Forget FarmVille, now you can play Google News

You could spend real money for virtual goods on the farm, or earn merit badges for being an informed citizen instead. For free.

Late yesterday, Google announced "News Badges" -- more than 500 of them -- for readers of Google News. I was feeling crappy yesterday (still am today -- and I'm not looking for sympathy badges), otherwise you would have read this story last night. Maybe. I kind of chuckled about the whole concept and joked with other Betanews writers about it.

Then I started to really think about what Google News Badges could mean.

The badges currently are only available from the US version of Google News. "The more you read, the higher level badge you'll receive, starting with Bronze, then moving up the ladder to Silver, Gold, Platinum and finally, Ultimate", Natasha Mohanty, Google News engineer, explains in a blog post.

Badges are private by default "but if you want, you can share your badges with your friends" Mohanty writes. Tell them about your news interests, display your expertise, start a conversation or just plain brag about how well-read you are. You can also add custom sections by hovering on a badge and clicking 'add section' to read more about your favorite topics".

The more you read, the more badges earned. Who knows, you might save a newspaper or two in the process, by helping the online operation's ad business.

There's something so sensible about the badges concept I should have immediately seen. First there are Google's social ambitions to consider, expressed through +1 and Google+. The badges approach is natural a compliment to these services and adds a little competition to being a news reader. The topics approach strongly resonates with Google+ Sparks topical categories. Relationships often form around common interests.

More broadly there is how news is being more social and in that sense going back to its roots. The July 7th Economist has a fascinating 14-page special section on the future of news. From the editorial introduction:

Three hundred years ago news travelled by word of mouth or letter, and circulated in taverns and coffee houses in the form of pamphlets, newsletters and broadsides...The penny press, followed by radio and television, turned news from a two-way conversation into a one-way broadcast, with a relatively small number of firms controlling the media...The news industry is returning to something closer to the coffee house. The Internet is making news more participatory, social, diverse and partisan, reviving the discursive ethos of the era before mass media. That will have profound effects on society and politics.

I expressed similar sentiments in long missive: "Iran and the Internet Democracy", posted in June 2009. I'm providing links here to Tumblr and hosted-WordPress versions of the story. I'll do away with one of these blogs in the future. I wrote two years ago:

News monopolies put the power to control and disseminate information into the hands of a small number of people...[but] suddenly, news organizations are dying everywhere...The Internet democracy is killing newspapers and other news organizations...The primary influences:

  • New tools let individuals self broadcast; they are the commentators or reporters.
  • An increasing number of Internet-connected, audiovisual-capable cell phones lets anyone, anywhere be a broadcaster.
  • These tools foster social interaction and commentary around news events. The people, not editors, choose what matters.
  • The people flood the Internet with content, much of it now outside news monopolies' control.
  • The amount of content means that there is more online ad space than there is advertising.
  • Supply and demand: Massive amounts of content decrease value for which advertising sells.

The Economist editorial:

The web has allowed new providers of news, from individual bloggers to sites such as the Huffington Post, to rise to prominence in a very short space of time. And it has made possible entirely new approaches to journalism, such as that practiced by WikiLeaks, which provides an anonymous way for whistleblowers to publish documents. The news agenda is no longer controlled by a few press barons and state outlets, like the BBC.

Special report story "Coming full Circle" likens "John Locke, Thomas Paine and Benjamin Franklin to modern bloggers".

One of my long-standing gripes about social media is that it's not new -- simply the technology behind it. Google News Badges is a smart social extension of news, by helping readers to find more community around topics that interest them that connects them with others. The badges concept strikes me as a little hokey. But the fundamental ideas about information and what's important to people is in keeping with Google's broader search and information goals and broader socialization trends around news.

The future of news is you.

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