Sorting vs. synthesis

Tech analyst Ben Thompson likes to say that the internet is about abundance not scarcity. The most successful internet platforms take advantage of this, organizing the abundance into feeds and results pages. Thompson calls these platforms aggregators. It’s striking how influential this model has become: aggregation is about scanning a lot of content, on your own platform or on the web, and then ranking it. Google returns the pages it thinks best match your query, ranked. Facebook ranks all the posts from people you know, news you might be interested in, trending posts, and more, and puts the top ones in your feed. TikTok claims to have an even better ranking algorithm!

What do we do with all that abundance? In short, we sort it. But some of the most interesting projects online aren’t about sorting; they’re about synthesis and I’d like to see more of these.

The canonical synthesis example is probably Wikipedia. Editors scour the web for information–it’d be a lot harder to run a volunteer encyclopedia if they all had to go to the library–but they aren’t just aiming to rank it. They’re not giving you five things to read about X; they’re synthesizing what they find into a new thing, an encyclopedia article.

Metacritic is one of my favorite examples of a very different form of synthesis. It scours movie reviews but it doesn’t just sort them and return a list: it creates a numerical score to reflect the overall critical response. It creates an entirely new piece of “meta” content that makes sense of the abundance of online reviews.

Some other examples:

  • Fivethirtyeight’s political models don’t just rank the polls you should pay attention to. They use those polls to create a new thing, a forecast that reflects the state of the race better than any of those polls on its own.
  • Good Judgment Corp., CSET Foretell, Metaculus and other forecasting platforms invite users to make predictions and then report the overall view of the crowd. (Sometimes that’s as simple as a median score, but often it’s much more complex.) They could just rank all the forecasters’ replies and let you read them, like a feed, but instead they choose to synthesize them into something much more valuable.
  • IGM forum’s polls of economists provide a quick overview of expert opinion.
  • Google’s knowledge graph widgets, which it sometimes includes in results, straddle the line between sorting and synthesis. They don’t really offer any new information but, like a Wikipedia article, at some point a new organization of information can cross over into synthesis. I expect more automated synthesis like this in the future. (Update: Here’s another example of Google getting more into synthesis.)

We may be entering a new phase of innovation online, with new platforms vying for our attention. This time around, there’ll be much more discussion from the start about disinformation and other problems of abundance. It’ll be tempting to frame the answers in terms of sorting: rank the bad stuff low and the good stuff high! But I’d also like to see more thought to how to synthesize all that information (which, yes, likely also includes sorting it at some point). We don’t just need more places for people to post movie reviews, we need more Metacritics to put together what’s being said and make it easily interpretable.

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