Personalized news done right?

I’m not ashamed to admit it: The first time I saw Twitter, I thought, “What’s the point?” Maybe you did too, or maybe you’re just more perceptive than I am. Even Twitter’s founders have said they didn’t know exactly what it was when they started working on it. (Biz Stone: “If anything we sort of thought it a waste of time.”)

For every Twitter enthusiast, there was, I suspect, a point of realization that this thing could actually be incredibly useful. Some have cited the plane-in-the-Hudson story as their aha! moment. For me, it was less of a moment and more of a gradual understanding. I began to see its potential as a real-time information source when I first learned of a few important news items — both big international stories and news of a more personal nature — through Twitter.

I began following like-minded people for the interesting links they would post. Before long, information overload took hold. I tried to cull my follow list so I could read everything. I worried I would miss something. Finally, I learned to embrace the firehose and not try to process the whole stream.

But still I thought there must be a better way to separate signal from noise. And then I noticed that the most interesting and important items were appearing maybe three or four times in my Twitter feed. Since then, I’ve wished for a way to mine my feed for those links.

Last week I heard about and was thrilled to find it does exactly what I wanted. I spoke with Maxim Grinev, the project’s technical lead, about and where it’s headed.

How does work?

We look at the tweets that your friends send, and also tweets that friends of your friends send. So, first circle and second circle. And then we extract links from those tweets. Usually links are shortened, so we get the long versions. Then we group by links and calculate how many times each link is posted by your friends and friends of friends to built your personalized “newspaper”. (NB: Links posted by friends get more weight than links posted by friends of friends.) Right now, every “newspaper” is updated about every half an hour. It can be updated more frequently, but we don’t want to stress Twitter.

How did the project start?

As usual, it was a side project. We had been working on some semantic search technology. It’s about using semantic relationships extracted from Wikipedia to organize other data (blogs, news, etc.). As we were working on this, we started using Twitter. We didn’t have any idea in advance of what we wanted to build. We just analyzed how people used Twitter, what information could be detected. We understood that Twitter is not only good for spreading news, but it’s also a good voting system. So we can collect and analyze how many times links are voted on in Twitter. Analyzing this data, we can understand how important this link or this event is.

Who is working on the project, and what’s your business model?

We have 5 people working on this project: 4 developers located in Moscow, and one business guy in San Francisco. We are computer scientists, and we specialize in data management. We are self-funded; there are no external investors. As concerns the business model, we are considering various partnership schemes and selling advertising on but we have not decided on anything yet. Now we are mainly focusing on attracting users.

Will take advantage of Twitter’s new lists feature?

Right now we don’t do anything with lists. We are thinking about how to incorporate this. One of the options could be to generate newspapers based on some list. So if you have a list of people, you can collect the second-circle friend-of-friend information and build a newspaper for a list.

What other things are in the offing for

We are currently collecting feedback from users. Usually our users request relatively small features — for example, they want to improve the retweet feature. We are going to handle this feedback and add features. In addition to that, we are planning to extend the system in two ways: First, we want to extend the sources that are processed — so, in addition to Twitter, we are thinking about collecting posts and links from Facebook, mainly, and maybe Friendfeed. Second, we are going to allow ranking of news by global popularity. So you would have two different tabs: The first tab is personal news. The second tab is global news. In this sense we will compete with Tweetmeme.

What are your thoughts on the future of news?

I can’t say how it will be. I can just share my own experience, and I think it’s typical: Since I started using Twitter, I’ve nearly stopped collecting news from other sources. Before, for example, I watched news on TV and read more magazines. Now I get nearly all my news from Twitter. I’m quite confident that if I read Twitter, I will not miss some important piece of news. So if a war has started, or there’s some disaster, it will be mentioned at least once in my Twitter timeline.

I have heard a lot of discussion about media sources dying — The New York Times has problems, etcetera. Of course, I think that all these major newspapers and magazines are very important, because journalists have the ability to travel places and work at this full-time. But with regard to selecting what I will read, I’m not going to visit The New York Times website, for example. If there’s some interesting and important article posted there, I will find it in my Twitter timeline.

Also, by the way, there’s an interesting idea we’re looking at: When you visit The New York Times website, for example, you might be interested in getting all the links published there, but ranked according to the judgment of your friends and friends of friends. So it’s the same as, but restricted to a single source — The New York Times, in this case. We are talking to one major newspaper about this.

About Eric Ulken

Eric Ulken left his job as editor for interactive technology at the Los Angeles Times in November 2008 to travel and report on trends and best practices in online journalism. He is a 2005 graduate of the communication management M.A. program at USC's Annenberg School for Communication, where he was an editor and producer for OJR and Japan Media Review. He has been a web monkey at newsrooms in six states, including his native Louisiana.


  1. says:

    the site look good! keep hard working on that!
    good luck!