When I introduced Omnivark a few months ago, many people asked, politely: “Why?” (Quick recap of what it is: The Omnivark Web site helps users discover great writing. Each daily edition highlights three new, nonfiction pieces on the Web, plus a recommended book.)
Omnivark is not about me clicking around the Web all day looking for great writing; it’s about teaching a computer to do that. I did not previously mention the computer’s role because I wanted people to evaluate Omnivark for its content, not its process.
Behind the scenes, the process includes software programs that sift thousands of new Web pages per day, looking for a rare gem. The problem is, physical gems have standardized measures of clarity, cut, and size. The written word lacks equivalent measures, especially to discern great writing from good writing. (Quantifying bad from good is more tractable.)
Lack of measures does not mean lack of agreement about greatness—for better or worse, there are widely acclaimed publications, writers, and pieces. The problem with measuring greatness is the diversity of ways writing can be great. Hemingway’s terseness and Faulkner’s complexity are opposites, yet they are both literary legends from the same era. A gentle eulogy, a political rant, an ironic cultural commentary—should they be judged with the same scorecard? And if great writing transcends mere communication to accomplish something higher, isn’t that beyond the realm of a scorecard?
For me, cutting into this thicket of questions is fun. However, it’s the type of fun suited to a personal project, where walking the path can be the reward. I say that because it’s unclear how far, or where, the path can go. Emulating a human editor’s expert judgement of great writing—based on its content, not on source or popularity or social filtering—is technically hard, if not conceptually quixotic. But that’s what makes it fun. And that, in turn, is the answer to “Why?”