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.

Ello, the startup formerly known as the anti-Facebook, grows up

Remember Ello, the social network that was first portrayed as the anti-Facebook well over a year ago? Well, it’s still around, but the anti-Facebook framing is something it never should have been billed as, according to the founders.
Sure, there are some aspects of the service that make it seem like a response to the world’s largest social network. It started out small. It’s promised never to display advertisements, which means it doesn’t track its users around the Web. And it’s based around the idea of communicating with other people which, due to the lens through which we view the Internet, makes it a Facebook competitor.
But it doesn’t matter that Ello wasn’t meant to compete with Facebook. That’s how the service was perceived, and it was called the “anti-Facebook” so much that it became the service’s tagline in the mind of the general population. (Well, the portion of the general population that reads tech journalism, at least.) It’s also part of the reason chief executive Paul Budnitz stopped talking to the press.
“Someone, somewhere had called Ello a Facebook killer, and there was just all this hype in the news and I had basically every VC in the country trying to talk to me,” he said in a recent interview. “For most people that’s really an awesome thing and I guess what every startup wants, but for us everyone was coming for something that I didn’t want to build and we really had no interest in building.”
It didn’t matter how often Budnitz said Ello wasn’t taking on Facebook — the story had taken on a life of its own. Investors were calling with hopes of getting in early with the so-called Facebook killer. Consumers were flocking to the site in search of an alternative to that most polarizing of social networks. And writers, like me, were interested in the company mostly because of a false narrative.
Eventually the press stopped. Ello didn’t kill Facebook within a few months, its founder wasn’t giving interviews, and relatively few people used the service. An analyst for App Annie told me that Ello “essentially is so small it doesn’t and can’t compare to” Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and other established social networks or “anything that could be defined as an up-and-coming social app.”
Ello wasn’t even of much interest to researchers. Jason Mander, the director of research at GlobalWebIndex, told me Ello was included in just one of the firm’s quarterly surveys about consumer Internet usage. It wasn’t included in following surveys because it was of little interest to the firm’s clients and respondents. Ello seemed to have been forgotten by everyone outside its relatively small audience.
That didn’t stop the company from continuing its work. I reached out to its press team shortly after I started at Gigaom on a lark. Mostly I expected it to email me every once in a while with a product update, or user data, or the other innocuous things most social networks use to garner attention. It did none of those things. Instead, it sent me the same emails its users get about new features or changes.
“I’d do these interviews with these really nice people and they’d put this stuff up like ‘When is Ello going to switch and start running ads?’ and ‘You’re really not going to go for the billion dollars right now?’ So we just felt like we weren’t getting through the noise,” Budnitz told me. “One of the reasons we’re finally doing interviews is that, if you go on Ello, it’s actually really, really awesome.”
It’s also focused on inspiration, as Budnitz puts it, instead of social networking. People aren’t using Ello to connect with high school classmates — they’re using it to share the images, blog posts, and graphic designs they’ve made or discovered. All of the company’s focus over the last year has been on furthering that mission and giving users a place to connect with like-minded people around the world.
That’s part of the reason why Ello doesn’t have ads. Sure, part of it’s because Budnitz and his co-founders think the way Web ads work is kind of creepy. But the other part is that most advertisements would disrupt the look of the site. “Beautiful photographs look really crummy next to ads for car insurance and tortilla chips,” he said. So the company doesn’t, and indeed can’t, show ads.
So what is Ello? “The basic thing that we’ve been building is a safe and positive community where creators publish, share, and eventually sell inspiring work. It’s really a place for people who make things to inspire one another,” Budnitz said. “And really it’s not just high-end professionals and designers and all that stuff. I would say we have all types of people, amateurs, professionals, you name it.”
That positivity is enforced by a full-time support staff, features that give Ello users granular control over who can see what they post, and its small audience. Visiting the site feels less like signing on to a social network and more like stepping into an art gallery where people who don’t know each other gather around, look at a specific work, and then discuss it in a cool-but-congenial way.
Soon it will be a little different. Budnitz said the company plans to introduce a commerce portion of the service that will allow creators to sell things to other users. It also plans to introduce a version of the site that doesn’t require people to sign on to view work — which should go a long way towards increasing its visibility — and to (finally) release an application for Android smartphones.
But perhaps the biggest change will be the ability for Ello users to post content to other social networks through the platform. This could make it something akin to a central management tool that allows people to share things on Ello first, thus giving them access to what’s described as a supportive community filled with talented people, before sharing them with the masses on other networks.
“Our research shows that one of the most popular reasons for using social networks is because people’s friends are on them too. I think that’s why Ello struggled to attract a critical mass, because people tend to join when they perceive lots of their friends to be using the service too,” Mander said. “However, multi-networking is widespread. Globally, the average internet user has accounts on over 6 networks (rising to 7 among 16-24s). So, there’s certainly scope for Ello to sit alongside other services, even if its users are still engaging with other platforms too.”
Ello has raised around $10 million, and Budnitz said its team remains small so it can keep costs down. The commerce features will help it monetize. It probably won’t ever see the kind of success that other networks have (here I go thinking about Facebook again) but it could be a sustainable business. If anything that makes it more interesting than if it were an also-ran that died battling Facebook.
The company might never escape the idea that it’s the anti-Facebook. That’s certainly the perception I had of the service when I started researching this post. And I’ll confess that even now the cynic in me can’t help but wonder if it really was meant to take on Facebook but pivoted once the hype died down. Ello will be fighting this perception for a long time. Budnitz is okay with that. As he told me:
“We have time.”

LinkedIn puts Slack in its crosshairs with updated messaging platform

LinkedIn is either suffering a mid-life crisis or experiencing a renaissance.
The company has traditionally focused on helping workers further their careers by transforming all of their acquaintances into potential “connections” that can endorse any of their skills or simply become another notch in their digital belts. It has also tried to become a content hub for these same professionals by acquiring the Pulse news startup and working on content marketing tools.
Now an update to the company’s messaging system, which previously looked like an email client from the ’90s, makes LinkedIn seem more like a place where people can have meaningful conversations instead of meaningless connections. The update is pretty standard stuff. In addition to sporting a new chat-like interface, the new messages can also support animated GIFs and stickers. LinkedIn, much like its middle-aged user base, is catching up to the times.
It’s also responding to the popularity of Slack and similar tools which allow workers to communicate with their colleagues — and, in the process, it’s shifting from a glorified contacts list to a bona fide social communications service.
Today’s update to LinkedIn’s messages isn’t the only change of its sort the company has made recently. It also released a new application called LinkedIn Lookup last month to make it easier for people to find information about or contact their co-workers. In a blog post announcing the new app, LinkedIn said that it was created after 46 percent of respondents to an 814-person survey said they use the service to learn more about their colleagues. So it made an app to make that even easier, and now it’s updated its messaging service to help people communicate better.
It seems like the company is starting to shift its focus, if only a little bit. Instead of forming links people can use to reach new heights in their careers, LinkedIn is encouraging people to actually — get this — talk to the people in their circles.
This is similar to the change happening at Twitter, which recently updated its direct messaging feature and gave celebrities a sneak preview of new photo-and video-editing tools. Both updates appear to be meant to help Twitter combat the growth of one-to-one communication services like Snapchat or WhatsApp.
Now it’s LinkedIn’s turn to make some changes. Like Twitter, it used to focus mostly on external communications, whether it was sharing blog posts to a group of professionals or leveraging connections to find out about new jobs. These changes signal a renewed focus on internal communications. (Albeit with a more professional bent than Twitter’s focus on millennials and celebrities. Also more useful, too, apparently.)
It makes sense for LinkedIn to make these changes. Slack has proved that there’s a demand for business-focused social networks that don’t bore their users with monotone interfaces or pre-smartphone ideas about communication. Hell, even Facebook is trying to edge Slack out of the business market, and it’s not even focused on that area. It’s no surprise LinkedIn would try the same.
From corporate ladder-climber to virtual water cooler. It looks like even the stodgiest of social networks will eventually feel compelled to take on messaging services. Now we’ll have to see if the move is brilliant or just a gamble everyone will soon ignore.

So long, Google+. Hello, Streams, Photos and Hangouts

For the third time in a year, Google has a new leader for its social network, Google+. And in keeping with the trend of trios, Google+ is getting split into three different products: Streams, Photos and Hangouts. Google VP Bradley Horowitz is taking the reins of the former two products, which until now have been part of Google+.

Horowitz announced the change on his — where else — Google+ page, Sunday night:

Just wanted to confirm that the rumors are true — I’m excited to be running Google’s Photos and Streams products!  It’s important to me that these changes are properly understood to be positive improvements to both our products and how they reach users.

Breaking out some Google+ features was hinted at last week by Google SVP Sundar Pichai in an interview with ForbesHorowitz follows Google’s Dave Besbris as the leader of what’s now Streams and Photos; Bresbis took over for Vic Gundotra after his departure from Google last April.

While I personally find the Google+ network engaging, it has come under criticism by many for being a “ghost town,” so Horowitz has his work cut out for him with the Streams product. Photos is actually a bright spot, in my view: Google has integrated it well into both [company]Apple[/company] iOS and [company]Google[/company] Android software, complete with an automatic photo backup service.

Google may separate Hangouts, Google+ and Photos

Google is looking to further untangle parts of Google+: The company may separate Photos and Hangouts from Google+, according to statements made by Google’s product czar Sundar Pichai in an interview with Forbes Thursday.

“Increasingly you’ll see us focus on communications [Hangouts], photos and the Google+ stream as three important areas, rather than being thought of as one area,” said Pichai. That’s notably different from [company]Google[/company]’s previous approach: Former Google+ head Vic Gundotra tried to use photos as a way to grow Google+ as a whole, and Hangouts also used to be closely integrated with Google+.

Google+ has always been a bit of a mixed bag for Google. The social network has provided the company with an identity layer across its products, which has arguably helped to improve YouTube and other platforms.

However, the Google+ stream hasn’t exactly been a huge success, something Pichai had to admit in the interview. “We would definitely like to see more scale at what we do,” he said, but added that Google+ has attracted “a passionate community of users,” and that the Google+ team is working on “a few next generation ideas” to bring more users into the fold.

In the age of niche media, everyone still really wants to be mass

As doctoral student Frederik De Boer pointed out in a recent blog post on some of the new-media sites like BuzzFeed and Fusion, if you don’t focus on a specific market or target a specific kind of reader, you run the risk of blending in with everyone else

The platform-publisher race is heating up and LinkedIn is gaining

Social platforms like Facebook and Snapchat are trying hard to become publishers or to host content from media companies, but one of the platforms that has been quietly doing this for years now — and continues to grow that side of its business — is LinkedIn

RebelMouse wants to help media companies own their social graph

After leaving the Huffington Post, former CTO Paul Berry built a social-content management platform called RebelMouse to help media make their content more viral — and now RebelMouse wants to help them build their own niche communities as well