The Huffington Post went social yesterday. Well, more social than it already was.
Personalize, personalize, personalize, said the world of Web 2.0 to news organizations, and they did. Last year, the New York Times came up with TimesPeople, so users could recommend their favorite articles to other readers, and post links directly to social networks such as Facebook. The Washington Post launched MyWashingtonPost, which basically functions like a glorified RSS feature. MyTelegraph, perhaps the most impressive customization service from a newspaper, allows people to set up profile pages, form elaborate networks with fellow readers, and even blog on the Telegraph’s site.
Almost ever since Salon started bought the then-groundbreaking “Well” online community in the eighties, new media entities have been about building online communities around their sites. And news organizations realized–albeit slowly–that the best way to build a loyal reader base online was to not only connect to their readers, but also to connect their readers to other readers.
As J.D. Lasica noted way back in 2002, personalization is–and should be–an intrinsic feature of the Internet medium. In a world where every news site is offering almost the same kind of information (with few exceptions) and cutting-edge multimedia technology, what can make one Web site special? The people, and the ability connect with other people.
“By recognizing the importance of serving hundreds of different readerships simultaneously, online publications are moving toward a higher order of individualized news. No longer can they afford to treat readers as undifferentiated, generalized, lumpen masses,” Lasica wrote in a related piece.
TimesPeople and MyTelegrpah, while admirable ideas in their own right (especially for news Web sites that started by looking like near facsimiles of their print versions), however, come with the requirement that people spend plenty of time on the site, picking their favorite stories, sharing their views on those stories, and connecting with people that might like the same stories.
The Huffington Post is taking this one step further by teaming up with Facebook, linking readers to their Facebook friends, and allowing users to publish their Huffpost activities on their Facebook walls. Like all the personality tests they take and crops they plant in Farmville weren’t enough! But there is some advantage to this. It comes close to the concept of integrating online identities and bringing them to one place: the universal sign-in and network portability that many Internet pundits have insisted should be implemented in order to allow cross-interaction among various social media platforms.
Most personalized news features allow readers to search for their Facebook friends or Twitter followers, but they don’t offer a way to actually integrate the two networks. Consequently, this involves exclusively spending time on the newspaper’s Web site to form a community or interact with fellow users. Now, if you had a choice between spending a few hours on MyWashingtonPost or Facebook, which would you choose? And how many different media sites do you want to sign into at the start of your day? Hell, I’m just glad TweetDeck allows me to keep track of Facebook and Twitter in one place. And the number of new visitors a page would gain from linking to Facebook would probably offset the time spent by a single user on the site itself.
TimesPeople does allow users to sync up to their Facebook profiles, but in keeping with the NYT’s prioritization of “information” over social networking, the site does not allow users to have much more on their profiles than a name and a location.
HuffPost Social news is also quite a leap from news organizations generating noninteractive Facebook pages that merely feed fans with links to their latest stories (the same counterproductive way in which many use Twitter), with readers occasionally discussing stories of interest to them on discussion boards.
Of course, as with anything else, there are two schools of thought about such personalization, customization, individualization of news consumption. Some believe that it might fragment an already fragmented audience in the new media world.
But, if anything, integrating Web site audiences with social networks should help consolidate these virtual and real communities. Chances are, many of your Facebook friends are people you know–and have known—in real life, in contrast to the exclusively online people you interact with on blogs and discussion forums. This is a way to bring those groups together, defragment the so-called “online-offline” divide. Many of the causes I’ve signed up for on Facebook, for instance, are tangible ones, to save the libraries in the city I live in or promote gay rights at a rally: offline events that can make a difference to the community.