News roulette started out, like so many other projects, with an idle conversation between friends. Daniel Vydra, a software developer for guardian.co.uk, the online version of London's The Guardian newspaper; Clay Shirky, an author and New York University professor; and Chris Thorpe, a consultant at jaggeree, were discussing the future of news media when Thorpe broached the idea of "chatroulette for news." Intrigued by the idea, Vydra went to his computer and designed an application that would call up a random article published in The Guardian in the previous 24 hours. Vydra's Random Guardian application is not a major corporate initiative or an attempt to change the way we view news-Random Guardian only took Vydra "2 or 3 hours" to create.
"I built it because I wanted to use it for myself. I really like the idea of it being a random piece of recent news," Vydra says. Despite his low expectations, Random Guardian took off, generating a significant amount of press coverage. "I think a lot of people are really excited about it," Vydra says. "It's great publicity because it went all over Twitter in about 24 hours."
While Vydra says he wouldn't use news roulette as his primary news source, he bemoans the fact that online news has taken away the surprise of reading stories that would be on the interior pages of the newspaper-online, readers only get front-page stories.
"I think it's an interesting way to sort of pop up your news consumption," Vydra says. "It's randomness, it's serendipity, it's the fun of not knowing what you're going to find." has since created similar news roulette pages for The New York Times and for ABC News Australia, with publications such as The Washington Post and Business Insider having expressed interest. Each new site takes Vydra about an hour using Google's appspot and the host website's application programming interface (API).
News roulette, as sites such as Random Guardian are being called, is an extension of previous concepts, and its utility to publishers is still unknown. "In a sense this concept has been around for a long time with something called web rings, in which a number of related sites could be visited in a serial manner, with a simple API to manage additions to the ring," says Shore Communications president John Blossom. "An API that was shared among participating sites could help established publishers share content, potentially, though if publishers have been so slow to use this technique for their own content, one wonders if an API would accelerate its use."
While introducing a little entropy into the online news reading experience can be fun, the trick is to use these creative new applications to drive up readership and, ultimately, revenue. "Roulette may help provide some more engagement/stickiness for news sites, but its initial impact is likely to be minimal, as it's an add-on that doesn't really rethink the flow of how people experience the news," Blossom says. "News providers would be wise to examine how they can focus the overall design of their sites and pages to support not only topic-oriented navigation for general audiences but how they may be able to design experiences that differ from one click to the next."
The Guardian's leadership is cognizant of the need to innovate wherever possible, and that mentality among the paper's web team was one of the factors that led to Vydra creating Random Guardian. At The Guardian, that's been a real push for us in the past 18 months," Vydra says. "One of the things Clay Shirky said was, ‘Don't be afraid to fail. There's nothing wrong with trying something, failing, and moving on. If you spend a day on something, it's not a big deal.'"
It seems, at least in this case, that half-whimsical projects in general have something in common with Random Guardian and news roulette. You never know what you are going to get.