Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Following the Elites

In a perfect world, Omnivark’s software would read everything published on the Web each day, then pick the best three “great reads.” That perfect world is not available. But can we find a more practical path to the same results?

With Omnivark, I’ve explored several approaches. In this post, I will focus on the most obvious and, it turns out, cost-effective: embrace elitism. By that I mean track the top publications where the top writers appear. You can argue whether the list of publications should be 20 or 200 long, but either way it’s nothing compared to the millions of other entities—minor publications, blogs, Tumblrs, Quora postings, and such—that comprise “everything.”

The Atlantic Wire’s “Five Best Columns” daily newsletter exemplifies this approach. It appears to draw from a short list of usual suspects: The New York Times, The Washington Post, and a handful of other top newspapers and highbrow magazines/Websites. The results are quite good.

With Omnivark, I use a much wider array of inputs, and the algorithms ignore a piece’s source. (In a similar vein, by intentionally omitting the source publication’s name from the preview quotes, the Omnivark site encourages readers to judge the preview quotes by their quality, not by where they come from.)

Still, Omnivark ends up with a lot of material from that same group of usual suspects. The reason is, true to reputation, they are venues where superb writing appears in volume. This combination of quality and quantity is hard to beat.

As support, consider Longreads, a crowdsourced site that highlights new, long-form nonfiction. Anybody can nominate a piece from anywhere, usually via the Twitter hashtag #longreads. But despite the potentially wide spectrum of nominations, the site’s official picks are still mostly from elite publications.

I doubt the Longreads editors are suppressing non-elite stuff; if anything, I suspect they welcome the chance to boost something obscure yet worthy. But I also suspect most of the (non-spammy) nominations are for pieces in elite publications because of the quantity/quality reason above.

Plus, when nominations are an open process, another factor helps the more popular, elite publications like The New York Times or The New Yorker. They have thousands of times more readers (and Twitter followers) than smaller publications or independent bloggers. So if the same quality of piece appears in the typical blog and The New Yorker, the New Yorker piece will have thousands of times more potential nominators.

All this goes to say that curating just from the elite publications is a good bang-for-buck strategy. It exploits the concentration of high-quality material in relatively few places.

And if you want to take it a step further but keep the bang-for-buck efficiency, you can also track the elite writers directly, such as by following on Twitter. That way, you can catch his/her work outside the elites without needing to trawl for it generally. seems to take this approach, as well as commissioning its own pieces.

In theory, an additional benefit of following elite writers is that they can recommend good stuff by other writers. In practice, it works a little, but writers in elite publications often just recommend other stuff in elite publications. Perhaps an apt analogy is with Major League Baseball players, who can talk all day about other MLB players but don’t think as much about what’s happening in the minor leagues.

Of course, this just makes me want to focus more on writing’s equivalent of the minor leagues—the non-elite venues where good stuff lurks deeper and more dispersed. However, if the goal is to surface great writing, today’s lesson is that much of it is already near the surface, in the elite publications where it’s expected to be. Distilling the best of that best is valuable, as the Atlantic Wire’s newsletter and Longreads show. The open question is, how much extra value is there in plumbing the depths further?

No comments:

Post a Comment