Friday, June 22, 2007

Do you get your news from robots?

The rise of news aggregators like Techmeme, digg, and reddit (what's with the social services using all lower-case letters) raises an interesting question: Is the traditional role of the editor being replaced by robots and crowds?

While Techmeme uses an algorithm to find the day's top tech-oriented stories, sites like digg and reddit rely on users to determine what stories make it to the front page. Anyone can submit a link to a story, whether it be from a traditional newspaper's web site, a blog, or just a Flickr photo. Then users vote stories up or down. It's not a pure democracy, there seems to be some sort of algorithm for determining how many votes it takes to move a story up, and there are some instances where the folks running these sites seem to intervene.

The thing is, like Google News, none of these sites features any real reporting of the news. They wouldn't exist if people weren't still writing original stories for blogs, newspapers, radio, and television. So the question isn't, will robots and crowds replace reporters. It's whether they'll replace editors in determining the page layout.

For now, I'm going to go with no. Digg, Techmeme, and even RSS readers like Google Reader all present a way to find the news you're interested in from multiple sources. None of these services will replace the New York Times or Engadget any time soon. Rather, they'll continue to pull relevant stories from those sources.

I tend to get most of my information about the world from Google Reader these days. At one point I went out and found hundreds of feeds that I wanted to aggregate into a single "river of news." Now every now and again I delete a feed I'm not reading very often or add a new one that I find (usually through a link on another blog or news site). But I also subscribe to Techmeme through Google Reader, and to custom keyword feeds provided by Digg, Google News, and Google Blog Search.

So pretty much everything I'm reading has been vetted by an editor, who decided whether it should go in the original newspaper or on the original website. Then it either comes to me directly because I've chosen to subscribe to this feed, or it's chosen by a robotic service and sent to me. In some instances, it's crowd-sourced, because my Digg keyword search relies on someone actually using my specified keywords in their descriptions of the article.

Readers who really want or need to get their news from a single source, like their hometown newspaper, or an industry trade publication will continue to go to the primary source. If there's a revolution going on right now, it's not a push to replace those news sources. Rather, there's a trend toward allowing users to pick and choose the news they consume.

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