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Personalized Discovery

When asked what we’re trying to build at SmartNews, I sometimes explain it with a department store metaphor. When algorithms are applied to online shopping, they are optimized to show you exactly what you are looking for. Amazon and Netflix are famous for perfecting the “others-that-bought-what-you-bought-also-bought-this” algorithm to great effect.

If you’re looking for a red sweater, they will show you the best red sweater. But that only works if you’re looking for a red sweater.

What if you are just browsing around? What if you are wandering around, looking for inspiration, not sure what exactly you want? Japan has a some of the world’s best department stores. They are wonderful at curating interesting things from around the world and introducing them to the sophisticated urban consumer. They have a long tradition of doing this.

Marvis toothpaste from Italy comes in Aquatic Mint, Cinnamon Mint, Classic Mint, Ginger Mint, Jasmine Mint, and Amarelli Licorice

Ginza has a new department store called Ginza Six that opened a couple years ago. Besides these wonderfully packaged $20 tubes of toothpaste from Italy (above) you can also check out the completely impractical spiked boots (below). It’s a curious browser’s delight.

Totally impractical but cool, nonetheless

What I’m getting at is that SmartNews is trying to re-create the Japanese Department Store experience online with news. I keep talking about “hidden gems” and this is what I mean. You never know what you’re going to find but we’ll do our best to make an algorithm which is optimized for finding something serendipitously, interesting.

Anyway, more on this in this interview with my boss, Rich Jaroslovsky, below as he describes the concept of “personalized discovery.”

The key is personalized discovery. Of course that also means sometimes users will see stories they don’t like. I’m generalizing, but a conservative might see a Mother Jones story, or a liberal might see something from Fox News.

That’s probably the biggest complaint we get: That the stories are all “left wing,” or “right wing.”  But when we look at studies about user engagement in news apps, our audience is far more engaged than that of any other news app.

My argument is that those are two sides of the same coin. As a 40-year journalist, when all you see is stuff you already know or already think you’re interested in… news gets boring. There’s no serendipity. You don’t get to learn anything new. You don’t get to discover.

That’s the textbook definition of a filter bubble.

Our goal is to puncture filter bubbles.

Tired of Filter Bubbles? This Free News App Can Help You Find Stories You Just Might Love
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SmartNews & Breaker

As a commuter, I have two blocks of time going to and from the office when I am not able to read. During these times, I listen to podcasts as a way to get a deeper perspective on the news of the day or learn something new.

Most podcast apps ask you to subscribe or follow podcasts you like and push new episodes to you each time you open the app. As you add new shows to your “feed” you inevitably get overwhelmed with a backlog of unlistened episodes which discourages you from finding new episodes.

SmartNews adds podcasts from Breaker

Breaker was the first app I found that solved this problem by adding a social network to the platform. Breaker pays attention to their users’ behavior of listening, liking, and commenting to determine how to rank the best episodes. Instead of subscribing to shows, you listen to episodes. The selection is more granular and has more variety. As with other social networks, because you get a daily feed which you graze through, the pressure to clear your queue is removed.

I believe podcasts are an important component of the media diet of anyone that is interested in current events. The intimacy of hearing a primary source tell their story is unique to audio and I have been eager to find a way to add podcasts in a meaningful way to the SmartNews app. My initial attempt was to leverage SmartNews’ algorithm to locate and feature podcasts in a single channel but the results were never quite right.

  • The SmartNews algorithm is optimized for text so the selection and ranking of stories didn’t work well.
  • Sometimes the audio would stop when you put the app into the background or your phone went into standby mode.
  • Each episode’s page featured a play button in a different location on the page so the user had to hunt around to find it.

The Breaker app solved all these problems and I was eager to find a way to introduce elements of what Breaker had to offer to SmartNews users.

The Podcast channel on SmartNews

I met with Erik Berlin, co-founder of Breaker, and we talked about how SmartNews might be able to integrate Breaker’s social ranking of stories to create a channel that would feature the best episodes to SmartNews users in a way they could sample what they had to offer easily, within the SmartNews app.

The Breaker team worked on a feed of popular stories on their network that we could integrate into SmartNews. They built an episode page with a built in player that continued to play in the background and featured a prominent play button that was placed in a consistent location for quick and easy access. The idea was to give SmartNews iOS and Android users a place to go to discover the best audio stories of the day to introduce them to this new aspect of story-telling.

I hope you enjoy the new Podcast channel on SmartNews (if you’re on mobile and don’t have SmartNews, you can download it here). If you find yourself embracing podcasts as I do, download the Breaker app to unlock extra features where you can share and discuss your favorite episodes on their social network.

Oh, and if you’re curious about what I’m listening to and enjoy, follow me on Breaker at @iankennedy

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Citizen WTF?

The Citizen app is available in NYC and the SF Bay Area. The app is designed to alert you when crime happens nearby with location-based push notifications. But, because the platform is crowdsourced, it exposes all the idiosyncratic definitions of “crime” that you would expect from its voyeuristic users.

Here are some of my favorites. If you have a good one, send it my way and I’ll add it.

We used to have Florida Man stories. Now we have Citizen.

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Jordan Peele warns of Fake News

Don’t believe everything you see online. Good on Jordan Peele for making this PSA which uses some readily available software literally put words in Obama’s mouth. You can read more about it on Buzzfeed.

We’re about to enter into an intense period of “he said/she said” with the Cohen trial and Comey’s book tour that is going to put a premium on verified evidence and face-to-face interactions.

Who do you trust when everything can be fake? News brands built up their reputation on continually telling the truth, as best as they could. Photography, television, and the internet helped chip away at that dependency as people were able to view the raw materials on their own and make their own judgement. As the sophistication of counterfeiting technology improves such as in the example above, the value of a trusted source that can verify and corroborate videos such as the one above will increase.

I’m calling it here. We’ll be hearing more about technically-savvy forensic journalists in the very near-future.

Related: How To Spot A Deepfake Like The Barack Obama–Jordan Peele Video

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Wendy’s vs. McDonalds

The @wendys twitter account is having all sorts of fun making fun of McDonalds frozen beef.

Tomorrow is International Womens Day and they may have had the last laugh.

Your turn Wendy’s.

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My Web 2.0 Laptop

When I worked at Yahoo it was at the height of a cultural trend called Web 2.0. The fashion was to put stickers of various startups all over the front of your laptop so people could see how hip you were. I was running into many interesting people so I took a different approach and asked them to sign my laptop with a sharpie instead.

When the laptop started to give out, before handing it back Yahoo IT and took a snapshot for posterity.

Here are some of the names. Click on the photo above to go to the Flickr page that has them tagged.

Rafat Ali
Stowe Boyd
Nick Denton
Caterina Fake
David Filo
David Jacobs
Bradley Horowitz
Guy Kawasaki
Ross Mayfield
Richard MacManus
Dave McClure
Matt Mullenweg
Ray Ozzie
Greg Reinacker
Doc Searls
Deborah Schultz
Kathy Sierra
Bruce Sterling
Chris Tolles
David Weinberger
Dave Winer
Niklas Zennström

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SmartNews CM with Riho Yoshioka

Television markets in Japan are much more centralized than in the United States. Therefore it’s pretty efficient to allocate marketing dollars to old school TV ads (in Japan they are called “CM” as in “commercials”) to give brand lift to online marketing.

This month SmartNews dropped a set of short TV spots featuring Riho Yoshioka, and up-and-coming actress in Japan.

1 minute of news in the morning can change your life is a rough translation of the “catch phrase” of the campaign and each clip follows Riho’s character through her day.

– getting up in the morning and checking the “newspapers” before going to work
– making productive use of her morning commute
– reading our new curated International section to practice her English
– reading the news while putting on her makeup to make her evening conversations more interesting
– checking the news in the afternoon because it’s always morning somewhere in the world – right?

Hope you like it! I’m not sure how often it’s running but would love to hear if you see them on TV in Japan.

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Work for SmartNews!

We’re looking for a few engineers for our downtown San Francisco office. Primarily back-end with a strong background in backend development technologies.  The bullet points on the job posting say:

  • Coding experience in Java, Kotlin, or Scala
  • Experience operating and maintaining a JVM-based application
  • Experience developing on top of a web framework (e.g. Spring Boot, Ruby on Rails, etc.)
  • Working knowledge of HTML5, CSS3, and JavaScript
  • Experience with AWS
  • Experience developing and operating a high-traffic web service
  • Good understanding of JVM internals

That’s the baseline. There’s a coding test to suss out the knowledge and skills you’ll need to be an engineer at SmartNews. You will have a burning desire to change how we keep up with what’s going on in our world and how news is distributed from those who publish it.  That means you are original and creative – we don’t want to be just another socially-powered aggregator of feeds.

SmartNews SF office (the earth guy is our mascot Chikyu, he has a blog)

We do things differently. See that photo of our modern-looking lobby above? The wooden slats are bed frames from Ikea. The beautiful slab of redwood is repurposed from a fallen log harvested by my neighbor. We look for inspiration everywhere. We use familiar tools and materials in different ways to make something new, orthogonal.

People like to visit our office to learn about startups

Because SmartNews is not writing or producing news, we rely on our publishing partners to send us the most important stories every day. To do this, we built a product and business that brings new readers and revenue for our partners. We want those that publish great journalism to get exposure and succeed. Our goals are aligned with our partners.

If you have a passion for the future of news, live to scale and optimize infrastructures, and wouldn’t mind working with a international (Japan, Iceland, Iran, Argentina, and China) team of engineers (and occasionally visit the SmartNews HQ in Tokyo), drop me a line and send me your CV.

Our Harajuku Headquarters (it’s very swank)

For more, about SmartNews check out:

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SmartNews TV commercials featuring Tamori

SmartNews (where I work) is running a series of TV commercials in Japan featuring Japanese celebrity, Tamori. The tagline for the campaign is “禁断のニュースアプリ” which roughly translates as “The forbidden news application” as in it’s so addicting that you binge use it when you’ve got time alone.

News Junkie are you? Check out the US Edition.

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SmartNews shoutout on Google Play

The crew running @googleplay account gave SmartNews a nice shoutout this morning. Thanks Google!

The cool animated GIF and tagline was all them. Love it! Posting here for posterity.