Monthly Archives: June 2015

The problem every news aggregation app faces

circa

Back in the December, I profiled the cadre of companies — ranging from Flipboard to SmartNews to News360 — that aim to be your one-stop mobile destination for news. While interviewing their founders and marketing teams, I listened as each company made claims as to the level of customization it offered, customization so refined you wouldn’t waste time scrolling through headlines that didn’t interest you. An app’s machine learning algorithm would monitor your browsing habits, and through this accumulation of data it could discern the unique elements of your taste and information needs.

But as I downloaded and tried out each app for myself, I found it difficult to detect any differentiating factor that led me to conclude the app had truly gotten to know me. Sure, I came across headlines that interested me, based in part on the broad categories I checked off when first launching the app, but the signal to noise ratio wasn’t any better than if I had visited the homepage of any major news publication. None of the apps became a daily habit in the same way that apps like Facebook, Twitter, and email compel me to open them whenever I’m staring at my phone.

The problem is that news tastes go beyond mere categories and keywords. Sometimes I read a piece not because it’s on a certain topic but because it was written by someone whose writing I admire. Other times I might be interested in coverage of a particular company, but only for specific aspects of it. I could care less about Apple hardware news but gobble up information about its various content and software plays on mobile. But clicking on an article about Apple’s streaming music service merely signals to the app I care about Apple and music (I actually hardly listen to any music). I’m not sure that any nuance beyond those broad categories is actually possible at this point.

The chief problem I have with many news apps is they don’t deliver the level of customization that I can get on Twitter, Facebook, and other social networks. I launched my Twitter account in late 2008. In the intervening years I’ve accumulated a list of over 700 people whom I follow, and for a significant portion of those people I wouldn’t be able to remember my reasoning for following them. In some cases they’re colleagues I’ve worked with. In others they’re writers and journalists I admire. But there are still plenty more I followed because something in their profile caught my eye or they authored an article I enjoyed but have long since forgotten.

But despite not having a complete understanding of all my follow choices, my Twitter feed is a well-oiled machine, one that produces a rich tapestry of news and commentary (and plenty of jokes) every time I open it. In addition to providing an excellent source of news aggregation, it also allows the people I follow to offer a layer of commentary over that news. They can improve upon headlines and unearth interesting stats that are buried deep within an article. These are features a machine algorithm, no matter how finely tuned, can’t duplicate.

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Since I wrote that article, a number of new news aggregation apps — including one from BuzzFeed — have entered the market. At least one major player, Circa, has ceased operation. And Apple itself is launching its own standalone app, this one likely to be featured as a default on the homescreen. It seems clear that Silicon Valley has convinced itself there is a market need for these news apps. But I find myself agreeing with Paul Cantor, who wrote a piece recently arguing that “nobody goes on the internet to read.” What he means is that nobody opens up an internet browser the same way they open a book or a magazine. They go to the internet as a point of reference, to seek out specific information or to be entertained. Yes, in the process of this browsing they may come across news articles and videos, but these are simply byproducts of a larger ecosystem that includes your friends’ baby photos, dispatches from Weird Twitter, and YouTube videos on how to install kitchen tile. To divorce news from these other offerings is to ignore the very reason we open apps or log on to social platforms. And no algorithm, no matter how personalized, can supersede that.

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Image via ReadWrite

The one advantage Twitter has over every other social network

gunshots

I was watching the series premiere of HBO’s True Detective when I heard the popping sounds, each in quick succession — POP POP POP. Living in Washington, DC, you occasionally hear what sounds like gunshots but could just as easily be fireworks or a car backfiring. But there was something chilling about these noises, especially as they continued on unabated for a solid 20 seconds. If they were gunshots, then someone was engaging in a prolonged battle, and the thought of such violence carried out within earshot of my apartment was disturbing.

I of course didn’t want to go outside to investigate, and it could be hours before any local news station reported on the incident, so I turned to the one platform most likely to help me: Twitter. Opening up the app, I went to its search feature and typed in the words “heard” and “gunshots.” I immediately found three tweets, each from a user listing DC as his location, reporting they had also heard what sounded like gunshots. One of them included the handle of a popular local blogger in his tweet; that blogger then dutifully retweeted it to his thousands of followers. Within minutes, I was engaged in conversations with multiple users, asking them if they’d seen cop cars or any indication that a gun battle had just taken place. Eventually, someone who had seen the retweet from the local blogger piped in: the popping noises had been fireworks. She’d seen them set off right below her apartment window.

There was nothing novel about my experience. For years now, Twitter has been used as a real-time conversation platform that has allowed its users to get ahead of professional news organizations in reporting events as they occurred. But the incident is worth noting in the context of Twitter’s struggles to communicate its value to investors. Ever since the company’s IPO, CEO Dick Costolo has attempted to distance Twitter from the metrics used to judge other social networks like Facebook and Instagram. Instead of focusing entirely on monthly logged-in users, Costolo also wanted recognition for “the hundreds of millions of people who come to Twitter and don’t log in.” He was referring to the millions of instances in which a tweet ricocheted beyond Twitter.com into live television updates and news articles.

His attempts at reframing Twitter’s value were ultimately unsuccessful; this month Costolo announced he was stepping down as CEO, and co-founder Jack Dorsey has taken the reins as interim CEO until the board can find a permanent replacement. Meanwhile many tech pundits have already penned eulogies for what they consider a stalled-out platform, a has-been that will plummet back to earth as shinier networks like Instagram and Snapchat pass it by.

But before you write Twitter off as yet another Myspace, consider this: my experience chasing down the source of the popping noises earlier this week could not have been accomplished on any other platform outside Twitter. Sure, some of my neighbors likely took to Facebook to report what they had heard, but those posts were confined to their personal network and were unlikely to yield any additional information. Facebook search has always been a joke, and even if you could search beyond your network, the various privacy settings employed on Facebook would provide a further hurdle for finding information in real time. Given their dependence on images and video, Snapchat and Instagram would have been useless to me, and though Google+ sports some robust search features, it doesn’t have the critical mass necessary to ensure that such a small, localized incident would be mentioned.

That leaves Twitter as the only platform for true real-time conversation. Yes, its growth rate for logged-in users has slowed, but it has created a significant network effect that has guaranteed its continued relevance even in a crowded marketplace of shiny new social networks. In just about any live event, whether it’s a local shooting, mass protests in Ferguson, a live sports game, or a television program, Twitter serves as an invaluable resource, generating a level of commentary that is unrivaled in its richness and diversity.

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Though investors have so far been unable to recognize this value, other major social platforms are certainly envious of Twitter’s positioning. Just recently, Instagram announced it was rolling out more robust search features with the hope that it could enable real-time discovery of events as they unfold. “People are hungry for what’s happening right now in the world,” Instagram’s CEO told reporters. “All of us in social media and regular media, we’re all competing for the same thing, which is this gap between something happening in the world and you knowing about it.”

That gap is quickly shrinking, and at the forefront of that trend is Twitter. With the new ability to publish images directly into the stream as well as the launch of Periscope, Twitter’s live-streaming app, no other platform can compete in surfacing information at such a breakneck speed. That investors don’t recognize this strength is merely a testament to the closed-mindedness of Wall Street. Judging a platform solely on its monthly logged-in user count is ludicrous when tweets are being displayed within the content of every major mainstream news and entertainment company in existence. Twitter has achieved near-universal ubiquity, the kind that will make it invaluable for years to come.

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