Early every morning, I open my Web browser and load up a half-dozen “aggregator” sites: Techmeme, Memeorandum, Real Clear Politics, Google News, the Drudge Report, and the Huffington Post. This is my first sortie into the day’s news, the way I orient myself to what’s going on in the world now that I no longer subscribe to a print newspaper. After picking clean the smorgasbord of links, I dip into a second set of sites, these pulling in quirkier tales from around the Web: Digg, BuzzFeed, Fark, Hacker News, Boing Boing, and Kottke as well as my personalized Web aggregators at Friendfeed and Google Reader. During the course of the day, I repeat this process often; in my manic hunt for the freshest stuff on the Web, I reload some of these sites 10 or 20 times each. No wonder Tina Brown decided to start her own Web aggregator. Even if other people are only a fraction as reload-happy as I am, these sites are click magnets.
Brown’s new venture, the Daily Beast, launched this week. It’s still too soon to assess its place in the online firmament—new Web sites change radically over time, and though I think TDB does some things well, there’s much it could improve. (My favorite feature is “The Big Fat Story,” a daily chart that outlines different viewpoints on a contentious topic in the news—Barack Obama’s connection to Bill Ayers, for instance, or the press’s effect on the markets.) It’s telling that the former editor of The New Yorker and Vanity Fair is now running a Web aggregator. Her entry into the business highlights these sites’ leading role in how we get our news. My dream site—a meta-aggregator that sifts through all my favorite aggregators and picks out the stories that it can tell I’ll love—still doesn’t exist (that’s why I’ve got to keep refreshing so many different URLs), but all of the investment in the field suggests that it might not be far off.
“Does the world really need another news aggregator?” Brown asks in an entertaining introductory FAQ. She answers by asserting that, actually, her site “doesn’t aggregate.” Instead, in addition to providing a smattering of original content, the Daily Beast “sifts, sorts, and curates. We’re as much about what’s not there as what is.”
But Brown protests too much. Aggregating carries no shame: Sites that exist primarily to link to other sites embody the Web in its purest form. Linking is the soul of the Web, and the companies that recognized this early have seen enormous success. (Yahoo was a thriving Web directory before it was a corporate tragedy.) The online-news business came to prominence on the back of outbound links—you may have first visited Matt Drudge’s page for unsourced Clinton administration gossip, but if you kept coming back, it was for his irresistible tabloid eye. (If you can read a Drudge headline like “Fury Over Cat-Eating Festival …” without clicking, you’re made of stronger stuff than I. And if you can’t hold back, here’s a handy hint for navigating aggregators: If you’ve got a newish Web browser, click the link with your middle mouse button—the scroll wheel—to open the story in another tab. Now the cat-eating story can wait until you’re done reading this.)
Brown is correct that all aggregators are as much about what they omit as what they include. Omission, indeed, is their primary feature—you go to the Daily Beast or BuzzFeed or HuffPo because they’ve already scanned through the news, gossip, funny videos, games, and assorted ephemera that hits the Internet each day and will presumably give you just the good stuff. In this light, “Does the world need another aggregator?” is as silly a question as “Does the world need another map?” The answer is always yes—different people need different guides for different purposes. And as the Web expands, with more people posting ever-stupider stuff each day, we’re only going to need more, and better, aggregators.
Generally speaking, there are two kinds of aggregators—those produced by people, and those produced by machines. The Daily Beast is made by people. The staff scouts the Web and pulls together the best stuff into a “Cheat Sheet,” a list of “must-reads from all over.” It’s a comprehensive effort, but in its beta form, the “Cheat Sheet” seems to miss much of the Web. It’s composed mainly of stories from big outlets around the world—the New York Times, Politico, Bloomberg, etc. So far, there hasn’t been much stuff from YouTube, Flickr, right- or left-wing discussion sites, or some dude’s blog.
I chalk this up to newness: The best aggregators choose stories for a specific, finely targeted audience, and TDB doesn’t yet have an audience. The Huffington Post was in much the same position when it first launched three years ago. “What is its political sensibility?” I wrote at the time. “Who are its target readers? Are they people who like politics, or people who like art, or technology? Why should you read it, and what should you do with what you’ve read once you’re done? Most important: Why would you go back?”
In the years since, HuffPo has found an answer to that question: “that one.” It has transformed itself into a lean, mean, Obama-loving political news machine, a site that finds and dissects big political stories more quickly than most full-fledged news organizations. You can scoff at HuffPo’s bias—just as you can at Drudge’s—but you can’t question its journalistic importance to its target readers. Take a look, for instance, at the page that the site assembled for this week’s presidential debates. Starting a few hours before the debate, HuffPo’s minions began pulling together bits from big and small newspapers, the AP, Slate, Politico, the Obama campaign’s Web site, and YouTube to assemble a full guide to the festivities. Then it updated the page during the debate with a live blog. The result was not especially pretty to look at, and it wasn’t even really objective, but for Obama-leaning political junkies, it was catnip—a page begging to be refreshed. As a result of such pages, HuffPo has seen an amazing increase in traffic over the past year—some metrics put it above Drudge.
The Daily Beast has no detectable partisan lean, and Edward Felsenthal, the site’s managing editor, told me that he didn’t think he had to cater to a political group to gain an audience. He’s right; though a partisan view does seem to boost traffic, some of the best aggregators do well by pursuing other audiences. Fark caters to people who like stupid stories about, say, mishaps involving transsexuals or the perils of driving a lawnmower while drunk. Jason Kottke has a curatorial sense matched to folks who watch The Wire and read Michael Lewis, Malcolm Gladwell, and David Foster Wallace. Different aggregators for different people, then. When I asked Felsenthal to describe TDB’s audience, he was more vague; he said his mission was to point to stuff that’s “provocative and essential.” If the Daily Beast does well, that designation will get more concrete over time. Certainly Tina Brown knows about building an editorial sensibility.
The other way to build an aggregator is through machines, and it’s in this area we’ve seen the most progress recently. Google News uses computers to analyze the text, publication date, and length of news stories to determine the biggest news of the day. Techmeme and Memeorandum, which were both created by programmer Gabe Rivera, monitor link patterns to come up with a list of the most-blogged stories of the day. Digg and its social-news brothers seek to measure enthusiasm for a story; they let you vote on what you like, and the most-popular stories float to the front page.
On all of these sites, the computers are attempting to bring some automation to the quintessentially human act of editing. Tina Brown got famous by assigning magazine stories that hit a nerve with the public. Digg uses the crowd to do something very similar—by collecting the input of thousands of readers, it shows off stories that it knows will hit a nerve with readers. At this year’s TechCrunch50 conference, several startups showed off technology that they say will filter and edit the Web even more efficiently.
The interest in automated aggregation reflects the field’s economic appeal. As Google proved, finding a way to present people with a link to exactly what they want can be a very lucrative endeavor. Still, I bet that we’ll be relying on both human- and computer-curated sites for some time. I notice a lot of overlap in the many different aggregators I check out each day, but there are also many stories that only one or two of the sites have posted. Digg is by far the best place online to find a hilarious YouTube video. On the other hand, if someone’s written something compelling about David Foster Wallace, you’re more likely to find it on Kottke. If your interests are diverse, it still makes sense to keep hitting reload on every aggregator in town.