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Apr 13, 2008

NEWS: The Wizards of Buzz

A new kind of Web site is turning ordinary people into hidden influencers, shaping what we read, watch and buy.

...Though it can take hundreds or thousands of votes to make it onto the hot list at these sites, the Journal's analysis found that a substantial number of submissions originated with a handful of users. At Digg, which has 900,000 registered users, 30 people were responsible for submitting one-third of postings on the home page. At Netscape.com, a single user named "STONERS" -- in real life, computer programmer Ed Southwood of Dayton, Ohio -- was behind fully 217 stories over the two-week period, or 13% of all stories that reached the most popular list. (Netscape, which gained fame with its namesake browser, is now owned by Time Warner's AOL unit and operates a news site.)

On Reddit, one of the most influential users is 12-year-old Adam Fuhrer. At his desktop computer in his parents' home in the quiet northern Toronto suburb of Thornhill, Mr. Fuhrer monitors more than 100 Web sites looking for news on criminal justice, software releases -- and the Toronto Maple Leafs, his favorite hockey team. When Microsoft launched its Vista operating system this year, he submitted stories that discussed its security flaws and price tag, which attracted approving votes from more than 500 users.

The Influencers

A look at some of the hidden influencers deciding what is popular on the Internet.

Social Issues

PAMELA DREW/"Pamela Drew"
POSTS ON: Newsvine
WHO SHE IS: A mother of three in New York
HOW SHE DOES IT: She spends at least two hours a day looking for stories about genetically modified foods, which she says isn't covered enough in the media. Her opinionated articles have fueled her reputation; 272 of her postings have been particularly well-received.

DIANE PUT/"idyll"
POSTS ON: Netscape/Reddit
WHO SHE IS: A nutritionist in Idyllwild, Calif., who tracks health issues
HOW SHE DOES IT: Ms. Put got her first taste of social networking in 1988 when she joined "The Well," an early online community. She is now ranked 10th on the top-user list. "I got addicted to the vote," she says about her involvement.

KARIM YERGALIYEV/"supernova17"
WHO HE IS: An information-systems major at the University of Maryland
HOW HE DOES IT: While many users rely on hundreds of sites for stories, Mr. Yergaliyav says he only monitors about 20, including mainstream ones like Business Week and ESPN. He checks his sites once in the early morning and again after lunch so he doesn't miss any updates.

POSTS ON: Netscape
WHO HE IS: A 27-year-old computer programmer
HOW HE DOES IT: At Digg, Mr. Van Vliet says he cultivated friendships with other users, which helped drive interest in his postings: That renown earned him a place at Netscape, where he now gets paid to post links.


HENRY WANG/"dirtyfratboy"
POSTS ON: Digg/Netscape
WHO HE IS: A high-school senior and varsity tennis player outside of Chicago
HOW HE DOES IT: In August, Mr. Wang posted a link to a new social-networking site Famster, saying, "I can't believe this site isn't widely known." The link got 1,700 votes and bumped Famster's daily visits to 50,000 in a day.

WHO HE IS: A 45-year-old English teacher in Osaka, Japan
HOW HE DOES IT: Living in Osaka -- in a time zone 14 hours ahead of many Digg users -- gives him an edge on breaking news. He posts news about Apple and calls Digg's decision to yank its leaderboard "a slap in the face."

WHO HE IS: A computer consultant in Miami
HOW HE DOES IT: Since joining in June 2006, he's submitted more than 3,000 links -- or roughly 100 every week. Microsoft is a pet topic.

WHO HE IS: A college senior and chief technology officer of an Internet-marketing company
HOW HE DOES IT: "Sometimes I overthink it," he says about his habit of studying a site before posting it. With so many people now using Digg, Mr. Patel says it's getting harder for him to discover a site first.

SMARAN DAYAL/"koregaonpark"
WHO HE IS: An 18-year-old avid video gamer in Pune, India
HOW HE DOES IT: For the rabid Apple fans who populate the Internet and feed sites like AppleInsider.com, Mr. Dayal is something of a expert. He's often the first to pick up on issues affecting Apple, from controversy over music licensing to proposed legislation to ban iPods on city streets.

Breaking News

POSTS ON: Newsvine
WHO HE IS: A self-proclaimed "news hound" and the site's top user
HOW HE DOES IT: He subscribes to dozens of RSS feeds and constantly checks major media sites here and abroad. He submits around noon "to take advantage of the lunch rush hour," and as a "citizen journalist," was one of the first to report a story on an August 2006 Virginia shooting.

CURTISS THOMPSON/"curtissthompson"
WHO HE IS: A 19-year-old college student
HOW HE DOES IT: Technology news was an easy choice for Mr. Thompson, a computer-science major. He watches sites like CNET closely for the latest developments about digital music and podcasts.

POSTS ON: Netscape
WHO HE IS: A computer programmer in Dayton, Ohio
HOW HE DOES IT: In our analysis, more than 200 of Mr. Southwood's stories made it to the front page, accounting for 12% of all popular submissions.

MARK JOHNSON/"aidenag"
POSTS ON: Digg/Netscape
WHO HE IS: A photographer in Seattle
HOW HE DOES IT: Working out of his home office, Mr. Johnson says he goes through 2,000 Web sites a day looking for the coolest news on left-leaning politics and science. He says he got some help from user Mr. Van Vliet, whom he emailed shortly after joining Digg for tips on how to boost his popularity.


JEFF HOARD/"Fedquip"
POSTS ON: Del.icio.us/Reddit/Netscape
WHO HE IS: A 25-year-old worker in a shipping warehouse in Victoria, British Columbia
HOW HE DOES IT: He got a Netscape contract after becoming a top user on Reddit, which he says he joined to draw attention to his site, ThrowAwayYourTV.com, a clearinghouse for video clips.

PAMELA THILO/ "anonymgrl"
POSTS ON: Reddit
WHO SHE IS: A part-time Montessori school teacher from Cambridge, Mass., who helps run a small independent record label.
HOW SHE DOES IT: She submits political and science news -- discovered over morning coffee or evenings at work -- but says photos and videos can be a surer way to hit the home page. Her strategy for finding videos: revisiting YouTube users who've had hits in the past to see what clips they've uploaded lately.

POSTS ON: StumbleUpon
WHO HE IS: Originally from Turkey, he now lives in Bergamo, Italy, where he runs an antique-rug store
HOW HE DOES IT: While waiting for customers at his store, the photography enthusiast searches the Web for compelling images, ranging from the surreal and photoshopped to the stark and political. He says his postings are very mood dependent -- some days he'll post 30 photos, some days none.


POSTS ON: Reddit
WHO HE IS: A 12-year-old hockey fan in Toronto
HOW HE DOES IT: Mr. Fuhrer has helped raise questions about whether electronic voting machines can be hacked, and the shortcomings of Microsoft's operating systems. His mother's content blocker prevents him from visiting sites like YouTube.

POSTS ON: Del.icio.us
WHO HE IS: A graduate student in film and television in Sydney, Australia
HOW HE DOES IT: Mr. Fraser has bookmarked more than 30,000 Web sites on his Del.icio.us page, more than any other user, according to the company. Because he joined Del.icio.us in its early stages, many of the sites he tagged first -- including a site that connects companies with freelancers, Elance.com -- have gone on to hit the "popular" page.

ELISE BAUER/"elisebauer"
POSTS ON: Del.icio.us
WHO SHE IS: A marketing consultant in Carmichael, Calif.
HOW SHE DOES IT: Ms. Bauer's bookmarks comprise hundreds of recipes on her food blog (some her own, and some discovered on other blogs), and make her somewhat of a maverick on this tech-heavy site.

MARK NUNES/"cineaste"
POSTS ON: StumbleUpon.com
WHO HE IS: A film lover in Chicago

HOW HE DOES IT: He searches for articles on foreign films, philosophy and religion, trying to find authors who are already popular. Anything by Richard Dawkins, he says, generates a lot of buzz.

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