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Thinking About News Aggregation Sites

My first news aggregation site was memepool.com. This site was basically a sporadically updated blog that had “good” links. Like most people of the era, I had been getting URL’s in the mail for a great number of years already, but in 2001 when I encountered this site, the standard for quality and range of links was sufficiently raised.

Let me also introduce a third axis called freshness that could be added which measures the frequency of update. These will be the elements in our three dimensional grid of considerations.

  • Freshness
  • Range
  • Quality

Notably, the latter two axes are much more subjective ( last post can be measured ).

I would say that typical content of the pre-memepool era would be links to:

Evaluating Pre-Aggregator Sites

Let me take a moment to evaluate these original sources in light of the three axes.

NameFreshnessRangeQuality

The Onion

5 3 5

Slashdot

6 4 5

Something Awful 4 5 7

Fark

6 5 5

By this calculation it’s pretty much a very average group. A quick note, I consider SA’s lower freshness score to be a great help with respect to its overall quality, so, good on your guys.

Nevertheless the hugeness of these sites eventually seems to have soured my relationship with them.

The Onion, well, comedy has a fleeting muse ( Steve Martin and “The Simpsons” come to mind ) and I’m pretty sure TO and I went our separate ways after I graduated in 2000. Slashdot was my friend from 1997 to 2001 as I went desktop Linux guy - but the comments turned to chrome and the articles were of dubious value (“IBM to say something about something that SCO said about something that will help Red Hat take over the desktop”). I could never get into fark.com, preferring Rich Kyanka’s antics much more and the famous Photoshop Phriday ( hey SB, when was the last time you checked that out? ).

I think for each of these the range value was very low, and that was probably the reason they were able to fall off my radar so completely with so little effect.

And for the humor-oriented sites in those list, I get the same feeling reading the humor there that I imagine must drip about the offices of those places that make t-shirts like “I’d hit that” (pic of a piñata ) or Chuck Norris jokes. It’s a smarmy, self-congratulatory, white-kid from the suburbs comes to the city hipster phoney bullshit humor. Or, in graphics:

Ad for BustedTees Pinata Buy it here

+

Aging Gen-Xer Doesn’t Find Bad Movies Funny Anymore ( At The Onion, ironically enough)

= Steven un-amused

I swear, if Nick Hornby were to re-write “High Fidelity” today, instead of using boy-men fetishizing music as an excuse for their inability to have genuine human contact he could set it in a t-shirt fabrication place like this: same hipster shorthand of pop-cultural vertigo ( Tarantino, what hast thou wrought? ) same emotional impotence, new medium.

Evaluating Aggregator 1.0: Memepool

Back to memepool. I loved memepool, it introduced me to some very good things ( not least of which, The White Stripes and their phenomenal “Fell In Love With a Girl video”).

NameFreshnessRangeQuality

memepool.com

7 6 7

Yet the updates stopped coming with a great regularity as the owner, Joshua Schachter, was preparing to launch internet super-popular site del.icio.us. I came across this particular bit of information at Y Combinator’s startup school in Palo Alto where I was also introduced to YC startup reddit.com.

Shortly thereafter I was introduced to Digg as the dorky, Reddit for the Windows crowd solution.

A quick valuation of Digg Versus Reddit on the axes comes out a slaughter in the favor of Reddit:

NameFreshnessRangeQuality

reddit

9 6 (falling) 8 (falling)

digg

9 5 (static) 6 (falling)

Comments:

  • Freshness: Equal, debatably
  • Range: Advantage Reddit: I never see anything about Haskell hit the front page of Digg
  • Quality: Both the comments and the up-voted articles are stronger

So, for my time and effort, reddit is the superior product.

Well, that’s a lot of characters to merely say “I like Reddit better”. I say that as prelude to, I believe Reddit ( and thus other sites which it is a best of breed representative of ) is beginning to fail on some of my axes, and I also believe that other solutions may have a leg up on key features that I now want: range and utility.

Reddit is losing breadth

  • Ron Paul
  • Atheism
  • anti-Bush ( warranted, but can’t 4 redundant articles on Rove’s resignation be clustered, or grouped? )
  • Many more [PIC] posts

Reddit lacks personal utility

In reddit the dynamic is post / vote / comment. The latter two are “consume” activities and fairly passive at that. The former is the only opportunity where the user gets to try to manipulate what will come out of the community. An example:

Reddit has no ask Reddit, or it’s reviled

Many people have wanted to harness the hiv emind power of Reddit by posting ask Reddit “Why is there so much….” and it’s generally regarded as some sort of trolling, karma-whoring or some other sittlichkeit-incompatible behavior.

Freshness only really seems to exist in the subreddits

I find great freshness and variety in programming.reddit.com ( although I usually end a reading session in that area looking at CS grad programs and feeling rather ignorant ) - but the main / new pages are pretty much the same as the hot page. I think this is actually a statistical side effect of large numbers voting, but that’s someone else’s thesis to pursue.

Wanted:

Something like memepool.com, with great variety, a geek-ish bend, but that supports the community using itself as a tools to find answers of that geek-ish, aware, progressive bend that has a squelch on the hipper than thou sense of humor edgy sites have ( i.e. get back to your “Adult Swim” Tivo backlog ).

Answer: Metafilter.com

Just look at it. Intelligent mini-paragraphs with many embedded links ( posting to metafilter appears to be a bit of an art, hiding a twist ending or a big reveal is something posters enjoy ). All of these are solid entries and what’s missing? MeFi doesn’t seem to have a voting component.

How is this possible?

  1. Democracy has been disbanded, the administrators are gods
  2. Responsibility has been enforced on pain of monetary lost

And that brings me to the great revelation in my considerations of MeFi v. reddit.com: You have to pay to post at MeFi.

Metafilter Culture

Here’s a comic summarizing the MeFi ethic (naughty words inside!).

That pretty much sums it up: * You put $5.00 in escrow with us * If you post stupid stuff we will ban you and keep your $5.00 * People on the internet hate paying for stuff, so we rule out a majority of the internet from polluting our site by making people pay a paltry amount to post or comment. If they can’t own up $5.00 they don’t deserve the goodness we have ( see Apple, or Fake Steve on “Freetards” ) * You can ask the community stuff…just do it in the right place

And what do they get? Wide-ranging, lucid, well written posts.

Democracy, or something Good, but not both

In place of the $5.00 escrow and the administrative overhead, aggregation sites (reddit, digg) use ‘democracy’ and ‘voting’ to weed out the trolls / un-good content. After some serious time invested in reddit my conclusion is this: They do a really average job of it – because it’s a huge amount of people! The very definition of “average”!. If you weed out the average of bad, you have the average of good, and with my limited time resources, I don’t want the average of good, I want the best.

Democracy and up/downvoting is not a replacement for an active administrator ( dictator ) / staff with taste.

Think about it. Name something that was created by committee ( group larger than 5 ) that was truly great and fast. Try the reverse. Great things and great communities are made and led by great individuals whose fanatical obsession with the preservation of those things ensures the greatness of the product. Steve Jobs, Howard Roark, Prince, Jonathan Ive. As Hannah Arendt noted, the revolutionary brotherhood has a fanatic desire to become The Central Committe and snuff out its zeal with a trade for a few changes and comfort.

And as I write this I recall something. Memepool was not a product of the community, it was the product of the superior taste of Joe Schachter. It was a dictatorship. People trusted his opinion because the content was best.

If reddit is “everyone posts, in for free” on one extreme and memepool.com is “someone with taste makes the call” at the other extreme, metafilter is the happy medium. People with taste, responsibility, and the commitment to put a measly five bucks in put in their tastiest choices.

Final evaluation of metafilter.com

NameFreshnessRangeQuality

metafilter.com

9 8 9 (consistent)

The one area that it’s weak is in the programming area, and an RSS feed to the Programming sub-reddit and / or to Lambda The Ultimate should cover that.

Pay the man

I used to always be irked about “pay” BBS‘ or The WELL. Now I see, I was unwilling to pay the entrance fee for quality because I had more vast amounts of time for chaff. I’m now willing to pay to drop the chaff from my internet-at-this-current-moment survey diet.

Reddit, you’re on notice, and I’m about to drop $5.00.

{ Copy writers / editors should also agree that having an editor review, align, and polish you words is the difference between “blogging” and “writing”, the two should be considered different activities, surface similarities aside }

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