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Summary:

Why have so many technology startups tried to create a “Daily Me”-style personalized news service and failed? Bill Gross, the founder of Idealab and a legendary Silicon Valley entrepreneur, says that such a service is already here right now — it’s called Twitter and Facebook.

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An interesting question asked on Quora, the question-and-answer site (whose cofounder I interviewed recently) is about “personalized news” and why so many startups had tried to solve the problem and failed. Thoughtful answers have been posted by Techmeme founder Gabe Rivera and VC Eghosa Omoigui, among others, but I think the most recent answer hits the nail on the head. It comes from Idealab founder Bill Gross, a well-known Silicon Valley entrepreneur (he pioneered search-related advertising at Overture, for example). In a nutshell, he says the “Daily Me” is already here, thanks to Facebook and Twitter.

Gross says the idea of a personalized news service hasn’t failed at all, but is here “in disguise.” The Idealab founder says he has been “dreaming about ‘The Daily Me’ for 20 years, and I think it has finally wildly succeeded — it’s called Facebook and Twitter.” The two social networks have all the qualities that allow them to function as personalized news platforms, he says:

Important information to you. Curated by others. Refined by you. Serendipity included. Many people doing the filtering. Humans plus some algorithms, but mostly humans.

Gross adds that Twitter and Facebook also have another important feature, in that they are “good enough out of the box to get you going, and then you improve over time — over years even. Always giving you just enough to keep you in.”

I think Gross is right. Not that there isn’t room for a personalized news service that can bring something new to the table (Flipboard perhaps), but for many people, Twitter and Facebook are taking the place of other avenues for news. As I’ve argued before, Twitter has become a news platform, for better or worse, and the social aspect of friends and people you follow sharing those news links is an extremely powerful force. In an attempt to take advantage of that, Google has reportedly been experimenting with using Twitter as a social layer for its news service, and startups like Paper.li are leveraging that same phenomenon to build what are effectively personalized online newspapers.

For me, the ability to see news-related links and commentary shared by people I follow, and whose opinions I respect, is infinitely more desirable than a service that picks things it thinks I will like via some algorithm, or even the RSS reader that I have fine-tuned but now spend very little time reading (or a lot less than I used to).

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Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Arvind Grover

  1. You are making a solid case. Still hoping to be able to prove you wrong over the next year or so :-) Have a great week end.

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    1. I hope you can prove me wrong too, Edwin!

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  2. Really interesting article!

    I think that it goes to show the power of expectations: people expect the “Daily Me” to look and work a certain way, so Twitter and Facebook (in that capacity) are hiding in plain sight. Meanwhile, when you take a step back and think about what the “Daily Me” achieves, then you see Facebook and Twitter achieving those things already.

    Thanks!

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  3. Twitter is an interesting news discovery platform but it’s not comprehensive enough, as soon as you step outside of the hot topics.

    That said, Twitter is an excellent delivery platform, especially if you mix curated or custom streams (eg via Eqentia) into your stream, then you’ve got a comprehensive real-time drip news stream.
    If we only relied on friends to get the news, you’ll be getting what everybody else is getting, but you’ll be missing a lot. You need to complement what’s popular and obvious with what’s unique and insightful. And to do that, you need booster tools like the one I just mentioned

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  4. Twitter and Facebook increasingly show the power of news discovery via social curation, where friends and trusted authors can filter an increasingly cluttered web.

    William makes some excellent points to this end. While these platforms are increasingly becoming the default “my feed” for content, there are big opportunities to enhance the relevancy and “trust-factor” of this coverage.

    1. Technology: more advanced semantic and data-oriented algorithms will move us beyond today’s simple RSS and keyword search systems, letting you follow topic and thematic based subjects vs. only source-based (New York Times) or author following. Technology providers will add value providing superior relevancy improvements to today’s content experiences.

    2. Curation Tools: more powerful publishing tools will let bloggers and content editors easily a) search the web for relevant content around niche topics and b) allow content (articles, blogs, tweets, videos) to be easily re-packaged and published into enhanced content streams.

    Bill Gross predicts that mostly humans will do the filtering and I agree. As human curation becomes the key “filter” for the web, there will also be new opportunities for trusted publishers and professional authors to curate topics (potentially going deeper and with more authoritativeness than my friends or the crowd). In this new distributed landscape, trusted authors will be largely discovered and consumed via “Daily Me” platforms like Twitter and Facebook vs. publisher’s websites.

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  5. Keith Williamson Monday, November 15, 2010

    These are great points Matt! However, there are two things that have always bothered me with using facebook and twitter for personalized news.

    1. Friends aren’t the best editors. In fact, if you look at links shared on facebook, they are mostly unrelated to current events. Most links shared on facebook are those that are outrageous, hilarious or pure gossip.

    2. There is nothing different about using twitter as an alternative to RSS readers, since they are one and the same thing. For both twitter and RSS readers, you have to follow sources that you like. RSS feeds are updated just as often (if not more) as compared to twitter feeds. However, twitter feeds are more social since they can attract comments from people you know. However, it makes your news experience more social, but doesn’t improve the quality of news you receive in any way.

    3. Gross incorrectly states that “Serendipity” is some-how a consequence of facebook and twitter. The fact of matter is that it is not. Your friends don’t post links based on your likings, but based on their own interests that they want to project on others. Same goes for your twitter sources that you follow.

    The fundamental problem that I see with social networks as an alternative to personalized news is that they do not change the overall quality of news – be it article selection, authenticity, ranking or even serendipity. All they do is make the news consumption process more social. Period.

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    1. Those are good points, Keith — you are right that social networks don’t really change the type of news you are consuming in most cases, although depending on who you follow I think it can make a difference particularly in terms of serendipity. I follow some people specifically because they share things I would never otherwise see, for example.

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