Google’s famously sparse homepage is about to get busy, as the company begins the rollout of its new Discover feed. Starting in the US, Google.com’s homepage on Android, and in the Google app for Android and iOS, will see the addition of cards for articles below the search box. It is, in essence, a built-in news feed – surfacing information before you’ve typed a word.
The choice of news in Discover – as well as sports results and weather forecasts – is personalised; based on your search history and what Google gleans to be your interests. There is an option to see more or less of certain topics, but Discover is largely controlled by the company’s complex set of algorithms. Shifting this onto its homepage is a notable move for Google, one that takes it further in the direction of predicting what you want to know, when you want to know it. And also giving you more chances to give Google data about your interests.
News and algorithms have had a rocky relationship. Alarms about misinformation and echo chambers have rung since the Brexit referendum and 2016 US presidential election drew attention to the insidious potential for machine-led news churn. Facebook’s recent spate of high-profile failures, from the Cambridge Analytica scandal to recent evidence that the social network’s ads ruleset can be gamed, has seen the company move away from news articles in its News Feed.
Where Facebook is minimising the news that appears on its platform, Google and Apple are expanding it on theirs. A recent New York Times article focused on the latter’s growth of Apple News; an aggregator app that comes pre-installed on the company’s iPhones and iPads. Crucially, this has involved the hiring of a team of human editors, headed up by a former executive editor of New York Magazine, Lauren Kern. Google, on the other hand, is pushing forward with its focus on algorithmic personalisation, built directly into its homepage.
“When you’re planning your next trip, Discover might show an article with the best places to eat or sights to see,” the company explains in a blog post. “Suddenly, a travel article published three months ago is timely for you. […] Discover is unique because it’s one step ahead: it helps you come across the things you haven’t even started looking for.”
Professor Charlie Beckett, director of the Polis think-tank for journalism at LSE, calls this approach a “useful compromise” when you consider the sheer size of Google’s audience; much larger than any news publication could hope for. “It’s easier for a single news brand to operationalise [online news curation] because they have a defined audience and their own editorial identity,” he says. “It’s much harder to get the balance right with search or social media, or generic news apps, for obvious reasons – the audience is much bigger and more varied and people have different expectations.
What do “useful comprises” like Discover mean for the future of how we get our news? According to the 2017 digital news report from the Reuters Institute, audiences for aggregation services like Apple News, Google News, Flipboard and Snapchat Discover have grown in recent years. The same report says more people now discover news through algorithms than human editors, and that instead of narrowing viewpoints; creating echo chambers, this seems to in fact be exposing those users to a greater range of sources than they’d normally use.
Does this plurality result in a nuanced picture of events, or a confusing heap of conflicting views? “Existing algorithms did do a pretty good job in exposing lots of sources, but whether that creates meaningful benefit to them or society is something platforms have begun to wrestle with now,” says Nic Newman, senior research associate at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. “It’s complex. More different perspectives may just make us more overwhelmed and less trusting of any news.”
Perhaps the main thing big technology companies want is an impression of neutrality. “Platforms will always try for a neutral default setting for the same reason that objectivity as an idea in journalism first evolved back in the US in the 19th century,” says Beckett. “If you are serving an audience with diverse views, for example if you are a city newspaper in the US, then it makes commercial sense not to annoy your readers by expressing a strong bias.”
Expand the size of that audience from a city to the entirety of the internet, and it’s no wonder Google wants to minimise any sense of biased perspective. To this end, as well as its general news feed, the company also has a Full Coverage feature, which it describes as an “unpersonalised view of events from a range of trusted news sources”, albeit with subjects still chosen by computer algorithms.
At a moment when Google still faces questions over how it enables the spread of misinformation, pivoting further towards explicit news aggregation might seem like a strangely timed move. Much like Facebook’s rhetoric about returning to family and friends, you’d perhaps expect Google to also go back to basics, as it were. Instead, the company is bringing news further into the fold; into the white space of its homepage. It’s a subtle but significant move for Google the media company, not that it would refer to itself as one.
“Overall, i’m guessing that the platforms will opt for the kind of news selection offered by something like The Week magazine: safe, mainstream, unchallenging,” says Beckett. “In a way, this is a return to the past and part of the way that the Internet and social media is becoming a more ‘closed’ and controlled experience.”
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