Category Archives: Mobile

My product launch wishlist for Instagram, Twitter, Uber and more

‘Twas the night before Xmas, and all through the house, not a feature was stirring from the designer’s mouse . . . Not Twitter! Not Uber, Not Apple or Pinterest! On Facebook! On Snapchat! On Lyft or on Insta! . . . From the sidelines I ask you to flex your code’s might. Happy Xmas to all if you make these apps right.

Instagram

See More Like This – A button on feed posts that when tapped inserts a burst of similar posts before the timeline continues. Want to see more fashion, sunsets, selfies, food porn, pets, or Boomerangs? Instagram’s machine vision technology and metadata would gather them from people you follow and give you a dose. You shouldn’t have to work through search, hashtags, or the Explore page, nor permanently change your feed by following new accounts. Pinterest briefly had this feature (and should bring it back) but it’d work better on Insta.

Web DMs Instagram’s messaging feature has become the defacto place for sharing memes and trash talk about people’s photos, but it’s stuck on mobile. For all the college kids and entry-level office workers out there, this would make being stuck on laptops all day much more fun. Plus, youth culture truthsayer Taylor Lorenz wants Instagram web DMs too.

Upload Quality Indicator – Try to post a Story video or Boomerang from a crummy internet connection and they turn out a blurry mess. Instagram should warn us if our signal strength is low compared to what we usually have (since some places it’s always mediocre) and either recommend we wait for Wi-Fi, or post a low-res copy that’s replaced by the high-res version when possible.

Oh, and if new VP of product Vishal Shah is listening, I’d also like Bitmoji-style avatars and a better way to discover accounts that shows a selection of their recent posts plus their bio, instead of just one post and no context in Explore which is better for discovering content.

Twitter

DM Search – Ummm, this is pretty straightforward. It’s absurd that you can’t even search DMs by person, let alone keyword. Twitter knows messaging is a big thing on mobile right? And DMs are one of the most powerful ways to get in contact with mid-level public figures and journalists. PS: My DMs are open if you’ve got a news tip — @JoshConstine.

Unfollow Suggestions – Social networks are obsessed with getting us to follow more people, but do a terrible job of helping us clean up our feeds. With Twitter bringing back the option to see a chronological feed, we need unfollow suggestions more than ever. It should analyze who I follow but never click, fave, reply to, retweet, or even slow down to read and ask if I want to nix them. I asked for this 5 years ago and the problem has only gotten worse. Since people feel like their feeds are already overflowing, they’re stingy with following new people. That’s partly why you see accounts get only a handful of new followers when their tweets go viral and are seen by millions. I recently had a tweet with 1.7 million impressions and 18,000 Likes that drove just 11 follows. Yes I know that’s a self-own.

Analytics Benchmarks – If Twitter wants to improve conversation quality, it should teach us what works. Twitter offers analytics about each of your tweets, but not in context of your other posts. Did this drive more or fewer link clicks or follows than my typical tweet? That kind of info could guide users to create more compelling content.

Facebook

(Obviously we could get into Facebook’s myriad problems here. A less sensationalized feed that doesn’t reward exaggerated claims would top my list. Hopefully its plan to downrank “borderline content” that almost violates its policies will help when it rolls out.)

Batched Notifications – Facebook sends way too many notifications. Some are downright useless and should be eliminated. “14 friends responded to events happening tomorrow”? “Someone’s fundraiser is half way to its goal?” Get that shit out of here. But there are other notifications I want to see but that aren’t urgent nor crucial to know about individually. Facebook should let us decide to batch notifications so we’d only get one of a certain type every 12 or 24 hours, or only when a certain number of similar ones are triggered. I’d love a digest of posts to my Groups or Events from the past day rather than every time someone opens their mouth.

I so don’t care

Notifications In The “Time Well Spent” Feature – Facebook tells you how many minutes you spent on it each day over the past week and on average, but my total time on Facebook matters less to me than how often it interrupts my life with push notifications. The “Your Time On Facebook” feature should show how many notifications of each type I’ve received, which ones I actually opened, and let me turn off or batch the ones I want fewer of.

Oh, and for Will Cathcart, Facebook’s VP of apps, can I also get proper syncing so I don’t rewatch the same Stories on Instagram and Facebook, the ability to invite people to Events on mobile based on past invite lists of those I’ve hosted or attended, and the See More Like This feature I recommended for Instagram?

Uber/Lyft/Ridesharing

“Quiet Ride” Button – Sometimes you’re just not in the mood for small talk. Had a rough day, need to get work done, or want to just zone out? Ridesharing apps should offer a request for a quiet ride that if the driver accepts, you pay them an extra dollar (or get it free as a loyalty perk), and you get ferried to your destination without unnecessary conversation. I get that it’s a bit dehumanizing for the driver, but I’d bet some would happily take a little extra cash for their compliance.

“I Need More Time” Button – Sometimes you overestimate the ETA and suddenly your car is arriving before you’re ready to leave. Instead of cancelling and rebooking a few minutes later, frantically rushing so you don’t miss your window and get smacked with a no-show fee, or making the driver wait while they and the company aren’t getting paid, Uber, Lyft, and the rest should offer the “I Need More Time” button that simply rebooks you a car that’s a little further away.

Spotify/Music Streaming Apps

Scan My Collection – I wish I could just take photos of the album covers, spines, or even discs of my CD or record collection and have them instantly added to a playlist or folder. It’s kind of sad that after lifetimes of collecting physical music, most of it now sits on a shelf and we forget to play what we used to love. Music apps want more data on what we like, and it’s just sitting there gathering dust. There’s obviously some fun viral potential here too. Let me share what’s my most embarrassing CD. For me, it’s my dual copies of Limp Bizkit’s “Significant Other” because I played the first one so much it got scratched.

Friends Weekly Spotify ditched its in-app messaging, third-party app platform, and other ways to discover music so its playlists would decide what becomes a hit in order to exert leverage over the record labels to negotiate better deals. But music discovery is inherently social and the desktop little ticker of what friends are playing on doesn’t cut it. Spotify should let me choose to recommend my new favorite song or agree to let it share what I’ve recently played most, and put those into a Discover Weekly-style social playlist of what friends are listening to.

Snapchat

Growth – I’m sorry, I had to.

Bulk Export Memories – But seriously, Snapchat is shrinking. That’s worrisome because some users’ photos and videos are trapped on its Memories cloud hosting feature that’s supposed to help free up space on your phone. But there’s no bulk export option, meaning it could take hours of saving shots one at a time to your camera roll if you needed to get off of Snapchat, if for example it was shutting down, or got acquired, or you’re just bored of it.

Add-On Cameras – Snapchat’s Spectacles are actually pretty neat for recording first-person or underwater shots in a circular format. But otherwise they don’t do much more, and in some ways do much less, than your phone’s camera and are a long way from being a Magic Leap competitor. That’s why if Snapchat really wants to become a “Camera Company”, it should build sleek add-on cameras that augment our phone’s hardware. Snap previously explored selling a 360-camera but never launched one. A little Giroptic iO-style 360 lens that attaches to your phone’s charging port could let you capture a new kind of content that really makes people feel like they’re there with you. An Aukey Aura-style zoom lens attachment that easily fits in your pocket unlike a DSLR could also be a hit

iOS

Switch Wi-Fi/Bluetooth From Control Center – I thought the whole point of Control Center was one touch access, but I can only turn on or off the Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. It’s silly having to dig into the Settings menu to switch to a different Wi-Fi network or Bluetooth device, especially as we interact with more and more of them. Control Center should unfurl a menu of networks or devices you can choose from.

Shoot GIFs – Live Photos are a clumsy proprietary format. Instagram’s Boomerang nailed what we want out of live action GIFs and we should be able to shoot them straight from the iOS camera and export them as actual GIFs that can be used across the web. Give us some extra GIF settings and iPhones could have a new reason for teens to choose them over Androids.

Gradual Alarms – Anyone else have a heart attack whenever they hear their phone’s Alarm Clock ringtone? I know I do because I leave my alarms on so loud that I’ll never miss them, but end up being rudely shocked awake. A setting that gradually increases the volume of the iOS Alarm Clock every 15 seconds or minute so I can be gently arisen unless I refuse to get up.

Maybe some of these apply to Android, but I wouldn’t know because I’m a filthy casual iPhoner. Send me your Android suggestions, as well as what else you want to see added to your favorite apps.

[Image Credit: Hanson Inc]

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.

HQ Trivia launches HQ Words tonight under reinstalled CEO

HQ’s expansion beyond trivia emerges from beta tonight, but the question is whether it’s different and accessible enough to revive the startup’s growth. HQ Words opens to everyone with today’s 6:30pm pacific broadcast within the HQ Trivia app after several weeks of closed beta testing of the Wheel Of Fortune-style game. The launch will be the first big move of Rus Yusupov now that’s been officially renamed CEO a week after the tragic death of fellow co-founder and former CEO Colin Kroll, HQ confirms to TechCrunch.

“Intermedia Labs introduced the world to a category defining product, HQ Trivia. Once again, with HQ Words, Intermedia Labs is poised to captivate the world with a revolutionary experience that will bring people together in new ways around live mobile video” Yusupov tells us. “HQ Words is the most interactive experience we’ve ever made.”

Kroll’s passing comes at a tough time for HQ. Its daily player count has declined since it became a phenomenon a year ago. The novelty has begun to wear off, and with so many experienced trivia whizzes, cash jackpots are often split between enough people that winners only get a few bucks. Interrupting your days or nights to play at a particular time can be inconvenient compared to the legions of always-available other games. Yusupov, who was HQ’s CEO until Kroll took over in September, will have to figure out what will attract casual crosswords players and those who flocked to Zynga’s Words With Friends — the kind of disruptive thinking Kroll excelled at.

“Colin and I shared many incredible life moments over the last 7 years. We embarked on an incredible journey co-founding two breakthrough companies together – and the lessons we learned at Vine and HQ will continue to have a big impact on me. Like many relationships, we’ve also had our challenges – but it was during these challenging times that Colin’s kind soul and big heart would truly shine” Yusupov wrote in a statement about his co-founder that was originally published by Digiday in a touching memorial post. Between building Vine and HQ together, the pair have reimagined mobile entertainment, giving millions a chance to show off their wits and creativity. “He had this incredible ability to make everyone feel special. He listened well. He thought deeply. But above all, he cared about people more than work. The driving force behind his innovations was the positive impact they would have on people and world. Colin’s innovations and inventions have changed many people’s lives for the better and will continue to impact the world for years to come.”

HQ Trivia’s co-founder and former CEO Colin Kroll passed away earlier this month

How To Play HQ Words

In HQ Words, players compete live to solve word puzzles by correctly choosing what letters are hidden. You can find the game inside the existing HQ Trivia iOS and Android apps. Host Anna Roisman pluckily provides a clue and then dispenses hints as the 25-second timer for each puzzle counts down. If the clue is “gemstone” and you’re shown “_ _ _ m _ _ _”, you’ll have to tap D, I, A, O, and N in any order. Choose three wrong letters or fail to fill out the words and you lose. You’ll spin a wheel before the game starts to get one letter that’s automatically revealed each round.

Make it through ten rounds and you and other winners get a cut of the cash prize, with the three who solved the puzzles fastest scoring a bigger chunk of the jackpot. The startup earns money through selling you extra lives inside Words, though it will probably feature sponsored games and product placement like Trivia does to pull in marketing dollars. Words will go live daily at 6:30pm pacific after Trivia’s 6:00 game, so you can turn it into HQ hour with family and friends.

HQ Words is much more frenetic than Trivia. Rather than picking a single answer, you have to rapidly tap letters through a combination of educated and uneducated guesses. That means it really does feel more interactive since you’re not sitting for minutes with just a sole answer tap to keep you awake. And because it doesn’t require deep and broad trivia knowledge, Words could appeal to a wider audience. The spinner also adds an element of pure luck, as a weaker player who gets to auto-reveal a vowel might fare better than a wiser player who gets stuck with a “Z” like I always seem to.

Fill In The Blank

The concern is that at its core, Words is still quite similar to Trivia. They’re both real-time, elimination round-based knowledge games played against everyone for money. Both at times feel like they use cheap tricks to eliminate you. A recent Words puzzle asked you to name a noisy instrument, but the answer wasn’t “kazoo” but “buzzing kazoo” — something I’m not sure anyone has ever formally called it. Given the faster pace of interaction, even tiny glitches or moments of lag can be enough to make you lose a round. An HQ Words beta game earlier this week failed to show some users the keyboard, causing mass elimination. The pressure to get HQ’s engineering working flawlessly has never been higher.

The phrasing of some HQ Words answers seems like a stretch

HQ originally agreed to let TechCrunch interview Kroll about what makes Words different enough to change the startup’s momentum. Yusupov was supposed to fill in after Kroll was sadly found dead last Friday of an apparent drug overdose. He later declined to talk or provide written responses. That’s understandable during this time of mourning and transition. But HQ will still need to build an answer into its app. Meanwhile, Chinese clones and US competitors have begun co-opting the live video quiz idea. Facebook has even built a game show platform for content makers to create their own.

HQ could benefit from a better onboarding experience that lets people play a sample game solo to get them hooked and tide them over until the next scheduled broadcast. Mini-games or ways to play along after you’re eliminated could boost total view time and the value of brand sponsorships. A “quiet mode” that silences the between-round chatter and distills HQ to just the questions and puzzles might make it easier to play while multi-tasking. Head-to-head versions of Trivia and Words might help HQ feel more intimate, and there’s an opportunity to integrate peer-to-peer gambling like ProveIt trivia.  And branching out beyond knowledge games into more social or arcade-style titles would counter the idea that HQ is just for brainiacs.

Around the height of HQ’s popularity it raised a $15 million funding round at a $100 million valuation. That seems justified given HQ will reportedly earn around $10 million in revenue this year. Gamers are fickle, though, and today’s Fortnite can wind up tomorrow’s Pokemon Go — a flash in the pan that fizzles out. Words is a great bridge to a world outside of Trivia, but HQ must evolve not just iterate.

WhatsApp has an encrypted child porn problem

WhatsApp chat groups are being used to spread illegal child pornography, cloaked by the app’s end-to-end encryption. Without the necessary number of human moderators, the disturbing content is slipping by WhatsApp’s automated systems. A report reviewed by TechCrunch from two Israeli NGOs details how third-party apps for discovering WhatsApp groups include “Adult” sections that offer invite links to join rings of users trading images of child exploitation. TechCrunch has reviewed materials showing many of these groups are currently active.

TechCrunch’s investigation shows that Facebook could do more to police WhatsApp and remove this kind of content. Even without technical solutions that would require a weakening of encryption, WhatsApp’s moderators should have been able to find these groups and put a stop to them. Groups with names like “child porn only no adv” and “child porn xvideos” found on the group discovery app “Group Links For Whats” by Lisa Studio don’t even attempt to hide their nature. And a screenshot provided by anti-exploitation startup AntiToxin reveals active WhatsApp groups with names like “Children ” or “videos cp” — a known abbreviation for ‘child pornography’.

A screenshot from today of active child exploitation groups on WhatsApp. Phone numbers and photos redacted. Provided by AntiToxin.

Better manual investigation of these group discovery apps and WhatsApp itself should have immediately led these groups to be deleted and their members banned. While Facebook doubled its moderation staff from 10,000 to 20,000 in 2018 to crack down on election interference, bullying, and other policy violations, that staff does not moderate WhatsApp content. With just 300 employees, WhatsApp runs semi-independently, and the company confirms it handles its own moderation efforts. That’s proving inadequate for policing at 1.5 billion user community.

The findings from the NGOs Screen Savers and Netivei Reshe were written about today by The Financial Times, but TechCrunch is publishing the full report, their translated letter to Facebook translated emails with Facebook, their police report, plus the names of child pornography groups on WhatsApp and group discovery apps the lead to them listed above. A startup called AntiToxin Technologies that researches the topic has backed up the report, providing the screenshot above and saying it’s identified more than 1300 videos and photographs of minors involved in sexual acts on WhatsApp groups. Given that Tumblr’s app was recently temporarily removed from the Apple App Store for allegedly harboring child pornography, we’ve asked Apple if it will temporarily suspend WhatsApp but have not heard back. 

Uncovering A Nightmare

In July 2018, the NGOs became aware of the issue after a man reported to one of their hotlines that he’d seen hardcore pornography on WhatsApp. In October, they spent 20 days cataloging over 10 of the child pornography groups, their content, and the apps that allow people to find them.

The NGOs began contacting Facebook’s head of policy Jordana Cutler starting September 4th. They requested a meeting four times to discuss their findings. Cutler asked for email evidence but did not agree to a meeting, instead following Israeli law enforcement’s guidance to instruct researchers to contact the authorities. The NGO reported their findings to Israeli police but declined to provide Facebook with their research. WhatsApp only received their report and the screenshot of active child pornography groups today from TechCrunch.

Listings from a group discovery app of child exploitation groups on WhatsApp. URLs and photos have been redacted.

WhatsApp tells me it’s now investigating the groups visible from the research we provided. A Facebook spokesperson tells TechCrunch “Keeping people safe on Facebook is fundamental to the work of our teams around the world. We offered to work together with police in Israel to launch an investigation to stop this abuse.” A statement from the Israeli Police’s Head of the Child Online Protection Bureau Meir Hayoun notes that: “In past meetings with Jordana, I instructed her to always tell anyone who wanted to report any pedophile content to contact the Israeli police to report a complaint.”

A WhatsApp spokesperson tells me that while legal adult pornography is allowed on WhatsApp, it banned 130,000 accounts in a recent 10-day period for violating its policies against child exploitation. In a statement, WhatsApp wrote that:

WhatsApp has a zero-tolerance policy around child sexual abuse. We deploy our most advanced technology, including artificial intelligence, to scan profile photos and images in reported content, and actively ban accounts suspected of sharing this vile content. We also respond to law enforcement requests around the world and immediately report abuse to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Sadly, because both app stores and communications services are being misused to spread abusive content, technology companies must work together to stop it.”

But it’s that over-reliance on technology and subsequent under-staffing that seems to have allowed the problem to fester. AntiToxin’s CEO Zohar Levkovitz tells me “Can it be argued that Facebook has unwittingly growth-hacked pedophilia? Yes. As parents and tech executives we cannot remain complacent to that.”

Automated Moderation Doesn’t Cut It

WhatsApp introduced an invite link feature for groups in late 2016, making it much easier to discover and join groups without knowing any members. Competitors like Telegram had benefited as engagement in their public group chats rose. WhatsApp likely saw group invite links as an opportunity for growth, but didn’t allocate enough resources to monitor groups of strangers assembling around different topics. Apps sprung up to allow people to browse different groups by category. Some usage of these apps is legitimate, as people seek communities to discuss sports or entertainment. But many of these apps now feature “Adult” sections that can include invite links to both legal pornography sharing groups as well as illegal child exploitation content.

A WhatsApp spokesperson tells me that it scans all unencrypted information on its network — basically anything outside of chat threads themselves — including user profile photos, group profile photos, and group information. It seeks to match content against the PhotoDNA banks of indexed child pornography that many tech companies use to identify previously reported inappropriate imagery. If it find a match, that account, or that group and all of its members receive a lifetime ban from WhatsApp.

A WhatsApp group discovery app’s listings of child exploitation groups on WhatsApp

If imagery doesn’t match the database but is suspected of showing child exploitation, it’s manually reviewed. If found to be illegal, WhatsApp bans the accounts and/or groups, prevents it from being uploaded in the future, and reports the content and accounts to the National Center For Missing And Exploited Children. The one example group reported to WhatsApp by the Financial Times was already flagged for human review by its automated system, and was then banned along with all 256 members.

To discourage abuse, WhatsApp says it limits groups to 256 members and purposefully does not provide a search function for people or groups within its app. It does not encourage the publication of group invite links and the vast majority of groups have six or fewer members. It’s already working with Google and Apple to enforce its terms of service against apps like the child exploitation group discovery apps that abuse WhatsApp. Those kind of groups already can’t be found in Apple’s App Store, but remain available on Google Play. We’ve contacted Google Play to ask how it addresses illegal content discovery apps and whether Group Links For Whats by Lisa Studio will remain available, and will update if we hear back.

But the larger question is that if WhatsApp was already aware of these group discovery apps, why wasn’t it using them to track down and ban groups that violate its policies. A spokesperson claimed that group names with “CP” or other indicators of child exploitation are some of the signals it uses to hunt these groups, and that names in group discovery apps don’t necessarily correlate to the group names on WhatsApp. But TechCrunch then provided a screenshot showing active groups within WhatsApp as of this morning with names like “Children ” or “videos cp”. That shows that WhatsApp’s automated systems and lean staff are not enough to prevent the spread of illegal imagery.

The situation also raises questions about the tradeoffs of encryption as some governments like Australia seek to prevent its usage by messaging apps. The technology can protect free speech, improve the safety of political dissidents, and prevent censorship by both governments and tech platforms. However, it can also make detecting crime more difficult, exacerbating the harm caused to victims.

WhatsApp’s spokesperson tells me that it stands behind strong end-to-end encryption that protects conversations with loved ones, doctors, and more. They said there are plenty of good reasons for end-to-end encryption and it will continue to support it. Changing that in any way, even to aid catching those that exploit children, would be require a significant change to the privacy guarantees it’s given users. They suggested that on-device scanning for illegal content would have to be implemented by phone makers to prevent its spread without hampering encryption.

But for now, WhatsApp needs more human moderators willing to use proactive and unscalable manual investigation to address its child pornography problem. With Facebook earning billions in profit per quarter and staffing up its own moderation ranks, there’s no reason WhatsApp’s supposed autonomy should prevent it from applying adequate resources to the issue. WhatsApp sought to grow through big public groups, but failed to implement the necessary precautions to ensure they didn’t become havens for child exploitation. Tech companies like WhatsApp need to stop assuming cheap and efficient technological solutions are sufficient. If they want to make money off of huge user bases, they must be willing to pay to protect and police them.

WhatsApp makes group calls easier, but calls still limited to four people

WhatsApp is making group calls easier with a change to the way its mobile app works. Before, users would have to start a 1:1 video call, then add participants – there wasn’t an option to begin a group call at once, the company says. Now, the design has been updated so you can start group calls with just a couple of taps.

In the new design, you can go to the group whose members you want to call, then tap on the phone icon at the top right corner of the screen to get started. From the next screen, you’ll tap the contacts within the group you want to call, then tap the voice or video button – depending on what type of call you want to make.

The company added a new way to make group calls from the Calls tab, as well.

With the update, you can tap the new Call icon on the top right corner of the screen, pick the contacts you want to call, and again pick either the voice or video icon.

WhatsApp currently supports calling up to four people at one time.

That’s fewer than is supported on other top mobile messaging services – like Apple’s FaceTime, which was updated in October to support 32 people (up from only 2 people before); or Messenger, which can support up to 50 people in a call, for example. However, WhatsApp’s group call feature itself is still fairly new – it was officially rolled out at the end of July this year.

For a smaller group, it’s still a useful way to connect with friends and family without having to tap into your cellular plan’s voice minutes. Calls are also end-to-end encrypted, which makes it a good option for privacy seekers – that is, if you believe that any app owned by Facebook can fit that description.

WhatsApp warns that all members should have a good internet connection before using the group calling feature, as the quality of the call will depend on the contact with the weakest connection.

The update is available now to iPhone users and is rolling out “soon” on Android.

With trust destroyed, Facebook is haunted by old data deals

As Facebook colonized the rest of the web with its functionality in hopes of fueling user growth, it built aggressive integrations with partners that are coming under newfound scrutiny through a deeply reported New York Times investigationSome of what Facebook did was sloppy or unsettling, including forgetting to shut down APIs when it cancelled its Instant Personalization feature for other sites in 2014, and how it used contact syncing to power friend recommendations.

But other moves aren’t as bad as they sound. Facebook did provide Spotify and Netflix the ability to access users messages, but only so people could send friends songs or movies via Facebook messages without leaving those apps. And Facebook did let Yahoo and Blackberry access people’s News Feeds, but to let users browse those feeds within social hub features inside those apps. These partners could only access data when users logged in and connected their Facebook accounts, and were only approved to use this data to provide Facebook-related functionality. That means Spotify at least wasn’t supposed to be rifling through everyone’s messages to find out what bands they talk about so it could build better curation algorithms, and there’s no evidence yet that it did.

Thankfully Facebook has ditched most of these integrations, as the dominance of iOS and Android have allowed it to build fewer, more standardized, and better safeguarded access points to its data. And it’s battened down the hatches in some ways, forcing users to shortcut from Spotify into the real Facebook Messenger rather than giving third-parties any special access to offer Facebook Messaging themselves.

The most glaring allegation Facebook hasn’t adequately responded to yet is that it used data from Amazon, Yahoo, and Huawei to improve friend suggestions through People You May Know — perhaps its creepiest feature. The company needs to accept the loss of growth hacking trade secrets and become much more transparent about how it makes so uncannily accurate recommendations of who to friend request — as Gizmodo’s Kashmir Hill has documented.

In some cases, Facebook has admitted to missteps, with its Director of Developer Platforms and Programs Konstantinos Papamiltiadis writing “we shouldn’t have left the APIs in place after we shut down instant personalization.”

In others, we’ll have decide where to draw the line between what was actually dangerous and what gives us the chills at first glance. You don’t ask permission from friends to read an email from them on a certain browser or device, so should you worry if they saw your Facebook status update on a Blackberry social hub feature instead of the traditional Facebook app? Well that depends on how the access is monitored and meted out.

The underlying question is whether we trust that Facebook and these other big tech companies actually abided by rules to oversee and not to overuse data. Facebook has done plenty wrong, and after repeatedly failing to be transparent or live up to its apologies, it doesn’t deserve the benefit of the doubt. For that reason, I don’t want it giving any developer — even ones I normally trust like Spotify — access to sensitive data protected merely by their promise of good behavior despite financial incentives for misuse.

Facebook’s former chief security officer Alex Stamos tweeted that “allowing for 3rd party clients is the kind of pro-competition move we want to see from dominant platforms. For ex, making Gmail only accessible to Android and the Gmail app would be horrible. For the NY Times to try to scandalize this kind of integration is wrong.” But countered that by noting that “integrations that are sneaky or send secret data to servers controlled by others really is wrong.”

Even if Spotify and Netflix didn’t abuse the access Facebook provided, there’s always eventually a Cambridge Analytica. Tech companies have proven their word can’t necessarily be trusted. The best way to protect users is to properly lock down the platforms with ample vetting, limits, and oversight so there won’t be gray areas that require us to put our faith in the kindness of businesses.

Bumble now lets you filter potential matches on Bumble Date, Bizz and BFF

Bumble has come up with a new way for its dating app and related businesses to generate revenue. The company this week launched filters – a way to sift through potential matches by a set of specific criteria. For example, Bumble Date users can now filter matches by astrological sign or relationship type, among other things, while those on Bumble BFF or Bumble Bizz, could filter matches by interests or industry, respectively.

The new feature is meant to save users time by limiting their selection of potential matches to those who are more relevant to their own interests.

A dating app user may want to filter out those who are only looking for casual situations, while a business user may want to filter matches based on whether they’re looking for a job, mentor, or collaborator, Bumble explains. And on Bumble’s friend-finding platform, Bumble BFF, people may want to filter for people who enjoy the same things they do – like fitness or photography.

“We’ve been working internally and with our users to create just the right mix of filters that allow for deeper, more meaningful connections and we’re very pleased with what we’ve developed,” said Alexandra Williamson, Bumble Chief of Brand, in a statement about the launch. “Whether you’re looking for a new job in media, a new mom friend or a date with a Sagittarius who loves live music, Bumble Filters enable you to tailor your experience in a way that ultimately gives you more control of the kinds of relationships you’re looking to build,” she said.

Filtering matches by specific criteria isn’t anything new to dating apps. Other more traditional dating sites, like Match and OKCupid, have offered ways to filter matches, too. But Bumble’s more direct rival Tinder has focused less on filtering and more on speed of moving through matches. It doesn’t let users specify preferences beyond some basics – like location, distance, gender and age.

Whether or not filtering actually helps in delivering a good match, however, is less clear. But it’s certainly something people want.

Today, many women on dating apps ask men for their height, for instance – so often, in fact, that men began volunteering this information on their profiles, even if the profile doesn’t have a field for height. Often, sober people don’t want to match with people who say they drink regularly. Non-smokers generally want to date the same. And so on. But over-filtering could lead to users missing out – after all, how important is the star sign, really, or whether they have pets? (Allergies notwithstanding, of course.)

On the dating side of Bumble, the new filters include height, exercise, star sign, education, drinking, smoking, pets, relationship type, family plans, religion, and political leaning.

Bumble BFFs can filter for drinking, smoking, exercise and pets, too, as well as type of friendship, relationship status, whether they have kids, or if they’re new to the area.

And Bumble Bizz users can filter by industry, networking relationship type, education, and years of experience.

Bumble hopes filters will be an additional stream of revenue for its business, which it said in September was on track for a revenue run rate to $200 million per year. Bumble now claims 46 million users.

The company says all users will receive two free filters in Bumble Date, Bumble BFF, and Bumble Bizz, but additional filters will have to be purchased through Bumble Boost – the premium upgrade that also allow you to see who liked you, extend your matches, and rematch expired connections. (Boost’s pricing varies based on the time frame – a week, a month, etc. Its weekly plan is $8.99/week, currently).

Bumble’s filters are available on both iOS and Android.

 

Twitter bug leaks phone number country codes

Twitter accidentally exposed the ability to pull an account’s phone number country code and whether the account had been locked by Twitter. The concern here is that malicious actors could have used the security flaw to figure out which countries accounts were based in, which could have ramifications for whistleblowers or political dissidents.

The issue came through one of Twitter’s support forms for contacting the company, and the company found that a large number of inquiries through the form came from IP addresses located in China and Saudi Arabia. Twitter writes “While we cannot confirm intent or attribution for certain, it is possible that some of these IP addresses may have ties to state-sponsored actors.” We’ve requested more info on why it’s suggesting that. Attribution in these situations can be murky, and naming specific countries or suggesting state actors could be involved carries heavy implications.

Twitter began working on the issue on November 15th and fixed it on November 16th. Twitter tells TechCrunch that it has notified the European Union’s Data Protection Commissioner, as EU citizens may have been impacted. However, since country codes aren’t necessarily considered sensitive personal information, the leak may not trigger any GDPR enforcement or fines. Twitter tells us it has also updated the FTC and other regulatory organizations about the issue, though we’ve asked when it informed these different regulators.

Twitter has directly contacted users impacted by the issue, says full phone numbers were not leaked, and users don’t have to do anything in response. Users can contact Twitter here for more info. We’ve asked how many accounts were impacted, but Twitter told us that it doesn’t have more data to share as its investigation continues.

A Twitter spokesperson pointed us to a previous statement:

“It is clear that information operations and coordinated inauthentic behavior will not cease. These types of tactics have been around for far longer than Twitter has existed — they will adapt and change as the geopolitical terrain evolves worldwide and as new technologies emerge. For our part, we are committed to understanding how bad-faith actors use our services. We will continue to proactively combat nefarious attempts to undermine the integrity of Twitter, while partnering with civil society, government, our industry peers, and researchers to improve our collective understanding of coordinated attempts to interfere in the public conversation.”

Sloppy security on the part of tech companies can make it dangerous for political dissidents or others at odds with their governments. Twitter explains that it locks accounts if it suspects they’ve been compromised by hackers or violate “Twitter’s Rules”, that includes “unlawful use” that depends greatly on what national governments deem illegal. What’s worrisome is that attackers with IP addresses in China or Saudi Arabia might have been able to use the exploit to confirm that certain accounts belonged to users in their countries and whether they’ve been locked. That information could be used to hunt down the people who own these accounts.

The company apologized, writing that “We recognize and appreciate the trust you place in us, and are committed to earning that trust every day. We are sorry this happened.” But that echoes other apologies from big tech companies that consistently ring hollow. Here in particular, it fails to acknowledge how the leak could harm people and how it will prevent this kind of thing from happening again. With these companies judged quarterly by their user growth and business, they’re incentivized to cut corners on security, privacy, and societal impact as they chase the favor of Wall Street.

Facebook Watch is finally growing as payouts get spread thin

Both Facebook Watch and Instagram’s IGTV have yet to become superstar video platforms, leaving Facebook at risk as more people seek streaming entertainment instead of status updates. So today Facebook is trying to build some buzz for Watch with new stats and rollouts. The free video hub that combines original content, sports, and cult favorite TV shows like Firefly now has 400 million users watching at least one minute per month. That’s not a ton of engagement amongst a wide audience. But on the brighter side there are 75 million users watching at least one minute per day with a much more promising average of 20 minutes per day.

Though that’s just 5 percent of Facebook’s 1.5 billion daily users, it indicates that if Facebook can get people hooked on its ad-supported shows, it could squeeze serious viewing time out of them. Just four months ago, Facebook was saying that only 50 million people spent at least 1 minute per month on Watch, so it’s making strong progress.

Watch is now available worldwide on desktop and Facebook Lite as well as the main Facebook app. And it’s rolling out ad breaks to 40 countries after an initial launch in 5 in August. It’s also renewing four shows for a second season: Huda BossFive PointsSacred Lies & Sorry For Your Loss.

But The Information reports that news media executives feel that while some shows are getting satisfactory viewership, ad revenue has been underwhelming. Six months ago, Facebook commissioned news programs from outlets like CNN and Buzzfeed. Facebook reportedly now plans to pay news video content producers less per show as it seeks to spread the same $90 million budget across more programs, potentially with a greater focus on international markets. That cut-back could make producing some shows tough, but at least the execs believe Facebook understands it must prioritize monetization for its content partners.

To the end, Facebook plans to offer more options for advertisers like more targeting capabilities, and expanding its In-Stream Reserve premium ad inventory inside the top quality Watch shows. For individual video creators, Ad Breaks will become more widely available including within game streams from eSports stars. Facebook is also planning to expand its Brand Collabs Manager to additional countries so creators can get hooked up with sponsorship deals, and let more creators sign up fans for Patreon-style subscription payments.

The viewing stats have likely been bolstered by the addition of all episodes of Joss Whedon’s old TV shows Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Firefly that users can binge watch for hours on end. 12 million Watch Party group video sessions have been launched to date, helping shows go viral. Facebook is now testing live picture-in-picture commentating that could let actors host viewing parties that feel like you’re sitting in the living room beside them. Facebook’s VP of video Fidji Simo writes that “With Facebook Watch, we set out to demonstrate what it looks like to build deep bonds through watching online video, instead of just having a passive viewing experience.”

Simo also notes that “People can find videos on Facebook in a number of different places — Watch, News Feed, Search, Pages and more — and all of these can feel different. We want to make the experience of watching video feel immersive no matter where you discovered it. As part of this effort, we’ll be testing a few things in the coming months, like creating a darker background whenever you immerse yourself into a video on mobile.”

Facebook has yet to concentrate its funding on a blockbuster tentpole video series — its Game Of Thrones or House Of Cards. The closest thing it has is the Elizabeth Olsen show Sorry For Your Loss, though viewership has been somewhat weak. Next year Facebook Watch will debut a revived and social media-infused web version of MTV’s Real World. But tapping its deep pockets to pay for one must-see original scripted series could help wedge Watch into people’s lives.

Facebook relaunches search ads to offset slowing revenue

It’s an ad duopoly battle. Facebook is starting to test search ads in its search results and Marketplace, directly competing with Google’s AdWords. Facebook first tried Sponsored Results back in 2012 but eventually shut down the product in 2013. Now it’s going to let a small set of automotive, retail, and ecommerce industry advertisers show users ads on the search results page on mobile in the US and Canada.

They’ll be repurposed News Feed ads featuring a headline, image, copy text, and a link in the static image or carousel format that can point users to external websites. Facebook declined to share screenshots as it says the exact design is still evolving. Facebook may expand search ads to more countries based on the test’s performance.

The reintroduction of search ads could open an important new revenue stream at a time when Facebook’s revenue growth is quickly decelerating as it runs out of News Feed ad space, the Stories format that advertisers are still adapting is poised to overtake feed sharing on social apps, and users shift their time elsewhere. In Q3 2018, revenue grew 33 percent year-over-year, but that’s far slower than the 49 percent YOY gain it had a year ago, and the 59 percent from Q3 2016. Opening up new ad inventory for search could reinvigorate the sagging revenue growth rate that, combined with Facebook’s privacy and security scandals, has put intense pressure on Facebook’s leaders Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg.

Facebook’s revenue growth rate has slowed significantly over the past two years

“We’re running a small test to place ads in Facebook search results, and we’ll be evaluating whether these ads are beneficial for people and businesses before deciding whether to expand it” Facebook product manager Zoheb Hajiyani to TechCrunch in a statement. The announcement of the search ads comes as Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai is under fire from Congress over data privacy, though the move could help Google look less like it has a monopoly in search.

Back in 2012, Facebook desperately sought extra revenue streams following its botched IPO. Sponsored Results let game companies, retailers, and more inject links to their Facebook apps, Pages, and posts as ads in the search typeahead results. Since advertisers could target searches for specific other Pages and apps, brands and game developers often tried to swoop in and steal traffic from their competitors. For example, dating app Match.com could target searches for competitor OkCupid and appear above its results. Facebook isn’t allowing advertisers to be quite as cutthroat with this test.

Facebook’s 2012 Sponsored Results ads let competitors swoop on each other’s traffic

With the relaunch, advertisers with access will be able to simply extend their existing Ness Feed ads to the new “Search” placement through the Facebook Ads Manager, similar to how they’d pick Facebook Audience Network or Instagram. No videos ads will be allowed, and search ads won’t appear on desktop. Marketplace search ads will appear on iOS and Android, while Facebook search ads are only testing on Android. For now, advertisers won’t pick specific keywords to advertise against, and instead may appear in search terms related to auto or retail topics. Still, the placement will let advertisers dive deeper down the conversion funnel to reach people who might already have intent to buy something and fulfill that demand. Facebook’s News Feed ads (other than those retargeted based on web browsing) are better for demand generation, and sit higher in the funnel reaching users who don’t know what they want yet.

Ads will featured a “Sponsored” tag, and are subject to the same transparency controls around “Why Am I Seeing This?” Facebook plans to evaluate the benefits for users and advertisers in order to determine whether to roll out the ads to more countries and categories. Users will not be able to opt out of seeing search ads. They can “hide” ads using the drop-down arrow as with News Feed ads, but that won’t prevent different ones from showing up in search later.

Facebook’s share of the $279.56 billion total worldwide digital ad market will grow to 19.5 percent this year, trailing #1 Google which has 31.5 percent. After gaining multiple percentage points of share the last few years, eMarketer estimated Facebook’s cut of total digital ad spend would fall to around 1 percent the next two years. Unlocking search ad inventory could perk up those projections. Facebook would only need to hit 3.3 percent of talk search ad share to surpass Microsoft for the #3 spot, or 6.5 percent to top Chinese search engine Baidu.

One major concern is that Facebook already collects as much information as possible about people and their behavior to target its ads. With the reintroduction of search ads, it’s even more incentivized to gather what we do online, what we buy offline, and who we are.

Facebook will have to balance the injection of the ads with remaining an easy way to search for friends, content, businesses and more. Search is far from the core of Facebook’s offering, where users typically browse the News Feed for serendipitous content discovery rather than go looking for something specific. The most common searches are likely for friends’ names which won’t be great ad candidates. But given how accustomed users are to search ads on Google, this new revenue stream could help Facebook boost its numbers without too much disruption to its service.