Tessa Sproule is hoping to get younger Canadians to step outside their carefully constructed online comfort zone.
The CBC’s former director of digital content has announced a new content company, Vubble, which uses algorithms to generate short-form video content that doesn’t always align with users’ interests and preferences.
“It sounds counter-intuitive,” said Sproule. “But the experience will be highly personalized. [Users] will get things that are in the bullseye of their interests, but occasionally we will toss things at them that slightly outside their comfort zone.
“What Netflix has done beautifully for the scripted space, we want to figure out how to do that in the short-form video space.”
Sproule uses the example of a mass shooting to illustrate how Vubble works. In the wake of such an event, she would receive the usual information that reflects her stance on gun control, but Vubble might offer up a video illustrating why someone feels gun ownership is important.
“I need to understand why a housewife in Washington feels she’s got to bring a loaded weapon with her into Walmart – she may have a really legitimate reason,” said Sproule. “It’s not going to change my opinion, but I need to understand that point of view. For a functioning democracy we need all citizens to be like that.”
A beta version of Vubble (slogan: “We have a bias. It’s you”) is expected to be operational by October, said Sproule. She said she is currently “eyebrow deep” in refining the algorithms that will be at the heart of the business.
Presenting a diverse range of information and opinion is something newspapers and hourly newscasts excel at, said Sproule. However, both have lost their caché – and their audiences – as younger consumers increasingly obtain information via sources like Facebook and Google, which tend to reflect their users’ opinions and preferences.
“Facebook’s algorithms are fantastic,” said Sproule. “It does a really good job of understanding what you’re interested in, but then it continues to feed you things that you’re interested in.
“That’s great, but at the same time we need to be exposed to things slightly outside our comfort zone.”
The idea behind Vubble (a portmanteau of “video bubble”), said Sproule, is to create an on-demand version of newspapers and hourly newscasts for the 18 to 34 demo, engineering moments of “serendipity,” that bring unexpected information to users.
She and her business partner Kate MacGuire – a former producer with CBC Radio’s As it Happens and CBC Television’s documentary unit – are working with Waterloo-based Primal to develop the algorithms that will get people to engage with content outside of their comfort zone.
It was an idea that Sproule first began contemplating while still at the CBC, where she’d worked for 20 years before departing in May. Given the current turmoil at the public broadcaster, Sproule decided she’d have greater success launching the company on her own.
“I’ve been obsessed with how media consumption habits have been changing, particularly among the 18-34 demo, for quite a few years,” she said. “I just found that I’d be able to do it faster on my own, particularly given all the challenges at CBC.
“There’s really no room for failure at the CBC right now; I absolutely understand and appreciate that, but I just figured I’ll go out on a limb on my own and see if I can figure out how to do it myself.”
While advertising will be “key” to the venture, Sproule said it will be some time before Vubble flips the switch on any monetization strategy. “We’re not going to have scale in the early stages – we’re going to be more focused on how we get people to connect with ideas and things that are slightly outside their comfort zone and creating a rewarding and engaging experience,” she said.