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The Difference Between RSS and the Future of News

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With all the hubbub happening in the digital news space recently, including the impending death of Google Reader and Flipboard’s foray into custom-made, shareable magazines, it’s clear that we’re in the middle of major systemic changes in the publishing industry. And as this process is developing, the number of content consumption options is becoming almost as overwhelming as the amount of content itself.

Today’s landscape

As it stands now, we’ve got a few different categories of content consumption tools: feeds, social aggregation, and personalization engines. Each of these tools strikes a different balance between technology and human autonomy. Feed readers such as a Google Reader, Feedly or Pulse give people the most control, allowing them to hand select sources and see all content. You rely on the editorial policy of each source to bring you interesting and relevant content. Social networks are the second consumption tool – giving your friends the role of the editor and control over what you see and don’t see, with some algorithms on top to rank and surface the most popular content. After that come the AI and algorithm-based personalization tools like ours, which use semantic analysis to understand text and make recommendations without input from any curators or editors. Each new tool that evolves puts more reliance on technology and less on your own selection of feeds or curators.

Which will prevail?

Google’s decision to shut down Reader has been hotly contested, but mostly by a small group of niche users. However, a common sentiment was that although people were attached to Google Reader, most of them had thousands of unread articles in their feed. While in theory, people still wanted to manually control their news consumption to ensure that they didn’t miss a single headline, that only really only works if you restrict yourself to a few sources that don’t publish too frequently.  At the other end of the spectrum, people are relinquishing control and trusting technology to do the heavy lifting.

Taking a survey of the changing landscape, it’s clear we’re seeing the beginning of a paradigm shift and that new tech is going to build on the role of editors to change our consumption experience. Once, we happily relied on blog and newspaper editors to have the final say about what we should read. But more and more, we’re becoming increasingly flexible about sources and more open to discovery, as long as we feel informed and are discovering relevant information.

With the sheer number of news consumption services on the market, there should be certainly be one out there to match the needs of every consumer of news – whether they’re staying old-school or ready to embrace the future. And yet so many services still have yet to hit the nail on the head.

Instead of creating a service to replace Google Reader, perhaps we should take its death as a sign that we’re going to be less and less reliant solely on human editors and are ready to let technology do more of the work. Those of us who truly want to discover new, relevant articles and sources need to take a step beyond the human-curated experience.

Who’s your travel agent?

Don’t believe it’s possible? Think back 10 or 20 years when you had to book all trips through a travel agent. You might even have gone to a travel agent and asked them to recommend a destination. You certainly relied on him or her to get you the best flights and accommodations.

Now you would never even think to call or visit a travel agent to book your next trip. You’re on Expedia, Kayak, Hipmunk or learning about airfare deals through Twitter or Facebook promotions.  It’s more efficient and it feels totally natural now, although it might have been hard to imagine years ago. Even though you still have to do some work yourself – punching in your desired dates and scanning through the itinerary choices, the reliance on technology to find the best options is much greater. What it signifies is just how much we’ve come to trust algorithms and technology to enrich certain aspects of our lives. Rather than look to a travel agent to guide our experience, we’re willing to put information about ourselves into an algorithm and explore the results. Our reliance on human-curated experiences is habitual, but in various sectors we’ve learned and accepted that technology can often create a better experience.