Very Short List Offers Glimpse at Power of Simplicity, Editing

This Website Is Not Like Your RSS Feeds -- and Why That's Good for You

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As someone whose main function in life is editing, I wonder, in the dark moments, whether I will soon be redundant.

Perhaps I'll be outsourced. This year we've seen The Miami Herald and The Orange County Register outsource copy editing to India, to companies such as Mindworks Global Media.

More likely I'll find myself in a losing battle with the machines. Thomson-Reuters has said it's trying to automate news writing. And, perhaps more significantly, we are surrounded by recommendation engines that can filter content for each individual based on specific tastes or consumption habits. (If you haven't yet read Bob Garfield's piece "Your Data With Destiny" on how this changes marketing, you really should.) In such a world, what's the need for a person like me, who tries to select what I believe to be the most important content for our audience?

Of course, the answer to that is that it's kind of important, as a society, that we are exposed to the things other people find important, a function clunky old media performed in pre-digital days. As my co-columnist, Teressa Iezzi, once put it on this page, the fragmentation of media and power of the search function have led to a "narrowing of the collective consciousness." In other words: These days it's pretty easy to hear only what you want to hear. Even that brilliant Genius tab on the latest iTunes and the Amazon recommendation engine are largely exposing you to things that reflect, rather than challenge, your tastes.

In part this explains my fascination with "Very Short List," which is something of an experiment in the power of editing in the new media world. VSL is "a collection of distinct, free, daily e-mails that each recommend one must-see gem a day." The operation, funded by IAC, was launched in September 2006 by five media and design luminaries, including bestselling author and absurdly accomplished journalist Kurt Andersen. Initially it was just "VSL," "VSL: Science" and "VSL: Web," but next month they'll also debut "VSL: Food," "VSL: Kids" and "VSL: Books."

But why, when I've already got RSS spooning thousands of articles into my insatiable inbox, would I want one more item? Andersen's answer: "It's almost calming in its against-the-tideness. Amid the hundreds of e-mails and thousands of Twitters, there's this thing that just has one article in 150 words or less. . . . It's the power of one."

In that sense, VSL epitomizes the value of an editor -- and simplicity.

So how is VSL doing? Well, it's at 150,000 subscribers, all obtained by word-of-mouth. As such, while it ain't Oprah, VSL is starting to become a bit of a power broker, and an interesting node in the viral world of the internet. It was first to uncover the site Things Younger Than McCain, which went from fewer than 20 visitors to more than 75,000 in 24 hours. When VSL featured the book "Assisted Loving," its Amazon rank jumped 3,000 places; Swaptree reported more than 15 times its normal sign-ups after being featured; and the band This Is Ivy League got nine times the normal number of visits to its MySpace page after a VSL mention.

Of course, we now know tipping points aren't quite as achievable as Mr. Gladwell made them seem, and VSL doubled in subscribers this year, which seems good but not as good as some of those crazy geometric-multiplication stories we're used to in web world. Will it grow to Thrillist, 400,000-stated-subscribers levels? Will it persuade Comcast to fork over $125 million to buy it, similar to what-to-do/see/wear e-mail newsletter Daily Candy did? (Andersen was also on the board of Daily Candy.)

Who knows? I just know that as an editor, I can't help rooting for it.
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