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Facebook is building a camera TV set-top box

Posted by | Facebook, Facebook Portal, facebook Ripley, Gadgets, hardware, privacy, set top box, Social, TC | No Comments

A mysterious product called “Ripley” appeared hidden beside Facebook’s new Portal smart displays in Facebook for Android’s code. Dug up by frequent TechCrunch tipster Jane Manchun Wong a week ago, Ripley’s name squared with Facebook’s VP of Portal Rafa Camargo telling us that “we’re already investing in expanding the product line with more products we want to launch next year.”

That Facebook device will be a camera-equipped device that connects to televisions to allow video chat and media content viewing, according to Cheddar’s Alex Heath.

Facebook’s Portal’s devices sit on a desk or countertop and cost $199 for a smaller screen and $349 for a bigger one. But with Ripley, Facebook could sell a much cheaper screen-less add-on for the televisions people already have. Facebook could build hardware network effect by releasing its Portal technology in many form factors.

The Ripley name could change before the eventual launch next year, which Cheddar says is coming in Spring 2019. It might become something more evocative of the device’s purpose. But regardless of the name, it’s sure to encounter heavy skepticism due to Facebook’s history of privacy and security troubles. Many users don’t trust Facebook enough to put one of its cameras and microphones in their house.

Ripley is said to run on the same Portal operating system that builds off the same Android open-source framework. That means it might carry a similar slate of features. Those include Portal’s auto-zooming camera that can follow users to keep them in frame, video chat through Messenger, a smart photo frame for while it’s not in use, Facebook Watch videos, Alexa voice control and a third-party app platform, including video content from outside developers.

While users might occasionally watch recipe or news videos on Portal, entertainment could be core to Ripley. The device would allow Facebook to compete with Roku, Amazon, Apple and other set-top boxes. The device could also eventually be a natural home for Facebook’s video ads, even though it’s not putting them on Portal right now.

Along with smart speakers, whoever creates what plugs into our TVs will control a fundamental wing of future home computing. Facebook won’t surrender this market, despite its disadvantage due to its many scandals.

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Facebook’s gaming hub Fb.gg launches into beta on Android

Posted by | Android, Apps, Facebook, Fb.gg, Gaming, Mobile, streaming | No Comments

This summer, Facebook launched Fb.gg, its online gaming hub and Twitch competitor, designed to attract game streamers and their fans to watch videos on Facebook instead of on rival sites. The destination shows videos based on which games and streaming celebrities users follow, plus Liked Pages and Groups, and other featured suggestions of what to watch. Now, Fb.gg is expanding to mobile with its launch on Android.

The new app, first spotted by Sensor Tower, arrived just a few days ago and is currently in beta testing.

According to its description on Google Play, the app allows gamers and fans to discover a “universe of gaming content,” connect with creators and join communities, and play instant games like Everwing, Words with Friends, Basketball FRVR, and others.

From the screenshots, you can see how the Fb.gg app lets users tap navigation buttons at the top to find streamers to watch, or to view those streamers they’re already following, among other things. They can also participate in live conversations during gameplay with other viewers. Here, they can react to the stream using Facebook’s standard emoticon set of likes, hearts, haha’s and others.

Another section lets gamers jump into simple and popular mobile games. These titles are among those who were early participants in Facebook’s other gaming efforts in the past, like Instant Games on Facebook and Messenger.

Facebook has been trying to woo the gaming community for some time, to better compete against Amazon’s Twitch and Google’s YouTube. There’s a large and growing market for game streaming and viewing, with young viewers tuning in an average of 3+ hours a week to watch, as TechCrunch previously noted.

Facebook’s efforts to directly challenge Twitch and others kicked off in earnest this year, with the launch of its own version of Twitch’s Partner Program. Facebook’s  gaming creator pilot program, as it’s called, allows viewers to tip their favorite gamers. And with the arrival of Fb.gg in June, the virtual currency involved in those tips was being referred to as Facebook Stars, with each star equating to $0.01.

Facebook said it takes a cut of fans’ purchases of stars, ranging from 5%-30%, depending on what size pack is bought.

Facebook also recently began testing a monthly subscription option with game streamers, similar to what’s offered by YouTube and Twitch.

Of course, to truly compete with Twitch and YouTube, Facebook needs to go mobile as well – especially since the upcoming Messenger redesign will hide away extraneous features, like mobile gaming. That’s where Fb.gg’s app comes in.

The Android version of the Fb.gg beta app launched on October 9, and already has over 10,000 installs, according to Google Play.

“We recently started testing a standalone gaming app on Google Play that builds on the experience of fb.gg, our destination on Facebook for people to find gaming content in one place,” a Facebook spokesperson told TechCrunch. “The fb.gg app is currently in beta with a limited set of features and available in the Philippines. We’re using the beta phase to get feedback from the gaming community and will make a decision on whether we roll it out further based on that response,” they said.

Update, here are some screenshots, courtesy of Twitter user Monte Thigpen:

Beta is exclusively in Philippines but here are some screenshots I got pic.twitter.com/kU3NeK6nGi

— Monte Thigpen Ⓜ ✪ (@mot427) October 12, 2018

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Facebook mistakenly deleted some people’s Live videos

Posted by | Apps, Facebook, Facebook bug, Facebook Live, Mobile, TC | No Comments

This time instead of exposing users’ data, a Facebook bug erased it. A previously undisclosed Facebook glitch caused it to delete some users’ Live videos if they tried to post them to their Story and the News Feed after finishing their broadcast. Facebook wouldn’t say how many users or livestreams were impacted, but told the bug was intermittent and affected a minority of all Live videos. It’s since patched the bug and restored some of the videos, but is notifying some users with an apology that their Live videos have been deleted permanently.

The bug raises the question of whether Facebook is a reliable place to share and store our memories and important moments. In March, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg told congress regarding the Cambridge Analytica scandal that “We have a responsibility to protect your data – and if we can’t, then we don’t deserve to serve you.” Between that misappropriation of user biographical data, the recent breach that let hackers steal the access tokens that would let them take over 50 million Facebook accounts, wrongful changes to users’ default sharing privacy settings, and now this, some users may conclude Facebook in fact no longer deserves to serve them.

Facebook user Tommy Gabriel Sparandera provided TechCrunch with this screenshot showing the apology note from Facebook on his profile. It reads “Information About Your Live Videos: Due to a technical issue, one or more of your live videos may have been deleted from your timeline and couldn’t be restored. We understand how important your live videos can be and apologize that this happened.”

When TechCrunch asked Facebook about the issue, it confirmed the problem and provided this statement: ““We recently discovered a technical issue that removed live videos from some people’s Facebook Timelines. We have resolved this issue and restored many of these videos to people’s Timelines. People whose videos we were unable to restore will get a notification on Facebook. We know saving memories on Facebook is important to people, and we apologize for this error.”

Facebook made a huge push to own the concept of “going Live” in 2016 with TV commercials, billboards and more designed to overshadow competitors like Twitter’s Periscope. It eventually succeeded, with Periscope’s popularity fading while one in five Facebook videos became Live broadcasts. But in its blitz to win this market, it didn’t build adequate safety and moderation tools. That led to suicides and violence being livestreamed to audiences before Facebook’s content police could take down the videos.

Nowadays, most users don’t go live frequently unless they’re some kind of influencer, public figure, or journalist. When they do see something important transpiring, Facebook has positioned itself as the way to broadcast it. But if users can’t be sure Facebook will properly save those videos, it could persuade them it’s not worth becoming a camera man instead of a participant in life’s most interesting moments.

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

Posted by | Apps, artificial intelligence, Facebook, Mobile, Oculus, Portrait mode, Social, TC, Virtual reality | No Comments

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

Facebook is constantly in search of ways to keep the News Feed interesting. What started with text and photos eventually expanded into videos and live broadcasts, and now to 360 photos and 3D photos. Facebook hopes if it’s the exclusive social media home for these new kinds of content, you’ll come back to explore and rack up some ad views in the meantime. Sometimes that means embracing mind-bending new formats like VR memories that recreate a scene in digital pointillism based on a photo.

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

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

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

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

Posted by | Amazon, amazon alexa, Amazon Echo Show, artificial intelligence, eCommerce, Facebook, Facebook Portal, Gadgets, Google, Google Assistant, Google Hardware Event 2018, google home, hardware, JBL Link View, smart displays, Social, TC | No Comments

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

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

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

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

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

more Google Event 2018 coverage

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Facebook Messenger internally tests voice commands for chat, calls

Posted by | Apps, Facebook, facebook messenger, Facebook Voice, Mobile, Social, TC, voice control, voice transcription | No Comments

Facebook Messenger could soon let you use your voice to dictate and send messages, initiate voice calls and create reminders. Messenger for Android’s code reveals a new M assistant button atop the message thread screen that activates listening for voice commands for those functionalities. Voice control could make Messenger simpler to use hands-free or while driving, more accessible for the vision or dexterity-impaired and, perhaps one day, easier for international users whose native languages are hard to type.

Facebook Messenger was previously spotted testing speech transcription as part of the Aloha voice assistant believed to be part of Facebook’s upcoming Portal video chat screen device. But voice commands in the M assistant are new, and demonstrate an evolution in Facebook’s strategy since its former head of Messenger David Marcus told me voice “is not something we’re actively working on right now” in September 2016 onstage at TechCrunch Disrupt.

The prototype was discovered by all-star TechCrunch tipster Jane Manchun Wong, who’d previously discovered prototypes of Instagram Video Calling, Facebook’s screen time digital well-being dashboard and Lyft’s scooter rentals before they officially launched. When reached for comment, a Facebook Messenger spokesperson confirmed to TechCrunch that Facebook is internally testing the voice command feature. They told TechCrunch, “We often experiment with new experiences on Messenger with employees. We have nothing more to share at this time.”

Messenger is eager to differentiate itself from SMS, Snapchat, Android Messages and other texting platforms. The app has aggressively adopted visual communication features like Facebook Stories, augmented reality filters and more. Wong today spotted Messenger prototyping augmented reality camera effects being rolled into the GIFs, Stickers and Emoji menu in the message composer. Facebook confirms this is now in testing with a small percentage of Messenger users.

Facebook has found that users aren’t so keen on tons of bells and whistles like prominent camera access or games getting in the way of chat, so Facebook plans to bury those more in a forthcoming simplified redesign of Messenger. But voice controls add pure utility without obstructing Messenger’s core value proposition and could end up getting users to chat more if they’re eventually rolled out.

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Facebook tests Snap Map-style redesign of Nearby Friends

Posted by | ambient location, Apps, Facebook, Facebook Nearby Friends, Location Based App, Mobile, Snap Map, Snapchat, Social, TC, Zenly | No Comments

Helping friends meet up offline has been a massive missed opportunity for Facebook . Whether because the brand is too creepy or the politely opt-in 2015 rollout of its location sharing feature wasn’t creepy enough, Facebook Nearby Friends never quite took off. Only 103 of my 1,120 friends in San Francisco have it turned on.

It’s not the only one struggling with “The quest to cure loneliness.” Foursquare Swarm, Glympse, Apple’s Find My Friends and Google Maps’ real-time coordinate-sharing option have all failed to become a ubiquitous standard.

The redesigned map homescreen of Facebook Nearby Friends

But last year, Snapchat launched a different take on the idea based on its biggest acquisition ever, French app Zenly. With Snap Map, it wasn’t just about the utility of seeing a list of friends’ locations like on Facebook, but also splayed them out across maps that you could dive into to see their latest geo-tagged Stories. It was as much about fun and content as it was about actually hanging out with people in person.

Now Facebook is testing a significant redesign of Nearby Friends that looks a lot more like Snap Map. It replaces the list view of the neighborhoods and cities friends are in with a map that groups friends together by city. A “view list” button opens up the former homescreen, though in both views you still can only see a friend’s approximate location in a neighborhood or city, not their exact coordinates. Facebook confirms to TechCrunch that “We’re testing a new design for Nearby Friends, a tool people have used for the past four years to meet with their friends in person. People have complete control over whether to use Nearby Friends or not. They can turn it on in the Nearby Friends bookmark.”

That statement both subtly promotes Facebook’s opt-in privacy setting for Nearby Friends while urging people to actually go back and activate it. The screenshot was generated from the code of Facebook’s Android app by mobile researcher and frequent TechCrunch tipster Jane Manchun Wong. Interestingly, after TechCrunch’s inquiry, Wong tells me Facebook appears to have deactivated server-side the ability to access the map feature.

The reason this matters is that Facebook is desperate for engagement, especially amongst younger users who are slipping away from it to Snapchat and Instagram. If revamped with this map and other improvements, Nearby Friends could become a more popular utility that keeps people opening Facebook. Getting more people to share their real-time location could open new opportunities for local ad targeting. And Facebook could benefit from showing it unlocks meaningful offline connections given its recent brand troubles following election interference and calls that it’s the opposite of “time well spent.”

The existing design of Facebook Nearby Friends

Snap Map was smart, but it’s sadly buried behind an awkward pinch gesture from Snapchat’s homescreen, or inside the search bar where some users wouldn’t expect it. Internal Snapchat usage data scored by Taylor Lorenz for The Daily Beast revealed that Snap Map had sunk from a high of 35 million daily unique viewers after its June 2017 launch to just 19 million by that September — merely 11 percent of Snapchat’s users at the time. Users never seemed to cease on it as a method of browsing Snapchat’s geo-tagged content.

Unfortunately, none of these location apps have figured out that meeting up isn’t all about location. It’s about availability. It doesn’t matter if I see my best friend is at a coffee shop right away if they’re not actually available to hang out. They could be on date, having a business meeting or trying to get some work done. If I drop in just because I see they’re close by, it could be awkward. You’d have to first message them, but you can come off seeming desperate if they can’t or don’t want to meet up with you.

Location apps need an availability indicator similar to the green “online” dot used by many chat apps. You could toggle that on if you wanted to show you’re interested in some spontaneous friend time.

Facebook’s actually spent the last year trying to build this into Messenger in the form of “Your Emoji” status. It lets you pick an emoji like a martini, fork and knife or barbell that’s temporarily overlaid on your profile pic thumbnail to let people know you’re down for drinking, getting dinner or working out. The feature is yet to be widely tested, indicating that Facebook hasn’t quite cracked the nut of encouraging online meetups.

Ideally, Facebook would combine Nearby Friends and Your Emoji to help users share both approximately where they are and whether they want to hang out. The next step would be making it easy to watch a friend’s geo-tagged Facebook Story from wherever they are. And then, Facebook could further copy Snap Map by making public Stories and other location-based content accessible from the map so you could browse it for fun instead of the News Feed or Stories tray.

Still, making Nearby Friends work could require Facebook to rethink the privacy element. The friend graph has bloated to include family, co-workers, bosses and distant acquaintances with whom users might not want to share their real-time location. Finding a better way to let you share where you are with just your closest friends could make more people comfortable with the feature.

Facebook needs to rethink its entire product stack to embrace the high-definition cameras, big phone screens and fast network connections that make it easier to convey information through imagery than text. Visual communication is the future, and that goes far beyond Stories.

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Meet Adam Mosseri, the new head of Instagram

Posted by | adam mosseri, Apps, Facebook, instagram, Kevin Systrom, mike krieger, Mobile, Personnel, Social, TC | No Comments

Former Facebook VP of News Feed and recently appointed Instagram VP of Product Adam Mosseri has been named the new head of Instagram following the resignation of Instagram’s founders Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger last week. “We are thrilled to hand over the reins to a product leader with a strong design background and a focus on craft and simplicity — as well as a deep understanding of the importance of community,” the founders wrote. “These are the values and principles that have been essential to us at Instagram since the day we started, and we’re excited for Adam to carry them forward.”

Systrom will recruit a new executive team, including heads of product, operations and engineering, to replace himself, Instagram COO Marne Levine, who went back to lead Facebook partnerships last month, and engineering leader James Everingham, who moved to Facebook’s blockchain team in May before finishing at Instagram in July. Instagram’s product director Robby Stein is a strong candidate for the product head position, as he’s been overseeing Stories, feed, Live, direct messaging, camera and profile.

Instagram’s founders announced last week they were leaving the Facebook corporation after sources told TechCrunch the pair had dealt with dwindling autonomy from Facebook and rising tensions with its CEO Mark Zuckerberg. The smiling photo above seems meant to show peace has been restored to Instaland, and counter the increasing perception that Facebook breaks its promises to acquired founders. TechCrunch previously reported Mosseri was first in line for the role according to sources, and The Information later wrote that some inside the company saw him as a lock.

Mosseri’s experience dealing with the unintended consequences of the News Feed, such as fake news in the wake of the 2016 election, could help him predict how Instagram’s growth will affect culture, politics and user well-being. Over the years of interviewing him, Mosseri has always come across as sharp, serious and empathetic. He comes across as a true believer that Facebook and its family of apps can make a positive impact in the world, but cognizant of the hard work and complex choices required to keep them from being misused.

Born and raised in New York, Mosseri started his own design consultancy while attending NYU’s Gallatin School of Interdisciplinary Study to learn about media and information design. Mosseri joined Facebook in 2008 after briefly working at a startup called TokBox. Tasked with helping Facebook embrace mobile as design director, he’s since become part of Zuckerberg’s inner circle of friends and lieutenants. Mosseri later moved into product management and oversaw Facebook’s News Feed, turn it into the world’s most popular social technology and the driver of billions in profit from advertising. However, amidst his successes, Mosseri also oversaw Facebook Home, the flopped mobile operating system, and was the officer on duty when fake news and Russian election attackers proliferated.

After going on parental leave this year, Mosseri returned to take over the role of Instagram VP of Product from Kevin Weil as he moved to Facebook’s blockchain team. A source tells TechCrunch he was well-received and productive since joining Instagram, and has gotten along well with Systrom. Mosseri now lives in San Francisco, close enough to work from both Instagram’s city office and South Bay headquarters. He’ll report to Facebook’s chief product officer Chris Cox as he did at Facebook. Cox wrote, “Kevin and Mike, we will never fill your shoes. But we will work hard to uphold the craft, simplicity, elegance, and the incredible community of Instagram: both the team and the product you’ve built.”

“The impact of their work over the past eight years has been incredible. They built a product people love that brings joy and connection to so many lives,” Mosseri wrote about Instagram’s founders in an Instagram post. “I’m humbled and excited about the opportunity to now lead the Instagram team. I want to thank them for trusting me to carry forward the values that they have established. I will do my best to make them, the team, and the Instagram community proud.”

Mosseri will be tasked with balancing the needs of Instagram, such as headcount, engineering resources and growth, with the priorities of its parent company Facebook, such as cross-promotion to Instagram’s younger audience and revenue to contribute to the corporation’s earnings reports. Some see Mosseri as more sympathetic to Facebook’s desire than Instagram’s founders, given his long-stint at the parent company and his close relationship with Zuckerberg. Interestingly, Zuckerberg wasn’t mentioned or pictured in the transition announcement and hasn’t posted anything congratulating Mosseri as is common in Facebook’s employee culture. Zuckerberg may be seeking to reduce the appearance that he’s playing puppet master and instead does actually let Instagram run independently.

The question now is whether users will end up seeing more notifications and shortcuts linking back to Facebook, or more ads in the Stories and feed. Instagram hasn’t highlighted the ability to syndicate your Stories to Facebook, which could be a boon for that parallel product. Instagram Stories now has 400 million daily users compared to Facebook Stories and Messenger Stories’ combined 150 million users. Tying them more closely could see more content flow into Facebook, but it might also make users second guess whether what they’re sharing is appropriate for all of their Facebook friends, which might include family or professional colleagues.

Mosseri’s most pressing responsibility will be reassuring users that the culture of Instagram and its app won’t be assimilated into Facebook now that he’s running things instead of the founders. He’ll also need to snap into action to protect Instagram from being used as a pawn for election interference in the run-up to the 2018 U.S. mid-terms. While he’ll never have the same mandate and faith from employees that the founders did, Mosseri is the experienced leader Instagram needs to grapple with its scaled-up influence.

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Facebook’s ex-CSO, Alex Stamos, defends its decision to inject ads in WhatsApp

Posted by | Advertising Tech, Alex Stamos, Android, Apple, Apps, Brian Acton, e2e encryption, encryption, Facebook, Instant Messaging, Jan Koum, privacy, Sheryl Sandberg, signal foundation, Signal Protocol, Social, social media, WhatsApp | No Comments

Alex Stamos, Facebook’s former chief security officer, who left the company this summer to take up a role in academia, has made a contribution to what’s sometimes couched as a debate about how to monetize (and thus sustain) commercial end-to-end encrypted messaging platforms in order that the privacy benefits they otherwise offer can be as widely spread as possible.

Stamos made the comments via Twitter, where he said he was indirectly responding to the fallout from a Forbes interview with WhatsApp co-founder Brian Acton — in which Acton hit at out at his former employer for being greedy in its approach to generating revenue off of the famously anti-ads messaging platform.

Both WhatsApp founders’ exits from Facebook has been blamed on disagreements over monetization. (Jan Koum left some months after Acton.)

In the interview, Acton said he suggested Facebook management apply a simple business model atop WhatsApp, such as metered messaging for all users after a set number of free messages. But that management pushed back — with Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg telling him they needed a monetization method that generates greater revenue “scale”.

And while Stamos has avoided making critical remarks about Acton (unlike some current Facebook staffers), he clearly wants to lend his weight to the notion that some kind of trade-off is necessary in order for end-to-end encryption to be commercially viable (and thus for the greater good (of messaging privacy) to prevail); and therefore his tacit support to Facebook and its approach to making money off of a robustly encrypted platform.

Stamos’ own departure from the fb mothership was hardly under such acrimonious terms as Acton, though he has had his own disagreements with the leadership team — as set out in a memo he sent earlier this year that was obtained by BuzzFeed. So his support for Facebook combining e2e and ads perhaps counts for something, though isn’t really surprising given the seat he occupied at the company for several years, and his always fierce defence of WhatsApp encryption.

(Another characteristic concern that also surfaces in Stamos’ Twitter thread is the need to keep the technology legal, in the face of government attempts to backdoor encryption, which he says will require “accepting the inevitable downsides of giving people unfettered communications”.)

I don’t want to weigh into the personal side of the WhatsApp vs Facebook fight, as there are people I respect on both sides, but I do want to use this as an opportunity to talk about the future of end-to-end encryption. (1/13)

— Alex Stamos (@alexstamos) September 26, 2018

This summer Facebook confirmed that, from next year, ads will be injected into WhatsApp statuses (aka the app’s Stories clone). So it is indeed bringing ads to the famously anti-ads messaging platform.

For several years the company has also been moving towards positioning WhatsApp as a business messaging platform to connect companies with potential customers — and it says it plans to meter those messages, also from next year.

So there are two strands to its revenue generating playbook atop WhatsApp’s e2e encrypted messaging platform. Both with knock-on impacts on privacy, given Facebook targets ads and marketing content by profiling users by harvesting their personal data.

This means that while WhatsApp’s e2e encryption means Facebook literally cannot read WhatsApp users’ messages, it is ‘circumventing’ the technology (for ad-targeting purposes) by linking accounts across different services it owns — using people’s digital identities across its product portfolio (and beyond) as a sort of ‘trojan horse’ to negate the messaging privacy it affords them on WhatsApp.

Facebook is using different technical methods (including the very low-tech method of phone number matching) to link WhatsApp user and Facebook accounts. Once it’s been able to match a Facebook user to a WhatsApp account it can then connect what’s very likely to be a well fleshed out Facebook profile with a WhatsApp account that nonetheless contains messages it can’t read. So it’s both respecting and eroding user privacy.

This approach means Facebook can carry out its ad targeting activities across both messaging platforms (as it will from next year). And do so without having to literally read messages being sent by WhatsApp users.

As trade offs go, it’s a clearly a big one — and one that’s got Facebook into regulatory trouble in Europe.

It is also, at least in Stamos’ view, a trade off that’s worth it for the ‘greater good’ of message content remaining strongly encrypted and therefore unreadable. Even if Facebook now knows pretty much everything about the sender, and can access any unencrypted messages they sent using its other social products.

In his Twitter thread Stamos argues that “if we want that right to be extended to people around the world, that means that E2E encryption needs to be deployed inside of multi-billion user platforms”, which he says means: “We need to find a sustainable business model for professionally-run E2E encrypted communication platforms.”

On the sustainable business model front he argues that two models “currently fit the bill” — either Apple’s iMessage or Facebook-owned WhatsApp. Though he doesn’t go into any detail on why he believes only those two are sustainable.

He does say he’s discounting the Acton-backed alternative, Signal, which now operates via a not-for-profit (the Signal Foundation) — suggesting that rival messaging app is “unlikely to hit 1B users”.

In passing he also throws it out there that Signal is “subsidized, indirectly, by FB ads” — i.e. because Facebook pays a licensing fee for use of the underlying Signal Protocol used to power WhatsApp’s e2e encryption. (So his slightly shade-throwing subtext is that privacy purists are still benefiting from a Facebook sugardaddy.)

Then he gets to the meat of his argument in defence of Facebook-owned (and monetized) WhatsApp — pointing out that Apple’s sustainable business model does not reach every mobile user, given its hardware is priced at a premium. Whereas WhatsApp running on a cheap Android handset ($50 or, perhaps even $30 in future) can.

Other encrypted messaging apps can also of course run on Android but presumably Stamos would argue they’re not professionally run.

“I think it is easy to underestimate how radical WhatsApp’s decision to deploy E2E was,” he writes. “Acton and Koum, with Zuck’s blessing, jumped off a bridge with the goal of building a monetization parachute on the way down. FB has a lot of money, so it was a very tall bridge, but it is foolish to expect that FB shareholders are going to subsidize a free text/voice/video global communications network forever. Eventually, WhatsApp is going to need to generate revenue.

“This could come from directly charging for the service, it could come from advertising, it could come from a WeChat-like services play. The first is very hard across countries, the latter two are complicated by E2E.”

“I can’t speak to the various options that have been floated around, or the arguments between WA and FB, but those of us who care about privacy shouldn’t see WhatsApp monetization as something evil,” he adds. “In fact, we should want WA to demonstrate that E2E and revenue are compatible. That’s the only way E2E will become a sustainable feature of massive, non-niche technology platforms.”

Stamos is certainly right that Apple’s iMessage cannot reach every mobile user, given the premium cost of Apple hardware.

Though he elides the important role that second hand Apple devices play in helping to reduce the barrier to entry to Apple’s pro-privacy technology — a role Apple is actively encouraging via support for older devices (and by its own services business expansion which extends its model so that support for older versions of iOS (and thus secondhand iPhones) is also commercially sustainable).

Robust encryption only being possible via multi-billion user platforms essentially boils down to a usability argument by Stamos — which is to suggest that mainstream app users will simply not seek encryption out unless it’s plated up for them in a way they don’t even notice it’s there.

The follow on conclusion is then that only a well-resourced giant like Facebook has the resources to maintain and serve this different tech up to the masses.

There’s certainly substance in that point. But the wider question is whether or not the privacy trade offs that Facebook’s monetization methods of WhatsApp entail, by linking Facebook and WhatsApp accounts and also, therefore, looping in various less than transparent data-harvest methods it uses to gather intelligence on web users generally, substantially erodes the value of the e2e encryption that is now being bundled with Facebook’s ad targeting people surveillance. And so used as a selling aid for otherwise privacy eroding practices.

Yes WhatsApp users’ messages will remain private, thanks to Facebook funding the necessary e2e encryption. But the price users are having to pay is very likely still their personal privacy.

And at that point the argument really becomes about how much profit a commercial entity should be able to extract off of a product that’s being marketed as securely encrypted and thus ‘pro-privacy’? How much revenue “scale” is reasonable or unreasonable in that scenario?

Other business models are possible, which was Acton’s point. But likely less profitable. And therein lies the rub where Facebook is concerned.

How much money should any company be required to leave on the table, as Acton did when he left Facebook without the rest of his unvested shares, in order to be able to monetize a technology that’s bound up so tightly with notions of privacy?

Acton wanted Facebook to agree to make as much money as it could without users having to pay it with their privacy. But Facebook’s management team said no. That’s why he’s calling them greedy.

Stamos doesn’t engage with that more nuanced point. He just writes: “It is foolish to expect that FB shareholders are going to subsidize a free text/voice/video global communications network forever. Eventually, WhatsApp is going to need to generate revenue” — thereby collapsing the revenue argument into an all or nothing binary without explaining why it has to be that way.

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Inside Facebook Stories’ quest for originality amidst 300M users

Posted by | Apps, Facebook, facebook messenger, Facebook Stories, Mobile, Social, TC | No Comments

There’s a secret Facebook app called Blink. Built for employees only, it’s how the company tests new video formats it’s hoping will become the next Boomerang or SuperZoom. They range from artsy Blur effects to a way even old Android phones can use Slo-Mo. One exciting format in development offers audio beat detection that syncs visual embellishments to songs playing in the background or added via the Music feature for adding licensed songs as soundtracks that is coming to Facebook Stories after debuting on Instagram.

“When we first formed the team . . . we brought in film makers and cinematographers to help the broader team understand the tropes around storytelling and film making,” says Dantley Davis, Facebook Stories’ director of design. He knows those tropes himself, having spent seven years at Netflix leading the design of its apps and absorbing creative tricks from countless movies. He wants to democratize those effects once trapped inside expensive desktop editing software. “We’re working on formats to enable people to take the video they have and turn it into something special.”

For all the jabs about Facebook stealing Stories from Snapchat, it’s working hard to differentiate. That’s in part because there’s not much left to copy, and because it’s largely succeeded in conquering the prodigal startup that refused to be acquired. Snapchat’s user count shrank last quarter to 188 million daily users.

Meanwhile, Facebook’s versions continue to grow. The Messenger Day brand was retired a year ago and now Stories posts to either the chat app or Facebook sync to both. After announcing in May that Facebook Stories had 150 million users, with Messenger citing 70 million last September, today the company revealed they have a combined 300 million daily users. The Middle East, Central Latin America and Southeast Asia, where people already use Facebook and Messenger most, are driving that rapid growth.

With the success of any product comes the mandate to monetize it. That push ended up pushing out the founders of Facebook acquisition WhatsApp, and encroachment on product decision-making did the same to Instagram’s founders who this week announced they were resigning.

Now the mandate has reached Facebook Stories, which today opened up to advertisers globally, and also started syndicating those ads into Stories within Messenger. Facebook is even running “Stories School” programs to teach ad execs the visual language of ephemerality since all four of its family of apps will monetize Stories with ads. WhatsApp will start to show ads in its Status version of Stories starting next year now that its founders that hated ads have left.

As sharing to Stories is predicted to surpass feed sharing in 2019, Facebook is counting on the ephemeral slideshows to sustain its ad revenue. Fears they wouldn’t lopped $120 billion off Facebook’s market cap this summer.

Facebook Stories ads open to all advertisers today

But to run ads you need viewers, and that will require responses to questions that have dogged Facebook Stories since its debut in early 2017: “Why do I need Stories here too when I already have Instagram Stories and WhatsApp Status?” Many find it annoying that Stories have infected every one of Facebook’s products.

Facebook user experience research manager Liz Keneski

The answer may be creativity. However, Facebook is taking a scientific approach to determining which creative tools to build. Liz Keneski is a user experience research manager at Facebook. She leads the investigative trips, internal testing and focus groups that shape Facebook’s products. Keneski laid out the different types of research Facebook employs to go from vague idea to polished launch:

  • Foundational Research – “This is the really future-looking research. It’s not necessarily about any specific products but trying to understand people’s needs.”
  • Contextual Inquiry – “People are kind enough to invite us into their homes and talk with us about how they use technology.” Sometimes Facebook does “street intercepts” where they find people in public and spend five minutes watching and discussing how they use their phone. It also conducts “diary studies” where people journal about how they spend their time with tech.
  • Descriptive Research – “When we’re exploring a defined product space,” this lets Facebook get feedback on exactly what users would want a new feature to do.
  • Participatory Design – “It’s kind of like research arts and crafts. We give people different artifacts and design elements and actually ask them to a deign what an experience that would be ideal for them might look like.”
  • Product Research – “Seeing how people interact with a specific product, the things they’re like or don’t like, the things they might want to change” lets Facebook figure out how to tweak features it’s built so they’re ready to launch.

Last year Facebook went on a foundational research expedition to India. Devanshi Bhandari, who works on the globalization, discovered that even in emerging markets where Snapchat never got popular, people already knew how to use Stories. “We’ve been kind of surprised to learn . . . Ephemeral sharing wasn’t as new to some people as we expected,” she tells me. It turns out there are regional Stories copycats around the globe.

As Bhandari dug deeper, she found that people wanted more creative tools, but not at the cost of speed. So Facebook began caching the Stories tray from your last visit so it’d still appear when you open Facebook Lite without having to wait for it to load. This week, Facebook will start offering creative tools like filters inside Facebook Lite Stories by enabling them server-side so users can do more than just upload unedited videos.

That trip to India ended up spawning whole new products. Bhandari noticed some users, especially women, weren’t comfortable showing their face in Stories. “People would sometimes put their thumb over the video camera but share the audio content,” she tells me. That led Facebook to build Audio Stories.

Facebook now lets U.S. users add music to Stories just like Instagram

Dantley Davis, Facebook Stories’ director of design

Back at Facebook headquarters in California, the design team runs exercises to distill their own visions of creative. “We have a phase of our design cycle where we ask the designers . . . to bring in their inspiration,” says Davis. That means everything from apps to movie clips to physical objects. Facebook determined that users needed better ways to express emotion through text. While it offers different fonts, from billboard to typewriter motifs, they couldn’t convey if someone is happy or sad. So now Davis reveals Facebook is building “kinetic text.” Users can select if they want to convey if text is supposed to be funny or happy or sad, and their words will appear stylized with movement to get that concept across.

But to make Stories truly Facebook-y, the team had to build them into all its products while solving problems rather than creating them. For example, birthday wall posts are one of the longest running emerging behaviors on the social network. But most people just post a thin, generic “happy birthday!” or “HBD” post, which can feel impersonal, even dystopic. So after announcing the idea in May, Facebook is now running Birthday Stories that encourage friends to submit a short video clip of well wishes instead of bland text.

Facebook recently launched Group and Event Stories, where members can collaborate by all contributing clips that show up in the Stories tray atop the News Feed. Now Facebook is going to start building its own version of Snapchat’s Our Stories. Facebook is now testing holiday-based collaborative Stories, starting with the Mid-Autumn Festival in Vietnam. Users can opt to post to this themed Story, and friends (but not the public) will see those clips combined.

This is the final step of Facebook’s three-part plan to get people hooked on Stories, according to Facebook’s head of Stories, Rushabh Doshi. The idea is that first, Facebook has to get people a taste of Stories by spotlighting them atop the app as well as amidst the feed. Then it makes it easy for people to post their own Stories by offering simple creative tools. And finally, it wants to “Build Stories for what people expect out of Facebook.” That encompasses all the integrations of Stories across the product.

Rushabh Doshi, Facebook’s head of Stories

Still, the toughest nut to crack won’t be helping users figure out what to share but who to share to. Facebook Stories’ biggest disadvantage is that it’s built around an extremely broad social graph that includes not only friends but family, work colleagues and distant acquaintances. That can apply a chilling effect to sharing as people don’t feel comfortable posting silly, off-the-cuff or vulnerable Stories to such a wide audience.

Facebook has struggled with this problem in News Feed for over a decade. It ended up killing off its Friend List Feeds that let people select a subset of their friends and view a feed of just their posts because so few people were using them. Yet the problem remains rampant, and the invasion of parents and bosses has pushed users to Instagram, Snapchat and other younger apps. Unfortunately for now, Doshi says there are no Friend Lists or specific ways to keep Facebook Stories more private amongst friends. “To help people keep up with smaller groups, we’re focused on ways people are already connecting on Facebook, such as Group Stories and Event Stories” Doshi tells me. At least he says “We’re also looking at new ways people could share their stories with select groups of people.”

At 300 million daily users, Facebook Stories doesn’t deserve the “ghost town” label any more. People who were already accustomed to Stories elsewhere still see the feature as intrusive, interruptive and somewhat desperate. But with 2.2 billion total Facebookers, the company can be forced to focus on one-size-fits-all solutions. Yet if Facebook’s Blink testing app can produce must-use filters and effects, and collaborative Stories can unlock new forms of sharing, Facebook Stories could find its purpose.

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