News curation: finally, social media’s killer app?

April 26, 2011, 5:10 PM UTC

FORTUNE — Even the most casual social network user will admit that the Facebook or Twitter experience can be overwhelming — that merciless stream of status updates and shared content, which sometimes feels less like a stream and more like a deluge, waits for no man, woman, or Web crawler.

Of course, there’s good reason to feel that way: Facebookers share 30-billion plus pieces of information each month, and Twitter users output 1 billion tweets weekly. There’s a tremendous amount of digital information floating around and few great solutions for filtering it, making sense of it, and consuming it.

That’s changing. Nicholas Negroponte foreshadowed the current state of things back in 1995 with the “Daily Me,” a customized news experience, but it’s only been over the last 18 months that his idea has manifested itself via mainstream products and services. As social networks quickly become entrenched in our everyday lives and content becomes increasingly consumed on tablets, we’re seeing the Daily Me embodied among competitors in a race towards better content curation: Flipboard, Zite, and, maybe the most obvious homage to Negroponte yet.

They all work differently. Unveiled at Fortune’s Brainstorm Tech conference last year, Flipboard pulls social network and web content and presents it in magazine-like form; Zite tries to personalize the user experience based on behavior. And meshes attractive design with adaptive technology, and differentiates itself with a paid subscription weekly or monthly model. All of them integrate your social network graphs in some way, and there’s a reason for that.

“One of the biggest challenges is how do you make that content more easily discoverable, easily consumable, easily digestible,” says Flipboard CEO Mike McCue. “I think social networks are the biggest heuristic we’ve ever had to achieving the original vision of Nicholas Negroponte’s idea — they act as your personalization heuristics.”

That same concept is at the core of the Twitter-focused start-up Sulia. Founded by Jonathan Glick, it’s one of the few Twitter-endorsed third-party services. Its mission: filter tweets and Twitter lists to figure out who the most frequently listed and prolific tweeters are on any given topic. Those tweeters in turn become the sources of “Top experts” of different broad channels on Sulia, from Politics & Causes to Arts & Entertainment, and those channels are viewable on proper or via apps like Flipboard.

Though services like Sulia help filter through all the riff-raff, there’s a long way to go, something McCue and Glick readily admit. It’s a challenge with no clear discernible answer, or at least one they’re ready to reveal yet, other than the obvious: make the technology smarter.

“Think of these pieces of information like individual pieces of a quilt,” says Glick, who once served as Head of Product Development and Technology for The New York Times Electronic Media Company. “We can do a better job of patching those pieces together into one cohesive, larger work.”

Zite already tries to do that, based on factors like click-throughs, how long users linger on stories, and even semantics — “left-wing” blogger? “Right wing?” — to increasingly “surface” relevant content to readers. The current level of technology remains promising but flawed. Content could be curated depending on deeper aspects like who you interact with the most on Facebook or Twitter — colleagues, mentors, close friends and family — and all without readers having to perform banal tasks like voting stories up or down.

Instead, McCue argues that better content curation should come without what he views as superfluous user input. Whether it’s a computer, a tablet or a smartphone, there will always be a user contingent that wants access to all the knobs and buttons to tweak the product and service as much as they like. Yet, the majority or mainstream will arguably want all that stuff tucked away behind-the-scenes.

Developers and curators will and should get smart on this front, but not too smart. Cross the line, and heavily curated content actually becomes negative. As services dig deeper into our social graph, they run the risk of eventually presenting a narrow, homogeneous mix of information that lacks the serendipity that comes from discovering the news for ourselves, as we might when we open the day’s newspaper. That’s an important element — not to say it’s only the province of old-media to be serendipitous — if StumbleUpon’s 1 billion monthly “stumbles” are any indication. If content becomes so personalized that, say, users only see left-wing- or right-wing-leaning content that reinforces their world-views, that’s no good either. There’s no room for debate if users simply don’t know what the other side is saying.

In other words, there may be a lot of utility in socially curated news apps, but there could also be a point where rather than act as a very smart filter, news aggregators become nothing more than a simple, dumb mirror.

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