By Martin Stabe
The sheer volume of news available from the multitude of specialist blogs and news sites is arguably limiting the value of online news.
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Helping online news junkies sift the grains of wheat from the mountains of online chaff are a bevy of "news aggregators" and "social bookmarking" or "tagging" websites. On these sites, users nominate notable stories from elsewhere on the web, categorise them by attaching keyword "tags" and determine their prominence by voting.
While bloggers and podcasters are challenging columnists’ traditional monopoly on published opinion-writing, this new breed of website is challenging another function of journalism by replacing editors’ news judgment with the collective wisdom of the audience.
Unlike traditional methods of indexing information around hierarchical categories, or "taxonomies", these sites use what is being called "folksonomy " — leaving it up to users to categorise information using any keywords they like.
The assumption is that, in sufficient numbers, users will quickly highlight important stories from the glut of data on the internet while developing logical categories that allow others to find what interests them.
Reflecting the interests of their early adopters, most of these "Web 2.0" sites are still dominated by technology news. There are still plenty of kinks to be worked out in these systems — links are often duplicated, indexing fails as users develop esoteric classification schemes, and there’s nothing to stop false or even libellous information from being repeated — but they offer a glimpse of how journalism from disparate sources can be aggregated.
Journalists tracking particular topics can use RSS feeds generated by these sites to watch for new items tagged with a particular keyword or noted by another user who they trust to be knowledgeable about their areas of interest. On del.icio.us, for example, it is possible to track the items selected by The Guardian director of digital publishing Simon Waldman (del.icio.us/50quid), former CNN correspondent and blogging enthusiast Rebecca McKinnon (del.icio.us/rebeccamack), or online PR expert Steve Rubel (del.icio.us/steverubel ).
While not strictly a news site, del.icio.us is the prototypical social bookmarking tool. With a few clicks, users can save bookmarks, label them with keywords and share them with friends or the public. Launched in 2003 by programmer Joshua Schachter, del.icio.us was acquired by Yahoo! in December. Its minimalist design may not be much to look at, but its structure is impeccably logical, making the site the easiest social bookmarking tool to use.
Technology news website Digg allows users to add to a queue of stories and also add keywords. More importantly, it allows readers to determine what stories appear on the homepage and the order they appear in by voting on whether they "digg" the link or whether is should be "buried". Founders Kevin Rose and Alex Albrecht also produce a weekly video podcast in which they discuss articles that have been highlighted on the site during that week.
Unlike other tagging sites, the Newsvine actually looks like a news website. It was launched publicly earlier this month after an invitation-only trial run. Newsvine combines wire service material from the Associated Press with blog entries or links to other sources provided by users. Readers’ votes, along with timelines, automatically determine the prominence of each item. Although it has localised front pages for many cities around the world (including London), Newswire can be US-centric.
In a different format to the other sites, Memeorandum does not require its users to actively nominate content and vote on its quality. Instead, Memeorandum uses a secret algorithm, which automatically generates a new front page depending on what other websites are discussing and linking to.