WhatsApp could wreck Snapchat again by copying ephemeral messaging

WhatsApp already ruined Snapchat’s growth once. WhatsApp Status, its clone of Snapchat Stories, now has 450 million daily active users compared to Snapchat’s 188 million. That’s despite its 24-hour disappearing slideshows missing tons of features including augmented reality selfie masks, animated GIFs, or personalized avatars like Bitmoji. A good enough version of Stories conveniently baked into the messaging app beloved in the developing world where Snapchat wasn’t proved massively successful. Snapchat actually lost total users in Q2 and Q3 2018, and even lost Rest Of World users in Q2 despite that being where late stage social networks rely on for growth.

That’s why it’s so surprising that WhatsApp hasn’t already copied the other big Snapchat feature, ephemeral messaging. When chats can disappear, people feel free to be themselves — more silly, more vulnerable, more expressive. For teens who’ve purposefully turned away from the permanence of the Facebook profile timeline, there’s a sense of freedom in ephemerality. You don’t have to worry about old stuff coming back to haunt or embarass you. Snapchat rode this idea to become a cultural staple for the younger generation.

Yet right now WhatsApp only lets you send permanent photos, videos, and texts. There is an Unsend option, but it only works for an hour after a message is sent. That’s far from the default ephemerality of Snapchat where seen messages disappear once you close the chat window unless you purposefully tap to save them.

Instagram has arrived at a decent compromise. You can send both permanent and temporary photos and videos. Text messages are permanent by default, but you can unsend even old ones. The result is the flexibility to both chat through expiring photos and off-the-cuff messages knowing they will or can disappear, while also being able to have reliable, utilitarian chats and privately share photos for posterity without the fear that one wrong tap could erase them. When Instagram Direct added ephemeral messaging, it saw a growth spurt to over 375 million monthly users as of April 2017.

Snapchat lost daily active users the past two quarters

WhatsApp should be able to build this pretty easily. Add a timer option when people send media so photos or videos can disappear after 10 seconds, a minute, an hour, or a day. Let people add a similar timer to specific messages they send, or set a per chat thread default for how long your messages last similar to fellow encrypted messaging app Signal.

Snap CEO Evan Spiegel’s memo leaked by Cheddar’s Alex Heath indicates that he views chat with close friends as the linchpin of his app that was hampered by this year’s disastrous redesign. He constantly refers to Snapchat as the fastest way to communicate. That might be true for images but not necessarily text, as BTIG’s Rich Greenfield points out, citing how expiring text can causes conversations to break down. It’s likely that Snapchat will double-down on messaging now that Stories has been copied to death.

Given its interest in onboarding older users, that might mean making texts easier to keep permanent or at least lengthening how long they last before they disappear. And with its upcoming Project Mushroom re-engineering of the Snapchat app so it works better in developing markets, Snap will increasingly try to become WhatsApp.

…Unless WhatsApp can become Snapchat first. Spiegel proved people want the flexibility of temporary messaging. Who cares who invented something if it can be brought to more people to deliver more joy? WhatsApp should swallow its pride and embrace the ephemeral.

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China’s hottest news app Jinri Toutiao announces new CEO

You may not have heard of ByteDance, but you probably know its red-hot video app TikTok, which gobbled up Musical.ly in August. The Beijing-based company also runs a popular news aggregator called Jinri Toutiao, which means “today’s headlines” in Chinese, and the app just assigned a new CEO.

At a company event on Saturday, Chen Lin, an early ByteDance employee, made his first appearance as Toutiao’s new CEO. That means Toutiao’s creator Zhang Yiming has handed the helm to Chen, who previously headed product management for the news app.

Zhang’s not going anywhere though. A company spokesperson told TechCrunch that he remains as the CEO of ByteDance, which operates a slew of media apps besides TikTok and Toutiao to lock horns with China’s tech giants Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent.

The story of ByteDance started when Zhang created Toutiao in 2012. The news app collects articles and videos from third-party providers and uses AI algorithms to personalize content for users. Toutiao flew off the shelves and soon went on to incubate new media products, including a Quora-like Q&A platform and TikTok, known as Douyin in China.

The handover may signal a need for Zhang to step back from daily operations in his brainchild and oversee strategies for ByteDance, which has swollen into the world’s highest-valued startup. The company spokesperson did not provide further details on the reshuffle.

Toutiao itself is installed on over 240 million monthly unique devices, which makes it a top news aggregator in China, according to data analytics firm iResearch. TikTok and Douyin collectively command 500 million monthly active users around the world, while Musical.ly has a userbase of 100 million, the company previously announced.

Toutiao’s success has prompted Tencent, which is best known for creating WeChat and controlling a large slice of China’s gaming market, to build its own AI-powered news app. Toutiao’s fledgling advertising business has also stepped on the toes of Baidu, which makes the bulk of its income from search ads. More recently, Toutiao muscled in on Alibaba’s territory with an ecommerce feature.

At the Saturday event, Chen also shared updates that hint at Toutiao’s growing ambition. For one, the news goliath is working to help content providers cash in through a suite of tools, for instance, ecommerce sales and virtual gifts from livestreaming. The move is poised to help Toutiao retain quality creators as the race to grab digital eyeball time intensifies in China.

Toutiao also recently launched its first wave of “mini programs,” or stripped-down versions of native apps that operate inside super apps like Toutiao. Tencent has proven the system to be a big traffic driver after WeChat mini programs crossed two million daily users.

Lastly, Toutiao said it will take more proactive measures to monitor what users consume. In recent months, the news app has run afoul of media regulators who slashed it for hosting illegal and “inappropriate” content. Douyin has faced similar criticisms. While ByteDance prides itself on automated distribution, the company has demonstrated a willingness to abide with government rules by hiring thousands of human censors and using AI to filter content.

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Stoop aims to improve your news diet with an easy way to find and read newsletters

Stoop is looking to provide readers with what CEO Tim Raybould described as “a healthier information diet.”

To do that, it’s launched an iOS and Android app where you can browse through different newsletters based on category, and when you find one you like, it will direct you to the standard subscription page. If you provide your Stoop email address, you’ll then be able to read all your favorite newsletters in the app.

“The easiest way to describe it is: It’s like a podcast app but for newsletters,” Raybould said. “It’s a big directory of newsletters, and then there’s the side where you can consume them.”

Why newsletters? Well, he argued that they’re one of the key ways for publishers to develop a direct relationship with their audience. Podcasts are another, but he said newsletters are “an order of magnitude more important” because you can convey more information with the written word and there are lower production costs.

That direct relationship is obviously an important one for publishers, particularly as Facebook’s shifting priorities have made it clear that they need to “establish the right relationship [with] readers, as opposed to renting someone else’s audience.” But Raybould said it’s better for readers too, because you’ll spend your time on journalism that’s designed to provide value, not just attract clicks: “You will find you use the newsfeed less and consume more of your content directly from the source.”

“Most content [currently] is distributed through a third party, and that software is choosing what to surface next — not based on the quality of the content, but based on what’s going to keep people scrolling,” he added. “Trusting an algorithm with what you’re going to read next is like trusting a nutritionist who’s incentivized based on how many chips you eat.”

Stoop Discover

So Raybould is a fan of newsletters, but he said the current system is pretty cumbersome. There’s no one place where you can find new newsletters to read, and you may also hesitate to subscribe to another one because it “crowds out your personal inbox.” So Stoop is designed to reduce the friction, making it easy to subscribe to and read as many newsletters as your heart desires.

Raybould said the team has already curated a directory of around 650 newsletters (including TechCrunch’s own Daily Crunch) and the list continues to grow. Additional features include a “shuffle” option to discover new newsletters, plus the ability to share a newsletter with other Stoop users, or to forward it to your personal address.

The Stoop app is free, with Raybould hoping to eventually add a premium plan for features like full newsletter archives. He’s also hoping to collaborate with publishers — initially, most publishers will probably treat Stoop readers as just another set of subscribers, but Raybould said the company could provide access to additional analytics and also make signing up easier with the app’s instant subscribe option.

And the company’s ambitions go beyond newsletters. Raybould said Stoop is the first consumer product from a team with a larger mission to help publishers — they’re also working on OpenBundle, a bundled subscription initiative with a planned launch in 2019 or 2020.

“The overarching thing that is the same is the OpenBundle thesis and the Stoop thesis,” he said. “Getting publishers back in the role of delivering content directly to the audience is the antidote to the newsfeed.”

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Weather Up’s app can give you forecasts for your calendar events

There are plenty of weather apps to choose from on the App Store, but the newly released Weather Up app is doing something different. Instead of just offering the daily weather, it will now offer Event Forecasts — meaning forecasts that sync with your calendars so you can see what the weather will be for your upcoming appointments and various events.

The feature is customizable, so you don’t have to use it with all your calendars — or even all your events. You can opt to tag specific events in order to show the weather forecast for just those.

Event Forecasts is useful for planning your outdoor activities like the kids’ soccer games, outdoor concerts and more, but also for planning for events you’ll walk to or drive to.

The app itself is not new. It actually began its life last year as Weather Atlas, from LauncherPro developer David Barnard. He admits the first version app struggled with retention, so he’s now overhauled it from a usability perspective, based on user feedback and testing.

The revamped app — basically the 2.0 release of Weather Atlas — is now rebranded as Weather Up, as a result of these and other changes, which also includes a new set of cute app icons.

“Apps that don’t take off are often abandoned, but the weather category is just so interesting to me I’m going to keep pushing until I carve out a decent niche. And I think Weather Up is a great step in the right direction,” says Barnard.

He says a lot of time was spent on making the app feel more intuitive — especially in terms of its gestural interface. The new design makes use of the extra vertical space on X-series iPhones and makes most of its buttons and gestures easily accessible from the lower portion of the screen, he says.

Another interesting thing he’s trying in the new app is an in-app Merch Store, which is certainly a first for a weather application — or productivity apps in general, for the most part.

To help with monetization, the store will sell things like shirts, mugs, bags, hats and more emblazoned with the new icons — which Barnard recently showed off on Twitter.

The store is also available on the developer’s website.

The app’s core feature set, of course, is its weather forecasts. In addition to temperature, it also shows humidity and precipitation accumulation, and warns about weather events like thunderstorms, tornadoes, hurricanes and tropical tracks.

As an indie developer, Barnard hopes people will choose his app over others because he vows not to sell user data or even location data to advertisers — even though that would be more profitable, he says.

Weather Up is a free download on the App Store, with a pro feature set available for $9.99/year or $1.99/month.

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Facebook Messenger is building a ‘Watch Videos Together’ feature

Netflix and chill from afar? Facebook Messenger is now internally testing simultaneous co-viewing of videos. That means you and your favorite people could watch a synchronized video over group chat on your respective devices while discussing or joking about it. This “Watch Videos Together” feature could make you spend more time on Facebook Messenger while creating shared experiences that are more meaningful and positive for well-being than passively zombie-viewing videos solo. This new approach to Facebook’s Watch Party feature might feel more natural as part of messaging than through a feed, Groups or Events post.

The feature was first spotted in Messenger’s codebase by Ananay Arora, the founder of deadline management app Timebound as well as a mobile investigator in the style of frequent TechCrunch tipster Jane Manchun Wong. The code he discovered describes Messenger allowing you to “tap to watch together now” and “chat about the same videos at the same time” with chat thread members receiving a notification that a co-viewing is starting. “Everyone in this chat can control the video and see who’s watching,” the code explains.

A Facebook spokesperson confirmed to TechCrunch that this is an “internal test” and that it doesn’t have any more to share right now. But other features originally discovered in Messenger’s code, like contact syncing with Instagram, have eventually received official launches.

Watch Party exists on Facebook, but could be more popular as a chat feature

A fascinating question this co-viewing feature brings up is where users will find videos to watch. It might just let you punch in a URL from Facebook or share a video from there to Messenger. The app could put a new video browsing option into the message composer or Discover tab. Or, if it really wanted to get serious about chat-based co-viewing, Facebook could allow the feature to work with video partners, ideally YouTube.

Co-viewing of videos could also introduce a new revenue opportunity for Messenger. It might suggest sponsored videos, such as recent movie trailers. Or it could simply serve video ads between a queue of videos lined up for co-viewing. Facebook has recently been putting more pressure on its subsidiaries like Messenger and Instagram to monetize as News Feed ad revenue growth slows due to plateauing user growth and limited News Feed ad space.

Other apps like YouTube’s Uptime (since shut down) and Facebook’s first president Sean Parker’s Airtime (never took off) have tried and failed to make co-watching a popular habit. The problem is that coordinating these synced-up experiences with friends can be troublesome. By baking simultaneous video viewing directing into Messenger, Facebook could make it as seamless as sharing a link.

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Popular Chinese selfie app Meitu now includes 3D editing

You’ve probably had the experience of posing awkwardly for a photo while everyone else looks great. Now China’s top photo-editing firm Meitu has a solution that helps you resist the urge to trash that photo.

Meitu’s namesake app, which claims over 100 million monthly active users as of August, recently launched a feature that lets users virtually rotate their faces up, down, to the left, or to the right. There’s already a plethora of editing apps out there that allows people to polish their shots like a pro, but Meitu wants to take retouching to another level.

“Traditional image processing technology can only perform plane stretching in two dimensions, and the image has no depth information and therefore is unable to truly reflect the changes in the posture of real life,” says a spokesperson for the company.

The feature, called “3D Reshape,” takes hints from a static portrait and applies face recognition and reconstruction technologies to generate 3D information of the user’s face. In other words, it simulates how the user’s head tilts or rotates in real life, yielding results that the firm claims are more “natural” and “realistic”.

meitu

The process is a bit eerie, but the result looks satisfying. / Credit: Meituan

The feature also works for group photos, so users can choose to fix a particular person’s unflattering pose. The Chinese company isn’t the only photo app that’s come up with 3D editing. Google’s Snapseed has a similar offer.

Meitu goes all out to perfect portraits by maintaining an in-house R&D team of 200 staff. For the 3D project, the researchers collected 18 unique facial expressions from 1,200 people who were primarily Chinese and aged between 12 and 60.

Despite being a dominator in its space, Meitu has had to look beyond photo editing for monetization since its early days. For the six months ended June 30, the firm generated 72 percent of its revenues from selling smartphones designed to take outstanding selfies, while internet-related services brought in the rest of the money.

Nonetheless, Meitu has seen its hardware revenues drop as smartphone shipments slow in China and competition heats up. By contrast, internet-based revenues jumped 132 percent year-over-year thanks to growth in advertising and “value-added” services. The latter stands for virtual items sales on Meitu’s video streaming app Meipai.

Meitu’s trove of users may have other practical use. In July, the firm shelled out $30 million for an undisclosed stake in Gengmei, a social media platform that connects customers with plastic surgeons who offer them advice. It’s not hard to imagine a future where Meitu links its beauty-seeking users to not only virtual tools but also long-lasting, real-life means.

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India’s plans to censor streaming services like Netflix are a mess

While India is home to the world’s largest film industry and one of the planet’s largest audiences for cinema, it’s also constantly struggling with the challenge of censoring movies. Things have gotten more complicated in the past few years with the rise of international streaming video platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video.

Streaming content produced locally and overseas isn’t regulated in India, which means they appeal to citizens looking for uncensored shows and movies. But many people in India’s largely conservative society take issue with the depiction of nudity, sex, violence, and messaging that criticizes the country and its leaders. Inconsistent measures and reporting on the actions taken by the government and these service providers have made it impossible to figure out just how far along we are in the censorship war – and who will come out on top.

India’s Central Board of Film Certification, a government body tasked with statutory censorship and classification for movies, is known for being tough on filmmakers who want to push the envelope with their messaging and imagery in India. Since its formation nearly 70 years ago, it has routinely taken its shears to innumerable films produced domestically and abroad, so as to protect the modesty of viewers nationwide by demanding that scenes depicting nudity, gore, and the reality of operating in politics be removed.

A scene from HBO's TV series Game of Thrones, which was censored by streaming services like Hotstar in India
Credit: HBO
A scene from HBO’s TV series Game of Thrones, which was censored by streaming services like Hotstar in India

That’s not entirely surprising. It’s a fairly common practice among among citizens and government agencies in India to attempt to enforce a code of morality with other people and institutions. Their actions are based on notions of upholding traditions, values, and religious beliefs, and they generally take the forms of attacks on freedom of expression and vigilantism.

And in this climate, there’s no framework for censoring content on video-on-demand services. That’s a problem for the government, as well as for for people opposed to others viewing uncensored material in the privacy of their own homes. But it’s also one of the reasons why Indians are subscribing to streaming services in large numbers. So, how does all this affect international platforms like Netflix?

Good luck finding out. Over the past couple of years, there have been numerous reports, legal cases filed in public interest, and actions taken by these services to address demands for censorship. And more recently, we’ve heard about these services considering self-regulation. This is where things get tricky.

One report from the Economic Times noted in September that streaming services were considering a ‘voluntary censorship code.’ It sounded troubling, because these services would have to compromise on the uncensored content that attracted viewers in India in the first place.

Another report from Medianama clarified that this self-regulation only pertained to a common standard for classifying content across streaming platforms to help viewers make informed choices about watching content with strong language, violence, and sex.

An additional risk of self-censorship is for the content they’re producing locally. Enforcing a censorship code or self-censorship would curb the freedom of content creators in India.

Yesterday, The Print published a story saying Netflix would begin self-regulating its content internationally, along with another service called Hotstar.

But interestingly, the company issued a statement to TNW saying, “The information quoted is inaccurate and entirely false. Netflix was never in this meeting.” ¯_(ツ)_/¯

What happens if Netflix et al. begin self-censoring their services?

Speaking to TNW, renowned film critic Raja Sen – who extensively reviews Bollywood and international film and TV for numerous publications in India – said that a unified ratings system that applies to locally available streaming platforms makes sense. But he cautioned against going beyond classification of content down the slippery slope of censorship.

Sen opined about the arbitrary manner in which film censorship is currently carried out in India, and how it requires the difficult enforcement of bizarre, ever-changing standards for an incredibly diverse population.

So why are streaming video companies even thinking about self-censorship in India? “It’s possible that they’ve heard something similar is in the works within the annals of the Indian government – or they may have been told, or warned, to clean up their act,” speculated Sen.

It’s also not a new phenomenon. “When Amazon Prime launched in India, they started out self-censoring, by chopping a section of the car show The Grand Tour, so as not to upset people,” said Sen. He highlighted that last bit in a column published in December 2016:

On the fourth episode of the series, Jeremy Clarkson drives a car made of animal carcasses, looking through a windshield made of a cow’s innards. The hour long episode has, absurdly enough, been shortened to half its length and there is no meat-car in sight.

Amazon India responded soon after, saying it “will keep Indian cultural sensitivities in mind while offering this content to customers.” Apparently, you have to tread very lightly when you’re dealing with a country that believes the cow is a sacred animal.

Similarly, Netflix ordered a censored version of the Indian film Angry Indian Goddesses back in 2015, delaying its online release by several weeks in the process.

A still from Angry Indian Goddesses
Credit: Angry Indian Goddesses
A still from Angry Indian Goddesses

Sen worried that in today’s connected age, censoring content will push people to seek out uncensored material elsewhere, lead them to cancel subscriptions and encourage piracy. “You can’t censor the internet. If people want to look at something online, they’ll find a way.”

The notion of voluntary censorship is particularly worrying at this point in time, when Amazon and Netflix have both begun actively producing original content in India – some of which is being made available to global audiences.

In February, Netflix announced three original pieces of content from India, including the well received Hindi show Sacred Games, which features a number of prominent Bollywood stars, and a film Lust Stories, the “largest watched original in percentage terms” in its first month in June. CNN reported in July that several more are on the cards.

A promo image for Netflix' Sacred Games
Credit: Netflix / Facebook
A promo image for Netflix’ Sacred Games

Meanwhile, Amazon launched its third locally produced series, Comicstaan – a reality show featuring budding stand-up comedians learning from experienced pros – in July. It has three more in the pipeline for 2018, and hopes to launch 10 originals next year.

There’s big money to be made: According to research firm Media Partners Asia, the online video market in India is currently worth $700 million, and is expected to balloon to $2.4 billion by 2023.

But censorship could hurt these companies’ chances of raking in those big bucks – and have worse repercussions as well. Sen noted that it has the potential to cause the rest of the world to take Indian audiences and filmmakers less seriously:

If distributors abroad see India producing unremarkable content, they may become uninterested in licensing locally created media for international audiences. By the same token, platforms and distributors targeting Indian viewers may stem the flow of material from overseas, if they know that it’ll hit roadblocks because of arbitrary censorship guidelines.

Following an Indian non-profit’s complaint about “unregulated, uncertified, sexually explicit, vulgar, profane, and legally restricted content” on streaming platforms in the country, the Delhi high court has asked the government to comment on prevailing guidelines and licensing policies concerning the regulation of content on these services this week.

Sen hopes these networks stand their ground and say no to censorship, particularly when they’re beginning to produce content of their own. Many viewers in India have been looking forward to these platforms’ ability to foster artists’ freedom of expression for a long time now, and it’d be a shame to see that curtailed.

He concluded, “Go ahead and create more ways for viewers to find content that’s agreeable to them on your platforms, but let’s not start acting like even adults need parental supervision.”

Read next:

TNW presents the greatest gift guide in the world… ever

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Hong Kong is adding QR code payments to its subway stations

A new dispatch from our ‘QR Codes Are Very Much Alive In Asia’ reporting program: Hong Kong’s subway system will soon allow its commuters to pay by scanning QR codes thanks to a deal with Alibaba that was announced this week.

The partnership — which is with Alibaba’s Ant Financial affiliate — will see scan-to-pay enabled at 91 MTR metro stations starting in mid-2020. Commuters will simply use Ant’s Alipay app to scan a code at the turnstile and then go on with their trip as usual. They’ll be able to top up their balance inside the app, as well as through traditional methods.

MTR also covers rail, buses and more but it isn’t clear if and when this payment option will be extended beyond subways.

Hong Kong already offers convenient cash-free payments using its Octopus card system, which has branched out from covering rides and can be used for purchases offline among many things. Octopus says that there are some 35 million active cards in circulation today — covering 99 percent of the seven million population — and the program is widely admired by other countries in Asia which are trying to replicate it.

There are said to be around 35 million Octopus cards in circulation in Hong Kong

The Alipay solution does also have its own merits, though. For one, QR code scans will work in places where internet connections are slow or inconsistent, plus the system could (should?) mean that visitors from Mainland China and other countries who already use Alipay can tap right into it.

For now, Alipay is best known in China — where it claims over 500 million users — but Ant Financial is aggressively building out its presence across Southeast Asia, Korea and other markets. It seems likely it’ll be keen to link those systems with this Hong Kong program.

There’s also likely to be a lot more beyond subway rides.

Ant Financial operates a joint venture — APSHK — in Hong Kong with telecom giant Hutchison which is aimed at bringing its tech and services to the city. It already covers offline payments and has support for taxis, but you can bet that, like Octopus, this MTR rollout will be a base to expand its services in Hong Kong to much broader areas, perhaps mirroring China where Alipay is a ‘swiss army knife’ app that goes well beyond payments.

“Not only is this a recognition in AlipayHK’s technological stability, we feel confident QR Code transit technology will be successfully expanded into more aspects. Aside from gradually merging with Hong Kong’s public transports, we will also be exploring smart mobility in outbound travels by entering the most popular travel destinations of Hong Kong people, driving smart mobility across Hong Kong,” said Jennifer Tan, CEO of APSHK.

So while there are sophisticated solutions for cash-less transportation like Apple Pay, which works on Tokyo’s public transport system, don’t discount more basic-looking options like QR codes.

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Tinder tests ‘Swipe Surge’ in US to connect users during peak times

Tinder today announced the test of a new in-app experience it’s calling “Swipe Surge,” that will send notifications to users when there’s a spike in Tinder usage in their area. The feature is designed to allow Tinder to better capitalize on real-world events that drive increased usage – like music festivals, parties, or spring break holidays, for example.

The company says that it tested out sending push notifications to alert users about surge periods in its app back in 2016, and found that it resulted in users forming 2.5x more matches during a swipe surge.

Users also received nearly 20 percent more right swipes during these events, and they were 2.6x more likely to receive a message, Tinder noted.

Now it’s turning these push notifications into a real product with Swipe Surge.

In addition to the alerts designed to draw Tinder users into the app at the same time, the app will include “Swipe Surge” branding during the event. People who already joined the surge by responding to the push notification will then move to the front of the match queue, and Tinder will show you who’s currently active in the app.

Tinder says that activity during a surge is 15x higher overall, and increases matchmaking potential by 250%.

The company has been working to promote Tinder as a dating app for the younger demographic in recent months, with its marketing campaign focused on the “single lifestyle,” media publication “Swipe Life,” and a test expansion of Tinder U, its college student product.

The Swipe Surge test is underway now in major U.S. markets, says Tinder.

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Facebook will change algorithm to demote “borderline content” that almost violates policies

Facebook will changed its News Feed algorithm to demote content that comes close to violating its policies prohibiting misinformation, hate speech, violence, bullying, clickbait so it’s seen by fewer people even it’s highly engaging. The change could massively reduce the reach of incendiary political groups, fake news peddlers, and more of the worst stuff on Facebook. It allows the company to hide what it doesn’t want on the network without taking a hard stance it must defend about the content breaking the rules.

In a 5000-word letter by Mark Zuckerberg published today, he explained how there’s a “basic incentive problem” that “when left unchecked, people will engage disproportionately with more sensationalist and provocative content. Our research suggests that no matter where we draw the lines for what is allowed, as a piece of content gets close to that line, people will engage with it more on average  — even when they tell us afterwards they don’t like the content.”

Without intervention, the engagement with borderline content looks like the graph above, increasing as it gets closer to the policy line. So Facebook is intervening, artificially suppressing the News Feed distribution of this kind of content so engagement looks like the graph below.

[Update: While Zuckerberg refers to the change in the past tense in one case, Facebook tells me borderline content demotion is only in effect in limited instances.

Facebook will apply penalties to borderline content not just the News Feed but to all of its content, including Groups and Pages themselves to ensure it doesn’t radicalize people by recommending they join communities because they’re highly engaging thanks to toeing the policy line. “Divisive groups and pages can still fuel polarization” Zuckerberg notes.

However, users who purposefully want to view borderline content will be given the chance to opt in. Zuckerberg writes that “For those who want to make these decisions themselves, we believe they should have that choice since this content doesn’t violate our standards.” For example, Facebook might create flexible standards for types of content like nudity where cultural norms vary, like how some coutnries ban women from exposing much skin in photographs while others allow nudity on network television. It may be some time until these opt ins are available, though, as Zuckerber says Facebook must first train its AI to be able to reliably detect content that either crosses the line, or purposefully approaches the borderline.

Facebook had previously changed the algorithm to demote clickbait. Starting in 2014 it downranked links that people clicked on but quickly bounced from without going back to Like the post on Facebook. By 2016, it was analyzing headlines for common clickbait phrases, and this year it banned clickbait rings for inauthentic behavior. But now it’s giving the demotion treatment to other types of sensational content. That could mean posts with violence that stop short of showing physical injury, or lewd images with genitalia barely covered, or posts that suggest people should commit violence for a cause without directly telling them to.

Facebook could end up exposed to criticism, especially from fringe political groups who rely on borderline content to whip up their bases and spread their messages. But with polarization and sensationalism rampant and tearing apart society, Facebook has settled on a policy that it may try to uphold freedom of speech, but users are not entitled to amplification of that speech.

Below is Zuckerberg’s full written statement on the borderline content:

One of the biggest issues social networks face is that, when left unchecked, people will engage disproportionately with more sensationalist and provocative content. This is not a new phenomenon. It is widespread on cable news today and has been a staple of tabloids for more than a century. At scale it can undermine the quality of public discourse and lead to polarization. In our case, it can also degrade the quality of our services. 

[ Graph showing line with growing engagement leading up to the policy line, then blocked ] 

Our research suggests that no matter where we draw the lines for what is allowed, as a piece of content gets close to that line, people will engage with it more on average  — even when they tell us afterwards they don’t like the content. 

This is a basic incentive problem that we can address by penalizing borderline content so it gets less distribution and engagement. By making the distribution curve look like the graph below where distribution declines as content gets more sensational, people are disincentivized from creating provocative content that is as close to the line as possible.

[ Graph showing line declining engagement leading up to the policy line, then blocked ]

This process for adjusting this curve is similar to what I described above for proactively identifying harmful content, but is now focused on identifying borderline content instead. We train AI systems to detect borderline content so we can distribute that content less. 

The category we’re most focused on is click-bait and misinformation. People consistently tell us these types of content make our services worse — even though they engage with them. As I mentioned above, the most effective way to stop the spread of misinformation is to remove the fake accounts that generate it. The next most effective strategy is reducing its distribution and virality. (I wrote about these approaches in more detail in my note on [Preparing for Elections].)

Interestingly, our research has found that this natural pattern of borderline content getting more engagement applies not only to news but to almost every category of content. For example, photos close to the line of nudity, like with revealing clothing or sexually suggestive positions, got more engagement on average before we changed the distribution curve to discourage this. The same goes for posts that don’t come within our definition of hate speech but are still offensive.

This pattern may apply to the groups people join and pages they follow as well. This is especially important to address because while social networks in general expose people to more diverse views, and while groups in general encourage inclusion and acceptance, divisive groups and pages can still fuel polarization. To manage this, we need to apply these distribution changes not only to feed ranking but to all of our recommendation systems for things you should join.

One common reaction is that rather than reducing distribution, we should simply move the line defining what is acceptable. In some cases this is worth considering, but it’s important to remember that won’t address the underlying incentive problem, which is often the bigger issue. This engagement pattern seems to exist no matter where we draw the lines, so we need to change this incentive and not just remove content. 

I believe these efforts on the underlying incentives in our systems are some of the most important work we’re doing across the company. We’ve made significant progress in the last year, but we still have a lot of work ahead.

By fixing this incentive problem in our services, we believe it’ll create a virtuous cycle: by reducing sensationalism of all forms, we’ll create a healthier, less polarized discourse where more people feel safe participating.

Let’s block ads! (Why?)

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