Twitter made an interesting acquisition on Thursday, when it bought a young Canadian startup called Summify, a company whose service (as its name implies) was designed to cut through the noise of all those social-media streams and summarize the content that matters. More than anything, this is perhaps the single biggest hole that exists not just in Twitter but Facebook and other services as well: the need to give users more ways of filtering the massive amounts of information that keep flooding their activity streams and other social-media inboxes. There are so many ways of producing and sharing content but so few good ways of filtering.
As has been reported elsewhere, Summify says it’s mothballing its service (a decision that was not received warmly by many users), and the team of five will join the growing ranks at Twitter’s new headquarters. The two co-founders, who are originally from Romania, moved to Vancouver, B.C. when they were accepted into an incubator program called Bootup Labs and later received angel funding (according to one report, a Summify investor posted a message that suggested the Twitter acquisition was an all-stock transaction, but the tweet was later deleted). Like some other services such as News.me, Summify filtered a user’s activity streams, then used an algorithm to produce a daily email with links to the most-shared content in their social networks.
While the service is being closed down, it seems fairly obvious that Twitter bought the company to try to incorporate that kind of semantic filtering into its offerings — likely by beefing up its new “Discover” tab, which uses trending topics and other features to try and suggest interesting content to users. As it exists now, the Discover option isn’t very comprehensive or well-organized, and it makes sense for Twitter to try to do that better. One of the service’s challenges has always been to figure out how to keep new users engaged, since it isn’t clear to many what exactly Twitter is for.
As we’ve described before, the need for that kind of curation — whether human-driven or algorithmic, or a combination of both — is hardly unique to Twitter. Facebook also suffers from an information overload problem, one likely to be exacerbated by the launch of hundreds of new “social sharing” apps that will fill users’ feeds with oceans of “news” about things their friends and acquaintances bought or read or ate. Even Google hasn’t been able to solve the information-overload problem, despite its launch of Circles for its Google+ network: a feature many find cumbersome.
In some ways, services like Summify seem like a throwback to the early days of the web, when people wrote blogs that consisted solely of half a dozen links to interesting posts or news articles or websites. In fact, one of the earliest examples of a blog — Jorn Barger’s site Robot Wisdom, which he called a weblog and later shortened to “blog” — was exactly that, and the tradition continues today with link-blogs such as Kottke.org or Brainpickings. The principle is the same as it was when Barger started doing it: to filter the massive amounts of information on the web in some usable way, to make sense of the flood.
In a blog post on the Summify acquisition, Mike Davidson — founder and CEO of an early social-news community called Newsvine, which was later acquired by MSNBC– said his ideal news site would look very much like a Summify email, but on the web: half a dozen links to the most interesting or relevant content available, changing daily. And Summify and News.me are hardly the only ones trying to fill this need. Others, including individual efforts such as Dave Pell’s excellent NextDraft newsletter, are aimed at solving the same problem.
The same impulse is behind apps like Flipboard, which recently started to incorporate more curation elements, both human and algorithmic — and it’s the driving force behind new startups such as Pinterest, as Om pointed out in his coverage of the red-hot newcomer. Smart aggregation and curation that makes sense of the flood of social data we have all around us is the Holy Grail, and it’s also one of the few remaining justifications for traditional media, since journalists have been doing that kind of curation and filtering for decades. But who will ultimately win this race — and how — is still an open question.