Every digital news designer faces the question: should the traditional serendipity of contents be preserved or should we go full steam for personalization? It turns out Google is already working on ways to combine both -- on its usual grand scale.
Serendipity always seemed inseparable from journalism. For any media product, taking readers away from their main center of interest is part of the fabric. I go on a website for a morning update and soon find myself captured by crafty editing that will drive me to read up on a subject that was, until now, alien to me. That's the beauty of a great news package.
Or is it still the case? Isn't it a mostly generational inclination? Does a Gen Y individual really care about being drawn to a science story when getting online to see sports results?
Several elements concur to the erosion of serendipity and, more generally, curiosity.
First, behavioral among digital readers are evolving. These extend far beyond generations: Regardless of her age, today's reader is short on time. At every moment of the day (except, maybe, in the loo or in bed at night), her reading time is slashed by multiple stimuli: social teases, incoming mail, alerts or simply succumbing to distractions that lie just one click (or one app) away. That's one of the tragedies of traditional news outlets: When it comes to retaining the commuter's attention, for instance, Slate or The Washington Post are in direct competition with addictive products such as Facebook or Angry Birds...
Second, the old "trusted news brand" notion is going away. Young people can't be bothered to leaf though several titles to get their feed of a variety of topics; that's why aggregators thrive. The more innocuous ones, such as Mediagazer, mostly send traffic back to the original news provider; but legions of others (Business Insider, The Huffington Post...) melt news brands into their own, repackage contents with eye-grabbing headlines and boost the whole package with aggressive marketing.
Below, see how BuzzFeed summed up the New York Times story on the NSA monitoring social traffic: 80 words in BF that capture the substance of a 2000 words article by two experienced journalists who collected exclusive documents and reported from Washington, New York and Berlin.
(Note that BuzzFeed is serving a more appealing headline and a livelier photograph of general Keith Alexander, head of NSA.) How many BuzzFeed glancers did click on the link sending back to the original story? I'd bet no more that 5%. (Anyway, judging by the 500 comments that followed it, the NYT did well with their article.) This trends also explains why the Times is working on new digital products that take into account both time scarcity and the Gen Y way with news.
This leads us the third reason to wonder about personalization: the economics of digital news. In the devastated landscape of online advertising, it became more critical than ever to structure news content with the goal of retaining readers within a site. That's why proper tagging, use of metadata, semantic recommendation engines and topic pages entries are so important. More pages per visit means more ads exposure, then more revenue. Again, pure players excel at providing incentives to read more stuff within their own environment, thus generating more page views.
Coming back to the customization issue, should we turn the dial fully to the end? Or should we preserve at least some of the fortuitous discovery that was always part of the old media's charm?
Let's first get rid of the idea of the reader presetting his/her own preferences. No one does it. At least for mainstream products. Therefore, news customization must rely on technology, not human input.
Last week, I spoke with Richard Gingras, the senior director of news and social products at Google (in other words, he oversees Google News and Google + from an editorial an business perspective). Richard is a veteran of the news business. Among many things, he headed Salon.com, one of the first and best online publication ever.
According to him, "Today's news personalization is very unsophisticated. We look at your news reading patterns, we determine that you looked at five stories about the Arab Spring and we deduct you might like articles about Egypt. This is not how it should work. In fact, you might be interested in many other things such as the fall from grace of dictators, generation-driven revolutions, etc. These requires understanding concepts". And that's a matter Google is working on, he says. Not only for news, but for products such as Google Now which is the main application of Google's efforts on predictive search. (Read for example With Personal Data, Predictive Apps Stay a Step Ahead in the MIT Technology Review, or Apps That Know What You Want, Before You Do in the NYTimes).
The idea is to connect all of Google's knowledge, from the individual level to his/her social group context, and beyond. This incredibly granular analysis of personal preferences and inclinations, set in the framework of the large macro-scale of the digital world, is at the core of the search giant's strategy as summed-up below:
On the top of this architecture, Google is developing techniques aimed at capturing the precious "signals" needed to serve more relevant contents, explains Richard Gingras. Not only in the direct vicinity of a topic, but based on center of interests drawn from concepts associated to individuals' online patterns analyzed in a wider context. In doing so, Gingras underlines the ability of Google News to develop a kind of educated serendipity (term is mine) as opposed to narrowing the user's mind by serving her the unrefined output of a personalization engine. In other words, based on your consumption of news, your search patterns, and a deep analysis (semantic, tonality, implied emotions) of your mail and your posts -- matched against hundreds of millions of others -- Google will be able to suggest a link to the profile of an artist in Harper's when you dropped in Google News to check on Syria. That's not customized news in a restricted sense, but that not straightforward serendipity either. That's Google's way of anticipating your intellectual and emotional wishes. Fascinating and scary.