Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The Rise of Aggregators : Who Filters your Information Infow?

The increasing use of  highlight aggregators to discover popular content on the internet is on the one hand very convenient and on the other hand a great step backwards towards discrete centralised media  services.

I am talking about Google Play News Stand, I am talking about Feedly, I am talking about Mediagazer and other news aggregators but I am also talking about content streaming services like Spotify, Netflix and Youtube. I am even talking about certain aspects of Facebook. All of these services try to address a problem of information overload by providing users with a filtered list of highlights.

Of course this is an essential trend because there really is too much content out there and we need some assistance at discovery and selection. However I think it is important to realise that the more we come to rely on aggregators the more blinkered we become. We hand over control of our information inflow to a few hopefully trusted  organisations. In many ways we are going back to the pre-internet days when most people relied on one or two mass media services for all of their knowledge about the world at large.

It isn't just a question of trust of course it is also a question of competence. How well does the aggregator do its job? Most of these services try to tailor their rankings to a users profile but the other calculations going on behind the scene are rarely clear. My own experience is that aggregators do a pretty good job of selecting and presenting general news but do a lousy job when it comes to things I am specifically interested in.

One upsetting trend is that even where services do offer personalisation they are increasingly basing it upon a "user profile" rather than on specific user choices that you can make. Taking Netflix as an example the built in search and category functions are practically useless for finding movies or shows to watch. Instead Netflix expects you to help them build a profile of viewing preferences so that Netflix can automatically recommend content to you. Google Play's News Stand takes this to new heights - you can choose from a list of selected list of news sources but no publications from my country (Ireland) are on the list. Nevertheless my "News" tab is almost exclusively populated by Irish journals presumably based on my geographical location. While I appreciate services making intelligent choices on my behalf I really wish I had more control over what was going on behind the scenes. Just because I am a man of a certain age living in a certain country doesn't mean I want to rely exclusively on the same three news sources for ever. Indeed sometimes I deliberately look for unusual sources just to try and broaden my view of things.

TLDR: Aggregators are a necessary evil in an age of information overload but it does feel as if we are moving back to an age of centralised media services. I personally dislike the trend away from explicit user choice towards user profiling in tailoring selections to individual users.

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