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Zite CEO: The Web Is Outgrowing Search

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The Internet is outgrowing search engines.

So says Mark Johnson, CEO of Zite, an iPad app that labels itself a “personalized magazine” delivering news stories tailored to each users’ interests, reading habits, and preferences.

As the amount of information online continues to expand at its breathtaking pace -- there are over 140 million tweets posted to Twitter each day, and over 48 hours of video uploaded to YouTube a minute -- people will need new tools to help them wade through the deluge of data, he says.

“The web is getting too big for search,” Johnson told The Huffington Post. “It’s going to be harder and harder to find information because there’s so much out there.”

He suggests personalization may be the solution to this information overload online. Though content that is customized for a particular individuals’ preferences can be chosen and presented in a variety of ways, in Zite’s case, the stories that appear on its news reader are based on signals pulled from social networking sites like Twitter, as well as Google Reader and browsing behavior. Zite “learns what you like and gets smarter as you use it,” the app’s description reads.

Numerous other websites, apps and companies are experimenting with personalization in an attempt to encourage users to browse more, buy more, save time, and read better results. Netflix and Amazon, for example, tailor their movie and product suggestions to their customers’ likes dislikes and previous purchases. The same Google search performed by two different users could turn up entirely different results, as the search giant tweaks its suggestions on each individual’s behavior. And News.me, Flipboard, and Trove are also harnessing artificial intelligence to deliver news personalized to different people’s preferences.

In determining what stories appear in users’ readers, Zite does not yet rely on information from Facebook, something Johnson attributes to the nature of what people share on the social networking service.

“It turns out Facebook is a noisy feed compared to Twitter and Delicious,” said Johnson. “People share different stuff on Facebook than they do elsewhere -- it’s more funny videos and less high-quality content.”

Critics argue that personalization, especially when it comes to news stories, can be detrimental, narrowing people’s viewpoints and reinforcing established perspectives. In his book The Filter Bubble, Eli Pariser argues that editing via algorithms “moves us very quickly toward a world in which the Internet is showing us what it thinks we want to see, but not necessarily what we need to see.”

Johnson acknowledges these concerns, noting he sees it as his “duty” to “give people a broad perspective of the world,” though he counters that teaching computers to have a sense of “civic responsibility,” as Pariser has advocated, presents its own host of problems.

“It’s unclear what a fair, balanced view is,” said Johnson. “Is it fair to say, if you type in ‘evolution’ then we have to show something about creationism? I think that’s something that people who talk about social consciousness forget…. It’s not clear that that has a lot of value to the user … It’s a really complicated question.”

Personalization can also require sacrificing privacy: customization works best when users are willing to hand over data about what they click, how long they spend reading it, what sites they follow, and more. Yet legislators are increasingly concerned about the ways companies might use this information and are considering new laws that might limit what data firms can collect, and how long they can keep it.

Johnson says he is confident users will be comfortable allowing apps to track them as long as companies prove giving up some privacy delivers better, more helpful services.

“What we’ve seen from product after product is that people are willing to share more and more information if they see that they’re getting value out of it. The problem with personalization so far is that people don’t see the value of it,” Johnson said.

What do you think about personalization? Does it concern you -- or do you find it helpful? Weigh in below.

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