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7th July 2000 at 01:00
One of the most fashionable jobs in Internet circles is that of "aggregator". This is geek-speak for those who cherry-pick news (or other "content") from other people's sites, package it for maximum ease of use, then encourage as many sites as possible to carry their banner, offering what can now be promoted as a highly desirable, all-embracing news service.

One prominent news aggregator, the Anglo-American Moreover.com (www.moreover.com), pulls together news from 1,500 sources and offers it back to punters in 280 rapidly searchable categories. Readers can set up their own specialised news feeds to deliver regularly updated lists of headlines from around the world to their PC desktop.

The service seems to overturn conventional supply-and-demand economics, in that the originators of this news - typically, established newspaper publishers and broadcasters - actually pay for every new reader that Moreover introduces to their material. But websites carrying the Moreover news feeds, and the end users, pay nothing. This relatively simple and (you might think) unoriginal business model has convinced investors (in Moreover's case, to the tune of $21 million) and is being hailed as e-commerce's very own philosopher's stone.

Another aggregator - Arts and Letters Daily (http: cybereditions.comaldaily) is about as different from Moreover as can be imagined. The motto on its home page - "Veritas odit moras" ("Truth hates delay") - sets the tone for what follows - an erudte, if slightly idiosyncratic, trawl through the world's top newspapers, magazines, websites and learned journals.

From the home page - updated each day - you're as likely to be directed to an analysis of Balkan popular culture as a report on the value of teaching poetry to delinquent adolescents.

Using this site is rather like marking time in a well-stocked newsagent's without running the risk of being asked to buy something or leave. It is also likely, on occasion, to have you reaching for your reference books.

Which is where the next website comes in. Xrefer (www.xrefer.com) is an aggregator, but of knowledge rather than news or views. It pulls together a couple of shelves' worth of popular reference works from publishers including Penguin, Oxford University Press, Macmillan and Bloomsbury, then puts them all behind a powerful search engine.

Not all of this content is necessarily exclusive to Xrefer - but the ability to search simultaneously the complete text of (at the last count) 23 dictionaries and encyclopaedias, and to cross-reference the results, is, as far as I can tell, unique.

It is great for tracking down quotations, checking biographical details, locating place names and suchlike. At the moment, it seems better for arts (especially literature) than for sciences - although this, presumably, should change as Xrefer gathers in more content. A boon for pub-quiz compilers, crossword addicts, and pedants of all ages.

BILL HICKS


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