Author: Josh Constine

Instagram tests tapping instead of scrolling through posts, first in Explore

The effortless way you fast forward through Stories could be coming to more of Instagram . A screenshot from user Suprateek Bose shows Instagram “Introducing a new way to move through posts — Tap through posts, just like you tap through stories.”

Now Instagram confirms to TechCrunch that it’s testing tap to advance within Explore, and a spokesperson provided this statement: “We’re always testing ways to improve the experience on Instagram and bring you closer to the people and things you love.” As for whether this could come to the main feed, an Instagram spokesperson tells me that not something it’s actively thinking about right now.

Tap to advance, pioneered by Snapchat, eliminates the need for big thumbstrokes on your touch screen that can get tiring after awhile. It also means users always see media full-screen rather than having to fiddle with scrolling the perfect amount to see an entire post. Together, these create a more relaxing browsing experience that can devour hours of a user’s time. While Snapchat remains the teen favorite, Instagram could cater to seniors with arthritis with this new method of navigation.

The fact that tap-to-advance is now testing but Instagram still hasn’t actually rolled out the Your Activity screentime digital well-being dashboard it says was launching two months ago begs the question of whether it really wants us to be more purposeful with our social media usage.

Facebook rolls out 3D photos that use AI to simulate depth

What if you could peek behind what’s in your photos, like you’re moving your head to see what’s inside a window? That’s the futuristic promise of Facebook 3D photos. After announcing the feature at F8 in May, Facebook is now rolling out 3D photos to add make-believe depth to your iPhone portrait mode shots. Shoot one, tap the new 3D photos option in the status update composer, select a portrait mode photo, and users on the desktop or mobile News Feed as well as in VR through Oculus Go’s browser or Firefox on Oculus Rift. Everyone can now view 3D photos and the ability to create them will open to everyone in the coming weeks.

Facebook is constantly in search of ways to keep the News Feed interesting. What started with text and photos eventually expanded into videos and live broadcasts, and now to 360 photos and 3D photos. Facebook hopes if it’s the exclusive social media home for these new kinds of content, you’ll come back to explore and rack up some ad views in the mean time.

So how exactly do 3D photos work? Our writer Devin Coldeway did a deep-dive earlier this year into how Facebook uses AI to stitch together real layers of the photo with what it infers should be there if you tilted your perspective. Since portrait mode fires off both of a phone’s cameras simultaneously, parralax differences can be used to recreate what’s behind the subject.

To create the best 3D photos with your iPhone 7+, 8+, X or XS, Facebook recommends you keep your subject three to four feet away, and have things in the foreground and background. Distinct colors will make the layers separate better, and transparent or shiny objects like glass or plastic can throw off the AI.

Originally, the idea was to democrative the creation of VR content. But with headset penetration still relatively low, it’s the ability to display depth in the News Feed that will have the greatest impact for Facebook. In an era where Facebook’s cool is waning, hosting next-generation art forms could make it a must-visit property even as more of our socializing moves to Instagram.

Facebook Groups can now launch up to 250-person chat rooms

If you miss the old AOL chat rooms, you’ll love Facebook’s plan to combine Groups and with Messenger without spamming you to death. Starting today, Facebook will gradually roll out the ability for members of Facebook Groups to launch group chats about specific sub-topics that up to 250 members can join. They can also start audio or video calls with up to 50 members. A dog owners’ Group could spawn threads for discussing spontaneous park meetups, grooming tips, or sharing photos as they’re puppies grow up. Chat for Groups could make Facebook’s discussion forums more real-time and engaging, strengthening loyalty to one of the social network’s most differentiated features.

But instead of immediately alerting you of every message in every thread, you’ll first get a Facebook Groups notification inviting you to each new group chat you have to voluntarily join to receive further notifications. If you miss that initial alert, you can always go to the new Chat tab on Facebook Groups to browse the active threads or launch a new one. And if a Group chat gets overwhelming, you can turn off notifications about message reactions and Messenger games, or opt to only be notified if you’re @ mentioned in the thread. As a last resort against spam, Group admins can always shut down a group chat or limit their creation to only other admins.

Facebook has been poking around how it could integrate Messenger and Groups for a while. It already offers group chat for up to 250 members of a Facebook Event, and in 2016 Messenger tested public discussion “Rooms”. Now Facebook has settled on building chat as an extension of its existing Groups instead.

As the News Feed gets more politically combative and the algorithm preferences generalist content that’s appealing to everyone, there’s less room for niche interest content on Facebook. That’s contributed to an explosion of group chat activity on competitors like Telegram. WhatsApp revamped its own group chats with more admin tools in May to fight off this threat.

With 1.4 billion people active in Facebook Groups each month as part of tens of millions of active Groups, the feature generates a ton of activity and return visits for Facebook. With Groups Chats, Facebook expects users could “plan events, arrange in-person meetings, or have deeper discussions”. Messaging could also help Facebook build towards its goal of getting 1 billion people into what it calls “meaningful Groups” after it announce 200 million people already were as of May. With all the scandals plaguing its reputation and concerns that it polarizes the populace, Facebook is eager to find more ways to show it actually brings people together

Snapchat becomes the mobile HBO with 12 daily scripted Original shows

Snapchat needs reasons for teens to come back every day as it struggles to grow amidst competition from Instagram, so it’s capitalizing on its Los Angeles roots. Today Snapchat unveiled its fall slate of a dozen “Original” video shows including its first scripted programs from top producers like Keeping Up With The Kardashians creator Bunim/Murray and Friday Night Lights writer Carter Harris. There’s the supernatural soap opera Dead Girls Detective Agency, college comedy Co-Ed, and a docuseries about the “cash me outside” girl Bringing Up Bhabie.

The Snapchat Originals will appear in Discover, which will soon have a dedicated section for Shows, as well as new permanent Show Profile pages available through Snapchat search where users can sign up for push notifications when each episode is released. Reaction lenses make it easy to post about a Show’s biggest moments. And with new Show Portal lenses, users can stick an augmented reality doorway in their Snaps that they can walk through to explore a scene from the Show and then tap to watch that Show, allowing them to spread virally.

“Time spent watching shows on Snapchat has tripled this year alone” Snap’s VP of Original Content Sean Mills tells me. The stats on Snap’s previous 60 shows from CBS, Viacom, the NFL and others since the project launched two years ago made it clear there was an opportunity to double down, especially as original mobile programming efforts like Facebook Watch and Instagram’s IGTV have stumbled. NBC News’ twice daily show Stay Tuned has doubled viewership in the past year to 5 million unique viewers per day, over half of which watch at least 3 days per week, while SportsCenter’s show reaches 17 million monthly viewers.

Portal lenses use augmented reality to let viewers step inside a scene of an Original show and send the experience to friends

Snap CEO Evan Spiegel telegraphed today’s announcement in a leaked memo, noting that the app sees “over 18 Shows reaching monthly audiences of over 10M unique viewers. 12 of which are Original productions” and that “We are also working to identify content that is performing well outside of Snapchat so that we can bring it into Discover.”

Snap Inc was cagey about sharing exactly how the deals to produce the shows work. Some Originals are funded entirely by Snapchat, some fully by production studios, and some are joint efforts. Mills claims “We’re not bidding on shows that are being shopped around town.” They’re always shot vertically for Snapchat and will at least be exclusive to the platform for a window of time. Snap says the shows are created with fast-paced mobile behavior patterns in mind, employing overlaid graphics, split screens, quick cuts, and other modern video elements.

One thing’s for sure: Snap doesn’t want to follow Facebook’s footsteps in funding original content. With Watch and Live, Facebook paid out big upfront sums to secure creators, but when that funding dried up, it was unclear how the unsubsidized shows would survive. “We want to set these things up for longer-term success” says Mills. “We’re not trying to just seed the market with huge investments and then hope it turns into something later. We’re very interested in the viability of this at the onset.”

Originals will be monetized through two or three six-second unskippable Commercial ads in each show sold by Snap, the producers, or again a combination. Snap will try to seduce advertisers by pimping out its new Originals at the NewFronts West conference today in LA. The company will also embark on perhaps its biggest marketing effort to date after focusing on minimalist yellow billboards and airport security tray ads. Snapchat will be running ads on Reddit, Twitter, and YouTube plus some outdoor marketing in LA to clue people into its revamped content lineup. The dedicated Shows carousel  should also help the premium content rise above the news publisher clickbait and shoddy user generated content currently stuffed into Discover.

Snap can’t afford to spend too much on Original programming and not have it pay off with ad revenue. The company llost $353 million last quarter, and at this rate may have to raise more money in 2019 or it could run out. An analyst yesterday predicted they expected Snap would lose $1.5 billion in 2019, which dragged the share price to $7 — by far its lowest ever.

Snapchat’s forthcoming Shows channel in Discover and the new permanent profile pages for Shows

As I wrote 18 months ago, Snap’s big opportunity is to fashion itself as the HBO of smartphones and use that draw to get people hooked on its whimsical ephemeral messaging. Though the slate of Originals look higher quality than much of the reality-style and vlogger video content already made for mobile, Mills says Snap isn’t ready to commit the resources to forge its own tent pole Game Of Thrones. “We’re still in the phase of learning about what the audience wants. We’re not setting up for one premium epic show that’s going to bring in all the rest” Mills tells me. “It’s possible that in three months or six months we’ll start making bigger bets after learning what works.” So essentially, Snap is in the Sex In The City, pre-Sopranos stage of turning into the mobile box office, or it’s like a modern Netflix funding lots of experiments but that’s yet to find its House Of Cards.

After losing 3 million daily users and sinking to 188 million total last quarter, Snapchat needs something to reverse the growth trend. While Instagram and Facebook’s other apps have copied Snapchat’s Stories and visual messaging features, the Silicon Valley giant has yet to nail how to do premium mobile video content. If Snapchat can be the place for must-see TV on the go, it could lure in new and churned users looking for a relaxing escape from the competitive world of social media success theater.

Here’s the full list of new Snapchat Originals:

  • Endless Summer – Summer McKeen and Dylan Jordan try to balance love, friends, family, and fame in this intimate snapshot of their lives in Laguna Beach. Produced by Bunim/Murray Productions. Docuseries – launching 10/10
  • Class of Lies – Best friends and college roommates Devon and Missy crack cold cases on their successful true-crime podcast. But can they solve the most important case of all when their best friend disappears without a trace? Produced by Makeready. Scripted – launching 10/10
  • Co-Ed –  Juggling classes, parties, and down-the-hall crushes, freshman roommates Ginny and Chris try their best to face whatever college throws at them, discovering who they are along the way. Produced by Indigo Development, Entertainment Arts and DBP Donut. Scripted – launching 10/10
  • Vivian – Vivian, the youngest scout at modeling agency Wilhelmina, takes us inside an exclusive world where she has the power to make wannabes’ dreams come true — but can she do that for herself? Produced by NBCU Digital Lab, the Intellectual Property Corp. in association with Wilhelmina. Docuseries – launching 10/22
  • The Dead Girls Detective Agency – This darkly comedic supernatural soap follows Charlotte Feldman, a young woman who must work from beyond to figure out how and why she died, in order to avoid an eternity in purgatory. Based on the young-adult novel by Susie Cox. Produced by Indigo Development and Entertainment Arts, Insurrection, and Keshet. Scripted – launching 10/22
  • V/H/S – The next generation of the horror anthology series brings four new frightening experiences to the palm of your hand. Produced by Indigo Development and Entertainment Arts and Studio 71. Scripted – Launching 10/28
  • Bref – Based on the French format, Bref (loosely translated as “whatever”) is the story of a single man who is trying to live his best possible life with the least possible effort. Working title. Produced by Indigo Development and Entertainment Arts and Paramount TV. Scripted – launch date TBD
  • Bringing Up Bhabie – Follow the dramas of up-and-coming rap sensation and “cash me outside” viral star Bhad Bhabie, both onstage and off. Produced by Invent TV. Docuseries – launch date TBD
  • Growing Up Is a Drag – Follows the coming-of-age dramas of teen drag queens. Produced by Bunim/Murray Productions and PB&J TV + Docs. Docuseries – launch date TBD
  • Stunt Brothers – Three daredevil brothers obsessed with Hollywood movies recreate them at home with explosive consequences, and explore their archives of stunts from across the last 20 years. Produced by Magilla Entertainment. Docuseries – launch date TBD
  • Deep Creek – Follow a group of friends’ yearly summer trip to Deep Creek, Maryland — but this year, they all have emotional secrets to reveal. Produced by Woodman Park Productions. Scripted – launch date TBD
  • #Vanlife – Romantic comedy about a young couple that decides to opt out of the rat race and start a new life in a 2004 Dodge Sprinter — only to discover the glamorous life they’ve been following through hashtags is actually just straight-up living in a van. Working title. Produced by Indigo Development and Entertainment Arts and Above Average. Scripted – launch date TBS

Comparing Google Home Hub vs Amazon Echo Show 2 vs Facebook Portal

The war for the countertop has begun. Google, Amazon, and Facebook all revealed their new smart displays this month. Each hopes to become the center of your internet of things-equipped home and a window to your loved ones. The $149 Google Home Hub is  cheap and privacy-safe smart home controller. The $229 Amazon Echo Show 2 gives Alexa a visual complement. And the $199 Facebook Portal and $349 Portal+ offer a Smart Lens that automatically zooms in and out to keep you in frame while you video chat.

For consumers, the biggest questions to consider are how much you care about privacy, whether you really video chat, which smart home ecosystem you’re building around, and how much you want to spend.

  • For the privacy obsessed, Google’s Home Hub is the only one without a camera and it’s dirt cheap at $149.
  • For the privacy agnostic, Facebook’s Portal+ offers the best screen and video chat functionality
  • For the chatty, Amazon Echo Show 2 can do message and video chat over Alexa, call phone numbers, and is adding Skype

If you want to go off-brand, there’s also the Lenovo Smart Display with stylish hardware in a $249 10-inch 1080p version and a $199 8-inch 720p version. And for the audiophile, there’s the $199 JBL Link View. While those hit the market earlier than the platform-owned versions we’re reviewing here, they’re not likely to benefit from the constant iteration Google, Amazon, and Facebook are working on for their tabletop screens.

Here’s a comparison of the top smart displays, including their hardware specs, unique software, killer features, and pros and cons:

Instagram now uses machine learning to detect bullying within photos

Instagram and its users do benefit from the app’s ownership by Facebook, which invests tons in new artificial intelligence technologies. Now that AI could help keep Instagram more tolerable for humans. Today Instagram announced a new set of antii-cyberbullying features. Most importantly, it can now use machine learning to optically scan photos posted to the app to detect bullying and send the post to Instagram’s community moderators for review. That means harassers won’t be able to just scrawl out threatening or defamatory notes and then post a photo of them to bypass Instagram’s text filters for bullying.

In his first blog post directly addressing Instagram users, the division’s newly appointed leader Adam Mosseri writes “There is no place for bullying on Instagram . . . As the new Head of Instagram, I’m proud to build on our commitment to making Instagram a kind and safe community for everyone.” The filter for photos and captions rolls out over the next few weeks.

Instagram launched text filtering for bullying in May, but that could have just pushed trolls to attack people through images. Now, its bullying classifier can identify harassment in photos including insults to a person’s character, appearance, well-being, or health. Instagram confirms the image filter will work in feed and Stories. “Although this update only focuses on photos, we will be working to add protections for video, including IGTV, very soon” a spokesperson tells me.

Instagram users will see the “Hide Offensive Comments” setting defaulted on in their settings. They can also opt to manually list out words they want to filter out of their comments, and can choose to auto-filter the most commonly reported words.

Meanwhile, Instagram is expanding its proactive filter for bullying in comment from the feed, Explore, and profile to also protect Live broadcasts. It’s launching a “Kindness” camera effect in partnership with Maddie Ziegler, best known as the child dancer version of Sia from her music video “Chandelier”. The effect showers your image with hearts and prompts you to tag a friend you care about. It’ll be visible to in users’ camera effects tray if they follow Ziegler, or if they see a friend use it, they can try it themselves.

For Instagram to remain the favorite app of teens, it can’t let this vulnerable community be victimized. There’s been a lot of talk about Facebook intefering with Instagram after the photo app’s co-founders resigned. But the parent company’s massive engineering organization affords Instagram economies of scale that unlock tech like this bullying filter that an independent startup might not be able to develop.

Google+ to shut down after coverup of data-exposing bug

Google is about to have its Cambridge Analytica moment. A security bug allowed third-party developers to access Google+ user profile data since 2015 until Google discovered and patched it in March, but decided not to inform the world. When a user gave permission to an app to access their public profile data, the bug also let those developers pull their and their friends’ non-public profile fields. 496,951 users’ full names, email addresses, birth dates, gender, profile photos, places lived, occupation and relationship status were potentially exposed, though Google says it has no evidence the data was misused by the 438 apps that could have had access.

The company decided against informing the public because it would lead to “us coming into the spotlight alongside or even instead of Facebook despite having stayed under the radar throughout the Cambridge Analytica scandal” according to an internal memo. Now Google+, which was already a ghost town largely abandoned or never inhabited by users, has become a massive liability for the company.

The news comes from a damning Wall Street Journal report that said Google is expected to announce a slew of privacy reforms today in response to the bug. Google made that announcement about the findings of its Project Strobe security audit minutes after the WSJ report was published. The changes include stopping most third-party developers from accessing Android phone SMS data, call logs, and some contact info. Gmail will restrict building add-ons to a small number of developers. Google+ will cease all its consumer services while winding down over the next 10-months with an opportunity for users to export their data while Google refocuses on making G+ an enterprise product.

Google will also change its Account Permissions system for giving third-party apps access to your data such that you have to confirm each type of access individually rather than all at once. Gmail Add-Ons will be limited to those “directly enhancing email functionality”, including email clients, backup, CRM, mail merge, and productivity tools.

90 percent of Google+ sessions were less than 5 seconds

Embarrasingly, Google’s admits that “This review crystallized what we’ve known for a while: that while our engineering teams have put a lot of effort and dedication into building Google+ over the years, it has not achieved broad consumer or developer adoption, and has seen limited user interaction with apps. The consumer version of Google+ currently has low usage and engagement: 90 percent of Google+ user sessions are less than five seconds.” For more on G+’s demise, read our 2014 take on the beginning of the end.

Since the bug and subsequent security hole started in 2015 and was discovered in March before Europe’s GDPR went into effect in May, Google will likely be spared a 2 percent of global annual revenue fine for failing to disclose the issue within 72 hours. The company could still face class-action lawsuits and public backlash. On the bright side, G+ posts and messages, Google account data and phone numbers, and G Suite enterprise content wasn’t exposed.

How Google+ looked, in case you can’t remember

Given it’s unclear whether the G+ user data was scraped or if it will be employed for a nefarious purpose, the news of the bug itself might have eventually blow over, similar to how I wrote Facebook’s recent 50 million user privacy breach may be forgotten if no evil use is found. But because Google tried to cover up the problem because it didn’t meet some threshold of severity, the company looks much worse. That casts doubt on whether Google is being transparent on tons of other controversial questions about its practices.

The fiasco could thrust Google into the same churning sea of scrutiny currently drowning Facebook, just as the company feared. Google has managed to float above much of the criticism leveled at Facebook and Twitter, in part by claiming it’s not really a social network. But now its failed Facebook knock-off from seven years ago could drag down the search giant and see it endure increasingly calls for testimony before congress and regulation.