Thursday, August 20, 2009

Huffington Post + Facebook = the Future of Journalism

Should we be giddy or terrified?

By Chadwick Matlin

I am no fan of the Huffington Post. Its journalistic ethics are questionable—see Nico Pitney prearranging a question with the White House and HuffPost's repurposing of other sites' intellectual property; its thirst for page views often overshadows any cultural standards—see "Ashley Greene NUDE PHOTOS: Naked Pics of Twilight Star" and "Sisters or Mother and Daughter? Hot Hollywood Moms (PHOTOS, Poll)." Its aesthetic, all capital letters and stock photography, may as well be from 1999—see the home page that Slate's Jack Shafer immortally called "ugly like a bleeding naked mole rat painted DayGlo." The site is anathema to what I hope to see from the future of journalism.

I'm sharing my HuffPo distaste so you know that I don't take the following statement lightly: On Monday, Huffington Post unveiled the future of journalism.

Huffington Post has released a new feature called HuffPost Social News. It's a partnership with Facebook that tracks what Huffington Post articles you and all of your Facebook friends are reading, commenting on, and voting on. It uses a technology called Facebook Connect, Facebook's most unheralded weapon in the battle for ownership of everything we do online. Connect basically serves as a conduit between Facebook and another Web site, allowing data to be sent between the two. Facebook sends profile information. In return, the site sends details on what the user is doing. Web sites, of course, have always tracked what pages their users visit. Now HuffPost is broadcasting that information to all of your friends. It has become a loudmouthed Big Brother.

Once a HuffPost reader logs into Huffington Post with her Facebook account—more on how she does this in a second—the site starts tracking everything she does on any page. The site is also tracking all of her Facebook friends who have also logged on to Huffington Post. All of this can be seen by you and your friends on a page that looks like a mashup of Huffington Post and a Facebook wall feed. This makes for an intriguingly muted kaffeeklatsch: Everybody knows what everybody's reading, but nobody necessarily has to talk about it. A layer of news has been placed on top of the social network. Now not only can you know what your freshman-year roommate did on Friday night, you also can find out what she read right before she left the house.

It's the personal element that makes HuffPost Social such an intriguing and promising experiment. The point of reading news is not just to keep abreast about what's happening in the world, it's to keep up with what your friends know is happening in the world. Reading and watching news is an inherently social process; to have a debate, you have to have a shared set of facts. (Or at least that's how it's supposed to work.)

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