Initial Review of Newsvine

Tonight I came across the magic that is Time’s list of the 50 best Web sites of 2007, so I took a few of the sites for a spin.

Given the recent interest in citizen journalism, I keyed on Newsvine, a cross between something akin to NetVibes and Digg. Out of curiosity, I joined up and played around with some of the features.

Newsvine lets you customize your “column,” the area where you post your selected news links and your own articles, which the help page tells me must be “newsworthy” and not self-promoting (cross-posting your blog posts is a no-no), though there are also “news opinion” and “other” categories, which allow for more traditional posts. I can’t see the benefit of the “news” category however. Unless you are a reporter who is allowed to repost your articles (unlikely) or a freelancer who wants to give them away (unlikely), the majority of your time on Newsvine will be spent posting links to other articles on the Web.

The rest of your time will be spent browsing the articles that are already posted or linked. Like most Web 2.0 sites, this one has a complicated voting system and comment/discussion system. Most of the articles I clicked on had no discussion yet. Either the news is too new, or people aren’t using that part of the site heavily. My guess is that most people spend their time “seeding” links to the site to drive up their contribution score.

The goal of this game is one of the most interesting parts of the site: you generate ad revenue when people visit your page, essentially making sure you’re paid for your work. You can either opt for a check or PayPal payment or donate your earnings to one of several worthy charities. A nice feature, but who knows how long it takes to generate any revenue at all. You can cash out with PayPal at $10, via check at $50.

The thing I have yet to understand is how it can be that so many full articles posted to Newsvine are Associated Press articles. They must have a partnership with the AP. Either that, or they paid to reprint all those articles. Seems a waste to visit a user-generated news site that publishes so much AP content…

It’s hard for me to see the point of Newsvine. Unless I dedicate my time as a reporter to writing for Newsvine, there is little point to it. I would rather post my articles and commentary to my own site to keep things under my control. The rules on Newsvine are sketchy too. Just what do they want from their users, citizen journalists, bloggers, linkers? What is Newsvine for?

I see a pair of options (and I suppose this goes for any communal news site): either it is for citizen reporters to write articles and post them to the Web or it is for reposting information that has already been covered by other mainstream news media.

If the former is true, then the sites must establish what they expect from their writers. Do they expect original research and interviews? If I call my state senator and say that I am a reporter with Newsvine, will I get my foot in the door? Do they require two independent sources to confirm a fact? Will Newsvine vouch for me? Will the site lay it’s money on the line for lawyers to defend my story? Will they stand behind what their reporters have written? (They don’t).

If the latter is true, then Newsvine is yet another example of a Web 2.0 community fracturing the Web as a whole, another portal in a sea of aggregator portals offering nothing that I couldn’t get directly from the AP or from CNN. As others have written before me, the tendency of Web 2.0 is to break the Web into smaller communities, each specialized in their own way. MySpace breaks the Web into friendship networks (accompanied by loads of spam). LinkedIn breaks the Web into business networks. RSS feeds give us just the parts of the Web were looking for, as do portal sites like Newsvine, Yahoo, Digg, and Slashdot. Even though these sites tout their communal features, such as ratings and commenting, they are at best secondary sources. Most times, they are tertiary or worse, because the true bloggers toiling on their isolated, non-communal, non-corporate-sponsored sites are the real secondary sources–remembering of course that the news article in mainstream media is itself a secondary source!

The question at the heart of Newsvine and other sites like it, a question I didn’t think I would get into in this brief review of their site, is whether we want to think of the Web as a whole or not. Either we adventure into cyberspace and find something worth writing about or we rely on others to bring it to us through meta-tags and filters.

Perhaps there is too much material out there now. Maybe we have reached this Borgian library of Babel and must sort through it somehow. The easiest reaction, the one favored by the portals like Newsvine: look at the chunk of the Web you want to and nothing more. It is an option that makes me uneasy, because it is far too close to hierarchy and media control. Certainly, you opt into a microcosm community, but once there, you often have little control over what you read and see (or at least a limited control).

I don’t know. Maybe that’s what we’re all after now. Maybe we’ve passed the age of surfing the Web and moved into the age when we attempt to make sense of what’s out there.

So do we care if one more news site pops up and asks its volunteer members to reprint and rewrite the news? Maybe we should, or maybe it doesn’t matter a bit. We still have the choice not to patronize the site if we choose, and I suppose that counts for something.

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