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How Firefox is using Pocket to try to build a better news feed than Facebook

On this week’s episode of Converge, Pocket founder and CEO Nate Weiner tells us why he sold his company to Mozilla, and how he’s working to build a better version of Facebook’s News Feed into the Firefox browser. Pocket, which lets you save articles and videos you find around the web to consume later, now has a home inside Firefox as the engine powering recommendations to 50 million people a month. By analyzing the articles and videos people save into Pocket, Weiner believes the company can show people the best of the web — in a personalized way — without building an all-knowing, Facebook-style profile of the user.

“We’re testing this really cool personalization system within Firefox where it uses your browser history to target personalized [recommendations], but none of that data actually comes back to Pocket or Mozilla,” Weiner said. “It all happens on the client, inside the browser itself. There is this notion today… I feel like you saw it in the Zuckerberg hearings. It was like, ‘Oh, users. They will give us their data in return for a better experience.” That’s the premise, right? And yes, you could do that. But we don’t feel like that is the required premise. There are ways to build these things where you don’t have to trade your life profile in order to actually get a good experience.”

Pocket can analyze which articles and videos from around the web are being shared as well as which ones are being read and watched. Over time, that gives the company a good understanding of which links lead to high-quality content that users of either Pocket or Firefox might enjoy.

In a world where trust in social feeds has begun to collapse, Pocket offers a low-key but powerful alternative. And as Mozilla has integrated it deeper into Facebook, Pocket has become a significant source of traffic for some publishers, The Verge included. Over time, Weiner says, he hopes Pocket will help publishers identify loyal new audiences in ways that can offer new revenue sources to support journalism. “We want to be able to create something that’s good for all the parties that are involved,” he said. “And it’s going to take some time.”


Casey Newton (left) and Pocket CEO Nate Weiner.

Weiner tells us the rest of his plan to save the web on Converge, an interview game show where tech’s biggest personalities tell us about their wildest dreams. It’s a show that’s easy to win, but not impossible to lose — because, in the final round, I finally get a chance to play and score a few points of my own.

You can read a partial, lightly edited transcript with Weiner below, and you’ll find the full episode of Converge above. You can listen to it here or anywhere else you find podcasts, including Apple Podcasts, Pocket Casts, Google Play Music, Spotify, our RSS feed, and wherever fine podcasts are sold.

Casey Newton: Pocket is now two things. One, it’s a standalone app. Two, every time I open up a new tab in Firefox, you’ll say to me, “Hey, Firefox user! Here are like 10 really great things.” And you’ve even sort of personalized some of that now, right?

Nate Weiner: We’re testing this really cool personalization system within Firefox where it uses your browser history to target personalized [recommendations], but none of that data actually comes back to Pocket or Mozilla. It all happens on the client, inside the browser itself. There is this notion today… I feel like you saw it in the Zuckerberg hearings. It was like, “Oh, users. They will give us their data in return for a better experience.” That’s the premise, right? And yes, you could do that. But we don’t feel like that is the required premise. There are ways to build these things where you don’t have to trade your life profile in order to actually get a good experience.

Right. You can build the technology and put it on the user’s computer, and then just do all the processing locally. And then you don’t ever have to find out that I’m a huge professional wrestling fan, and I was secretly watching wrestling today at work, and then my boss caught me — this is a real story, by the way — but you would never know that because of the way that you’re handling your data.

Right. And nobody wants to know that.

No, that’s what I found. You know, it’s sort of like starting a podcast. Nobody wants to hear about your podcast, and nobody wants to hear that you like professional wrestling. So that’s why I talk about startup-related topics. It’s a much bigger market. But let’s make it about you, Nate. It doesn’t have to all be about me over here. So, you know at The Verge, we’ve noticed a huge surge in traffic this year from Pocket. You guys are sending more and more people our way, which I certainly appreciate. But, more broadly, what is the relationship you’re trying to build with publishers?

We’re going to take a couple of different steps into this. Right now, we’re sending a bunch of traffic. But what we really want to do is send value, right? Right now, the way the recommendation systems are built, they’re purely about clicks. It’s just how many eyeballs can you send, and it doesn’t matter if that resulted in a good interaction for that user. Did they actually come away with something useful from that? Did the publisher benefit? Did the platform benefit?

And what we want to really build here with this discovery platform is something that for users and publishers and the platform itself, their value is all aligned. Facebook publishers rely a lot on Facebook, but those interests are not well-aligned. And what’s good for Facebook might not be good for publishers. And we want to be able to create something that’s good for all the parties that are involved. And it’s going to take some time.

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