Category Archives: Instagram

Instagram rolls out Focus portrait mode for videos and photos

Instagram is one-upping Apple with a portrait mode feature that runs on a wider variety of phones and works with video, not just photos. Last month, TechCrunch reported about a Focus feature buried in Instagram’s code, which began publicly testing a week later. Now Instagram is rolling out Focus, which blurs the background while keeping someone’s face sharp for a stylized, professional photography look. “Focus mode leverages background segmentation and face detection technology,” an Instagram spokesperson told me when asked how it works without the need for dual cameras.

Focus can be found in the Instagram Stories format options alongside Boomerang and Superzoom in both the selfie and rear-facing cameras, and it rolls out globally today on iPhone 6s, 6s+, 7, 7+, 8, 8+ and X, as well as select Android devices. That’s compared to Apple’s portrait mode that only works on the iPhone 7+, 8+, and X, and Android portrait mode that exists on the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL. Instagram’s launch could also suck attention away from “fake portrait mode” apps like Magic Portrait Mode, FabFocus, LightX and Point Blur that can also add blurry background “bokeh effects” to images.

This comparison provided to TechCrunch by reader Genady Okrain shows how Instagram Focus blurs the background, but can make the edges of the face look a bit hazy too. The iPhone portrait mode that takes advantage of newer models’ dual cameras does a little better job of keeping the whole face in focus, but it’s not available on older iPhones and can’t do video.

Focus gives people another reason to choose Instagram over Snapchat, and could make shooting inside the Instagram app more appealing. After eight years of sunsets and latte art, it’s the selfies and portraits that still feel fresh on Instagram. Making them look as good as possible could keep Instagram from growing stale as it rockets toward 1 billion users.

Focus appears as an Instagram Stories format alongside Boomerang and Superzoom. Screenshots via Social Pip 

Meanwhile, Instagram is starting to roll out Mentions stickers that make it easy to tag friends in a Story with a stylized graphic instead of just text. Instagram tested these last month, but now they’re becoming available to all iOS users. Just like adding emoji to photos and videos, you can select the Mention sticker, use the typeahead to find a friend’s username and tag them in a resizable sticker. That lets people tap through to view their profile, and generates a notification to the tagged user.

Instagram has had text mentions since November 2016, soon after it launched Stories, but Snapchat just added them last month. Mentions could make it easier for creators on both the apps to collaborate and cross-promote each other, or encourage fans to spread their name to friends.

 As Facebook endures unending scandals, Instagram has remained relatively unscathed by the backlash. Without links and resharing, it’s immune to a lot of the fake news and politics that have made Facebook exhausting. Instagram seems to see rapid feature development as the best distraction. Beyond Focus mode, TechCrunch recently reported that Instagram voice and video calling features are hidden inside the app’s code. And it’s just begun testing a Snapchat QR code-style feature called Instagram Nametags that makes it easy to follow someone.

First look at Instagram Nametags, its clone of Snapchat QR codes

Instagram is preparing to launch a feature called Nametags that lets you create a special image that people can scan with the Instagram Stories camera to follow you. TechCrunch broke the news of Nametags code in Instagram’s Android APK last month. But now thanks to reader Genady Okrain we have screenshots and more details of the Instagram Nametags feature.

Nametags could make it easier for people to visually promote their Instagram account. It could make it simple to follow a friend you just met by having them open their Nametag and then you scanning it. Meanwhile, businesses and social media stars could post their Nametag across other social media handles, print it onto posters or handbills or even make merchandise out of it.

An Instagram spokesperson confirmed to TechCrunch that it is testing the Nametags feature. Instagram’s been spotted doing a flurry of feature development lately. TechCrunch has reported that code for an Instagram Video Calling feature was found in its Android APK. Meanwhile, it’s testing a Portrait mode feature called Focus.

Once users have access, they’ll be able to hit a QR scanner button on their profile to bring up the Nametag editor. They can then choose from a purple Instagram color gradient background, a pattern of one emoji they choose or a selfie they can jazz up with augmented reality face filters that then becomes an emoji pattern. The user’s Instagram username appears in the center. For now, users in the test group can’t share or scan Nametags. But the code we discovered explains that users can scan them to follow people.

Snapchat in January 2015 launched its own Snapcodes that work similarly, meaning Instagram took its time copying this feature. But with social media stars and businesses banished to Snapchat’s Discover channel, those accounts might be looking to prioritize promoting their Instagram accounts. If creators find it easier to build an audience on Instagram and get more engagement there, they could give the Facebook-owned app their first-run content. The eventual launch of Nametags could give them one more reason to use Snapchat copycat Instagram Stories instead of the original.

For more on upcoming Instagram features, check out our other stories on Focus and Video Calling

Facebook restricts APIs, axes old Instagram platform amidst scandals

Facebook is entering a tough transition period where it won’t take chances around data privacy in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica fiasco, CTO Mike Schroepfer tells TechCrunch. That’s why it’s moving up the shut down of part of the Instagram API. It’s significantly limiting data available from or requiring approval for access to Facebook’s Events, Groups, and Pages APIs plus Facebook Login. Facebook is also shutting down search by email or user name and changing its account recovery system after discovering malicious actors were using these to scrape people’s data. “Given the scale and sophistication of the activity we’ve seen, we believe most people on Facebook could have had their public profile scraped in this way” Schroepfer writes.

Instagram will immediately shut down part of its old platform API that was scheduled for deprecation on July 31st. TechCrunch first reported that developers’ Instagram apps were breaking over the weekend due to a sudden reduction in the API call limit. Instagram refused to comment, leading to developer frustration as their apps that analyze people’s followers and help them grow their audiences stopped working.

Now an Instagram spokesperson tells TechCrunch that “Effective today, Instagram is speeding up the previously announced deprecation of the Instagram API Platform” as part of Facebook’s work to protect people’s data. The APIs for follower lists, relationships, and commenting on public content will cease to function immediately. The December 11th, 2018 deprecation of public content reading APIs and the 2020 deprecation of basic profile info APIs will happen as scheduled, but it’s implemented rate limit reductions on them now.

The announcements come alongside Facebook’s admission that up to 87 million users had their data improperly attained by Cambridge Analytica, up from early estimates of 50 million. These users will see a warning atop their News Feed about what happened, what they should do, and see surfaced options for removing other apps they gave permissions to. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg plans to take questions about today’s announcements during at 1:00pm Pacific conference call.

Regarding the Facebook APIs, here’s the abbreviated version of the changes and what they mean:

  • Events API will require approval for use in the future, and developers will no long be able to pull guest lists or post sto the event wall. This could break some event discovery and ticketing apps.
  • Groups API will require approval from Facebook and a Group admin, and developers won’t be able to pull member lists or the names and photos associated with posts. This will limit Group management apps to reputable developers only, and keep a single non-admin member of a closed Group from giving developers access.
  • Pages API will only be available to developers providing “useful services”, and all future access will require Facebook approval. This could heavily restrict Page management apps for scheduling posts or moderating comments.
  • Facebook Login use will require a stricter review process and apps won’t be able to pull users personal information or activity, plus they’ll lose access if after 3 months of non-use. Most login apps should still work, though, as few actually needed your religious affiliation or video watching activity, though some professional apps might not function without your work history
  • Search by phone number or email will no longer work, as Facebook says it discovered malicious actors were using them to pair one piece of information with someone’s identity, and cycling through IP addresses to avoid being blocked by Facebook. This could make it tougher for people in countries where people have similar names find each other. Of all the changes, this may be the most damaging to the user experience.
  • Account Recovery will no longer immediately show the identity of a user when someone submits their email or phone number to similarly prevent scraping. The feature will still work, but may be more confusing. Facebook believes all its users’ could have had their data scraped using the search and account recovery tricks.

Schroepfer says that Facebook’s goal is to lock things down, review everything, and then figure out which developers deserve access and whether any of the functionality should be restored. The announcements raise questions about why it took the Cambridge Analytica scandal for Facebook to take data privacy seriously. You can expect the House Energy and Commerce Committee may ask Mark Zuckerberg that when he comes to testify on April 10th.

Facebook CTO Mike Schroepfer

Facebook’s bold action to reform its APIs shows it’s willing to prioritize users above developers — at least once pushed by public backlash and internal strife. The platform whiplash could make developers apprehensive to build on Facebook in the future. But if Facebook didn’t shore up data privacy, it’d have no defense if future privacy abuses by outside developers came to light.

Schroepfer tells me Facebook is taking its responsibility super seriously and that company is upset that it allowed this situation to happen. At least he seems earnest. Last week I wrote that Facebook needd to make a significant act of contrition and humility if it wanted stabilize the sinking morale of its employees. These sweeping changes qualify, and could serve as a rallying call for Facebook’s team. Rather than sit with their heads in their hands, they have a roadmap of things to fix.

Still, given the public’s lack of understanding of APIs and platforms, it may be tough for Facebook to ever regain the trust broken by a month of savage headlines about the social network’s privacy negligence. Long-term, this souring of opinion could make users hesitant to share as much on Facebook. But given its role as a ubiquitous utility for login with your identity across the web, our compulsive desire to scroll its feed and check its notifications, and the lack of viable social networking alternatives, Facebook might see the backlash blow over eventually. Hopefully that won’t lead back to business as usual.

For more on the recent Facebook platform changes, read our other stories:

Snapchat brings back GIPHY after removal due to racist GIF

After a racial slur GIF caused Snapchat to remove its GIPHY sticker feature, Snapchat confirms to TechCrunch it’s reinstated its integration. GIPHY has apologized, fixed the bug that let the objectionable GIF slip through, and reviewed its GIF sticker library four times in an effort to guarantee that offensive content won’t end up in apps that embed it. Instagram had also removed GIPHY, but reinstated it last week with Snapchat saying it had nothing to share yet.

A Snap spokesperson told TechCrunch that over the past several weeks, the Snap team worked with GIPHY to revamp its moderation systems. Now Snap is confident that the fresh approach will protect users, so its brought the GIF stickers back. They let people embellish their photos and videos with overlaid animated illustrations and video clips.

So ends a month-long ordeal that started when a U.K. user spotted a GIF containing a racial slur for people of color. Snapchat removed the GIPHY feature as press backlash in the U.K. mounted. Instagram wasn’t aware of the issue until informed by TechCrunch, leading it to remove the GIPHY feature within an hour.

Warning: We’ve shared a censored version of the GIF below, but it still includes graphic content that may be offensive to some users.

The situation highlights the risks of working with outside developers that aren’t entirely under a platform’s control. Piping in external utilities lets apps quickly expand their offering to users. But if developers misuse people’s data, deliver broken functionality, or let objectionable content through, it can reflect poorly on the app hosting them. Facebook is currently dealing with this backlash surrounding Cambridge Analytica. Meanwhile, Instagram just severely restricted its APIs without warning, breaking many developers’ apps in what’s believed to be part of Facebook’s push to shore up data privacy.

Favoring news publishers, Snapchat historically never actively embraced developers, banning use of outside apps that require your Snapchat credentials. It’s more recently started letting devs build and promote their own augmented reality lenses. But after this set-back, we’ll have to see if Snapchat becomes any more reluctant to work with partners.

Instagram suddenly chokes off developers as Facebook chases privacy

Without warning, Instagram has broken many of the unofficial apps built on its platform. This weekend it surprised developers with a massive reduction in how much data they can pull from the Instagram API, shrinking the API limit from 5,000 to 200 calls per user per hour. Apps that help people figure out if their followers follow them back or interact with them, analyze their audiences or find relevant hashtags are now quickly running into their API limits, leading to broken functionality and pissed off users.

Two sources confirmed the new limits to TechCrunch, and developers are complaining about the situation on StackOverflow.

In a puzzling move, Instagram is refusing to comment on what’s happening while its developer rate limits documentation site 404s. Developers tell me they feel left in the dark and angry that the change wasn’t scheduled or even officially announced, preventing them from rebuilding their apps to require fewer API calls.

Third-party Instagram platform apps like Reports+ provide users analytics on their audiences, but are breaking due to the new API limits

Some developers suspect the change is part of Instagram parent company Facebook’s scramble to improve data privacy in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal. In the past week, Facebook announced it was shutting down Partner Categories ad targeting based on third-party data brokers. TechCrunch reported that Facebook also plans to require businesses to pledge that they have consumers’ consent to attain their email addresses, which they use for ad targeting through Custom Audiences.

Most public backlash has focused on #DeleteFacebook and ignored its subsidiaries like Instagram and WhatsApp. But Instagram may hope to prevent the virus of distrust from infecting its app too by cutting the API call limit to 1/25th of its previous volume.

Causing this kind of platform whiplash could push developers away from the Instagram ecosystem, not that the company was too keen on some of these apps. For example, Reports+ charges $3.99 per month to give people analytics about their Instagram followers. Sensor Tower tells TechCrunch that Reports+ has grossed more than $18 million worldwide since October 2016 on the App Store and Google Play, and made more than $1.2 million last month alone.

Instagram might have understandably seen these apps as parasitic, charging users for unofficial functionality or encouraging audience growth hacking that can lead to spam. In January, Instagram announced it would shut down the old API over the next two years, starting with removing the ability to pull a user’s follower list and follow/unfollow people on their behalf on July 31st. Instagram has been slowly trying to clean up its platform for years, having previously threatened legal actions against derivative apps with “Insta” or “Gram” in their names in 2013, and shut down its feed API in 2015 that allowed for unofficial Instagram feed-reading apps.

Instagram is now pushing developers on a much more restrictive platform that only lets approved partners post at users’ behest, and that can only pull mentions of and analytics about business accounts. These changes were slated to kill many of the apps broken by this weekend’s API limit reductions.

But at least developers were given fair warning about the July 31st deadline. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that Facebook put a pause on reviewing any new applications last Monday as it tries to shore up data privacy safeguards in the wake of Cambridge Analytica . Instagram confirms to TechCrunch that the moratorium on app submissions extends to Instagram’s new Graph API, but wouldn’t explain anything about the API limits. So Instagram is breaking old apps while not allowing developers to submit new, compliant ones.

“Instagram’s lack of communication is frustrating to me because now I’m scrambling to update my apps and dealing with loads of unhappy customers,” a developer told me on the condition of anonymity. “If I had had a month to prep for this, I could’ve tweaked things so that limit was harder to reach. I’d be more frugal with my requests. What happened is all of a sudden, I’m getting dozens of emails, DMs on Instagram, with people saying the app’s not working.”

While Facebook is wise to scrutinize apps pulling in lots of user data, doing so without warning or even an announcement is how Facebook hurt its relationships with developers circa 2009 as it tried to rapidly reign in spammy virality. Facebook is enduring a crisis of conscience regarding whether its apps can be misused as weapons by those trying to interfere with elections or just exploit our data for profit.

But as the owner of some of the world’s most popular developer platforms, it’s worrying to see it flail and thrash this way. If Facebook and Instagram can’t even communicate changes to its policies with proper procedure and transparency, it’s hard to imagine it’s composed enough to firmly and fairly enforce them.

For more on Facebook and Instagram’s troubles, check out our feature pieces:

 

Instagram reenables GIF sharing after GIPHY promises no more racism

A racial slur GIF slipped into GIPHY’s sticker library earlier this month, prompting Instagram and Snapchat to drop their GIPHY integrations. Now Instagram is reactivating after GIPHY confirmed its reviewed its GIF library four times and will preemptively review any new GIFs it adds. Snapchat said it had nothing to share right now about whether it’s going to reactivate GIPHY.

“We’ve been in close contact with GIPHY throughout this process and we’re confident that they have put measures in place to ensure that Instagram users have a good experience” an Instagram spokesperson told TechCrunch. GIPHY told TechCrunch in a statement that “To anyone who was affected: we’re sorry. We take full responsibility for this recent event and under no circumstances does
GIPHY condone or support this kind of content . . . We have also finished a full investigation into our content moderations systems and processes and have made specific changes to our process to ensure soemthing like this does not happen again.”

We first reported Instagram was building a GIPHY integration back in January before it launched a week later, with Snapchat adding a similar feature in February. But it wasn’t long before things went wrong. First spotted by a user in the U.K. around March 8th, the GIF included a racial slur. We’ve shared a censored version of the image below, but warning, it still includes graphic content that may be offensive to some users.

When asked, Snapchat told TechCrunch ““We have removed GIPHY from our application until we can be assured that this will never happen again.” Instagram wasn’t aware that the racist GIF was available in its GIPHY integration until informed by TechCrunch, leading to a shut down of the feature within an hour. An Instagram spokesperson told TechCrunch “This type of content has no place on Instagram.” After 12 hours of silence, GIPHY responded the next morning, telling us “After investigation of the incident, this sticker was available due to a bug in our content moderation filters specifically affecting GIF stickers.”

The fiasco highlights the risks of major platforms working with third-party developers to brings outside and crowdsourced content into their apps. Snapchat historically resisted working with established developers, but recently has struck more partnerships particularly around augmented reality lenses and marketing service providers. While it’s an easy way to provide more entertainment and creative expression tools, developer integrations also force companies to rely on the quality and safety of things they don’t fully control. As Instagram and Snapchat race for users around the world, they’ll have to weigh the risks and rewards of letting developers into their gardens.

GIPHY’s full statement is below.

CHANGES TO GIPHY’S STICKER MODERATION
Before we get into the details, we wanted to take a moment and sincerely apologize for the
deeply offensive sticker discovered by a user on March 8, 2018. To anyone who was affected:
we’re sorry. We take full responsibility for this recent event and under no circumstances does
GIPHY condone or support this kind of content.
The content was immediately removed and after investigation a bug was found in our content
moderation filters affecting stickers. This bug was immediately fixed and all stickers were re-
moderated.
We have also finished a full investigation into our content moderation systems and processes
and have made specific changes to our process to ensure something like this does not happen
again.

THE CHANGES
After fixing the bug in our content moderation filters and confirming that the sticker was
successfully detected, we re-moderated our entire sticker library 4x.
We have also added another level of GIPHY moderation before each sticker is approved into
the library. This is now a permanent addition to our moderation process.
We hope this will ensure that GIPHY stickers will always be fun and safe no matter where you
see them.

THE FUTURE AND BEYOND
GIFs and Stickers are supposed to make the Internet a better, more entertaining place.
GIPHY is committed to making sure that’s always the case. As GIPHY continues to grow, we’re
going to continue looking for ways to improve our user experience. Please let us know how we
can help at: support@giphy.com.
Team Giphy.