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Social-media pros: We're just getting started

Social-media sites like Digg, StumbeUpon and NetVibes represent the future of news distribution, say company founders.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass.--Social-media sites are visited mainly by early technology adopters and pose thorny privacy problems but are an increasingly viable channel for news distribution for overwhelmed Internet consumers, panelists at the Emerging Technology Conference said on Wednesday.

During the opening session of the conference, founders from three popular Web 2.0 social media sites--Kevin Rose of Digg, Tariq Krim of NetVibes, and Garret Camp of StumbleUpon--predicted a growing role for community-oriented sites in the media industry. The conference, now called EmTech, is put on by the Technology Review and held at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

We're the future of the media business. From left: Garret Camp of StumbleUpon, Tariq Krim of NetVibes, and Kevin Rose of Martin LaMonica/CNET Networks

These news aggregation sites--which are expanding into images and videos--exist because Web surfers are drowning in an excess of content, panelists said. The business model to fund these sites is essentially the same as traditional publishing--advertising and subscriptions.

What's different is that users have a bigger say in what they choose to read and that they rely on their community, rather than only professional editors, to find information.

"The model is the same," said Krim, NetVibes co-founder. "It's just about the reorganization of the content distribution right now. "

Rose predicted that social media sites will become more popular as the tools to use these sites get easier.

He said that the company is working on enhancements to foster community, including a suggestion service coming out in the next few months that will let users look at the profiles of people who post items to Digg.

Digg is also looking at ways to predict which items will get to the front page on the site by tracking which submitters have a track record of spotting popular items.

The importance of community in news became starkly clear in the London terrorist bombings in 2005 and the shooting rampage at Virginia Tech earlier this year. Before professional news outlets could cover these events, people relied on information from their peers.

Even though social media sites are shaking up mainstream media, the attendees at the EmTech conference are clearly not plugged in to their friends' media preferences.

In a survey done during the panel, the majority of people here said they rely on traditional news outlets and "pre-Web 2.0" portals like Yahoo News.

Another issue not fully addressed by social-media sites is privacy, said Krim

For example, two friends could share information about an upcoming trip to London on Facebook. Advertisers could capture that information and send them special fares.

Society will need to address this practice of "monetizing our intimacy," which advertisers are eager to do, he said.

"My biggest concern is that we don't own the information and we can't get it back, and we don't know how this information is going to be used," Krim said after the panel.

Separately, Krim said that NetVibes is working with gadget producers to create a common advertising platform for gadgets.