Listening to voice actor John Grimes as he reads a blog post I wrote over a year ago is a special kind of torture, the uncanny valley of my own thoughts. With Umano, also known as the "read-me-the-news-app," I can experience this horrid phenomenon with at least three more of my own articles; the app offers articles from news sites across the Internet ranging from Fast Company to the Atlantic, each read aloud by an actual person.
Editor's Note: This article is now available to listen to on Umano, which responded to this story with the following email:
We recorded the article you wrote about us: https://umano.me/c/vGm2x/eavesdropping-on-umano-an-app-that-weirdly-reads-you-the-news
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Would have been cool if it was narrated by you :)
Nobody wants to hear one's own hastily blogged posts read by a stranger. (Talking with other Fast Company writers whose work has received the Umano treatment confirms this point.) But apparently, there are committed news junkies out there who want to ingest online news by listening to it instead of reading it as intended.
Unlike an NPR segment specifically produced for the airwaves, Umano takes something created for reading (or more likely, skimming) and turns it into something for listening. The readings, done by live actors, convey nuance better than a robot, but at times, it feels silly to hear bloggy turns of phrases and quips pronounced out loud. It's like turning a listicle, word for word, into a Broadway play. It's even stranger (not to mention legally dubious) when neither the author nor the publication of origin have any idea that an audio copy exists.
Various writers at Fast Company, myself included, have echoed this sentiment.
But according to Umano, plenty of people want to have websites read to them. Cofounder and CEO Ian Mendiola told Fast Company that since launching in October 2012, the service has attracted "millions" of users and that "popular articles generally get between 10,000 and 15,000 listens" over a three-day period. Scrolling through the popular section on the app, most articles, if we can we still call them that, have between 3,000 and 7,000 listens--a slightly smaller, but not insignificant figure.
So who are all of these people?
Dudes like Mendiola, apparently. Most of the app's users are men between the ages of 25 and 36, over half of whom use the service during their commutes. The demographic makes sense, since Mendiola and his two cofounders created Umano to solve a personal pain point. The origin story goes something like this: "When we're at the computer, we're too busy coding. We were also always on the go, commuting a lot," said Mendiola, who along with his cofounders graduated from the University of Waterloo with a bachelors of software engineering. "So we thought, okay, how can we take this content with us?"
The obvious option, text to speech, didn't offer the experience Mendiola and his cofounders craved. "After 15 seconds, the quality becomes unbearable," he said. Their answer to that problem: Humans, the English translation of the Italian word "umano." (Listen to the articles for 15 seconds and decide for yourself if umanos are more bearable than robotos.)
Umano's content, besides being weird, may also be legally suspect. The company uses an internal algorithm to scrape popular stories from the Internet. It sends off unedited copies to voice actors, who read the posts at "approximately" $4 a piece. (Inspired by companies that were able to crowdsource every task a la TaskRabbit, Umano doesn't employ any full-time voice actors.) Users can also request articles they want translated.
Umano claims that it has relationships with the publishers that produce its content, and that it has had no problems with news organizations to date. That's not entirely true. Much like other startups, Umano's theory was grow first, then get above board. It only started working with any news organizations at the beginning of 2013. Before that, it ran into some trouble with authors who wanted to see their bylines. (See this conversation pictured below between a Fast Company staffer and Umano.)
Now, a year and a half later, each Umano piece begins by citing its source, author included. Umano also has formalized relationships with some publishers, like Mashable and Quartz. Despite "actively reaching out to publishers and working with them," much of the time Umano takes articles from websites and retroactively pursues a partnership. Pacific Standard is just now in the midst of talking to Umano about a potential partnership. The Umano archive has Atlantic articles dating back years, but Kim Lau, the vice president and general manager of digital, told Fast Company that she hadn't heard of the service until Umano reached out a couple of weeks ago.
Other times, Umano lets news organizations discover that it has used its content before reaching out. If a website, like New York magazine, doesn't want to participate, Umano takes its recordings down.
"There are so many publishers out there that sometimes we miss," Mendiola later clarified. (Fast Company does not have a formal relationship with Umano.)
When Umano doesn't make explicit deals with news sites, it's likely breaking the law, says Eve Brown, Director of Suffolk University Law School’s Intellectual Property & Entrepreneurship Clinic. "What Umano is doing would not qualify as fair use, nor is it excused from copyright infringement from any other doctrine," she said.
"While Umano doesn’t seem to be acting maliciously, the company is demonstrating an unfortunately pervasive naivete exhibited by many young entrepreneurs, particularly in the Internet space," she added.
When Umano gets around to pitching its service to news outlets, most publishers like the idea of the platform, Mendiola says. Unlike any other news aggregators, such as Flipboard, Umano doesn't compete for eyeballs. It also gets news stories into new places, like cars. "Our ideal goal for publishers is that we generate revenue for them," said Mendiola. "That's our primary goal."
Umano makes money by charging for a premium subscription that offers offline and unlimited listening. Soon, it hopes to launch a revenue-sharing situation, where it advertises on the platform and splits the revenues with news organizations. So far, publishers have been open to that, says Mendiola. But it could also drive away media companies that fear compromising current advertiser relationships.
For now, media organizations are open to the service, and don't seem to mind that Umano went ahead and took their stories without asking. (The internet has desensitized the news biz to giving away its product for free.) "Their terms are pretty easy (aimed at getting pubs to sign up with no cost to us)," Lau said in an email. The Atlantic "may" formalize the relationship.