Algorithmic curation

When I got my first smartphone (a Samsung Galaxy Note 2) in 2013, one of the first apps I installed on it was Flipboard. I’d seen the app while checking out some phones at either the Apple or Samsung retail outlets close to my home, and it seemed like a rather interesting idea.

For a long time, Flipboard was my go-to app to check the day’s news, as it conveniently categorised news into “tech”, “business” and “sport” and learnt about my preferences and fed me stuff I wanted. And then after some update, it suddenly stopped working – somehow it started serving too much stuff I didn’t want to read about, and when I tuned (by “following” and “unfollowing” topics) my feed, it progressively got worse.

I stopped using it some 2 years back, but out of curiosity started using it again recently. While it did throw up some nice articles, there is too much unwanted stuff in the app. More precisely, there’s a lot of “clickbaity” stuff (“10 things about Narendra Modi you would never want to know” and the like) in my feed, meaning I have to wade through a lot of such articles to find the occasional good ones.

(Aside: I dedicate about half a chapter to this phenomenon in my book. The technical term is “congestion”. I talk about it in the context of markets in relationships and real estate)

Flipboard is not the only one. I use this app called Pocket to bookmark long articles and read later. A couple of years back, Pocket started giving “recommendations” based on what I’d read and liked. Initially it was good, and mostly curated from what my “friends” on Pocket recommended. Now, increasingly I’m getting clickbaity stuff again.

I stopped using Facebook a long time before they recently redesigned their newsfeed (to give more weight to friends’ stuff than third party news), but I suspect that one of the reasons they made the change was the same – the feed was getting overwhelmed with clickbaity stuff, which people liked but didn’t really read.

Basically, there seems to be a widespread problem in a lot of automatically curated news feeds. To put it another way, the clickbaity websites seem to have done too well in terms of gaming whatever algorithms the likes of Facebook, Flipboard and Pocket use to build their automated recommendations.

And more worryingly, with all these curators starting to do badly around the same time (ok this is my empirical observation. Given few data points I might be wrong), it suggests that all automated curation algorithms use a very similar algorithm! And that can’t be a good thing.

The Economist and the Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia effect

I’ve been a subscriber to the Economist for the last couple of years and quite enjoy reading that newspaper. There are weeks when I don’t manage to go through the week’s edition, but there are certain weeks when it forms a large part of my reading. I quite like the paper, and I subscribe to the daily “Espresso” issue on my mobile phone.

I have only one problem – a lot of their writing about India is biased, and filled with Sominisms. I mean their business pieces are pretty good, like this profile of Welspun. But their political coverage is generally biased by their correspondents’ dislike for Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and hence not particularly objective.

I had recently carried a copy of the newspaper to read on my way to a quiz, where I met Baada. Baada was surprised that I read the newspaper, since it was so obviously biased in its coverage of Indian politics. “I agree that India coverage is biased”, I said, “but its worldwide coverage is really good. Hence I read it”.

Recently I came across the “Murray Gell-mann Amnesia effect“. It is named after the physicist, and claims that you will trust the rest of a newspaper even though you know that its coverage of your domain is shit. And thinking about it, I’m wondering if I should continue trusting The Economist.

Currently, I believe that the Economist’s coverage of Indian politics is shit, but I continue to read the newspaper for its other coverage. But what if everyone believes that the Economist’s coverage of their domain is inadequate? If that is the case, does it still make it a good paper? Should I use the fact of┬áthe Economist’s coverage of Indian business being better as a mitigating factor?

The problem is that there is no other paper that gives a nice concise view of what is happening in the world (FT is too voluminous given its frequency), and that makes the Economist good. But if their coverage is biased by their correspondents’ views in every country, it is not that trustworthy any more.

The only option I can think of is to continue reading the newspaper, but to “add salt to taste”. Every time I read a political story set in some country, I should keep in mind that the correspondent might be biased, and adjust my views accordingly. That way, I can consume the paper’s curation and analysis while not getting influenced by its inherent biases.