I am a big fan of Reddit, as a reader, an occasional participant, and as an observer. As a reader, Reddit has gone downhill for me. Or perhaps I should say “as a lazy reader.” I don’t stray much from the home page which shows the top posts from a default set of sub-reddits, i.e., topically clustered posts. These days, there’s usual one post among the 25 on the home page that I find interesting in a way that matters, although maybe a half dozen I find click-worthy. Those half dozen are usually memes, or discussions of something in pop or Internet culture. The one in 25 that matters to me introduces me to an idea I hadn’t considered, with a discussion that goes pretty deeply into it — while always laced with glancing sub-threads and banter. But for a page that can be quickly skimmed, a 1:25 ratio is enough to bring me back several times a day.
One in 25 is probably about the ratio I find in The New York Times when I come upon a printed copy of it. That ratio goes higher if you count the sections that I skip entirely. For example, I apparently entirely lack the sports gene. The articles I read are usually ones that offer an interesting viewpoint on a topic I already care about, or that for some unpredictable reason stimulate my interest in something I didn’t know I cared about. I know this is very different from the behavior I’m supposed to exhibit. As a responsible citizen, I should be reading all the articles the paper tells me are important. But that’s how I am, that’s how I’ve always been, and I think it’s the way that most of us were even during the decades when reading the newspaper every day was our civic duty.
So, it worries me that Jeff Bezos may bring to the Washington Post the theory of reading that he has brought to Amazon. Amazon’s personalization works very well for me. The books it suggests are often in fact very appealing to me. It’s one reason I keep going back to Amazon. The suggestions don’t often take me far afield, but books are such a big investment of time and money that I don’t intuitively react against that. Intellectually I react against it, but my intuition and the finger that clicks the “buy” button don’t seem to mind at all.
Besides, I read most books as a matter of recreation. (Actually, that’s entirely false. In terms of numbers, I read most books as research that’s dictated by whatever project I’m working on. But we’re talking here about discretionary reading.) And here the Washington Post is different. We need it to help us learn what we need to know to be better citizens in a world that is increasingly inhospitable. A newspaper that works like Amazon would be intentionally creating a filter bubble, in Eli Pariser’s phrase. (And Eli Pariser’s book by that name is thoroughly worth reading, especially if you follow it up with Ethan Zuckerman’s Rewire.)
Bezos has a tremendous opportunity with the Washington Post. He can choose to restructure it so that it becomes the first truly networked newspaper, retaining the traditional virtues of a great newspaper while opening it up to the new virtues of our global participatory network. It can become a uniquely well-webbed supplier of news to the networked ecology, although the idea that any newspaper can “cover” all the “major” news has long ago gone pining for the fjords.
But this new webby news platform will miss the big chance to improve the ecosystem if Bezos applies to the Washington Post what he knows about personalization. The world doesn’t need another way to have our beliefs confirmed and our interests titilated. We don’t need The Daily Everyone Sucks But Us, and we really really don’t need The Washington Post and Sideboob.
What we instead need is personalization that doesn’t pander to our interests but expands them. That requires starting from where we are; posting lots of articles that are so outside our interests that we won’t read them won’t help. But the genius of Amazon’s personalization can be tuned so that we are presented with what pushes our interests forward without abandoning them. There’s lots of room for improvement in my current 1:25 ratio. In fact, there’s a statistical possibility of a 24x improvement.
We have billions of dollars’ worth of evidence that Jeff Bezos is one of the great business entrepreneurs of our era. But we also have good evidence that he has interests beyond maximizing corporate value. His taking the Washington Post private is a very good sign. I’m hopeful that something very good for us all is going to come out of his purchase — but only if Bezos can unlearn much of what Amazon has taught him about how to succeed.