Instagram co-founders launch Artifact, a kind of TikTok for text

Instagram co-founders launch Artifact, a kind of TikTok for text
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Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger are back.

The Instagram co-founders, who left Facebook in 2018 Amid tensions with their parent company, they 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 let you discuss these articles with friends.

Artifact – the name stands for the fusion of articles, facts and artificial intelligence – opens its waiting list to the public today. The company plans to let users in quickly, Systrom says. You can sign up here; The app is available for both 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 to a feed of popular articles chosen from a curated list of publishers endorsed by leading news organizations such as The New York Times to small blogs on niche topics. Tap articles that interest you and Artifact will bring you similar posts and stories in the future, just like watching videos on TikTok’s For You page tweaks its algorithm over time.

“Every time we’ve used machine learning to improve the customer experience, it’s gotten really good, really fast.”

Users who come off the waitlist today will only see this centrally ranked feed. But Artifact beta users are currently testing two other features that Systrom expects will become core pillars of the app. One is a feed of articles posted by users you want to follow, along with their comments on those posts. (At least for now, you can’t post raw text without a link.) The second is a direct message inbox, so you can privately discuss the posts you read with friends.

In a way, Artifact can feel like a throwback. Inspired by the success of TikTok, major social platforms have spent the last few years chasing short video products and the ad revenue that comes with them.

Meanwhile, like a social network from the late 2000s, Artifact has set its sights firmly on text. But the founders hope that more than a decade of lessons learned, along with recent advances in artificial intelligence, will help their app reach a larger audience.

Systrom and Krieger started discussing the idea for Artifact a few years ago, he told me. Systrom said he was once skeptical about the ability of machine learning systems to improve recommendations – but his experience at Instagram made him a true believer.

“Over the years, I’ve seen that whenever we use machine learning to improve the customer experience, things got really good very quickly,” he said.

So why come back now? Technically, this isn’t the duo’s first project since Instagram; in 2020, They teamed up to create the website 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 technology 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 what tasks can it do for his customers.

The technology that enabled ChatGPT also created new opportunities for social networking

The breakthrough that made Artifact possible was the transformer, that Google invented in 2017. It provides a mechanism for systems to understand speech with far fewer inputs than previously required.

The Transformer helped machine learning systems improve much faster, which led directly to last year’s release of ChatGPT and the boom in interest in AI that came with it. (Transformers are the “T” in ChatGPT.)

It also created some new opportunities for social networking. First, social networks showed you things that your friends found interesting—the Facebook model. Then they started showing you stuff based on the people you wanted to follow, whether you were friends or not – the Twitter model.

TikTok’s innovation was to only show you things with algorithmic predictions, no matter who your friends are or who you follow. It soon became the most downloaded app in the world.

Artifact represents an attempt to do the same but for text.

“I saw that shift and I was like, ‘OhH, that’s it the future of society,'” Systrom said. “These disjointed graphs; These graphs are learned rather than created explicitly. And what was funny for me, as I looked around, I was like, ‘Man, why isn’t this happening everywhere in society? Why is Twitter still mostly follow-based? Why is Facebook?'”

Artifact will take seriously the task of providing readers with quality news and information

The question is whether personalized recommendations for news articles and blog posts can achieve the same viral success for Artifact that videos have for TikTok. It’s not a hit: 2014 a wave of personalized news apps with names like Zite and Pulse came and went, stubborn from their inability to create deep habits in users. And earlier this month, Tokyo-based company SmartNews, which uses similar AI technology to personalize recommendations, Laid off 40 percent of its workforce in the United States and China amid a declining user base and a challenging advertising market.

Like most startups in this phase, Artifact has yet to commit to a business model. Advertising would be an obvious fit, Systrom said. He’s also interested in considering revenue-sharing deals with publishers. If Artifact grows big, it could help readers find new publications and encourage them to subscribe; It may make sense that Artifact is trying to make a cut.

Systrom also told me that Artifact will take seriously the task of providing readers with quality news and information. That means trying to only include publishers who adhere to editorial quality standards, he told me. For now, the company won’t disclose every publisher in its system, but you can search for individual outlets within the app.

Both left- and right-leaning publishers were included; There you will find, for example, Fox News. But Systrom isn’t shy about the fact that the company will make its own judgment on who does and doesn’t belong.

“One of the problems with technology lately has been the unwillingness of these companies to make subjective judgments in the name of quality and advancement for humanity,” he says. “Right? Just make the tough decision.”

Artifact will also remove individual posts that promote untruths, he says. And its machine learning systems are primarily optimized to measure how long you spend reading about different topics — as opposed to, say, what generates the most clicks and comments — to reward more deeply engaging material.

“We generally like to build.”

For now, Systrom and Krieger are self-funding Artifact, although I imagine they’ll soon have investors finding a way to their doors. A team of seven is now working on the app, including Robby Stein, top product manager at Instagram from 2016 to 2021.

After selling Instagram to Facebook for $715 million, Systrom and Krieger had no pressing need to find a job. What drives you this time?

“We generally like to build,” said Systrom. “There is no other place in the world we would rather spend our time than writing code and building products that people enjoy. I just love it.”

Advances in AI have also fired their imaginations, he said.

“I think machine learning is hands down the coolest thing to work on right now,” he said. “Not because it’s hip, but because it knows you’re into a certain topic and it totally grabs you, then you’re like, ‘How come just a bunch of numbers put that together?’ OpenAI’s CTO said that basically machine learning takes many months where things don’t work, and then suddenly it works, and then it works scary well. I agree.”

I’ve only been using Artifact for a few hours, and many of the features the company plans to develop are still in the planning stages. As you are used to from Systrom and Krieger, the app already shows a good portion of polish. Read an article in the app and returning to the feed will suggest more similar stories in a neat carousel. At night, the app automatically switches to dark mode. And when you post a link, you can choose to let everyone comment, limit comments to people you follow, or turn them off entirely.

In many ways I think the time has come for this type of product. AI is really making new things possible in consumer apps, and the collapse of Twitter under Elon Musk has created an opportunity for a team with real expertise in the space to try text-based social networking again.

In order to be successful on a large scale, I think Artifact needs to do more than just show you a collection of interesting links. Even in the current depressed state of digital publishing, the web is full of interesting stories, as anyone who ever glanced at the list of clickbait headlines below the Google search box these days can attest. 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 been successful because of the way it captures conversations via the core feed – more than a few tweets have gone viral, noting that the comments are common on TikTok better than the videos themselves. Similarly, Twitter remains a major source of breaking news in large part because it is where the elites discuss the news in public.

This aspect of Artifact is still under construction. But if Systrom and Krieger can bring the same craftsmanship to this part of the product that they brought to Instagram, it might not be long before I forget my Mastodon login again.

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