User generated content — the pictures, news and views that so many of us unthinkingly “put out there” — has become a staple of mainstream media, particularly when something interesting is going on.  One Australian new media start-up is taking it a step further — using sophisticated software to trawl our tweets, and from that constructs a media outlet more or less automatically, featuring the things we are all talking about.

In other words, it outsources the news judgment to the crowd, mediated by the software and the algorithms.

This is the third in Crikey’s Monday series looking at new media start-up enterprises. So far we have looked at a fairly traditional hard-copy magazine The King’s Tribune and Wendy Harmer’s new online only women’s magazine The Hoopla.

This week it is the turn of The Wall, which is something entirely new. Too soon to say whether it can succeed commercially, but so far it is employing 10 people in Australia, including one journalist — Ed Tadros,  formerly of The Sydney Morning Herald and business editor of News.com.au. Most of the remaining nine people work on the software. One is a marketer.

The Wall automatically detects what topics people are discussing on Twitter and other social media platforms, and aggregates the tweets with the mainstream news stories, blogs or Facebook pages that are being discussed or featured in the conversations. The Wall is still in Beta — the software is being ironed out — but it boasts that it “reinvents news coverage. Unbiased, diverse and always current.”

“Our platform provides a real-time view of what’s important to Australians by monitoring, analysing and publishing the most discussed topics on social networks as they occur.”

The Wall is owned by two IT entrepreneurs, Guy King and Bevan Clark. So far it hasn’t turned a dollar, but the founders have sufficient faith in it to have recently started sister sites in the United Kingdom and the US — each featuring the things that are on the minds of the Twitterati in those countries.

Tadros is the “editor” of the Australian site, and he admits it is a strange job. On the morning we spoke the main story on the site had built itself — a collection of Tweets, plus links to relevant stories on AAP and The Sydney Morning Herald.

It is also odd, he says, “because you are dealing with things that wouldn’t normally get in the newspaper”. Although The Wall relies heavily on links to mainstream media, some conversations arise out of blogs, weather conditions, jokes and more. At the time of writing, the front page features discussions of the eclipse, which many people apparently managed to watch while tweeting about it.

Tadros claims The Wall is ahead of the curve, often detecting news before the mainstream media catches up.

His job consists of detecting the terms people use in the conversations, feeding that back to the software developers and making decisions about what qualifies as a conversation and what doesn’t. He curates, rather than gatekeeps, the conversations of the crowd.

He also sometimes censors on the grounds of taste, but tries to do this sparingly. Defamation has not yet been a problem.

The management has declined to give out key statistics such as page views or numbers of unique browsers. Tadros says the plan is to build the audience, get the software ironed out and then rely on eyeballs and advertising to make money. So far, he says, the site’s traffic is “OK”.

Leafing through The Wall, one can’t help but wonder what it would look like if there was no mainstream media. So far, it seems to rely on the stories written by professional journalists to give coherence and context to the conversations.

Having said that, the news judgment, shifting hour by hour, has points of distinct difference from the front pages and leading stories in the mainstream media. A well-tweeted conference of other topic might make the front page of The Wall without hitting the mainstream media at all.

A few weeks ago, for example, a certain journalist’s sandals featured on The Wall.

An obvious question is whether these points of difference indicate faults in mainstream media’s news judgment, or whether it is simply that those on Twitter are a niche market within the mainstream, and The Wall reflects their tastes rather than those of the mass.

The Wall so far raises more questions than answers. But it is an interesting one to watch.

Peter Fray

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