Mar 27, 2013 · 3 minutes

Yesterday, Cornell computer science professor Emin Gün Sirer criticized Yahoo’s acquisition of Summly, arguing that 17-year-old Nick D’Aloisio’s app wasn’t impressive, because it used bolt-on technology licensed from SRI. But what caught my interest about Gün Sirer’s critique was a side point about our “TL;DR culture.” (TL;DR stands for “Too long; didn’t read.”)

Summly, Gün Sirer argued, was the ultimate expression of the TL;DR mentality, because it used robots to summarize news, technology that Yahoo now plans to integrate into its products. Incidentally, one of the reasons I’ve never used Summly, or, for that matter, Circa, is that I find most news stories do a fine job of summarizing themselves thanks to a 19th-century invention called the “inverted pyramid,” but in this case that is kind of besides the point.

Gün Sirer suggested that what we really need in this time of information overload is help determining the meaning of a story and therefore assessing its value, instead of just getting the bare bones of it for a quick info-injection.

The writer envisaged a tool that would help us read smarter, not just read more.

“What's wrong with the world is not that we do not have time to read,” Gün Sirer said, “but that reading is so frustrating.”

On many topics outside our expertise area, we lack the extra information to extract informed opinions -- we lack the capacity and context to judge. Anyone can read the topic sentences of paragraphs to extract a summary (a "tl;dr") from any piece of writing of any length. The action in this space is to get at the hidden message that lies behind the words.
He called for tools that can “extract the latent” signals – the motivations behind a particular story, the underlying biases, background on the authors. Such tools, he proffered, would add flags to content along the lines of "This article is really a fluff piece paid for by tobacco interests," or "This picture of attractive happy people of different races mixed together in the same proportion as society at large, sipping lattes at Starbucks, is probably an image ad by Starbucks."

Analysis, he concludes, is useful. “And analysis requires content that is not syntactically in the message itself.”

To an extent, reading apps such as News360 and Futureful analyze stories for us before they deliver them. Both apps perform semantic analysis in order to determine which articles are more likely to interest a particular reader, even if those articles fall outside the reader’s stated fields of interest. They do that by analyzing story language, the reader’s past actions within the app, and other contextual information such as location and time of day. However, they can’t append notices to stories – like, “Some bullshit commentary by PandoDaily’s Hamish McKenzie” – that would, at a glance, provide reasons to open or ignore them. I’m unaware of any app that can do anything like that. I’d like to see one.

In the meantime, it’s worth noting that Gün Sirer has inadvertently struck upon one of the key factors shaping the future of the news industry. As last week’s “State of the Media” report from Pew suggested, news is increasingly being commoditized, with even the writing of it being outsourced to robots in some cases. If that’s a surprise to you, then I encourage you to learn more about Narrative Science, which uses algorithms to put together news stories based on raw data. That fact makes it more incumbent on publishers than ever before to produce strong analysis that adds value to already-circulated news -- journalism that advances a story, rather than merely reproduces it.

For an example of that force in action, you need look no further than this page. Recognizing the importance of moving away from a pageview-based mindset and the wide availability of news – especially tech news – PandoDaily’s mission has been to bring an analytical, and often opinionated, slant to its reporting. We see the TL;DR culture as an opportunity to produce content that stands out on the strength of not being slave to the Summly mania for summarization.

At the same, however, we recognize the value in new information, which is why we’ve got that Ticker on the right hand side of this page. Lucky for you, eh? But don’t worry – unlike Summly, we’re unlikely to sell to Yahoo for any amount of money.