Yesterday Pocket, the read-it-later app/service that I and countless others use to time-shift our reading and save important items, announced a number of new features.
Chief among those is the introduction of an Explore page that takes the massive amounts of data Pocket has at its disposal and turning it into more reasons to use and engage with the service. There are pre-selected topics at the top of the page as well as the ability to search for more. So if you wanted to find what people had saved to Pocket about, say, movie trailers, you can do so and either click through immediately or save them for later. That’s a great new search and discovery tool.
Recommendations have been a part of Pocket for a while but with this new update those are also coming to the Chrome Extension, which will show related stories when you save a story, and the new tab screen when you’re using Chrome, which likewise can show three curated and recommended stories.
All these updates mean Pocket is actively using the content and data it has on interests and behavior to surface items to new users who otherwise might have missed it. That’s a great service. It also means Pocket is toeing up to the line of being a media company.
That’s a designation companies like Twitter and, recently, Facebook, have pushed back against. The latter in particular wants to be seen as a dumb tech company that’s making decisions on what’s shown to users based on “safe” standards, not editorial considerations. The designation is difficult to see since any weighing of what news to show or suppress is by definition an editorial one. But Facebook doesn’t want to be seen as a media company, primarily because it doesn’t want to be held to the same ethical and public service standards media companies are.
But what Pocket is doing is similar. It’s using data to surface stories that are in line with what it believes will be of interest to readers. That’s only a few degrees away from what a newspaper’s editor would do.
To be clear: Anytime a decision, whether made by an algorithm or human being, the company behind that decision has put itself in the place of a media company, either passively or actively. It’s important to for more of these companies to own up to that reality and start putting new processes and safeguards in place to account for it. There’s a responsibility that comes with that role that’s not being accepted at the moment.
Mostly that “Not us” perspective comes from the fact that these systems and algorithms are designed to show you what you may be “interested” in, not what you should show know to become an active, engaged and informed citizen. But as media consumption becomes more and more narrow and defined by self-selection and availability, there will necessarily have to be a change in that thinking. It’s great that there are so many more choices for people when it comes to how, where and when they receive their news. But society can’t function as it has if people are getting their news from sources that claim no responsibility to actually inform, just entertain and scratch individual itches.
Again, I like what Pocket is doing here. It’s a great step forward and smartly uses the resources and information it has in its archives. But just as much as Facebook and other companies, it will have to one day look at the role it plays in the overall media landscape.