Toutiao: Making Headlines with Machine Learning
The popular Beijing news aggregation app, Toutiao, is taking China by storm – with the rest of the world already on its radar. Toutiao means ‘headlines’ and boasts 700 million users in China with 78 million daily active users as of December 2016.
Within a few years Beijing Bytadance Technology, Toutiao’s parent company, grew from a $500 million worth in 2014 to $11 billion after its latest round of funding earlier this year. How are they this successful? Because they implemented machine learning technology which tailors users’ feeds according to their interests and tastes. Unlike Facebook and Twitter, they do not rely as heavily on social connections.
Toutiao was started in 2012 by the 33-year-old entrepreneur, Zhan Yiming. Most of the platform’s revenue comes from advertising, which is also tailored to users’ likes and interests.
How Do Their Machine Learning Algorithms Work?
When you first open the app, you will be greeted by a broad range of content ranging from chicken farming to the latest celebrity and financial news. The more you click on certain types of content, the more it learns your likes and dislikes to refine your recommendations. Users spend on average 76 minutes on the app each day, giving the algorithms ample time and interactions to learn from.
According to them, Toutiao’s way of surfacing content results in less of a filter bubble as we so often see on Facebook. Where Facebook will only expose you to content from people you already agree with, Toutiao offers content even if the user hasn’t signaled it among his or her preferences, because they want to try to expand the horizons and interests of their users.
Toutiao also has several ways of identifying fake news. They use a mix of human reviewers and automated analysis of the posts and its comments to sift out fake news.
Historically, Toutiao aggregated content only from external sources, but the company is working on generating its own quality content – part of their newly-acquired funding of $1 billion will go towards this goal. Currently, users can post directly on Toutiao’s platform, and celebrities, government agencies, and news outlets are already using this feature.
The Group’s Latest Acquisition: Flipagram
Bytadance recently acquired Flipagram, a platform where you can create your own videos by combining clips, photos, and a soundtrack to share with your friends. They plan on integrating Flipagram videos into the Toutiao feed.
Flipagram hasn’t been very successful so far. They compete with the likes of Snapchat and Instagram, both social media giants. It will be interesting to see how the app’s popularity will perform in the hands of Toutiao, especially after they employ their successful machine learning algorithms.
What’s in Store for the Future of Toutiao?
Toutiao’s ultimate goal is to become the number one online content destination, rising above Twitter and Facebook. In their own market, they want to give platforms similar to the New York Times and Buzzfeed a run for their money.
This year, they plan on developing more AI-focused services and expand internationally. They have already started operations in North America, Brazil, India, Indonesia, and Japan, and after the acquisition of Flipagram, the group maintains offices in the US for strategic purposes.
Bytadance recently bought the English-language app, TopBuzz, and in 2016 they invested in the Indian aggregator, Dailyhunt. The group also partnered with the Chinese e-commerce website, JD.com in September 2016; a platform that allows users to buy products inside the app.
They are currently working on a Q&A service similar to Yahoo Answers or Quora. They opened up the development of this service to researchers outside of the company through a contest held in December 2016.
Toutiao Lab, headed by Lei Li, formerly from Baidu, has a mission to push the boundaries of machine learning and artificial intelligence and to transfer these technologies into their current and new products.
It is clear that China is moving towards a more technologically sophisticated market, and Toutiao is representative of that. China can no longer be seen as a low-wage country that concerns itself with making knock-off products and manufacturing for the western world. They are serious contenders in the technology market.
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