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Google News experiments with human control, promotes a new serendipity with Editors’ Picks

Late this afternoon, Google News rolled out a new experiment: Editors’ Picks. Starting today, a small percentage of Google News users will find a new box of content with that label, curated not by Google’s news algorithm, but by real live human news editors at partner news organizations. Here’s an example, curated by the editors of Slate:

Per Google’s official statement on the new feature:

At Google, we run anywhere from 50 to 200 experiments at any given time on our websites all over the world. Right now, we are running a very small experiment in Google News called Editors’ Picks. For this limited test, we’re allowing a small set of publishers to promote their original news articles through the Editors’ Picks section.

That by itself is a remarkable shift for a website that, at its launch in 2002, proudly included on every page: “This page was generated entirely by computer algorithms without human editors. No humans were harmed or even used in the creation of this page.

But Google’s statement very much understates the feature’s (potential) significance. You know how Cass Sunstein wanted to build an “architecture of serendipity” that would give readers important but surprising information? And how, increasingly, many news thinkers have come to believe that systematizing serendipity is not so much a contradiction as a democratic necessity? Well, this is a step — small, but certain — in that direction. Think of Editors’ Picks as a Spotlight-like feature that, instead of highlighting “in-depth pieces of lasting value,” shines a light on what editors themselves have deemed valuable. 

In that sense, Editors’ Picks — currently being run in partnership with less than a dozen news outlets, including The Washington Post, Newsday, Reuters, and Slate — could recreate the didn’t-know-you’d-love-it-til-you-loved-it experience of the bundled news product within the broader presentation of Google News’ algorithmically curated news items. Serendipity concerns exist even at Google (see Fast Flip, for example); this is one way of replicating the offline experience of serendipity-via-bundling within the sometimes scattered experience of online news consumption.

Editors’ Picks also does what its name suggests: it allows editors to choose which stories they introduce to the Google News audience. (Google confirmed to me that the links on display aren’t being paid for by the news publishers — that is, it’s not a sponsored section.) Publishers can choose to promote stories that have done well, traffic-wise, amplifying that success — or they can choose to promote stories that have gotten less traction. Or they can simply choose to promote stories that are funny or important or touching or all of the above — stories that are simply worth reading. The point is, they can choose.

Which is, of course, of a piece with Google’s renewed focus on the news side of its search functionalities — and its effort to reach out to news organizations. And it’s of a piece with other sites that have moved from automated news to automation-plus-human-editing.

Consumers, for their part, get some choice in the matter, as well: The Editors’ Picks experiment combines crowd-curated content with content selected by news organizations themselves — editorial authority and algorithmic — within the same news presentation.

In other words: serendipity, systematized.

                                   
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Joseph Lichterman    April 21, 2014
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