Social news refers specifically to the plethora of online tools that people are using to share news online. More generally, it also refers to the way the Internet is transforming news and making news social as it disrupts the business models for mass communication and traditional news.
You can think of social news as a subset of social bookmarking--people are "marking" news articles they like and sharing those links with friends.
Purpose of Social News Sharing Sites
They are also commenting on them and rating the quality of individual stories through online "voting" systems that help people quickly identify the most popular news by category.
Many new Internet-based services have launched to focus on helping people share news, both in general and specific categories of news. They employ a variety of user-voting and news submission technologies.
Some are so elaborate they amount to full-fledged social networks in their own right. Most social news services also plug in nicely to all the major social networks like LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter.
Examples of popular social news systems for sharing news online are Digg, Reddit, Newsvine, and Mixx.
Pros and Cons of Social News
The big advantage of social news is how it offers new, automated ways of identifying news that interest people.
No longer does everyone have to rely on large mainstream news organizations like the New York times or the CBS Evening News to tell them which stories are most important or interesting. Rather, these systems create what amounts to automated newscasts of stories based on what other people are reading, tagging, commenting and voting on.
Popularity-based news display systems have one downside, though. That's the prospect that they could become so widely used that too many people will come to rely on them exclusively to determine which news stories they will read.
That prospect troubles those who care about how public policies are shaped and decided. When it comes to news, what's popular often is not what is most important. Those who deride these system often refer this as the problem of mob mentality or mob rule.
Stories about wars, recessions, diseases and other negative social and political events, for example, often are far less popular than stories about trivial comings and goings of celebrity entertainers. Yet society needs a well informed public to function effectively.
So far, however, social news distribution systems with their popularity-driven algorithms have pretty much been a supplement or complement to news display systems that are determined by human editors using human judgment.
How Social News Works
Social news sites typically work this way: Users submit links to articles they like and others vote them "up" or "down."
Digg started the trend in 2004 when it launched a Web-based news voting system in which the articles that get the most positive votes or "diggs" are displayed first or more prominently.
Niche News Sharing Sites
A ton of special-purpose news sharing sites exist, such as Slashdot for technology news and NowPublic for citizen journalism, StyleHive for fashion, and I Am Bored and Fark for offbeat news. Fark is one of the older social news sites and is very community-driven, more like a forum than a modern-era social news system.
Social Sections of Major News Sites
Most large news organizations also have added social news sharing sections to their websites. Some implement their own sharing and voting technologies. Others just plug into Facebook and Twitter.
The Huffington Post, for example, plugs into Facebook and lets Facebook users see what their Facebook friends are reading and sharing on Huffington Post.
Social Networks Add Social News
Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter have all made major moves into the social news category as they have observed how much informal news sharing has been occurring on their networks.
LinkedIn launched a social news product it calls "LinkedIn Today" in the spring of 2011. The goal is to let LinkedIn members not only send short news updates about themselves to their professional contacts, but also share news in their industries and professions.
Facebook has offered news organizations the ability to connect to its sharing platform through Facebook Connect, and almost all the major news organizations have found ways to incorporate Facebook Like buttons into their news distribution systems.
Twitter, of course, is very much about sharing news and commenting on it.
Social Magazines and the IPad
The advent of the iPad and other tablet computers has spawned a fresh round of innovation in social news. Social magazines like Flipboard basically lay out news from your social networks (Twitter, Facebook and others) in display systems that visually resemble printed magazines. Flipboard has triggered a bunch of copycat social news aggregators, and the amount of innovation around social news is staggering.
Blogs About Social News
The social news category is so popular that a ton of blogs exist to review all the social news tools and trends. Social News Watch is an example.
The Economist magazine wrote a special series of articles about social news in the summer of 2011, in which the magazine explained in depth how these modern social news sharing tools are replacing the mass communication news distribution systems that dominated the 20th century and returning news to its roots as a social medium.