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July 13, 2010, noon

Spotery’s relaunch: some lessons in crowd curation

This morning, the social news aggregator formerly known as Ispotastory relaunched with a new name and a modified approach to social news. The site — now rechristened and re-URLed — builds on Ispotastory’s basic infrastructure: crowd-curated content overseen by human editors. (Think Digg with more editorial oversight.)

The original Ispotastory launched in 2009, and the changes it’s implementing today reflect the knowledge the site’s editors have gained — about balancing crowd curation and external oversight, about balancing social sensibilities and editorial — since then. I spoke with Spotery’s CEO, Limor Elkayam, about those changes; here are some of the most instructive shifts:

Old: emphasis on the algorithm
New: emphasis on human curation

Ispotastory, in its first form, “was always going to be a user-generated site,” Elkayam told me — one complemented by human editorial oversight. But when the staff simplified the site’s UI after its launch, so that users could more easily submit stories, submissions increased — and the site’s content experienced what Digg and similar sites have: curation of the open web on the one hand, but self-promotion and clever system-gaming on the other.

The site’s editors, Elkayam says, realized that the free-for-all element of content promotion was undermining the overall experience — and, to some extent, defeating the site’s initial purpose: to filter the web in a way that’s useful, and comprehensible, to users. So the question became: “How do we please people by giving them a place to share news without it diluting the content on the site?”

The answer, Elkayam says, was a more rigorous role for Spotery’s human editors by way of mitigating the influence of the algorithm. (This is similar to the Techmeme model that combines algorithmic and editorial authority in curating stories.) While individual users’ profile pages will feature all the stories they’ve “spotted,” unfiltered and without editorial intervention…on the communal homepage, “nothing makes the site unless an editor promotes it.”

In other words: “We don’t let our users dictate the content that’s going to be on the site. We filter and monitor what’s submitted and then we decide what to promote up and down.” So “there’s really no gaming the system.”

Old: lots of narrow content categories
New: a few broad content categories

Initially, Ispotastory had around 40 categories for classifying the stories it curated, Elkayam told me. Which led to…some confusion. Would the LeBron James move to Miami be a “sports” story? A “business” one? An “entertainment” one?

The relaunched site features, instead, broader, familiar verticals — “Lifestyle,” “Entertainment,” “Technology,” etc. — along with verticals appropriate to a social news site (there are sections for both “Funny” and “Offbeat”). As Elkayam explains of the shift: “We just figured that people have been used to seeing those categories for a long time. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel here.”

Under the simplified categories, it’s actually difficult for editors to make a mistake in classification, Elkayam points out. With the former lots-of-categories infrastructure, the Lindsay Lohan jail-sentencing, for example, might have been filed under “movies” or “gossip” or even “law”; now, it simply gets filed under “entertainment.”

That category-broadening makes sense from a workflow perspective, as well, Elkayam notes. The site’s four editors focus on particular verticals, with everyone splitting the “Offbeat” and “Funny” oversights — encouraging “everyone to own their categories,” she says. A streamlining that’s “better than too many people working on too many categories.”

Old: “friend” framework of social news
New: “follow” framework of social news

Ispotastory launched as a social news site — complete with profile pages with Facebook-like friending capabilities. Spotery, though, has updated the infrastructure of the social relationships it’s built into its site, shifting from a “friend” framework to a “follow” one. “We realized that, with news, you don’t really have to be friends with the person; you just have to be interested in the stories that they’re spotting,” Elkayam says. Now, the site operates under a Twitter-like follow functionality — prioritizing one-way relationships among users versus two-way. “I can follow you,” Elkayam says; “you don’t have to follow me back.”

In other words, the shift in site functionality is a recognition that social news isn’t just about user interaction; it’s about user curation more generally. The old conventional wisdom — that people want to interact over the news — is slowly giving way to a broader assumption: that people simply want to share the news, in whatever form the “sharing” may take.

POSTED     July 13, 2010, noon
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