Tag Archives: News Readers

So Long, and Thanks for All the Links


Prismatic is shutting down its app.

I’ve been fascinated by algorithmic approaches to information overload for quite some time now. It seemed like one of those places where the Web changed everything, and now we need technology to kick in and make our lives so much easier.

Prismatic_logo,_June_2014Prismatic was one of the more promising attempts to that I’ve seen, and I’ve been a user ever since its launch back in 2012. Every time I opened it, it never failed to find me real gems, especially given the tiny setup it required when I first signed up. Prismatic included explicit feedback controls, but it seemed to excel in using my implicit feedback, which is not trivial at all for a mobile product.

flipboard-logo-iconFlipboard is likely the best alternative out there right now, and its excellent onboarding experience helped me get started quickly with a detailed list of topics to follow. With reasonable ad-powered revenue, which Prismatic seemed to shun for whatever reason, it is also less likely to shut down anytime soon. Prismatic still does a much better job than Flipboard in surfacing high-quality, long-tail, non-mainstream sources; let’s hope Flipboard continues improving to get there.

It seems, though, that news personalization is not such a strong selling point. Recently, Apple moved from a pure personalized play for its Apple News app to also add curated top stories, as its view counts disappointed publishers. In my own experience, even the supposed personalized feed was mostly made up of 3-4 mainstream sources anyway. Let’s hope that this is not where information overload is leading us back to. Democratizing news and getting a balanced and diverse range of opinions and sources is a huge social step forward, that the Web and Social Media have given us. Let’s not go backwards.

Death of a News Reader

Dave Winer says I don’t read his posts. He’s right, I admit. I skim.

I’m overloaded. So in the past few months I’ve gradually reduced my subscription list from over 50 feeds to around a dozen, and at the same time increased my reliance on Genieo, which claims to be tracking already 537 feeds for me (though not all are ones I really would fully subscribe to, but that’s the beauty of it…)

When trying to understand what had happened, I came to realize my reader subscriptions list was made of two types of feeds:

  1. Feeds that are generally on topics I’m interested in
  2. Blogs where I thought the author was interesting or smart

Type #1 is, being practical, simply not scalable. There are just too many good sources out there, and not all posts in them are really read-worthy for me, even if just to skim through. So I let Genieo discover those feeds (just clicking through to some posts) and then removed them from my subscription list. It’s amazing how good it feels to safely eliminate a feed from your reader (“…yes, I am sure I want to delete!” :))

Type #2 is more tricky as I would usually be interested in all of the posts even if not in my topics of interest. These include blogs by friends, and blogs by smart people I stumbled upon who seemed worth following. I also wouldn’t want Genieo (or any other learning reader for that matter) to think I’m generally interested in those more random topics and clutter my personalized feed. So I still kept this much shorter list in my reader, but I know I can visit them a lot less frequently and not lose anything.

This combination has been working well for me in recent months. Social diet hurray!

The (Filtered) Web is Your Feed

A few months ago I was complaining here about my rss overload. A commenter suggested that I take a look at my6sense, a browser extension (now also iPhone app) that acts as a smart RSS reader, emphasizing the entries you should be reading. I wanted to give my6sense a go then, but the technical experience was lousy, and moreover – I was expected to migrate my rss reading to it. Too much of a hassle, I gave it up.

In the past few weeks I’ve been test-driving a new player – Genieo, which takes the basic my6sense idea a few steps further. Genieo installs an actual application, not just extension, that plugs into your browser. It tracks your rss feeds automatically, simply by looking for rss feeds in the pages you’re browsing, and learns your feeds without any setup work.

Genieo then goes further to discover feeds on pages you visit even if you’re not subscribed to them, turning your entire browsing history into one big rss feed.  It finally filters this massive pool of content using a semantic profile it builds for your interests, based on analyzing the text you’ve read so far.

For IR people this may sound a lot like Watson, Jay Budzik’s academic project turned contextual search turned an advertising technology acquisition. Watson approached this problem as a search problem: how would I formulate search queries that would run in the background, fetching me the most relevant documents that match the user’s current context? problem is, users are not constantly searching, and would get quickly annoyed by showing general search results when not asked for.

The good thing about an rss feed is that it explicitly says “this is a list of content items to be consumed from this source“, and its temporal nature provides a natural preference ranking (prefer recent items), so a heuristic of “users would be interested in recent and relevant items from feeds in pages they visited” works around the general search difficulty pretty well. Genieo circumvents the expected privacy outcry by running the entire logic on the client side, nothing of the analyzed data leaves your PC (privacy warriors would probably run sniffers to validate that).

In my personal experience, the quality of most results is excellent, and they are almost always posts that would interest me. Genieo quickly picked up my feed subscriptions from clicks I made in my reader to the full article in a browser window (from which it extracted the rss feed), and after a while I could see it gradually picking up on my favorite memes (search, social and others). I did not give up my rss reader for Genieo yet, and I also still have many little annoyances with it, but overall for an initial version, it works surprisingly well.

However, the target audience that is even more suited for Genieo is the not rss-savvy users like me, but the masses out there who don’t know and don’t care about reading feeds. They just want interesting news, and they don’t mind missing on the full list (a-la Dave Winer’s “River of News” concept). Such users will find tools like Genieo as useful as a personal news valet can be.

The Opportunity in RSS Overload

Dare Obasanjo has an interesting post, with a good comments thread, on overflowing feed readers. He’s quoting from a post by Farhad Manjoo on Slate:

You know that sinking feeling you get when you open your e-mail and discover hundreds of messages you need to respond to…

Well, actually Dare’s post is from two weeks ago. The reason I got to read it only now is exactly that…

Yes, I know I don’t really need to ‘respond’ to subscriptions, and the answer should be – unsubscribe, or go on a feeds (or ‘follow’ edges) social diet. But these binary decisions are not always optimal, as I have plenty of feeds I subscribed to after hitting one or two posts I really liked, but that were not on that author’s main subject (if such exists at all). Thus I have to skim through many un-interesting (for me!) posts, many of them somehow always end up discussing twitter. In fact, that’s how most of my feeds look like (including the twitter part).

We need shades of grey between subscribed and unsubscribed. It would be great to have a feed reader that learns from how you use it. It should be quite clear which posts interest me – ones I took time to read, scroll through, press a link etc. – and which did not. Now train a classifier on that data, preferably per-feed (in addition to a general one), and get some sense of what I’m really looking for.
Mark All As Read Day - flickr/sidereal

Now, I don’t need this smart reader to delete the uninteresting ones, let’s not assume too much on its classification accuracy. Just find the right UI to mark the predicted-to-be-interesting items (or even assign them into a special virtual folder). Then I can read these first, and only if/when have time – read the rest.

I assign this to be my pet project in case I win the lottery next week and go into early retirement. Alternatively, if someone saw this implemented anywhere – let me know!

Update: a related follow-up post on a new filtering product I started using.