Canopy Wants to Redesign How Recommendations Work Online Without Sharing Your Data

Stutz 9.17.19

The new personalized reading app Tonic emphasizes privacy in its curated user experience, with plans to license the system to third-parties.

Canopy, the privacy-focused startup founded by Brian Whitman, co-founder of The Echo Nest, has launched its first app, a locally personalized reading app that won’t share your data with publishers or advertisers called Tonic. The app, which Canopy describes as an example of its private recommendation architecture that it will license to third-parties, is the first consumer product from the company and delivers five articles to users’ smartphone every day without requesting any personal information from users or taking any tracking data off the device. 

When you download Tonic, the app doesn’t ask for your email or login of any kind. It will show you a selection of articles that you can decide whether you like or not, and then Tonic will build recommendations based on your selections, directly on your device, that will be tweaked every day as you receive new articles to read. The Tonic team -- led by Matthew Ogle, Canopy’s head of consumer product, who helped create Discover Weekly and Daily Mix while he was at Spotify -- reviews every article that the system trains on, and users can alter their personalization settings, tweaking the degree to which they enjoyed a story using a slider, or even resetting their personalization settings altogether. 

The company says Tonic will recommend articles that will “inform, challenge and enlighten your world” and won’t surface breaking news or “hate reads.” I’ve been testing the app for the past week and the recommendations have been better than articles I’m recommended through Google’s app and on par with recommendations from Pocket, the popular reading app, but without giving up my personal data or reading habits.

While Tonic is an interesting development in itself, Canopy will license its personalization technology to third-parties, a move that could help redefine how deep personalization works online. "Tonic is the first expression of Canopy's private recommendation architecture,” Annika Goldman, Canopy’s senior vp strategy and operations, said. “The plan is to continue to build out our own products and to license our technology to other platforms to power their private personalization experiences that put people first." Canopy tells Billboard it’s already in talks with third-party media companies to license its tech.

One of the biggest problems online is how companies like YouTube and Facebook personalize the content users see on a daily basis. Both use complex algorithms to recommend content for users to watch and read, and they are designed to keep you coming back, which can lead to echo chambers, misinformation being surfaced, and your personal information constantly being collected. More than 70% of time spent on YouTube are on videos recommended by its algorithm, a glimpse of just how influential these algorithms can become. On the opposite side, creators and publishers often tailor their content to take advantage of these algorithms, creating an endless cycle driven by recommendation engines that both the consumer and creator have little control over.

Canopy is offering something different to companies that need these types of algorithms, but want something that offers its users more privacy and gives back some semblance of control to the users. Instead of a site guessing what users want to see next based on what similar users have enjoyed and the users’ perceived happiness with the content they’ve been served, users will be able to tell services exactly how much they liked a song, article or video (Tonic lets you rate stories on a sliding scale from “ignore” to “love” with a few options in between) and tailor what comes up next, without giving up their personal information.

As consumers become more conscious about controlling the data they give up to corporations, Canopy will have an opportunity to become a viable option for music and video streaming services and media platforms who want to offer a similar level of functionality that traditional recommendation engines serve up, without taking control over user data, and Tonic is the first glimpse of how that future may look. 

Tonic is available now in the iOS App Store and Canopy says the app will be available on Android in the coming months.


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