Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook, was in town a few weeks back, making an interesting point about the social networking site's picture uploader. Facebook didn't, she said, have the most highly featured uploading service. In essence, the social network only really offered two things to the weary surfer: you could tag your friends to pictures, in a place where you'd know they would be. In other words, what made Facebook photos a success was the social dimension — as opposed, Ms Sandberg observed, to the algorithmic approach that has so far dominated the relatively short history of the web.

Future of news

Anyway, so much for those pictures of last weekend; what about the future of news? Or rather the online news business, which has, so far, been hopelessly dominated by the algorithmic — which means, in English, Google. We all know the rules: Google is bigger than any news brand, which is why being at the top of Google News with whatever is the latest in Lady Gaga is more important than whoever is publishing the story. Blogs can make money on that basis with a sense for the right keyword, quick reactions, and half-decent optimisation.

After all, as every webmaster knows, referrals from Google, one way or another, count for the majority of news hits on a free news site, far more than are accounted for by those who love the brand so much they actually type in its name into the top of the browser.

What's interesting, though, is that referrals from social media are way behind even those die-hard brand loyalists — and miles behind the Google machine. Facebook, the last time I looked, accounted for less than 2 per cent of the London-based Guardian, who I work for, and Twitter closer to 1 per cent. If that sounds dismally low, then consider it a starting point — social news, in reality, has barely begun.

Social news

But the question is, what does social news look like? After all, unless perhaps you are Queen Elizabeth II or a cast member of a top-rating reality TV show, the content of one's Facebook news feed is not news. Social news, as currently constructed, largely consists of emailed links to stories, plus the click-throughs generated by the Twitter elite.

Two models

Newspapers themselves don't help the cause much. The industry, as we all know, has split down into two models. There's the no pay, no registration, we-don't-really-know-who-you-are camp, which is fantastic for traffic — but leaves a site with little information about its readers. Then there's the name, rank, serial number and monthly subscription model beloved of the other side — which reduces numbers considerably. Either way, it's difficult to achieve the goal of building up a community of readers who are going to recommend articles to each other, see what their friends have read recently, or indeed what people like them are eyeballing at any given moment.

There are alternatives, of course, such as handing over the friends function, by creating a special Facebook edition of the newspaper hosted on the social network and, in return, hopefully, receiving a share in whatever advertising is generated. That certainly solves the lack of friends problem that newspaper sites have, although there are always difficulties in handing a large pile of content to another service.

Other approaches

Gradually, though, other approaches are emerging — the new-look Radio Times website (launching in phases from next month) will recommend programmes and news a reader might like, based on what they and their friends have read online. This is quite different from the newspaper approach, where recommendations are little more than a list of the day's most clicked-on stories.

It is hard to believe that news consumption is an inherently lonely business. Much the best news is of the “hey did you read this” kind; yet, for the moment, the experience online is generally based on nameless, solitary consumption. No fun at all. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2011