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.

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.

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.”

Epic Games to shut down Houseparty in October, including the video chat ‘Fortnite Mode’ feature

Houseparty, the social video chat app acquired by Fortnite maker Epic Games for a reported $35 million back in 2019, is shutting down. The company says Houseparty will be discontinued in October when the app will stop functioning for its existing users; it will be pulled from the app stores today, however. Related to this move, Epic Games’ “Fortnite Mode” feature, which leveraged Houseparty to bring video chat to Fortnite gamers, will also be discontinued.

Founded in 2015, Houseparty offered a way for users to participate in group video chats with friends and even play games, like Uno, trivia, Heads Up and others. Last year, Epic Games integrated Houseparty with Fortnite, initially to allow gamers to see live feeds from friends while gaming, then later adding support to livestream gameplay directly into Houseparty. At the time, these integrations appeared to be the end goal that explained why Epic Games had bought the social startup in the first place.

Now, just over two years after the acquisition was announced, and less than half a year since support for livestreaming was added to the app, Houseparty is shutting down.

The company didn’t offer any solid insight into what, at first glance, feels like an admission of failure to capitalize on its acquisition. But the reality is that Epic Games may have something larger in store beyond just video chat. That said, all Epic Games would say today is that the Houseparty team could no longer give the app the attention it required — a statement that indicates an executive decision to shift the team’s focus to other matters.

While none of the Houseparty team members are being let go as a result of this move, we’re told, they will be joining other teams where they will work on new ways to allow for “social interactions” across the Epic Games family of products. The company’s announcement hinted that those social features would be designed and built at the “metaverse scale.”

The “metaverse” is an increasingly used buzzword that references a shared virtual environment, like those provided by large-scale online gaming platforms such as Fortnite, Roblox and others. Facebook, too, claims the metaverse is the next big gambit for social networking, with CEO Mark Zuckerberg having described it as an “embodied internet that you’re inside of rather than just looking at.”

To some extent, Fortnite has begun to embrace the metaverse by offering non-gaming experiences like online concerts you attend as your avatar, and other live events. Ahead of its shutdown, Houseparty also toyed with live events that users would co-watch and participate in alongside their friends.

An Epic Games spokesperson tells TechCrunch the Houseparty team has worked on (and continues to work on) a number of other projects that focus on social. But some of the “multiple, larger projects” Epic Games has in the works remain undisclosed, we’re told.

In terms of social products, Houseparty’s technology now underpins all of Fortnite voice chat and the features they built are widely available for free to developers through Epic Games Services. They also worked on building out new social experiences, which have ranged from the social RSVP functions for Fortnite’s global events, like the recent Ariana Grande concert, to the upcoming “Operation: Sky Fire” event for collaborating quests and other game mechanics. More social functionality and new experiences are also being built into Fortnite’s user-generated content platform, Create Mode.

While it may seem odd to close an app that only last year experienced a boost in usage due to the pandemic, it appears the COVID bump didn’t have staying power.

At the height of lockdowns, Houseparty had reported it had gained 50 million new sign-ups in a month’s time as users looked to video apps to connect with family and friends while the world was shut down. But as the pandemic wore on, other video chat experiences gained more ground. Zoom, which had established itself as an essential tool for remote work, became a tool for hanging out with friends after-hours, as well. Facebook also started to eat Houseparty’s lunch with its debut of drop-in video chat “Rooms” last year, which offered a similar group video experience. And bored users shifted to audio-based social networking on apps like Clubhouse or Twitter Spaces.

Image Credits: Apptopia

According to data from Apptopia, Houseparty has been continually declining since the pandemic bump. To date, its app has seen a total of 111 million downloads across iOS and Android, with the majority (63 million) on iOS. The U.S. was Houseparty’s largest market, accounting for 43.4% of downloads, followed by the U.K. (9.8%), then Germany (5.6%).

Epic Games, meanwhile, said the app served “tens of millions” of users worldwide. It insists the closure wasn’t decided lightly, nor was the decision to shutter “Fortnite Mode” made due to lack of adoption.

Houseparty will alert users to the shutdown via in-app notifications ahead of its final closure in October. At that point, Fortnite Mode will also no longer be available.

Seqera Labs grabs $5.5M to help sequence Covid-19 variants and other complex data problems

Bringing order and understanding to unstructured information located across disparate silos has been one of more significant breakthroughs of the big data era, and today a European startup that has built a platform to help with this challenge specifically in the area of life sciences — and has, notably, been used by labs to sequence and so far identify two major Covid-19 variants — is announcing some funding to continue building out its tools to a wider set of use cases, and to expand into North America.

Seqera Labs, a Barcelona-based data orchestration and workflow platform tailored to help scientists and engineers order and gain insights from cloud-based genomic data troves, as well as to tackle other life science applications that involve harnessing complex data from multiple locations, has raised $5.5 million in seed funding.

Talis Capital and Speedinvest co-led this round, with participation also from previous backer BoxOne Ventures and a grant from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, Mark Zuckerberg and Dr. Priscilla Chan’s effort to back open source software projects for science applications.

Seqera — a portmanteau of “sequence” and “era”, the age of sequencing data, basically — had previously raised less than $1 million, and quietly, it is already generating revenues, with five of the world’s biggest pharmaceutical companies part of its customer base, alongside biotech and other life sciences customers.

Seqera was spun out of the Centre for Genomic Regulation, a biomedical research center based out of Barcelona, where it was built as the commercial application of Nextflow, open-source workflow and data orchestration software originally created by the founders of Seqera, Evan Floden and Paolo Di Tommaso, at the CGR.

Floden, Seqera’s CEO, told TechCrunch that he and Di Tommaso were motivated to create Seqera in 2018 after seeing Nextflow gain a lot of traction in the life science community, and subsequently getting a lot of repeat requests for further customization and features. Both Nextflow and Seqera have seen a lot of usage: the Nextflow runtime has been downloaded over 2 million times, the company said, while Seqera’s commercial cloud offering has now processed more than 5 billion tasks.

The Covid-19 pandemic is a classic example of the acute challenge that Seqera (and by association Nextflow) aims to address in the scientific community. With Covid-19 outbreaks happening globally, each time a test for Covid-19 is processed in a lab, live genetic samples of the virus get collected. Taken together, these millions of tests represent a goldmine of information about the coronavirus and how it is mutating, and when and where it is doing so. For a new virus about which so little is understood and that is still persisting, that’s invaluable data.

So the problem is not if the data exists for better insights (it does); it is that it’s nearly impossible to use more legacy tools to view that data as a holistic body. It’s in too many places, and there is just too much of it, and it’s growing every day (and changing every day), which means that traditional approaches of porting data to a centralized location to run analytics on it just wouldn’t be efficient, and would cost a fortune to execute.

That is where Segera comes in. The company’s technology treats each source of data across different clouds as a salient pipeline which can be merged and analyzed as a single body, without that data ever leaving the boundaries of the infrastructure where it already exists. Customised to focus on genomic troves, scientists can then query that information for more insights. Seqera was central to the discovery of both the alpha and delta variants of the virus, and work is still ongoing as Covid-19 continues to hammer the globe.

Seqera is being used in other kinds of medical applications, such as in the realm of so-called “precision medicine.” This is emerging as a very big opportunity in complex fields like oncology: cancer mutates and behaves differently depending on many factors, including genetic differences of the patients themselves, which means that treatments are less effective if they are “one size fits all.” Increasingly, we are seeing approaches that leverage machine learning and big data analytics to better understand individual cancers and how they develop for different populations, to subsequently create more personalized treatments, and Seqera comes into play as a way to sequence that kind of data.

This also highlights something else notable about the Seqera platform: it is used directly by the people who are analyzing the data — that is, the researchers and scientists themselves, without data specialists necessarily needing to get involved. This was a practical priority for the company, Floden told me, but nonetheless, it’s an interesting detail of how the platform is inadvertently part of that bigger trend of “no-code/low-code” software, designed to make highly technical processes usable by non-technical people.

It’s both the existing opportunity, and how Seqera might be applied in the future across other kinds of data that lives in the cloud, that makes it an interesting company, and it seems an interesting investment, too.

“Advancements in machine learning, and the proliferation of volumes and types of data, are leading to increasingly more applications of computer science in life sciences and biology,” said Kirill Tasilov, principal at Talis Capital, in a statement. “While this is incredibly exciting from a humanity perspective, it’s also skyrocketing the cost of experiments to sometimes millions of dollars per project as they become computer-heavy and complex to run. Nextflow is already a ubiquitous solution in this space and Seqera is driving those capabilities at an enterprise level – and in doing so, is bringing the entire life sciences industry into the modern age. We’re thrilled to be a part of Seqera’s journey.”

“With the explosion of biological data from cheap, commercial DNA sequencing, there is a pressing need to analyse increasingly growing and complex quantities of data,” added Arnaud Bakker, principal at Speedinvest. “Seqera’s open and cloud-first framework provides an advanced tooling kit allowing organisations to scale complex deployments of data analysis and enable data-driven life sciences solutions.”

Although medicine and life sciences are perhaps Seqera’s most obvious and timely applications today, the framework originally designed for genetics and biology can be applied to are a number of other areas: AI training, image analysis and astronomy are three early use cases, Floden said. Astronomy is perhaps very apt, since it seems that the sky is the limit.

“We think we are in the century of biology,” Floden said. “It’s the center of activity and it’s becoming data-centric, and we are here to build services around that.”

Seqera is not disclosing its valuation.

Move fast and break Facebook: A bull case for antitrust enforcement

This is the second post in a series on the Facebook monopoly. The first post explored how the U.S. Federal Trade Commission should define the Facebook monopoly. I am inspired by Cloudflare’s recent post explaining the impact of Amazon’s monopoly in its industry.

Perhaps it was a competitive tactic, but I genuinely believe it more a patriotic duty: guideposts for legislators and regulators on a complex issue. My generation has watched with a combination of sadness and trepidation as legislators who barely use email question the leading technologists of our time about products that have long pervaded our lives in ways we don’t yet understand.

I, personally, and my company both stand to gain little from this — but as a participant in the latest generation of social media upstarts, and as an American concerned for the future of our democracy, I feel a duty to try.


Mark Zuckerberg has reached his Key Largo moment.

In May 1972, executives of the era’s preeminent technology company — AT&T — met at a secret retreat in Key Largo, Florida. Their company was in crisis.

At the time, Ma Bell’s breathtaking monopoly consisted of a holy trinity: Western Electric (the vast majority of phones and cables used for American telephony), the lucrative long distance service (for both personal and business use) and local telephone service, which the company subsidized in exchange for its monopoly.

Over the next decade, all three government branches — legislators, regulators and the courts — parried with AT&T’s lawyers as the press piled on, battering the company’s reputation in the process. By 1982, a consent decree forced AT&T’s dismantling. The biggest company on earth withered to 30% of its book value and seven independent “Baby Bell” regional operating companies. AT&T’s brand would live on, but the business as the world knew it was dead.

Mark Zuckerberg is, undoubtedly, the greatest technologist of our time. For over 17 years, he has outgunned, outsmarted and outperformed like no software entrepreneur before him. Earlier this month, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission refiled its sweeping antitrust case against Facebook.

Its own holy trinity of Facebook Blue, Instagram and WhatsApp is under attack. All three government branches — legislators, regulators and the courts — are gaining steam in their fight, and the press is piling on, battering the company’s reputation in the process. Facebook, the AT&T of our time, is at the brink. For so long, Zuckerberg has told us all to move fast and break things. It’s time for him to break Facebook.

If Facebook does exist to “make the world more open and connected, and not just to build a company,” as Zuckerberg wrote in the 2012 IPO prospectus, he will spin off Instagram and WhatsApp now so that they have a fighting chance. It would be the ultimate Zuckerbergian chess move. Zuckerberg would lose voting control and thus power over all three entities, but in his action he would successfully scatter the opposition. The rationale is simple:

  1. The United States government will break up Facebook. It is not a matter of if; it is a matter of when.
  2. Facebook is already losing. Facebook Blue, Instagram and WhatsApp all face existential threats. Pressure from the government will stifle Facebook’s efforts to right the ship.
  3. Facebook will generate more value for shareholders as three separate companies.

I write this as an admirer; I genuinely believe much of the criticism Zuckerberg has received is unfair. Facebook faces Sisyphean tasks. The FTC will not let Zuckerberg sneeze without an investigation, and the company has failed to innovate.

Given no chance to acquire new technology and talent, how can Facebook survive over the long term? In 2006, Terry Semel of Yahoo offered $1 billion to buy Facebook. Zuckerberg reportedly remarked, “I just don’t know if I want to work for Terry Semel.” Even if the FTC were to allow it, this generation of founders will not sell to Facebook. Unfair or not, Mark Zuckerberg has become Terry Semel.

The government will break up Facebook

It is not a matter of if; it is a matter of when.

In a speech on the floor of Congress in 1890, Senator John Sherman, the founding father of the modern American antitrust movement, famously said, “If we will not endure a king as a political power, we should not endure a king over the production, transportation and sale of any of the necessities of life. If we would not submit to an emperor, we should not submit to an autocrat of trade with power to prevent competition and to fix the price of any commodity.”

This is the sentiment driving the building resistance to Facebook’s monopoly, and it shows no sign of abating. Zuckerberg has proudly called Facebook the fifth estate. In the U.S., we only have four estates.

All three branches of the federal government are heating up their pursuit. In the Senate, an unusual bipartisan coalition is emerging, with Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Mark Warner (D-VA), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Josh Hawley (R-MO) each waging a war from multiple fronts.

In the House, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) has called Facebook “part of the problem.” Lina Khan’s FTC is likewise only getting started, with unequivocal support from the White House that feels burned by Facebook’s disingenuous lobbying. The Department of Justice will join, too, aided by state attorneys general. And the courts will continue to turn the wheels of justice, slowly but surely.

In the wake of Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes’ scathing 2019 New York Times op-ed, Zuckerberg said that Facebook’s immense size allows it to spend more on trust and safety than Twitter makes in revenue.

“If what you care about is democracy and elections, then you want a company like us to be able to invest billions of dollars per year like we are in building up really advanced tools to fight election interference,” Zuckerberg said.

This could be true, but it does not prove that the concentration of such power in one man’s hands is consistent with U.S. public policy. And the centralized operations could be rebuilt easily in standalone entities.

Time and time again, whether on Holocaust denial, election propaganda or vaccine misinformation, Zuckerberg has struggled to make quick judgments when presented with the information his trust and safety team uncovers. And even before a decision is made, the structure of the team disincentivizes it from even measuring anything that could harm Facebook’s brand. This is inherently inconsistent with U.S. democracy. The New York Times’ army of reporters will not stop uncovering scandal after scandal, contradicting Zuckerberg’s narrative. The writing is on the wall.

Facebook is losing

Facebook Blue, Instagram and WhatsApp all face existential threats. Pressure from the government will stifle Facebook’s efforts to right the ship.

For so long, Facebook has dominated the social media industry. But if you ask Chinese technology executives about Facebook today, they quote Tencent founder Pony Ma: “When a giant falls, his corpse will still be warm for a while.”

Facebook’s recent demise begins with its brand. The endless, cascading scandals of the last decade have irreparably harmed its image. Younger users refuse to adopt the flagship Facebook Blue. The company’s internal polling on two key metrics — good for the world (GFW) and cares about users (CAU) — shows Facebook’s reputation is in tatters. Talent is fleeing, too; Instacart alone recently poached 55 Facebook executives.

In 2012 and 2014, Instagram and WhatsApp were real dangers. Facebook extinguished both through acquisition. Yet today they represent the company’s two most promising, underutilized assets. They are the underinvested telephone networks of our time.

Weeks ago, Instagram head Adam Mosseri announced that the company no longer considers itself a photo-sharing app. Instead, its focus is entertainment. In other words, as the media widely reported, Instagram is changing to compete with TikTok.

TikTok’s strength represents an existential threat. U.S. children 4 to 15 already spend over 80 minutes a day on ByteDance’s TikTok, and it’s just getting started. The demographics are quickly expanding way beyond teenagers, as social products always have. For Instagram, it could be too little too late — as a part of Facebook, Instagram cannot acquire the technology and retain the talent it needs to compete with TikTok.

Imagine Instagram acquisitions of Squarespace to bolster its e-commerce offerings, or Etsy to create a meaningful marketplace. As a part of Facebook, Instagram is strategically adrift.

Likewise, a standalone WhatsApp could easily be a $100 billion market cap company. WhatsApp has a proud legacy of robust security offerings, but its brand has been tarnished by associations with Facebook. Discord’s rise represents a substantial threat, and WhatsApp has failed to innovate to account for this generation’s desire for community-driven messaging. Snapchat, too, is in many ways a potential WhatsApp killer; its young users use photography and video as a messaging medium. Facebook’s top augmented reality talents are leaving for Snapchat.

With 2 billion monthly active users, WhatApp could be a privacy-focused alternative to Facebook Blue, and it would logically introduce expanded profiles, photo-sharing capabilities and other features that would strengthen its offerings. Inside Facebook, WhatsApp has suffered from underinvestment as a potential threat to Facebook Blue and Messenger. Shareholders have suffered for it.

Beyond Instagram and WhatsApp, Facebook Blue itself is struggling. Q2’s earnings may have skyrocketed, but the increase in revenue hid a troubling sign: Ads increased by 47%, but inventory increased by just 6%. This means Facebook is struggling to find new places to run its ads. Why? The core social graph of Facebook is too old.

I fondly remember the day Facebook came to my high school; I have thousands of friends on the platform. I do not use Facebook anymore — not for political reasons, but because my friends have left. A decade ago, hundreds of people wished me happy birthday every year. This year it was 24, half of whom are over the age of 50. And I’m 32 years old. Teen girls run the social world, and many of them don’t even have Facebook on their phones.

Zuckerberg’s newfound push into the metaverse has been well covered, but the question remains: Why wouldn’t a Facebook serious about the metaverse acquire Roblox? Of course, the FTC would currently never allow it.

Facebook’s current clunky attempt at a hardware solution, with an emphasis on the workplace, shows little sign of promise. The launch was hardly propitious, as CNN reported, “While Bosworth, the Facebook executive, was in the middle of describing how he sees Workrooms as a more interactive way to gather virtually with coworkers than video chat, his avatar froze midsentence, the pixels of its digital skin turning from flesh-toned to gray. He had been disconnected.”

This is not the indomitable Facebook of yore. This is graying Facebook, freezing midsentence.

Facebook will generate more value for shareholders as three separate companies

Zuckerberg’s control of 58% of Facebook’s voting shares has forestalled a typical Wall Street reckoning: Investors are tiring of Zuckerberg’s unilateral power. Many justifiably believe the company is more valuable as the sum of its parts. The success of AT&T’s breakup is a case in point.

Five years after AT&T’s 1984 breakup, AT&T and the Baby Bells’ value had doubled compared to AT&T’s pre-breakup market capitalization. Pressure from Japanese entrants battered Western Electric’s market share, but greater competition in telephony spurred investment and innovation among the Baby Bells.

AT&T turned its focus to competing with IBM and preparing for the coming information age. A smaller AT&T became more nimble, ready to focus on the future rather than dwell on the past.

Standalone Facebook Blue, Instagram and WhatsApp could drastically change their futures by attracting talent and acquiring new technologies.

The U.K.’s recent opposition to Facebook’s $400 million GIPHY acquisition proves Facebook will struggle mightily to acquire even small bolt-ons.

Zuckerberg has always been one step ahead. And when he wasn’t, he was famously unprecious: “Copying is faster than innovating.” If he really believes in Facebook’s mission and recognizes that the situation cannot possibly get any better from here, he will copy AT&T’s solution before it is forced upon him.

Regulators are tying Zuckerberg’s hands behind his back as the company weathers body blows and uppercuts from Beijing to Silicon Valley. As Zuckerberg’s idol Augustus Caesar might have once said, carpe diem. It’s time to break Facebook.

Today’s real story: The Facebook monopoly

Facebook is a monopoly. Right?

Mark Zuckerberg appeared on national TV today to make a “special announcement.” The timing could not be more curious: Today is the day Lina Khan’s FTC refiled its case to dismantle Facebook’s monopoly.

To the average person, Facebook’s monopoly seems obvious. “After all,” as James E. Boasberg of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia put it in his recent decision, “No one who hears the title of the 2010 film ‘The Social Network’ wonders which company it is about.” But obviousness is not an antitrust standard. Monopoly has a clear legal meaning, and thus far Lina Khan’s FTC has failed to meet it. Today’s refiling is much more substantive than the FTC’s first foray. But it’s still lacking some critical arguments. Here are some ideas from the front lines.

To the average person, Facebook’s monopoly seems obvious. But obviousness is not an antitrust standard.

First, the FTC must define the market correctly: personal social networking, which includes messaging. Second, the FTC must establish that Facebook controls over 60% of the market — the correct metric to establish this is revenue.

Though consumer harm is a well-known test of monopoly determination, our courts do not require the FTC to prove that Facebook harms consumers to win the case. As an alternative pleading, though, the government can present a compelling case that Facebook harms consumers by suppressing wages in the creator economy. If the creator economy is real, then the value of ads on Facebook’s services is generated through the fruits of creators’ labor; no one would watch the ads before videos or in between posts if the user-generated content was not there. Facebook has harmed consumers by suppressing creator wages.

A note: This is the first of a series on the Facebook monopoly. I am inspired by Cloudflare’s recent post explaining the impact of Amazon’s monopoly in their industry. Perhaps it was a competitive tactic, but I genuinely believe it more a patriotic duty: guideposts for legislators and regulators on a complex issue. My generation has watched with a combination of sadness and trepidation as legislators who barely use email question the leading technologists of our time about products that have long pervaded our lives in ways we don’t yet understand. I, personally, and my company both stand to gain little from this — but as a participant in the latest generation of social media upstarts, and as an American concerned for the future of our democracy, I feel a duty to try.

The problem

According to the court, the FTC must meet a two-part test: First, the FTC must define the market in which Facebook has monopoly power, established by the D.C. Circuit in Neumann v. Reinforced Earth Co. (1986). This is the market for personal social networking services, which includes messaging.

Second, the FTC must establish that Facebook controls a dominant share of that market, which courts have defined as 60% or above, established by the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in FTC v. AbbVie (2020). The right metric for this market share analysis is unequivocally revenue — daily active users (DAU) x average revenue per user (ARPU). And Facebook controls over 90%.

The answer to the FTC’s problem is hiding in plain sight: Snapchat’s investor presentations:

Snapchat July 2021 investor presentation: Significant DAU and ARPU Opportunity

Snapchat July 2021 investor presentation: Significant DAU and ARPU Opportunity. Image CreditsSnapchat

This is a chart of Facebook’s monopoly — 91% of the personal social networking market. The gray blob looks awfully like a vast oil deposit, successfully drilled by Facebook’s Standard Oil operations. Snapchat and Twitter are the small wildcatters, nearly irrelevant compared to Facebook’s scale. It should not be lost on any market observers that Facebook once tried to acquire both companies.

The market Includes messaging

The FTC initially claimed that Facebook has a monopoly of the “personal social networking services” market. The complaint excluded “mobile messaging” from Facebook’s market “because [messaging apps] (i) lack a ‘shared social space’ for interaction and (ii) do not employ a social graph to facilitate users’ finding and ‘friending’ other users they may know.”

This is incorrect because messaging is inextricable from Facebook’s power. Facebook demonstrated this with its WhatsApp acquisition, promotion of Messenger and prior attempts to buy Snapchat and Twitter. Any personal social networking service can expand its features — and Facebook’s moat is contingent on its control of messaging.

The more time in an ecosystem the more valuable it becomes. Value in social networks is calculated, depending on whom you ask, algorithmically (Metcalfe’s law) or logarithmically (Zipf’s law). Either way, in social networks, 1+1 is much more than 2.

Social networks become valuable based on the ever-increasing number of nodes, upon which companies can build more features. Zuckerberg coined the “social graph” to describe this relationship. The monopolies of Line, Kakao and WeChat in Japan, Korea and China prove this clearly. They began with messaging and expanded outward to become dominant personal social networking behemoths.

In today’s refiling, the FTC explains that Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat are all personal social networking services built on three key features:

  1. “First, personal social networking services are built on a social graph that maps the connections between users and their friends, family, and other personal connections.”
  2. “Second, personal social networking services include features that many users regularly employ to interact with personal connections and share their personal experiences in a shared social space, including in a one-to-many ‘broadcast’ format.”
  3. “Third, personal social networking services include features that allow users to find and connect with other users, to make it easier for each user to build and expand their set of personal connections.”

Unfortunately, this is only partially right. In social media’s treacherous waters, as the FTC has struggled to articulate, feature sets are routinely copied and cross-promoted. How can we forget Instagram’s copying of Snapchat’s stories? Facebook has ruthlessly copied features from the most successful apps on the market from inception. Its launch of a Clubhouse competitor called Live Audio Rooms is only the most recent example. Twitter and Snapchat are absolutely competitors to Facebook.

Messaging must be included to demonstrate Facebook’s breadth and voracious appetite to copy and destroy. WhatsApp and Messenger have over 2 billion and 1.3 billion users respectively. Given the ease of feature copying, a messaging service of WhatsApp’s scale could become a full-scale social network in a matter of months. This is precisely why Facebook acquired the company. Facebook’s breadth in social media services is remarkable. But the FTC needs to understand that messaging is a part of the market. And this acknowledgement would not hurt their case.

The metric: Revenue shows Facebook’s monopoly

Boasberg believes revenue is not an apt metric to calculate personal networking: “The overall revenues earned by PSN services cannot be the right metric for measuring market share here, as those revenues are all earned in a separate market — viz., the market for advertising.” He is confusing business model with market. Not all advertising is cut from the same cloth. In today’s refiling, the FTC correctly identifies “social advertising” as distinct from the “display advertising.”

But it goes off the deep end trying to avoid naming revenue as the distinguishing market share metric. Instead the FTC cites “time spent, daily active users (DAU), and monthly active users (MAU).” In a world where Facebook Blue and Instagram compete only with Snapchat, these metrics might bring Facebook Blue and Instagram combined over the 60% monopoly hurdle. But the FTC does not make a sufficiently convincing market definition argument to justify the choice of these metrics. Facebook should be compared to other personal social networking services such as Discord and Twitter — and their correct inclusion in the market would undermine the FTC’s choice of time spent or DAU/MAU.

Ultimately, cash is king. Revenue is what counts and what the FTC should emphasize. As Snapchat shows above, revenue in the personal social media industry is calculated by ARPU x DAU. The personal social media market is a different market from the entertainment social media market (where Facebook competes with YouTube, TikTok and Pinterest, among others). And this too is a separate market from the display search advertising market (Google). Not all advertising-based consumer technology is built the same. Again, advertising is a business model, not a market.

In the media world, for example, Netflix’s subscription revenue clearly competes in the same market as CBS’ advertising model. News Corp.’s acquisition of Facebook’s early competitor MySpace spoke volumes on the internet’s potential to disrupt and destroy traditional media advertising markets. Snapchat has chosen to pursue advertising, but incipient competitors like Discord are successfully growing using subscriptions. But their market share remains a pittance compared to Facebook.

An alternative pleading: Facebook’s market power suppresses wages in the creator economy

The FTC has correctly argued for the smallest possible market for their monopoly definition. Personal social networking, of which Facebook controls at least 80%, should not (in their strongest argument) include entertainment. This is the narrowest argument to make with the highest chance of success.

But they could choose to make a broader argument in the alternative, one that takes a bigger swing. As Lina Khan famously noted about Amazon in her 2017 note that began the New Brandeis movement, the traditional economic consumer harm test does not adequately address the harms posed by Big Tech. The harms are too abstract. As White House advisor Tim Wu argues in “The Curse of Bigness,” and Judge Boasberg acknowledges in his opinion, antitrust law does not hinge solely upon price effects. Facebook can be broken up without proving the negative impact of price effects.

However, Facebook has hurt consumers. Consumers are the workers whose labor constitutes Facebook’s value, and they’ve been underpaid. If you define personal networking to include entertainment, then YouTube is an instructive example. On both YouTube and Facebook properties, influencers can capture value by charging brands directly. That’s not what we’re talking about here; what matters is the percent of advertising revenue that is paid out to creators.

YouTube’s traditional percentage is 55%. YouTube announced it has paid $30 billion to creators and rights holders over the last three years. Let’s conservatively say that half of the money goes to rights holders; that means creators on average have earned $15 billion, which would mean $5 billion annually, a meaningful slice of YouTube’s $46 billion in revenue over that time. So in other words, YouTube paid creators a third of its revenue (this admittedly ignores YouTube’s non-advertising revenue).

Facebook, by comparison, announced just weeks ago a paltry $1 billion program over a year and change. Sure, creators may make some money from interstitial ads, but Facebook does not announce the percentage of revenue they hand to creators because it would be insulting. Over the equivalent three-year period of YouTube’s declaration, Facebook has generated $210 billion in revenue. one-third of this revenue paid to creators would represent $70 billion, or $23 billion a year.

Why hasn’t Facebook paid creators before? Because it hasn’t needed to do so. Facebook’s social graph is so large that creators must post there anyway — the scale afforded by success on Facebook Blue and Instagram allows creators to monetize through directly selling to brands. Facebooks ads have value because of creators’ labor; if the users did not generate content, the social graph would not exist. Creators deserve more than the scraps they generate on their own. Facebook suppresses creators’ wages because it can. This is what monopolies do.

Facebook’s Standard Oil ethos

Facebook has long been the Standard Oil of social media, using its core monopoly to begin its march upstream and down. Zuckerberg announced in July and renewed his focus today on the metaverse, a market Roblox has pioneered. After achieving a monopoly in personal social media and competing ably in entertainment social media and virtual reality, Facebook’s drilling continues. Yes, Facebook may be free, but its monopoly harms Americans by stifling creator wages. The antitrust laws dictate that consumer harm is not a necessary condition for proving a monopoly under the Sherman Act; monopolies in and of themselves are illegal. By refiling the correct market definition and marketshare, the FTC stands more than a chance. It should win.

A prior version of this article originally appeared on Substack.

Facebook finally made a good virtual reality app

Facebook’s journey toward making virtual reality a thing has been long and circuitous, but despite mixed success in finding a wide audience for VR, they have managed to build some very nice hardware along the way. What’s fairly ironic is that while Facebook has managed to succeed in finessing the hardware and operating system of its Oculus devices — things it had never done before — over the years it has struggled most with actually making a good app for VR.

The company has released a number of social VR apps over the years, and while each of them managed to do something right, none of them did anything quite well enough to stave off a shutdown. Setting aside the fact that most VR users don’t have a ton of other friends that also own VR headsets, the broadest issue plaguing these social apps was that they never really gave users a great reason to use them. While watching 360-videos or playing board games with friends were interesting gimmicks, it’s taken the company an awful lot of time to understand that a dedicated ”social” app doesn’t make much sense in VR and that users haven’t been looking for a standalone social app, so much as they’ve been looking for engaging experiences that were improved by social dynamics.

This all brings me to what Facebook showed me a demo of this week — a workplace app called Horizon Workrooms which is launching in open beta for Quest 2 users starting today.

The app seems to be geared towards providing work-from-home employees a virtual reality sphere to collaborate inside. Users can link their Mac or PC to Workrooms and livestream their desktop to the app while the Quest 2’s passthrough cameras allow users to type on their physical keyboard. Users can chat with one another as avatars and share photos and files or draw on a virtual whiteboard. It’s an app that would have made a more significant splash for the Quest 2 platform had it launched earlier in the pandemic, though it’s tackling an issue that still looms large among tech savvy offices — finding tech solutions to aid meaningful collaboration in a remote environment.

Horizon Workrooms isn’t a social app per se but the way it approaches social communication in VR is more thoughtful than any other first-party social VR app that Facebook has shipped. The spatial elements are less overt and gimmicky than most VR apps and simply add to an already great functional experience that, at times, felt more productive and engaging than a normal video call.

It all plays into CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s recent proclamation that Facebook is transitioning into becoming a “metaverse company.”

Now, what’s the metaverse? In Zuckerberg’s own words, “It’s a virtual environment where you can be present with people in digital spaces. You can kind of think of this as an embodied internet that you’re inside of rather than just looking at.” This certainly sounds like a fairly significant recalibration for Facebook, which has generally approached AR/VR as a wholly separate entity from its suite of mobile apps. Desktop users and VR users have been effectively siloed from each other over the years.

Generally, Facebook has been scaling Oculus like they’re building the next smartphone, building its headsets with a native app paradigm at their core. Meanwhile, Zuckerberg’s future-minded “metaverse” sounds much more like what Roblox has been building towards than anything Facebook has actually shipped. Horizon Workrooms is living under the Horizon brand which seems to be where Facebook’s future metaverse play is rooted. The VR social platform is interestingly still in closed beta after being announced nearly two years ago. If Facebook can ever see Horizon’s vision to fruition, it could grow to become a Roblox-like hub of user-created games, activities and groups that replaces the native app mobile dynamics with a more fluid social experience.

The polish of Workrooms is certainly a promising sign of where Facebook could be moving.

Roblox acquires Discord competitor Guilded

Roblox is using M&A to bulk up its social infrastructure, announcing Monday morning that they had acquired the team at Guilded which has been building a chat platform for competitive gamers.

The service competes with gaming chat giant Discord, with the team’s founders telling TechCrunch in the past that as Discord’s ambitions had grown beyond the gaming world, its core product was meeting fewer competitive gaming needs. Like Discord, users can have text and voice conversations on the Gulded platform, but Guilded also allowed users to organize communities around events and calendars, with plenty of specific functionality designed around ensuring that tournaments happened seamlessly.

The startup’s product supported hundreds of games, with specific functionality for a handful of titles including League of Legends, Fortnite, CS: GO and, yes, Roblox. Earlier this year, the company launched a bot API designed to help non-technical users build bots that could enrich their gaming communities.

Guilded had raised $10.2 million in venture capital funding to date according to Crunchbase, including a $7 million Series A led by Matrix Partners early last year. The company launched out of Y Combinator in mid-2017.

Terms of the Roblox deal weren’t disclosed. In an announcement post, Roblox detailed that the Guilded team will operate as an independent product group going forward. In a separate blog post, Guilded CEO Eli Brown wrote that existing stakeholders will be able to continue using the product as they have previously.

“Everyone – including communities, partners, and bot developers – will be able to keep using Guilded the same way you are now,” Brown wrote. “Roblox believes in our team and in our mission, and we’re going to continue to operate as an independent product in order to achieve it.”

Roblox has seen profound success and heightened investor attention in recent years as the pandemic has pushed more gamers online and brought more users into the fold, but that success has drawn the attention of competitors. In June, Facebook acquired a small Roblox competitor called Crayta, with CEO Mark Zuckerberg announcing just weeks ago that he planned to transform Facebook into a “metaverse” company, using a term many have come to associate closely with what Roblox has been building. Guilded represents an opportunity for Roblox to bring its user base deeper inside its own suite of products, creating a social infrastructure that keeps users bought in.