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by Brian Schrader

Recommendations, Echo Chambers, and Pine.blog

Posted on Sun, 04 Nov 2018 at 06:16 PM

In my last post I laid out three main problems that the blogging ecosystem has when competing with social networking sites. I also mentioned that Pine.blog aims to solve all three of them at once.

  • Pine.blog has a chronological, Twitter-like, unified timeline of posts from sites you follow.
  • You can easily connect your Wordpress blog with Pine.blog and post to your site from within the Pine.blog app or the website.
  • The Pine.blog directory makes it easy to browse and search for other sites to follow, and is free for anyone to use regardless of whether they use Pine.blog or not.

In addition to search, most social networks have some sort of recommendation system that gives users suggestions for new people, sites, or channels to follow. Recommendation systems are notoriously difficult to make well, and even "good" ones are now being heavily scrutinized for causing the isolated echo chambers you find on most social networks. If blogging and feed readers are to make a comeback, then they have to have an answer to the search and recommendation systems that all social networks have. Pine.blog has one of those: Search.

Traditionally, social networks rely on a recommendation system where some sort of machine learning algorithm looks at your interests and recommends things to you, but recommendation engines are often the source of the echo chamber trap that most users find themselves in. Apps and services like Overcast use a pretty simple recommendation engine that simply shows you podcasts and episodes that your Twitter friends have recommended. While Micro.blog is probably the most conservative about shelling out recommendations: their discover page is manually curated according to their community guidelines. This has the added benefit of being able to really control what kind of stuff gets promoted on the site, but it can be difficult to scale and it can't easily give users personalized recommendations.

How present the recommendations are also changes their effectiveness. Overcast and Micro.blog strategically place their recommendations in spots you'd only see if you were already looking for new stuff to follow, rather than omnipresently in the home feed or in banners on the side.

All of those systems have problems; all systems do. I don't want Pine.blog to have yet another echo chamber system, and I also want to promote oft-neglected forms of content like local news outlets and investigative journalism. This leaves me with a hybrid approach between Micro.blog editorial curation and Overcast's friend-based recommendations. I'm pretty far off from building this system now, but when I do get to it, I want to make sure I've thought about the consequences first.

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