Saturday, October 22, 2005

A critique of Memeorandum

I've posted some less than complimentary things about Memeorandum on other blogs, so now that I have one of my own I guess I should put my thoughts into a cohesive whole, all the better for others to snipe at. Who am I to criticise? Well, Tinfinger is aimed somewhat at Memeorandum's area so I have been thinking about these issues a lot, but more on that later.

First, the basic concept of Memeorandum is undeniably attractive, even if the design is, as many have said, ugly. I don't think it's that ugly anyway. At least it keeps the black/blue/purple/green standard of coloring, which many prettier sites eschew to their detriment. The most "important" stories are at the top and are grouped by topic and ordered by relevance, which is an innovative approach for an automated system and must have been a bitch to code (and probably continues to be as Gabe Rivera, the one man band behind the site, continues to refine). The fact that it is updated every five minutes is not to be underestimated as a selling point. The treatment of blogs as at least equivalent if not more important than traditional news sources is revolutionary in a search engine, something even Yahoo hasn't quite got yet.

I also like Gabe's stated raison d'etre for the site, particulary the "Web as editor" meme. I would liken what he's trying to do to Google's PageRank algorithms, particularly Google's concept of "neighbourhoods". Gabe has defined two "good neighbourhoods".

Now, to my criticisms. First, the site includes only two pages: Politics and Tech. So much for the Long Tail of Internet content. Furthermore, the stories and blogs which show up on those two pages reflect a very narrow vision of politics and technology. It is rare to get a non-American story showing up on the Politics page, and equally rare among those American stories to get anything other than a federal story. The Tech page is far too dominated by Web 2.0, and American-focused sources in general. Ivan Pope said it better than I in the comments at TechCrunch:
Well, sorry. I have problems with Memeorandum. If you want AMERICAN politics, maybe it’s great. If you want Tech news, maybe.
It just seems so opaque and so fixed. I went looking for the settings so I could tweak it towards my interests.
But no, I can have US national politics (Coburn anti-pork measure anyone in Europe?) or 2.0 West Coast Tech, but anything else aint on the radar.
It’s not that it’s a bad tool, but it’s like only having a hammer in your toolbox - not much use for most jobs.
Gabe needs to introduce more channels, that much is clear. I don't know what he's doing with his time (apart from attending every possible Web 2.0 hallway convo, drinkies, BBQ, etc), but I fear he may be engaging in what my friend Cameron has termed "turd polishing" - when you spend too long trying to perfect your previous creations, when your time would be far more productively spent on making something new and/or better. Apologies if you find that insulting Gabe, it's meant in the NPW.

Another bugbear is the closed, ivory tower nature of the process. Why doesn't Gabe publish the list of sites he indexes through an OPML file? Why doesn't he make more of a big deal about accepting email submissions for new sites (apparently he does)? More importantly, if/when he has the algorithms and other code down pat, why doesn't he open the site up so users can define their own pages with their own neighborhoods of sources?

One related thing that bugs me about the site is its insularity. You see the same sources over and over again, particularly on the Tech page. I see some good reviews from bloggers, but who are the people saying how the site changes their lives? Scoble, Winer and Arrington: the very people who are mentioned most often on it. Of course it's revolutionary to them, it's like an automated ego stroking machine to them. What about the readers? Anyone remember them? How does it revolutionise their lives? Again, I should stress that this is a negative that could quite easily be turned into a positive - if the content focus was widened so that everyone had their very own sub-memeorandum where they were the stars of the page, even if it means giving the top headline to pictures of their cat.

There are other complaints, major and minor. Where is the revenue stream? Why no ads? Why no facilities at all for user-generated content? Why no link directly to the source story on the right "new item" bar? Why no metadata on mouseover of a news/blog site name (like author or site slogan or time since posted)?

This all leads me to my main criticism of Memeorandum: it looks like a proof-of-concept site which has not progressed to maturity. This may not be fair purely because it is accurate, I don't know - if it is accurate, then it would be unkind to criticise before Gabe is finished. Nonetheless Gabe, being only one guy who evidently has a busy life now, looks likely to have his lunch eaten by others who build on his proof of concept and make a much better site using his pioneering concepts.

As a disclosure: some of the questions above will be answered by Tinfinger, hopefully. I don't know that we want to eat Gabe's lunch... we have bigger fish to fry.


Anonymous PeteCashmore said...

I think memeorandum is a nice tool, and useful for seeing the bigger picture. Of course it has its flaws, but you really can't please everyone. Adding more categories will certainly help. But yes, there are lots of opportunities in this space, and it'll be cool to see what new stuff Tinfinger can bring to the table.

6:10 am, October 23, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks Paul...even though it's mostly familiar ground to me, you make some good points, and I'm even working already in some of these areas.

Thanks also for the time management advice. My secret to making time for BBQs is refraining from blogger photoshopping projects. :)

Not sure my time's best served in responding categorically to things, but perhaps a good rule is to substitute "Google News" for memeorandum in many of these questions. Example: why doesn't Google News "open" the site to allow user-defined news pages? Probably because that's a vastly different and more formidable product from an engineering point of view, and iffy from a marketing point of view.
-Gabe Rivera

5:15 am, October 31, 2005  
Blogger Paul Montgomery said...

I'm glad to see you took the post in the positive nature it was intended Gabe, even though I look back at it now and cringe at how arrogant and negative it looks in retrospect. I apologise for any offence.

Good to hear I echoed at least some of your thoughts, even if it sounds like you won't go down the franchising route. I wish you the best of luck with it.

5:30 am, October 31, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh no, franchising has always been on the table. I wouldn't take the Google News analogy that far!

5:53 am, October 31, 2005  
Blogger Paul Montgomery said...

Aha! I knew it! :P

5:55 am, October 31, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If you think memeorandum is US-centric just wait until you try the other TechCrunch darling Sphere. I suspect their ranking algorithm is based around proximity to the Web 2.0 BBQs.

10:09 am, October 31, 2005  
Anonymous Wong Online PoKér Hu said...

Memeorandum is a good tool and certainly, improvements like category addition would be helpful. I'm sure that eventually, everything would work out fine.

5:16 pm, November 28, 2005  

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