Someone please build Google Reader + Techmeme

I haven’t seri­ously opened Google Reader in months.  That might be because I’m in law school and have lim­ited time to read besides for courses.  I don’t think this is true, though, because I still fre­quent Twit­ter, Tech­meme, Google News, NYTimes, Face­book.… yeah, I have plenty of time for other stuff.  It might be because I have 144 sub­scrip­tions, lead­ing my unread count to reach the dreaded “1000+” in a mat­ter of days.  But shouldn’t Reader’s “sort by magic” help with that?

I think the real rea­son that I recoil from RSS these days is because of orga­ni­za­tion.  Let’s do a lit­tle his­tory les­son, and then I’ll make a pro­posal for some­thing bet­ter.

At a basic level, you browse RSS by feed.  You click on a feed, read the con­tent you want, “mark as read” the rest, move to the next feed repeat.  The first orga­ni­za­tional improve­ment that RSS read­ers made was cat­e­gories and tags.  You could throw feeds into higher-level cat­e­gories — for exam­ple, “copy­right law” was one I made — and then you could save a lit­tle time by brows­ing through the entire cat­e­gory instead of feed-by-feed.

For a long time, that was about it.  Then, about a year ago, Google intro­duced “sort by magic.”  This allowed you to sort all posts, or posts within a feed or cat­e­gory, based on a per­son­al­ized algo­rithm that takes into account what you read, what you “like,” what you share with oth­ers, etc.  Pretty smart, and really help­ful.  I can now read as far as my inter­est takes me.  When I get bored, I can pretty safely assume that I won’t like any­thing fur­ther down, so I don’t feel as guilty about hit­ting “mark as read” on the rest.

But obvi­ously it’s not enough, because I still get a gut feel­ing that my time is spent bet­ter on all those other sources I men­tioned — par­tic­u­larly Twit­ter and Tech­meme — than in Reader.  Why is that?  One rea­son might be cur­rency.  With Twit­ter I know what’s hap­pen­ing and what peo­ple are talk­ing about now.  I can watch con­ver­sa­tion between peo­ple in real time, and I can par­tic­i­pate in the con­ver­sa­tions if I want.

But I think it’s really the orga­ni­za­tional prob­lem.  That’s why I think the com­bi­na­tion of Google Reader per­son­al­iza­tion and Tech­meme orga­ni­za­tion would be an epic win.  To be clear, I know that Techmeme’s cura­tion and orga­ni­za­tion is part algo­rithm, part human.  But I know that if Google puts its mind to it and incor­po­rated Techmeme’s orga­ni­za­tional prin­ci­pals, some­thing really use­ful would result.

So the idea is this.  Cur­rently, Reader’s “magic” sort requires you to either have all the sto­ries sorted by magic, or by feed, or by cat­e­gory.  Let’s say I have that “copy­right law” cat­e­gory open on magic sort.  Let’s say I have 20 sub­scrip­tions in that cat­e­gory.  There’s really only a cer­tain amount of real news that hap­pens about copy­right every day.  So of those 20 blogs, at least half are going to cover a given story.  I don’t need to have what is essen­tially the same story appear 20 dis­crete times in that list of posts.  I need all those sto­ries to be bun­dled together.

Now, you might argue that this means I should just cut down on my copy­right law sub­scrip­tions.  Maybe.  But some­times one blog has a really unique twist, or has an update that another blog doesn’t, or it was the one to break the story.  I want that post to be present and vis­i­ble, like the sub-sto­ries in Techmeme’s clus­ters.

Google is actu­ally about 90% of the way to hav­ing this fan­tasy prod­uct in place. Google Blog Search does  post clus­ters on its home­page, and has broad cat­e­gories for fil­ter­ing on the side (“Pol­i­tics,” “Sports,” “Movies”…).  But I can’t cre­ate cus­tom cat­e­gories, like “copy­right law.”  On the other hand, Google News lets me cre­ate cus­tom cat­e­gories, and it pulls story clus­ters together based on them.  But that’s the prob­lem: it’s news sto­ries.  I want blog posts from niche sites like Techdirt to have just as much cred as the New York Times.

In the end, I don’t want to sub­scribe to blogs.  I want to sub­scribe to a theme or cat­e­gory, and have the algo­rithm decide on a story-by-story base which blogs to include in a clus­ter, which one to put up top, and which “twist” or “update” sto­ries need to be fea­tured as indented sto­ries within the clus­ter.  One obvi­ous prob­lem is that users are prob­a­bly not very good at find­ing the right key­words to define a cat­e­gory in order to get the type of news they’re seek­ing.  Hav­ing some sort of aut­ofill (much like Google News does now when you cre­ate a cus­tom topic) will be key in bal­anc­ing long-tail inter­ests with a sort of “fun­nel­ing” towards an opti­mal expe­ri­ence.

Even­tu­ally, it would be great for tweets on the same topic to be rep­re­sented in the clus­ter, with insight­ful com­men­tary on the story at hand.  I can even imag­ine this look­ing like the “throw-out” quotes you see in big print in a print mag­a­zine or news­pa­per.  It helps frame the con­ver­sa­tion.

The time has truly come for news to come to us, not for us to have to go to the news.


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