Do you use an aggregator to get your news?

Maybe it’s Facebook?  Maybe you just follow the links from Twitter?  In our new day of being ultra-connected there are a million options out there.  We turn to the news on TV, and some of us actually get a daily paper or perhaps the occasional magazine, but more and more of us now rely on our devices to get our news.  A little chirp and suddenly we get a 140-character headline.  There, now we’re up to date.  And more and more of us are using some sort of aggregator to curate this content into a broader form for us.

I’m kind of addicted to Alltop.   Alltop was started by Guy Kawasaki.  He spent several years as the chief “evangelist” at Apple.  This was during the mid-80’s and Kawasaki was instrumental in getting developers and hardware geeks involved in making Apple Computer what it is today.  Alltop uses complex algorithms to find the top stories about a wide variety of subjects and compile them into a sort of “online magazine rack”.  You can use the site as a sort of Google for searching topics, you can search for topics alphabetically, or you can build your own personal site with publications of your choosing.  Mine, for example, gives me the daily headlines from The New York Times, Mashable, Slate, The Washington Post, Rolling Stone, Salon, The Richmond Times Dispatch, AdWeek, Wired, Treehugger, and other titles.  I get local, national, and world news, plus tech stuff and fun stuff that I just like to read.  I can also use the search to click on “coffee” and get blogs, articles, and hundreds of other timely, topical information about my life-bringing beverage of choice.  I use it a great deal at Rocket Pop Media as I look for relevant content for clients.

I just got Flipboard for my phone, and I’m kind of a fan of that!  It’s kind of like Alltop, and you can build a personalized magazine rack for browsing.   I set up links for music content, for magazines like The Atlantic, and it gives me a nice news feed.

Another great site is Digg.  As you surf the Internet, if you see something that you like, you can “digg” it and share it with users of Digg.   The more people who like a story, the higher its ranking on the site.

The same holds true of reddit.  The name itself is a play on words.  “I read it”.  The set-up is like a chat forum, where users share links to favorite stories.  As readers like or dislike stories, the ranking of the item will go up or down.

Topix is a very localized sort of aggregator.  It uses over 50,000 sources and links almost a half a million user-generated forums to determine content.  The good news is that you can find out almost anything about your town.  The bad news is that you can find out almost anything about your town.  Topix invites comments, and lots of them.  It will give you a quick snapshot of the news item, then a link to the actual article, and then a page of comments.  Not all comments should be published, if you know what I mean.

If you have a great desire to be productive, avoid StumbleUpon.  You tell the site what you’re interested in, and it will find the “best” on the web for you to peruse.  It may be photos, a web site, a video, or an article.  You can follow people and see what they’ve enjoyed stumbling upon.  As you view items, you can give them a thumbs up or thumbs down, and StumbleUpon will tweak the formula to give you more carefully curated content.  It’s dangerous.

There is a great drawback to this method of news-gathering:  what’s trending may not be that important.  David Weinberger of Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society says that while we’re interested in a pretty broad range of stuff, “the challenge is trying to educate our interests.”  Just look at the example of Twitter.

Twitter has set some pretty cool records for sharing news:  sometimes important, sometimes goofy.  If you remember Sully landing the plane in the Hudson River, you’ll remember that it was on Twitter with pictures before it was on any major news outlet.  Twitter has also played a key role in the Arab Spring and continues to fuel the fight for democracy around the world.

Twitter is also fun to watch.  When a cobra escaped from the Bronx Zoo, someone set up a fake account, @bronxzoocobra, and let me tell you, that stuff was funny.  “slithering up #wallstreet.  bankers make my skin crawl”, or “at the #empirestatebuilding.  all of the people down there look like little tiny mice”.

But do you know what the biggest trend of the year was?  Justin Beiber.  Lady Gaga, the Jonas Brothers, and Britney Spears were in the top ten, too.  The Japan earthquake was number 9.  On August 23rd, the earthquake and tsunami generated almost 5,500 tweets per second.  The raid on Osama bin Laden gathered 5,106 per second.  When Steve Jobs passed away it was worth 6,049 per second.  And…ready for this?

 

When Beyonce opened her jacket at the MTV Awards and showed the world her baby bump it rated almost 9,000 tweets per second, a new Twitter record.  Interesting?  Sure.  News?  Harrrrumph.

 

When Bill Keller became the editor of The New York Times (“All the News That’s Fit to Print”), he wrote in his first column that, “Some once-serious news outlets give pride of place not to stories they think are important but to stories that are “trending” on Twitter.”  And to a certain extent he’s right.

When you use an aggregator like Alltop or Reddit, or if you get all of your news from social media, what do you miss?  You may end up with headlines like “silly cats” or the latest viral video of Nick Jonas combing his hair.  Even a look at some of the outlets that I somewhat respect, like CNN or Huffington Post end up breaking up my “breaking news” with garbage about Kim Kardashian’s breakup or the latest toddler doing something cute.

Aggregators also lose track of the how, why, and when something is important.   If a country is making motions to go to war, a human aggregator (Hey!  An Editor!) will recognize the rumblings and promote articles that will prepare the reader for the coming eruption.  Likewise, a story that swept the country yesterday may be completely played out today while algorithms will continue to push it to the top of the list.

In the end, it’s about information.  You could certainly get all of your news from Google.  “I wonder what the President’s up to today?”  Type in his name and Google will feed you the biggest, latest, bestest information about him.  To a larger extent, it’s about crafted content.  Someone who has made a career out of following the President is probably a good barometer of whether or not Obama going to a widget factory in Tumbleweed, Montana is super important.  A good journalist is also going to create anticipation.  “If he does X you can certainly expect Y”.  Sounds very ‘algorithmic’, doesn’t it?

An aggregator is a great tool for scanning through hundreds of headlines looking for the article that speaks to you.  The Atlantic recently had an article about writing headlines.  Do you write something that will entice the reader to explore or do you write something that is search-friendly?  While choosing your aggregator isn’t about finding a bon mot banner, the title of the Atlantic article was very telling:  “Google Doesn’t Laugh.”

Now, that’s funnier than a cat video.