Thursday 19 September 2019

It's personal: Little aiming to revamp news delivery with AI

Former RTÉ, Storyful and Twitter boss Mark Little tells Adrian Weckler that he hopes to add a 'conscious' layer to media feeds

Mark Little says the key lesson he learned from Storyful is to know the user. Photo: Damien Eagers
Mark Little says the key lesson he learned from Storyful is to know the user. Photo: Damien Eagers

Mark Little seems addicted to fixing the media. As a TV journalist and anchorman, he tried to fine-tune mass market accessibility.

His first startup, Storyful, sought to make sense out of social media sources, bringing credibility to remote news reports.

Then he became briefly institutionalised, taking a job as top boss in Twitter's Ireland operation. But being a cog in an online giant still wrestling with its future didn't seem ideal, so he left after six months.

Now he's back with a startup called Neva Labs to try and fix the media again.

Together with ex-Storyful colleague (and former Irish Independent journalist) Áine Kerr, Little wants to create a new intelligent media layer that doesn't waste people's time.

The service they're building is one he'd want to use himself, he says. So what exactly is it?

Adrian Weckler (AW): Is this a paywalled news service?

Mark Little (ML): It might be. Certainly the flat paywall right now is not working. And we're seeing the end of the ad-funded model for new. We hope we can get you a better return for your attention. That might include subscription content.

AW: What's the main idea behind it?

ML: It's to use artificial intelligence to give you conscious control over the algorithms that currently control your news attention.

It's a type of personal assistant that you can plug into any range of options, whether it's to pay for premium content or to get your news through Amazon's Alexa voice assistant. We want to create a middle service that you have conscious control over.

AW: Isn't personalisation what the Facebooks and Googles of this world spend a fortune doing?

ML: I think those big platforms have done personalisation well, but we shouldn't just trust the big tech giants. In an ad-funded world with free content, they want you to be distracted all the time, they don't just want you to have a small taste. And most people have no idea how the big platforms use their algorithms.

I want people to have more conscious control. We think we can get you a better return on your attention. I do hope that includes some subscription content. But it's not an alternative platform or payments system.

AW: Who, ultimately, is your market?

ML: We're looking for people who we'd call news seekers, those who need some form of news and information. Maybe it's related to their transport or their work during the day, or a favourite TV show or football team. It's based on the idea that we have multiple identities during the day. But it's also back to this idea of conscious control.

There's a correction coming in the information economy because of things of like adblocking, privacy settings and other filters. We see this very strongly in younger people - many of the same people who subscribe to services like Netflix and Spotify.

AW: And Patreon, the monthly content subscription service for small publishers?

ML: Yes, very much like Patreon. And Blendle [Dutch pay-per-article news aggregation service]. There's a lot to be inspired by, like what Tony Haile is doing with Scroll. [Scroll wants to charge $5 per month to give users access to bundled content from media organisations such as the New York Times.] There's a whole new set of startups forming a trust economy, letting people pay for things in a way that suits their lives.

AW: So you're envisaging a subscription-based service?

ML: We will obviously be charging in some way for this service, maybe through a mobile app or other ways with publishers. There are interesting new payment systems emerging for bundles of content. But we also see huge opportunities for business-to-business partnerships too. We may help certain partners to serve their own users better, so maybe that's B to B to C [business to business to customer].

AW: Is this being done from a bedroom or an office?

ML: We have an office in Dawson Street now, with a team of four people and Paul Watson [former Storyful chief technology officer] who's working remotely from Cape Town.

AW: Are you talking to investors yet?

ML: We're self-financed, meaning we essentially have the control over the key decisions. But we're already talking to investors about funding the launch strategy.

I'd rather do it now than pivoting later. The thing we learned from Storyful is to know exactly the problem you're trying to solve. Know the user.

AW: You're talking a lot here about artificial intelligence. Are you creating a more technical company here?

ML: No, we're not looking for a magical new discovery on that score. A lot of stuff at the moment is open source, so we'll be doing a deep dive into the best forms of artificial intelligence over the next six to eight months.

AW: When it's up and running, what might a day using your new service look like?

ML: I would love my new service to know not to send me videos when I'm getting in the car, that my journey to work takes 25 minutes and that I want to hear audio during that time. I'd also like it to know that I check about my favourite TV show at around 11 o'clock and to know that I collect my kids from school.

If I'm taking a trip to another country next week, I'd like it to give my information I'd find useful, such as whether there are any storms predicted. But I'd also like it to protect me against misinformation. I want it to have my back, to be like a friend, to know me. That also means breaking me out of my filter bubble, like a friend who says 'you may not like it, but you should read this particular piece'. I'd like it surprise me and challenge me.

I'm betting that there are enough people who want that sort of diverse, intelligence service.

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