Slashdot founder Rob Malda on Trove and fixing the problem with Twitter

Given the almost overwhelming number of ways in which we can get some form of personalized content — from giant social platforms like Twitter and Facebook to RSS readers and email newsletters, or boutique services like Nuzzel or Vellum from NYT Labs — you wouldn’t think we would need another one. But Rob Malda, the former editor-in-chief of the online community Slashdot and now the guy in charge of a recommendation engine called Trove, thinks you are wrong about that.

Trove started as an experiment by the Washington Post, originally launched in 2011, and was then re-launched earlier this year by Malda and his team, after the Washington Post was acquired by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos (Trove is one of the assets that was retained by the Graham family when they sold their stake in the Washington newspaper).

I caught up with Malda recently to get an update on where Trove is now, and he told me that while the service isn’t exactly setting records in terms of user growth, he is starting to see substantial usage among the key target group Trove is going after: namely, curators of one variety or another, who want tools they can use to find and share great content, and thereby build their brand and their community.

[blockquote person=”” attribution=””]”We’re not really focusing on user numbers right now. We’re focusing on building up the number of curators, and the range of topics we have curators in, and giving them the best tools to do that. We have to figure out how to make the curators happy, and then try to attract the moms and the pops.”[/blockquote]

In a sense, Trove is trying to serve the kind of “power users” that make Twitter or Facebook or even Google+ effective as content-distribution mechanisms — in other words, the one or two percent of users who routinely find or share the best content. These are users that Twitter has traditionally not paid much attention to, by ignoring or under-utilizing potentially powerful features such as lists, etc.

Tools for curators

Much like Prismatic, the content-recommendation service founded by data scientist Bradford Cross that we’ve profiled before, Trove wants to get to the holy grail of content by combining the power of algorithmic filtering and the abilities of human curators. So Trove allows you to follow curators and their news-feeds, but also recommends articles and topics based on what it knows about you (the company also has a new iOS app coming out soon with some improved features, Malda said)

Trove screenshot

But is there really room for something that is part Twitter, as well as part Facebook, part RSS reader and part Slashdot? And even if there is, can Trove somehow become indispensable when those other solutions already have massive network effects that tie people to their platforms?

Malda said he firmly believes that there is a use case for something like Trove, and that even if the user base is never in the billions, it could become indispensable for a significant group. Even though Twitter and Facebook seem dominant, he says, there are still flaws in both those platforms and other services that make the goal of creating something easier a valuable thing:

[blockquote person=”” attribution=””]”Twitter overvalues the now, and Facebook overvalues social connections — and newspapers overvalue the decisions made by some group of faceless editors. Meanwhile, RSS is efficient, but too geeky, so my mom will never use it, and plus it’s not personal enough. Every one of those things is broken on some key vector.”[/blockquote]

Finding an audience

Malda said what he is trying to build is a better personalized newspaper — a goal that Prismatic has talked about in the past, and so has Facebook, in discussing changes to the news-feed. But in order to reach that goal, Malda said he needs for Trove to have a critical mass of curators, and that’s what he is focused on: namely, what can he provide in the way of incentives to get more curators using the platform?

Trove is trying to figure out how to use some of the social rewards that Twitter and Facebook employ to get users coming back — the “likes” or retweets or favorites — without distorting how the curation process works, and Malda said it is also trying to give users what they need so they can build up their communities elsewhere, using content they found thanks to Trove.

[blockquote person=”” attribution=””]”People fall into two buckets: either they have an audience and need content or they have time to find content and want to find an audience. Some of our users are journalists, who write articles but also want to maintain a presence in that beat or topic and find new content to write about. But some are just people who are really passionate about a subject and want to share everything they see about it.”[/blockquote]

Malda himself uses Trove to curate articles about Star Wars, but also about the small town where he lives — and many of his neighbors have started following him on the platform because they want to know about a break-in or some other news event that’s nearby. In that sense, Trove feels a little like what AOL was trying to do with Patch, but driven by individuals instead of a corporation.

The Slashdot founder admits that Trove faces an uphill climb, since it is a relatively unknown player in a space that has so much competition from some fairly massive platforms. But he believes that both Twitter and Facebook have flaws when it comes to serving the kind of curatorial use case he sees Trove as serving, and he is right in many ways. Whether Trove can exploit those weaknesses and actually build a business remains to be seen.

Images via Oleksiy Mark / Thinkstock as well as Trove