Facebook’s WhatsApp is in the midst of a lawsuit against Israeli mobile surveillance outfit NSO Group. But before complaining about the company’s methods, Facebook seems to have wanted to use them for its own purposes, according to testimony from NSO founder Shalev Hulio.
Last year brought news of an exploit that could be used to install one of NSO’s spyware packages, Pegasus, on devices using WhatsApp. The latter sued the former over it, saying that over a hundred human rights activists, journalists and others were targeted using the method.
Last year also saw Facebook finally shut down Onavo, the VPN app it purchased in 2013 and developed into a backdoor method of collecting all manner of data about its users — but not as much as they’d have liked, according to Hulio. In a document filed with the court yesterday he states that Facebook in 2017 asked NSO Group for help collecting data on iOS devices resistant to the usual tricks:
In October 2017, NSO was approached by two Facebook representatives who asked to purchase the right to use certain capabilities of Pegasus, the same NSO software discussed in Plaintiffs’ Complaint.
The Facebook representatives stated that Facebook was concerned that its method for gathering user data through Onavo Protect was less effective on Apple devices than on Android devices. The Facebook representatives also stated that Facebook wanted to use purported capabilities of Pegasus to monitor users on Apple devices and were willing to pay for the ability to monitor Onavo Protect users. Facebook proposed to pay NSO a monthly fee for each Onavo Protect user.
NSO declined, as it claims to only provide its software to governments for law enforcement purposes. But there is a certain irony to Facebook wanting to employ against its users the very software it would later decry being employed against its users. (WhatsApp maintains some independence from its parent company but these events come well after the purchase by and organizational integration into Facebook.)
A Facebook representative did not dispute that representatives from the company approached NSO Group at the time, but said the testimony was an attempt to “distract from the facts” and contained “inaccurate representations about both their spyware and a discussion with people who work at Facebook.” We can presumably expect a fuller rebuttal in the company’s own filings soon.
Facebook and WhatsApp are, quite correctly, concerned that effective, secret intrusion methods like those developed and sold by NSO Group are dangerous in the wrong hands — as demonstrated by the targeting of activists and journalists, and potentially even Jeff Bezos. But however reasonable Facebook’s concerns are, the company’s status as the world’s most notorious collector and peddler of private information makes its righteous stance hard to take seriously.
Sick of sharing those generic Zoom video call invites that all look the same? Wish your Zoom link preview’s headline and image actually described your meeting? Want to protect your Zoom calls from trolls by making attendees RSVP to get your link? ZmURL.com has you covered.
Launching today, ZmURL is a free tool that lets you customize your Zoom video call invite URL with a title, explanation, and image that will show up when you share the link on Twitter, Facebook, or elsewhere. zmurl also lets you require that attendees RSVP by entering their email address so can decide who to approve and provide with the actual entry link. That could stop Zoombombers from harassing your call with offensive screenshared imagery, profanity, or worse.
“We built zmurl.com to make it easier for people to stay physically distant but socially close” co-founder Victor Pontis tells me. “We’re hoping to give event organizers the tools to preserve in-person communities while we are all under quarantine.”
Zoom wasn’t built for open public discussions. But with people trapped inside by coronavirus, its daily user count has spiked from 10 million to 200 million. That’s led to new use cases from cocktail parties to roundtable discussions to AA meetings to school classes.
That’s unfortunately spawned new problems like “Zoombombing”, a term I coined two weeks ago to describe malicious actors tracking down public Zoom calls and bombarding them with abuse. Since then, the FBI has issued a warning about Zoombombing, the New York Times has written multiple articles about the issue, and Zoom’s CEO Eric Yuan has apologized.
Yet Zoom has been slow to adapt it features as it struggles not to buckle under its sudden scale. While it’s turned on waiting rooms and host-only screensharing by default for usage in schools, most people are still vulnerable due to Zoom’s permissive settings and reused URLs that were designed for only trusted enterprise meetings. Only today did Zoom concede to shifting the balance further from convenience to safety, turning on waiting rooms by default and requiring passwords for entry by Meeting ID.
Meanwhile, social networks have become a sea of indistinguishable Zoom links that all show the same blue and white logo in the preview with no information on what the call is about. That makes it a lot tougher to promote calls, which many musicians, fitness instructors, and event producers are relying on to drive donations or payments while their work is disrupted by quarantines.
ZmURL’s founders during their only in-person meeting ever
Luckily, Pontis and his co-founder Danqing Liu are here to help with zmurl. The two software engineers fittingly met over Zoom a year ago and have only met once in person. Pontis, now in San Francisco, had started bike and scooter rental software companies Spring and Scooter Map. Liu, from Beijing but now holed up in New York, had spent five years at Google, Uber, and PlanGrid before selling his machine learning tool TinyMind.
The idea for ZmURL stemmed from Danqin missing multiple Zoom events he’d wanted to attend. Then a friend of Pontis was laid off from their yoga instructor job, and they and their colleagues were scrambling to market and earn money from hosting their own classes over Zoom. The duo quickly built a beta with zero money raised and tested it with some yoga gurus who found it simplified promoting events and gathering RSVPs. “We’re all going through a tough time right now. We see zmurl as our opportunity to help” Pontis tells me.
To use the tool, you generate a generic meeting link from Zoom like zoom.us/ji/1231231232 and then punch it into ZmURL. You can upload an image or choose from stock photos and color gradients. Then you name you event, give it a description, and set the time and date. You’ll get a shorter URL like https://zmurl.com/smy5m or you can give it a custom one like zmurl.com/quidditch.
When you share that URL, it’ll show your image, headline, and description in the link preview on chat apps, social networks and more. Attendees who click will be shown a nicely rendered event page with the link to enter the Zoom call and the option to add it to their calendar. You can try it out here, zmurl.com/aloha, as the startup is hosting a happy hour today at 6pm Pacific.
Optionally, you can set your ZmURL calls to require an RSVP. In that case, people who click your link have to submit their email address. The host can then sift through the RSVPs and choose who to email back the link to join the call. If you see an RSVP from someone you don’t recognize, just ignore it to keep Zoombombers from slipping inside.
Surprisingly, there doesn’t seem to be any other tools for customizing Zoom call links. Zoom paid enterprise customers can only set up a image and logo-equipped landing page for their whole company’s Zoom account, not for specific calls. For now, ZmURL is completely free. But the co-founders are building out an option for hosting paid events that collect entry fees on the RSVP site while ZmURL takes a 5% cut.
Next, ZmURL wants to add the ability to link your Zoom account to its site so you can spawn call links without leaving. It’s also building out always-on call rooms, recurring events, organizer home pages for promoting all their calls, an option to add events to a public directory, email marketing tools, and integrations with other video call platforms like Hangouts, Skype, and FaceTime.
Pontis says the biggest challenge will be learning to translate more of the magic and business potential off offline events into the world of video calling. There’s also the risk that Zoom will try to intercede and force ZmURL to desist. But it shouldn’t, at least until Zoom builds all these features itself. Or it should just acquire ZmURL.
We’re dealing with an unprecedented behavior shift due to shelter-in-place orders that threaten to cripple the world economy and drive many of us crazy. Whether for fostering human connection or keeping event businesses afloat, Zoom has become a critical utility. It should accept all the help it can get.
Zoom is making some drastic changes to prevent rampant abuse as trolls attack publicly-shared video calls. Starting April 5th, it will require passwords to enter calls via Meeting ID, since these may be guessed or reused. Meanwhile, it will change virtual waiting rooms to be on by default so hosts have to manually admit attendees.
The changes could prevent “Zoombombing”, a term I coined two weeks ago to describe malicious actors entering Zoom calls and disrupting them by screensharing offensive imagery. New Zoombombing tactics have since emerged, like spamming the chat thread with terrible GIFs, using virtual backgrounds to spread hateful messages, or just screaming profanities and slurs. Anonymous forums have now become breeding grounds for organized trolling efforts to raid calls.
Just imagine the most frightened look on all these people’s faces. That’s what happened when Zoombombers attacked the call.
The FBI has issued a warning about the Zoombombing problem after children’s online classes, alcoholics anonymous meetings, and private business calls were invaded by trolls. Security researchers have revealed many ways that attackers can infiltrate a call.
The problems stem from Zoom being designed for trusted enterprise use cases rather than cocktail hours, yoga classes, roundtable discussions, and classes. But with Zoom struggling to scale its infrastructure as its daily user count has shot up from 10 million to 200 million over the past month due to coronavirus shelter-in-place orders, it’s found itself caught off guard.
Zoom CEO Eric Yuan apologized for the security failures this week and vowed changes. But at the time, the company merely said it would default to making screensharing host-only and keeping waiting rooms on for its K-12 education users. Clearly it determined that wasn’t sufficient, so now waiting rooms are on by default for everyone.
Zoom communicated the changes to users via an email sent this afternoon that explains “we’ve chosen to enable passwords on your meetings and turn on Waiting Rooms by default as additional security enhancements to protect your privacy.”
The company also explained that “For meetings scheduled moving forward, the meeting password can be found in the invitation. For instant meetings, the password will be displayed in the Zoom client. The password can also be found in the meeting join URL.” Some other precautions users can take include disabling file transfer, screensharing, or rejoining by removed attendees.
NEW YORK, NY – APRIL 18: Zoom founder Eric Yuan reacts at the Nasdaq opening bell ceremony on April 18, 2019 in New York City. The video-conferencing software company announced it’s IPO priced at $36 per share, at an estimated value of $9.2 billion. (Photo by Kena Betancur/Getty Images)
The shift could cause some hassle for users. Hosts will be distracted by having to approve attendees out of the waiting room while they’re trying to lead calls. Zoom recommends users resend invites with passwords attached for Meeting ID-based calls scheduled for after April 5th. Scrambling to find passwords could make people late to calls.
But that’s a reasonable price to pay to keep people from being scarred by Zoombombing attacks. The rash of trolling threatened to sour many people’s early experiences with the video chat platform just as it’s been having its breakout moment. A single call marred by disturbing pornography can leave a stronger impression than 100 peaceful ones with friends and colleagues. The old settings made sense when it was merely an enterprise product, but it needed to embrace its own change of identity as it becomes a fundamental utility for everyone.
Technologists will need to grow better at anticipating worst-case scenarios as their products go mainstream and are adapted to new use cases. Assuming everyone will have the best intentions ignores the reality of human nature. There’s always someone looking to generate a profit, score power, or cause chaos from even the smallest opportunity. Building development teams that include skeptics and realists, rather than just visionary idealists, could keep ensure products get safeguarded from abuse before rather than after a scandal occurs.
As COVID-19 plunges the world into chaos and social isolation, those same companies may face a respite from focused criticism, particularly with the industry leveraging its extraordinary resources to pitch in with COVID-19 relief efforts as the world looks to tech upstarts, adept at cutting through red tape and fast-forwarding scientific progress in normal times, while government bureaucracies lag. But the same old problems are rearing their ugly heads just the same, even if less of us are paying attention.
On YouTube, new report from The Guardian and watchdog group Tech Transparency Project found that a batch of videos promoting fake coronavirus cures are making the company ad dollars. The videos, which promoted unscientific methods including “home remedies, meditative music, and potentially unsafe levels of over-the-counter supplements like vitamin C” as potential treatments for the virus, ran ads from unwitting advertisers including Liberty Mutual, Quibi, Trump’s 2020 reelection campaign and Facebook. In Facebook’s case, a banner ad for the company ran on a video suggesting music that promotes “cognitive positivity by using subtle yet powerful theta waves” could ward off the virus.
In the early days of the pandemic, YouTube prohibited ads on any videos related to the coronavirus. In mid-March, as the real scope of the event became clear, the company walked that policy back, allowing some channels to run ads. On Thursday, the company expanded that policy to allow ads for any videos that adhere to the company’s guidelines. One the major tenets in those guidelines forbids the promotion of medical misinformation including “promotion of dangerous remedies or cures.” Most of the videos in the new report were removed after being flagged by a journalist.
This example, and the many others like it, calls into question how to judge major tech platforms during these exceedingly strange times. Social media companies have been uncharacteristically transparent about the shifts the pandemic is creating within their own workflows. On a call in March, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg admitted that users can expect more “false positives” as the company shifts to rely more heavily on artificial intelligence to filter what belongs on the platform and what does not with its army of 15,000 contract moderators sent home on paid leave. The work of sorting through a platform’s most unsavory content—child pornography, extreme violence, hate speech and the like—is not particularly portable, given its potential psychological and legal ramifications.
YouTube similarly warned that it will “temporarily start relying more on technology” to fill in for human reviewers, warning that the automated processes will likely mean more video removals “including some videos that may not violate policies.” Twitter noted the same new reliance on machine learning “to take a wide range of actions on potentially abusive and manipulative content,” though the company will offer an appeals process that loops in a human reviewer. Companies offered fewer warnings about what might fall through the cracks in the interim.
What will become of moderation once things return to normal, or, more likely, settle on a new normal? Will artificial intelligence have mastered the task, obviating the need for human reviewers once and for all? (Unlikely.) Will social media companies have a fresh appreciate for the value of human efforts and bring more of those jobs in-house, where they can perform their bleak work with more of the sunny perks afforded to their full-time counterparts? Like most things examined through the nightmarish haze of the pandemic, the outcomes are hazy at best.
If the approach to holding platforms to account was already piecemeal, an uneven mix of investigative reporting, anecdotal tweets and official corporate post-mortems, the truth will be even more difficult to get at now, even as the coronavirus pandemic provides countless new deadly opportunities for price-gougers and myriad bad actors to create chaos within chaos.
We’ve seen deadly consequences already in Iran, where hundreds died after drinking industrial alcohol—an idea they got “in messages forwarded and forwarded again” amplifying a tabloid story that suggested the act could protect them from the virus. Most consequences will likely go unnoticed beyond the lives they impact and unreported due to tighetened newsroom resources and perhaps even more constricted attention spans.
Much has been written about the coronavirus and the fog of war, most of it rightly focused on scientific research pressing on as the virus threatens the globe and the devastating on-the-ground reality in hospitals and health facilities overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients while life-saving supplies dwindle. But the crisis of viral misinformation—and deliberately-sown disinformation—is its own fog, now intermixing with an unprecedented global crisis that has entirely upended business and relentlessly dominated the news cycle. This as the world’s foremost power heads into a completely upended presidential election cycle—its first since four years ago, when an unexpected election outcome coupled with deep U.S.-centrism in tech circles revealed nefarious forces at play just under the surface of the social networks we hadn’t thought all that much about.
In the present, it will be difficult for outsiders to determine where new systems implemented during the pandemic have failed and what bad outcomes would have happened anyway. To sort those causes out, we’ll have to take a company’s word for it, a risky kind of credulity that already offered mixed results in normal times. Even as we rely on them now more than ever to forge and nurture connections, the virtual portals we immerse ourselves in daily remain black boxes, inscrutable as ever. And as with so many aspects of life in these norm-shattering times, the only thing to expect is change.
Our work as marketers has transformed drastically in the space of a month. Today, we’re grateful to welcome our good friend Rand to talk about a topic that’s been on the forefront of our minds lately: how to do our jobs empathetically and effectively through one of the most difficult trials in modern memory.
We hope you’ve got a cozy seat in your home office, a hot mug of coffee from your own kitchen Keurig, and your cat in your lap as you join us for this week’s episode of Whiteboard Friday.
Howdy, folks. I’m Rand Fishkin, founder of Moz and co-founder of Sparktoro. And I’m here today with a very special edition of Whiteboard Friday.
I think that now is the right time to talk about marketing in uncertain epochs like the one we’re living through. We obviously have a global crisis. It’s very serious. But most of you watch Whiteboard Friday. Know that here at Moz, right, they’re trying to help. They want to help people through this crisis. And that means doing marketing. And I don’t think that now is the right time for us to stop our marketing activities. In fact, I think it’s time to probably crunch down and do some hard work.
So let’s talk about what’s going on. And then I’ll give some tactics that I hope will be helpful to you and your teams, your clients, your bosses, everyone at your organizations as we’re going through this together.
The business world is experiencing widespread repercussions
First off, we are in this cycle of trying to prevent massive amounts of death, which is absolutely the right thing to do. But because of that, I think a lot of us in the business world, in the marketing world, are experiencing pain, particularly in certain industries. In some industries obviously demand is spiking, it’s skyrocketing for, you know, coronavirus-related reasons. And in other cases, demand is down. That’s because we sort of have this inability to go out.
We can’t go to bars and restaurants and movies and bowling alleys and go do all the things we would normally do. So we don’t need fancy clothes to go do it and we don’t need haircuts — this is probably the last Whiteboard Friday I would want to record before needing a cut. And all of that spending, right, that consumer spending affects business-to-business spending as well.
It leads to cost cutting by businesses because they know there’s not as much demand. It leads to lower investment and oftentimes layoffs as we saw in the United States, where nearly 10 million workers are are out of work, according to the latest stats from the federal government. And that builds this environment of fear, right. None of us have faced anything like this. This is much bigger and worse, at least this spike of it is, than the Great Recession of 2008. And, of course, all of these things contribute to lower spending across the board.
However, what’s interesting about this moment in time is that it is a compressed moment. Right. It’s not a long-term fear of of what will happen. I think there’s fears about whether the recession will take a long time to recover from. But we know that eventually, sometime between 3 and 18 months from now, spending will resume and there will be this new normal. I think of now as a time when marketing needs to change its tone and attitude.
Businesses need to change their tone and attitude and in three ways. And that’s what I want to talk through.
Three crucial points
1. Cut with a scalpel, not with a chainsaw
First off, as you are looking to save money and if you’re an agency, if you’re a consultant, your clients are almost certainly saying, “Hey, where can we pull back and still get returns on investment?” And I think one of the important points is not to cut with a chainsaw. Right. Not to take a big whack to, “Oh, let’s just look at all of our Google and Facebook ad spending and cut it out entirely.” Or “Let’s look at all of our content marketing investments and drop them completely.” That’s not probably not the right way to go.
Instead, we should be looking to cut with a scalpel, and that means examining each channel and the individual contributors inside channels as individuals and looking at whether they are ROI-positive. I would urge against looking at a say, one-week, two-week, three-week trend. The last three weeks spending is very frozen and I believe that it will open up more again. I think most economists agree. You can see that’s why the the public stock markets have not crashed nearly as hard. We’ve had some bouncing around.
And I think that’s because people know that we will get to this point where people are ordering online. They are using businesses online. They are getting deliveries. They are doing activities through the Internet over the course of however long we’re quarantined or there is fear about going out and then it will return to a new normal.
And so because of that, you should probably be looking something like six to twelve weeks in the past and trying to sort out, OK, where are the trends, where are their lifelines and opportunities and points of light? And let’s look at those ROI-positive channels and not cut them too soon.
Likewise, you can look inside a channel. If you haven’t seen it already, I highly recommend Seer Interactive’s guide to cutting with a scalpel, not a sledgehammer, and they look at how you can analyze your Google Ads accounts to find keywords that are probably still sending you valuable traffic that you should not pull back on. I would also caution — I’ve talked to a bunch of folks recently who’s seen Facebook and Instagram and Twitter and YouTube and Google ad inventory at historically low prices. So if you have ROI-positive channels right now or your clients do, now is an awesome time to be to potentially be putting some dollars into that.
2. Invest now for the second & third waves in the future
Second thing, I would invest now for the second and third waves. I think that’s a really smart way to go. You can look at Harvard Business Review and Bloomberg and a bunch of folks have written about investing during times of recession, times of fear, and seeing how. Basically when we when we go through wave one, which I think will be still another two to six weeks, of sort of nothing but virus-related news, nothing but COVID-19, and get to a point where we’re transitioning to this life online. It’s becoming our new every day. And then getting to a post-crisis new normal, you know, after we have robust testing and quarantining has hopefully worked out well. The hospital systems aren’t overwhelmed and maybe a vaccine as is near development or done.
When those things start to come, we will want to have now messaging and content and keyword demands serving. Right. And ads and webinars. Anything that is in our marketing inventory that can be helpful to people, not just during this time, but over the course of these, because if we make these investments now, we will be better set up than our competitors who are pulling back to execute on this. And that is what that research shows, right, that essentially folks who invest in marketing, in sales during a recession tend to outperform and more quickly outperform their competition as markets resume. You don’t even have to wait for them to get good — just as they start to pick up.
3. Read the room
The third and possibly most important thing right now is, I think, toread the room. People are paying attention online like never before. And if you’re doing web marketing, they’re paying attention to your work. To our work. That means we need to be more empathetic than we have been historically, right? They are. Our audiences are not thinking about the same things they were weeks ago. They’re in a very new mindset. It doesn’t matter if they’re business-to-business or business-to-consumer. You are dealing with everyone on the planet basically obsessed with the conditions that we’re all in right now. That means assuming that everyone is thinking about this.
I really think the best type of content you create, the best type of marketing you can create right now across any channel, any platform is stuff that helps first. Helps other people. It could be in big ways. It could be in small ways.
The Getty Museum, I don’t know if you saw Avinash Kaushik’s great post about the Getty Museum. They did this fun thing where they took pictures from their museum, famous paintings and they put them online and said, “Hey, go around your home and try and recreate these and we’ll post them.” Is it helping health care workers get masks? No. But is it helping people at home with their kids, with their families, with their loved ones have a little fun, take their mind off the crisis, engage with art in a way that maybe they can’t because they can’t go to museums right now? Yeah, that’s awesome. That’s fine. It’s okay to help in little ways, too, but help first.
I also think it’s okay to talk about content or subjects that are not necessarily related to the virus. Look, web marketing right now is not directly related to the coronavirus. It’s not even directly related to some of the follow-on effects of that. But I’m hoping that it’s helpful. And I’m hoping that we can talk about it in empathetic and thoughtful ways. We’d just have to have to read the room.
It is okay to recognize that this crisis is affecting your customers and to talk about things that aren’t directly related but are still useful to them.
And if you can, I would try not to ignore this, right? Not not to create things that are completely unrelated, that feel like, “Gosh, this could have been launched at any time in the last six months, sort of feels tone deaf.” I think everything that we do is viewed through the lens of what’s happening right now. And certainly I have that experience as I go through online content.
Do not dismiss the scenario. I think that that history will reflect very poorly. History is moving so fast right now that it is already reflecting poorly on people who are doing this.
Don’t exploit the crisis in a shameless way. I’ve seen a few marketing companies and agencies. I won’t point them out because I don’t think shaming is the right thing to do right now, but show how you’re helping. Don’t exploit by saying “It’s coronavirus times. We have a sale.” All right? Say, “Oh, we are offering a discount on our products because we know that money is tight right now and we are helping this crisis by donating 10 percent of whatever.” Or, “We are helping by offering you something that you can do at home with your family or something that will help you with remote work or something that will help you through whatever you’re going through,” whatever your customers are going through.
Don’t keep your tone and tactics the same right now. Oh, yes, I think that’s kind of madness as well. I would urge you, as you’re creating all this potentially good stuff, new stuff, stuff that plans for the future and that speaks to right now, go ahead and audit your marketing. Look at the e-mail newsletters you’re sending out. Look at the sequential emails that are in your site onboarding cycles. Look at the overlay messaging, look at your home page, look at your About page.
Make sure that you’re either not ignoring the crisis or speaking effectively to it. Right. I don’t think every page on a website needs to change right now. I don’t think every marketing message has to change. But I think that in many cases it’s the right thing to do to conduct an audit and to make sure that you are not being insensitive or perceived as insincere.
All right, everyone, I hope that you are staying safe, that you’re staying at home, that you’re washing your hands. And I promise you, together, we’re going to get through this.
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What do you do if you’re an event discovery startup and suddenly it’s illegal to attend events? You lean into the cultural shift and pivot. Today, $11 million-funded calendar app IRL is morphing from In Real Life to In Remote Life. It will now focus on helping people find, RSVP for, plan, share, and chat about virtual events from livestreamed concerts to esports tournaments to Zoom cocktail parties.
Coronavirus could make IRL relevant to a wider audience because before an event “only mattered if it was around you. But now with In Remote Life, content has no geographical limitations” says IRL co-founder and CEO Abe Shafi. “The need is exponentially greater because everyone’s routines have been shattered.” IRL ranked #138 in US App Store today, making it the top calendar app, even above Google’s (#168).
Robinhood’s Josh Elman joins IRL
IRL has some fresh product development talent to lead it through the transition. The startup has hired stock trading app Robinhood’s VP of Product Josh Elman . The former Greylock investor is well known for his product chops from jobs at Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. Elman joined Robinhood in early 2018 but left late last year, notably before its rash of recent outages that enraged users.
“I just realized more than anything that the company needed people who had 110% to give, and it wasn’t clear that was going to be me” Elman said of Robinhood, now valued at $7.6 billion and struggling to scale. “My first passions and all the things I’ve talked about over the years have been social and media.”
For now, IRL is a part time gig where he’ll be heading up a Secret Projects division. While most apps “try to suck more of our time”, he sees IRL as a chance to give this precious resource back to people. Though he insists “Robinhood’s great I’m a very happy shareholder.
Events without borders
“We were on a tear, hitting a stride with usaging and growth related to real life events” says Shafi. “Then this happened”, motioning on our Zoom call to the COVID-19 reality we’re now stuck in. “We realized we had to pull all of our content because it wasn’t happening.”
Today IRL’s iOS app launches a redesign of its Discover homescreen content to center on virtual events people can attend from home. There’s now tabs for gaming, podcasts, TV, and EDU, as well as music, food, lifestyle, and a catch-all ‘fun’ section. Each event can be added to your calendar that syncs with Google Cal, or Liked to add it to your profile that friends and fans can follow. You can also instantly launch a group chat about the event in IRL, or share it to Instagram Stories or another messaging app.
If you can’t find something public to do, you can make plans with friends using the composer with suggestions like “Let’s video chat”, “Zoom workout”, “gaming sesh”, or “Netflix party”. That instantly sets up a calendar event you can invite people to. And if you’re not sure when you want to host, IRL’s “soon” option lets you keep the schedule vague so you and friends can figure out when everyone’s available. 50% of IRL plans start out as “Soon” Shafi reveals, identifying a gap in rigid time/date calendars.
Beyond individual events, IRL also wants to make it easier to develop habits by letting you subscribe to workout, meditation, and other schedules. With sports seasons suspended, IRL lets people sync with calendars of hip-hop album releases and more instead. Or you can subscribe to an influencer’s life and digitally accompany them to events. The goal is that IRL will be able to merge offline events back into its content recommendations as social distancing subsides.
The biggest challenge for IRL will be tuning its event recommendation algorithm. It’s lost a lot of the traditional relevance signals about events like how close they are to your home, how much they cost, or if they’re even in your city. Transitioning to In Remote Life means a global range of happenings is now available to everyone, and since they’re often free to host, many lonely low-quality events have sprung up. That makes it much tougher for IRL to determine what to show.
For now, it’s basing recommendations on what you engage with most on its homescreen, but I found that can make the initial experience very hit-or-miss. The top events in each category were rarely exciting. But IRL is planning to beef up its onboarding process to ask about your interests, and integrate with Spotify so it knows which musicians’ online concerts you’d want to attend.
Still, Shafi thinks IRL is already better than asocial alternatives. “Our main age range is 13 to 25, college and post-college metropolitan areas and across college campuses. Our average user has never used a calendar before, or they’re just used a default calendar like Gcal or iCal.
A cure for loneliness
Hopefully, IRL will take a more serious swing at helping friends realize they’re free at the same time and can hang out. While Down To Lunch failed in this space, now Facebook Messenger and Instagram are exploring it with their auto-status feature, and location apps like Snap Map and Zenly could adapt to share not just where you are, but if you have the intention to hang out.
“How can we use just a little bit of nudging, transparency or suggestion to get people to just do one more thing per month?” Shafi asks. IRL is trying to figure out how to let you passively share that “I have 2 hours free” in a way that “never makes you feel rejected if they don’t respond.”
Facebook did launch a standalone Events calendar app back in 2016, but later paired down the calendaring features, folded it in with restaurant recommendations and renamed it Local. “As big as Facebook is, it can only do so many things insanely well” Elman says of his old employer. “They could do more [on Events], but it’s never been the juggernaut like photos.”
Shafi is happy to have the opportunity in such a foundational space. He describes the concept of the calendar as one he’s sure will outlive him, so it’s worth the effort to make it social no matter how long it takes — though I’m sure his investors like Goodwater Capital, Founders Fund, Kleiner Perkins, and Floodgate hope it’ll find a way to monetize eventually.
Revenue could come in the form of selling access to events through the app, or letting promoters and local businesses pay for enhanced discovery. For now, though, IRL is building a deeper connection with event and content publishers with the upcoming launch of its free Add To Calendar button they can build into their sites and emails. Elman says several services charge for these buttons that integrate with Apple and Google’s calendars, but IRL hopes giving them away will help fill its app with things to do, whatever that might be.
“Our tagline is ‘live your best life’. It’s not judgmental. If your best life is playing video games on your couch with your homies, we don’t judge you for that.”
Facebook Messenger is finally getting desktop apps almost 9 years after its debut. After seeing over a 100% increase in desktop browser audio and video calling, Messenger today releases its Mac and Windows desktop apps. They bring the same features as the browser version, but make it easier to keep your chat threads handy than having Messenger buried in one of many tabs. “We’re all looking for more ways to be together even while we’re physically apart” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg writes.
Facebook originally announced the Messenger desktop apps at its F8 conference a year ago. But given the conference is cancelled due to coronavirus this year and users clearly wanted the desktop apps now, it made sense to launch them without a big press event. Last month the Mac version was spotted in testing. Messenger briefly had a Windows app back in 2011 before it was scrapped until now.
Perhaps the biggest shortcoming of Facebook Messenger right now is that it can only handle up to 8 group video call participants, opposed to 100 or even 500 with Zoom . That means Messenger can’t support some of the new use cases that have emerged since people started to shelter-in-place due to COVID-19. It also doesn’t offer a way to easily share a URL that lets other people join a call, so it’s not useful for public webinars or social events.
Screensharing is the other major missing feature. The inability to show what you’re looking at prevents some business use cases, as well as phone social ones like co-browsing a photo album. Facebook’s Workplace chat desktop apps offer screensharing so it seems reasonable that Messenger could add that option in the future.
Chat apps have gone from a way to stay in touch while apart or arrange meeting up to our only form of human connection for those in lock-down. That means they can no longer be built as complements to our offline lives. They must convey us in full.
Google is shutting down Neighbourly, a Q&A social app that it launched in select parts of India two years, the company has informed users.
The app, developed by company’s Next Billion Initiative, aimed to give local communities an outlet to seek answers to practical questions about life, routine and more.
At the time of the app’s launch, Google told TechCrunch that it believed that an increase in urban migration, short-term leasing and busy lives had changed the dynamic of local communities and made it harder to share information quite so easily.
The app supported voice-based entry for questions and a range of local languages.
In an email, Google said Neighbourly helped users find answers to over a million questions, but it did not get the traction the company was hoping for. The app will shut down on May 12, but users have another six months to download their data.
“We launched Neighbourly as a Beta app to connect you with your neighbors and make sharing local information more human and helpful. As a community, you’ve come together to celebrate local festivals, shared crucial information during floods, and answered over a million questions,” the company wrote to users.
“But Neighbourly hasn’t grown as we had hoped. In these difficult times, we believe that we can help more people by focusing on other Google apps that are already serving millions of people everyday,” it added, pointing users to explore Google Maps’ Local Guide, which also allows sharing of knowledge with local communities.
The app had such low-traction that third-party intelligence services such as App Annie and Sensor Tower don’t have any substantial data about it. But on Play Store, Neighbourly is listed to have more than 10 million downloads.
Many TikTok videos don’t start from scratch, so neither can its competitors. TikTok is all about remixes, where users shoot a new video to recontextualize audio pulled from someone else’s clip, or riff on an existing meme or concept. That only works because TikTok’s had time to build up an immense armory of content from which to draw inspiration.
Creators will find themselves unequipped trying to get started on TikTok copycats, including Facebook Lasso, and Instagram Reels, which is testing in Brazil. Direct competitors like Triller and Dubsmash are racing to build up their archives. YouTube Shorts, which The Information today reported is in development, only has a shot if Google lets users harness the 5 billion videos people already watch on YouTube each day.
This is the power of what I call “content network effect”: Each piece of content adds value to the rest. That’s TikTok.
You’re likely familiar with traditional network effect — “a phenomenon whereby a product or service gains additional value as more people use it.” It’s not just the network itself that gains value, as the value delivered to each user increases too. Today’s top social networks are shining examples. The more people there are on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter, the more people you can connect to, and the more material their relevant algorithms can draw on to fill your feeds.
If you had to choose between using two identical social networks, you’re probably going to pick the one with more friends or creators already on board. Network effects raise the switching cost of moving to a different network. Even if it has better features, fewer ads or less misinformation and bullying, you’re unlikely to leave a robust network behind and decamp to a sparser one. That makes scaled social networks difficult to Disrupt. All the top ones have been around for almost a decade or more.
Except for TikTok. The Chinese music/video app has managed to demonstrate a new concept of “content network effect.” In its case, each video uploaded to the app makes every future potential video more valuable. That’s because all the content on TikTok serves as remix fodder for the rest. Every song, dance, joke, prank and monologue generates resources for other creators to exploit. It’s a bottomless well of inspiration.
Remixability, the ultimate creative tool
TikTok productizes remix culture by making it easy to “use this sound.” Tap the audio button on any video and it becomes yours. Click through and you’ll see all the other videos that use it. TikTok even offers a whole search engine for sorting through sounds by categories, like Trending, Greatest Hits, Love, Gaming and Travel. Sometimes remixes are based on an idea rather than an audio. #FlipTheSwitch sees couples instantly swapping clothes when the light flicks off, and has collected more than 3.6 billion videos across over 500,000 remixed versions of the video.
You can even duet with the original creator, sharing your video and theirs side-by-side simultaneously. A solo performance becomes a chorus as more duets are hitched together. Meanwhile, remixes of remixes of remixes provide an esoteric reward for hardcore users who recognize how a gag has evolved or spiraled into absurdity.
Other apps in the past have spawned video responses, hashtags, quote-tweets, surveys and chain letters and other ways for pieces of content to interact or iterate. And there’s always been parodies. But TikTok proves the power of forging a social app with content network effect at its core.
Facilitating remixes offers a way to lower the bar for producing user-generated content. You’d don’t have to be astoundingly creative or original to make something entertaining. Each individual’s life experiences inform their perspective that could let them interpret an idea in a new way.
What began with someone ripping audio of two people chanting “don’t be suspicious” while sneaking through a graveyard in TV show Parks & Recs led to people lipsyncing it while trying to escape their infant’s room without waking them up, leaving the house wearing clothes they stole from their sister’s closet, trying to keep a llama as a pet and Photoshopping themselves to look taller. Unless someone’s already done the work to record an audio clip, there’s nothing to inspire and enable others to put their spin on it.
TikTok’s archive versus the world
That’s why I wrote that Mark Zuckerberg misunderstands the huge threat of TikTok after the CEO told Facebook’s staff that “I kind of think about TikTok as if it were Explore for Stories.” Facebook and Instagram found massive success cloning Snapchat Stories because all they had to do was copy its features. Stories are autobiographical life vlogging. All you need are the creative tools, which Instagram and Facebook rebuilt, and people to share to, which the apps had billions of.
But TikTok isn’t about sharing what you’re up to like Stories that typically start from scratch, as each user’s life is different. It’s micro-entertainment powered by content network effect. If TikTok competitors give people the same video recording features and distribution potential, they’ll still be missing the archive of source material.
Facebook’s Lasso looks just like TikTok, but it has failed to gain steam since launching in November 2018. Instagram Reels smartly copies TikTok’s remixing tools, but if the Brazilian tests go well and it eventually launches in English, it will start out flat-footed.
When YouTube launches Shorts, as The Information’s Alex Heath and Jessica Toonkel report it’s planning to do before the end of the year, it will be buried inside its main app. That could make it impossible to compete with a dedicated app like TikTok that opens straight to its For You page. Its one saving grace would be if YouTube unlocks its entire database of videos for remixing.
Thanks to its position as the default place to host videos and its experience with searchability that Facebook and Instagram lack, YouTube Shorts could at least have all the ingredients necessary. But given YouTube’s non-stop failures in social with everything from Google+ to YouTube Stories to its dozen deadpooled messaging apps, it may not have the skills necessary to combine them.
Other social networks should consider how the concept applies to them. Could Facebook turn your friends’ photos into collage materials? Could Instagram let you share themed collections of your favorite posts? Remix culture isn’t going away, so neither will the value of fostering content network effects. With video consumption outpacing professional production, remixes are how the world will stay entertained and how amateurs can contribute creations worthy of going viral.