Author: Romain Dillet

The year social networks were no longer social

The term “social network” has become a meaningless association of words. Pair those two words and it becomes a tech category, the equivalent of a single term to define a group of products.

But are social networks even social anymore? If you have a feeling of tech fatigue when you open the Facebook app, you’re not alone. Watching distant cousins fight about politics in a comment thread is no longer fun.

Chances are you have dozens, hundreds or maybe thousands of friends and followers across multiple platforms. But those crowded places have never felt so empty.

It doesn’t mean that you should move to the woods and talk with animals. And Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn won’t collapse overnight. They have intrinsic value with other features — social graphs, digital CVs, organizing events…

But the concept of wide networks of social ties with an element of broadcasting is dead.

From interest-based communities to your lousy neighbor

If you’ve been active on the web for long enough, you may have fond memories of internet forums. Maybe you were a fan of video games, Harry Potter or painting.

Fragmentation was key. You could be active on multiple forums and you didn’t have to mention your other passions. Over time, you’d see the same names come up again and again on your favorite forum. You’d create your own running jokes, discover things together, laugh, cry and feel something.

When I was a teenager, I was active on multiple forums. I remember posting thousands of messages a year and getting to know new people. It felt like hanging out with a welcoming group of friends because you shared the same passions.

It wasn’t just fake internet relationships. I met “IRL” with fellow internet friends quite a few times. One day, I remember browsing the list of threads and learning about someone’s passing. Their significant other posted a short message because the forum meant a lot to this person.

Most of the time, I didn’t know the identities of the persons talking with me. We were all using nicknames and put tidbits of information in bios — “Stuttgart, Germany” or “train ticket inspector.”

And then, Facebook happened. At first, it was also all about interest-based communities — attending the same college is a shared interest, after all. Then, they opened it up to everyone to scale beyond universities.

When you look at your list of friends, they are your Facebook friends not because you share a hobby, but because you’ve know them for a while.

Facebook constantly pushes you to add more friends with the infamous “People you may know” feature. Knowing someone is one thing, but having things to talk about is another.

So here we are, with your lousy neighbor sharing a sexist joke in your Facebook feed.

As social networks become bigger, content becomes garbage.

Facebook’s social graph is broken by design. Putting names and faces on people made friend requests emotionally charged. You can’t say no to your high school best friend, even if you haven’t seen her in five years.

It used to be okay to leave friends behind. It used to be okay to forget about people. But the fact that it’s possible to stay in touch with social networks have made those things socially unacceptable.

Too big to succeed

One of the key pillars of social networks is the broadcasting feature. You can write a message, share a photo, make a story and broadcast them to your friends and followers.

But broadcasting isn’t scalable.

Most social networks are now publicly traded companies — they’re always chasing growth. Growth means more revenue and revenue means that users need to see more ads.

The best way to shove more ads down your throat is to make you spend more time on a service. If you watch multiple YouTube videos, you’re going to see more pre-roll ads. And there are two ways to make you spend more time on a social network — making you come back more often and making you stay longer each time you visit.

And 2018 has been the year of cheap tricks and dark pattern design. In order to make you come more often, companies now send you FOMO-driven notifications with incomplete, disproportionate information.

This isn’t just about opening an app. Social networks now want to direct you to other parts of the service. Why don’t you click on this bright orange banner to open IGTV? Look at this shiny button! Look! Look!

And then, there’s all the gamification, algorithm-driven recommendations and other Skinner box mechanisms. That tiny peak of adrenaline you get when you refresh your feed, even if it only happens once per week, is what’s going to make you come back again and again.

Don’t forget that Netflix wanted to give kids digital badges if they completed a season. The company has since realized that it was going too far. Still, U.S. adults now spend nearly six hours per day consuming digital media — and phones represent more than half of that usage.

Given that social networks need to give you something new every time, they want you to follow as many people as possible, subscribe to every YouTube channel you can. This way, every time you come back, there’s something new.

Algorithms recommend some content based on engagement, and guess what? The most outrageous, polarizing content always ends up at the top of the pile.

I’m not going to talk about fake news or the fact that YouTubers now all write titles in ALL CAPS to grab your attention. That’s a topic for another article. But YouTube shouldn’t be surprised that Logan Paul filmed a suicide victim in Japan to drive engagement and trick the algorithm.

In other words, as social networks become bigger, content becomes garbage.

Private communities

Centralization is always followed by decentralization. Now that we’ve reached a social network dead end, it’s time to build our own digital house.

Group messaging has been key when it comes to staying in touch with long-distance family members. But you can create your own interest-based groups and talk about things you’re passionate about with people who care about those things.

Social networks that haven’t become too big still have an opportunity to pivot. It’s time to make them more about close relationships and add useful features to talk with your best friends and close ones.

And if you have interesting things to say, do it on your own terms. Create a blog instead of signing up to Medium. This way, Medium won’t force your readers to sign up when they want to read your words.

If you spend your vacation crafting the perfect Instagram story, you should be more cynical about it. Either you want to make a career out of it and become an Instagram star, or you should consider sending photos and videos to your communities directly. Otherwise, you’re just participating in a rotten system.

If you want to comment on politics and life in general, you should consider talking about those topics with people surrounding you, not your friends on Facebook.

Put your phone back in your pocket and start a conversation. You might end up discussing for hours without even thinking about the red dots on all your app icons.

Discover the next messaging giant at Disrupt Berlin

Truecaller may already be a familiar name, but many of you probably don’t know that it’s slowly becoming a significant messaging app. That’s why I’m excited to announce that Truecaller co-founder and CEO Alan Mamedi will join us at TechCrunch Disrupt Berlin.

Truecaller first started as a call screening app. Some countries are more affected than others. But it’s clear that text and call spam is the most intrusive form of spam.

The Swedish company then leveraged this user base to quietly turn the app into a full-fledged messaging app with one focus in particular — India.

With the acquisition of Chillr, the company shows that it wants to recreate a sort of WeChat for India. The company launched payment features — Truecaller Pay lets you pay other Truecaller users as well as pay your bills.

Eventually, Truecaller wants to open up its platform to third-party services. Back in April, the company reported that it had 100 million daily active users.

If you’re impressed by Truecaller’s growth strategy, you should buy your ticket to Disrupt Berlin to listen to this discussion and many others. The conference will take place on November 29-30.

In addition to fireside chats and panels, like this one, new startups will participate in the Startup Battlefield Europe to win the highly coveted Battlefield cup.

Alan Mamedi

CEO & Co-founder, Truecaller

Alan Mamedi is the CEO and Co-founder of Truecaller. Truecaller is one of the leading communication apps in the world with services in messaging, payment, caller ID, spam detection, dialer functionalities, and has more than 300 million users globally. In this position, Alan focuses on product development and innovation, and charting the strategic roadmap for the company’s success. To date, Truecaller has raised 80 million USD from Sequoia Capital, Atomico, and Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.

Zyl is now a nostalgia-powered photo app

AI-powered photo management app Zyl is going back to the drawing board with a streamlined, more efficient redesign. The app is now focused on one thing only — resurfacing your old memories.

Taking photos on a smartphone is now a daily habit. But what about looking back at photos you took one year, three years or even eight years ago? It can pile up quite quickly. Zyl thinks there’s emotional value in those long-forgotten photos.

Before this update, Zyl helped you delete duplicates, create smart photo albums based on multiple criteria and collaborate on photo albums. In other words, it was a utility app.

But when the company started talking with some of their users, they realized that one feature stood out and had more value than the rest.

Applying those AI-powered models to your photo library is a great way to find interesting photos. But nobody was really looking at them.

When you open the app, you get a view of your camera roll with your last photos at the bottom. There’s also a big green button at the bottom. When you tap on it, Zyl creates a satisfying animation and unveils an important photo.

If you took multiple photos to capture this moment, the app stitches together those photos and create a GIF. You can then share this Zyl with a friend or family member.

But the true magic happens if you try to get another Zyl. You have to wait 24 hours to unlock another photo. The next day, the app sends you a notification when your photo is ready. You can always open the app again and look at your past Zyls in a new tab with your most important photos.

Unlike Timehop or Facebook’s “On This Day” feature, Zyl doesn’t look at your social media posts and focuses on your camera roll. Zyl isn’t limited to anniversaries either.

Just like before, Zyl respects your privacy and leaves your photos alone. They’re never sent to the company’s server — Zyl uses the same photo database as the native one on your iPhone or Android phone so it doesn’t eat up more storage.

Over time, the app could give you more options by leveraging facial recognition and the intrinsic social graph of your photo library. Maybe you want to see more photos of your brother as his wedding is coming up.

And that notification can be a powerful nudge. I keep opening the app and sharing old photos. Zyl is a good example of the combination of something that you care about combined with an element of surprise.

Relike lets you turn a Facebook page into a newsletter

French startup Ownpage has recently released a new product called Relike. Relike is one of the easiest ways to get started with email newsletters. You enter the web address of your Facebook page and that’s about it.

The company automatically pulls your most recent posts from your Facebook page and lets you set up an emailing campaign in a few clicks. You can either automatically pick your most popular Facebook posts or manually select a few posts.

Just like any emailing service, you can choose between multiple templates, decide the day of the week and time of the day, import a database of email addresses and more. If you’ve used Mailchimp in the past, you’ll feel right at home.

But the idea isn’t to compete directly with newsletter services. Many social media managers, media organizations, small companies, nonprofits and sports teams already have a Facebook page but aren’t doing anything on the email front.

Relike is free if you send less than 2,000 emails per month and don’t need advanced features. If you want to get open rates, click-through rates and other features, you’ll need to pay €5 per month and €0.50 every time you send 1,000 emails.

The company’s other product Ownpage is a bit different. Ownpage has been working with media organizations to optimize their email newsletters. The company is tracking reading habits on a news site and sending personalized email newsletters.

This way, readers will get tailored news and will more likely come back to your site. Many big French news sites use Ownpage for their newsletters, such as Les Echos, L’Express, 20 Minutes, BFM TV, Le Parisien, etc.

Ownpage founder and CEO Stéphane Cambon told me that Relike was the obvious second act. Using browsing data for customized newsletters is one thing, but many talented social media managers know how to contextualize stories and maximize clicks (even if it means clickbait, sure).

The startup was looking at a way to get this data, and ended up creating Relike, which could appeal to customers beyond news organizations. For now, both products will stick around. In the future, the company plans to add Twitter and Instagram integrations as well as better signup flows for newsletter subscribers.

Stealthy wants to become the WeChat of blockchain apps

Meet Stealthy a new messaging app that leverages Blockstack’s decentralized application platform to build a messaging app. The company is participating in TechCrunch’s Startup Battlefield at Disrupt SF and launching its app on iOS and Android today.

On the surface, Stealthy works like many messaging apps out there. But it gets interesting once you start digging to understand the protocol behind it. Stealthy is a decentralized platform with privacy in mind. It could become the glue that makes various decentralized applications stick together.

“We started Stealthy because Blockstack had a global hackathon in December of last year,” co-founder Prabhaav Bhardwaj told me. “We won that hackathon in February.” After that, the #deletefacebook movement combined with the overall decentralization trend motivated Bhardwaj and Alex Carreira to ship the app.

Blockstack manages your identity. You get an ID and a 12-word passphrase to recover your account. Blockstack creates a blockchain record for each new user. You use your Blockstack ID to connect to Stealthy.

Stealthy users then choose how they want to store their messages. You can connect your account with Dropbox, Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure, etc.

Every time you message someone, the message is first encrypted on your device and sent to your recipient’s cloud provider. Your recipient can then open the Stealthy app and decrypt the message from their storage system.

All of this is seamless for the end user. It works like an iMessage conversation, which means that Microsoft or Amazon can’t open and read your messages without your private key. You remain in control of your data. Stealthy plans to open source their protocol and mobile product so that anybody can audit their code.

Some features require a certain level of centralization. For instance, Stealthy relies on Firebase for push notifications. If you’re uncomfortable with that, you can disable that feature.

The company also wants to become your central hub for all sorts of decentralized apps (or dapps for short). For instance, you can launch Graphite Docs or Blockusign from Stealty. Those dapps are built on top of Blockstack as well, but Stealthy plans to integrate with other dapps that don’t work on Blockstack.

“We have dapp integrations in place right now and we want to make it easier to add dapp integrations. If somebody wants to come in and start selling messaging stickers, you could do that. If you want to come in and implement a payment system to pay bloggers, you could do that,” Bhardwaj said. “Eventually, what we want to be is to make it as easy as submitting an app in the App Store.”

When you build a digital product, chances are you’ll end up adding a messaging feature at some point. You can chat in Google Docs, Airbnb, Venmo, YouTube… And the same is likely to be true with dapps. Stealthy believes that many developers could benefit from a solid communication infrastructure — this way, other companies can focus on their core products and let Stealthy handle the communication layer.

Stealthy is an ambitious company. In many ways, the startup is trying to build a decentralized WeChat with the encryption features of Signal. It’s a messaging app, but it’s also a platform for many other use cases.

A handful of messaging apps have become so powerful that they’ve become a weakness. Governments can block them or leverage them to create a social ranking. Authorities can get a warrant to ask tech companies to hand them data. And of course, the top tech companies have become too powerful. More decentralization is always a good thing.

Here’s Ashton Kutcher’s advice to Jack Dorsey

It might feel like ancient internet history, but Ashton Kutcher was the first person to reach 1 million followers on Twitter back in 2009. Effie Epstein and Kutcher came to Disrupt to talk about their investment firm Sound Ventures. And Jordan Crook took a minute to ask Kutcher if he had any advice for Twitter.

While Kutcher is better known for his Hollywood career, he’s been active in the tech community for many years. He has invested in many successful companies, including Airbnb. And as an early power user of Twitter, he obviously has a lot of thoughts on the platform as it is today.

“I emailed [Jack Dorsey] five months ago and I just said I’d love to be able to segment my audience. I don’t think everybody who follows me on Twitter is interested in what company I’m investing in, I don’t think everybody who follows me on Twitter is interested in The Ranch on Netflix — if you haven’t seen it it’s a great show. I don’t think everybody wants to hear what my political views are,” Kutcher told interviewer Jordan Crook.

“Wouldn’t it be a better experience if you could segment your audience towards interest based? You could actually self-filter the feed as you post. So it eliminates the presumption that everybody wants to hear what you have to say about everything because I don’t think that’s the case. So here’s my advice.”

And it’s true that the mob effect often starts with tweets quoted out of context. By distributing an unfiltered feed of tweets, there’s a higher chance that some of your followers will get mad at you for one reason or another. Twitter was supposed to be an interest-based social graph. It got out of control.

You might think that the more popular you become, the more active you should be. But the opposite thing happened with Kutcher.

“I think there was a specific inflection point when there were so many media companies following people’s Twitter that it no longer remained a private conversation. Everything became public so if you made a mistake…” he said. “So at that point I was like, before I tweet something, I was going to say ‘hey, what do you think of this?’”

Gmail proves that some people hate smart suggestions

Gmail has recently introduced a brand new redesign. While you can disable or ignore most of the new features, Gmail has started resurfacing old unanswered emails with a suggestion that you should reply. And this is what it looks like:

The orange text immediately grabs your attention. By bumping the email thread to the top of your inbox, Gmails also breaks the chronological order of your inbox.

Gmail is also making a judgement by telling you that maybe you should have replied and you’ve been procrastinating. Social networks already bombard us constantly with awful content that makes us sad or angry. Your email inbox shouldn’t make you feel guilty or stressed.

Even if the suggestions can be accurate, it’s a bit creepy, it’s poorly implemented and it makes you feel like you’re no longer in control of your inbox.

There’s a reason why Gmail lets you disable all the smart features. Some users don’t want smart categories, important emails first and smart reply suggestions. Arguably, the only smart feature everyone needs is the spam filter.

A pure chronological feed of your email messages is incredibly valuable as well. That’s why many Instagram users are still asking for a chronological feed. Sure, algorithmic feeds can lead to more engagement and improved productivity. Maybe Google conducted some tests and concluded that you end up answering more emails if you let Gmail do its thing.

But you may want to judge the value of each email without an algorithmic ranking.

VCs could spot the next big thing without any bias. Journalists could pay attention to young and scrappy startups as much as the new electric scooter startup in San Francisco. Universities could give a grant to students with unconventional applications. The HR department of your company could look at all applications without following Google’s order.

When the Gmail redesign started leaking, a colleague of mine said “I look forward to digging through settings to figure out how to turn this off.” And the good news is that you can turn it off.

There are now two options to disable nudges in the settings on the web version of Gmail. You can tick off the boxes “Suggest emails to reply to” and “Suggest emails to follow up on” if you don’t want to see this orange text ever again. But those features should have never been enabled by default in the first place.

Zuckerberg doesn’t want to talk about changing the business model

Google is testifying once again before the congress about the Cambridge Analytica debacle and Facebook’s privacy policy in general. One representative in particular nailed down Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s position on many subjects.

The U.S. Representative for California's 18th congressional district Anna Eshoo started by setting the tone. “First, I believe that our democratic institutions are undergoing a stress test in our country,” she said. “Putting our private information on offer without concern for possible misuses is simply irresponsible,” she added.

Eshoo asked her constituants to submit questions that they want to ask Zuckerberg. The result is an intense four-minute yes-or-no round of questions.

While Zuckerberg was pretty good at answering yes or no to Eshoo’s questions, it wasn’t so simple with the business model question. “Are you willing to change your business model in the interest of protecting individual privacy?” she asked.

“Congresswoman, we have made and are continuing to make changes to reduce the amount of data…” Zuckerberg said. Eshoo stopped him and repeated her question word for word.

“Congresswoman, I’m not sure what that means,” Zuckerberg said.

Earlier questions were also quite telling. “Do you think you have a moral responsibility to run a platform that protects our democracy? Yes or no?” she asked. After a short hesitation, Zuckerberg answered yes.

Later in the conversation, Eshoo asked if Facebook would offer a blanket opt-in option to share their personal data with third-party companies.

“Congresswoman, yes, that’s how our platform works. You have to opt in to sign in to any app before you use it,” Zuckerberg said.

“Let me just add that it is a minefield in order to do that and you have to make it transparent, clear, in pedestrian language: ‘this is what we will do with your data, do you want this to happen or not?’ So I think this is being blurred, I think you know what I mean,” Eshoo said.

Even more interesting, when Zuckerberg said that Facebook was investigating third-party developers who “had access to large amounts of data,” Eshoo couldn’t take it.

“What does that mean?” she said. Zuckerberg repeated his answer about the internal investigation, without clarifying what Zuckerberg means by large amounts of data and who qualifies for that.

No other representative thought about asking a basic question about Cambridge Analytica’s data. Eshoo asked if Zuckerberg’s data was included in the data sold to the malicious third parties. Zuckerberg simply answered “yes.”

Facebook knows literally everything about you

Cambridge Analytica may have used Facebook’s data to influence your political opinions. But why does least-liked tech company Facebook have all this data about its users in the first place?

Let’s put aside Instagram, WhatsApp and other Facebook products for a minute. Facebook has built the world’s biggest social network. But that’s not what they sell. You’ve probably heard the internet saying “if a product is free, it means that you are the product.”

And it’s particularly true in this case because Facebook is the world’s second biggest advertising company in the world behind Google. During the last quarter of 2017, Facebook reported $12.97 billion in revenue, including $12.78 billion from ads.

That’s 98.5 percent of Facebook’s revenue coming from ads.

Ads aren’t necessarily a bad thing. But Facebook has reached ad saturation in the newsfeed. So the company has two options — creating new products and ad formats, or optimizing those sponsored posts.

Facebook has reached ad saturation in the newsfeed

This isn’t a zero-sum game — Facebook has been doing both at the same time. That’s why you’re seeing more ads on Instagram and Messenger. And that’s also why ads on Facebook seem more relevant than ever.

If Facebook can show you relevant ads and you end up clicking more often on those ads, then advertisers will pay Facebook more money.

So Facebook has been collecting as much personal data about you as possible — it’s all about showing you the best ad. The company knows your interests, what you buy, where you go and who you’re sleeping with.

You can’t hide from Facebook

Facebook’s terms and conditions are a giant lie. They are purposely misleading, too long and too broad. So you can’t just read the company’s terms of service and understand what it knows about you.

That’s why some people have been downloading their Facebook data. You can do it too, it’s quite easy. Just head over to your Facebook settings and click the tiny link that says “Download a copy of your Facebook data.”

In that archive file, you’ll find your photos, your posts, your events, etc. But if you keep digging, you’ll also find your private messages on Messenger (by default, nothing is encrypted).

And if you keep digging a bit more, chances are you’ll also find your entire address book and even metadata about your SMS messages and phone calls.

All of this is by design and you agreed to it. Facebook has unified terms of service and share user data across all its apps and services (except WhatsApp data in Europe for now). So if you follow a clothing brand on Instagram, you could see an ad from this brand on Facebook.com.

Messaging apps are privacy traps

But Facebook has also been using this trick quite a lot with Messenger. You might not remember, but the on-boarding experience on Messenger is really aggressive.

On iOS, the app shows you a fake permission popup to access your address book that says “Ok” or “Learn More”. The company is using a fake popup because you can’t ask for permission twice.

There’s a blinking arrow below the OK button.

If you click on “Learn More”, you get a giant blue button that says “Turn On”. Everything about this screen is misleading and Messenger tries to manipulate your emotions.

“Messenger only works when you have people to talk to,” it says. Nobody wants to be lonely, that’s why Facebook implies that turning on this option will give you friends.

Even worse, it says “if you skip this step, you’ll need to add each contact one-by-one to message them.” This is simply a lie as you can automatically talk to your Facebook friends using Messenger without adding them one-by-one.

The next time you pay for a burrito with your credit card, Facebook will learn about this transaction and match this credit card number with the one you added in Messenger

If you tap on “Not Now”, Messenger will show you a fake notification every now and then to push you to enable contact syncing. If you tap on yes and disable it later, Facebook still keeps all your contacts on its servers.

On Android, you can let Messenger manage your SMS messages. Of course, you guessed it, Facebook uploads all your metadata. Facebook knows who you’re texting, when, how often.

Even if you disable it later, Facebook will keep this data for later reference.

But Facebook doesn’t stop there. The company knows a lot more about you than what you can find in your downloaded archive. The company asks you to share your location with your friends. The company tracks your web history on nearly every website on earth using embedded JavaScript.

But my favorite thing is probably peer-to-peer payments. In some countries, you can pay back your friends using Messenger. It’s free! You just have to add your card to the app.

It turns out that Facebook also buys data about your offline purchases. The next time you pay for a burrito with your credit card, Facebook will learn about this transaction and match this credit card number with the one you added in Messenger.

In other words, Messenger is a great Trojan horse designed to learn everything about you.

And the next time an app asks you to share your address book, there’s a 99-percent chance that this app is going to mine your address book to get new users, spam your friends, improve ad targeting and sell email addresses to marketing companies.

I could say the same thing about all the other permission popups on your phone. Be careful when you install an app from the Play Store or open an app for the first time on iOS. It’s easier to enable something if a feature doesn’t work without it than to find out that Facebook knows everything about you.

GDPR to the rescue

There’s one last hope. And that hope is GDPR. I encourage you to read TechCrunch’s Natasha Lomas excellent explanation of GDPR to understand what the European regulation is all about.

Many of the misleading things that are currently happening at Facebook will have to change. You can’t force people to opt in like in Messenger. Data collection should be minimized to essential features. And Facebook will have to explain why it needs all this data to its users.

If Facebook doesn’t comply, the company will have to pay up to 4 percent of its global annual turnover. But that doesn’t stop you from actively reclaiming your online privacy right now.

You can’t be invisible on the internet, but you have to be conscious about what’s happening behind your back. Every time a company asks you to tap OK, think about what’s behind this popup. You can’t say that nobody told you.

Facebook has lost $60 billion in value

Facebook is having a bad day… for the second day in a row. Following the Cambridge Analytica debacle, Facebook shares (NASDAQ:FB) are currently trading at $164.07, down 4.9 percent compared to yesterday’s closing price of $172.56.

More importantly, if you look at Monday and Tuesday combined, Facebook shares are down 11.4 percent compared to Friday’s closing price of $185.09. In other words, Facebook was worth $537.69 billion on Friday evening when it comes to market capitalization. And Facebook is now worth $476.83 billion.

That’s how you lose $60 billion in market cap.