Author: Josh Constine

Facebook taps banks, but for chatbots not purchase data like Google

Backlash swelled this morning after Facebook’s aspirations in financial services were blown out of proportion by a Wall Street Journal report that neglected how the social network already works with banks. Facebook spokesperson Elisabeth Diana tells TechCrunch it’s not asking for credit card transaction data from banks and it’s not interested in building a dedicated banking feature where you could interact with your accounts. It also says its work with banks isn’t to gather data to power ad targeting, or even personalize content such as what Marketplace products you see based on what you buy elsewhere.

Instead, Facebook already lets Citibank customers in Singapore connect their accounts so they can ping their bank’s Messenger chatbot to check their balance, report fraud, or get customer service’s help if they’re locked out of their account without having to wait on hold on the phone. That chatbot integration, which has no humans on the other end to limit privacy risks, was announced last year and launched this March. Facebook works with PayPal in over 40 countries to let users get receipts via Messenger for their purchases.

Expansions of these partnerships to more financial services providers could boost usage of Messenger by increasing its convenience — and make it more of a centralized utility akin to China’s WeChat. But Facebook’s relationships with banks in the current form aren’t likely to produce a step change in ad targeting power that warrants significant heightening of its earning expectations. The reality of today’s news is out of step with the 3.5 percent share price climb triggered by the WSJ’s report.

“A recent Wall Street Journal story implies incorrectly that we are actively asking financial services companies for financial transaction data – this is not true. Like many online companies with commerce businesses, we partner with banks and credit card companies to offer services like customer chat or account management. Account linking enables people to receive real-time updates in Facebook Messenger where people can keep track of their transaction data like account balances, receipts, and shipping updates” Diana told TechCrunch. “The idea is that messaging with a bank can be better than waiting on hold over the phone – and it’s completely opt-in. We’re not using this information beyond enabling these types of experiences – not for advertising or anything else. A critical part of these partnerships is keeping people’s information safe and secure.”

Diana says banks and credit card companies have also approached it about potential partnerships, not just the other way around as the WSJ reports. She says any features that come from those talks with be opt-in, rather than happening behind users’ backs. The spokesperson stressed these integrations would only be built if they could be privacy safe. For example, signing up to use the Citibank Messenger chatbot requires two-factor authentication through your phone.

But renewed interest in Facebook’s dealings with banks comes at a time when many are pointing to its poor track record with privacy following the Cambridge Analytica scandal where people were duped into volunteering the personal info of them and their friends. Facebook hasn’t had a big traditional data breach where data was outright stolen, as has befallen LinkedIn, eBay, Yahoo [part of TechCrunch’s parent company], and others. But users are rightfully reluctant to see Facebook ingest any more of their sensitive data for fear it could leak or be misused.

Facebook has recently cracked down on the use of data brokers that suck in public and purchased data sets for ad targeting. It no longer lets data brokers upload Managed Custom Audience lists of user contact info or power Partner Categories for targeting ads based on interests. It also more admantly demands that advertisers have the consent of users whose email addresses or phone numbers they upload for Custom Audience targeting, though Facebook does little to verify that consent and advertisers could still buy data sets from brokers and upload them themselves.

Facebook’s statement today shows more scruples than Google, which last year struck an ad targeting data deals with data brokers that have access to 70 percent of credit and debit card transactions in the U.S. That led to a formal complaint to the FTC from the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

Cambridge Analytica has brought on an overdue era of scrutiny regarding privacy and how internet giants use our data. Practices that were overlooked, accepted as industry standard, or seen as just the way business gets done are coming under fire. Interent users aren’t likely to escape ads, and some would rather have those they see be relevant thanks to deep targeting data. But the combination of our offline purchase behavior with our online identities seems to trigger uproar absent from sites using cookies to track our web browsing and buying.

Facebook’s probably better off backing away from anything that involves sensitive data like checking account balances until Cambridge Analytica blows over and its proven its newfound sense of responsibility translates into a safer social networking. But at least for now, it’s not slurping up our banking data wholesale.

Facebook redesigns biz Pages for utility as feed reach declines

An unescapable fact of Facebook’s ubiquity is that as more Pages and people compete for limited News Feed attention, the percentage of a business’ followers who see their posts declines. Reach dropped 52 percent in just the first half of 2016, for example. Some admins consider it a conspiracy to get Pages to pay for ads boosting their posts, exacerbated by poor communication from Facebook and it telling businesses to work or advertise to get more followers that they now can’t reliably access via feed. But in reality, it’s a natural side effect of increased supply paired with plateuing demand.

That’s why Facebook is trying to redefine business Pages not as just a mouthpiece for marketing through News Feed, but a destination for customers. Today, Facebook is redesigning the Pages of the 80 million small businesses on its platform and the 1.6 billion people connected to them.

First, Pages will emphasize utility related to the business, like a “make appointment” or call option for a salons, and reservations and menus for restaurants. The recommendations users can give friends through Facebook’s special News Feed post format triggered when people ask for suggestions will now appear on a business’ Page too. To improve the quality of reviews left on Pages, there’s now a 25 character minimum.

One potentially controversial change is that Facebook will start showing a “Related Pages” on other Pages. “Inside the Facebook app there’s no easy way to discover new businesses” Facebook’s VP of Local Alex Himel tells me. He says, “The focus here is to make it easy to discover new businesses which we think any business will be excited about.” But if Related Pages promotes competing businesses, say a restaurant or barber next door, Page admins could feel like people specifically looking at their company could be directed elsewhere in a way that would never happen on their own website.

To provide promotional options beyond the feed, all small business Pages can now post ephemeral Stories. Facebook is all rolling out its job applications tab worldwide so small businesses can easily find staffing. Both of these could blossom into advertising opportunities at a time when Facebook’s revenue is declining and it needs more income streams. Himel notes that 2/3s of businesses say Facebok has helped them increase sales.

Finally, Facebook is adding a Local bookmark to the desktop site that opens the same nearby businesses and events guide it offers through its standalone Facebook Local app on mobile it launched in 2016. 700 million people now connect with Facebook Events each month, so that medium has become an important bridge between businesses and customers.

Himel promises that Facebook will be talking more soon about how local businesses can stay relevant and visible in the News Feed. “We know that the core value that we bring to businesses on the platform is reach  Instead of time spent, we’re focusing on having meaningful interactions in your feed We know w alto of meaningful interactions are about local businesses or with local businesses. We’re planning to talk about this later this half (year) to help businesses make sure their meaningful interactions add value and are ranked well in the feed.”

But for now, at least Facebook is making Pages more valuable at a time when merchants might wonder why they’re on the platform if it’s so hard to get News Feed distribution.

Facebook Dating will be a feature, not an app; here’s a peek

Facebook Dating doesn’t plan to launch a standalone dating app, which should temper expectations about how deeply it’s diving into Tinder and Match Group’s territory. The feature will be based inside Facebook’s main app, alongside its many other utilities buried beyond the home screen. It’s not ready for the public yet, but company employees are now internally testing it — though they’re warned that it’s not for dating their co-workers.

Facebook gave a preview of its Dating features back in May at its F8 conference. Now we’re getting an early look at its onboarding process thanks to screenshots pulled from the Facebook app’s code by mobile researcher and frequent TechCrunch tipster Jane Manchun Wong. The designs give a sense of the more mature vibe of Facebook Dating, which seems more purposeful for finding a serious partner than a one-night stand.

Once you opt in to activating Facebook Dating, only other people who have also turned it on will be able to see you, and it won’t be shared to News Feed. You can choose if friends of friends can see you or not, and Dating profiles allow non-binary and transgender and orientation options. You’ll unlock Groups or Events you’re a part of for Dating, and you’ll be able to browse potential matches based on the plethora of info Facebook knows about you. If two people express interest in each other (no swiping), they can text each other over Messenger or WhatsApp.

TechCrunch has learned some new details from Facebook, as well. Facebook is considering a limit on how many people you can express interest in, which would prevent a spammy behavior of rapidly approving everyone you see. Blocking someone on Dating won’t also block them on Facebook, though that’s not finalized.

Facebook has no plan for paid subscriptions to premium Dating features. It’s currently not going to show ads in Dating, though it could reconsider that later.

Dating will be 18+ only in the U.S. and abide by local laws on who is considered an “adult.”

For now Facebook is taking careful steps toward Dating. It’s not blitzing into the market with a big flashy app. Instead it’s hoping the feature could create the meaningful relationships that make people appreciate Facebook and stick with it over the years. That’s more important than ever with all its recent troubles.

Instagram’s CEO on vindication after 2 years of reinventing Stories

“I think the mistake everyone made was to think that Stories was a photography product” says Instagram CEO Kevin Systrom. “If you look at all these interactivity features we’ve added, we’ve really made Stories something else. We’ve really innovated and made it our own.”

His version of the ephemeral slideshow format turns two years old today. By all accounts, it’s a wild success. Instagram Stories has 400 million daily users, compared to 191 million on Snapchat which pioneered Stories. While the first year was about getting to parity with augmented reality filters and stickers, the two have since diverged. Instagram chose the viral path.

Snapchat has become more and more like Photoshop, with its magic eraser for removing objects, its green screen-style, background changer, scissors for cut-and-pasting things, and its fill-in paint bucket. These tools are remarkably powerful for living in a teen-centric consumer app. But many of these artistic concepts are too complicated for day-to-day Snapping. People don’t even think of using them when they could. And while what they produce is beautiful, they get tapped past and disappear just like any other photo or video.

Instagram could have become Photoshop. Its early photo-only feed’s editing filters and sliders pointed in that direction. Instead, it chose to focus not on the “visual” but the “communication”. Instagram increasingly treats Stories as a two-way connection between creators and fans, or between friends. It’s not just one-to-many. It’s many-to-one as well.

Instagram Stories arrived three years after Snapchat Stories, yet it was the first to let you tag friends so they’d get a notification. Now those friends can repost Stories you tag them in, or public posts they want to comment on. You could finally dunk on other Instagrammers like you do with quote-tweets. It built polls with sliders friends can move to give you feedback about “how ridiculous is my outfit today?” Music stickers let you give a corny joke a corny soundtrack or share the epic song you heard in your head while looking out upon a beautiful landscape. And most recently, it launched the Question sticker so you can query friends through your Story and then share their answers there too. Suddenly, anyone could star in their own “Ask Me Anything”.

None of these Instagram tools require much ‘skill’. They’re designed not for designers, but for normal people trying to convey how they feel about the world around them. Since we’re social creatures, that perception is largely colored by their friends or audience. Instagram lets you make them part of the Story. And the result is a product that grabs non-users or casual users and pulls them deeper into the Instagram universe, exposing people to the joy of creating something the last until tomorrow, not always forever.

Snap has been trying to get more interactive too, adding tagging for instance. It’s also got new multiplayer filter games called Snappables you play with your face and can then post the footage to your Story. But again, they feel overly involved and therefore less accessible than where Instagram is going.

Mimicking Photoshop reinforces the idea that everything has to look polished. That’s the opposite of what Systrom was going for with the launch of Instagram Stories. “There will always be an element in any public broadcast system of trying to show off” Systrom explains. “But what I see is it moving in the other direction. GIF stickers allow you to be way more informal than you used to be. Type mode means now people are just typing in thoughts rather than actually taking photos. Things like Superzoom with the TV effect or the beats — it’s anything but polished. If anything it’s a joke. Quantitatively people feel comfortable to post way more stories than to feed.”

Systrom is about to go on paternity leave, and has been using Stories from friends with kids to collect ideas about what to do with his own. When asked if he thinks Stories produces less of the dangerous envy inherent in the feeds of social media success theater we passively consume, Systrom tells me “Just personally, it’s inspired me rather than it’s created any sense that I’m missing out”. Of course, that might be related to the fact that his life of attending the Met Gala and bicycling through Europe doesn’t leave much to envy.

AR filters have become table-stakes for Stories. On the left, Instagram. On the right, Snapchat.

The sense of comfort powered by Instagram purposefully pushing Stories to diverge from its classy feed has contributed to its explosion in popularity — not just for Stories but Instagram as a whole. It now has over 1 billion users, in part driven by it introducing Stories to developing countries Snapchat never penetrated.

“Remember how at the launch of Stories, I said it was a format and we want to make it original? And there was a bunch of criticism around us adopting this format? My response was this is a format and we’re going to innovate and make it our own. The whole idea there is to make it not just about photography but about expression. It’s a canvas for you to express yourself.” Stories emerged as how Instagram expressed itself too, allowing it to break away from the staid perfection of the feed, becoming something much more goofy.

Last week when Facebook announced its revenue was decelerating as users shifted attention from its lucrative News Feed to Stories where it’s still educating advertisers, its share price tanked, deleting $120 billion in market cap. Yet imagine how much further it would have dropped if Systrom hadn’t been willing to put his pride aside, take Snapchat Stories, and give it the Insta spin? Instead, it led the way to Facebook now having over 1.1 billion (duplicated) daily Stories users across its apps. The poises Facebook and Instagram to earn a ton off of Stories.”

“There was a long time that desktop advertising worked really really well but we knew the future was mobile and we’d have to go there. There was some short term pain. Everyone was worried that went wouldn’t monetize as well” Systrom remembers. “We believe the future is the combination of feed and Stories, and it just takes time for Stories to get to the same level or even exceed feed.”

So does he feel vindicated in that once-derided decision to think of Stories not as Evan Spiegel’s property but a medium meant for everyone? “I don’t wake up everyday trying to feel vindicated. I wake up everyday trying to make sure our billion users have amazing stuff to use. I just feel lucky that they love what we produce” Systrom says with a laugh. “I don’t know if that fits your definition of vindicated.”

WhatsApp finally earns money by charging businesses for slow replies

Today WhatsApp launches its first revenue-generating enterprise product and the only way it currently makes money directly from its app. The WhatsApp Business API is launching to let businesses respond to messages from users for free for up to 24 hours, but will charge them a fixed rate by country per message sent after that.

Businesses will still only be able to message people who contacted them first, but the API will help them programatically send “shipping confirmations, appointment reminders or event tickets. Clients can also use it respond to manually respond to customer service inquiries through their own tool or apps like Zendesk, MessageBird, or Twilio. And small businesses who are one of the 3 million users of the WhatsApp For Business app can still use it to send late replies one-by-one for free.

After getting acquired by Facebook for $19 billion in 2014, it’s finally time for the 1.5 billion-user WhatsApp to pull its weight and contribute some revenue. If Facebook can pitch the WhatsApp Business API as a cheaper alternative to customer service call centers, the convenience of asynchronous chat could compel users to message companies instead of phoning.

Only charging for slow replies after 24 hours since a user’s last message is a genius way to create a growth feedback loop. If users get quick answers via WhatsApp, they’ll prefer it other channels. Once businesses and their customers get addicted to it, WhatsApp could eventually charge for all replies or any that exceed a volume threshold, or cut down the free window. Meanwhile, businesses might be too optimistic about their response times and end up paying more often than the expect, especially when messages come in on weekends or holidays.

WhatsApp first announced it would eventually charge for enterprise service last September when it launched its free WhatsApp For Business app that now has 3 million users and remains free for all replies, even late ones.

Importantly, WhatsApp stresses that all messaging between users and businesses, even through the API, will be end-to-end encrypted. That contrasts with the Washington Post’s report that Facebook pushing to weaken encryption for WhatsApp For Business message is partly what drove former CEO Jan Koum to quit WhatsApp and Facebook’s board in April. His co-founder Brian Acton had ditched Facebook back in September and donated $50 million to the foundation of encrypted messaging app Signal.

Today WhatsApp is also formally launching its new display ads product worldwide. But don’t worry, they won’t be crammed into your chat inbox like with Facebook Messenger. Instead, businesses will be able to buy ads on Facebook’s News Feed that launch WhatsApp conversations with them…thereby allowing them to use the new Business API to reply. TechCrunch scooped that this was coming last September, when code in Facebook’s ad manager revealed the click-to-WhatsApp ads option, and the company confirmed the ads were in testing. Facebook launched similar click-to-Messenger ads back in 2015.

Finally, WhatsApp also tells TechCrunch its planning to run ads in its 450 million daily user Snapchat Stories clone called Status. “WhatsApp does not currently run ads in Status though this represents a future goal for us, starting in 2019. We will move slowly and carefully and provide more details before we place any Ads in Status” a spokesperson told us. Given WhatsApp Status is over twice the size of Snapchat, it could earn a ton on ads between Stories, especially if it’s willing to make some unskippable.

Together, the ads and API will replace the $1 per year subscription fee WhatsApp used to charge in some countries but dropped in 2016. With Facebook’s own revenue decelerating, triggering a 20 percent, $120 billion market cap drop in its share price, it needs to show it has new ways to make money now more than ever.

Facebook and Instagram now show how many minutes you use them

It’s passive zombie feed scrolling, not active communication with friends that hurts our health, according to studies Facebook has been pointing to for the last seven months. Yet it’s treating all our social networking the same with today’s launch of its digital wellbeing screentime management dashboards for Facebook and Instagram in the US before rolling them out to everyone in the coming weeks.

Giving users a raw count of the minutes you’ve spent in their apps each day in the last week plus your average across the week is a good start to making users more mindful. But by burying them largely out of sight, giving them no real way to compel less usage, and not distinguishing between passive and active behavior, they seem destined to be ignored while missing the point the company itself stresses.

TechCrunch scooped the designs of the two separate but identical Instagram and Facebook tools over the past few months thanks to screenshots generated from the apps’ code by Jane Manchun Wong. What’s launching today is what we saw, with the dashboards located in Facebook’s “Settings” -> “Your Time On Facebook” and Instagram’s “Settings” -> “Your Activity”.

Beyond the daily and average minute counts, you can set a daily “limit” in minutes after which either app will send you a reminder that you’ve crossed your self-imposed threshold. But they won’t stop you from browsing and liking, or force you to dig into the settings menu to extend your limit. You’ll need the willpower to cut yourself off. The tools also let you mute push notifications (you’ll still see in-app alerts), but only for as much as 8 hours. If you want anything more permanent, you’ll have to dig into their separate push notification options menu or your phone’s settings.

The announcement follows Instagram CEO Kevin Systrom’s comments about our original scoop, where he tweeted “It’s true . . . We’re building tools that will help the IG community know more about the time they spend on Instagram – any time should be positive and intentional . . . Understanding how time online impacts people is important, and it’s the responsibility of all companies to be honest about this. We want to be part of the solution. I take that responsibility seriously.”

Users got their first taste of Instagram trying to curtail overuse with its “You’re All Caught Up” notices that show when you’ve seen all your feed posts from the past two days. Both apps will now provide callouts to users teaching them about the new activity monitoring tools. Facebook says it has no plans to use whether you open the tools or set daily limits to target ads. It will track how people use the tools to tweak the designs, but it sounds like that’s more about what time increments to show in the Daily Reminder and Mute Notifications options than drastic strengthenings of their muscle. Facebook will quietly keep a tiny fraction of users from getting the features to measure if the launch impacts behavior.

“It’s really important for people who use Instagram and Facebook that the time they spend with us is time well spent” Ameet Ranadive, Instagram’s Product Director of Well-Being, told reporters on a conference call. “There may be some tradeoff with other metrics for the company and that’s a tradeoff we’re willing to live with, because in the longer term we think this is important to the community and we’re willing to invest in it.”

Facebook Needs Stronger Screen Time Tools That Deter Passive Browsing

Facebook has already felt some of the brunt of that tradeoff. It’s been trying to improve digital wellbeing by showing fewer low quality viral videos and clickbait news stories, and more from your friends since a big algorithm change in January. That’s contributed to a flatlining of its growth in North America, and even a temporary drop of 700,000 users early this year while it also lost 1 million users in Europe this past quarter. That led to Facebook’s slowest user growth rates in history, triggering a 20 percent, $120 billion market cap drop in its share price. “The changes to the News Feed back in January were one step . . . giving people a sense of their time so they’re more mindful of it is the second step” says Ranadive.

The fact that Facebook is willing to put its finances on the line for digital wellbeing is a great step. It’s a smart long-term business decision too. If we feel good about our overall usage, we won’t ditch the apps entirely and could keep seeing their ads for another decade. But it’s likely to be changes to the Facebook and Instagram feeds that prioritize content you’ll comment on rather than look at and silently scroll past that will contribute more to healthy social networking than today’s toothless tools.

While iOS 12’s Screen Time and Android’s new Digital Wellbeing features both count your minutes on different apps too, they offer more drastic ways to enforce your own good intentions. iOS will deliver a weekly usage report to remind you the features exist. Android’s is best-in-class because it grays out an app’s icon and requires you to open your settings to unlock an app after you exceed your daily limit.

iOS Screen Time (left) and Android Digital Wellbeing (right)

To live up to the responsibility Systrom promised, Facebook and Instagram will have to do more to actually keep us mindful of the time we spend in their apps and help us help ourselves. Let us actually lock ourselves out of the apps, turn them grayscale, fade their app icons, or persistently show our minute count onscreen once we pass our limit. Anything to make being healthy on their apps something you can’t just ignore like any other push notification.

Or follow the research and have the dashboards actually divide our sharing, commenting, and messaging time from our feed scrolling, Stories tapping, video watching, and photo stalking. The whole point is that social networking isn’t all bad, but there are behaviors that hurt. Most of us aren’t going to give up Facebook and Instagram. Even just trying to spend less time on them is difficult. But by guiding us towards the activities that interconnect us rather than isolate us, Facebook could get us to shift our time in the right direction.

Midterm attackers cited Black Lives Matter in false flag Facebook rally

Unknown midterm election attackers that Facebook has removed were hosting a political rally next month that they pinned on Black Lives Matter, Antifa, and other organizations, according to third-party event websites that scraped the now-removed Facebook events.

Facebook provided an image of the deleted “No Unite The Right 2 – DC” event as part of its announcement today that merely showed its image, title, date, location, and that a Page called “Resisters” was one of the hosts of the propaganda event. But a scraped event description TechCrunch discovered on Rallyist provides deeper insight into the disruptive information operation. Facebook won’t name the source of the election interference but said the attackers shared a connection through a single account to the Russian Internet Research Agency responsible for 2016 presidential election interference on Facebook.

“We are calling all anti-fascists and people of good conscience to participate in international days of action August 10 through August 12 and a mass mobilization in Washington DC” the description reads. “We occupy ICE offices, confront racism, antisemitism, islamaphobia, xenophobia, and white nationalism. We will be in the streets on August 10-12, and we intend to win.”

But what’s especially alarming is how the event description concludes [emphasis mine, in full below]. “Signed, Black Lives Matter Charlottesville, Black Lives Matter D.C., Charlottesville Summer of Resistance Welcoming Committee Agency, Crimethinc Ex-Workers Collective, Crushing Colonialism, D.C. Antifascist Collective, Future is Feminists, Holler Network, Hoods4Justice, The International, Capoeira Angola Foundation-DC (FICA-DC), Libertarian Socialist Caucus Of The DSA, March For Racial Justice, Maryland Antifa, One People’s Project, Resist This (Former DisruptJ20), Rising Tide North America, Smash Racism D.C., Showing Up for Racial Justice Charlottesville, Suffolk County DSA, Workers Against Racism, 350 DC.”

It’s unclear if the attackers effectively ‘forged’ the signature of these groups, or duped them into signing off on supporting the rally. The attackers were potentially trying to blame these groups for the rallies in an effort to further sow discord in the political landscape.

Facebook initially provided no comment about the description of the event, but then confirmed that it was originally created by the attackers’ since-deleted Page ‘Resisters’ which then later added several legitimate organizations as co-hosts: Millenials For Revolution, March To Confront White Supremacy – from Charlottesville to DC, Workers Against Racism – WAR, Smash Racism DC, and Tune Out Trump. Strangely, those co-hosts have relaunched a new event with a similar name “Nazis Not Welcome No Unite The Right 2” and similar description including a similar but expanded “Signed by” list, and now include BLM Charlottesville and D.C. as co-hosts.

Meanwhile, Facebook also shared an image of a November 4th, 2017 “Trump Nightmare Must End – NYC” event, also without details of the description. A scraped version on the site AllEvents shows the description as “History has shown that fascism must be stopped before it becomes too late. There is only one force that can stop this nightmare: we, the people, acting together. On November 4 we’ll take to the streets demanding that Trump regime must go! We meet at Times Square (42 St and Broadway) at 2 PM!”

The co-opting of left-wing messaging and protests is a powerful strategy for the election interferers. It could provide the right-wing with excuses to claim that all left-wing protest against Trump or white supremacy is actually foreign governments or hackers, and that those protests don’t represent the views of real Americans.