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April 23, 2018, 9:28 a.m.
Aggregation & Discovery

Combine an “editorially responsible” algorithm + political news, and you have Current Status

“I see my role as a sort of reinforcement editor, ensuring that the good stuff is always percolating to the top. Sometimes the news isn’t as neat as an algorithm wants to make it.”

Matt Kiser started What the Fuck Just Happened Today? as a personal project to help himself keep up with the torrent of political news during the first 100 days of the Trump administration. But it turned out that a lot of other people wanted help managing the firehose of information as well, and writing WTFJHT — which on Friday published its 456th edition — has become Kiser’s full-time job.

As a way of helping him write the newsletter and blog, Kiser — who previously worked as a product manager at sites like Business Insider before moving to Seattle — looked for a way to better surface political news. When he couldn’t find exactly what he wanted, he built it, then opened it up. Current Status, which describes itself as “the political web’s front page,” has been up and running for a couple of weeks now. The site updates several times an hour to provide a ranked view of the current top political news stories across, on average, more than 100 different publications.

The rank is influenced by factors “similar to an early version of how Google PageRank worked,” Kiser said — signals like post age, inbound links, and post length. But it also incorporates the signals editors are sending about a story’s news value: “Did a front-page editor put this story on the homepage? Is it in the top slot on the home page? Are the publications sharing it on social? Did they send a push notification? How are they signaling to readers that this is important news? I quantify that.”

The result, he said, is a summary of where Internet conversation is about politics — and, hopefully, it can help prevent FOMO. “The news conversation has shifted to Twitter, which means that you have to follow the right people to know the latest and always be plugged in, or else you fall behind,” he said. “That sucks. I wanted to flip that with Current Status, so people can go live their lives and check in on their own terms without feeling like they’re falling behind.”

While the algorithm does its thing, Kiser acts as a human editor who can “mildly course-correct” as necessary; he can move items up or down the ranking (but not dictate, say, what’s in the No. 1 slot). “I see my role as a sort of reinforcement editor, ensuring that the good stuff is always percolating to the top or sticking around a little longer than the algorithm thinks it should,” he said. “Sometimes the news isn’t as neat as an algorithm wants to make it.”

Current Status is clearly reminiscent of Techmeme and Mediagazer, which is intentional, Kiser said. “I’m the biggest Gabe Rivera fanboy, and so much of this project has been built almost in reverence of what Gabe built,” he said. There is, in fact, a political site, Memeorandum, in the Techmeme network; it was the first site Rivera built, but for a long time it (along with celebrity news site WeSmirch) has been slightly neglected. But Rivera told me via DM that his team has been working on improving Memeorandum since 2016, to make its curation faster and more comprehensive. Unlike Techmeme and Mediagazer, it’s entirely algorithmic (no human editors). But “for perceptive and dedicated readers, the impact has been significant,” Rivera said. Limitations remain: There are often multiple similar takes on big stories (a problem that Current Status also has), and “sometimes overblown narratives show up and the reader needs to discern the metastory — like, maybe people are talking this because they want to talk about this, not because of its inherent importance…but there are advantages to those limitations, in that Memeorandum is a rawer and realer barometer of what political commentators are discussing right now.” There are plans for more changes, including an updated design.

For Kiser, Current Status remains a labor of love, and he hasn’t figured out yet quite what he wants to do with it. He hopes to “cross-pollinate” it with WTF, for instance, but it remains to be seen whether it can become any kind of business or not. “I’m trying to be very transparent, and I’m trying to figure out the best way of open-sourcing this project without just giving it away,” he said. The site was built with the help of a WTF reader who responded to Kiser’s tweets of Python questions. “This project probably wouldn’t be off the ground if it weren’t for this WTF member donating his time and expertise,” Kiser said. “That’s also to say, if anyone else wants to donate some time and help, I’m ready for it. I’d like to move faster on this.”

POSTED     April 23, 2018, 9:28 a.m.
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