Turning inner space into outer space

April 15, 2013

Oh! Newsana, do not wait for me

Apps like Zite and Prismatic offer up a menu of articles based on algorithms that use your reading habits to figure out your interests. As far as I’m concerned, they work great.

But what if it were human beings making the recommendations instead? That’s where Newsana comes in — a recently launched website that promises to “elevate the conversation.”

The site works by having members pitch stories. Other members discuss the stories and vote on them. Those with the most votes are placed in a list of five essential stories, or they win places of honour in categories such as Big Ideas, Human Rights and Social Media. I was pleasantly surprised to find a category for Future of Journalism. These categories, known as topics, are determined by Newsana members.

In addition to ranking stories, members also rank each other. The more successful pitches you have, the more highly you rank. Votes from members with high ranks count for more when determining the success of a pitch. A vote also counts for more if it comes from a member who has joined the topic where the pitch is being made.

It takes a bit a learning curve to figure out how Newsana works, but that might help the site in its quest for elevation. After all, the lazy and the stupid are not likely to apply.

I have not asked to join mainly because I feel that taking part would be more than just a casual commitment. I would feel obligated to pitch stories on a fairly regular basis and to participate in the discussion and voting that follows. Obviously, this is not a passive form of news consumption. Even smart people might find themselves having to overcome a tendency to inertia.

What might convince me, or indeed anyone, to request an invitation is the ability to make a difference in the selection of stories. I was immediately drawn to the Future of Journalism section, but was a little disappointed to discover that I had already discovered and read two of the five top stories elsewhere. The other three look interesting, but it’s possible I could best them with my own pitches.

As far as the reading experience goes, I wish there were a way to put the articles in Pocket or some other read-it-later service. That way I could come back to them when I have more time.

Another letdown is the lack of a mobile version. Newsana on an iPhone looks just like it does on the desktop, except much tinier. There isn’t an app either.

Despite these hesitations, I’m still rooting for Newsana. That’s because it has a value that goes beyond the mere aggregation and curation of articles. The discussion brings a social aspect that can’t be duplicated by an algorithm.

I fear, though, that a certain amount of elitism might creep in after awhile if it hasn’t already. Will Newsana members wind up being a collection of like-minded individuals with a narrow focus on what they deem to be of interest? Or will the scope be broad enough to include a diversity of points of view that would be more likely to create lively debate?

The only way to know for sure would be to seek out an invitation. But I’m not quite there yet.