From Trove to Prismatic: What the failure of content curation apps means

Personalized news apps could offer far more relevant and timely information than the Facebook or YouTube algorithm. But no one's opening them.

I recently stumbled upon a Pando article from January 2014. It covered the then-recent trend of content discovery applications—phone applications designed to funnel feeds of links curated by third-party editors. Given my growing interest in curation and my belief that it’s the future of content consumption, I was eager to explore the success of the apps mentioned in the article.

As you can tell from the title of this article, they didn’t succeed.

The Pando article mentions three curation apps: Trove, the creation of former Washington Post owner Graham Holdings; personalized news app Prismatic; and an “interest-based social network” stylized as N3twork. The author, Carmel DeAmicis, previously expressed her disinterest in this type of thing—she titled an earlier article: “Another content consumption app goes social. Shoot me.” Then resolves to give them another shot, saying: “I'm not totally sold, but perhaps I've written off these content discovery apps too soon. I'm going to start using Prismatic, Trove, and N3twork, and see how my world changes. Stay tuned.”

I did. Here’s what become of each, and what can be learned from the apparent failure of the curation-focused app sector.


Trove shutdown: December 9, 2015

Trove’s death toll came on December 9, 2015, in a blog post on the Trove site that, unlike some others in this article, remains online at the time of writing. It was integrated with SocialCode, a “developer of social marketing solutions” whose blog post offered further information about what sounds like a total absorption of Trove. “Specifically, we will integrate Trove’s technology and engineering, design, business operations and product teams to accelerate the development of software and services to deliver large-scale advertising campaigns across platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest and Twitter.”

Trove’s launch in early 2014 was far more promising than its late-2015 end. Its CEO, Vijay Ravindran, was an ex-CDO of the Washington Post, and a team of 15 expert curators kicked off the beta, though anyone could join the content-surfacing app to run a “trove” feed focused on a specific topic. The New York Times called it a “treasure for news junkies” while CNBC described it as a Pinterest board for news. It was also one of the latest curation apps to debut, but the first to leave. Prismatic was soon to follow.


Prismatic shutdown: December 20, 2015

News reading app Prismatic began life in 2010 out of San Francisco, quickly picked up a $1.2 million seed and followed it with a $15 million round in December 2012. Rumors about a Microsoft-led acquisition during March 2015 met a swift end when the app instead shut down services at the end of the year.

Prismatic flew high while it lasted. After landing the $15 million funding, founder Bradford Cross told VentureBeat that “one of Prismatic’s big differentiators is that it will have more staying power than its competitors”.

To be fair, it outlasted other apps that didn’t make this list, like news digest app Circa, which shut down after missing a round of funding. But it didn’t beat N3twork.


N3twork pivot: February 2016

N3twork, despite the cheesy Web 2.0 name, is the only title that still turns up a result in a quick App Store search. It managed to continue life through a dramatic pivot last February in which it went from a photo and video-based social network to a mobile game developer

Neil Young, N3twork’s chief executive, offered one of the few candid insights into why curation apps may not have worked: “It is beautiful and useful, but in the final analysis, it doesn’t meet our requirements for scale.”


Curators need to work within existing networks, not create new ones

Experiments can easily fail. That’s just their nature. I certainly don’t blame anyone behind any of the curation apps. More the opposite, really. I think they were moving in the right direction. The internet does need visible movers and shakers who can cut through the noise.

The curation apps were all started to solve a big problem: information overload from the constantly churning social media feeds everywhere on the internet. But the apps didn’t catch on. Any curator hoping to be a shining light within the murkiness of major social networks needs to get on those networks rather than an entirely new app. Without the audiences who need them, a brand-new network can’t scale enough to support itself.

Scale was also Prismatic’s pain point. As its team wrote in the shutdown announcement, “content distribution is a tough business and we’ve failed to grow at a rate that justifies continuing to support our Prismatic News products”. The app boom is over. Curation apps can’t scale because few people are adopting new social networks, mobile or otherwise.

DeAmicis, it turns out, accurately prophesied the uselessness of the content curation app when she noted that she already has specific uses for the major social networks, so “an app that mish-mashes them all into one place is not much use”. Jay Lauf, publisher and co-president of the new media success Quartz, echoed this opinion when discussing news apps on one Digiday podcast: “Nobody needs another headline scroll to open separately. You’ve got your feed for that.”

The internet (and the tech world in general) is moving towards consolidation. Curators who hope to connect to a meaningful audience should look towards existing networks. The standards like Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and my personal favorite, the curated email newsletter, already provide a platform to connect with curators.


Also read:
Why the Facebook trending news controversy is a tipping point