Instagram says “you’re all caught up” in first time well spent feature

Without a chronological feed, it can be tough to tell if you’ve seen all the posts Instagram will show you. That can lead to more of the compulsive, passive, zombie browsing that research suggests is unhealthy as users endlessly scroll through stale content hoping for a hit of dopamine-inducing novelty.

But with Instagram’s newest feature, at least users know when they’ve seen everything and can stop scrolling without FOMO. Instagram is showing some users a mid-feed alert after a bunch of browsing that says “You’re All Caught Up – You’ve seen all new post from the past 48 hours.” When asked about it, Instagram confirmed to TechCrunch that it’s testing this feature. It declined to give details about how it works, including whether the announcement means you’ve seen literally every post from people you follow from the last two days, or just the best ones that the algorithm has decided are worth showing you.

The feature could help out Instagram completists who want to be sure they never miss a selfie, sunset, or supper pic. Before Instagram rolled out its algorithm in the summer of 2016, they could just scroll to the last post they’d seen or when they knew they’d last visited. Warning them they’ve seen everything could quiet some of the backlash to the algorithm, which has centerd around people missing content they wanted to see because the algorithm mixed up the chronology.

But perhaps more importantly, it’s one of the app’s first publicly tested features that’s clearly designed with the “time well spent” movement in mind. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has been vocal about prioritizing well-being on Facebook over profits, to the point that the network reduced the prevalance of viral videos in the feed so much that that app lost 1 million users in the U.S. and Canada in Q4 2017. “I expect the time people spend on Facebook and some measures of engagement will go down . . . If we do the right thing, I believe that will be good for our community and our business over the long term too” he wrote.

But Instagram’s leadership had been quiet on the issue until last week, TechCrunch broke news that buried inside Instagram was an unlaunched “Usage Insights” feature that would show users their “time spent”. That prompted Instagram CEO Kevin Systrom to tweet our article, noting “It’s true . . . We’re building tools that will help the IG community know more about the time they spend on Instagram – any time should be positive and intentional . . . Understanding how time online impacts people is important, and it’s the responsibility of all companies to be honest about this. We want to be part of the solution. I take that responsibility seriously.”

Instagram is preparing a “Usage Insights” feature that will show how long you spend in the app. Image via Jane Manchun Wong

It’s reassuring to hear that one of the world’s most popular, but also overused, social media apps is going to put user health over engagement and revenue. Usage Insights has yet to launch. But the “You’re all caught up” alerts show Instagram is being earnest about its commitment. Those warnings almost surely prompt people to close the app and therefore see fewer ads, hurting Instagram’s bottom line.

Perhaps its a product of Facebook and Instagram’s dominance that they can afford to trade short-term engagement for long-term sustainability of the product. Some companies like Twitter have been criticized for not doing more to kick abusers off their platforms because it could hurt their user count.

But with Android now offering time management tools and many urging Apple to do the same, the time well spent reckoning may be dawning upon the mobile app ecosystem. Apps that continue to exploit users by doing whatever it takes to maximize total time spent may find themselves labeled the enemy, plus may actually be burning out their most loyal users. Urging them to scroll responsibly could not only win their favor, but keep them browsing in shorter, healthier sessions for years to come.

Where to watch Zuckerberg’s meeting with EU MEPs on Tuesday

The Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s meeting with elected representatives of the European Union’s ~500 million citizens will be livestreamed after all, it was confirmed today.

MEPs had been angered by the original closed door format of the meeting, which was announced by the EU parliament’s president last week. But on Friday a majority of the political groups in the parliament had pushed for it to be broadcast online.

This morning president Antonio Tajani confirmed that Facebook had agreed to the 1hr 15 minute hearing being livestreamed.

A Facebook spokesperson also sent us this short statement today: “We’re looking forward to the meeting and happy for it to be live streamed.”

When is the meeting?

The meeting will take place on Tuesday May 22 at 18.15 to 19.30CET. If you want to tune in from the US the meeting is scheduled to start at 9.15PT /12.15ET.

Tajani’s announcement last week said it would start earlier, at 17.45CET, so the meeting appears to have been bumped on by half an hour. We’ve asked Facebook whether Zuckerberg will meet in private with the parliament’s Conference of Presidents prior to the livestream being switched on and will update this story with any response.

Where to watch it online?

According to Tajani’s spokesperson, the meeting will be broadcast on the EU parliament’s website. At the time of writing it’s not yet listed in the EPTV schedule — but we’re expecting it to be viewable here.

Who will be meeting with Zuckerberg?

The Facebook founder will meet with EU parliament president Tajani, along with leaders of the parliament’s eight political groups, and with Claude Moraes, the chair of the EU parliament’s Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) committee.

It’s worth noting that the meeting is not a formal hearing, such as the sessions with Zuckerberg in the US Senate and Congress last month. Nor is it a full Libe committee hearing — discussions remain ongoing for Facebook representatives to meet with the full Libe committee at a later date.

What will Zuckerberg be asked about?

In the wake of the Cambridge Analytica data misuse scandal, MEPs are keen to discuss concerns related to social media’s impact on election processes with Zuckerberg.

Indeed, the impact of social media spread online disinformation is also the topic of an ongoing enquiry by the UK parliament’s DCMS committee which spent some five hours grilling Facebook’s CTO last month. Although Zuckerberg has thrice declined the committee’s summons — preferring to meet with EU parliamentarians instead.

Other topics on the agenda will include privacy and data protection — with Moraes likely to ask about how Facebook’s business model impacts EU citizens’ fundamental rights, and how EU regulations might need to evolve to keep pace, as he explained to us on Friday.

Some of the political group leaders are also likely to bring up concerns around freedom of expression as pressure in the region has ramped up on online platforms to get faster at policing hate speech.

EU parliament pushes for Zuckerberg hearing to be live-streamed

There’s confusion about whether a meeting between Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and the European Union’s parliament — which is due to take place next Tuesday — will go ahead as planned or not.

The meeting was confirmed by the EU parliament’s president this week, and is the latest stop on Zuckerberg’s contrition tour, following the Cambridge Analytics data misuse story that blew up into a major public scandal in mid March. 

However, the discussion with MEPs that Facebook agreed to was due to take place behind closed doors. A private format that’s not only ripe with irony but was also unpalatable to a large number of MEPs. It even drew criticism from some in the EU’s unelected executive body, the European Commission, which further angered parliamentarians.

Now, as the FT reports, MEPs appear to have forced the parliament’s president, Antonio Tajani, to agree to live-streaming the event.

Guy Verhofstadt — the leader of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats group of MEPs, who had said he would boycott the meeting if it took place in private — has also tweeted that a majority of the parliament’s groups have pushed for the event to be streamed online.

And a Green Group MEP, Sven Giegold, who posted an online petition calling for the meeting not to be held in secret — has also tweeted that there is now a majority among the groups wanting to change the format. At the time of writing, Giegold’s petition has garnered more than 25,000 signatures.

MEP Claude Moraes, chair of the EU parliament’s Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) committee — and one of the handful of parliamentarians set to question Zuckerberg (assuming the meeting goes ahead as planned) — told TechCrunch this morning that there were efforts afoot among political group leaders to try to open up the format. Though any changes would clearly depend on Facebook agreeing to them.

After speaking to Moraes, we asked Facebook to confirm whether it’s open to Zuckerberg’s meeting being streamed online — say, via a Facebook Live. Seven hours later we’re still waiting for a response, including to a follow up email asking if it will accept the majority decision among MEPs for the hearing to be live-streamed.

The LIBE committee had been pushing for a fully open hearing with the Facebook founder — a format which would also have meant it being open to members of the public. But that was before a small majority of the parliament’s political groups accepted the council of presidents’ (COP) decision on a closed meeting.

Although now that decision looks to have been rowed back, with a majority of the groups pushing the president to agree to the event being streamed — putting the ball back in Facebook’s court to accept the new format.

Of course democracy can be a messy process at times, something Zuckerberg surely has a pretty sharp appreciation of these days. And if the Facebook founder pulls out of meeting simply because a majority of MEPs have voted to do the equivalent of “Facebook Live” the hearing, well, it’s hard to see a way for the company to salvage any face at all.

Zuckerberg has agreed to be interviewed onstage at the VivaTech conference in Paris next Thursday, and is scheduled to have lunch with French president Emmanuel Macron the same week. So pivoting to a last minute snub of the EU parliament would be a pretty high stakes game for the company to play. (Though it’s continued to deny a U.K. parliamentary committee any face time with Zuckerberg for months now.)

The EU Facebook agenda

The substance of the meeting between Zuckerberg and the EU parliament — should it go ahead — will include discussion about Facebook’s impact on election processes. That was the only substance detail flagged by Tajani in the statement on Wednesday when he confirmed Zuckerberg had accepted the invitation to talk to representatives of the EU’s 500 million citizens.

Moraes says he also intends to ask Zuckerberg wider questions — relating to how its business model impacts people’s privacy. And his hope is this discussion could help unblock negotiations around an update to the EU’s rules around online tracking technologies and the privacy of digital communications.

“One of the key things is that [Zuckerberg] gets a particular flavor of the genuine concern — not just about what Facebook is doing, but potentially other tech companies — on the interference in elections. Because I think that is a genuine, big, sort of tech versus real life and politics concern,” he says, discussing the questions he wants to ask.

“And the fact is he’s not going to go before the House of Commons. He’s not going to go before the Bundestag. And he needs to answer this question about Cambridge Analytica — in a little bit more depth, if possible, than we even saw in Congress. Because he needs to get straight from us the deepest concerns about that.

“And also this issue of processing for algorithmic targeting, and for political manipulation — some in depth questions on this.

“And we need to go more in depth and more carefully about what safeguards there are — and what he’s prepared to do beyond those safeguards.

“We’re aware of how poor US data protection law is. We know that GDPR is coming in but it doesn’t impact on the Facebook business model that much. It does a little bit but not sufficiently — I mean ePrivacy probably far more — so we need to get to a point where we understand what Facebook is willing to change about the way it’s been behaving up til now.

“And we have a real locus there — which is we have more Facebook users, and we have the clout as well because we have potential legislation, and we have regulation beyond that too. So I think for those reasons he needs to answer.”

“The other things that go beyond the obvious Cambridge Analytica questions and the impact on elections, are the consequences of the business model, data-driven advertising, and how that’s going to work, and there we need to go much more in depth,” he continues.

“Facebook on the one hand, it’s complying with GDPR [the EU’s incoming General Data Protection Regulation] which is fine — but we need to think about what the further protections are. So for example, how justified we are with the ePrivacy Regulation, for example, and its elements, and I think that’s quite important.

“I think he needs to talk to us about that. Because that legislation at the moment it’s seen as controversial, it’s blocked at the moment, but clearly would have more relevance to the problems that are currently being created.”

Negotiations between the EU parliament and the European Council to update the ePrivacy Directive — which governs the use of personal telecoms data and also regulates tracking cookies — and replace it with a regulation that harmonizes the rules with the incoming GDPR and expands the remit to include internet companies and cover both content and metadata of digital comms are effectively stalled for now, as EU Member States are still trying to reach agreement. The directive was last updated in 2009.

“When the Cambridge Analytica case happened, I was slightly concerned about people thinking GDPR is the panacea to this — it’s not,” argues Moraes. “It only affects Facebook’s business model a little bit. ePrivacy goes far more in depth — into data-driven advertising, personal comms and privacy.

“That tool was there because people were aware that this kind of thing can happen. But because of that the Privacy directive will be seen as controversial but I think people now need to look at it carefully and say look at the problems created in the Facebook situation — and not just Facebook — and then analyze whether ePrivacy has got merits. I think that’s quite an important discussion to happen.”

While Moraes believes Facebook-Cambridge Analytica could help unblock the log jam around ePrivacy, as the scandal makes some of the risks clear and underlines what’s at stake for politicians and democracies, he concedes there are still challenging barriers to getting the right legislation in place — given the fine-grained layers of complexity involved with imposing checks and balances on what are also poorly understood technologies outside their specific industry niches.

“This Facebook situation has happened when ePrivacy is more or less blocked because its proportionality is an issue. But the essence of it — which is all the problems that happened with the Facebook case, the Cambridge Analytica case, and data-driven advertising business model — that needs checks and balances… So we need to now just review the ePrivacy situation and I think it’s better that everyone opens this discussion up a bit.

“ePrivacy, future legislation on artificial intelligence, all of which is in our committee, it will challenge people because sometimes they just won’t want to look at it. And it speaks to parliamentarians without technical knowledge which is another issue in Western countries… But these are all wider issues about the understanding of these files which are going to come up.  

“This is the discussion we need to have now. We need to get that discussion right. And I think Facebook and other big companies are aware that we are legislating in these areas — and we’re legislating for more than one countries and we have the economies of scale — we have the user base, which is bigger than the US… and we have the innovation base, and I think those companies are aware of that.”

Moraes also points out that U.S. lawmakers raised the difference between the EU and U.S. data protection regimes with Zuckerberg last month — arguing there’s a growing awareness that U.S. law in this area “desperately needs to be modernized.”

So he sees an opportunity for EU regulators to press on their counterparts over the pond.

“We have international agreements that just aren’t going to work in the future and they’re the basis of a lot of economic activity, so it is becoming critical… So the Facebook debate should, if it’s pushed in the correct direction, give us a better handle on ePrivacy, on modernizing data protection standards in the US in particular. And modernizing safeguards for consumers,” he argues.

“Our parliaments across Europe are still filled with people who don’t have tech backgrounds and knowledge but we need to ensure that we get out of this mindset and start understanding exactly what the implications here are of these cases and what the opportunities are.”

In the short term, discussions are also continuing for a full meeting between the LIBE committee and Facebook.

Though that’s unlikely to be Zuckerberg himself. Moraes says the committee is “aiming for Sheryl Sandberg,” though he says other names have been suggested. No firm date has been conformed yet either — he’ll only say he “hopes it will take place as soon as possible.”

Threats are not on the agenda though. Moraes is unimpressed with the strategy the DCMS committee has pursued in trying (and so far failing) to get Zuckerberg to testify in front of the U.K. parliament, arguing threats of a summons were counterproductive. LIBE is clearly playing a longer game.

“Threatening him with a summons in UK law really was not the best approach. Because it would have been extremely important to have him in London. But I just don’t see why he would do that. And I’m sure there’s an element of him understanding that the European Union and parliament in particular is a better forum,” he suggests.

“We have more Facebook users than the US, we have the regulatory framework that is significant to Facebook — the UK is simply implementing GDPR and following Brexit it will have an adequacy agreement with the EU so I think there’s an understanding in Facebook where the regulation, the legislation and the audience is.”

“I think the quaint ways of the British House of Commons need to be thought through,” he adds. “Because I really don’t think that would have engendered much enthusiasm in [Zuckerberg] to come and really interact with the House of Commons which would have been a very positive thing. Particularly on the specifics of Cambridge Analytics, given that that company is in the UK. So that locus was quite important, but the approach… was not positive at all.”

Vota turns your credit card transactions into recommendations, helps you spot fraud

Oh my god, someone’s doing Blippy again. If you’ve been around the internet as long as I have (too long), you’ll probably remember the meteoric rise of the social network for sharing your purchases, Blippy, which was hyped up to a $46.2 million valuation back in 2010 before the world realized that almost nobody wanted a dedicated network for sharing and viewing each others’ purchases. Well, guess what? Someone’s trying a Blippy-like thing again — this time, in the form of a new app called Vota, which automatically records your credit card purchases and the places you visit so you can share them with friends or family, or view them privately for your own reference.

As a byproduct of this data collection, you may spot credit card fraud or other errant charges, too, or just get a handle on your spending.

But why revisit this concept now, when it failed before?

Well, there’s the argument that some startups are just “too early,” or that they could have succeeded if they had done X instead of Y. That’s coming into play here, a bit.

Plus, the younger generation is a little more comfortable with sharing financial data, as evidenced by the popularity of Venmo, where a feed shows your friends’ payments for seemingly no other reason beyond the fact that someone had to the idea to“make payments social.” (I mean, really — does anyone actually browse their Venmo feed for recommendations?)

Venmo, however, is largely a utility, and a useful one at that. It lets you pay back a friend when you’re splitting the check, the cab fare or anything else, as well as quickly move money back to and from bank accounts.

Vota, on the other hand, is like turning your credit card transactions into check-ins.

Thankfully, it’s not publicizing them for the world to see, nor is it sharing dollar amounts, as Blippy had done.

The concept for Vota comes from Kiyo Kubo and Nick Farina, the founders of Meridian — a location-based technology company acquired by Aruba Networks five years ago, which then became a part of HP. 

The two left HP in 2016 with the goal of building something meaningful.

“One of the things that we came across [was that] nobody knows anything about personal finance, and so we thought, ‘well, maybe we can help with that,'” explains Kubo.

The app lets you connect your bank cards from Chase, Capital One, Wells Fargo, US Bank, Citi and other Visa cards, to get an easy-to-read feed of what and where you’re spending — information you can opt to share with individual friends or family members. And because it pulls in data in real time, Vota can help you quickly spot fraud.

But Kubo admits that, in its current form, Vota could be a hard sell.

“The very first thing we learned was that people are not comfortable sharing their finances,” he says.

That’s why the app removes the dollar amount, makes sharing opt in and allows you to selectively show or hide individual purchases. It also won’t share some transactions, like online purchases.

But that may not be enough.

There is, arguably, value in seeing a cleaned-up, pretty feed of users’ check-ins. Foursquare’s Swarm does this with some success, for example, as it’s a way of keeping up with friends, and learning about cool places to visit in a sort of indirect way.

But linking a credit card and automating the process will likely give users pause, especially at a time when our personal data has been slurped up repeatedly for unscrupulous reasons. To get regular folks to try an app like this, they’ll need a better reason than it being a “useful journal of transactions” or a way to explore what friends are doing.

The company is considering those other paths. In fact, Kubo says the original idea was to develop a personal finance insights app, but user behavior during the beta led them to focus more heavily on the social portion.

It’s a case of following the data instead of your gut.

However, Vota aims to roll out other features that could broaden its appeal. For example, it may work on features to help people find ways to save — like by highlighting subscriptions you forgot about; or it may automate expense reports for businesses.

The goal is to roll out a set of premium features like this, rather than use the data to target you with ads or offers to monetize Vota (which is bootstrapped and not making money today).

These actually sound like better ideas.

An app that shows me all the iTunes subscriptions I forgot about, or helps me to cancel HBO NOW when Game of Thrones ends would be handy — especially if it also alerted me to suspicious transitions and fraud, while helping me budget and track trends. Selective private sharing could also be useful for spouses or partners who are pooling their finances, or need a way to coordinate their spending.

But much of what could make Vota interesting or mainstream-friendly isn’t built yet. And that makes Vota’s launch feel a little early, too.

Vota is a free download on iOS and Android.

A leaked look at Facebook’s search engine for influencer marketing

Facebook’s next money-maker could be this tool for connecting marketers to social media creators so they can team up on sponsored content Facebook ad campaigns. The Branded Content Matching search engine lets advertisers select the biographical characteristics of creators’ fans they want to reach, see stats about these audiences, and contact them to hammer out deals.

Leaked screenshots of Facebook’s promotional materials for the tool were first attained and published in german by AllFacebook.de. TechCrunch has now confirmed with Facebook the existence of the test of the search engine. Facebook first vaguely noted it would build a creator-brand tool in March, but now we know what it looks like and exactly how it works.

Even though Facebook will not actually broker or initially take a cut of the deals, the tool could equip brands with much more compelling and original marketing content. That could in turn encourage them to spend more on Facebook ads to spread that content, while also making the ads users see more entertaining and tolerable so they spend longer on the social network. By getting creators paid, even if not directly by Facebook, they’ll invest more in the quality of their content and size of their following on the app instead of with competitors.

How Facebook’s influencer marketing search engine works

A Facebook spokesperson explained the motive behind the tool like this. Facebook wants to help businesses find creators who can reach their target audience in an authentic way, while allowing creators a path to monetizing their Facebook content and fan base. Creators opt in to participating in the test and set up a portfolio showcasing their audience size and metrics plus their best branded content. Facebook is starting the program primarily with a set of lifestyle brands and creators.

Advertisers in the test can search for creators with specific audience demographics using a wide range of targeting options. Those include both general and industry-specific parameters like:

  • Top countries where they’re popular
  • Interests
  • Gender
  • Education history
  • Relationship status
  • Life events
  • Home ownership status
  • Home type

The search engine’s results page shows a list of creators with each’s audience match percentage to the search terms, percentage of their followers they reach, engagement rate, follower count, and video views. Advertisers can save their best matches to private lists, and reach out to contact the creators, though Facebook is still figuring out if it’s best to connect them through their Facebook Page or traditional contact info. One question is how Facebook will ensure it’s only connecting businesses to brand-safe creators who won’t get them in trouble by posting racist, sexist, or objectionable content the way star YouTuber PewDiePie did.

The deals for product placement or sponsored content creation and sharing are then worked out between the brand and creator without Facebook’s involvement. The platform is not taking any revenue cut during the testing phase, but longer-term will evaluate whether it should. The only thing Facebook doesn’t allow is pure re-sharing deals where influencers are paid to just post the brand’s pre-made content they didn’t help create.

The crowsourced future of advertising

Foreshadowed the launch of its dedicated Facebook Creator app in November, this is the company’s first serious foray into influencer marketing. This emerging industry holds the potential to overhaul the way advertising content is produced. In days of old, brands couldn’t target very narrow segments of their customers since they were using broadcast mediums like TV commercials, magazine ads, and billboards, or endoresements from mainstream celebrity like movie actors. They might only make a few separate styles of marketing compaigns that would appeal to wide swaths of their target audience.

With the Internet and targeting data-rich social networks like Facebook, they can reach extremely specific subsets of their customers with marketing messages tuned to their identity. But reaching these niche audiences with corporate content that feels authentic rather than fake and smarmy is difficult. That’s where social media creators come in. Not only do they have a pre-existing and intimate relationship with their fans who’ll take their endorsements to heart. They’ve also already spent years figuring out exactly what type of content appeals to these specific people. When they team up with brands, the businesses get their products recontextualized and interpreted for that audience with content they could never come up with themselves.

Twitter realized this early, which is why it acquired creator-brand deal broker Niche for a reported $50 million back in 2015. [Disclosure: I got fascinated with this industry because my cousin Darren Lachtman is one of the co-founders of Niche] But now as Facebook seeks to attract influencers and their audiences to its social network, it’s trying to find ways to get them paid. Otherwise, they’re likely to stray to YouTube’s ad revenue shares and Patreon’s subscription payments. So far Facebook has tested tipping and subscriptions from fans, as well as letting creators host ad breaks — essentially commercials — during their videos. But brands want the creators’ help designing the content, not just distributing it.

But what about Instagram and YouTube influencers?

The Branded Content Matching search engine will help brands find those creators…but only on Facebook for now. The tool doesn’t pull in their audience sizes and metrics from other important platforms like Instagram, YouTube, Twitter, Snapchat, or Twitch. Brands don’t get a holistic view of the value and reach of a creator, who might be way more popular on another platform than Facebook.

And really, Instagram is where all these influencers spend their time and share their content. Though Facebook owns it, it says it’s not showing Instagram influencers in the tool at the moment. Adding them in, the same way advertisers can push ads to Facebook and Instagram from one interface, would make the search engine much more powerful.

There’s already a whole industry of independent creator search engines and databases for marketers like Hypr, Whalar, Fohr Card, Tap Influence, and Creator IQ. If Facebook built one with first-party data from across its properties, or even pulled stats from competing platforms, it might squash these startups. Alternatively, it might buy one to ramp up its efforts here like how Twitter bought Niche.

Facebook is running out of ad inventory in the News Feed. It needs to make each ad better and more watchable so it can grow revenue by charging more per ads rather than selling more ads. Meanwhile, yesterday it started testing ads in Facebook Stories, where brands will need help navigating the more personal, vertical video format. Awesome content made by creators could be the answer. And Facebook could finally start helping more of these artists, comedians, and storytellers to turn their passion into a profession.

Facebook Stories reveals 150M daily viewers and tests first ads

After 14 months of silence since launching, Facebook Stories has finally announced a 150 million daily active user count for its Snapchat Stories clone. And now it’s time to earn some money off it. Facebook Stories will start testing its first ads today in the U.S., Mexico and Brazil.

They’re 5- to 15-second video ads users can skip, and while there’s no click-through or call to action now, Facebook plans to add that in the coming months. Advertisers can easily extend their Instagram Stories ads to this new surface, or have Facebook automatically reformat their News Feed ads with color-matched borders and text at the bottom. Facebook also plans to give businesses more metrics on their Stories performance to convince them the feature is worth their ad dollars.

Advertisers can extend their Instagram Stories ads to Facebook Stories (left), or have Facebook reformat their News Feed ads with color-matched image borders and ad copy text shown at the bottom

Facebook has to nail Stories ads to preserve its business, as CPO Chris Cox said this month that Stories sometime next year will surpass feed posts as the top way to share. CEO Mark Zuckerberg warned that Facebook must ensure “that ads are as good in Stories as they are in feeds. If we don’t do this well, then as more sharing shifts to Stories, that could hurt our business.” Despite criticism that the feature is obtrusive and redundant with Instagram Stories, Facebook is proving there’s no retreating from the ephemeral slideshow format. And Snapchat could see ad spend slip over to Facebook, especially since the big blue social network has so much targeting data on us.

The race for storytellers

Facebook is defining a daily user for Stories as anyone who watches one. That’s useful, because it means it’s not counting users who simply cross-post their Stories from Instagram or Messenger to Facebook, which would inflate the number.

For context, here’s a breakdown of Stories daily user counts and total monthly user counts across the top players, ranked by size:

  1. WhatsApp Status: 450 million daily out of 1.5 billion monthly as of May 2018
  2. Instagram Stories: 300 million daily out of 800 million monthly as of November 2017
  3. Snapchat (whole app): 191 million daily as of May 2018, launched
  4. Facebook Stories: 150 million daily out of 2.2 billion monthly as of May 2018
  5. Messenger Day/Stories: 70 million daily out of 1.3 billion monthly as of September 2017

Instagram Stories also started showing ads when it hit 150 million users, though that was just five months after launch, while it’s taken Facebook Stories 14 months to get there.

The real opportunity for Facebook’s future engagement growth is bringing the Stories format to the international market that Snapchat has largely neglected for four years and only recently got serious about by re-engineering its Android app. WhatsApp capitalized on Snap’s focus on U.S. teens by surging to become the top Stories product thanks to youth across the globe. And now Facebook is specifically building Stories features for countries like India, such as the new audio posts to help users with non-native language keyboards, and cloud storage so you can privately save photos and videos to Facebook for those without room on their phones.

Facebook Stories lets you shoot 360 photos without a 360 camera with this cool “paint with the lens” interface

Since testing in January 2017 and then launching in March 2017, Facebook has been rapidly iterating on its version of Stories in hopes of making it more unique and apt to its audience. That includes adding cross-posting from its other apps and a desktop interface, advanced shutter formats like Boomerang and new augmented reality features like 3D doodling and real-world QR and image triggers that anchor AR to a location.

Oh, and there’s one bonus unannounced feature we’ve spotted. Facebook Stories can now shoot 360 photos without a 360 camera. It uses a cool interface that shows you where to “paint” your camera over your surroundings, so unlike a panorama where you only get one shot, you can go back and fill in missed spots.

Snap’s beaten; time to monetize

All of Facebook’s efforts seem to be paying off. Snapchat sunk to its slowest daily user growth rate ever, a paltry 2.13 percent last quarter, while the much more saturated Facebook grew a strong 3.42 percent. Snapchat actually shrank in user count during March.

That might have been the signal Facebook needed to start putting ads in its Stories. It’s effectively beaten Snapchat into submission. Without as strong of a competitor, Facebook has more leeway to pollute the Stories user experience with ads. And that comes just as Snapchat is desperate to ramp up ad sales after missing revenue estimates in Q1 and mounting losses of $385 million.

Ads in stories have added a lot of value for businesses on Instagram, and we believe we can do the same on Facebook,” Facebook product manager Zoheb Hajiyani tells me. “Ensuring that this is a good experience for people using the product will be our top priority.” Facebook has lined up a number of ad test partners it’s not disclosing, but also will be running its own ads for Oculus inside Stories.

With existing Facebook and Instagram advertisers able to easily port their ads over to Facebook Stories, and much greater total reach, they might not go to the trouble of advertising on Snap unless they seek young teens. Stories could in fact be the answer to Facebook’s issue with running out of ad space in the News Feed while it shuts down its sidebar units. Stories could generate the ad inventory needed to keep pushing more marketing into the social network.

Stories were inevitable. First launched by Snapchat in October 2013, it took almost three years for Facebook to wake up to the format as an existential threat to the company. But with the quick success of Instagram’s clone, Facebook has wisely swallowed its pride and pivoted its apps toward this style of visual communication. It was another moment, like the shift to mobile, where Facebook could have faltered. But willingness to admit its mistakes and ruthlessly compete may have won another epoch of social dominance.

For more on Stories, check out our feature piece:

Instagram officially launches re-sharing of posts to Stories

No, it’s not a “regram” option. Sorry!  But today, Instagram is officially launching a new feature that will allow users to re-share someone’s Instagram post with their friends via Instagram Stories – something it confirmed was in testing earlier this year. The idea with the new re-sharing option is to give users a way to add their own commentary or react to a post, without repurposing it as their own – the way a regram (reposting to feed) feature would have permitted.

For example, you can now re-share something you saw posted by a brand or influencer on Instagram that you like, or add your own comments on top of a funny meme, or even tag a friend on a post you want them to see.

In fact, tagging friends through Instagram comments had become so common on the social network over the years, that it rolled out a way to send posts via Direct Messaging as an alternative. The new re-sharing option now gives users a third way to get their friends’ attention.

Re-sharing can only be done from public Instagram accounts, Instagram says. If you want to run a public account, but don’t want people re-sharing your posts, you can opt to turn off the new feature in the app’s settings.

To share an Instagram feed post to your Story, you first tap the paper airplane icon – the same as you tap today to send a post through direct messaging. However, you’ll now see a new option to create a Story as well. Tap this to see the feed post appear as a sticker of sorts with a customized background, reading for re-sharing.

You can also rotate, scale or move the sticker around, and tap on it to explore other styles. Of course, you can add your own commentary, scribbles and other decorations on top of this “sticker,” as you can today when sharing a photo to an Instagram Story.

When posted, the Story will display the original poster’s username, which others can tap on to head back to the original post.

That potential source of traffic may encourage some Instagram users to create posts specifically designed for this new sharing format, given it could increase their account’s exposure to a wider audience.

The company may not be done rolling out new features for Stories yet – continual improvement of this popular product is one way Instagram (and parent Facebook) is able to challenge Snapchat, which first popularized the Story format.

As Twitter users Jane Manchun Wong spotted, Instagram is also testing a floating Story Tray that will minimize when you scroll. That would give Stories more prominence on the network – though not everyone is thrilled with their takeover.

Instagram says the feature is live today on Android and will roll out to iOS in the coming week.

* Yes, I’m confused about this example image Instagram sent, too. 

 

Zuckerberg will meet with European parliament in private next week

Who says privacy is dead? Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg has agreed to take European parliamentarians’ questions about how his platform impacts the privacy of hundreds of millions of European citizens — but only behind closed doors. Where no one except a handful of carefully chosen MEPs will bear witness to what’s said.

The private meeting will take place on May 22 at 17.45CET in Brussels. After which the president of the European Parliament, Antonio Tajani, will hold a press conference to furnish the media with his version of events.

It’s just a shame that journalists are being blocked from being able to report on what actually goes on in the room.

And that members of the public won’t be able to form their own opinions about how Facebook’s founder responds to pressing questions about what Zuckerberg’s platform is doing to their privacy and their fundamental rights.

Because the doors are being closed to journalists and citizens.

Even the intended contents of the meeting is been glossed over in public — with the purpose of the chat being vaguely couched as “to clarify issues related to the use of personal data” in a statement by Tajani (below).

The impact of Facebook’s platform on “electoral processes in Europe” is the only discussion point that’s specifically flagged.

Given Zuckerberg has thrice denied requests from UK lawmakers to take questions about his platform in a public hearing we can only assume the company made the CEO’s appearance in front of EU parliamentarians conditional on the meeting being closed.

Zuckerberg did agree to public sessions with US lawmakers last month, following a major global privacy scandal related to user data and political ad targeting.

But evidently the company’s sense of accountability doesn’t travel very far. (Despite a set of ‘privacy principles’ that Facebook published with great fanfare at the start of the year — one of which reads: ‘We are accountable’. Albeit Facebook didn’t specify to who or what exactly Facebook feels accountable.)

We’ve reached out to Facebook to ask why Zuckerberg will not take European parliamentarians questions in a public hearing. And indeed whether Mark can find the time to hop on a train to London afterwards to testify before the DCMS committee’s enquiry into online disinformation — and will update this story with any response.

As Vera Jourova, the European commissioner for justice and consumers, put it in a tweet, it’s a pity the Facebook founder does not believe all Europeans deserve to know how their data is handled by his company. Just a select few, holding positions of elected office.

A pity or, well, a shame.

Safe to say, not all MEPs are happy with the arrangement…

And according to an EU parliament source, around half the groups wanted an open hearing with the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs — with only a small majority of the Conference of Presidents agreeing to a closed meeting.

But let’s at least be thankful that Zuckerberg has shown us, once again, how very much privacy matters — to him personally

Bossa Studios launches Worlds Adrift, the first game built on Improbable’s SpatialOS

Bossa Studios, the London gaming startup backed by Atomico and behind popular titles ‘Surgeon Simulator’ and ‘I am Bread’, is embarking on its biggest and most ambitious project yet.

Described as a “Community-Crafted MMO,” where players have literally co-built the game’s environment and will continue to do so, Worlds Adrift sees its wider public outing today via the Steam Early Access program.

The new game, which has been three years in the making and was born out of a Bossa Studios “game jam,” akin to the kinds of internal ‘hackathons’ many startups routinely hold, is attempting to pull off a number of firsts.

For starters (and probably most noteworthy to TechCrunch readers), it is the debut game to be built on top of Improbable’s SpacialOS, the cloud-based platform for creating games and other virtual environments that need to go beyond the limitations of traditional server architectures.

Improbable raised a whopping $502 million last May from Softbank and existing investors at a $1 billion-plus valuation, and so — inadvertently, at least — likely has quite a lot riding on Worlds Adrift.

For the Bossa Studios team, the stakes are even higher. Improbable’s tech isn’t exactly proven and, in comparison, Bossa Studios is a smaller and much less well-funded startup attempting to punch way above its weight, even if the team has a lot of gaming industry pedigree.

In a video call with two of its founders, Roberta Lucca and Henrique Olifiers, they were visibly excited by the launch but conceded a large amount of pre-launch nerves. When the Worlds Adrift concept was first conceived during that soon-to-be infamous game jam several years ago, it was indefinitely put on hold due to being far too ambitious per the size of the company.

A chance meeting with Improbable some time later — where I’m told the two young companies were introduced somewhat serendipitously through having the same PR agency — it became clear that it might just be possible. In the coming weeks and months, Bossa Studios will find out if that bet, which meant redirecting all of the startup’s resources into by far its largest undertaking, has likely paid off.

The other first, explained Lucca and Olifiers, is the sheer open-ended, community-driven and ‘persistent’ scale of the game. Tapping into the ‘makers’ trend, early testers of Worlds Adrift have shaped the game itself via Bossa’s Island Creator tool. This has seen 10,000 designs submitted, and Worlds Adrift is launching with 300 ‘floating islands,’ nearly all of which have been created by the community rather than Bossa Studios staff.

Related to this and enabled by the scalable nature of SpacialOS, every aspect of Worlds Adrift is ‘persistent,’ meaning that an object’s current physical status persists in realtime, relative to how or when it was last interacted with, either by a player or the game’s own persistent physics. If, for example, a ship is blown up and its pieces scattered across the ground, it will remain that way indefinitely unless another player, object or the environment it resides in disturbs it.

In addition, the employment of SpacialOS means that players don’t need to be segregated into cohorts based on region and/or distance to a specific set of servers and instead can all play in the same world and at the same time.

“Every player globally will be able to interact with each other and every action by every player will have a lasting impact and be visible to every other player inside the game forever,” is how Bossa Studios explains it.

At scale, opened-ended, and with player versus player gameplay increasing exponentially as the Worlds Adrift launch ramps up, even its makers aren’t sure how these dynamics will play out.

“Offering an entirely user-generated environment, with a completely unscripted style of play, the sheer scale of its scope, and beauty of its design, is an invitation to experiment. Bound only by the laws of physics, the sky truly is the limit,” reads the game’s blurb.

On that note, I wasn’t able to play the game — yet — namely because it runs on Windows and I only have access to a Mac. However, Bossa have kindly invited me to their next game jam and to spend some time up close with Worlds Adrift and its makers. If I’m to join in on the jam, I’m ready to pitch my idea for an adventure game starring a guy in a wheelchair wearing a hat who has to navigate a dystopian future rife with inaccessibility, bureaucracy and government cuts, all the while holding down a job as a tech journalist-cum-private investigator. I think it could be a hit.

Bannon and Cambridge Analytica planned suppression of black voters, whistleblower tells Senate

Appearing before the Senate Judiciary committee today as part of the ongoing investigation of Cambridge Analytica and various forms of meddling in the 2016 elections, former employee and whistleblower Christopher Wylie said that the company and its then-VP Steve Bannon were pursuing voter suppression tactics aimed at black Americans.

Although Wylie insisted that he himself did not take part in these programs, he testified to their existence.

“One of the things that provoked me to leave was discussions about ‘voter disengagement’ and the idea of targeting African Americans,” he said. “I didn’t participate on any voter suppression programs, so I can’t comment on the specifics of those programs.”

“I can comment on their existence, and I can comment more generally on my understanding of what they were doing,” he explained under questioning from Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA).

“If it suited the client’s objective, the firm [SCL, Cambridge Analytica’s parent company] was eager to capitalize on discontent and to stoke ethnic tensions,” read Wylie’s written testimony.

“Steve Bannon believes that politics is downstream from culture. They were seeking out companies to build an arsenal of weapons to fight a culture war,” he explained at another point in the session. He suggested questions on the nature of those weapons, and the specifics of any potential race-based voter suppression tactics, to be directed to Bannon.

That such a system might work, however, he did address.

“How specifically, then, did they target African American voters,” Sen. Harris had asked, “understanding as you do that the African American population is not a monolith? How did they then decipher and determine who was African American so they would target them in their intent to suppress the vote?”

“Racial characteristics can be modeled and I’m not sure about the studies that my colleague here was referencing but we were able to get an AUC score, which is a way of measuring accuracy for race that was .89 I believe,” Wylie answered.

AUC, he then explained, stands for “Area under the receiving operations characteristic. It’s a way of measuring precision, which [the .89 figure] means it’s very high.”

In other words, black voters could be identified based on their social media presence and other factors, despite the fact that the black community is, obviously, far from homogeneous.

It’s not particularly surprising that Bannon, who has aligned himself repeatedly with alt-right and white nationalist figures and movements, would be contemplating ways to decrease the number of people of color voting. But it is new that it was being pursued relatively openly under the Cambridge Analytica banner.

Sen. Harris and others requested any “evidence of the conduct you’ve described” Wylie may have.

Wylie also testified that Facebook, when it asked Cambridge Analytica to certify that it had deleted the data it was using in violation of the company’s rules, “did not require a notary or any sort of legal procedure. So I signed the certification and sent it back and they accepted it.”