Algorithmic curation

When I got my first smartphone (a Samsung Galaxy Note 2) in 2013, one of the first apps I installed on it was Flipboard. I’d seen the app while checking out some phones at either the Apple or Samsung retail outlets close to my home, and it seemed like a rather interesting idea.

For a long time, Flipboard was my go-to app to check the day’s news, as it conveniently categorised news into “tech”, “business” and “sport” and learnt about my preferences and fed me stuff I wanted. And then after some update, it suddenly stopped working – somehow it started serving too much stuff I didn’t want to read about, and when I tuned (by “following” and “unfollowing” topics) my feed, it progressively got worse.

I stopped using it some 2 years back, but out of curiosity started using it again recently. While it did throw up some nice articles, there is too much unwanted stuff in the app. More precisely, there’s a lot of “clickbaity” stuff (“10 things about Narendra Modi you would never want to know” and the like) in my feed, meaning I have to wade through a lot of such articles to find the occasional good ones.

(Aside: I dedicate about half a chapter to this phenomenon in my book. The technical term is “congestion”. I talk about it in the context of markets in relationships and real estate)

Flipboard is not the only one. I use this app called Pocket to bookmark long articles and read later. A couple of years back, Pocket started giving “recommendations” based on what I’d read and liked. Initially it was good, and mostly curated from what my “friends” on Pocket recommended. Now, increasingly I’m getting clickbaity stuff again.

I stopped using Facebook a long time before they recently redesigned their newsfeed (to give more weight to friends’ stuff than third party news), but I suspect that one of the reasons they made the change was the same – the feed was getting overwhelmed with clickbaity stuff, which people liked but didn’t really read.

Basically, there seems to be a widespread problem in a lot of automatically curated news feeds. To put it another way, the clickbaity websites seem to have done too well in terms of gaming whatever algorithms the likes of Facebook, Flipboard and Pocket use to build their automated recommendations.

And more worryingly, with all these curators starting to do badly around the same time (ok this is my empirical observation. Given few data points I might be wrong), it suggests that all automated curation algorithms use a very similar algorithm! And that can’t be a good thing.

Bleg: News sources

I’ve decided to take yet another social media sabbatical (long time readers know I do this once in a while), and since I’m currently living abroad, one of the downsides of this is that I now have no direct access to news (social media did provide news, but came along with extremely fierce commentary and outrage).

I use Flipboard to curate some news, but the way I’ve been curating it of late means that I don’t get much news about India. Online editions of newspapers are there, but I find that most simply use them to archive stories, and the curation that is present in newspapers is missing.

So I’m basically looking towards curated sources of news that i can read and be satisfied that I know what’s happening in this world. I currently subscribe to two newsletters – the Economist Espresso that arrives in the morning and tells me all that’s happening in the world, and Matt Levine’s newsletter that arrives in the afternoon (Europe time) and tells me everything that’s happening in world markets.

Do any Indian newspapers have good curated content in the form of newsletters? Or any third party newsletter aggregators in India? Do let me know (by leaving a comment here or reaching me directly – if you don’t have my contact details, you can use the contact form on this blog). Thanks in advance.

The problem with Twitter

Starting from the mid-2000s, the dominant method to consume content was to follow individual blogs through RSS Feed readers such as Bloglines or Google Reader. You followed specific blogs, most of which (unlike this one) had content on specific topics.

So when I wanted to learn up on economics, I started following Marginal Revolution and Econlog. When I wanted to follow the global financial crisis, I added Felix Salmon and a couple of other blogs (which I don’t remember now). All I needed to do to read on specific topics was to follow specific people.

And then Google Reader Shared Items happened. Now, you didn’t really need to follow specific blogs, for there was a social network where people would share interesting stuff that they read. Now you could outsource following blogs to friends who became curators. So there was this one friend who would share pretty much every interesting post on Mashable. Another shared every interesting post from this blog called The Frontal Cortex. I didn’t need to follow these blogs. My “curator friends” shared the best pieces with me (and I know people relied on me for Econlog etc.).

Then around the turn of the decade, Twitter replaced Google Reader Shared Items as the primary content discovery platform. A couple of years later, Google would decommission Reader. The thing with Twitter was that the movement from following specific ideas and sites to following “curators” was complete.

While twitter also functions as a “normal” social network, a major function is the sharing of ideas, and so everyone on twitter is essentially a curator, sharing with her followers what she wants them to read. There is also scope for adding comments here, and adding one’s opinion to the content. This adds a sort of richness to the content, and people can filter stuff accordingly, without consuming everything one’s friend has shared.

The downside, however, is that you are forced to consume the opinions and links shared by everyone you follow. There might be someone who I might be following for his curation of technology links, but it might happen that he might also tweet heavily on politics, which I’m hardly interested in. There is an option to turn off retweets (which I’ve used liberally) but even so, there is a lot of “unwanted content” you have to consume from people. And since it is “opinion first” (and link later), you are forced to consume people’s opinion even if you’re just browsing their timeline.

What we need in Twitter is a way to curate people’s opinions on topics. For example, I might be interested in Person A’s opinion on politics but not anything else. Person B might offer good opinions on economics but might be lousy on other things. Person C might be good for technology and sports. And so forth.

Of course, you can’t charge people with classifying their own tweets – that will add too much friction to the process. What you need is an intelligent process or app that can help classify people’s tweets and show you only what you want to know.

I can think of a couple of designs for the app – one could be where you could tell it not to show any more tweets from someone on a particular topic (or block a topic itself). Another is for you to upvote and downvote tweets, so that the app learns your preferences and shows you what you want.

Yet, I’m not confident that such an app will be built. The problem is that twitter has been notorious in terms of cutting off access to its API to apps built on it, or cutting permissions of what apps can see (Facebook is as guilty here). So it’s a massive challenge to get people to actually invest in building twitter apps.

Twitter as it exists currently doesn’t work for me, though. I repeatedly find the problem that there is way too much outrage on my timeline, and despite mercilessly cutting the number of people I follow, I find that it’s a slippery slope and otherwise interesting people continue to tweet about stuff that I don’t want to read about. And so my engagement is dipping.

I don’t need twitter itself to do anything about it. All they should do is to send out credible signals that they’ll not pull the rug under the feet of developers, so that APIs can be developed, which can make the platform a much more pleasant experience for users.

Practo and rating systems

The lack of a rating system means Practo is unlikely to take off like other similar platforms

So yesterday I found a dermatologist via Practo, a website that provides listing services for doctors in India. I visited him today and have been thoroughly disappointed with the quality of service (he subjected me to a random battery of blood tests – to be done in his own lab; and seemed more intent on cross-selling moisturising liquid soap rather than looking at the rash on my hand). Hoping to leave a bad review I went back to the Practo website but there seems to be no such mechanism.

This is not surprising since doctors won’t want bad reviews about them to be public information. In the medical profession, reputational risk is massive and if bad word gets around about you, your career is doomed. Thus even if Practo were to implement a rating system, any doctors who were to get bad ratings (even the best doctors have off-days and that can lead to nasty ratings) would want to delist from the service for such ratings would do them much harm. This would in turn affect Practo’s business (since the more the doctors listed the more the searches and appointments), so they don’t have a rating system.

The question is if the lack of a rating system is going to hinder Practo’s growth as a platform. One of the reasons I would go to a website like Practo is when I don’t know any reliable doctors of the specialisation that I’m looking for. Now, Practo puts out some “objective” statistics about every doctor on its website – like their qualifications, number of years of experience and for some, the number of people who clicked through (like the doctor I went to today was a “most clicked” doctor, whatever that means), but none of them are really correlated with quality.

And healthcare is a sector where as Sangeet Paul Chaudary of Platform Thinking puts it, “sampling costs are high”. To quote him:

There are scenarios where sampling costs can be so high as to discourage sampling. Healthcare, for example, has extremely high sampling costs. Going to the wrong doctor could cost you your life. In such cases, some form of expert or editorial discretion needs to add the first layer of input to a curation system.

So the lack of a rating system means that Practo will end up at best as a directory listing service rather than as a recommendation service. Every time people find a “sub-optimal” doctor via Practo, their faith in the “platform” goes down and they become less likely to use the platform in the future for recommendation and curation. I expect Practo to reach the asymptotic state¬†as a software platform for doctors to manage their appointments, where you can go to request an appointment after you’ve decided which doctor you want to visit!

Potential investors would do well to keep this in mind.


Today I got an SMS from Practo asking me if I was happy with my experience. I voted by giving a missed call to one of the two given numbers. I don’t know how they’ll use it, though. The page only says how many upvotes each doctor got (for my search it was all in the low single digits), so is again of little use to the user.

Curation mechanisms

The one thing that is making my stay away from twitter (Flipboard is also gone now, since the iPad has been returned to its rightful owner – the wife) hard is the fact that I’m unable to find a reliable alternate means of curating content. Let me explain.

Basically, how do you find interesting stuff to read? I’m talking about article length pieces here (500-5000 words), and not books – the latter are “easy” in terms of how they’re packaged, etc. Fifteen years back it was quite simple, and not all that simple – in order to find a good piece of writing you needed to be subscribed to the periodical in which it was published.

So you would subscribe to periodicals as long as they published good pieces once in a while – at least for the option value of finding such pieces. This meant that sales of periodicals was inflated – a handful of good pieces here and there would support significant subscription numbers, and they did rather well. Then the internet changed all that.

The beauty of the internet is unbundling – you can read one piece from a periodical without reading the fluff. Even periodicals that have a subscription paywall usually offer a certain number of articles (not certain number of editions, note) free before you pay up. This has turned the magazine business topsy-turvy – if you only have the odd good piece that appears in your magazine, people are going to find it somehow, and are not going to bother subscribing to your magazine just so that they can find it!

The question, thus, arises as to how you can find good¬†pieces that are of interest to you without subscribing to whole magazines themselves (and considering the number of sources from which I’ve consumed content even in the last two weeks it’s impossible to subscribe to all of them).

Close to ten years back you got it by way of an RSS reader – you essentially subscribed to entire periodicals or well-defined subsets of them. You didn’t pay for the subscription and there was no paper – the pieces would come and fall in your “RSS feed”. Feed readers such as Bloglines and Google Reader became big in the mid noughties (I remember switching from the former to the latter in 2006 or something).

You used these readers to subscribe to blogs of interesting people (back then a lot of interesting people blogged), and these blogs would link out to other interesting content, and you would consume it all. Then Google Reader began this thing called “shared items” – where you could share items from your RSS feeds with your Google Talk friend list. This improved curation – for example, I knew that there was this friend who would share all interesting posts from a particular blog, so I didn’t need to subscribe to that blog’s RSS feed any more. Soon you could share items apart from those on your RSS feed – any interesting website you came across, you could share. It was beautiful.

And then in its infinite wisdom, Google decided to kill Google Reader! Like that. Gone.

Thankfully by then we had twitter, where among other things people would share interesting stuff. And there would be enough of those posted through the day every day to keep you busy! All the buried content in the world now started getting dug up thanks to twitter. There was always tonnes of interesting stuff.

But then it comes with a remarkably high degree of outrage – no one can simply share a link any more – there has to be commentary that is outraging about something or the other. The question, thus, is about how we can consume content from twitter without the outrage. That leads to apps such as Flipboard, which presents the content in an interesting format. There was a similar app I tried to write but gave up on.

Now that I don’t have access to flipboard any more (while flipboard for Android is nice, it’s not anything like flipboard for ipad) how do I curate content? How do I get interesting stuff recommended to me without having to trawl infinite websites?

The app that I think is well placed for such curation is Pocket – where you can store articles for reading later. But then its native sharing application isn’t too good. It in fact encourages you to share via twitter and email! If only Pocket can improve upon its native sharing, and thus build a social network around the shared content, it is possible that we could have something like Google Reader shared items once again!

But with everyone on twitter is there a market for this?