We want the best news product in the world, but we don’t want journalists working for us.
Jason Calacanis, founder of the recently launched Inside.com, a news service designed to serve human-curated news digests to readers on mobile devices.
The start of Inside is the latest instance of mobile apps, including Circa and Yahoo’s News Digest, turning to people to help filter the din created by endless streams of content found online. Graham Holdings, the education and media company that used to be the Washington Post Company before it sold the newspaper to Jeff Bezos, released Trove last week, an overhaul of its Social Reader app that now combines human curation and algorithms to present news stories.
FJP: It sounds like an interesting trifecta of ambitions, which Calcanis discusses in an interview with Nieman Lab, excerpted below.
01. Like Netflix, it will learn your preferences and serve you accordingly.
Nobody’s figured out mobile news. The great thing about mobile it’s going to be a magnitude bigger than the web. Now that we’re in people’s pockets and we’ve learned what they want to do, we’re going to be able to really optimize people’s experience to get them to the great stuff. If they want all of the news, they can go to the all-update feed. If they want news just tailored to them, I think over the next year or two we’re going to really be able to know, hey, Staci really likes media stories and she’s really into The New York Times and she really likes these five entrepreneurs and this is her favorite baseball team — and these are the five or six types of stories she doesn’t want. She doesn’t want Kim Kardashian in her feed, because she’s voted her down twice, so we’ve never going to show it again in my topics.
02. The company wants to be Google-proof.
To make a Google-proof company, I wanted to have a killer brand that people would remember and come to like — a product so compelling that it has a repeatable effect. The problem at Mahalo or eHow is you use it for two hours to get your baking recipe, then you don’t use it again for two months — then you use it again for putting up curtains. You really rely on people going to Google.
With news, people will go directly to a site, which makes it impervious to Google. And the app ecosystem is also impervious to Google. They can’t control apps even though they have a big footprint in Android, nor have they shown a propensity to control the app ecosystem on Android. I think they would get a revolt on their hands if they did.
03. All this curation will be of strictly original content, to cut out the middle men and help great journalism get discovered.
We don’t see ourselves as the destination. We see ourselves as the curator of the best journalism in the world, so we’re very specifically only linking to the original journalist. We’re training our curators to understand The Huffington Post or Business Insider, which might do 70 to 80 percent aggregation of other people’s content and 20 to 30 percent original, and how to know the difference. So if Business Insider pulls a quote from The New York Times story and we find it on Business Insider, we’re actually going to wind up linking to The New York Times. We see ourselves as an antidote to the sort of middleman role and people rewriting other people’s content. We’re going to really actually do the work to figure out who came up with the original story.
Other than her church, the Waffle House was about the only place Rose felt comfortable going alone since Stan, her husband of 65 years, passed away last year. They used to eat at the restaurant together. From time to time she’d retell how the two of them met, a long and winding story involving a Ouija board and a flirtatious secretary rival.
from The End of the Waffle House by Jessica Contrera in the Indiana Daily Student.
The story is one of love, loss and local community, and it was reported and written by a senior at Indiana University. We point to it here because a) it’s moving and well-written and worth the 8 minute read, and b) we discovered it through Longreads.
Did you know that every week, Longreads features a piece of writing from a college journalist? And they are often great. So, college students and professors, keep that in mind as your write and report. You can e-mail your stories to Syracuse University professor Aileen Gallagher (email@example.com), who helps Longreads curate, or tag them on Twitter with #college & #longreads.
FJP: I’ve always been a little sad that the excellent work done in college newsrooms is hard to discover. Cheers to the curators who help us find all the good stuff. —Jihii
In other words, based on your consumption of news, your search patterns, and a deep analysis (semantic, tonality, implied emotions) of your mail and your posts — matched against hundreds of millions of others — Google will be able to suggest a link to the profile of an artist in Harper’s when you dropped in Google News to check on Syria.
Frédéric Filloux, News: Personalized or Serendipitous?, Monday Note.
Filloux interviews Richard Gingras (senior director of news and social products at Google) about how Google is planning to serve content to readers that is both personalized and serendipitous:
According to him, “Today’s news personalization is very unsophisticated. We look at your news reading patterns, we determine that you looked at five stories about the Arab Spring and we deduct you might like articles about Egypt. This is not how it should work. In fact, you might be interested in many other things such as the fall from grace of dictators, generation-driven revolutions, etc. These requires understanding concepts”. And that’s a matter Google is working on, he says. Not only for news, but for products such as Google Now which is the main application of Google’s efforts on predictive search.
How it’ll actually pan out, we don’t know, but there are a couple of questions that come out of this that are worth keeping in mind:
01. How do recommendation engines (currently) work?
Recommendation engines, otherwise known as recommender systems, suggest content based on previous behavior or purchases. Such systems typically use one of two approaches: Collaborative filtering creates a predictive model based on a user’s previous interactions such as products purchased or viewed. Content-based filtering looks at content or item characteristics and suggests content with similar elements. Amazon, Netflix and music services including Pandora and last.fm use recommendation engines.
02. Why preserve serendipity?
Four years ago, Mathew Ingram wrote about the serendipity defense—one of the main arguments for a bundled news package: basically, newspapers let you easily stumble upon fascinating articles that you’d never think to look for by yourself. The advantage that newspapers have over the internet on this is that once you pick one, you can have a good sense of what quality to expect from it. You know the brand, you can let your critical guard down and the whole experience is fun and easy. While the internet might be the ultimate serendipity machine, achieving the same results requires much more: know-how, patience, a critical eye on the trustworthiness of the source, and regular exploration.
03. Why prescribe content?
While the web allows us to find endless amounts content, that content often ends up being finer and finer bits of the candy we love, which encourages us to exist in echo chambers of information-decadence. Those who believe that news services should deliberately prescribe content to help readers diversify the perspectives they are exposed to have yet to find a way to do so that doesn’t feel like an eat-your-vegetables approach. Plus, prescribing content to readers for the benefit of a “balanced” news diet would likely require too many assumptions about value to ever be widely accepted.
FJP: If you’re a proactive news reader, you can create your own diet of publications or people both in and outside your comfort zone and maintain a personalized, serendipitous, diverse set of sources. If you’re not, you’ll rely on recommendation engines to do the work for you. For the creators of those engines, it’s a tricky mix to find the right balance between serendipity and prescription. And unfortunately, many of the concocters of the magic potion are for-profit companies that skew the formula for their own benefit.—Jihii
Instead of seeking an engaged audience — that’s a metric better suited for movies and prime-time TV — we in news should be seeking an informed public, using new tools to make them better informed with greater relevance and more efficiency. Instead of measuring our success by how much more time we can get them to spend with us, we should measure it by how much less time they need to spend with us to reach their own goals.
Jeff Jarvis, Maybe News is Just More Efficient, BuzzMachine.
FJP: Jarvis goes on to discuss a hypothetical news service that accomplishes this task of efficiency by serving the public news that uses a (very) smart algorithm to bring each reader a hyper-personalized news stream. An obvious issue with this is selection bias, and the possibility that one will end up consuming a very narrow slice of the perspective pie (read about the perils of algorithmic curation here). Also see the comments below Jarvis’s article for some interesting points made by readers.
In an interview on his newest project (the just over 1-year-old long-form platform Medium) Twitter co-founder Evan Williams shared a few thoughts on the uselessness of general news, and the need for a platform to highlight ideas of lasting import.
Williams is taking aim squarely at the news industry’s most embarrassing vulnerability: the incessant need to trump up mundane happenings in order to habituate readers into needing news like a daily drug fix.
“News in general doesn’t matter most of the time, and most people would be far better off if they spent their time consuming less news and more ideas that have more lasting import,” he tells me during our interview inside a temporary Market Street office space that’s housing Medium, until the top two floors are ready for his growing team. “Even if it’s fiction, it’s probably better most of the time.”
[…] Instead, Williams argues, citizens should re-calibrate their ravenous appetite for information towards more awe-inspiring content. “Published written ideas and stories are life-changing,” he gushes, recalling his early childhood fascination with books as the motivation to take on the media establishment. The Internet “was freeing that up, that excitement about knowledge that’s inside of books–multiplied and freed and unlocked for the world; and, the world would be better in every way.”
In Williams’s grand vision, the public reads for enlightenment; news takes a backseat directly in proportion to how often it leaves us more informed and inspired.
This is a really valid, and really noble ambition that resonates with more than a few people. In a letter to a young journalist, Pulitzer winning writer Lane DeGregory looks back on her career and says she wishes she had “read more short stories and fewer newspaper articles.”
It also echoes what Maria Popova has been aiming to do with her curatorial interestingness project, Brain Pickings, for years now. Last week, she wrote a must-read piece on tech writer Clive Thompson’s new book, which pushes past “painfully familiar and trite-by-overuse notions like distraction and information overload,” to deeply examine the impact of digital tools. She writes:
Several decades after Vannevar Bush’s now-legendary meditation on how technology will impact our thinking, Thompson reaches even further into the fringes of our cultural sensibility — past the cheap techno-dystopia, past the pollyannaish techno-utopia, and into that intricate and ever-evolving intersection of technology and psychology.
The Problem: Though I’ve been excited about Medium and its potential, I’m inclined to file Williams’ vision for it into the “pollyannaish techno-utopia” bucket that Popova mentions because although the impulse behind it (the desire for an antidote to the ravenous appetite for tidbits of useless information) is something I wholeheartedly agree with, algorithmic curation worries me.
Traditional news editors stake their reputations on having an intuition for what drives eyeballs to their sites. Editors don’t, however, know whether readers leave more informed.
Williams thinks Medium has an answer: an intelligent algorithm that suggests stories, primarily based on how long users spend reading certain articles (which he’s discussing publicly for the first time). Like Pandora did for music discovery, Medium’s new intelligent curator aims to improve the ol’ human-powered system of manually scrolling through the Internet and asking others what to read.
In the algorithm itself, Medium prioritizes time spent on an article, rather than simple page views. “Time spent is not actually a value in itself, but in a world where people have infinite choices, it’s a pretty good measure if people are getting value,” explains Williams.
"Time spent" seems like a questionable way to measure value, if "enlightening" content is what Medium wants to put on the screens of readers. As a content-neutral long-form discovery platform, sure, it makes sense. And there isn’t really anything wrong with it either. But touting itself as a solution to our appetite for endless streams of meaningless information seems troubling to me. Here’s why:
A key aspect of Thompson’s argument on the good the internet has done for our brains is that it has given us unprecedented access to one another’s memory stores, which means that our ability to indiscriminately discover information and understand the world through it, has expanded infinitely. To oversimplify it: we don’t have to remember as much by ourselves—we simply need to remember where information is stored and how to access it quickly. While the benefits are obvious, the issue with this is that it hampers creative thought, and our ability to make connections.
In light of platforms like Medium, longer isn’t better, especially when the discovery of value is left to machines. Popova excerpts a portion of Thompson’s book in which he explains how an algorithm’s biases exist, but are almost impossible to identify:
The real challenge of using machines for transactive memory lies in the inscrutability of their mechanics. Transactive memory works best when you have a sense of how your partners’ minds work — where they’re strong, where they’re weak, where their biases lie. I can judge that for people close to me. But it’s harder with digital tools, particularly search engines. You can certainly learn how they work and develop a mental model of Google’s biases. … But search companies are for-profit firms. They guard their algorithms like crown jewels. This makes them different from previous forms of outboard memory. A public library keeps no intentional secrets about its mechanisms; a search engine keeps many. On top of this inscrutability, it’s hard to know what to trust in a world of self-publishing. To rely on networked digital knowledge, you need to look with skeptical eyes. It’s a skill that should be taught with the same urgency we devote to teaching math and writing.
Popova explains that without a mental pool of resources from which we can connect existing ideas into new combinations—and I’d add, thereby access, retain, and be “enlightened” by information—our capacity to do so is deflated.
TL;DR: Popova’s piece doesn’t directly address or assess discovery platforms like Medium, but I think it’s worth considering them together. Longer form writing isn’t an antidote to short bites of information, and ideas of lasting value can’t be judged by time spent consuming them. The point here is that for content platforms that truly seek to give people access to more ideas with more lasting import, a lot more work has to be done, namely: (1) The limitations of algorithmic curation need to be transparent, and talked about, and (2) Readers need to be taught how to critically consume self-published writing that they received through digitally networked knowledge. —Jihii
If you watch people shop in a grocery store, 95% of the time they are scanning the shelves for the packaging, making the choices on that before they turn the bottle around and look at the nutrition information. People choose their media that way too. So you can have a piece of media with the exact same nutritional value in it with different packaging and the consumer is going to choose the one that appeals to them most.
Upworthy’s Editorial Director Sara Critchfield, as quoted in this Nieman Lab article on Upworthy’s social success.
FJP: Today’s must read. It’s a thought-provoking piece on social curation and media packaging that not only breaks down a successful curation methodology, but also sheds light on the fact that the way we consume media is not unlike the way we consume food (see: Clay Johnson’s The Information Diet).
To the extent that Twitter is offering news consumers of all kinds access to the information they want — regardless of whether that information consists of “user-generated content” or links to other media outlets — it is a competitor. And to the extent that it can offer better curation or aggregation or filtering or targeting of that content, it will win.
What Matthew’s referring to is Twitter’s new hashtag pages that aggregate posts around a topic (such as this one for Nascar) along with the hiring of Mark Luckie as its creative content manager for journalism and the media.
Nascar example aside, the idea is that if breaking news happens, Twitter will be in a better position to launch a well curated, breaking news hashtag page than most (all?) media companies will be able to create and or curate content around the same.
Add to this what Dave Winer wrote last week:
A few years ago I was so sure that Twitter would be competing with news orgs that I urged them to start their own realtime networks to compete with Twitter. Just in case I’m right…
We’re still in the early days of online distribution of news. Twitter chose a cute little icon, like Mickey Mouse or Winnie the Pooh. But the sweetness and light will fade when Twitter gets competition. With news orgs going for very little money, and with tech networks becoming sink-holes for cash, how long before the money jumps the gap and Twitter buys a struggling news organization. Look at it this way. How long before Twitter carries exclusive content. Wouldn’t it be smart to develop some options?
Well, if you’re waiting for the news industry to get smart about tech, my guess is you’ll wait a very long time.
Tomorrow’s news will look very different from yesterday’s, and the major players will be very different as well. It might not be Twitter but both Dave and Matthew have very good points.
Be wary. But don’t be afraid. — Michael
[Tumblr] rocks! Why? Because unlike Facebook, I have a clean slate. Instead of being associated with my name and my real life being, I am a newly founded pseudonym if I so choose. No one knows that page is mine except for the selective friends I may choose or ask to follow me. But Tumblr isn’t about seeing what my friends are up to. In fact, I know the creators of less than a handful of the dozens of blogs I follow. Because of this, it turns into a tool for discovery, following members of the community who share my interests versus my friends who can get boring seeing as, at least during the school year, I know what’s going on in their lives every day. But these bloggers, who live lives I don’t see first hand, are neat to read about; they voice opinions that I care about and are hard to find organized anywhere else in such a way, and they share new things that few of my friends know about (which is why I mostly reblog: passing along the things that I love).
An anonymous teenager on Quora explains why a parent’s “15-year old daughter wastes hours upon hours everyday mindlessly scrolling rapidly through her ‘endless’ tumblr stream.” Quora: How do teenagers waste hours upon hours consuming Tumblr?
FJP: Only thing we might add: it’s not just teenagers that spend hours endlessly scrolling.