Instagram’s “IGTV” video hub for creators launches tomorrow

TechCrunch has learned that the Instagram longer-form video hub that’s launching tomorrow is called IGTV and it will be part of the Explore tab, according to multiple sources. Instagram has spent the week meeting with online content creators to encourage them to prepare videos closer to 10-minute YouTube vlogs than the 1-minute maximum videos the app allows today.

Instagram is focusing its efforts around web celebrities that made their name on mobile rather than more traditional, old-school publishers and TV studios that might come off too polished and processed. The idea is to let these creators, who have a knack for this style of content and who already have sizeable Instagram audiences, set the norms for what IGTV is about.

Instagram declined to comment on the name IGTV and the video hub’s home in app’s Explore tab. We’ll get more information at the feature’s launch event in San Francisco tomorrow at 9am Pacific.

Following the WSJ’s initial report that Instagram was working on allowing longer videos, TechCrunch learned much more from sources about the company’s plan to build an aggregated destination for watching this content akin to Snapchat Discover. The videos will be full-screen, vertically oriented, and can have a resolution up to 4K. Users will be greeted with collection of Popular recent videos, and the option to Continue Watching clips they didn’t finish.

The videos aren’t meant to compete with Netflix Originals or HBO-quality content. Instead, they’ll be the kind of things you might see on YouTube rather than the short, off-the-cuff social media clips Instagram has hosted to date. Videos will offer a link-out option so creators can drive traffic to their other social presences, websites, or ecommerce stores. Instagram is planning to offer direct monetization, potentially including advertising revenue shares, but hasn’t finalized how that will work.

We reported that the tentative launch date for the feature was June 20th. A week later, Instagram sent out press invites for an event on June 20th our sources confirm is for IGTV.

Based on its historic growth trajectory that has seen Instagram adding 100 million users every four months, and its announcement of 800 million in September 2017, it’s quite possible that Instagram will announce it’s hit 1 billion monthly users tomorrow. That could legitimize IGTV as a place creators want to be for exposure, not just monetization.

IGTV could create a new behavior pattern for users who are bored of their friends’ content, or looking for something to watch in between Direct messages. If successful, Instagram might even consider breaking out IGTV into its own mobile app, or building it an app for smart TVs

The launch is important for Facebook because it lacks a popular video destination since its Facebook Watch hub was somewhat of a flop. Facebook today said it would expand Watch to more creators, while also offering new interactive video tools to let them make their own HQ trivia-style game shows. Facebook also launched its Brand Collabs Manager that helps businesses find creators to sponsor. That could help IGTV stars earn money through product placement or sponsored content.

Until now, video consumption in the Facebook family of apps has been largely serendipitous, with users stumbling across clips in their News Feed. IGTV will let it more directly compete with YouTube, where people purposefully come to watch specific videos from their favorite creators. But YouTube was still built in the web era with a focus on horizontal video that’s awkward to watch on iPhones or Androids.

With traditional television viewership slipping, Facebook’s size and advertiser connections could let it muscle into the lucrative space. But rather than try to port old-school TV shows to phones, IGTV could let creators invent a new vision for television on mobile.

First look at Instagram’s self-policing Time Well Spent tool

Are you Overgramming? Instagram is stepping up to help you manage overuse rather than leaving it to iOS and Android’s new screen time dashboards. Last month after TechCrunch first reported Instagram was prototyping a Usage Insights feature, the Facebook sub-company’s CEO Kevin System confirmed its forthcoming launch.

Tweeting our article, Systrom wrote “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.”

Now we have our first look at the tool via Jane Manchun Wong, who’s recently become one of TechCrunch’s favorite sources thanks to her skills at digging new features out of apps’ Android APK code. Though Usage Insights might change before an official launch, these screenshots give us an idea of what Instagram will include. We’ve reached out to Instagram for comment, and will update if we hear back.

This unlaunched version of Instagram’s Usage Insights tool offers users a daily tally of their minutes spent on the app. They’ll be able to set a time spent daily limit, and get a reminder once they exceed that. There’s also a shortcut to manage Instagram’s notifications so the app is less interruptive. Instagram has been spotted testing a new hamburger button that opens a slide-out navigation menu on the profile. That might be where the link for Usage Insights shows up, judging by this screenshot.

Instagram doesn’t appear to be going so far as to lock you out of the app after your limit, or fading it to grayscale which might annoy advertisers and businesses. But offering a handy way to monitor your usage that isn’t buried in your operating system’s settings could make users more mindful.

Instagram has an opportunity to be a role model here, especially if it gives its Usage Insights feature sharper teeth. For example,  rather than a single notification when you hit your daily limit, it could remind you every 15 minutes after, or create some persistent visual flag so you know you’ve broken your self-imposed rule.

Instagram has already started to push users towards healthier behavior with a “You’re all caught up” notice when you’ve seen everything in your feed and should stop scrolling.

I expect more apps to attempt to self-police with tools like these rather than leaving themselves at the mercy of iOS’s Screen Time and Android’s Digital Wellbeing features that offer more drastic ways to enforce your own good intentions.

Both let you see overall usage of your phone and stats about individual apps. iOS lets you easily dismiss alerts about hitting your daily limit in an app but delivers a weekly usage report (ironically via notification), while Android will gray out an app’s icon and force you to go to your settings to unlock an app once you exceed your limit.

For Android users especially, Instagram wants to avoid looking like such a time sink that you put one of those hard limits on your use. In that sense, self-policing shows both empathy for its users’ mental health, but is also a self-preservation strategy. With Instagram slated to launch a long-form video hub that could drive even longer session times this week, Usage Insights could be seen as either hypocritical or more necessary than ever.

New time management tools coming to iOS (left) and Android (right). Images via The VergeInstagram is one of the world’s most beloved apps, but also one of the most easily abused. From envy spiraling as you watch the highlights of your friends’ lives to body image issues propelled by its endless legions of models, there are plenty of ways to make yourself feel bad scrolling the Insta feed. And since there’s so little text, no links, and few calls for participation, it’s easy to zombie-browse in the passive way research shows is most dangerous.

We’re in a crisis of attention. Mobile app business models often rely on maximizing our time spent to maximize their ad or in-app purchase revenue. But carrying the bottomless temptation of the Internet in our pockets threatens to leave us distracted, less educated, and depressed. We’ve evolved to crave dopamine hits from blinking lights and novel information, but never had such an endless supply.

There’s value to connecting with friends by watching their days unfold through Instagram and other apps. But tech giants are thankfully starting to be held responsible for helping us balance that with living our own lives.

How Instagram’s algorithm works

Instagram users were missing 70 percent of all posts and 50 percent of their friends’ posts before the app ditched the reverse chronological feed for an algorithm in July 2016. Despite backlash about confusing ordering, Instagram now says relevancy sorting has led to its 800 million-plus users seeing 90 percent of their friends’ posts and spending more time on the app.

Yet Instagram has never explained exactly how the algorithm chooses what to show you until today. The Facebook-owned company assembled a group of reporters at its under-construction new San Francisco office to take the lid off the Instagram feed ranking algorithm.

Instagram product lead Julian Gutman explains the algorithm

Instagram’s feed ranking criteria

Instagram relies on machine learning based on your past behavior to create a unique feed for everyone. Even if you follow the exact same accounts as someone else, you’ll get a personalized feed based on how you interact with those accounts.

Three main factors determine what you see in your Instagram feed:

  1. Interest: How much Instagram predicts you’ll care about a post, with higher ranking for what matters to you, determined by past behavior on similar content and potentially machine vision analyzing the actual content of the post.
  2. Recency: How recently the post was shared, with prioritization for timely posts over weeks-old ones.
  3. Relationship: How close you are to the person who shared it, with higher ranking for people you’ve interacted with a lot in the past on Instagram, such as by commenting on their posts or being tagged together in photos.

Beyond those core factors, three additional signals that influence rankings are:

  • Frequency: How often you open Instagram, as it will try to show you the best posts since your last visit.
  • Following: If you follow a lot of people, Instagram will be picking from a wider breadth of authors so you might see less of any specific person.
  • Usage: How long you spend on Instagram determines if you’re just seeing the best posts during short sessions, or it’s digging deeper into its catalog if you spend more total time browsing.

Instagram mythbusting

Instagram’s team also responded to many of the most common questions and conspiracy theories about how its feed works. TechCrunch can’t verify the accuracy of these claims, but this is what Instagram’s team told us:

  • Instagram is not at this time considering an option to see the old reverse chronological feed because it doesn’t want to add more complexity (users might forget what feed they’re set to), but it is listening to users who dislike the algorithm.
  • Instagram does not hide posts in the feed, and you’ll see everything posted by everyone you follow if you keep scrolling.
  • Feed ranking does not favor the photo or video format universally, but people’s feeds are tuned based on what kind of content they engage with, so if you never stop to watch videos you might see fewer of them.
  • Instagram’s feed doesn’t favor users who use Stories, Live, or other special features of the app.
  • Instagram doesn’t downrank users for posting too frequently or for other specific behaviors, but it might swap in other content in between someone’s if they rapid-fire separate posts.
  • Instagram doesn’t give extra feed presence to personal accounts or business accounts, so switching won’t help your reach.
  • Shadowbanning is not a real thing, and Instagram says it doesn’t hide people’s content for posting too many hashtags or taking other actions.

Today’s Instagram whiteboard session with reporters, its first, should go a long way to clearing up misunderstandings about how it works. When people feel confident that their posts will reach their favorite people, that they can reliably build a public audience, and that they’ll always see great content, they’ll open the app more often.

Yet on the horizon looms a problem similar to what Facebook’s algorithm experienced around 2015: competition reduces reach. As more users and businesses join Instagram and post more often, but feed browsing time stays stable per user, the average post will get drowned out and receive fewer views. People will inevitably complain that Instagram is trying to force them to buy ads, but it’s a natural and inevitable consequence of increasingly popular algorithmic feeds.

The more Instagram can disarm that problem by pushing excess content creation to Stories and educating users about how the feed operates, the less they’ll complain. Facebook is already uncool, so Instagram must stay in our good graces.

Teens dump Facebook for YouTube, Instagram and Snapchat

A Pew survey of teens and the ways they use technology finds that kids have largely ditched Facebook for the visually stimulating alternatives of Snapchat, YouTube and Instagram. Nearly half said they’re online “almost constantly,” which will probably be used as a source of FUD, but really is just fine. Even teens, bless their honest little hearts, have doubts about whether social media is good or evil.

The survey is the first by Pew since 2015, and plenty has changed. The one that has driven the most change seems to be the ubiquity and power of smartphones, which 95 percent of respondents said they had access to. Fewer, especially among lower income families, had laptops and desktops.

This mobile-native cohort has opted for mobile-native content and apps, which means highly visual and easily browsable. That’s much more the style on the top three apps: YouTube takes first place with 85 percent reporting they use it, then Instagram at 72 percent, and Snapchat at 69.

Facebook, at 51 percent, is a far cry from the 71 percent who used it back in 2015, when it was top of the heap by far. Interestingly, the 51 percent average is not representative of any of the income groups polled; 36 percent of higher income households used it, while 70 percent of teens from lower income households did.

What could account for this divergence? The latest and greatest hardware isn’t required to run the top three apps, nor (necessarily) an expensive data plan. With no data to go on from the surveys and no teens nearby to ask, I’ll leave this to the professionals to look into. No doubt Facebook will be interested to learn this — though who am I kidding, it probably knows already. (There’s even a teen tutorial.)

Twice as many teens reported being “online constantly,” but really, it’s hard to say when any of us is truly “offline.” Teens aren’t literally looking at their phones all day, much as that may seem to be the case, but they — and the rest of us — are rarely more than a second or two away from checking messages, looking something up and so on. I’m surprised the “constantly” number isn’t higher, honestly.

Gaming is still dominated by males, almost all of whom play in some fashion, but 83 percent of teen girls also said they gamed, so the gap is closing.

When asked whether social media had a positive or negative effect, teens were split. They valued it for connecting with friends and family, finding news and information and meeting new people. But they decried its use in bullying and spreading rumors, its complicated effect on in-person relationships and how it distracts from and distorts real life.

Here are some quotes from real teens demonstrating real insight.

Those who feel it has an overall positive effect:

  • “I feel that social media can make people my age feel less lonely or alone. It creates a space where you can interact with people.”
  • “My mom had to get a ride to the library to get what I have in my hand all the time. She reminds me of that a lot.”
  • “We can connect easier with people from different places and we are more likely to ask for help through social media which can save people.”
  • “It has given many kids my age an outlet to express their opinions and emotions, and connect with people who feel the same way.”

And those who feel it’s negative:

  • “People can say whatever they want with anonymity and I think that has a negative impact.”
  • “Gives people a bigger audience to speak and teach hate and belittle each other.”
  • “It makes it harder for people to socialize in real life, because they become accustomed to not interacting with people in person.”
  • “Because teens are killing people all because of the things they see on social media or because of the things that happened on social media.”

That last one is scary.

You can read the rest of the report and scrutinize Pew’s methodology here.

Facebook, Google face first GDPR complaints over “forced consent”

After two years coming down the pipe at tech giants, Europe’s new privacy framework, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), is now being applied — and long time Facebook privacy critic, Max Schrems, has wasted no time in filing four complaints relating to (certain) companies’ ‘take it or leave it’ stance when it comes to consent.

The complaints have been filed on behalf of (unnamed) individual users — with one filed against Facebook; one against Facebook-owned Instagram; one against Facebook-owned WhatsApp; and one against Google’s Android.

Schrems argues that the companies are using a strategy of “forced consent” to continue processing the individuals’ personal data — when in fact the law requires that users be given a free choice unless a consent is strictly necessary for provision of the service. (And, well, Facebook claims its core product is social networking — rather than farming people’s personal data for ad targeting.)

“It’s simple: Anything strictly necessary for a service does not need consent boxes anymore. For everything else users must have a real choice to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’,” Schrems writes in a statement.

“Facebook has even blocked accounts of users who have not given consent,” he adds. “In the end users only had the choice to delete the account or hit the “agree”-button — that’s not a free choice, it more reminds of a North Korean election process.”

We’ve reached out to all the companies involved for comment and will update this story with any response.

The European privacy campaigner most recently founded a not-for-profit digital rights organization to focus on strategic litigation around the bloc’s updated privacy framework, and the complaints have been filed via this crowdfunded NGO — which is called noyb (aka ‘none of your business’).

As we pointed out in our GDPR explainer, the provision in the regulation allowing for collective enforcement of individuals’ data rights in an important one, with the potential to strengthen the implementation of the law by enabling non-profit organizations such as noyb to file complaints on behalf of individuals — thereby helping to redress the imbalance between corporate giants and consumer rights.

That said, the GDPR’s collective redress provision is a component that Member States can choose to derogate from, which helps explain why the first four complaints have been filed with data protection agencies in Austria, Belgium, France and Hamburg in Germany — regions that also have data protection agencies with a strong record defending privacy rights.

Given that the Facebook companies involved in these complaints have their European headquarters in Ireland it’s likely the Irish data protection agency will get involved too. And it’s fair to say that, within Europe, Ireland does not have a strong reputation for defending data protection rights.

But the GDPR allows for DPAs in different jurisdictions to work together in instances where they have joint concerns and where a service crosses borders — so noyb’s action looks intended to test this element of the new framework too.

Under the penalty structure of GDPR, major violations of the law can attract fines as large as 4% of a company’s global revenue which, in the case of Facebook or Google, implies they could be on the hook for more than a billion euros apiece — if they are deemed to have violated the law, as the complaints argue.

That said, given how freshly fixed in place the rules are, some EU regulators may well tread softly on the enforcement front — at least in the first instances, to give companies some benefit of the doubt and/or a chance to make amends to come into compliance if they are deemed to be falling short of the new standards.

However, in instances where companies themselves appear to be attempting to deform the law with a willfully self-serving interpretation of the rules, regulators may feel they need to act swiftly to nip any disingenuousness in the bud.

“We probably will not immediately have billions of penalty payments, but the corporations have intentionally violated the GDPR, so we expect a corresponding penalty under GDPR,” writes Schrems.

Only yesterday, for example, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg — speaking in an on stage interview at the VivaTech conference in Paris — claimed his company hasn’t had to make any radical changes to comply with GDPR, and further claimed that a “vast majority” of Facebook users are willingly opting in to targeted advertising via its new consent flow.

“We’ve been rolling out the GDPR flows for a number of weeks now in order to make sure that we were doing this in a good way and that we could take into account everyone’s feedback before the May 25 deadline. And one of the things that I’ve found interesting is that the vast majority of people choose to opt in to make it so that we can use the data from other apps and websites that they’re using to make ads better. Because the reality is if you’re willing to see ads in a service you want them to be relevant and good ads,” said Zuckerberg.

He did not mention that the dominant social network does not offer people a free choice on accepting or declining targeted advertising. The new consent flow Facebook revealed ahead of GDPR only offers the ‘choice’ of quitting Facebook entirely if a person does not want to accept targeting advertising. Which, well, isn’t much of a choice given how powerful the network is. (Additionally, it’s worth pointing out that Facebook continues tracking non-users — so even deleting a Facebook account does not guarantee that Facebook will stop processing your personal data.)

Asked about how Facebook’s business model will be affected by the new rules, Zuckerberg essentially claimed nothing significant will change — “because giving people control of how their data is used has been a core principle of Facebook since the beginning”.

“The GDPR adds some new controls and then there’s some areas that we need to comply with but overall it isn’t such a massive departure from how we’ve approached this in the past,” he claimed. “I mean I don’t want to downplay it — there are strong new rules that we’ve needed to put a bunch of work into into making sure that we complied with — but as a whole the philosophy behind this is not completely different from how we’ve approached things.

“In order to be able to give people the tools to connect in all the ways they want and build committee a lot of philosophy that is encoded in a regulation like GDPR is really how we’ve thought about all this stuff for a long time. So I don’t want to understate the areas where there are new rules that we’ve had to go and implement but I also don’t want to make it seem like this is a massive departure in how we’ve thought about this stuff.”

Zuckerberg faced a range of tough questions on these points from the EU parliament earlier this week. But he avoided answering them in any meaningful detail.

So EU regulators are essentially facing a first test of their mettle — i.e. whether they are willing to step up and defend the line of the law against big tech’s attempts to reshape it in their business model’s image.

Privacy laws are nothing new in Europe but robust enforcement of them would certainly be a breath of fresh air. And now at least, thanks to GDPR, there’s a penalties structure in place to provide incentives as well as teeth, and spin up a market around strategic litigation — with Schrems and noyb in the vanguard.

Schrems also makes the point that small startups and local companies are less likely to be able to use the kind of strong-arm ‘take it or leave it’ tactics on users that big tech is able to use to extract consent on account of the reach and power of their platforms — arguing there’s a competition concern that GDPR should also help to redress.

“The fight against forced consent ensures that the corporations cannot force users to consent,” he writes. “This is especially important so that monopolies have no advantage over small businesses.”

Image credit: noyb.eu

Whitney Wolfe Herd doesn’t care what she’s supposed to do

It’s 4:55pm Central Time on a Tuesday at Bumble headquarters in Austin, Texas. Whitney Wolfe Herd, the 28-year-old founder and CEO of the woman-led dating app is showing me around the nearly four-year-old startup’s office before we sit down to talk.

Our first stop is the standard startup watering hole, with a few twists. The fridges are stocked with Topo Chico instead of La Croix and the built-in taps are purely for decoration. Maybe one day they’ll be filled with Kombucha or iced coffee, a team member tells me. But no mention of beer. We’re not in Silicon Valley anymore.

As Wolfe Herd pours two glasses of white wine and plops in a few ice cubes, she briefly pauses to ask if I’m okay with the drink selection. Her question quickly caused my mind to wander back to my 21st birthday when a waiter told me men aren’t supposed to drink white wine with ice cubes.

There was perhaps no better way to begin my time with Wolfe Herd than a reminder that no matter how many hundreds of millions of woman-initiated matches have been made on Bumble, the company still exists in a world so ingrained with gender stereotypes that we couldn’t get through pouring a drink before the first one reared its head.

Luckily for me and my unsophisticated palate, I’d soon learn that Whitney Wolfe Herd doesn’t particularly care what people think that she or Bumble are supposed to do, let alone what we should be drinking.

‘I’m not building a dating app’

Bumble isn’t Wolfe Herd’s first exposure to the world of digital dating and connections. She moved to Los Angeles in 2012 and became an early co-founder of Tinder, but eventually left the company amid allegations of sexual harassment and discrimination against another one of the company’s co-founders. The lawsuit was settled, and while the past is the past, the history does help set the stage for the idea that would eventually turn into Bumble.

“I was just poof, gone, ceased to exist. It was like leaving behind an abandoned life, fleeing from the storm or whatever it was,” explained Wolfe Herd when talking about leaving Los Angeles after her time at Tinder. “I was experiencing all this, and then the Twitterverse and the Instagram world and the online sphere started attacking me. And I had never really understood online bullying. I didn’t even know what that meant or what it felt like. It made me really depressed.”

As successful entrepreneurs are known to do, Wolfe Herd soon began figuring out a way to leverage these closely held personal experiences into a new product. Her solution was Merci, a female-only social network “rooted in compliments and kindness and good behavior.”

Original mockup of Bumble, then known as Merci

While she was building out the idea, Andrey Andreev, founder and CEO of Badoo, the largest dating platform in the world, contacted her. Little did Wolfe Herd know, but Andreev saw her departure from Tinder as an opportunity, inviting her to meet the Badoo team in London where it had been based for more than 10 years. After some reluctance on Wolfe Herd’s part, she decided to go for it. After all, she was looking for feedback on her Merci idea, and worst-case she’d at least leave with a better idea of what she wanted to build next.

But Andreev had other plans. During their first meeting he frankly asked Wolfe Herd to become the chief marketing officer of Badoo.

She didn’t even consider the offer. First, it would have required her to move to London and, more importantly she was adamant about never working in the dating world again. With the CMO offer in the meeting’s rearview mirror, Wolfe Herd shifted the conversation to Merci, and gave Andreev a deep dive into her idea for a woman-only social network grounded in compliments and positive feedback.

“I love it,” Andreev said. “We’re going to name the dating app Merci.”

She was aghast, even in her retelling of the story.

“The what? What are you talking about? Did you hear what I said? I’m not building a dating app. Merci is the name of my female-only social network.”  

Andreev clarified: “I love your vision for a female-first platform, but you need to do this in dating.”

He essentially offered her the funding she needed to get the app off the ground, and, perhaps more importantly, full access to Badoo’s technical team to build and ship it. Plus, full creative control and decision-making ability regarding the direction of the new company.

From L-R: Whitney Wolfe Herd, Andrey Andreev and Sarah Jones Simmer, Bumble’s COO

But Wolfe Herd had no interest in building such an app, and Andreev had no interest in getting involved with a new social network. So she headed home, all the more determined to make Merci the next big thing. But the offer from Andreev was still lingering in the back of her mind.

“My husband, boyfriend, whatever you want to call him — Michael, we’ll just call him Michael,” Wolfe Herd told me. “Michael was like, ‘Whit, this opportunity doesn’t strike twice. You’re going to try and raise money right now? You’re literally a scorned seductress, according to the VC community right now. Good luck to you. I know you don’t have the backbone right now,’ because I had been so depleted and I was so low on myself.”

With the encouragement of her then-boyfriend (now husband) Michael Herd, she decided that Andreev’s offer was too good to pass up, and headed back to London, where she essentially made a handshake deal with him to build this new woman-first dating app.

Bumble was born

The company would exist as a new entity with 20 percent ownership belonging to Wolfe Herd, 79 percent to Badoo and 1 percent divided between Christopher Gulczynski and Sarah Mick, two early consultants who went on to join full-time after the company was up and running. Briefly named Moxie, the group settled on Bumble after a trademark search turned up conflicts.

Bumble would be run independently from Austin, Texas, with the ability to tap into Andreev and Badoo’s years of experience in the dating industry when needed. It certainly wasn’t a typical arrangement, especially in the world of tech startups where, in order to build a successful company, you’re supposed to rally a group of two to three co-founders, raise a seed round, then a Series A and so on.

But now, four years and 30 million users later, Bumble’s cap table looks exactly the same as it did the day the company was founded. Wolfe Herd’s 20 percent undiluted founder’s stake is evidence that an atypical path was right for Bumble.

A startup office with no engineers

It quickly becomes apparent to me as a technology writer walking through Bumble’s Austin headquarters that this isn’t your typical startup office. It looks and feels much more like a living room than any sort of standard tech office environment.

For a small space that is now overflowing with more than 50 employees, there are only about 25 desks, and most of those remained empty during my two-day visit. Everyone seems to prefer rotating through conference rooms, counters, coffee tables, floors and the largest couch I’ve ever seen, which sits in a semicircle ready to comfortably fit upwards of 30 people, if needed.

“I believe in taking people away from their desks and making them feel collaborative and inspire one another instead of being siloed,” she explained.

While the setup may not work for some companies, it certainly does for Bumble. But that doesn’t mean everyone agrees. Wolfe Herd explained that they had to rotate through multiple designers before settling on one that aligned with her vision.

“So many people wanted to make it hyper functional and minimalistic and stark…almost cold,” she told me. “I didn’t want it to feel that way. I wanted it to feel welcoming and warm and do it differently.”

The design isn’t the only thing that stands out when walking through Bumble’s office. It also doesn’t have a single engineer.

Just like Andreev promised Wolfe Herd when they first decided to build Bumble, all engineering is still handled in Badoo’s London offices. While some technology veterans may bash Bumble for offloading their engineering to their parent company, she is unapologetic about the benefits and practicality of the arrangement.

“Had I gone out and tried to do this on my own with no tech support, Bumble would be a year-and-a-half behind. Think of all the marriages and babies and connections we’ve made [in that time],” explained Wolfe Herd.    

She continued: “It’s like building a road. If you can get the materials from someone quicker that will make people’s lives easier, why would you say, ‘No, I want to build this with my own two hands,’ just to be able to say I did?”

I asked Wolfe Herd if there are ever times when their team has wished that their developers were sitting in the next room, standing by for a product consultation or roadmapping session.

But Wolfe Herd actually attributes much of Bumble’s success to working in an environment devoid of a dev team. Specifically, she explained that it gave her team the creative freedom to allow Bumble’s message and brand to drive the product, and not vice versa. By letting branding take the front seat instead of product, Bumble leapfrogged the “connections app” phase and became a lifestyle brand.

“How do you have different touch points in a user’s life? How do you reach them on their drive home from work? How do you talk to them on social media? How do you make them feel special? How do you add your brand into their different touch points?” Wolfe Herd says. Her original vision was to build a social network rooted in positivity and affirmations, but asking (and answering) these questions has allowed her to help in building a whole world for Bumble users rooted in positivity and affirmations.

Versace, Balenciaga, Bumble

Last summer if you happened to be walking through New York’s trendy Soho neighborhood you may have noticed a new tenant sandwiched between Versace and Balenciaga on Mercer Street.

In a first for a dating app and pretty much any social app, Bumble opened a physical space as an attempt to formalize the community that was naturally forming around it. At the time she told me that the opening coincided with Bumble’s brand becoming something that people are now proud to associate with in real life.

Bumble’s New York City Hive

This message was repeatedly echoed to me by others around Wolfe Herd, and it seems to be one of the internal barometers the company uses to track its success. Samantha Fulgham, Bumble’s second employee who now leads campus marketing and outreach, explained how male college students are now applying to become ambassadors, interns and even full-time employees.

“We tried to [have male students be campus ambassadors] in the U.S. probably two years ago. They didn’t really want to do it, because they thought it was a girl thing. Now we’re trying it again in Canada and we’ve already had so many guys asking how they can work for Bumble… saying, ‘I want to be a part of this company.’”

And it’s not just college students champing at the bit to associate themselves with the brand. When Bumble launched its business networking product last fall, the startup’s NY launch party was attended by Priyanka Chopra, Kate Hudson and Karlie Kloss, while the L.A. event hosted Gwyneth Paltrow, Jennifer Garner and Kim Kardashian West.

Bumble Bizz’s NYC Launch Party. From L-R: Whitney Wolfe Herd, Priyanka Chopra, Karlie Kloss, Fergie and Kate Hudson. By Neil Rasmus/BFA.com.

A digital response to a real problem

Bumble has been able to grow into the company it is today because it was founded on the basic principle of taking a stance on a contested issue: Women were never supposed to make the first move. But Bumble didn’t stop there, and under Wolfe Herd the startup has been very vocal about making sure they are using their voice to address issues that other companies are taught to avoid taking a stance on.  

In the wake of the Stoneman Douglas school shooting, Bumble did something that breaks just about every rule taught in marketing and PR 101: The dating app very publicly decided to insert itself right in the middle of our nation’s ongoing gun debate by banning images of guns on its platform.

“We just want to create a community where people feel at ease, where they do not feel threatened, and we just don’t see guns fitting into that equation,” Wolfe Herd told The New York Times after the ban.

She told me at the time that the move shouldn’t be seen as Bumble taking a hard stance against guns or gun owners, but rather taking a hard stance against normalizing violence on their platform.

While an outsider may have been surprised to see such a fast-growing company break the status quo and decide to take a stance on a political issue, those who know Wolfe Herd will say that doing things like this is exactly why Bumble has become so successful in such a short amount of time.

What’s next?

For an industry that’s been around since the beginning of time, matchmaking sure is having its moment. And even the big players want a piece of the action; Facebook has announced it’s expanding into the dating space. So how does Bumble, a barely four-year-old, non-venture-backed company take advantage of all this attention while simultaneously defending itself from the threat of big players entering the space?

Over the summer we reported that Tinder’s parent company Match was set on acquiring Bumble, first at a $450 million valuation, then a few months later at “well over” $1 billion. It would have been an ironic ending for a company that was at least partially founded because of Wolfe Herd’s negative experiences surrounding her time at Tinder and Match.

Ultimately negotiations fell through between the two companies, and from there things escalated quickly. In March, Match sued Bumble for “patent infringement and misuse of intellectual property,” and a few weeks later Bumble sued Match for fraudulently obtaining trade secrets during the acquisition process. Both lawsuits are still making their way through the courts, but it’s safe to say that a deal between the two is off the table for the foreseeable future.

So what’s next for Bumble? The company is profitable and self-sustaining, and has no need to take on capital or sell itself. But Wolfe Herd acknowledged that the right acquirer may allow them to fulfill their goal of “recalibrating gender norms and empowering people to connect globally” at a much faster pace.

Wolfe Herd explained: “If the right opportunity presents itself, we’ll absolutely explore that and we’ll absolutely always explore the best way to take what we’re trying to do and what our mission is and what our values are. If we can be acquired, that will help us scale 10 times faster and that’s something that’s interesting to us, right?”

But she was also clear that cash isn’t what they’re looking for. “We would only ever consider an acquisition of sorts that brings strategic intellectual capital to the table, strategic knowledge of new markets that we have not yet gone into, and added value in ways that supersedes just straight cash,” said Wolfe Herd.

To the casual observer it sounds a lot like Facebook and its 2+ billion active users could do a pretty good job helping Bumble quickly spread its message around the world.

And Bumble seems to agree. After Facebook’s announcement about its dating play, Bumble issued a statement saying, “We were thrilled when we saw today’s news. Our executive team has already reached out to Facebook to explore ways to collaborate. Perhaps Bumble and Facebook can join forces to make the connecting space even more safe and empowering.”

In a conversation with me following the announcement, Wolfe Herd said that Facebook’s expansion into dating “is actually super exciting for the industry, because if you look at the history of Facebook when it comes to building their own products versus acquiring, they oftentimes attempt to build their own. If those products don’t successfully come to market, there’s usually a transition into acquisition. Who knows what will happen?”

So if Facebook comes knocking, don’t be surprised if Bumble answers… and quickly. But if they don’t, then current indicators are that Bumble will be just fine.

In just four years the company has flipped the switch on app-based dating, taking something that was once taboo and making it something that users are proud to associate with. So luckily for the more than 30 million women (and men) who have used Bumble to break gender stereotypes and make over 2 billion matches on their own terms, Whitney Wolfe Herd didn’t care what she or her company were supposed to do.

Instagram quietly launches payments for commerce

Get ready to shop the ‘Gram. Instagram just stealthily added a native payments feature to its app for some users. It lets you register a debit or credit card as part of a profile, set up a security pin, then start buying things without ever leaving Instagram. Not having to leave for a separate website and enter payment information any time you want to purchase something could make Instagram a much bigger player in commerce.

TechCrunch reader Genady Okrain first tipped us off to the payment feature. When we asked Instagram, a spokesperson confirmed that native payments for booking appointments like at restaurants or salons is now live for a limited set of partners.

One of the first equipped is dinner reservation app Resy. Some of its clients’ Instagram Pages now offer this native payment for booking. And in the future, Instagram says you can expect direct payments for things like movie tickets through the app. Instagram initially announced in March 2017 that “we’ll roll out the ability to book a service with a business directly from their profile later this year,” but never mentioned native payments.

Instagram’s native appointment booking

We’ve confirmed that the payment settings are now visible; some, but not all, users in the U.S. have it while at least some in the U.K. don’t. A tap through to the terms of service reveals that Instagram Payments are backed by Facebook’s Payments rules.

With its polished pictures and plethora of brands, shopping through Instagram could prove popular and give businesses a big new reason to advertise on the app. If they can get higher conversion rates because people don’t quit in the middle of checkout as the fill in their payment info, brands might prefer to push people to buy via Instagram.

Instagram’s existing Shoppable Tags feature forces you out to a business’ website to make a purchase, unlike the new payments feature

Facebook started dabbling in native commerce around 2013, and eventually started rolling out peer-to-peer payments through Messenger. But native payment for shopping is still in closed beta in the chat app. It’s unclear if peer-to-peer payments might come to Instagram, but having a way to add a credit or debit card on file is a critical building block to that feature.

It’s possible that the payments option will work with Instagram’s “Shoppable Tags,” which first started testing in 2016 to let you see which products were in a post and tap through to buy them on the brand’s site. Since then, Instagram has partnered with storefront platforms BigCommerce and Shopify to get their clients hooked up, and expanded the feature to more countries in March. For now, though, none of Instagram’s previous shopping feature partners like Warby Parker or Kate Spade let you checkout within Instagram, and still send you to their site.

But the whole point of Instagram not allowing links in captions is to keep you in a smooth, uninterrupted browsing flow. Getting booted out to the web to buy something broke that. Instagram Payments could make impulse buys much quicker, enticing more businesses to get on board. Even if Instagram takes no cut of the revenue, brands are likely to boost ad spend to get their shoppable posts seen by more people if the native payments mean more of them actually complete a purchase.

Instagram isn’t the only one who sees this potential. Snapchat started testing its own native payments and checkout feature in February.

Facebook Stories adds funky AR drawing and Instagram’s Boomerang

You’ll soon be able to draw on the world around you and shoot back-and-forth Instagram Boomerang GIFs with the Facebook Camera. Bringing additional creative tools to the Facebook Camera could make it a more popular place to shoot content and help the company compete with Snapchat.

“We wanted to give people an easy way to create with augmented reality and draw in the world around them” says John Barnett, a Facebook Camera Product Manager about the feature it calls “3D drawing”. It’s rolling out to users over the coming weeks. Matt Navarra first spotted the features.

With AR drawing, you can scribble on the world around you, then move your camera and see the markings stay in place. It’s a fun way to add graffiti that only exists inside your screen. You can add the drawings before or while you’re recording, allowing you to draw on something out of frame, then pan or unzoom to reveal it. Facebook will eventually add more brushes beyond the pastel gradient colors seen here.

Facebook tells me the technology understands the corners and objects in the room to create a 3D spec. Facebook could that use that to detect surfaces like walls and tables to wrap the drawing onto them. Currently, it only does that when it’s confident about the object recognition, such as in optimal light conditions.

Since drawing is a universal language, the feature could make AR easy to use for younger users and Internet novices. Facebook launched its AR effects at F8 last April, and has recently added AR tracker target experiences that are triggered by real-world posters or QR codes. It all started with the company acquiring fledgling AR masks startup MSQRD in 2016.

Facebook added looping GIF creation to the Facebook Camera a year ago, but those can feel a bit jarring since they start back at the beginning once they end. Some users no longer have that GIF option, so it’s potentially being replaced by Boomerang’s established brand and more silky back-and-forth animated video clips. Facebook confirms that this feature is now rolling out to the Facebook Camera.

As we reported last week, Facebook is determined to make Stories work. Despite the criticism of it being a rip-off of Snapchat and redundant given Instagram Stories, Facebook is trying new ways to make Stories more popular an accessible. That includes tests of Stories as the default destination for content shot with the Facebook Camera, showing bigger tiles with previews of Stories atop the News Feed, and showing a camera and camera roll preview window when you open the status composer. Those, combined with these new features, could give Facebook Stories a boost in utility and visibility.

Facebook believes social media is on an inevitable journey from text to photos to videos to Stories equipped with augmented reality. Since Snapchat refused its acquisition offers, Facebook is now on a quest to evolve into an AR company rather than having to buy a big one. It remains to be seen whether users think AR is a novelty or a core utility, but Facebook won’t wait to find out.

First look at Instagram Nametags, its clone of Snapchat QR codes

Instagram is preparing to launch a feature called Nametags that lets you create a special image that people can scan with the Instagram Stories camera to follow you. TechCrunch broke the news of Nametags code in Instagram’s Android APK last month. But now thanks to reader Genady Okrain we have screenshots and more details of the Instagram Nametags feature.

Nametags could make it easier for people to visually promote their Instagram account. It could make it simple to follow a friend you just met by having them open their Nametag and then you scanning it. Meanwhile, businesses and social media stars could post their Nametag across other social media handles, print it onto posters or handbills or even make merchandise out of it.

An Instagram spokesperson confirmed to TechCrunch that it is testing the Nametags feature. Instagram’s been spotted doing a flurry of feature development lately. TechCrunch has reported that code for an Instagram Video Calling feature was found in its Android APK. Meanwhile, it’s testing a Portrait mode feature called Focus.

Once users have access, they’ll be able to hit a QR scanner button on their profile to bring up the Nametag editor. They can then choose from a purple Instagram color gradient background, a pattern of one emoji they choose or a selfie they can jazz up with augmented reality face filters that then becomes an emoji pattern. The user’s Instagram username appears in the center. For now, users in the test group can’t share or scan Nametags. But the code we discovered explains that users can scan them to follow people.

Snapchat in January 2015 launched its own Snapcodes that work similarly, meaning Instagram took its time copying this feature. But with social media stars and businesses banished to Snapchat’s Discover channel, those accounts might be looking to prioritize promoting their Instagram accounts. If creators find it easier to build an audience on Instagram and get more engagement there, they could give the Facebook-owned app their first-run content. The eventual launch of Nametags could give them one more reason to use Snapchat copycat Instagram Stories instead of the original.

For more on upcoming Instagram features, check out our other stories on Focus and Video Calling

First look at Instagram Nametags, its clone of Snapchat QR codes

Instagram is preparing to launch a feature called Nametags that lets you create a special image that people can scan with the Instagram Stories camera to follow you. TechCrunch broke the news of Nametags code in Instagram’s Android APK last month. But now thanks to reader Genady Okrain we have screenshots and more details of the Instagram Nametags feature.

Nametags could make it easier for people to visually promote their Instagram account. It could make it simple to follow a friend you just met by having them open their Nametag and then you scanning it. Meanwhile, businesses and social media stars could post their Nametag across other social media handles, print it onto posters or handbills or even make merchandise out of it.

An Instagram spokesperson confirmed to TechCrunch that it is testing the Nametags feature. Instagram’s been spotted doing a flurry of feature development lately. TechCrunch has reported that code for an Instagram Video Calling feature was found in its Android APK. Meanwhile, it’s testing a Portrait mode feature called Focus.

Once users have access, they’ll be able to hit a QR scanner button on their profile to bring up the Nametag editor. They can then choose from a purple Instagram color gradient background, a pattern of one emoji they choose or a selfie they can jazz up with augmented reality face filters that then becomes an emoji pattern. The user’s Instagram username appears in the center. For now, users in the test group can’t share or scan Nametags. But the code we discovered explains that users can scan them to follow people.

Snapchat in January 2015 launched its own Snapcodes that work similarly, meaning Instagram took its time copying this feature. But with social media stars and businesses banished to Snapchat’s Discover channel, those accounts might be looking to prioritize promoting their Instagram accounts. If creators find it easier to build an audience on Instagram and get more engagement there, they could give the Facebook-owned app their first-run content. The eventual launch of Nametags could give them one more reason to use Snapchat copycat Instagram Stories instead of the original.

For more on upcoming Instagram features, check out our other stories on Focus and Video Calling