By Harry McCracken | Wednesday, December 3, 2008 at 6:52 pm
Techmeme, the news aggregation site that specializes in tech coverage, has a peculiar relationship with those of us who cover tech. Many of us sing its praises. Some of us say it’s a waste of time. None of us can claim to be utterly objective about it, since it either links to our stuff (in which case we receive traffic from it) or it doesn’t (in which case we may be bitter about our absence). Whatever Techmeme is, it’s impossible to ignore–the act of saying you’re going to ignore Techmeme is in itself a confirmation of its importance.
Me, I’m a fan–the site’s algorithm does a remarkably fast, effective job of figuring out what’s newsworthy in tech news and pulling together stories about it in real time. Techmeme isn’t perfect, but it comes closer to perfection than any other tech aggregator I know of, including the surprisingly slow and lumbering Sci/Tech section of Google News. Which is particularly impressive considering that Techmeme is the brainchild of one clever guy, Gabe Rivera.
(Obligatory full disclosure: Techmeme has been reasonably kind to Technologizer in terms of linking to us–we’re generally somewhere on its Leaderboard list of its most popular sources, though not near the top. But I was a Techmeme admirer before anything I wrote had ever shown up there.)
Among the things I like about Techmeme is that it has a personality. It may be a bot that chooses and arranges content via math, but it’s never felt soulless or impersonal–it’s been more like a smart, well-informed buddy who has a definite take on what’s important.
Today, founder Rivera made headlines–on, appropriately enough, Techmeme–by saying that his site’s algorithm isn’t smart enough. He’s hired journalist Megan McCarthy, a veteran of Wired and Valleywag, to add a human touch to the site. It sounds like most of what happens will still be determined by the algorithm, but Megan will do some pruning and rearranging of the stories that Techmeme links to.
Initial response to this development from the tech press seems to be cautious. (Or, in some cases, openly cranky: TechCrunch’s Michael Arrington, whose site tops the Techmeme Leaderboard, says it turns Techmeme into “in many ways just another news site.”) It clearly behooves anyone to spend some time with the human-touched Techmeme before giving it a definitive thumbs-up or thumbs-down. But I already know I like the idea.
In his post announcing the news, Gabe is a bit tough on himself–Techmeme was already pretty darn amazing–but he’s right that there are mistakes in judgment that a computer will make that a human won’t, such as leaving up a story after the facts have made it obsolete. (Gabe’s example: His WeSmirch gossip aggregator spotlighting a story about Anna Nicole Smith being rushed to the hospital even after it had been confirmed that she was no longer with us.)
So I’m optimistic about the notion of a terrific algorithm and a knowledgable editor collaborating on Techmeme. Computers are good at doing a lot of heavy lifting faster than any number of humans ever could, but people have proven that they’re pretty good at fit, finish, and fine-tuning, which is what it sounds like Megan will concentrate on.
I’ll let you know if I change my mind based on any changes in Techmeme’s timeliness and sensibility in the coming weeks–and I’ll try not to let my conclusions be utterly swayed by its treatment of Technologizer, good or bad.