Wednesday, September 24, 2008

You know that time you said, "What I'd like is a social network centered around the New York Times"

... remember that?

Maybe it was a long time ago?

Perhaps you'd drunk a lot of wine?

Or you might have been doing air quotes under the table when you said "like"?


Well, someone must have said it because the Times announced TimesPeople this week.

So what, exactly, is a social network built around the New York Times--besides a colossally strange idea? Well...

It's not a social network like Facebook or MySpace — you won't have Times friends, and it won't get you Times dates.

Which is too bad, because the ability to accumulate friends and get dates is pretty much the entire driving force of most successful social networks.

But no! Instead:

Instead, you'll assemble a network of Times readers. Then you'll be able to share interesting things on with others in the network.

Because, apparently, sharing via a social bookmarking site like Delicious, sharing straight links with your friends on Facebook, or doing social recommending on Digg didn't quite cut the mustard for the needs of New York Times audiences.

Look, I get it: technology is neat. It's technically a very cool idea that you can sift through a paper as dense as the Times in a social way. But is there really a need to do that?

It feels to me like a misunderstanding on how people are consuming news online: People read widely. They share links already, via e-mail, blogs, and the other sites I mentioned above (and another bakers dozen of sites I didn't mention). News is spreading virally more and more. And friends are trusted sources at a time that the media is becoming less trusted on a daily basis.

But nobody reads one source--even a "paper of record," like the Times. People, especially the kind of news junkies that TimesPeople would want to attract, read dozens of news and opinion sites, increasing their touch even further with aggregator sites tossed into the mix as well.

So why then would anyone take part in social news sharing that locks you into a single site both in terms of content, but also in terms of access?

If I want to share a Times story using TimesPeople, I can only do it with other TimesPeople users. That's a pretty limited scope. But beyond that, if I have a nice network of TimesPeople users and I want to share with them a related story from another site, I'm SOL on that as well.

It's such an outmoded way of thinking--the site-as-an-island mentality of the 90s--that I've literally combed the 41-point FAQ a few times over to make sure I'm not missing something. But as best I can tell, I'm not. That's it: a lockbox for your Times links, accessible from nowhere but the Times and sharable with nobody but other people on the Times site (though they do allow a feed out to Facebook, another walled garden. Have fun with that. I'll stick with Google Reader and Delicious.