Artifact, a brand-new app for news reading, is soon to debut in online stores worldwide. It’s called a TikTok for text. People expect a lot as the app was created by two guys who co-founded Instagram – but can it really hit the mainstream?
Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger left Facebook in 2018 amid tensions with their parent company and its boss Mark Zuckerberg but have now announced their first new product.
Artifact is not yet available to try out, but interested users can currently sign up on a waitlist, Systrom said in a tweet this week, adding: “It’s been a minute.” It’s available for both Android and iOS users.
Systrom recently told the Financial Times that Artifact would attempt to avoid so-called “filter bubbles” by promoting content that might challenge previously held news. Co-Founders of the app also want to alter and improve the way people consume news today.
The ambition is certainly there – but will it not crash with the reality of news and content consumption today? People have been choosing to live in their own info bubbles for quite a while – why would it change now?
Cybernews talked to several industry experts. While some are excited, certainly not everyone thinks Artifact will break any new ground. Peter Surowski, Chief Technology Officer at Brain Jat, a web design and development agency based in California, said he thought the new app “is solving a problem that doesn't exist.”
Thank you, Google
The new app is a personalized news feed that uses machine learning – in essence, artificial intelligence (AI) – to understand your interests. Artifact will also let you discuss those articles with friends.
Artifact’s users will first be asked to pick 10 or more favorite topics. They will then open a feed of popular articles that will be chosen from a curated list of publishers – they might be the New York Times or smaller blogs about specific topics.
The algorithm is TikTok-like – when you tap on articles that interest you, the app remembers your reading preferences and serves similar pieces in the future in a “For You” section. Besides, Artifact can track how much of an article a person has read.
According to Systrom, in the near future, users will also be able to see a feed showing articles posted by other users they have chosen to follow. Another feature will be a direct-message inbox where you’ll be able to discuss posts with friends – privately.
The breakthrough that enabled Artifact was the transformer, invented by Google in 2017. In essence, it offers a mechanism for systems to understand language using far fewer inputs than had previously been required.
This transformer helped machine learning systems improve much faster and led directly to last year’s release of ChatGPT. We’re all witnesses to the AI craze now.
What’s more, the transformer also created some new possibilities for social networks. They used to show you things your friends thought were cool – like Facebook. Then came Twitter which showed you stuff based on the people you chose to follow.
TikTok uses only algorithmic predictions, regardless of who your friends are or who you followed by. Probably because TikTok soon became the most downloaded app in the world,
Artifact wants to do the same, but for text – and presumably on a smaller scale.
Is text enough?
Indeed, Artifact can feel like a throwback because, like a social network from the 2000s, it concentrates solely on text. Nowadays, large social apps – again, like TikTok, like to chase short-form videos and the ad revenue that comes with them.
It’s also positioned as a competitor of sorts to Twitter. Systrom told the Financial Times recently that we needed to focus on the text “when we need it most because of people’s attention to misinformation and how we consume news today.”
“The timing of the launch couldn't be better. With social media sites like Twitter becoming rife with misinformation, people are looking for a reliable source of news they can trust. Artifact will fill this need and become the go-to source for trusted news stories,” Travis Lindemoen, Managing Director of nexusIT Group, an IT staffing agency, told Cybernews.
After Elon Musk bought Twitter in October 2022, he fired thousands of employees and loosened restrictions around political ads. Besides, the online safety team is now in essence a skeleton crew – all this means misinformation on Twitter is simply blooming now.
Musk, by the way, is not worried. Just recently he rushed to retweet a fake story about Ukrainian casualties in the war and was slammed for it.
The Twitter boss later tweeted: “Going forward, Twitter will be broadly accepting of different values, rather than trying to impose its own specific values on the world.” Systrom, as aforementioned, wants Artifact to be the same – a sort of text-based digital town square, a marketplace of ideas.
However, as an influential FiveThirtyEight blog has said in 2022 April, Americans tend to dislike the social media platforms that forgo content moderation entirely, “with anything-goes platforms never being quite as popular as the larger platforms that limit some of what users see.”
Obviously, Artifact may not become what Twitter already is. The co-founders insist they will only include publishers who adhere to quality editorial standards.
Besides, the AI will measure how long you spend reading about different subjects rather than what generates more clicks and comments – this will be a kind of reward to more serious material.
It’s definitely too early to say if the new app will be a success. However, social networks like Twitter also use AI to recommend content to users, besides, both Musk’s plaything and Google News have a “For You” section. Google News and Apple News apps are also pre-installed on devices.
Artifact will have to do better than other personalized news apps, such as Pulse or Zite, that have failed to gain enough traction. Pocket is doing fine and also offers a combination of news reading, curated recommendations, and user comments.
Surowski told Cybernews he didn’t think Artifact is going to do anything more than what the current social media apps are doing. Meta-owned platforms, TikTok, and others already track our interests in various effective ways.
“I think the new app is solving a problem that doesn't exist. The real problem with news today is there are fewer and fewer sources for news, especially on the local level,” Surowski said.
“More people are spending their time consuming social media and less time reading magazines and newspapers, so unique content is becoming rarer and rarer. So the real problem is, there's hardly any news left in the world for this tool to aggregate. So what will it do to solve the real problem? Nothing.”
Besides the stiff competition, the times are simply hard as stronger economic headwinds are hurting tech firms large and small, and the online advertising market is not looking great. Flipboard, another online content aggregator, is well liked by users but had to lay off 24 staffers, or 21% of its workforce, in October 2022.
However, Systrom and Krieger say they have only spent “single-digit millions” to build Artifact, and the group has just seven employees. No outside investment was needed and the funding crunch was thus avoided.
Danger of feedback loops
There’s another area of concern, though. Many experts say that the use of AI to recommend content to users comes with mental health concerns.
Yes, through machine learning, algorithms or computer-generated operations can be developed to train large quantities of data obtained from social media posts to detect the presence of depression.
However, the Wall Street Journal took a look at TikTok’s recommendation algorithm last year and concluded that the app was throwing eating disorder content towards its teenage audience. The more these kids interacted with the videos, the more of them they saw.
What keeps happening on TikTok, can happen on Artifact – with news. It’s not clear how its algorithm will work, but who’s to say your personalized app will not become a doomscrolling playground if you click on bad news items a few times?
That’s more or less what Christopher William, the founder of Balanced News Summary, a news aggregator, sees. He told Cybernews he liked the idea of Artifact and the tech behind it but he doesn’t find the idea of a personalized news feed as it causes people to fall into their own feedback loop. This means users are exposed – in Artifact’s case, involuntarily – to the ideas and interests they like.
“This may be good in the sense that users get to see the stuff they like, but I believe people need to be exposed to alternate thoughts and views. If people do not see both sides of the news then they simply reinforce the same viewpoint,” William said.
“Due to this, people are unable to form their own opinions, and communities are unable to openly debate opposing viewpoints. I feel as though people are now choosing their friends and social groups based on political preference, and avoiding people who disagree with their political views. Segregation and division are society's ultimate outcomes of these feedback loops.”
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