The iPhone is released. The world stops.

While surfing around on the Internet today, you would be entirely forgiven for assuming that the only news worth talking about is the release of Apple’s 3G iPhone. Of course, there are plenty of other notable and interesting conversations taking place online (among them: the ethics of for-profit fundraisers, a Danish island’s march toward energy independence, and how English is “evolving into a language we may not even understand“) but most of us don’t know how to find those conversations as we navigate through our personal echo chamber of bookmarked websites, subscribed RSS feeds, and the web pages they link to.

As the editorial role of media shifts from a handful of professional experts to the mass participation of millions of internet users (though we should remember that only 10% of internet users tend to actively participate), how does the transition affect the content encountered by news consumers as they themselves continue their transition from print, radio, and TV to the internet? Or, put another way, how does the content featured on user-generated sites differ from content selected by professional editors?

Websites like Digg, Newsvine, and Reddit feature links to web content based on how many votes each link receives from its community of users. The most featured posts are almost exclusively about technology, US politics, celebrities, and what might be classified as “bizarre news”. Stories about how music videos are made and, you guessed it, the iPhone are routinely featured at the top of user generated news sites.

Evgeny Morozov, a Belarusian technology journalist and internet enthusiast, says he created Polymeme as a way to “stay on top of important developments in non-tech areas.”

Fields like economics, design, law, environment, or literature didn’t seem to have their own Digg, Techmeme or Technorati; thus, navigating through the growing non-tech blogospheres has become very difficult. As the amount of information on the Web has kept growing rapidly, it has proved quite challenging to remain a true polymath.

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What does Morozov consider a polymath? Stories on Polymeme are divided into five different categories (policy, change, culture, media, and science) each with four sub-categories – topics like “social justice“ and “books and poetry“.

A renaissance for renaissance men … and women

During the European Renaissance, when intellectual pursuit and rationalism stole away public appeal from Vatican dogma, the polymath was a celebrated figure. Representative polymaths include the well known, like Leone Battista Alberti, Leonardo Da Vinci, and Benjamin Franklin, but also, lesser known in the West, Ibrahim Muteferrika, Abu’l-Fazl ibn Mubarak, and Mikhail Lomonosov.

In modern times, however, celebration of the polymath has died down. In its place we find a deep reverence for both economic and intellectual specialization. The more an individual dedicates his or her cognition to a narrow field of study, the thinking goes, the further that narrow field of study will advance. In practice, however, overspecialization can lead to extinction while some of the greatest innovations happen when diverse disciplines intersect. (For example, biomimicry, traffic studies, and ecodesign.)

If you want to get into grad school, then it’s probably best to start narrowing your focus, but if your goal is to help change the world, you might just want to broaden your perspective.

How it works

The stories featured on Polymeme, unlike Digg and Reddit, are not based on user votes. Rather, the site uses a custom script to monitor the content of around 25,000 RSS feeds and then suggests ‘memes’ – that is, clusters of articles and blog posts about the same story – to its two editors every two to three hours. Polymeme is now almost completely automated. The brunt of the work came at the beginning when Morozov had to search for the best and most relevant online sources of information related to the 20 topics that Polymeme covers. Just imagine trying to come up with a list of the best 1,000 blogs and news sites about a topic like “books and poetry” or “evolution”.

This begs two obvious questions: 1.) how are the sources of information chosen and 2.) how often will they be updated? Morozov says that the list of sources is constantly updated as he comes across new blogs and news sites. He adds that the list of sourced sites will eventually be made public and that the team will soon start assigning weights, or rankings, to each of the sources “so that an economics blog of a Nobel prize winner counts more than a trading blog from Joe Smith.”

By pointing readers’ attention to stories which have already generated responses from dozens of reporters, columnists, and bloggers, it can be said that Polymeme adds to the echo chamber effect. That, of course, depends on what echoes you’ve been hearing. If you, like me, don’t want to read another article about the iPhone for the rest of the year, why not take a look at what netizens are saying about evolution and the arts?

My one critique of the site is that, while its FAQ posits the question “Why can’t I find anything about iPhone or Barack Obama on your site?”, Barack Obama is actually the most mentioned person on Polymeme according to its Polybuzz section. Similarly, the United States is the most alluded-to ‘place’, with nearly four times as many mentions as runner-up China. (“New York”, meanwhile, takes fourth place.) This probably says more about the global media – both new and old – than it does Morozov’s approach to highlighting content focused on more than just the United States, but it is a reminder that Global Voices‘ non-Western focus is still something of an online and offline rarity.