Today, it was announced that Twitter has acquired an awesome little Pacific Northwest company called Summify. If you haven’t heard of Summify, they provide what I consider to be the best next-generation news delivery platform in the world right now.
Isn’t Twitter itself a news delivery platform though? Not really. Twitter is an information delivery platform, of which news is a small but extremely important subset. In other words, when you read a joke on Twitter, that’s not news. When you ask someone a question about a restaurant on Twitter, that’s not news. When you receive a response from an expertly crafted bot on Twitter, that’s not news. In short, the great majority of what Twitter traffics is non-news information.
It’s long been a complaint of Twitter users, however, that when they do want to use Twitter as a news source — perhaps even their only news source — it’s a less than ideal experience. People keep their excellent Twitter clients open all day hoping they’ll stay abreast on what’s going on in the world, but often they miss important events because the firehose of chatter drowns out critical links.
What Summify does is essentially stand in front of your firehose, collect the drops of water that are news-related, and then fill up a nice, tidy cup for you containing only (or mostly) news. You can tell Summify you want a tall, a grande, or a venti and the platform delivers the right sized cup to you at whatever interval you choose.
And oh by the way, Summify can analyze your Facebook account and your Google Reader account as well as your Twitter account if you’d like.
And oh by the way, your news summary is available via web, via RSS, via tablet, and via phone.
So why is this such a smart acquisition for Twitter? In my mind, there are two reasons.
First, although the Twitter design staff has gone to great pains to craft the interface and sign-up process such that people know how to use Twitter immediately, I feel like they’ve now solved that problem. Do a Twitter search for a trending hashtag and you’ll see all sorts of people of “various knowledge levels” getting around just fine.
I feel like the new problem to solve is not “how do I use Twitter” but “why should I use Twitter”. This problem doesn’t apply to everyone that is currently using it, obviously, but it applies to my mom, my fiance, and all of the other millions of the people in the world who just don’t see a value proposition yet. Basically the “I don’t have anything to say to strangers” crowd, the “I don’t care what celebrities are saying” crowd, and the “I already have Facebook” crowd.
With Summify folded into Twitter, there will now be one activity that almost everyone in the world can get obvious value from: a simple summary of what news stories you should know about every day, based on who influences you.
The second reason this is a great acquisition is that it helps hedge against a phenomenon that I think is coming over the next few years: information overload followed by consumption retreat. It’s only a matter of time before people look at all of the distractions they expose themselves to every day and realize it is keeping them from living productive lives. Twitter, Facebook, and RSS before them have hastened this effect, and while it’s still only a problem at the edges, it will get more pronounced each year.
Summify offers a simple antidote; one that Twitter can weave into their UI such that users can dial up or dial down their desired consumption level as they see fit. Right now there is actually a disincentive to follow people on Twitter, in many cases. Summify potentially eliminates that problem entirely by promising to send you better stories, not more stories for each new account you follow.
As a closing thought, I’ve had this idea in my head for the last few years of what a perfect news site looks like, and it’s quite simple: a white screen with a list of 5 or 10 links that changes once a day. That’s it. Here’s the tricky part though: the 5 or 10 links need to be THE 5 or 10 links that are most useful to me on any given day. In other words, let’s say there are 10,000 new stories every day. This site needs to be smart enough to pick the top 5 or 10 for me with almost 100% certainty. You will know it works when it’s creepy. I liken it to Barack Obama’s daily briefing he gets from his advisors. He doesn’t have time to scour news sites all day so his advisors tell him what he absolutely needs to see every morning and then, here’s the key part: he gets on with his life.
I want that.
I feel like Twitter — with Summify in tow — can eventually provide that.
Sign me up!
I’ll admit that on a scale of 1-10, my following of the SOPA/PIPA escapades is only about a 6. This may seem low for someone who runs a platform that hosts 50 million unique visitors a month; all of whom are able to post user-generated content which potentially violates SOPA/PIPA principles.
Having been acquired by msnbc.com, a company 50% owned by Microsoft (who opposes SOPA as drafted) and 50% owned by NBC (who is one of the most visible proponents of the bill) our little organization is powerless to do much about the situation and frankly to even express much of an opinion about it. Note: I have not been told to shut up about anything. I just feel like there are enough smart people working this out right now that the world doesn’t really need my opinion on it.
What I do want to talk about, however, is a truth about the new world of legislation that this SOPA/PIPA fracas has made extraordinarily clear:
If you want to pass any sort of bill that affects the internet, you better vet it with the people who control the internet.
By “control the internet”, I of course don’t mean the people manning the tubes. I mean the people who run the most important destinations on the internet and the people who back those people. This includes the heads of for-profit destinations like Twitter and Facebook, the caretakers of non-profit destinations like Wikipedia, the investors who back all of the great online companies of tomorrow, and the government officials who are sympathetic to their cause.
From this anything-but-exhaustive list, we have Dick Costolo, Mark Zuckerberg, Jimmy Wales, Paul Graham (and cohorts), and none other than Barry O. himself. None of these people support SOPA as it has been drafted. Not only do they oppose it, but many have gone out of their way to publicly denounce it. Jimmy Wales has gone so far as to shut down the world’s most important collection of knowledge for a day to demonstrate what shutdowns actually look like.
It seems incredible to me that these gatekeepers of the modern internet were seemingly not even polled as to what they thought of this bill before it was floated. It would be like the EPA trying to sneak through a law that automobiles get 100mpg by year’s end without even talking to the car companies first. In some ways it’s even worse than that.
The truth is that the most powerful and influential people today look very different from the most powerful and influential people of the last century. The 20th century was all about industrialization. The game was to take a natural resource (like oil or cotton) process it until something useful (like gasoline or clothing) and then sell it for as much of a profit as you could. Since many congressmen came from industrial professions before they took office, or at the very least could easily wrap their heads around fairly straightforward concepts like oil drilling or cotton ginning, they had little difficulty a) maintaining relationships with important people in industrial fields, and b) drafting laws which made sense for consumers and producers at the time.
This new world, however, in which probably less than 10% of our elected officials can even tell us what a DNS server is, is a disconnected one. How are congressmen supposed to write bills that are palatable to the public if they don’t understand the ramifications of how the bills are to be technologically enforced? If you listen to the various SOPA debates like this one on PBS with Ben Huh and Rick Cotton, you don’t hear the anti-SOPA people disagreeing with the spirit of the bill. You hear them disagreeing with the letter of it; and to Rick Cotton’s credit, he even asks Ben if Ben would support the bill if it were written differently.
The people at media companies who helped write this bill are lawyers. It is usually a lawyer’s job to write up documents that are most favorable to their client. It is then, however, the other side’s job to modify that language into something equitable. “The other side” in this case is our elected representatives. What seems to have failed in this case was not that the initial draft was written as it was written, but that Congress did a terrible job of analyzing it, shopping it to important technologists, and then presenting something that actually made sense. As a result, this bill will fail, and that’s about the worst outcome private sector SOPA supporters could ever imagine. So in a sense, Congress failed both SOPA supporters and SOPA opponents. Amazing but true.
We either need a world where our elected officials know more about how technology works or a world where they at least consult a more heterogenous group of gatekeepers before proposing laws that affect technology, IP, and free speech.
It seems like it will be at least another generation until we get the former, so it is imperative that we immediately get the latter.
Note: I am speaking on behalf of myself here and not on behalf of any of the organizations who employ me (who I love equally :) ).
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