Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger are back.
The Instagram co-founders, who left Facebook in 2018 amid tensions with their parent company, have formed a new company to explore ideas for next-gen social apps. Their first product is Artifact, a personalized newsfeed that uses machine learning to understand your interests and will soon allow you to discuss these articles with friends.
Artefact – the name represents the fusion of articles, facts and artificial intelligence – today opens its waiting list to the public. The company plans to let users in quickly, Systrom says. You can register here; the app is available for Android and iOS.
The easiest way to understand Artifact is as a kind of TikTok for text, although you could also call it Google Reader reborn as a mobile app or maybe even a surprise attack on Twitter. The app opens with a feed of popular articles chosen from a curated list of publishers ranging from major news outlets such as The New York Times to small-scale blogs on niche topics. Tap on articles that interest you, and Artifact will suggest similar articles and stories in the future, just as watching videos on TikTok’s For You page adjusts its algorithm over time.
“Whenever we’ve used machine learning to improve the consumer experience, things have gone really well very quickly.”
Users who come from the waitlist today will only see this central ranked stream. But Artifact beta users are currently testing two other features that Systrom says will become mainstays of the app. One is a feed showing articles posted by users you have chosen to follow, along with their comments on those posts. (You won’t be able to post plain text without a link, at least for now.) The second is a direct message inbox, allowing you to discuss messages you read privately with friends.
In a way, Artifact can feel like a throwback. Inspired by the success of TikTok, major social platforms have spent the past few years pursuing short-form video products and the ad revenue that comes with them.
Meanwhile, like a social network from the late 2000s, Artifact is resolutely aiming for text. But the founders hope that more than a decade of lessons learned, along with recent advances in artificial intelligence, will help their application break through to a wider audience.
Systrom and Krieger started discussing the idea of what became Artifact a few years ago, he told me. Systrom said he was once skeptical of the ability of machine learning systems to improve recommendations – but his experience at Instagram has turned him into a true believer.
“Over the years, what I’ve seen is that whenever we use machine learning to improve the consumer experience, things happen very well very quickly,” he said. declared.
So why come back now? Technically, this isn’t the duo’s first project since Instagram; in 2020, they teamed up to create the Rt.live site to track the spread of covid.
But Systrom told me they didn’t want to start a new company until three things happened: First, a big new wave in consumer tech that he and Krieger could try to catch. Second, a way to connect this wave to social technology, which he and Krieger continue to feel emotionally invested in. And third, an idea of how their product might solve a problem – Systrom has long viewed technology design from the perspective of the tasks it can perform for its customers.
The technology that enabled ChatGPT also created new possibilities for social networks
The breakthrough that enabled Artifact was the Transformer, which Google invented in 2017. It provides a mechanism for systems to understand language using far fewer inputs than before.
Transformer has helped machine learning systems improve at a much faster rate, leading directly to the release of ChatGPT last year and the boom in interest in AI. (Transformers are the “T” in ChatGPT.)
It has also created new possibilities for social networks. In the early days, social media showed you stuff your friends found interesting — the Facebook model. Then they started showing you stuff based on the people you choose to follow, whether you’re friends or not – the Twitter model.
TikTok’s innovation was to show you stuff using only algorithmic predictions, no matter who your friends are or who you follow. It quickly became the most downloaded application in the world.
The artifact represents an effort to do the same thing but for the text.
“I saw this change, and I was like, ‘Oh, it is the future of social,” Systrom said. “These unconnected graphs; those graphs that are learned rather than explicitly created. And what was funny to me was when I looked around I was like, ‘Man, why isn’t this happening all over social media? Why is Twitter still primarily based on following? Why Facebook?”
Artifact will take the work of serving readers with high quality news and information seriously.
The question is whether personalized recommendations for news articles and blog posts can generate the same viral success for Artifact as video for TikTok. It’s no slam dunk: In 2014, a wave of personalized news apps with names like Zite and Pulse came and went, dogged by their failure to create deep habits in users. And earlier this month, Tokyo-based SmartNews, which uses similar AI technology to personalize recommendations, laid off 40% of its workforce in the United States and China amid a declining customer base. ‘users and difficult advertising market.
Like most startups at this point, Artifact has yet to adopt a business model. Advertising would be an obvious choice, Systrom said. He also wants to think about revenue-sharing deals with publishers. If Artifact gets big, it might help readers find new posts and encourage them to subscribe; it may make sense for Artifact to try and take a cut.
Systrom also told me that Artifact will take the job of serving readers with high-quality news and information seriously. That means an effort to only include publishers who adhere to quality editorial standards, he told me. At this time, the company won’t disclose all publishers in its system, but you can search for individual outlets in the app.
Both left and right editors have been included; you will find there for example Fox News. But Systrom is quick to say that the company will exercise its own judgment on who owns and who doesn’t.
“One of the recent problems with technology has been the reluctance of these companies to make subjective judgments in the name of quality and progress for humanity,” he says. “Right? Just make the tough decision.
Artifact will also remove individual posts that promote lies, it says. And its machine learning systems will primarily be optimized to measure how much time you spend reading on various topics – as opposed to, say, what generates the most clicks and comments – in an effort to reward more engaging content. .
“We basically like to build.”
For now, Systrom and Krieger are self-funding Artifact, though I imagine they’ll soon have investors making their way to their doorsteps. A team of seven people are currently working on the app, including Robby Stein, one of Instagram’s top product managers from 2016 to 2021.
After selling Instagram to Facebook for $715 million, Systrom and Krieger had no pressing need to find jobs. So what’s motivating them this time around?
“We basically like to build,” Systrom said. “There is no other place in the world where we would rather spend our time than writing code and building products that people love. I adore.”
Advances in AI have also captured their imaginations, he said.
“I think machine learning is undeniably the coolest thing to work on right now,” he said. “Not because it’s hip, but because when he knows you’re into a certain subject, and he totally understands you, you’re like, ‘How come just a few numbers multiplied together did that? ?’ The CTO of OpenAI said that machine learning is basically several months of things not working, and then suddenly it works, and then it works awfully well.
I’ve only been using Artifact for a few hours now, and many of the features the company plans to build are still in the planning stages. As you’d expect from Systrom and Krieger, the app already shows a lot of polish. Read an article in the app, and when you come back to the feed, it will offer you other similar stories in a beautiful carousel. The app automatically switches to dark mode at night. And when you post a link, you can choose to let everyone comment, limit comments to people you follow, or turn them off altogether.
In many ways, I think the time is right for this kind of product. AI is really making new things possible in consumer applications, and the collapse of Twitter under Elon Musk has created an opportunity for a team with real expertise in this area to get into text-based social networking again.
To be successful on a large scale, I suspect Artifact will need to do more than just show you a collection of interesting links. Even in the current depressed state of digital publishing, the web remains rich with interesting stories, as anyone who has ever glanced at the list of clickbait titles under the Google search box can attest. these days. Few people spend a lot of time complaining that they can’t find anything good to read on the Internet.
Yes, AI is a big part of TikTok’s success. But like Twitter before it, TikTok has also succeeded thanks to the way it captures conversation about the main stream – more than a few tweets have gone viral, noting that comments on TikTok are often better than the videos themselves. Likewise, Twitter endures as the main source of breaking news, largely because it’s where elites go to discuss the news in public.
This aspect of Artifact remains under construction. But if Systrom and Krieger can bring the same know-how to this part of the product that they brought to Instagram, it might not be long before they forget me about my Mastodon connection again.