Finding Good Content

Let’s stop supporting sites who pump out shit, and let’s pray AI comes to our rescue.

I am a huge fan of rss and subscribe to hundreds of feeds through the system. And as any rss user will tell you, there’s a lot of crap you have to dig through to find the good stuff. That’s the nature of the beast — what you curate in your rss feed is subject to being filled with a mixed bag of bad and good content.

There’s piles of shit every where you look, which you have to sift through item by item in order to find something decent — it’s even more work to find something good because you can’t judge good until you finish reading it.

And, despite all the advances in technology, this one central problem remains: it’s hard to find the good stuff. The really extraordinary stuff is easy to find, because it will be shared to no end and hard to not see. But the good stuff, the stuff which people like me have always really enjoyed — all of that is buried amongst the shit.

And no one is coming close to solving this problem.

Fever tried, but it was a flawed system and really only excelled at surfacing the most talked about, extraordinary, or controversial items. Sites like Digg and Reddit only surface the truly extraordinary stuff leaving the rest of the good content buried in a vague system. Other sites like Longform seem to care less about the content itself, and more about the fucking word count — as if that were ever a good metric for quality. ((I’ve read plenty of articles which are amazing, and barely touch 1,000 words.))

This problem remains wholly unsolved and for the most part people truly aren’t trying to solve it. It seems impossible to solve as well. Every solution out there focuses more on surfacing the things that are most talked about, which nets you a mixed bag, than trying to determine quality. Nuzzel is a perfect example of this, surfacing only that which is talked about with no care for whether those items are good.

The way I see it, there’s only two solutions to trying to surface better content. The first isn’t likely to happen, while the second isn’t an easy challenge.

First: Less Shit

Publications need to be forced to churn out less shit in the name of clicks and ‘freshness’. Take news apps for instance, they consider it a cardinal sin to not have something new for you to read at all times. How do you fulfill that? At some point you have to add stuff just to have stuff.

Now consider the new Quartz News app, which will happily tell you that there is nothing new for you. No more news, you saw it all. No shit, how refreshing.

And this applies to every site. ‘But I can’t let my site get stale, traffic will dip.’ So what? Do you really want to post content you aren’t ready to share, or content you post only for the sake of meeting your one new thing each day, or your 2-3 things each week? That’s disrespectful to those who follow your site. Guess what bad things happen when you only post good stuff to your site? Nothing. Not a single bad thing. Oh your ad revenues might dip, but if that’s your motivation then you aren’t motivated for the right reasons.

And for big publishers, tell them to go fuck themselves.

That’s what we used to do. We used to vote with our attention and then at some point we stopped caring and decided it wasn’t the job of the media to determine what matters, it’s our job to wade through it. So instead of media outlets hiring smart people who can distill complicated subjects, they just started hiring people who could write somewhat passable sentences and a lot of barely passable sentences in a day.

We have a name for this: we call it 24/7 cable news — but it applies to everything, even blogs. Especially blogs.

I’ve seen so many once great sites turn down this path of trying to make news out of everything and in the process they lose me (and others) as readers. They lose us not because they still don’t have great content, but because we are tired of wading through the crap content to find the good stuff.

This isn’t even to say “don’t publish unless you know it isn’t crap”, but it is important to know that you are publishing something you think stands a chance to be good. If you do that consistently, it is easy to gain readers.

We need prop up apps like Quartz News and The Economist’s Espresso app which aren’t scared to do really tight curation and pay journalists to do the hard work of making complex stories fit in as few words as possible.

Surfacing Good Content

As I mentioned at the outset, current methods of surfacing good content is broken. Primarily relying on a mix of these three metrics:

  1. Page Views

That is: we are determining what is good based on how many people saw it, no matter the reason. How many people shared it, no matter the reason for sharing it. Or how many people said they liked it, with no verification they have any standing to like it. ((You can hit like without reading it, and that’s a problem.))

This is a broken method, and in no way signifies good content. Perhaps popular, perhaps even important for the moment, but certainly not good.

I suggest a better way of measuring good content with a two factor system:

  1. Did they read the whole thing? Perhaps: did their browser stay on the page long enough to read it, and did the view scroll the entire length of the post?
  2. Did they share it, and was the message attached to that share positive?

Neither of these are fool proof systems, and they certainly verge on the uncomfortable side of privacy. However, they are vastly better systems for determining what is good than anything currently in use.

Surfacing good content isn’t easy, because “good” depends are far too many criteria for most machines to be able to determine it from an algorithm alone.

As much as I would like this problem to be solved with current technology, I don’t think we are close to it yet — we need AI to solve this. Even still, we need to reduce the flood of shit content and we can do that by taking away our attention from those who don’t deserve it.

Turning our attention to those who don’t waste it.

It’s the most powerful weapon we have to fight back.

It’s time we use it.

And I impatiently await our AI overlords to help me wade through the sea of shit.

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