Facebook prototypes Favorites for close friends microsharing

Facebook is building its own version of Instagram Close Friends, the company confirms to TechCrunch. There are a lot people that don’t share on Facebook because it can feel risky or awkward as its definition of “friends” has swelled to include family, work colleagues and distant acquaintances. No one wants their boss or grandma seeing their weekend partying or edgy memes. There are whole types of sharing, like Snapchat’s Snap Map-style live location tracking, that feel creepy to expose to such a wide audience.

The social network needs to get a handle on microsharing. Yet Facebook has tried and failed over the years to get people to build Friend Lists for posting to different subsets of their network.

Back in 2011, Facebook said that 95% of users hadn’t made a single list. So it tried auto-grouping people into Smart Lists like High School Friends and Co-Workers, and offered manual always-see-in-feed Close Friends and only-see-important-updates Acquaintances lists. But they too saw little traction and few product updates in the past eight years. Facebook ended up shutting down Friend Lists Feeds last year for viewing what certain sets of friends shared.

Then a year ago, Instagram made a breakthrough. Instead of making a complicated array of Friend Lists you could never remember who was on, it made a single Close Friends list with a dedicated button for sharing to them from Stories. Instagram’s research found 85% of a user’s Direct messages go to the same three people, so why not make that easier for Stories without pulling everyone into a group thread? Last month I wrote that “I’m surprised Facebook doesn’t already have its own Close Friends feature, and it’d be smart to build one.”

How Facebook Favorites works

Now Facebook is in fact prototyping its version of Instagram Close Friends called Favorites. It lets users designate certain friends as Favorites, and then instantly post their Story from Facebook or Messenger to just those people instead of all their friends, as is the default.

The feature was first spotted inside Messenger by reverse engineering master and frequent TechCrunch tipster Jane Manchun Wong. Buried in the Android app is the code that let Wong generate the screenshots (above) of this unreleased feature. They show how when users go to share a Story from Messenger, Facebook offers to let users post it to Favorites, and edit who’s on that list or add to it from algorithmic suggestions. Users in that Favorites list would then be the only recipients of that post within Stories, like with Instagram Close Friends.

 

A Facebook spokesperson confirmed to me that this feature is a prototype that the Messenger team created. It’s an early exploration of the microsharing opportunity, and the feature isn’t officially testing internally with employees or publicly in the wild. The spokesperson describes the Favorites feature as a type of shortcut for sharing to a specific set of people. They tell me that Facebook is always exploring new ways to share, and as discussed at its F8 conference this year, Facebook is focused on improving the experience of sharing with and staying more connected to your closest friends.

Unlocking creepier sharing

There are a ton of benefits Facebook could get from a Favorites feature if it ever launches. First, users might share more often if they can make content visible to just their best pals, as those people wouldn’t get annoyed by over-posting. Second, Facebook could get new, more intimate types of content shared, from the heartfelt and vulnerable to the silly and spontaneous to the racy and shocking — stuff people don’t want every single person they’ve ever accepted a friend request from to see. Favorites could reduce self-censorship.

“No one has ever mastered a close friends graph and made it easy for people to understand . . . People get friend requests and they feel pressure to accept,” Instagram director of product Robby Stein told me when it launched Close Friends last year. “The curve is actually that your sharing goes up and as you add more people initially, as more people can respond to you. But then there’s a point where it reduces sharing over time.” Google+, Path and other apps have died chasing this purposefully selective microsharing behavior.

Facebook Favorites could stimulate lots of sharing of content unique to its network, thereby driving usage and ad views. After all, Facebook said in April that it had 500 million daily Stories users across Facebook and Messenger, the same number as Instagram Stories and WhatsApp Status.

Before Instagram launched Close Friends, it actually tested the feature under the name Favorites and allowed you to share feed posts as well as Stories to just that subset of people. And last month Instagram launched the Close Friends-only messaging app Threads that lets you share your Auto-Status about where or what you’re up to.

Facebook Favorites could similarly unlock whole new ways to connect. Facebook can’t follow some apps like Snapchat down more privacy-centric product paths because it knows users are already uneasy about it after 15 years of privacy scandals. Apps built for sharing to different graphs than Facebook have been some of the few social products that have succeeded outside its empire, from Twitter’s interest graph, to TikTok’s fandoms of public entertainment, to Snapchat’s messaging threads with besties.

Instagram Threads

A competent and popular Facebook Favorites could let it try products in location, memes, performances, Q&A, messaging, live streaming and more. It could build its own take on Instagram Threads, let people share exact location just with Favorites instead of just what neighborhood they’re in with Nearby Friends or create a dedicated meme resharing hub like the LOL experiment for teens it shut down. At the very least, it could integrate with Instagram Close Friends so you could syndicate posts from Instagram to your Facebook Favorites.

The whole concept of Favorites aligns with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s privacy-focused vision for social networking. “Many people prefer the intimacy of communicating one-on-one or with just a few friends,” he writes. Facebook can’t just be the general purpose catch-all social network we occasionally check for acquaintances’ broadcasted life updates. To survive another 15 years, it must be where people come back each day to get real with their dearest friends. Less can be more.

Placement is the much-needed talent agent for jobseekers

“We’re giving away money to strangers on the internet” is a pretty cavalier pitch for a new startup. But the more I learned about Placement, the smarter it sounded. In exchange for 10% of your income for 18 to 36 months, Placement will find you a much higher paying job, prep you for the interview and help you move to your new city of employment.

Actors, athletes and musicians have talent agents. Why shouldn’t office workers? That’s co-founder and CEO Sean Linehan’s vision for Placement. The former VP of product at Flexport thinks he can consistently get people a 30% raise on their cost of living-adjusted income if they’re willing to relocate from either their sleepy hometown or an overpriced metropolis.

“We think you can transform your life without becoming an engineer. You just have to be in the right place,” says Linehan. Not everyone is going to learn to code, and Placement isn’t a school. “We’re not in the business of training people to do jobs. We’re in training people to get jobs.”

Placement sits at the lucrative center of a slew of megatrends. People switching jobs more often. The desperate need to pay off crushing student loan debt. The rise of mid-size cities as rent gets out of control in San Francisco and New York. Social apps keeping people in touch from afar. The search for deeper fulfillment going mainstream.

Placement co-founder and CEO Sean Linehan

Through the normalization of income sharing agreements, Placement has found a way to powerfully monetize these societal shifts. That potential has attracted a $3 million seed round led by Founders Fund and backed by Coatue’s new seed fund, XYZ Ventures, The House Fund, plus angels like Flexport CEO Ryan Petersen, Eventbrite founders Julia and Kevin Hartz, DoorDash CEO Tony Xu, 137 Ventures MD Elizabeth Weil and her husband Facebook Calibra VP of Product Kevin.

With the cash to build out its jobseeker’s software toolkit, Placement could grow far beyond the Jerry Maguire-style boutique talent agency into a scalable way to put millions on a better career track. “The number one problem that I see in the American economy right now is the lack of income mobility,” Linehan says. “There are so many services for making rich people get richer, but what about services to help low-income people to get to the middle, or help those in the middle to improve?”

“If I stayed home, there’s just no way”

The CEO’s own rise was “a tried and true American tale,” he tells me. “I grew up in a pretty low-income neighborhood in San Bernardino . . . below the poverty line.” But a chance to attend UC Berkeley brought him to Silicon Valley, and the economic powerhouse city of San Francisco (before the housing crisis made it so expensive). “I don’t think I could have been as successful if I went to another place. If I had stayed in my home town, there’s just no way.”

Yet after college, when friends moved away and he broke up with his girlfriend, Linehan found himself living in a bunkbed by himself with extra space. “I called a friend back home working a minimum wage job, still living at home, and said ‘Your life kinda sucks. Come crash with me!,’ ” Linehan recalls. “He was super smart — smarter than most of the people I went to Berkeley with, but he never got on the train out of town.”

In the following years, Linehan coached his friend through becoming a professional and navigating interviews. “Now he’s tripled his income on a cost of living adjusted basis. He went from minimum wage to $70,000 to $80,000.” That ignited the idea for Placement. “How do you take that process of tapping people who are special and just need economic opportunity, and bring it to more people?” But Linehan needed a co-founder who could execute on getting these up-and-comers jobs.

That’s where Katie Kent came in. Also from the product team at Flexport, Kent had helped start Zipfian Academy as the first data science bootcamp in America. The 12-week crash course had been placing 93% of graduates into full-time roles when Zipfian was acquired by Galvanize, where Kent became director of outcomes with the mandate to get students great jobs. The right idea, experience and the track record of turning Flexport into a $3.2 billion freight forwarding unicorn led investors to jump at the chance to fund Placement.

Share me the money

So how exactly do Placement’s income sharing agreements work? “They only pay us if they make more money on a cost of living adjusted basis” Linehan explains.

First, the startup recruits through targeted advertising and word of mouth referrals, which the company says 100% of clients have provided. Primarily, it’s seeking business professionals with a skill mismatched to their city, such as sales, human resources or operations in a place without companies competing to hire for those roles. They might have never left their hometown or returned after school at a mid-tier college, suppressing their earning potential. But lack of knowledge about jobseeking, fears of leaving their support network or a lack of funds to finance a move keep them stuck there.

“There are two moments when society puts a gentle hand on your shoulder saying its okay to move away: when you go to college and when you graduate college,” says Linehan. “We’re trying to engineer a third moment. We give people the permission and space to have that conversation with their family by providing that forcing function.” Placement serves the same utility the CEO did for his friend, revealing that if they seize the opportunity of moving to a growing but still affordable city like Denver, Austin, Raleigh or Seattle, “people’s lives would be so much better.”

The other demographic Placement seeks is the 10 million-plus workers who’ve gotten in over their heads in some of the country’s priciest cities. “If you’re ambitious and talented but not an engineer in SF, this is a hard life. The costs are exceeding the benefits at this point.” Placement looks for cheaper cities where their skills are still relevant and they might even earn the same or a little less, but they can fetch a huge increase in income on a cost of living-adjusted basis and they have a path to buying a house. Linehan declares that “Our controversial opinion is that more important than reskilling people is getting them to the right place where the work is happening in the first place.”

Placement then evaluates the prospective client in what is currently an extremely selective process to determine if they’re undervalued based on their skills, qualifications, shortfalls and redflags. If they’re already being adequately or overpaid, it won’t accept them. Those eligible are offered access to Placement’s research on all the optimal salary and location/hirer pairs for their role, which most people wouldn’t or couldn’t do themselves. Linehan says, “We run their job search for them. We’re kind of like a concierge.”

Once they’ve selected some targets, Placement quarterbacks their preparation process, helping them to improve their LinkedIn and resume, practice telling their story and offering mock interviews with experts in their field. As they progress through interviews Placement sets up and requires hirers offer remotely, it teaches clients to negotiate to get their best possible compensation.

“If you’re a normal person who didn’t go to an elite institution or are a couple years out of school, there’s no resources,” Linehan laments. While some top coding schools and other bootcamps place graduates, and some startups like Pathrise are also working on interview prep, most seeking a new employer end up relying on mediocre job hunting tips they find online. That’s in part because it was hard to get people to fork over significant cash in exchange for instruction that wasn’t guaranteed to help.

How Placement income sharing agreements work

The Placement income sharing agreement is designed to align incentives, though. It’s vested in getting clients not only the best job and salary, but one they’ll want to stick with. As long as the startup nets them a higher adjusted income, clients pay 10% of their earnings. That lasts for 18 months, or 36 months if they receive Placement’s $5,000 relocation stipend and human support. There are also caps on the total Placement can get paid back, and the agreement dissolves after five years so clients aren’t locked in if things don’t work out.

For example, Placement aims to help someone earning $40,000 per year pre-taxes reach $52,000 on a cost of living adjusted basis. They’d end up paying Placement $7,794 over the course of 18 months, or $433 per month. After the bill, they’d still be earning $3,900 per month, or $567 more than they used to. If they take the $5,000 relocation stipend and extra assistance, their ISA extends to 36 months and they’ll end up paying back $15,588 total, including the stipend.

Clients are likely to keep growing their compensation after their Placement ISA ends, so they’ll start reaping all the added proceeds. The startup has worked with fewer than 1,000 clients to date, but is supposedly growing quickly.

Eventually, Placement could move into working with programmers and designers, but it sees a big gap in assistance for business roles. Linehan notes that “We’re providing an option that will be available to a lot more people than a Lambda School or Galvanize coding bootcamp. Not everyone’s going to be software engineers.”

Making America anti-fragile

The biggest hurdle for Placement will be scaling what can be quite a hands-on, relationship-driven process of matching clients with the right hirers. “It’s one thing to get one person a job. It’s another to get 10,000 people a job,” Linehan admits. But he conquered the same problem at Flexport, which was moving 1,000 shipping containers across the ocean but had to figure out “how the hell do you move 1 million?”

Placement co-founders (from left): Katie Kent and Sean Linehan

That requires Placement to pour product know-how into building tools that equip clients to take more initiative to match themselves with hirers and teach themselves interview skills. It also must automate more of its marketing outreach, client screening and connections to recruiters while retaining a human element worth a four to five-figure price.

Right now, the startup’s team numbers just four, and though it will expand to seven soon, it may need to raise a bunch more to chase this dream. Some investors have been understandably skeptical about the whole “handing out $5,000” model without onerous ISAs.

For comparison, the one-year MissionU school for business and data jobs that was acquired and shut down by WeWork asked for 15% of income for three years without a relocation stipend, or $23,400 on a $52,000 per year job. ISAs for General Assembly’s tech job education cost 10% for 48 months, even if students don’t earn more than in their old job. Pathrise’s slimmer offering costs just 7% for one year. Colleges are jumping on the trend too, with some working with startup Leif to run their ISAs.

Placement has plans to cover prickly edge cases. If someone gets laid off from their new job, the startup will help them find another. “We’re on the hook to make sure they’re successful,” Linehan insists. It only won’t step in if an employee is fired for an ethical problem like sexual harassment or committing fraud. And if someone simply gets lonely in their unfamiliar city, they’re not required to stay, though moving home could hurt their earnings and Placement’s take. That’s why the startup is working to help its clients find community, even amongst each other, so they don’t feel isolated, and prefers sending workers to cities where they know someone.

Meanwhile, Placement must resist the temptation to become a hiring agency paid by employers and instead work fully on behalf of its clients. “When you’re aligned economically with the employer, you’re just chasing dollars from bigger and bigger whales of companies, and at one point you figure out you’re a recruiting firm for the Gap,” Linehan says with a shudder. The complexity of dealing with the U.S. Internal Revenue Service is enough hassle, so Placement doesn’t intend to work with jobseekers abroad or those that need visas, as “it’s not good for startups if you’re at the mercy of the government.”

Luckily, U.S. salaries total $8.6 trillion per year, Linehan claims, so it’s got enough of a domestic market. “The American economy is so huge that I don’t see other people tackling problems like that being competitive.” Placement does have potential to use its data to recommend and teach specific skills. “If you just make this change, if you learn Excel, you could totally get this job in a different industry that pays more and that you’ll like more,” Linehan says. He also dreams of one day improving urban planning by suggesting cities build music venues or parks that jobseekers say would soften the landing of moving there.

Zooming out, there’s also chance for Placement make the country more stable and resistant to strong-man populism promising financial security. “A two-tier society is fragile. I don’t want to live in a democracy where there’s a bunch of hay waiting for a matchstick to set it on fire,” Linehan concludes. “There doesn’t have to be a have and a have-not class, and you don’t need the government to do forced redistribituion to make everything fair. You just need people that care about getting on the right track, and that to me is a worthy cause to dedicate a life to.”

Facebook’s Libra code chugs along ignoring regulatory deadlock

“5 months and growing strong” the Libra Association announced today in an post about its technical infrastructure that completely omits the fierce regulatory backlash to its cryptocurrency.

40 wallets, tools, and block explorers plus 1,700 Github commits have how now been built on its blockchain testnet that’s seen 51,000 mock transactions in the past two months. Libra nodes that process transactions are now being run by Coinbase, Uber, BisonTrails, Iliad, Xapo, Anchorage, and Facebook’s Calibra. Six more nodes are being established, plus there are 8 more getting set up from members who lack technical teams, meaning all 21 members have nodes running or in the works.

But the update on the Libra backend doesn’t explain how the association plans to get all the way to its goal of 100 members and nodes by next year when it originally projected a launch. And it gives no nod to the fact that even if Libra is technically ready to deploy its mainnet in 2020, government regulators in the US and around the world still won’t necessarily let it launch.

Facebook itself seems to be hedging its bets on fintech in the face of pushback against Libra. This week it began the launch of Facebook Pay, which will let users pay friends, merchants, and charities with a single payment method across Facebook, Messenger, WhatsApp, and Instagram.

Facebook Pay could help the company drive more purchases on its platform, get more insights into transactions, and lead merchants to spend more on ads to lure in sales facilitated by quicker payments. That’s most of what Facebook was trying to get out of Libra in the first place, beyond better financial inclusion.

Last month’s congressional testimony from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was less contentious than Libra board member David Marcus’ appearances on Capitol Hill in July. Yet few of lawmakers’ core concerns about how Libra could facilitate money laundering, endanger users’ assets, and give Facebook even more power amidst ongoing anti-trust investigations were assuaged.

This set of announcements from the Libra Core summit of technical members was an opportunity for the project to show how it was focused on addressing fraud, security, and decentralization of power. Instead, the Libra Association took the easy route of focusing on what the Facebook-led development team knows best: writing code, not fixing policy. TechCrunch provided questions to the Libra Association and some members but the promised answers were not returned before press time.

For those organizations without a technical team to implement a node, the Libra Association is working on a strategy to support deployment in 2020, when the Libra Core feature set is complete” the Association’s Michael Engle writes. “The Libra Association intends to deploy 100 nodes on the mainnet, representing a mix of on-premises and cloud-hosted infrastructure.” It feels a bit like Libra is plugging its ears.

Having proper documentation, setting up CLAs to ease GitHub contributions, standardizing the Move code language, a Bug Bounty program, and a public technical roadmap are a good start. But until the Association can answers Congress’ questions directly, they’re likely to refuse Libra approval which Zuckerberg said the project won’t launch without.

Facebook quietly built “Popular Photos”, an in-app Instagram

Facebook is copying Instagram while simultaneously invading its acquisition with branding and links back to the mothership. TechCrunch has spotted Facebook testing a feature called Popular Photos, which affixes an endless scroll of algorithmically selected pics from friends beneath the full-screen view of a photo opened from the News Feed. The result is an experience that feels like the Instagram feed, but inside of Facebook.

Popular Photos could offer users a more relaxing, lean-back browsing experience that omits links you have to click through, status updates you have to read, and other content types that bog down the News Feed. Instead, users can just passively watch the pretty pictures go by.

Facebook’s text and link-heavy feed looks increasingly stodgy and exhausting compared to visual communication-based social networks like Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok. Users have to do the work of digging into the meaning of News Feed each post rather than being instantly entertained. That experience doesn’t fit as well into short browsing sessions throughout the day, or when users are already drained from work, school, or family. Facebook used to have a dedicated Photos bookmark on desktop that would let you just browse that content type, but at some point it disappeared.

A Facebook spokesperson confirms that Facebook was running a small test of Popular Photos in October when we spotted it. That trial has concluded but the team is now iterating on the product and plans to do updated tests in the future. The company refused to disclose more details or its motives for Popular Photos. Given Facebook already has Stories, messaging, profiles, and its IGTV-esque Watch video hub, it’s only the Explore tab and a dedicated media feed that are missing from it being a full clone of Instagram.

Here’s how Popular Photos works. When users discover a photo in the News Feed or a profile, they can tap on it to see it full-screen on a black theater-view background. Typically, if users swipe or scroll on that photo, they’re just booted back out to where they came from. But with the Popular Photos feature, Facebook splays out more images for users to scroll through after the original.

By scrolling down past the Popular Photos title, they’ll see additional pics and a “See More Photos” label beckoning them to keep whipping through more public and friends-only images shared by friends and who they follow. Like on Instagram but unlike the News Feed, Facebook truncates the captions of Popular Photos after only around 65 characters so the stream doesn’t look overwhelmingly wordy. The black backgrounds give a more cinematic feel to the Popular Photos, putting emphasis on the imagery.

Facebook started showing Related Videos in 2014 when users scrolled past a video they’d opened full-screen. Now this “More Videos” feature will auto-play the next video and automatically bump users down the feed to view it. The feature even shows video ads. That could foreshadow Facebook inserting advertisers’ photos into the Popular Photos tab to monetize the extra browsing.

Facebook hasn’t been shy about trying to leverage Instagram to benefit itself. The company has placed an Open Facebook button in the Instagram navigation sidebar.

Previously, Instagram tried showing Facebook alerts in its own Notifications tab, and an annoying red counter for Facebook notifications on the three-line hamburger button that opens the Instagram sidebar in an attempt to drive referral traffic back to the Facebook app. Facebook has also tried notifying users in its app asking them to Like the Facebook Pages of people they follow on Instagram. And now, a “from Facebook” and new FACEBOOK logo can be found appended to the Instagram loading screen.

For Facebook to keep growing after 15 years in the market, it needs to fully embrace visual communication. It’s already copied Snapchat Stories and implemented the ephemeral photo and video format across its apps. Clearly it’s not above copying its own subsidiary Instagram to offer an alternative take on feed scrolling. I wonder how Instagram’s team feels about its parent company building a direct competitor?

Lawyers hate timekeeping. Ping raises $13M to fix it with AI

Counting billable time in six minute increments is the most annoying part of being a lawyer. It’s a distracting waste. It leads law firms to conservatively under-bill. And it leaves lawyers stuck manually filling out timesheets after a long day when they want to go home to their families.

Life is already short, as Ping CEO and co-founder Ryan Alshak knows too well. The former lawyer spent years caring for his mother as she battled a brain tumor before her passing. “One minute laughing with her was worth a million doing anything else” he tells me. “I became obsessed with the idea that we spend too much of our lives on things we have no need to do — especially at work.”

That’s motivated him as he’s built his startup Ping, which uses artificial intelligence to automatically track lawyers’ work and fill out timesheets for them. There’s a massive opportunity to eliminate a core cause of burnout, lift law firm revenue by around 10%, and give them fresh insights into labor allocation.

Ping co-founder and CEO Ryan Alshak. Image Credit: Margot Duane

That’s why today Ping is announcing a $13.2 million Series A led by Upfront Ventures, along with BoxGroup, First Round, Initialized, and Ulu Ventures. Adding to Ping’s quiet $3.7 million seed led by First Round last year, the startup will spend the cash to scale up enterprise distribution and become the new timekeeping standard.

I was a corporate litigator at Manatt Phelps down in LA and joke that I was voted the world’s worst timekeeper” Alshak tells me. “I could either get better at doing something I dreaded or I could try and build technology that did it for me.”

The promise of eliminating the hassle could make any lawyer who hears about Ping an advocate for the firm buying the startup’s software, like how Dropbox grew as workers demanded easier file sharing. “I’ve experienced first-hand the grind of filling out timesheets” writes Initialized partner and former attorney Alda Leu Dennis. “Ping takes away the drudgery of manual timekeeping and gives lawyers back all those precious hours.”

Traditionally, lawyers have to keep track of their time by themselves down to the tenth of an hour — reviewing documents for the Johnson case, preparing a motion to dismiss for the Lee case, a client phone call for Sriram case. There are timesheets built into legal software suites like MyCase, legal billing software like Timesolv, and one-off tools like Time Miner and iTimeKeep. They typically offer timers that lawyers can manually start and stop on different devices, with some providing tracking of scheduled appointments, call and text logging, and integration with billing systems.

Ping goes a big step further. It uses AI and machine learning to figure out whether an activity is billable, for which client, a description of the activity, and its codification beyond just how long it lasted. Instead of merely filling in the minutes, it completes all the logs automatically with entries like “Writing up a deposition – Jenkins Case – 18 minutes”. Then it presents the timesheet to the user for review before the send it to billing.

The big challenge now for Alshak and the team he’s assembled is to grow up. They need to go from cat-in-sunglasses logo Ping to mature wordmark Ping.  “We have to graduate from being a startup to being an enterprise software company” the CEO tells meThat means learning to sell to C-suites and IT teams, rather than just build solid product. In the relationship-driven world of law, that’s a very different skill set. Ping will have to convince clients it’s worth switching to not just for the time savings and revenue boost, but for deep data on how they could run a more efficient firm.

Along the way, Ping has to avoid any embarrassing data breaches or concerns about how its scanning technology could violate attorney-client privilege. If it can win this lucrative first business in legal, it could barge into the consulting and accounting verticals next to grow truly huge.

With eager customers, a massive market, a weak status quo, and a driven founder, Ping just needs to avoid getting in over its heads with all its new cash. Spent well, the startup could leap ahead of the less tech-savvy competition.

Alshak seems determined to get it right. “We have an opportunity to build a company that gives people back their most valuable resource — time — to spend more time with their loved ones because they spent less time working” he tells me. “My mom will live forever because she taught me the value of time. I am deeply motivated to build something that lasts . . . and do so in her name.”

Instagram Stories launches TikTok clone Reels in Brazil

Instagram is launching a video-music remix feature to finally fight back against Chinese social rival TikTok. Instagram Reels lets you make 15-second video clips set to music and share them as Stories, with the potential to go viral on a new Top Reels section of Explore. Just like TikTok, users can soundtrack their Reels with a huge catalog of music, or borrow the audio from anyone’s else video to create a remix of their meme or joke. 

Launching today limited to just Brazil where it’s called Cenas, Reels leverages all of Instagram’s most popular features to frankenstein together a remarkably coherent competitor to TikTok’s rich features and community of 1.5 billion monthly users including 122 million in the US according to Sensor Tower. Instead of trying to start from scratch like Facebook’s Lasso, Instagram could cross-promote Reels heavily to its own billion users.

But Instagram’s challenge will be retraining its populace to make premeditated, storyboarded social entertainment instead of just spontaneous, autobiographical social media like with Stories and feed posts.

“I think Musically before TikTok, and TikTok deserve a ton of credit for popularizing this format” admits Instagram director of product management Robby Stein. “No two products are exactly the same, and at the end of the day sharing video with music is a pretty univeral idea we think everyone might be interested in using. The focus has been on how to make this a unique format for us.”

Starting in Brazil before potentially rolling out elsewhere could help Instagram nail down its customization and onboarding strategy. Luckily, Brazil has a big Instagram population, a deeply musical culture, and a thriving creator community, says Stein.

It also isn’t completely obsessed with TikTok yet like fellow developing market India. As Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said about trying to grow Lasso, “We’re trying to first see if we can get it to work in countries where TikTok is not already big.” Instagram used this internationalization strategy to make Stories a hit where Snapchat hadn’t expanded yet, and it worked surprisingly well.

Perhaps Instagram’s best shot at differentiation is through its social graph. While TikTok is primarily a feed broadcasting app, Instagram can work Reels into it’s Close Friends and Direct messaging features potentially opening a new class of creators — shy one who only want to share with people they trust not to make fun of them. A lot of this lipsyncing / dancing / humor skit content can be kinda cringey when people don’t get it just right.

 

Here’s how Reels works. Users will find it in the Instagram Stories shutter modes tray next to Boomerang and Super-Zoom. They can either record with silence, borrow the audio of another video they find through hashtag search or Explore, or search Facebook’s enormous music collection secured from all the major labels and many indie publishers. Users pick the chunk to the song they want, and can then record or upload multiple video clips to fill out their Reel.

Once satisfied with their editing job, scene-by-scene captions, and ghost overlay-assisted transitions they can share a Reel to their Story, Close Friends, or message it to people. If shared publicly, it will also be eligible to appear in the Top Reels section of the Explore tab. Most cleverly, Instagram works around its own ephemerality by letting users add their Reels to their profile’s non-disappearing Highlights for a shot to show up on Explore even after their 24-hour story expires.

Instead of having to monetize later somehow, Instagram can immediately start making money from Reels since it already shows ads in Stories and the Explore tab.

Cloning TikTok isn’t just about the features, though Reels does a good job of copying the core ones while leaving out AR effects and transitions for now. But creating scripted content is totally new for most Instagram users, and could feel too showy or goofy for an app known for its seriousness. Instagram may have to lose its artful, cool vibe to embrace the silliness of tomorrow’s social entertainment.

Snapchat Spectacles 3 review: Pretty, pricey

No one’s going to pay $380 for decent point-of-view video glasses and some trippy filters. But that’s kind of the point of Snapchat Spectacles 3. They’re merely a stepping stone towards true augmented reality eyewear — a public hardware beta for the Snap Lab R&D team that Apple and Facebook aren’t getting as they tinker in their bunkers.

Still, I hoped for something that could at least unlock the talents of forward-thinking video creators. Yet the unpredictable and uncontrollable AR effects sadly fail to make use of Spectacles‘ fashionable form factor in premium steel. The clunky software requires clips be uploaded for processing and then re-downloaded before you can apply the 10 starter effects like a rainbow landscape filter or a shimmering fantasy falcon. This all makes producing AR content a chore instead of a joy for something only briefly novel.

Spectacles 3 go on sale today for $380 in black ‘Carbon’ or rose gold-ish ‘Mineral’ color schemes on Spectacles.com, Neiman Marcus, and Ron Robinson in the UK, shipping in a week. Announced in August, they’re sunglasses with two stereoscopic lenses capable of capturing depth to produce “3D” photos, and videos you can add AR effects to on your phone. You also get a very nice folds-flat leather USB-C charging case that powers up the glasses four times, and a Google Cardboard-style VR viewer.

“Spectacles 3 is a limited production run. We’re not looking for massive sales here. We’re targeting people who are excited about these effects  — creative storytellers” says Matt Hanover of the Snap Lab team.

Gen 1 featured a “toy-like design to get people used to wearing tech on their face”, while Gen 2 and 2.1 had a more subdued look abandoning the coral color schemes to push mainstream adoption. What Gen 3 can’t do is force a $40 million write-off due to poor sales, as V1 did after only shipping 220,000 with hundreds of thousands more gathering dust somewhere. Snap is already losing $227 million per quarter as it scrambles to break even.

So it seems with Spectacles 3 that Snap is gathering data and biding its time, trying to avoid burning too much cash until it can build a version that overlays effects atop a user’s view through the glasses. “We’re still able to get feedback from the customer and inform the future of Spectacles. That’s really the goal for us” Hanover confirms.

His CEO Evan Spiegel agrees, telling me on stage at TechCrunch Disrupt that it would be 10 years until we see augmented reality glasses worthy of mainstream consumer adoption. That’s a long time for an unprofitable company to spend competing to invest in R&D versus cash-rich companies like Facebook and Apple.

tl;dr

Spectacles could be worth the steep $380 if you’re a videographer for a living, perhaps making futuristic social media clips like Karen X Cheng, a creator Snap hired to demonstrate the device’s potential. They’re cool enough looking that you could wear them around Cannes or Coachella without people getting weirded out like they did with Google Glass. And as Snap’s Lens Studio lets anyone build 3D effects for Spectacles 3, perhaps we’ll see some filters and imaginary characters that are more than just a momentary gimmick.

But for those simply seeking first-person camera glasses, I’d still recommend the Spectacles 2 at $150 to $200 depending on style which remain available. The 3D features don’t carry the weight of paying double the price for Spec 3s. And at least the 2nd-gen Specs are waterproof, which make them great for ocean play with fun underwater shooting when you don’t want to risk losing or fizzling your phone.

“We’re testing the price point and the premium aesthetic to see if it lands with this demographic” Hanover says. But Snap’s Director Of Communications Liz Markman notes that “there isn’t this perfect one-to-one overlap with the core Snap users.”

The result is that Spectacles 3 are really more for Snap’s benefit than yours.

Slick Eyewear, Now Where’s The AR?

The Spectacles 3 software is disappointing, but you’ll be delighted when you open the box. Slick black packaging reveal sturdily built metal sunglasses with a luxury matte finish. As they magnetically dislodge from their charging case, you definitely get they sense you’re trying on something futuristic.

The style concurs, with a flat black bar at the top connecting the round lenses with a camera on both corners. Unlike the old Specs that sat right on your nose, feeling heavy at times, Spectacles 3 offers adjustable acetate non-slip nose tips to keep the weight off. All the tech is built discreetly into the hinges and temples without appearing too chunky.

Tap the button either arm, and LED light swooshes in a circle to let people know you’re recording a video for 10 seconds, with multiple presses growing that to up to 60. Tap and hold to shoot a photo, and the light blinks. There’s no obnoxious yellow rubber ring to shout “these are cameras”, and the defused LEDs are more subtle than Gen 2’s dots while remaining an obvious enough signal to passersby so they’re not creepy.

One charge powers up to 70 captures and transfers to your phone over a combined Bluetooth built-in Wifi connection. The 4 gigabyte storage holds up to 100 videos or 1200 photos, and Spectacles 3 even have GPS and GLOSNASS on-board. A 4-mic array picks up audio from others and your own voice, though they’re susceptible to windshear if you’re biking or running. They shoot at 60-frames per second in 1216 x 1216 pixels resolution while photos come in at 1642 x 1642

The magnetically-sealing folding leather USB-C charging case is my favorite part. I wish I could get an even flatter one without a battery in it for my other sunglasses. It’s a huge improvement on the unpocketable bulky triangular case of the previous versions.

A Toy Not Fun Enough For The Price

So far so good, right? But then it comes time to actually see and augment what you shot.

Pairing and syncing is much easier than Gen 1. The glasses forge a Bluetooth connection, then spawn a WiFi network for getting media to your phone faster.

If you just want to share to Snapchat, you’re in luck. Spectacles content posts to Stories or messages in its cool circular format that lets viewers tilt their phones around while always staying full-screen to reveal the edges of your shots. Otherwise, you still have to go through the chore of exporting from Snapchat to your camera roll. Spectacles can at least now export in a variety of croppings for better sharing on Instagram and elsewhere.

What’s new are the 3D photos and videos. They utilize the space between the stereoscopic cameras in the corners of Spectacles employ parallax to sense the depth of a scene. After tapping the 3D button on a photo, you can wiggle the perspective of the image around to almost see around the edges of what you’re looking at. Spectacles will automatically pan back and forth for you, and export 3D photos as short Boomerang-esque six-second videos.

Unfortunately, I found that I didn’t get much sense of depth from most of the 3D photos I shot or saw. It takes a very particular kind of three-dimensional object from the right angle in the right light to much sense of movement from the wiggle. Snapchat’s algorithms also had a bad habit of mistakenly assigning bits of the foreground and background to each other, breaking the illusion. Occasionally you’ll have someone’s ear or their hair left behind and disembodied by the 3D effect.

Don’t expect these to flood social media or convince prospective Spectacles buyers. The 3D selfies you can shoot on Snapchat for free look better anyways.

The biggest problem comes with the delay when playing with 3D videos. Snapchat has to do the depth processing on its servers, so you have to wait for your video to upload, get scanned, and be re-downloaded before you can apply the 3D AR filters. On WiFi that takes about 35 seconds per 10 second video, which is quite a bore. It takes forever over a mobile connection. That means you often won’t be able to apply the filters and see how they look until you’re home and unable to reshoot anything.

The filter set is also limited and haphazard. You can add a 3D bird or balloons around you, wander through golden snow or neon arcs, overlay flower projections or rainbow waves, or sprinkle on sparkles and light-bending blobs. While the bird is cute, and the rainbows and flowers are remarkably psychedelic, none of them are more than briefly entertaining.

The 3D objects often glitch through real pieces of scenery, and you can’t control them at all. No summoning the bird mid-video. My favorite trick, learned from Karen X Cheng, was to export unedited and filtered versions of a video and splice them together on my computer as scene in my demo video above. You can’t actually do that from within Snapchat.

One extra feature the team is working on is to let you see a special colored light flash on the glasses’ internal recording-on signal to alert you to incoming Snaps from certain friends. If that’s popular, would Snap try giving us more notifications through that light? Hanover says “potentially in the future.”

Snap will have to build a lot cooler filters with interactivity if they’re going to compel creators to fork over $380 for Spectacles 3. It could hope to rely on its Lens Studio community platform, but so few developers or users will have the glasses that most will stick to making and using filters for phones.

Spectacles 3 are too expensive to be a toy, but don’t excel at being much more. Videography influencers might enjoy having a pair in their tool bag. But it’s hard to imagine anyone not sharing content professionally paying for the gadget.

Iteration vs Ideation

“We’re now pushing to elevate the technology and the design to master depth technically” Hanover tells me. “Holing ourselves up within an R&D center for years and years? That’s not our approach. It’s important to meet the customer where they are today and continue to iterate and get that feedback.”

But this iteration doesn’t feel like Snap meeting the customer where they are. That raises the question of whether Snapchat is really getting enough data out of the whole endeavor to justify publicly releasing Spectacles at all. The company will have to hope that testing short-term is worth thinking short-term, when it’s trying to win the long-term war in augmented reality eyewear.

Facebook finally lets you banish nav bar tabs & red dots

Are those red notification dots on your Facebook home screen driving you crazy? Sick of Facebook Marketplace wasting your screen space? Now you can control what appears in the Facebook app’s navigation bar thanks to a new option called Shortcuts Bar Settings.

Over the weekend TechCrunch spotted the option to remove certain tabs like Marketplace, Watch, Groups, Events, Profile, Friend Requests, News, Today In, Gaming and Dating or just silence their notification dots. In response to our inquiry, Facebook confirms that Shortcut Bar Settings is now rolling out to everyone, with most iOS users already equipped and the rest of Android owners getting it in the next few weeks.

The move could save the sanity and improve the well-being of people who don’t want their Facebook cluttered with distractions. Users already get important alerts that they could actually control via their Notifications tab. Constant red notification counts on the homescreen are an insidious growth hack, trying to pull in people’s attention to random Group feeds, Event wall posts, and Marketplace.

“We are rolling out navigation bar controls to make it easier for people to connect with the things they like and control the notifications they get within the Facebook app” a Facebook spokesperson tells me.

Back in July 2018, Facebook said it would start personalizing the navigation bar based on what utilities you use most. But the navigation bar seemed more intent on promoting features Facebook wanted to be popular like its Craigslist competitor Marketplace, which I rarely use, rather than its long-standing Events feature I access daily.

To use the Shortcuts Bar Settings options, tap and hold on any of the shortcuts in your navigation bar that’s at the bottom of the Facebook homescreen on iOS and the top on Android. You’ll see a menu pop up letting you remove that tab entirely, or leave it but disable the red notification count overlays. That clears space in your nav bar for a more peaceful experience.

You’ll also now find in the three-line More tab -> Settings & Privacy -> Settings -> Shortcuts menu the ability to toggle any of the Marketplace, Groups, Events, and Pages tabs on or off. Eagle-eyed reverse engineering specialist Jane Manchun Wong had spotted that Facebook was prototyping this menu and the Notification Dots settings menu that’s now available too

A Facebook spokesperson admits people should have the ability to take a break from notifications within the app. They tell me Facebook wanted to give users more control so they can have access to what’s relevant to them.

For all of Facebook’s talk about well-being, with it trying out hiding Like counts in its app and Instagram (this week starting in the US), there’s still plenty of low-hanging fruit. Better batching of Facebook notifications would be a great step, allowing users to get a daily digest of Groups or Events posts rather than a constant flurry. Its Time Well Spent dashboard that counts your minutes on Facebook should also say how many notifications you get of each type, how many you actually open, and let you disable the most common but useless ones right from there.

If Facebook wants to survive long-term, it can’t piss off users by trapping them in an anxiety-inducing hellscape of growth hacks that benefit the company. The app has become bloated and cramped with extra features over the last 15 years. Facebook could get away with more aggressive cross-promotion of some of these forgotten features as long as it empowers us to hide what we hate.

Instagram to test hiding Like counts in US, which could hurt influencers

“We will make decisions that hurt the business if they help people’s well-being and health” says Instagram’s CEO Adam Mosseri. To that end, next week Instagram will expand its test of hiding Like counts from everyone but a post’s creator to some users in the United States. But there are major questions about whether the change will hurt influencers.

Mosseri revealed the plan at the Wired25 conference today, saying Instagram “We have to see how it affects how people feel about the platform, how it affects how they use the platform, how it affects the creator ecosystem.”

Instagram’s CEO explained that “The idea is to try to depressurize Instagram, make it less of a competition, and give people more space to focus on connect ing with the people they love and things that inspire them.” The intention is to “reduce anxiety” and “reduce social comparison”.

Elsewhere during the talk that also featured actor and CEO Tracie Ellis Ross, Mosseri discussed Instagram’s growing interest in shopping, and how it can provide new revenue streams to influencers. He also described Instagram’s three-pronged approach to well-being where it identifies and addresses acute problems such as hate speech, finds positions where it can lead as with fighting bullying, and rethinks fundamentals of how the platform works as with Like count hiding.

Instagram began testing this in April in Canada and expanded it to Ireland, Italy, Japan, Brazil, Australia, and New Zealand in July. Facebook started a similar experiment in Australia in September.

While it seems likely that making Instagram less of a popularity contest might aid the average user, Instagram has to be mindful that it doesn’t significantly decrease creators’ or influencers’ engagement and business success. These content makers are vital to Instagram’s success, since they keep their fan bases coming back day after day, even If  users’ friends are growing stale.

A new study by HypeAuditor reported by Social Media Today found that influencers across tiers of follower counts almost unanimously saw their Like counts fall in countries where the hidden Like count test was active. Likes fell 3% to 15% in all the countries for influencers with 5,000 to 20,000 followers.

Only in Japan, and only for influencers with 1,000 to 5,000 or 100,000 to 1 million followers did the change lead to a boost in Likes — of about 6% in both groups. Meanwhile, influencers saw the biggest loss of Likes in the Brazilian market. Those trends could relate to how users in certain countries might feel more comfortable Liking something if they don’t know who else is too, while in other nations users might rely on more herd mentality to know what to Like.

If Instagram finds the impact of the test to be too negative on influencers, it may not roll out the change. While Mosseri stated the company wasn’t afraid to hurt its own bottom line, impairing the careers of influencers may not be acceptable unless the positive impacts on well-being are significant enough.

Instagram CEO Announces Platform Will Test Hiding Likes in the US

WATCH: Instagram CEO Adam Mosseri announces that the platform will start hiding likes for US audiences starting next week. It's the latest step in Instagram’s quest to become the safest place on the internet. Learn more: https://wired.trib.al/nbNQ7nb

Posted by WIRED on Friday, November 8, 2019

“Trump should not be our president” says Ex-Facebook CPO Chris Cox

Chris Cox’s motivational speeches were at the heart of Facebook’s new employee orientation. But after 14 years at the social network, the chief product officer left in March amidst an executive shake-up and Facebook’s new plan to prioritize privacy by moving to encrypt its messaging apps. No details on his next projects were revealed.

Now the 37-year-old leader will be putting his inspirational demeanor and keen strategy sense to work to protect the environment and improve the government. Today at Wired25 conference, Cox finally shared more about his work advising political technology developer for progressives Acronym, and climate change-tracking satellite startup Planet Labs. He also explained more about the circumstances of his departure from the social network’s C-suite.

SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA – NOVEMBER 08: Chris Cox speaks onstage at the WIRED25 Summit 2019 – Day 1 at Commonwealth Club on November 08, 2019 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Phillip Faraone/Getty Images for WIRED)

Leaving Facebook

On how he felt leaving Facebook, Cox said, “part of the reason I was okay leaving was that after 2016 I’d spent a couple years building out a bunch of the teams that I felt were most important to sort of take the lessons that we learned through some of 2016 and start to put in place institutions that can help the company, be more responsible and be a better communicator on some of the key issues.”

LIVE: Chris Cox, Former Chief Product Officer, Facebook, in conversation with WIRED's Lauren Goode

LIVE: We're live with Chris Cox, former Chief Product Officer, Facebook, from our #WIRED25 summit in conversation with WIRED senior writer Lauren Goode.

Posted by WIRED on Friday, November 8, 2019

As for what specifically drove him to leave, Cox explained that, “It wasn’t something where I felt I wanted to spend another 13 years on social media. Mark and I saw things a little bit differently . . . I think we are still investigating as an industry, how do you balance protecting the privacy of people’s information and continuing to keep people safe,” Cox said.

On whether moving toward encryption was part of that, he said he thinks encryption is “great: and that “It offers an enormous amount of protection,” but noted “it certainly makes some of those things more complicated” on the privacy versus safety balance. He complemented Facebook’s efforts to build ways of catching bad actors even if they’re shielded by encryption. That includes digital literacy initiatives in Brazil and India ahead of elections, and offering forwarding systems for sending questionable information to fact checkers. “I think there are pros and cons with these systems and I’m not a hard-liner on any one of them,” Cox said, and noted that what Facebook is building is “resonant with what people want.”

Cox was asked about the major debate about whether Facebook should allow political advertising. “We think political advertising can be good and helpful. It often favors up and comers versus incumbents.” Still, on fact-checking, he said, “I’m a big fan,” even though Facebook isn’t applying that to political ads. He did note that “I think the company should investigate and is investigating micro targeting . . . if there’s hundreds of variants being run of the creative then it’s tricky to get your arms around what’s being said.” He also advocated for more context in the user interface distinguishing political ads. 

Chris Cox speaks at Wired25

Cox’s next projects

Since leaving Facebook, Cox has joined the advisory board of a group called Acronym, which is helping to build out the campaign and messaging technology stack for progressive candidates. “This is an area where my perception is that the progressives have been behind on the ability to develop and use as a team infrastructure that helps you have a good voter file, how to develop messaging — just basic politics in 2019.”

Wired’s Lauren Goode asked if he was aligning himself with progressives, taking a political stance, and whether he could do that while still at Facebook. “Absolutely not,” Cox responded.And why is that I think when you’re in a very senior role at a platform, you have a duty to be much more neutral in your politics.”

He then came out with a bold statement enabled by his independence. “I think Trump should not be our president. The other thing I care a lot about right now is climate change and he’s not going to help us there.”

That led to Cox discussing that he’s also been working to advise San Francisco startup Planet Labs, which is using satellite imagery to track climate change. “The vision was to build these small, about shoebox-size satellites with solar panel panel wings and have a fleet of them in space, which is real-time imaging the Earth.”

With that data, Cox explained you can track wildfires, deforestation, coal power plants, methane gas and more. Then, “You can start to contribute to having a health system, where you are basically imaging the Earth every hour, and then you’re creating some public data set with tools that plug into decision makers, banks, insurance companies, policymakers, investors, journalists, students…”

Asked about big tech’s responsibility for addressing climate change, Cox said “I think at the very least it’s making a commitment to being carbon-negative.”

Acronym and Planet Labs’ work intertwines, as Cox believes climate data proves the need for someone new in the Oval Office. While Cox didn’t discuss it onstage, Wired listed him as part of Shasta Group, which is Cox’s own vehicle for contributing to these projects. Still, he’s not ready to launch a full-fledged company of his own in politics and climate. “I’m still so young at this field that I don’t have enough confidence in my own mental model of the world.”

Cox concluded that by harnessing big company’s employees and having team leaders put more attention on climate change, “I do think tech can lead.”