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Instagram’s co-founders introduce a new social app…for news reading

Can lightning strike twice? That’s apparently the question being raised today with the public introduction of the next social app built by Instagram’s co-founders, Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger. The duo have launched a new venture to explore social apps, according to a report published in The Verge, which includes the debut product Artifact, a personalized news reader.

The app itself is not yet publicly available but offers a waitlist where interested users can sign up. As described, it sounds like a modern-day twist on Google Reader, a long-ago RSS newsreader app that Google shut down back in 2013. Except in this case, Artifact is described as a newsreader that uses machine learning to personalize the experience for the end user, while also adding social elements that allow users to discuss articles they come across with friends. (To be fair, Google Reader had a similar feature, but the app itself had to be programmed by the user who would add RSS feeds directly.)

Artifact will first present a curated selection of news stories, The Verge’s article notes, but these will become more attuned to the user’s interests over time. Some of the articles will come from big-name publishers, like The New York Times, while others may be from smaller sites. Other key features will include comment controls, separate feeds for articles posted by people you follow alongside their commentary and a direct message inbox for discussing posts more privately.

The concept seems as if it has some overlap with one of Twitter’s bigger use cases around discussing news. It also arrives at a time when Twitter users are considering new options after the app’s acquisition by Elon Musk, who has chaotically made numerous and often controversial changes to the app’s roadmap and policies, alienating some longtime users in the process.

But as described, Artifact doesn’t sound completely original — not only does it seem like a modern twist on a Google Reader-type experience, it would go up against various other news reading apps, both new and older, which include personalization elements, like Flipboard, SmartNews and Newsbreak. It also sounds similar to Pocket and its newer competitor Matter, which offers a combination of news reading, curated recommendations and comments. Even Substack has now capitalized on Twitter’s destabilization, launching a way for its readers and writers to chat in-app. Overseas, the model has seen success with ByteDance’s Toutiao, but a U.S. version would be difficult to produce.

And of course, the new app would compete in many ways with the social giant Meta, too, which Instgram’s co-founders left back in 2018. Facebook and to a lesser extent, Instagram and WhatsApp, today serve as portals where billions interact and engage with news and information, amid their updates from friends, family, groups, and businesses they follow.

That means no matter how polished or differentiated Artifact may become, it could still face a host of competition in the market, where consumers also already have built-in news apps available with Apple News and Google News.

According to The Verge’s report, the duo believes the recent leaps made in machine-learning technology could help give Artifact an edge, however, similar to how algorithmic recommendations have played a role in elevating TikTok to become a dominant app.

But while TikTok’s personalized For You feed is arguably addictive, the video app’s growth was seeded by record-breaking marketing spend on its user acquisition efforts — even reaching $1 billion per year in 2018, The WSJ had reported. A startup, even from remarkable founders, may not have the same amount of fuel to throw on the fire. And news reading in and of itself seems to be a bit of a passé market to chase in an era when younger Gen Z users are often now turning to entertainment apps like TikTok to stay informed on news and world events, too.

It’s wading into a polarized news ecosystem, too, with the founders promising to make the  “subjective” and “hard” calls over the content on its network.

That said, it’s difficult to count out the success of those who built Instagram, which, at a billion dollars, was one of the largest social tech acquisitions of its time and has shaped the way the world engages with social media, for better or for worse.

As an early-stage product, Artifact is still being developed and is not yet monetized, but a revenue share with publishers was mentioned as a possible option. (Where have we heard that one before?)

The app’s individual success may or may not ultimately matter, though, given the founders intend on testing other new social products through their new venture, it seems.

Currently, Artifact’s website is taking sign-ups from those who have U.S. (+1) phone numbers.

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