Forget Algorithms. People Rule!

By Mike Elgan Print this article Print
Algorithms vs.human curators

Silicon Valley has realized that nothing beats the human touch. The industry is tired of waiting—or can't afford to wait—for algorithms to exceed human curation.

For more than a decade now, we've been witnessing a Google-led process by which things that used to be done by people were instead done by computers, databases, applications and algorithms.

This technology-centric approach provided the immediate benefit of lowering the cost of processing content—but at a cost. The machines never quite "got it," and they often produced results that were a little weird, incomplete, tone deaf and ultimately less-than-compelling to users.

Never mind, we were told. The algorithms are getting better all the time. They'll match and overtake human curators any day now. Just wait.

However, in the past month, it's become clear that Silicon Valley has realized that nothing beats the human touch. The tech industry has gotten impatient and has stopped waiting for the algorithms to surpass human curation—or, more accurately, they can't afford to wait.

Here's the new imperative: Use human editing and curation or fall behind.

Apple's New Differentiator

The much-talked-about Apple Music launched this week. Despite the company's dominance as a smartphone, tablet and PC maker—and the fact that it dominates the shriveling market for paid music downloads—Apple is a laggard in the streaming music business. Much to management’s chagrin, Spotify, Pandora and other firms are way ahead, and they dominate with mostly algorithm-curated streaming music.

But Apple, a company known for unmitigated perfectionism, has new differentiator: human curation. People, rather than software, will pick the music—and in several ways. For starters, Apple's big music rollout includes the Beats 1 radio station, which features the old-fashioned DJ-curated music model.

Plus, the company is offering Apple Connect, which is a kind of social network in which artists can post their music, videos and random information, and their fans can share and comment.

Additionally, even the regular streaming option is enhanced by people power. A feature called "For You" combines human curation and an algorithm-based recommendation engine.

Google—which has traditionally been among the most active believers in "algorithmic everything"—preemptively responded last week to the launch of Apple Music by rolling out a free tier to its Google Play Music service. It uses the sensors in your phone and other contextual information to figure out what you're doing, and then it plays music to go with whatever activity you’re engaging in.

For example, if the service determines that you're at the gym, it will play music likely to pump you up. And, not surprisingly, all that music is chosen by people.

Using People to Curate the News

While the major Silicon Valley companies are using actual people to make their music services better, other companies are doing the same thing with news.

BuzzFeed News recently came out with an amazing news app that enhances human-curated news stories with editor-written bullet-point summaries and other clarifying elements.

Apple is also launching an app called News for its upcoming iOS 9 mobile operating system. The app will initially feature human-curated stories from Bon Appétit, The New York Times, Quartz, Wired and ESPN.

Now even Pulse is getting human curation. Pulse was launched two years ago as the ultimate example of purely algorithmically curated news content. LinkedIn owns it now, and since the acquisition, the company has rebuilt it from the ground up to focus on human curation.

But the biggest example of the rise of people over algorithms is happening with the social networks.

This article was originally published on 2015-07-02

Mike Elgan, a Baseline contributor, is a Silicon Valley-based columnist, writer, speaker and blogger. http://elgan.com/

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