At News.me, we use a data-driven approach to help people find the things on the web most interesting to them. Last Great Thing is our first editorial experiment – a totally human effort to do the same thing.
Each day for twenty days we asked some of the smartest and most creative minds on the web, What's the Last Great Thing you saw?
Today we're releasing an archive of all twenty Last Great Things and sharing what we learned from the project.
I Don't Understand White People
ELEKTRO the Smoking Robot at the 1939 World's Fair
Do You Suffer From Impostor Syndrome?
Olivia Fox Cabane
Vigilante Man (live)
Lehman Brothers bankruptcy documents
Dick Fuld, et al.
An idea worth at least 40 nanoKardashians of your attention
Steve James and Alex Kotlowitz
The Stars My Destination
The RandomKindness Reddit
Misogyny in the Muslim world
No Regular Play - Owe Me
(Nicolas Jaar Mix)
Tiny Hand Over Hand
William S. Wilson
Mind the Gap in Crown Heights
WNYC Radio Rookies
Porthole Marriage Dance (I Love Montreal)
SPACE PROGRAM: MARS
My Children! My Africa!
Peter Thiel’s CS183: Startup
The web is designed for distraction. Click on a link and you are confronted with a barrage of ads and "related" content vying for your attention. Under the rule of pageview economics, site owners don't really care if you read, watch, or listen — they want you to click on something else.
At News.me, our mission is to give you less. Our iPhone app and Daily Briefing email promise to surface only the most interesting things on the web. Last Great Thing was designed to take our mission to its extreme: from the endless stream of great content on the web, how would we go about creating an experience around a single compelling thing?
Drawing inspiration from experiments like The Listserve and Robin Sloan's Fish, we hacked together a simple site and started getting in touch with potential contributors. Our method for finding people was straightforward: we sought out some of the smartest people we knew. At News.me, we're used to delivering content via algorithms, but with Last Great Thing, we quickly discovered that we were responsible for everything in front of the reader: the quality of the content, the range of contributors, and the variety of media. In the process of emailing with contributors and preparing material for posting, we found that we'd inadvertently become editors.
Most of our contributors are people who share many things a day online, so the task of choosing a single item proved a welcome creative challenge. As Zach Seward put it, "picking just one thing turns out to be incredibly difficult. But constraints lead to creativity. If you had asked for two great things, I bet it wouldn't have been half as good." Andy Weissman echoed this idea, pointing out that the constraint produced "an incentive to find something more obscure."
We tried not to limit our contributors, but we did ask that the item shared be 1) accessible on the web, 2) not behind a paywall, and 3) great, as in special, unusual, provocative, moving, or just plain memorable. Going in, we assumed that most people would contribute articles. We were delighted, though, when our contributors started testing those expectations. Clay Shirky shared a YouTube video, and Cameron Koczon and Liz Berg shared songs. Robin Sloan wrote an ovation to a forgotten sci-fi novel, and Barry Hoggard recommended a play!
The most controversial part of the experiment by far was the decision not to include an archive. Since we were in experimentation mode, we decided to go to the extreme and exclude any record of past posts from the experience. Some readers were taken with the distraction-free experience of getting just one smart thing to read or view. Some of our contributors also found it refreshing to think that their posts wouldn't necessarily be etched on the web for all time.
But other readers and contributors were less enthusiastic. Contributor Khoi Vinh felt that users were needlessly punished for not having visited the site in time to catch a given day's post. And soon enough, we at News.me started to see some of the downsides of an archive-free site. Logistically, not providing posts with permalinks proved to be incompatible with services like Readability and Findings – a fact that a few users found irritating.
Today, we’re releasing the Last Great Thing archive. We took a fairly drastic approach during the experiment, but we suspect that if the goal is to reduce distraction, there are other ways to get there — solutions that fall between the polar extremes of a busy, flashy page optimized for distraction and a site with no archive.
Now that we've wrapped up a cycle of twenty posts, we invite you to look around and discover any Great Things you might have missed. And since we're thinking about continuing the project, please let us know what you think.