Reverb Taps Its Word Graph to Reinvent News Reader Apps on the iPad

Xconomy San Francisco — 

If you’re a news junkie, chances are you don’t get all your content from a single source—but neither do you have time to surf to dozens of different websites. Back in the 1990s, sites like Yahoo and Excite offered a solution: they became portals, one-stop shops aggregating news from across the Web.

Yahoo is still around today, but portals are old news (so to speak). The modern replacement is the news reader—a category that includes both RSS aggregators like Feedly and smartphone and tablet apps like Flipboard.

The best of these apps are part discovery engine and part magazine. But while they’re powerful and fun to use, news readers themselves have a key shortcoming. When it’s time to select which stories to show you, it’s as if these apps have only two settings—“Niagara Falls” and “Filter Bubble.”

That is, the apps either overwhelm you by showing so much miscellaneous content that you have no way to sort through it all, or they box you in by focusing solely on the topics your existing circle of Twitter and Facebook friends are talking about.

What’s needed, conceivably, is a new kind of news reader that could do both of those things, but would also offer you a setting in between—a list of stories that’s mainly built around the concepts that interest you (not just your friends), but that still shows you something delightful and unexpected once in a while.

And that, as it turns out, is the main idea behind the new Reverb reader. It’s an unusual app built around big, sliding “word walls” that act as the gateways to relevant and recent topics in the news.

Released today for the iPad, the Reverb app is the third major offering from San Mateo, CA-based Reverb Technologies. And even though it’s going up against established apps like Flipboard, Zite, and Pulse, it’s the product that founder Erin McKean hopes will come to define the company.

With the competing news readers, “It’s all about filtering out the stuff you don’t want to see, not about opening you up to the things you might want to see,” McKean says. “We wanted to provide a cocktail-party experience. You want someone to say, ‘Based on what you just told me, here are three things I think you might be interested in.’”

I’ve written about McKean’s startup twice before. The first time was back when it was still called Wordnik and its main product was the world’s most extensive online dictionary, built around an ever-expanding database that McKean and co-founder Tony Tam call the Word Graph; it represented McKean’s attempt to bring her experience as U.S. editor-in-chief for Oxford University Press into the world of the Internet. The second time was after the company had changed its name and introduced a service called Reverb for Publishers, a “related posts” plugin that built on the knowledge in the Word Graph to help bloggers and large Web publishers capture more clicks.

Wordnik and Reverb for Publishers are still operating. But the reader app feels like the product Reverb has been building up to all along. It gives consumers more direct access to the power of the Word Graph by analyzing stories across the Web and distilling them into concepts relevant to the user’s interests.

Piling up these concepts in a literal wall of words gives readers the ability to swipe left and right along the wall and browse topics—and perhaps stumble across interesting new ones—before diving down to the level of individual stories. By watching what you tap, the app adjusts over time to highlight its best, most personalized recommendations at the wall’s beginning—that is, the far left. The farther you swipe to the right, the more random, miscellaneous, and potentially mind-expanding the suggested topics become.

In building the Reverb app, “we wanted to go back a little bit to first principles,” McKean explains. “We don’t necessarily want to know what your friends are interested in, or what’s most popular. We just want to please you. The more fun you have tapping on the word wall, the better we get at knowing what you like, and at giving you not just more of the same—so you get stuck in a filter bubble—but growing your framework to expand further into the universe.”

The "Articles" view in Reverb's news reader app.

The “Articles” view in Reverb’s news reader app.

Actually, the Reverb reader offers three different frameworks; you can go back and forth depending on your mood. The default word wall is called “Me” and does exactly what McKean describes: it picks concepts from the Word Graph that match your interests, based on a combination of relevancy (the history of other topics and stories you’ve tapped on) and recency. If you’ve got a burning interest that isn’t shown in the word wall, there’s a button that lets you add it manually; I added “Florence” as a concept, for example, since I’m planning a trip there next spring.

Second, there’s “Friends,” which is what I think of as Flipboard mode. In this mode, the word wall shows topics that your Facebook and Twitter friends are talking about today on social media (assuming you’ve connected your Reverb account to those two services).

Third, there the “News” mode, where both the personal and social filters are removed, and you see the big concepts or topic areas that are popping up today across a range of news sites—mostly top sites like the Reuters, the Wall Street Journal, CNN, Politico, and the Huffington Post, but also quite a few “long tail” sites that aren’t as prominent. To gather this content, the app draws from the Reverb for Publishers service, which is used by about 3,000 blogs across the Web.

In any of these modes, you can flip back and forth between the word wall, which shows concepts distilled by the Word Graph, and an article view, which shows headlines and snippets from actual articles. Some of the items in the word wall don’t actually represent concepts drawn from the Word Graph, but are “collections” curated by a human at Reverb. Today, for example, there’s an amusing collection on the selfie, which was recently designated by Oxford Dictionaries as the word of the year.

Once you click through to an article in Reverb, it shows up in a simplified, magazine-style format for easy reading. (In this mode, tapping on any word in an article will bring up its dictionary page in Wordnik, which is a nice added feature.) But if you want to see the original article on its native website, there’s also a button for that.

At the end of every piece, there’s a list of related articles and concepts, also drawn from Reverb for Publishers. Unlike many “related articles” widgets, this one makes good recommendations, which means it would be easy to spend an hour just following a chain of articles in Reverb without ever resurfacing to the word wall.

To complete the feature tour: In addition to the word walls, there’s a map view that shows you stories related to your current location. Here at Xconomy San Francisco, for example, the map view is showing articles related to Dropbox and Twitter (which both have offices nearby) and Anchor Brewing Company, home of every San Franciscan’s favorite hometown beer, Anchor Steam.

You can star any article to mark it as a favorite, then browse all your favorites from your account page. You can share any article with your friends via Facebook, Twitter, e-mail, text message, or AirDrop (the instant-sharing service linking nearby iOS devices). Finally, if there’s a topic in your word wall that you don’t like, you can get rid of it with an extended tap, the same way you’d delete an app from your iOS device, and Reverb will never bother about that topic again.

Being brand new, the Reverb app has a few rough edges. In article view, the same piece can show up multiple times. When you call up the actual text, many articles suffer from formatting oddities (a common problem with news reader apps). You can’t yet share articles to common read-later or cloud storage services like Pocket, Instapaper, or Evernote.

But it’s easy to see where the startup is trying to go with the app, which combines many of the best features of other news readers and adds quite a few of Reverb’s own invention—especially its deep knowledge of current concepts in the news.

Reverb map view

Reverb map view

McKean says that early in the development process, the company had a bit of trouble deciding how it was going to describe the app. In our interview she used terms and phrases like “reader,” “portal,” “explorer,” “discovery tool,” “GPS for words,” “Pandora for text,” and even “taleidoscope.” (A taleidoscope is a viewing tube with mirrors and lenses like a kaleidoscope, but without the colorful objects that roll around; it’s the kind of word that would only occur to a former dictionary editor.)

“We fit in the space between all of those things,” says Katie Cushmore, Reverb’s vice president of marketing. In Apple’s iTunes App Store, however, Reverb shows up in the News category (where it’s listed today as one of the “Best New Apps”), which means the burden is on the startup to show how its reader differs from other aggregators like Readability, Pocket, Flipboard, Zite, and LinkedIn’s Pulse.

The app is free to download and is also, at the moment, advertising-free. McKean says the company will spend a while working on gaining users before it starts to add money-making features. “It’s about proving out that people enjoy this,” she says.

The obvious revenue model, she says, would be inserting content promoted by advertisers. “We are really good at presenting the right content to the right people, so a sponsored content model makes sense,” McKean says. “If I’m spending all day browsing my fashion wall and Tide wants to add an article about the best soap for washing blue jeans, that is not going to make any one throw down the app in disgust.”

In a cartoon showing the evolution of Reverb’s products, the new tablet app “would be the one standing most upright,” McKean says. “But the important thing is that they all have a shared back end, and they are all just interfaces on the same data.” Who knew that a giant online dictionary could have so many alternative definitions?

Here’s Reverb’s 90-second video demo of the app.