Obsessed! Newsvine’s Newshound

July 18th, 2007 by Rich Knight

Newsvine launched in March 2006 as a new kind of community news site, one in which its readers suggest news stories, and even write them. The stories range from Iraqi bombings at an all time high to a principal throwing feces as students. No surprise then that Newsvine quickly became populated by frequent posters. And none post with the fervor of Chris “Killfile” Thomas, a 27-year-old web application developer from Christiansburg, Virginia. SMITH chatted with the newshound via email.
—Rich Knight

SMITH: What’s Christiansburg, Virginia like?
Chris Thomas: It’s a small town just outside of Blacksburg (home of Virginia Tech). For me, this is “enemy territory” in a sense. I graduated from UVA (Tech’s big rival) in 2002 and find myself introducing myself as the guy who went to the “other” Virginia University a lot. Old collegiate rivalries notwithstanding, it’s a nice little town.

Why the urge to write so many entries on Newsvine?
ChrisThomas.jpgWhen I graduated from UVA with a BA in History, I’d completed a degree in what I loved doing—writing and learning. But as I learned shortly thereafter, no one will pay you to write about the economic development of the post-Lenin Soviet Union unless you have a PhD. So, I went back to school and got a degree in computer science so that I could program, which, as it turns out, people will pay you for.

But, I still loved writing. For a while there, I had my own blog that no one really read. But when I stumbled upon Newsvine back in 2006, I found a community that enjoyed the same things I did. In that sense, it is not so much that I write many articles for Newsvine as that I write a lot and Newsvine has given me a place to put them and an audience to read them. I even get a cut of the ad proceeds from my column.

What kept you coming back to Newsvine?
The communal aspects of the site are more than a little bit addictive. Getting immediate feedback on everything you write, even comments and off the cuff remarks, really cements the notion of community and encourages participation. For me, that and the discovery of a group of similarly inclined writers, was enough and I was off to the races.

What was the first entry you ever wrote? Can you remember?
I can’t, but Newsvine can. It was entitled The Myth of Modern Communism (a rebuttal) and is still available on Newsvine. In a sense, it’s fitting that my first entry on Newsvine was a clarification of Marx, as that has been a battle I’ve fought over ever since. A lot of people have some very strong opinions about Marx and Marxist thoughts, but very few have actually taken the time to read his work. I don’t claim to be an expert on the matter, but I know enough to be dangerous.

What do your friends think of all the time you spend on Newsvine?
They’re very supportive and at least pretend to read my articles. I think they’re a little amused and a little curious about what I’m doing and why I’m doing it. I used to think they didn’t really take my writing seriously or pay that much attention. But when the Virginia Tech shootings happened on April 16, I did a running column as events broke on the scene. Most of my friends remembered that I write for Newsvine and expected that I’d be covering the shootings given my proximity, and they checked in on my column to see if my wife (who’s a post-grad at Tech) was OK. My friends outside of Blacksburg checked it throughout the day for information—often well ahead of the mainstream media. My friends in Blacksburg kept me posted on what they could see on Tech’s campus. I think we all saw some of what social media is capable of that day.

If somebody found out you had the most entries and wanted to beat your record, what would you do? Would you pull all-nighters to retain your crown?
That’s already happening. Newsvine recently absorbed the regulars from the New York Times‘ forums and one of the new users from that influx, epiphany sorbet, is setting new standards for volume of work. It won’t be long now until she blows past me at her current pace, and honestly, I don’t mind. Newsvine consists of two types of user submitted content—seeds and articles. Articles are where I feel I’m strongest at and where I get to really have fun. Seeds are more of a “I found this, and it’s important” type of thing—like a link to a web site or a breaking news story covered elsewhere.

Since epiphany sorbet showed up on the scene, I’ve been slacking off on my seeding since she gets to most of it first anyhow. So I’ve been concentrating more on my writing instead. In the long run, that’s probably best for Newsvine; even though it will probably see me dethroned as #1 on Newsvine’s leaderboard in a few months. On the other hand, obsessive seeding is what put me at the top of the leaderboard in the first place. So, yeah, it’s a little frustrating to see everything I encounter in my morning news sweep already tagged, cataloged, and posted. Que sera sera.

Do you have any obsessions besides Newsvine?
I’d say no, but my wife will tell you “yes.” I’m a PC Gamer, but I refuse to get into the Massively Multi-Player stuff like World of Warcraft. I still love and enjoy history, particularly Cold War history, enough so that my cats are named Nikitty Khrushchev and Fidel Castro. I also work a lot with a group called Special Love that provides services to children with cancer. Given how far I drive for that and how often I find myself going, that might count as an obsession too.

Do you think Newsvine is a better source of information than your nightly news?
There’s an old acronym from the early days of computing that really sums up Newsvine. GIGO—Garbage In, Garbage Out. You get what you put in. If you just show up, read the front page and read some stories, you’re likely to get something on par with the nightly news though differently focused. If you really participate, argue, comment, write, seed, and get involved in the community, though, you’ll vastly expand your awareness.

That said, a huge chunk of Newsvine’s content comes from mainstream media. For every citizen journalism story that breaks something big, there are a thousand seeds to media outlets and stories by professional reporters. A lot of people will tell you that that social media is going to change the world, and that might happen someday. For now sites like Newsvine aggregate the news. They don’t often break it.

To that end, Newsvine serves much the same roll as the nightly news—a roundup of the day’s stories. But unlike the nightly news, if you want to dig deeper, you can.

Tell us a story about yourself that you haven’t told anybody in a long time.
Some time back, I used to work phone support for DISH Network. The discount satellite TV provider has a technical call center located in Christiansburg, VA. For a year and a half, my 750 best friends and I staffed the place, typically for the evening shift. If you or someone you love is considering a career in phone support, let me urge you to reconsider. I have never worked a more unpleasant and spiritually draining job in my life.

What’s next for you on Newsvine?
That’s a tough one. With the Democratic Congressional victory in ‘06, I find myself leaning pretty hard into the Democrats to keep their campaign promises and that’s making me an agitator from the far political left. I’m not sure how I feel about that status. At the same time, there are the primaries coming up and the race of ‘08 is starting to heat up now, too. Honestly, I don’t have a plan. I respond to things as they happen and, if something comes my way, I’ll address it as best I can. News is, as they say, the first draft of history. Being in the middle of it all, it’s very hard to see the big picture. Looking back over my work as part of this interview, I’m struck by the sort of meandering path I’ve taken thus far. I think trying to plan it would take some of the spark out.

What’s your six word memoir?
Life is short; eat dessert first.

Image Source Courtesy of New York Times

Previously Obsessed with Web 2.0 Articles

Richard Farmbrough, the Wizard of Wikipedia.

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