Kill your verticals! Could Buzzfeed's Unpolitic.me herald a new age of news personalization?
With less than two weeks until the election, even the most enthusiastic political pundits and hobbyists might be feeling a bit burned out. Not only is this the first "Super PAC election," resulting in an unprecedented number of television attack ads, it's also the first social media election. Every time you check Facebook or Twitter, it's hard to avoid your uncle's birther ramblings or your cousin's "9/11 was an inside job" nonsense.
Thankfully, there's Unpolitic.me, a Google Chrome extension that does its best to block all political content from your Twitter and Facebook feeds and replace it with... cat pictures. It was developed by Buzzfeed's creative director Chris Baker and modeled after Unbaby.me, which Baker helped develop to rid your feeds of infants (which makes me wonder, do we only like cute pictures of babies when they don't belong to our friends and family?)
On Facebook and Twitter, the extension is a useful tool that may lose its novelty after the election. But on Buzzfeed's site, Unpolitic.me is put to a much more fascinating use. It exists as a button that lets you effectively turn on/off all political content. And there are few sites better-suited for its implementation than Buzzfeed, where investigative journalism is often presented on the same page as baby animal pictures, a juxtaposition not every publisher is comfortable with.
When Buzzfeed founder Jonah Peretti sat down with PandoDaily's editor-in-chief Sarah Lacy, he said, "You can say, ‘My site will only publish serious stuff,’ but the New York Times is going to be right in that (Facebook) news feed next to the cute kittens, and that’s where people are going to see it. They’re gonna all be mashed together. So our thesis is, why don’t we do that at the source, as the publisher.”
But with this button, Buzzfeed could be embracing a third way: We'll give you all the content we have, but you can turn off the content you don't want to see.
As news organizations are expected to cover more and more subjects to attract as many eyeballs as possible, the question of how to organize this information isn't easily solved. The Huffington Post has gone the "endless vertical" route, dividing its content into dozens of sections from "Weird News" to "Divorce." Atlantic Media has taken a different route, dividing its properties into different brands on different domains, from the Atlantic Wire to the Atlantic Cities to Quartz. Fast Company has done the same thing with CoExist, et al.
Others have looked to "news personalization," delivering content tailored to each individual user (see MySlate and Mashable Follow). But that forces the publisher to compete with the Twitters and Zites of the world, which allow users to curate their own feeds with content from the entire Web, not just your site.
But if Buzzfeed were to add on/off buttons for all content categories (cats, memes, sports, etc.) it could provide an easy personalization mechanism for its readers that requires no prior algorithmic analysis of their tastes. It also doesn't require users to "follow" certain topics or writers like Mashable Follow. When you're forced to follow things, there's always a drive to follow everything for fear you might miss something. And to that point, it's easier to just consume the whole site without any personalization.
For my part, I read content from most of Buzzfeed's verticals already, but I know a lot of people who don't care for the listicles but love the politics (and vice-versa). I'd love to take it one more step: Let's see a "Lindsay Lohan" on/off switch for the New York Daily News. Or a "Kickstarter news" on/off switch for Boing Boing. And is it too much to ask for a "months-late Brooklyn trend piece" on/off switch for the New York Times?
Unpolitic.me could just be another one of Buzzfeed's clever election gambits, faded from memory as quickly as it appeared. But I hope it isn't, and that we see more experiments like this in how to manage and organize content on mega-sites. That way, increasingly addled readers get the best possible experience and maybe even stay on your site for more than one article.