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May 3, 2012, 1:30 p.m.
Smoking robot at 1939 New York World's Fair

When a stream is just a trickle: Last Great Thing is one item a day, no archives

News.me is conducting a little experiment to study our anxiety about information overload.

Smoking robot at 1939 New York World's Fair

Ever wish you could reduce the fire hose to a stream? The stream to a trickle?

Last Great Thing logoEvery day for a month, the News.me team is asking someone smart or interesting or Internet-famous to share the Last Great Thing he or she saw, a video or an article or whatever, something truly lovable. There are no archives, no permalinks, nothing to read later — which is both maddening and sort of the point.

On Monday, Clay Shirky shared a video; I forgot to grab the link, so you can’t watch it. On Tuesday, Hilary Mason shared this video of a smoking robot at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Yesterday, Khoi Vinh shared an article about “impostor syndrome,” whereby creative types often feel like frauds waiting to be exposed. Today, a Ry Cooder performance from The Old Grey Whistle Test, from Craig Mod. (Ex-Nieman Labber Zach Seward’s up tomorrow.) The site is inspired in part by Robin Sloan’s Fish app, which urges us to love, not just like, and in part by The Listserve, a giant mailing list that accepts one submission per day.

“We criticize Twitter for not having any memories and for failing at being a place where you can find things after they’ve rushed past you,” said Jake Levine, the general manager of News.me. “If we don’t want to be that, then we might want to include an archive, but as soon as we include an archive, we make this less about everyone experiencing this in the moment.”

Last Great Thing is itself a contradiction, a comment on the ephemeral nature of social networks and a study of our info-anxiety.

Levine hacked up the site with designer Justin Van Slembrouck. (They are proud to have made it without help from a developer.) They hope to observe usage patterns that might inform changes to their products (iPad app, iPhone app, and daily newsletter). Levine and Van Slembrouck are technologists, not journalists, and the project forces them to think editorially.

There are no algorithms here. News.me proper (which we’ve covered before) uses algorithms to help surface the most interesting content in users’ social streams.

“People in the same breath will tell us there’s too much stuff and not enough stuff coming through their News.me stream,” Levine told me. “They’re kind of unsatisfied with the volume of content — but they’re feeling overwhelmed. That’s at the core of our challenge over the next six to 12 months.”

Last Great Thing, like Twitter, is ephemeral. Unlike Twitter, it’s slow. Real slow.

Tweet.

Tweet.

“We’re trying to see what’s the minimum presentation that we can do here to make something compelling. We’ve been kind of wrestling with this archive thing. We’ll see how long we can withstand the pressure,” Van Slembrouck said. (Don’t give in, I say.)

“We got an email from one of our friends saying, ‘What the hell? Where’s Clay Shirky’s video? I didn’t have a chance to watch it yesterday, and now it’s gone!'” Levine said. “We’re trying to figure out: Okay, do we solve his quote-unquote problem by adding an archive? Or do we kind of let those anxieties surface a bit more so we can understand them better?”

(By the way, you can kind of cheat by subscribing to the Last Great Thing daily email.)

POSTED     May 3, 2012, 1:30 p.m.
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