September 13, 2019

AI-assisted News and Its Future in the Attention Economy

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We’re constantly hearing about new apps that aim to be the destination for our valuable attention. But can a news aggregator without a social component do the same? ByteDance’s TopBuzz shows potential as a contender, but goes beyond just bringing us the news we want.

What is TopBuzz?

TopBuzz is the English-language version of Toutiao, the flagship Chinese entertainment and news aggregator app made by ByteDance, which also owns TikTok. The app uses machine and deep learning algorithms to create personalized feeds of news and videos based on users’ interests.

  • User profiles: This is initially built on the app’s understanding of the user’s demographics (age, location, gender, and socio-economic status).
  • Content: The system uses natural language processing to determine if an article is trending, whether it’s long or short, and its timeliness (evergreen or time-bound).
  • Context: It also accounts for location-related data like geography, weather, local news, etc.

By the Numbers

  • 23M: Monthly active TopBuzz users in October 2, 2018 up from 1.8M in November, 2017
  • 36x: Increase in pageviews (34M) referred across Chartbeat publishers worldwide from 2017 to 2018.
  • 24 hours: The time it takes for Toutiao (and likely TopBuzz) to figure out a reader.
  • 200,000: Officially partnered publishers and independent creators including Reuters, CNN, New York Times and BuzzFeed. YouTube creators can also sync their channels too, while bloggers can publish directly or deliver it via RSS.

The Extra Mile

What makes Toutiao stand out among aggregators is that is doesn’t just serve content: it creates it too. During the 2016 Olympics, Toutiao debuted Xiaomingbot to create original news coverage, publishing stories on major events faster than traditional outlets—as in seconds after the event ended.

For an article about a tennis match between Andy Murray and Juan Martin Del Potro, the bot pulled from real time score updates from the Olympics organization, it took images from a recently acquired image-gathering company and it monitored live text commentary on the game.

During the Olympics, the bot published 450 stories with 500-1000 words that achieved read rates in terms of number of reads and impression on par with a human writer.

Bytedance used this same AI content creation in a bot that creates fake news to train the content filter for the app. However, it’s not clear at the moment if TopBuzz publishes AI-generated content in English as well.

The Potential for TopBuzz

While Facebook and Twitter also use machine learning to refine recommendations, they rely more heavily on a user’s social connections. TopBuzz is strictly a news aggregator with no social component similar to Feedly or Flipboard.

But what makes TopBuzz and Toutiao (and future would-be competitors) unique is how hard they’ve doubled down on using AI to win the content game. We’ve all experienced the 20-min or so Netflix sift we do for content recommendations based purely on our viewing history, but because Toutiao analyzes so many other factors, it’s reduced this lag in the consumption cycle to virtually nothing (once it’s figured out the user’s habits).

This combination of AI-fueled curation and creation could set the standard for apps to come — and there are likely to be more. ByteDance’s success with TikTok (which hit one billion users this year) was enough to prompt Facebook to make Lasso in response, and there are bound to be competitors after the same level of stickiness that Toutiao and TopBuzz have achieved.

We’ve always been hungry for knowledge, no question there. But as our attention continues to be commodified and audiences become pickier about what they consume, demand for high quality information (regardless of who or what created it) will increase too. The result? We get to “upgrade” to a cleaner albeit more addictive information diet we consume served buffet style. Users spend an average of 74 minutes on Toutiao. Will that eventually be the “sweet spot” for our news consumption?

But Not So Fast

In our experiences with TopBuzz, we don’t doubt the learning approach taken by the app. But the quality of publications often means that there’s a fair bit of clickbait from questionable outlets. A catchy headline that has us click in does not equate to a great experience. Naturally, most tech companies are notoriously opaque about their algorithms so we’re naturally a bit skeptical as to what defines a piece of content that you personally find compelling. It’s only been a few weeks but in six months, it’d be a worthwhile exploration to see how our experience has improved down the line.

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