When a new startup boasts "we're the TikTok for___" and "AI is our differentiator" I can't help but raise an eyebrow. Enter Instagram co-founders, Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger, in full-on press mode for the launch of their buzzy new news aggregator, Artifact. At illum, we’ve done a good deal of work in the digital news space so I’m excited to dig a little deeper beyond the prevailing excitement of the “slick UI” and “their 1st product since Instagram” narrative.
A quick primer on Artifact:
The first team-up launch since their $1B exit to Meta, Artifact is a news aggregator app optimizing personalized content curation and discovery by leveraging AI, with promised social features down the line.
The pitch is Tiktok for news using a combination of early self-selected categories / publishers and smart machine learning to help aggregate a personalized news feed based on actual and predicted consumption habits (like TikTok’s algo), not friends and/or follow activity (like FB, Instagram).
Per Casey Newton’s interview with the founders, they didn’t want to launch a new company until 3 important criteria were met: (1) capitalize on a big new wave in consumer tech (2) the idea benefits from social tech, and (3) the idea can solve a bigger problem.
Zooming out for market context:
In talking about Instagram’s success, Kevin Systrom has become well known for extolling the virtues of "jobs to be done" for the user when building products.
“You start asking what jobs does someone hire this product to do in their life? And I looked at Instagram and I was like, ‘I wonder what job people are hiring Instagram for.’ And we came up with some simple ones. It was like one, people really want to share the joy of a moment with other people.”
So in this spirit, let's lift up for a quick breakdown of what we believe are the primary "jobs to be done” in today's news media environment:
Job 1: Help me feel informed without the fluff, bias and spin.
The American public doesn’t know who to trust. Per a Gallup 2022 poll, only 11% of US adults have a "great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in TV news—down from 46% in the early 90s. Why? Well, Amazon Prime is no match for the flywheel of distrust continuing to self perpetuate itself. News, media, politicians, journalists and commentators, and social media platforms have all raced to be the fastest and loudest to eek out short term gains in viewership and revenue, all while hollowing out public trust (and the long term sustainability of their business) as collateral damage.
Meeting this need now: AP News, Reuters, Axios, 1440 Media, the news sections of the Washington Post and WSJ, NBC/CBS/ABC news channels
Job 2: Help me analyze what’s going on in a meaningful way.
During the Trump presidency, the bias-as-a-business model drove polarization, deepened division and accelerated divisiveness. Per a Reuter’s 2022 Digital News Report, 17% of US adults say news “leads to arguments I’d rather avoid”. While we’re a country built to support a marketplace of diverse ideas and conflict, deeply entrenched partisanship is eroding public discourse and solving this crisis will require unity enabling journalism and community spaces to help bridge the divide.
Meeting this need now: Op-ed pages, YouTube / TikTok commentators, primetime “news” shows, late night comedy, Twitter, etc.
Job 3: Help me sort through the noise with ease.
Consumer news exhaustion is driving massive tune out. Per Reuters, 42% of US adults “sometimes or often actively avoid the news” and 29% of this news avoidance is due to being “worn out” by the amount of news. When the “cognitive costs” of navigating information seem too high, people check out—and that’s happening here in increasing orders of magnitude.
Meeting this need now: A plethora of curators and aggregators: practically every traditional publication has a beginning of day / end of day newsletter where they give you the highlights, the Substack app is great, and then of course there’s Apple News / Google News / SmartNews / Flipboard / etc.
Zooming in for our POV on Artifact:
The mass aggregator use case is dying off while the value prop is muddled → Smartphone users spend 41% of their total digital time on news apps but there is an increasing migration away from the aggregation model. Per Digiday, "aggregators that encourage readers to stay within their apps rather than link out have had traffic drop by about 30% year over year.” Ironically, the ever-growing number of news curators and aggregators promising to simplify the news for you is now overwhelming for the users they’re trying to reach.
In a competitive market, Artifact’s differentiation seems trivial → Apple News and Google News (both pre-installed on nearly 100% of global mobile devices), Smartnews (raised $400M and latest valuation at $2B), Flipboard (which touts 100M MAUs, but notably includes email opens in that figure 🤨) and dozens more serve the same general function, each promising personalization via machine learning and introducing new social features around articles, topics and communities.
Deeply entrenched news habits make differentiation even more paramount → The avid news consumer they are targeting already has a routine in place (whether it's turning on CBS in the morning, clicking on Apple News or the NYT app, listening to The Daily on a morning commute, or having all news-focused newsletters filtered into a dedicated folder in their inbox); Artifact would have to be a substantially better experience for the moderate and heavy news consumers they seek to make the switch, and it's just not there yet.
AI can go two ways, fast → As much as TikTok’s algorithmic recommendations have made the platform popular, a 2022 study showed that a new TikTok account set up by a 13-year-old user that views and likes content about body image will be recommended that content every 39 seconds and suicide content within 2.6 minutes. While gatekeeping publishers can help, as content and consumption scales, it's very easy to see how quickly an AI generated news feed can devolve into a more dangerous, polarizing, toxic rabbit hole. Let’s keep in mind that not all content is the same. A picture of a sunset (Instagram’s bread and butter) or a 10-second dance video is qualitatively different from, say, an exposé about war crimes.
Currently fails to address any meaningful "jobs to be done" in news → Perhaps most importantly, in its current state, Artifact fails to address any meaningful “jobs to be done”. The founders have explicitly declared that they will serve as the sole arbiters for who qualifies as "publishers with editorial standards for accuracy”. Better to be transparent about a founder-led editorial bias than not, so this may do the job many others are already doing for a subset of the market but not en masse. When Kevin Systrom says “the future of social networks is far less about people manipulating distribution and far more about, is this content good?”, I can’t disagree, but I don’t see real substance behind Artifact’s efforts to address this. Contrast that with a hidden gem in this space, The Flip Side, a media startup on a mission to bridge the gap between liberals and conservatives. Their founder, Annafi Wahed, addresses this head on in her stated goals: “Content curation, moderation, and community building are fundamentally about social and political sensibilities first, and tech stack second. Our community will be different because our leadership team is different from those that came before us."
Today’s news consumer lives in an era of deep skepticism, immense choice, entrenched partisanship, and an absence of authoritative truth. This product will only improve over time and I applaud anyone who can create great products aimed at solving this existential crisis of confidence in institutions, information and each other, but Artifact is not it. Not today.
What Artifact is today from our perspective, is a beautifully and intuitively designed app. Fans of the founders and mobile UI on Twitter are anointing it a success “💥 best of TikTok + Twitter, nice!” There is outsized coverage and money flooding into news media startups that, in our opinion, show differentiation on the margins like Post, Mastodon, and The Hive as versions of Twitter clones. Artifact through this lens, is set up for success. While the product has been self-funded to date, a Series A announcement by mid-to-late 2023 is likely, with an aim to steal market share in the lead up to the 2024 election.
What Artifact is today from an informed, avid news consumer perspective, can be summarized as follows: "I picked a bunch of different interests [upon app onboarding], and so the "For you" tab (at least for now) is a hodgepodge of serious news and silly news...so, basically it's my Facebook feed but worse because my friends aren't on it."