Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Digital News: Prismatic

The Omnivore is covering various sources for getting your digital news. Today we're going to look at Prismatic, a source for "relevant and interesting news" that is curated by social media and machine intelligence. If you have not seen Prismatic, whether that sounds awful or exciting to you, trust me when I say that this is something different--something new.

The Omnivore's Interest Spheres
The two major players in social-media politics are Facebook and Twitter. They behave differently (to a degree):
  • Facebook is more about interpersonal connections. In terms of content you get to see short, often visual memes, that tell you where your friends stand with respect to politics. You can follow politicians--but the content is usually very impersonal. Electorally Facebook is a key player in Get Out The Vote--as it provides a channel for people with a politically active bent to try to get their friends to go and vote. Obama used this to decent effect in 2012.
  • Twitter is more commentary based. People have noted that "the elite political conversation" is happening on Twitter. Twitter responds in real-time to political events and becomes a source / filter for news-links and unusually biting commentary. The 140 character limit makes Tweets pithy and very, very ripe for inclusion in other media (such as TV). A recent study shows that Twitter can drive TV ratings. The Twitter response to debates is both analyzing the news and making it--even if the Twitter-sphere doesn't always agree with the pundits. Finally, Twitter is more global than Facebook--and faster. Twitter can amplify the speed with which scandals spread and can, in the case of improper or ill-advised usage, create scandals all by itself*.
The issue with both Twitter and Facebook is that the content you get from them is limited to who you follow. If you follow too many people the streams move to fast (and they are not categorized: I get Buzzfeed's kittens mixed in with Sabato's political Crystal Ball). On Facebook, while knowing what your 'friends' think is sometimes 'nice,' more likely it's just annoying. And to really get the most out of Twitter you have to do some research to figure out who you ought to follow.

In any event, both of these create their own "bubbles" where you are filtering content you get based on a series of decisions (who you friend / follow and what they choose to post--and when you check the feeds) that has a large degree of 'noise' and, likely, hard to predict unintended consequences.

Enter Prismatic.

I'm Kind Of Appalled that World News Daily Is Showing Up On The World News Column ...
Prismatic** is the brain child of Brandon Cross and Aria Haghighi (a top-tier machine learning specialist). The goal of Prismatic is to (a) analyze your Twitter and Facebook firends and then (b) analyze ALL of Twitter and Facebook (that it can see) and then (c) serve up, using machine learning algorithms, material you will find interesting.

You can choose topics--such as the new city you've moved to--and it'll show you stuff it thinks you'll like about that (even though your Twitter feed is all about the old city you lived in). How well does it work? It works very, very well. It's hard to know how this will work for everyone in general (the results have been good, apparently)--but my experience has been to refresh it and find stories that I'd never heard of that I found very interesting.

If it falls down anywhere it's in the deeper user interface (clicking on stories is very straightforward). For example, I'm not sure what following people on Prismatic does for me. I'm unclear on exactly how to say "I liked this article"--I can click the star, which recommends it--but what if I just want to say "I liked this--show me more like this" without actually promoting it to people following me? For the (cool) colored circles, what does the size represent? What's the difference between a check and a plus? And so on.

The user interface is clean--in its way even spare--but some stuff needs a little more work. I'm also not clear how to sync the app-version with my desktop version--for what that's worth.

But these are minor quibbles: Prismatic is showing itself to be a powerful intelligence engine for showing me content I want to see that even my (massive) RSS list doesn't seem to be providing. If only banner-ad servers were so on-target.

How does Prismatic do as a news source?

Intelligence: I'm giving it 5-out-of-5 stars for being a very smart and interesting way to approach news-gathering. It can't (see below) be a primary source for figuring out what's going on--and it, itself, doesn't provide any insight or analysis on the stories presented--but in the category (the bold text in this paragraph) of intelligence? Prismatic is at the top of its game.

Bias: There's no operator bias built in (unless we are somehow totally lied to about how it works). I'm sure for some people the feeds will tilt one way or the other--probably that's the case for almost everyone--but that's just a  matter of input->output, not some editor trying to spin you.

Front Page Potential: Only 1-out-of-5 stars. Prismatic might be one of the things I look at in the morning but it can't be the only one. Prismatic isn't trying to show you the most important or most topical news of the day--it's trying to show you interesting news--which it does very well. It wouldn't be my "homepage***" though.

* Twitter should offer a premium service which allows you to tweet--but the tweets are routed to another person (on your staff) who will review them for stupidity before being sent to the larger world in general.

** Some percentage of my readership will appreciate the fact that Prismatic is written in Clojure.

*** I don't think we even have homepages anymore. Do we? Does anyone?

No comments:

Post a Comment