EU parliament pushes for Zuckerberg hearing to be live-streamed

There’s confusion about whether a meeting between Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and the European Union’s parliament — which is due to take place next Tuesday — will go ahead as planned or not.

The meeting was confirmed by the EU parliament’s president this week, and is the latest stop on Zuckerberg’s contrition tour, following the Cambridge Analytics data misuse story that blew up into a major public scandal in mid March. 

However, the discussion with MEPs that Facebook agreed to was due to take place behind closed doors. A private format that’s not only ripe with irony but was also unpalatable to a large number of MEPs. It even drew criticism from some in the EU’s unelected executive body, the European Commission, which further angered parliamentarians.

Now, as the FT reports, MEPs appear to have forced the parliament’s president, Antonio Tajani, to agree to live-streaming the event.

Guy Verhofstadt — the leader of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats group of MEPs, who had said he would boycott the meeting if it took place in private — has also tweeted that a majority of the parliament’s groups have pushed for the event to be streamed online.

And a Green Group MEP, Sven Giegold, who posted an online petition calling for the meeting not to be held in secret — has also tweeted that there is now a majority among the groups wanting to change the format. At the time of writing, Giegold’s petition has garnered more than 25,000 signatures.

MEP Claude Moraes, chair of the EU parliament’s Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) committee — and one of the handful of parliamentarians set to question Zuckerberg (assuming the meeting goes ahead as planned) — told TechCrunch this morning that there were efforts afoot among political group leaders to try to open up the format. Though any changes would clearly depend on Facebook agreeing to them.

After speaking to Moraes, we asked Facebook to confirm whether it’s open to Zuckerberg’s meeting being streamed online — say, via a Facebook Live. Seven hours later we’re still waiting for a response, including to a follow up email asking if it will accept the majority decision among MEPs for the hearing to be live-streamed.

The LIBE committee had been pushing for a fully open hearing with the Facebook founder — a format which would also have meant it being open to members of the public. But that was before a small majority of the parliament’s political groups accepted the council of presidents’ (COP) decision on a closed meeting.

Although now that decision looks to have been rowed back, with a majority of the groups pushing the president to agree to the event being streamed — putting the ball back in Facebook’s court to accept the new format.

Of course democracy can be a messy process at times, something Zuckerberg surely has a pretty sharp appreciation of these days. And if the Facebook founder pulls out of meeting simply because a majority of MEPs have voted to do the equivalent of “Facebook Live” the hearing, well, it’s hard to see a way for the company to salvage any face at all.

Zuckerberg has agreed to be interviewed onstage at the VivaTech conference in Paris next Thursday, and is scheduled to have lunch with French president Emmanuel Macron the same week. So pivoting to a last minute snub of the EU parliament would be a pretty high stakes game for the company to play. (Though it’s continued to deny a U.K. parliamentary committee any face time with Zuckerberg for months now.)

The EU Facebook agenda

The substance of the meeting between Zuckerberg and the EU parliament — should it go ahead — will include discussion about Facebook’s impact on election processes. That was the only substance detail flagged by Tajani in the statement on Wednesday when he confirmed Zuckerberg had accepted the invitation to talk to representatives of the EU’s 500 million citizens.

Moraes says he also intends to ask Zuckerberg wider questions — relating to how its business model impacts people’s privacy. And his hope is this discussion could help unblock negotiations around an update to the EU’s rules around online tracking technologies and the privacy of digital communications.

“One of the key things is that [Zuckerberg] gets a particular flavor of the genuine concern — not just about what Facebook is doing, but potentially other tech companies — on the interference in elections. Because I think that is a genuine, big, sort of tech versus real life and politics concern,” he says, discussing the questions he wants to ask.

“And the fact is he’s not going to go before the House of Commons. He’s not going to go before the Bundestag. And he needs to answer this question about Cambridge Analytica — in a little bit more depth, if possible, than we even saw in Congress. Because he needs to get straight from us the deepest concerns about that.

“And also this issue of processing for algorithmic targeting, and for political manipulation — some in depth questions on this.

“And we need to go more in depth and more carefully about what safeguards there are — and what he’s prepared to do beyond those safeguards.

“We’re aware of how poor US data protection law is. We know that GDPR is coming in but it doesn’t impact on the Facebook business model that much. It does a little bit but not sufficiently — I mean ePrivacy probably far more — so we need to get to a point where we understand what Facebook is willing to change about the way it’s been behaving up til now.

“And we have a real locus there — which is we have more Facebook users, and we have the clout as well because we have potential legislation, and we have regulation beyond that too. So I think for those reasons he needs to answer.”

“The other things that go beyond the obvious Cambridge Analytica questions and the impact on elections, are the consequences of the business model, data-driven advertising, and how that’s going to work, and there we need to go much more in depth,” he continues.

“Facebook on the one hand, it’s complying with GDPR [the EU’s incoming General Data Protection Regulation] which is fine — but we need to think about what the further protections are. So for example, how justified we are with the ePrivacy Regulation, for example, and its elements, and I think that’s quite important.

“I think he needs to talk to us about that. Because that legislation at the moment it’s seen as controversial, it’s blocked at the moment, but clearly would have more relevance to the problems that are currently being created.”

Negotiations between the EU parliament and the European Council to update the ePrivacy Directive — which governs the use of personal telecoms data and also regulates tracking cookies — and replace it with a regulation that harmonizes the rules with the incoming GDPR and expands the remit to include internet companies and cover both content and metadata of digital comms are effectively stalled for now, as EU Member States are still trying to reach agreement. The directive was last updated in 2009.

“When the Cambridge Analytica case happened, I was slightly concerned about people thinking GDPR is the panacea to this — it’s not,” argues Moraes. “It only affects Facebook’s business model a little bit. ePrivacy goes far more in depth — into data-driven advertising, personal comms and privacy.

“That tool was there because people were aware that this kind of thing can happen. But because of that the Privacy directive will be seen as controversial but I think people now need to look at it carefully and say look at the problems created in the Facebook situation — and not just Facebook — and then analyze whether ePrivacy has got merits. I think that’s quite an important discussion to happen.”

While Moraes believes Facebook-Cambridge Analytica could help unblock the log jam around ePrivacy, as the scandal makes some of the risks clear and underlines what’s at stake for politicians and democracies, he concedes there are still challenging barriers to getting the right legislation in place — given the fine-grained layers of complexity involved with imposing checks and balances on what are also poorly understood technologies outside their specific industry niches.

“This Facebook situation has happened when ePrivacy is more or less blocked because its proportionality is an issue. But the essence of it — which is all the problems that happened with the Facebook case, the Cambridge Analytica case, and data-driven advertising business model — that needs checks and balances… So we need to now just review the ePrivacy situation and I think it’s better that everyone opens this discussion up a bit.

“ePrivacy, future legislation on artificial intelligence, all of which is in our committee, it will challenge people because sometimes they just won’t want to look at it. And it speaks to parliamentarians without technical knowledge which is another issue in Western countries… But these are all wider issues about the understanding of these files which are going to come up.  

“This is the discussion we need to have now. We need to get that discussion right. And I think Facebook and other big companies are aware that we are legislating in these areas — and we’re legislating for more than one countries and we have the economies of scale — we have the user base, which is bigger than the US… and we have the innovation base, and I think those companies are aware of that.”

Moraes also points out that U.S. lawmakers raised the difference between the EU and U.S. data protection regimes with Zuckerberg last month — arguing there’s a growing awareness that U.S. law in this area “desperately needs to be modernized.”

So he sees an opportunity for EU regulators to press on their counterparts over the pond.

“We have international agreements that just aren’t going to work in the future and they’re the basis of a lot of economic activity, so it is becoming critical… So the Facebook debate should, if it’s pushed in the correct direction, give us a better handle on ePrivacy, on modernizing data protection standards in the US in particular. And modernizing safeguards for consumers,” he argues.

“Our parliaments across Europe are still filled with people who don’t have tech backgrounds and knowledge but we need to ensure that we get out of this mindset and start understanding exactly what the implications here are of these cases and what the opportunities are.”

In the short term, discussions are also continuing for a full meeting between the LIBE committee and Facebook.

Though that’s unlikely to be Zuckerberg himself. Moraes says the committee is “aiming for Sheryl Sandberg,” though he says other names have been suggested. No firm date has been conformed yet either — he’ll only say he “hopes it will take place as soon as possible.”

Threats are not on the agenda though. Moraes is unimpressed with the strategy the DCMS committee has pursued in trying (and so far failing) to get Zuckerberg to testify in front of the U.K. parliament, arguing threats of a summons were counterproductive. LIBE is clearly playing a longer game.

“Threatening him with a summons in UK law really was not the best approach. Because it would have been extremely important to have him in London. But I just don’t see why he would do that. And I’m sure there’s an element of him understanding that the European Union and parliament in particular is a better forum,” he suggests.

“We have more Facebook users than the US, we have the regulatory framework that is significant to Facebook — the UK is simply implementing GDPR and following Brexit it will have an adequacy agreement with the EU so I think there’s an understanding in Facebook where the regulation, the legislation and the audience is.”

“I think the quaint ways of the British House of Commons need to be thought through,” he adds. “Because I really don’t think that would have engendered much enthusiasm in [Zuckerberg] to come and really interact with the House of Commons which would have been a very positive thing. Particularly on the specifics of Cambridge Analytics, given that that company is in the UK. So that locus was quite important, but the approach… was not positive at all.”

Zuckerberg will meet with European parliament in private next week

Who says privacy is dead? Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg has agreed to take European parliamentarians’ questions about how his platform impacts the privacy of hundreds of millions of European citizens — but only behind closed doors. Where no one except a handful of carefully chosen MEPs will bear witness to what’s said.

The private meeting will take place on May 22 at 17.45CET in Brussels. After which the president of the European Parliament, Antonio Tajani, will hold a press conference to furnish the media with his version of events.

It’s just a shame that journalists are being blocked from being able to report on what actually goes on in the room.

And that members of the public won’t be able to form their own opinions about how Facebook’s founder responds to pressing questions about what Zuckerberg’s platform is doing to their privacy and their fundamental rights.

Because the doors are being closed to journalists and citizens.

Even the intended contents of the meeting is been glossed over in public — with the purpose of the chat being vaguely couched as “to clarify issues related to the use of personal data” in a statement by Tajani (below).

The impact of Facebook’s platform on “electoral processes in Europe” is the only discussion point that’s specifically flagged.

Given Zuckerberg has thrice denied requests from UK lawmakers to take questions about his platform in a public hearing we can only assume the company made the CEO’s appearance in front of EU parliamentarians conditional on the meeting being closed.

Zuckerberg did agree to public sessions with US lawmakers last month, following a major global privacy scandal related to user data and political ad targeting.

But evidently the company’s sense of political accountability doesn’t travel very far. (Despite a set of ‘privacy principles’ that Facebook published with great fanfare at the start of the year — one of which reads: ‘We are accountable’. Albeit Facebook didn’t specify to who or what exactly Facebook feels accountable.)

We’ve reached out to Facebook to ask why Zuckerberg will not take European parliamentarians questions in a public hearing. And indeed whether Mark can find the time to hop on a train to London afterwards to testify before the DCMS committee’s enquiry into online disinformation — and will update this story with any response.

As Vera Jourova, the European commissioner for justice and consumers, put it in a tweet, it’s a pity the Facebook founder does not believe all Europeans deserve to know how their data is handled by his company. Just a select few, holding positions of elected office.

A pity or, well, a shame.

Safe to say, not all MEPs are happy with the arrangement…

But let’s at least be thankful that Zuckerberg has shown us, once again, how very much privacy matters — to him personally

To make Stories global, Facebook adds Archive and audio posts

Facebook’s future rests on convincing the developing world to adopt Stories. But just because the slideshow format will soon surpass feed sharing doesn’t mean people use them the same way everywhere. So late last year, Facebook sent a team to India to learn what features they’d need to embrace Stories across a variety of local languages on phones without much storage.

Today, Facebook will start rolling out three big Stories features in India, which will come to the rest of the world shortly after. First, to lure posts from users who don’t want to type or have a non-native language keyboard, as well as micropodcasters, Facebook Stories will allow audio posts combining a voice message with a colored background or photo.

Facebook Stories will get an Archive similar to Instagram Stories that automatically saves your clips privately after they expire so you can go back to check them out or re-share the content to the News Feed. And finally, Facebook will let Stories users privately Save their clips from the Facebook Camera directly to the social network instead of their phone in case they don’t have enough space.

Facebook Stories Archive

“We know that the performance and reliability of viewing and posting Stories is extremely important to people around the world, especially those with slower connections” Facebook’s director of Stories Connor Hayes tells me. “We are always working on ways to improve the experience of viewing Stories on all types of connections, and have been investing here — especially on our FB Lite app.”

Facebook has a big opportunity to capitalize on Snapchat’s failure to focus on the international market. Plagued by Android engineering problems and initial reluctance to court users beyond U.S. teens, Snapchat left the door open for Facebook’s Stories products to win the globe. Now Snapchat has sunk to its slowest growth rate ever, hitting 191 million daily users despite shrinking in March. Meanwhile, WhatsApp Status, its clone of Snapchat Stories has 450 million daily users, while Instagram Stories has over 300 million.

As for Facebook Stories, it was initially seen as a bit of a ghost town but more and more of my friends are posting there, in part thanks to the ability to syndicate you Instagram Stories there. Facebook Stories has never announced a user count, and Hayes says “We don’t have anything to share yet, but performance of Facebook Stories is encouraging, and we’ve learned a lot about how we can make the experience even better.” Facebook is hell-bent on making Stories work on its own app after launching the in mid-2017, and seems to believe users who find them needless or redundant will come around eventually.

My concern about the global rise of Stories is that instead of only recording the biggest highlights of our lives to capture with our phones, we’re increasingly interrupting all our activities and exiting the present to thrust our phone in the air.

That’s one thing Facebook hopes to fix here, Facebook’s director of Stories Connor Hayes tells me. “Saving photos and videos can be used to save what you might want to post later – So you don’t have to edit or post them while you’re out with your friends, and instead enjoy the moment at the concert and share them later.” You’re still injecting technology into your experience, though, so I hope we can all learn to record as subtly as possible without disturbing the memory for those around us.

Facebook Camera’s Save feature

The new Save to Facebook Camera feature creates a private tab in the Stories creation interface where you can access and post the imagery you’ve stored, and you’ll also find a Saved tab in your profile’s Photos section. Unlike Facebook’s discontinued Photo Sync feature, here you’ll choose to save imagery one at a time. It will be a big help to users lacking free space on their phone, as Facebook says many people around the world have to delete a photo just to save a new one.

Facebook wants to encourage people to invest more time decorating Stories, and learned that some people want to re-live or re-share their clips that expire after 24 hours. That’s why its built the Archive, a hedge against the potentially short-sighted trend of ephemerality.

On the team’s journey to India, they heard that photos and videos aren’t always the easiest way to share. If you’re camera-shy, have a low-quality camera, or don’t have cool scenes to capture, audio posts could get you sharing more. In fact, Facebook started testing voice clips as feed status updates in March. “With this week’s update, you will have options to add a voice message to a colorful background or a photo from your camera gallery or saved gallery. You can also add stickers, text, or doodles” says Hayes. With 22 official languages in India and over 100 spoken, recording voice can often be easier than typing.

Facebook Audio Stories

Some users will still hate Stories, which are getting more and more prominence atop Facebook’s feed. But Facebook can’t afford to retreat here. Stories are social media bedrock — the most full-screen and immersive content medium we can record and consume with just our phones. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg himself said that Facebook must make sure that “ads are as good in Stories as they are in feeds. If we don’t do this well, then as more sharing shifts to Stories, that could hurt our business.” That means Facebook Stories needs India’s hundreds of millions of users.

There will always be room for text, yet if people want to achieve an emotional impact, they’ll eventually wade into Storytelling. But social networks must remember low-bandwidth users, or we’ll only get windows into the developed world.

For more on Facebook Stories, check out our recent coverage:

To make Stories global, Facebook adds Archive and audio posts

Facebook’s future rests on convincing the developing world to adopt Stories. But just because the slideshow format will soon surpass feed sharing doesn’t mean people use them the same way everywhere. So late last year, Facebook sent a team to India to learn what features they’d need to embrace Stories across a variety of local languages on phones without much storage.

Today, Facebook will start rolling out three big Stories features in India, which will come to the rest of the world shortly after. First, to lure posts from users who don’t want to type or have a non-native language keyboard, as well as micropodcasters, Facebook Stories will allow audio posts combining a voice message with a colored background or photo.

Facebook Stories will get an Archive similar to Instagram Stories that automatically saves your clips privately after they expire so you can go back to check them out or re-share the content to the News Feed. And finally, Facebook will let Stories users privately Save their clips from the Facebook Camera directly to the social network instead of their phone in case they don’t have enough space.

Facebook Stories Archive

“We know that the performance and reliability of viewing and posting Stories is extremely important to people around the world, especially those with slower connections” Facebook’s director of Stories Connor Hayes tells me. “We are always working on ways to improve the experience of viewing Stories on all types of connections, and have been investing here — especially on our FB Lite app.”

Facebook has a big opportunity to capitalize on Snapchat’s failure to focus on the international market. Plagued by Android engineering problems and initial reluctance to court users beyond U.S. teens, Snapchat left the door open for Facebook’s Stories products to win the globe. Now Snapchat has sunk to its slowest growth rate ever, hitting 191 million daily users despite shrinking in March. Meanwhile, WhatsApp Status, its clone of Snapchat Stories has 450 million daily users, while Instagram Stories has over 300 million.

As for Facebook Stories, it was initially seen as a bit of a ghost town but more and more of my friends are posting there, in part thanks to the ability to syndicate you Instagram Stories there. Facebook Stories has never announced a user count, and Hayes says “We don’t have anything to share yet, but performance of Facebook Stories is encouraging, and we’ve learned a lot about how we can make the experience even better.” Facebook is hell-bent on making Stories work on its own app after launching the in mid-2017, and seems to believe users who find them needless or redundant will come around eventually.

My concern about the global rise of Stories is that instead of only recording the biggest highlights of our lives to capture with our phones, we’re increasingly interrupting all our activities and exiting the present to thrust our phone in the air.

That’s one thing Facebook hopes to fix here, Facebook’s director of Stories Connor Hayes tells me. “Saving photos and videos can be used to save what you might want to post later – So you don’t have to edit or post them while you’re out with your friends, and instead enjoy the moment at the concert and share them later.” You’re still injecting technology into your experience, though, so I hope we can all learn to record as subtly as possible without disturbing the memory for those around us.

Facebook Camera’s Save feature

The new Save to Facebook Camera feature creates a private tab in the Stories creation interface where you can access and post the imagery you’ve stored, and you’ll also find a Saved tab in your profile’s Photos section. Unlike Facebook’s discontinued Photo Sync feature, here you’ll choose to save imagery one at a time. It will be a big help to users lacking free space on their phone, as Facebook says many people around the world have to delete a photo just to save a new one.

Facebook wants to encourage people to invest more time decorating Stories, and learned that some people want to re-live or re-share their clips that expire after 24 hours. That’s why its built the Archive, a hedge against the potentially short-sighted trend of ephemerality.

On the team’s journey to India, they heard that photos and videos aren’t always the easiest way to share. If you’re camera-shy, have a low-quality camera, or don’t have cool scenes to capture, audio posts could get you sharing more. In fact, Facebook started testing voice clips as feed status updates in March. “With this week’s update, you will have options to add a voice message to a colorful background or a photo from your camera gallery or saved gallery. You can also add stickers, text, or doodles” says Hayes. With 22 official languages in India and over 100 spoken, recording voice can often be easier than typing.

Facebook Audio Stories

Some users will still hate Stories, which are getting more and more prominence atop Facebook’s feed. But Facebook can’t afford to retreat here. Stories are social media bedrock — the most full-screen and immersive content medium we can record and consume with just our phones. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg himself said that Facebook must make sure that “ads are as good in Stories as they are in feeds. If we don’t do this well, then as more sharing shifts to Stories, that could hurt our business.” That means Facebook Stories needs India’s hundreds of millions of users.

There will always be room for text, yet if people want to achieve an emotional impact, they’ll eventually wade into Storytelling. But social networks must remember low-bandwidth users, or we’ll only get windows into the developed world.

For more on Facebook Stories, check out our recent coverage:

Anyone could download Cambridge researchers’ 4-million-user Facebook data set for years

A data set of more than 3 million Facebook users and a variety of their personal details collected by Cambridge researchers was available for anyone to download for some four years, New Scientist reports. It’s likely only one of many places where such huge sets of personal data collected during a period of permissive Facebook access terms have been obtainable.

The data were collected as part of a personality test, myPersonality, which, according to its own wiki (now taken down), was operational from 2007 to 2012, but new data was added as late as August of 2016. It started as a side project by the Cambridge Psychometrics Centre’s David Stillwell (now deputy director there), but graduated to a more organized research effort later. The project “has close academic links,” the site explains, “however, it is a standalone business.” (Presumably for liability purposes; the group never charged for access to the data.)

Though “Cambridge” is in the name, there’s no real connection to Cambridge Analytica, just a very tenuous one through Aleksandr Kogan, which is explained below.

Like other quiz apps, it requested consent to access the user’s profile (friends’ data was not collected), which combined with responses to questionnaires produced a rich data set with entries for millions of users. Data collected included demographics, status updates, some profile pictures, likes and lots more, but not private messages or data from friends.

Exactly how many users are affected is a bit difficult to say: the wiki claims the database holds 6 million test results from 4 million profiles (hence the headline), though only 3.1 million sets of personality scores are in the set and far less data points are available on certain metrics, such as employer or school. At any rate, the total number is on that order, though the same data is not available for every user.

Although the data is stripped of identifying information, such as the user’s actual name, the volume and breadth of it makes the set susceptible to de-anonymization, for lack of a better term. (I should add there is no evidence that this has actually occurred; simple anonymizing processes on rich data sets are just fundamentally more vulnerable to this kind of reassembly effort.)

This data set was available via a wiki to credentialed academics who had to agree to the team’s own terms of service. It was used by hundreds of researchers from dozens of institutions and companies for numerous papers and projects, including some from Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and even Facebook itself. (I asked the latter about this curious occurrence, and a representative told me that two researchers listed signed up for the data before working there; it’s unclear why in that case the name I saw would list Facebook as their affiliation, but there you have it.)

This in itself is in violation of Facebook’s terms of service, which ostensibly prohibited the distribution of such data to third parties. As we’ve seen over the last year or so, however, it appears to have exerted almost no effort at all in enforcing this policy, as hundreds (potentially thousands) of apps were plainly and seemingly proudly violating the terms by sharing data sets gleaned from Facebook users.

In the case of myPersonality, the data was supposed to be distributed only to actual researchers; Stillwell and his collaborator at the time, Michal Kosinski, personally vetted applications, which had to list the data they needed and why, as this sample application shows:

I am a full-time faculty member. [IF YOU ARE A STUDENT PLEASE HAVE YOU SUPERVISOR REQUEST ACCESS TO THE DATA FOR YOU.] I read and agree with the myPersonality Database Terms of Use. [SERIOUSLY, PLEASE DO READ IT.] I will take responsibility for the use of the data by any students in my research group.

I am planning to use the following variables:
* [LIST THE VARIABLES YOU INTEND TO
* USE AND TELL US HOW
* YOU PLAN TO ANALYZE THEM.]

One lecturer, however, published their credentials on GitHub in order to allow their students to use the data. Those credentials were available to anyone searching for access to the myPersonality database for, as New Scientist estimates, about four years.

This seems to demonstrate the laxity with which Facebook was policing the data it supposedly guarded. Once that data left company premises, there was no way for the company to control it in the first place, but the fact that a set of millions of entries was being sent to any academic who asked, and anyone who had a publicly listed username and password, suggests it wasn’t even trying.

A Facebook researcher actually requested the data in violation of his own company’s policies. I’m not sure what to conclude from that, other than that the company was utterly uninterested in securing sets like this and far more concerned with providing against any future liability. After all, if the app was in violation, Facebook can simply suspend it — as the company did last month, by the way — and lay the whole burden on the violator.

“We suspended the myPersonality app almost a month ago because we believe that it may have violated Facebook’s policies,” said Facebook’s VP of product partnerships, Ime Archibong, in a statement. “We are currently investigating the app, and if myPersonality refuses to cooperate or fails our audit, we will ban it.”

In a statement provided to TechCrunch, David Stillwell defended the myPersonality project’s data collection and distribution.

“myPersonality collaborators have published more than 100 social science research papers on important topics that advance our understanding of the growing use and impact of social networks,” he said. “We believe that academic research benefits from properly controlled sharing of anonymised data among the research community.”

In a separate email, Michal Kosinski also emphasized the importance of the published research based on their data set. Here’s a recent example looking into how people assess their own personalities versus how those who know them do, and how a computer trained to do so performs.

From the research paper based on myPersonality’s database. The computer performed almost as well as a spouse.

“Facebook has been aware of and has encouraged our research since at least 2011,” the statement continued. It’s hard to square this with Facebook’s allegation that the project was suspended for policy violations based on the language of its redistribution terms, which is how a company spokesperson explained it to me. The likely explanation is that Facebook never looked closely until this type of profile data sharing became unpopular, and usage and distribution among academics came under closer scrutiny.

Stillwell said (and the Centre has specifically explained) that Aleksandr Kogan was not in fact associated with the project; he was, however, one of the collaborators who received access to the data like those at other institutions. He apparently certified that he did not use this data in his SCL and Cambridge Analytica dealings.

The statement also says that the newest data is six years old, which seems substantially accurate from what I can tell except, for a set of nearly 800,000 users’ data regarding the 2015 rainbow profile picture filter campaign, added in August 2016. That doesn’t change much, but I thought it worth noting.

Facebook has suspended hundreds of apps and services and is investigating thousands more after it became clear in the Cambridge Analytica case that data collected from its users for one purpose was being redeployed for all sorts of purposes by actors nefarious and otherwise. One is a separate endeavor from the Cambridge Psychometrics Centre called Apply Magic Sauce; I asked the researchers about the connection between it and myPersonality data.

The takeaway from the small sample of these suspensions and collection methods that have been made public suggest that during its most permissive period (up until 2014 or so) Facebook allowed the data of countless users (the totals will only increase) to escape its authority, and that data is still out there, totally out of the company’s control and being used by anyone for just about anything.

Researchers working with user data provided with consent aren’t the enemy, but the total inability of Facebook (and to a certain extent the researchers themselves) to exert any kind of meaningful control over that data is indicative of grave missteps in digital privacy.

Ultimately it seems that Facebook should be the one taking responsibility for this massive oversight, but as Mark Zuckerberg’s performance in the Capitol emphasized, it’s not really clear what taking responsibility looks like other than an appearance of contrition and promises to do better.

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.

RIP Klout

Remember Klout?

The influencer market service that purportedly let social media influencers get free stuff is finally closing its doors this month.

Perhaps, like me, you’re surprised that Klout is still running in 2018, but time is nearly up. The closure will happen May 25 — you have until then to see what topics you’re apparently an expert on. The shutdown comes more than four years after it was acquired by social media software company Lithium Technologies for a reported $200 million. The plan was for Lithium to IPO, but that never happened.

Lithium operates a range of social media services, including products that handle social media marketing campaigns and engagement with customers, and now it has decided that Klout is no longer part of its vision.

“The Klout acquisition provided Lithium with valuable artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning capabilities but Klout as a standalone service is not aligned with our long-term strategy,” CEO Pete Hess wrote in a short note.

Hess said those apparent AI and ML smarts will be put to work in the company’s other product lines.

He did tease a potential Klout replacement in the form of “a new social impact scoring methodology based on Twitter” that Lithium is apparently planning to release soon. I’m pretty sure someone out there is already pledging to bring Klout back on the blockchain and is frantically writing up an ICO whitepaper as we speak because that’s how it is these days.

RIP Klout

House Democrats release more than 3,500 Russian Facebook ads

Democrats from the House Intelligence Committee have released thousands of ads that were run on Facebook by the Russia-based Internet Research Agency.

The Democrats said they’ve released a total of 3,519 ads today from 2015, 2016 and 2017. This doesn’t include 80,000 pieces of organic content shared on Facebook by the IRA, which the Democrats plan to release later.

What remains unclear is the impact that these ads actually had on public opinion, but the Democrats note that they were seen by more than 11.4 million Americans.

You can find all the ads here, though it’ll take some time just to download them. As has been noted about earlier (smaller) releases of IRA ads, they aren’t all nakedly pro-Trump, but instead express a dizzying array of opinions and arguments, targeted at a wide range of users.

“Russia sought to weaponize social media to drive a wedge between Americans, and in an attempt to sway the 2016 election,” tweeted Adam Schiff, who is the Democrats’ ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee. “They created fake accounts, pages and communities to push divisive online content and videos, and to mobilize real Americans,”

He added, “By exposing these Russian-created Facebook advertisements, we hope to better protect legitimate political expression and safeguard Americans from having the information they seek polluted by foreign adversaries. Sunlight is always the best disinfectant.

In conjunction with this release, Facebook published a post acknowledging that it was “too slow to spot this type of information operations interference” in the 2016 election, and outlining the steps (like creating a public database of political ads) that it’s taking to prevent this in the future.

“This will never be a solved problem because we’re up against determined, creative and well-funded adversaries,” Facebook said. “But we are making steady progress.”

Snapchat hosts first Creators Summit after years of neglect

Social media stars have always been treated like nobodies instead of VIPs on Snapchat. Despite pioneering the Stories and creative tools they love, the lack of support saw many drift to YouTube’s ad dollars and Instagram’s bigger audience. Now Snap CEO Evan Spiegel is finally stepping up to win back their favor and their content.

Last night, Spiegel joined 13 top Snapchat stars ranging from the US to as far as Lebanon for dinner at the company’s first Creators Summit in LA. Flanked by a dozen Snap execs and product managers, Spiegel tried to impress upon the assembled artists, comedians, and storytellers that the company is turning over a new leaf in how it will treat them. Today the creators sat with Snap VP of content Nick Bell to give the company an unfiltered understanding of the tools they need and give input on Snapchat’s product roadmap.

“The goal of our first creator summit was to listen and learn from them about how we can continue to strengthen opportunities for them on Snapchat — and continue to empower our community to express themselves and have fun together” Bell told TechCrunch. “We are grateful to each of them for coming to the table with candid feedback and are excited about the possibilities ahead.” Snapchat confirms to TechCrunch it plans to hold more of these Creator Summits.

Mike Metzler, one of the popular Snappers in attendance, told us “it’s been refreshing. Snap seems very genuinely interested in listening to what we have to say, and committed to making this an important initiative.” But another questioned whether Snapchat was actually going to make changes or was just playing nice.

Creators Cast Aside

A week after Snapchat launched Stories in 2013, I asked “Who will be the first Snapchat Stories celebrity?“. Apparently the young company hadn’t thought that through. It had concentrated entirely on the average American teen to the detriment of power users and the international market.

Snapchat’s jankily engineered app crashed constantly for stars with too many followers. There were no advanced analytics about who was watching them or easy ways to prove their audience to brand sponsors. There was no support from Snapchat if they got hacked or locked out of their account. There was no ad revenue share. There was no promotion to help people discover their accounts.

Without a direct alternative, creators gritted their teeth and dealt with it. But when Instagram Stories came along, with its massive audience, Explore page, and experienced outreach team for dealing with high-profile accounts, some jumped ship. Others focused their attention on Instagram, or YouTube where they could at least get a cut of the ad money they generated. Users drifted too, leading many stars to see their view counts drop.

The situation came to a head on Snap’s November 2017 Q3 earnings call. With user growth slumping to a new low, Spiegel announced a change of course. “We have historically neglected the creator community on Snapchat that creates and distributes public Stories for the broader Snapchat audience. In 2018, we are going to build more distribution and monetization opportunities for these creators” Spiegel admitted.

Snap began rolling out its verification badge, an emoji next to the user name, to social media stars instead of just traditional celebrities. With its recent redesign, it begun promoting creators for the first time if they made something engaging enough to become a”Popular Story”. And in February it finally launched analytics for creators, which would help them secure sponsorship deals.

Still, Snap hadn’t done much soft diplomacy. While top creators frequent the offices of YouTube and Instagram, few had been to Snapchat HQ. They needed a face to connect the efforts to.

Spiegel And The Stars

“[Spiegel] stopped by last night and was so happy to meet us, get to know us, take a selfie” says CyreneQ, a prolific Snapper and master of its illustration tools. While he didn’t make any grand remarks, apologies, or proclamations, his presence signaled that the push to help creators was more than just talk. When asked how the Summit went, musician/comedian Shonduras told me “we collaborated on a lot of ideas and it feels solid.”

Snapchat’s redesign moved creators into the Discover section

The biggest concern amongst the creators was growing their view counts. The recent redesign moved stars, brands, and other popular people who don’t follow you back out of the friends Stories list and into the Discover section alongside professionally produced editorial content. One creator said that helped them find more fans, but another who asked not to be named said “It hasn’t been kind to my views.”

Bell and the Snapchat listened, and informed the group that it’s going to develop a range of “tools and programs to help the creator community”, CyreneQ told me. Pressed for more details, she demurred “I wish I could tell you but they’ll send ninjas after me.”

Monetization options should be high on Snapchat’s list. As long as creators are essentially producing content for free, they’ll be susceptible to the pull of other products. And if Snap can’t speed up its total user growth, it must find ways to get teens addicted to stars that boost the time they spend in its app.

Snap can’t afford to screw this up. With its user count actually shrinking in March, it needs their dynamic, personal, niche content to keep teens loyal to Snapchat. The whole point of Snapchat was to create a more personal form of social media. It’s tough for movie actors and rockstars to come off feeling vulnerable and approachable. But creators, who were just normal people a few years ago, could help Snapchat bridge the divide between raw intimacy and polished entertainment.

‘Facebook Avatars’ is its new clone of Snapchat’s Bitmoji

Hidden inside the code of Facebook’s Android app is an unreleased feature called Facebook Avatars that lets people build personalized, illustrated versions of themselves for use as stickers in Messenger and comments. It will let users customize their avatar to depict their skin color, hair style and facial features. Facebook Avatars is essentially Facebook’s version of Snapchat’s acquisition, Bitmoji, which has spent years in the top-10 apps chart.

Back in October I wrote that “Facebook seriously needs its own Bitmoji,” and it seems the company agrees. Facebook has become the identity layer for the internet, allowing you to bring your personal info and social graph to other services. But as the world moves toward visual communication, a name or static profile pic aren’t enough to represent us and our breadth of emotions. Avatars hold the answer, as they can be contorted to convey our reactions to all sorts of different situations when we’re too busy or camera-shy to take a photo.

The screenhots come courtesy of eagle-eyed developer Jane Manchun Wong, who found the Avatars in the Facebook for Android application package — a set of files that often contain features that are unreleased or in testing. Her digging also contributed to TechCrunch’s reports about Instagram’s music stickers and Twitter’s unlaunched encrypted DMs.

Facebook confirmed it’s building Avatars, telling me, “We’re looking into more ways to help people express themselves on Facebook.” However, the feature is still early in development and Facebook isn’t sure when it will start publicly testing.

In the onboarding flow for the feature, Facebook explains that “Your Facebook Avatar is a whole new way to express yourself on Facebook. Leave expressive comments with personalized stickers. Use your new avatar stickers in your Messenger group and private chats.” The Avatars should look like the images on the far right of these screenshot tests. You can imagine Facebook creating an updating reel of stickers showing your avatar in happy, sad, confused, angry, bored or excited scenes to fit your mood.

Currently it’s unclear whether you’ll have to configure your Avatar from a blank starter face, or whether Facebook will use machine vision and artificial intelligence to create one based on your photos. The latter is how the Facebook Spaces VR avatars (previewed in April 2017) are automatically generated.

Facebook shows off its 3D VR avatars at F8 2018. The new Facebook Avatars are 2D and can be used in messaging and comments.

Using AI to start with a decent lookalike of you could entice users to try Avatars and streamline the creation process so you just have to make small corrections. However, the AI could creep people out, make people angry if it misrepresents them or generate monstrous visages no one wants to see. Given Facebook’s recent privacy scandals, I’d imagine it would play it conservatively with Avatars and just ask users to build them from scratch. If Avatars grow popular and people are eager to use them, it could always introduce auto-generation from your photos later.

Facebook has spent at least three years trying to figure out avatars for VR. What started as generic blue heads evolved to take on basic human characteristics, real skin tones and more accurate facial features, and are now getting quite lifelike. You can see that progression up top. Last week at F8, Facebook revealed that it’s developing a way to use facial tracking sensors to map real-time expressions onto a photo-realistic avatar of a user so they can look like themselves inside VR, but without the headset on.

But as long as Facebook’s Avatars are trapped in VR, they’re missing most of their potential.

Bitmoji’s parent company Bitstrips launched in 2008, and while its comic strip creator was cool, it was the personalized emoji avatar feature that was most exciting. Snapchat acquired Bitstrips for a mere $64.2 million in early 2016, but once it integrated Bitmoji into its chat feature as stickers, the app took off. It’s often risen higher than Snapchat itself, and even Facebook’s ubiquitous products on the App Store charts, and was the No. 1 free iOS app as recently as February. Now Snapchat lets you use your Bitmoji avatar as a profile pic, online status indicator in message threads, as 2D stickers and as 3D characters that move around in your Snaps.

It’s actually surprising that Facebook has waited this long to clone Bitmoji, given how popular Instagram Stories and its other copies of Snapchat features have become. Facebook comment reels and Messenger threads could get a lot more emotive, personal and fun when the company eventually launches its own Avatars.

Mark Zuckerberg has repeatedly said that visual communication is replacing text, but that’s forced users to either use generic emoji out of convenience or deal with the chore and self-consciousness of shooting a quick photo or video. Especially in Stories, which will soon surpass feeds as the main way we share social media, people need a quick way to convey their identity and emotion. Avatars let your identity scale to whatever feeling you want to transmit without the complications of the real world.

For more on the potential of Facebook Avatars, read our piece calling for their creation: