Sifting, and searching, and scanning, and scrolling, and squinting. The latest headlines smother my timelines, but encountering a story that is of true interest is a chance event — which is why I usually turn to RSS. When in the company of my feeds, I only receive articles from publishers I can rely on to provide high quality, genuinely interesting content.
Unfortunately, this hand-picked approach is a bit of a closed shop. The likelihood is that I’ll miss great stories from publishers I don’t follow closely, and there’s the propensity for this setup to get a bit stale.
So, I’m interested to see if Sulia — a news recommendation platform that offers intelligent filtering by subject — can provide a suitable, more open alternative. But can diversity and precision really work well together?
Concept and Layout
Sulia is a strange kind of hybrid. It feels like a social network, albeit one that is based around news; it has users, a kind of following system, and every post is adorned with controls such as Like and Comment. But it is also, quite clearly, a full-blown news aggregator, equipped with Prismatic-style intelligence, that pulls in stories from unaffiliated Twitter feeds, blogs and media outlets.
This culture clash is reflected in the design of the site. The expanses of flat black and zingy orange are quite easy on the eye. The layout, on the other hand, feels like an indistinct mash-up of Google+, Facebook and Tumblr.
Stories are displayed in an uneven grid, two columns wide, with Featured posts on the left (those that are popular with the Sulia community or most suited to you) and the Latest entries on the right. The images are too big and the excerpts are too small, but these are niggles within an overall environment that is fit for purpose.
The structuring of Sulia’s content is similarly confusing at first, but it is actually a system that works well.
The predominant method of news delivery is via Channels — streams of posts which relate to a given subject matter. Sulia selects half a dozen of these, based on your social history, to pre-populate the horizontally-scrolling Favourites menu in Sulia’s header. Apart from being easy to access, these selected Channels also provide the posts for the personal, timeline-like Home Channel.
There is, however, plenty of room for customization. Unwanted Channels can be removed from the Favourites list, and new ones added via the provided list of Channel suggestions or the in-built search.
And, to be honest, the ability to tailor content is much needed. Initially, the mix of posts is somewhat strange. Certain publishers receive an inexplicable amount of attention, and an unpleasant amount of link-bait also rises to the top.
This is where Sulia’s Trust system comes in handy (I told you it was complicated…). Every post comes equipped with a Trust button, and its function is to promote, within your personal Sulia environment, the publisher of that content. The posts of Trusted sources are included in the Home Channel, and they feature prominently in relevant topic Channels. At the risk of inventing a weird new proverb, it would be fair to say that the more you Trust, the better Sulia becomes.
In fact, if you persist, it really does start to match your interests, using a combination of sources — new and old — with surprising accuracy.
Sulia may be a competitor of RSS-based news readers, but it is also a double-agent; feeds are positively encouraged.
Under Account Settings, specified inputs are provided for Tumblr, Medium, YouTube, Reddit, Vimeo and Instagram profile URLS, and any old other kind of feed can be added, as well. All of these are included in your Home Channel.
Content is only half of Sulia’s equation, though; social interaction has just as big a role to play. Or, at least, that is the idea.
Users can be Trusted in much the same way as publishers can, although the content they output arrives via different methods.
Users can Push (read “Share”) content to their followers, and the Sulia platform also boasts intra-network posting, in an apparent attempt to foster a Medium-like blogging network — prolific posters are even rewarded with Titles.
Posts are based around text, may include uploaded images and videos, and can be shared via Twitter or Facebook. Splashes — animated text messages — provide an alternative, if utterly pointless form of posting.
Technically speaking, this blogging system is executed quite nicely, although it feels like a contrived afterthought. I imagine writers on Sulia will gain some attention, but I think there are better networks for self-promotion.
That said, the rest of Sulia’s social functions work perfectly well. Posts can be Liked and Commented on, and pretty much everything you do on the site can be shared to external social networks, too.
My impression of Sulia is that it is suffering an identity crisis. Is it primarily a news reader? Is it a content-based social network, along the lines of Digg? Or, maybe it is trying to be a combination of the two, with the addition of some Medium-like blog networking.
From the news reading perspective, Sulia is solid. It accurately filters content by subject, offers good variety, and with some hands-on fine tuning, can provide a fairly good match with your taste.
The social side of Sulia isn’t as convincing. It borrows elements from all the major networks, and the finished product is messy and confused as a result.
Sulia’s blogging could, one day, flourish. But, for it to be a truly worthwhile feature for writers, Sulia needs to gain more readers.
In total, I would say that Sulia is a very competent news reader that is somewhat obscured and hindered by some decidedly so-so add-ons.
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