News.me, part of the Betaworks family of social web startups, just released a free iPhone app version of its news curation and discovery service and, due in part to the C train’s snail-like crawl from Brooklyn to Manhattan, we’re pretty psyched to test it out. The startup, which was born as a prototype in the New York Times Research and Development Lab, aims to solve the “too much stuff” problem when it comes to finding news you actually care about.
To pull the right articles from the social media deluge, News.me’s iPhone app analyzes the links shared by your friends and followers on Twitter and Facebook to determine what’s relevant to you, using some metadata from Bit.ly (another Betaworks company) to help figure that out.
News.me already has a pared-down email product (of the top five links a day) and an iPad app that launched last April, albeit without the Facebook connection. But as general manager Jake Levine told us yesterday, the iPhone app is where things get social. The clean interface displays a nicely-formatted photo, headline, and, immediately below that, what your friends have said about the article, including their tweets and Facebook status updates as well as reactions on News.Me.
To make responses sound more meaningful than a generic “Like,” the startup offers a shortlist of other one-word responses, including Ha!, Wow, Awesome, Sad, and Really? As much as it makes us groan a little inside every time a startup thinks slapping on some social = $$$, in this case, it sounds utilitarian. Seeing your friend’s response is a great indicator of the likelihood that you’ll want to click through–depending on the friend, of course. When Mr. Levine demoed the product to us via Skype, for example, we saw reactions from Reuters newshound Anthony De Rosa (alongside his sister and other Betaworks employees.)
How long did it take them to choose those five little words? “Oh my god a long time,” Mr. Levine responded with a combination laugh/groan. “We actually decided on this the day before submissions.” He said News.me reached out to five people to brainstorm ideas, including Wall Street Journal and Nieman Labs alum Zach Seward, who offered the following inspired suggestions: Woah, Huh, Damn, Uhhhh, and tl;dr.
The new iPhone app also supports offline reading–phew–and saves articles to your News.me Reading List (you can automatically import your Twitter favorites, as well as integrate with Instapaper and the News.me iPad version). One can always tell which products are built in New York vs. San Francisco, said Mr. Levine, based on how much they care about how it works underground.
News.me’s six-man team has a strong technical bent, steeped in news and discovery, including CTO Michael Young, the former lead technologist for the Times’s R&D lab, as well as the iOS developer behind Epicurious, and the designer behind Wired‘s iPad app. Which may be why they offer a thoughtful approach to modern media consumption. “We’re of the philosophy that Twitter and Facebook will kind of form foundational layers of the social web on which purpose-built social networks and applications will emerge,” explained Mr. Levine.
“Instagram and Foursquare are the best examples of that,” he added. “These are networks that are built for one type of conversation, one type of sharing. We think news is a similar category in that it’s big enough to be interesting as a business and it’s a big enough part of people’s day, it helps make important decisions, but its small enough to benefit from a focused network.”
News.me competitor Summify was recently acquired by Twitter, and some of its users migrated over to News.me. With other players like Percolate and XYDO moving over to the enterprise side of things, by offering their news curation products to other companies and brands, “We’re the lone vestige for actual consumers,” said Mr. Levine.
As for the Summify acquisition, Mr. Levine anticipated that, “The challenge [Twitter] is going to face is that people build their networks on Twitter for a bunch of different use cases, which means that people are sharing a bunch of different types of content so to make meaning out of that content is incredibly challenging from a discovery perspective.”
True enough, which made us wonder if you could limit News.me to a particular Twitter list (to keep your movie and food friends, say, out of your tech stream)? Not yet, said Mr. Levine, but they’re working on it.