The Pleasures (and Perils) of Personalized News

Tosca Fasso   April 14, 2012

We tried this ice cream for you. We think you’ll like it. (photo by cybertoad)

Not so long ago, the news arrived through set media channels and at set times. You could read the morning paper at the kitchen table, listen to the morning news on the car radio during your commute, and then watch the evening report on TV before or after dinner. And that was pretty much it.

Whether you cared most about technology, were hungry for more fashion updates, or needed to cram about Lebanon for a school paper, you got the same news everyone else got—and at the same time, too.

The last decade brought technology advances that made it possible to watch and listen to previously aired news broadcasts at any time on a connected device. DVRs, podcasts, and even YouTube lent a new freedom to the consumption of news by making the news available when and where users had time to watch or listen.

The Stones Were Wrong

As we enter the era of personalization—the ability to actively select and refine our personal preferences for the news we choose to expose ourselves to—those once-exciting technology advances are starting to seem quaint. Now, when it comes to the news, you can always get what you want—whenever you want it. So what’s wrong with that?

In a post on Own Local, blogger Jeremy Mims cautions that  “… news personalization inherently creates an echo chamber for bad ideas, reinforces preconceived beliefs, and may actually lead people to believe they’re making informed decisions because ‘everyone’ agrees. It will also tend to radicalize and become even more limited over time, because it naturally funnels down to the news you really like.”

In a direct response to Mims, blogger Evan Willms counters that personalization makes it “…possible to explore the big world of diverse opinions in a gradual way by using the topics you’re already interested in to branch out and provide a variety of viewpoints and subject matter.”

Both use the metaphor of publisher-as-nutritionist to drive home their positions. Mims likens news personalization to allowing children to eat only ice cream, while Willms believes publishers can act as “smart nutritionists” who can “…expand your love of chocolate ice cream with other types of chocolate product.” Culinary metaphors aside, both have a point. So what’s a content strategist to do?

Networked News

In addition to the issue of limitation vs. exploration, we believe there’s another consideration when it comes to the personalization of news: that of tool vs. network.

A tool performs a function for users (think NPR’s Infinite Player). You engage with the interface, enter or select some criteria, and get something back. Maybe you refine your results over a certain period of time, or maybe you’re done in one click. Either way, it’s just you and the tool.

On the other hand, a network offers the functionality of a tool but also connects you to other users, and, by extension, to their ideas and preferences. The thought is that a network should offer a “stickier” experience—if your friends are on there, inspiring you and stretching your interests, you’ll be more likely to stay. Additionally a network can also act as a sort of community police for our better selves. Who wants to broadcast that they’ve just read another article about the Kardashians?

But what if your friends aren’t on your news network? Smart editorial strategy can help. The Washington Times’ news personalization service Trove doesn’t make connecting with friends, coworkers and influencers as seamless as it should be. But through “this or that” functionality, editors’ picks, and a smart search box, it does do a nice job of suggesting and encouraging content I wouldn’t otherwise have thought to request.

Personalization can be used to either reinforce our existing beliefs and interests, or it can expand our exposure through influence and encouragement. In other words, it can be reactive (and allow us to limit ourselves) or predictive (and inspire and encourage us to expand our horizons).

Extra, Extra!

It all comes down to strategy. Why limit news personalization to what I’m looking for right now? In a post on disambiguation for Contents Magazine, Rachel Lovinger, Content Strategy Director at Razorfish NY, states “Traditionally, one obstacle has been that sites like the New York Times didn’t have access to as much data…as sites like Amazon or Netflix. But that’s changing with deeper social integration. Now, if you sign in with Facebook, the Times will have a better idea what articles you like, share, and comment on. So, why aren’t they making use of that data to provide their readers a more engaging experience?”

Indeed. Why not use my current interests to preview and suggest what I consider “stretch” content—essentially what I asked for and more (e.g., my love of Spanish shoes may suggest an interest in Spanish food, and if I click on that content, I may also be intrigued by Spanish economics on a subsequent visit).

Of the options for news personalization I’ve tried so far, Zite is probably the frontrunner. I logged in with Twitter, and the iPad/iPhone app pre-filled my feed with Social Media, Technology, Content Strategy, Strategy, and Marketing. Pretty accurate for taking just a couple of seconds with a single input. Zite also offers “Featured” content types from which you can add more topics.

It’s a great tool, but as a network it ultimately falls short, only including your Twitter friends’ news posts and also which articles are getting the most buzz in its algorithm for external influence. Additionally, Zite gets “smarter” as you use it, learning from your behavior, so it’s unclear whether this perpetuates the echo chamber effect, or if it’s somehow more nuanced and helps you explore more interesting content.

When a news personalization service—tool or network—develops an algorithm, who are they catering to, our current selves or our ideal selves? I’m hoping they’ll start to do both. A primary goal of a news organization is to make us care about things we didn’t think we cared about.

As content strategists, we can help. By understanding the limits and possibilities of a tool vs. a network, we can better guide our clients and co-workers to choose the more effective option for their goals. Our editorial expertise can help inform a smart editorial strategy that is built on something bigger than showing “what’s hot right now”. And of course, our experience with metadata and taxonomy can help teams design sophisticated algorithms that do more than just serve up what the user wants right now. In other words, with the influence of content strategy, news personalization services can start to show us not just who we are, but also who we want to be.

Announcing the Nimble Report

Rachel Lovinger   June 1, 2010

Nimble Report

The Breakdown: Announcing, Nimble: A Razorfish report on publishing in the digital age. Rachel provides a description of the report that she wrote for Razorfish’s Media & Entertainment practice, with support from research partner Semantic Universe.

Last week I mentioned being busy. One of the things that has been keeping me occupied for the past several months is writing and producing a report called Nimble. It’s aimed at content producers that are moving from traditional media distribution to digital, and finding themselves facing new challenges.

Most magazines, newspapers, TV shows, etc. have a website at this point, but it doesn’t mean that they’re making the most of the digital experiences that they’re creating for their audience. The report looks at three major areas of interest to content companies – how they attact and retain their audience, how they deliver content across new channels, platforms, and devices, and how they remain profitable in the new digital economy.

The key is: Content needs to be free. Not necessarily free-of-charge, but free to be accessed wherever and whenever the consumer wants it. And to truly be free, content needs to be “Nimble.” Content becomes nimble by being well-structured and having meaningful metadata.

The report discusses the types of structure that can set content free, and how this approach will change the role of the editor, the way content companies make money, the way they deliver content, and the way they attract an audience. It also includes information about emerging technologies and tools that can help digital content publishers move into this nimble world.

Read or download the entire report at and follow us on Twitter (@NimbleRF) for interesting developments and updates. I’ll be presenting the report at the Semantic Technology Conference on June 23rd, and we’ll be doing a lot more with this material in the coming months.

Order Out of Nothingness: Tagging 101

Robert Stribley   January 12, 2010
order-out-of-nothingness1Music tagging gone wild. (Image via Stribs)

The Breakdown: Look no further to solve all of your iTunes song tagging problems. Robert Stribley tells us how his review of iTunes reveals some interesting principles about metadata and tagging, and may help you get to the music you love most.

I’m organized but not overly so. I mean, I kept my books in alphabetical order as a kid, but I didn’t think of it as an early indicator of the career path I’d take. But I do appreciate order, so when I import a CD into iTunes and iTunes assigns metadata to my lovely new tunes via its Gracenotes system (which compiles user-generated and submitted data), it’s a relief to me, when the provided data has been entered with, you know, some semblance of order. Often, it isn’t. In reviewing this data over time, I noticed users make certain mistakes consistently when tagging their music. These mistakes then, reveal principles, and though they happen to apply to music in my iPod, in practice, they also apply to tagging other digital files.

For your consideration then:

1. Some tags are more important than others

In iTunes, the artist tag proves more important than other tags (album and genre do also), and how it’s completed can affect iTunes’ ability to filter and present your music effectively. The wrong date tag may not matter. A typo in the artist, album, or song field however, may mean you can’t find your music. A typo in the artist field also affects more files than misspelling a single song title. The consequences of errors in completing some fields are simply far greater than others. Specifically, when fields are tied into key functionality, such as sorting and filtering, creating flawed metadata within those fields blunts that helpful functionality.

2. Tag key fields consistently

Some fields like the song name allow you to tag each file differently. The artist and album fields don’t. For example, you should complete the artist field with the artist primarily associated with the work, and use another category to add additional artists, which happen to contribute to a single tune. In other words, tagging Mos Def’s recent song “History” as “Mos Def with Talib Kweli” screws up a sort on “Mos Def” in your iPod because your iPod now thinks “Mos Def” and “Mos Def with Talib Kweli” are two different artists. A solution is to add “(with Talib Kweli)” after the song title. Otherwise, I end up with one orphaned song in my iPod: If I select to play all songs by “Mos Def,” that song doesn’t even show up.

Similarly, tagging one album “R.E.M.” and another “REM” creates two different bands. Be consistent. Simple things like the use of the word “The” (“Cinematic Orchestra” or “The Cinematic Orchestra?) or an ampersand (“Antony & the Johnsons” or “Antony and the Johnsons”?), can throw a wrench in the works. If alternate spellings exist for a particular piece of information, you should decide which will be the primary spelling and enter that consistently.

3. Avoid meaningless tags

Completing the genre field with tags like “other,” “unknown,” “unclassifiable” and, arguably, even “alternative” provides little if any utility. You may as well leave the field blank. “Unclassifiable” sounds cute to the fan, who doesn’t want to pigeonhole their band, but what does the “unclassifiable” genre sound like as a playlist? Probably a pretty icky mélange. “Unclassifiable” may reflect one’s personal appreciation, but effectively, it’s no better a category than “miscellaneous.”

“Alternative” seems useless for different reasons. It originally referred to bands, who signed with non-mainstream labels, so “alternative” doesn’t necessarily refer to a well-defined sound or genre.  “Alternative” doesn’t mean two songs sound even remotely alike. Furthermore, bands which were once “alternative” may now be mainstream (Hello, Snow Patrol!). Wolfmother sounds enough like AC/DC that you may as well label both “rock.” Or “metal.” Or something more helpful than “alternative.”

4. Combine redundant tags

This principle overlaps with the point about consistency, but we should highlight the importance of both combining and distinguishing between categories – something that may apply to the same file or song. (For a related discussion, see Rachel Lovinger on splitting and lumping, too.) For instance, when I searched on “electronic” within iTunes, I found I had songs tagged with the following genres: electronic, electronica, Electronica/Dance and Dance/Electronic, Electronica & Dance and Rock/Electronic. That doesn’t even include electro, which I’d allow a separate genre for or other genres like downtempo, dubstep or trip-hop which would often fall under Electronic.

What a mess. I selected all of these and replaced them with “Electronic.” Could I have distinguished between Dance and Electronic? Perhaps, though, if they truly share the Electronic genre, I’m happy to go with that. That does bring us to our next point, though.

5. Distinguish between different tags

As important as it is to group things consistently, it’s also important to allow their distinctions. Trip-hop, glitch hop, dubstep and electro, for example, are all sub-genres, which might appear under electronic. They are all, also, arguably distinguishable. If you’re familiar with these genres, you’ll provide more sorting utility by labeling music with them, rather than simply placing them solely under an amorphous tag like “Electronic/Dance.” We’re spoiled with a wealth of musical variety in the 21st century. May as well help other folks discover these rich veins of music.

Now, if I could just get Apple to add a separate column for “tags” (or at least allow multiple genres), then I could place songs under more than one genre or subgenre (electronic and dubstep) and filter them in different ways (dubstep is also chill is also electronic). Then I could tag a tune like Burial’s “Shell of Light” with all of these. Creating a playlist just ain’t the same, and it’s more difficult to create playlists when songs aren’t tagged correctly.  Besides, I use playlists to create groupings, which ignore genre (workout, Summer Party, NYC, road trip, romantic, etc). Finally, allowing for additional, well-crafted tags would allow me to better create new playlists on the fly.

Well, back to my iTunes. I have housecleaning to do.

*Links provided to songs and bands on, purely for your listening enjoyment

A Failure to Collate

Michael Barnwell   January 7, 2010
failure-to-collate-2The CS challenge: Connecting data one content clue at a time . (Image via KrazyDad)

In the aftermath of the failed plot to blow up a Northwest airlines jet bound for Detroit, the finger-pointing over what President Obama called a “systemic failure” has centered on an inability to connect the dots. The language used in several commentaries I’ve read about the plot jumped out to me as oddly familiar. Reporters and columnists were speaking about a failure to rationalize databases, a failure to collate clues, a failure by the National Counterterrorism Center -the nerve center and “fusion center of all fusion centers“- to identify a dangerous set of data adding up to an extreme threat.

It’s not often that stock-in-trade content strategy work takes on an air of national importance, but the failures that occurred and the peril it permitted have roots in common challenges that content strategists try to solve from project to project: structuring and tagging data so that meaningful and useful information can be extracted and acted upon.

The Content Wild Child: Your New PR Nightmare

Matt Geraghty   October 6, 2009

The Breakdown: Our own Rachel Lovinger gave a presentation at the MIMA Summit about what can happen when you don’t have a clearly defined content strategy. She showed several examples of common problems, and talked about content best practices that could have helped avoid these problems. The Summit will be posting video of all the presentations soon (including great keynote talks by Jackie Huba and Seth Godin), but for now, explore Rachel’s slides above.

Pandora Pandemic

Matt Geraghty   May 15, 2009


Is the writing on the wall for traditional and satellite radio? (image via Hyrck)

Pandora. It’s the most downloaded app for the iPhone. There are a whopping 27 million existing listeners. 10,000 new songs are added monthly. They have a growing roster of 70,000 artists. It’s the most popular radio station in virtually every major market across the nation. The average listening time is over 3 hours every day. So what’s Pandora’s secret?

It’s content strategy, of course. Pandora’s robust taxonomy and selective curatorial process are the two major building blocks to their service which now boasts adding 60,000 listeners a day, competing directly with Sirius XM and going head to head with broadcast radio.

Behold the Taxonomy

Begun in 2000, Pandora spent years building the Music Genome Project: a taxonomy-based music categorization platform. By identifying over 400 different characteristics of a piece of music, it categorizes and classifies all musical submissions. Your favorite songs might be tagged as having avant-garde leanings, a driving swing feel, a vamping harmony, a minor key tonality, emotional vocals, an outside piano solo or aggressive drumming. Give it thumbs up or thumbs down and Pandora begins algorithmically analyzing your likes and dislikes, serving you up engaging recommendations of music that have similar musical DNA. Pandora works as a personal music classifier instantly becoming your audio tastemaker. For good or bad.

Sifting Through the Submissions

Pandora has also honed its content curation process and this might be what makes it stand out from other online music services. According to founder Tim Westergren at a recent Town Hall at Razorfish in NYC, “The challenge isn’t [expanding] the size of the catalog, it’s not having the catalog get too big. Only 10% of the music submitted is actually ready for prime time.”

Their team of musicologists sifts through submissions to look for strictly high quality music that they deem worthy of inclusion in Pandora. Each song that makes the cut to be part of the Pandora library is evaluated for its musical characteristics. “We spend up to 30 minutes analyzing a song and assigning its unique descriptive characteristics,” says Westergren. It then lives in Pandora waiting to be served up to online fans.

Beyond the Browser

But will this marriage of musicology, taxonomy, content curation and user feedback aid in the demise of broadcast and satellite radio as we know it? The tide could be turning as Pandora offers an enticing alternative to the ‘pay for content’ model.

“Our goal is to have a billion listeners,” says Westergren. “This will be replacing the hours you spend on satellite radio. In some cases, we want all of your listening hours, whether it is an iPod, broadcast radio, or satellite. We think the most vulnerable is satellite radio right now. It’s tough competing with personalized free radio compared to paying $15 dollars a month. We’re pretty confident about that trade off.”

So how will Westergren increase adoption? It’s hard to say, but now with 1/3 of Pandora’s new listeners signing up every day through their mobile device it’s clear that he is strategizing beyond the browser and striving to integrate his product into users’ daily lives. But Pandora has its shortcomings, too.

Pandora vs. iTunes

Can a piece of art really be objectively judged solely by the sum of its parts? If your tastes are very specific, you will be interested in Pandora until it stops playing what you want—then you might be inclined to skip to the next song. A common pain point users have is the restriction of only 6 skips per hour. This is a minor inconvenience but a necessary limitation built into their current licensing model.

And how can Pandora effectively distinguish between artists who are identified for their original sound and less desirable ones that simply emulate that style? Pandora falls short as well if I want seamless uninterrupted listening on my morning subway commute to the office. The iPod is the logical choice, loaded with my favorite music, already with on-demand access. Will a user base armed with iPods continue to sacrifice control and reliability for free access to Pandora’s library? We’ll stay tuned to find out.

Splitting Tigers, Lumping Rabbits

Rachel Lovinger   April 15, 2009


Don’t fall for this myth mis-categorization so quickly. (image via lairweb)

Sometimes people ask, “Can you teach me how to categorize things?” and I’m never quite sure how to approach that. How do you teach someone to do something that seems like second nature? I think everyone already has the basic, underlying skills required. At its core, categorization is about lumping similar things together into a group and splitting distinctly different things into separate groups. These are skills that nearly every child learns during early development.

You can see it as they learn to speak and make early mistakes. For example, when a young child first learns the word “bunny,” she quickly figures out that “bunny” represents multiple individual objects (unlike the word “mommy,” which she uses to refer to one unique person in her life). But for a brief time she will misapply the word bunny to anything white and fluffy. She is lumping in many things that aren’t bunnies, but through trial and error she will learn to split off the things that don’t qualify.

So do people lose the ability to do this? It’s a fundamental aspect of developmental psychology – I don’t think we’d be able to communicate effectively without this skill. My theory is that people just lack confidence that the categories they come up with will be effective and will make sense to others. My best piece of advice is this: You just need to find the right balance between lumping and splitting.

Too much lumping will result in categories that are vague and meaningless. Too much splitting will lead to fine distinctions that are confusing, and the number of categories will become unwieldy. There’s no “magic number,” but take a cue from the scale of the groups. Ideally each of the categories should contain a similar number of items. It doesn’t have to be exactly the same number, but you don’t want one category to have 5 items and another to have 500. If your organization scheme is out of balance like that, try splitting up the larger groups, and lumping some of the smaller, related groups together.

What Will You Love?

Michael Barnwell   March 13, 2009


Netflix origami: extending the experience beyond the flick. (via)

Being able to predict human behavior is a real talent that deserves praise and rich rewards. Netflix agrees and since 2006 has been holding an ongoing competition to improve the accuracy of its movie recommendations to members, handing over one million dollars to the team who can deliver a 10% increase in the accuracy of its “world-class movie recommendation system” Cinematch. This, of course, will require a complex algorithm and an equally complex judging standard involving something called the RSME (root mean squared error) of a data set. Put simply, competitors are vying to predict how likely Customer Sarah is to give “Sleepless in Seattle” a 5-star rating.

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Exploring Facets Beyond eCommerce

Lynn Leitte   March 9, 2009
dan_clarkeFacets expose a range of data points for greater specificity. (via)

Recently a colleague asked for examples of faceted navigation that employed more than just lists of data points. She was, in particular, looking for unique or appealing interaction design using facets. There’s plenty of faceted navigation out there these days, but it is quite constrained to eCommerce sites and therein tied to data points for color, price, brand, and size.

Generally, the executions are straightforward, useful, and a bit humdrum. Other that the impressive MoodStream by the Getty Institute, the selection of sites building amazing interaction from facets is quite thin. Kayak put a stellar, if visually tame, implementation on their travel site. Etsy does nice things with interaction design, but does a terrible job connecting the facets. You can’t filter on multiple values, to the point where it can’t be considered faceted navigation. FoodPairing has a very intriguing graph display, but relationships are narrow and the interaction is generally constrained to the text links rather than the graph. What’s a facet lover to do?

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How P. Diddy is the Center of the CS Universe

Dawn Bovasso   March 6, 2009


The unbearable Twitness of Diddy. (via)

Before I was a content strategist at Razorfish, I was a metadata librarian at And though I endured endless jokes about the taxonomies I created, I have to admit, I loved the uniqueness of the tags and the complexity of the celebrity relationships. It was the perfect place to create tags such as “messy breakup,” “bad hair,” or “Promises Treatment Centers.” It was the ultimate intersection of pop culture, creativity, SEO, and content strategy.

There was infinite technical and intellectual strategy work around how to deal with P. Diddy (who seems to be going by only Diddy now). As he continuously changed names, we had to create the ability for the content management system to understand aliases and synonyms (so the editors/taggers could search on the back-end for any of the names), and yet only display his current name to the user on the site. This was also helpful and relevant for celebrities with stage names, married names, etc.; it made sure that if you searched for “Diddy,” you got everything that only mentions Sean Combs – and a keyword search alone wouldn’t have been able to do that.

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What is this site, exactly?

Scatter/Gather is a blog about the intersection of content strategy, pop culture and human behavior. Contributors are all practicing Content Strategists at the offices of Razorfish, an international digital design agency.

This blog reflects the views of the individual contributors and not necessarily the views of Razorfish.

What is content strategy?

Oooh, the elevator pitch. Here we go: There is content on the web. You love it. Or you do not love it. Either way, it is out there, and it is growing. Content strategy encompasses the discovery, ideation, implementation and maintenance of all types of digital content—links, tags, metadata, video, whatever. Ultimately, we work closely with information architects and creative types to craft delicious, usable web experiences for our clients.

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