Who were ‘For You’ pages really designed for?
When a good idea turns toxic
The idea for personalizing the internet is nothing new. As far back as 15 years ago, FriendFeed was helping people curate their own newsfeeds with content from their favorite publishers and social media networks. Today, platforms like TikTok have significantly raised their personalization game, with “For You” pages (FYP) that are so good that they elevate the user experience and drive loads of engagement and activity on the platform.
If only every FYP was so useful.
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On the other end of the spectrum is Chrome’s FYP. Let us give you an example: When Ana logs into Chrome on mobile, her FYP includes recipes and lots of travel stories, which authentically reflect the content she’s recently consumed. But then there are also all the tabloid stories and other low-quality content that are only tangentially (maybe?) related to what she’s searched or interacted with.
Although she can trace why she’s seeing content on particular topics, there’s no way to easily configure which sources are being surfaced on her FYP. Chrome, the world's most widely used browser, could have built a super useful starter page for its legions of users, but instead it appears happy to fill FYPs with garbage content. And while there’s a chance that the publishers behind said garbage content are using Google’s advertising technology to artificially boost their own reach, we as users honestly have no way of knowing why some content is recommended for us. There is absolutely no transparency into these personalization algorithms, which are largely considered trade secrets.
For something that seems so conceptually simple, why can’t FYPs be better? Isn’t this where the troves and troves of first-party data collected by platforms are supposed to shine? Why can’t these pages be configurable, allowing a user to choose which news sources they want – or, perhaps more importantly, those they don’t ever want to see? These platforms are sophisticated, with access to all types of high-quality content, yet many are still operating under a Web 1.0 mindset, where all information is free and equal, but those days are long gone.
Web 3.0 with a Web 1.0 mindset
When we think about how the internet has evolved, we see a few different conceptual eras. Web 1.0 refers to the period when computers were mostly used by early adopters, nerds, and professionals in the West during the heyday of dialup and early days of cable connections, long before smartphones became ubiquitous. Information sources were largely traditional, mainstream mastheads, coupled with news portals such as Yahoo, MSN, and America Online.
The wide availability of smartphones was a key catalyzing event that gave societies always-on web connectivity. The iPhone launched in the US in 2007, followed by the first Android smartphone a year later. By 2010, nearly 300 million smartphones were being sold globally, and we are now in the “billions of devices a year” range. Content was democratized during a honeymoon period when anyone could create and publish it, though the laws of content creation still functioned: Content was still reasonably high quality, and a very small part of the population created most of the content everyone else consumed.
Four or five years later, we began to see the weaponization of content hit critical mass in the West, evidenced by the 2016 US presidential election’s fake news controversies, a general erosion of trust in media, governments, and institutions, and the mobilization of disinformation networks that are rewarded for creating trashy click-bait by platforms that prioritize engagement. The rules changed for content and authorship, but the guardrails weren’t updated in kind.
Today, anyone can create a legitimate looking news source and publish junk that can be monetized by ads and reach a wide audience with varying degrees of media literacy.
Before the internet, media companies had an obligation to their audiences to maintain a certain level of quality and accuracy. While the proliferation of opinion-based content in cable news and print blurred that line, there were never any standards in place for the internet or platforms. It was always no holds barred in the name of freedom of speech.
That created endemic, very toxic patterns on platforms that are also visible on FYPs. In many cases, FYP recommendations — for, say, holiday recipes or the latest dance videos — are innocuous, but on the flipside, you might find radical content. It’s an interesting dichotomy where something harmless turned exploitative as the internet matured and the services or platforms reached scale. It reminds us of Mark Zuckerberg’s naïve vision for Facebook as a force for good in connecting the world. That’s a Web 1.0 view. But now that everyone uses the internet, with varying levels of media literacy, the internet is a different ballgame and a powerful tool for disinformation and propaganda.
Some FYPs, like TikTok’s, seem innocuous and appear to work well, but others are confusing and leave us scratching our heads. It puzzles us how little say consumers actually have in what they see on the platforms they use so much.
It makes us wonder: Who were FYPs really designed for? Who is the actual consumer? They seem to only benefit platforms since most are geared toward juicing engagement metrics.
A new vision for personalization
Why can’t platforms and users both win the FYP game? Wouldn’t platforms still score on engagement if FYP content was better personalized and more useful?
If we could design our own FYPs, here’s what we’d want:
Choice. We would love the ability to choose the content sources we like. Since internet users have varying degrees of media literacy, some analysis of source legitimacy provided by platforms or a third-party ratings council would be helpful. This is far from a trivial problem: There is so much content out there with significant localization and regional nuance to take into account, but it’s not out of pace with technological advances in natural language processing and similar relevant fields.
Transparency. Why do we see some FYP articles that seem to come completely out of left field? It would be helpful to know what triggered content that is being surfaced for us.
Agency. We want to tell platforms that we don’t want to receive certain types of content or that we want more of other types of content. Global settings would be great so that Ana is never shown another Fox News article again.
Do tech behemoths have a responsibility to ensure the veracity of content that’s distributed on their platforms and recommended to their users? We struggle with the right answer. We know that it can be hard to explain the nuance in why one thing is above board and something else isn’t, but the walled-garden approach to letting the algorithm decide what people want isn’t working out either.
What will it take to move the needle?
As we’ve previously written, regulation of the internet has largely been laissez-faire, which has benefitted US platforms handsomely. But we need to stop thinking of the internet as this new frontier without rules or boundaries and recognize that this is now the main communication and information channel for most of the world. If we want to keep it from devolving into an online cesspool, we need to collectively approach it differently to make it a better place.
There are some changes afoot, including the EU’s recently approved Digital Services Act, which targets algorithmic transparency and misinformation, among other goals. It remains to be seen how much of a dent it will make in the content recommendations we receive or what content we can access.
We would really like to see platforms become champions of customer experience and make some of these improvements on their own, but that’s not in their economic interests because of how they monetize content and engagement. Therein lies the rub. We’ve brought up WeChat as an example of what a better UX could look like, with its very limited number of paid ads, and we still believe that Western platforms would benefit from that kind of approach.
Part of this dynamic is generational. WeChat and TikTok are part of a new generation of platforms, whereas Facebook, Twitter, and their ilk hail from an earlier generation of platforms that depend on ads. The old guard platforms have a ways to go to innovate their way out of that business model. The more burning short- and medium-term question is, “Why would they?” It’s another case of misaligned incentives, where a company like Google has little incentive to reinvent itself or revamp its user experience if that will hurt its ad sales, which represent more than 80 percent of revenue for its parent Alphabet. No one wants to shoot the golden goose.
It’s likely easier to build platforms with alternative monetization frameworks from scratch in order to better center and serve users, because it's very hard to unfurl the economic entanglements of ad-supported businesses. Subscription-only models aren’t the answer either, but somewhere in between these two extremes lies a new paradigm for a different kind of platform. It may be time for the next generation of platforms to start appearing on the horizon.
Do you find FYPs helpful or annoying? What’s on your FYP wish list?
Thanks for reading,
Ana, Maja, and the Sparrow team
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Who we are: Sparrow Advisers
We’re a results oriented management consultancy bringing deep operational expertise to solve strategic and tactical objectives of companies in and around the ad tech and mar tech space.
Our unique perspective rooted deeply in AdTech, MarTech, SaaS, media, entertainment, commerce, software, technology, and services allows us to accelerate your business from strategy to day-to-day execution.
Founded in 2015 by Ana and Maja Milicevic, principals & industry veterans who combined their product, strategy, sales, marketing, and company scaling chops and built the type of consultancy they wish existed when they were in operational roles at industry-leading adtech, martech, and software companies. Now a global team, Sparrow Advisers help solve the most pressing commercial challenges and connect all the necessary dots across people, process, and technology to simplify paths to revenue from strategic vision down to execution. We believe that expertise with fast-changing, emerging technologies at the crossroads of media, technology, creativity, innovation, and commerce are a differentiator and that every company should have access to wise Sherpas who’ve solved complex cross-sectional problems before. Contact us here.
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