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3 ways we’ve been looking at working with algorithms at The Guardian

April 10, 2017 | By Martin Belam, Social & New Formats Editor—The Guardian @MartinBelam

Publishing into algorithms

There are two sets of people you’ll find constantly moaning about the implementation of algorithms on services like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter—which focus on showing users the best stuff. Power-users, who visit so frequently that the algorithmic approach really doesn’t work for them, and social media managers, frustrated that they can’t get their content to all of their followers instantly.

I’m more relaxed about it. If we had our way, every single piece of content pumped out by our news organizations would be hogging the user’s news feed on Facebook. But think about it for a second: If they want to see what our news organization is doing, they’d come to us. They’ve come to Facebook or Instagram or Twitter to see what their friends (or possibly with Twitter, their enemies) are doing.

And we have to work out how to fit into their lives at that moment. So it has got to be the earth-shatteringly good pieces. It must be things that will surprise and delight and invoke emotion, not just the mundane routine of pushing out articles because we have a quota of space on the internet we feel we need to fill up every day.

I look at the Facebook algorithm as being a whole series of A/B tests for your content. Facebook shows it to a few people, if they interact with it, more people will see it, and so the best things you do will snowball and travel far. In many ways in an algoritmic internet, pieces get the audience they deserve.

Now let’s flip it in its head for a second. It always slightly reassures me that, thanks to algorithmic social feeds, if we publish stuff that is boring and un-engaging, fewer people see it. So people get an overall better impression of your brand, because they only see the good stuff. Now do you hate algorithmic feeds?

Working with chatbots

Over the course of a now pretty lengthy career looking at how the web and news publishing interact, I’ve worked on some things that became very huge. This includes Facebook, Twitter, getting content indexed and ranked by search engines. I’ve also worked on some things that very much fell by the wayside — Google Wave, or desktop widgets anybody?

At the moment, I suspect that chatbots are much more likely to fall into the latter category. I’m unconvinced people are going to tap out messages asking what’s happening rather than go to a news site or a news aggregating app.

However, with the rise of devices like Alexa or Google Home, we are really beginning to see many more examples of ‘conversational UI’, and that interests me. I don’t think it is too far-fetched to think that in a couple of years time my kids will just be yelling at the telly ‘Put on Scooby Doo’ and it will play it out on demand. And that I’ll be able to walk in the room, call out ‘What’s the news?’ at some (or maybe several) devices, and they’ll know the last time I checked, and update me accordingly.

In that context, what does the news published by an organization like the Guardian even look like? I suspect it isn’t 800 word articles, and our Facebook Messenger chatbot and our Alexa Skill have given us an opportunity to explore that possibility.

Three things I have learned:

  1. It is very hard to get people to discover that you have a chatbot.
  2. It is very hard to quickly convey to people what they are expected to do with a bot, and what commands are available to them.
  3. People really do chat to bots as if they are living sentient beings, and the technology at the moment is really nowhere near ready to cope with that.

Working with robot colleagues

The blurb description for a panel I participated in on collaborating with algorithms at the International Journalism Festival session stated that “Some journalists approach algorithmic assistance the way one might consider hopping into a self-driving car: some are delighted, some are wary.” I’ve certainly seen the looks in the news room when we are publishing stories about how robots are going to take all our jobs that have a definite expression of “and mine too?” about them.

Unsurprisingly, given the future-facing aspect of my role at the Guardian, I am perhaps more enthusiastic about the prospect than some others in the building. I’m not, at the moment, concerned that an AI is going to be adept enough to start writing 800 word opinion pieces with my authentic voice. My colleague Alex Hern has experimented in that area for one of our hack days, and the results didn’t look that promising. And while I would for sure read some of the articles that Clickbait Robot suggests, at the moment it is only generating headlines, not the actual stories.

But I think computers absolutely have a role to play now in helping us to write the first drafts in several areas. Imagine a bot that automatically ingests stock market movements, or sports data, or the latest YouGov opinion polls. A computer can instantly see “This is the biggest shift away from supporting Labour among the over-65s for a decade” or “Sunderland are on their longest run of not scoring since a similar spell in 1956” or “While the FTSE on the whole remained high, stocks in the mining sector collectively fell by 12% yesterday”.

Those may not be stories in themselves, but they might be the inspiration required jog to a journalist to phone up a source in the mining sector to get the lowdown on what is happening, or to try and see if anybody from that 1956 squad is still alive and available to interview, or give them a unique angle on a story that everybody else will be reporting in a broadly similar way. And sure, someone who knows their beat very well might be able to just look at those figures and instantly have all the relevant comparative data at her fingertips. But for most journalists, I reckon a robot saving them time and chucking out potential story ideas and angles would soon become a very useful little friend.

So what I’m interested in, is not whether algorithms can write my articles, but whether a combination of 70% algorithm grunt-work and 30% human inspiration, can produce stories that people are more engaged with and more likely to want to read.

Want to learn more? Watch Martin discuss this topic further at the April 2017 International Journalism Festival 


Martin Belam is a designer, journalist, and Social & New Formats Editor at the Guardian. Martin has spent nearly twenty years building digital products for the likes of the BBC, Daily Mirror and Sony.

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