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

Maybe we shouldn’t use Zoom after all

Now that we’re all stuck at home thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, video calls have gone from a novelty to a necessity. Zoom, the popular videoconferencing service, seems to be doing better than most and has quickly become one of, if not the most, popular option going.

But should it be?

Zoom’s recent popularity has also shone a spotlight on the company’s security protections and privacy promises. Just today, The Intercept reported that Zoom video calls are not end-to-end encrypted, despite the company’s claims that they are.

And Motherboard reports that Zoom is leaking the email addresses of “at least a few thousand” people because personal addresses are treated as if they belong to the same company.

It’s the latest examples of the company having to spend the last year mopping up after a barrage of headlines examining the company’s practices and misleading marketing. To wit:

  • Apple was forced to step in to secure millions of Macs after a security researcher found Zoom failed to disclose that it installed a secret web server on users’ Macs, which Zoom failed to remove when the client was uninstalled. The researcher, Jonathan Leitschuh, said the web server meant any malicious website could activate Mac webcam with Zoom installed without the user’s permission. The researcher declined a bug bounty payout because Zoom wanted Leitschuh to sign a non-disclosure agreement, which would have prevented him from disclosing details of the bug.
  • Zoom was quietly sending data to Facebook about a user’s Zoom habits — even when the user does not have a Facebook account. Motherboard reported that the iOS app was notifying Facebook when they opened the app, the device model, which phone carrier they opened the app, and more. Zoom removed the code in response, but not fast enough to prevent a class action lawsuit or New York’s attorney general from launching an investigation.
  • Zoom came under fire again for its “attendee tracking” feature, which, when enabled, lets a host check if participants are clicking away from the main Zoom window during a call.
  • A security researcher found that the Zoom uses a “shady” technique to install its Mac app without user interaction. “The same tricks that are being used by macOS malware,” the researcher said.
  • On the bright side and to some users’ relief, we reported that it is in fact possible to join a Zoom video call without having to download or use the app. But Zoom’s “dark patterns” doesn’t make it easy to start a video call using just your browser.
  • Zoom has faced questions over its lack of transparency on law enforcement requests it receives. Access Now, a privacy and rights group, called on Zoom to release the number of requests it receives, just as Amazon, Google, Microsoft and many more tech giants report on a semi-annual basis.
  • Then there’s Zoombombing, where trolls take advantage of open or unprotected meetings and poor default settings to take over screen-sharing and broadcast porn or other explicit material. The FBI this week warned users to adjust their settings to avoid trolls hijacking video calls.
  • And Zoom tightened its privacy policy this week after it was criticized for allowing Zoom to collect information about users’ meetings — like videos, transcripts and shared notes — for advertising.

There are many more privacy-focused alternatives to Zoom. Three are several options, but they all have their pitfalls. FaceTime and WhatsApp are end-to-end encrypted, but FaceTime works only on Apple devices and WhatsApp is limited to just four video callers at a time. A lesser known video calling platform, Jitsi, is not end-to-end encrypted but it’s open source — so you can look at the code to make sure there are no backdoors — and it works across all devices and browsers. You can run Jitsi on a server you control for greater privacy.

In fairness, Zoom is not inherently bad and there are many reasons why Zoom is so popular. It’s easy to use, reliable and for the vast majority it’s incredibly convenient.

But Zoom’s misleading claims give users a false sense of security and privacy. Whether it’s hosting a virtual happy hour or a yoga class, or using Zoom for therapy or government cabinet meetings, everyone deserves privacy.

Now more than ever Zoom has a responsibility to its users. For now, Zoom at your own risk.

Security lapse exposed Republican voter firm’s internal app code

A voter contact and canvassing company, used exclusively by Republican political campaigns, mistakenly left an unprotected copy of its app’s code on its website for anyone to find.

The company, Campaign Sidekick, helps Republican campaigns canvass their districts using its iOS and Android apps, which pull in names and addresses from voter registration rolls. Campaign Sidekick says it has helped campaigns in Arizona, Montana, and Ohio — and contributed to the Brian Kemp campaign, which saw him narrowly win against Democratic rival Stacey Abrams in the Georgia gubernatorial campaign in 2018.

For the past two decades, political campaigns have ramped up their use of data to identify swing voters. This growing political data business has opened up a whole economy of startups and tech companies using data to help campaigns better understand their electorate. But that has led to voter records spilling out of unprotected servers and other privacy-related controversies — like the case of Cambridge Analytica obtaining private data from social media sites.

Chris Vickery, director of cyber risk research at security firm UpGuard, said he found the cache of Campaign Sidekick’s code by chance.

In his review of the code, Vickery found several instances of credentials and other app-related secrets, he said in a blog post on Monday, which he shared exclusively with TechCrunch. These secrets, such as keys and tokens, can typically be used to gain access to systems or data without a username or password. But Vickery did not test the password as doing so would be unlawful. Vickery also found a sampling of personally identifiable information, he said, amounting to dozens of spreadsheets packed with voter names and addresses.

Fearing the exposed credentials could be abused if accessed by a malicious actor, Vickery informed the company of the issue in mid-February. Campaign Sidekick quickly pulled the exposed cache of code offline.

One of the Campaign Sidekick mockups, using dummy data, collates a voter’s data in one place. (Image: supplied)

One of the screenshots provided by Vickery showed a mockup of a voter profile compiled by the app, containing basic information about the voter and their past voting and donor history, which can be obtained from public and voter records. The mockup also lists the voter’s “friends.”

Vickery told TechCrunch he found “clear evidence” that the app’s code was designed to pull in data from its now-defunct Facebook app, which allowed users to sign-in and pull their list of friends — a feature that was supported by Facebook at the time until limits were put on third-party developers’ access to friends’ data.

“There is clear evidence that Campaign Sidekick and related entities had and have used access to Facebook user data and APIs to query that data,” Vickery said.

Drew Ryun, founder of Campaign Sidekick, told TechCrunch that its Facebook project was from eight years prior, that Facebook had since deprecated access to developers, and that the screenshot was a “digital artifact of a mockup.” (TechCrunch confirmed that the data in the mockup did not match public records.)

Ryun said after he learned of the exposed data the company “immediately changed sensitive credentials for our current systems,” but that the credentials in the exposed code could have been used to access its databases storing user and voter data.

Social Bluebook was hacked, exposing 217,000 influencers’ accounts

A social media platform used to match advertisers with thousands of influencers has been hacked.

Social Bluebook, a Los Angeles-based company, allows advertisers to pay social media “influencers” for posts that promote their products and services. The company claims it has some 300,000 influencers on its books.

But in October 2019, the company’s entire backend database was stolen in a data breach.

TechCrunch obtained the database, which contains some 217,000 user accounts — including influencer names, email addresses, and passwords hashed, which had been scrambled using the strong SHA-2 hashing algorithm.

It’s not known how the database was exfiltrated from the company’s systems or who was behind the breach.

We contacted several users who when presented with their information confirmed it as accurate. We also provided a portion of the data to Social Bluebook co-founder Sam Michie for verification.

“We have just now become aware of this data breach that occurred in October 2019,” he told TechCrunch in an email Thursday.

He said affected users will be informed of the breach by email. The company also informed the California attorney general’s office of the breach, per state law.

Social media influencers are a constant target for hackers, who often try to hijack accounts with popular handles or high follower counts. Some influencers have relied on white-hat hackers to get their hijacked accounts back.

Last year, an Indian social media firm left a database of Instagram influencers online, which included phone numbers and email addresses scraped from their profiles.


Got a tip? You can send tips securely over Signal and WhatsApp to +1 646-755–8849. 

People who mostly get news from social networks have some COVID-19 misconceptions

A new survey conducted by the Pew Research Center shows a COVID-19 information divide between people who mostly get their news from social networks and those who rely on more traditional news sources.

Pew surveyed 8,914 adults in the U.S. during the week of March 10, dividing survey respondents by the main means they use to consume political and election news. In the group of users that reports getting most of their news from social media, only 37% of respondents said that they expected the COVID-19 vaccine to be available in a year or more — an answer aligned with the current scientific consensus. In every other sample with the exception of the local TV group, at least 50% of those surveyed answered the question correctly. A third of social media news consumers also reported that they weren’t sure about the vaccine availability.

Among people who get most of their news from social media, 57% reported that they had seen at least some COVID-19 information that “seemed completely made up.” For people who consume most of their news via print media, that number was 37%.

Most alarmingly, people who primarily get their news via social media perceived the threat of COVID-19 to be exaggerated. Of the social media news consumers surveyed, 45% answered that the media “greatly exaggerated the risks” posed by the novel coronavirus. Radio news consumers were close behind, with 44% believing the media greatly exaggerated the threat of the virus, while only 26% of print consumers — those more likely to be paying for their news — believed the same.

The full results were part of Pew’s Election News Pathways project, which explores how people in the U.S. consume election news.

Fox Sports to broadcast the full season of NASCAR’s virtual race series

Esports racing, helped by record-setting viewership, is hitting the big time.

Fox Sports said Tuesday it will broadcast the rest of the eNASCAR Pro Invitational iRacing Series, following Sunday’s virtual race that was watched by 903,000 viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research.

While those numbers are far below the millions of viewers who watch NASCAR’s official races — the last one at Phoenix Raceway reached 4.6 million — it still hit a number of firsts that Fox Sports found notable enough to commit to broadcasting the virtual racing series for the remainder of the season, beginning March 29.

The races will be simulcast on the FOX broadcast network, Fox Sports iRacing and the FOX Sports app. Races will be available in Canada through FOX Sports Racing.

Virtual racing, which lets competitors race using a system that includes a computer, steering wheel and pedals, has been around for years. But it’s garnered more attention as the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by coronavirus, has prompted sports organizers to cancel or postpone live events, including the NCAA March Madness basketball tournament, NBA, NHL and MLB seasons as well as Formula 1 and NASCAR racing series.

NASCAR ran its first virtual race in the series on Sunday in lieu of its planned race at the Homestead-Miami Speedway, which was canceled due to COVID-19. Not only was it the most watched esports event in U.S. television history, it was Sunday’s most-watched sports telecast on cable television that day.

“This rapid-fire collaboration between FOX Sports, NASCAR and iRacing obviously has resonated with race fans, gamers and television viewers across the country in a very positive way,” Brad Zager, FOX Sports executive producer said in a statement. “We have learned so much in a relatively short period of time, and we are excited to expand coverage of this brand-new NASCAR esports series to an even wider audience.”

Granted, there aren’t any live sports to watch in this COVID-19 era. Still, it bodes well for the future of esports, perhaps even after the COVID-19 pandemic ends.

“The response on social media to last Sunday’s race has been incredible,” said four-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jeff Gordon, who is announcer for Fox NASCAR. “We were able to broadcast a virtual race that was exciting and entertaining. It brought a little bit of ‘normalcy’ back to the weekend, and I can’t wait to call the action Sunday at Texas.”

You can see what the virtual racing looks like here in this clip from Fox Sports.

NASCAR isn’t the only racing series to turn to esports. Formula 1 announced last week that it would host an esports series, the F1 Esports Virtual Grand Prix series, with a number of current F1 drivers alongside a number of other stars.

The virtual Formula 1 races will use Codemaster’s official Formula 1 2019 PC game and fans can follow along on YouTube, Twitch and Facebook, as well as on F1.com. The races will be about half as long as regular races, with 28 laps. The first race took place March 22. The first-ever virtual round of the Nürburgring Endurance Series kicked off on March 21.

Monitoring is critical to successful AI

As the world becomes more deeply connected through IoT devices and networks, consumer and business needs and expectations will soon only be sustainable through automation.

Recognizing this, artificial intelligence and machine learning are being rapidly adopted by critical industries such as finance, retail, healthcare, transportation and manufacturing to help them compete in an always-on and on-demand global culture. However, even as AI and ML provide endless benefits — such as increasing productivity while decreasing costs, reducing waste, improving efficiency and fostering innovation in outdated business models — there is tremendous potential for errors that result in unintended, biased results and, worse, abuse by bad actors.

The market for advanced technologies including AI and ML will continue its exponential growth, with market research firm IDC projecting that spending on AI systems will reach $98 billion in 2023, more than two and one-half times the $37.5 billion that was projected to be spent in 2019. Additionally, IDC foresees that retail and banking will drive much of this spending, as the industries invested more than $5 billion in 2019.

These findings underscore the importance for companies that are leveraging or plan to deploy advanced technologies for business operations to understand how and why it’s making certain decisions. Moreover, having a fundamental understanding of how AI and ML operate is even more crucial for conducting proper oversight in order to minimize the risk of undesired results.

Companies often realize AI and ML performance issues after the damage has been done, which in some cases has made headlines. Such instances of AI driving unintentional bias include the Apple Card allowing lower credit limits for women and Google’s AI algorithm for monitoring hate speech on social media being racially biased against African Americans. And there have been far worse examples of AI and ML being used to spread misinformation online through deepfakes, bots and more.

Through real-time monitoring, companies will be given visibility into the “black box” to see exactly how their AI and ML models operate. In other words, explainability will enable data scientists and engineers to know what to look for (a.k.a. transparency) so they can make the right decisions (a.k.a. insight) to improve their models and reduce potential risks (a.k.a. building trust).

But there are complex operational challenges that must first be addressed in order to achieve risk-free and reliable, or trustworthy, outcomes.

5 key operational challenges in AI and ML models

Facebook and Disney to downgrade streaming quality in Europe due to COVID-19

Facebook is temporarily downgrading the quality of video streaming in Europe on its social platforms Facebook and Instagram in response to a call for action from the European Commission, per Reuters.

Disney has also said it will work to shrink bandwidth used by its streaming service, Disney+, which is due to begin launching in Europe from tomorrow.

Last week Netflix, YouTube and Amazon said they would switch to SD streaming by default in the region.

The EU’s executive has expressed concerned about the load on Internet infrastructure during the coronavirus crisis as scores of citizens log on from home to work or try to keep themselves entertained during the COVID-19 lockdown.

Telcos in the region have reported significant increases in traffic as EU Member States have called for or instructed citizens to stay at home during the public health emergency.

Collectively, streaming platforms account for a major chunk of global Internet traffic. Online video accounted for more than 60% of the total downstream volume of traffic per a 2019 Sandvine report — while in another report last month it said YouTube alone accounted for a quarter of all mobile traffic.

“To help alleviate any potential network congestion, we will temporarily reduce bit rates for videos on Facebook and Instagram in Europe,” a Facebook spokesman also told Reuters yesterday.

We’ve reached out to Facebook with questions.

Per Reuters the measure will remain in place for as long as there are concerns about the region’s Internet infrastructure.

In related news Disney is pressing ahead with a planned launch of its new video streaming service, Disney+, in Europe starting from tomorrow but Bloomberg reports it will also take measures to reduce bandwidth utilization by at least 25% in European markets.

“We will be monitoring Internet congestion and working closely with Internet service providers to further reduce bitrates as necessary to ensure they are not overwhelmed by consumer demand,” said Kevin Mayer, chairman of Disney’s direct-to-consumer division, in a statement.

Last week the company said it would postpone the launch of Disney+ in India after the biggest local attraction — the Indian Premier League cricket tournament — was rescheduled due to the coronavirus outbreak.

Under quarantine, media is actually social

The flood of status symbol content into Instagram Stories has run dry. No one is going out and doing anything cool right now, and if they are, they should be shamed for it. Beyond sharing video chat happy hour screenshots and quarantine dinner concoctions, our piece-by-piece biographies have ground to a halt. Oddly, what remains feels more social than social networks have in a long time.

With no source material, we’re doing it live. Coronavirus has absolved our desire to share the recent past. The drab days stuck inside blur into each other. The near future is so uncertain that there’s little impetus to make plans. Why schedule an event or get excited for a trip just to get your heartbroken if shelter-in-place orders are extended? We’re left firmly fixed in the present.

A house-arrest Houseparty, via StoicLeys

What is social media when there’s nothing to brag about? Many of us are discovering it’s a lot more fun. We had turned social media into a sport but spent the whole time staring at the scoreboard rather than embracing the joy of play.

But thankfully, there are no Like counts on Zoom .

Nothing permanent remains. That’s freed us from the external validation that too often rules our decision making. It’s stopped being about how this looks and started being about how this feels. Does it put me at peace, make me laugh, or abate the loneliness? Then do it. There’s no more FOMO because there’s nothing to miss by staying home to read, take a bath, or play board games. You do you.

Being social animals, what feels most natural is to connect. Not asynchronously through feeds of what we just did. But by coexisting concurrently. Professional enterprise technology for agenda-driven video calls has been subverted for meandering, motive-less togetherness. We’re doing what many of us spent our childhoods doing in basements and parking lots: just hanging out.

For evidence, just look at group video chat app Houseparty, where teens aimlessly chill with everyone’s face on screen at once. In Italy, which has tragically been on lock down since COVID-19’s rapid spread in the country, Houseparty wasn’t even in the top 1500 apps a month ago. Today it’s the #1 social app, and the #2 app overall second only to Zoom.

Houseparty topped all the charts on Monday, when Sensor Tower tells TechCrunch that Houseparty’s download rate was 323X higher than its average in February. It’s currently #1 in Portugal (up 371X) and Spain (up 592X) despite being absent from the chart a week earlier.

After binging through Netflix and beating the video games, all that’s left to entertain us is each other.

Undivided By Geography

If we’re all stuck at home, it doesn’t matter where that home is. We’ve been released from the confines of which friends are within a 20 minute drive or hour-long train. Just like students are saying they all go to Zoom University since every school’s classes moved online, we all now live in Zoom Town. All commutes have been reduced to how long it takes to generate an invite URL.

Nestled in San Francisco, even pals across the Bay in Berkeley felt far away before. But this week I had hour-long video calls with my favorite people who typically feel out of reach in Chicago and New York. I spent time with babies I hadn’t met in person. And I kept in closer touch with my parents on the other coast, which is more vital and urgent than ever before.

Playing board game Codenames over Zoom with friends in New York and North Carolina

Typically, our time is occupied by acquaintances of circumstance. The co-workers who share our office. The friends who happen to live in the neighborhood. But now we’re each building a virtual family completely of our choosing. The calculus has shifted from who is convenient or who invites us to the most exciting place, to who makes us feel most human.

Even celebrities are getting into it. Rather than pristine portraits and flashy music videos, they’re appearing raw, with crappy lighting, on Facebook and Instagram Live. John Legend played piano for 100,000 people while his wife Chrissy Teigen sat on screen in a towel looking salty like she’s heard “All Of Me” far too many times. That’s more authentic than anything you’ll get on TV.

And without the traditional norms of who we are and aren’t supposed to call, there’s an opportunity to contact those we cared about in a different moment of our lives. The old college roommate, the high school buddy, the mentor who gave you you’re shot. If we have the emotional capacity in these trying times, there’s good to be done. Who do you know who’s single, lives alone, or resides in a city without a dense support network?

Reforging those connections not only surfaces prized memories we may have forgotten, but could help keep someone sane. For those who relied on work and play for social interaction, shelter-in-place is essentially solitary confinement. There’s a looming mental health crisis if we don’t check in on the isolated.

The crisis language of memes

It can be hard to muster the energy to seize these connections, though. We’re all drenched in angst about the health impacts of the virus and financial impacts of the response. I certainly spent a few mornings sleeping in just to make the days feel shorter. When all small talk leads to rehashing our fears, sometimes you don’t have anything to say.

Luckily we don’t have to say anything to communicate. We can share memes instead.

The internet’s response to COVID-19 has been an international outpour of gallow’s humor. From group chats to Instagram joke accounts to Reddit threads to Facebook groups like quarter-million member “Zoom Memes For Quaranteens”, we’re joining up to weather the crisis.

A nervous laugh is better than no laugh at all. Memes allow us to convert our creeping dread and stir craziness into something borderline productive. We can assume an anonymous voice, resharing what some unspecified other made without the vulnerability of self-attribution. We can dive into the creation of memes ourselves, killing time under house arrest in hopes of generating smiles for our generation. And with the feeds and Stories emptied, consuming memes offers a new medium of solidarity. We’re all in this hellscape together so we may as well make fun of it.

The web’s mental immune system has kicked into gear amidst the outbreak. Rather than wallowing in captivity, we’ve developed digital antibodies that are evolving to fight the solitude. We’re spicing up video chats with board games like Codenames. One-off livestreams have turned into wholly online music festivals to bring the sounds of New Orleans or Berlin to the world. Trolls and pranksters are finding ways to get their lulz too, Zoombombing webinars. And after a half-decade of techlash, our industry’s leaders are launching peer-to-peer social safety nets and ways to help small businesses survive until we can be patrons in person again.

Rather than scrounging for experiences to share, we’re inventing them from scratch with the only thing we’re left with us in quarantine: ourselves. When the infection waves pass, I hope this swell of creativity and in-the-moment togetherness stays strong. The best part of the internet isn’t showing off, it’s showing up.

Twitter opens its ‘Hide Replies’ feature to developers

Last November, Twitter rolled out its Hide Replies feature to all users worldwide. The feature, largely designed to lessen the power of online trolls to disrupt conversations, lets users decide which replies to their tweets are placed behind an extra click. Today, Twitter is making Hide Replies available to its developer community, allowing for the creation of tools that help people hide the replies to their tweets faster and more efficiently, says Twitter.

These sorts of tools will be of particular interest to businesses and brands who maintain a Twitter presence, but whose accounts often get too many replies to tweets to properly manage on an individual basis. With Hide Replies now available as a new API endpoint, developers can create tools that automatically hide disruptive tweets based on factors important to their customers — like tweets that include certain prohibited keywords or those that score high for being toxic, for example.

Ahead of today’s launch, Twitter worked with a small number of developers who are now releasing tools that take advantage of the added functionality.

Jigsaw, an Alphabet-owned company tackling the worst of the web, has integrated Twitter’s new endpoint with its Perspective API, which uses A.I. to score tweets based on their toxicity. The integration will automatically hide replies that exceed a certain toxic threshold (.94), freeing up the time it would otherwise take to comb through replies manually.

A scripting platform for business workflows, reshuffle, has used the endpoint to develop scripts that detect and hide replies based on keywords or even by user.

Dara Oladosu, the creator of the popular app QuotedReplies, also used the endpoint to build a new app called Hide Unwanted Replies. The app today automatically hides replies by keywords or Twitter handles. Soon, it will add support for hiding replies from likely troll or bot accounts — including tweets from user accounts created too recently or from accounts with few followers.

Hide Replies has been one of Twitter’s more controversial launches to date, as it could potentially allow users to silence critics or stifle dissent even when warranted — such as in the case of refuting misinformation or propaganda, for example. Others argue it’s not really helping address online abuse; the abuse still occurs, but in the shadows. One organization even recently leveraged Hidden Replies for a clever online campaign about how domestic violence goes unseen which further illustrates this problem.

Nevertheless, adoption of Hide Replies is growing, with organizations like the CIA even leveraging it on some tweets.

The new Twitter API endpoint for Hide Replies is available today to all developers in a production-ready form, Twitter says, initially through Twitter Developer Labs. This program launched last year to serve as a way for developers to try out Twitter’s latest APIs ahead of their wider release and offer feedback. Participation in Twitter Developer Labs is free, but interested developers have to sign up using an approved developer account. Twitter is also inviting developers building with the new endpoint to collaborate with the company by way of the community forums.

Based on early feedback from the first testers, Twitter says it’s already making a few changes to the endpoint including support to unhide replies via the endpoint, a higher rate limit to support high-volume use cases, and a way to retrieve a list of replies that indicate if they’re hidden or not.