With Yahoo’s recent acquisition of the startup Summly, an app that summarizes news articles for iPhone consumption, Hamish McKenzie of PandoDaily raises a good point: is it news summaries we want, or succinct analysis?
McKenzie’s thoughtful piece riffed off a razor keen blog post by Cornell professor Emin Gün Sirer who argued that not only was Yahoo’s purchase preposterously stupid, but that the technology behind Summly represents a culture of mindless news consumption. Gun Sirer explains:
Our time is valuable, and we definitely need tools that help. And because digital information sources have become repetitive echo chambers, I would welcome tools that can extract the latent signals. “This article is really a fluff piece paid for by tobacco interests.” “This picture of attractive happy people of different races mixed together in the same proportion as society at large, sipping lattes at Starbucks, is probably an image ad by Starbucks.” “Yahoo makes outrageous purchase to get people to talk about its dying brand, and perhaps to indicate that it has cash to waste…
Instead of providing insight or the guiding light of expertise or data, Summly relies on technology that merely extracts basic facts using natural language text (this can be accomplished by cutting out the first sentence of news articles and copying the 2nd paragraph, where the who/what/where/when/why can be found, according to Gun Sirer).
And the natural language technology that Summly deploys isn’t even all that impressive. As Gun Sirer writes, “if Yahoo were to look at the work of anyone who is active in [natural language]…it’d immediately discover that this is a deep field full of exciting developments at its core. Gluing [a natural language] engine up to news surely adds some value, but pales in comparison to what cutting edge [natural language] algorithms can accomplish.”