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There's a Shiny New Trend in Social Media: Actual Human Editors

It's man against the machine.

Warner Bros.

The world’s largest social networks are nearly overflowing with content. That’s good news for them, but bad news for the people trying to sift through the mess to find anything specific.

The timeless solution these companies are turning to? Manpower.

Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube are all getting into the content curation business in an effort to boil down their collections of user posts into more focused streams that users can actually absorb. And here’s the kicker: While Facebook has been doing this to your News Feed for years with an ever-evolving software algorithm, the new wave of curators are hiring human editors to get things just right.

In the past week, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube all announced new curation features that rely on humans to sift through and select the best content from their massive collections of user posts. YouTube is using Storyful editors to verify breaking news videos in a new newsroom page, Twitter is building a project known as Lightning to curate streams of tweets around major events and Instagram is now pulling photos into themed category pages to live within the app’s search tab.

That list doesn’t include Snapchat’s Live Stories feature, which uses human curators to stitch together photos and videos into a montage around specific events like concerts and sports games. Snapchat is the veteran of the group. It has been going after live stories pretty aggressively for the past six months.

And these companies are actually hiring media pros — many of them journalists or former editors — to use their news judgement to determine which content their users should see (or not see) when it comes to following a particular story.

There’s a major reason they’re doing it: They want your attention. Instagram’s Kevin Systrom summed it up well in an interview with Re/code last week.

“The Holy Grail is to give people the sense of now and what’s happening now,” he said. “The gap between something happening in the world and you knowing about it is becoming fractionally small. I think we’re all in a race as companies to provide you that information.”

Facebook and Twitter have fought for years to capture your attention when it comes to events like the Oscars or the Super Bowl. It’s a chance to own the conversation, as the marketing speak goes. But now Snapchat, Instagram and YouTube are vying for that attention, too. And each company is betting you’ll go to the platform that offers the best experience. That’s why they’re hiring humans instead of relying on algorithms.

Facebook’s News Feed algorithm is still a work in progress; computers alone can’t always detect things like sentiment or context when compiling info about a news event, especially culturally polarizing ones like issues surrounding race or police behavior across America right now.

Algorithm mishaps have struck both Facebook and Twitter in the past six months. In Facebook’s case, it accidentally highlighted sad memories, like the death of a loved one, in its attempt to show users their “year in review.” Twitter’s algorithm simply didn’t understand the context of a trending hashtag, resulting in an offensive description.

A misstep there hurts the company’s credibility. It also sends the wrong message to advertisers. And Snapchat is demonstrating that there is money to be had around this type of curation.

With the exception of Snapchat, which has hired more than 40 people to curate these stories and has even sent editors out to political events in person, it’s unclear how serious each social company is about getting this right. Instagram, for example, is still relying on an algorithm for the bulk of the work and leaving the final curation to its community team. Twitter is hiring fewer than a dozen curators and wants to compile seven to 10 event streams per day — it, too, will likely rely on algorithms to aid in the curation process.

But for now, these curation features offer tech companies drowning in content a chance to show us all the best and most interesting stuff they have to offer. May the best content — and editors — win.

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