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Dolby quietly preps augmented audio recorder app “234″

Posted by | Apps, audio, Audio Recording, augmented audio, dolby, Entertainment, Media, Mobile, Social, soundcloud, TC | No Comments

Dolby is secretly building a mobile music production app it hopes will seduce SoundCloud rappers and other musicians. Codenamed “234” and formerly tested under the name Dolby Live, the free app measures background noise before you record and then nullifies it. Users can also buy “packs” of audio effects to augment their sounds with EQs settings like “Amped, Bright, Lyric, Thump, Deep, or Natural”. Recordings can then be exported, shared to Dolby’s own audio social network, or uploaded directly to SoundCloud through a built-in integration.

You could call it VSCO or Instagram for SoundCloud.

234 is Dolby Labs’ first big entrance into the world of social apps that could give it more face time with consumers than its core business of integrating audio technology into devices by other manufacturers. Using 234 to convince musicians that Dolby is an expert at audio quality could get them buying more of those speakers and headphones. And by selling audio effect packs, the app could earn the company money directly while making the world of mobile music sound better.

Dolby has been covertly testing Dolby Live/234 since at least June. A source tipped us off to the app and while the company hasn’t formally announced it, there is a website for signing up to test Dolby 234. Dolby PR refused to comment on the forthcoming app. But 234’s sign-up site advertises it saying “How can music recorded on a phone sound so good? Dolby 234 automatically cleans up the sound, gives it tone and space, and finds the ideal loudness. it’s like having your own producer in your phone.”

Those with access to the Dolby 234 app can quickly record audio or audio/video clips with optional background noise cancelling. Free sound editing tools including trimming, loudness boost, and bass and treble controls. Users can get a seven-day free trial of the Dolby’s “Essentials” pack of EQ presets like ‘Bright’ before having to pay, though the pack was free in the beta version so we’re not sure how much it will cost. The “Tracks” tab lets you edit or share any of the clips you’ve recorded.

Overall, the app is polished and intuitive with a lively feel thanks to the Instagram logo-style purple/orange gradient color scheme. The audio effects have a powerful impact on the sound without being gimmicky or overbearing. There’s plenty of room for additional features, though, like multi-tracking, a metronome, or built-in drum beats.

For musicians posting mobile clips to Instagram or other social apps, 234 could make them sound way better without much work. There’s also a huge opportunity for Dolby to court podcasters and other non-music audio creators. I’d love a way to turn effects on and off mid-recording so I could add the feeling of an intimate whisper or echoey ampitheater to emphasize certain words or phrases.

Given how different 234 is from Dolby’s traditional back-end sound processing technologies, it’s done a solid job with design and the app could still get more bells and whistles before an official launch. It’s a creative move for the brand and one that recognizes the seismic shifts facing audio production and distribution. As always-in earbuds like Apple’s AirPods and voice interfaces like Alexa proliferate, short-form audio content will become more accessible and popular. Dolby could spare the world from having to suffer through amazing creators muffled by crappy recordings.

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Twitter bug revealed some Android users’ private tweets

Posted by | Android, Apps, bug, data, private data, public, Security, Social, TC, tweets, Twitter | No Comments

Twitter accidentally revealed some users’ “protected” (aka, private) tweets, the company disclosed this afternoon. The “Protect your Tweets” setting typically allows people to use Twitter in a non-public fashion. These users get to approve who can follow them and who can view their content. For some Android users over a period of several years, that may not have been the case — their tweets were actually made public as a result of this bug.

The company says that the issue impacted Twitter for Android users who made certain account changes while the “Protect your Tweets” option was turned on.

For example, if the user had changed their account email address, the “Protect your Tweets” setting was disabled.

We’ve become aware of and fixed an issue where the “Protect your Tweets” setting was disabled on Twitter for Android. Those affected have been alerted and we’ve turned the setting back on for them. More here: https://t.co/0qM5B1S393

— Twitter Support (@TwitterSupport) January 17, 2019

Twitter tells TechCrunch that’s just one example of an account change that could have prompted the issue. We asked for other examples, but the company declined to share any specifics.

What’s fairly shocking is how long this issue has been happening.

Twitter says that users may have been impacted by the problem if they made these account changes between November 3, 2014, and January 14, 2019 — the day the bug was fixed. 

The company has now informed those who were affected by the issue, and has re-enabled the “Protect your Tweets” setting if it had been disabled on those accounts. But Twitter says it’s making a public announcement because it “can’t confirm every account that may have been impacted.” (!!!)

The company explains to us it was only able to notify those people where it was able to confirm the account was impacted, but says it doesn’t have a complete list of impacted accounts. For that reason, it’s unable to offer an estimate of how many Twitter for Android users were affected in total.

This is a sizable mistake on Twitter’s part, as it essentially made available to the public content that users had explicitly indicated they wanted private. It’s unclear at this time if the issue will result in a GDPR violation and fine as a result.

The one bright spot is that some of the impacted users may have noticed their account had become public because they would have received alerts — like notifications that people were following them without their direct consent. That could have prompted the user to re-enable the “protect tweets” setting on their own. But they may have chalked up the issue to user error or a small glitch, not realizing it was a system-wide bug.

“We recognize and appreciate the trust you place in us, and are committed to earning that trust every day,” wrote Twitter in a statement. “We’re very sorry this happened and we’re conducting a full review to help prevent this from happening again.”

The company says it believes the issue is now fully resolved.

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Squad is the new screensharing chat app everyone will copy

Posted by | Apps, Mobile, Screensharing, Social, Squad, Startups, TC | No Comments

Squad could be the next teen sensation because it makes it easy to do nothing… together. Spending time with friends in the modern age often means just being on your phones next to each other, occasionally showing off something funny you found. Squad lets you do this even while apart, and that way of punctuating video chat might make it the teen girl “third place” like Fortnite is for adolescent boys.

With Squad, you fire up a video chat with up to six people, but at any time you can screenshare what you’re seeing on your phone instead of showing your face. You can browse memes together, trash talk about DMs or private profiles, brainstorm a status update, co-work on a project or get consensus on your Tinder swipe. It’s deceptively simple, but remarkably alluring. And it couldn’t have happened until now.

How Squad screensharing looks

Squad takes advantage of Apple’s ReplayKit for screensharing. While it was announced in 2015, it wasn’t until June 2018’s iOS 12 that ReplayKit became stable and easy enough to be built into a consumer app for teens. Meanwhile, plus-size screens and speedy LTE and upcoming 5G networks make screensharing watchable. And with Instagram aging and Snapchat shrinking, there’s demand for a more intimately connected social network.

Squad only launched its app last week, but droves of Facebook and Snap employees have signed up to spy on and likely copy the startup, co-founder and CEO Esther Crawford tells me. Screensharing would fit well in group video chat startup Houseparty too. To fuel its head start, Squad has the $2.2 million it raised before it pivoted away from Molly, the team’s previous App where people can make FAQs about themselves. That cash came from betaworks, Y Combinator, BBG Ventures, Basis Set Ventures, Jesse Draper, Gary Vaynerchuk, Niv Dror, and [Disclosure: former TechCrunch editor] Alexia Bonatsos’ Dream Machine. Next, Squad wants to let people tune in to screenshares via URL to unlock a new era of Live broadcasting, and equip other apps with the capability through a Squad SDK.

“People under 24 do video chat way different than people 25 and above” says Crawford. Adding screensharing is “an excuse for hanging out.”

Serious ideas are preludes to toys

Screensharing has long been common in enterprise communication apps like Webex, Zoom and Slack. I even called a collaborative browsing and desktop screensharing app my favorite project from Facebook’s 2011 college hackathon. But we don’t just use our screens for work any more. Teens and young adults live on the digital plane, navigating complex webs of friendships, entertainment and academia through their phones. Squad makes those experiences social — including the “social” networks we often scroll through in isolation. Charles and Ray Eames said “Toys are preludes to serious ideas,” but this time, it is happening in reverse.

Squad co-founders from left: Ethan Sutin, Esther Crawford

“The idea came from a combination of things — a pain we were experiencing as a team,” Crawford recalls. My development team is constantly sending each other screenshots and screen recordings. It seemed ridiculous that I can’t just show you what’s on my screen. It was a business use case internally.” But then came the wisdom of a 13-year-old. “My daughter over the summer was bugging me. ‘Why can’t I just show what’s on my screen with my friends?’ I said I think it’s not technically possible.” That’s when Crawford discovered advances in ReplayKit meant it suddenly was possible.

Crawford had already seen this cycle of tool to toy before, as she was an early YouTuber. Back in the mid-2000s, people thought of YouTube as a place to host videos about eBay listings, professional presentations or dating profile supplements. “They couldn’t imagine that if you let people just reliably and easily upload video content, there’d be all these creative enterprises.”

Use cases for Squad

After stints in product marketing at Coach.com and Stride Labs, she built Estherbot — a chatbot version of herself that let people learn about her. Indeed, 50,000 people ended up trying it, convincing her people needed new ways to reveal themselves to friends. She met Ethan Sutin through the project and together they co-founded FAQ app Molly before it fizzled out and was shut down. “Molly wasn’t working; it had high initial engagement sessions, but then they would drop off. Maybe it’s not the right time for the augmented version of you,” noted Crawford.

Crawford and Sutin pivoted Molly into Squad to keep exploring new formats for vulnerability. “What excited Ethan and I was this mission to help people feel less lonely.”

Alone, together

Squad recommends apps to screenshare

Squad worked, thanks to a slick way to activate screensharing. The app launches to the selfie camera similar to Snapchat, but with a + button for inviting friends to a video call. Tap the screenshare button at the bottom, select Squad and start the broadcast. To guide users toward the best screensharing experiences, a menu of apps emerges encouraging users to open Instagram, TikTok, Bumble, their camera roll and others.

People can bounce back and forth between screensharing and video chat, and tap a friend’s window to view it full-screen. And when they want another friend to see what they’re seeing, Squad goes viral. One concern is that Squad breaks privacy controls. You could have friends show you someone’s Instagram profile you’re blocked by or aren’t allowed to see. But the same goes for hanging out in person, and this is one reason Squad doesn’t let you download videos of your chats and is considering screenshot warnings.

What’s so special about Squad is that it lacks the intensity of traditional video chat, where you constantly feel pressured to perform. You can fire up a chat room, and then go back to phoning as you please with your screen displayed instead of your blank face (though the Android version in beta offers picture-in-picture so you can show your mug and the screen).

“There’s no picture-in-picture on iOS, but younger users don’t even really care. I can point it at the bed and you can tell me when there’s something to look at,” Crawford tells me. A few people, alone in their houses, video chatting without looking at each other, still feel a sense of togetherness.

The future of Squad could grant that feeling to a massive audience of a celebrity or influencer. The startup is working on shareable URLs that creators could post on other social networks like Twitter or Facebook that their fans could click to watch. Tagging along as Kylie Jenner or Ninja play around on their phone could bring people closer to their heroes while serving as a massive growth opportunity for Squad. Similarly, colonizing other apps with an SDK for screensharing could allow Squad to recruit their users.

Squad makes starting a screenshare easy

The startup will face stiff technical challenges. Lag or low video quality destroy the feeling of delight it delivers, Crawford admits, so the team is focused on making sure the app works well even in rural areas like middle America where many early users live. But the real test will be whether it can build a new social graph upon the screensharing idea if already popular apps build competing features. Gaming tools like Discord and Twitch already offer web screensharing, and I suggested Facebook should bring the feature to Messenger when in late-2017 it launched in its Workplace office collaboration app.

Helping a friend choose when to swipe right on Tinder via Squad

In June I wrote that Instagram and Snapchat would try to steal the voice-activated visual effects at the center of an app called Panda. Snapchat started testing those just two months later. Instagram’s whole Stories feature was cloned from Snapchat, and it also cribbed Q&A Stories from Polly. Overshadowed, Panda and Polly have faded from the spotlight. With Facebook and Snap already sniffing around Squad, it’s quite possible they’ll try to copy it. Squad will have to hope first-mover advantage and focus can defeat a screensharing feature bolted on to apps with hundreds of millions or even billions of users.

But regardless of who delivers this next phase of sharing, it’s coming. “Everyone knows that the content flooding our feeds is a filtered version of reality. The real and interesting stuff goes down in DMs because people are more authentic when they’re 1:1 or in small group conversations,” Crawford wrote.

Perhaps there’s no better antidote to the poison of social media success theater that revealing that beyond the Instagram highlights, we’re often just playing around on our phones. Squad might not be glamorous, but it’s authentic and a lot more fun.

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Tinder is testing the ability to share Spotify music clips in chat

Posted by | Apps, Media, Mobile, Music, Social, Spotify, Tinder | No Comments

Tinder has already developed a fairly robust chat platform within its dating app, with support for sharing things like Bitmoji and GIFs, and the ability to “like” messages by tapping a heart icon. Now, the company is testing a new integration — sharing music via Spotify. Tinder confirmed with TechCrunch it’s trying out a new way to connect users, by allowing them to share music within their chats.

The test is currently taking place across global markets, and Spotify is the only music service involved.

The new feature was first spotted by the blog MSPoweruser, which speculated the addition could be an experiment on Tinder’s part, ahead of a public launch. That does seem to be the case, as it turns out.

According to screenshots the site posted, a green music icon has been swapped in for the Bitmoji icon. Clicking this allows you to enter a query into a search box and see matching results displayed above. You’re not able to share the full song, however — only a 30-second clip.

Above: Tinder music test with Spotify; credits: MSPoweruser

Tinder, like its rival Bumble, has offered integration with Spotify’s streaming music service since 2016.

Both apps allow users to connect their Spotify accounts in order to showcase their top artists on their profile. As Tinder explained at the time of launch, music can be a powerful signal in terms of attraction, and plays an important role in terms of getting to know a new connection, as well.

The company even launched its own profile on Spotify, with playlists focused on dating, love and romance as a part of its collaboration with the music service.

The Spotify integration has paid off for Tinder in terms of user engagement within its app, the company tells us.

“Users love connecting over shared tastes in music,” a Tinder spokesperson explained. “In fact, users who update their ‘Anthem’ are most likely to start a conversation via Feed. With this in mind, we’re testing the ability to share music with a match while chatting on Tinder,” they added.

The “Anthem” is a feature that lets you pick a favorite song or one that’s representative of your tastes or personality. This is then highlighted in a special section on your Tinder profile.

Tinder did not offer any details as to when it expects the test to wrap or when it would launch music sharing more broadly.

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Twitter’s de-algorithmizing ‘sparkle button’ rolls out on Android

Posted by | Android, Social, TC, Twitter | No Comments

After launching on iOS, Twitter is giving Android users the ability to easily switch between seeing the reverse-chronological “latest tweets” and the algorithmic “top tweets” feeds on their home page. The company announced the rollout at a media event in New York.

The “sparkle button” is a way for Twitter to appease long-time power tweeters while also shifting more of its user base to the algorithmic feed, which the company says has served to increase the number of conversations happening on the platform.

You can read more about the company’s algorithmic feed thinking here:

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Instagram caught selling ads to follower-buying services it banned

Posted by | Apps, eCommerce, Facebook, instagram, Mobile, Policy, Social, spam, TC | No Comments

Instagram has been earning money from businesses flooding its social network with spam notifications. Instagram hypocritically continues to sell ad space to services that charge clients for fake followers or that automatically follow/unfollow other people to get them to follow the client back. This is despite Instagram reiterating a ban on these businesses in November and threatening the accounts of people who employ them.

A TechCrunch investigation initially found 17 services selling fake followers or automated notification spam for luring in followers that were openly advertising on Instagram despite blatantly violating the network’s policies. This demonstrates Instagram’s failure to adequately police its app and ad platform. That neglect led to users being distracted by notifications for follows and Likes generated by bots or fake accounts. Instagram raked in revenue from these services while they diluted the quality of Instagram notifications and wasted people’s time.

In response to our investigation, Instagram tells me it’s removed all ads as well as disabled all the Facebook Pages and Instagram accounts of the services we reported were violating its policies. Pages and accounts that themselves weren’t in violation but whose ads have been banned from advertising on Facebook and Instagram. However, a day later TechCrunch still found ads from two of these services on Instagram, and discovered five more companies paying to promote policy-violating follower-growth services.

This raises a big question about whether Instagram properly protects its community from spammers. Why would it take a journalist’s investigation to remove these ads and businesses that brazenly broke Instagram’s rules when the company is supposed to have technical and human moderation systems in place? The Facebook-owned app’s quest to “move fast” to grow its user base and business seems to have raced beyond what its watchdogs could safeguard.

Hunting spammers

I began this investigation a month ago after being pestered with Instagram Stories ads by a service called GramGorilla. The slicked-back hipster salesmen boasted how many followers he gained with the service and that I could pay to do the same. The ads linked to the website of a division of Krends Marketing, where for $46 to $126 per month, it promised to score me 1,000 to 2,500 Instagram followers.

Some apps like this sell followers directly, though these are typically fake accounts. They might boost your follower count (unless they’re detected and terminated) but won’t actually engage with your content or help your business, and end up dragging down your metrics so Instagram shows your posts to fewer people. But I discovered that GramGorilla/Krends and the majority of apps selling Instagram audience growth do something even worse.

You give these scammy businesses your Instagram username and password, plus some relevant topics or demographics, and they automatically follow and unfollow, like and comment on strangers’ Instagram profiles. The goal is to generate notifications those strangers will see in hopes that they’ll get curious or want to reciprocate and so therefore follow you back. By triggering enough of this notification spam, they trick enough strangers to follow you to justify the monthly subscription fee.

That pissed me off. Facebook, Instagram and other social networks send enough real notifications as is, growth hacking their way to more engagement, ad views and daily user counts. But at least they have to weigh the risk of annoying you so much that you turn off notifications all together. Services that sell followers don’t care if they pollute Instagram and ruin your experience as long as they make money. They’re classic villains in the “tragedy of the commons” of our attention.

This led me to start cataloging these spam company ads, and I was startled by how many different ones I saw. Soon, Instagram’s ad targeting and retargeting algorithms were backfiring, purposefully feeding me ads for similar companies that also violated Instagram’s policies.

The 17 services selling followers or spam that I originally indexed were Krends Marketing / GramGorilla, SocialUpgrade, MagicSocial, EZ-Grow, Xplod Social, Macurex, GoGrowthly, Instashop / IG Shops, TrendBee, JW Social Media Marketing, YR Charisma, Instagrocery, Social Sensational, SocialFuse, We Grow Social, IG Wildfire and Gramflare. TrendBee and Gramflare were found to still be running Instagram ads after the platform said they’ve been banned from doing so. Upon further investigation after Instagram’s supposed crackdown, I discovered five more services sell prohibited growth services: FireSocial, InstaMason/IWentMissing, NexStore2019, InstaGrow and Servantify.

Knowingly poisoning the well

I wanted to find out if these companies were aware that they violate Instagram’s policies and how they justify generating spam. Most hide their contact info and merely provide a customer support email, but eventually I was able to get on the phone with some of the founders.

What we’re doing is obviously against their terms of service,” said GoGrowthly’s co-founder who refused to provide their name. “We’re going in and piggybacking off their free platform and not giving them any of the revenue. Instagram doesn’t like us at all. We utilize private proxies depending on clients’ geographic location. That’s sort of our trick to reduce any sort of liability,” so clients’ accounts don’t get shut down, they said. “It’s a careful line that we tread with Instagram. Similar to SEO companies and Google, Google wants the best results for customers and customers want the best results for them. There’s a delicate dance,” said Macurex founder Gun Hudson.

EZ-Grow’s co-founder Elon refused to give his last name on the record, but told me “[Clients] always need something new. At first it was follows and likes. Now we even watch Stories for them. Every new feature that Instagram has we take advantage of it to make more visibility for our clients.” He says EZ-Grow spends $500 per day on Instagram ads, which are its core strategy for finding new customers. SocialFuse founder Aleksandr [last name redacted] says his company spends a couple hundred dollars per day on Instagram and Facebook ads, and was worried when Instagram reiterated its ban on his kind of service in November, but says, “We thought that we were definitely going to get shut down but nothing has changed on our end.”

Several of the founders tried to defend their notification spam services by saying that at least they weren’t selling fake followers. Lacking any self-awareness, Macurex’s Hudson said, “If it’s done the wrong way it can ruin the user experience. There are all sorts of marketers who will market in untasteful or spammy ways. Instagram needs to keep a check on that.” GoGrowthly’s founder actually told me, “We’re actually doing good for the community by generating those targeted interactions.” WeGrowSocial’s co-founder Brandon also refused to give his last name, but was willing to rat out his competitor SocialSensational for selling followers.

Only EZ-Grow’s Elon seemed to have a moment of clarity. “Because the targeting goes to the right people… and it’s something they would like, it’s not spam,” he said before his epiphany. “People can also look at it as spam, maybe.”

Instagram finally shuts down the spammers

In response to our findings, an Instagram spokesperson provided this lengthy statement confirming it’s shut down the ads and accounts of the violators we discovered, claiming that it works hard to fight spam, and admitting it needs to do better:

Nobody likes receiving spammy follows, likes and comments. It’s really important to us that the interactions people have on Instagram are genuine, and we’re working hard to keep the community free from spammy behavior. Services that offer to boost an account’s popularity via inauthentic likes, comments and followers, as well as ads that promote these services, aren’t allowed on Instagram. We’ve taken action on the services raised in this article, including removing violating ads, disabling Pages and accounts, and stopping Pages from placing further ads. We have various systems in place that help us catch and remove these types of ads before anyone sees them, but given the number of ads uploaded to our platform every day, there are times when some still manage to slip through. We know we have more to do in this area and we’re committed to improving.

Instagram tells me it uses machine learning tools to identify accounts that pay third-party apps to boost their popularity and claims to remove inauthentic engagement before it reaches the recipient of the notifications. By nullifying the results of these services, Instagram believes users will have less incentive to use them. It uses automated systems to evaluate the images, captions and landing pages of all its ads before they run, and sends some to human moderators. It claims this lets it catch most policy-violating ads, and that users can report those it misses.

But these ads and their associated accounts were filled with terms like “get followers,” “boost your Instagram followers,” “real followers,” “grow your engagement,” “get verified,” “engagement automation” and other terms tightly linked to policy-violating services. That casts doubt on just how hard Instagram was working on this problem. It may have simply relied on cheap and scalable technical approaches to catching services with spam bots or fake accounts instead of properly screening ads or employing sufficient numbers of human moderators to police the network.

That misplaced dependence on AI and other tech solutions appears to be a trend in the industry. When I recently reported that child sexual abuse imagery was easy to find on WhatsApp and Microsoft Bing, both seemed to be understaffing the human moderation team that could have hunted down this illegal content with common sense where complex algorithms failed. As with Instagram, these products have highly profitable parent companies that can afford to pour more dollars in policy enforcement.

Kicking these services off Instagram is an important step, but the company must be more proactive. Social networks and self-serve ad networks have been treated as efficient cash cows for too long. The profits from these products should be reinvested in policing them. Otherwise, crooks will happily fleece users for our money and attention.

To learn more about the future of Instagram, check out this article’s author Josh Constine’s SXSW 2019 keynote with Instagram co-founders Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger — their first talk together since leaving the company.

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Instagram now lets you regram your posts to multiple accounts

Posted by | Apps, Facebook, instagram, Mobile, regram, Social, spam, TC | No Comments

Instagram is swaying the balance toward simplicity but away from originality. It’s adding the ability to publish feed posts to different accounts you control at the same time by toggling them on within the composer screen. An Instagram spokesperson confirms this option is becoming available to all iOS users, telling TechCrunch, “We are rolling out this feature to provide a better experience for people who often post to multiple accounts.”

This “self regram” could make it easier for businesses, influencers and regular folks with Instas and Finstas to publish the same meme, promotional image or other content across their profiles simultaneously instead of having to post on one at a time. But it could also make Instagram’s feed a bit more cookie-cutter, with different audiences of different accounts seeing the same shots and captions. The desire to keep the feed original and personal has been a driving force behind Instagram refusing to add a native regram feature for sharing other people’s feed posts to your audience.

Instagram gives all iOS users the ability to publish a post to several of their own accounts at once

Recontextualizing posts uniquely for different accounts or networks is some of the most common social media guru advice. A personal account might want to publish with a more informal, colloquial and intimate style. A business account might be better off acting generally accessible and adding a call to action. A Finsta, or fake Instagram account people keep on the side for posting more raw content, is free to get a little crazy. An identical one-size-fits-all post might actually be one-size-fits-none. That’s why we’d suggest only using this feature if your different accounts have similar themes and fan bases.

TechCrunch first discovered the feature thanks to a tip from SocialThings founder Zachary Shakked, who says “it could save a tiny bit of time.” Other users, including Jay Elaine’s Get Branded, also showed off the new feature, as seen above. Once users select a photo or video to post, the Instagram for iOS composer screen for adding captions and tags now includes toggle switches for syndicating the post to your other accounts to which you’re logged in. We’ve asked whether the feature will come to Android (I’d assume so in the future) and Stories (anyone’s guess), but Instagram hasn’t responded. You still can’t regram posts by other people, or your own after you publish.

Instagram is now testing a much more prominent way to import photos from Google Photos on Android

As Instagram grows beyond the 1 billion monthly user mark, it’s working to eliminate friction from content creation wherever it can. Instagram recently began testing a much more prominent shortcut of importing photos from Google Photos on Android. First spotted by mobile researcher and all-star TechCrunch tipster Jane Manchun Wong, the Photos shortcut is now right on the image selection screen for some users instead of being buried within the Other folder of your albums. An Instagram spokesperson confirmed that “We are only testing this on Android. You have been able to share to feed from Google photos on Android before but the ability to do so was hidden behind a couple of different steps so we’re up-leveling that ability to make it easier.”

Simplifying publishing sounds obviously better, but it could also dilute the quality of Instagram. Luckily, the feed’s algorithm can simply demote generic content that doesn’t resonate with people. But if the feed becomes full of stale cross-posted promotional spam, it could send younger users fleeing toward the next generation of social apps trying to spice it up.

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Daily Crunch: Well Facebook, you did it again

Posted by | Apps, Daily Crunch, Facebook, Fundings & Exits, Gadgets, Hack, hardware, Mobile, Security, Social, Startups, WeWork | No Comments

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 9am Pacific, you can subscribe here:

1. Facebook is the new crapware 

Well Facebook, you did it again. Fresh off its latest privacy scandal, the troubled social media giant has inked a deal with Android to pre-install its app on an undisclosed number of phones and make the software permanent. This means you won’t be able to delete Facebook from those phones. Thanks, Facebook.

2. The world’s first foldable phone is real 

Chinese company Royole has beaten Samsung to the market and has been showing off a foldable phone/tablet this week at CES. While it’s not the most fluid experience, the device definitely works at adapting to your needs.

3. CES revokes award from female-founded sex tech company
Outcries of a double-standard are pouring out of CES after the Consumer Tech Association revoked an award from a company geared toward women’s sexual health.

4. Everything Google announced at CES 2019 

Google went all in on the Assistant this year at CES. The company boasted that the voice-enabled AI will make its way onto a billion devices by the end of the month — up from 400 million last year. But what’s most exciting is the expanded capabilities of Google’s Assistant. Soon you’ll be able to check into flights and translate conversations on the fly with a simple “Hey Google.”

5. Rebranding WeWork won’t work 

The company formerly known as WeWork has rebranded to the We Company, but its new strategy has the potential to plunge the company further into debt.

6. Despite promises to stop, US cell carriers are still selling your real-time phone location data

Last year a little-known company called LocationSmart came under fire after leaking location data from AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint users to shady customers. LocationSmart quickly buckled under public scrutiny and promised to stop selling user data, but few focused on another big player in the location tracking business: Zumigo.

7. The best and worst of CES 2019 

From monster displays to VR in cars, we’re breaking down the good, the bad and the ugly from CES 2019.

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Facebook is the new crapware

Posted by | Advertising Tech, Android, Apps, crapware, Facebook, privacy, Samsung, samsung galaxy s8, smartphones, Social, social media | No Comments

Welcome to 2019, where we learn Facebook is the new crapware.

Sorry #DeleteFacebook, you never stood a chance.

Yesterday Bloomberg reported that the scandal-beset social media behemoth has inked an unknown number of agreements with Android smartphone makers, mobile carriers and OSes around the world to not only pre-load Facebook’s eponymous app on hardware but render the software undeleteable; a permanent feature of your device, whether you like how the company’s app can track your every move and digital action or not.

Bloomberg spoke to a U.S. owner of a Samsung Galaxy S8 who, after reading forum discussions about Samsung devices, found his own pre-loaded Facebook app could not be removed. It could only be “disabled,” with no explanation available to him as to what exactly that meant.

The Galaxy S8 retailed for $725+ when it went on sale in the U.S. two years ago.

A Facebook spokesperson told Bloomberg that a disabled permanent app doesn’t continue collecting data or sending information back to the company, but declined to specify exactly how many such pre-install deals Facebook has globally.

Samsung told the news organization it provides a pre-installed Facebook app on “selected models” with options to disable it, adding that once disabled, the app is no longer running.

After Bloomberg’s report was published, mobile research and regular Facebook technical tipster Jane Manchun Wong chipped in via Twitter to comment — describing the pre-loaded Facebook app on Samsung devices as “stub.”

Aka “basically a non-functional empty shell, acts as the placeholder for when the phone receives the ‘real’ Facebook app as app updates.”

Samsung only ship the stub version of Facebook on their phones. It’s basically a non-functional empty shell, acts as the placeholder for when the phone receives the “real” Facebook app as app updates https://t.co/KHdkF9fFyK

— Jane Manchun Wong (@wongmjane) January 8, 2019

Albeit many smartphone users have automatic updates enabled, and an omnipresent disabled app is always there to be re-enabled at a later date (and thus revived from a zombie state into a fully fledged Facebook app one future day).

While you can argue that having a popular app pre-installed can be helpful to consumers (though not at all helpful to Facebook competitors), a permanent pre-install is undoubtedly an anti-consumer move.

Crapware is named crapware for a reason. Having paid to own hardware, why should people be forever saddled with unwanted software, stub or otherwise?

And while Facebook is not the only such permanent app around (Apple got a lot of historical blowback for its own undeleteable apps, for instance, finally adding the ability to delete some built-in apps with iOS 12), it’s an especially egregious example given the company’s long and storied privacy-hostile history.

Consumers who do not want their digital activity and location surveilled by the people-profiling giant will likely crave the peace of mind of not having any form of Facebook app, stub or otherwise, taking up space on their device.

But an unknown number of Android users are now finding out they don’t have that option.

Not cool, Facebook, not cool.

Another interesting question the matter raises is how permanent Facebook pre-installs are counted in Facebook’s user metrics, and indeed for ad targeting purposes.

In recent years, the company has had to revise its ad metrics several times. So it’s valid to wonder whether a disabled Facebook app pre-install is being properly accounted for by the company (i.e. as minus one pair of eyeballs for its ad targeting empire) or not.

We asked Facebook about this point, but at the time of writing it declined to comment beyond its existing statements to Bloomberg.

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Polite Fortnite Society

Posted by | courage, epic games, fortnite, Gaming, Ninja, Social, TC, Twitch | No Comments

My parents are approaching 60. When they were young, they hung out at diners, or drove around in their cars. My generation hung out in the parking lot after school, or at the mall. My colleague John Biggs often talks of hanging out with his nerd buddies in his basement, playing games and making crank calls.

Today, young people are hanging out on a virtual island plagued by an ever-closing fatal storm. It’s called Fortnite .

They hang out in Fortnite the way we used to hang out in basements or back yards. We played games or kicked a ball around, but it was all a pretense for the social aspect.

— Anoop Ranganath (@anoopr) December 10, 2018

The thread above describes exactly what I’m talking about. Yes, people most certainly log on and play the game. Some play it very seriously. But many, especially young folks, hop on to Fortnite to socialize.

The phenomenon of “hanging out” on a game is not new.

I was in a 50 person clan in World of Warcraft in 2004 and we all hung out on a Ventrilo for hours every day for years and years. I saw real romantic relationships begin, grow and die on there. So “x is a place” is a fine observation, but it’s not a new phenomenon.

— Matthew Panzarino (@panzer) December 24, 2018

Almost any popular game results in a community of players who connect not only through the common interest of the game itself, but as real friends who discuss their lives, thoughts, dreams, etc. But something else is afoot on Fortnite that may be far more effectual.

Gaming culture has long had a reputation for being highly toxic. To be clear, there is a difference between talking about someone’s skills in the game and making a personal attack:

“You are bad at this game.” = Fine by me
“You should kill yourself.” = Not fine at all

But many streamers and pro gamers make offensive jokes, talk shit about each other and rage when they lose. It’s not shocking, then, that the broader gaming community that tries to emulate them, especially the young men growing up in a world where e-sports are real, tend to do many of the same things.

A new type of community

But Fortnite doesn’t have the same type of community. Sure, as with any game, there are bad apples. But on the whole, there isn’t the same toxicity permeating every single part of the game.

For what it’s worth, I’ve played hundreds of hours of both Fortnite and Call of Duty over the past few years. The difference between the way I’m treated on Fortnite and Call of Duty, particularly once my game-matched teammates discover I’m a woman, is truly staggering. I’ve actually been legitimately scared by my interactions with people on Call of Duty. I’ve met some of my closest friends on Fortnite.

One such relationship is with a young man named Luke, who is set to graduate from college this spring.

During the course of our now year-long friendship, Luke revealed to me that he is gay and was having trouble coming out to his parents and peers at school. As an older gay, I tried to provide him with as much guidance and advice as possible. Being there for him, answering his phone calls when he was struggling and reminding him that he’s a unique, strong individual, has perhaps been one of the most rewarding parts of my life this past year.

I’ve also made friends with young men who, once they realize that I’m older and a woman and have a perspective that they might not, casually ask me for advice. They’ve asked me why the girl they like doesn’t seem to like them back — “don’t try to make her jealous, just treat her with kindness,” I advised, and then added “OK, make her a little jealous” — or vented to me about how their parents “are idiots” — “they don’t understand you, and you don’t understand them, but they’re doing their best for you and no one loves you like they do” — or expressed insecurity about who they are — “you’re great at Fortnite, why wouldn’t you be great at a bunch of other things?” and “have more confidence in yourself.”

(Though paraphrased, these are real conversations I’ve had with random players on Fortnite.)

There is perhaps no other setting where I might meet these young people, nor one where they might meet me. And even if we did meet, out in the real world, would we open up and discuss our lives? No. But we have this place in common, and as we multitask playing the game and having a conversation, suddenly our little hearts open up to one another in the safety of the island.

But that’s just me. I see this mentorship all the time in Fortnite, in both small and big ways.

Gaming culture is often seen as a vile thing, and there are a wide array of examples to support that conclusion. Though this perception is slowly changing, and not always fair, gamers are usually either perceived as lonely people bathed in the blue glow of the monitor light, or toxic brats who cuss, and throw out slurs, and degrade women.

So why is Fortnite any different from other games? Why does it seem to foster a community that, at the very least, doesn’t actively hate on one another?

One map, a million colors

First, it’s the game itself. Even though Fortnite includes weapons, it’s not a “violent” game. There is no blood or gore. When someone is eliminated, their character simply evaporates into a pile of brightly colored loot. The game feels whimsical and cartoonish and fun, full of dances and fun outfits. This musical, colorful world most certainly affects the mood of its players.

Logging on to Fortnite feels good, like hearing the opening music to the Harry Potter movies. Logging on to a game like, say, Call of Duty: WWII feels sad and scary, like watching the opening sequence to Saving Private Ryan.

Moreover, Fortnite Battle Royale takes place on a single large map. That map may change and evolve from time to time, but it’s even more “common ground” between players. Veterans of the game show noobs new spots to find loot or ways to get around. As my colleague Greg Kumparak said to me, “Every time you go in, you’re going to the same place. Maybe it’s skinned a little different or there’s suddenly a viking ship, but it’s home.”

Of course, there are other colorful, bubbly games that still have a huge toxicity problem. Overwatch is a great example. So what’s the difference?

Managing expectations

Battle Royale has introduced a brand new dynamic to the world of gaming. Instead of facing off in a one-versus-one or a five-versus-five scenario as with Starcraft or Overwatch respectively, Battle Royale is either 1 versus 99, 2 versus 98 or 4 versus 96.

“It isn’t as binary as winning or losing,” said Rod “Slasher” Breslau, longtime gaming and e-sports journalist formerly of ESPN and CBS Interactive’s GameSpot. “You could place fifth and still feel satisfied about how you played.”

Breslau played Overwatch at the highest levels for a few seasons and said that it was the most frustrating game he’s ever played in 20 years of gaming. It may be colorful and bubbly, but it is built in a way that gives an individual player a very limited ability to sway the outcome of the game.

“You have all the normal problems of playing in a team, relying on your teammates to play their best and communicate and to simply have the skill to compete, but multiply that because of the way the game works,” said Breslau. “It’s very reliant on heroes, the meta is pretty stale because it’s a relatively new game, and the meta has been figured out.”

All that, combined with the fact that success in Overwatch is based on teamwork, make it easy to get frustrated and unleash on teammates.

With Fortnite, a number of factors relieve that stress. In an ideal scenario, you match up with three other players in a Squads match and they are all cooperative. Everyone lands together, they share shield potions and weapons, communicate about nearby enemies and literally pick each other up when one gets knocked down. This type of teamwork, even among randos, fosters kindness.

In a worst-case scenario, you are matched up with players who aren’t cooperative, who use toxic language, who steal your loot or simply run off and die, leaving you alone to fight off teams of four. Even in the latter scenario, there are ways to play more cautiously — play passive and hide, or third-party fights that are underway and pick players off, or lure teams intro trapped up houses.

Sure, it’s helpful to have skilled, communicative teammates, but being matched with not-so-great teammates doesn’t send most people into a blind rage.

And because the odds are against you — 1 versus 99 in Solos or 4 versus 96 in Squads — the high of winning is nearly euphoric.

“The lows are the problem,” says Breslau. “Winning a close game of Overwatch, when the team is working together and communicating, feels great. But when you’re depending on your team to win, the lows are so low. The lows aren’t like that in Fortnite.”

The more the merrier

The popularity of Fortnite as a cultural phenomenon, not just a game, means that plenty of non-gamers have found their way onto the island. Young people, a brand new generation of gamers, are obsessed with the game. But folks who might have fallen away from gaming as they got older are still downloading it on their phone, or installing it on the Nintendo Switch, and giving Battle Royale a try. Outsiders, who haven’t been steeped in the all-too-common hatred found in the usual gaming community, are bringing a sense of perspective to Fortnite. There is simply more diversity that comes with a larger pool of players, and diversity fosters understanding.

Plus, Fortnite has solid age distribution among players. The majority (63 percent) of players on Fortnite are between the ages of 18 and 24, according to Verto Analytics. Twenty-three percent of players are ages 24 to 35, and thirteen percent are 35 to 44 years old. However, this data doesn’t take into account players under the age of 18, which represent 28 percent of overall gamers, according to Verto. One way Fortnite is like other games is that 70 percent of players are male.

There aren’t many scenarios where four people, from different backgrounds and age groups, join up under a common goal in the type of mood-lifting setting that Fortnite provides. More often than not, the youngest little guy tries to make some sort of offensive joke to find his social place in the group. But surprisingly, for a shoot and loot game played by a lot of people, that’s rarely tolerated by the older members of a Fortnite squad.

All eyes on Fortnite

The popularity of the game also means that more eyes are on Fortnite than any other game. Super-popular streamer Ninja’s live stream with Drake had more than 600,000 concurrent viewers, setting a record. The more people watching, the more streamers are forced to watch their behavior.

Fortnite streamers are setting a new example for gamers everywhere.

One such streamer is Nick “NickMercs” Kolcheff. Nick has been streaming Fortnite since it first came out and has a huge community of mostly male viewers. I consider myself a part of, albeit a minority in, that community — I’ve subscribed to his channel and cheered for him with bits and participated in the chat. In short, I’ve spent plenty of time watching Nick and have seen him offer a place of support and friendship for his viewers.

I’ve seen Nick’s audience ask him, in so many words, how to lose weight (Nick’s a big fitness guy), or share that they’re dealing with an illness in the family, or share that they’re heartbroken because their girlfriend cheated on them.

In large part, Nick says he learned how to be a mentor from his own dad.

“I remember being in those kinds of positions, but I have a great father that always sat me down and let me vent and then shared his opinion, and reminded me that it isn’t supposed to be easy,” said Kolcheff. “It feels good to bounce things off other people and hard things always feel much easier when you know you’re not alone, and I can relate to my chat the way my dad relates to me.”

Nick always has something positive to say. He reminds his audience that even if they feel alone IRL, they have a community right there in his Twitch channel to talk to. He sets an example in the way he talks about his girlfriend Emu, and the way he treats her on screen. When Nick loses a game and his chat explodes with anger, he reminds them to be cool and to not talk shit about other players.

And it’s easy to see his example followed in the chat, where young people are treating each other with respect and answering each other’s questions.

Nick wasn’t always like this. In fact, the first time that NickMercs and Ninja played together on stream, they brought up the time that Nick challenged Ninja to a fight at a LAN tournament years ago. But both Nick and Ninja have matured into something that you rarely find in online gaming: a role model — and it’s had an effect.

Tyler “Ninja” Blevins, far and away the most successful Twitch streamer ever, decided to stop swearing and using degrading language as his influence in the community and his viewership grew. When his audience said they missed the old Ninja, he had this to say:

I’m the same person, you guys. 2018 can’t handle old Ninja and… guess what, I can’t handle old Ninja because the words that I used to say and the gaming terms I used to say… they weren’t ok, alright? I’ve matured.

Jack “Courage” Dunlop is another Fortnite streamer who uses his influence in the community to mentor young people. He has befriended a young fellow named Connor. Courage helped Connor get his first win and has since continued playing with him and talking to him.

Not only is he being kind to Connor, but he’s setting an example for his viewers.

“In comparison to games like Call of Duty and Gears of War and Halo, the top content creators like Ninja, Sypher PK, Timthetatman, are a little older now,” said Kolcheff. “They’ve come from other games where they already had a following. If you look at me five or six years ago, or any of us, we’ve all chilled out. We were more combative and crazy and had a lot more words to say, but I think we just grew up, and it bleeds through to the community.”

These guys are the exception in the wider world of gaming and streaming. But they represent the future of gaming in general. As e-sports explode with growth, pro players will undoubtedly be held to the same behavioral standards as pro players in traditional sports. That’s not to say that pro athletes are angels, and that’s not to say that bad actors won’t have a following. Just look at PewDiePie.

A matter of time

The e-sports world is realizing that they can’t let their professionals run their mouth without consequences. As the industry grows, highly dependent on advertisers and brand endorsements, with a young audience hanging on every word, it will become increasingly important for leagues, e-sports organizations and game makers to start paying closer attention to the behavior of their top players.

We’re already seeing this type of policing happening on Overwatch, both for pro players and amateurs alike.

There is plenty more work to do. But the problem of removing toxicity from any platform is incredibly difficult. Just ask Facebook and Twitter. Still, it’s only a matter of time before e-sports decision-makers raise the stakes on what they’ll allow from their representatives, which are pro players and streamers.

Toxic behavior is being rejected in most polite society anywhere (except Twitter, because Twitter), and it surely can’t be tolerated much longer in the gaming world. But Fortnite maker Epic Games hasn’t had to put too much effort forth to steer clear of toxic behavior. The community seems to be doing a pretty good job holding itself accountable.

Winning where it counts

Believe you me, Fortnite is not some magical place filled with unicorns and rainbows. There are still players on the game who behave badly, cheat, use toxic language and are downright mean. But compared to other shooters, Fortnite is a breath of fresh air.

No one thing makes Fortnite less toxic. A beautiful, mood-lifting game can’t make much of a difference on its own. A huge, relatively diverse player base certainly makes a dent. And yes, the game limits frustration by simply managing expectations. But with leaders that have prioritized their position as role models, and all the other factors above working in harmony, Fortnite is not only the most popular game in the world, but perhaps one of the most polite.

We reached out to Epic Games, Courage and Ninja for this story, but didn’t hear back at the time of publication.

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