Founded in late 2005, Inform.com is an online news synthesizer that allows its users to design and customize “news channels” according to their individual interests. While there are many sites that provide access to multiple news sources, such sites frequently rely upon RSS (really simple syndication) feeds for the bulk of their information. Inform.com is distinct because it actively crawls each news item it hosts in order to more effectively categorize and sort its contents. While Inform.com initially received some very critical reviews from the digerati at large, it has since ironed out many bugs and continues to refine its interface. At the time of this writing, Inform.com seems to be generating positive feedback, gaining momentum, and remains in its beta testing phase.
Inform.com was launched in October of 2005 by Inform Technologies LLC, a 55-person company headed by Neal Goldman, former managing director of Standard & Poor’s Capital IQ, a service that provides “software designed to cut the time-consuming busy work out of the investment banking trade…” (Capital IQ). While Inform.com is not as explicitly tied to the business world to the same extent as Capital IQ, the company similarly aims to offer a unique way to “cut the time-consuming busy work out of” a different activity: reading the news online. In contrast to traditional modes of reading print news sources, or even “traditional” modes of reading information online, Inform.com allows an impressive amount of customization and individuation through its filtering “cluster system.” As Neal Goldman stated in an online interview with Searchviews.com in October of 2005:
Our front page is editorially driven but the rest of the site is automatically generated. On our vertical pages, for example, we rank news stories by what we call clusters. Within each cluster are articles written about the same news “story” written by different publications. The larger the cluster the more relevant we believe it is. Our technology allows us to understand relationships between stories much better than our competition and therefore we have the capability to rank by cluster with precision. We don’t treat the information any differently based upon the sources, only on the frequency of coverage. We believe users know what they want to read, and our job is to deliver it to them more quickly and efficiently. (Searchviews.com)
Inform.com works in the following manner: a user visits the site and registers. After registering, the user has the opportunity to either read pre-sorted “lead” news items that have been collated by Inform.com, or to create individual “news channels” that will scan, sort, and display news items that reflect the user’s interests. For example, a news channel that scans for news items related to “science and technology” might yield hundreds of current articles that the reader can choose from. Inform.com offers the user the ability to create several channels that she can edit at any time, such that she might have fifty articles to read on her “Technology” channel, twenty articles to read on her “Nature” channel, and hundreds of articles to read on her “Books and Reading” channel.
After the news article titles appear on the left-hand side of the user’s screen, the user selects which ones she would like to read immediately or, by “flagging” the articles, which stories she would prefer to save for later. Once selected, the news item opens (if it is from a non-charging news source) within the Inform.com interface. If the item is from a subscription-only or fee-charging business, Inform.com pulls in and displays within its interface the subscription information from the news story’s home site.
In addition to the ability to create a customized news channel, Inform.com offers the reader the chance to take its “Discovery Path,” an associative exploration of any item or keyword of interest:
Dig deeper into any news story by connecting its relevant topics, people, places, industries and organizations to other articles across thousands of sources including blogs. The Discovery Path will lead you to news you may never have discovered on your own. (From Inform.com)
While Inform.com’s keyword and filtration tools ideally provides the news seeker with a customized news reading experience, the company is still in the process of working out kinks in relation to the efficacy of its keyword/cluster system of categorization. For example, while a news channel devoted to “Reading and Books” yielded for this news reader both many interesting articles about upcoming books, it also displayed guides to television programming, presumably because the keywords chosen for this channel must have appeared in various television program descriptions. A similar problem occurred on my “Fashion” channel, which despite netting many juicy and salacious articles related to the world of low and haute couture, also yielded many non-related stories that shared keywords related to fashion (such as, for example, the Miami, Florida CBS 4 story, “No Bond For Alleged ‘Friday Night Shopping’ Killer.”
In terms of its technical specifications, Inform.com is well situated within the field of data mining. In addition to—or perhaps as a result of—this technology, Inform.com has created a new reading interface that offers a radically different way to access daily headlines than that of the method offered by traditional, tabloid-sized printed matter. In this sense, the online news provider would be an object worthy of study and analysis by scholars who are interested tracing the evolution of reading practices throughout written history. Additionally, since the site offers the private user customized access to public knowledge, Inform.com might also fit within the study of epistemology, insofar as it speaks to issues of knowledge production, filtration, reception, and dissemination.
While other news services offer online collation of news events, Inform.com is distinct because it actively crawls every word of each news item it hosts as a part of its “cluster” and keyword system. Through a mathematical approach that combines algebra and geometry, Inform.com creates an information-rich object that measures keyword relevance:
Imagine an object floating in space that has an edge for every known scrap of information. It’s called a polytope and it has near-infinite dimensions, almost impossible to conjure up in our earthbound minds. It contains every topic written about in the press. And every article that Inform processes becomes a single line within it. Each line has a series of relationships. A single article on Bordeaux wine, for example, turns up in the polytope near France, agriculture, wine, even alcoholism. In each case, Inform’s algorithm calculates the relevance of one article to the next by measuring the angle between the two lines. (Business Week, January 23, 2006).
Inform.com’s practice of using polytopes of information stands in contrast to other news services which rely primarily on RSS (really simple syndication) feeds to receive content.
[Further technical analysis under construction]
Evaluation of Opportunities/Limitations for the Transliteracies Site:
Inform.com is well worth the attention of the Transliteracies Project. Not only does it offer an interesting chapter in the history of the printed word, standing as it does in sharp contrast to traditional, print-based news providers, it also offers the user seemingly unprecedented customization and control over which stories come her way. The project’s intriguing features also raise many questions that lie close to the heart of the Transliteracies Project’s long-term goal of improving online reading practices.
For example, how different is the site, really, from other online providers that employ different sorting technologies? While Inform.com’s site boasts of a unique crawling technology that helps increase the relevance of the content it delivers, this crawling technology remains largely invisible to the user. What might the issue of transparency add or detract to the site’s service? Along these same lines, how is the user to determine which news sources Inform.com crawls? Are independent, non-commercial news sites included as targets, or are these searches primarily limited to mainstream media providers? At the time of this writing, this was unclear on the site. Additionally, because Inform.com’s “keyword cluster” crawling is not—at least not yet—entirely effective as an information filter, what is Inform.com providing that an RSS-fed site could not? Finally, Inform.com raises issues related to access. While the company currently provides a free news service—presumably it makes its money by offering advertising space on its site—what is to stop it and companies like it from charging a subscription or access fee? While the answers to questions such as these remain unclear, they will almost certainly have some bearing upon online reading practices.
Whether it is ultimately a successful business enterprise or not, Inform.com offers a bold reconfiguration of the news-reading interface, both online and in print. Because of the many implications it holds for the manner in which online reading continues to evolve, it is a deserving object of study by the Transliteracies Project.
Resources for Further Study: