Consensus Web Filters

Like a lot of people, I find that the web is becoming my main source of news. Some of the sites I read are published by individuals, but I find the most informative sites are those published by groups of writers/editors/correspondents, including those put out by Main Steam Media (MSM). However for the past three months my main source of “what’s new” has been a new breed of website that collaboratively votes on the best links.

This genre does not have an official name yet, but each of these sites supplies readers with pointers to news items that are ranked by other readers. None of these sites generates news; they only point to it by filtering the links to newsy items. Using different formulas they rank an ever moving list of links on the web. The velocity of their lists varies by site, but some will have a 100% turnover in a few days. I check them daily.

This new genre fits into a whitespace between already occupied niches of social web sites. In the established center are the group-produced sites such as Slashdot, BoingBoing, WorldChaning, Huffington Post, to name just four very popular ones, where a very small cast of editors (under a dozen or so) collaboratively filter and annotate the links to other sources. A daring and effective extension of this method was devised by the fantastic group at MetaFilter.Here the editors are a very smart mob of 25,000 users. One by one readers recommend the cool new stuff they find. Their filter is simply the emergent one of their collective discretion and taste; no one votes or ranks links. At the other end of the axis of collaborative filtering is the likes of Google and Yahoo News, which use the entire collaboration inherent in the web and many Googleish algorithms to programmatically generate a list of what’s new based on who is linking stuff, the most “important” item at the top.No humans explicitly vote on the items.

These new uncategorized sites, which have emerged this year (and reviewed below), fall in between the positions above. They take the smart mob approach of MetaFilter and add the algorithms of search engines. So, readers themselves vote on the importance of linked items suggested by other readers; these votes are then subjected to a complex formula to produce rankings. The sites use various flavors of algorithms to balance and refine the votes and selection of smart mobs. Or they use the action of tagging or bookmarking a site as a type of vote. Each site uses a different algorithm, yielding slightly different mixes of links, and a different personality. The best sites maintain a balance between providing a sense of what everyone is reading (consensus popularity) and some novel items that not everyone is reading (yet). In the reviews below I try to capture some sense of distinctive style for each site.

How I use these consensus tools: By scanning these lists daily I get a fantastic sense of what the web is reading, and an early glimpse of what will reach the MSM in the next day or so. But most important for me is the large volume of very interesting news that will not become “news.” This is the kind of material that is more interesting than random pages but which lacks an appealing hook to place it on the front page of a magazine or even a news website. Often these items are timeless; they don’t make the front page because they could be run at any time. But they are more valuable than odd curiosities. Because of the voting, tagging, bookmarking process enough people find the item worthwhile that they rise to notice. What emerges for me is a delightful counter-news, or what we used to call at CoEvolution Quarterly, “news that stays news.” I have encountered no other process in the world that is better at surfacing “news that stays news” and “news that will be news” better than these collaborative filtering sites.

I imagine in the near future there will be many dozens, if not hundreds, of tweaks on this scheme. Readers will gravitate to a formula that suits their own personal taste. Inevitably, there’ll be some meta-operation that will seek out the overlaps among all the collab-voting sites and extract its own meta-list. Or, eventually, you’ll be able to tweak your own mix of others’ votes to roll your own collabvote site.

Given the rate of innovation, I’m sure I’ve missed some already in progress. If you find a new one at all useful, let me know about it.

– KK

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Digg
My first stop. I only look at their top stories page, an approach which some devotees find whimpy; true Diggers look at the real-time stream of suggested items before they have too many votes.

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Reddit
If I had to pick only one of these I would pick Reddit. It gives me the best balance between the lesser-seen and the over-seen. Some folks don’t like it because users can down-vote items which may make the list more manipulated. But I feel it brings me a little more variety than Digg. I find I click on more stories here than any other consensus site.

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NewsVine
I have their science thread bookmarked. It’s the best link for breaking science news. And their world news thread is very fine too. (I find the their top story thread to be polluted by popularity.)

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Fantacular
A new one. Still learning its personality, but so far it delivers fairly techie posts, closer to Slashdot themes. It does not churn as fast as Slashdot or Digg and Reddit.

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180 News
Good for getting the latest news in the last five minutes. There’s no attempt to weed out duplicates, as in say Google News, so you get a raw stream of voted items, many of them the same story reported by different sources. Their technology stream resembles the mix of Fantacular and Digg, but faster. I also like their World News bookmark. It feels like Yahoo or Google news, but still faster.

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Gather
The type of stories that rise to the top here reminds me of a cross between Reader’s Digest and NPR’s Weekend Edition — light, offbeat, humorous, encouraging, sometimes odd, inspiring. If you like a collaborative group hug, this is your place. It’s just not me.

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The above websites use voting to rank links to other sites. Another set of new websites use shared bookmarks to rank links. Delicious was the first well-known shared, or social bookmarking site. As readers bookmark interesting pages they would tag (categorize) and share these bookmarks with other readers through Delicious. The original idea was that one could search bookmarks by tags to find listings of cool sites by subject. But folks discovered that by compiling a list of the most popular shared bookmarks an ever-changing ranked list of sites would also emerge. There are now at least 15 different social bookmarking sites. Some of them provide a ranking of most popularly bookmark pages of the moment. I use this ranking function without bothering with the tagging part of sites.

Del.icio.us
I look at the “popular” page on Delicious. It features 4 or 5 popular links for five sample subjects at one time. The subjects seem to change every few days. There’s a lot of action, and the links are generally high quality.

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Oishii
This is my preferred way to “read” Delicious. It polls the front page of Delicious and posts any item that is bookmarked by at least 30 people. Quick, fast, one page.

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Blogmarks
I like Blogmarks for one great innovation: they display a thumbnail of the front page of the sites they link to. Why don’t all of these sites do that?

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Blinklist
Blinklist also displays thumbnails of listed sites but not consistently.

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Furl
Choose the “day” mode, otherwise the list refreshes too slowly.

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Simpy
A lot of very geeky links, with an occasional keeper.

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Spurl
Scarce traffic keeps the change in the list slow.