Remixing the news

Personalization, Discovery and Sharing

Once music lovers could “Rip, Mix, and Burn” their own CDs they took control of their listening experiences. Music delivery became personalized as they included just the tunes they wanted. Consumer expectations grew, along with online services for:

  • Easy discovery. With Pandora and other online services, users can easily discover new music.
  • Easy sharing. Spotify is a recent online system for networking and sharing music with friends.

The economics and consumer expectations have changed for all digital media (see “Shirky: Problem is filter failure, not info overload”). Digital media consumers now demand more flexibility in getting what they want, stretching beyond traditional broadcasting models which pre-package content into channels.

As personalization, discovery, and sharing come to the news, it needs to be different from “playlists”. People

  • don’t want to read the same articles over and over, like they play the same tunes;
  • consume news in an information diet that represents their unique combination of interests; and
  • have limited time, and don’t want to miss something important.

Here’s a news reading strategy Jim Pitkow (my former PARC colleague and CEO of Attributor) shared with me:

5-20-60 Rule. I typically take time to read twenty articles a day and to scan sixty. When I’m in a hurry I only have time to read five articles according to my interests.

Social Indexing to Remix the News

In exploring these ideas, I draw on the experiences of Kiffets users, who keep up on news in their personal interest areas several times day on their desktops and mobile phones. Kiffets is an online system for social indexing that we are developing at PARC and that recently started beta-release.

A social indexing system:

  • delivers information via curated indexes
  • collects articles for indexes from sources such as RSS feeds
  • organizes the articles automatically by topic in each index
  • includes not only mainstream news but editorial commentary, blogs, etc.

Kiffets serves up my information diet in terms of the indexes that I subscribe to.  For example, the Information Media index covers articles from about 120 RSS feeds and sorts them into topics about technology, markets, and trends. The Jokes index gathers jokes from the web, organized into dozens of categories such as occupation jokes, animal jokes, and situation jokes.

Over time I can add and delete indexes as my interests shift. Each index in my information diet (the My Indexes list, below left) expresses my interest in following stories in particular subject areas.

Five top articles selected=

Five top articles selected from my indexes.

Kiffets delivers stories similar to Pitkow’s 5-20-60 rule:

  • 5. My five “top stories” are drawn from those received in my indexes. If I had indexes about Middle East Politics, Motorcycles, and Jazz, then the top stories would be drawn from those indexes.
  • 20. Readers scrolling down their My Kiffets see a few top articles from hot topics in each of their indexes  in order to satisfy the goal of not missing anything important.
  • 60. Readers can scan more articles by looking at selected indexes. The USA index (see below) is a broad index. Its hierarchy of topics is shown on the left. The topic trees, navigation links and search enable users to explore information by topic.
Exploring an index in depth.

Exploring an index in depth.

Articles are located in a conceptual map to the subject area to guide the curious reader. For example, several articles above are shown under the topic USA / Economy and Trade / Economic Indicators / Foreclosure. The topic hierarchy can be expanded to show additional economic indicators such as Bankruptcies, Consumer Prices, Durable Goods, and nine others. Other conceptual maps are provided by other indexes. In this case, Kiffets shows that there is a related topic in a competing index US News / Economy / Housing Crisis.

It’s the Curator, not the Channel

Kiffets currently has around 300 indexes in various subject areas. Some indexes are created quickly and have a simple topic structure. Other indexes are maintained by curators who are passionate about a subject area. The topic structure conveys the curator’s perspective and what they think is important.

Users are encouraged to become curators. They can create new indexes and share them with friends and colleagues. Sharing an index is like giving someone a magazine subscription that will continue to deliver articles every day.

Becoming More of a News Hound

My experience with Kiffets has made me more of a news hound than before, because it:

  • Is more engaging. I now get good coverage of stories in subject areas I care about and enjoy that are beyond what publishers provide because the topics are much further down the long tail of popularity. I like the Science and Politics index for stories on sometimes controversial science news such as discoveries and ethics of stem cell research. My step son follows product developments at Apple and music news from bands like Phish. A colleague follows news about cricket,  Bollywood movies and business.
  • Provides more efficient foraging. The news I care about comes from many information providers. Before Kiffets I would have to visit many sites or RSS feeds to cover my interests. Even when publishers provide focused feeds (e.g. “High Tech”), they are seldom a match to my more specialized interests. For example, “High Tech” may cover too many areas for me to follow or may focus too much on new gadgets for my tastes. Kiffets enables multiple information foraging strategies  — such as the 5-20-60 rule — supporting me when I have different amounts of time available.
  • Enables mobile access. I can grab a few free minutes any time to check the news on my mobile phone.


The ideas in this post grew from many years of interaction with the members of PARC’s Human Information Interaction and Augmented Social Cognition researchers. Special thanks to my colleagues Lance Good, Sanjay Mittal, Lawrence Lee, Barbara Stefik, Priti Mittal, and Ryan Viglizzo. Special thanks also to the patient beta-users of Kiffets.

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