MIT emTECH – Digg, Netvibes and Stumble Upon

Earlier today I had the opportunity to attend the “Game Changers” session at MIT’s Emerging Technology Conference

The panelists were Kevin Rose from Digg, Tariq Krim from Netvibes and Garret Campbell from Stumble Upon. Jason Pontin, the editor in chief for MIT’s Technology Review was the moderator.

Pontin presented the panelists as founders of some of today’s most exciting Web startups and said that they would unveil what’s next for their companies and reveal the impact it could have other companies. I’m not sure if that exactly happened over the course of the discussion. Pontin started the session by polling the audience about their media consumption habits using the nTag badges we all had. The polling process was a little clunky but the bottom line was that the audience had pretty mainstream habits – relying primarily on traditional media.

His first question to the panel was what what game each company was changing.

Campbell described Stumble Upon as a Web discovery service that allows users to rate sites and content and then provides suggestions on additional based on the likes and interests of with similar profiles. The site currently has about 3.5 million users. Krim described Netvibes as a personalized aggregation service that allowed people to put everything they care about onto a single page. He described it as widgetized content. Rose explained that digg started as a social news web site allowing people to share found news and content with the masses and rate the news to move it up or down the site.

None what they said was especially enlightening but it was good to hear each of them describe their businesses themselves.

Pontin’s next question was on how media consumption habits had changed.

Campbell said that the biggest difference was that the media was now a two-way street with users able to and increasingly expecting to be able to rate and respond to stories. According to Rose, it took a while for people to grasp the concept of digg. He’d been using del.icio.us and Slashdot and saw digg as an experiment to see what would happen if you gave complete editorial control to the community. Krim was overwhelmed by the volume of information he had to deal with and sees all of us facing “attention competition.” The task of managing our attention is one of the biggest changes in how we deal with the media.

I thought all three panelists made some pretty cool points – especially the idea that we can use technology to better manage or relationship with content and the media. As a digg user, I think it’s pretty safe to say the the experiment worked.

The next thing Pontin asked about was the role of trust for each of sites.

On digg, according to Rose, trust is everything. He tried to equate more diggs with more interest and therefor more trust. That seemed like a bit of a stretch – popularity doesn’t necessarily mean accurate content. He did say that the source of the content didn’t really matter that much since it was up to the community to filter the content. Because Rose understands that the front page stories aren’t of interest to everyone, digg also provides additional filtering tools – by topic, friends, etc. In the future digg will be providing a suggestion service which offers stories based on what has been dug by a user in the past.

Kevin Rose
Kevin Rose

Not surprisingly, both Campbell and Krim also thought trust was important. Campell said that they think it’s important; but that it’s also important to find and connect like-minded people so they can create create clusters of similar people and allow people to get and share info. Over time, he expects Stumbledupon to become more social. Krim made the point that people are providing more and more personal information on social sites and how these various services use this information is critical.

None of the panelists really addressed the issue of trust very well but all of them were happy to talk about it. The issue at hand was, I think, the degree to which the content on these sites could be trusted rather than the trust relationship between members or between members and the sites.

Pontin’s next question had to do with how content sources – like the Tech – would be compensated. Who’s going to pay for content creation? None of the panelists seemed to get the question and each of them instead chose to talk about the business model for their sites.

Campbell said that advertising has been effective; but that paid content or membership sections were also viable models. Rose pointed out that “content is king” and that he’s seen several part-time bloggers that have been able to do it full time because their content attracts enough readers. He also pointed out the New York Times has taken down their paid wall because they are making enough from advertising to open up the site. Krim acknowledged that this is an issue, but he took the conversation in a different direction by suggesting that the advertising market needs to keep pace with audience interest.

Garrett Campbell
Garrett Campbell

His point was a perfect segue to Pontin’s next question, which was whether the panelists thought advertising would change.

Campbell thought that it would because it would be important (and beneficial) to understand which advertising matters to whom. He also thought that giving users the ability to rate ads so they could be better targeted made sense as well. Rose sees a blurring between advertising and other content. On digg people often share ads that they find funny or interesting. He also pointed to the example of a kitchen remodeling company that posted what were essentially advertising messages into a blog post that was popular on digg. Krin said that it was important for social media to have social advertising and that advertising needs to provide a real service to the user, not just information.

Pontin also wanted to know how important other media types – in particular video – factor into the three sites. This seemed like kind of a simplistic question since all three of the sites already provide some degree of access to other media.

Campbell thought that media diversification was important and that after text they offered photographs and that video was on the horizon. Music was another that he sees in the future. Overall, he sees a shift in the amount of time people spend with different media types and he wants to make sure they are able to provide what’s of interest to Stumbledupon users. Krim said that in the beginning, people were using NetVibes for RSS aggregation but that now people are adding all sorts of content types. He sees content as the key to user attention and engagement. According to Rose, digg’s value comes wherever there is too much content for people to sift through. Today the site is primarily text, video and podcast but there will be other media types in the future.

Next Pontin asked about Twitter , Pownce and microblogging in general. He asked for a show of hands and it turns out that very few people in the audience were Twitter users.

Given the fact that Rose started Pownce, he started the discussion. He started using Twitter himself back in March at SXSW and though it was really useful for connecting and keeping track of people at the event. He said that Pownce serves a different function. It’s a way to share media files within a community. If Twitter is all about the mobile experience, Pownce is about being at the computer sharing content with friends.

Tariq Krim
Tariq Krim

Krim thought said that you need to understand tools in the context of the community. He Twitters because he travels and has ended up with lots of people following him. He told a story of visting the Apple store and Twittering about the iPhone. He was called by two reporter right away who wanted to interview him about the phone. In his opinion, these are tools that the wireless carriers should have provided. all of this is about community and the carriers ought to have used it. Campbell added that microblogging is cool because it combines information and expression.

Pontin’s last question to the panel was what they thought of as Facebook as a challenger to each of their companies.

Rose said he met with Mark Zuckerberg before Facebook launched the application project, who said he wanted to become the social network and to work with companies like the ones on stage to create applications for the network. At this point though, he thought that many of the apps were kind silly, pirate vs. ninja kind of stuff. He thought that this reflected the way people used Facebook – more for social connections rather than for information. Krim saw the value of Facebook in the fact that it has made it possible for more to get involved. He raised the issue of privacy and worried that there was a risk in the monitization of context – particularly as it relates to private information.

All in all, it was a pretty good discussion and all three of the panelists shared some interesting points.

[tags]digg, emtech, garret campbell, jason pontin, kevin rose, mit, netvibes, stumble upon, tariq krim[/tags]

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