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Summary:

Twitter’s purchase of Summify, which delivered an email summary of interesting links from a user’s social networks, shows Twitter is trying to get smarter about how it filters the flood of information users are exposed to. It’s a challenge that’s only going to grow.

Twitter made an interesting acquisition on Thursday, when it bought a young Canadian startup called Summify, a company whose service (as its name implies) was designed to cut through the noise of all those social-media streams and summarize the content that matters. More than anything, this is perhaps the single biggest hole that exists not just in Twitter but Facebook and other services as well: the need to give users more ways of filtering the massive amounts of information that keep flooding their activity streams and other social-media inboxes. There are so many ways of producing and sharing content but so few good ways of filtering.

As has been reported elsewhere, Summify says it’s mothballing its service (a decision that was not received warmly by many users), and the team of five will join the growing ranks at Twitter’s new headquarters. The two co-founders, who are originally from Romania, moved to Vancouver, B.C. when they were accepted into an incubator program called Bootup Labs and later received angel funding (according to one report, a Summify investor posted a message that suggested the Twitter acquisition was an all-stock transaction, but the tweet was later deleted). Like some other services such as News.me, Summify filtered a user’s activity streams, then used an algorithm to produce a daily email with links to the most-shared content in their social networks.

While the service is being closed down, it seems fairly obvious that Twitter bought the company to try to incorporate that kind of semantic filtering into its offerings — likely by beefing up its new “Discover” tab, which uses trending topics and other features to try and suggest interesting content to users. As it exists now, the Discover option isn’t very comprehensive or well-organized, and it makes sense for Twitter to try to do that better. One of the service’s challenges has always been to figure out how to keep new users engaged, since it isn’t clear to many what exactly Twitter is for.

As we’ve described before, the need for that kind of curation — whether human-driven or algorithmic, or a combination of both — is hardly unique to Twitter. Facebook also suffers from an information overload problem, one likely to be exacerbated by the launch of hundreds of new “social sharing” apps that will fill users’ feeds with oceans of “news” about things their friends and acquaintances bought or read or ate. Even Google hasn’t been able to solve the information-overload problem, despite its launch of Circles for its Google+ network: a feature many find cumbersome.

In some ways, services like Summify seem like a throwback to the early days of the web, when people wrote blogs that consisted solely of half a dozen links to interesting posts or news articles or websites. In fact, one of the earliest examples of a blog — Jorn Barger’s site Robot Wisdom, which he called a weblog and later shortened to “blog” — was exactly that, and the tradition continues today with link-blogs such as Kottke.org or Brainpickings. The principle is the same as it was when Barger started doing it: to filter the massive amounts of information on the web in some usable way, to make sense of the flood.

In a blog post on the Summify acquisition, Mike Davidson — founder and CEO of an early social-news community called Newsvine, which was later acquired by MSNBC– said his ideal news site would look very much like a Summify email, but on the web: half a dozen links to the most interesting or relevant content available, changing daily. And Summify and News.me are hardly the only ones trying to fill this need. Others, including individual efforts such as Dave Pell’s excellent NextDraft newsletter, are aimed at solving the same problem.

The same impulse is behind apps like Flipboard, which recently started to incorporate more curation elements, both human and algorithmic — and it’s the driving force behind new startups such as Pinterest, as Om pointed out in his coverage of the red-hot newcomer. Smart aggregation and curation that makes sense of the flood of social data we have all around us is the Holy Grail, and it’s also one of the few remaining justifications for traditional media, since journalists have been doing that kind of curation and filtering for decades. But who will ultimately win this race — and how — is still an open question.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Luc Legay and See-ming Lee

  1. Simon Le Pine Friday, January 20, 2012

    I recently wrote a blog post outlining how I believe the next big “thing” will be filtering. We have big data (and content overload), now we need to filter it in order to use it. What I suggested in the blog post is a filter API, that way a user can pick specific words/phrases and filter them from social media, news/blogs, email, etc.

    For example, I have no interest in the latest gang shooting locally. I would like to filter all my news and social media to remove any posts related to shootings.

    Unfortunately for something like this to work the social networks and/or social media apps would have to sign up and you’d have to develop Outlook plugins.

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    1. Hey Simon. totally agreeing with you, the next big thing will be filtering. We are a silicon valley online travel startup called Guestmob, and one of our core innovation is curation. For example, there are 140 hotels in central NYC, We filter down to about 6-7 of only 4 stars with similar quality/amenities/location/price. Did I mention our price is unbeatable? That’s besides the point. However, just wanted to share that with you. Glad to see someone who believes in curation.

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      1. The NEXT BIG SCARY thing is filtering! I can possibly imagine anything worse then filtering… imagine all information controlled by what a computer thinks is important to you till it narrows the information you receive down to a single demension and your a person from the movie “idiocracy”

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  2. Bettina Padurano Friday, January 20, 2012

    Thought it useless.

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  3. Matt its not just content curation is the future

    1) content curation with API-oriented approach for shared Web content flow model
    2) mining and integration of social graph with interest graph with better understanding of relationships and user behavior
    3) more sophisticated aggregation and federation of data sources using semantic linked data style structuring

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    1. Richard Creamer Saturday, January 21, 2012

      Steve, great ideas/suggestions. It’s encouraging to encounter people with a deeper understanding of these issues.

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      1. Thx Richard and so you know I consult across my 1-3 points. Also weary of peeps who think it’s just curation or filtering as the future ;)

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    2. It’s a model thats set for failure! Think about how wrong this can go so fast… http://www.ted.com/talks/eli_pariser_beware_online_filter_bubbles.html

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      1. Muchas gracis por el link, buenas ideas : Thank you very much for the link, great stuff

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  4. Joshua Ledgard Friday, January 20, 2012

    I loved this awesome service.

    Great for the founders. But what sucks about these “talent grabs” is that it leaves users hung out to dry.

    We’re working on a great alternative called SiftSocial that won’t be shut down any time soon. Sign up for our beta today! http://www.siftsocial.com/?s=1SKC.

    Our focus is to help you engage more efficiently in conversations and content online.

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  5. I am truly inspired by this article. I do agree that curation is the future. For example, in the travel business, no one wants to sit for hours and hours to go through 200 hotels in just one neighborhood. One of Guestmob’s core innovation is curation, we help travelers to cut through the noise of advertisement, false reviews and get to the hotel that you want. Our hotel curation system saves you the time&trouble of finding quality hotels with good reviews. We despise poor quality hotels with nasty stains or broken glasses.
    Great piece! It’s shared on our company’s facebook page. :)

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    1. Isn’t one comment promoting your company enough?

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      1. Not promoting, but making a connection with curation.

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  6. William Mougayar Friday, January 20, 2012

    Hold on a second. Crowd-sourced social filtering is not really curation, unless one is really loose with that word’s meaning.

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    1. Why do you say that, William? I think there are many different kinds of curation, some human and some not — the best systems have some of each, I think.

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  7. Kevin Marshall Friday, January 20, 2012

    The acquisition is more about an email service/feature that Twitter wants to offer than it is about the filtering or algorithms that Summify had.

    They are getting a really good and talented team that has spent a lot of time and energy building an email service to scale…and they are getting them pretty cheap…it’s really a great fit/deal for both parties I think.

    Disclosure: I built http://knowabout.it (my own horse in this general space) and we are likely poised to also benefit greatly from this news (though we offer up something slightly different, I believe many Summify users will likely find what we offer fills the void very nicely).

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    1. Do you know for sure that Twitter wasn’t interested in the filtering methods or algorithms? An email service doesn’t seem like the kind of thing you would have to buy a company to figure out.

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      1. Kevin Marshall Friday, February 17, 2012

        Sorry for the delay in response…they may eventually use the filtering or algorithms, but Twitter actually acquired a company called Julpan last summer that was also in the same basic space…that team is in the NYC offices, and as far as I know they are the ones focused on search and discovery at Twitter…

        So I think if they were going to integrate the Summify tech, they would most likely have put them in the NYC offices rather than the CA offices (where I believe the email efforts are being built up)…

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    2. I was very happy with using Summify as an app in HootSuite. Please integrate Knowabout.it as a HootSuite app! It’s so much easier to monitor and reshare right from the HootSuite interface.

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      1. Kevin Marshall Friday, February 17, 2012

        Will look into it for sure…thanks for the idea!

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  8. Stop using curation. You are all using it wrong, give that word back to the curators at actual museums.

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  9. Gopala Krishnan Friday, January 20, 2012

    It’s content 101 duh! It is not a throwback to the early days of the WEB. It is a simple return, to a common sense content filtering and presentation mechanism that has existed in the traditional publishing industry for decades (print etc.) .”curation”? It’s the return of the content “Editor”, as understood in traditional publishing. She makes sense of the noise and publishes only the relevant stuff. People have biological limitations – they can’t handle vast amounts of information (noise) thrown at them. Atomated filtration/curation does not work either. Humans are still way more capable than machine algorithms to make “meaning” . Editors with expertise and knowledge will be the people who make “meaning”.

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    1. Gopala Krishnan Friday, January 20, 2012

      That’s “Automated” and not ” Atomated”

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  10. Filtering/content curation/relevance…..I think that all of these offer great opportunities for development. But, as observers of the stream of info, would too much content creation stymie creative thought/leads/ideas? Or would it just get plain boring after a while? Utter irrelevance sometimes sparks ideas!!

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