As a follow up to the Medium article I wrote last month about the “filter bubble”, I caught up with Matt Hakimi, CEO, and Founder of MyFeed and his CTO, Shubham Sevda, and talked algorithms, publishers, curation, and storytelling.
The complexities behind the so-called Twitter bubble have reached a point where even mainstream news outlets have taken notice. As recently as a couple of months ago, Chris Cillizza from CNN remarked on the differences between stories appearing on Twitter and those that were emerging on classic opinion polls.
This interview is really about taking a deeper dive into the mind of an entrepreneur who has recognized the issues presented to us by the filter bubble and exploring the solution that his team has developed to solve the problem at hand.
Q: Matt, Can you tell me a little bit about your background and what brought you to the startup world?
Matt: I was born and raised here in LA – near the border of West Hollywood and Beverly Hills – But I always like to tell people that I grew up in Miami where I went to college. I say I grew up there because it was the first time I left my “Beverly Hills Bubble.”
At school, I double majored in Entrepreneurship and Business Law, so I suppose that you could say that I always gravitated towards the startup world. During my senior year I got my first taste of the real business world when I launched a social contact list app called Merge. It didn’t end up becoming the million-dollar company that I hoped it would be, but I learned a hundred times more in that first year than I ever did during my four years in college.
By taking this leap early in my career I learned how to start a company, manage a product through multiple pivots, and most importantly, I learned what it takes to build a company that actually makes money.
Q: How about your background Shubham?
Shubham: I started out as an Android developer, coding in JAVA. My first big project was a home-automation app called XOXOBot, which helped me get my feet wet in the software dev world.
After that, I led the Android team for a social media and networking app called Nodd – which helped me build my leadership and project management skills. Most recently, before coming aboard with Matt at MyFeed, I helped create the cryptocurrency exchange ‘CryptoKart’ – and this is where my interest in the React and React Native frameworks started. When Matt was pitching me his idea for MyFeed – once he mentioned that he was planning to build in React Native – I was pretty much sold right away.
Q: Matt – Where’d you get the idea to start MyFeed?
Matt: During one of the pivots we made with Merge, we started getting a lot of the same suggestions regarding a particular feature. On the app, we had an ‘influencer directory’ page, where you could see a list of famous people and navigate to, or add any of their social media profiles.
The thing that we kept hearing from our users was that they wanted a feed of people that was relevant today, rather than a bunch of celebrities listed in alphabetical order. At the time, I wrote it down as a feature request and passed over it because a) we didn’t have the technical resources to execute something so drastic and b) I was so focused on gathering numbers during our first marketing campaign that I wasn’t prepared to shift my attention to R&D on a new feature request.
With that said, once the Merge app started winding down, I actually went out and marketed that app feature as if it was working – and the results were pretty incredible. We noticed that our cost to acquire new users shot down to 14 cents per download, which is way lower than the average app.
After that experiment, I looked more into the underlying “online filter bubble” issue and saw that there was a huge opportunity here because no one had yet challenged the tech giants at their own game of ‘feed curation’. Once I gathered enough funds to bootstrap it, I found my CTO, Shubham in November and we got to work on creating MyFeed immediately.
Q: What does MyFeed do? Shubham, would you like to take the first stab at the question?
Shubham: Well, we present users with a selection of topics and subtopics, such as Sports – Football, Basketball, and others to choose from. We have an algorithm running in the backend that is able to detect who is trending at any point in the day. Using both these data points, we can populate a feed of news and social media posts for the user, based on who is trending at the time.
Matt: That sums it up pretty well. And because of the way it’s set up, there are some really unique and interesting ways that you can use the app to find news or browse social media. One awesome perk of using MyFeed is that you don’t have to “follow” any accounts to see their posts.
You actually don’t even have to have an account. For example, I don’t use Twitter, but I’m able to see tweets from the people I care about, directly on the app, or navigate to Instagram profiles that I don’t usually see. It’s one of my favorite features because I don’t have to commit to seeing all of their posts on my social feeds – instead- I only see them when they’re relevant or trending.
A few days ago, I was using the app and found out that J. Cole – one of my favorite rappers – released a new song that I hadn’t heard or seen anywhere online. And the song was dope, too!
Another thing that differentiates us is that our feed is curated by both humans AND algorithms. It’s super important that we added that human touch to it because we take pride in making sure that all the information shown on MyFeed is accurate and up-to-date.
Q: So Shubham, how does this algorithm work?
Shubham: Well, without giving away too much, essentially we’re able to monitor who’s trending today, using indicators from social media and other places on the web. The dynamic ranking algorithm uses new data points from these sources every few hours to compile new rankings, and using those rankings, we compile a feed for you.
We’re still tweaking and optimizing the algorithm to make sure that all the data we show to our users is accurate, relevant, and up-to-date ( really, up to the minute) – and this is something we’re working on every day. We’re very hands-on which helps with being able to be able to provide very current information.
Q: So if you’re using algorithms to compile the feed, where’s the human touch that you mentioned?
Matt: Most of the data shown on MyFeed was at one point passed through a human curator. Whether it’s the social media profiles you see or the news publishers we allow, it’s all been verified by our team. It’s time-consuming, but ultimately it’s the only way that our platform can function on the basis of correct information.
AI and ML algorithms are smart, but they can do more harm than good when it comes to curating news from credible sources – as we’ve all seen with the recent Facebook issues.
Shubham: I’m glad I don’t have to do it. I’ve always thought that we should use a web-scraping software for these functions. But I know Matt has his reasons for keeping the human element of things – I’ve learned how valuable it can be.
Matt: A lot of it, like gathering the influencer data, can be outsourced – so our team likes to spend time on the critical parts like tweaking the algorithm and tagging entities with the correct topic tags.
Q: Matt, as the Founder, what trends in tech and media are you paying attention to right now?
Matt: I’m really interested in seeing if the big social networks will actually ever prioritize their users’ time over engagement with their platforms. A few months ago, Instagram and others came out with a way to view your screen time and alert yourself when you’ve been on for too long – but is that really all they’re going to do? Americans spend an average of 2 hours per day on social media, and that time could absolutely be used more efficiently if the tech giants wanted it to. Now it’s just a matter of IF they will.
Q: Why is MyFeed different, or BETTER, than regularly browsing social media?
Matt: If you look at any of your social media or news feeds right now, 99/100 times you’re seeing content from sources that you’ve used before. By lifting the ‘following’ restriction, we made it so that you’re no longer trapped into seeing content from the same sources, over and over. The cherry on top is that we only show content from sources who are currently relevant or trending.
Q: I’d like to Follow-up on that question: Why is it important to see content from and about the people that are trending?
Matt: It’s actually got a lot to do with human psychology. As human beings, naturally we want to be in touch with the things (or people) we care about. So if I follow NBA Basketball, and a player gets traded to another team, naturally I want to know what he’s saying about it, what the details about his situation are, and what others are saying about it too. But if I’m not following that person – which most likely I’m not – then I won’t ever see their point of view. That’s why we created MyFeed to direct users to the posts and content that matter.
Q: What are your long-term goals for MyFeed? Where do you see it being in 5, 10 years down the line?
Matt: It’s hard to say for sure where we’ll be since we’re still in beta right now. In terms of goals, though, we want to be considered a legit source for people who are stuck in their own social media filter bubbles, where they can go and find new and interesting content.
Q: With all the new privacy laws in effect, and social networks becoming more walled-off to the outside, how is MyFeed going to be able to coexist with the big social media platforms?
Matt: That’s a great question. There would be no MyFeed without the big social networks, so I hope to establish good working relationships with them as we grow.
Q: I’ve heard you mention a few times in this interview that you’re really concerned about making sure that people spend their time on social media efficiently. How do you plan to do that, if, in the end, you’re ultimately showing them social media content?
Matt: Yeah, I want people to spend less time on social media – but if they’re going to spend time on it – which they will – they should be using their time to find informative, new content and information – NOT scrolling through big butts and memes for hours at a time.
To accomplish this, what we did was put a countdown timer on the app, which determines when someone can refresh their feed. For now – there are 4 refreshes per day – each time, new data gets pulled in to determine who’s trending at the moment. From there, our users can check any of their social media feeds, or any news written about them.
Q: So with the countdown timer, won’t that prevent users from being on your app all day – which is obviously what you want?
Matt: Yes – we absolutely want our users spending time to discover new information on our app. But I think that it’s more important to keep people coming back to new and informative content, not just any content. When our resources grow, we’ll be able to provide more feed refresh cycles and other updates to the algorithm, but we’re confident that for now, four refreshes per day will be enough content to engage our users.
The thorny reality is that everyone who uses the web resides in their own bubbles, and on a daily basis, they react only to updates from their friends and those that they follow, increasingly insulating themselves from the real world outside. With MyFeed, you can see content from a host of different social media channels, and you’re not committed to following each celebrity, political or sports figure. You’re actually able to access content on every social network, without even having to create your own account.