Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger are back.
The co-founders of Instagram, 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 allow you to discuss those articles with friends.
Artifact – the name stands for the merging of articles, facts and artificial intelligence – is today opening its waiting list to the public. The company plans to let users in quickly, Systrom says. You can register yourself 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 ranging from leading news organizations such as The New York Times to small-scale blogs on niche topics. Tap 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 tunes the algorithm over time.
“Every time we use machine learning to improve the consumer experience, it went really well very quickly.”
Users who come in from the waitlist today will only see that centrally ranked feed. But Artifact beta users are currently testing two more features that Systrom expects will become the mainstays of the app. One is a feed of articles posted by users you’ve chosen to follow, along with their comments on those posts. (You can’t post plain text without a link, at least for now.) The second is a direct message inbox, so you can discuss the messages you’re reading privately with friends.
In a way, Artifact can feel like a legacy. Inspired by the success of TikTok, major social platforms have been chasing shortform video products and the associated ad revenue in recent years.
Meanwhile, like a social network of 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 break through to a wider 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 the ability of machine learning systems to improve recommendations, but his experience at Instagram made him a true believer.
“Over the years, I saw that whenever we use machine learning to improve the consumer experience, it gets 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 wouldn’t start a new company until three things happened: First, a big new wave in consumer technology that he and Krieger could try to catch. Two, a way to connect that wave to social technology, in which he and Krieger continue to feel emotionally invested. And third, an idea of how their product might solve a problem: Systrom has spent a lot of time thinking about technology design from the point of view of what tasks 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 provides a mechanism for systems to understand language with much less input than previously required.
The transformer helped improve machine learning systems at a much faster rate, which led directly to the release of ChatGPT last year and the huge interest in AI that came with it. (Transformers are the “T” in ChatGPT.)
It also created some new social networking opportunities. At first, social networks showed you things your friends thought were 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 with only algorithmic predictions, regardless of who your friends are or who you follow. It quickly became the most downloaded app in the world.
Artifact represents an attempt to do the same thing, but for text.
“I saw that shift, and I was like, ‘Ohh, that is the future of social,’” said Systrom. “These disconnected charts; these charts that are taught rather than made explicit. And what I found funny 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 followers? Why is Facebook?’”
Artifact will take seriously the task of providing readers with high quality news and information
The question is whether personalized recommendations for news articles and blog posts for Artifact can generate the same viral success 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 inability to create deep habits in users. And earlier this month, Tokyo-based 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 at this stage, Artifact has yet to commit to a business model. Advertising would be an obvious match, Systrom said. He is also interested in thinking about revenue sharing agreements with publishers. If Artifact grows big, it could help readers find new publications and encourage them to subscribe to them; it may make sense that Artifact is trying to take a part.
Systrom also told me that Artifact will take the job of providing readers with high-quality news and information seriously. That means an effort to include only publishers who adhere to editorial quality standards, he told me. For now, the company isn’t disclosing every publisher in its system, but you can search for individual outlets within the app.
There were both left and right publishers; you will find Fox News there, for example. But Systrom isn’t shy about letting the company make its own judgments about who fits and who doesn’t.
“One of the problems with technology lately is that many of these companies are unwilling 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 untruths, he says. And the machine learning systems will primarily be 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 compelling material.
“We fundamentally love to build.”
For now, Systrom and Krieger are self-funding Artifact, though I imagine investors will soon be blazing a trail 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’s driving them this time?
“We fundamentally like to build,” Systrom said. “There is no other place in the world where we would rather spend our time writing code and building products that people like. I just love it.”
Advances in AI also capture 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 like a subject, and it totally understands you, you think, ‘How come just a few numbers together did that?’ OpenAI’s CTO said that machine learning is actually many months where things don’t work, and then all of a sudden it works, and then it works eerily well, I resonate with that.”
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 quite a bit of polish. Read an article in the app and when you return to the feed it will suggest more stories like this in a nice 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 disable them altogether.
In many ways, I think the time is right for this kind of product. AI is truly enabling new things in consumer apps, and the collapse of Twitter under Elon Musk has given a team with real expertise in the field the opportunity to get back to work with text-based social networking.
To succeed on a large scale, I suspect Artifact will have to do more than just show 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 looked at the list of clickbait headlines under Google’s 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 represents a big part of TikTok’s success. But like Twitter before it, TikTok has also succeeded because of the way it captures 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. Likewise, Twitter remains a primary source for breaking news in large part because elites go there to discuss the news publicly.
That aspect of Artifact remains under construction. But if Systrom and Krieger can bring the same craftsmanship to that part of the product they brought to Instagram, it might not be long before I forget my Mastodon login again.