Facebook adds a battery-powered smart screen to the Portal line

The Portal line has always been a kind of odd duck in the world of smart screens. Facebook’s most significant contribution to the category is almost certainly Smart Camera, which uses AI to track a subject and pan and zoom accordingly to keep them in frame. It was the first big line to bring the clever feature to market, though Google, Amazon and even Apple have since offered their own takes on the category.

Portal’s other primary appeal (versus a Nest or Echo) is its integration with Facebook’s own software like Messenger and WhatsApp. Beyond that, the line has struggled to differentiate itself from Amazon and Google’s head start in the world of connected home hardware and smart assistants.

Image Credits: Facebook

Today’s news brings an interesting new layer to the conversation, with the arrival of the Portal Go, a battery-powered portal smart screen. The 10-inch device sports a handle on the back for quick gripping and a battery that promises five hours of standard usage and up to 14 hours of music playback with the screen off (there’s currently no specific battery-saving mode).

It’s a clever addition to the line. We are, no doubt, pushing further into tablet territory here, but I’ve felt the impulse to pick up and bring my Nest Home into the other room more than once. Your mileage will vary.

Image Credits: Facebook

I haven’t seen the thing in person yet, but I do dig the design. It’s got rounded edges around some big black bezels and a fabric-covered backing that’s been all the rage in the smart home category for several years now. The Go is propped up in a wedged design, with two front-facing speakers and a rear-facing woofer.

It’s got an ultrawide front-facing 12-megapixel camera that does the aforementioned smart panning, along a with a physical lens cover for privacy. The screen can also be titled up and down for an optimized viewing angle. The system doesn’t currently support far-field technology for a multiple speaker setup, which could complicate things as you move it around the house.

There’s also a new version of the Portal+, which features the same camera setup, coupled with a thin 14-inch tiltable display that can view up to 25 people at a time on a Zoom call. The Portal Go runs $199, while the new Portal+ is $349. Both devices are available for preorder today and start shipping October 19.

Image Credits: Facebook

Today’s news also finds Faceboook launching Portal for Business, aimed at positioning the smart screens as teleconferencing products. Per a release:

With Portal for Business, SMBs will be able to create and manage Facebook Work Accounts for their teams. This is a new account type that allows businesses to use their own company email addresses to set up Portal. These Work Accounts will also provide access to other popular Facebook work products in the coming year.

Using Portal Device Manger, IT departments can set up and remotely wipe employee machines. The system is available now as a closed beta.

Study finds half of Americans get news on social media, but percentage has dropped

A new report from Pew Research finds that around a third of U.S. adults continue to get their news regularly from Facebook, though the exact percentage has slipped from 36% in 2020 to 31% in 2021. This drop reflects an overall slight decline in the number of Americans who say they get their news from any social media platform — a percentage that also fell by 5 percentage points year-over-year, going from 53% in 2020 to a little under 48%, Pew’s study found.

By definition, “regularly” here means the survey respondents said they get their news either “often” or “sometimes,” as opposed to “rarely,” “never,” or “don’t get digital news.”

The change comes at a time when tech companies have come under heavy scrutiny for allowing misinformation to spread across their platforms, Pew notes. That criticism has ramped up over the course of the pandemic, leading to vaccine hesitancy and refusal, which in turn has led to worsened health outcomes for many Americans who consumed the misleading information.

Despite these issues, the percentage of Americans who regularly get their news from various social media sites hasn’t changed too much over the past year, demonstrating how much a part of people’s daily news habits these sites have become.

Image Credits: Pew Research

In addition to the one-third of U.S. adults who regularly get their news on Facebook, 22% say they regularly get news on YouTube. Twitter and Instagram are regular news sources for 13% and 11% of Americans, respectively.

However, many of the sites have seen small declines as a regular source of news among their own users, says Pew. This is a different measurement compared with the much smaller percentage of U.S. adults who use the sites for news, as it speaks to how the sites’ own user bases may perceive them. In a way, it’s a measurement of the shifting news consumption behaviors of the often younger social media user, more specifically.

Today, 55% of Twitter users regularly get news from its platform, compared with 59% last year. Meanwhile, Reddit users’ use of the site for news dropped from 42% to 39% in 2021. YouTube fell from 32% to 30%, and Snapchat fell from 19% to 16%. Instagram is roughly the same, at 28% in 2020 to 27% in 2021.

Only one social media platform grew as a news source during this time: TikTok.

In 2020, 22% of the short-form video platform’s users said they regularly got their news there, compared with an increased 29% in 2021.

Overall, though, most of these sites have very little traction with the wider adult population in the U.S. Fewer than 1 in 10 Americans regularly get their news from Reddit (7%), TikTok (6%), LinkedIn (4%), Snapchat (4%), WhatsApp (3%) or Twitch (1%).

Image Credits: Pew Research

There are demographic differences between who uses which sites, as well.

White adults tend to turn to Facebook and Reddit for news (60% and 54%, respectively). Black and Hispanic adults make up significant proportions of the regular news consumers on Instagram (20% and 33%, respectively.) Younger adults tend to turn to Snapchat and TikTok, while the majority of news consumers on LinkedIn have four-year college degrees.

Of course, Pew’s latest survey, conducted from July 26 to Aug. 8, 2021, is based on self-reported data. That means people’s answers are based on how the users perceive their own usage of these various sites for newsgathering. This can produce different results compared with real-world measurements of how often users visited the sites to read news. Some users may underestimate their usage and others may overestimate it.

People may also not fully understand the ramifications of reading news on social media, where headlines and posts are often molded into inflammatory clickbait in order to entice engagement in the form of reactions and comments. This, in turn, may encourage strong reactions — but not necessarily from those worth listening to. In recent Pew studies, it found that social media news consumers tended to be less knowledgeable about the facts on key news topics, like elections or Covid-19. And social media consumers were more frequently exposed to fringe conspiracies (which is pretty apparent to anyone reading the comments!)

For the current study, the full sample size was 11,178 respondents, and the margin of sampling error was plus or minus 1.4 percentage points.

 

Facebook knows Instagram harms teens. Now, its plan to open the app to kids looks worse than ever

Facebook is in the hot seat again.

The Wall Street Journal published a powerful multi-part series on the company this week, drawing from internal documents on everything from the company’s secretive practice of whitelisting celebrities to its knowledge that Instagram is taking a serious toll on the mental health of teen girls.

The flurry of investigative pieces makes it clear that what Facebook says in public doesn’t always reflect the company’s knowledge on known issues behind the scenes. The revelations still managed to shock even though Facebook has been playing dumb about the various social ills it sows for years. (Remember when Mark Zuckerberg dismissed the notion that Facebook influenced the 2016 election as “crazy?”) Facebook’s longstanding PR playbook is to hide its dangers, denying knowledge of its darker impacts on society publicly, even as research spells them out internally.

That’s all well and good until someone gets ahold of the internal research.

One of the biggest revelations from the WSJ’s report: The company knows that Instagram poses serious dangers to mental health in teenage girls. An internal research slide from 2019 acknowledged that “We make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls” — a shocking admission for a company charging ahead with plans to expand to even younger and more vulnerable age groups.

As recently as May, Instagram’s Adam Mosseri dismissed concerns around the app’s negative impact on teens as “quite small.”

But internally, the picture told a different story. According to the WSJ, from 2019 to 2021, the company conducted a thorough deep dive into teen mental health including online surveys, diary studies, focus groups and large-scale questionnaires.

According to one internal slide, the findings showed that 32 percent of teenage girls reported that Instagram made them have a worse body image. Of research participants who experienced suicidal thoughts, 13 percent of British teens and 6 percent of American teens directly linked their interest in killing themselves to Instagram.

“Teens blame Instagram for increases in the rate of anxiety and depression,” another internal slide stated. “This reaction was unprompted and consistent across all groups.”

Following the WSJ report, Senators Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) announced a probe into Facebook’s lack of transparency around internal research showing that Instagram poses serious and even lethal danger to teens. The Senate Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety, and Data Security will launch the investigation.

“We are in touch with a Facebook whistleblower and will use every resource at our disposal to investigate what Facebook knew and when they knew it – including seeking further documents and pursuing witness testimony,” Senators Blackburn and Blumenthal wrote. “The Wall Street Journal’s blockbuster reporting may only be the tip of the iceberg.”

Blackburn and Blumenthal weren’t the only U.S. lawmakers alarmed by the new report. Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA), Rep. Kathy Castor (D-FL), and Lori Trahan (D-MA) sent Facebook their own letter demanding that the company walk away from its plan to launch Instagram for kids. “Children and teens are uniquely vulnerable populations online, and these findings paint a clear and devastating picture of Instagram as an app that poses significant threats to young people’s wellbeing,” the lawmakers wrote.

 

In May, a group of 44 state attorneys general wrote to Instagram to encourage the company to abandon its plans to bring Instagram to kids under the age of 13. “It appears that Facebook is not responding to a need, but instead creating one, as this platform appeals primarily to children who otherwise do not or would not have an Instagram account,” the group of attorneys general wrote. They warned that an Instagram for kids would be “harmful for myriad reasons.”

In April, a collection of the same Democratic lawmakers expressed “serious concerns” about Instagram’s potential impact on the well-being of young users. That same month, a coalition of consumer advocacy organizations also demanded that the company reconsider launching a version of Instagram for kids.

According to the documents obtained by the WSJ, all of those concerns look extremely valid. In spite of extensive internal research and their deeply troubling findings, Facebook has downplayed its knowledge publicly, even as regulators regularly pressed the company for what it really knows.

Instagram’s Mosseri may have made matters worse Thursday when he made a less than flattering analogy between social media platforms and vehicles. “We know that more people die than would otherwise because of car accidents, but by and large, cars create way more value in the world than they destroy,” Mosseri told Peter Kafka on Recode’s media podcast. “And I think social media is similar.”

Mosseri dismissed any comparison between social media and drugs or cigarettes in spite of social media’s well-researched addictive effects, likening social platforms to the auto industry instead. Naturally, the company’s many critics jumped on the car comparison, pointing to their widespread lethality and the fact that the auto industry is heavily regulated — unlike social media.

For the love of the loot: Blockchain, the metaverse and gaming’s blind spot

The speed at which gaming has proliferated is matched only by the pace of new buzzwords inundating the ecosystem. Marketers and decision makers, already suffering from FOMO about opportunities within gaming, have latched onto buzzy trends like the applications of blockchain in gaming and the “metaverse” in an effort to get ahead of the trend rather than constantly play catch-up.

The allure is obvious, as the relationship between the blockchain, metaverse, and gaming makes sense. Gaming has always been on the forefront of digital ownership (one can credit gaming platform Steam for normalizing the concept for games, and arguably other media such as movies), and most agreed upon visions of the metaverse rely upon virtual environments common in games with decentralized digital ownership.

Whatever your opinion of either, I believe they both have an interrelated future in gaming. However, the success or relevance of either of these buzzy topics is dependent upon a crucial step that is being skipped at this point.

Let’s start with the example of blockchain and, more specifically, NFTs. Collecting items of varying rarities and often random distribution form some of the core “loops” in many games (i.e. kill monster, get better weapon, kill tougher monster, get even better weapon, etc.), and collecting “skins” (e.g. different outfits/permutation of game character) is one of the most embraced paradigms of micro-transactions in games.

The way NFTs are currently being discussed in relation to gaming are very much in danger of falling into this very trap: Killing the core gameplay loop via a financial fast track.

Now, NFTs are positioned to be a natural fit with various rare items having permanent, trackable, and open value. Recent releases such as “Loot (for Adventurers)” have introduced a novel approach wherein the NFTs are simply descriptions of fantasy-inspired gear and offered in a way that other creators can use them as tools to build worlds around. It’s not hard to imagine a game built around NFT items, à la Loot.

But that’s been done before… kind of. Developers of games with a “loot loop” like the one described above have long had a problem with “farmers”, who acquire game currencies and items to sell to players for real money, against the terms of service of the game. The solution was to implement in-game “auction houses” where players could instead use real money to purchase items from one another.

Unfortunately, this had an unwanted side-effect. As noted by renowned game psychologist Jamie Madigan, our brains are evolved to pay special attention to rewards that are both unexpected and beneficial. When much of the joy in some games comes from an unexpected or randomized reward, being able to easily acquire a known reward with real money robbed the game of what made it fun.

The way NFTs are currently being discussed in relation to gaming are very much in danger of falling into this very trap: Killing the core gameplay loop via a financial fast track. The most extreme examples of this phenomena commit the biggest cardinal sin in gaming — a game that is “pay to win,” where a player with a big bankroll can acquire a material advantage in a competitive game.

Blockchain games such as Axie Infinity have rapidly increased enthusiasm around the concept of “play to earn,” where players can potentially earn money by selling tokenized resources or characters earned within a blockchain game environment. If this sounds like a scenario that can come dangerously close to “pay to win,” that’s because it is.

What is less clear is whether it matters in this context. Does anyone care enough about the core game itself rather than the potential market value of NFTs or earning potential through playing? More fundamentally, if real-world earnings are the point, is it truly a game or just a gamified micro-economy, where “farming” as described above is not an illicit activity, but rather the core game mechanic?

The technology culture around blockchain has elevated solving for very hard problems that very few people care about. The solution (like many problems in tech) involves reevaluation from a more humanist approach. In the case of gaming, there are some fundamental gameplay and game psychology issues to be tackled before these technologies can gain mainstream traction.

We can turn to the metaverse for a related example. Even if you aren’t particularly interested in gaming, you’ve almost certainly heard of the concept after Mark Zuckerberg staked the future of Facebook upon it. For all the excitement, the fundamental issue is that it simply doesn’t exist, and the closest analogs are massive digital game spaces (such as Fortnite) or sandboxes (such as Roblox). Yet, many brands and marketers who haven’t really done the work to understand gaming are trying to fast-track to an opportunity that isn’t likely to materialize for a long time.

Gaming can be seen as the training wheels for the metaverse — the ways we communicate within, navigate, and think about virtual spaces are all based upon mechanics and systems with foundations in gaming. I’d go so far as to predict the first adopters of any “metaverse” will indeed be gamers who have honed these skills and find themselves comfortable within virtual environments.

By now, you might be seeing a pattern: We’re far more interested in the “future” applications of gaming without having much of a perspective on the “now” of gaming. Game scholarship has proliferated since the early aughts due to a recognition of how games were influencing thought in fields ranging from sociology to medicine, and yet the business world hasn’t paid it much attention until recently.

The result is that marketers and decision makers are doing what they do best (chasing the next big thing) without the usual history of why said thing should be big, or what to do with it when they get there. The growth of gaming has yielded an immense opportunity, but the sophistication of the conversations around these possibilities remains stunted, due in part to our misdirected attention.

There is no “pay to win” fast track out of this blind spot. We have to put in the work to win.

Facebook revamps its business tool lineup following threats to its ad targeting business

Facebook today is announcing the launch of new products and features for business owners, following the threat to its ad targeting business driven by Apple’s new privacy features, which now allow mobile users to opt out of being tracked across their iOS apps. The social networking giant has repeatedly argued that Apple’s changes would impact small businesses that relied on Facebook ads to reach their customers. But it was not successful in getting any of Apple’s changes halted. Instead, the market is shifting to a new era focused more on user privacy, where personalization and targeting are more of an opt-in experience. That’s required Facebook to address its business advertiser base in new ways.

As the ability to track consumers declines — very few consumers are opting into tracking, studies find — Facebook is rolling out new features that will allow businesses to better position themselves in front of relevant audiences. This includes updates that will let them reach customers, advertise to customers, chat with customers across Facebook apps, generate leads, acquire customers and more.

The company earlier this year began testing a way for customers to explore businesses from underneath News Feed posts by tapping on topics they were interested in — like beauty, fitness, and clothing, and explore content from other related businesses. The feature allows people to come across new businesses that may also like, and would allow Facebook to create its own data set of users who like certain types of content. Over time, it could possibly even turn the feature into an ad unit, where businesses could pay for higher placement.

But for the time being, Facebook will expand this feature to more users across the U.S., and launch it in Australia, Canada, Ireland, Malaysia, New Zealand, Philippines, Singapore, South Africa, and the U.K.

Image Credits: Facebook

Facebook is also making it easier for businesses to chat with customers. They’re already able to buy ads that encourage people to message them on Facebook’s various chat platforms — Messenger, Instagram Direct, or WhatsApp. Now, they’ll be able to choose all the messaging platforms where they’re available, and Facebook will default the chat app showcased in the ad based on where the conversation is most likely to happen.

Image Credits: Facebook

The company will tie WhatsApp to Instagram, as well, as part of this effort. Facebook explains that many businesses market themselves or run shops across Instagram, but rely on WhatsApp to communicate with customers and answer questions. So, Facebook will now allow businesses to add a WhatsApp click-to-chat button to their Instagram profiles.

This change, in particular, represents another move that ties Facebook’s separate apps more closely together, at a time when regulators are considering breaking up Facebook over antitrust concerns. Already, Facebook interconnected Facebook’s Messenger and Instagram messaging services, which would make such a disassembly more complicated. And more recently, it’s begun integrating Messenger directly into Facebook’s platform itself.

Image Credits: Facebook

In a related change, soon businesses will be able to create ads that send users directly to WhatsApp from the Instagram app. (Facebook also already offers ads like this.)

Separately from this news, Facebook announced the launch of a new business directory on WhatsApp, allowing consumers to find shops and services on the chat platform, as well.

Another set of changes being introduced involve an update to Facebook Business Suite. Businesses will be able to manage emails through Inbox and sending remarketing emails; use a new File Manager for creating, managing, and posting content; and access a feature that will allow businesses to test different versions of a post to see which one is most effective.

Image Credits: Facebook

Other new products include tests of paid and organic lead generation tools on Instagram; quote requests on Messenger, where customers answer a few questions prior to their conversations; and a way for small businesses to access a bundle of tools to get started with Facebook ads, which includes a Facebook ad coupon along with free access to QuickBooks for 3 months or free access to Canva Pro for 3 months.

Image Credits: Facebook

Facebook will also begin testing something called “Work Accounts,” which will allow business owners to access their business products, like Business Manager, separately from their personal Facebook account. They’ll be able to manage these accounts on behalf of employees and use single-sign-on integrations.

Work Accounts will be tested through the remainder of the year with a small group of businesses, and Facebook says it expects to expand availability in 2022.

Other efforts it has in store include plans to incorporate more content from creators and local businesses and new features that let users control the content they see, but these changes were not detailed at this time.

Most of the products being announced are either rolling out today or will begin to show up soon.

In growth marketing, signal determines success

Unlike a weak phone signal solely causing a grainy sound, in growth marketing, it can mean the difference between a successful program or a massive cash bleed. As we move toward an increasingly privacy-centric world, it is even more necessary for companies to nail down signal early on.

So what exactly is “signal” in growth marketing? It can carry many different meanings, but holistically speaking, it’s the event data in our arsenal to help guide decisions. When it comes to paid acquisition, it’s vital to optimize and pass back the correct event data to paid channels. This is so that targeting and bidding algorithms have the most enriched data to utilize.

I’ve seen startups spend thousands of dollars inefficiently as a result of not having optimal signal in their paid acquisition campaigns. I’ve also spent millions at companies such as Postmates refining our signal to the best possible state. I’d like every startup to avoid the painful mistake of not having this set up correctly, instead making the most of every important ad dollar.

The selection

When starting out, it may seem obvious to optimize toward a north-star metric such as a purchase. If spend is very minimal, that could mean that the conversion volume will be low across campaigns. On the flip side, if the optimization event is set at a top-of-funnel event such as a landing page view, the signal strength may be very weak. The reason that the strength may be weak is due to passing back a low-intent event as successful to the paid channels. By marking a landing page view as successful, paid channels such as Facebook will continue to find users that are similar to these lower-propensity users that are converting.

Let’s take an example of a health-and-wellness app with a goal of driving memberships to their coaching program. They’re just starting out with exploring paid acquisition and spending $5,000 per week on Facebook. Below is a look at their events in the funnel, weekly volume and cost per event:

Example of a health-and-wellness app and their weekly conversion volume at $5,000 spend. Image Credits: Jonathan Martinez

In the above example, we can see that there’s significant volume for landing page views. As we go down the simplified flow, there is less volume as users drop off the funnel. Almost everyone’s instinct would be to optimize for either the landing page view, because there’s so much data, or the subscription event, because it’s the strongest. I would argue (after extensive testing across multiple ad accounts) that neither of these events would be the correct pick. With landing page views as an optimization event, the users have an egregiously low propensity since the landing page view to subscription conversion rate is 0.61%.

The correct event to optimize for here would either be sign up or trial start because they have sufficient enough volume and are strong signals of a user converting to the north-star metric (subscription). Looking at the conversion rate between sign up and subscription, it’s a much healthier 10.21%, versus the 0.61% from landing page view.

I’m always a huge proponent of testing all events, as there can definitely be big surprises in what may work best for you. When testing events, make sure that there’s a stat-sig baseline that’s being followed to make decisions. Additionally, I think it’s a great practice to test events regularly early on because conversion rates can change as other channel variables are adjusted.

Flow adjustments

In certain cases, the current events that are set up aren’t optimal for paid acquisition campaigns. I’ve seen this happen frequently with startups that have long windows of time between conversion events. Take a startup such as Thumbtack, which provides a marketplace of providers who can help with home repairs. After someone signs up to their app, the user may place a request but not hire someone until a few weeks later. In this case, making flow adjustments could potentially improve the signal and data that you collect from users.

A solution that Thumbtack could implement to gather a stronger signal would be to add another step between the request being placed and hiring someone. This could potentially be a survey with propensity check questions that could ask how soon the user needs help or how important their project is from a 1–10.

Example of in-app survey responses to “How important is your project?” Image Credits: Jonathan Martinez.

After accumulating the data, if there’s a high correlation between survey answers and someone starting their project, we can start to explore optimizing for that event.

In the above example, we see that users who responded with “9” have a 7.66% likelihood to convert. Therefore, this should be the event we optimize for. Artificially adding steps that qualify users in a longer flow can help steer optimization targeting in the right direction.

Enhancing signal

Let’s imagine that you have the most ideal flow that captures large volumes of event signal without much of a delay to your optimization event. That’s still far from perfect. There are myriad solutions that can be implemented to further enhance the signal.

For Facebook specifically, there are connections such as CAPI that can be integrated to pass back data in a more accurate way. CAPI is a method of passing back web events server-to-server rather than relying on cookies and the Facebook pixel. This helps mitigate browsers that block cookies or users who may delete their web history. This is just one example. I won’t run through all the channels, but each has its own solution to help enhance event signal being passed back to it.

iOS 14 signal

This wouldn’t be a column written in 2021 without mention of iOS 14 and the strategies that can be leveraged for this growing user segment. I’ve written another piece about iOS-14-specific tactics, but I’ll cover it here on a broad level. If the north-star metric (i.e., purchase) event can be triggered within 24 hours of the initial app launch, then that’s golden.

This would bring large volumes of high-intent data that would not be at the mercy of the SKAD 24-hour event timer. For most companies, this may sound like a lofty goal, so the target should be to have an event fire within 24 hours that is a high-likelihood indicator of someone completing your north-star metric. Think of which events happen in the flow that lead to someone eventually purchasing. Maybe someone adding a payment method happens within 24 hours and historically has a 90% conversion rate to someone purchasing. An “add payment info” event would be a great conversion event to use in this case. The landscape of iOS 14 is constantly changing but this should apply for the immediate future.

Incrementality and staying ahead

As a rule of thumb, incrementality checks should constantly be performed in growth marketing. It gives an important read on whether advertising dollars are bringing in users that wouldn’t have converted had they not seen an ad.

When comparing optimization events, this rule still applies. Make sure that costs per action aren’t the only metric that’s being used as a measure of success, but instead, use the incremental lift on each conversion event as the ultimate key performance indicator. In this piece, I detail how to run lean incrementality tests without swarms of data scientists.

So how do you stay ahead and continue moving the needle on your growth marketing campaigns? First and foremost, constantly question the events you’re optimizing for. And second, leave no stone unturned.

If you’re using the same optimization event forever, it will be a disservice to your campaign performance potential. By experimenting with flow changes and running tests on new events, you’ll be way ahead of the curve. When iterating on the flow, think about user behavior and events from the user’s perspective. Which flow events, if added, would correlate to a high propensity conversion segment?

The FDA should regulate Instagram’s algorithm as a drug

The Wall Street Journal on Tuesday reported Silicon Valley’s worst-kept secret: Instagram harms teens’ mental health; in fact, its impact is so negative that it introduces suicidal thoughts.

Thirty-two percent of teen girls who feel bad about their bodies report that Instagram makes them feel worse. Of teens with suicidal thoughts, 13% of British and 6% of American users trace those thoughts to Instagram, the WSJ report said. This is Facebook’s internal data. The truth is surely worse.

President Theodore Roosevelt and Congress formed the Food and Drug Administration in 1906 precisely because Big Food and Big Pharma failed to protect the general welfare. As its executives parade at the Met Gala in celebration of the unattainable 0.01% of lifestyles and bodies that we mere mortals will never achieve, Instagram’s unwillingness to do what is right is a clarion call for regulation: The FDA must assert its codified right to regulate the algorithm powering the drug of Instagram.

The FDA should consider algorithms a drug impacting our nation’s mental health: The Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act gives the FDA the right to regulate drugs, defining drugs in part as “articles (other than food) intended to affect the structure or any function of the body of man or other animals.” Instagram’s internal data shows its technology is an article that alters our brains. If this effort fails, Congress and President Joe Biden should create a mental health FDA.

Researchers can study what Facebook prioritizes and the impact those decisions have on our minds. How do we know this? Because Facebook is already doing it — they’re just burying the results.

The public needs to understand what Facebook and Instagram’s algorithms prioritize. Our government is equipped to study clinical trials of products that can physically harm the public. Researchers can study what Facebook privileges and the impact those decisions have on our minds. How do we know this? Because Facebook is already doing it — they’re just burying the results.

In November 2020, as Cecilia Kang and Sheera Frenkel report in “An Ugly Truth,” Facebook made an emergency change to its News Feed, putting more emphasis on “News Ecosystem Quality” scores (NEQs). High NEQ sources were trustworthy sources; low were untrustworthy. Facebook altered the algorithm to privilege high NEQ scores. As a result, for five days around the election, users saw a “nicer News Feed” with less fake news and fewer conspiracy theories. But Mark Zuckerberg reversed this change because it led to less engagement and could cause a conservative backlash. The public suffered for it.

Facebook likewise has studied what happens when the algorithm privileges content that is “good for the world” over content that is “bad for the world.” Lo and behold, engagement decreases. Facebook knows that its algorithm has a remarkable impact on the minds of the American public. How can the government let one man decide the standard based on his business imperatives, not the general welfare?

Upton Sinclair memorably uncovered dangerous abuses in “The Jungle,” which led to a public outcry. The free market failed. Consumers needed protection. The 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act for the first time promulgated safety standards, regulating consumable goods impacting our physical health. Today, we need to regulate the algorithms that impact our mental health. Teen depression has risen alarmingly since 2007. Likewise, suicide among those 10 to 24 is up nearly 60% between 2007 and 2018.

It is of course impossible to prove that social media is solely responsible for this increase, but it is absurd to argue it has not contributed. Filter bubbles distort our views and make them more extreme. Bullying online is easier and constant. Regulators must audit the algorithm and question Facebook’s choices.

When it comes to the biggest issue Facebook poses — what the product does to us — regulators have struggled to articulate the problem. Section 230 is correct in its intent and application; the internet cannot function if platforms are liable for every user utterance. And a private company like Facebook loses the trust of its community if it applies arbitrary rules that target users based on their background or political beliefs. Facebook as a company has no explicit duty to uphold the First Amendment, but public perception of its fairness is essential to the brand.

Thus, Zuckerberg has equivocated over the years before belatedly banning Holocaust deniers, Donald Trump, anti-vaccine activists and other bad actors. Deciding what speech is privileged or allowed on its platform, Facebook will always be too slow to react, overcautious and ineffective. Zuckerberg cares only for engagement and growth. Our hearts and minds are caught in the balance.

The most frightening part of “The Ugly Truth,” the passage that got everyone in Silicon Valley talking, was the eponymous memo: Andrew “Boz” Bosworth’s 2016 “The Ugly.”

In the memo, Bosworth, Zuckerberg’s longtime deputy, writes:

“So we connect more people. That can be bad if they make it negative. Maybe it costs someone a life by exposing someone to bullies. Maybe someone dies in a terrorist attack coordinated on our tools. And still we connect people. The ugly truth is that we believe in connecting people so deeply that anything that allows us to connect more people more often is de facto good.”

Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg made Bosworth walk back his statements when employees objected, but to outsiders, the memo represents the unvarnished id of Facebook, the ugly truth. Facebook’s monopoly, its stranglehold on our social and political fabric, its growth at all costs mantra of “connection,” is not de facto good. As Bosworth acknowledges, Facebook causes suicides and allows terrorists to organize. This much power concentrated in the hands of one corporation, run by one man, is a threat to our democracy and way of life.

Critics of FDA regulation of social media will claim this is a Big Brother invasion of our personal liberties. But what is the alternative? Why would it be bad for our government to demand that Facebook accounts to the public its internal calculations? Is it safe for the number of sessions, time spent and revenue growth to be the only results that matters? What about the collective mental health of the country and world?

Refusing to study the problem does not mean it does not exist. In the absence of action, we are left with a single man deciding what is right. What is the price we pay for “connection”? This is not up to Zuckerberg. The FDA should decide.

LinkedIn is launching its own $25M fund and incubator for creators

When LinkedIn first launched Stories format, and later expanded its tools for creators earlier this year, one noticeable detail was that the Microsoft-owned network for professionals hadn’t built any kind of obvious monetization into the program — noticeable, given that creators earn a living on other platforms like Instagram, YouTube and TikTok, and those apps had lured creators, their content, and their audiences in part by paying out.

“As we continue to listen to feedback from our members as we consider future opportunities, we’ll also continue to evolve how we create more value for our creators,” is how LinkedIn explained its holding pattern on payouts to me at the time. But that strategy may have backfired for the company — or at least may have played a role in what came next: last month, LinkedIn announced it would be scrapping its Stories format and going back to the proverbial drawing board to work on other short-form video content for the platform.

Now comes the latest iteration in that effort. To bring more creators to the platform, the company today announced that it would be launching a new $25 million creator fund, which initially will be focused around a new Creator Accelerator Program.

It’s coming on the heels of LinkedIn also continuing to work on one of its other new-content experiments: a Clubhouse-style live conversation platform. As we previously reported, LinkedIn began working on this back in March of this year. Now, we are hearing that the feature will make an appearance as part of a broader events strategy for the company.

Notably, in a blog post announcing the creator fund, LinkedIn also listed a number of creator events coming up. Will the Clubhouse-style feature pop up there? Watch this space. Or maybe… listen up.

In any case, the creator accelerator that LinkedIn is announcing today could help feed into that wider pool of people that LinkedIn is hoping to cultivate on its platform as a more dynamic and lively set of voices to get more people talking and spending time on LinkedIn.

Andrei Santalo, global head of community at LinkedIn, noted in the blog post that the accelerator/incubator will be focused on the whole creator and the many ways that one can engage on LinkedIn.

“Creating content on LinkedIn is about creating opportunity, for yourselves and others,” he writes. “How can your words, videos and conversations make 774+ million professionals better at what they do or help them see the world in new ways?”

The incubator will last for 10 weeks and will take on 100 creators in the U.S. to coach them on building content for LinkedIn. It will also give them chances to network with like-minded individuals (naturally… it is LinkedIn), as well as a $15,000 grant to do their work. The deadline for applying (which you do here) is October 12.

The idea of starting a fund to incentivize creators to build video for a particular platform is definitely not new — and that is one reason why it was overdue for LinkedIn to think about its own approach.

Leading social media platforms like TikTok, Snapchat, Instagram and Facebook, and YouTube all have announced hundreds of millions of dollars in payouts in the form of creator funds to bring more original content to their platforms.

You could argue that for mass-market social media sites, it’s important to pay creators because competition is so fierce among them for consumer attention.

But on the other hand, those platforms have appeal for creators because of the potential audience size. At 774 million users, LinkedIn isn’t exactly small, but the kind of content that tends to live on there is so different, and maybe drier — it’s focused on professional development, work, and “serious” topics — that perhaps it might need the most financial incentive of all to get creators to bite.

LinkedIn’s bread and butter up to now has been around professional development: people use it to look for work, to get better jobs, to hire people, and to connect with people who might help them get ahead in their professional lives.

But it’s done so in a very prescribed set of formats that do not leave much room for exploring “authenticity” — not in the modern sense of “authentic self”, and not in the more old-school sense of just letting down your guard and being yourself. (Even relatively newer initiatives like its education focus directly play into this bigger framework.)

With authenticity becoming an increasing priority for people — and maybe more so as we have started to blur the lines between work and home because of Covid-19 and the changes that it has forced on us — I can’t help but wonder whether LinkedIn will use this opportunity to rethink, or at least expand the concept of, what it means to spend time on its platform.

Instagram is building a ‘Favorites’ feature so you don’t miss important posts

Instagram confirmed it’s developing a new feature called “Favorites,” which would allow users to select certain accounts whose posts they would like to see higher in their feed. A similar feature already exists on Facebook where it gives users a bit more control over the News Feed algorithm. On Facebook, users can select up to 30 friends or Facebook Pages whose posts get shown higher in the News Feed. It’s unclear what limit an Instagram Favorites feature would have, however.

The Instagram Favorites feature was recently spotted in development by reverse engineer Alessandro Paluzzi, who found a new pushpin icon for Favorites in the Instagram Settings menu, and other details about how the feature may work.

According to screenshots Paluzzi posted on Twitter, users will be able to search across the Instagram accounts they are currently following to create a list of Favorites. This list can be edited at any time, and Instagram notes that users would not be notified when they’re added to someone’s Favorites.

This is a similar level of privacy as offered by Instagram’s several years-old “Close Friends” feature, which instead focuses on allowing users to create a separate list of followers so they can share their more private and personal Instagram Stories with a select group of their own choosing.

Paluzzi tells us he was able to add contacts to the Favorites list, but didn’t yet notice any changes to the Instagram feed after doing so. That implies the feature is still being built and a launch is not imminent.

“This feature is an internal prototype that’s still in development, and not testing externally,” an Instagram spokesperson told TechCrunch. They declined to share any other specifics about the feature.

A Favorites feature could play into Instagram’s larger plans to better establish itself as a home for creator content. In other leaks, Paluzzi had also found the company was building out “Fan Subscriptions,” which would allow users to pay for elevated access to creator content — like exclusive live videos or Stories, for example. Paid subscribers may also be given a special badge that would highlight their name when they commented, DM’ed, or viewed the creator’s Stories.

Given that users who were paying for content would not want to miss a moment, it would make sense to give them tools to designate those creators as “Favorites” whose posts were also more highly ranked in their Feed.

A Favorites feature could also be useful to those who had taken a break from Instagram and would rather see the important photos and videos they missed from favorite accounts upon their return, rather than just the most recent or interesting updates from across all of the accounts they follow.

And while not likely the main goal, the new feature could help to address users’ complaints about the algorithmic feed in general.

Today, there are still a number of people who want to be able to see Instagram posts in chronological order, preferring to not have posts re-ordered by an algorithm they can’t control. Favorites wouldn’t give in to this demand (though Instagram has tested a chronological feed in the past). But it would at least give users the ability to ensure they weren’t missing the posts from those whose updates they wanted to see the most.

Though Instagram did say it’s working on the development of Favorites, it doesn’t necessarily mean such a feature will launch to the public. Companies of Instagram’s size often prototype new ideas, but only some of those tests make it to a general release.

WhatsApp will finally let users encrypt their chat backups in the cloud

WhatsApp said on Friday it will give its two billion users the option to encrypt their chat backups to the cloud, taking a significant step to put a lid on one of the tricky ways private communication between individuals on the app can be compromised.

The Facebook-owned service has end-to-end encrypted chats between users for more than a decade. But users have had no option but to store their chat backup to their cloud — iCloud on iPhones and Google Drive on Android — in an unencrypted format.

Tapping these unencrypted WhatsApp chat backups on Google and Apple servers is one of the widely known ways law enforcement agencies across the globe have been able to access WhatsApp chats of suspect individuals for years.

Now WhatsApp says it is patching this weak link in the system.

“WhatsApp is the first global messaging service at this scale to offer end-to-end encrypted messaging and backups, and getting there was a really hard technical challenge that required an entirely new framework for key storage and cloud storage across operating systems,” said Facebook’s chief executive Mark Zuckerberg said in a post announcing the new feature.

Store your own encryption keys

The company said it has devised a system to enable WhatsApp users on Android and iOS to lock their chat backups with encryption keys. WhatsApp says it will offer users two ways to encrypt their cloud backups, and the feature is optional.

In the “coming weeks,” users on WhatsApp will see an option to generate a 64-digit encryption key to lock their chat backups in the cloud. Users can store the encryption key offline or in a password manager of their choice, or they can create a password that backs up their encryption key in a cloud-based “backup key vault” that WhatsApp has developed. The cloud-stored encryption key can’t be used without the user’s password, which isn’t known by WhatsApp.

(Image: WhatsApp/supplied)

“We know that some will prefer the 64-digit encryption key whereas others want something they can easily remember, so we will be including both options. Once a user sets their backup password, it is not known to us. They can reset it on their original device if they forget it,” WhatsApp said.

“For the 64-digit key, we will notify users multiple times when they sign up for end-to-end encrypted backups that if they lose their 64-digit key, we will not be able to restore their backup and that they should write it down. Before the setup is complete, we’ll ask users to affirm that they’ve saved their password or 64-digit encryption key.”

A WhatsApp spokesperson told TechCrunch that once an encrypted backup is created, previous copies of the backup will be deleted. “This will happen automatically and there is no action that a user will need to take,” the spokesperson added.

Potential regulatory pushback?

The move to introduce this added layer of privacy is significant and one that could have far-reaching implications.

End-to-end encryption remains a thorny topic of discussion as governments continue to lobby for backdoors. Apple was reportedly pressured to not add encryption to iCloud Backups after the FBI complained, and while Google has offered users the ability to encrypt their data stored in Google Drive, the company allegedly didn’t tell governments before it rolled out the feature.

When asked by TechCrunch whether WhatsApp, or its parent firm Facebook, had consulted with government bodies — or if it had received their support — during the development process of this feature, the company declined to discuss any such conversations.

“People’s messages are deeply personal and as we live more of our lives online, we believe companies should enhance the security they provide their users. By releasing this feature, we are providing our users with the option to add this additional layer of security for their backups if they’d like to, and we’re excited to give our users a meaningful advancement in the safety of their personal messages,” the company told TechCrunch.

WhatsApp also confirmed that it will be rolling out this optional feature in every market where its app is operational.  It’s not uncommon for companies to withhold privacy features for legal and regulatory reasons. Apple’s upcoming encrypted browsing feature, for instance, won’t be made available to users in certain authoritarian regimes, such as China, Belarus, Egypt, Kazakhstan, Saudi Arabia, Turkmenistan, Uganda, and the Philippines.

At any rate, Friday’s announcement comes days after ProPublica reported that private end-to-end encrypted conversations between two users can be read by human contractors when messages are reported by users.

“Making backups fully encrypted is really hard and it’s particularly hard to make it reliable and simple enough for people to use. No other messaging service at this scale has done this and provided this level of security for people’s messages,” Uzma Barlaskar, product lead for privacy at WhatsApp, told TechCrunch.

“We’ve been working on this problem for many years, and to build this, we had to develop an entirely new framework for key storage and cloud storage that can be used across the world’s largest operating systems and that took time.”