Newsmap as a Model for Smart Aggregation
Information overload. It’s the next big issue in publishing, and technology in general. The day you have 400 e-mails in your inbox, 900 new items in your RSS aggregator, and 8 Instant Messenger windows on your screen will come. For some people, it’s already here.
With the internet still growing and changing at such a rapid rate, the raw amount of information your brain processes will see a huge increase in this decade. There’s probably even a Moore’s Law-esque equation for it. So if we are finding that the flow of information into our lives is only going up and our free time is only going down, how do we deal with this increasing imbalance?
The answer is agentry. A smart agent of sorts that sits on your desktop and acts as mediator between you and the world. If you want something from the world, your agent goes out and finds it for you. If the world wants something from you, it needs to talk to your agent first. We may have various agents in our lives already but none accomplishes what the smart agent of the future will accomplish.
The easiest part of the agent to envision is how it will handle e-mail. When you send an e-mail out, it will vouch for your reputation as a non-spammer when it talks to its agent cronies on the receiving side of the e-mail. It will also reject pieces of mail on your behalf if and when it detects there is a certain predetermined probability it is unwanted. The smart agent can learn a lot of things by examining word cluster patterns from all of your incoming e-mail. After a few weeks of training, his success rate is well into the 90th percentile. Apple’s mail program already uses adaptive learning technology to combat spam and I would say its success rate with me is about 95% with no false positives. By analyzing the proximity of words across many documents, the Apple junk mail filter is effectively assigning meaning to documents, albeit in a limited way. It is said that the Apple junk mail filter can successfully tell the difference between a spammer e-mailing you about Viagra and your grandmother e-mailing you about Viagra. Now if only if could detect what might gross you out as well…
The second major function of this agent would be to gate your instant messaging abilities. Without admitting anything, let me just say that it is very possible to waste a lot of time on instant messenger every day. Some days you feel like starting up conversations and chatting. Other times you feel like there is too much work to be done for that. And the same is true for anyone you might want to communicate with, although they may be on the opposite end of the spectrum than you on any given day. So how can a smart agent deal with this problem? By learning from you. If you start up a lot of conversations on any given day, it can infer that you’re more available. If you type a lot of keystrokes in Word or create a lot of objects in Illustrator, perhaps you’re a bit too busy to talk. So how does the agent decide who to let through and when? By learning who your most important contacts are and applying sliding scale logic depending on how busy you are and how important they are. The same thing a sports agent does when fielding requests for his client’s time and/or endorsement.
If you’re too busy to talk to someone near the middle of your “importance scale”, they will receive either a polite automated message from you, or nothing at all if you prefer. Their opening request made on instant messenger will instead be cued up in your inbox or aggregator, and you can get to it whenever you have time. If you slack, your agent will remind you to get off your ass and take care of your correspondence.
So now that your agent can handle e-mail and instant messages for you, what will it do for you on the web? That’s where Newsmap comes in.
In case you haven’t seen it yet, Newsmap is a visual representation of what’s going on in the world as aggregated by Google News and visualized by Marcos Weskamp. It may appear confusing at first, because it is. It’s clearly not smart enough to derive meaning and importance from news based on our own preferences, but it’s a step in the right direction. It illustrates the fluidity with which will can manipulate information on a page. It demonstrates how what will eventually be web services from Google can be displayed in the most non-Googlelike manner possible. Sure, right now Newsmap does all sorts of weird and counterproductive things to headlines like rotate them 90 degrees and squeeze them into an unreadable space, but what if this was a sane layout which metamorphosed productively as news arrived and your viewing habits were keening observed? What if, knowing I’m a huge Survivor fan, Newsmap always bumped Survivor-related news above other, less relevant news? What if Newsmap wasn’t a webpage at all and acted as my screensaver instead? It would be gangbusters to run Newsmap run as a screensaver and then be able to activate it by simply moving my mouse to a certain corner of the screen. Hello Macromedia… are you there? Central? Why aren’t you doing this already?
The key to our information gathering lives is all about smart aggregation. The days of media companies deciding what’s on your “front page” are numbered. Within five years, I believe customizable newsreader technology (whether client-side like Net News Wire, or server-side like Bloglines), will be as prevalent as the web is right now. The web will still be there for viewing entire bodies of content like full stories and video, but the web will not be the notification source that this content is available. Instead, it will be simple aggregators like we have today, and then eventually, creative ones like Newsmap… albeit in a much more effective form.
Whoever creates the first and/or best one of these smart agents will make a lot of money. You can bet some of the big boys are already working on it: Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, and possibly Apple or Macromedia. If I had to bet who would release something first, it would be Microsoft, but if it’s anything like Clippy The Anthropomorphized paper clip, I’ll pass. I’d really like it to be Apple because they are the gold standard for simplicity and usability, but I’m just not seeing that kind of talk coming out of the company lately. You want to sell me your .Mac service for $99 a year?
Tell you what. Be my agent. I’ll pay you triple that.