I love seeing more and more copycat “intelligent” personalized news sites. The good news is that means that there are funders out there who still know in their gut that there’s money to be made on innovation in the news business. They just need the one idea that will stick. And go pop.
Meantime, more than a six months ago, Mike Arrington wrote about a site called Thoof. Back then, I was also writing and thinking about Streamy and FeedEachOther and other unmemorable twists on feed readers and personalized news sites. No matter their differences, they all seem the same. I just came across yet another—Tiinker—and I just can’t bear it any more.
In his write-up of Thoof, Arrington frames the debate as taking place between two competing positions. He believes that “the masses want popular news,” while the Thoof’s CEO believes that “the masses want tailored news.”
I think they’re both wrong and come at the issue the wrong way.
People want their news based on others’ interests—specialized news from friends (those who have similar interests) and widely popular news from the masses (everyone else). And they want their news based on their own interests, even if their friends don’t share those interests.
Now suppose there’s a continuum of users—from RegularJoe on one end to PowerUser on the other.
RegularJoe wants his news from other people. Although he has relatively few “friends” online, and is thinly connected to the ones he has, he wants them to put in most of the effort to help him get specialized news. (He likes read the “Most Emailed” news articles but doesn’t email them, or he likes visiting Digg but doesn’t log in and vote.) RegularJoe is mostly interested in widely popular news.
PowerUser is different and wants his news mostly based on his own interests. But it would be a mistake to think that he pursues his interests alone (no man is an island, says Donne). He has relatively many friends and enjoys pushing and pulling mutually interesting news to and from them. Of course, PowerUser also has news interests that his friends don’t share or don’t share as strongly, and so he pursue his news independently from his friends as well. Because he enjoys consuming a lot of information, moreover, PowerUser is also interested in widely popular news (he wants to keep his finger to the pulse).
These purely black-box algorithmic personalized news sites don’t really fit either guy.
RegularJoe: They’re too hardcore for RegularJoe. He doesn’t want his own news because his interests just aren’t sufficiently deeply cultivated. RegularJoe isn’t motivated enough to build up a profile by clicking “thumbs up” all the time (as tiinker would have him). When he is motivated enough, he isn’t sufficiently consistent over time for these fancy algorithms to get him what he wants before he strays back to cnn.com because it’s easier to let someone else decide (a person-editor, in this case).
PowerUser: They’re too secret for PowerUser. He wants to put in more effort cultivating his interests and doesn’t want to trust an (anti-social) algorithm from some start-up that might disappear tomorrow. PowerUser also wants to get specialized news from niche groups of friends. For him, the fact that friends X, Y, and Z read some blog post makes it inherently more interesting because they can have a conversation about it (broadly speaking). The personalized news sites just aren’t sufficiently social for the PowerUser who wants to interact with friends around the news.
This isn’t meant to be a slam-dunk argument. I’m not sure about what happens with the group of users who are in the hypothetical middle of the continuum. Maybe there’s some number of users (1) who care enough about the news to have non-trivial interests that don’t shift or fade over time but (2) who also don’t care very much for a transparent or social experience of the news. Ultimately, however, I really doubt that this group of users is big enough to support this kind of personalized news site.