Refinding relevance on the web

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An interview with the founder of discovery platform Refind

Content overload is taking its toll on users across the web. We asked Dominik Grolimund, CEO of Refind, about how building better content platforms can make it easier for people to find quality content without increasing background noise. On today’s menu: automated content curation, bursting the filter bubble, and the value behind community-driven projects.

Mental Junk Food

The diagnosis is in, and it's not looking good for web users. It turns out that binging on information might not be all that good for you when the system that delivers it is broken. Ev Williams warned us about the dissatisfaction created by Twitter and Facebook churning out mental junk food, arguing that users would seek an alternative, more nourishing diet. Twitter’s stalling growth and the recent criticism stacking up against the Google/Facebook duopoly might be proving him right, and it's making us wonder: are users on a digital cleanse?

Dominik Grolimund, founder of Refind, was certainly looking for an alternative. “I don’t read any news on the internet, but I still need it in a way to see what the most important thing was that I shouldn't miss. So I was very frustrated with the very bad signal-to-noise ratio on all platforms and I couldn't keep up, so my solution was to not read at all.” Burying our heads in the sand isn't a long-term solution: we still need to know what's happening around us. The issue is discovering content worth reading without having to dig into the internet's answer to a pile of greasy fries first.

Enter content curation, a ‘less is more’ approach that cuts through the noise to quality content. One example is the briefings you receive from platforms like Medium, which ensure that you don't get stuck in an infinite scroll of content people clapped for. Another is romance seekers taking a break from Tinder to look for a soulmate on Coffee Meets Bagel, where a limited number of profiles are selected for you based on more relevant criteria than just physical proximity. Scaling curation without diluting the quality is a real challenge, and an algorithm can be essential to power recommendations and personalize curation at scale. At the end of the day, too much quality content is still too much: we need relevance.

Also read A Crisis of Attention - Part II

A Recipe for Success

“I think it’s good that there is a place for entertainment and that place is called Facebook, or Instagram, or Snapchat. But I truly believe that there needs to be a place where the concept of relevance needs to be more explicit.”

Refind's relevance

Refind was born as an attempt to establish relevance as something that readers could value in its own right. Users not only receive content based on the interests they selected, but can also follow people and influence what’s on their reading list. Links across the web are analyzed based on a user’s personal relevance score to deliver a feed with no more than 50 slots. A healthy dose of what you are interested in, with a dash of serendipity. Like any passionate chef, Dominik didn't reveal his secret sauce when discussing the algorithm, but he did tell us about the type of data that they are looking for. One of the key ingredients? Links with a longer shelf-life:

“We are not in a hurry to push out the link, since we are not a news platform. We give the link a little bit more time, going back to see what really stood out say, the last week or the last couple of days that you should know about.”

When looking at the patterns of how users are saving links, a link with a spike in saves that quickly declines will get down ranked: instead, links that get consistently saved over time are prioritized. ‘Timeless over timely’ is Refind's fundamental approach to scoring content. The most important signal about user preference is when a user deliberately saves a link on the platform or in their browser. This is a simple way to ensure content stays relevant when users check their feed.

Less is more

The icing on the cake is Refind's solution to our complex relationship with the filter bubble. In fact, in the way it's organized around the two poles of ‘Interests’ and ‘People’, Refind is a great example of how a good system can help us tackle the issue of content diversity. It allows users a real breadth of topics and perspectives, by giving them a 360 view of what people they follow are interested in and making it possible for them to read about their niche interests without losing sight of the bigger picture. Dominik sees this as a unique strength of Refind:

“The way Refind is structured ... it is a trade-off between exploitation and exploration, exploiting what you know about the user and exploring into new areas.”

Also read The War for Our Attention

The Human + Machine model

Beyond the filter bubble, Refind’s model provides an interesting solution to the ‘too many cooks’ problem of content recommendation. You see this problem when advertisers and editorial teams have too much say in what’s on the menu: users miss out on the bigger picture. Refind offers an algorithmically-generated feed, but the collected 'signals' are all manual actions by users, so they control what they want to see, not third parties. 

Refind's suggestions

“We do not have an editorial board that sits there and decides what is a good link and what is a bad link, it should be done by the people, and you as the ultimate user decide which people you think are worth following.”

Giving power back to the user is a daring and important move in a world where many publishers are tempted to only suggest popular content to chase clicks, a position Refind doesn't want to take. Dominik is adamant: “We are not gods. We cannot decide for everyone what is good content and bad content. This is very subjective.”

Also read Clicks vs Satisfaction

The combination of algorithm and user input is what can change the game, and solve common problems, like fake news and extremist content, giants like Facebook and Twitter still face. On the one hand, explicitly abusive content is moderated by Refind once it has been flagged by users. On the other, negative content that is not explicitly extremist or abusive will be saved less often by users, carry less weight, and therefore be less likely to make it into one of the user's 50 content slots. This is an organic form of content curation with no editorial intervention.

A community-driven project

We all get by with a little help from our friends, but Refind’s story really reads like a love letter to its community of users and supporters. Originally just an experiment amongst friends, Dominik turned it into a serious project once he discovered his tech-savvy peers were still using his platform weeks after he had invited them in as an occasional alternative to their news and social sites. Carefully listening to the support and feedback from the community is what elevated it from an idea to a start-up, with user data continuously bringing new insights as the platform evolves.

What if Google and Facebook gave away part of their success to early users?

Determined to give back to the community, Refind’s 1-billion-coin campaign is a way to break with the convention, created by players like YouTube and Facebook, of exploiting user data and labour without any compensation. Allowing people to buy into the company by giving away coins once they reach 10 million users not only ensures fast growth, but it also encourages a more cooperative and ethical version of B2C practices.

“Firstly, it is a marketing strategy that focuses on growth: the more users and the more content, the more relevant the feed will become. Secondly, it is about giving back. Even before we launched the coins, we had a core group of users that really helped a lot, by giving feedback, by buying in etc. and I always wondered how I could thank them further down the line. I did not want to send them a t-shirt or a sticker because that felt really cheap, so the coin idea was really a way to thank the people that were helpful from the start to make it bigger. We can only give back if we succeed so growth is crucial.”

Turning up the heat

Eager to share the lessons he learned with fellow entrepreneurs, Dominik told us about the challenges his startup is facing. So far, the difficulties they have encountered are the result of their growing success and can be summed up quite simply: how to make good on their promise to deliver relevant content with the limited resources of a startup?

There are long-term projects aiming to maintain and improve the relevance of content for their growing user-base, which has evolved beyond the tech space to include a wider spectrum of personalities and interests. Refind also has to make sure it hosts quality content, which entails playing a cat-and-mouse game with spammers, who try to infiltrate the system to have their links appear on other people’s feeds.

“With the introduction of coins, there are a lot of things that are flowing in on different channels and we are trying to be really good at keeping up with all these new things that are coming in whilst progressing the app and working on new features.”

With Refind just kicking off, it's a challenge to develop the product at the same time as supporting the community they are so proud of. Wanting to improve the mobile app and the search system has led them to automate certain operations, like customer support. To make that happen they're now getting in touch with people who share the same vision.

Food for thought

What can we take away from Refind’s story?

  • The genuine interest sparked by Dominik’s idea proves there is a need for a more transparent form of content recommendation that gives end-users more control of what they see.
  • This has important implications for the industry, as platforms like this speed up the advent of new ways to monetize content through channels like the coin issue (alongside premium memberships and ads on the search system).
  • Refind as a case-study makes us hopeful for the future of online content. It demonstrates that it's possible to build a content platform with high user retention without creating addiction. It also answers Ev Williams’ call for solutions to the feedback loop driving the industry’s junk food addiction.
  • We're convinced more platforms will follow with the same ideals towards more balanced access to information, because, as Dominik emphasizes, there's a place for everything, from gossip to news. It's not about imposing a certain way of consuming content on people, but about giving them choices and opening up access. We'll let Dominik have the last word:

“In the end this is what we are trying to do, we are trying to make it as easy to get to relevant content as it is to get to fun and gossip.”

Let’s get cooking, everyone.

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