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Twitter’s decentralized future

By Lucas Matney

This week, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey finally responded publicly to the company’s decision to ban President Trump from its platform, writing that Twitter had “faced an extraordinary and untenable circumstance” and that he did not “feel pride” about the decision. In the same thread, he took time to call out a nascent Twitter-sponsored initiative called “bluesky,” which is aiming to build up an “open decentralized standard for social media” that Twitter is just one part of.

Researchers involved with bluesky reveal to TechCrunch an initiative still in its earliest stages that could fundamentally shift the power dynamics of the social web.

Bluesky is aiming to build a “durable” web standard that will ultimately ensure that platforms like Twitter have less centralized responsibility in deciding which users and communities have a voice on the internet. While this could protect speech from marginalized groups, it may also upend modern moderation techniques and efforts to prevent online radicalization.

Jack Dorsey, co-founder and chief executive officer of Twitter Inc., arrives after a break during a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2018. Republicans pressed Dorsey for what they said may be the “shadow-banning” of conservatives during the hearing. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

What is bluesky?

Just as Bitcoin lacks a central bank to control it, a decentralized social network protocol operates without central governance, meaning Twitter would only control its own app built on bluesky, not other applications on the protocol. The open and independent system would allow applications to see, search and interact with content across the entire standard. Twitter hopes that the project can go far beyond what the existing Twitter API offers, enabling developers to create applications with different interfaces or methods of algorithmic curation, potentially paying entities across the protocol like Twitter for plug-and-play access to different moderation tools or identity networks.

A widely adopted, decentralized protocol is an opportunity for social networks to “pass the buck” on moderation responsibilities to a broader network, one person involved with the early stages of bluesky suggests, allowing individual applications on the protocol to decide which accounts and networks its users are blocked from accessing.

Social platforms like Parler or Gab could theoretically rebuild their networks on bluesky, benefitting from its stability and the network effects of an open protocol. Researchers involved are also clear that such a system would also provide a meaningful measure against government censorship and protect the speech of marginalized groups across the globe.

Bluesky’s current scope is firmly in the research phase, people involved tell TechCrunch, with about 40-50 active members from different factions of the decentralized tech community surveying the software landscape and putting together proposals for what the protocol should ultimately look like. Twitter has told early members that it hopes to hire a project manager in the coming weeks to build out an independent team that will start crafting the protocol itself.

A Twitter spokesperson declined to comment on the initiative.

Bluesky’s initial members were invited by Twitter CTO Parag Agrawal early last year. It was later determined that the group should open the conversation up to folks representing some of the more recognizable decentralized network projects, including Mastodon and ActivityPub, which joined the working group hosted on the secure chat platform Element.

Jay Graber, founder of decentralized social platform Happening, was paid by Twitter to write up a technical review of the decentralized social ecosystem, an effort to “help Twitter evaluate the existing options in the space,” she tells TechCrunch.

“If [Twitter] wanted to design this thing, they could have just assigned a group of guys to do it, but there’s only one thing that this little tiny group of people could do better than Twitter, and that’s not be Twitter,” said Golda Velez, another member of the group who works as a senior software engineer at Postmates and co-founded civ.works, a privacy-centric social network for civic engagement.

The group has had some back and forth with Twitter executives on the scope of the project, eventually forming a Twitter-approved list of goals for the initiative. They define the challenges that the bluesky protocol should seek to address while also laying out what responsibilities are best left to the application creators building on the standard.

Parrot.VC Twitter account

Image: TechCrunch

Who is involved

The pain points enumerated in the document, viewed by TechCrunch, encapsulate some of Twitter’s biggest shortcomings. They include “how to keep controversy and outrage from hijacking virality mechanisms,” as well as a desire to develop “customizable mechanisms” for moderation, though the document notes that the applications, not the overall protocol, are “ultimately liable for compliance, censorship, takedowns etc.”

“I think the solution to the problem of algorithms isn’t getting rid of algorithms — because sorting posts chronologically is an algorithm — the solution is to make it an open pluggable system by which you can go in and try different algorithms and see which one suits you or use the one that your friends like,” says Evan Henshaw-Plath, another member of the working group. He was one of Twitter’s earliest employees and has been building out his own decentralized social platform called Planetary.

His platform is based on the secure scuttlebutt protocol, which allows users to browse networks offline in an encrypted fashion. Early on, Planetary had been in talks with Twitter for a corporate investment as well as a personal investment from CEO Jack Dorsey, Henshaw-Plath says, but the competitive nature of the platform prompted some concern among Twitter’s lawyers and Planetary ended up receiving an investment from Twitter co-founder Biz Stone’s venture fund Future Positive. Stone did not respond to interview requests.

After agreeing on goals, Twitter had initially hoped for the broader team to arrive at some shared consensus, but starkly different viewpoints within the group prompted Twitter to accept individual proposals from members. Some pushed Twitter to outright adopt or evolve an existing standard while others pushed for bluesky to pursue interoperability of standards early on and see what users naturally flock to.

One of the developers in the group hoping to bring bluesky onto their standard was Mastodon creator Eugen Rochko, who tells TechCrunch he sees the need for a major shift in how social media platforms operate globally.

“Banning Trump was the right decision though it came a little bit too late. But at the same time, the nuance of the situation is that maybe it shouldn’t be a single American company that decides these things,” Rochko tells us.

Like several of the other members in the group, Rochko has been skeptical at times about Twitter’s motivation with the bluesky protocol. Shortly after Dorsey’s initial announcement in 2019, Mastodon’s official Twitter account tweeted out a biting critique, writing, “This is not an announcement of reinventing the wheel. This is announcing the building of a protocol that Twitter gets to control, like Google controls Android.”

Today, Mastodon is arguably one of the most mature decentralized social platforms. Rochko claims that the network of decentralized nodes has more than 2.3 million users spread across thousands of servers. In early 2017, the platform had its viral moment on Twitter, prompting an influx of “hundreds of thousands” of new users alongside some inquisitive potential investors whom Rochko has rebuffed in favor of a donation-based model.

Image Credits: TechCrunch

Inherent risks

Not all of the attention Rochko has garnered has been welcome. In 2019, Gab, a social network favored by right-wing extremists, brought its entire platform onto the Mastodon network after integrating the platform’s open-source code, bringing Mastodon its single biggest web of users and its most undesirable liability all at once.

Rochko quickly disavowed the network and aimed to sever its ties to other nodes on the Mastodon platform and convince application creators to do the same. But a central fear of decentralization advocates was quickly realized, as the platform type’s first “success story” was a home for right-wing extremists.

This fear has been echoed in decentralized communities this week as app store owners and networks have taken another right-wing social network, Parler, off the web after violent content surfaced on the site in the lead-up to and aftermath of riots at the U.S. Capitol, leaving some developers fearful that the social network may set up home on their decentralized standard.

“Fascists are 100% going to use peer-to-peer technologies, they already are and they’re going to start using it more… If they get pushed off of mainstream infrastructure or people are surveilling them really closely, they’re going to have added motivation,” said Emmi Bevensee, a researcher studying extremist presences on decentralized networks. “Maybe the far-right gets stronger footholds on peer-to-peer before the people who think the far-right is bad do because they were effectively pushed off.”

A central concern is that commoditizing decentralized platforms through efforts like bluesky will provide a more accessible route for extremists kicked off current platforms to maintain an audience and provide casual internet users a less janky path towards radicalization.

“Peer-to-peer technology is generally not that seamless right now. Some of it is; you can buy Bitcoin in Cash App now, which, if anything, is proof that this technology is going to become much more mainstream and adoption is going to become much more seamless,” Bevensee told TechCrunch. “In the current era of this mass exodus from Parler, they’re obviously going to lose a huge amount of audience that isn’t dedicated enough to get on IPFS. Scuttlebutt is a really cool technology but it’s not as seamless as Twitter.”

Extremists adopting technologies that promote privacy and strong encryption is far from a new phenomenon, encrypted chat apps like Signal and Telegram have been at the center of such controversies in recent years. Bevensee notes the tendency of right-wing extremist networks to adopt decentralized network tech has been “extremely demoralizing” to those early developer communities — though she notes that the same technologies can and do benefit “marginalized people all around the world.”

Though people connected to bluesky’s early moves see a long road ahead for the protocol’s development and adoption, they also see an evolving landscape with Parler and President Trump’s recent deplatforming that they hope will drive other stakeholders to eventually commit to integrating with the standard.

“Right at this moment I think that there’s going to be a lot of incentive to adopt, and I don’t just mean by end users, I mean by platforms, because Twitter is not the only one having these really thorny moderation problems,” Velez says. “I think people understand that this is a critical moment.”

Snapchat permanently bans President Trump’s account

By Lucas Matney

Quite a bit has happened since Snapchat announced last week that it was indefinitely locking President Trump’s Snapchat account. After temporary bans from his Facebook, Instagram and YouTube accounts as well as a permanent ban from Twitter, Snap has decided that it will also be making its ban of the President’s Snapchat account permanent.

Thought Trump’s social media preferences as a user are clear, Snapchat gave the Trump campaign a particularly effective platform to target young users who are active on the service. A permanent ban will undoubtedly complicate his future business and political ambitions as he finds himself removed from most mainstream social platforms.

Snap says it made the decision in light of repeated attempted violations of the company’s community guidelines that had been made over the past several months by the President’s account.

“Last week we announced an indefinite suspension of President Trump’s Snapchat account, and have been assessing what long term action is in the best interest of our Snapchat community. In the interest of public safety, and based on his attempts to spread misinformation, hate speech, and incite violence, which are clear violations of our guidelines, we have made the decision to permanently terminate his account,” a Snap spokesperson told TechCrunch.

Snap’s decision to permanently ban the President was first reported by Axios.

Twitter will reinstate Trump’s account following his deletion of tweets

By Brian Heater

A Twitter spokesperson has confirmed with TechCrunch this morning that Trump has deleted three tweets that led to the temporarily suspension of this account last night.

Twitter locked the account pending deletion of the offending tweets on Wednesday following the riot and siege of the Capitol building in Washington, D.C., and said that the suspension would remain in place so long as the tweets were not removed, and that any further violation of its rules could result in an actual permanent account suspension for Trump.

The President’s account is to remain locked 12 hours after his deletion of the tweets (seen below). While we don’t have exact timing on when the countdown started, he has yet to tweet from the account. The account also still bears the warning that, “this Tweet is no longer available because it violated the Twitter Rules.”

While Trump has previously enjoyed the benefit of a rule Twitter put in place that allowed a special exemption for content that would normally violate its terms of service, but that it would allow to remain in the interest of public access in cases where it comes from accounts with a significant public interest component, like Trump’s while he’s occupying the office of U.S. President.

The three tweets that finally proved a bridge too far for Twitter included a video posted by Trump that called for an end to the violence on Capitol Hill, but that also said “We love you, you’re very special” to the terrorists taking part in the action. The other two included statements that falsely suggested the legitimate results of the most recent U.S. presidential election were somehow fraudulent, including one that suggested the terrorist actions in Washington that resulted were somehow justified.

It’s worth noting that Twitter didn’t actually deleted the offending tweets; the company generally has a policy of removing tweets that violate its terms from public view, and notifying the offending account that they must be deleted by the account holder themselves in order to re-instate the ability to actively use the account.

While Trump does not have access to his own official Twitter account, his deputy chief of staff Dan Scavino posted a statement early Thursday morning about the Electoral Certification process, which was completed in the early hours. The statement again included inciting language falsely disputing the election results, but remains available and untouched by any of Twitter’s flagging measures.

Until this week, most anticipated that Trump would continue to enjoy protections that come with his political status. Yesterday’s move marked a shift for Twitter, but there remains a major question around his status in the remaining two weeks of his Presidential term. Facebook, meanwhile, has taken the opposite action, altogether banning Trump from its platform, for “at least the next two weeks.”

Trump’s ability to maintain his favorite platform will hinge on whether Twitter determines that he has crossed the line one final time.

 

Honk introduces a real-time, ephemeral messaging app aimed at Gen Z

By Sarah Perez

A new mobile app called Honk aims to make messaging with friends a more interactive, real-time experience. Instead of sending texts off into the void and hoping for a response, friends on Honk communicate via messages that are shown live as you type, with no saved chat history and no send button. The end result is a feeling of being more present in a conversation, as Honk will notify users the moment someone leaves a chat. And if you really want to get someone’s attention, you can send them a “Honk” — a hard-to-miss notification to join your chat.

If it’s even more urgent, you can even spam the Honk button by pressing it repeatedly. This sends notifications to a friend’s phone if they’re off the app, or a flood of colorful emoji if they have the app open.

🗣 Need to get someone's attention fast? Honk them! They'll get a notification to come to the chat. If it's super important, you can spam the Honk button — that's hard to miss. pic.twitter.com/VqcinmeeT2

— Honk (@usehonk) December 22, 2020

After setting up an account by customizing your profile pic, selecting a username and adding friends, you can then tap on a friend’s name in your list to send them a message.

When you enter a chat in Honk, you’ll be presented with two large conversation bubbles. The gray one on the top is where your friend’s messages are shown, while you type in the blue one. (You can change the colors and theme, if you choose.)

As you type, the other person will see the text you’re entering into this box in real-time — including the pauses and typos that would normally be missed. This “live typing” experience is reminiscent of older communication technology, like the early instant messaging app ICQ, or the innovative collaboration tool Google Wave, for example.

In Honk, you’re given 160 characters to type out your thoughts, and this is counted down on the right side of screen below the conversation bubbles. But you don’t tap a “Send” button to share the message — the recipient saw the text as it was entered, after all. Instead, you just tap the double arrow “refresh” button to clear the screen and type something new.

There are also buttons for sending emoji, snapping a photo or accessing photos from your Camera Roll to share in the chat. The emoji here work more like iMessage’s “Send with Echo” screen effect, as you’re not just sending a single emoji when you use this feature — you’re sending several huge emoji that temporarily fill the screen.

✨ With Magic Words, you can assign any emoji to any word or phrase, which automatically trigger effects as you type. It's the best way to personalize your chats and bring them to life. Set up to 50 unique Magic Words per chat! pic.twitter.com/2BYUyNrEzz

— Honk (@usehonk) December 23, 2020

You can also optionally assign emoji to any word or phrase within an individual chat, using a “Magic Words” feature that will trigger effects as you type (see above). Plus, you can customize chat themes on a per-conversation basis or turn off notifications from an individual user, if you don’t want to hear from them as much.

None of the conversations are stored and there’s no history to look back on. This is similar to messaging apps like Snapchat or Messenger’s Vanish Mode, for instance. (Honk hasn’t clarified its position on security, however, so proceed with caution before getting into riskier content.)

And, of course, if you need to get someone’s attention, you can tap “Honk” to flood them with notifications.

If this all seems somewhat silly, then you’re probably not the target market for the Honk messaging experience.

The app is clearly aiming for a young crowd of largely teenage users. When Honk asks for your age during setup, in fact, you can select an exact number from the list that appears — unless you’re “old,” that is. The last option on the list of ages is “21+” — the “older folks” age bracket, which may sting a bit for the millennial crowd who often still think of themselves as the online trendsetters.

But Honk is aiming to grab Gen Z’s interest, it seems. It’s even marketing to them on TikTok, where it’s already generated some 140K+ “Likes,” as of the time of writing, despite having only uploaded its first video yesterday. Honk founder Benji Taylor also noted on Twitter the app has seen 550,000 “Honks” sent so far, as of Wednesday, December 23, 2020, shortly after noon Eastern.

@usehonkwait for it ##fyp♬ original sound – Honk

Per its website, Honk is the flagship product from software company and app publisher Los Feliz Engineering (LFE), which is backed by investors including Naval Ravikant, Elad Gil, Brian Norgard, David Tisch, Jeff Fagnan, Ryan Hoover, Sarah Downey, Josh Hannah, Sahil Lavingia and others.

“It’s exceptionally well designed,” said Product Hunt founder and Weekend Fund investor Ryan Hoover, about Honk. “[Honk founder] Benji [Taylor] and team labored over the small details, from the animations to the sounds. They’re also super focused on speed,” he added.

Taylor declined a full interview when TechCrunch reached out, noting the team was focused on building the product for the time being.

“We’ve been working on Honk for a while now. Our goal is to make messaging fun, and empower people to communicate in new, creative ways that take relationships deeper,” Taylor told TechCrunch. “Ultimately though, we’re a small team building this for ourselves and our friends. If other people like it, all the better,” he said.

Honk, we should note, has been struggling under the load of new signups at launch and high usage. Honk users report the app will sometimes say they’re offline when they’re not, for example, among other bugs. Honk acknowledged the issues on its Twitter and says it’s been working to resolve them.

The app is currently a free download on iOS. It does not include in-app purchases or have any obvious business model.

Telegram, nearing 500 million users, to begin monetizing the app

By Manish Singh

Instant messaging app Telegram is “approaching” 500 million users and plans to generate revenue starting next year to keep the business afloat, its founder Pavel Durov said on Wednesday.

Durov said he has personally bankrolled the seven-year-old business so far, but as the startup scales he is looking for ways to monetize the instant messaging service. “A project of our size needs at least a few hundred million dollars per year to keep going,” he said.

The service, which topped 400 million active users in April this year, will introduce its own ad platform for public one-to-many channels — “one that is user-friendly, respects privacy and allows us to cover the costs of server and traffic,” he wrote on his Telegram channel.

“If we monetize large public one-to-many channels via the Ad Platform, the owners of these channels will receive free traffic in proportion to their size,” he wrote. Another way Telegram could monetize its service is through premium stickers with “additional expressive features,” he wrote. “The artists who make stickers of this new type will also get a part of the profit. We want millions of Telegram-based creators and small businesses to thrive, enriching the experience of all our users.”

Some analysts were hoping that Telegram would be able to monetize the platform through its blockchain token project. But after several delays and regulatory troubles, Telegram said in May that it had decided to abandon the project.

For this project, Dubai-based Telegram had raised $1.7 billion from investors in 2018. It had planned to distribute its token, called grams, after developing the blockchain software. Telegram offered to return $1.2 billion to investors earlier this year.

“Telegram has a social networking dimension. Our massive public one-to-many channels can have millions of subscribers each and are more like Twitter feeds. In many markets the owners of such channels display ads to earn money, sometimes using third-party ad platforms. The ads they post look like regular messages, and are often intrusive. We will fix this by introducing our own Ad Platform for public one-to-many channels,” Durov wrote today.

All existing features will remain free, said Durov, who is one of the biggest critics of Facebook -owned WhatsApp, adding that Telegram is committed to not introduce ads in private one-to-one chats or group chats because they are a “bad idea.”

“We are not going to sell the company like the founders of WhatsApp. The world needs Telegram to stay independent as a place where users are respected and high-quality service is ensured,” he wrote. “Telegram will begin to generate revenue, starting next year. We will do it in accordance with our values and the pledges we have made over the last 7 years. Thanks to our current scale, we will be able to do it in a non-intrusive way. Most users will hardly notice any change.”

On Wednesday, Telegram also introduced a new group Voice Chats feature. The new feature, which is similar to Discord’s always-on room, supports a few thousand participants.

Telegram groups get a new dimension with Voice Chats – persistent conference calls that run in parallel to existing text chats. Voice Chats add a live layer of ephemeral talk to the group and can be used as informal lounges or virtual office spaces.https://t.co/08dyFMWok6 pic.twitter.com/13XcszUzob

— Telegram Messenger (@telegram) December 23, 2020

Salesforce buys Slack in a $27.7B megadeal

By Ron Miller

Salesforce, the CRM powerhouse that recently surpassed $20 billion in annual revenue, announced today it is wading deeper into enterprise social by acquiring Slack in a $27.7 billion megadeal.

Salesforce co-founder and CEO Marc Benioff didn’t mince words on his latest purchase. “This is a match made in heaven. Together, Salesforce and Slack will shape the future of enterprise software and transform the way everyone works in the all-digital, work-from-anywhere world,” Benioff said in a statement

Every worker at every company needs to communicate, something that Slack can ably empower. What’s more, it also facilitates external communication with customers and partners, something that should be quite useful for a company like Salesforce and its family of offerings.

Ultimately, Slack was ripe for the taking. Entering 2020 it had lost around 40% of its value since it went public. Consider that after its most recent earnings report, the company lost 16% of its value, and before the Salesforce deal leaked, the company was worth only a few dollars per share more than its direct listing reference price. Toss in net losses of $147.6 million during the two quarters ending July 31, 2020, Slack’s uninspiring public valuation and its winding path to profitability and it was a sitting target for a takeover like this one.

The new deal also puts Salesforce more on par — and in competition — with its arch rival and sometime friend Microsoft, whose Teams product has been directly challenging Slack in the market. Microsoft, which passed on buying Slack in the past for a fraction of what Salesforce is paying today, has made Teams a key priority in recent quarters, loathe to cede any portion of the enterprise software market to another company.

It’s worth noting that Salesforce was interested in Twitter in 2016, the same year that Microsoft was reportedly interested in Slack, but eventually walked away from that deal when shareholders objected, not wanting to deal with the controversial side of the social platform.

What really has set Slack apart from the pack, at least initially, was its ability to integrate with other enterprise software. When you combined that with bots, those intelligent digital helpers, the company could potentially provide Salesforce customers with a central place to work without changing focus because everything they needed to do can be done in Slack.

Today’s deal comes after Salesforce’s purchase of Quip in 2016 for $750 million. Quip brought a way of socially sharing documents to the SaaS giant, and when paired with the Slack acquisition gives Salesforce a much more robust social story to tell than its internal option Chatter, an early attempt at enterprise social that never really caught on.

Slack was founded in 2013, but its origins go back to an online multiplayer game company called Glitch that was founded in 2009. While the game was ultimately a failure, the startup developed an internal messaging system in the process of building that company that later evolved into Slack.

The company’s historic growth helped Slack raise over $1 billion while private, earning an impressive $7 billion valuation before going public last year. But while the Glitch-to-unicorn story appears simple, Slack has always faced entrenched competition from the likes of not only Microsoft, but also Cisco, Facebook, Google and even Asana and Monday.com.

For Slack, the path to the public markets was fraught with hype and outsized expectation. The company was famous, or as famous as an enterprise software company can be. At the time it felt like the its debut was the start of a long tenure as an indie company. Instead, that public life has been cut short by a huge check. Such is the dog-eat-dog world of tech.

Snapchat launches a TikTok-like feed called Spotlight, kick-started by paying creators

By Sarah Perez

After taking on TikTok with music-powered features last month, Snapchat this morning is officially launching a dedicated place within its app where users can watch short, entertaining videos in a vertically scrollable, TikTok-like feed. This new feature, called Spotlight, will showcase the community’s creative efforts, including the videos now backed by music, as well as other Snaps users may find interesting.

Snapchat says its algorithms will work to surface the most engaging Snaps to display to each user on a personalized basis.

To do so, it will rank the Snaps in the new feed using a combination of factors, like how many other people found a particular Snap interesting, how long people spent watching it, if it was favorited or shared with friends, and more. The algorithms will also consider negative factors, like if a viewer skipped watching the Snap quickly, for example. Over time, the feed will become tailored to the individual user based on their own interactions, preferences, and favorites. This is a similar system to what TikTok uses for its “For You” feed.

Image Credits: Snap

However, on TikTok, only users with public profiles can have their videos hit the “For You” feed. Spotlight, meanwhile, can feature Snaps from users with both private or public accounts. These Snaps can be sent to Spotlight directly or posted to Our Story. The company says the Snaps from the private accounts will be featured in an unattributed fashion — that is, no name will be attached to the content. There will also be no way to comment on these Snaps or message the creator, Snapchat explains.

Users who are over 18 can opt in to public profiles in order to have their names displayed, which allows them to build a following. But while this allows users to private and directly reply to the creators, there are no public comment mechanisms on Spotlight.

That’s a different setup than on TikTok and gives Snapchat a way to avoid the much larger hassle of handling comment moderation.

The Spotlight feed itself, though, is moderated. The company says all Snaps that appear on the new feed will have to adhere to Snapchat’s Community Guidelines, which prohibit the spread of false information (including conspiracy theories), misleading content, hate speech, explicit or profane content, bullying, harassment, violence, and other toxic content. The Snaps must also adhere to Snapchat’s new Spotlight Guidelines, Terms of Service, and Spotlight Terms.

Image Credits: Snap

The Spotlight Guidelines specify what sort of content Snapchat wants, the format for the Snaps, and other rules. For example, they state the Snaps should be vertical videos with sound up to 60 seconds in length. They should also include a #topic hashtag and should make use of Snapchat’s Creative Tools like Captions, Sounds, Lenses or GIFs, if possible, The Snaps have to be appropriate for a 13+ audience, as well.

Captions are a new feature, designed for use in Spotlight. Also new is a continuous shooting mode for longer Snaps and the ability to trim singular Snaps.

The Snaps can also only use the licensed music from Snapchat’s own Sounds library and must feature original content, not content repurposed from somewhere else on the internet . That could limit accounts that repost internet memes, which tend draw large subscriber bases on rival platforms, like Instagram and TikTok.

In addition, Snaps in Spotlight won’t disappear from being surfaced in the feed unless the creator chooses to delete them.

Users will be alerted to the new Spotlight feature when they return to Snapchat following Monday’s launch. Afterward, they’ll be able to take Snaps as usual then choose whether they want to send them to their friends, to their Story, to Snap Map, or now to Spotlight.

Image Credits: Snap

The feed itself will be accessible through a prominent new fifth tab on the Snapchat home screen’s main navigation, and is designated with a Play icon.

To encourage users to publish to Spotlight, the company will distribute over $1 million USD every day to Snapchat users (16 and up) who create the top Snaps on Spotlight. This will continue through the end of 2020. The earnings will be determined by Snapchat’s proprietary algorithm that rewards users based on the total number of unique views a Snap gets per day (calculated using Pacific Time), as compared with others on the platform.

The company says it expects many users to earn money from this fund each day, but those with the most views will earn more than others. It will also monitor this feed for fraud, it warns.

With the music licensing aspects already ironed out, Snapchat is now looking to leverage the over 4 billion Snaps created by its users every day to power the new Spotlight feed. This move represents Snapchat’s biggest attempt at taking on TikTok to date — and one that it’s willing to kickstart with direct payments, too. That will likely encourage plenty of participation among Snapchat’s young user base, given they’re already using the app on a regular basis. And once posting to Spotlight becomes a habit, Snapchat could have a viable competitor on its hands, at least among the younger demographic that favors its app.

Its biggest disadvantage, of course, is that it has struggled to reach beyond its young user base. That’s something TikTok has done better with, by comparison. The Wall St. Journal last week noted that TikTok teens were often following accounts from senior citizens, for instance, and the AARP had earlier reported TikTok had attracted a middle-aged crowd, as well.

Snapchat says Spotlight is live today on both iOS and Android in the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the U.K., Ireland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, and France, with more countries to come soon.

A bug meant Twitter Fleets could still be seen after they disappeared

By Zack Whittaker

Twitter is the latest social media site to allow users to experiment with posting disappearing content. Fleets, as Twitter calls them, allows its mobile users post short stories, like photos or videos with overlaying text, that are set to vanish after 24 hours.

But a bug meant that fleets weren’t deleting properly and could still be accessed long after 24 hours had expired. Details of the bug were posted in a series of tweets on Saturday, less than a week after the feature launched.

full disclosure: scraping fleets from public accounts without triggering the read notification

the endpoint is: https://t.co/332FH7TEmN

— cathode gay tube (@donk_enby) November 20, 2020

The bug effectively allowed anyone to access and download a user’s fleets without triggering a notification that the user’s fleet had been read and by whom. The implication is that this bug could be abused to archive a user’s fleets after they expire.

Using an app that’s designed to interact with Twitter’s back-end systems via its developer API. What returned was a list of fleets from the server. Each fleet had its own direct URL, which when opened in a browser would load the fleet as an image or a video. But even after the 24 hours elapsed, the server would still return links to fleets that had already disappeared from view in the Twitter app.

When reached, a Twitter spokesperson said a fix was on the way. “We’re aware of a bug accessible through a technical workaround where some Fleets media URLs may be accessible after 24 hours. We are working on a fix that should be rolled out shortly.”

Twitter acknowledged that the fix means that fleets should now expire properly, it said it won’t delete the fleet from its servers for up to 30 days — and that it may hold onto fleets for longer if they violate its rules. We checked that we could still load fleets from their direct URLs even after they expire.

Fleet with caution.

Instagram revamps its mobile messaging app Threads

By Sarah Perez

Instagram is continuing to develop its standalone messaging app, Threads. Last month, the company modified the app to make it possible for users to message everyone, instead of just “close friends,” as its other messaging app, Direct, once did. Today, Instagram is releasing a redesigned version of the Threads app with updated navigation and a Status tab, as well as support for posting photos and videos to your Instagram Story.

The changes address some of Threads’ shortcomings in usability. Though the app offered a way to update your Status or even automatically update it, based on your location, it was difficult to move between the different sections of the app.

The redesign attempts to make it easier for Threads users to view and interact with friends’ statuses and their Stories, or quickly switch back to the Camera interface or their messaging inbox, through a new navigation bar at the bottom of the screen. This navigation change, which adds the Status tab, will go live globally starting on November 19, says Instagram.

In addition, Instagram says Threads users can now take a photo or video and share it out to their Instagram Story, in addition to only their Close Friends Story directly in the Threads app.

The more recent change to the inbox, which added a new tab for “Everyone Else,” is also now globally available, as of today’s update.

These changes represent another step away from Threads being an app only meant to be used to keep with close friends.

The updates to Threads follow a period of overhaul for Facebook’s family of mobile messaging apps, including Messenger and Instagram itself, which saw another set of updates to its own inbox in recent weeks. Yesterday, Facebook announced that more features that were a part of the big overhaul of the Instagram messaging experience had become available, including an expanded co-watching feature, Watch Together, which now lets users watch IGTV, Reels and TV shows together in real-time over video chat.

It also rolled out chat themes, including a new one that featured characters representing the seven members of BTS. The company in September had announced cross-app communication with Messenger for users who upgraded their messaging experience on Instagram. That update had included the ability to change your chat color, react with any emoji, among other new features. Vanish mode is still to come to Instagram, but should arrive soon, Facebook said.

These changes, focused on Facebook’s flagship apps, may have left some wondering what would become of Threads — an app that hasn’t gone mainstream. As of the time of writing, the app was ranked No. 66 in the Photo & Video category on the U.S. App Store, and No. 1,031 Overall. But as these new efforts show, Instagram is continuing to tweak the user experience on Threads, in an effort to cater to those often use Instagram for messaging.

To be clear, some users may have had access to the new features ahead of today’s announcement, but they’re now broadly available.

 

Facebook’s Messenger Kids app redesigned to look more like Messenger

By Sarah Perez

Facebook today is rolling out an updated version of its Messenger Kids app with the goal of making it easier for kids to interact with their friends and family, navigate the app, and personalize their experience with features like custom chat bubble colors. The redesign also gives the kid-friendly app a look-and-feel that’s more like Messenger itself.

The updated app does away with the larger, colorful blocks that would flash when messages arrive for a more traditional messaging app design where chats are stacked in a vertical list. The child’s unread messages, now at the top of the inbox, are in bold with a blue dot next to them to call the eye’s attention. Media and message previews have also been added, too, allowing kids to more easily see updates for their conversations.

The redesign introduces new navigation with two dedicated “Chat” and “Explore” navigation tabs at the bottom of the screen, allowing for kids to switch between their conversations and the other in-app activities the app provides, like its mini-games

And with a new swipe gesture, kids can start a call from their inbox.

Finally, the update introduces a new option to personalize conversations, including both individual and group chats, with a custom chat bubble color.

Image Credits: Facebook

Facebook refers to the update as a “test,” but the changes here are not small tweaks to the layout, navigation or feature set — they’re a revamp. That makes it less likely that this is just some experiment that will later be rolled back based on user feedback. Instead, by referring to it as a test, Facebook gives itself more time before committing to a global rollout.

The company says the new features will first roll out to kids using iPhones in the U.S. and Canada. The update will later expand to other devices and markets in the months ahead.

The changes arrive shortly after Messenger itself received a significant update of its own, which included a visual makeover and new features, including support for chat themes, custom reactions, selfie stickers and vanish mode, in addition to support for cross-app communication with Instagram users. Those updates could have led to the Messenger Kids makeover as well, given there’s likely some underlying messaging infrastructure that’s shared here.

The Messenger Kids app has been steadily updated in the years since its launch, most recently with a big explainer on what Facebook is doing with all that data it’s collecting.

Image Credits: Facebook

Parents should be aware this app today collects a lot of personal information, including names, profile photos, demographic details (gender and birthday), a child’s connection to parents, contacts’ information (like most frequent contacts), app usage information, device attributes and unique identifiers, data from device settings (like time zones or access to camera and photos), network information and information provided from things like bug reports or feedback/contact forms. While some of this does allow the app to properly function, there’s also concern from some parents about how this data is really being used.

While the app does offer a suite of parental controls that make it easier for parents to monitor and restrict how and when their children chat online, Messenger Kids’ privacy policy still leaves itself a lot of wiggle room about how the data may be used to “evaluate, troubleshoot, improve, create, and develop our products” and be shared with other Facebook Companies. Parents should carefully weigh the risks of allowing their child to use a Facebook product with the conveniences of being able to use an app with a robust set of parental controls.

Facebook’s Snapchat-like ‘Vanish Mode’ feature arrives on Messenger and Instagram

By Sarah Perez

Facebook today announced its new Snapchat-like feature for disappearing messaging, Vanish Mode, is arriving on Messenger and Instagram. The feature, meant for more casual conversations, allows users to set chats to automatically delete after the message is seen and the chat is closed.

In Vanish Mode, Messenger and Instagram users can send text chats, emoji, pictures, GIFs, voice messages, and stickers, which will disappear after they’ve been seen and users leave the chat, Facebook explains.

Image Credits: Facebook

However, unlike on Snapchat, Vanish Mode is not a default setting. Instead, users are meant to enable it from within an existing chat by swiping up on their mobile device’s screen while in the chat.

Upon first launch, a screen will appear explaining how Vanish Mode works. It also notes that users will be alerted if someone takes a screenshot of the conversation — as Snapchat does.

For safety purposes, Facebook supports blocking and reporting in Vanish Mode. If a user in the conversation reports a chat, the disappearing messages will be included for up to 1 hour after they disappear, the company explains. This allows Facebook to review the reported conversation and take action, if need be.

Image Credits: Facebook

Vanish Mode is also an opt in experience — meaning you can can choose whether to enter a Vanish Mode chat. And it only works with people you’re connected to, Facebook says.

Once in Vanish Mode, the screen goes dark to signal the change. To exit Vanish Mode, you tap on the “Turn Off Vanish Mode” button at the top of the screen.

Facebook’s plans for Vanish mode were announced earlier as part of its overhaul of the Instagram messaging experience in September. This update had included the ability for Instagram and Messenger users to communicate across apps, along with other “fun” features.

As a part of that update, Instagram received many Messenger-inspired additions — like the ability to change the chat color or react with any emoji, for example. But though announced, the Vanish Mode feature was then said to be coming “soon.”

Image Credits: Facebook

To be clear, Vanish Mode is not meant for secure chats. For that, Facebook already offers an end-to-end encrypted conversations feature, Secret Conversations. Instead, Vanish Mode meant to chip away at yet another advantage held by rival Snapchat.

That’s part for the course for Facebook these days. The company already copied the Stories format popularlized Snapchat, and now that product alone on each of its platforms is used by more people (500M+) than all of Snapchat. (249M).

To get Vanish Mode, and other recent updates to the Instagram messaging experience, users have to opt-in to the upgrade. Essentially, these new features are being used as lures to get Instagram users to agree to the upgrade.

The upgrade then locks them further inside the Facebook universe as they then also receive the ability to communicate cross-platform with users on Facebook. Eventually, WhatsApp may become a part of this cross-platform communication strategy, as well.

Once upgraded, people can use just one messaging apps to reach friends and family on two of the largest social networks in the world. And with additions like Vanish Mode, they won’t miss out on things found on competitors’ apps. Meanwhile, with Reels on Instagram, Facebook aims to retain TikTok users, too.

Facebook says Vanish Mode is launching starting today on Messenger in the U.S. Canada, Mexico, Peru and Bangladesh, and on Instagram in Canada, Argentina, Chile, Peru and a few other countries. It will soon roll out to other countries across both platforms, the company says.

 

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