The tech world’s relentless race to the next big thing can sometimes make it hard to see the wood for the trees.
But this week has given some tantalising glimpses of the future of news even if the breathless exaggeration that greets each new “app for that” can make them all seem much of a muchness.
The latest entrant to be hyped to the heavens is Flipboard which tech specialist Robert Scoble described as “revolutionary” and others have called “game-changing”.
At first glance it appears to be no more than an elegantly packaged collection of feeds and – for now at least – it’s iPad only so a long way from mainstream.
This is not just a fancy wrapper. It’s underpinned by semantic search company Ellerdale which mines Twitter data in real-time to extract trends and patterns of interest from a vast seam of interactions.
Co-founder of the Ellerdale Project, Arthur van Hoff, talks more about semantics and finding patterns in big data here
Links come alive when the content they point to is re-displayed in familiar magazine-like formats (though questions are already being raised about whether Flipboard is scraping content to which it doesn’t have rights).
Important though that is, it shouldn’t deflect from the fact that social sharing will become an increasingly important distribution route for news organisations and for news discovery.
There are, of course, earlier, less-developed variants: For some time, Feedera has been delivering a daily email digest of content shared by friends.
It began as an attempt to help people cope with information overload. Peer-group filtering of the significant or relevant brings with it a degree of trust because you know who’s passing it on and who regularly sends the best stuff.
Feedera gives every story a ranking based on a combination of the number of friends who have tweeted a link – and from popularity metrics gleaned from services like Digg and Delicious.
Delicious, itself, has recently started a “Browse these bookmarks” beta that brings back full pages rather than simple links and The Twitter Tim.es is another service to jazz up aggregation by pulling in text, images and video.
By extending aggregation to Twitter lists the power of scraping and re-rendering is multiplied many-fold.
It’s as if you can peer over the shoulder of anyone you choose to see what they’re reading, or listening to, or watching.
For instance, by accessing Robert Scoble’s list of people he has deemed The Most Influential in Tech you can see an instant filter of what that group has been signposting, talking about and considers significant.
There are groups of every stripe and if you don’t like the exisiting lists, or you find a gap in the market, then you can always draw up your own.
Reading Twitter streams – even from the smartest people – can be a chore, especially when jumping backwards and forwards to see linked pages.
Flipboard does the legwork and makes for a much nicer reading experience.
As TED speaker Gary Lauder commented: “My mother is not going to read tweets but she will read Flipboard”.
Apollo is another news app for the iPad (price $4.99) and one that claims to be The Future of the Newspaper.
It aims to help readers discover new content and makes personalisation and social recommendation part of the fabric.
Its algorithm, according to Techcrunch, factors in time spent on articles and sources that have been favourited, as well as the familiar “thumbs up, thumbs down” options to like/dislike articles.
The reason I’ve highlighted these services is because they point the way to a different kind of content consumption in which friends and peers bring social context into the discovery of news.
This kind of filtering is especially important in a world of super-abundant news provision where competition for a reader’s time becomes the most precious commodity.
As well as sampling and aggregating multiple sources, the filters and options they give to rank and rate give readers a greater sense of control.
Anything which helps sift quality items from a mountain of mediocrity will ultimately win out.
To that end we need to start thinking about the tools people will want to control and refine their news flow.