How Personalisation Can Burst the Filter Bubble

When it comes to news, we’ve always had choice. Whether you read a broadsheet or a tabloid, listened to the radio, watched local or national or international news, you selected an experience.

But the rise of social networks ushered in something new. We set up RSS feeds, checked in on sub-Reddits, followed accounts on Twitter and liked pages on Facebook. As we created feeds that were supposed to reflect our choices, the experience of news became much more personal.

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But lately many of us have come to realise something: social news feeds no longer reflect our identity. News is deeply personal but so many of the critical choices made on social are done without our knowledge or involvement.

There is a growing movement of consciousness. Of Facebook users, four out of 10 have taken a break from the platform in the past year, according to the Pew Research Centre. We have more understanding of how shallow metrics and advertising impact algorithms designed, not to educate or help us, but to keep us locked in. Mindlessly scrolling.

So where do we go from here?

People are moving from the distraction and noise of social feeds to focused engagement with people they trust. A rising generation want a news experience that is uniquely tailored to their lives, and fits in with the other apps they have for mindfulness, sleep, diet and exercise.

So the era of personal news is here and it’s here to stay. And people are not going to sit around waiting for platforms to fix their problems. This moment will be defined by personal control — over data, privacy, and the hidden choices about how news is curated and delivered. We need a solution that marries the best of old-school journalism values with the positive potential for technology in the age of machine learning.

At this unique moment, we’ve just launched the Kinzen iOS mobile app (with Android to come later this year). It’s a personalised news app that gives you control of a daily routine that sharpens your focus and broadens your mind. We want to connect you with the right story at the right moment in your busy day.

Filter bubbles and echo chambers

We call it personalisation with a purpose, but there’s a concern raised frequently as people test the app. As one tester asked: “How am I challenged to think differently? If I choose sources and topics am I not still within my chamber?”

People are right to be sceptical. The common feature of other aggregators is that they mainly reward a small group of top publishers. There is little diversity on display.

Social networks recommend what your friends and family are reading — but is there much value in that? And what if they’re in the same filter bubble anyway?

Experiments which force people to look at radars of how liberal or conservative their reading habits are will not help. Pushing users to turn an imaginary dial back toward the centre achieves little for the enquiring mind. A recent study showed that neutral fact checking didn’t change people’s minds. Confirmation bias is strong in the human race.

What if we were to start again? Let’s remove the economic incentives of the social platforms and go from there. We’re experimenting with a new approach. We do not have an advertising-driven business model, so algorithms will not be programmed to reward and inflame your biases.

Once you create a routine that fits with the rhythm of your day, then we want to engineer serendipity. We have collected over 3,000 sources (so far) into the app. This was built by me in partnership with thousands of First Members, so the list of sources is diverse to begin. It will continue to grow.

We are about to introduce an “Editor’s Choice” feature, whereby small, independent, local, or niche publications can rise to prominence and compete with the bigger publishers. We are also considerate of sources who publish less and focus more on quality. This feature can be turned on or off by the user, who remains in control.

In thinking about a quality news experience and making the decisions around Editor’s Choice, I’ll be guided by principles previously outlined on our blog.

Serendipity is core to the Discover screen, where other people have curated unique channels that will challenge or surprise. These channels range in their subjects from breastfeeding to animation, baking to the new American south, rock climbing to video games, to name but a few.

Another new feature we are about to introduce on the Discover page is Emerging Topics. These topics and stories are not based on social popularity but the prevalence of storylines across the spectrum of sources in the app, regardless of your own choices:

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Crowdsourced recommendation engine

Kinzen does not track your browser history to keep you addicted to the same sources and opinions. We don’t rank news and information on the basis of what your social network is thinking. We offer an empowering personal news routine based on the best intentions of members rather than empty clicks, likes or hearts. To that end, we are asking you to leave feedback at the story level, like this:

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We are looking for a more considered response to news than the emotion-fueled metrics of social. This purposeful feedback helps us improve the quality of the news and information for the wider Kinzen community. The individual gets to become the positive change they always wanted to see in their social newsfeed.

Essentially we are crowdsourcing a recommendation engine based on conscious feedback rather than unconscious bias. In time, we want to promote stories you’d never have considered from sources you’ve never read that are valued highly by the most engaged group of news seekers on the planet. This will be the opposite of YouTube’s rabbit hole.

Over to you

And so we ask you to challenge yourself.

Now you have ultimate control over your news feed, what will you do? When presented with sources not to your liking, will you block them? Will you burst your filter bubble?

Ultimately the power is now in your hands.

Download the app here. Your welcome email will include instructions on how to join the curator forum. Read more about us here.