Finding the best blogs on the web for your personalized newspaper

Use Stumbleupon to find the best blogs on the web? - photo by majerleagues on Flickr licensed under Creative CommonsAs argued in“Online news: bloggers v newspapers”, we are entering a new era where the bundle of stories represented by current magazines and newspapers is being torn apart and being replaced by smaller publications and individual journalists/ writers blogging out there on the web.

With the aid of RSS feeds & cross-platform e-book software like Calibre (the equivalent of iTunes podcast subscriptions applied to blogs), and the e-reader of your choice like the Kindle DX or iPad,  you can now read the best blogs as a ‘personalized newspaper’, sitting feet up in the comfort of your own couch. Yep, the age of the personalized newspaper is here now, you no longer have to wait around for it to be lobbed onto your doorstep by the paperboy.

And with 100m+ odd blogs out there,  by anyone from your favourite novelist to the zany mommy-blogger types, surely there are bound to be some superb ones?

Well here comes the difficult bit.  How do you find them?

Does looking for the best blogs make sense in any case?

Mr Average? - photo from Flickr by psd licensed under Creative CommonsArguably it’s a stupid task to begin with, because isn’t the whole point of the web the fragmentation of audience and content, letting a thousand content flowers bloom? You no longer have to write for ‘Mr Average Interest’ because there will be someone in Guatemala who even finds the drivelry on Drivelry interesting (no offence to Guatemalans). 

Surely it’s a bit like asking ‘how do you find the best music to listen to’?

Well the unlikely you can do today –  the impossible takes a little longer. It is a reasonable question to ask where to find the best blogs. We all expect that art gallery curators can put together the best art in a particular period and it also seems reasonable that you should be able to find say, ‘the best economics blogs‘ or more narrowly even the best blogs on New York theater.

Perhaps there are even weirdos out there who would like to read a smattering of  the best economics blogs out there, coupled with best cartoons, and the best blogs on the implosion taking place in the publishing industry (a dangerously close description of my own interests).

General characteristics of the best blogs for your own personalized newspaper

Even though it may make sense to start your search (more later) in your particular subject of interest, there are a number of generic characteristics that you will need in your blogs:

  1. The blog will need to have full RSS (Really Simple Syndication) feeds.  People who set up their RSS feeds to only provide the first para are not going to work for your personalized newspaper (even though it might work better for their advertising revenue). You would end up on the train with your Kindle newspaper consisting of first paras. Kinda annoying huh? When investigating a new blog go straight to the RSS feed. If it’s not a full feed, move on.
  2. Blogs can’t be links to ‘the best posts this week’ from other bloggers in that subject. Why bother? Again you’re after something that you can read on the run, in a plane, on the farm etc.  Sometimes it may well make sense to explore their idea of what blogs are best in a particular space – but you’ll probably end up adding that blog to your newspaper instead.
  3. Blogs can’t be video blogs.  Apart from reservations that you may have anyway about  whether video suits you as an information consumer it’s simply not supported in many e-readers. Yes, it is in the iPad (albeit not Flash-based video) but that leads to a whole other discussion about whether you are using your e-reader to read (either skim reading or in-depth) or whether you are after a portable computing device. Video isn’t supported by the Kindle.
  4. The blog needs to be regularly updated. One of the things you will find in your own wanderings of ‘best of blog sites’ (see below) is that half the blogs that are recommended to you were last posted to in 1996. Few bloggers heed the warning to write about what they like and you’ve got to really like your subject to keep going. For your own news service you won’t care if the blog is only published once a month (with RSS subscription software for your e-book like Calibre you can just set a retrieval interval of once a month) but once a year and you’re probably wasting your time even setting up a feed.

Best of blog directories and searches

A friend of mine who edits literary anthologies is hugely dismissive of search engines and considers that editors will always be essential and that you’ll always need an intermediary to curate information for you, “Google is useless“, she says, “it just returns so much crap!”

I have explained to her that Google partially makes decisions about what is important by looking at hypertext links created by humans to particular pieces of content (‘PageRank’) but in finding the best blogs there is an obvious flaw to Google in that ‘most popular’ – as expressed by the number of links to that content – is not necessarily ‘best’ (or we would be spending most of our time reading up on swine flu). 

Even where there is a more formal voting process for best blogs it suffers from the same issue of being driven by lowest common denominator numbers, and well known meta-blogging sites like Technorati also reflect their subject specificity (Technorati is great if you want to find out about technical blogs but not so good otherwise in my experience).

Sadly, the human-curated websites on great blogs like ‘Best of the Web’ ( or Eaton Web ( seem to have a lot of out-of-date content and attempts to use these to browse interesting sites were not very successful (these days they look to me more like ‘pay to play’ linkfarms if you were going to be overly reductive).  Blogcatalog ( also seems not to live up to its home page promise “we’ve done the heavy lifting for you. Browse blogs by category to find the best in class”.

Software recommendation engines to find blogs you like

Here's a cool picture of a car crash - photo by irina slutsky on Flickr licensed under Creative CommonsWhat seems logical is a recommendation engine that matches your personal subject area interests with that of others who have the same interest and which only returns recommendations to pages that are current. Two significant players in this space are Digg who introduced a recommendation engine in 2008 and an older company in this space, Stumbleupon.

A key point to keep in mind is that recommendation engines involve a hefty time investment to produce good results (you’ve got to spend time telling them what you like).  Some commentators discount Digg on the basis that their recommendation engine tends to reinforce suggestions to pages and sites that your friends like rather than finding you ‘hidden gems’  so I focused on building up a Stumbleupon profile (which you do by giving a thumbs up or thumbs down to the pages they suggest).

Results have been mixed from Stumbleupon – after what I’d estimate at 5 hours of solid recommendations (much of what you will see is style graphic humour) I’ve only selected 44 favourites from the pages I’ve been shown and I estimate I’ve found about half a dozen blogs that I like (yeah it’s entirely possible I’m just hyper-critical). 

For the moment I’m keeping going with Stumbleupon, to some extent out of sympathy for what is a great concept but a terrible name – stumbling is not exactly the most useful sounding activity is it?

Conclusion: it’s just plain hard to find a good recommendation source for blogs

Social Media Process v. 1.0With the emergence of e-readers in large numbers it seems to me that there is an opportunity here for someone to produce a better human-curated selection of great blogs than some of the moribund websites mentioned above like BOTW and Eaton, and possibly there is such a site but I was not easily able to find it (let me know in the comments). 

Producing a good recommendation software engine by contrast requires a great algorithm and a lot of users (Stumbleupon after several years has 10 million+ users) but when you consider that many of them would be inactive and therefore generating little recommendation data, and that they’ve got several hundred subject categories, Stumbleupon’s source of preference data looks a lot poorer (perhaps my literary editor friend was right after all).

The best source of good blogs I found in the end was via Tweets from people I follow on Twitter, so if you can get access to Twitter’s data that looks like a great source. Whilst it appears that Facebook leads sharing of content, Twitter seems to be the only ‘open’ source of information (i.e. you don’t have to be accepted as someone’s friend to see what they recommend).

Otherwise there must be someone in an organisation out there, perhaps at Google or an ISP, who has a lot of blog content preference information.

C’mon venture capitalists! With the explosion in electronic books, creating a good blog recommendation engine is a non-trivial (i.e. barriers to entry) and potentially lucrative problem to solve.

This article filed under the following 'Interest' categories (click category for more) Unanswerable questions, Wait for release 2.0

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Article posted by @Drivelry on April 6, 2010

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