With all the uproar over Jason Calacanis offering to pay top posters to places like Digg, Reddit and Newsvine, I'm thinking a ton about how these services work or don't. Articles I've written have hit the front page of Digg, Lifehacker, Boing Boing, Make, Lockergnome and a handful of the other sites everyone dies to get a link from. Still, my single biggest traffic day ever came from hitting the front page of the "new-and-improved" Netscape. Netscape almost doubled my daily unique visitor count while the others only increased traffic by 30-40% at most.
The single most useful feature of sites like Digg, del.icio.us, reddit, Newsvine, RawSugar and the numerous other choices are the people. Takeaway the people and you've got a vacant lot. If you find a person or people who always find stuff you like, you've got a personal tastemaker who is helping shape your reading experience. I subscribe to specific user's feeds on del.icio.us because I know I'm always going to find what they link to interesting. I can't afford to pay my favorites for finding cool stuff, but if a company (AOL in this case) is willing to pay them - awesome! The cool kids might keep finding cool stuff longer if they've got financial motivation.
With his recent offer to pay top posters on many user-generated content sites if the posters simply come and post on Netscape.com, Jason points out one of the biggest inequities in the world people think of as Web 2.0 - the few (founders of user-generated-content sites) are getting rich off the efforts of the many, offering little in return. I think the term for this is crowdSERFing, or denigrating the users to level of feudal serfdom for the sake of lining the founders' pockets. The users contributing to sites gain popularity for being smart and walk away with nothing. The companies are getting big financial gains without investing in the most expensive component of building a publishing business - human capital. Jason is offering to make this a little more equitable by paying people for their time.
Before this sounds like I'm a Calacanis groupie; Netscape is far from perfect. For instance, the front page of Netscape is great for traffic, but being a featured article on the Netscape Movies section has amounted to negligible additional traffic (which is unfortunate because being picked by Karina from Cinematical means a ton and I had a blast interviewing the guys from Clerks). Netscape has a long way to go to be better than the competition. As I'm thinking on what Jason Calacanis and Netscape are doing right for Netscape, here are a few things they could do to make the experience better:
1) Level the Playing Field - if Netscape anchors get to have links to their personal blogs and the various Weblogs, Inc properties in their bio, let everyone else link too or don't let anyone link. The anchors already play god in the system, why add additional unbalance.
2) Sort the Tracker - Having a tracker is great! I want to see the new stories, not the most popular ones, but the Netscape river of news is everything in every channel. I want to watch about 12 of the 30 possible channels. Let me customize my experience so that I only watch those 12 channels.
3) More User Control - Let users add their own photo to a post by choosing from a list of related images from Getty. Posts with photos are trending toward getting more votes. It's great your editors are choosing the photos, but give users more control within defined constraints.
4) Suggest tags on the fly - if a Wordpress plugin can figure it out, AOL's resources can do it too
5) Change Vote to something more meaningful - most of the U.S. doesn't vote in important things like elections, why would they vote on Netscape?
6) Integrate mail and stock tickers back into the front page - give me some Ajax widgets to go with the user generated news.
7) Let me Subscribe to PEOPLE via RSS - There are people submitting to Netscape who aren't my friends, who I've never met, but who have great submissions. Let me subscribe to those people so I can easily watch what they submit.
8) Allow Posting to Multiple Categories - granted, I've seen several posts that didn't really fit the category they are currently in, but there are times when one category doesn't quite nail it.
9) Better Category Breakdowns - the single most popular tech subject for most users is digital photography. Where's the category for photophiles? Is a camera a technology or a gadget? Or both? See #9, but seriously consider improving customization.
10) Allow Links in Comments - Sure there will be some link spamming, but allowing links allows smart users to correct a story when someone makes an erroneous post.