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An Eye for Cool, and Cash
In the Hunt to Fill 'Social News' Web Sites, Contributors Now Compete

By Sara Kehaulani Goo
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 26, 2006

Corey Spring has a college student's dream job: He gets paid to surf the Internet.

Every morning, the 22-year-old Ohio State University senior spends at least an hour wading through 100 of his favorite Web sites -- mostly blogs and mainstream news sites -- looking for unique news items he thinks online readers would like. A few weeks ago, he scored big: He found a New York Times story that identified a woman based on the Internet searches she performed using AOL, which released its users' search data in a privacy breach earlier this month.

He quickly copied and pasted the story's Web address into an online form at Netscape.com, wrote a headline and summary of the story, then clicked the send button.

"It's nice to be the first one to get a big scoop that just came out and nobody's heard of," Spring said. "You want to be the first to say, 'Hey, look at this!' "

Spring neither reports nor writes the news, but he submits stories he finds interesting to one of several popular "social news" Web sites -- places where seeing a story first in a major publication counts as a coup. Such sites encourage visitors to share articles they find interesting, vote on items they like best and post comments about them. The idea is to digest the most current information swirling around the Internet -- as diverse as global news, celebrity gossip and tech tips -- and post it in one place, where top stories can change hour by hour.

On Friday, when many of the nation's newspapers focused on the Hurricane Katrina anniversary, Pluto's planetary status and France's decision to send troops to Lebanon, social news sites offered a far different sampling. The top stories on Digg.com included "10 things Google knows about you"; a first-person account from a man who claimed he was interrogated by D.C. police for playing with a portable video game near the Capitol; and an Associated Press report about the City of Las Vegas no longer issuing wedding licenses past midnight.

The system depends on a steady stream of contributors like Spring. Last month, Netscape said it would be the first to pay the most active contributors -- $1,000 a month to post at least 150 stories during that time to its newly redesigned Web site. The job qualifications are rather fuzzy, but an executive said active "navigators" or "social bookmarkers" provide a valuable service because they keep the site's content varied and fresh.

"This is a new field, in some ways, a new talent pool," said Jason Calacanis, general manager at Netscape, a division of AOL. "They have a different skill set analogous to other jobs out there but perhaps most analogous to 'cool hunting.' It's almost like urban archaeology, finding interesting things. In other industries it might be a talent scout, or it might be a designer or people who go out and find the latest cool sneakers. There are people in our society who get employed doing a job like this."

Indeed, some of the newly employed "navigators" found it hard to describe the skills required for the job, other than the ability to navigate the Internet very quickly. Most of them are also bloggers, but others simply love to search the Internet in their free time and like the online fame they achieve for becoming one of the most active contributors to such sites.

"I love doing this -- I love trolling around the Internet. It's all I do all day," said Sarah Gim, a 32-year-old blogger who specializes in finding unique news items about food and shopping. Netscape hired her after seeing her contributions to the food blog Slashfood. She likes that "people who look at Netscape and other navigators, they know Sarah and they think of food. I love being known as the food person."

Wayne Welch was one of the top contributors to Digg before he was lured away by Netscape's offer. "It never was or has been a goal of mine to become a top" contributor, Welch said in an e-mail. "It just kind of happened. I have made many friends from Digg who have the same interests as I do, so really to me it was a sharing of information, hey I found this cool story, what did you find. In the process of doing this many people liked the stories I was submitting and I am the same way in my personal life, I always want to share something cool with anyone who will listen."

Calacanis's offer last month created a bit of controversy in the Internet world, especially because Netscape made clear that it wanted to hire some of the top contributors to other similarly designed sites, such as Reddit.com, Newsvine.com and Digg.com, which do not pay people for submitting stories. Some users called Netscape's new employees sellouts for accepting the offer, but others said they hoped Digg and others would also begin paying their heavy contributors.

"PAYING PEOPLE to submit stories to a social news site is just plain wrong," wrote someone with the screen name Wayne Kerr, in a discussion about the matter on the Web site Postbubble ( http://www.postbubble.com/ ). Another commentator, with the screen name Thomas Aylott, disagreed, arguing that surfing for news "isn't an art, it's a skill. And now, finally, it's a marketable and profitable skill."

Jay Adelson, chief executive of Digg, which helped pioneer the social news format with a focus on tech-related news, said his Web site will not pay contributors because he fears that will disrupt its online community.

He said he does not want to create an imbalance whereby one user is more valued than another. "What's important to the community is not to favor anyone," Adelson said. "If we betray that and start compensating users one way or another, you create significant hierarchies where individuals are motivated based on compensation."

But other contributors to social news Web sites think something much larger is taking shape. Derek Van Vliet, one of the top contributors to Digg who now works for Netscape, said he has been approached by another social news site to submit stories for a fee. He declined to name the company that made the offer.

"I do not think this is about paying users. I consider this paying people to contribute quality content, which is not a new concept on the internet by any means," Van Vliet wrote in an e-mail. "I expect to see more opportunities like this for people who contribute positively to social communities."

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