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Personalized algorithms and social networking sites are great for helping people navigate a lot of things online — music, movies, restaurant recommendations and the like have benefited greatly from high tech curation. But according to serial entrepreneur Dmitry Shapiro, when it comes to getting the news, these technologies create a problem: We start to live in an echo chamber, where our existing interests are reinforced as being of utmost importance, and our existing beliefs are reflected back to us.
“In a world full of algorithms, we can get a skewed sense of the world when it comes to news,” Shapiro, the tech executive known for founding Veoh and most recently for serving as the CTO of MySpace Music, said in a phone conversation Thursday. “News is an extremely important part of how we experience the world around us. If news has been overly processed by personalization algorithms that essentially pander to us, we can start to believe that the world is a certain way, when it really isn’t that way at all.”
News that’s purposefully impersonal
That problem is exactly what Shapiro’s latest project Uberpaper was built to combat. Uberpaper, which launched to the public this week, pulls all the news from Yahoo News’ API and presents it in a way that manages to be both clean and image-rich: Imagine Flipboard meets Pinterest, but all in a liquid user interface design that works in any web browser. The only social elements to the site come in the form of a simple “Thumbs Up” or “Thumbs Down” button that users are meant to use to show how well-reported or relevant a story was, as well as the ability to comment.
Users can choose to view Uberpaper in 10 different languages, and sort the news according to topics such as World, US, Business, Technology, Sports, Politics, and so on — just like an old fashioned newspaper. In fact, the experience of finding out what’s happening in the world by reading a traditional physical paper is a big thing Uberpaper is trying to replicate. Shapiro put it this way:
“With technology, I think we threw the baby out with bathwater when it came to newspapers. Online news sites today show their content very much like search does — it’s kind of database-y, and formatted in a very linear way. We wanted to bring back the aesthetic of a newspaper, and the serendipity that comes with scanning the news that way.”
Keeping social in its place
However, Shapiro is quick to point out that he is personally a big fan of social media sites, telling me, “I love Facebook and Twitter, and I’m on those sites all day long. They’re wonderful places to share news, and I don’t think Uberpaper is competitive in any way to them.” Rather, he says, Uberpaper is meant to be a place where people can find fresh news to ultimately go back and share with their friends on Facebook and Twitter — to bring something new to the table, rather than re-sharing stuff that’s already been discovered.
For now, Uberpaper only pulls in news through Yahoo News’ API, which was chosen because it has a very broad base of news sources and topics. More news sources will be folded into Uberpaper in the future, but the expansion process will be very well-considered, Shapiro said. “We’re going to be really cautious as we add additionally sources. We very much want to make sure that we’re not slanting the news in partisan ways, or toward any kind of topic, really — it should be broad and generic.”
Uberpaper was built by the same team led by Shapiro that built Anybeat, the social network that encourages people to use pseudonyms that launched this past autumn. Anybeat, which has $1 million in funding, is still in operation, but right now it and Uberpaper are being run as separate products. Uberpaper doesn’t make any revenue right now, but down the line advertising could be brought in to run alongside the news.
A long shot that’s worth taking
In all, I think Uberpaper is great: Simple, straightforward, and clean, while perpetually brimming with new content. It’s certainly coming out in a tough space — many people already feel like they have more than enough sources of news — but I could see Uberpaper becoming a much-frequented bookmark for news junkies. And in my opinion, any service that’s aiming to put an end to the echo chamber is fighting the good fight.