By Urcella Di Pietro on November 29, 2018
As my fellow CANOpeers and I signed off for the Thanksgiving weekend, we all posted messages on Slack about what we are thankful for this holiday season. There were the typical posts of gratitude about pets, family, friends and general health. My heart always acknowledges the importance these things hold in my life, but what was different this year for me was the recognition of the gratitude I felt for the place where I work and what I get to do here. Seeing this new item on my thankful list inspired me to examine further what exactly is different about Canopy compared to other jobs I’ve had in the past (both great and terrible).
Prior to ever setting foot in the Canopy office (we didn’t even have a company name yet), I was told things were going to be different. This was pretty much the first thing our founder, Brian, said during my interview at a bar in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. He wanted people who are committed to making the internet a safer place. “Great, done, I’m in,” I said before he was finished with his spiel about how we would be building a new kind of technology and product that would give consumers an amazing personalized content experience while at the same time protect their personal data. He could have said just about anything as I was pretty excited at the chance to help build a new company. Despite having my jazzed up résumé in tow, I was told I was being hired for my potential, which is the first thing I felt that was going to be truly different about Canopy. My past was the past, a prelude to now, but the real show was about to begin, and it was indeed going to be unlike anything I have encountered before.
Being part of a team that builds for privacy and optimizes for delight has been profoundly rewarding. In the past, you had to consent to unmitigated access to data on your phone to be able to use apps that could end up making you miserable. Never before has the possibility of getting better recommendations without sacrificing privacy seemed more doable or even possible. Getting to build a product that you feel good about using just feels better — and it’s easy to get evangelical about.
Laying down the groundwork for an ethical tech company has not come easy. At every turn, my team and I have had to ask ourselves tough questions: Can this product be used for malicious reasons? Is this product needed? Can the algorithms be reverse-engineered? Are we promising something we can’t deliver? Can we delight everyone (is anyone delighted)? Are we doing something beneficial to society or just making a lot of noise? The questions never go away, and the demand for answers grows stronger every day we read stories about Facebook, Google and others misusing user data and the disastrous consequences that brings. It’s a marathon and we need to pace ourselves accordingly — we never want to skip around or cut corners. It’s part of why we do this: We’re getting it right this time and that has profound meaning to everyone who works here.
When I think about all the work we have ahead of us, I don’t feel worried or weary. It really feels like a great gift that I get to come here and do the big-deal work with like-minded, passionate folks at the top of their fields. People that left cushier positions and better-paid gigs at larger, more established companies for the opportunity to make a difference. And when I get a gift of that size I feel enormously grateful, and that gratitude is what I plan to build an entire company on.
By Brian Whitman on November 15, 2018
Today I am introducing Canopy, a new company focused on giving you a new way to explore the world—without ever revealing your personal data. We're building Canopy the way we believe personalization should have been built from the beginning: with you in control of what you discover and how. For too long, the accepted standard for how we learn about people on the internet has benefited the wrong side. Over the past year, a great group of people have come together to work on a new way to do personalization and discovery on the internet. We are building a new kind of technology and product, but also a new kind of company that optimizes for delight and discovery.
More taste decisions than ever are being mediated by an algorithm—and those algorithms are running on more and more personal data than ever before. The data you give away to services can be used against you, or sold, or lead to results that you don’t understand. We’ve all seen the “creepy” side of personalization at work, aligned with revenue or time spent rather than improving your experience or happiness. And in the worst case we saw people being radicalized from aggressive personalization, or saw state actors steal or manipulate personal data for their own needs.
Canopy Brooklyn in October 2017. How did we fit two people in here?
After I left Spotify in 2016 I began thinking of focused ways we could change the way things worked. I started talking with my friends David Blei and Ben Recht, two well-known machine learning and recommendations professors who have worked on or invented what are now the core parts of your personalized internet experience in 2018. They immediately signed on to help and we spent some time wondering what a fully private and transparent discovery system would look like. Could there be a music recommender that never knew what songs you've listened to, or a personalized browsing experience that never knew what websites you've visited? Could we build a transparent discovery tool that gave control back to the person doing the discovery and power back to the creators?
We’ve found a new way. We’ve shown already that a company having full access to personal data is not a prerequisite for great discovery. We are carefully applying a combination of on-device machine learning and differential privacy while taking advantage of the enormous step change in power of our mobile devices. We're now moving most of the math we used to do on big clusters of servers against your personal data directly to the device in your hands. We guarantee we'll never see your personal interactions with the world, and we guarantee we'll give you an even better discovery experience.
The science behind what we're doing at Canopy is just a small piece of the puzzle. We are plotting an incredibly pragmatic approach to discovery, with a large focus on editorial, finding viewpoints, understanding root causes, uncovering and programming niches. We’ve already built a different sort of company. Most of us have done this before. Diversity of our team is our first priority, as our product needs to reach the entire world of ideas. We’ve brought on scientists, lawyers, marketers, engineers, editors, professors and operations experts who’ve all helped build great discovery experiences you use every day at Spotify, Instagram, Google, and The New York Times. Our early investors include founders and executives from Spotify, Keybase, Splice, WeWork, MIT, and who make investments in the decentralized internet, machine learning and data.
Much improved space today with the same chairs. We're up to 15: 4 in Brooklyn, 5 in Boston and a few remote.
Today, we’re introducing Canopy to the world to share what we’re building. The first way you’ll interact with us is our mobile app, coming early next year. It’ll be the first time ever you can explore and discover new things without the services and company on the other end watching your every move. You don’t even tell us your email address. You’ll find it a refreshing new experience that you can believe in. This app is just a first step on our way to a better kind of system that gets you, a better kind of company, and eventually a better internet. We hope you'll join us for what's next.