Instagram’s 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, have formed a new venture to explore ideas for next-generation social apps. Their first product is Artifact, a personalized news feed that uses machine learning to understand your interests and will soon let you discuss those articles with friends.

Artifact – the name represents the fusion of articles, facts and artificial intelligence – opens its waiting list to the public today. The company plans to onboard users quickly, Systrom says. You can register yourself here; the app is available for both Android and iOS.

The simplest 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 selected from a curated list of publishers ranging from leading news organizations such as New York Times for small blogs on niche topics. Tap on articles that interest you and Artifact will serve you similar posts and stories in the future, just as watching videos on TikTok’s For You page adjusts its algorithm over time.

“Every time we use machine learning to improve the consumer experience, things got really good, really fast.”

Users coming in from the waiting list today will only see the central ranked feed. But Artifact beta users are currently testing two more features that Systrom expects will become the core pillars of the app. One is a feed that displays articles posted by users you’ve chosen to follow, along with their comments on those posts. (You won’t be able to send raw text without a link, at least for now.) The other is a direct message inbox, so you can discuss the posts you’re reading privately with friends.

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

Meanwhile, like a social network from the late 2000s, Artifact has its sights firmly set on text. But the founders hope that a decade-plus of experience, along with the latest advances in artificial intelligence, will help their app break through to a larger audience.

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

“Over the years, I’ve seen that whenever we use machine learning to improve the consumer experience, things got really good really 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 Rt.live to track the spread of covid.

But Systrom told me they didn’t want to start a new company until three things happened: One, a big new wave in consumer technology that he and Krieger could try to catch. Two, a way to connect the wave of social technology that he and Krieger continue to feel emotionally invested in. And three, an idea of ​​how their product could solve a problem – Systrom has long considered technology design from the point of view of what jobs it can do for its 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 offers a mechanism for systems to understand language using far fewer inputs than had previously been necessary.

The transformer helped machine learning systems improve at a much faster pace, leading directly to last year’s release of ChatGPT and the accompanying boom in interest around AI. (Transformers is the “T” in ChatGPT.)

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

TikTok’s innovation was to show you things using only algorithmic predictions, regardless of who your friends are or who you followed. It quickly became the most downloaded app in the world.

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

“I saw it shift and I was like, ‘Ohh, it is the future of social,” Systrom said. “These disjointed graphs; these graphs that are learned instead of explicitly created. And what was funny to me was that when I looked around, I thought, ‘Man, why isn’t this happening everywhere in social? Why is Twitter still primarily follow-based? Why is Facebook?'”

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

The question is whether personalized recommendations for news articles and blog posts can create the same viral success for Artifact that video has for TikTok. It’s not a slam dunk: 2014 saw a wave of personal news apps come and go with names like Zite and Pulse, dogged by their inability to create deep user habits. And earlier this month, Tokyo-based SmartNews, which uses similar AI technology to personalize recommendations, laid off 40 percent of its workforce in the U.S. and China amid a declining user base and a challenging ad market.

Like most startups at this stage, Artifact has yet to commit to a business model. Advertising would be an obvious fit, Systrom said. He is also interested in thinking about revenue sharing agreements with publishers. If Artifact becomes big, it can help readers find new publications and encourage them to subscribe to them; it might make sense for Artifact to try to take a cut.

Systrom also told me that Artifact will take seriously the job of serving readers with quality news and information. That means an effort to include only publishers that adhere to editorial quality standards, he told me. For now, the company won’t list all publishers in its system, but you can search for individual businesses in the app.

Both left- and right-wing publishers were involved; you will find e.g. Fox News there. But Systrom isn’t shy that the company will exercise its own judgment about who belongs and who doesn’t.

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

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

“We basically like to build.”

For now, Systrom and Krieger are funding Artifact themselves, though I imagine they’ll soon have investors beating a path to their doors. A team of seven people is now working on the app, including Robby Stein, a 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 get a job. So what drives them this time?

“We basically like to build,” Systrom said. “There’s nowhere else in the world we’d rather spend our time than writing code and building products that people like. I just love it.”

Advances in artificial intelligence 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 it knows you’re into a certain topic and it totally gets you, you think, ‘How come just some numbers added together did that?’ The CTO of OpenAI said that machine learning is basically many months of things not working, and then suddenly it works, and then it works terrifyingly well. I echo that.”

I’ve only been using Artifact for a few hours now, and many of the features the company plans to build remain in the planning stages. As you’d expect from Systrom and Krieger, the app already shows a fair amount of polish. Read an article inside the app, and when you return to the feed, it will suggest more stories like it in a nice carousel. The app automatically switches to dark mode at night. And when you post a link, you can choose whether you want to let everyone comment, limit comments to people you follow, or turn them off entirely.

In many ways, I think the time is ripe for this kind of product. AI is making really 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 this field to try text-based social networking again.

To be successful at 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 Internet remains rich with stories of interest, as anyone who has ever looked at the list of clickbait headlines under the Google search bar these days can attest. Few people spend much time complaining that they can’t find anything good to read on the Internet.

Yes, artificial intelligence represents a big part of TikTok’s success. But like Twitter before it, TikTok also succeeded because of the way it caught on conversations about the core feed — more than a few tweets have gone viral, noting that the comments on TikTok are often better than the videos themselves. Similarly, Twitter remains a primary source of breaking news largely because it is where the elite go to discuss the news publicly.

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

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