Summly’s Nick D’Aloisio On Yahoo’s Approach To Ephemerality, And Its Startup Mentality

Speaking at Wired’s 2013 event in London today, Summly founder and Yahoo! employee Nick D’Aloisio discussed the now well-known story of how he built his product as a teen and then decided to pair up with Yahoo! with its acquisition of his startup for a reported $30 million. But he also shared some information about what he’s working on now, and shed some light on what life is like at Yahoo! for all the companies it’s been acquiring at a rapid clip since Marissa Mayer became CEO.

D’Aloisio says that Yahoo! operates very much like a conglomeration of startups, with teams operating as more or less independent “pods” within the larger company, each focused on a particular product or focus, like a pod focused on the mobile application, or a pod focused on summarization (the Summly team). He said it “feels like there are a lot of small startups,” and that he has “control” over his own product. It’s not a surprising arrangement, given that Yahoo! has acquired such a staggering number of startup businesses since Mayer took the helm, but it’s interesting nonetheless; a similar type of workplace structure was said to be in place at Apple in years before Tim Cook took over, though Google appears to take a more cross-cultural approach, according to what I’ve been told about how it treats its research and product divisions.

What may be more interesting, though, is what the Summly pod and D’Aloisio are focused on currently. After integrating Summly’s text summarization capabilities into its products remarkably quickly, via what D’Aloisio characterized as a sprint post-acquisition that led to the integration of summaries in Yahoo!’s mobile app back in April not long after the deal closed, there’s been little in the way of new information around Summly’s work within the company. While he didn’t get into specifics, D’Aloisio did say that he’s very much interested in ephemerality and the trend towards the temporary in online media, and how that may inform Yahoo! product development.

What D’Aloisio says he realized about Summly is that it’s about “constraining … the entropy you have in the content,” and that there’s an expectation among readers now that people do this kind of thing by default for anything they’re required to engage with for longer than two minutes. This is tied inextricably to the rise of transience in online content, he says, which implies such a high level of expendability in content that once it’s read, it’s considered immediately gone, in essence.

The growth of transience and increasing interest in ephemerality is what D’Aloisio is currently concerning himself with at Yahoo!. He explained in a quick chat following his presentation that he believes there’s a balance to be achieved, between instantly digested and expiring content on the one hand, and being able to come back to things after a time on the other. He says Yahoo! is currently very interested in figuring out the right mix to make that balance work for users. Snapchat, I suggested, is struggling with striking much the same balance, but starting at the opposite end of the spectrum, which is why it recently introduced its own variant of a slightly more permanent feed in Snapchat Stories, and D’Aloisio agreed.

Many characterized the Yahoo!/Summly acquisition as little more than a publicity stunt, but it’s clear that D’Aloisio has a keen focus on product and on anticipating the needs and demands of users, especially on mobile. Those are characteristics that fit perfectly with Mayer’s own famously product-oriented approach to business, and with the direction she’s taking Yahoo! in general, and it looks like D’Aloisio and Summly still have contributions to make to help shape the future of the Internet giant.