• United States
News Editor

Looking to get a grip on ‘citizen media’

Dec 12, 20054 mins
Enterprise Applications

If all this newfangled Web content about almost any topic, written by almost anyone, is going to have serious value – in particular, business value – somebody has to find a way to organize the bookshelves.

John Palfrey wants to be one of the librarians. Executive director of Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for cyberspace research, Palfrey and colleague Jim Moore have co-founded TopTenSources, a search site of sorts that promises to help Web users find their way among the stacks. Palfrey and Moore are also the movers behind RSS Investors, a new private equity fund focused on information aggregation that last week issued its first investment as the lead in a $9 million round for Attensa, a software maker developing an RSS network.

Two guiding principles underlie the TopTenSources approach: Human beings need to be part of the search process for it to work well, and less can be more when trying to find the best information.

TopTenSources will present to visitors an array of topic-specific lists that do pretty much what the name implies: guide seekers of information to what are judged to be the best Web sources, including blogs, wikis, podcasts and traditional news outlets. There are about 100 lists at the moment, but Palfrey envisions a critical mass of thousands if not tens of thousands springing up as the site matures.

The 10-best lists are compiled through a combination of objective measurements – visitors, links, update frequency – as well as the subjective judgments of editors and researchers who will be paid to keep tabs on what’s out there pertaining to the topics at hand.

Soon the site will provide a mechanism for visitors to submit their own lists, which will supplement those generated by the company.

What’s interesting about the approach is that searches conducted on the site will be limited in scope in that they will encompass only those sources that have been judged worthy of inclusion on a TopTen list.

“We’re hoping to introduce the idea of limited search . . . if you don’t want to see the whole Web but just a group of sites that have been hand selected,” Palfrey says. “We’re not going to compete with Google or Technorati or IceRocket, but we can give you some things based on our methodology that we think might be relevant to your query.”

But how does all of this guiding, aggregating and community building add up to a business?

“We will look for relationships with other parties who are interested in both sponsoring an area – not advertising necessarily in the sense of context-specific ads – but sponsoring areas of interest, and also who are interested in having a sense of what’s going on in the informal media around a specific field. I think there is a fair amount of intelligence that we can build up over time by following specific parts of the citizen media space.”

How are they going to deal with the inevitable complaints from those who take umbrage at not making a particular TopTenSources list?

“We’ve already been getting them,” Palfrey says. “We want to hear from people about why they think they ought to be on the list. In a lot of cases we’ll hear from people who are a wonderful source on a given topic but for whatever reason they don’t make it through our methodology into the TopTen list that we’ve already created. So we may create another one around that person.”

Which doesn’t mean the squeaky wheel is always going to get the grease, however.

“Lobbying and that sort of thing is not going to help somebody get on the list if they don’t meet the criteria,” he says.

Squeaky wheels are always welcome here. The address is