Q&A: The creators of Digg, StumbleUpon and Netvibes on Web 2.0's future

'Content is king,' says Digg.com's Kevin Rose

Kevin Rose and Tariq Krim, the respective founders of online social network and news aggregation sites Digg and Netvibes, and Garrett Camp, founder of Web browser plug-in site StumbleUpon fielded questions from Jason Pontin, publisher of MIT's Technology Review magazine during a panel discussion at the university's Emerging Technologies Conference in Cambridge, Mass., this week. Rose alluded to upcoming new predictive analysis functionality on his site and all three of the entrepreneurs spoke about the changing landscape of social networks, advertising and distribution of media content.

Excerpts from that panel discussion follow:

How are people consuming media in a different way? Camp: I think the difference now is that in the past people tended to consume the media and read it, but there wasn't really direct feedback on the scene. I think now with Digg and StumbleUpon, you definitely have the opportunity to provide feedback immediately when you see something. It gets really interesting for [the] people producing feedback as well because they now have immediate feedback from the community and audience they're trying to get to. I think the days of not knowing how people are responding to your message are over.

Rose: I started Digg back in October or November of '04. It took a long time for people to grasp the concept that they have a say in what makes up the front page of a Web site. I was a big fan of Slashdot and Del.icio.us at the time; Slashdot because it was all user-submitted content, but it was still a handful of people who would choose if a story made it to the front page. And Del.icio.us was very cool because I used it to bookmark and share my bookmarks, but it really didn't apply to news. So when I was looking at this, I could see people were starting to share information in a different way, and that they wanted to have a voice. For us, it was really just an experiment to see what would happen if you gave complete control back to the community.

Krim: When I started Netvibes, basically, I couldn't browse enough information. There was so much information available on the Internet before Netvibes, I was using blog site RSS aggregators. One of the key new things with the Web and social media is the attention it ... put on things. We have this competition from media and blogs, but also people because if you see how Facebook ... works, people are becoming [the] media. I do things, I select things. I basically produce information and this information is coming to me in competition with the New York Times. So we have this big issue of how do we manage our attention.

I think one of the trends has been a failure of trust in editors as the sole source of information and sole organizer of information and a shift in trusting one's social group more. How important is trust in social media? Rose: For us, it's basically everything. If you take a look at our front page, it's made up of different stories ranked by the number of Diggs they received. In theory, the more Diggs something has, the more interesting it is and the more you trust that this is a good article that you want to check out. For us, the sources really don't matter. It's a level-playing field. It can be a blogger sitting in a basement or it can be an article form the New York Times. It's up to the users and community to go out and filter through that content and provide you with that front page of stories. We [also] give users further tools to go customize that experience, remove certain categories that they don't like or they can dive into a different set of users they trust, which is [called] their "friends." Your friends and what they're digging provide you with this stream of stories.

So we have several different ways of getting at quality content. We have the front page, which you can sort by "most popular," so you're seeing what the masses agreed ... was the best content of the day; then you have your "friend's" view, which is all your friend's content coming together; and then in the future what we'll launch in the next few months is our suggestion service, which is basically looking at what you've done in the past and recommending stories to you based on people you're agreeing with.

Camp: We look at it from a few different angles. One is Kevin's angle, which is very social -- try to recommend content that your friends have rated, at least if you find the topic relevant. The second angle we started with, before we had the [system's] network established, is to actually find like-minded people on the system ... so what we do is see the topics they're interested in, rate a bunch of different Web sites, and over time that allows us to match them with like-minded people and establish these clusters of people with similar interests.

Krim: I think trust is the most important thing in social media. First thing is when you have a community around a site, you definitely need to have [the] trust of the community. Everything's based on the fact that you treat the community right. But also what's very interesting is with the personalization of social media, people are providing more and more intimate [information]. When you talk about a service like Facebook, basically, the more information that I privately give to a service, [the more] you want to make sure that the service makes right use of that.

The companies you're building aggregate content from all over the Web, effectively functioning as scavengers of people who have to create the content. So who's going to pay for content creation, which your audiences are picking up? Camp: There's a couple of different ways. I think advertising so far has proven very effective. Something like AdSense does allow sponsor sites that want to post information. If you get a lot of traffic, you can generate revenue off of that. I think it can also be multiple tiers, and you have a service like Salon where certain parts are free, but then you can actually pay a monthly subscription fee so you can get the entire article or special stuff. For some people, it can be used to promote other things like books and other things that you produce that will be bought.

Rose: I think it really just comes down to content being king. I've seen several part-time bloggers becoming full-time bloggers because they know they have quality content and people are going to view that content and they can hook up with everything from AdSense to sites like Federated Media that provide ads, and they can now focus on their blog full time. Oh, now I can back business 2.0, and so I can start working and creating a network of sites. The New York Times has dropped their paid [content policy] and now it's all open content because they're getting enough money off of ads. If you have quality content, you're going to get picked up on these large networks of users and you'll got lots of views.

Krim: Advertisers will be one of the main sources of constant revenue. When you see a shift in the audience where people are moving from [traditional news] sites to a site like Digg or blogs, sometimes it takes time for them to understand that they can actually advertise and get this audience. In the meantime, we see there's a shift from traditional media to social media. Traditional media are using the same tools as social bloggers, as a social network to recreate their audience. So the distribution of content is more challenged right now, and we don't know who clearly wins. But the [revenue] model will be still the same.

Do you think advertising is going to change? Has advertising evolved as well? Camp: I think so. I think there's definitely now the opportunity to also know which advertising [works]. At least on our service you're allowed to rate the advertising. So we get an ad between other different pages and you can give it a thumbs up or down.

I'm sure the advertising agency really enjoys that.

Camp: I think they do actually like it because that gives them basically a graph of the percentage of people who give it a thumbs up or down over time.

What's your most popular ad over the past couple of months? Camp: Generally, really good flash microsites. You know, ones where at first you're not really sure if it's an ad. It's just really interesting, and in the end, you realize it's some product.

Rose: There was a story on Digg that was very popular ... not too long ago that [story] was about ways to remodel your kitchen. It was just very practical guides and you got a really funky kitchen with tile. But it was actually a blog post done by a tile manufacturer. They were smart enough to go out and say, "We're going to create this content that people are going want to consume. We're not going to buy an ad on Digg or anywhere else, but we know if we write the content a certain way and people enjoy it, they will naturally spread it throughout the Internet."

Krim: What we are looking at with Netvibes is the idea of creating a long-term relationship with the user ... and provide the real services for the user. Say you need help with your car, so every time you come to Netvibes you have a record where you actually know what's going on: What you should do to repair your car, when's the next garage visit and this kind of thing.

We've been talking about this mainly as if this was all text with a smattering of video, but we all know the Web is being populated with new forms of media. How important is it going to be over the next four or five years to see video and other forms of media on your sites? Camp: We've already started. The first one we did after text that became quite popular was photos. We already have a million and a half photo pages. The one we've been recently getting into is video. It's a really good fit for video because it's like television. So we see a growth in video service. Almost any form of media I think we'd like to extend to.

Rose: For us, it's all about wherever [there's] too much content to sift through in any one day. There's so many great images on Flickr and Zooomr and Photobucket and how do you service to that audience. Right now, we do news and videos and podcasts, but in the very near future, we'll be getting into images and other content. Anywhere where the community directs us.

Twitter is a microblogging service where you ask the question: What are you doing? And you write 140 ... characters explaining exactly what you're up to at that point. It was launched really at the South by Southwest conference in March this year and it has absolutely taken off. It had about 100,000 users in March and now it's at about 500,000 users. But the real sign that Twitter is taking off are the number of 'me too' companies that are trying to do the same thing. By one count, there are 111 Twitter-like sites in 12 countries, among which is a company that Kevin started called Pownce. I want Kevin to begin by explaining how microblogging fits in to all of this.

Rose: When Twitter launched, I thought it was very useful at South by Southwest. You could update some of your friends on your cell phone as far as what you were doing and where you're heading next. It was kind of like a check-in service -- like this is where I am and this is what I'm doing. When we created Pounce, it was really to serve a different purpose. We wanted to have a very private community -- a way to share with your media friends [your] media files. Anything you [wanted to] upload to the site, a video or image -- a picture -- all private and within your own community. Twitter was really focused on the mobile experience -- being able to check in with your friends. You're at a certain bar, you use abbreviated codes to tell everyone where you're at and then they'll know to come out and meet you. With us, it's about sitting in front of your computer and wanting to share a piece of media with your friends. The idea is a very short, little piece of content that you want to spread around.

Krim: These are definitely the tools that mobile operators should have been providing. When you see the traditional operators and ISVs, they don't have any sense of community, and all of these tools are about building communities. These are tools we should have had for quite a long time.

Camp: I think Twitter is successful because it's a little more free-form. It's a combination of personal expression and kind of status update as well as informational -- you know, I'm here. It can be pretty much anything. I think that fact that it's so flexible and the fact that you can blog from just about anywhere is why I like it so much.

I'm a new convert to Facebook, courtesy of Owen Thomas, the managing editor of Valleywag. He told me I was being desperately uncool not to use Facebook. I'm now a passionate fan. Facebook seems to challenge at some level all your businesses because it does everything that you do and it does it in a nicely compact form in this very elegant structure. Camp: Facebook is very cool. It's a kind of very cleanly designed social network. MySpace kind of let people express themselves -- too much. You could personalize your [page] a lot. Sometimes layouts would change so much that you couldn't even navigate the page. I think Facebook is trying to let people start building it a different way, keep the design very consistent. It is very different. It's about finding out what your friends are doing. It's not about recommending content.

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