Atomising a News Digest: from Aristotle to D’Aloisio

A 15 year old west-London entrepreneur born in Australia raises $250,00 in Hong Kong to develop an App that chooses news and trims it into atoms. Almost immediately he flips the APP and sells a new version to Yahoo who promptly shutter it and use the IP to create Yahoo News Digest. When a schoolboy can do this there’s no denying we are witness to something extraordinary, even by today’s virtual yard stick. But it can’t be based on the traditional bi-daily news-publishing paradigm we grew up with, can it?

English schoolboy Nick D’Aloisio launched Trimit in early 2011. It was a teeny, but not a tweenie news editor; because At 15, D’Aloisio was already well past being that descriptor. Trimit allowed users to take large chunks of text, which they write or import through a link, and shrink it down to fit a social network update – essentially to summarise and shrink a web page.

Initially developed to help D’Aloisio mange the mega bites of online information he was wading through doing his homework (he was reading books on Artificial Intelligence), Trimit snuck onto the radar of Hong Kong Billionaire, Li Ka Shing, who invested $250,000. Trimit was flipped by the young entrepreneur, who re-launched it six months later, as Summly.

The main difference between the two Apps, said D’Aloisio, was that Trimit was about content creation, whereas Summly solves the need for more concise and efficient content-consumption, while browsing on a mobile device.” Summly users evaluate results with content summaries and that’s what D’Aloisio began spruking with investor and mentor Stephen Fry, acting as side-kick.

The master and the apprentice

The master and the apprentice

Watch video of D’Aloisio and Fry

Selling like an ad-man twice his age, D’Aloisio offers us something we all need, an App that delivers more than Twitter, 260 characters more; but only as Fry adds, “the sentences that matter most.” Deep…Fry !

The cool thing about Summly is that if you want you can swipe to read the full story or double tap for a longer summary.

But was (yes already past tense) Summly so different from other summary type news Apps like Circa, which calls itself, “the first news organization to write strictly for the mobile lifestyle,” ?

According to Circa, voted App store best App of 2013, it’s they who are different from every other summary news App. For starters, Circa says they atomise but don’t summarise. Atomising, they add, is breaking down a story into its core elements – the facts, stats, quotes, media etc. According to Circa, summarising, where you create a smaller version of the existing piece, for a quicker read, is very different.

Hello, am I missing something? Maybe. The truth is and we all know it. No matter whether it’s atomised or summarised, what we are now seeing is what Aristotle noticed years ago, when storytelling dies we are left with decadence. It’s called fragmentation resulting from what’s being called a disruption or, every person online for themselves. What Circa and Yahoo News Digest may be trying to achieve, apart from a profitable business model, is to create some order up there. In essence this is what user generated stories (UGS) can do for millions of hours of UGC, and what user generated programs (UGP) will do for UGS; help curate the fragments.

D’Aloisio believes the difference lies in Summly’s human touch. It’s genetic and not linear algorithm that mimics “how a human actually thinks” and uses “organic metrics” to, says Fry, “think like you and not a robot,” and before you know it, “you are learning more, learning faster, getting information that is more meaningful and you are staying smart,” spruiks the young entrepreneur. They are still talking about an App, right?

And that’s probably why Yahoo spent 30 million dollars buying Summly and not Circa, who say their atomised summarised stories, are actually really “long form in disguise.” Maybe they needed the young schoolboy to tell them that Yahoo was looking to spend big on atomized summaries, not atomized long form news.

A million people bought D’Aloisio and Fry’s double act and downloaded Summly. A small number in the App world, but enough for Yahoo to shell out a whopping 90% in cash and 10% in stock before shuttering the App and making D’Aloisio their new product manager for Summly’s replacement, Yahoo News Digest.

Since taking up the reigns as CEO at Yahoo, in 2012, Marisa Mayer has shuttered 30 of the 40 startups like Summly, according to Read Write Web.  Unlike Facebook, which has been known to buy Apps and strip back its own service to grow the new App, Yahoo seems to have a buy and shut approach.

Mayer explained in an interview with Tech Crunch that in the past people came to Yahoo for single use experiences like Mail or Finance, but stayed because they fell over an unexpected site. She sees Yahoo’s vision as one giant hangout App, maybe like a pizza with various combos that are easily sliced and accessed by the user.

What’s interesting about the Yahoo News Digest, say’s D’Aloisio, is it’s traditional news paradigm based on bi-daily briefings. The New York Times has launched New York Times Now, which also provides two daily updates. The thinking behind these new old paradigms is, that after years of online bombardment, the fractured online information sphere, with its continuous stream of information – bombarding people every moment of the day – may not be working.

The philosophy is not unlike the old days where the paper boy delivered the morning paper and you read the evening news before dinner each day. “We wanted Yahoo News Digest to revisit a content format that when read, led you to a sense of completion and conclusiveness, much like reading the newspaper did.” D’Aloisio says, “So it doesn’t matter what time zone you are in, the notification timing will still be 8am and 6pm local time, you’ll still get a morning and evening digest at your morning and evening timing – and the promise is that when you open up that digest, whatever time it is in the world, those stories will be the most important of the moment”.

One advantage of merging Summly with Yahoo is the size of the parent company. When Philip Seymour Hoffman died Circa says they experienced growing pains when the rush to its site slowed their service. Yahoo’s size should theoretically provide it’s Yahoo News Digest with the appropriate size of pipe it needs in rush hour.

So this is what comes from studying artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning and ontology techniques at the age of 15. Aristotle worked it out years ago, but it took a young ex Melbournite, to turn it into a 30 million dollar pay check – for 18 months of work. What were the rest of us doing at 15?

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