Return of the Editor: Why Human Filters are the Future of the Web

2011/09/28 | Karyn Campbell

Before news aggregators, content curators, and Google’s omnipotent algorithm, the world’s information was sorted by real human beings. In the web’s next phase, argues The IdeaLists’ Karyn Campbell, the old-fashioned editor is poised for a comeback.

If web 1.0 was about websites and 2.0 the power of network connectivity, whatever 3.0 looks like, better filters will play a big part.

The web has become too big and noisy. The design community has helped guide us through some of the slush, and search technology has made leaps filtering and personalizing information for us.

But while algorithms once threatened to replace gatekeepers, online media will see a move back to the future: professional, human filters (the artists formerly known as editors) will play an integral role in the next web after all.

Content beats search and social

Studies show that content sites drive much more traffic than search engines and social media links. Only 14 percent of readers or viewers arrive to content destinations via social networks, and search engines’ bite of the pie has diminished in the past year.

Google seems to have taken note: the search giant launched its aggregate Google News feed in 2002, boasting no human intervention. Last month, as RSS moved further toward the antique attic, Google invited professional news editors to highlight content on its U.S. news page.

As Google increasingly tracks our tastes via likes and clicks, serving us information and ads accordingly, it’s interesting to note the Drudge Report drives more than double the daily referral traffic to content sites than Facebook and Twitter combined.

Drudge still knows his audience’s tastes better than any algorithm. And this from a site that hasn’t been upgraded since before Google even existed!

Search and social become content

We’re witnessing the convergence of search engines, social networks and content publishers. Facebook is hiring news editors, YouTube is signing multimillion-dollar deals with professional filmmakers, and AOL is betting its future on the editorial direction of Arianna Huffington.

Once-automated networks will increasingly need to foster a voice to build loyalty. Consider Vimeo: one quarter of their staff is dedicated to community building and setting editorial mood.

The strategy? Find what’s good – even if it only has two views ­– connect with filmmakers or community members, and tip them off to new cultures and trends; there’s no app for that, at least not yet.

Curating the walled garden

As open platforms like YouTube and Google start to look more like media companies, walled gardens like Apple’s iTunes illustrate another approach to (excuse the term) “tastemaking.”

Not everyone can publish on iTunes. Call it snobbery, but it’s been a smart way to implement best-use standards. Plus, it’s not like iTunes is extremely picky. They simply require an extra step, which may weed out some sloppiness.

Apple’s insistence on tightly controlling what gets into the canon risks excluding potentially great products (or in iTunes’ case, artists). But perhaps offering less of the best makes buyers trust more in the product’s quality, relieving them of the doubt that comes with an abundance of choice.

Then again, Android has seen great adoption numbers using open software, allowing anyone to distribute an app. Time will tell if these two approaches meet somewhere in the middle.

It comes down to trust

The web has offered us incredible options for how we buy products, talk to our friends, or experience media. Remember that adage “quality over quantity”?  We can take that phrase literally online – quantity won’t go away; quality will just sit atop.

Sometimes we want someone to tell us, consistently, what’s true and what’s good. No wonder YouTube just relaunched its music page, enlisting writers for Vice, Spin and other major vloggers to curate its featured content. As Steve Jobs more radically put it, “It’s not the consumers’ job to know what they want.”

It comes down to trust. Because we are all so well trained in the art of branding, arguably at the expense of crafting things worthy of distribution, it becomes hard to trust the advice of a Wild West web.

Still, we’ll continue to take the word of our favourite industry insider, celebrity or uncle. Likewise, the smartest companies in this space will calibrate expertise with automation, math with emotion.

Whether she’s a kid writing code or a poet in-the-making, look for the next generation Steve Jobs to carry on building, hiring, and perfecting these filters.