Pocket released a new feature last week: Pocket Recommendations. They’ll now present you with a list of recommended articles based on what you’ve saved to the service.
It’s a similar idea as For You in Apple Music: Based on what you listen to and heart, Apple Music presents you with playlists based on what it thinks you like. Similarly, Pocket shows you a variety of possibly interesting articles based on what you’ve already saved to the service.
I’ve been testing the new service for about a month and I have to say, they’re mostly spot on.They show me very few articles that are nowhere related to what I find interesting, and generally Pocket offers me subjects that I like. I get a bunch tech related articles, intertwined with Star Wars, comics and coffee topics.
There’s a lot of content online and finding those few good articles isn’t all that easy. To manage it I’ve created a sifting system that gives me two giant sources of news: Twitter, and a selection of RSS feeds in FeedWrangler sorted by topic via its Smart Streams.
I read or skim through most articles within either Twitterrific or Unread, and what ends up in Pocket are articles that are longer, that I want to read later, or that are complex topics I want to tackle later on: tutorials, reviews of new apps ,… Pocket really is where articles end up after I’ve already sorted through that giant avalanche of content.
Which creates an issue when they start offering content on their own: most of the stuff they offer that’s interesting, is stuff that I’ve already read outside of the app. Either as part of an RSS feed, or as a link in Twitter. Stuff that I did read now, as opposed to read it later.
Hide this content
When they offer me articles that I don’t like, it’s easy: each article has a close button that removes the article from the list, and asks you to tell the app why you hide it. This way the service gets trained to remove certain topics.
If an article is interesting, but you can’t read it right now, Pocket does what it does best: there’s an Save to Pocket button that saves the article to, you guessed it, Pocket. With extra bonuspoints for confirming to the service that yes, I did like it.
But than there’s option number three. What if you’ve already read the article somewhere else? Or what if you read the article right then and there within the app? There’s no mark as read option. The only way you can hide that article from the list is by either saving it to Pocket and archiving it, or pressing the close button and telling the app that you’ve already seen this kind of article. I really wonder why they didn’t add the same Archive button their service already has in the main section of the app.
Training it wrong
Curation is awesome when the best content for you appears front and center. But what’s even better is good content you’ve never seen before.
But I find clicking: hide this become I’ve seen it from the same menu as hide this because I don’t like it quite confusing. Suppose Pocket thinks that since I tell them I’ve read the article already, they don’t need to offer me content from that source anymore. Because I clearly find that kind of content on my own. In case of a Daring Fireball-article that’s probably true. But an obscure website focussing on a Ring Theory for Star Wars? Yes, I coincidentally saw that one already. But that doesn’t mean that’ll be the case next time.
They really should clarify what that option does. Does it mean: Thanks, I’ve seen this, please hide it? Or does it mean: No, don’t show this kind of article anymore, I find these on my own? Option A is a positive confirmation that their algorithm works. Option B is training that same article that they did a bad job. All from clicking the same menu-option, but interpreting it differently.
Maybe I’m overthinking it, but these kind of hidden recommendation engines can be annoying. I’ve seen it happen with Netflix, where the service shows me kids-movies after I forget to switch to a different profile when a friend’s little kid comes over. I’ve seen it happen with Apple Music where it suddenly shows me Flamenco-music in For You because I showed off the service of to my mother. And I’ve seen it happen on Amazon that shows me dozens of Powerline-adapters all of the sudden just because I looked for one once.
Apple Music tries to solve this issue by asking you to select a bunch of artists and genres in advance. But even so, these recommendation-services can get confused over time. And I don’t even dare to mention Twitter’s “you should follow these people”-emails.
Aside from this little issue, I do love the idea of Recommendations. In a perfect world I wouldn’t even need RSS anymore if this service does what it promises. It offers me content, I confirm that I like or dislike it, and it offers me better suggestions next time. An auto-updating list of good stuff.
But the benefit of RSS is that I also glance at stuff that doesn’t interest me. It keeps my mind open. Sometimes seeing something you disagree with is more fun than seeing dozens of articles telling you that yes, Apple’s event will be on September 9.