The social networking bandwagon everyone's jumping aboard better get some new seats installed: The Huffington Post has hopped on today, with a "Social News" feature. Apart from the PR-friendly hype of the title, what's it all about?
At root, it's a more complex use of Facebook Connect, the app that lets you sign on to various sites using your Facebook I.D. HuffPo takes it one step further by letting you customize your user page on The HP with a kind of Facebook Status-like rolling update displaying what your friends are reading on the site. That makes it sound a little stale and uninteresting, but in an interview with AllThingsD, Ariana Huffington herself came up with several more soundbite quotes that sum up the new system nicely: "We are looking at HuffPost Social News like a 'digital water cooler,'" gives you one idea, and then she set out the motivations—apparently the team did this because they "are interested in real identities having real conversations about news."
The "digital water cooler" idea is well reflected by the way the system works. Once you've logged in it tracks pretty much everything you click on during your browse of the site, including comments you make, and displays that via your Facebook Connect feeds. Unlike traditional water cooler gossip ("Did you see Phil's shirt? Bad choice with that tie") it's supposed to inspire a kind of dynamic discussion that lets one "dive deeper into the stories you like best," according to Huffington.
That last quote's pretty interesting—in my experience, it's in open-forum blog comments that one finds the most interesting discussions, both positive and negative, serious and funny. The open nature of the threaded comments means you can share your opinions with both friends and strangers alike, and that makes for a dynamic debate, in pretty much real time. That's true whether it's a news blog piece, or one about some new technology. I'm not convinced that adding in a Facebook friends angle really adds very much. Typically, blog posts are about discussing things with new people, not people you already know. Still, with social networking suffering explosive population growth at the moment, one will probably end up "friends" with half the planet before too long, so that whole public/private issue will seem less relevant.
HuffPo's CEO Eric Hippeau laid things out a bit more honestly: Like "a lot of other sites" Yhe HP guys are "trying to make our site more attractive to marketers who want to engage with engaged users." So, essentially the new social angle's all about money, and garnering more of it from advertisers by trying to get users more engaged with the news on the site.