No Joke, Yahoo Buys Artifact

Yahoo is buying Artifact, the AI news app from the Instagram co-founders
Yahoo News is bigger than you’d think — and it’s getting a big dose of AI.

I was a fan of Artifact. In fact, it was on my iPhone homescreen for a good chunk of 2023 – something almost unheard of for a new app. Part of it was the pedigree of the founders and team – I had covered Instagram since before the get-go, and so I trusted these guys to release something good and most importantly, to iterate quickly on it. But a bigger part was good timing on their part. Artifact launched just as Twitter was turning to absolute shit when it came to surfacing interesting content. On purpose, no less. Artifact was like Nuzzel on methamphetamines. I mean that in ways good an bad. It overdosed. Then died.

And then, like Jesus himself on Easter, it was risen. But actually not in a "I'm back" way, more in a... 'someone wants to buy this thing, so we'll keep it going for a bit longer than we said to see if that deal goes through' way. And lo! In walks Yahoo!

When I first saw the headline, I seriously had to check the date. Today is April 2, not April 1 (thank god). Then I had to actually read the article in full to make sure this wasn't just a prank that got stuck in CMS hell or something and published late. Nope, it's a real deal according to David Pierce:

Instagram’s co-founders built a powerful and useful tool for recommending news to readers — but could never quite get it to scale. Yahoo has hundreds of millions of readers — but could use a dose of tech-forward cool to separate it from all the internet’s other news aggregators. And so, the two sides are joining forces: Yahoo is acquiring Artifact, the companies announced on Tuesday.

Yahoo used to do deals like this all the time. For a while, they were atop the Acquihire Leaderboard. But actually, this deal is the opposite of an acquihire:

The two sides declined to share the cost of the acquisition, but both made clear Yahoo is acquiring Artifact’s tech rather than its team. Mike Krieger and Kevin Systrom, Artifact’s co-founders, will be “special advisors” for Yahoo but won’t be joining the company. Artifact’s remaining five employees have either gotten other jobs or are planning to take some time off.

And, even stranger, Yahoo is not even keeping the app they acquired around:

Artifact, the app, will go away once the acquisition is complete. But Artifact’s underlying tech for categorizing, curating, and personalizing content will soon start to show up on Yahoo News — and eventually on other Yahoo platforms, too. “You’ll see that stuff flowing into our products in the coming months,” says Downs Mulder. It sounds like there’s also a good chance that Yahoo’s apps might get a bit of Artifact’s speed and polish over time, too.

Well, apparently the acquisition was completed today because the app is no more as of today. You load it, and you get a message stating as such. It took Jesus 40 days to ascend to heaven after his resurrection, Artifact handled the feat in a week. Take that, Jesus.

So what now?

Yahoo was one of those calls. The company first began exploring an Artifact acquisition after reading that shutdown letter, says Kat Downs Mulder, the general manager for Yahoo News. “They put a ton of love and care into the way that their content taxonomy and recommendation systems work,” she says. “How the content is categorized, what signals feed into that content, how to identify what’s really working and can connect and is relevant with you, and then the UX of connecting the user with that content — that whole journey is really hard to get right.” Yahoo has long been working on personalization and recommendations, but Artifact built something special.

That’s what Artifact brings to Yahoo. What does Yahoo offer Artifact (other than that undisclosed acquisition price)? Eyeballs. Downs Mulder says more than 180 million people come to Yahoo’s properties every month, which puts Artifact’s personalization and recommendation tech in front of a vastly larger set of users than it likely ever would have gotten on its own. For Systrom, that also means a chance to really see it work. “Every month, we would chip away at growth,” Systrom says, “and we would get to the scale where some of the things we were promised in machine learning and AI would start working, because we had just enough scale to make them work. But it was really hard to move that needle.” Integrating with Yahoo will happen slowly, but it will move that needle in a big way.

So we'll apparently get a Yahoo News app powered by Artifact tech eventually. And sure, I'm willing to try that out. I'd be a bit worried about it being tailored too much towards Yahoo's own news, but let's see what they come up with.

Ultimately, what killed Artifact was the fact that the founders just thought there were probably better problems on which to spend their time. And they're honestly probably right about that. But Artifact also filled a void left by Twitter. Unfortunately, they probably filled it a bit too much, as the app went from early but compelling to sort of a bloated mismatch of features. A lot of them were compelling on their own, but as a part of one app and vision, they were just too much, too soon. Yahoo, as a large company, is necessarily going to slow that roll. So again, maybe this makes sense.