In a quintessentially Web 2.0 case of "If it got funding, it must be worth a look," user-generated news site NowPublic hauled in in series A venture capital funding earlier this week, and now the blog community has pounced on it with accolades and criticism alike. NowPublic, in case you haven't checked it out yet, is a "citizen journalism" site devoted to bringing you news of the user-generated variety--all stories and accompanying photos, videos, and other multimedia are contributed by fellow NowPublic readers. Then, much like Digg, which remains the top name in "social news," the user base is invited to rank and comment on stories.
It's pretty easy to use, especially if you're familiar with Digg. The top handful of stories are displayed on the front page, and a click will get you to a longer list. An Ajax-powered widget shows you the latest in comments and submissions. You can also divide the news up into verticals (politics, culture, entertainment, what-have-you). The interface is a little clunky, but pretty well-designed. The really important factor for a site like this, however, is the content.
News aggregation, either through "crowdsourcing" the reader base or automating the story selection (a la Google News), has grown more all the more appealing in recent months as headlines of Paris Hilton's jail sentence have made the jump between Us Weekly and USA Today. It makes the " ," once the poster child for media sensationalism, look downright newsworthy--and it also means that there are plenty of disgruntled news junkies out there who are fully convinced that they'd do a better job of picking which stories are the important ones.
Crowdsourcing is trendy. The problem is that you don't know what the crowd is going to be. There are a handful of "real" stories at the top of NowPublic's ranking (a bridge collapse in California, for example), but the top photo-video hit remains "Sexy Girls Playing Beach Volleyball." Additionally, there are already stories popping up on NowPublic--and getting some high ratings--that are clearly satirical. Cute, yes, but what happens when somebody plants a fake story on a user-generated news site? We've already seen this happen with Digg; remember that story about Apple Stores charging admission? 1500 Diggs later, readers caught onto the fact that it came from an Onion clone.
Right now, if you look at the top stories on NowPublic and compare them to those on the automated Google News, there is some overlap--but some disconnect, too. A bridge collapse in northern California, which doesn't make an appearance on Google News' front page, is the top story on NowPublic. No mention is made on the Vancouver-based NowPublic of Google News' current top story--that the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court was hospitalized--but photographs from a nude anti-oil protest in the start-up's home city are plentiful. On the flip side, Google News' aggregator has glossed over reports of a threatening typhoon off Japan, but it's right there on NowPublic. Human filtering, it seems, has both its drawbacks and benefits. Just look at Digg: it's great for tech enthusiasts, but hasn't caught on much outside the geek community.
I'm a believer in the theory that a lot of the Internet's biggest successes owe a whole lot to luck, and that the early days of a new Web endeavor are the most crucial. It's tough to kill a site's early reputation when nothing "goes away" online, and when word gets around among the early-adopter crowd that TechCrunch's Michael Arrington has trashed a hotly anticipated new start-up, that company will have a hard time cooking up a second chance. It's the same reasoning that has made a handful of New York restauranteurs rather annoyed with the city's very vocal community of food bloggers, claiming that the epicurean WordPressers rush in and test out their establishments before all the kinks have been ironed out (newspaper restaurant reviewers typically give a few weeks' grace period) and giving the eateries prematurely bad reputations that tend to last.
Consequently, these first few weeks in the wake of the funding announcement are going to be important for the evolution of NowPublic. If curious Web users, having read about the site's new funding, click their browsers over to NowPublic and see a refreshing new take on relevant news, the site could be a real phenomenon. But if NowPublic is clogged early on with fake or satirical news, political fringe or conspiracy-theory stories, celebrity gossip, or local news that's only relevant to a narrow demographic, then it could easily become crammed into a niche from which it will be hard to escape. Yes, reputations can change--just look at how the Huffington Post went from being a "liberal Drudge Report" to a reputable news destination--but when there's a lot of hard-to-control user-generated content involved, it's not going to be easy for a company to shape and reshape is own image.
Because no matter what your business model is, putting so much control into the hands of users is always a gamble. If it works, it works great. But if it doesn't work, well, you're in quite the bind.