Last.fm founder Martin Stiksel’s Lumi targets ‘fake news’
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Last.fm founder Martin Stiksel’s Lumi targets ‘fake news’

“I’m a bit disappointed with the progress to be honest,” says Martin Stiksel, one of the original founders of music streaming site Last.fm and now co-founder of Lumi.

Stiksel, who in 2007 with Felix Miller and Richard Jones sold Last.fm to US media giant CBS for $280m, was talking about the London tech scene. Tech City as it’s now known has essentially grown from the Shoreditch roots set down by Last.fm’s desire for large, affordable office space in 2006. Shoreditch was a different place back then.

“We never thought of spending money on a nice office, we wanted to spend it on developing the site,” says Stiksel. The collection of pint glasses pilfered from a local pub, the chipped mugs and makeshift meeting room were testament to that fact back in the day, but were also signs that the business was focussing on substance over style.

Stiksel’s disappointment in today’s tech scene revolves around what he sees as a lack of progress, a lack of real innovation, using technology to move products and services forward and not just replicating existing ones. But there’s also an element of surprise at how many of today’s tech start-ups spend money on lavish accommodation. 

“There’s a lot of money sloshing around,” he says, wary of mentioning the ‘bubble’ word. “There's a lot of optimisation [with] all the fintech stuff making things easier for consumers, but from a consumer product point of view, there’s not much where you think ‘that's amazing’.”

The post dotcom boom-and-bust period at the turn of the century witnessed the rise of a new wave of online businesses dubbed Web 2.0. Some were perhaps no more pragmatic than the failed ideas of 1999 and 2000 but certainly they were more in tune with the technology of the time. Last.fm turned out to be a bit of a golden child, streaming music online and helping its users discover new music thanks to an algorithm called Audioscrobbler.

By the time Stiksel, Miller and Jones had left – two years after the sale – the site boasted around 40 million users. Stiksel admits it was a whirlwind, an unreal moment but puts a lot of the success of the site down to luck.

“We were incredibly lucky by being at the right place at the right time,” he says. “Very few people actually refer to this - the luck aspect in success. People always believe they are going to be successful simply by working really hard but lots of people work really hard and they don’t really go anywhere. Isn't there a proverb that says luck is when opportunity meets preparation?”

 

Recommendation engines

In many respects Last.fm created the market in the UK. Pandora was already creating it in the US, but in the UK, no-one, not even the music press, had really got their heads around streaming and what it would mean for the recording music industry.

Stiksel, who still uses the site and believes it is still unique in its ability to provide users with artist recommendations, is aware of the ramifications of streaming. He admits record labels are still suffering but is confident artists will eventually thrive. The problem, he believes, is that the market is still very fragmented and nothing has really changed.

Many of Stiksel’s views are based on the technology developed to improve consumer experiences and he may have a point. Stiksel and Miller are in fact revving the discovery engine again and have their sights on a different market.

“No-one is really doing anything with discovery so, after Last.fm, we thought straightaway people would be developing great movie recommendations, for example, but while some have attempted, no-one has really gone far enough.”

He mentions Netflix but the real bone of contention is the fact so much algorithm development has been focussed on behavioural marketing, tracking users to increase click rates on ads and banners. “Unfortunately, some of the best brains work on click rates,” he says.

So Stiksel’s and Miller’s plan is to change all that from an office in Farringdon, London. With the Lumi News iOS app, they are trying to apply the same principles they used at Last.fm to help users discover news content. It’s a big ask given that a number of apps already try to curate content including Flipboard and of course Apple’s own News app.

“There is stuff out there - a lot of news apps are not doing what we are doing – but again they’re just trying to make news available and not really to discover and recommend. No-one really took smartness as an entry point. ‘Discover’ was our first step rather than an add-on. Flipboard started but for them it's just another thing. We try to learn from your Twitter, Facebook and reading time. It was le raison d'etre for us.”

 

News curation

At a time when news on social media sites has been questioned, and with Facebook at the heart of a fake news scandal, the idea of news curation, with news coming direct from trusted sources is an attractive one. Stiksel believes the time is ripe – perhaps this will be the lucky bit of the Lumi story – but understands the difficulty in identifying good journalism.

“We always though that the social graph is not really doing well enough with news,” he says adding Lumi is currently looking at between 40,000 and 50,000 thousand articles a day. This is already the analysed stuff, he says, with a high threshold of visibility and popularity and only the ones in English.

“It gives you a feeling of the number of articles appearing on a daily basis, so there is a clear need for something to help navigate this,” he says. “We show readers stuff about the things they are interested in and we don’t really care if it comes from Left, Right or from big or small. There is no sentiment either, which is maybe more interesting… better than just getting your opinions reinforced.”

Stiksel also talks about using the technology in other areas too. Lumi Video is already trialling on Android, pulling in embedded content in news and feature stories, as well as what’s on YouTube and Vimeo, for example. Its aim is to focus on “context more than just a few tags”, says Stiksel.

There’s a Lumi Facebook chatbot too, an experimental use of machine learning technology to find content based on a word search and learn from the results and usage. Stiksel is not taking it too seriously but it seems to fit with the trial-and-error ethos of the new firm.

Certainly Stiksel would like to keep pushing boundaries, fine-tuning the discovery experience. Perhaps the fake news stories will have done him a favour. He hopes they do.

“People will look back and see this time as a wild west of journalism and the internet, when you could get away with anything,” he says. He may be right.

 

Also read:
Human League founder Martyn Ware on tech and music change

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Marc Ambasna-Jones

Marc Ambasna-Jones is a UK-based freelance writer and media consultant and has been writing about business and technology since 1989.

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