Editorializing by algorithm is still editorializing


A few months back I started working on thredr.com, a service that keeps track of online news conversations around topics that I’m most interested in, such as Tablet PCs, Microsoft developer trends, and soon Robotics. It’s very much like TechMeme in that sense.

The way it works is that it culls through about a thousand or so RSS feeds applying various criteria for how to group or list stories. Of course, the idea is to try to place the most interesting stories first–all done automatically, several times a day.

One bit of feedback I got early on from friends is that they thought there would be no way an algorithm could generate an interesting enough collection of stories. Creating the list by hand would be so much better. The arugment goes that a human can better editorialize.

My response: The algorithm is doing no more than what you tell it, so in fact, you can editorialize through the algorithm. Want to emphasize links from more popular blogs, for instance, because that’s where you think the more interesting stories are? Then simply change the algorithm to do so. Likewise, if you don’t care for the conversational tone of posts coming from forums, then don’t scan through them or demphasize them.

You see, whether an algorithm is being applied or not, there’s still plenty of editorializing going on. It’s just that it’s automated.

I’d argue that the creators and managers of TechMeme, for instance, are in fact editors. It’s simply that they apply their editorial instincts via an algorithm. They decide how sites should be ranked, they decide which sites to scan, which ones to give preference to, and so on.

Take a site like ValleyWag, for example. TechMeme promotes ValleyWag stories all the time, giving them comparable weight to let’s say an article from SearchEngineLand. The result is that as TechMeme readers we’ll often see stories about some rumored attack on someone alongside breaking stories on an acquisition or major service. That’s TechMeme’s choice. That’s their editorial decision. The algorithm simply follows the instructions the “editors” at TechMeme have spelled out for it. If I were on the editorial board of TechMeme I’d make a different decision. That’s just me. Others would create a different mix.