PEJ Social News Report Demonstrates Only That Digg and Reddit Are Highly Niche Sites

The Project For Excellence in Journalism compared the news coverage of social news sites Digg, Reddit, and Delicious to that of mainstream media and found, not surprisingly, not a lot of overlap. What I found most notable is the report mistakenly assumes that the news on Digg and Reddit reflect the interests of their entire user base:

Then, names like Digg, Reddit and Del.icio.us emerged as virtual town squares that became a way to measure the pulse of what the web community finds most newsworthy, most captivating, or just amusing.

Here’s how the BBC casts it:

A news agenda formulated by citizens would be radically different from that put together by journalists

The problem is that a very small percentage of Digg’s and Reddit’s “citizens” control the news on the site — very much like a group of traditional editors. They may not be “professionals,” but they are acting as a traditional editorial hierarchy.

Here’s an analysis I did earlier this year of Digg’s top users:

It turns out that only the top 2,457 Digg users have gotten 3 or more stories to the homepage, putting them in the top 0.35% of Digg’s 707,593 registered users. And only the top 1,662 Digg users have gotten 4 or more stories to the homepage, putting them in the top 0.23%. Even more telling is what you get if you graph even just the top 250 Digg users — can you guess? Of course, it’s a long tail:

Digg Top Users

The irony of the report’s title subtitle — “Your Vote Counts” — is that for most users of Digg and Reddit, their vote actually doesn’t count much in determining which stories get attention. Both sites actually have algorithms that count the votes of successful, active users — i.e. the de facto editors — more (often MUCH more) than someone who just signed up for an account today.

The other issue, which the report does address to a limited degree, is that audience for Digg and Reddit is principally young, male, tech enthusiasts (with a dash of puerile interest) — the “users” or “citizens” of these sites are in NO way representative of the broad, diverse group of mainstream news consumers.

Here’s an example of top stories on Digg that reflects the interests of its highly niche audience:

Digg Top Ten Stories

Digg and Reddit are excellent sites for highly niche communities to share information of common interest. But they are definitely not a way for a general news consumers to find out what’s going on in the world or in topics of interest outside of handful of niche topics:

During that week, the immigration debate led the coverage, accounting for 10% of all news stories in the News Coverage Index. That was followed by coverage of a major fire near Lake Tahoe (6%), the failed bombings in the United Kingdom (6%), events on the ground in Iraq (6%), Supreme Court decisions (5%), the 2008 presidential election (4%), flooding in Texas (4%), the policy debate in the capitol over the war in Iraq (4%), U.S. domestic terrorism (3%), and the missing pregnant woman in Ohio (3%). In all, the top ten stories that week accounted for 51% of all the stories in the Index.

In the user-generated sites, these stories were barely visible. Overall, just 5% of the stories captured on these three sites overlapped with the ten most widely-covered stories in the Index (13% for Reddit, 4% for Digg, and 0% for Del.icio.us).

There is certainly great value in how Digg and Reddit introduce a diversity of sources, which would be particularly valuable if they could broaden the perspective on major stories — but the complete absence of major stories is of little use to mainstream news consumers, even those looking for more diversity of coverage.

While I understand and appreciate what the Project for Excellence in Journalism was trying to test, the comparison is of little value — like observing that Newsweek has very different coverage from PC World or Teen People, i.e. comparing general interest sources to niche sources only demonstrates the difference between general interest and niche.

Scott Karp

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