A Change of Topix

With the demise of “hyperlocal” community news pioneer backfence.com, it’s a good time to take a look at Topix.net, a Zipcode-sliceable news community that’s been around since 2002. According to Neilsen/Netratings data, Topix had over 5.7 million unique visitors in June, making it No. 20 among news sites.

Backed by size-13EEE-bigfoots Gannett, McClatchy and Tribune Co. (which is to say, by the first M in the phrase MSM), Topix is a mass aggregator of news that’s navigated, ordered, enhanced and in many ways wrecked by a proliferation of 2.0fferings: aggregated forum content, user submissions of articles a la Digg, user profiles and communities of interest, and 1,000 “citizen” editors (what, as opposed to “illegal alien” editors?). 

Strengths The local news generally is better parsed than what the Google Newsboy delivers–or anywhere else I’m familiar with. Still, in any given locality you’re likely to find a blog, newspaper site or labor of local love that does a lot better than “RoboBlogger” (Topix’s attempt to anthropomorphize its news-snatching algorithm). 

Weaknesses More than I can list here. Like any brain-dead algorithm, RB makes a mess of things, and the “citizen editors” can’t seem to move the broom and dustpan fast enough. 

  • The news article about the L.A. Catholic Archdiocese’s huge money settlement with abuse victims was tagged “Obituaries.”
  • A search for the topic “sleep apnea” surfaced dozens of links, perhaps half of them on point and others uttterly baffling (Croc shoes can cause escalator injuries; man infected by flesh-eating bacteria (!)).
  • The Media forum had somehow been overtaken by “discussions” of illegal immigration, which in tone and content is. . .well, pretty much what you expect anywhere in Electroland. Alas.
  • The tools, navigation and search functions make me work way too hard. If there is a way to tag a story as a favorite on the fly, I couldn’t find it. You have to go to your personal page and tag recently viewed stuff as a favorite. Product team to the white board, stat! 

To play off the old bathroom-wall joke about the dining proclivities of flies, 5.7 million page views can’t be wrong. A lot of people find this service useful. And the corporate overlords (all of whose news sites rank above Topix, though I have no idea what that means) must find that the site pushes people to their content in a way that benefits them economically.

Still, what Topix illustrates to me is how very far we have to go before algorithms can “edit,” how “hyperlocal” community building is going to be tough to scale, and how nobody–nobody!–seems to have cracked the intuitive/invisible/friction-free nut for community-building software.

Oh, that, and Newsweek science blogger Sharon Begley had a great entry on why ugly people are not eliminated from the human race by natural selection. Glad I found out about that one. 597 people had commented on it at Topix right before I filed this item.

Explore posts in the same categories: news, syndication, Topix, wisdom of the crowds

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