Author: Josh Constine

Sidestepping App Stores, Facebook Lite and Groups get Instant Games

HTML5 almost ruined Facebook when baking in the mobile web standard to speed up development slowed down the performance of the social network’s main iOS and Android apps. It eventually ditched HTML5, rebuilt the apps natively, and Facebook became one of the most powerful players in mobile.

Now Facebook is giving HTML5 another shot as a way to expand its Instant Games like Pac-Man and Words With Friends to the developing world through Facebook Lite, and to interest communities via Facebook Groups.

Instead of having to download separate apps for each game from the Apple App Store or Google Play, Instant Games launch in a mobile browser. That keeps Facebook Lite’s file size small to the benefit of international users with slow connections or limited data plans. And it lets Instant Games integrate directly into Groups so you can challenge not only friends but like-minded members to compete for high scores.

90 million people each month actively participate in 270,000 Facebook Groups about gaming, and now they’ll see Instant Games in the Groups navigation bar next to the About and Discussion tabs. Facebook is also considering making games an opt-in feature for non-gaming Groups. In Facebook Lite, Instant Games will appear in the More sidebar so they’re not too interruptive.

The expansion demonstrates how serious Facebook is about becoming a gaming company again. Back in its desktop days, the games platform dominated by devleopers like Zynga racked up tons of usage, virality, and in-game payments revenue for Facebook. That revenue declined for years after mobile usage began to dominate in 2014, but recently stabilized at around $190 million per quarter. Apparently someone is still playing FarmVille.

Facebook launched Instant Games in late-2016 to give people something to do while they’re waiting from friends to reply to their messages. Around the same time, Facebook launched Gameroom — a Steam-like desktop software hub for mid-core gamers, though there’s been less news on that product since. Instant Games rolled out worldwide in mid-2017, and opened to all developers in March of this year. It’s since been expanding monetization options for developers to make building Instant Games a sustainable business. That includes making Instant Games compatible with Facebook’s playable ads that let developers lure in users from the News Feed.

Facebook won’t actually be earning money from in-app purchases on Instant Games on iOS where it doesn’t allow IAP due to Apple’s policies, or on Android since it began forgoing its cut last month. It does take 30 percent on desktop though. But the bigger monetization play is in ads where Facebook is a juggernaut.

With Instant Games on Messenger, Facebook’s desktop site via a bookmark, its new Fb.gg standalone gaming community app, and now Facebook Lite and Groups, the company is prioritizing the space again. That seems wise as gaming becomes more mainstream thanks to players livestreaming their commentary and phenomena like Fortnite. And with Facebook’s expansion into hardware with the Portal smart screen and a forthcoming TV set-top box, it will have more places than ever for people to play or watch others duke it out.

MTV’s Real World will be revived with interactivity on Facebook Watch

The world’s first hit reality show “The Real World” is being reimagined for Facebook Watch 26 years after it debuted on cable. Come Spring 2019, fans will get a chance to vote on who’ll join as the final cast member and connect with the housemates through Facebook Watch Party’s synchronized viewing chat rooms as they “stop being polite and start getting real”.

It has been a year and a half since the 32nd and most recent season of The Real World aired on MTV. Deadline recently reported that the show was being rethought for the web and shopped to streaming platforms. Now we know where it’s landing.

Facebook’s first truly tent-pole show for its Watch video hub could lure in viewers and offer a halo effect to other programs on the platform after a lackluster slate of mostly no-name shows launched alongside the feature in August 2017. But it’s starting to gain momentum, as 50 million people now spend at least 1 minute per month on Watch, and total Watch view time is up 14X since the start of 2018. For comparison, over 18 Snapchat Shows have over 10 million viewers per month. Users who do come to Facebook Watch spend 5X longer watching than on spontaneously discovered News Feed videos, which seems to have emboldened it to invest more in Watch content.

Facebook is hoping to outcompete YouTube Originals and Snapchat Discover’s Shows to win the mid-length social video market and the landslide of ad dollars shifting away from TV commercials.

As I wrote recently, there’s already plenty of user generated content to consume on these platforms, so the real opportunity is in super-premium shows that stand firmly apart from what litters feeds and Stories. Facebook Watch needs its own House Of Cards or Game Of Thrones. While it’s unclear how much Facebook paid for the Real World, it likely didn’t come cheap,  but now it has arguably the highest profile show of any of the platforms.

Facebook’s partnership with MTV and Real World-creator Bunim/Murray Productions comes as part of a slew of original video content announcements revealed today at the MIPCOM TV industry trade show.

The [Business] INSIDER original game show on Facebook Watch called Confetti will expand internationally — curiously without INSIDER’s help. Facebook tells TechCrunch it will work with local partners in international markets to create versions of the HQ Trivia-style live video game show where players compete through their phones to win cash prizes. EMEA, APAC and LATAM editions of Confetti will launch by the end of this year.

Facebook Watch will also launch The World’s Most Amazing Dog, an interactive global competition show. In partnership with The Dodo, the show will spotlight top dogs and their owners from around the world.

Now that Facebook’s ad breaks are running in 25 countries, it’s able to get serious about monetizing Watch and recouping its content investments. Facebook has been paying up front for these shows but hopes that ad breaks could wean creators off its cash and create sustainable businesses based on Watch. But with today’s Wall Street Journal report that Facebook underreported the scale of video ad view time metrics bug that inflated measurements years ago, it may face additional skepticism that Watch is worth studios’ investment.

But again, it’s the name brand of The Real World that could change Watch’s trajectory. Facebook has signed on for three different one season runs of 12 episodes of the show localized for the US, Mexico, and Thailand. The new slate of content could also make Facebook’s new Portal smart screen more attractive since Watch is built in. And with Facebook building a TV set-top box for next year, it will want premium shows worthy of bigger screens.

“The Real World made history as the world’s first original reality show and trailblazing social experiment — and we’re thrilled to reboot the show for today’s audiences — representing and amplifying the real life, real people, real places and real social tensions of each country” says Matthew Henick, Facebook’s Head of Content Planning & Strategy. It poached Henick from BuzzFeed earlier this year to bring some experienced leadership to its intersection of traditional studio content and the smallest screen.

Last week Snapchat announced 12 original shows including two produced by Bunim/Murray. Yet with the ephemeral social apps losing users as well as over $300 million per quarter, it was only able to secure new and unknown docuseries like Endless Summer and Growing Up Is A Drag.

Despite Facebook jamming the Watch tab into its main app’s navigation bar, many users have ignored it. They already get short-form clips in the News Feed, longer web shows on YouTube, and full-length series on Netflix and Amazon Prime Video. It will require more big bets like The Real World to convince users that Watch is where they want to relax.

Facebook News Feed now downranks sites with stolen content

Facebook is demoting trashy news publishers and other websites that illicitly scrape and republish content from other sources with little or no modification. Today it exclusively told TechCrunch that it will show links less prominently in the News Feed if they have a combination of this new signal about content authenticity along with either clickbait headlines orlanding pages overflowing with low-quality ads. The move comes after Facebook’s surveys and in-person interviews with discovered that users hate scraped content.

If illgotten intellectual property gets less News Feed distribution, it will receive less referral traffic, earn less ad revenue, and the there’ll be less incentive for crooks to steal articles, photos, and videos in the first place. That could create an umbrella effect that improves content authenticity across the web.

And just in case the scraped profile data stolen from 29 million users in Facebook’s recent massive security breach ended up published online, Facebook would already have a policy in place to make links to it effectively disappear from the feed.

Here’s an example of the type of site that might be demoted by Facebook’s latest News Feed change. “Latet Nigerian News” scraped one of my recent TechCrunch articles, and surrounded it by tons of ads.

An ad-filled site that scraped my recent TechCrunch article. This site might be hit by a News Feed demotion

“Starting today, we’re rolling out an update so people see fewer posts that ink out to low quality sites that predominantly copy and republish content from other sites without providing unique value. We are adjusting our Publish Guidelines accordingly” Facebook wrote in an addendum to its May 2017 post about demoting sites stuffed with crappy ads. Facebook tells me the new publisher guidelines will warn news outlets to add original content or value to reposted content or invoke the social network’s wrath.

Personally, I think the importance of transparency around these topics warrants a new blog post from Facebook as well as an update to the original post linking forward to it.

So how does Facebook determine if content is stolen? It’s systems compare the main text content of a page with all other text content to find potential matches. The degree of matching is used to predict that a site stole its content. It then uses a combined classifier merging this prediction with how clickbaity a site’s headlines are plus the quality and quantity of ads on the site.

Facebook is building a camera TV set-top box codenamed Ripley

A mysterious product called “Ripley” appeared hidden beside Facebook’s new Portal smart displays in Facebook for Android’s code. Dug up by frequent TechCrunch tipster Jane Manchun Wong a week ago, Ripley’s name squared with Facebook’s VP of Portal Rafa Camargo telling us that “we’re already investing in expanding the product line with more products we want to launch next year.”

That Facebook device will be a camera-equipped device that connects to televisions to allow video chat and media content viewing, according to Cheddar’s Alex Heath.

Facebook’s Portal’s devices sit on a desk or countertop and cost $199 for a smaller screen and $349 for a bigger one. But with Ripley, Facebook could sell a much cheaper screen-less add-on for the televisions people already have. Facebook could build hardware network effect by releasing its Portal technology in many form factors.

The Ripley name could change before the eventual launch next year, which Cheddar says is coming in Spring 2019. It might become something more evocative of the device’s purpose. But regardless of the name, it’s sure to encounter heavy skepticism due to Facebook’s history of privacy and security troubles. Many users don’t trust Facebook enough to put one of its cameras and microphones in their house.

Ripley is said to run on the same Portal operating system that builds off the same Android open-source framework. That means it might carry a similar slate of features. Those include Portal’s auto-zooming camera that can follow users to keep them in frame, video chat through Messenger, a smart photo frame for while it’s not in use, Facebook Watch videos, Alexa voice control and a third-party app platform, including video content from outside developers.

While users might occasionally watch recipe or news videos on Portal, entertainment could be core to Ripley. The device would allow Facebook to compete with Roku, Amazon, Apple and other set-top boxes. The device could also eventually be a natural home for Facebook’s video ads, even though it’s not putting them on Portal right now.

Along with smart speakers, whoever creates what plugs into our TVs will control a fundamental wing of future home computing. Facebook won’t surrender this market, despite its disadvantage due to its many scandals.

Worries linger as Facebook withholds stolen searches & checkins

Hacked Facebook users still don’t know which 15 recent searches and 10 latest checkins were exposed in the company’s massive breach it detailed last week. The company merely noted that those were amongst the data sets stolen by the attackers. That creates uncertainty about how sensitive or embarrassing the scraped data is, and whether it could possibly be used to blackmail and stalk them.

Much of the scraped data from the 14 million most-impacted users out of 30 million total people hit by the breach was biographical and therefore relatively static, such as their birth date, religion or hometown. While still problematic because it could be used for unconsented ad targeting, scams, hacking attempts or social engineering attacks, at least users likely know what was illicitly grabbed.

Thankfully, some of the most sensitive data fields, such as sexual orientation, were not accessed, Facebook confirms to me. But the exposure of recent searches and checkins could threaten users in different ways.

Given the attack was so broad and impacted a wide variety of users, unlike say a targeted attack on the Democratic National Convention, there’s no evidence that blackmailing or stalking individual users was the purpose of the hack. For the average user hit by the breach, the likelihood of this kind of follow-up attack may be low.

But given that public figures, including Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg, were victims of the attack, as well as many reporters (myself included), there remains a risk that the perpetrators paw through the data seeking high-profile people to exploit.

Stolen data on “the 15 most recent searches you’ve entered into the Facebook search bar” could contain embarrassing or controversial topics, competitive business research or potential infidelity. Many users might be mortified if their searches for racy content, niche political viewpoints or their ex-lovers were published in association with their real name. Hackers could potentially target victims with blackmail scams threatening to reveal this info to the world, especially since the hack included user contact info, including phone numbers and email addresses.

Scraped checkins could power real-world stalking or attacks. Users’ exact GPS coordinates were not accessible to the hackers, but they did grab 14 million people’s “10 most recent locations you’ve checked in to or been tagged in. These locations are determined by the places named in the posts, such as a landmark or restaurant, not location data from a device,” Facebook writes. If users checked in to nearby coffee shops, their place of work or even their home if they’ve given it a cheeky name as some urban millennials do, their history of visiting those locations is now in dangerous hands.

If users at least knew what searches or checkins of theirs were stolen, they could choose if or how they should modify their behavior or better protect themselves. That’s why amongst Facebook’s warnings to users about whether they were hacked and what types of data were accessed, it should also consider giving those users the option to see the specific searches or checkins that were snatched.

When asked by TechCrunch, a Facebook spokesperson declined to comment on its plans here. It is understandable that the company might be concerned that disclosing the particular searches and checkins could unnecessarily increase fear and doubt. But if it’s just trying to limit the backlash, it forfeited that right when it prioritized growth and speed over security.

As Facebook tries to recover from the breach and regain the trust of its audience of 2.2 billion, it should err on the side of transparency. If hackers know this information, shouldn’t the hacked users too?

Facebook prototypes Unsend 6 months after Zuckerberg retracted messages

In April, TechCrunch broke the news that some of Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook messages were deleted from recipients’ inboxes in what some saw as a violation of user trust. Then, Facebook suddenly announced that it would actually build this Unsend functionality for everyone. Then six months went by without a peep about the feature, furthering suspicions that the announcement that it would release an Unsend button was merely a PR driven response to the scandal.

Late last week, TechCrunch asked Facebook about its progress on Unsend, and the company told us “Though we have nothing to announce today, we have previously confirmed that we intend to ship a feature like this and are still planning to do so.”

Now we have our first look at the feature thanks to TechCrunch’s favorite tipster Jane Manchun Wong. She’s managed to generate screenshots of a prototype Unsend button from Facebook Messenger’s Android code. Currently, you can only delete messages from your own inbox — they still remain in the recipients’ inbox. But with this Unsend feature, you’ll be able to remove a message from both sides of a conversation. However, the code indicates that in the current prototype there’s a “time limit”. That may mean users would only have a certain amount of time after they send a message to unsend it. That would essentially be an editing window in which users could take back what they said.

In response, a spokesperson confirmed that “Facebook internally tests products and features before they ship to the public so we can ensure the quality of the experience.”

The Unsend feature could be useful to people who say something stupid or inappropriate, disclose a secret they shouldn’t have, or want to erase evidence of their misdeeds. That could make users more comfortable speaking freely on the app, since they know they can retract their texts. Snapchat’s messages self-destruct unless purposefully saved to the thread by a user, permitting more off-the-cuff chatting.

But Unsend could also open vectors for abuse, as users could harass people over Messenger and then delete the evidence. Facebook will need to ensure that Unsend doesn’t accidentally become a weapon for bullies. That might mean allowing users to turn off the ability for their conversation partners to Unsend messages on a thread by thread basis, and/or a report button specifically for flagging messages that have since been retracted.

Facebook’s acquisition Instagram already lets users Unsend messages. But that chat product is more designed for having fun, discussing memes, and sharing photos with close friends. Messenger has positioned itself as a core communications utility for the world. Messing with the permanence of messages could make it feel less reliable or truthful to some users. When we talk in person, our conversations aren’t written in stone forever…but there’s also no way to force someone to forget what you said.

Here’s how to find out if your Facebook was hacked in the breach

Are you one of the 30 million users hit by Facebook’s access token breach announced two weeks ago? Here’s how to find out.

  1. Visit this Facebook Help center link while logged in: https://www.facebook.com/help/securitynotice?ref=sec.
  2. Scroll down to the section “Is my Facebook account impacted by this security issue?”
  3. Here you’ll see a Yes or No answer to whether your account was one of the 30 million users impacted
  4. If Yes, you’ll be in one of three categories:
    A. You’re in the 15 million users’ whose name plus email and/or phone number was accessed.
    B. You’re in the 14 million users’ who had that data plus account bio data accessed including “username, gender, locale/language, relationship status, religion, hometown, self-reported current city, birthdate, device types used to access Facebook, education, work, the last 10 places they checked into or were tagged in, website, people or Pages they follow, and the 15 most recent searches”.
    C. You’re in the 1 million users whose access token was stolen but your account was never actually accessed with it.

 

So what should you do if you were hacked?

  1. You don’t necessarily have to change your Facebook password or credit card info as there’s no evidence that data was accessed in the attack
  2. Watch out for spam or scam calls, emails, or messages as your contact info could have been sold to unscrupulous businesses
  3. Be on alert for phishing attempts that may try to email you and get you to sign in to one of your online accounts on a fake page that will steal your data. If you get a suspicious email that looks like it’s from Facebook, you can check here to see if it’s legitimate
  4. If you’re in group B who had their bio info accessed, you may want to contact your bank or cell phone provider and add additional security layers such as a pincode since hackers may have enough biographical info to perform social engineering attacks where they pretend to be you and use stolen data to answer security questions and gain access.