Artifact wants a reason to exist
Artifact, the social news feed app built and funded by the co-creators of Instagram, launched to the public today. I’ve been using the beta version for a few weeks, and I remain underwhelmed, both with the product and the ethos of the app.
Unlike seemingly everyone else who nodded to the beta announcement, I was decidedly not excited to hear the duo of Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger were building a news app. I stopped using Instagram not long after they sold to Facebook, I’ve never considered Instagram “the good social network” and, in fact, think it’s pretty obvious that everything that makes Instagram bad was baked in from its founding. So, I was skeptical from the start Artifact offered much that was new, let alone would contribute to a better informed citizenry.
Even with this admittedly critical eye, I was to see if they’d cracked some code the many, many attempts at personalized news feeds hadn’t. Maybe the tech that Artifact is hanging its hat on really is as transformative1 as Systrom believes and the long sought ideal of delivering a perfect, personal stream of news is at hand, or at least close. Even after putting in the work (and training Artifact often feels like work), I continue to find its recommendations to be somewhere on a spectrum between inscrutable to unhelpful.
Most of what Artifact considers alert-worthy, for example, have turned out to be the articles I’m most likely to tell it to send me less of. Until you’ve silenced enough of the content mills, the app feels like one big chum box. Once I’m in the app, I will usually find a link worth reading — but is that really a problem anyone has these days? Does anyone need, or even want, an endlessly scrolling “TikTok for news”? Even as a fairly diligent tester (tech + media is very much my beat), I haven’t found Artifact to be any more useful than Prismatic (RIP), Nuzzle (RIP), Flipboard, or even Apple News before it; my creaky collection of RSS feeds remains more serendipitous.
They’ve limited their dataset to fairly reputable news sources and blogs (instead of the entire internet), and have added only the most basic of social features (which require you to upload your entire address book, of course). These feel more like cover-your-ass maneuvers that reveal only the most surface-level lessons learned from the past decade or so. And with so much energy moving towards federated social networks, RSS, and a renewed interest in the open web, doubling down on a walled garden approach2 feels downright antiquated.
All of which gets to my deeper problem with both Artifact and why I started off so deeply skeptical of its provenance. What is the purpose of this app? According to Systrom, his big revelation was in seeing how large language models and transformers would fundamentally change how recommendation systems work. Artifact seems to be answering the question of “what if we ingested all the news and ran it through this new tech, then showed people headlines they were more likely to read.” At no point does the app, or anyone working on it, seem to be interested in answering the question of “how do we help people better understand the world they live in.” Maybe I’m just too old school, but it seems to me that’s the fundamental purpose of all that news to begin with.
One of my many annoyances with tech is how they refuse to understand history, especially their own; they don’t even seem capable of listening to their own lionized heroes. It was none other than Steve Jobs who said, “you’ve got to start with the customer experience and work backwards to the technology,” yet Artifact doesn’t seem to know what it’s for. It has all the hallmarks of a well-built app — it’s performant, the layouts are crisp, the onboarding flowed along just fine — but that’s only the most shallow understanding of UX, let alone design.
We’ve seen this same playbook from tech time and time again. If you actually wanted to make the world a more open and connected place, you wouldn’t build Facebook, you’d make it easier to build on the open web. If you actually wanted to reimagine transportation, you wouldn’t build Uber or Tesla or hyperloops, you’d build trains. Tech continues to offer these non-solutions because they are easy, or fence in more of the commons, or they’re just enamored with some shiny feature and don’t give a damn about any of the knock-on effects.
If all of this sounds a touch dramatic for an app that feeds you headlines, it’s because I was there arguing with my bosses against adding facebook widgets to story pages or committing to platform lock-in. If it sounds like I’m hating on LLMs or transformers or what’s being hailed as AI, I’m actually as excited as I’ve been since I first learned to build a web page. But I want tools to help journalists do their jobs better — an ML-assistant that can summarize public meetings, investigate massive troves of financial data to ferret out white-collar crime, help human journalists understand and explain arcane technical topics, or offer personalized context about a news story to every reader. Instead, we get an infinite number of auto-generated Buzzfeed listicles and a startup that once again wants to take all the benefits of the open news ecosystem without offering anything back. It’s as cynical as it is unsurprising at this point.
February 23, 2022
Mere hours after I hit publish on this post, Ben Thompson published an interview with Systrom and Krieger about the launch of Artifact3. In the final section of the interview, they discuss pretty directly most of the critiques I made here, about which I have a few more thoughts.
First is Krieger on working backwards to the technology:
MK: We talk consistently about this being, and it’s going to sound funny, hopefully the last company we found in our lives, and not because we don’t want to do it again, but because it can be a platform for realizing all of what we want do in terms of taking what’s at the forefront of technology — I think you can break this down to what Kevin and I do — we’re not researchers, we’re not the people trying to build things that are twenty years out from the technology and you have to squint, “Ah, maybe that’s going to work”. We take what’s at the forefront, on the cusp, and try to bring it to bear with what I think is strong product sense and engineering chops, and practicality.
I think it involves the taste to understand, all right, what about this is begging for consumer products to be built and how do we do that really well? Not like, “Yeah, this technology exists. Let’s go solve a problem with it.” But based on everything that we know, what can we build that will solve a problem? And the cool thing about that is that that’s a template or almost like a recipe that I think we can follow for a long time, and do it with the right teams and do it together and evolve over time, and that’s the core of what we’re trying to do. In general I see this as a platform where this is what we’re working on right now, but the approach doesn’t change. It’s just the manifestation that might over time.
I think the founders genuinely believe Artifact has, in fact, started with the product but that’s exactly the problem, treating news as just another product. This is going to veer into the philosophical quickly, but it’s actually important in a deeply social sense to understand how the news is different from content or even media. Of course, that misunderstanding has been so embedded in Silicon Valley for so long it’s practically a truism.
Systrom then addresses my other big question:
KS: I think people always want to know what’s going on in the world around them, and the way they learn about that is through various mediums throughout time. It can be through the printed newspaper, it can be through a magazine, it can be through a radio show, it can be through a podcast, it can be through a video on TikTok, it can be on cable television. You name it, they can learn about the world around them. But that job — we use jobs-to-be-done theory a lot in our work — that job-to-be-done about learning about the world around you and going deep on your interests will never go away and we just happen to do it with a specific medium, which is easy to do asynchronously when you’re sitting there. Whether you’re in bed or you’re waiting for a meeting, you don’t have to listen to it. You don’t have to have it on audio, you don’t have to have headphones in.
I suppose I’m slightly more optimistic they at least understand the purpose, or maybe a purpose of Artifact, but they seem more hung up on how their chosen medium differentiates them.
More revealing are the topics that didn’t come up: does Artifact plan to hire a public editor? What tools will they offer other media organizations? If they succeed in backing into a Twitter-like social network, how will they manage the user generated content — more AI? How will they take responsibility for their synthetic copy once they start, for example, auto-generating summaries? How will Artifact deal with the avalanche of disreputable, synthetic content that is surely just around the corner?
It would be impossible to answer these questions at launch, but the will to answer them needs to be there. We’ll see if Systrom and Krieger are up for the actual work now that the app is out there.
The Flicker Fusion style guide admonishes writers not to use puns and, when they do, certainly not to include a “no pun intended” footnote, so believe me when I say I tried to find a better phrasing here. ↩︎
On iOS, this means using a webview in lieu of the Safari controller that maintains user customization, presumably an effort to extract more data and keep the reader locked into the app. ↩︎
I recommend listening to the interview if you can. This is probably obvious, but I always find listening to people talk through their reasoning so much more compelling and humanizing than just reading the transcript. I have no doubt there’s plenty I will forever disagree with the Instagram founders on, I’m fairly certain we could disagree on decent terms though. ↩︎