folks like AJ+ are creating: Short, shareable clips that combine moving images with big, bold text, easily consumable without the need to actually listen. GIFs are really just a natural extension of this phenomenon. At their core, they are videos without sound, easily consumable when waiting in the line at Starbucks or during the morning public transportation commute.

Quizzed about this, Gerstenzang started to smile. “I think it’s huge,” he said about the mobile opportunity for GIFs, adding that Imgur plans to do a lot more in mobile in the future. Imgur currently does have apps for Android and iOS, but they’re really just app versions of its mobile website. Dedicated, more feature-rich apps could be coming soon, but Gerstenzang declined to share any further details.

Imgur has also been preparing for mobile by making GIFs themselves leaner. “The GIF format is sort of old,” said Gerstenzang. The company introduced a new container format called GIFV late last year that essentially replaces the animated image files with looped videos, which are typically just a tenth of the file’s original size.

Gerstenzang told me that Imgur now keeps three copies of each file, be it an animated GIF uploaded by a user or a GIF created by the new converter: A WebM version, which is the company’s preferred video format; an MP4 version for browsers that don’t support WebM; and an optimized GIF for legacy purposes.

Serving up looping videos instead of animated GIFs helps to speed up viewing on mobile devices, prevents browsers from slowing down, and as a nice side effect also saves Imgur a bunch of money. Gerstenzang didn’t want to elaborate on exactly how GIFV has impacted the company’s bandwidth, but said that it has come with huge cost savings for Imgur.

On the importance of building privacy into apps and Reddit AMAs

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Given the increasing need to keep private data private in a world of habitual over-sharing on social media and the burgeoning internet of things, the work Jean Yang is doing at MIT is important.

Yang and her team are working on Jeeves, a framework meant to help programmers build privacy and potentially other policies right into their code. If it works as foreseen — and there is still a lot to do around performance — a developer could write policies — who can see what and when — right into the application. Those policies would then follow the data associated with that application around.

So, for example, an application might share your GPS data only for a limited amount of time — while you’re in the zip code — then revoke that information.

Speakers: Jean Yang - Ph.D. Candidate, MIT CSAIL

Jean Yang – Ph.D. Candidate, MIT CSAIL

On this week’s Structure Show, Yang talks more about that work and also about the Reddit Ask Me Anything (AMA) she and too other female MIT Ph.D. candidates hosted last month.  The usual trolls showed up to ask the women for dates etc. but Yang was not discouraged. There were a lot of thoughtful questions — about the value of a Ph.D., how to keep young girls interested in math and science etc.  She and co-hosts lElena Glassman and Neha Narula later wrote about the experience for Wired. A video of Yang’s talk at Structure 2013 is linked below.

Also on the show, Derrick and talk about how the venerable database category remains hot, as evidenced by new funding rounds for [company]MongoDB[/company] ($80 million) and [company]Basho[/company] ($25 million) are any indication. In the first half of the show Derrick and I talk about that and about the end of the road for [company]Microsoft[/company]’s infamous anti-Google [company]Scroogled campaign[/company].




Hosts: Barb Darrow and Derrick Harris.

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Reddit reveals its plan to distribute $5M to users: Reddit Notes

Back in September, Reddit announced a new $50 million round of funding, but what raised the eyebrows of many redditors and crypto-geeks alike was its plans to distribute 10 percent, or $5 million, of that funding round back to the community.

Reddit finally gave some, albeit vague, details Friday on how it plans to actually do that. According to the announcement, new Reddit Notes will be awarded in a random lottery to 950,000 users in the fall of 2015 — a much smaller number than the Reddit user base.

Eligibility for the Reddit Notes will also be determined by “activity” on the site before September 30, 2014 (the date they announced the funding), so late-comers can’t get in on the action now. And even if you are eligible, the Notes won’t be distributed until fall 2015.

To accompany the blog post, Reddit created an explanatory graphic of how the process will work — but not much else.
Reddit Notes

There’s still many questions about how Reddit actually plans to execute this and how it will be financially and legally compliant. And it won’t exactly be a new cryptocurrency that many had hoped for (or feared) from the original announcement. In an interview with Inc., product manager Daniel Lim said to think of it more “Like McDonald’s Monopoly game” rather than a currency that has value or equity.

In a comment on the bitcoin subreddit, Reddit’s cryptocurrency engineer Ryan Charles also confirmed the view:
[blockquote person=”” attribution=””]”The post is deliberately vague about technology and legal. For one, we’re holding back on committing to a particular technology just because the bitcoin world changes very fast, and we want to make sure we pick the right choice. However, almost certainly it will be either colored coins or sidechains.
Legally, we originally announced we’re issuing a “cryptocurrency” that will be “backed” by reddit shares. Issuing such a thing would be illegal since we are not a public company. We have mostly figured out a legal strategy that allows us to give something of actual value to the community, but we are not ready at this moment to announce it.[/blockquote]

Lim, the product manager, also elaborated a little more on the definition of a Reddit Note said via email: “A reddit note is a digital asset because we will be using blockchain technology to validate the ownership of reddit notes in a fun way. There will not be any mining of reddit notes, but it will use existing cryptocurrency capabilities to insure that reddit notes are transferred and owned in an innovative manner.”

So it may not be a grand, equity-bearing, first-of-its-kind legal currency after all (at least in its current description), but Reddit Notes are still going to be an interesting experiment in user loyalty — if you’re one of the lucky 950,000 to receive it in the first place.

This post was updated to add in an emailed comment from Reddit product manager Daniel Lim.

Andy Carvin launches social-media reporting team for First Look

Former NPR staffer and Twitter-based journalist Andy Carvin is launching a team of half a dozen social-media “anchor/producers” who will be embedded in various social platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Reddit and use them as sources of journalism