HOME
          
LATEST STORY
The Apple Watch will expose how little publishers know about their readers
ABOUT                    SUBSCRIBE
Feb. 1, 2011, 12:30 p.m.

The Egypt list: Sulia curates content by curating expertise

One of the biggest challenges in covering the unrest in Egypt — or, for that matter, in covering any event that’s in some way “foreign” — is determining who can provide relevant and accurate news about the event. To curate content is in large part to curate expertise; faced with a frenzy of news updates — some of them true, some of them false, some of them in-between — how do you know which updates, and whose updates, to listen to? How do you know whom to trust?

Sulia, a NYC-based startup, has made it a point to figure that out. Using a combination of crowdsourcing, human editorial insight, and machine learning, Sulia creates topic channels, somewhat akin to news verticals, whose content is curated from experts in particular subjects — both broad (tech and science) and narrow (Ruby and Ruby on Rails), both of historical import (the protests in Egypt) and not so much (bacon). Think of the channels as megalists (or, more accurately, metalists): composite lists consisting of the most authoritative members of constituent lists.

Sulia is built from a simple insight: that membership on a Twitter list is essentially a vote for topical expertise. If someone puts me on a list about, oh, I don’t know, Jersey Shore, they’re saying, basically: “That Megan knows her Snooki.” They’re highlighting, and leveraging, the kind of topic-specific — and topic-relative — authority that the web, with all its nooks and niches, tends to be good at teasing out.

They’re also, to an extent, doing Sulia’s work for it. And that’s an important efficiency. Sulia makes use of “passive crowdsourcing,” says Josh Young, Sulia’s VP of Editorial and Expert Operations. It harnesses actions Twitter users have taken voluntarily, cognitive surplus-style, and repurposes them: as data sets. Which, in turn, become authority metrics. Which, in turn, become curated editorial content. (Sulia, in its content-curation-by-way-of-authority-determination, is similar to The Hourly Press, Lyn Headley‘s “News about News” tool that we use here at the Lab for, among other things, creating our “popular on Twitter” posts.)

For Sulia’s coverage of the protests in Egypt, its human-meets-algorithm editorial filtration has led to content — reporting and analysis — that’s essentially pre-vetted for relevance and accuracy. Sulia, formerly TLists, uses the TLists engine to crawl more than a million Twitter lists, identifying, in the process, the most respected sources on Twitter. (Sulia has a close relationship with Twitter itself, and uses its API.) To create its Egypt channel — which, like its other channels, is constantly being updated and refined — Sulia didn’t need to start from scratch to identify relevant experts; instead, Young told me, its team simply took mashups of relevant, related channels. “We already knew who the most socially respected Egyptian tweeters were,” Young notes; creating an authoritative channel was simply a matter of merging lists and then running them through editorial filters.

That baked-in contextual insight — Sulia’s proactive, pre-existing knowledge of Egypt experts — is key. While many in the media had to scramble to answer the whom-to-trust question when Egypt’s protests began, Sulia had already done that work. Locating authority was simply a matter of merging: a few easy mashups. We talk about “parachute journalism” when it comes to reporting — generally, of course, in order to be dismissive of its obvious drawbacks. But the drawbacks are just as obvious when it comes to parachute curation. Particularly as crowdsourcing becomes increasingly common — which is to say, as economies of scale change the value proposition of traditional journalism — there’s a lot to be said for an editorial framework that makes vetting the point.

And there’s a lot to be said for the vetting of content itself. Sulia, both algorithmically and through human editing, filters off-topic tweets to provide users with topic-relevant content in real time. It weeds out the “here’s what I had for breakfast” tweets to get to the topically relevant stuff. (So if I’m on that list of Jersey Shore experts and make it onto Sulia’s list…you’ll get only my profound thoughts on the antics of The Situation, not any thoughts I might have about, say, news innovation.) And that’s important. One of the drawbacks of lists, at least as I’ve seen it, has been their holistic quality: Lists, in general, have a single focus. But people, in general, are multi-dimensional. That leads to a lot of topic irrelevance in traditional lists: some signal, sure, but also a lot of noise.

Sulia combats that. And, in that, it shifts lists’ value proposition: They become less about the people populating them, and more about the content they produce. They turn expertise itself into an editorial product, transforming lists — simple, raw — into channels. In the case of Egypt, they create a place users can go to get real-time updates on what’s going on — filtered, vetted, and direct from the experts.

POSTED     Feb. 1, 2011, 12:30 p.m.
SHARE THIS STORY
   
Show comments  
Show tags
 
Join the 15,000 who get the freshest future-of-journalism news in our daily email.
The Apple Watch will expose how little publishers know about their readers
Apple’s new wearable may or may not be a big hit. But either way, it’s a harbinger of a new class of truly personal devices whose users will demand customized experiences. News companies aren’t ready to provide them.
Newsonomics: The Vox/Recode deal is a sign of more consolidation to come
With venture funders itching for an exit, a few corporate giants — Comcast, AT&T, Verizon, the new Charter — could end up owning many of the entrepreneurial news brands that have captured attention in recent years. Big is eating small.
News as a design challenge: New ideas for news’ future from MIT
Students and Nieman Fellows spent a semester building solutions for audience engagement, better tools to explore data, and new ideas for local media startups.
What to read next
670
tweets
What happened when a college newspaper abandoned its website for Medium and Twitter
At Mt. San Antonio College, they’ve traded in print for distributed publishing, focusing on realtime reporting and distribution: “We’re speaking the language of our generation.”
576The Upshot uses geolocation to push readers deeper into data
The New York Times story changes its text depending on where you’re reading it: “It’s a fine line between a smarter default and being creepy.”
424Knight Foundation invests $1 million in creator-driven podcast collective Radiotopia
The money will help PRX’s collective of public media-minded shows develop sustainable business models and expand with new shows and producers.
These stories are our most popular on Twitter over the past 30 days.
See all our most recent pieces ➚
Encyclo is our encyclopedia of the future of news, chronicling the key players in journalism’s evolution.
Here are a few of the entries you’ll find in Encyclo.   Get the full Encyclo ➚
Poynter Institute
The Seattle Times
MSNBC
Newser
Financial Times
FiveThirtyEight
TBD
Connecticut Mirror
The Weekly Standard
Outside.in
Corporation for Public Broadcasting
GateHouse Media