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Netscape’s decline into the Web’s history has been staved off because AOL has continued to support the browser – and, to a greater extent, the Netscape.com website and its community. The site was recently overhauled to mirror the social news aggregation site Digg.com, under the watchful eye of Jason Calacanis, CEO of Weblogs, Inc. and general manager of Netscape, who hoped to draw more traffic by engaging its user base.

Unwilling (or, as some speculated, unable) to wait for the crowd to gather organically, Calacanis enraged the blogosphere when he offered to pay the top 50 social “bookmarkers” (his term for those who submit links to Digg.com, Slashdot.org, etc.) $1,000 a month for 150 posts on Netscape.com. The thinking, one assumes, is that the top bookmarkers would post relevant stories that would in turn attract a larger crowd of readers – creating more advertising inventory.

It’s an interesting experiment, to be sure – one that appears to be driven by AOL’s insistence that Netscape.com quickly become a hot property – or face the chopping block. Not, as Seinfeld says, that there’s anything wrong with that.

My initial reaction, like many in the blogosphere, was one of skepticism. Over the last seven years, I’ve found much fault with Calacanis’ traveling medicine-man show antics. And during my days at Wired News, I spent much time and energy saying so. Calacanis speaks using the flowing terms of the digerati (here comparing the “media elite” ’ to the Mafia, for instance); but his motives and products never quite live up to the hype. He’s a business man. He wants to make money. And he wants Web purists (the people who’ve created the tools he seeks to exploit) to leave him alone.

Frankly, though, it’s hard to hold that against him. I’ve worked in the corporate media world for 11 years, and it’s not easy to balance the bottom line with the Hacker Ethic. So while I have a moment of hesitancy in defending his move, there is some merit to this experiment – although the methodology of actively recruiting paid ‘bookmarkers’ will ultimately doom it.

Calacanis is correct: if social news is to become the force that it may become, there will eventually need to be monies paid out to those who contribute. We need look no further than Ohmynews.com, one of the premiere social news sites on the Web today. It combines a healthy mix of professionally written pieces with citizen journalism, all of which is voted upon by the readership. Those stories with the most votes rise up the page, and citizen journalists, if their stories rise high enough, receive a fee.

However, actively recruiting a network of paid “bookmarkers” invites a host of issues, the most glaring being that by elevating a certain number of people as “special users,” you have immediately taken the social out of the network.

This isn’t to say that eventually a model similar to this one won’t rise to prominence – and Calacanis may someday declare that Netscape.com would have worked “had only…,” but today is not that day.

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