News has traditionally been told by a voice of authority, hence why so many people instinctively believed Thursday’s Newsweek’s story claiming to unmask the founder of Bitcoin. Of course when that authority lacks a strong foundation of facts, it’s is vulnerable to being ripped apart by the Internet — precisely what has happened to the 81-year-old Newsweek in the last 24 hours.
Enter a new kind of authority in telling the news, one focused not so much on scoops and truth, but the limited ability of the human brain to process information. Yahoo’s recently-launched News Digest app puts a decisive limit on the endless glut of news on the Internet.
That’s the grand idea of Nick D’Aloisio, anyway. He’s the 18-year-old entrepreneur who sold his summarization app to Yahoo in April 2013 for $30 million — most of it cash which went straight into a trust fund. Since then he’s taken his anti-data-glut approach further by revamping Summly and turning it into Digest.
The service, he says, differs from other mobile news services like Circa, Inside and Flipboard, by giving users a list of what they ought to know and nothing more. There’s no personalization, no limitless stream of other stories they could read. Just a list of around a dozen stories and you’re done.
The app sends users a new digest twice a day, and rewards them with a nifty little animation when they’ve read through the list.
“We want it to be very antithetical to other news apps in the landscape. This idea of formalism and the rigidity of having a twice day digest,” says D’Aloisio. “That’s very calming to me. It’s consistent.”
The app is all about simplicity: a layout with bold colors and straight lines, overall a flat design and typography inspired by the 1960s modernist era and iOS 7, according to D’Aloisio.
Stories are boldly formulaic. D’Aloisio refers to building blocks, or “atoms” of information that are cobbled together to tell a story. One “atom” is the text, while another is a section from Wikipedia that puts a story in historic context. Another are Tweets related to the story.
D’Aloisio originally created Summly after becoming frustrated with studying for a history exam, and finding there was simply too much information to read. The home-made software he dreamed up was based purely on genetic algorithms, and led to a nifty but somewhat clunky app that automatically summarized news stories as bullet points.
Now he’s learned he needs humans too. Yahoo won’t say how many from its news team are working on the Digest app, which D’Aloisio launched to some fanfare at CES last month, but given the handful of stories it puts out each day it’s probably not many.
Yahoo can also credit D’Aloisio’s schoolwork for once again inspiring the technology he’s coming up with. The teen, who is sometimes up till 1 or 2pm taking conference calls with his Yahoo managers on the West Coast, has spent the last year studying math and further math at A-level, a standard qualification for British high school students.
“In doing that work I was thinking about breaking down news in a computational manner, where you can separate the discreet elements of a news story,” he says. Hence those atoms.
Both D’Aloisio and Yahoo won’t say how many people have been active using Digest, but he’ll continue to tweak the service in between his studies. “It does mean a lot of traveling and stuff,” he says, but adds gamely: “It’s very complementary to the stuff I’m doing with A-level. When I’m bored with A-levels I go to Yahoo, and when I’m bored with Yahoo I go to A-levels.”