Thursday, November 29, 2012

Gabe Rivera and Steve Kovach Talk Techmeme, Content Curation

What do you get when you stick the founder of Techmeme (a site that uses an algorithm and human editors to bring readers the latest and greatest tech news) and the editor of Business Insider's SAI (Silicon Alley Insider) in a room together? An in-depth discussion on the role of skilled editors, technology, and the general public when it comes to collecting and disseminating tech and business news - a.k.a., content curation.

It all went down at Outbrain's HQ during a Content Conversations event cohosted by Contently (you can find more information about the Content Conversations Meetup group here). The goal? Find an answer to the question: Is curation an art or a science?

After a lively networking session, Steve Kovach (SAI) got right down to business grilling Gabe Rivera (Techmeme) about the topic. Although Gabe admitted that most of Techmeme's content gets pulled from RSS feeds or scraped from other sources (science), he made the surprising argument that he found it cheaper and more effective to have editors produce the final results by processing the data generated by his algorithm.

Of course, you can argue that the fact humans are involved in the process doesn't necessarily mean what they're doing is "art." But the work they do certainly goes beyond crunching numbers and relying on data to show the public what they really want to see. For example, algorithms can't tell when a piece of news suddenly becomes irrelevant, obsolete, or redundant. In addition, algorithms need time to "measure the signals;" often, human eyes can more quickly recognize news that's right on the cusp of breaking.

It's not an easy task; in order to stay on top of things, Techmeme employs editors who are available around the clock (and around the world!). The editors need to be able to take information the algorithm generates and assess whether the items with the most signals are really the best sources. In some cases, lesser known writers and blogs can present news in clearer and more interesting ways. The end result is that, although Techmeme regularly taps big publications, the source pipeline has quite a long tail (you can see the leaderboard here).

It's important to grab the most up-to-date content, but over the course of a story's life-cycle, the "first takes" that were squirted out on a deadline eventually get replaced by articles that had more time to cook. Gabe made sure to emphasize the importance of titles when it comes to which stories are promoted and which aren't. Because Techmeme doesn't do their own titles, they rely on original authors to create the catchiest heds, and will sometimes sacrifice overall article content for that all-important hook.

Towards the end of the event, an interesting third party came into the discussion - social, a.k.a. the general public. Steve wanted to know why Techmeme stuck with the "science" of the algorithm and the "art" of trained editors, and ignored the curation powers of the collective human mind. I found Gabe's stance that there is a place in the world for editor-curated content to be a legitimate one - after all, as was pointed out, your social circles tend to congregate, bubble-like, around certain news types and sources. There's value in moving beyond that to discover something you wouldn't have come across otherwise.

The final thing that really interested me about Gabe's talk was the fact that he was aware of the limitations of his current model. He wasn't looking to grow Techmeme into a massive online entity - instead, he wants to continue to deliver quality content to the user base that really benefits the most from it. Too many companies (especially startups) are so focused on growth that they don't take the time to really embrace a niche and give their audience a truly stellar product.

It's important for anyone who creates content to know that the art (and science) of curation is going to be as important as content creation going into the future. You do need to be able to show your friends all the cool things you can do - but it's equally important that you bring to their attention the coolness of others from time to time.

You can learn more about Steve Kovach and Gabe Rivera by following them on Twitter (@SteveKovach and @GabeRivera respectively).

Also want to give a shout-out to Brian McCullough (@brianmcc) for discussing Gabe's multiple projects, such as Mediagazer and Memorandum, with me!
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