What the Facebook Crypto team could build

Facebook is invading the blockchain, but how? Back in May, Facebook formed a cryptocurrency team to explore the possibilities, and today it removed a roadblock to revealing its secret plans.

Former head of Messenger David Marcus, who leads the Facebook Crypto team, today announced he was stepping down from the board of Coinbase, the biggest crypto startup. Marcus was formerly the president of PayPal and helped Facebook Messenger adopt chatbot commerce and peer-to-peer payments, so he was both a natural choice for Coinbase’s board and Facebook’s blockchain skunklabs.

Facebook told CoinDesk this was to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest, which is exactly what it was. Marcus provided a statement to TechCrunch explaining he was stepping down “because of the new group I’m setting up at Facebook around blockchain,” noting that “Getting to know Brian [Armstrong, CEO of Coinbase], who’s become a friend, and the whole Coinbase leadership team and board has been an immense privilege. I’ve been thoroughly impressed by the talent and execution the team has demonstrated during my tenure, and I wish the team all the success it deserves going forward.”

Now Facebook is cleared to start publicly talking about its plans, though it hasn’t yet. “We are still in the very early stages and we are considering a number of different applications for the blockchain. But we don’t have anything else to share at this time,” a Facebook spokesperson tells me. So what could Facebook be building? I see three main consumer-facing opportunities.

3% off with FaceCoin

Facebook could build a cryptocurrency wallet with its own token that people could use to pay for things with partnered businesses or that they discover through Facebook ads. Because blockchain can make transactions free or very cheap, Facebook and its partners could sidestep the typical credit card processing fees. That would potentially allow Facebook to offer users  “3% off purchases made with FaceCoin” or a similar promotion. 

Discounts like this could draw users into Facebook’s cryptocurrency feature. It’s well-positioned to run such a scheme thanks to its extensive connections with more than six million advertisers and 65 million businesses that have Facebook Pages. The social network could eat the costs of running the program, passing the transaction fee savings on to the users, while touting partnerships with Facebook Crypto as ways to boost sales for businesses. That could in turn get clients to spend more money on Facebook ads, as the discounts would enhance conversion rates and drive sales.

One thing we know for sure is that Facebook won’t be building on the Stellar protocol. Facebook debunked a Business Insider report saying it was, telling TechCrunch it was not in talks with Stellar or planning to build on it.

P2P and micropayments

Facebook already lets you send friends money through Messenger for free, but only with a connected debit card or PayPal account. Facebook could offer cryptocurrency-based payments between friends to let a wider range of users settle debts for shared dinners or taxis through Messenger. Users might fund their Facebook Crypto wallet once with a payment, possibly with a one-time transaction fee, and then they could send and receive the tokens for free from then on. Blockchain becoming the backbone of peer-to-peer payments could further increase engagement with Messenger for its 1.3 billion users.

Meanwhile, Facebook could also potentially use cryptocurrency to let fans send micropayments to their favorite creators, like video stars and game streamers. Facebook recently debuted its own virtual (not crypto) currency, called Facebook Stars, that users can buy and send to creators, who can then cash them out for one cent each. Facebook takes an undisclosed cut, but gives to the creator the majority of what users spend on Stars.

Facebook could potentially undergird this system with cryptocurrency to alleviate transaction fees and let people tip creators smaller amounts of cash for exclusive content or just to show their appreciation. Facebook started with a minimum of $3 tips at a time so that transaction fees wouldn’t be too high of a percentage of the total purchase. A cryptocurrency solution could let users efficiently tip much smaller amounts, which could lure people toward the behavior. The more money Facebook can deliver to internet celebrities, the more popular ones it can recruit to live on its platform and the more content they’ll produce.

Facebook Stars. Image via KiwiFarm

Facebook Connect for crypto

A top problem in the world of decentralized blockchain apps is how you bring your identity with you. Securely connecting your wallet, blockchain-based virtual goods and biographical info to new dApps can be a laborious process. Users typically have to type in long, complicated alphanumeric keys that are tough to remember and annoying to input. User experience design around identity in the blockchain space lags far behind what we’re used to with mainstream social apps like Facebook Connect, which uses a OAuth single sign-on to let you instantly join apps without creating a new username and password, or filling out a profile and uploading a photo.

Facebook could use its expertise in operating a popular identity platform to ease login to dApps. While the company has faced plenty of privacy issues and attacks on election integrity, Facebook has a strong record of not being traditionally hacked. It hasn’t suffered a massive user data breach like LinkedIn, Twitter and other social networks. Using an overtly centralized identity system to connect with decentralized apps might be counterintuitive, but Facebook could deliver the UX convenience necessary to unlock a new wave of blockchain utility.

For now it’s unclear if Facebook will end up directly competing with Coinbase in the exchange and wallet space, or if it might instead partner with the blockchain mainstay to accelerate its efforts. And on the enterprise engineering side, Facebook could build some decentralized storage infrastructure to cut its massive server bills. But with deep pockets, tons of tech talent and ubiquity amongsts social networkers and businesses, Facebook Crypto’s primary limits are its ambitions and the extent of user trust.

Wonderschool raises $20M to help people start in-home preschools

Educators already don’t get paid enough, and those that work in preschools or daycares often make 48% less. Meanwhile, parents struggle to find great early education programs where kids receive enough attention and there’s space, but they don’t need special connections or to pass grueling admissions interviews to get in.

Any time there’s a lousy experience people have an emotional connection to and spend a lot of money on, there’s an opportunity for a startup. Enter ‘Wonderschool‘, a company that lets licensed educators and caretakers launch in-home preschools or daycares. Wonderschool helps candidates get credentialed, set up their programs, launch their websites, boost enrollment, and take payments in exchange for a 10 percent cut of tuition. The startup is now helping run 140 schools in the SF Bay, LA, and NYC where parents are happy to pay to give their kids an advantage.

That chance to fill a lucrative gap in the education market has attracted a new $20 million Series A for Wonderschool led by Andreessen Horowitz. The round brings the startup to $24.1 million in total funding just two years after launch. With the cash and Andreessen partner Jeff Jordan joining its board, Wonderschool is looking to build powerful lead generation and management software to turn teachers into savvy entrepreneurs.

Finding good childcare has become one of the most difficult experiences for families. I’ve seen parents who are making a livable wage in urban cities like San Francisco and New York still struggle to find and afford quality childcare” says co-founder and CEO Chris Bennett. “We wanted to deliver a solution for parents that also had the potential to create jobs and empower the caregiver — that’s Wonderschool.”

By spawning and uniting programs across the country, Wonderschool could scale as the way software eats preschool. But without vigorous oversight of each educator, Wonderschool is also at risk of a safety mishap at one of its franchises ruining the brand for them all.

Airbnb For Schooling

Wonderschool started when co-founder Arrel Gray was having trouble finding childcare for his daughter close to home. “My little sister went to an in-home preschool, so I suggested he check them out” says Bennett. “But he wasn’t very satisfied with the options – the majority were full and some didn’t meet the expectations for his family. We also found that they didn’t use the internet much so they were hard to find and contact.”

The two were seeking to pivot their social commerce startup Soldsie after Facebook algorithm changes curtailed its growth. Their research led to the discovery of just how much lower preschool and daycare workers’ wages were. “When we had the idea we thought, ‘what the best way to test this?’ Why don’t we start a preschool ourselves'” says Bennett. “So we rented a home in the Berkeley Hills, hired an amazing educator, set up a school and started one. The school ended up being a huge success. Five-star reviews on Yelp. A high NPS. Parents loved the place.” It also netted the teacher a 3X higher salary than before.

With that proof, Wonderschool went on to raise $4.1 million from Josh Kopelman at First Round Capital, Omidyar Network, Cross Culture Ventures, Uncork Capital, Lerer Ventures, FundersClub, and Edelweiss. That let Bennett and Gray flesh out the business. Wonderschool would recruit existing teachers and caregivers or guide people to get licensed so they could become “directors” of in-home schools. Wonderschool acts almost like Airbnb by turning them into small businesses earning money from home.

Teachers can pick whatever schedule, curriculum, or format they want, like Montesori or nature-focused learning. Wonderschool now has over 500 directors working with its software, with some making as much as $150,000 or $200,000. In exchange for its 10 percent cut of tuition, Wonderschool provides directors with a “bootcamp” to prep them for the job. It pairs them with a mentor, then helps them build their website and figure out their pricing options. Coaching guides train the directors to scout for new leads, offer appealing tours, and track their fledgling business.

The $20 million from Andreessen, OmidyarGary Community Investments, and First Round will go to expanding the Wonderschool software. Each student slot it can help director fill, the more it earns. The startup will also have to compete with  companies like Wildflower Schools, which Bennett admits has a similar business model but he says “We are focused on in home and they also focus on Montessori while we are curriculum agnostic.” There’s also Cottage Class which powers homeschooling for students up to age 18, Tinkergarten that concentrates on short-term outdoor education, and VIPKid connects kids in China with U.S. teachers over video chat.

They, like Wonderschool, are trying to scale up to meet the massive existing demand. “The challenge is that there aren’t enough programs for the number of children needing public or private schooling – 1st grade or earlier – and our goal is to provide enough supply for every child” Bennett explains.

Still, safety remains a top concern. Bennett notes that “Wonderschool has a support team that helps school Directors prepare their homes for operation. With regard to safety, each state’s licensing office covers this in their approval process for being granted a license to operate.” But could a problem at one school shake the businesses of all the rest of its franchises? “We have a system of checks in balances in place that we feel confident would allow us to anticipate any potential issues, including regular, weekly check-ins with Directors and a feedback loop with parents. We also email parents on a regular cadence to get feedback from parents and we step in and work with the Director if we find that there are issues” Bennett insists.

If Wonderschool can keep its brand clean through thorough oversight, it could both create better paying jobs in a field rife with undercompensated heroes, and open early schooling to a wider range of students. Bennett’s parents moved to the U.S. from Honduras, pouring their efforts into supporting his and his sister’s education. Now he’s building the next generation of teachers the tools to give more kids a head start in life.

Facebook builds its own AR games for Messenger video chat

Facebook is diving deeper into in-house game development with the launch of its own version of Snapchat’s multiplayer augmented reality video chat games. Today, Facebook Messenger globally launches its first two AR video chat games that you can play with up to six people.

“Don’t Smile” is like a staring contest that detects if you grin, and then users AR to contort your it’s an exaggerated Joker’s smirk while awarding your opponent the win. “Asteroids Attack” sees you move your face around the navigate a space ship, avoiding rocks and grabbing laser beam powerups. Soon, Facebook also plans to launch “Beach Bump” for passing an AR ball back and forth, and a “Kitten Craze” cat matching game. To play the games, you start a video chat, hit the Star button to open the filter menu, and then select one of the games. You can snap and share screenshots to your chat thread while you play.

The games are effectively a way to pass the time while you video chat, rather than something you’d ever play on your own. They could be a hit with parents and grandparents who are away and want to spend time with a kid…who isn’t exactly the best conversationalist.

Facebook tells me it built these games itself using the AR Studio tool it launched last year to let developers create their own AR face filters. When asked if game development would be available to everyone through AR studio, a spokesperson told me “Not today, but we’ve seen sucessful short-session AR games developed by the creator community and are always looking out for ways to bring the best AR content to the FB family of apps.”

For now, there will be no ads, sponsored branding, or in-app purchases in Messenger’s video chat games. But those all offer opportunities for Facebook and potentially outside developers to earn money. Facebook could easily show an ad interstitial between game rounds, let brands build games to promote movie releases or product launches, or let you buy powerups to beat friends or cosmetically upgrade your in-game face.

Snapchat’s Snappables games launched in April

The games feel less polished than the launch titles for Snapchat’s Snappables gaming platform that launched in April. Snapchat focused on taking over your whole screen with augmented reality, transporting you into space or a disco dance hall. Facebook’s games merely overlay a few graphics on the world around you. But Facebook’s games are more purposefully designed for split-screen multiplayer. Snapchat is reportedly building its own third-party game development platform, but it seems Facebook wanted to get the drop on it.

The AR video chat games live separately from the Messenger Instant Games platform the company launched last year. These include arcade classics and new mobile titles that users can play by themselves and challenge friends over high-scores. Facebook now allows developers of Instant Games to monetize with in-app purchases and ads, foreshadowing what could come to AR video chat games.

Facebook has rarely developed its own games. It did build a few mini-games like an arcade pop-a-shot style basketball game and a soccer game to show off what the Messenger Instant Games platform could become. But typically it’s stuck to letting outside developers lead. Here, it may be trying to set examples of what developers should build before actually spawning a platform around video chat games.

Now with over 1.3 billion users, Facebook Messenger is seeking more ways to keep people engaged. Having already devoured many people’s one-on-one utility chats, it’s fun group chats, video calling, and gaming that could get people spending more time in the app.

Snapchat gets $250M investment from Saudi prince for 2.3%

Snap Inc got a fresh infusion of cash from the Saudi royal family to help it survive despite losing $353 million this quarter. Prince Al-Waleed Talal tweeted a video of him and Snap CEO Evan Spiegel, noting that he’s invested $250 million in exchange for a 2.3 percent stake in Snap Inc.

We’ll have more details shortly

The greedy ways Apple got to $1 trillion

For being the richest company ever with $243 billion in cash, Apple sure cuts corners in the stingiest ways. The hardware giant became the first trillion-dollar company week. Yet it’s tough to reconcile Apple earning $11 billion in profit per quarter with it still screwing us over on cords and keyboards. The “it just works” philosophy has slipped through the cracks of the money-printing machine. It’s not that Apple couldn’t afford to fix the problems, it’s just ensnared in hubris such that it doesn’t see them as important.

We still turn to Apple because it makes the best core products. But the edges of the customer experience have frayed like the wires of a Lightning cable. The key to Apple’s fortune is obviously selling high margin iPhones, not these ways it nickels and dimes us. But the company has an opportunity to raise its standards after this milestone, and win back the faith that could push it to a $2 trillion market cap.

1. Frayed Charging Cables

Apple gives you that tingly feeling in the worst way. Can it not build Lightning cables and MacBook chargers a little sturdier? If you avoid losing one long enough to put in some serious use, it inevitably ends up splittling where the cord meets your iPhone or exits the laptop power supply. Whether it’s wrapping them in electrical tape or the spring of a retractable pen, people have come up with all sorts of Macgyver methods to make their Apple chargers last. It got so bad that Apple was sued into offering a MacBook charger replacement program, but that expired years ago. If these are what allow us to play with the fancy devices it invents, shouldn’t they get the same quality of industrial design?

Image via Sophia Cannon

2. Buried iTunes Subscriptions Cancellation

Want to cancel your Apple Music subscription or some other service you got roped into with a free trial? It’s SUPER easy. First, click the totally unlabeled and generic circle with a blotch in it that’s supposed to be a profile picture icon. You should see a “Manage Subscriptions” option…but you don’t. Instead, you’ll have to know to tap “View Apple ID”. Once you auth in with the same face or thumbprint that opened your phone in the first place you’ll find the option to cut them off. And as thank you for this convenience, you’ll get to pay 30 percent extra on some subscriptions if you pay through Apple. It’s clearly exploitative dark pattern design.

3. Keyboard Claptrap

The MacBook keyboard is the on-ramp to the information superhighway, yet a single grain of sand can cause a pile up. Renowned Apple pundit John Gruber called it “one of the biggest design screwups in Apple history”. The new butterfly key design Apple rolled out in 2016 can get jammed by dust, requiring a lengthy disassembly process often requiring a professional to fix. Suddenly your work grinds to a halt. Apple wouldn’t always cover this repair, even under warranty. It took a lawsuit and tons of public backlash for Apple to offer free fixes, and that still typically leaves you without a laptop for a few days. I’m typing this article on a cracked-screen 2013 MacBook Pro because I refuse to upgrade until they make the keyboard design more resilient.

4. Killing Affiliate Fees Blogs Rely On

Apple benefits from a legion of blogs obsessing over its hardware and software, hyping up everything it sells. Just this week it returned that favor by announcing it will cut off one of their core sources of revenue. Websites would previously earn a 7 percent commission from Apple in exchange for affiliate link clicks leading to purchases on the App Store. But over the past few years, Apple has begun to sell ads inside the App Store too, competing for advertisers with those external blogs. It’s also built up its own editorial team that curates what’s featured, and apparently doesn’t want competition in being a king-maker. So in October Apple is shutting down the affiliate program that app review sites like TouchArcade and AppShopper depend on, potentially spelling their doom.

5. Dongle Hell

What’s the opposite of “it just works”? Paying extra to lug around a slew of gangly cord connectors you need just to plug things into your laptop or phone. Dongles are the emblem of Apple’s abandonment of the user experience. A Thunderbolt 2 to Thunderbolt 3 dongle runs $50 while it will cost you $9 to plug in any pair of headphones from the past half-century once you’ve inevitably lost the Lightning dongle you’re allocated. Apple loves pushing us towards its vision of tomorrow, like Bluetooth headphones (that it sells) and USB-C fast-chargers (that it sells). But ditching headphone jacks and old school USB ports makes Apple’s latest devices incompatible with sanity. Even its own commercial shows musician Grimes struggling with her dongles. Sorry you can’t pass me the aux cord. I’m from the future.

Image via Notebookcheck

[Featured Image via Instructibles]

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

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.

Andreessen-funded dYdX plans ‘short Ethereum’ token for haters

Crypto skeptics rejoice! A new way to short the cryptocurrency market is coming from dYdX, a decentralized financial derivatives startup. In two months it will launch its protocol for creating short and leverage positions for Ethereum and other ERC20 tokens that allow investors to amp up their bets for or against these currencies.

To get the startup there, dYdX recently closed a $2 million seed round led by Andreessen Horowitz and Polychain, and joined by Kindred and Abstract plus angels, including Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong and co-founder Fred Ehrsam, and serial investor Elad Gil.

“The main use for cryptocurrency so far has been trading and speculation — buying and holding. That’s not how sophisticated financial institutions trade,” says dYdX founder Antonio Juliano. “The derivatives market is usually an order of magnitude bigger than the spot trading or buy/sell market. The cryptocurrency market is probably on the order of $5 billion to $10 billion in volume, so you’d expect the derivatives market would be 10X bigger. I think there’s a really big opportunity there.”

How dYdX works

The idea is that you buy the short Ethereum token with ETH or a stable coin from an exchange or dYdX. The short Ethereum’s token price is inversely pegged to ETH, so it goes up in value when ETH goes down and vice versa. You can then sell the short Ethereum token for a profit if you correctly predicted an ETH price drop.

On the backend, lenders earn an interest rate by providing ETH as collateral locked into smart contracts that back up the short Ethereum tokens. Only a small number of actors have to work with the smart contract to mint or close the short Tokens. Meanwhile, dYdX also offers leveraged Ethereum tokens that let investors borrow to boost their profits if ETH’s price goes up.

The plan is to offer short and leveraged tokens for any ERC20 currency in the future. dYdX is building its own user-facing application for buying the tokens, but is also partnering with exchanges to offer the margin tokens “where people are already trading,” says Juliano.

“We think of it as more than just shorting your favorite shitcoin. We think of them as mature financial products.”

Infrastructure to lure big funds into crypto

Coinbase has proven to be an incredible incubator for blockchain startup founders. Juliano was employed there as a software engineer after briefly working at Uber and graduating in computer science from Princeton in 2015. “The first thing I started was a search engine for decentralized apps. I worked for months on it full-time, but nobody was building decentralized apps so no one was searching for them. It was too early,” Juliano explains.

But along the way he noticed the lack of financial instruments for decentralized derivatives despite exploding consumer interest in buying and selling cryptocurrencies. He figured the big hedge funds would eventually come knocking if someone built them a bridge into the blockchain world.

Juliano built dYdX to create a protocol to first begin offering margin tokens. It’s open source, so technically anyone can fork it to issue tokens themselves. But dYdX plans to be the standard-bearer, with its version offering the maximum liquidity to investors trying to buy or sell the margin tokens. His five-person team in San Francisco with experience from Google, Bloomberg, Goldman Sachs, NerdWallet and ConsenSys is working to find as many investors as possible to collateralize the tokens and exchanges to trade them. “It’s a race to build liquidity faster than anyone else,” says Juliano.

So how will dYdX make money? As is common in crypto, Juliano isn’t exactly sure, and just wants to build up usage first. “We plan to capture value at the protocol level in the future likely through a value adding token,” the founder says. “It would’ve been easy for us to rush into adding a questionable token as we’ve seen many other protocols do; however, we believe it’s worth thinking deeply about the best way to integrate a token in our ecosystem in a way that creates rather than destroys value for end users.”

“Antonio and his team are among the top engineers in the crypto ecosystem building a novel software system for peer-to-peer financial contracts. We believe this will be immensely valuable and used by millions of people,” says Polychain partner Olaf Carlson-Wee. “I am not concerned with short-term revenue models but rather the opportunity to permanently improve global financial markets.”

Timing the decentralized revolution

With the launch less than two months away, Juliano is also racing to safeguard the protocol from attacks. “You have to take smart contract security extremely seriously. We’re almost done with the second independent security audit,” he tells me.

The security provided by decentralization is one of dYdX’s selling points versus centralized competitors like Poloniex that offer margin trading opportunities. There, investors have to lock up ETH as collateral for extended periods of time, putting it at risk if the exchange gets hacked, and they don’t benefit from shared liquidity like dYdX will.

It also could compete for crypto haters with the CBOE that now offers Bitcoin futures and margin trading, though it doesn’t handle Ethereum yet. Juliano hopes that since dYdX’s protocol can mint short tokens for other ERC20 tokens, you could bet for or against a certain cryptocurrency relative to the whole crypto market by mixing and matching. dYdX will have to nail the user experience and proper partnerships if it’s going to beat the convenience of centralized exchanges and the institutional futures market.

If all goes well, dYdX wants to move into offering options or swaps. “Those derivatives are more often traded by sophisticated traders. We don’t think there are too many traders like that in the market right now,” Juliano explains. “The other types of derivatives that we’ll move to in the future will be really big once the market matures.” That “once the market matures” refrain is one sung by plenty of blockchain projects. The question is who’ll survive long enough to see that future, if it ever arrives.

[Featured Image via Nuzu and Bryce Durbin]

Instagram’s CEO on vindication after 2 years of reinventing Stories

“I think the mistake everyone made was to think that Stories was a photography product” says Instagram CEO Kevin Systrom. “If you look at all these interactivity features we’ve added, we’ve really made Stories something else. We’ve really innovated and made it our own.”

His version of the ephemeral slideshow format turns two years old today. By all accounts, it’s a wild success. Instagram Stories has 400 million daily users, compared to 191 million on Snapchat which pioneered Stories. While the first year was about getting to parity with augmented reality filters and stickers, the two have since diverged. Instagram chose the viral path.

Snapchat has become more and more like Photoshop, with its magic eraser for removing objects, its green screen-style, background changer, scissors for cut-and-pasting things, and its fill-in paint bucket. These tools are remarkably powerful for living in a teen-centric consumer app. But many of these artistic concepts are too complicated for day-to-day Snapping. People don’t even think of using them when they could. And while what they produce is beautiful, they get tapped past and disappear just like any other photo or video.

Instagram could have become Photoshop. Its early photo-only feed’s editing filters and sliders pointed in that direction. Instead, it chose to focus not on the “visual” but the “communication”. Instagram increasingly treats Stories as a two-way connection between creators and fans, or between friends. It’s not just one-to-many. It’s many-to-one as well.

Instagram Stories arrived three years after Snapchat Stories, yet it was the first to let you tag friends so they’d get a notification. Now those friends can repost Stories you tag them in, or public posts they want to comment on. You could finally dunk on other Instagrammers like you do with quote-tweets. It built polls with sliders friends can move to give you feedback about “how ridiculous is my outfit today?” Music stickers let you give a corny joke a corny soundtrack or share the epic song you heard in your head while looking out upon a beautiful landscape. And most recently, it launched the Question sticker so you can query friends through your Story and then share their answers there too. Suddenly, anyone could star in their own “Ask Me Anything”.

None of these Instagram tools require much ‘skill’. They’re designed not for designers, but for normal people trying to convey how they feel about the world around them. Since we’re social creatures, that perception is largely colored by their friends or audience. Instagram lets you make them part of the Story. And the result is a product that grabs non-users or casual users and pulls them deeper into the Instagram universe, exposing people to the joy of creating something the last until tomorrow, not always forever.

Mimicking Photoshop reinforces the idea that everything has to look polished. That’s the opposite of what Systrom was going for with the launch of Instagram Stories. “There will always be an element in any public broadcast system of trying to show off” Systrom explains. “But what I see is it moving in the other direction. GIF stickers allow you to be way more informal than you used to be. Type mode means now people are just typing in thoughts rather than actually taking photos. Things like Superzoom with the TV effect or the beats — it’s anything but polished. If anything it’s a joke. Quantitatively people feel comfortable to post way more stories than to feed.”

That sense of comfort powered by Instagram purposefully pushing Stories to diverge from its classy feed has contributed to its explosion in popularity — not just for Stories but Instagram as a whole. It now has over 1 billion users, in part driven by it introducing Stories to developing countries Snapchat never penetrated.

AR filters have become table-stakes for Stories. On the left, Instagram. On the right, Snapchat.

“Remember how at the launch of Stories, I said it was a format and we want to make it original? And there was a bunch of criticism around us adopting this format? My response was this is a format and we’re going to innovate and make it our own. The whole idea there is to make it not just about photography but about expression. It’s a canvas for you to express yourself.” Stories emerged as how Instagram expressed itself too, allowing it to break away from the staid perfection of the feed, becoming something much more goofy.

Last week when Facebook announced its revenue was decelerating as users shifted attention from its lucrative News Feed to Stories where it’s still educating advertisers, its share price tanked, deleting $120 billion in market cap. Yet imagine how much further it would have dropped if Systrom hadn’t been willing to put his pride aside, take Snapchat Stories, and give it the Insta spin? Instead, it led the way to Facebook now having over 1.1 billion (duplicated) daily Stories users across its apps. The poises Facebook and Instagram to earn a ton off of Stories.”

“There was a long time that desktop advertising worked really really well but we knew the future was mobile and we’d have to go there. There was some short term pain. Everyone was worried that went wouldn’t monetize as well” Systrom remembers. “We believe the future is the combination of feed and Stories, and it just takes time for Stories to get to the same level or even exceed feed.”

So does he feel vindicated in that once-derided decision to think of Stories not as Evan Spiegel’s property but a medium meant for everyone? “I don’t wake up everyday trying to feel vindicated. I wake up everyday trying to make sure our billion users have amazing stuff to use. I just feel lucky that they love what we produce” Systrom says with a laugh. “I don’t know if that fits your definition of vindicated.”

Facebook and Instagram now show how many minutes you use them

It’s passive zombie feed scrolling, not active communication with friends that hurts our health, according to studies Facebook has been pointing to for the last seven months. Yet it’s treating all our social networking the same with today’s launch of its digital wellbeing screentime management dashboards for Facebook and Instagram in the US before rolling them out to everyone in the coming weks.

Giving users a raw count of the minutes you’ve spent in their apps each day in the last week plus your average across the week is a good start to making users more mindful. But by burying them largely out of sight, giving them no real way to compel less usage, and not distinguishing between passive and active behavior, they seem destined to be ignored while missing the point the company itself stresses.

TechCrunch scooped the designs of the two separate but identical Instagram and Facebook tools over the past few months thanks to screenshots generated from the apps’ code by Jane Manchun Wong. What’s launching today is what we saw, with the dashboards located in Facebook’s “Settings” -> “Your Time On Facebook” and Instagram’s “Settings” -> “Your Activity”.

Beyond the daily and average minute counts, you can set a daily “limit” in minutes after which either app will send you a reminder that you’ve crossed your self-imposed threshold. But they won’t stop you from browsing and liking, or force you to dig into the settings menu to extend your limit. You’ll need the willpower to cut yourself off. The tools also let you mute push notifications (you’ll still see in-app alerts), but only for as much as 8 hours. If you want anything more permanent, you’ll have to dig into their separate push notification options menu or your phone’s settings.

The announcement follows Instagram CEO Kevin Systrom’s comments about our original scoop, where he tweeted “It’s true . . . We’re building tools that will help the IG community know more about the time they spend on Instagram – any time should be positive and intentional . . . Understanding how time online impacts people is important, and it’s the responsibility of all companies to be honest about this. We want to be part of the solution. I take that responsibility seriously.”

The apps will provide callouts to users teaching them about the tools. Facebook says it has no plans to use whether you open the tools or set daily limits to target ads.

“It’s really important for people who use Instagram and Facebook that the time they spend with us is time well spent” Ameet Ranadive, Instagram’s Product Director of Well-Being, told reporters on a conference call. “There may be some tradeoff with other metrics for the company and that’s a tradeoff we’re willing to live with, because in the longer term we think this is important to the community and we’re willing to invest in it.”

Facebook has already felt some of the brunt of the tradeoff. It’s been trying to improve digital wellbeing by showing fewer low quality viral videos and clickbait news stories, and more from your friends. That’s contributed to a flatlining of its growth in North America, and even a temporary drop of 700,000 users while it also lost 1 million users in Europe this past quarter. That led to Facebook’s slowest user growth rates in history, triggering a 20 percent, $120 billion market cap drop in its share price.

The fact that Facebook is willing to put its finances on the line for digital wellbeing is a great step. But it’s likely to be changes to the Facebook and Instagram feeds that prioritize content you’ll comment on rather than look at and silently scroll past that will contribute more to healthy social networking than today’s toothless tools.

While iOS 12’s Screen Time and Android’s new Digital Wellbeing features both count your minutes on different apps too, they offer more drastic ways to enforce your own good intentions. iOS will deliver a weekly usage report to remind you the features exist. Android’s is best-in-class because it grays out an app’s icon and requires you to open your settings to unlock an app after you exceed your daily limit.

To live up to the responsibility Systrom promised, Facebook and Instagram will have to do more to actually keep us mindful of the time we spend in their apps and help us help ourselves.

Midterm attackers cited Black Lives Matter in false flag Facebook rally

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.