Everyone wants to be a news filter now

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As the avalanche of information coming through social networks and real-time tools like Twitter continues to grow, the need for filters to make sense of that tsunami of data also increases, and it seems as though everyone has a different way of trying to solve that problem. Facebook threw its hat into the ring this week with what it says is an improved “newspaper-style” news feed that highlights important content, while Digg has just launched “newsrooms” aimed at doing the same thing, and online influence-ranking service Klout is rolling out topic pages based on what’s being shared by those with influence. But will any of these be able to solve the filtering problem, or will they just add another source of noise?

Facebook says that its changes (which my colleague Colleen covered for GigaOM) are designed to create “your own personal newspaper” when you log in to the social network, by showing you what the site believes are the most important items at the top of your news feed. In effect, this merges what Facebook used to call “top news” — which you previously had to select from a drop-down menu — with your regular news stream. And Facebook is also going to use its algorithms to show you different items based on when you last logged in to the site, so that what you see is always “new.”

When you pick up a newspaper after not reading it for a week, the front page quickly clues you into the most interesting stories. In the past, News Feed hasn’t worked like that. [Now] News Feed will act more like your own personal newspaper. You won’t have to worry about missing important stuff. All your news will be in a single stream with the most interesting stories featured at the top.

Facebook wants to be your newspaper

The repeated use of the term “newspaper” makes it obvious that Facebook wants this new feature to be about more than just seeing updates from your friend’s birthday party — and it could become especially interesting when combined with another new Facebook feature: the launch of the “Subscribe” service, which allows users to follow and get updates from people or sources they are not friends with, in much the same way that Twitter does. Facebook has been promoting that feature as a way to stay connected to what celebrities and journalists are doing, and it seems likely that many of those items could wind up on the top of your “personal newspaper” thanks to the news feed changes.

Digg, meanwhile, also seems to be betting that it can help sort the news for people via what it is calling topic-based “newsrooms” — and that launching this kind of option might help restore some of the site’s faded glory, which took a beating after a disastrous relaunch in 2010 that caused many users to flee. One of the elements of that redesign was a focus on news from mainstream sources such as traditional media outlets, which seemed to irritate many long-time Digg fans. The “newsroom” launch takes a different tack: instead of allowing media outlets to plug their RSS feeds directly into Digg, the service is creating pages that will feature content that has been shared by highly-ranked users.

This is similar to what Klout is trying to do with its topic pages, which the site says are currently in limited beta, but will be rolled out to all users soon. While Digg is basing its “newroom” content on what gets shared by users who are ranked highly by other members of Digg, the topic pages at Klout are created from content shared by those who the service’s algorithms have determined have a lot of influence about a certain topic — based on their activity on Twitter, Facebook, Flickr and other social networks (including Google+, which the service just recently started including in its rankings).

Relevance is a tricky problem to solve

For me, both the Digg and Klout approaches suffer from the same kind of problem that many other filtering services do — including iPad apps such as News.me and Zite, or web-based services such as Summify: either they are filled with the same content I’ve have already seen in other places, or the links simply aren’t relevant. Klout’s topic pages in particular contain all kinds of things that are barely even related to the topic, although that could be because they are still tweaking their algorithms. And recommendation systems are one of those things that can seem almost useless even when they are getting a lot of things right, because the parts that are wrong are so glaringly obvious.

As for Facebook’s attempt to create a “personalized newspaper,” the biggest issue for Facebook is that it is still used primarily as a social network for connecting with friends and family, and so doesn’t function as a real-time news and information network in the same way that Twitter does — or rather, it is a news and information network, but that news is still primarily personal. There’s a place for that, obviously, but it doesn’t really help filter the “news” in a broader sense. The launch of a subscription feature is clearly an attempt to move Facebook in that direction, but so far — as I’ve argued before — Twitter still seems to be winning that particular game.

It’s good that plenty of services are trying to solve the news-filtering problem, and different users may choose different solutions: for some, Twitter will be the best because it is brief, while others might prefer Google+ or the summaries that they get once a day from services like Summify or an app like AOL’s Editions. So far, no one seems to have come up with the one-size-fits-all solution to this modern dilemma.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Arvind Grover and Zarko Drincic

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