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Techmeme gets a helping (human) hand

December 3, 2008 |  7:04 pm

Gabe Rivera There is quite a bit of Sturm und Drang about Techmeme's decision to stop relying purely on its secret algorithm sauce and hire a human editor to help make sure more-relevant news tops the popular technology news site.

Founder Gabe Rivera said today in a blog post: "Only an algorithm would feature news about Anna Nicole Smith's hospitalization after she's already been declared dead, as our automated celeb news site WeSmirch did last year."

Point taken, but not accepted by uber tech blogger Mike Arrington of TechCrunch, who contends that a human interloper may improve the site but will destroy "the objective nature of Techmeme."

For the uninitiated: Techmeme is an automated news site that clusters breaking news from blogs and mainstream pubs. It has soared in popularity since its inception in 2005 as bloggers and journalists have competed to outrank one another.

The debate over the ability of humans versus machines to do those rankings raises fascinating questions about intelligence, artificial and otherwise. It also reminds me of Devo, the 1980s band that, with its mechanized beats and ...

... robotic lyrics, embraced the concept of "de-evolution" -- the idea that we are not evolving but regressing as a society. "We are not men," they sang. "We are Devo."

But of course they were men. And Techmeme has always been edited by humans. Just not directly. Rivera wrote:

For instance, when a blogger links to a story, the headline might move higher on Techmeme. What's different now is that an additional human editor will carry out changes explicitly to directly improve the mix of headlines on Techmeme. Though the implicit edits conveyed via algorithm outnumber the explicit edits perhaps by 1000 to 1 or more, the impact of the human editor is nonetheless pronounced. What will that effect be?

The news will just get faster and more interesting. Obsolete stories will be eliminated sooner while breaking stories will be expedited. Related grouping will improve. Most of this will happen only on Techmeme, though other sites (like memeorandum and WeSmirch) will increasingly benefit from the direct human touch as well.

Techmeme has become a must-read for tech news junkies the Internet over. Rivera is quite proud of that. When he finds someone surfing his site in public, he likes to snap that person's photo. He even snapped one of me doing so at a conference.

Today, Rivera announced that he has hired veteran tech reporter Megan McCarthy to steward the headlines on the site. The result will be a mix of old school and new technology. And, yes, it will be more arbitrary than it was before. Not that there's anything wrong with that, Rivera contends.

"Techmeme isn't fair because life isn't fair, and Techmeme will always be biased because humans have built Techmeme," he wrote. "And because news judgment, by definition, is biased."

I say give Rivera a break. As Susan Mernit so rightly points out: Rivera is the rare techie who gets and cares about news and information. If his news cyborg experiment doesn't work, I have no doubt he will put it out of its misery. In other words, if we are regressing, rather than evolving, he'll know and do something about it.

So now, can't humans and machines just all get along?

-- Jessica Guynn

Photo: Techmeme founder Gabe Rivera. Credit: Brian Solis / www.briansolis.com, bub.blicio.us

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