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Flipboard’s new system for identifying your interests isn’t AI: It’s you

The magazine-style aggregation app always wanted to steer clear of the ugly side of virality. Now it’s even easier to customize it to your passions.

Flipboard’s new system for identifying your interests isn’t AI: It’s you
[Source photo: Artem Beliaikin/Unsplash]
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If you’re trying to wean yourself off the stressful habit known as doomscrolling—endlessly, helplessly gorging on bad news and general ugliness in a feed-based app such as Twitter—Flipboard has always been a welcome respite. It’s not that the magazine-like news aggregation app is trying to shield its users from harsh reality: As I’m writing this, for example, it’s an excellent place to find coverage of the devastation that Hurricane Ida is wreaking.

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But the nature of Flipboard’s topic-based organization means that it’s unlikely that other subjects will intrude uninvited, as they tend to do on social networks. On Flipboard, it would be possible to have a pretty rich content-consumption experience that was entirely about bicycling, or desserts, classical music or countless other matters that are rarely doom-inducing. Or you could mix several such interests with hard news; it’s up to you.

And now Flipboard is trying to make it even easier for its users to get precisely what they want out of the app, with a new feature that lets them quickly specify the subjects they care most about from among its 30,000-plus topics. “Whether it’s their work or their life or their play, there’s a need to provide fine-tuned control over the content that [users get] about that passion or that interest that they have and not have it just be all this algorithmic stuff,” says Flipboard cofounder and CEO Mike McCue.

[Animation: courtesy of Flipboard]
Rather than being anti-algorithm, Flipboard uses AI to classify the articles and videos it’s aggregating and weave them into its main “For You” feed as well as feeds for specific subjects. But it’s always tried to tamp down on the doom, extreme rhetoric, and outright misinformation that social network algorithms can tend to promote. When such elements creep in, the idea is that they should languish rather than going viral: “Flipboard has made the decision that we will not in our algorithms magnify domains that we haven’t already vetted and verified,” says McCue. “And just that one decision alone provides for a fundamentally better user experience.”

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With the new feature, what Flipboard aims to magnify are topics that a reader has explicitly asked for. A new settings icon in For You leads to a list of all the topics you’re following, plus others you might want to add. Except for local news topics, the suggestions are broad, general-interest items rather than items directly tied to what Flipboard already knows about you: I saw everything from #The Brain to #Tiny Houses, #Basketball and #Cats. But you can choose any that look intriguing with a few taps, rather than having to seek them out by searching as you would have needed to do in the past.

The list also shows the topics that currently make up your For You feed and lets you delete any you’d rather not be part of the mix. That reality check might lead users to tweak their feed based on epiphanies such as,  “wait a second, I’m not into politics right now like I was like during the election,” says Flipboard head of product Troy Brant.

These new features complement another recent Flipboard addition: Feeds for specific topics also have a new settings option that suggests subtopics and adjacent topics you might want to follow. For #Outdoors, for example, I saw 13 suggestions, including #Camping, #Mountaineering, and #Adventure Travel. (For the most popular topics, these suggestions are hand-crafted by Flipboard editors; for others, they’re chosen algorithmically.)

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[Animation: courtesy of Flipboard]
By customizing their Flipboard topics, users may give the company a more expansive, granular profile of their interests. Will the company use that new knowledge to target the ads that appear in the app? Yes, says McCue—but not in a creepy way that feels like it’s spying on you and then springing targeted ads out of context. Instead, Flipboard thinks that ads are most powerful if they’re related to the content they’re near. “You’ll see more ads in #Photography that are specifically about photography,” he explains. “And if you selected Leica, and there’s an ad that’s related to Leica, you’ll see that.”

McCue adds that Flipboard plans to expand upon its new fine-tuning options in the months to come. Among the possibilities: suggesting curators and magazines as well as topics, and giving people a way to tell the app what they want to see less often (violence, for instance) or more frequently (say, long-form articles). Even if some of these features appeal only to power users, they’ll serve Flipboard’s overarching desire to steer clear of algorithmic mystery. “What it gives you is a sense of, it’s not a black box anymore,” says McCue. “You can control these feeds and how this content is getting to you.”

About the author

Harry McCracken is the technology editor for Fast Company, based in San Francisco. In past lives, he was editor at large for Time magazine, founder and editor of Technologizer, and editor of PC World.

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