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Twitter is purging accounts that were trying to evade prior suspensions

August 15, 2018 No Comments

Twitter announced this afternoon it will begin booting accounts off its service from those who have tried to evade their account suspension. The company says that the accounts in question are users who have been previously suspended on Twitter for their abusive behavior, or for trying to evade a prior suspension. These bad actors have been able to work around Twitter’s attempt to remove them by setting up another account, it seems.

The company says the new wave of suspensions will hit this week and will continue in the weeks ahead, as it’s able to identify others who are “attempting to Tweet following an account suspension.” 

Twitter’s announcement on the matter – which came in the form of a tweet – was light on details. We asked the company for more information. It’s unclear, for example, how Twitter was able to identify the same persons had returned to Twitter, how many users will be affected by this new ban, or what impact this will have on Twitter’s currently stagnant user numbers.

Twitter was not able to answer our questions, when asked for comment.

The company has been more recently focused on aggressively suspending accounts, as part of the effort to stem the flow of disinformation, bots, and abuse on its service. The Washington Post, for example, said last month that Twitter had suspended as many as 70 million accounts between the months of May and June, and was continuing in July at the same pace. The removal of these accounts didn’t affect the company’s user metrics, Twitter’s CFO later clarified.

Even though they weren’t a factor, Twitter’s user base is shrinking. The company actually lost a million monthly active users in Q2, with 335 million overall users and 68 million in the U.S. In part, Twitter may be challenged in growing its audience because it’s not been able to get a handle on the rampant abuse on its platform, and because it makes poor enforcement decisions with regard to its existing policies.

For instance, Twitter is under fire right now for the way it chooses who to suspend, as it’s one of the few remaining platforms that hasn’t taken action against conspiracy theorist Alex Jones.

The Outline even hilariously (???) suggested today that we all abandon Twitter and return to Tumblr. (Disclosure: Oath owns Tumblr and TC. I don’t support The Outline’s plan. Twitter should just fix itself, even if that requires new leadership.)

In any event, today’s news isn’t about a change in how Twitter will implement its rules, but rather in how it will enforce the bans it’s already chosen to enact.

In many cases, banned users would simply create a new account using a new email address and then continue to tweet. Twitter’s means of identifying returning users has been fairly simplistic in the past. To make sure banned users didn’t come back, it used information like the email, phone and IP address to identify them.

For it to now be going after a whole new lot of banned accounts who have been attempting to avoid their suspensions, Twitter may be using the recently acquired technology from anti-abuse firm Smyte. At the time of the deal, Twitter had praised Smyte’s proactive anti-abuse systems, and said it would soon put them to work.

This system may pick up false positives, of course – and that could be why Twitter noted that some accounts could be banned in error in the weeks ahead.

Reached for comment, Twitter declined to answer our specific questions and said it could also not go into further details as that would give those attempting to evade a suspension more insight into its detection methods.

“This is a step we’re taking to further refine our work and close existing gaps we identified,” a spokesperson said. “This is specifically targeting those previously suspended for abusive behavior. Nothing to share on amount of accounts impacted since this work will remain ongoing, not just today.”

Updated, 8/14/18, 3:51 PM ET with Twitter’s comment. 


Social – TechCrunch


Openbook is the latest dream of a digital life beyond Facebook

August 13, 2018 No Comments

As tech’s social giants wrestle with antisocial demons that appear to be both an emergent property of their platform power, and a consequence of specific leadership and values failures (evident as they publicly fail to enforce even the standards they claim to have), there are still people dreaming of a better way. Of social networking beyond outrage-fuelled adtech giants like Facebook and Twitter.

There have been many such attempts to build a ‘better’ social network of course. Most have ended in the deadpool. A few are still around with varying degrees of success/usage (Snapchat, Ello and Mastodon are three that spring to mine). None has usurped Zuckerberg’s throne of course.

This is principally because Facebook acquired Instagram and WhatsApp. It has also bought and closed down smaller potential future rivals (tbh). So by hogging network power, and the resources that flow from that, Facebook the company continues to dominate the social space. But that doesn’t stop people imagining something better — a platform that could win friends and influence the mainstream by being better ethically and in terms of functionality.

And so meet the latest dreamer with a double-sided social mission: Openbook.

The idea (currently it’s just that; a small self-funded team; a manifesto; a prototype; a nearly spent Kickstarter campaign; and, well, a lot of hopeful ambition) is to build an open source platform that rethinks social networking to make it friendly and customizable, rather than sticky and creepy.

Their vision to protect privacy as a for-profit platform involves a business model that’s based on honest fees — and an on-platform digital currency — rather than ever watchful ads and trackers.

There’s nothing exactly new in any of their core ideas. But in the face of massive and flagrant data misuse by platform giants these are ideas that seem to sound increasingly like sense. So the element of timing is perhaps the most notable thing here — with Facebook facing greater scrutiny than ever before, and even taking some hits to user growth and to its perceived valuation as a result of ongoing failures of leadership and a management philosophy that’s been attacked by at least one of its outgoing senior execs as manipulative and ethically out of touch.

The Openbook vision of a better way belongs to Joel Hernández who has been dreaming for a couple of years, brainstorming ideas on the side of other projects, and gathering similarly minded people around him to collectively come up with an alternative social network manifesto — whose primary pledge is a commitment to be honest.

“And then the data scandals started happening and every time they would, they would give me hope. Hope that existing social networks were not a given and immutable thing, that they could be changed, improved, replaced,” he tells TechCrunch.

Rather ironically Hernández says it was overhearing the lunchtime conversation of a group of people sitting near him — complaining about a laundry list of social networking ills; “creepy ads, being spammed with messages and notifications all the time, constantly seeing the same kind of content in their newsfeed” — that gave him the final push to pick up the paper manifesto and have a go at actually building (or, well, trying to fund building… ) an alternative platform. 

At the time of writing Openbook’s Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign has a handful of days to go and is only around a third of the way to reaching its (modest) target of $ 115k, with just over 1,000 backers chipping in. So the funding challenge is looking tough.

The team behind Openbook includes crypto(graphy) royalty, Phil Zimmermann — aka the father of PGP — who is on board as an advisor initially but billed as its “chief cryptographer”, as that’s what he’d be building for the platform if/when the time came. 

Hernández worked with Zimmermann at the Dutch telecom KPN building security and privacy tools for internal usage — so called him up and invited him for a coffee to get his thoughts on the idea.

“As soon as I opened the website with the name Openbook, his face lit up like I had never seen before,” says Hernández. “You see, he wanted to use Facebook. He lives far away from his family and facebook was the way to stay in the loop with his family. But using it would also mean giving away his privacy and therefore accepting defeat on his life-long fight for it, so he never did. He was thrilled at the possibility of an actual alternative.”

On the Kickstarter page there’s a video of Zimmermann explaining the ills of the current landscape of for-profit social platforms, as he views it. “If you go back a century, Coca Cola had cocaine in it and we were giving it to children,” he says here. “It’s crazy what we were doing a century ago. I think there will come a time, some years in the future, when we’re going to look back on social networks today, and what we were doing to ourselves, the harm we were doing to ourselves with social networks.”

“We need an alternative to the social network work revenue model that we have today,” he adds. “The problem with having these deep machine learning neural nets that are monitoring our behaviour and pulling us into deeper and deeper engagement is they already seem to know that nothing drives engagement as much as outrage.

“And this outrage deepens the political divides in our culture, it creates attack vectors against democratic institutions, it undermines our elections, it makes people angry at each other and provides opportunities to divide us. And that’s in addition to the destruction of our privacy by revenue models that are all about exploiting our personal information. So we need some alternative to this.”

Hernández actually pinged TechCrunch’s tips line back in April — soon after the Cambridge Analytica Facebook scandal went global — saying “we’re building the first ever privacy and security first, open-source, social network”.

We’ve heard plenty of similar pitches before, of course. Yet Facebook has continued to harvest global eyeballs by the billions. And even now, after a string of massive data and ethics scandals, it’s all but impossible to imagine users leaving the site en masse. Such is the powerful lock-in of The Social Network effect.

Regulation could present a greater threat to Facebook, though others argue more rules will simply cement its current dominance.

Openbook’s challenger idea is to apply product innovation to try to unstick Zuckerberg. Aka “building functionality that could stand for itself”, as Hernández puts it.

“We openly recognise that privacy will never be enough to get any significant user share from existing social networks,” he says. “That’s why we want to create a more customisable, fun and overall social experience. We won’t follow the footsteps of existing social networks.”

Data portability is an important ingredient to even being able to dream this dream — getting people to switch from a dominant network is hard enough without having to ask them to leave all their stuff behind as well as their friends. Which means that “making the transition process as smooth as possible” is another project focus.

Hernández says they’re building data importers that can parse the archive users are able to request from their existing social networks — to “tell you what’s in there and allow you to select what you want to import into Openbook”.

These sorts of efforts are aided by updated regulations in Europe — which bolster portability requirements on controllers of personal data. “I wouldn’t say it made the project possible but… it provided us a with a unique opportunity no other initiative had before,” says Hernández of the EU’s GDPR.

“Whether it will play a significant role in the mass adoption of the network, we can’t tell for sure but it’s simply an opportunity too good to ignore.”

On the product front, he says they have lots of ideas — reeling off a list that includes the likes of “a topic-roulette for chats, embracing Internet challenges as another kind of content, widgets, profile avatars, AR chatrooms…” for starters.

“Some of these might sound silly but the idea is to break the status quo when it comes to the definition of what a social network can do,” he adds.

Asked why he believes other efforts to build ‘ethical’ alternatives to Facebook have failed he argues it’s usually because they’ve focused on technology rather than product.

“This is still the most predominant [reason for failure],” he suggests. “A project comes up offering a radical new way to do social networking behind the scenes. They focus all their efforts in building the brand new tech needed to do the very basic things a social network can already do. Next thing you know, years have passed. They’re still thousands of miles away from anything similar to the functionality of existing social networks and their core supporters have moved into yet another initiative making the same promises. And the cycle goes on.”

He also reckons disruptive efforts have fizzled out because they were too tightly focused on being just a solution to an existing platform problem and nothing more.

So, in other words, people were trying to build an ‘anti-Facebook’, rather than a distinctly interesting service in its own right. (The latter innovation, you could argue, is how Snap managed to carve out a space for itself in spite of Facebook sitting alongside it — even as Facebook has since sought to crush Snap’s creative market opportunity by cloning its products.)

“This one applies not only to social network initiatives but privacy-friendly products too,” argues Hernández. “The problem with that approach is that the problems they solve or claim to solve are most of the time not mainstream. Such as the lack of privacy.

“While these products might do okay with the people that understand the problems, at the end of the day that’s a very tiny percentage of the market. The solution these products often present to this issue is educating the population about the problems. This process takes too long. And in topics like privacy and security, it’s not easy to educate people. They are topics that require a knowledge level beyond the one required to use the technology and are hard to explain with examples without entering into the conspiracy theorist spectrum.”

So the Openbook team’s philosophy is to shake things up by getting people excited for alternative social networking features and opportunities, with merely the added benefit of not being hostile to privacy nor algorithmically chain-linked to stoking fires of human outrage.

The reliance on digital currency for the business model does present another challenge, though, as getting people to buy into this could be tricky. After all payments equal friction.

To begin with, Hernández says the digital currency component of the platform would be used to let users list secondhand items for sale. Down the line, the vision extends to being able to support a community of creators getting a sustainable income — thanks to the same baked in coin mechanism enabling other users to pay to access content or just appreciate it (via a tip).

So, the idea is, that creators on Openbook would be able to benefit from the social network effect via direct financial payments derived from the platform (instead of merely ad-based payments, such as are available to YouTube creators) — albeit, that’s assuming reaching the necessary critical usage mass. Which of course is the really, really tough bit.

“Lower cuts than any existing solution, great content creation tools, great administration and overview panels, fine-grained control over the view-ability of their content and more possibilities for making a stable and predictable income such as creating extra rewards for people that accept to donate for a fixed period of time such as five months instead of a month to month basis,” says Hernández, listing some of the ideas they have to stand out from existing creator platforms.

“Once we have such a platform and people start using tips for this purpose (which is not such a strange use of a digital token), we will start expanding on its capabilities,” he adds. (He’s also written the requisite Medium article discussing some other potential use cases for the digital currency portion of the plan.)

At this nascent prototype and still-not-actually-funded stage they haven’t made any firm technical decisions on this front either. And also don’t want to end up accidentally getting into bed with an unethical tech.

“Digital currency wise, we’re really concerned about the environmental impact and scalability of the blockchain,” he says — which could risk Openbook contradicting stated green aims in its manifesto and looking hypocritical, given its plan is to plough 30% of its revenues into ‘give-back’ projects, such as environmental and sustainability efforts and also education.

“We want a decentralised currency but we don’t want to rush into decisions without some in-depth research. Currently, we’re going through IOTA’s whitepapers,” he adds.

They do also believe in decentralizing the platform — or at least parts of it — though that would not be their first focus on account of the strategic decision to prioritize product. So they’re not going to win fans from the (other) crypto community. Though that’s hardly a big deal given their target user-base is far more mainstream.

“Initially it will be built on a centralised manner. This will allow us to focus in innovating in regards to the user experience and functionality product rather than coming up with a brand new behind the scenes technology,” he says. “In the future, we’re looking into decentralisation from very specific angles and for different things. Application wise, resiliency and data ownership.”

“A project we’re keeping an eye on and that shares some of our vision on this is Tim Berners Lee’s MIT Solid project. It’s all about decoupling applications from the data they use,” he adds.

So that’s the dream. And the dream sounds good and right. The problem is finding enough funding and wider support — call it ‘belief equity’ — in a market so denuded of competitive possibility as a result of monopolistic platform power that few can even dream an alternative digital reality is possible.

In early April, Hernández posted a link to a basic website with details of Openbook to a few online privacy and tech communities asking for feedback. The response was predictably discouraging. “Some 90% of the replies were a mix between critiques and plain discouraging responses such as “keep dreaming”, “it will never happen”, “don’t you have anything better to do”,” he says.

(Asked this April by US lawmakers whether he thinks he has a monopoly, Zuckerberg paused and then quipped: “It certainly doesn’t feel like that to me!”)

Still, Hernández stuck with it, working on a prototype and launching the Kickstarter. He’s got that far — and wants to build so much more — but getting enough people to believe that a better, fairer social network is even possible might be the biggest challenge of all. 

For now, though, Hernández doesn’t want to stop dreaming.

“We are committed to make Openbook happen,” he says. “Our back-up plan involves grants and impact investment capital. Nothing will be as good as getting our first version through Kickstarter though. Kickstarter funding translates to absolute freedom for innovation, no strings attached.”

You can check out the Openbook crowdfunding pitch here.


Social – TechCrunch


Facebook now deletes posts that financially endanger/trick people

August 9, 2018 No Comments

It’s not just inciting violence, threats and hate speech that will get Facebook to remove posts by you or your least favorite troll. Endangering someone financially, not just physically, or tricking them to earn a profit are now also strictly prohibited.

Facebook today spelled out its policy with more clarity in hopes of establishing a transparent set of rules it can point to when it enforces its policy in the future. That comes after cloudy rules led to waffling decisions and backlash as it dealt with and finally removed four Pages associated with Infowars conspiracy theorist Alex Jones.

The company started by repeatedly stressing that it is not a government — likely to indicate it does not have to abide by the same First Amendment rules.

“We do not, for example, allow content that could physically or financially endanger people, that intimidates people through hateful language, or that aims to profit by tricking people using Facebook,” its VP of policy Richard Allen published today.

Web searches show this is the first time Facebook has used that language regarding financial attacks. We’ve reached out for comment about exactly how new Facebook considers this policy.

This is important because it means Facebook’s policy encompasses threats of ruining someone’s credit, calling for people to burglarize their homes or blocking them from employment. While not physical threats, these can do real-world damage to victims.

Similarly, the position against trickery for profit gives Facebook a wide berth to fight against spammers, scammers and shady businesses making false claims about products. The question will be how Facebook enforces this rule. Some would say most advertisements are designed to trick people in order for a business to earn a profit. Facebook is more likely to shut down obvious grifts where businesses make impossible assertions about how their products can help people, rather than just exaggerations about their quality or value.

The added clarity offered today highlights the breadth and particularity with which other platforms, notably the wishy-washy Twitter, should lay out their rules about content moderation. While there have long been fears that transparency will allow bad actors to game the system by toeing the line without going over it, the importance of social platforms to democracy necessitates that they operate with guidelines out in the open to deflect calls of biased enforcement.


Social – TechCrunch


Facebook Dating will be a feature, not an app; here’s a peek

August 4, 2018 No Comments

Facebook Dating doesn’t plan to launch a standalone dating app, which should temper expectations about how deeply it’s diving into Tinder and Match Group’s territory. The feature will be based inside Facebook’s main app, alongside its many other utilities buried beyond the home screen. It’s not ready for the public yet, but company employees are now internally testing it — though they’re warned that it’s not for dating their co-workers.

Facebook gave a preview of its Dating features back in May at its F8 conference. Now we’re getting an early look at its onboarding process thanks to screenshots pulled from the Facebook app’s code by mobile researcher and frequent TechCrunch tipster Jane Manchun Wong. The designs give a sense of the more mature vibe of Facebook Dating, which seems more purposeful for finding a serious partner than a one-night stand.

Once you opt in to activating Facebook Dating, only other people who have also turned it on will be able to see you, and it won’t be shared to News Feed. You can choose if friends of friends can see you or not, and Dating profiles allow non-binary and transgender and orientation options. You’ll unlock Groups or Events you’re a part of for Dating, and you’ll be able to browse potential matches based on the plethora of info Facebook knows about you. If two people express interest in each other (no swiping), they can text each other over Messenger or WhatsApp.

TechCrunch has learned some new details from Facebook, as well. Facebook is considering a limit on how many people you can express interest in, which would prevent a spammy behavior of rapidly approving everyone you see. Blocking someone on Dating won’t also block them on Facebook, though that’s not finalized.

Facebook has no plan for paid subscriptions to premium Dating features. It’s currently not going to show ads in Dating, though it could reconsider that later.

Dating will be 18+ only in the U.S. and abide by local laws on who is considered an “adult.”

For now Facebook is taking careful steps toward Dating. It’s not blitzing into the market with a big flashy app. Instead it’s hoping the feature could create the meaningful relationships that make people appreciate Facebook and stick with it over the years. That’s more important than ever with all its recent troubles.


Social – TechCrunch


Facebook launches a digital literacy library aimed at educators

August 3, 2018 No Comments

Facebook this morning announced the launch of a new set of educational resources focused on helping young people think critically and behave thoughtfully online. The Digital Literacy Library, as the new site is being called, is aimed at educators of children aged 11 to 18, and address topics like privacy, reputation, identity exploration, security, safety, wellbeing and more.

There are 830 million young people online, the company notes, which is why digital literacy is necessary. We’ve seen the results what can happen when people are lacking in digital literacy – they’re susceptible to believing hoaxes, propaganda and fake news is true; they risk their personal data by using insecure apps; they become addicted to social media and its feedback loop of likes; they bully and/or are bullied; and they don’t take steps to protect their online reputation which can have real-world consequences, to name a few things.

However, many teachers today lack the educational resources that would allow them to teach a digital literacy program in their classroom, or in other less formal environments.

Facebook says the lesson plans in the new library were drawn from the Youth and Media team at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, where they were released under a Creative Commons license. In other words, the company itself did not design the lessons, it’s only making them more broadly available by placing them on Facebook where they can be more easily discovered and used.

The lessons themselves are based on over 10 years of academic research from the Youth and Media team, who also took care to reflect the voices of young people from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds, ethnicities, geographies, and educational levels, Facebook says. Initially, the 18 lessons are launching in English, but they’ll be soon available in 45 additional languages.

For educators, the lessons are ready-to-use as free downloads, and state how long each lesson will take. Outside the classroom, parents could use them to teach children at home, or they could be used in after-school programs. Teachers can also modify the lessons’ content to meet their own needs, if they choose.

The courses will be made available in Facebook’s Safety Center and Berkman Klein’s Digital Literacy Resource Platform for the time being. Facebook says it’s also working with other non-profits worldwide to adapt the lessons and create new ones.

This isn’t the first time Facebook has offered educational resources aimed at young people.

The company also recently launched its Youth Portal, which provides educational material directly to teens, not their teachers. However, those resources are focused more on Facebook itself, providing guidance on things like how to navigate the service, how to stay secure, and how to understand how people’s data is used. (Arguably, this sort of information is something a large number of adults could use a refresher on, as well.)

In addition, Facebook has begun to roll out educational guidance into its new app, Messenger Kids, aimed at the under-13 crowd. The app encourages children to be kind and respectful online, by promoting empathy and positive messaging through things like the “Messenger Kids Pledge,” kindness stickers, and other in-app challenges.

At the root of all this is the fact that Facebook, along with most social media, has corrupted the way people interact and navigate the online world. And it is now belatedly is waking up to its role and its responsibilities on that front. These large platforms were built by optimistic engineers who for years only saw the positive side of connecting the online world, and not the potentially negative outcomes – like data theft and misuse, fake news, hacking, attempts to disrupt democracy, bullying, targeted harassment, and even genocide. A literacy program could help the next generation of users, but it has arrived too late for many of Facebook’s users.

Below, are the lesson plans’ description, for reference:


Social – TechCrunch


Midterm attackers cited Black Lives Matter in false flag Facebook rally

August 1, 2018 No Comments

Unknown midterm election attackers that Facebook has removed were hosting a political rally next month that they pinned on Black Lives Matter, Antifa and other organizations, according to third-party event websites that scraped the now-removed Facebook events.

Facebook provided an image of the deleted “No Unite The Right 2 – DC” event as part of its announcement today that merely showed its image, title, date, location and that a Page called “Resisters” was one of the hosts of the propaganda event. But a scraped event description TechCrunch discovered on Rallyist provides deeper insight into the disruptive information operation. Facebook won’t name the source of the election interference but said the attackers shared a connection through a single account to the Russian Internet Research Agency responsible for 2016 presidential election interference on Facebook.

“We are calling all anti-fascists and people of good conscience to participate in international days of action August 10 through August 12 and a mass mobilization in Washington DC” the description reads. “We occupy ICE offices, confront racism, antisemitism, islamaphobia, xenophobia, and white nationalism. We will be in the streets on August 10-12, and we intend to win.”

But what’s especially alarming is how the event description concludes [emphasis mine, in full below]. “Signed, Black Lives Matter Charlottesville, Black Lives Matter D.C., Charlottesville Summer of Resistance Welcoming Committee Agency, Crimethinc Ex-Workers Collective, Crushing Colonialism, D.C. Antifascist Collective, Future is Feminists, Holler Network, Hoods4Justice, The International, Capoeira Angola Foundation-DC (FICA-DC), Libertarian Socialist Caucus Of The DSA, March For Racial Justice, Maryland Antifa, One People’s Project, Resist This (Former DisruptJ20), Rising Tide North America, Smash Racism D.C., Showing Up for Racial Justice Charlottesville, Suffolk County DSA, Workers Against Racism, 350 DC.”

It’s unclear if the attackers effectively “forged” the signature of these groups, or duped them into signing off on supporting the rally. The attackers were potentially trying to blame these groups for the rallies in an effort to further sow discord in the political landscape.

Facebook initially provided no comment about the description of the event, but then confirmed that it was originally created by the attackers’ since-deleted Page “Resisters,” which then later added several legitimate organizations as co-hosts: Millennials For Revolution, March To Confront White Supremacy – from Charlottesville to DC, Workers Against Racism – WAR, Smash Racism DC and Tune Out Trump. Strangely, those co-hosts have relaunched a new event with a similar name, “Nazis Not Welcome No Unite The Right 2” and similar description, including a similar but expanded “Signed by” list, and now including BLM Charlottesville and D.C. as co-hosts.

Meanwhile, Facebook also shared an image of a November 4th, 2017 “Trump Nightmare Must End – NYC” event, also without details of the description. A scraped version on the site AllEvents shows the description as “History has shown that fascism must be stopped before it becomes too late. There is only one force that can stop this nightmare: we, the people, acting together. On November 4 we’ll take to the streets demanding that Trump regime must go! We meet at Times Square (42 St and Broadway) at 2 PM!”

The co-opting of left-wing messaging and protests is a powerful strategy for the election interferers. It could provide the right-wing with excuses to claim that all left-wing protest against Trump or white supremacy is actually foreign governments or hackers, and that those protests don’t represent the views of real Americans.


Social – TechCrunch


Fabric offers an alternative to Facebook sharing with a private timeline of personal moments

July 30, 2018 No Comments

Fabric, a personal journaling app that emerged from Y Combinator’s 2016 batch of startups, is relaunching itself as a Facebook alternative. The app is giving itself a makeover in the wake of Facebook’s closure of the Moves location tracker, by offering its own tool to record your activities, photos, memories and other moments shared with friends and family. But unlike on Facebook, everything in Fabric is private by default and data isn’t shared with marketers.

Instead, the startup hopes to build something users will eventually pay for, via premium features or subscriptions.

The idea for the startup came from two people who helped create Facebook’s core features.

Co-founders Arun Vijayvergiya and Nikolay Valtchanov worked for several years at the social network, where Vijayvergiya built the product that would later become Facebook Timeline at an internal hackathon. He also worked on products like Friendship Pages, Year in Review and On This Day, while Valtchanov developed integrations between Facebook and fitness applications.

After leaving Facebook, both were inspired to work on Fabric because of their interest in personal journaling – and that became the key focus for the original version of the Fabric app. But while other journaling apps may offer a blank space for recording thoughts, Fabric automates the process by pulling in photos, posts from elsewhere on social media, places you visited, and more, and put those on its map interface.

The longer-term goal is that Fabric users will be able to look back across their personal history to answer any kind of question about where they had been, what they did, and who they were with – but in a more private environment than what’s available on Facebook.

Facebook could have built something similar, but its focus has been more on how personal profile data could be useful to advertisers.

Despite numerous check-ins, posts where you tagged friends, shared photos and more, there’s still not an easy way to ask Facebook about that great Indian restaurant you tried last March, or who was on that group beach trip with you a few years ago, for example. At best, Facebook offers memory flashbacks through its On This Day feature (now available at any time via the Memories tab), or round-ups and collages that appear at various times throughout the year.

As a search engine for your own memories, it’s not that great.

What’s New 

This is where Fabric comes in. It will automatically record your activities, checking you in to places you visit, which you can then choose to add friends to.

While the idea of automatic location gathering may turn a good number of users off, the difference is that Fabric’s data collection is meant for your eyes only, unless you explicitly choose to share something with friends.

Fabric doesn’t use third-party software for its location system – it’s written in-house, so the data is never touched by a third-party. It also uses industry standard encryption for data transfer and storage, and login information is stored in a separate system from the rest of your data as an added precaution.

Notably, Fabric doesn’t plan to generate revenue by selling data or offering it to advertisers for targeting purposes. Instead, the company hopes users will eventually pay for its product – perhaps as a subscription or through premium upgrades. (It’s not doing this yet, however.)

“The whole motivation behind Fabric is that many meaningful parts of your life do not belong in the public sphere,” explains Vijayvergiya. “In order to be able to capture these moments, user trust is essential and is something we have baked into our company culture. Internally, we refer to ourselves as a ‘private-first’ company. Everything on Fabric is private by default. You have to choose to include friends in your moments. We don’t share any data with marketers, and we don’t intend to share personally identifiable information with advertisers,” he says.

Since its 2016 release, Fabric has been downloaded 70,000 times by users across 117 countries, and has seen 112 million automatic check-ins.

The new version of the app has been redesigned to be something users engage with more often, as opposed to the more passive journaling app it was before.

The app now offers an outline of your activities, which it also calls Timeline. Here, you can add people, photos and memorable anecdotes to those automated entries. You can jump back to any day to see your history with any person or place that appears on the Timeline.

You can also turn any moment into one you collaborate on with friends, by allowing others to add photos and comments. That is, instead of broad post to a group of so-called “friends” on Facebook, you share the moment with those who really matter. This isn’t all that different from how people use private messaging apps and group chats today – in order to share things with people that aren’t necessarily meant for everyone to see.

In addition, Fabric allows you to add your friends to the app, so you can be automatically tagged when you both spend time together in the real world. This also simplifies sharing because you won’t have to think about which posts should be shared with which audience.

For instance, Vijayvergiya says, “this means you can add your mom as a friend, and only share with her the moments you spend together in the same place.”

The most compelling feature in the updated app may not be check-ins or sharing, but search.

In Fabric, you can now search for past events in your life similar to how you search the web. That is, you could type in “restaurant rome 2017” or “camila los angeles birthday” and find the matching posts, Vijayvergiya suggests. And because you can import your Facebook, Instagram, and Camera Roll to Fabric, it’s now offering the search engine that Facebook itself forgot to build. (You can import your Facebook Moves history, too, ahead of its shutdown.)

Fabric’s search will also be available on the desktop web, where it’s currently in beta.

Fabric’s real challenger, as it turns out, may not be Facebook, though. It’s Google Photos.

Because of advances in image recognition technology, Google Photos (and some other photo apps) have built advanced search capabilities that let you pull up not places, things, people, and more, using data recognized in the image itself. Users can also share those photos with others, collaborate on albums, and leave notes as comments.

The difference is that Fabric offers import from a variety of sources and encourages journaling. But that may not be enough to attract a large user base, especially when automatic check-ins rely on the app’s use of background location which has some impact on battery life.

Fabric is a free download on iOS.

 

 


Social – TechCrunch


Twitter will suspend repeat offenders posting abusive comments on Periscope live streams

July 28, 2018 No Comments

As part of Twitter’s attempted crackdown on abusive behavior across its network, the company announced on Friday afternoon a new policy facing those who repeatedly harass, threaten or otherwise make abusive comments during a Periscope broadcaster’s live stream. According to Twitter, the company will begin to more aggressively enforce its Periscope Community Guidelines by reviewing and suspending accounts of habitual offenders.

The plans were announced via a Periscope blog post and tweet that said everyone should be able to feel safe watching live video.

Currently, Periscope’s comment moderation policy involves group moderation.

That is, when one viewer reports a comment as “abuse,” “spam” or selects “other reason,” Periscope’s software will then randomly select a few other viewers to take a look and decide if the comment is abuse, spam or if it looks okay. The randomness factor here prevents a person (or persons) from using the reporting feature to shut down conversations. Only if a majority of the randomly selected voters agree the comment is spam or abuse does the commenter get suspended.

However, this suspension would only disable their ability to chat during the broadcast itself — it didn’t prevent them from continuing to watch other live broadcasts and make further abusive remarks in the comments. Though they would risk the temporary ban by doing so, they could still disrupt the conversation, and make the video creator — and their community — feel threatened or otherwise harassed.

Twitter says that accounts that repeatedly get suspended for violating its guidelines will soon be reviewed and suspended. This enhanced enforcement begins on August 10, and is one of several other changes Twitter is making to its product across Periscope and Twitter focused on user safety.

To what extent those changes have been working is questionable. Twitter may have policies in place around online harassment and abuse, but its enforcement has been hit-or-miss. But ridding its platform of unwanted accounts — including spam, despite the impact to monthly active user numbers — is something the company must do for its long-term health. The fact that so much hate and abuse is seemingly tolerated or overlooked on Twitter has been an issue for some time, and the problem continues today. And it could be one of the factors in Twitter’s stagnant user growth. After all, who willingly signs up for harassment?

The company is at least attempting to address the problem, most recently by acquiring the anti-abuse technology provider Smyte. Its transition to Twitter didn’t go so well, but the technology it offers the company could help Twitter address abuse at a greater scale in the future.


Social – TechCrunch


Slack is buying, and shutting down, HipChat and Stride

July 27, 2018 No Comments

HipChat, the workplace chat app that held the throne before Slack was Slack, is being discontinued. Also being discontinued is Atlassian’s own would-be HipChat replacement, Stride.

News of the discontinuation comes first not from Atlassian, but instead from a somewhat surprising source: Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield. In a series of tweets, Butterfield says that Slack is purchasing the IP for both products to “better support those users who choose to migrate” to its platform.

Butterfield also notes that Atlassian will be making a “small but symbolically important investment” in Slack — likely a good move, given that rumors of a Slack IPO have been swirling (though Butterfield says it won’t happen this year). Getting a pre-IPO investment into Slack might end up paying off for Atlassian better than trying to continue competing.

Atlassian VP of Product Management, Joff Redfern, confirmed the news in a blog post, calling it the “best way forward” for its existing customers. It’s about as real of an example of “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” as you can get; even Atlassian’s own employees will be moved over to using Slack.

According to an FAQ about the change, Stride and HipChat’s last day will be February 15th, 2019 — or a bit shy of seven months from the date of the announcement. So if you’re a customer on either one of those platforms, you’ve got time to figure things out.

It doesn’t sound like any of Atlassian’s other products will be affected here; Bitbucket, Jira, etc. will carry on, with only the company’s real-time communications platforms being shuttered.

Hipchat was launched in beta form back in 2009, long before Slack’s debut in 2013. It mostly ruled its space in the time in between, leading Atlassian to acquire it in March of 2012. Slack quickly outgrew it in popularity though, for myriad reasons — be it a bigger suite of third-party integrations, a better reputation for uptime, or… well, better marketing. By September of 2017, Atlassian overhauled its chat platform and rebranded it as as “Stride”, but it was never able to quite catch up with Slack’s momentum.


Social – TechCrunch


With its goofy video loops, YC backed Splish wants to be the ‘anti-Instagram’

July 22, 2018 No Comments

Is there any space on kids’ homescreens for another social sharing app to poke in? Y Combinator backed Splish wants to have a splash at it (😊) — with a super-short-form video and photo sharing app aimed at the under-25s.

The SF-based startup began bootstrapping out of their college dorm rooms last July, playing around with app ideas before settling on goofy video loops to be their social sharing steed of choice.

The Splish app pops content into video loops of between 1-5 seconds. Photos can be uploaded too but motion must be added in the form of an animated effect of your choice. So basically nothing on Splish stays still. (Hence its watery name.) But while wobbly, content on Splish is intended to stick around — rather than ephemerally pass away (a la snaps).

Here are a few examples of Splishes (embedded below as GIFs… but you can see them on its platform here, here and here):

 

It’s the first startup for the four college buddy co-founders: Drake Rehfeld, Alex Pareto, Jackson Berry and Zac Denham, though between them they’ve also clocked up engineering hours working for Snapchat, Facebook and Team 10.

Their initial web product went up in March and they landed a place on YC’s program at the start of May —  when they also released their iOS app. An Android app is pending, and they’ll be on the hunt for funding come YC demo day.

The gap in the social sharing market this young team reckons it’s spotted is a sort of ‘anti-Instagram’ — offering a playful contrast to the photo sharing platform’s polished (and at times preening) performances.

The idea is that sharing stuff on Splish is a bonding experience; part of an ongoing smartphone-enabled conversation between mates, rather than a selectively manicured photoshoot which also has to be carefully packaged for public ‘gram consumption.

Splish does have a public feed, though, so it’s not a pure messaging app — but the co-founders say the focus is friend group sharing rather than public grandstanding.

“Splish is a social app for sharing casual looping videos with close friends,” says Rehfeld, giving the team’s elevator pitch. “It came out of our own experience, and we’re building for ourselves because we noticed that the way you socialize right now in real life is you do activities with your friends. You go to the beach, you go to the bar, the bowling alley. We’re working to bring this same type of experience online using Splish through photo and video. So it’s more about interaction and hanging out with your friends online.”

“When you use Instagram you really feel like you’re looking at a magazine. It’s just the highlights of people’s lives,” he adds. “And so we’re trying to make a place where you’re getting to know your friends better and meeting new people as well. And then on the other side, on Snapchat, you’re really sharing interesting moments of your lives but it’s not really pushing the boundaries or creating with your friends. It’s more just a communication messaging tool.

“So it’s kind of the space in between broadcast and chat — talking and interacting with your close friends through Splish, through photo and video.”

Users of the Splish app can apply low-fi GIF(ish) retro filters and other photographic effects (such as a reverse negative look) to the video snippets and photos they want to send to friends or share more widely — with the effects intended to strip away at reality, rather than gloss it over. Which means content on Splish tends to look and feel grungy and/or goofy. Much like an animated GIF in fact. And much less like Instagram.

The team’s hope is the format adds a bit of everyday grit and/or wit to the standard smartphone visual record, and that swapping Splishes gets taken up as a more fun and casual way of communicating vs other types of messaging or social sharing.

And also that people will want to use Splish to capture and store fun times with friends because they can be checked out again later, having been conveniently packaged for GIF-style repeat lols.

“Part of the power here in Splish is that relationships are built on shared experiences and nostalgia and so while [Snapchat-style] ephemerality reduced a lot of the barriers for posting what it didn’t do is strengthen relationships long term or over time because the chats and the photos disappeared,” says Rehfeld.

The idea is a content format to gives people “shared experience that lasts”, he adds.

They’re also directly nudging users to get creative via a little gamification, adding a new feature (called Jams) that lets users prompt each other to make a Splish in response to a specific content creation challenge.

And filming actual (playful) physical shoulder pokes has apparently been an early thing on Splish. That’s the merry-go-round of social for ya.

Being a fair march north of Splish’s target age-range, I have to confess the app’s loopy effects end up triggering something closer to motion sickness/vertigo/puking up for me. But words are my firm social currency of choice. Whereas Rehfeld argues the teenager-plus target for Splish is most comfortable with a smartphone in its hand, and letting a lens tell the tale of what they’re up to or how they’re feeling.

“We started with that niche first because there’s a population in that age range that really enjoys this creative challenge of expressing yourself in pretty intuitive ways, and they understand how to do that. And they’re pretty excited about it,” he tells TechCrunch.

“There’s also been a little bit of a shift here where users no longer just capture what they have in real-life using the camera, but the camera’s used as an extension of communication — especially in that age range, where people use the camera as part of their relationship, rather than just capturing what happens offline.”

As with other social video apps, vertical full screen is the preferred Splish frame — for a more “immersive experience” and, well, because that’s how the kids do it.

“It’s the way users, especially in this age range, hold and use their phones. It’s pretty natural to this age range just because it’s what they do everyday,” he says, adding: “It’s just the best way to consume on the phone because it fills the whole screen, it’s how you were already using the phone before you clicked into the video.”

Notably, as part of the team’s soft-edged stance against social media influencer culture, Rehfeld says Splish is choosing not to bake “viral components” into the app — ergo: “Nobody’s rewarded for likes or ‘re-vines’. There’s no reblog, retweet.”

Although, pressed on how firm that anti-social features stance is, he concedes they’re not abandoning the usual social suite entirely — but rather implementing that sort of stuff in relative moderation.

“We have likes and we have a concept of friends or follows but the difference is we’re building those with the intention of not incentivizing virality or ‘influencership’,” he says. “So we always release them with some sort of limit, so with likes you can’t see a list of everybody who’s liked a post for example. So that’s one example of how we’ve, kind of, brought in a feature that people feel comfortable with and love but with our own spin that’s a little bit less geared towards building a following.”

Asked if they’re trying to respond to the criticism that’s been leveled at a lot of consumer technology lately — i.e. that it’s engineered to be highly and even mindlessly addictive — Rehfeld says yes, the team wants to try and take a less viral path, less well travelled, adding: “We’re building as much as possible for user experience. And a lot of the big brands build and optimize towards engagement metrics… and so we’re focused on this reduction of virality so that we can promote personal connections.”

Though it will be interesting to see if they can stick to medium-powered stun guns as they fight to carve out a niche in the shadow of social tech’s attention-sapping giants.

Of course Splish’s public feed is a bit of a digital shop window. But, again, the idea is to make sure it’s a casual space, and not such a perfectionist hothouse as Instagram.

“The way the product is built allows people to feel pretty comfortable even in the more public feeds, the more featured feeds,” adds Rehfeld. “They post still very casual moments, with a creative spin of course. So it’s stayed pretty similar content, private and public.”

Short and long

It’s fair to say that short form video for social sharing has a long but choppy history online. Today’s smartphone users aren’t exactly short of apps and online spaces to share moving pictures publicly or with followers or friends. And animated GIFs have had incredible staying power as the marathon runner of the short loop social sharing format.

On the super-short form video side, the most notable app player of recent years — Twitter’s Vine — sprouted and spread virally in 2013, amassing a sizable community of fans. Although Instagram soon rained on its video party, albeit with a slightly less super-short form. The Facebook-owned behemoth has gatecrashed other social sharing parties in recent years too. Most notably by cloning Snapchat’s ‘video-ish’ social sharing slideshow Stories format, and using its long reach and deep resources to sap momentum from the rival product.

Twitter voluntarily threw in the towel with Vine in 2016, focusing instead on its livestreaming video product, Periscope, which is certainly a better fit for its core business of being a real-time social information network, and its ambition to also become a mainstream entertainment network.

Meanwhile Google’s focus in the social video space has long been on longer form content, via YouTube, and longer videos mesh better with the needs of its ad network (at least when YouTube content isn’t being accused of being toxic). Though Mountain View also of course plays in messaging, including the rich media sharing messaging space.

Apple too has been adding more powerful and personalized visual effects for its iMessage users — such as face-mapping animoji. So smartphone users are indeed very, very spoiled for sharing choice.

Vine’s success in building a community did show that super-short loops can win a new generation of fans, though. But in May its original co-founder, Dom Hofmann, indefinitely postponed the idea of reviving the app by building Vine 2 — citing financial and legal roadblocks, plus other commitments on his time.

Though he did urge those “missing the original Vine experience” to check out some of the apps he said had “sprung up lately” (albeit, without namechecking any of the newbs). So perhaps a Splish or two had caught his eye.

There’s no doubt the space will be a tough one to sustain. Plenty of apps have cracked in and had a moment but very few go the distance. Overly distinctive filters can also feel faddish and fall out of fashion as quickly as they blew up. Witness, for example, the viral rise of art effect photo app Prisma. (And now try and remember the last time you saw one of its art filtered photos in the wild… )

So sustaining a novel look and feel can be tough. Not least because social’s big beast, Facebook, has the resources and inclination to clone any innovations that look like they might be threatening. Add in network effects and the story of the space has been defined by a shrinking handful of dominant apps and platforms.

And yet — there’s still always the chance that a new generation of smartphone users will shake things up because they see things differently and want to find new ways and new spaces to share their personal stuff.

That’s the splash that Splish’s team is hoping to make.


Social – TechCrunch