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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quibi is the anti-TikTok (that’s a bad thing)

It takes either audacious self-confidence or reckless hubris to build a completely asocial video app in 2020. You can decide which best describes Quibi, Hollywood’s $1.75 billion-funded attempt at a mobile-only Netflix of six to 10-minute micro-TV show episodes. Quibi manages to miss every trend and tactic that could help make its app popular. The company seems to believe it can succeed on only its content (mediocre) and marketing dollars (fewer than it needs).

I appreciate that Quibi is doing something audaciously different than most startups. Rather than iterating toward product-market fit, it spent a fortune developing its slick app and buying fancy content in secret so it could launch with a bang.

Yet Quibi’s bold business strategy is muted by a misguided allegiance to the golden age of television before the internet permeated every entertainment medium. It’s unshareable, prescriptive, sluggish, cumbersome and unfriendly. Quibi’s unwillingness to borrow anything from social networks makes the app feel cold and isolated, like watching reality shows in the vacuum of space.

Quibi

In that sense, Quibi is the inverse of TikTok, which feels fiercely alive. TikTok is designed to immediately immerse you in crowd-vetted content that grabs your attention and inspires you to spread your take on it to friends. That’s why TikTok has almost 2 billion downloads to date, while Quibi picked up just 300,000 on the day of its big splash into market.

Here’s a breakdown of the major missteps by Quibi, why TikTok does it better and how this new streaming app can get with the times.

What Hollywood thinks we want

Quibi feels like some off-brand cable channel, with a mix of convoluted reality shows, scripted dramas and news briefs. Imagine MTV at noon in the mid-2000s. Nothing seemed must-see. There’s no Game of Thrones or Mandalorian here. While the production value is better than what you’ll find on YouTube, the show concepts feel slapdash with novelty that quickly fades.

Chrissy Teigen as a small claims court judge? The tear-jerking “Thanks A Million” does skillfully multiply the “OMG” gratitude moment from makeover programs to happen 4X per episode. But a cooking show where blindfolded chefs have to guess what food was just exploded in their faces…(sigh)

The catalog feels like the product of TV writers being told they have 10 seconds to come up with an idea. “What would those idiots watch?” The shows remind me of old VR games that are barely more than demos, or an app built in a garage without ever asking prospective users what they need. Co-founder Jeffrey Katzenberg may have produced The Lion King and Shrek, but the app’s content feels like it was greenlit by, well, Hewlett Packard Enterprise’s leader Meg Whitman, who indeed is Quibi’s CEO.

Quibi CEO Meg Whitman

Quibi CEO Meg Whitman

Despite being built for a touch-screen interface, there’s little Bandersnatch-style interactive content so far, nor are the creators doing anything special with the six to 10-minute format. The shows feel more like condensed TV programs with episodes ending when there would be a commercial break. There’s no onboarding process that could ask which popular TV shows or genres you’re into. As the catalog expands, that makes it less likely you’ll find something appealing within a few taps.

TikTok comes from the opposite direction. Instead of what Hollywood thinks we want, its content comes straight from its consumers. People record what they think would make them and their friends laugh, surprised or enticed. The result is that with low to zero production budget, random kids and influencers alike make things with millions of Likes. And as elder millennials, Gen Xers and beyond get hooked, they’re creating videos for their peers, as well. The algorithm monitors what you’re hovering over and rapidly adapts its recommendations to your style.

TikTok is fundamentally interactive. Each clip’s audio can be borrowed to produce remixes that personalize a meme for a different demographic or subculture. And because its stars are internet natives, they’re in constant communication with their fan base to tune content to what they want. There’s something for everyone. No niche is too small.

TikTok screenshots

The Fix: Quibi should take a hint from Brat TV, the Disney Channel for the YouTube generation that gives tween social media stars their own premium shows about being a grade school kid to create content with a built-in fan base. [Disclosure: My cousin Darren Lachtman is a Brat co-founder.)

Take the Chrissy’s Court model, and shift it to stars who are 20 years younger. Give TikTok phenoms like Charli D’Amelio or Chase Hudson Quibi shows and let them help conceptualize the content, and they’ll bring their legions of fans. Double-down on choose-your-own-adventures and fan voting game shows that leverage the phone’s interactivity. Fund creators that will differentiate Quibi by making it look like anything other than daytime TV. And ask users directly what they want to see right when they download the app.

No screenshots

This is frankly insane. Screenshots of Quibi appear as a blank black screen. That means no memes. If people can’t turn Quibi scenes into jokes they’ll share elsewhere, its shows won’t ever become fixtures of the cultural zeitgeist like Netflix’s Tiger King has. Yes, other mobile streaming apps like Netflix and Disney+ also block screenshots, but they have web versions where you can snap and share what you want. Quibi never should have structured its deals to license content from producers in a way that prevented any way to riff on or even let friends preview its content.

TikTok, on the other hand, defaults to letting you download any video and share it wherever you please — with the app’s watermark attached. That’s fueled TikTok’s stellar growth as clips get posted to Twitter and Instagram — and drive viewers back to the app. It has spawned TikTok compilations on YouTube, and a whole culture of remixing that expands and prolongs the popularity of trending jokes and dances.

The Fix: Quibi should allow screenshots. There’s little risk of spoilers or piracy. If its deals prohibit that, then it should offer pre-approved screenshots and video clips/trailers of each episode that you can download and share. Think of it like an in-app press kit. Even if we’re not allowed to set up the perfect screenshot for making a meme, at least then we could coherently discuss the shows on other social networks.

Sluggish pacing

On mobile, you’re always just a swipe away from something more interesting. It’s like if you watched TV with your finger permanently hovering over the change channel button. Ever noticed how movie trailers now often start with a fast-forward collage of their most eye-catching scenes? Quibi seems intent on communicating prestige with its slow-building dramas like The Most Dangerous Game and Survive, which both had me bored and fast-forwarding. And that’s watching Quibi at home on the couch. While on the go, where it was designed to be consumed, slow pacing could push users with a minute or two to spare to open Instagram or TikTok instead.

None of this is helped by Quibi not auto-playing a trailer or the first episode the moment you scroll past a show on the home screen. Instead, you see a static title card for two seconds before it starts playing you an excerpt of the program. That makes it more cumbersome to discover new shows.

Where TikTok wins is in immediacy. Creators know users will swipe right past their video if it’s not immediately entertaining or obviously revving up to a big reveal. They grab you in the first second with smiles, costumes, bold captions or crazy situations. That also makes it easy for viewers to dismiss what’s irrelevant to them and teach the TikTok algorithm what they really want. Plus, you know that you can score a dopamine hit of joy even if you only have 30 seconds. TikTok makes Quick Bites feel like an understaffed sit-down restaurant.

The Fix: Quibi needs to teach creators to hook viewers instantly by previewing why they should want to watch. Since tapping a show’s card on the Quibi homepage instantly plays it, those teasers need to be built into the first episode. Otherwise, Quibi needs a button to view a trailer from its buried dedicated show pages to the preview card most people interact with on the home screen. Otherwise, users may never discover what Quibi shows resonate with them and teach it which to show and make more of.

Anti-social video club

Quibi neglects all its second-screen potential. No screenshotting makes it tough to discuss shows elsewhere, yet there’s no built-in comments or messaging to discuss or spread them in-app. Pasting an episode link into Twitter doesn’t even display the show’s name in the preview box. Nor do shows have their own social accounts to follow to remind you to keep watching.

There’s no way for friends to follow what you’re watching or see your recommendations. No leaderboards of top shows. Certainly no time-stamped, live-stream style crowd annotations. No synced-up co-watching with friends, despite a lack of TV apps preventing you from watching with anyone else in person unless you crowd around one phone.

It all feels like Quibi figured advertising would be enough. It could run contests where winners get a Cameo-esque message or chat with their favorite stars. Quibi could let you share scenes with your face swapped onto actors’ heads, deepfake-style like Snapchat’s (confusingly named) Cameos feature. It could host in-app roundtables with the casts where users could submit questions. It’s like if Web 2.0 never happened.

TikTok, meanwhile, harnesses every conceivable social feature. Follow, Like, comment, message, go Live, duet, remix or download and share any video. It beckons viewers to participate in trending challenges. And even when users aren’t itching to return to TikTok, notifications from these social features will drag them back in, or watermarked clips will follow them to other networks. Every part of the app is designed to make its content the center of popular culture.

The Fix: Quibi needs to understand that just because we’re watching on mobile, doesn’t make video a solo experience. At first, it should add social content discovery options so you can see which friends opt in to share that they’re watching or view a leaderboard of the top programs. Shows, especially ones dripping out new episodes, are more fun when you have someone to chat about them with.

Eventually, Quibi should layer on in-app second-screen features. Create a way to share comments at the end of each episode that people read during the credits so they feel like they’re in a viewing community.

Can Quibi be more?

What’s most disappointing about Quibi is that it has the potential to be something fresh, merging classically produced premium content with the modern ways we use our phones. Yet beyond shows being shot in two widths so you can switch between watching in landscape or portrait mode at any time, it really is just a random cable channel shrunk down.

Youths act in front of a mobile phone camera while making a TikTok video on the terrace of their residence in Hyderabad on February 14, 2020 (Photo by NOAH SEELAM / AFP) (Photo by NOAH SEELAM/AFP via Getty Images)

One of the few redeeming opportunities for Quibi is using the daily episode release schedule to serialize content that benefits from suspense, as Ryan Vinnicombe aka InternetRyan notes. Bingeing via traditional streaming services can burn through thrillers before they can properly build up suspense and fan theories or let late-comers catch up while a show is still in the zeitgeist. Cliffhangers with just a day instead of a week to wait could be Quibi’s killer feature.

Suspense is also one thing TikTok fails at. Within a single video, they’re actually often all about suspense, waiting through build up for a gag or non-sequitur to play out. But creators try to rope in followers by making a multi-minute video and splitting it into parts so people subscribe to them to see the next part. Yet since TikTok doesn’t always show timestamps and surfaces old videos on its home screen, it can often be a chore to find the Part Two, and there’s no good way for creators to link them together. TikTok could stand to learn about multi-episode content from Quibi.

But today, Quibi feels like a minitiaturized and degraded version of what we already get for free on the web or pay for with Netflix. Quibi charging $4.99 per month with ads or $7.99 without seems like a steep ask without delivering any truly must-see shows, novel interactive experience or memory-making social moments.

Quibi’s success may simply be a test of how bad people are at cancelling 90-day free trials (hint: they’re bad at it!). The bull case is that absentminded subscribers among the 300,000 first-day downloads and some diehard fans of the celebs it’s given shows will bring Quibi enough traction to raise more cash and survive long enough to socialize its product and teach creators to exploit the format’s opportunities.

But the bear case is already emerging in Quibi’s rapidly declining App Store rank, which fell from No. 4 overall when it launched Monday to No. 21 yesterday after just 830,000 total downloads according to Sensor Tower. Lackluster content and no virality means it might never become the talk of the town, leading top content producers to slink away or half-ass their contributions, leaving us to dine on short video elsewhere.

LinkedIn promises no COVID-related layoffs until the end of the fiscal year

LinkedIn has pledged to making no COVID-related layoffs until at least June 2020, the professional network has confirmed to TechCrunch. While the promise is only until the end of the fiscal year, it follows the lead of Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff’s claim last month to have no significant layoffs for the next 90 days.

Other business leaders such as Bank of America’s CEO Brian Moynihan and Morgan Stanley’s CEO James Gorman have also agreed to pause any potential layoffs until the end of 2020.

Layoffs are trickling down to all industries, starting in the hospitality and travel industry and moving to recruitment startups and scooter companies. Microsoft-owned LinkedIn, which serves as a social media platform for professionals and recruiters alike, is thus poised to be a critical connector for those laid off.

So as job security remains on everyone’s mind, LinkedIn’s promise to not have any layoffs will quell some of that fear within the organization, at least in the near future. LinkedIn has approximately 16,000 full-time employees across 30 cities in the world.

Regardless of how healthy LinkedIn may appear from this news, it’s not immune from making specific cost-saving measures as the economy struggles. The company, reports The Information, has “paused most of its hiring as it figures out business planning.” It had more the 1 million job applicants last year, according to the piece.

Creative ways to host a virtual birthday party for kids

Social distancing requirements amid the COVID-19 pandemic may have canceled kids’ birthday parties, but parents are finding new ways to take the celebrations online. While video chat apps like Zoom, Google Hangouts or FaceTime are an option for gathering kids together in the virtual space, there’s still the challenge of what to do once there. A few companies are working to solve this challenge for parents who are looking for ideas to make their child’s birthday special in the time of COVID-19.

Sky Zone

One business that’s been heavily impacted by government-mandated retail closures is Sky Zone, the indoor trampoline park that’s home to dozens of kids’ birthday parties per day. The company operates Sky Zone parks in more than 160 locations across the U.S. and Canada, mainly to franchisees, which have now temporarily closed due to the coronavirus outbreak.

To help give back to families who still want a party while staying at home, Sky Zone has shifted its current focus to virtual birthday parties. The move not only offers parents the benefit of the hassle-free party planning that a typical events space provides, it also gives Sky Zone a way to keep employees working during the business closures.

The party, however, is not a new source to replace the business’s lost revenue or a way to make payroll. Instead, Sky Zone is offering to host the party for free to parents for up to 10 guests. Parents will have the option to tip the party host at the end of the event to support Sky Zone team members.

To request a party, parents fill out an online form with their information, then wait to hear from the Sky Zone representative who will schedule the party and create a digital invitation with a link to join the party room. Parents forward the digital invite to their friends and family however they choose. Then, on the day of the event, everyone joins the virtual party, which is hosted via Zoom.

The party itself is a 20 to 25-minute experience with the party host leading the kids through games and activities to get kids moving, like Simon Says, Dance Battles, Trivia and even teaching the kids a TikTok dance. They’ll also lead the group in singing Happy Birthday to the Guest of Honor while parents bring in the cake.

The offering was first launched on March 26, 2020 and already Sky Zone has hosted 30 parties and has more than 100 others scheduled.

The benefit of this party over a DIY group chat is that the staff hosting the party are already used to working with kids. Plus, it’s an easy way for overworked parents to get the party handled when they don’t have time to organize more time-consuming events, like a drive-by birthday parade, in-home scavenger hunt or the other alternative birthday party options some parents have turned to in this time of crisis.

Roblox

Another company venturing into the virtual party space is gaming platform Roblox .

Already a huge online hangout for kids in the pre-COVID-19 era, Roblox usage has been booming in recent weeks as kids stuck at home look for ways to socialize with both online and real-life friends in the virtual world. Today, Roblox claims more than 120 million monthly active users and is now No. 35 on App Annie’s 2020 ranking of the top 52 mobile game publishers by revenue.

The company says it was inspired by the stories of friends, family and classmates connecting on its platform during the pandemic, including those who were hosting in-game birthday parties.

Together, with its developer community, Roblox on Friday launched the new “Play Together” game sort, which makes it easier for players to find those games where you socialize with others — like visiting a virtual shopping mall, going camping or riding virtual water slides, for example. The games in the Play Together game sort also offer VIP servers for 10 Robux (10 cents). That allow users to play with family, friends, classmates and others they choose in a private virtual space — like a virtual birthday party.

To create a VIP server, you first visit the individual game’s page on Roblox, then click on the “Servers” tab and then the button “Create VIP Server.” Give your server a name, then invite others using the link provided. (Note that this is opting you into a subscription, so you’ll need to cancel it after the party ends — unless you want to retain the option to have private playspaces like this going forward.)

If you can’t figure out this process, trust me that your child can show you the ropes here.

While Roblox is popular with both boys and girls alike, a private match on Fornite is an alternative for some parents. The majority of Fornite players (roughly 73%) are male, so this could be an option for non-coed parties, for instance.

Caribu

For younger children and toddlers whose virtual party may only involve gathering together extended family — like grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, for example — there’s Caribu.

The family-friendly video calling app helps little ones get over their awkwardness about chatting online by offering a variety of in-app activities. For birthday parties, Caribu’s paint and drawing feature could be a fun, mess-free activity. The app also includes other simple games like Tic-Tac-Toe, interactive word puzzles and word searches.

To help keep families connected during the COVID-19 pandemic, AT&T is sponsoring 60 days of free access and unlimited use of the Caribu app, which offers in-app subscriptions for its full content library, which includes kids’ e-books.

Houseparty

For tweens and teens, the group video chat app Houseparty is another option that works across mobile and desktop.

Houseparty has also seen significant growth due to coronavirus-related lockdowns and home quarantines, particularly in Europe. During the week of March 21, Houseparty downloads surged at 423 times the average weekly number of downloads in Q4 2019.

What makes Houseparty an option for a virtual party experience is that it’s not just another way to group chat — friends can play online games in the chat, including Heads Up!, Trivia, Chips and Guac and Quick Draw. These are free to play, though there is an option to purchase more decks through in-app purchases for some games.

Evites with built-in video chat

Even if you do choose to go the DIY route to host a simple FaceTime, Google Hangouts, Zoom or Skype video chat, there are ways to make the invite more special than just a text. For example, the digital invitations service Evite has updated its app and website to now allow party hosts to add a video chat link to their personalized invite.

The company is also beta testing its own Evite video chat, which is a more integrated option that allows up to eight guests to be able to join from a tab within the invite.

Hobnob’s digital invites app has also updated to make it easier for friends to send invitations for online-only events through Zoom, Facebook Live and YouTube Live.

Personalized Zoom invites

Another option for Zoom users is the newly launched service ZmURL.

This free online tool lets you customize your Zoom video call invite URL with a title, explanation, image and RSVP requirement. This latter RSVP feature means that only those you’ve specifically invited via email will be able to access the provided link and join.

Live streams

Some parents have turned to live-streaming as an option for virtual parties, like those offered by YouTube or Facebook.

While a Facebook Live stream may not have a party host like Sky Zone, or built-in options to play games like Caribu or Houseparty, it does offer an easy way to share a celebration happening at home with others. Though children won’t have their own Facebook account (hopefully!), parents can send out invites to the parents of the child’s friends or family members through a Facebook Group invite, for instance, or by posting a message about the virtual party on their own profile. Participants can then watch the stream together as the child opens gifts left on the porch (and wiped down) and celebrates at home with family.

While technology can help to facilitate these virtual events, parents can take extra steps to make a virtual party special. Some local businesses that used to send characters — like superheroes or Disney princesses — to kids’ birthday parties are now offering to record video messages or even join a virtual party the parent is hosting. Neighbors and friends can decorate the yard or leave chalk messages. Surprise balloon drops, car parades, scavenger hunts and other activities can make the party memorable for other reasons besides being the child’s first quarantine birthday.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ZmURL customizes Zoom link previews with images & event sites

Sick of sharing those generic Zoom video call invites that all look the same? Wish your Zoom link preview’s headline and image actually described your meeting? Want to protect your Zoom calls from trolls by making attendees RSVP to get your link? ZmURL.com has you covered.

Launching today, ZmURL is a free tool that lets you customize your Zoom video call invite URL with a title, explanation, and image that will show up when you share the link on Twitter, Facebook, or elsewhere. zmurl also lets you require that attendees RSVP by entering their email address so can decide who to approve and provide with the actual entry link. That could stop Zoombombers from harassing your call with offensive screenshared imagery, profanity, or worse.

“We built zmurl.com to make it easier for people to stay physically distant but socially close” co-founder Victor Pontis tells me. “We’re hoping to give event organizers the tools to preserve in-person communities while we are all under quarantine.”

Zoom wasn’t built for open public discussions. But with people trapped inside by coronavirus, its daily user count has spiked from 10 million to 200 million. That’s led to new use cases from cocktail parties to roundtable discussions to AA meetings to school classes.

That’s unfortunately spawned new problems like “Zoombombing”, a term I coined two weeks ago to describe malicious actors tracking down public Zoom calls and bombarding them with abuse. Since then, the FBI has issued a warning about Zoombombing, the New York Times has written multiple articles about the issue, and Zoom’s CEO Eric Yuan has apologized.

Yet Zoom has been slow to adapt it features as it struggles not to buckle under its sudden scale. While it’s turned on waiting rooms and host-only screensharing by default for usage in schools, most people are still vulnerable due to Zoom’s permissive settings and reused URLs that were designed for only trusted enterprise meetings. Only today did Zoom concede to shifting the balance further from convenience to safety, turning on waiting rooms by default and requiring passwords for entry by Meeting ID.

Meanwhile, social networks have become a sea of indistinguishable Zoom links that all show the same blue and white logo in the preview with no information on what the call is about. That makes it a lot tougher to promote calls, which many musicians, fitness instructors, and event producers are relying on to drive donations or payments while their work is disrupted by quarantines.

ZmURL’s founders during their only in-person meeting ever

Luckily, Pontis and his co-founder Danqing Liu are here to help with zmurl. The two software engineers fittingly met over Zoom a year ago and have only met once in person. Pontis, now in San Francisco, had started bike and scooter rental software companies Spring and Scooter Map. Liu, from Beijing but now holed up in New York, had spent five years at Google, Uber, and PlanGrid before selling his machine learning tool TinyMind.

The idea for ZmURL stemmed from Liu missing multiple Zoom events he’d wanted to attend. Then a friend of Pontis was laid off from their yoga instructor job, and they and their colleagues were scrambling to market and earn money from hosting their own classes over Zoom. The duo quickly built a beta with zero money raised and tested it with some yoga gurus who found it simplified promoting events and gathering RSVPs. “We’re all going through a tough time right now. We see zmurl as our opportunity to help” Pontis tells me.

To use the tool, you generate a generic meeting link from Zoom like zoom.us/ji/1231231232 and then punch it into ZmURL. You can upload an image or choose from stock photos and color gradients. Then you name you event, give it a description, and set the time and date. You’ll get a shorter URL like https://zmurl.com/smy5m or you can give it a custom one like zmurl.com/quidditch.

When you share that URL, it’ll show your image, headline, and description in the link preview on chat apps, social networks and more. Attendees who click will be shown a nicely rendered event page with the link to enter the Zoom call and the option to add it to their calendar. You can try it out here, zmurl.com/aloha, as the startup is hosting a happy hour today at 6pm Pacific.

Optionally, you can set your ZmURL calls to require an RSVP. In that case, people who click your link have to submit their email address. The host can then sift through the RSVPs and choose who to email back the link to join the call. If you see an RSVP from someone you don’t recognize, just ignore it to keep Zoombombers from slipping inside.

Surprisingly, there doesn’t seem to be any other tools for customizing Zoom call links. Zoom paid enterprise customers can only set up a image and logo-equipped landing page for their whole company’s Zoom account, not for specific calls. For now, ZmURL is completely free. But the co-founders are building out an option for hosting paid events that collect entry fees on the RSVP site while ZmURL takes a 5% cut.

Next, ZmURL wants to add the ability to link your Zoom account to its site so you can spawn call links without leaving. It’s also building out always-on call rooms, recurring events, organizer home pages for promoting all their calls, an option to add events to a public directory, email marketing tools, and integrations with other video call platforms like Hangouts, Skype, and FaceTime.

Pontis says the biggest challenge will be learning to translate more of the magic and business potential off offline events into the world of video calling. There’s also the risk that Zoom will try to intercede and force ZmURL to desist. But it shouldn’t, at least until Zoom builds all these features itself. Or it should just acquire ZmURL.

We’re dealing with an unprecedented behavior shift due to shelter-in-place orders that threaten to cripple the world economy and drive many of us crazy. Whether for fostering human connection or keeping event businesses afloat, Zoom has become a critical utility. It should accept all the help it can get.

Zoom will enable waiting rooms by default to stop Zoombombing

Zoom is making some drastic changes to prevent rampant abuse as trolls attack publicly shared video calls. Starting April 5th, it will require passwords to enter calls via Meeting ID, as these may be guessed or reused. Meanwhile, it will change virtual waiting rooms to be on by default so hosts have to manually admit attendees.

The changes could prevent “Zoombombing,” a term I coined two weeks ago to describe malicious actors entering Zoom calls and disrupting them by screensharing offensive imagery. New Zoombombing tactics have since emerged, like spamming the chat thread with terrible GIFs, using virtual backgrounds to spread hateful messages or just screaming profanities and slurs. Anonymous forums have now become breeding grounds for organized trolling efforts to raid calls.

Just imagine the most frightened look on all these people’s faces. That’s what happened when Zoombombers attacked the call.

The FBI has issued a warning about the Zoombombing problem after children’s online classes, Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and private business calls were invaded by trolls. Security researchers have revealed many ways that attackers can infiltrate a call.

The problems stem from Zoom being designed for trusted enterprise use cases rather than cocktail hours, yoga classes, roundtable discussions and classes. But with Zoom struggling to scale its infrastructure as its daily user count has shot up from 10 million to 200 million over the past month due to coronavirus shelter-in-place orders, it’s found itself caught off guard.

Zoom CEO Eric Yuan apologized for the security failures this week and vowed changes. But at the time, the company merely said it would default to making screensharing host-only and keeping waiting rooms on for its K-12 education users. Clearly it determined that wasn’t sufficient, so now waiting rooms are on by default for everyone.

Zoom communicated the changes to users via an email sent this afternoon that explains “we’ve chosen to enable passwords on your meetings and turn on Waiting Rooms by default as additional security enhancements to protect your privacy.”

The company also explained that “For meetings scheduled moving forward, the meeting password can be found in the invitation. For instant meetings, the password will be displayed in the Zoom client. The password can also be found in the meeting join URL.” Some other precautions users can take include disabling file transfer, screensharing or rejoining by removed attendees.

NEW YORK, NY – APRIL 18: Zoom founder Eric Yuan reacts at the Nasdaq opening bell ceremony on April 18, 2019 in New York City. The video-conferencing software company announced it’s IPO priced at $36 per share, at an estimated value of $9.2 billion. (Photo by Kena Betancur/Getty Images)

The shift could cause some hassle for users. Hosts will be distracted by having to approve attendees out of the waiting room while they’re trying to lead calls. Zoom recommends users resend invites with passwords attached for Meeting ID-based calls scheduled for after April 5th. Scrambling to find passwords could make people late to calls.

But that’s a reasonable price to pay to keep people from being scarred by Zoombombing attacks. The rash of trolling threatened to sour many people’s early experiences with the video chat platform just as it’s been having its breakout moment. A single call marred by disturbing pornography can leave a stronger impression than 100 peaceful ones with friends and colleagues. The old settings made sense when it was merely an enterprise product, but it needed to embrace its own change of identity as it becomes a fundamental utility for everyone.

Technologists will need to grow better at anticipating worst-case scenarios as their products go mainstream and are adapted to new use cases. Assuming everyone will have the best intentions ignores the reality of human nature. There’s always someone looking to generate a profit, score power or cause chaos from even the smallest opportunity. Building development teams that include skeptics and realists, rather than just visionary idealists, could keep ensure products get safeguarded from abuse before rather than after a scandal occurs.

The pandemic is already reshaping tech’s misinformation crisis

Since 2016, social media companies have faced an endless barrage of bad press and public criticism for failing to anticipate how their platforms could be used for dark purposes at the scale of populations—undermining democracies around the world, say, or sowing social division and even fueling genocide.

As COVID-19 plunges the world into chaos and social isolation, those same companies may face a respite from focused criticism, particularly with the industry leveraging its extraordinary resources to pitch in with COVID-19 relief efforts as the world looks to tech upstarts, adept at cutting through red tape and fast-forwarding scientific progress in normal times, while government bureaucracies lag. But the same old problems are rearing their ugly heads just the same, even if less of us are paying attention.

On YouTube, new report from The Guardian and watchdog group Tech Transparency Project found that a batch of videos promoting fake coronavirus cures are making the company ad dollars. The videos, which promoted unscientific methods including “home remedies, meditative music, and potentially unsafe levels of over-the-counter supplements like vitamin C” as potential treatments for the virus, ran ads from unwitting advertisers including Liberty Mutual, Quibi, Trump’s 2020 reelection campaign and Facebook. In Facebook’s case, a banner ad for the company ran on a video suggesting music that promotes “cognitive positivity by using subtle yet powerful theta waves” could ward off the virus.

In the early days of the pandemic, YouTube prohibited ads on any videos related to the coronavirus. In mid-March, as the real scope of the event became clear, the company walked that policy back, allowing some channels to run ads. On Thursday, the company expanded that policy to allow ads for any videos that adhere to the company’s guidelines. One the major tenets in those guidelines forbids the promotion of medical misinformation including “promotion of dangerous remedies or cures.” Most of the videos in the new report were removed after being flagged by a journalist.

This example, and the many others like it, calls into question how to judge major tech platforms during these exceedingly strange times. Social media companies have been uncharacteristically transparent about the shifts the pandemic is creating within their own workflows. On a call in March, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg admitted that users can expect more “false positives” as the company shifts to rely more heavily on artificial intelligence to filter what belongs on the platform and what does not with its army of 15,000 contract moderators sent home on paid leave. The work of sorting through a platform’s most unsavory content—child pornography, extreme violence, hate speech and the like—is not particularly portable, given its potential psychological and legal ramifications.

YouTube similarly warned that it will “temporarily start relying more on technology” to fill in for human reviewers, warning that the automated processes will likely mean more video removals “including some videos that may not violate policies.” Twitter noted the same new reliance on machine learning “to take a wide range of actions on potentially abusive and manipulative content,” though the company will offer an appeals process that loops in a human reviewer. Companies offered fewer warnings about what might fall through the cracks in the interim.

What will become of moderation once things return to normal, or, more likely, settle on a new normal? Will artificial intelligence have mastered the task, obviating the need for human reviewers once and for all? (Unlikely.) Will social media companies have a fresh appreciate for the value of human efforts and bring more of those jobs in-house, where they can perform their bleak work with more of the sunny perks afforded to their full-time counterparts? Like most things examined through the nightmarish haze of the pandemic, the outcomes are hazy at best.

If the approach to holding platforms to account was already piecemeal, an uneven mix of investigative reporting, anecdotal tweets and official corporate post-mortems, the truth will be even more difficult to get at now, even as the coronavirus pandemic provides countless new deadly opportunities for price-gougers and myriad bad actors to create chaos within chaos.

We’ve seen deadly consequences already in Iran, where hundreds died after drinking industrial alcohol—an idea they got “in messages forwarded and forwarded again” amplifying a tabloid story that suggested the act could protect them from the virus. Most consequences will likely go unnoticed beyond the lives they impact and unreported due to tighetened newsroom resources and perhaps even more constricted attention spans.

Much has been written about the coronavirus and the fog of war, most of it rightly focused on scientific research pressing on as the virus threatens the globe and the devastating on-the-ground reality in hospitals and health facilities overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients while life-saving supplies dwindle. But the crisis of viral misinformation—and deliberately-sown disinformation—is its own fog, now intermixing with an unprecedented global crisis that has entirely upended business and relentlessly dominated the news cycle. This as the world’s foremost power heads into a completely upended presidential election cycle—its first since four years ago, when an unexpected election outcome coupled with deep U.S.-centrism in tech circles revealed nefarious forces at play just under the surface of the social networks we hadn’t thought all that much about.

In the present, it will be difficult for outsiders to determine where new systems implemented during the pandemic have failed and what bad outcomes would have happened anyway. To sort those causes out, we’ll have to take a company’s word for it, a risky kind of credulity that already offered mixed results in normal times. Even as we rely on them now more than ever to forge and nurture connections, the virtual portals we immerse ourselves in daily remain black boxes, inscrutable as ever. And as with so many aspects of life in these norm-shattering times, the only thing to expect is change.