This was the year social networks turned into news organizations

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Credit: GigaOM

Social networks are the overworked writer’s best friend. It’s easy to observe the latest outrage on Twitter, grab a few good jokes from Reddit, or screen cap the ridiculous things people write on Facebook and turn them into blog posts. Writers used to have to find stories to chase — now they just have to be willing to sift through gargantuan masses of shit to find a few nuggets of social media gold.

There are a few problems with this: the people whose content has been lifted don’t always like someone else taking credit for their words, photos, or videos; relying on outside platforms can lead to the meat of a publisher’s blog posts falling right out of their sandwich of context and witticism; and social networks don’t need writers to surface their best content. They can collect it themselves.

That’s what many decided to do this year. Reddit created a publication called Upvoted to highlight the stories that propagate on its service. Twitter introduced Moments to aggregate tweets about breaking news and entertainment alike. Snapchat got into the news business during the San Bernardino shooting. This was the year social networks tried to establish some control over social media.

The reasoning behind this shift, as well as each company’s approach to it, has varied. Upvoted resembles a traditional publication that just happens to pull its stories from the Reddit platform. It’s designed at least partly to redirect some of the traffic that would’ve otherwise gone to other sites back to Reddit itself. But, as Gigaom’s Tom Cheredar wrote, it’s also meant to humanize the community:

Right now, Reddit is viewed by advertisers with caution. The reasons for this are well-documented. But there’s no denying that Reddit is popular enough that you’d be crazy not to try and get in front of its audience. The problem is that it’s often hard to predict how the discussion will form on Reddit by its community, and that’s a risk many advertisers aren’t willing to justify should things go sour — deserved or not.

Upvoted can soften those fears by enhancing the top submitted content on Reddit proper (as explained above). On other news sites that may credit a Reddit user for submitting a piece of content that gets written up in an article, usually there’s no desire to go beyond the user name. But doing so could help humanize the submitters, which might help advertisers overcome some of the negative characterizations of the overall Reddit community.

Twitter’s Moments feature (not to be confused with the Facebook photo app of the same name) has a different motivation. It’s supposed to find the best tweets so people never have to wonder why they should visit Twitter. It’s also supposed to make it easier for new users to understand what Twitter is about — a way to distill the chaos into a manageable form so normal people can interact with it.

But the implementation is very different from Upvoted. Moments doesn’t look anything like a traditional publication. Instead it looks like just another feature on Twitter’s navigation bar, making it harder to tell that serious editorial talent, like New York Times editor at large Marcus Mabry, are in charge of its content. Its team is a dedicated newsroom masquerading as part of the Twitter machine.

Snapchat’s foray into breaking news took yet a different form. Its staffers gathered content shared to public “Stories” and made them available to anyone near the area affected by the San Bernardino mass shooting of December 2. Small updates about the investigation were written by these same staffers, but for the most part, the company simply shared what its users were experiencing.

I argued that this approach, combined with the ephemeral nature of Snapchat’s service, is a refreshing departure from the majority of breaking news reporting:

It’s easy for misinformation to spread on the web. Hitting “like” or “retweet” on a false report doesn’t require much effort — certainly less than it does to spend a few seconds looking for accurate information or sharing new info as it becomes available. That misinformation often remains until someone goes through and deletes it, which is another opportunity for someone to get the wrong idea about something, share that idea, and keep the perpetual ignorance machine going.

Snapchat’s self-deleting updates don’t afford this opportunity. There’s no perpetuity. It’s a bit like talking on the phone with someone: Unless they’ve taken extra steps to record whatever was said, the information is passed along once before it disappears into the aether. The photo-and-video-based nature of the service also lends itself to eyewitness accounts, which limits the claims people can make. (Not that video or photo evidence on social media is infallible.)

These are three very different approaches, but the underlying goal is the same: Gathering user-generated content before writers aggregate it themselves. So I’m left to wonder when other social companies will get around to creating their own publications instead of waiting for writers to swoop in, gather all the free content lying around, and turn it into something that could lead to millions of pageviews.

There are some obvious contenders. Vine’s users already provide a glimpse into what’s happening during important events, so it would be trivial for the service to collect the best coverage and make it available to users. The same could be said of Periscope — instead of showing things in six-second loops, it offers live-streamed video. Twitter could editorialize both services without much effort.

Another less obvious one might be Product Hunt. That site is like a gift from the tech journalist’s gods. (That is assuming tech journalists have gods willing to serve their — sorry, our — wretched souls.) Need to find something cool to write about? Go to Product Hunt! It’s got everything from software to podcasts, and many founders use the platform to answer questions about their products.

Talk about manna from tech journo heaven. New products? Public statements? Links to the app store, animated GIFs, and ready-to-use images? Product Hunt is one dedicated “news” section away from putting a good number of tech writers out of their jobs. Let’s all take a moment to thank chief executive Ryan Hoover for sparing us from such a grisly end to our careers — at least for the moment.

Aggregating content from social networks has created a weird loop that takes something from those networks, puts it on another website, and then inevitably shares it to the same networks and other platforms. (I, and probably many other Redditors, encounter many links to BuzzFeed stories containing jokes I read a week ago.) These efforts are merely the result of social networks closing the loop.

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