Information, Social Graph, and Navel-Gazing
Of late, there’s been a lot of hype around the culture of hype in the start-up world. The cynics are paranoid that powers conspire to manufacture buzz, force-feeding lemmings to eat whatever is spooned up. They want to see a business model, they want to see revenues. They want to know what the essence of the product or service is yesterday. The optimists dismiss the cynics, dreaming of all the possibilities that others may not be able to envision right now. They believe that things will change fundamentally in ways that we cannot predict and generally assume things will work out for the best. All of the chatter fuels the hype, but like most things, the truth is likely to be buried somewhere in the middle, hidden for us to find on our own. This never-ending debate and dialogue between the optimists and cynics is healthy and necessary for the entrepreneurial ecosystem. But, on an individual level, how are folks supposed to decide for themselves? How do folks make sure they don’t drink the Kool-Aid poured either by the optimists or the cynics? There is a market for news stories, and those stories are manufactured to confirm our own existing biases in subtle and clever ways. If we don’t recognize that, we have much less of a chance of getting closer to the truth of any matter. With every passing minute, it becomes harder and harder to process all the information that glances across our eyes. It tarted with stand-alone web pages, then RSS feeds, and is now fueled by our social graph on Facebook or Twitter. We used to leaf through the New York Times, and then we clicked through Google News, and maybe some blogs that turned into news vehicles, like the Huffington Post or Politico. Then individual bloggers charged back, leveraging Twitter and other inbound routes to drive traffic to their own fragmented sites. A few years ago, as RSS got competition from Twitter, we went from Twitter as the new interface, to third-party clients like TweetDeck, Seemsic, and HootSuite. Today, we have personalized news aggregators such as Paper.li and we have iPads with new personalized magazine-style layouts, such as from Flipboard, Pulse, or Flud. These fancy new interfaces pull news from our existing RSS feeds, from our social graph, and from content providers that they have struck syndication deals with. From a reader’s perspective, though, how are we going to sort through all of this so that we are reasonably informed and so that we don’t fall prey to the distorting elements within the “market for news”? And, more importantly, are all these end-user viewing options so reliant upon pulling information from our own social graphs that we risk isolating ourselves in a new type of echo chamber, our heads faced down to our stomachs, navel gazing to the point of being not entirely as informed as we’d like to think we are? The current fascination with new readers such as Flipboard, Pulse, and Flud is that finally, under one roof, and within a beautifully-designed layout, consumers can easily browse and read articles from a host of different sources on the newest devices, on the go. Because we like to know what our friends and colleagues are reading, our social graph can provide one channel (either through Facebook, Twitter, or both) to send us articles or multimedia. Because we want to read the best sources, our interest graph can be satisfied either by following those accounts on Facebook or Twitter, or through syndication by our reader of choice. The readers have also taken this opportunity to curate some channels for us, such as fashion, design, and so forth, much like Gilt Groupe may do for clothing or local deals. While there’s no doubt following the right accounts on Twitter, according to your tastes and needs, provides a terrific opportunity be informed, either directly through shared content or indirectly through its powerful “ambient awareness,” the current options for us to consume this content relies upon our own ability to follow the right mix of news accounts and individuals. A step further, it requires us to make lists on Twitter according to our interests, but that takes real work most of us don’t want to do. It also requires us to manually curate our RSS and Google Reader feeds to what information we want to come in. Finally, we have to log in each night, and be wired to the Internet or 3G, to flip through our feed and browse. At the end of an hour session, we may only read two to three articles, if we’re lucky. And this is assuming we do this everyday. I bring all of this up because I fundamentally believe that all of this information clutter cannot sustain, and that the Flipboards and Pulses of the world, though awesome and beautiful, are in the early stages and will undoubtedly need to change in order to get their message across. This challenge also creates a huge opportunity for some entity in media to provide that right mix of content to us, so that we can come to our own conclusions, so that we don’t just eat the hype that looks that simply suits our own tastes. More importantly, I began to question the notion that all of these interest- and social-graph feeds made users more informed. And, that is a troubling thought. What if, in fact, the current graph feeds available to us today paint a picture of the outside world for us to consume, but in reality, trick us into looking down at our navels, much like Narcissus stared at his own reflection in the water? I believe we should all be cognizant of that possibility, both for our own personal well-being as well as for innovation in general, as it may be turn out that while we’re busy hitting the RT, Like, Vote, and Send buttons all day and night, others will have found a real edge or built the next thing — and when we found out about it, it may just be too late.