Can News.me become the Instagram for news?

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We’ve written before about the overwhelming tsunami of content that digital media represents, especially the firehose that comes from Twitter and Facebook, and how this makes it even more imperative that users have some kind of filter or curation system. News.me is one of the services that is trying to solve that problem, but it wants to do more than just filter and recommend: the startup’s new iPhone app is designed to be like an Instagram for news — in other words, a smaller network of friends and connections with whom you want to discuss the latest headlines or events. The question for News.me is whether that’s what news consumers want, and even if they do, whether they won’t just use Twitter or Facebook instead.

News.me has an interesting history: It started as a skunkworks project inside the New York Times — an attempt on the part of a couple of NYT developers to come up with a way of filtering Twitter based on a user’s social network. The team formed a partnership with the New York-based incubator and venture firm Betaworks (creator of services such as the Bitly link-shortener and Chartbeat) and then News.me was eventually absorbed into Bitly and the New York Times wound up with shares in the company. The startup has been spun off but is still based in the offices of Betaworks in the meat-packing district of New York City, where I spent some time recently with general manager Jake Levine.

News.me’s app is a good filter, but is that enough?

The iPad app that News.me launched with in April of last year offered a somewhat unusual experience, and one that seemed to appeal to some users (like me) and turn others off. Once you added a number of Twitter sources to the app — which also provided some prominent users as a default — you could click on their avatars and see their Twitter stream as though you were looking over their shoulder; something Hunch co-founder and angel investor Chris Dixon has called “cross-dressing.” This was odd, but also fascinating in a way, but it was also somewhat cumbersome, since you had to click on all those individual avatars to get each person’s view, and it became rather time-consuming.

The iPhone app (not surprisingly) provides a much more stripped-down experience. You connect your Twitter account and then News.me uses its algorithms — which Levine said are based in part on the sharing activity of your personal network and partly on the trending topics identified by Bitly — to show you what the most popular and/or most discussed or shared topics are. It’s a little like the Flipboard app for the iPhone (without the flipping), but the focus for News.me is more on the conversation around the posted item, which you can see and add to easily when you read a post.

Although I have only been using it for a short time, the app does a pretty good job of surfacing both items that I’ve seen and posts that I haven’t seen but are interesting — and it is handy to see, and be able to retweet, the comments from friends in my network. So like Summify (which was recently bought by Twitter) and other apps like Zite (acquired by CNN), News.me is a pretty good curation tool. But this is clearly the same ground that Twitter itself seems to be aiming at with its “Discover” tab and the Summify acquisition, so why would I decide to use News.me?

News.me wants to be a micro-network just for news

Levine says that News.me’s goal is to be much more than just a Twitter filter — he wants the app to become a social network of its own, built around news, in the same way that Instagram is a micro-network built around the sharing of photos. But why wouldn’t I just discuss the news with my friends and social graph on Twitter or Facebook or Google+? Levine said those networks have grown to the point where they are more about broadcast than they are about conversation, and so there is a need for a smaller experience in which you can talk about news with your friends and connections.

As the News.me CEO explained to the Nieman Lab, part of this realization came about when the company’s email newsletter — a daily summary of what your network is reading, much like what Summify and other services like Percolate offer — started to really take off. The rate at which people opened the email, and the sharing that took place from it, convinced News.me that there was room for a “purpose-built” network based around discussion of the news, and the app is an attempt to deliver that.

I’m not convinced yet that I need a special network or app just for discussing and sharing news stories or blog posts, however. I still do that mostly through Twitter and Facebook, and they work pretty well — and while Instagram is an appealing metaphor, I’m not sure that news requires the same kind of content-consumption experience as photos, in the sense that people want to consume them and discuss them in a smaller network. But it is definitely an interesting experiment, and one worth watching.

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