I listened to John Borthwick of startup incubator Betaworks, Garrett Camp of discovery engine StumbleUpon, Patrick Keane of Associated Content, and Mark Josephson of the hyperlocal Outside.in discuss the merits of algorithmic and crowdsourced modes of navigating the news. They're all like me: they primarily discover content through a carefully curated Twitter feed, an RSS reader, or some other social news service.
So which is better? It's usually a mix of the three. "Technology, math and algorithms are being used to refine and understand how people filter what they are looking at and how they read," Borthwick said. "But mainly people read the voice of other people. There are new tools for getting there, so content production is being pushed into the pale, but most of these tools when they are used well are used to surface and filter, not compose."
"In social media, everyone should be a content creator and curator," Camp added. "StumbleUpon is trying to blend both worlds by asking for human input on thumbing stories up and down."
In this sense, algorithms aren't replacing editors or individual voices, but are used out of necessity: as the cost of creating content continues to drop, the sheer amount of content available to consumers has exploded. Algorithms are just there to lead the way. And sometimes those algorithms help us find content that, while not produced professonally, has an incredible amount of value. "Quality is a subjective term," Associated Content's Keane said. "Think of Thomas Friedman writing about China vs. an 18-year-old expat kid. That expat may not have the same editorial chops as a Columbia-trained journalist, but his voice is a different definition of quality."
There's a double-edged sword in the curation ecosystem. Social and algorithmic tools help us seek out and discovery new content. But does increased personalization hurt the way we expose ourselves to new ideas? Or does it inhibit social good by allowing us to receive only the content we want to see? And does that, in turn, filter out content we don't know we want or need?
Luckily, socially curated feeds like Twitter or discovery engines like StumbleUpon do allow space for readers to jump from idea to idea outside their interests. Furthermore, an editor or curator we trust may show us content we had previously sought to ignore.
The increasing shift to mobile may pose problems, especially as Apple and Android users trade in browsers for walled apps that aren't conducive to linking out. "Generally, the inherent structure of the web is link based," Borthwick said. "Everything is just a click away from an alternative perspective. But the link-based perspective of the web is getting more and more difficult in the app world."
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