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6/14/2006
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AOL Relaunches Netscape.com To Challenge Digg And YouTube

The new version of Netscape will feature community-driven news and video with editorial oversight--sort of like Digg married to YouTube with adult supervision.

AOL plans to re-launch its Netscape.com portal as a place where user participation is balanced by moderator control.

The renovated site will feature community-driven news and user-submitted video, guided by editors called anchors. Imagine a mixture of Digg.com and YouTube.com under adult supervision.

"The hive mind sometimes doesn't do a thorough job," explains Jason Calacanis, CEO of Weblogs, Inc., a blog network acquired last year by AOL.

The hive mind doesn't do too badly, either. Community moderated news such as Digg.com, Reddit.com, and Newsvine.com have built sizable audiences by offering users the ability to consume news and express views in one spot, without the risk of rejection by editors. Digg, for instance, gets almost as much traffic as the New York Times, according to traffic tracking site Alexa.com.

But Netscape.com is more popular than Digg. According to AOL, the Netscape site saw 12.5 million unique visitors in April, compared with Digg's 1.3 million, Del.icio.us' 455,000, and Slashdot's 433,000. It lags behind YouTube.com, however. YouTube claims it receives about 6 million unique visitors per day.

AOL's redesigned Netscape portal clearly owes a debt to Digg, as well as to the recently revamped Yahoo.com. Heavily seasoned with Ajax -- computer programming designed to make Web sites more responsive -- the new Netscape.com looks very up-to-the-minute, with lots of tabs and thumbnail graphics.

As on Digg, Netscape.com users can submit online news stories, tag them, and comment on them. They can endorse stories for more prominent page placement using a "Vote" button, again like Digg's "Digg This" button.

But AOL has hired editors, known as "Netscape Anchors," to moderate the unruly masses. There will be 8 of them full-time and 15 part-time, according AOL VP of corporate communications Andrew Weinstein, who declined to disclose the pay scale for anchors.

"It's going to be interesting to see how the balance between user-contributed stuff and editorial content works out," says JupiterResearch analyst Joe Laszlo. "I agree with the idea that you can't necessarily trust computers or readers to pick what people should be looking at as news. There should be some professional people helping to make that decision as well."

"The great thing about having editorial control is rumor debunking," says Calacanis, who adds that Netscape Anchors will be able to enhance breaking stories by posting interviews with those involved. And chances are that with Time Warner's tentacles reaching beyond AOL into affiliated mass media companies like Home Box Office and Warner Bros. Entertainment, Netscape Anchors will have the access and credibility to produce that kind of complementary content.

The new Netscape.com also will compete with video sharing site YouTube.com. The "Submit Story" page will allow users to submit videos, though as of Wednesday evening, it wasn't clear when this feature would be enabled. Submitted videos will be hosted on Netscape's servers. Presumably, Time Warner's extensive video assets will find a place on the new Netscape.com, too.

Anyone with a user ID from Netscape.com, AOL, or AIM will be able to contribute to the site. Users get their own profile page that lists friends (if any) and any stories, comments, or votes submitted.

Given reports that Digg can be easily manipulated, Netscape may be onto something by adding some oversight. Online openness has obvious value, but it encourages information pollution by spammers, scammers, and the like. Wikipedia is the case in point -- its answer to abuse has been to close certain entries to further editing.

"The edited model works very well," says media analyst Barry Parr of JupiterResearch. "And it's unclear what the advantages of social news are in the long run.... The jury is still out on whether we can replace editors with the collective wisdom."

It's not clear whether the new Netscape.com will have any impact on rising social news stars like Digg, more established players like Slashdot.org, or recent entrants like Newsvine.com.

"Digg has a very well established audience," says Parr. "Clearly there's going to be serious competition here and it's all going to be in the execution. It's all about critical mass of use and participation."

The new Netscape.com is being made available as a beta test on Thursday, June 15. Official release is planned for July 1.

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