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Selling relevance

I recently attended a talk given by Dan Lyons. It dealt in part with the economic and professional impact of digital media on journalism, and spawned a lively discussion.

Reporters have traditionally provided access to information and points of view which are otherwise unavailable to the reader. With the explosion of digital content, from individuals and publishers, access to information and points of view is rapidly approaching a price point of zero. News, commentary, reference material, humor and fiction are all plentiful. If information wants to be free, information is getting its wish.

This means that selling access to information is a rapidly shrinking business. The variety and quality of fact and opinion available for free on the web is far beyond sufficient for me, and I expect the same is true for many others.

In fact, there is too much of it. The challenge is in finding the good stuff. I rely on a network of friends, aggregators, and search tools to find the material which is of good quality and relevant to me. I need to invest a significant amount of time and attention to make it work, and in some cases it requires specialized technical skills. There are other people who do this much better than I do. That seems to me like an opportunity to offer a valuable service.

I think such a service would require a strong human element. Perhaps eventually, science fiction “intelligent agents” will be developed, which will scour available content for items we might want, learning and applying knowledge of our preferences. Until then, humans, with the use of technology, seem much more capable than automata of identifying good and relevant content.

So, how about a personalized service, which would provide me with fresh, good quality, relevant content, from many sources? Not a simple tag/keyword/recommendation engine system, but something truly personalized. That is something I would pay for. Could this scale so that one human could service many others in this way? Is anyone already offering something like this?

The idea is similar to the way in which Canonical derives revenue from free software, by providing the content (software) at zero cost and providing services around it, including packaging and certifying other software.


Written by Matt Zimmerman

May 25, 2009 at 17:49

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5 Responses

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  1. You’re right, there are other people who do this better than you (and me). They’re called writers, sometimes even journalists. ;-)

    Personally I still think newspapers still have a place, maybe not the paper kind, but still. The level of noise we have to break through today to get to the real content, the actual story, is getting painful. It’s like you say, in a world where everyone can be published online, be it a homepage, blog or a tweet, we’re quickly approaching information overload.

    Finding real, relevant content, carefully crafted by actual writers is rare. Just like programming writing is an art where it’s a painful process of removing everything redundant, without sacrificing the meaning, to reach a satisfying result.

    Maybe the combination of the personal service and a newspaper is the future of journalists? Carefully moderated aggregated content of your choice?

    Your post reminded me that I should go see if Paul Graham has written anything thought provoking recently. Thanks!

    Joachim Nilsson

    May 25, 2009 at 21:17

    • Not Graham, but Clay Shirky has written something thought provoking along the lines of the subject recently. I would also recommend checking out some of his other writing, including but not especially his recent book “Here Comes Everybody”.


      May 26, 2009 at 01:53

  2. Hi, this is your friendly neighborhood pessimist calling again… Two thoughts:

    – that “intelligent agent” you mentioned would essentially decide what you think, or what “input” your brain gets at all. With that task out of your hands, what is there actually left to do for you? :-)
    – in a similar way, the “personalized service” would have great influence on what input you get. A naive implementation might present you stuff that is similar to what you liked before, while hiding other content; as result, your initial taste would be reinforced to infinity while any changes would be prevented. That description is a bit extreme but I think it captures the essence: people should get information from different sources and should be open to get unexpected, out-of-the-ordinary content as well.


    May 26, 2009 at 10:05

  3. I believe this service is called a “magazine” when targeted at a lay person, and a “journal” when targeted at a specialist. :-)

    It sounds like your usecase would be satisfied if magazines/journals made their content available online in pay-for-access RSS feeds.

    My preference is to wait a week/month for a paper copy to arrive, but I can see the attraction of getting faster updates.


    May 26, 2009 at 18:28

  4. […] A similar effect could be imagined for information.  With instantaneous access to a vast breadth of information, all similarly presented, we can lose sight of important differences between sources.  With so much unfiltered information, it all starts to look the same.  Is one point of view really worth more than another?  Do we even take the time to understand whose point of view it is?  It is all too easy to seize the first answer which presents itself, or worse, the most popular one.  We’re exposed to a lot more information, but are not yet equipped with a proportionally better ability to process it. […]

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