Techmeme Turns 5: Interview With Founder Gabe Rivera

This week, leading tech news aggregator Techmeme turned 5 years old. The service launched in September 2005, under the name tech.memeorandum, and ReadWriteWeb was one of the first media publications to review it.

In 2005, tech.memeorandum mostly tracked blogs. In 2010, Techmeme tracks all types of media web sites. Everything from news wires, newspapers, professional blogs, corporate blogs and personal blogs. That’s been a natural evolution, as blogs have become more like newspapers and magazines – and vice versa. What’s been more surprising is Techmeme’s shift from full automation to a mix of algorithms and human curation. In this interview with Techmeme founder Gabe Rivera, we talk about these and other changes over the past 5 years.

RWW: Like me, you started your site Memeorandum as a one-man band and not knowing if there would be a decent business model. But of course it has become a success story. How many people do you have working for you now?

GR: We’re six in total. Same staff as last November.

RWW: Back when you started, there weren’t very many products where a person could discover the latest news from blogs and media web sites. Nowadays there’s Google News, Twitter, Facebook, Google Reader, et al. How do you position Techmeme now in terms of the increased competition?

GR: For sure, the world has changed, and as you point out, there are more places to find collections of news links other than Techmeme. But some of those same changes favor a site like Techmeme even more. Following even a modest set of users on Twitter, for instance, you’re overwhelmed with tweets and links after spending just a few hours away from your stream. There’s really no substitute for a news synopsis that shows you what’s most important at the top.

RWW: Back in 2005 I mused that “mainstream news media organizations will be beating a path to Gabe’s door to either invest in it or license the software.” Has any of that happened or come close to happening?

GR: It didn’t play out quite like that. We’ve received overtures from most of the larger tech companies over the years, but media companies have approached us mainly about distribution deals, and only a couple of companies at that. I’d say this this is understandable though: we haven’t demonstrated that what we’ve accomplished at Techmeme can be done over lots of verticals and localities.

Tech.memeorandum, October 2005 (via Internet Archive)

RWW: The biggest change in the product over the years seems to be that it’s moved from being entirely automated to being a mix of automated and manual editing. Can you tell us how the mix works in practice, and what benefits you’ve seen from that.

GR: Philosophically, I believe human editing plus automation have always been and will always be needed for top-notch aggregation. Pure automation sufficed for a few years for us, and got us to the point where we could hire more editors. But until editors arrived, Techmeme would often make questionable choices – like spotlighting too many redundant stories, keeping obsolete stories on the page, and overemphasizing odd topics only introspective bloggers care about. Also, obviously significant stories would often take much too long to appear.

In the age of Twitter and hyper competitive news bloggers, even a 15 minute delay on big news is inexcusable. Our editing helps on all these fronts: we can block the automation from posting stuff to the site, and instantly post stuff if need be.

Techmeme, September 2010

RWW: Is your new product model, mix of automated and manual editing, scalable? I guess that companies like Demand Media show that such a model can be scaled (not that I’m comparing your company to theirs in other ways). But I’m curious to know your thoughts.

GR: I believe it’s scalable, at least for major news topics. New news vertical can start out with just one human editor, so we only need revenue to support one person. But it isn’t scalable to hundreds or thousands of news topics. An aggregator on, say, mountain bikes probably wouldn’t be all that good (due to a dearth of content and linking) – meaning it wouldn’t attract readers that could support an editor.

RWW: Finally, what’s next for Techmeme and its sister sites?

GR: More ways for tweets to show up on Techmeme. And hopefully more verticals.

Photo credit: Frank Gruber

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