Curation. It’s the thing that lies at the heart of Apple’s new Music and News services, and it will soon serve as the fulcrum for Twitter’s Project Lightning initiative. Today’s web user is beleaguered by an overabundance of things to read, listen to, or watch, and the coming battles between web companies will be about how to reduce rather than expand the choices on offer. This month, Apple and Twitter presented their visions for new models of curation that rely on humans first and machines second.
Apple Music is a complex, multifaceted beast, but its core concept is a simple one: expert curators making music listening more enjoyable for the end user. The 24-hour Beats 1 radio station "plays music not based on research, not based on genre, not based on drumbeats, just music that is great and feels great," says Jimmy Iovine. The former chief of Beats Electronics has brought his idea of expert-curated playlists over to Apple and the hope is that their quality and relevance will set Apple Music apart from the competition. If nothing else, they promise something different from the usual tech company pledge of ever-smarter machines.
"Music not based on research, not based on genre, not based on drumbeats, just music that is great and feels great."
Not too dissimilar from Apple Music will be Apple News. This new app gathers stories from a wide variety of sources — like so many other news aggregators out there — but it will employ dedicated editors to pick out the most important, relevant, or interesting pieces of news to promote. In this way, Apple is attempting to differentiate not through its technology but through the discernment of its curators.
Exactly how successful either of these ventures will be depends on how well Apple does in recruiting the skilled workforce it needs to make the curation credible and trustworthy. If Apple News strips out, say, 90 percent of the stories coming out on the web every day, and if those discarded items are mostly noise and repetition, then it’ll be a great tool for people desperately seeking a higher signal-to-noise ratio in their news-reading app. And if not, it’ll be just another pretty news reader clogging up your home screen.
The algorithm aggregates, the curator chooses
Both Apple Music and Apple News will, of course, rely on computer algorithms as well. What distinguishes them from the more automated systems that already exist is the emphasis on human input in the final decision making: the algorithm aggregates, but the curator chooses. Twitter is embracing the exact same philosophy with Project Lightning.
Live events have always been Twitter’s great strength. When people talk about "second screen" experiences associated with watching something on TV, they’re usually referring to the Twitter conversation that is going on alongside notable events like the Super Bowl, the Nepal earthquake, or the latest broadcast of Castle in the Sky in Japan. These conversations are the thing that Twitter is now seeking to organize into tailored collections, replete with richer visuals and a far more coherent presentation than the usual hashtag stream of consciousness. As with Apple’s new efforts, Twitter is pursuing higher quality through selectiveness. The social network is gathering an international group of editors with newsroom experience that will, as BuzzFeed’s Mat Honan explains, "use data tools to comb through events and understand emerging trends, and pluck the best content from the ocean of updates flowing across Twitter’s servers."
Google Now and Cortana are smart, but they don't have taste
Intelligent algorithms and machine learning are undoubtedly useful instruments, but they have their limits. At their present stage of development, smart assistant services like Google Now and Cortana can already predict many of our actions and proactively surface useful information. But they don’t really have taste. A machine can’t explain what makes Threes or Dots such wonderfully fun games to play, which is why Apple and Google have Editor’s Choice sections in their app stores to highlight such standout titles. An algorithm can also collate review scores and present the highest-rated and most-downloaded music album, but it doesn’t have the experience or acumen to recommend an underappreciated artist like Aesop Rock when queried for a more obscure suggestion.
The big worry that may arise with the introduction of editorial discretion is the problem of trust. Facebook was sharply rebuked for clandestinely manipulating users’ news feeds in a psychology experiment last year, so Apple and Twitter will have to prove their reliability and good judgment. How will Apple’s editors handle news unfavorable to Apple, for example, and how inclusive will Twitter’s conversation shapers be when it comes to airing unpopular points of view on a given subject? These are relevant concerns, but they’re no different from the ones faced by traditional news organization or even Google, which is famed for its search algorithms but still maintains human oversight of its results and makes deliberate choices in certain circumstances.
Apple and Twitter are far from the first to recognize the value of human input in creating the best possible web experience. Websites like Reddit and Digg have grown into massive online communities by using automation only to tally up the popularity of stories among their readers, and then having moderators to maintain quality. Ultimately, it’s always some mix of human and machine that helps us distill the web into something digestible. Right now, the momentum is swinging back in favor of the conscious curator, the human that can make decisions for us in order to tame the big, beautiful chaos of the web.