The latest thing making waves on social media is a new text-based news app driven by artificial intelligence (AI) called Artifact.
Dubbed by many as the "TikTok of news,” it was developed by Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger, the duo who founded and then sold the photo-sharing app Instagram to Facebook in 2012.
But what is it? In a nutshell, Artifact is a personalised news feed that - just like TikTok - uses machine learning to understand your interests and with the help of an algorithm, suggests stories - but not videos - that might interest you.
The beauty of the platform is that it was designed to avoid so-called “filter bubbles” - an ideologically biased state that can happen when an algorithm selectively guesses and filters out what information you would like to see based on past click behaviour.
This is all the more interesting given how the consumption of news is changing.
The share of people reading news online in the European Union was over 60 per cent in 2022. But despite the fairly decent number of informed citizens, 2022 was also a year when more people were accessing news via social media rather than through news websites.
The Reuters Institute’s Digital News Report 2022 says that last year, social media preference for reading news surged five percentage points above reading at direct news websites.
That means people are consuming, more often than not, fast, short and concise information. But could an app like Artifact act as an intermediary?
According to Systrom, it could become a potential competitor to social media platforms like Twitter for reading news and lifestyle articles.
It is a "particularly timely moment both in the technology industry, with Twitter's takeover by Elon and Facebook's focus on the Metaverse," he told the Financial Times.
I tried Artifact: How does it work?
Once you download it and register an account, Artifact asks you to pick 10 or more topics of interest, followed by a prompt to read at least 25 articles to get to know you better. “The feed,” it says, “improves every time you read”.
As usual, choosing the topics is almost an exercise in self-deception. I picked topics relevant to my job: tech companies, start-ups, AI, space, education, science, and health.
Once you select subjects of interest, the application allows you to add in any paid subscriptions you may have for various publications in order to prioritise them in your feed, such as the New York Times, The Atlantic, Vogue, the Economist, and so on.
Then things really begin.
It didn't take long for Artifact to realise that my real topics of interest were not strictly the ones I am actively working on, but rather mental health, exercise, relationships (busted!) and interior design.
After reading 25 articles, AI and tech companies were in last place in the infographic that summarised my most liked categories, according to the app.
The more I read, the more beautifully picked the stories in my feed: ‘How young couples talk about money in relationships,’ ‘We’ve been talking about the lab-leak hypothesis all wrong,’ ‘What language does your heart speak,’ ‘Spotify’s latest feature gives you an AI-powered personal DJ,’ ‘How a couple transformed this frumpy two-family house in Brooklyn’.
For anyone reading this who doesn't know me, these could be big disclosures about myself and my personality.
Artifact’s algorithm recommends a lot of opinion articles to me, as well as a significant number of listicles, and some obvious click-bait articles here and there. There are also many US-based stories, even though I am based in France.
Ultimately, the app did not hook me, and I stopped using it once I finished my research for this assignment. The notifications, however, are still switched on, and strangely, they don't bother me or intrude. The push banners are interesting, informative and less tempting than Instagram’s, which makes them a lot less draining.
AI-powered summaries and a 'clickbait' warning
What impact Artifact will have, compared with how TikTok’s algorithm works, remains to be seen. But its promise is surely intriguing, an app that bets on people doomscrolling to actually take time to read content.
One piece of good news worth noting is that Artifact aims to make its algorithm promote content that may challenge previously held views.
This is especially potent at a time when, on virtually every continent, supporters of rival political camps are increasingly polarised and more likely to interact in more hostile ways than they did a few decades ago, according to a report by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“It is really important to us to dedicate some portion of the feed which we do to exploring tangential interests, other sides of issues, publishers you would not normally see,” Systrom told the Financial Times.
Artifact also functions with a strict list of handpicked sources that will make it to users’ feeds, as its co-founders want to ensure the quality of news and information.
The app has introduced a number of updates since it launched in January.
Those too busy to read entire articles - or who like a preview before diving in - can check out AI-powered summaries in different styles (including the famous ChatGPT prompt “Explain like I’m five") that will pop up above the story.
Artifact now allows users to follow individual writers, comment on articles and react to them using various emojis, but also report clickbait and misleading headlines.