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Just the Headlines, Ma'am: The Summarized Simplicity of the Reddit Edit

All the benefits of summary, all the benefits of social selection

RedditEdit615.jpg

Reddit Edit

You know Reddit! It's giant, gray, and wooly, covered in antique web font goodness and of a vaguely libertarian bent. It's a beautiful kind of ugly: the ugly of the terminal, the old-school college syllabus, the GChat window glowing in a dark room at night.

And because everything looks (about) the same, the writing and the links are allowed to shine. Speaking about why the site provided such quickly-updated coverage of the Aurora attacks, Erik Martin, its general manager, told AdAge

On Twitter or Facebook you need to have a built-up audience of followers, or you need to get noticed by somebody who has a lot of followers to spread information. On Reddit, that picture that the kid posted from the hospital got to the front page and was seen by hundreds of thousands of people in well under an hour.

But a new site attempts to make Reddit "look pretty." And more so, it shields its users from the harsh, enervating world of voted social news, giving them, essentially, just the headlines. It's called The Reddit Edit, and, in the words of its designer and coder Benji Lanyado:

The Reddit Edit pulls the three most popular links from six different Subreddits using the Reddit API. That's it really.

And that is it. Three links, set in web-friendly pastel rectangles. What Reddit thinks is most important, today. But the Reddit Edit seems to be part of a larger trend in news design for the web. Last week, Mule Design launched Evening Edition, a one-page "summary of the day's news, written by an actual journalist." Mule's Jim Ray couched the site's launch in the cosmic language of order-from-chaos:

Now, we're all constantly awash in a torrent of news-like "updates", in between fake celebrity death tweets, divorce notices on Facebook and new-puppy tumblrs. How is anyone supposed to sift through all of that to get to the important stuff?

How, indeed! Keeping up with the news is hard and thankless! (Especially when Twitter goes down: you read an interesting article and you have no one to brag about reading it to.) So perhaps this is a moment in the social web's history: We've reached Peak Twitter Follow, the social weight of our Facebook friends has proved too onerous, and it's time to purge and cut down on the chatter.

But perhaps it's only a moment. This oscillation -- between the stream and the summary, between the studio and the director's cut -- may define the history of news more than anything else. What many now call the curatorial impulse is what we just used to call editing. 

And this is longer than a trend. In a timeframe longer than the past month, topheadlin.es launched last winter and united many sources' one big headline onto a single page. Last May, Ars Technica started devoting a big box on their homepage to "Editor's Picks," the best stories on the web which were not theirs. And that legacy rag, TIME Magazine, was founded around the radical concept of honing and cutting the news into usable, entertaining chunks (Ditto Reader's Digest).

But the real difference between these, of course, is that some rely on editorial talent while others rely on communal editing prowess. All our news should never be democratic, but retaining that voted edge as we recede into news-summary is historically novel and journalistically welcome.

And what about the never-ending dash between the raw stream and summary, between too-much news and too-little: Is that a little discouraging? Maybe. But it's also a point of riches. Users who want to ditch the social web now will tire of an editor's voice in a month or two and return for the raw stream. At the same time, the stream that users revel in will eventually super-saturate them, and they'll seek a simpler summary. The social web, so recently declared mature by Buzzfeed's Jonah Peretti, may be nothing more than ever-oscillating, ever-vibrating. The Information Economy as a truer metaphor than we ever thought: an economy with peaks and valleys, an economy whose product we'll treat like Bill Cosby's Eve: "C'mere, c'mere, c'mere, c'mere, go away, go away, go away, go away."

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Robinson Meyer is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where he covers technology.

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