The Future of the Web: Aggregating, Editing and Filtering

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Techdirt’s Mike Masnick wrote a short piece a couple of days ago about the most recent spat between old school journalists and new media news sites. At issue was the claim that journalists create content whereas sites like the Huffington Post simply aggregate content produced elsewhere. The whole thing is worth a read, but the main takeaway is that journalists are also really just aggregators at heart. At bottom, journalists write down what other people say and so are, in some sense, simply aggregating the views of a bunch of people who are connected to a particular event into a story.

I’m not entirely convinced that this is exactly right. There is a difference between a list of unedited quotations running down a page and a story that weaves these different views into a compelling narrative. There’s a kind of creation that is going on at the desks of NY Times reporters that just isn’t going on in my Google News feed, and I think it’s probably a bit misleading to pretend as if those acts aren’t very different.

That said, I do think that there is something similar between aggregators and journalists, even if it isn’t quite the something that Masnick seems to think. But that something is that both are acting as a sort of filter. And while content aggregators aren’t necessarily taking over the content creation role from journalists, they are usurping journalism’s traditional role as arbiter of what’s important.

Consider, for example, the Times famous slogan: All the news that’s fit to print. The Times doesn’t report on every possible story out there. Its reporters and editors look at a bunch of possible stories, then decide which ones merit the time and effort it takes to produce a NY Times-worthy article. The paper in effect acts as a filter, deciding what things its readers ought to know.

That approach makes sense in a world in which news coverage is a (relatively) scarce resource. Printing presses are, after all, fairly expensive, and full-time writers and editors aren’t especially cheap either. But the internet reduces distribution costs to nearly zero. And the supply of people wanting to be writers has always been much, much higher than the market for printed news will bear. So now suddenly you have armies full of amateur journalists who create content for very little money (or even for free) and who can then distribute said content for very little money (or, again, even for free.)

These days, the problem isn’t so much that news coverage is a relatively scarce resource. Indeed, I can find someone, somewhere who is writing on pretty much any topic that there is to be written on. There is no longer a filter. If the Times doesn’t want to cover a story, then someone else will just step in and do it. A simple search will bring me to reports and/or opinions about — well, just about anything.

What that all means is that these days, the really scarce resource is time. Once, I could outsource the filtering to the editors at the Times. Now I have to act as my own filter, and that (as it turns out) can take a great deal of time. That’s where content aggregators can sometimes help. If I outsource the filtering to Ariana Huffington, then I can keep up with what’s important by going to just one place, much as I used to do with the Times. (Of course, this means that I’m likely to have trouble with issues like epistemic closure, since my chosen filters are likely to end up being those filters that tell me only things I want to hear. But that’s an issue for another post.)

All that said, I’m not entirely convinced that content aggregators are particularly good at the role of filtering. At the end of the day, the Huffington Post is more concerned about SEO and pageviews than it is about good journalism or getting the truth out to the public. Crowdsourced filters like Digg or Memorandum are interesting experiments, but they are really best at telling me what everyone else thinks is important. Whether I want to rely on the wisdom of crowds who aren’t sure if the earth goes around the sun or if the president faked his birth certificate is a bit of an open question. Plus, they don’t get me to those hidden gems. Like, say, random articles about journalism and content aggregation.

At the moment, really good filtering still requires some sort of human involvement. The real killer web app is the one that can automate my filtering. Some combination of my social graph plus my RSS reader stats plus my browser history would seem a good place to start.

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On April 10, 2011
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