I've never been one to let algorithms pick my news for me, but one app has begun to change my mind. Prismatic was already pretty good at picking stories based on the topics and publications I like and follow on other social networks, and today it's allowing Prismatic users to follow each other. These three signals - topics, publications and people - give Prismatic a pretty clear signal of what I want to read.
The best sources of info on the Web are always people, not faceless brands. I follow only 10 or so official Twitter accounts of publications, for instance. I prefer to use Twitter to get to know somebody's personal interests, knowing that they'll share articles on their favorite topics from across the spectrum. Prismatic's update adds that kind of serendipity.
The app was already powerful for showing me articles from outside my filter bubble. If you sign up with a Facebook, Twitter or Google Reader account, it will build you a fairly interesting feed from the get-go by reading your interests from that network. On the iPhone, it can suggest some topics by location. It will then start suggesting publications and topics to follow, which further fine-tune the selections. The finishing touch, currently only on the iPhone version, is to X out articles that are uninteresting, giving the app that critical bit of negative signal.
After just a week of use, I'd estimate that Prismatic is about 80% successful at finding me things to read. And the ability to follow specific people whose tastes I trust can only push that higher.
I've never bought into this kind of app before, but I think Prismatic succeeded with me where others have failed by coming up with such good topic suggestions all the time. I'm pretty stingy about following publications, though I've added a few, but Prismatic digs deep and identifies fascinating concepts from within the stories I've read. I just add every one that sounds interesting, and the stories get subtly better.
Serving Your Interests
In my conversations with members of the tiny Prismatic team prior to launch, the term "interest graph" came up. That's a term Twitter uses to describe the value of its service. By crunching the data in our Twitter feeds, Twitter can graph our interests, and that makes it a great way to target ads. Prismatic is after that, too.
But Prismatic might be able to build a better kind of interest graph. It's selecting articles to read, while Twitter just feeds you tweets about everything from everyone you're following. Prismatic has more motivation to be right about what interests us. That's good for users, because Prismatic will have to work tirelessly to make our feeds more relevant, and it's good for potential advertisers for the same reason.
Social networks weren't designed around reading or watching; they were designed around messages. The problem with Twitter - and even Facebook, despite its secret sauce algorithms - is that there are no filters other than people. "You see everything, whether you’re interested or not," Prismatic founder Bradford Cross says. "Social networks started with status updates - not with content."