Archive for August, 2008

Why Socialmedian, Twine, and Others Don’t Get the News

More than a year ago, I asked, “What Is Networked News?” I was thinking about how people really, actually want to get their news, and my answer came in three parts.

Let’s focus briefly on the first two. (1) People care about who writes it or creates it. In other words, people want their news from trusted publishers. (2) People also care about who likes it. In other words, people want their news from trusted consumers—their “friends.”

News in the modern era has naturally revolved around publishers. That part’s old-hat, and so people need little help from innovators in getting their news from publishers. But innovators have made tremendous accomplishments in helping people get their news from their friends. This is largely the story of the success of Web 2.0 so far, and many startups have engineered ingenious systems for delivering news to people because their friends like it.

FriendFeed is one such awesome story. Twitter’s another. Google Reader’s “share” feature and its openness, which has allowed others to build applications on top of it, make for another perfect example. The ethic of the link among bloggers is, in a very real way, central to this concept: one person referring others to someone else’s thoughts.

But I also wrote about a third way. (3) People want their news about what interests them. This may seem like a trivial statement, but it is deeply important. There is still tons of work to be done by innovators in engineering systems for actually delivering news to people because they want exactly what they want and don’t want any of the rest.

Twine‘s “twines” come close. Socialmedian‘s “news networks” come close. They’re both examples of innovation moving in the right direction.

But they don’t go nearly far enough. Twine looks like it’s got significant horsepower under the hood, but it lacks the intuitive tools to deliver. Frankly, it’s badly burdened by its overblown vision of a tricked-out Semantic Web application that’s everything to all people all the time. Twine is, as a result, an overcomplicated mess.

Socialmedian’s problem are worse, however. It’s simply underpowered. Nothing I’ve read, including its press release reproduced here, indicates the kind of truly innovative back-end that can revolutionize the news. Socialmedian wraps a stale social donut around Digg, and I’m afraid that’s about it.

When it comes to the news, people demand (1), (2), and (3). They want their most trusted publishers and their most trusted friends, and they want to personalize their interests with radical granularity. That takes an intense back-end, which Socialmedian simply lacks. That also takes an elegant user-facing information architecture, which Twine lacks.

We’ve had (1) for years, and I’m thrilled at the advances I see made seemingly every day toward a more perfect (2). But a killer news web application has yet to deliver on (3). When it does, we’ll have something that’s social and powerful and dead-simple too.

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The trend is your friend (@vctips)

“…demonstrate how a market is or will be growing in alignment with your business. timing is everything.”

http://twitter.com/vctips/statuses/899488783

And so I say this: The concept of “following” made popular by twitter and friendfeed is an increasingly natural concept for users. Friendfeed has pushed the boundaries with its “hide” feature, allowing users to personalize the flow of information from their friends.

It’s time to expand beyond the notion of following friends and merge it with subscribing to feeds in general. The market for web apps where we “follow” and control the stream of information that’s most interesting to us is growing. It’s time to get ahead of the curve and get serious about following the news, personalized.

The Great Unbundling: A Reprise

This piece by Nick Carr, the author of the recently popular “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” in the Atlantic, is fantastic.

My summary: A print newspaper or magazine provides an array of content in one bundle. People buy the bundle, and advertisers pay to catch readers’ eyes as they thumb through the pages. But when a publication moves online, the bundle falls apart, and what’s left are just the stories.

This may no longer be revolutionary thought to anyone who knows that google is their new homepage, from which people enter their site laterally through searches. But that doesn’t mean it’s not the new gospel for digital content.

There’s only one problem with Carr’s argument, though. By focusing on the economics of production, I don’t think its observation of unbundling goes far enough. Looked at another way—from the economics of consumption and attention—not even stories are left. In actuality, there are just keywords entered into google searches. That’s increasingly how people find content, and in an age of abundance of content, finding it is what matters.

That’s where our under-wraps project comes into play. We formalize the notion of people finding content through simple abstractions of it. Fundamentally, from the user’s perspective, the value proposition lies with the keywords, or the persons of interest, not the piece of content, which is now largely commodified.

That’s why we think it’s a pretty big idea to shift the information architecture of the news away from focusing on documents and headlines and toward focusing on the newsmakers and tags. (What’s a newsmaker? A person, corporation, government body, etc. What’s a tag? A topic, a location, a brand, etc.)

The kicker is that, once content is distilled into a simpler information architecture like ours, we can do much more exciting things with it. We can extract much more interesting information from it, make much more valuable conclusions about it, and ultimately build a much more naturally social platform.

People will no longer have to manage their intake of news. Our web application will filter the flow of information based on their interests and the interests of their friends and trusted experts, allowing them to allocate their scarce attention most efficiently.

It comes down to this: Aggregating documents gets you something like Digg or Google News—great for attracting passive users who want to be spoon fed what’s important. But few users show up at Digg with a predetermined interest, and that predetermined interest is how google monetized search ads over display ads to bring yahoo to its knees. Aggregating documents make sense in a document-scarce world; aggregating the metadata of those documents makes sense in an attention-scarce world. When it comes to the news, newsmakers and tags comprise the crucially relevant metadata, which can be rendered in a rich, intuitive visualization.

Which isn’t to say that passive users who crave spoon-fed documents aren’t valuable. We can monetize those users too—by aggregating the interests of our active users and reverse-mapping them, so to speak, back onto a massive set of documents in order to find the most popular ones.

Whither Tag Clouds?

A few weeks ago, one could do relatively little clicking around the interwebs and notice the tear of pretty tag clouds powered by wordle. Bloggers of all stripes posted a wordle of their blog. Some, like Jeff Jarvis, mused about how the visualizations represent “another way way to see hot topics and another path to them.”

For as long as tag clouds have been a feature of the web, they’ve also been an object of futurist optimism, kindling images of Edward Tufte and notions that if someone could just unlock all those dense far-flung pages of information, just present them correctly, illumed, people everywhere would nod and understand. Their eyes would grow bright, and they would smile at the sheer sense it all makes. The headiness of a folksonomy is sweet for an information junkie.

It’s in that vein that ReadWriteWeb mythologizes the tag cloud as “buffalo on the pre-Columbian plains of North America.” A reader willing to cock his head and squint hard enough at the image of tag clouds “roaming the social web” as “huge, thundering herds of keywords of all shades and sizes” realizes that the Rob Cottingham would have us believe that tag clouds were graceful and defenseless beasts—and also now on the verge of extinction. He’s more or less correct.

I used to mythologize the tag cloud, but let’s be honest. They were never actually useful. You could never drag and drop one word in a tag cloud onto another to get the intersection or union of pages with those two tags. You could never really use a tag cloud to subscribe to RSS feeds of only the posts with a given set of tags.

A tag also never told you whether J.P. Morgan was a person or a bank. A tag cloud on a blog was never dynamic, never interactive. The tag cloud on one person’s blog never talked to the tag cloud on anyone else’s. I could never click on one tag and watch the cloud reform and show me only related tags, all re-sized and -colored to indicate their frequency or importance only in the part of the corpus in which the tag I clicked on is relevant.

But there’re also a cool-headed thoughts to have here. If tag clouds don’t work, what will? What is the best way to navigate around those groups of relatively many words called articles or posts? In the comments to Jarvis’s post, I asked a set of questions:

How will we know when we meet a visualization of the news that’s actually really useful? Can some visualization of the news lay not just another path to the “hot topic” but a better one? Or will headlines make a successful transition from the analog past of news to its digital future as the standard way we find what we want to read?

I believe the gut-level interest in tag clouds comes in part from the sense that headlines aren’t the best way to navigate around groups of articles much bigger than the number in a newspaper. There’s a real pain point there: scanning headlines doesn’t scale. Abstracting away from them, however, and focusing on topics and newsmakers in order to find what’s best to read or watch just might work.

I think there’s a very substantial market for a smarter tag cloud. They might look very different from what we’ve seen, but they will let us see at a glance lots of information and help us get to the best stuff faster. After all, the articles we want to read, the videos we want to watch, and the conversations we want to have around them are what’s actually important.


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