Tumblelog by Soup.io
Newer posts are loading.
You are at the newest post.
Click here to check if anything new just came in.

July 25 2011

04:57

June 30 2011

19:00

A year after its big redesign, how Google News is thinking about the best ways to present news stories

It’s been a year since Google News launched its big redesign, the first major update of the Google News interface since it launched in 2002. The revamp put a new emphasis on customized news content, focusing in particular on the social elements of news: personalization and, then, sharing.

The design you’ll see on the site today isn’t too far off from what was introduced last year. It still strikes a balance between personalization and serendipity, with a design that is dominated by a Top Stories stream, and filled out by customized stories, locally relevant articles, Spotlight-ed items, most-shared pieces, and other content.

But there have been tweaks, too, many of them aimed at writing into the service a happy medium within the polar aspects of news consumption: something between total personalization and total universality; between breadth and depth; between pre-existing interests and discovery; between want to know and need to know; between expectation and serendipity.

I recently spoke with Andre Rohe, the product’s lead engineer, to learn a bit more about the way he and his colleagues are thinking about news presentation as they continue to build out Google News.

News content: breadth and depth

One thing Rohe highlighted: Google News’ desire to help users indulge their curiosity about particular news events. Last month, Google News tweaked its interface to make it easier for users both to scan for stories that might interest them and to dig deeper once they’ve found them. The Top Story on Google News at any given moment is now expanded — which is to say, visually contextualized, with clustered links and multimedia offerings — by default.

The expansion-default UI emphasizes the diversity of coverage surrounding a given news event, Rohe notes. Links included in an expanded cluster (just like a regular cluster) might include opinion pieces, local and international news, in-depth articles, satire pieces, and, intriguingly, highly cited pieces. (Relevant Wikipedia articles are also included — since, Rohe notes, Wikipedia can often offer great context for news stories, and occasionally even offer news coverage itself.) Multimedia — videos, images, etc. — makes it into the mix through a slider mechanism at the bottom of the expanded entry.

The updated UI lets people “get into the breadth of the story,” Rohe notes — and breadth, in this case, can actually equate to its own kind of depth. Some big stories will generate something in the neighborhood of 20,000 news articles, Rohe notes. “The idea is, how can we get a good summary of all the aspects that are inside of these 20,000?” The even broader goal is to make it easier for users to dig into the stories that interest them, and to benefit, in the process, from the diversity of news coverage that has been Google News’ driving goal since Krishna Bharat founded it. (And Google News’ quite-logical-but-also-significant default expansion to the top Top Story, I’d add — a story that is ostensibly, if not always, one of some kind of civic import — provides users with a nice nudge of encouragement to explore the stories that are not only curiosity-inducing, but also just important to know about.)

Personalization: explicit and implicit

Google News is also doing a lot of thinking about the best ways to personalize news content for its users. The product currently makes use of two main types of customization, Rohe notes: the explicit and the implicit. Explicit personalization is the kind Google News emphasized in last year’s redesign, the kind that asks users to tell Google their interests so their news results can be appropriately tailored.

But you don’t always know what you like. So, starting this April, signed-in Google News users in the U.S. began seeing stories in their “News for You” feeds that were based not on their stated preferences, but on their behavior: their news-related web histories. (For example, within Google search and its other services, if you click on a lot of articles about Lady Gaga, Google News will serve you up breaking news about Lady Gaga.) “We found in testing that more users clicked on more stories when we added this automatic personalization,” software engineer Lucian Cionca explained, “sending more traffic to publishers.”

Google News is also experimenting with ways to combine explicit and implicit personalization — through an article recommendation process that surfaces stories users have exhibited an implicit interest in, and giving them the option to convert that into stated interest. (Have your web searches revealed a hidden passion for all news Gaga-related? Google will give you the option to make it official on your Google News feed — or to, you know, not.) Ultimately, Rohe notes, “it’s about making it easy for the users to say what they have an interest in.”

Mobile: updates beyond design

Google News, like so many other products at Google, is increasingly thinking in terms of mobile. In last year’s redesign, Google News launched an auto-local section, “News Near You,” that serves up geo-targeted news items. And this April, Google released a mobile version of Google News designed especially for low-end phones. The implications of news consumption’s shift to mobile platforms are, to repeat the obvious, huge; it’ll be interesting to see how Rohe and his colleagues address them — and how consumers adjust to the changes.

June 13 2011

15:00

Eli Pariser: How do we recreate a front-page ethos for a digital world?

At the top of my summer reading list is The Filter Bubble, Eli Pariser’s new book that argues that the filters we rely on to make sense of the online world can do us as much harm as good.

While the book relies on familiar notions about the perils of the echo chamber, it uses those ideas as a starting point, rather than an ending, focusing on the algorithmic implications of all the echoing. One of the most intriguing aspects of Pariser’s argument is his exploration of the automation of preference — through the increasing influence of the Like button, through Google’s desire to make its results “relevant,” through various news orgs’ recommendation engines, and, ultimately, through media companies’ economic mandate to please, rather than provoke, their audiences.

That last one isn’t new, of course; news organizations have always navigated a tension between the need to know and the want to know when it comes to the information they serve to their readers. What is new, though, is the fact that audiences’ wants now have data to back them up; they can be analyzed and tailored and otherwise manipulated with a precision that is only increasing. Audiences’ needs, on the other hand, are generally as nebulous as they’ve ever been. But they are, of course, no less urgent.

So if we’re to truly gain from what the web offers us, Pariser argues, what we need is something like the kind of thinking that guided journalism through most of the 20th century: a notion that media companies serve more than, in every sense, pure interest. A conviction that news editors (and, more broadly, the fabled gatekeepers who exert power, even on the “democratized” web, over people’s access to information) have a responsibility to give people as full and nuanced a picture of the world as they can.

As much as we need filters, Pariser says, a web experience that is based on filters alone won’t give us that wide-angle view. And now, he argues, while online media remains in its infancy, is the time to do something to change that.

To learn more about Pariser’s thinking — and especially about how that thinking applies to news producers — I spoke with him when he came to Cambridge for a recent reading at the Harvard Book Store. Below is a transcript of our talk. (And apologies for the shaky camera work in the video above, which was shot in a bookstore office; apparently, I had a case of the Austeros that day.)

To begin with, I asked Pariser about a key aspect of this argument: the notion that the filter bubble phenomenon affects not only what the information we consume, but also our ability to put that information to use within a functional democracy. Here’s what we told me:

EP: What people care about politically, and what they’re motivated to do something about, is a function of what they know about and what they see in their media. We’ve known this for a while — that, for example, if you chop up television broadcast news, and show different sets of news to different groups of people, and then you poll them about what their preferences are, you get very different results. People see something about the deficit on the news, and they say, ‘Oh, the deficit is the big problem.’ If they see something about the environment, they say the environment is a big problem.

This creates this kind of a feedback loop in which your media influences your preferences and your choices; your choices influence your media; and you really can go down a long and narrow path, rather than actually seeing the whole set of issues in front of us.

MG: Interesting. So what should news organizations be doing, and how should they be thinking about this problem when they’re thinking about how they build their websites, and build their news experience?

EP: Well, I think, right now, it’s a little polarized. You actually have the old-school editors who say, ‘Only humans can do this.’ The New York Times, at least until recently, didn’t let even blog authors see how people were using or sharing their links; you had no sense of how you were doing online. That’s sort of one extreme. On the other extreme is this ‘if people click it, then it must be good’ mentality. And I think we need people who are smart about journalism to be thinking about how we import a lot of the implicit things that a front page does, or that a well-edited newspaper does — how do we import that into these algorithms that are going to affect how a lot of people experience the world? Whether — we might prefer that they not, but that’s sort of the way that this is going. So how do we do that? That seems like the big, exciting project right now.

November 09 2010

15:00

Loose ties vs. strong: Pinyadda’s platform finds that shared interests trump friendships in “social news”

There isn’t a silver bullet for monetizing digital news, but if there were, it would likely involve centralization: the creation of a single space where the frenzied aspects of our online lives — information sharing, social networking, exploration, recommendation — live together in one conveniently streamlined platform. A Boston-based startup called Pinyadda wants to be that space: to make news a pivotal element of social interaction, and vice versa. Think Facebook. Meets Twitter. Meets Foursquare. Meets Tumblr. Meets Digg.

Owned by Streetwise Media — the owner as well of BostInnovation, the Boston-based startup hub — Pinyadda launched last year with plans to be a central, social spot for gathering, customizing, and sharing news and information. The idea, at first, was to be an “ideal system of news” that would serve users in three ways:

1. it should gather information from the sites and blogs they read regularly;

2. it should mimic the experience of receiving links and comments from the people in their personal networks; and

3. it should be continually searching for information about subjects they were interested in. This pool of content could then be ranked and presented to users in a consistent, easily browsed stream.

Again, centralization. And a particular kind of centralization: a socialized version. Information doesn’t simply want to be free, the thinking went; it also wants to be social. The initial idea for Pinyadda was that leveraging the social side of the news — making it easy to share with friends; facilitating conversations with them — would also be a way to leverage the value of news. Which ties into the conventional wisdom about the distributive power of social news. In her recent NYRB review of The Social Network, Zadie Smith articulates that wisdom when it comes to Facebook’s Open Graph — a feature, she wrote, that “allows you to see everything your friends are reading, watching, eating, so that you might read and watch and eat as they do.”

What Pinyadda’s designers have discovered, though, is that “social” news doesn’t necessarily mean “shared with friends.” Instead, Pinyadda has found that extra-familiar relationships fuel news consumption and sharing in its network: Social news isn’t about the people you know so much as the people with whom you share interests.

Pinyadda’s business model was based on the idea that the social approach to news — and the personalization it relied on — would allow the platform to create a new value-capture mechanism for news. The platform itself, its product design and development lead, Austin Gardner-Smith, told me — with its built-in social networks and its capacity for recommendation and conversation — bolsters news content’s value with the experiential good that is community — since a “central point of consumption” tends to give the content being consumed worth by proximity.

The idea, in other words, was to take a holistic approach to monetization. Pinyadda aimed to take advantage of the platform’s built-in capacity for personalization — via behavioral tracking, or, less nefariously, paying attention to their individual users — to sell targeted ads against its content. “Post-intent” advertising is interest-based advertising — and thus, the thinking goes, more effective/less annoying advertising. That thinking still holds; in fact, the insight that common interests, rather than familiarity, fuels news consumption could ratifies it. As Dan Kennedy put it, writing about the startup after they presented at a Hacks/Hackers meetup this summer: “Pinyadda may be groping its way toward a just-right space between Digg (too dumb) and NewsTrust (too hard).” The question will be whether news consumers, so many of them already juggling relationships with Facebook and Twitter and Tumblr and Posterous and other such sites, can make room for another one. And the extent to which the relationships fostered in those networks — connections that are fundamentally personal — are the types that drive the social side of news.

July 02 2010

14:00

This Week in Review: Weigel and new journalism values, Google News gets personal, and Kos’ poll problem

[Every Friday, Mark Coddington sums up the week’s top stories about the future of news and the debates that grew up around them. —Josh]

Finding a place for a new breed of journalist: Laura touched on the resignation of Washington Post reporter Dave Weigel in last week’s review, and several of the questions she raised were ones people have been batting around in the week since then. Here’s what happened (and for those of you looking for a more narrative version, Jay Rosen has you covered via audio): Weigel, who writes a blog for the Post on the conservative movement, wrote a few emails on an off-the-record journalists’ listserv called Journolist bashing a few members of that movement (most notably Matt Drudge and Ron Paul). Those emails were leaked, the conservative blogosphere went nuts, and Weigel apologized, then resigned from the Post the next day. Journolist founder Ezra Klein shut the listserv down, and Weigel was apologetic in his own postmortem of the situation, attributing his comments to hubris toward conservatives designed to get other journalists to like him.

This was The Flap That Launched A Thousand Blog Posts, so I’ll be sticking to the journalistic angles that came up, rather than the political ones. A lot of those issues seemed to come back to two posts by the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg that included attacks on Weigel by anonymous Post staffers, the tone of which is best summed up by Goldberg’s own words: “The sad truth is that the Washington Post, in its general desperation for page views, now hires people who came up in journalism without much adult supervision, and without the proper amount of toilet-training.” (Goldberg did quickly back down a bit.) Fellow Post blogger Greg Sargent defended Weigel (and Klein, a young Post blogger who’s an outspoken liberal) by arguing that just because they express opinions doesn’t make them any less of a reporter. New media guru Jeff Jarvis decried the “myth of the opinionless man” that Weigel was bound to, and Salon’s Ned Resnikoff called for the end of neutral reporting, urging journalists to simply disclose their biases to the public instead.

Several other observers posited that many of the problems with this situation stemmed from a false dichotomy between “reporting” and “opinion.” That compartmentalization was best expressed by Post ombudsman Andrew Alexander, who asked of the Post’s bloggers, “Are they neutral reporters or ideologues?” (He proposed that the Post have one of each cover conservatives.) The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf said the Post is imposing binary categories on its reporters that don’t fit real life, when the two in fact aren’t mutually exclusive. Blogging historian and former Salon editor Scott Rosenberg made a similar point, suggesting Post “simply lets them be bloggers — writers with a point of view that emerges, post by post.” The New Republic’s Jonathan Chait pointed out that the Post has created a type of writer that it doesn’t know what to do with, while Jim Henley offered a helpful definition of the “blog-reporter ethos” that those writers embody.

Finally, a few other points well worth pondering: Nate Silver, whose opinionated political blog FiveThirtyEight just got picked up by The New York Times, marveled at how much more outrageous the response seemed to be than the comments themselves and wondered if even opinions expressed in private are now considered enough to disqualify a reporter. John McQuaid saw the episode as evidence that journalism traditionalists and the “view from nowhere” political press still rule in Washington, and the Columbia Journalism Review’s Greg Marx saw in the conflict a backlash against a new generation of journalists who emphasize personal voice, as well as “an opportunity to establish a new set of journalistic values” — fair-mindedness and intellectual honesty backed by serious reporting, rather than a veneer of impartiality.

Google News gets a makeover: For the first time since it was launched in 2002, Google News got a significant redesign this week. Now, a little ways down from the top of the page is what Google called “the new heart of the homepage” — a personalized “News for you” section. That area can be adjusted to highlight or hide subjects, individual news topics, or certain news sources. The redesign is also emphasizing its Spotlight section of in-depth stories, as well as user-bookmarked stories. Search Engine Land has a nice visual overview of what’s changed.

The Lab’s Megan Garber also has a helpful summary of the changes, noting that “the new site is trying to balance two major, and often conflicting, goals of news consumption: personalization and serendipity.” All Things Digital’s Peter Kafka wondered how many people are actually going to take the time to customize their page, under the idea that anybody news-savvy enough to do so is probably getting their news through a more comprehensive source like RSS or Twitter. Jay Rosen wanted to know what news sources people choose to see less of. Meanwhile, in an interview with MediaBistro, Google News lead engineer Krishna Bharat gave a good picture of where Google News has been and where it’s heading. And it’s worth noting that the comments we’ve gotten on the change have been wildly negative.

A possible polling fraud revealed: For the past year and a half, the liberal political blog Daily Kos has been running a weekly poll, something that’s reasonably significant because, well, it’s a blog doing something that only traditional news organizations have historically done. This week, Kos founder Markos Moulitsas Zuniga wrote that he will be suing Research 2000, the company that conducted the polls for the blog. The decision was based on a report done by three independent analysts that found some serious anomalies that seem to be indicators that polls might be fraudulent. Zuniga renounced his work based on Research 2000’s polls and said, “I no longer have any confidence in any of it, and neither should anyone else.”

The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent detailed the planned suit, including a clear accusation from Kos’ lawyer that the polls were fraudulent, not just sloppy: “They handed us fiction and told us it was fact. … It’s pretty damn clear that numbers were fabricated, and that the polling that we paid for was not performed.” Research 2000 president Del Ali asserted the properness of his polls, and his lawyer called the fraud allegation “absurd” and threatened to countersue. Polling expert Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight, who began his blog as a Kos commenter, echoed the study’s concerns, then was hit with a cease-and-desist letter from Research 2000’s attorney. Meanwhile, Yahoo’s John Cook laid out Research 2000’s troubled financial history.

This may seem like just a messy he-said, she-said lawsuit involving two individual organizations, but as Sargent and The New York Times pointed out, Research 2000’s work is cited by a number of mainstream news organizations (including the Post), and this could cause people to begin asking serious questions about the reliability of polling data. As trust in journalistic institutions wanes, the para-journalistic institution of polling may be about to take a big credibility hit here, too.

How much do reporters need to disclose?: Conversation about last week’s Rolling Stone story on Gen. Stanley McChrystal continued to trickle out, especially regarding that tricky relationship between journalists and their sources. CBS foreign correspondent Lara Logan stoked much of it when she criticized the article’s author, Michael Hastings, for being dishonest about his intentions and violating an unspoken agreement not to report the informal banter of military officials. Salon’s Glenn Greenwald saw the argument as a perfect contrast between adversarial watchdog journalism and journalism built on access, and Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi came out firing with a characteristically inspired rant against Logan’s argument: “According to Logan, not only are reporters not supposed to disclose their agendas to sources at all times, but in the case of covering the military, one isn’t even supposed to have an agenda that might upset the brass!”

The New Yorker’s Amy Davidson backed Taibbi up, but DailyFinance’s Jeff Bercovici rapped Taibbi’s knuckles for his disregard for the facts. Military and media blogger Jamie McIntyre found a spot in between Logan and Taibbi in ruling on their claims point by point. Politico takes a look at the entire discussion, paying special attention to how relationships work for other military reporters and what this flap might mean for them in the future. On another angle, the Lab’s Jason Fry used the story to examine whether the fragmentation of content is going to end up killing some news brands.

Reading roundup: We’ve had a longer-than-usual review this week, so I’ll fly through some things and get you on your way to the weekend. There’s still some really fascinating stuff to get to, though:

— A newly released Harvard study found that newspapers overwhelmingly referred to waterboarding as torture until the George W. Bush administration began defining it as something other than torture, at which point their description of it became much less harsh. (They still largely described it as torture when other countries were doing it, though.) The study prompted quite a bit of anger about the American media’s “craven cowardice” and subservience to government, as well as its unwillingness to “express opinion” by calling a spade a spade. James Joyner noted that it’s complicated and The New York Times said that calling it torture was taking sides, though the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent said not calling it torture is taking a side, too.

— I was gone last week, so I didn’t get a chance to highlight this thoughtful post by the Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf on what it takes to replace the local beat reporter. As for the newspaper itself, the folks at Reason gave you a section-by-section guide to replacing your daily newspaper.

— Finally, in the you-must-bookmark-this category: Former New York Times reporter Jennifer 8. Lee put together an indispensable glossary of tech terms for journalists. Whether you’re working on the web or not, I’d advise reading it and digging deeper into any of the terms you still don’t quite understand.

June 03 2010

14:00

Is 70 percent of what we read online really by our friends?

Last month, we tweeted a remarkable stat:

Of everything under 40 year olds read online, about 70% was created by someone they know http://j.mp/bb0jgN

Our source was this article citing a recent panel discussion at an SEO conference in New York. Here’s how the stat was presented, in a piece in the newsletter Publishing Trends, as a product of Forrester Research:

In one of several panels on social media and search, Patricia Neuray of Business.com cited the Forrester research finding that 70% of the content read online by under-40-year-olds was written by someone they know.

(Someone who livetweeted the panel seemed to also attribute it to Forrester, although with a cryptic hint of IBM.)

It’s obviously a remarkable statistic if true, but I wanted to get a little more detail — like how the study defined “someone they know” and “content read online.” Are they talking websites, or are they including things like email? Does “someone they know” mean someone they know in real life, or does an Internet friend count? I engaged in some vigorous Googling, but couldn’t find the original study. Then I emailed Forrester to see if they could produce it. A spokesperson got back to me:

That statistic does not come from a Forrester study. We heard about it and investigated it as well to find out that the original author of the article that used that statistic was in error. I just rechecked his article – he removed Forrester as the source but did not cite another source other than a speaker from IBM at this conference: http://www.publishingtrends.com/2010/04/making-search-convert-search-engine-strategies-2010/

And indeed, now the reference in the original article is thus:

In one of several panels on social media and search, Leslie Reiser of IBM cited the recent finding that “70% of the content read online by under-40-year-olds was written by someone they know.”

I contacted Reiser last week to see if she has a cite for it; my very quick Googling didn’t turn up an obvious IBM reference for the number, either, but that doesn’t mean much. I’ll let you know if I hear back from her. In any event, since by tweeting it we played a part in spreading the number, I thought we should note that the original source is still a bit up in the air.

April 15 2010

12:15

Designing a True Community Tool for the Online World

Last December I wrote about digital community and social media tools in a post titled, In Search of a Community That Takes 'Me' Out of Social Media. My ultimate argument was that although community tools exist, they are underpowered and unpopular compared to modern networking systems like Facebook and Twitter.

That post sparked a lot of interesting comments, and it's clear that online community is something people care about. Within the comments I noticed two distinct camps: People who found the article through Facebook, and people who found the article through Twitter. Let's just say that I was surprised to learn that folks on Facebook are very defensive. (Twitter users at least thought the ideas were interesting, even if they didn't agree!).

Since I still feel that the current state of social media has barely scratched the surface of community-driven conversation and information sharing, I want to continue the conversation. This time, though, I want to begin the process of designing a community system that can satisfy my thirst for group conversation!

The Paradox of Digital Community

Community is all about shared experience and common identity, but the participatory web is all about personalization.

Why? One reason is because people won't participate if they don't feel connected to the content or conversation. Another is that without personalization, information overload kicks in and the experience becomes unmanageable and overwhelming.

It is no surprise that the most engaging and useful social systems try very hard to present individually-targeted content, resulting in unique experiences for each user. Unfortunately, however, this is exactly why it is difficult to find true community on these systems. In other words, lack of community isn't a fault of sites like Facebook and Twitter; it is just a result of the paradox.

Designing for Participation

I can think of three broad tactics used by participatory systems to try and manage the balance between noise reduction and social interaction:

  1. Focus on content: Conversation is organized around specific pieces of information, such as news articles, blog posts, and other media. This solves the noise problem because personalization can happen at the content level, while the interactions within each piece of content can be universal.
  2. Focus on niche: The system is set up around a specific organization, place, or topic. The experience is largely the same for all of the users, but the scope is narrow enough that only those personally interested will choose to participate.
  3. Focus on users: Users define their experience on the site by making it about themselves, their networks, and their friends. This results in personalization with some inherently shared content. There are usually a few additional mechanisms that support a broader shared experience (e.g. retweets or public walls).

Each of these methods can lead to engaging social systems that host meaningful content, but they all have major problems that limit their community potential.

A content focus restricts group interaction to commentary and debate surrounding the content. Niche sites exist in relative isolation, meaning the participants and conversations generally come from within the niche and lack global perspective. Individual-centric systems create experiences that are as diverse as the individuals themselves (e.g. no two experiences are alike); and although some content is shared, it is often done so indirectly or among loosely connected, ad-hoc groups.

Community meets Personalized Mass Media

I said that I wanted to start designing something with this post. In particular, I'm looking for a way to do for community what social networks have done for the individual. As I just noted, however, it isn't enough to just host a niche. This system needs to be able to support networks of interconnected communities. This might sound like a social network, but it isn't -- social networks are made of interconnected individuals.

Below are a few ideas that I'm going to explore in future posts. The hope is that, once fully thought through, these will provide a starting point for the system I want to create:

  • Fluid communities: Real communities rarely have rigid boundaries and static definition. Groups of people develop through complex relationships, and often have fuzzy borders.
  • User profiles that are defined by participation: In real communities people aren't defined by profiles -- they're defined by actions. Online identities shouldn't just reflect a person's activity in the system; they should defined by that activity.
  • Shared content: Information in this system has to be able to exist in multiple contexts at once. This will allow independent communities to exist independently without forcing them to exist in isolation.
  • Individual influence: Whether it's users controlling their individual experiences or local communities making collective decisions about their groups' content, people need to be able to shape the information around them.

Please let me know if you have any other ideas that you feel would be important in a community network, either via a comment below, or via Twitter (@slifty).

Older posts are this way If this message doesn't go away, click anywhere on the page to continue loading posts.
Could not load more posts
Maybe Soup is currently being updated? I'll try again automatically in a few seconds...
Just a second, loading more posts...
You've reached the end.

Don't be the product, buy the product!

Schweinderl