Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Aggregator opportunities agglomerating dust and rust

After a long period of neglecting Gabe Rivera's creations, I have recently returned to Memeorandum, as part of my current part-time obsession with politics and economics blogs. There is a certain vigour and urgency about economics blogs in particular these days, due to the disconnect between many economists and the policies of those who are in charge of the levers. Techmeme doesn't interest me, and hasn't done since Silicon Valley gave up on game-changing consumer-facing innovation many years ago in favour of focusing on built-to-flip outsourced R&D for whales like Facebook and Google - which of course isn't Gabe's fault. Aggregators are only as strong as the sites they aggregate.

As the long, inexorable decline of Fairfax and (to a lesser extent) News Ltd comes to a head, with the demise of their newspapers possibly only months away, I find myself wondering what opportunities exist for aggregation startups once the concept of a front page moves beyond the static dead tree version, once and for all. Gabe's model is still the best, I think: target the insiders, make it about prestige, obscure the algorithm, and keep 'em hungry.

His model has evolved over the years to the point where he now has six human editors to supplement the robot rhythms, and is looking for more. News is much more often found through social media or superstar blogger links these days than through ersatz front pages, of course, but I still think there is a place for semi-automated aggregators where there isn't a connection with the linkers. This is because there is still value in crowds, especially crowds of professionals, not just the immediate social network. Gatekeepers who do a good job of prioritising news sources are valuable in their own right, especially in the Techmeme model where users still believe there is a strong element of meritocracy to the classifications.

Professional gatekeepers also make the blogosphere better. Applying rules in the algorithm to reward length and originality over "quote unquote RTWT", supplanted by the judgment of human editors to promote stories which provide fresh perspectives, trains bloggers to write the sort of stories that readers actually want to read. This creates a virtuous circle where bloggers work harder to impress the aggregator, but end up impressing the readers as a byproduct, leading to readers relying on the aggregator to deliver them the better stories, meaning the bloggers have to work harder to get on the aggregator. This is what Google PageRank is supposed to be about, and it is still a good system if policed to avoid abuses by content farms.

If there is a market niche yet to be filled, actually, it is an aggregator which makes this "nudge" effect explicit, in that it applies a series of robot- and/or human-generated judgements to individual stories with user-exposed editorialisation. This happens already of course, in that the placement and ordering of stories is a series of judgments on the worthiness of stories. I'm talking here about going beyond the low-added-value listing of stories linking to a primary story, and instead giving readers some easy visual indication about how closely the stories adhere to the topic of the cluster (i.e. avoiding the contentless "pundit roundup" or "today's links" article), how early in the story the link appears (i.e. avoiding the gratuitous end link in an article mostly about something else), whether the story adds any substantive analysis (i.e. avoiding the lazy "here's what someone else said" summary article), and whether the story agrees or disagrees with the premise of the original story (i.e. to promote stories that rebut the primary story, as has happened recently on Memeorandum with several misreported PRISM-related stories). These visual indications could be established through colour, icons, text, or just placement through further clustering.

One of the major ways I think Gabe is still streeting the competition is that he keeps his business structure simple - he owns it all AFAIK, and at least has 100% control - and he keeps his burn rate low. This means he is under little pressure to splash ads in the faces of his users, unlike Facebook or Twitter whose sponsored posts are way more intrusive these days than Techmeme or the others. People still tell me another social network will supplant Facebook eventually, and if there is then excessive advertising is why they will fail.

Aggregation, if not the Techmeme brand itself, is extensible to the post-newspaper world, even in (or because of?) these overcast times of the Great Recession. You don't necessarily have to do everything that Gabe did if you want to succeed, but you'd have to have a damn good reason to do something different. Gabe, in his wisdom, has left a vast amount of vertical and horizontal sectors open to competitors. What would it take for someone to take up the cudgel and get stuck in?

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