Facebook’s new ‘Quiet Mode’ option lets you turn off the app’s push notifications

Facebook today is launching a new feature called “Quiet Mode” that will allow you to minimize distractions by muting the app’s push notifications for a time frame you specify. The company announced the change as an update on its COVID Newsroom post, describing it as a way for users to set boundaries around how they spend their time on Facebook as they adjust to new routines and to working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to Facebook, you can either turn on or off Quiet Mode as needed or you can schedule to it run automatically at designated times. For example, if you work from home from 9 AM to 5 PM, you could set Quiet Mode to automatically run during your workday to reduce your temptation to waste time in the app.

If you try to launch Facebook during Quiet Mode, the app will remind you that you’ve set this time aside with the goal of limiting your time in the app, the company explains.

The controls for Quiet Mode will be found in a new section on Facebook where you can view other data about your time spent on Facebook’s platform. Here, you’ll be able to browse charts that show you the time you’ve spent on Facebook on a daily basis, a comparison of your daytime versus nighttime use, and another chart that lets you see how many times you opened the Facebook app each day.

Facebook introduced its first “time spent” charts back in 2018, but their appearance has changed to better match the style of this new “Your Time on Facebook” section, rolling out today. Facebook has also now added more analysis, including new week-over-week trends, the time of day charges, and the chart displaying the number of visits.

In addition, this section will include an option to enable a weekly report that will let you know how you’re managing your time. It will also link to the Activity Log of your own interactions across Facebook, including your reactions, comments and posts. And it will link out to other features that were previously buried in the Settings, including your News Feed Preferences and Notification Settings.

The former is where you designate which people you see first on your News Feed, which to Snooze, which to Unfollow and so on. The Notification Settings section, meanwhile, lets you turn on or off the push notifications and emails for specific updates from Facebook, like new comments, friend requests, tags, birthdays and more.

These aren’t new features, but they’ve been relocated here to make the new section more of a one-stop-shop for managing your time on Facebook.

Today’s changes are the latest in a series of efforts Facebook has made in recent years focused on users’ “digital well-being.”

The digital well-being movement pushes forward the idea that our smartphones and applications weren’t built with the mental health needs of their users in mind, but were rather designed to maximize the time we spend staring at screens. Users, having become aware of the addictiveness of our mobile devices, began to feel more negatively about screen time and their time-wasting apps.

Fearing backlash, tech companies — including Facebook, as well as the OS makers, Google and Apple — introduced more digital well-being features into their platforms. This includes the now built-in screen time controls that allow users to track and limit their time spent on phones and even the time spent in individual apps, like Facebook.

One iOS feature, in particular, may have posed a particular threat to Facebook: a new option introduced in iOS 12 that allowed users to more easily turn off app notifications right from the push notification itself. Apple even demoed how this could be used to silence Facebook’s notifications easily — an effort to redirect this growing negative user sentiment to specific apps on its iOS platform, rather than toward the platform that allowed apps to spam users with alerts in the first place.

Facebook’s response to this iOS feature, belatedly, is today’s launch of Quiet Mode. Instead of having its app notifications turned off entirely from the home screen of an iPhone, the option gives Facebook users more nuanced control. But it also means that Facebook retains permission to push its notifications during the hours Quiet Mode doesn’t run.

Facebook confirms Quiet Mode was in testing with a small percentage of Facebook users prior to today’s launch. It’s the same feature that reverse engineer Jane Manchun Wong had spotted in March, in fact.

The feature is now rolling out to more people globally on iOS and will continue to do so over the next month or so, Facebook says. The rollout on Android will begin with testing in May and a broader release in June.

Facebook to supply free Portals to some care home residents under NHS scheme

The U.K. government is pulling in tech firms to connect family and friends with isolated residents and patients in care via video call devices and services during the COVID-19 crisis. First to join is Facebook, which is supplying up to 2,050 of its Portal video-calling devices for free to hospitals, care homes and other settings, including hospice, in-patient learning disability and autism units. The logistical rollout will be supported by Accenture.

Fifty of the devices have already been deployed to pilot sites in Surrey, with Manchester, Newcastle and London and other areas to follow.

Iain O’Neil, NHSX Digital Transformation Director, said in a statement: “Technology companies big and small continue to pledge their resources and expertise to support our NHS and social care system in these unprecedented times. We are working hard to find and develop services that meet people’s equally unprecedented needs. Technology has never been so important to providing one of life’s most essential things — the ability to communicate with the people we love regardless of where they are.”

The NHSX said it is working with “a range of technology companies to support the NHS and social care system.”

Freddy Abnousi, MD, Head of Health Technology, Facebook said in a statement: “We designed Portal to give people an easy way to connect and be more present with their loved ones…That’s why we are piloting a program with NHSX to provide Portal devices in hospitals and other care settings to support patients and help reduce social isolation.”

Additional solutions to be deployed under the scheme include enabling health and care staff to work remotely if needed; improving communication between clinical and care teams; shifting hospital outpatients to virtual appointments; and accelerating the use of online and video consultations within GP and primary care services.

Commenting, Digital Secretary Oliver Dowden said: “It is great to see Facebook giving care home residents and patients the devices they need to connect with their family and friends at such a challenging time. The technology sector is rising to the challenge at this moment of national emergency and we in government are working closely with them to help people stay home, protect the NHS and save lives.”

Facebook and NHSX have agreed that the care homes and care settings involved in the pilot will be able to keep the devices free of charge, and use as they see fit, following the pilot phase.

Where the Portal devices go will be chosen on the basis of their Wi-Fi connectivity and ability to run devices in residents’ rooms or another private location.

At the same time, NHSX said it is exploring connectivity options for care homes without Wi-Fi, including the use of 4G hotspots or data-enabled tablets.

The venues for the portals will be advised on how to set them up by the NHSX, as well as infection control and data protection. Concerns about privacy will be addressed by completing a factory reset on the portal before passing the device to a new user.

A Facebook spokesperson said: “Residents/patients will be supported by care staff to initiate calls to family/friends.” Each care home/care setting will be free to make their own decisions on how best to manage this; for example, whether to pre-arrange specific call times with families in advance. Staff will be supported with easy-to-use setup guidance, device instructions and guidance on infection control. Care homes will also be asked to assist residents who do not wish to use their own personal accounts by setting up a new, generic personal account to be used instead. Where residents or patients wish to use a personal account, the care home will complete a factory reset before passing the device to a new user.

Zoom sued by shareholder for ‘overstating’ security claims

Zoom has been served with another class action lawsuit — this time by one of its shareholders, who says he lost money after the company “overstated” its security measures, which led its share price to tank.

The video conferencing giant has seen its daily usage rocket from 10 million users to 200 million since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, which forced vast swathes of the world to stay and work from home. As its popularity rose, the company also faced a growing number of security and privacy problems, including claims that Zoom was not end-to-end encrypted as advertised.

Zoom’s later admission saw the company’s share price fall by almost 20 percent.

Shareholder Michael Drieu, who filed the suit in a California federal court on Tuesday, said he and others have “suffered significant losses and damages” as a result. According to the complaint, Drieu bought 50 shares priced at $149.50 but lost out when he sold the shares a week later at $120.50 per share.

Zoom did not respond to a request for comment.

It’s the latest class action served against Zoom in recent weeks. Zoom was slapped with another suit last month after Zoom’s iOS app was found to have shared data with Facebook — even when users did not have a Facebook account.

Zoom has doubled down on its efforts to improve its image in the past week, including a promise to improve its encryption efforts and by changing its default settings to prevent trolls and intruders from accessing Zoom calls without permission, coined “Zoombombing.” The security problems have led to New York City schools banning Zoom in favor of Microsoft Teams. The Taiwanese government also banned its agencies from using the app.

Just today, former Facebook chief security officer Alex Stamos said he joined Zoom as an advisor. Zoom also said it has enlisted security experts and leaders to advise on the company’s security strategy.

Cookie consent still a compliance trash-fire in latest watchdog peek

The latest confirmation of the online tracking industry’s continued flouting of EU privacy laws which — at least on paper — are supposed to protect citizens from consent-less digital surveillance comes by via Ireland’s Data Protection Commission (DPC).

The watchdog did a sweep survey of around 40 popular websites last year — covering sectors including media and publishing; retail; restaurants and food ordering services; insurance; sport and leisure; and the public sector — and in a new report, published yesterday, it found almost all failing on a number of cookie and tracking compliance issues, with breaches ranging from minor to serious.

Twenty were graded ‘amber’ by the regulator, which signals a good response and approach to compliance but with at least one serious concern identified; twelve were graded ‘red’, based on very poor quality responses and a plethora of bad practices around cookie banners, setting multiple cookies without consent, badly designed cookies policies or privacy policies, and a lack of clarity about whether they understood the purposes of the ePrivacy legislation; while a further three got a borderline ‘amber to red’ grade.

Just two of the 38 controllers got a ‘green’ rating (substantially compliance with any concerns straightforward and easily remedied); and one more got a borderline ‘green to amber’ grade.

EU law means that if a data controller is relying on consent as the legal basis for tracking a user the consent must be specific, informed and freely given. Additional court rulings last year have further finessed guidance around online tracking — clarifying pre-checked consent boxes aren’t valid, for example.

Yet the DPC still found examples of cookie banners that offer no actual choice at all. Such as those which serve a dummy banner with a cookie notice that users can only meaningless click ‘Got it!’. (‘Gotcha data’ more like.. )

In fact the watchdog writes that it found ‘implied’ consent being relied upon by around two-thirds of the controllers, based on the wording of their cookie banners (e.g. notices such as: “by continuing to browse this site you consent to the use of cookies”) — despite this no longer meeting the required legal standard.

“Some appeared to be drawing on older, but no longer extant, guidance published by the DPC that indicated consent could be obtained ‘by implication’, where such informational notices were put in place,” it writes, noting that current guidance on its website “does not make any reference to implied consent, but it also focuses more on user controls for cookies rather than on controller obligations”.

Another finding was that all but one website set cookies immediately on landing — with “many” of these found to have no legal justification for not asking first, as the DPC determined they fall outside available consent exemptions in the relevant regulations.

It also identified widespread abuse of the concept of ‘strictly necessary’ where the use of trackers are concerned. “Many controllers categorised the cookies deployed on their websites as having a ‘necessary’ or ‘strictly necessary’ function, where the stated function of the cookie appeared to meet neither of the two consent exemption criteria set down in the ePrivacy Regulations/ePrivacy Directive,” it writes in the report. “These included cookies used to establish chatbot sessions that were set prior to any request by the user to initiate a chatbot function. In some cases, it was noted that the chatbot function on the websites concerned did not work at all.

“It was clear that some controllers may either misunderstand the ‘strictly necessary’ criteria, or that their definitions of what is strictly necessary are rather more expansive than the definitions provided in Regulation 5(5),” it adds.

Another problem the report highlights is a lack of tools for users to vary or withdraw their consent choices, despite some of the reviewed sites using so called ‘consent management platforms’ (CMPs) sold by third-party vendors.

This chimes with a recent independent study of CPMs — which earlier this year found illegal practices to be widespread, with “dark patterns and implied consent… ubiquitous”, as the researchers put it.

“Badly designed — or potentially even deliberately deceptive — cookie banners and consent-management tools were also a feature on some sites,” the DPC writes in its report, detailing some examples of Quantcast’s CPM which had been implemented in such a way as to make the interface “confusing and potentially deceptive” (such as unlabelled toggles and a ‘reject all’ button that had no effect).

Pre-checked boxes/sliders were also found to be common, with the DPC finding ten of the 38 controllers used them — despite ‘consent’ collected like that not actually being valid consent.

“In the case of most of the controllers, consent was also ‘bundled’ — in other words, it was not possible for users to control consent to the different purposes for which cookies were being used,” the DPC also writes. “This is not permitted, as has been clarified in the Planet49 judgment. Consent does not need to be given for each cookie, but rather for each purpose. Where a cookie has more than one purpose requiring consent, it must be obtained for all of those purposes separately.”

In another finding, the regulator came across instances of websites that had embedded tracking technologies, such as Facebook pixels, yet their operators did not list these in responses to the survey, listing only http browser cookies instead. The DPC suggests this indicates some controllers aren’t even aware of trackers baked into their own sites.

“It was not clear, therefore, whether some controllers were aware of some of the tracking elements deployed on their websites — this was particularly the case where small controllers had outsourced their website management and development to a third-part,” it writes.

The worst sector of its targeted sweep — in terms of “poor practices and, in particular, poor understanding of the ePrivacy Regulations and their purpose” — was the restaurants and food-ordering sector, per the report. (Though the finding is clearly based on a small sampling across multiple sectors.)

Despite encountering near blanket failure to actually comply with the law, the DPC, which also happens to be the lead regulator for much of big tech in Europe, has responded by issuing, er, further guidance.

This includes specifics such as pre-checked consent boxes must be removed; cookie banners can’t be designed to ‘nudge’ users to accept and a reject option must have equal prominence; and no non-necessary cookies be set on landing. It also stipulates there must always be a way for users to withdraw consent — and doing so should be as easy as consenting.

All stuff that’s been clear and increasingly so at least since the GDPR came into application in May 2018. Nonetheless the regulator is giving the website operators in question a further six months’ grace to get their houses in order — after which it has raised the prospect of actually enforcing the EU’s ePrivacy Directive and the General Data Protection Regulation.

“Where controllers fail to voluntarily make changes to their user interfaces and/or their processing, the DPC has enforcement options available under both the ePrivacy Regulations and the GDPR and will, where necessary, examine the most appropriate enforcement options in order to bring controllers into compliance with the law,” it warns.

The report is just the latest shot across the bows of the online tracking industry in Europe.

The UK’s Information Commission’s Office (ICO) has been issuing sternly worded blog posts for months. Its own report last summer found illegal profiling of Internet users by the programmatic ad industry to be rampant — also giving the industry six months to reform.

However the ICO still hasn’t done anything about the adtech industry’s legal blackhole — leading to privacy experts to denouncing the lack of any “substantive action to end the largest data breach ever recorded in the UK”, as one put it at the start of this year.

Ireland’s DPC, meanwhile, has yet to put the decision trigger on multiple cross-border investigations into the data-mining business practices of tech giants including Facebook and Google, following scores of GDPR complaints — including several targeting their legal base to process people’s data.

A two-year review of the pan-EU regulation, set for May 2020, provides one hard deadline that might concentrate minds.

Facebook starts prompting US users to fill out a COVID-19 survey to help track the virus

Starting today, some U.S. Facebook users will see a new pop-up on the app asking them to complete a survey about COVID-19. The survey, from Carnegie Mellon University’s Delphi epidemiological research center, is one of many new symptom mapping projects that seek to anticipate where the next wave of the virus will hit as COVID-19 sweeps through populations the world over.

As if often the case in research, the challenge for these symptom mapping efforts is attracting a large enough sample of respondents to paint a statistically meaningful picture. Carnegie Mellon’s research effort will get a big leg up from Facebook, which may promote similar surveys in different parts of the world if this one goes well.

While some other projects require users to download an app or find their way to an obscure web portal, Facebook’s promotion of the Carnegie Mellon survey means it can instantly reach a portion of users from the largest pool of online users any social network has ever collected. Facebook declined to provide details on how many users will be seeing the new prompt, but even a sub-section of Facebook’s U.S. users over the age of 18 would likely be massive from a data collection standpoint.

Many U.S. symptom tracking projects launched as the virus exploded over the last month, including a new app from Pinterest’s co-founder and others from research institutes like Harvard and New York’s Weill Cornell Medicine. The idea is that tracking self-reported symptoms could provide geographical insights that bolster the limited testing data available now.

While users might be understandably wary of a research effort promoted by Facebook, given its recently fairly notorious record on user privacy, the company’s knowledge of who you are won’t be linked to the university’s data, which will be examined in aggregate. According to Facebook’s announcement, the survey data collected will aid public health planning around resource allocation and eventually “when, where and how to reopen parts of society.”

The company announced the effort along with an expanded set of disease prevention maps, which the company will make available to researchers as part of its “Data for Good” initiative.

Before suing NSO Group, Facebook allegedly sought their software to better spy on users

Facebook’s WhatsApp is in the midst of a lawsuit against Israeli mobile surveillance outfit NSO Group. But before complaining about the company’s methods, Facebook seems to have wanted to use them for its own purposes, according to testimony from NSO founder Shalev Hulio.

Last year brought news of an exploit that could be used to install one of NSO’s spyware packages, Pegasus, on devices using WhatsApp. The latter sued the former over it, saying that over a hundred human rights activists, journalists and others were targeted using the method.

Last year also saw Facebook finally shut down Onavo, the VPN app it purchased in 2013 and developed into a backdoor method of collecting all manner of data about its users — but not as much as they’d have liked, according to Hulio. In a document filed with the court yesterday he states that Facebook in 2017 asked NSO Group for help collecting data on iOS devices resistant to the usual tricks:

In October 2017, NSO was approached by two Facebook representatives who asked to purchase the right to use certain capabilities of Pegasus, the same NSO software discussed in Plaintiffs’ Complaint.

The Facebook representatives stated that Facebook was concerned that its method for gathering user data through Onavo Protect was less effective on Apple devices than on Android devices. The Facebook representatives also stated that Facebook wanted to use purported capabilities of Pegasus to monitor users on Apple devices and were willing to pay for the ability to monitor Onavo Protect users. Facebook proposed to pay NSO a monthly fee for each Onavo Protect user.

NSO declined, as it claims to only provide its software to governments for law enforcement purposes. But there is a certain irony to Facebook wanting to employ against its users the very software it would later decry being employed against its users. (WhatsApp maintains some independence from its parent company, but these events come well after the purchase by and organizational integration into Facebook.)

A Facebook representative did not dispute that representatives from the company approached NSO Group at the time, but said the testimony was an attempt to “distract from the facts” and contained “inaccurate representations about both their spyware and a discussion with people who work at Facebook.” We can presumably expect a fuller rebuttal in the company’s own filings soon.

Facebook and WhatsApp are, quite correctly, concerned that effective, secret intrusion methods like those developed and sold by NSO Group are dangerous in the wrong hands — as demonstrated by the targeting of activists and journalists, and potentially even Jeff Bezos. But however reasonable Facebook’s concerns are, the company’s status as the world’s most notorious collector and peddler of private information makes its righteous stance hard to take seriously.

Want to survive the downturn? Better build a platform

When you look at the most successful companies in the world, they are almost never just one simple service. Instead, they offer a platform with a range of services and an ability to connect to it to allow external partners and developers to extend the base functionality that the company provides.

Aspiring to be a platform and actually succeeding at building one are not the same. While every startup probably sees themselves as becoming a platform play eventually, the fact is it’s hard to build one. But if you can succeed and your set of services become an integral part of a given business workflow, your company could become bigger and more successful than even the most optimistic founder ever imagined.

Look at the biggest tech companies in the world, from Microsoft to Oracle to Facebook to Google and Amazon. All of them offer a rich complex platform of services. All of them provide a way for third parties to plug in and take advantage of them in some way, even if it’s by using the company’s sheer popularity to advertise.

Michael A. Cusumano, David B. Yoffie and Annabelle Gawer, who wrote the book The Business of Platforms, wrote an article recently in MIT Sloan Review on The Future of Platforms, saying that simply becoming a platform doesn’t guarantee success for a startup.

“Because, like all companies, platforms must ultimately perform better than their competitors. In addition, to survive long-term, platforms must also be politically and socially viable, or they risk being crushed by government regulation or social opposition, as well as potentially massive debt obligations,” they wrote.

In other words, it’s not cheap or easy to build a successful platform, but the rewards are vast. As Cusumano, Yoffie and Gawer point out their studies have found, “…Platform companies achieved their sales with half the number of employees [of successful non-platform companies]. Moreover, platform companies were twice as profitable, were growing twice as fast, and were more than twice as valuable as their conventional counterparts.”

From an enterprise perspective, look at a company like Salesforce . The company learned long ago that it couldn’t possibly build every permutation of customer requirements with a relatively small team of engineers (especially early on), so it started to build hooks into the platform it had built to allow customers and consultants to customize it to meet the needs of individual organizations.

Eventually Salesforce built APIs, then it built a whole set of development tools, and built a marketplace to share these add-ons. Some startups like FinancialForce, Vlocity and Veeva have built whole companies on top of Salesforce.

Rory O’Driscoll, a partner at Scale Venture Partners, speaking at a venture capitalist panel at BoxWorks in 2014, said that many startups aspire to be platforms, but it’s harder than it looks. “You don’t make a platform. Third-party developers only engage when you achieve a critical mass of users. You have to do something else and then become a platform. You don’t come fully formed as a platform,” he said at the time.

If you’re thinking, how you could possibly start a company like that in the middle of a massive economic crisis, consider that Microsoft launched in 1975 in the middle of recession. Google and Salesforce both launched in the late 1990s, just ahead of the dot-com crash, and Facebook launched in 2004, four years before the massive downturn in 2008. All went on to become tremendously successful companies

That success often requires massive spending and sales and marketing burn, but when it works, the rewards are enormous. Just don’t expect that it’s an easy path to success.

OctoML raises $15M to make optimizing ML models easier

OctoML, a startup founded by the team behind the Apache TVM machine learning compiler stack project, today announced it has raised a $15 million Series A round led by Amplify, with participation from Madrone Ventures, which led its $3.9 million seed round. The core idea behind OctoML and TVM is to use machine learning to optimize machine learning models so they can more efficiently run on different types of hardware.

“There’s been quite a bit of progress in creating machine learning models,” OctoML CEO and University of Washington professor Luis Ceze told me. “But a lot of the pain has moved to once you have a model, how do you actually make good use of it in the edge and in the clouds?”

That’s where the TVM project comes in, which was launched by Ceze and his collaborators at the University of Washington’s Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering. It’s now an Apache incubating project and because it’s seen quite a bit of usage and support from major companies like AWS, ARM, Facebook, Google, Intel, Microsoft, Nvidia, Xilinx and others, the team decided to form a commercial venture around it, which became OctoML. Today, even Amazon Alexa’s wake word detection is powered by TVM.

Ceze described TVM as a modern operating system for machine learning models. “A machine learning model is not code, it doesn’t have instructions, it has numbers that describe its statistical modeling,” he said. “There’s quite a few challenges in making it run efficiently on a given hardware platform because there’s literally billions and billions of ways in which you can map a model to specific hardware targets. Picking the right one that performs well is a significant task that typically requires human intuition.”

And that’s where OctoML and its “Octomizer” SaaS product, which it also announced, today come in. Users can upload their model to the service and it will automatically optimize, benchmark and package it for the hardware you specify and in the format you want. For more advanced users, there’s also the option to add the service’s API to their CI/CD pipelines. These optimized models run significantly faster because they can now fully leverage the hardware they run on, but what many businesses will maybe care about even more is that these more efficient models also cost them less to run in the cloud, or that they are able to use cheaper hardware with less performance to get the same results. For some use cases, TVM already results in 80x performance gains.

Currently, the OctoML team consists of about 20 engineers. With this new funding, the company plans to expand its team. Those hires will mostly be engineers, but Ceze also stressed that he wants to hire an evangelist, which makes sense, given the company’s open-source heritage. He also noted that while the Octomizer is a good start, the real goal here is to build a more fully featured MLOps platform. “OctoML’s mission is to build the world’s best platform that automates MLOps,” he said.

‘Content network effect’ makes TikTok tough to copy

Many TikTok videos don’t start from scratch, so neither can its competitors. TikTok is all about remixes where users shoot a new video to recontextualize audio pulled from someone else’s clip, or riff on an existing meme or concept. That only works because TikTok’s had time to build up an immense armory of content to draw inspiration from.

Creators will find themselves unequipped trying to get started on TikTok copycats including Facebook Lasso, and Instagram Reels which is testing in Brazil. Direct competitors like Triller and Dubsmash are racing to build up their archives. YouTube Shorts, which The Information today reported is in development, only has a shot if Google lets users harness the 5 billion videos people already watch on YouTube each day.

This is the power of what I call “content network effect”: Each piece of content adds value to the rest. That’s TikTok.

You’re likely familiar with traditional network effect — ‘a phenomenon whereby a product or service gains additional value as more people use it.’ It’s not just the network itself that gains value, as the value delivered to each user increases too. Today’s top social networks are shining examples. The more people there are on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter, the more people you can connect to, and the more material their relevance algorithms can draw on to fill your feeds.

If you had to choose between using two identical social networks, you’re probably going to pick the one with more friends or creators already onboard. Network effects raise the switching cost of moving to a different network. Even if it has better features, fewer ads, or less misinformation and bullying, you’re unlikely to leave a robust network behind and decamp to a sparser one. That makes scaled social networks difficult to Disrupt. All the top ones have been around for almost a decade or more.

Except for TikTok. The Chinese music/video app has managed to demonstrate a new concept of “content network effect”. In its case, each video uploaded to the app makes every future potential video more valuable. That’s because all the content on TikTok serves as remix fodder for the rest. Every song, dance, joke, prank, and monologue generates resources for other creators to exploit. It’s a bottomless well of inspiration.

Remixability, the ultimate creative tool

TikTok productizes remix culture by making it easy to “use this sound”. Tap the audio button on any video and it becomes yours. Click through and you’ll see all the other videos that use it. TikTok even offers a whole search engine for sorting through sounds by categories like Trending, Greatest Hits, Love, Gaming, and travel. Sometimes remixes are based on an idea rather than an audio. #FlipTheSwitch sees couples instantly swapping clothes when the light flicks off, and has collected over 3.6 billion videos across over 500,000 remixed versions of the video.

You can even duet with the original creator, sharing your video and theirs side-by-side simultaneously. A solo performance becomes a chorus as more duets are hitched together. Meanwhile, remixes of remixes of remixes provide an esoteric reward for hardcore users who recognize how a gag has evolved or spiraled into absurdity.

Other apps in the past have spawned video responses, hashtags, quote-tweets, surveys, and chain letters and other ways for pieces of content to interact or iterate. And there’s always been parodies. But TikTok proves the power of forging a social app with content network effect at its core.

Facilitating remixes offers a way to lower the bar for producing user generated content. You’d don’t have to be astoundingly creative or original to make something entertaining. Each individual’s life experiences inform their perspective that could let them interpret an idea in a new way.

What began with someone ripping audio of two people chanting “don’t be Suspicious, don’t be suspicious” while sneaking through a graveyard in TV show Parks & Recs led to people lipsyncing it while trying to escape their infant’s room without waking them up, leaving the house wearing clothes they stole from their sister’s closet, trying to keep a llama as a pet, and photoshopping themselves to look taller. Unless someone’s already done the work to record an audio clip, there’s nothing to inspire and enable others to put their spin on it.

TikTok’s archive vs the world

That’s why I wrote that Mark Zuckerberg misunderstands the huge threat of TikTok after the CEO told Facebook’s staff that “I kind of think about TikTok as if it were Explore for Stories”. Facebook and Instagram found massive success cloning Snapchat Stories because all they had to do was copy its features. Stories are autobiographical life vlogging. All you need are the creative tools, which Instagram and Facebook rebuilt, and people to share to, which the apps had billions of.

But TikTok isn’t about sharing what you’re up to like Stories that typically start from scratch since each user’s life is different. It’s micro-entertainment powered by content network effect. If TikTok competitors give people the same video recording features and distribution potential, they’ll still be missing the archive of source material.

Facebook’s Lasso looks just like TikTok but it’s failed to gain steam since launching in November 2018. Instagram Reels smartly copies TikTok’s remixing tools, but if the Brazilian tests go well and it eventually launches in English, it will start out flat footed.

When YouTube launches Shorts, as The Information’s Alex Heath and Jessica Toonkel report it’s planning to do before the end of the year, it will be buried inside its main app. That could make it impossible to compete with a dedicated app like TikTok that opens straight to its For You page. Its one saving grace would be if YouTube unlocks its entire database of videos for remixing.

Thanks to its position as the default place to host videos and its experience with searchability that Facebook and Instagram lack, YouTube Shorts could at least have all the ingredients necessary. But given YouTube’s non-stop failures in social with everything from Google+ to YouTube Stories to its dozen deadpooled messaging apps, it may not have the chef skills necessary to combine them.

Other social networks should consider how the concept applies to them. Could Facebook turn your friends’ photos into collage materials? Could Instagram let you share themed collections of your favorite posts? Remix culture isn’t going away, so neither will the value of fostering content network effects. With video consumption outpacing professional production, remixes are how the world will stay entertained and how amateurs can contribute creations worthy of going viral.

What does a pandemic say about the tech we’ve built?

There’s a joke* being reshared on chat apps that takes the form of a multiple choice question — asking who’s the leading force in workplace digital transformation? The red-lined punchline is not the CEO or CTO but: C) COVID-19.

There’s likely more than a grain of truth underpinning the quip. The novel coronavirus is pushing a lot of metaphorical buttons right now. ‘Pause’ buttons for people and industries, as large swathes of the world’s population face quarantine conditions that can resemble house arrest. The majority of offline social and economic activities are suddenly off limits.

Such major pauses in our modern lifestyle may even turn into a full reset, over time. The world as it was, where mobility of people has been all but taken for granted — regardless of the environmental costs of so much commuting and indulged wanderlust — may never return to ‘business as usual’.

If global leadership rises to the occasional then the coronavirus crisis offers an opportunity to rethink how we structure our societies and economies — to make a shift towards lower carbon alternatives. After all, how many physical meetings do you really need when digital connectivity is accessible and reliable? As millions more office workers log onto the day job from home that number suddenly seems vanishingly small.

COVID-19 is clearly strengthening the case for broadband to be a utility — as so much more activity is pushed online. Even social media seems to have a genuine community purpose during a moment of national crisis when many people can only connect remotely, even with their nearest neighbours.

Hence the reports of people stuck at home flocking back to Facebook to sound off in the digital town square. Now the actual high street is off limits the vintage social network is experiencing a late second wind.

Facebook understands this sort of higher societal purpose already, of course. Which is why it’s been so proactive about building features that nudge users to ‘mark yourself safe’ during extraordinary events like natural disasters, major accidents and terrorist attacks. (Or indeed why it encouraged politicians to get into bed with its data platform in the first place — no matter the cost to democracy.)

In less fraught times, Facebook’s ‘purpose’ can be loosely summed to ‘killing time’. But with ever more sinkholes being drilled by the attention economy that’s a function under ferocious and sustained attack.

Over the years the tech giant has responded by engineering ways to rise back to the top of the social heap — including spying on and buying up competition, or directly cloning rival products. It’s been pulling off this trick, by hook or by crook, for over a decade. Albeit, this time Facebook can’t take any credit for the traffic uptick; A pandemic is nature’s dark pattern design.

What’s most interesting about this virally disrupted moment is how much of the digital technology that’s been built out online over the past two decades could very well have been designed for living through just such a dystopia.

Seen through this lens, VR should be having a major moment. A face computer that swaps out the stuff your eyes can actually see with a choose-your-own-digital-adventure of virtual worlds to explore, all from the comfort of your living room? What problem are you fixing VR? Well, the conceptual limits of human lockdown in the face of a pandemic quarantine right now, actually…

Virtual reality has never been a compelling proposition vs the rich and textured opportunity of real life, except within very narrow and niche bounds. Yet all of a sudden here we all are — with our horizons drastically narrowed and real-life news that’s ceaselessly harrowing. So it might yet end up wry punchline to another multiple choice joke: ‘My next vacation will be: A) Staycation, B) The spare room, C) VR escapism.’

It’s videoconferencing that’s actually having the big moment, though. Turns out even a pandemic can’t make VR go viral. Instead, long lapsed friendships are being rekindled over Zoom group chats or Google Hangouts. And Houseparty — a video chat app — has seen surging downloads as barflies seek out alternative night life with their usual watering-holes shuttered.

Bored celebs are TikToking. Impromptu concerts are being livestreamed from living rooms via Instagram and Facebook Live. All sorts of folks are managing social distancing and the stress of being stuck at home alone (or with family) by distant socializing — signing up to remote book clubs and discos; joining virtual dance parties and exercise sessions from bedrooms. Taking a few classes together. The quiet pub night with friends has morphed seamlessly into a bring-your-own-bottle group video chat.

This is not normal — but nor is it surprising. We’re living in the most extraordinary time. And it seems a very human response to mass disruption and physical separation (not to mention the trauma of an ongoing public health emergency that’s killing thousands of people a day) to reach for even a moving pixel of human comfort. Contactless human contact is better than none at all.

Yet the fact all these tools are already out there, ready and waiting for us to log on and start streaming, should send a dehumanizing chill down society’s backbone.

It underlines quite how much consumer technology is being designed to reprogram how we connect with each other, individually and in groups, in order that uninvited third parties can cut a profit.

Back in the pre-COVID-19 era, a key concern being attached to social media was its ability to hook users and encourage passive feed consumption — replacing genuine human contact with voyeuristic screening of friends’ lives. Studies have linked the tech to loneliness and depression. Now we’re literally unable to go out and meet friends the loss of human contact is real and stark. So being popular online in a pandemic really isn’t any kind of success metric.

Houseparty, for example, self-describes as a “face to face social network” — yet it’s quite the literal opposite; you’re foregoing face-to-face contact if you’re getting virtually together in app-wrapped form.

While the implication of Facebook’s COVID-19 traffic bump is that the company’s business model thrives on societal disruption and mainstream misery. Which, frankly, we knew already. Data-driven adtech is another way of saying it’s been engineered to spray you with ad-flavored dissatisfaction by spying on what you get up to. The coronavirus just hammers the point home.

The fact we have so many high-tech tools on tap for forging digital connections might feel like amazing serendipity in this crisis — a freemium bonanza for coping with terrible global trauma. But such bounty points to a horrible flip side: It’s the attention economy that’s infectious and insidious. Before ‘normal life’ plunged off a cliff all this sticky tech was labelled ‘everyday use’; not ‘break out in a global emergency’.

It’s never been clearer how these attention-hogging apps and services are designed to disrupt and monetize us; to embed themselves in our friendships and relationships in a way that’s subtly dehumanizing; re-routing emotion and connections; nudging us to swap in-person socializing for virtualized fuzz that designed to be data-mined and monetized by the same middlemen who’ve inserted themselves unasked into our private and social lives.

Captured and recompiled in this way, human connection is reduced to a series of dilute and/or meaningless transactions. The platforms deploying armies of engineers to knob-twiddle and pull strings to maximize ad opportunities, no matter the personal cost.

It’s also no accident we’re also seeing more of the vast and intrusive underpinnings of surveillance capitalism emerge, as the COVID-19 emergency rolls back some of the obfuscation that’s used to shield these business models from mainstream view in more normal times. The trackers are rushing to seize and colonize an opportunistic purpose.

Tech and ad giants are falling over themselves to get involved with offering data or apps for COVID-19 tracking. They’re already in the mass surveillance business so there’s likely never felt like a better moment than the present pandemic for the big data lobby to press the lie that individuals don’t care about privacy, as governments cry out for tools and resources to help save lives.

First the people-tracking platforms dressed up attacks on human agency as ‘relevant ads’. Now the data industrial complex is spinning police-state levels of mass surveillance as pandemic-busting corporate social responsibility. How quick the wheel turns.

But platforms should be careful what they wish for. Populations that find themselves under house arrest with their phones playing snitch might be just as quick to round on high tech gaolers as they’ve been to sign up for a friendly video chat in these strange and unprecedented times.

Oh and Zoom (and others) — more people might actually read your ‘privacy policy‘ now they’ve got so much time to mess about online. And that really is a risk.

*Source is a private Twitter account called @MBA_ish