Just over two years ago, we set out to build the iCurrent we have today. We envisioned a news and information service that works for the same broad audience served by newspapers, magazines, radio, and television. It would be comprehensive and balanced, retaining much of what we so greatly appreciate in traditional media; and also deliver on the great promise of personalization in allowing us each a greater say and finer control of what information flowed to us.
As technologists and designers, we were not enamored with the actual state of Internet information delivery. To date, rather than giving us the next Great News Experience, it has instead become a demonstration of Herb Simon’s oft-quoted line on “wealth of information, poverty of attention.” And it is clear why—the gap between poverty and wealth is created by an inadequate matching in the middle to our true interests whereby our attention is utilized effectively and thus our experiences enriched.
Consider the picture of apparent equilibrium in the hundreds of interviews we conducted with people across the USA. These people visited a small number of sites regularly for news and information on their interests, typically news and media sites, news aggregator sites, and a handful of niche sites of greatest need or interest. Email and social networking sites helped fill in on some interests, and searching on occasion helped on others. They may have tried one approach or another to directly control the matching in the middle including bookmarking more sites, setting up start pages or alerts, or even actively using RSS readers or social news sites—but all these practices, after their initial luster faded, devolved to more limited uses even among their early enthusiastic users.
Yet we know that history doesn’t end, it just breathes much more slowly than we do. In our interviews, we also saw an openness and even anticipation of the possibility of greater personal relevance that has been sold for so long. We are in the shift not yet shifted: a classic point in technology diffusion where there is a need to integrate fragments into a coherent whole. This is the time to, as Peter Rip put it then, “rationalize the cacophony.”
Our great fun really began with a simple insight. Achieving personalized delivery requires the person to participate in expressing his interests. He will do this, but only if he is rewarded very quickly. There is a lingering belief that people will not take such an active role in media consumption but in fact this is not necessarily true. It really does depend. Certainly, most people don’t like to set up or expend great effort in “customizing,” having now adapted away from bets on future value given the current realizations.
Taken out of this arena to a purer human setting, we all know that there is a way to ask a question that nobody will answer and for the same basic question, to ask in a way that almost everybody will. Such a thought experiment enumerates factors we all also know are the hallmarks of effective dialogue including concreteness, coherence, trust, and confidence in payoff. So perhaps if people do not actively engage, it is simply because the design is wrong.
This brought our focus onto the steering wheel between the human and the system. Right there, at the point of contact, the person would need to indicate her interest in ways that are meaningful and grounded to her and to the system. Not just once, but again and again as they go because our interests constantly evolve. This requires mechanisms that microtize the participation and the payoffs. And these microtized interactions have to happen in the context of a larger, sustainable experience. Pulling this off will take fusing this participation with curation and automation.
If you are now asking what this means, then I would say that iCurrent is our answer. To be sure, we have not yet fully realized the vision nor the levels of execution that are ultimately required, but we believe we are on the right path. We welcome you to join us on the pursuit.