Tuesday, 19 September 2017
News Tech

Why The Amazon Echo Show Won’t Bring Up Charlottesville (Or Bad News In General)


Amazon’s Echo Show doesn’t like to be the bearer of bad news. Although the device’s 7-inch touchscreen constantly cycles through trending news stories on its home screen—and lets you ask Alexa for more details with a voice command—the topics seldom cover anything too heavy.

So instead of updating users on the Charlottesville protests, President Trump’s subsequent press conference meltdown, his earlier war of words with North Korea, or countless other anxiety-inducing stories, the Echo Show offers soothing headlines such as these:

  • “Spanish Super Cup: Real Madrid Beat Barcelona”
  • “Box Office: ‘Annabelle: Creation’ Tops”
  • “North Carolina Shaman Mistaken for Bigfoot”
  • “Usain Bolt Injured in Final Race”
  • “Chimpanzees Can Learn Rock-Paper-Scissors”

For those who are glued to the news, the aloofness of these “trending topics” might seem strange or even off-putting, as if Amazon prefers blissful ignorance to an informed public. You don’t see Apple, Google, Microsoft, or Facebook shying away from serious stories in their own news products, so why is Amazon doing it?

Amazon’s explanation: The Echo Show is a different kind of product.

“For trending topics on Echo Show, we primarily surface lifestyle, entertainment, and sports news since it’s a communal device that the whole family sees and uses,” an Amazon spokesperson said via email. (The company provided the same statement to Android Central‘s Phil Nickinson, whose recent post on Twitter got me thinking about this topic.)

Essentially, you don’t want your kids discovering the concepts of white supremacy or nuclear war by walking past an ambient video screen. Amazon also notes that the Echo Show isn’t devoid of serious news; users can still hear political and business stories from whatever outlets they choose by asking Alexa for a Flash Briefing. The key difference in that case is that users must ask for the news first.

This item about a concert at an arena that's been closed since a terrorist attack in May is about as close as the Echo Show gets to hard news.
This item about a concert at an arena that’s been closed since a terrorist attack in May is about as close as the Echo Show gets to hard news.

But even if Amazon wanted to offer weightier stories on the Echo Show home screen–perhaps as an optional setting–the system isn’t equipped to handle them.

Right now, the Echo Show’s trending topics only provide a sentence or two of information beyond the headline, with no way to hear more details. The blurbs have no bylines, and the source of the reporting isn’t always clear.

That lack of substance might be acceptable for a story like “Guns N’ Roses’ Slash named Gibson Ambassador,” but it would do a disservice to a story like the Charlottesville protests. Any summary Amazon provided would have to be lengthier, with more context and clearer sourcing. For whoever at Amazon is in charge of the curating, that becomes a much bigger job, not to mention a political minefield if users perceive any sort of bias. (See: the many changes to Facebook’s Trending section.)

The obvious solution would be to pull in stories from news organizations–perhaps the same ones users have already added to their Flash Briefings–instead of just generating longer blurbs. But even that would require Alexa to understand specific news topics in a way that it doesn’t currently do. If you say “Alexa, what’s the latest news on Donald Trump?” the system merely launches into your Flash Briefing, rather than zooming in on the topic you just asked about. Amazon may have to work more closely with news providers to chop their Flash Briefing segments into individual stories, which the Echo Show could identify and display on its home screen.

To be fair, the Echo Show launched less than two months ago, and it’s unclear how many people own one, let alone how many are perturbed by its lack of hard news coverage. But as Amazon tries to expand its virtual assistant onto phones, in-car dashboards, and other devices, a more informative news product might help justify Alexa’s onscreen presence.

Amazon, at least, seems aware that it’s a work in progress.

“As with everything we do,” a company spokesperson said, “the Echo Show trending topics experience will continue to improve and evolve over time based on customer feedback.”





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