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As the flow of information from social networks and other digital sources like Twitter continues to increase, the need to have that river of data filtered and “curated” also increases. That has produced a growing crop of curation and aggregation services and apps, including one called News.me, which started as a side project within the New York Times and then became part of the Betaworks startup incubator run by John Borthwick in New York. Now the iPad app has been spun off as a separate company to sink or swim on its own — but can it compete against giants like Flipboard and other newer competitors?
Although the focus on filtering and aggregation of social content is the same, News.me is a little different from both Flipboard and other services such as Summify and Percolate (or Xydo or the Washington Post’s new Trove service, or the half dozen other players in the “curation” space). While you can look at just a stream of links that come from the people you follow on Twitter — filtered by News.me’s algorithms, which are based in part on data from the link-shortening service Bitly, a Betaworks sister company — the main focus of the app is on looking at other people’s activity streams.
A view of other people’s Twitter streams
As Betaworks founder and CEO John Borthwick explained it to me when I visited the New York-based incubator earlier this year, one of the central ideas behind News.me was to allow users to “look over the shoulder” of people they follow on Twitter (and over the shoulders of certain prominent users selected by News.me because they share relevant content). Clicking on one of the avatars in the top bar of the app — pictured below — shows you a view of that person’s Twitter stream, which has also been filtered by the service’s proprietary relevance algorithms (this filtering can also be turned off from within the app).
When News.me first launched, I was really interested in this aspect of the app. Lots of different services will filter and aggregate my own Twitter stream for me — including “customized newspaper” services like Paper.li and Summify, and iPad apps like Flipboard and Zite. But what seemed unique about News.me was this ability to see what other users I follow would see when they looked at their own filtered Twitter timelines (users can turn this feature off as well if they don’t want others looking at their stream). It is sort of fascinating to effectively look through someone else’s eyes at what they are reading.
That said, however, the implementation of this ability is kind of cumbersome and as a result, I find myself using it a lot less than some other apps. Flipboard, for example, is incredibly easy to flip through and browse — but in order to browse through someone else’s timeline on News.me, I have to click on each individual icon, wait for it to load and then page through it. The way that the app folds out an article when you click on it is really well done, but actually getting there is time-consuming and so I don’t really do it that much.
What else makes News.me stand out?
If you leave that aspect of News.me aside, the app becomes pretty much just a Twitter-curation mechanism similar to Summify or Percolate (which recently did a deal with Reuters to power a news aggregator run by financial writer Felix Salmon). And while using data derived from the billions of links being shared by Bitly gives News.me something extra that other services might not have, I’m not sure it’s enough to distance it from its competitors. I see many of the same articles being shown to me in all of them.
News.me also doesn’t have any way to train the app to show different things, which was one of the most interesting aspects of Zite — the news-curation startup that came out of research at the University of British Columbia (and was just acquired by CNN for a reported $20 million). Zite has buttons on each article that allow you to say whether you liked it or not, and you can also choose to see more or less of the topics referred to in the article. While I’m skeptical about how many people will actually do this, at least it gives users some input.
And when it comes to content, News.me is (so far, at least) just a Twitter curation service, while Flipboard and Zite pull in content from all kinds of different sources — and in the case of Flipboard, it’s not just social networks but RSS feeds and partners such as The Atlantic, The Economist, etc. (although News.me has some relationships with publishers as well). In that sense, it is both a curation machine and a digital magazine-stand. Not to mention that Flipboard also has $50 million that it raised recently from a group of venture capital funds. Those are some deep pockets.
Speaking of deep pockets, according to tech blogger Robert Scoble, Google is allegedly working on a “mind-blowing” Flipboard competitor. When Flipboard first appeared, I wondered why Google hadn’t made a play in the curation-app space, given its Fast Flip experiment (since shut down) and the real-time aggregation chops it has developed with Google News. If it does launch something in this space, that will make the mountain News.me has to climb even larger.