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Instagram may divide hashtags from captions to end overhashing

Geofenced sharing, Quiz stickers, Stories Highlight stickers, and a separate interface for adding hashtags to posts are amongst a slew of new features Instagram has prototyped or is now testing. The last one could finally #cure #the #hashtag #madness that’s infected many of Instagram’s 1 billion users, causing them desperately fill up their captions with tagged words that make the feed tough to read in hopes of scoring a few extra views or followers.

The pace of iteration at Instagram is staggering, and helping it to leave Snapchat in the dust. With Facebook’s deep pockets funding its product, design, and engineering teams, Instagram is able to keep its app full of fresh toys to play with. Here’s a look at three prototypes, one test, and one confirmed roll out from Instagram

Hashtag Selector

The feature isn’t released or even necessarily testing yet, and Instagram refused to comment on it. But frequent TechCrunch tipster and mobile researcher Jane Manchun Wong was able to dig the designated hashtag selector prototype out of the Instagram Android app’s code. It shows a dedicated “Add Hashtags” option underneath the caption composer and people tagger. Similar past discoveries by Wong have led to TechCrunch scoops about the eventual launch of Instagram video calling, name tags, music stickers, and more.

Disambiguating hashtags from captions could make adding them to posts less invasive and distracting, and thereby get more users doing it. That could in turn help Instagram tune its feed algorithm to show you more posts with hashtags you seem to care about, get more users following hashtags, allow it to better sort the Explore page with its new topic channels like Sports, Beauty, and Shopping. But perhaps most importantly, it could just make Instagram less annoying. Everyone has that friend that slaps on so many hashtags that their captions become an incoherent mess.

Geofenced Posts

Wong also dug out a powerful new feature that could help social media managers, businesses, and pro creators reach the right audience. Instagram has prototyped a “Choose Locations” option for posts that lets you select from a list of countries where you want your post to be visible. Instagram declined to comment.

The geofencing feature might enable Instagrammers to design different content and captions for different countries and languages. Facebook has offered geofencing for posts for many years, and Instagram already offers ad targeting down to the zip code or mile radius. But if this location chooser launches for everyone’s posts, it could let people and professional accounts express their prismatic identity differently across the globe.

Stories Highlight Stickers

Instagram gave me a confirmation that this final find by Wong is officially in testing. It allows users to turn someone else’s Stories Highlight from their profile into a sticker to overlay on their own Story. It’s an extension of the Quote-tweet style feature Instagram started testing in March that lets you turn people’s public feed posts into Stories stickers so you can add your commentary — or dunk on someone dumb. Stories Highlight Stickers could create a new path to virality for start creators who could convince their followers to re-share their Highlights and turn their friends into fellow fans.

Quiz Stickers

This prototype discovered by WABetaInfo‘s Twitter account allows users to ask a question in their Story and designate a correct answer. The Quiz sticker functions similarly to Instagram’s recently added Poll and Question stickers, but instead of tallying the results or letting you re-post someone’s answer, they’ll immediately see whether they guessed the right answer to your test. This ties into Instagram’s strategy to crush Snapchat by making its own Stories more interactive and turning the connection between fans and followers into a two-way street.

Video Tagging

Instagram did confirm the launch of one new feature, tagging people in videos. TechCrunch spotted thIS last week and Instagram said it was testing, but upon our inquiry told us that it’s now fully rolled out. Video tagging could generate extra visits for Instagram as few people have the willpower to ignore a notification that they were named in a new piece of content. The feature could also help Instagram figure out who to show the videos too by allowing it to place them high in the feed of the best friends of people tagged.

Combined, this flurry of new and potential features proves Instagram isn’t allowing its dominance to diminish its shipping schedule. It also demonstrates that Instagram VP of product Kevin Weil’s move to Facebook’s blockchain team his replacement by former News Feed VP Adam Mosseri hasn’t disrupted the app’s brisk pace of innovation.

The jury is still out about whether Instagram’s biggest new initiatives will take off. IGTV is off to a slow start, but will need time to build a long-form video archive to rival YouTube. And we’ll have to wait and see if users grow addicted to Instagram Explore’s new Shopping channel. But constantly updating the app takes pressure off of any one feature to carry the weight of a billion people’s eyes. Who wants to build a direct competitor to something evolving this fast?

Inside Facebook Dating, launching today first in Colombia

Does deeper data produce perfect matches? Facebook is finally ready to find out, starting today with a country-wide test in Colombia of its Dating feature. It’s centered around an algorithm-powered homescreen of Suggested romantic matches based on everything Facebook knows about you that other apps don’t. There’s no swiping and it’s not trying to look cool, but Facebook Dating is familiar and non-threatening enough to feel accessible to Facebook’s broad array of single users.

Originally announced at F8 in May, Facebook has hammered out details like limiting users to expressing interest in a maximum of 100 people per day, spotlighting personal questions as well as photos, and defaulting to show you friends-of-friends as well as strangers unless you only want to see people with no mutual connections. If the test goes well, expect Facebook to roll Dating out to more countries shortly as the social network pushes its mission to create meaningful connections and the perception that it can be a force of good.

“The goal of the team is to make Facebook simply the best place to start a relationship online” Facebook Dating’s product manager Nathan Sharp told me during an expansive interview about the company’s strategy and how it chose to diverge from the top dating apps. For starters, it’s not trying to compete with Tinder for where you find hookups by swiping through infinite options, but instead beat eHarmony, Hinge, or OKCupid at finding you a life partner. And it’s all about privacy, from its opt-in nature to how it’s almost entirely siloed from Facebook though lives within the same app.

“We wanted to make a product that encouraged people to remember that there are people behind the profiles and the cards that they’re seeing. We wanted a system that emphasizes consideration over impulse, We want you to consider more than that person’s profile photo.”

There are no plans to monetize Facebook Dating with ads or premium subscriptions to bonus features. But as Facebook strives to stay relevant beyond the aging News Feed and combat its branding crisis, there are plenty of incentives for it to find us a significant other.

How Facebook Dating Works…

“Dating is something we’ve seen on the platform since the earliest days. We know there are 200 million people who list themselves as single” says Sharp. He’s married himself but says with a laugh that Facebook Dating “is definitely a young and single team.” Back in 2004, online dating still had a sleazy reputation. But now that over a third of U.S. marriages start online, and Facebook has had time to identify the pitfalls stumbled into by other dating apps, it’s ready to pucker up.

The basic flow is that users 18 and up (or the local ‘Adult’ equivalent) will see a notice atop their News Feed inviting them to try Facebook Dating when it comes to their country, and they’ll see a shortcut in their bookmarks menu.

They’ll opt in, verify their city using their phone’s location services, and decide whether to add details like a free-form bio, workplace, education, religion, height, and if they have children. Facebook offers non-binary genders and sexual orientations. To fill out their profile, they’ll choose up to a dozen photos they upload, are tagged in, previously posted to Facebook, or cross-posted from Instagram as well as answer up to 20 questions about their personality such as “What does your perfect day look like?”

Users can select to filter their matches by distance (up to a maximum radius of 100 kilometers), if they have children, religion, height and age. They may then browse through the homescreen’s Suggested matches list, or they can choose to ‘Unlock’ Events and Groups they’re part of to see people from those who’ve done the same. Anyone you’ve blocked on Facebook won’t show up, though unfriended exs might. To see the next person, they either have to say they’re not interested, or choose a photo or question from the person’s profile and send them a message related to it (or at least they’re supposed to), and the sender can’t see the recipient any more.

The text and emoji-only messages go through a special Facebook Dating chat section, not Messenger, and land in the recipient’s Interested tab with no read receipts. If they reply, the chat moves to both people’s Conversations tab. From there they can decide to connect elsewhere online or meet up in person.

Sharp admits that “The moment you try to control the system you may have some unexpected behaviors occur there”. That’s why you can’t message photos (dick pics), and you can’t follow up with people who don’t respond to you (stalking). But Facebook plans to stay vigilant in case unexpected forms of abuse or privacy issues emerge.

…And Why

Starting today users in Colombia will be able to create a Facebook Dating profile, but the company won’t start serving matches until there are enough sign ups. Sharp tells me “we don’t expect it to take months.” But why Colombia? He says it’s because much of South America has culturally accepted online dating, it has a sizeable population of 30 million monthly active Facebook users, and the social network can track data out of a few discrete metropolitan areas.

But there are a lot of other ‘whys’ to how Facebook Dating was built. Sharp ran me through the decision making process his team undertook to turn Facebook Dating from a concept into a concrete product. Here I’ll run through its rules and features while explaining the philosophy behind them.

  1. Meaningful relationships not one-night-stands, because “meaningful” is Facebook’s new watchword as it enters the ‘Time Well Spent’ era, and Facebook has the deep biographical and interest data to find you matches you’ll want to wake up next to each day, not just go to bed with.
  2. Opt-in not automatic enrollment, because “not everyone who’s single wants to date, not everyone who wants to date wants to date online, not everyone who dates online wants to date on Facebook” says Sharp.
  3. Within Facebook not a new app, because it lowers the barrier to behavior that’s already hard enough for some people, and it can only achieve its mission if people actually use it.
  4. Friends-of-friends and strangers not friends, because many people’s biggest fear is “are my friends and family going to see this” says Sharp, and people who are already friends don’t need help meeting and may already know if they want to date each other.
  5. A new profile not your same one, because some people might want to share a different side of themselves or might not publicly disclose their sexual orientation. The only info ported into Facebook Dating is your first name and age.
  6. Message and response not both people swiped right, because since Facebook wants you to be deliberate about who you show interest in, you have to send one message and hope to hear back. There’s no infinite right-swiping and then waiting get matched or messaged. “It puts the power in the responder” Sharp says.
  7. Profiles and chat are separate not part of Facebook, because it doesn’t want to scare users about privacy slip-ups, and doesn’t want people to pollute the main Facebook experience soliciting dates
  8. Real age and location not self-described, because Facebook wants to prevent catfishing as well as users contacting matches in distant cities who they’ll never meet.
  9. Matches through Events and Groups not randos, because a photo isn’t enough for choosing a life partner, interest overlaps are key to compatability, and they give people ready-mate happenings to use as dates.

A prototype of Facebook Dating’s onboarding flow

The end result is an online dating product that maximizes convenience, both in where it’s available and how much hunting you have to do by yourself. Facebook’s in a precarious time for its brand, and may have trouble getting people to trust it with an even more sensitive part of their lives. But word could travel fast if it’s how people find their soul-mate.

Facebook plans voter drive, partners with Democratic/Republican Institutes

Facebook will push users to register to vote through a partnership with TurboVote, has partnered with the International Republican Institute and International Democratic Institute non-profits to monitor foreign election interference, and will publish a weekly report of trends and issues emerging from its new political ads archive. Facebook has also confirmed that its election integrity war room is up and running and the team is now ‘red teaming’ how it would react to problem scenarios such as a spike in voter suppression content.

These were the major announcements from today’s briefing call between Facebook’s election integrity team and reporters.

Facebook’s voter registration drive will also partner with TurboVote, which Instagram announced yesterday will assist it with a similar initiative

Much of the call reviewed Facebook’s past efforts, but also took time to focus on the upcoming Brazilian election. There, Facebook has engaged with over 1000 prosecutors, judges, and clerks to establish a dialog with election authorities. It’s partnered with three fact-checkers in the country and worked with them on Messenger bots like “Fátima” and “Projeto Lupe” that can help people spot fake news.

The voter registration drive mirrors Instagram’s plan announced yesterday to work with TurboVote to push users to registration info via ads. Facebook says it will also remind people to vote on election day and let them share with friends that “I voted”. One concern is that voter registration and voting efforts by Facebook could unevenly advantage one political party, for instance those with a base of middle-aged constituents who might be young enough to use Facebook but not so young that they’ve abandoned it for YouTube and Snapchat. If Facebook can’t prove the efforts are fair, the drive could turn into a talking point for congressional members eager to paint the social network as biased against their party.

The partnerships with the Institutes that don’t operate domestically are designed “to understand what they’re seeing on the ground in elections” around the world so Facebook can move faster to safeugard its systems, says Facebook’s Director of Global Politics and Government Outreach Team Katie Harbath. Here, Facebook is admitting this problem is too big to tackle on its own. Beyond working with independent fact checkers and government election commissions, it’s tasking non-profits to help be its eyes and ears on the ground.

Overall, Facebook is trying to do its homework so it’s ready for a “heat of the moment, last day before the election scenario” and won’t get caught flat-footed, says Facebook director of product management for News Feed Greg Marra. He says facebook is “being a lot more proactive and building systems to look for problems so they don’t become big problems on our platform.” Facebook’s director of product management for Elections and Civic Engagement Samidh Chakrabarti noted, this is “One of the biggest cross-team efforts we’ve seen.”

Ghostery revamps its privacy-focused mobile browsers

Ghostery is launching new versions of its browsers for iOS and Android. In fact, Director of Product Jeremy Tillman said this is the first big update to Ghostery’s mobile browsers in several years.

It’s not that mobile wasn’t a priority for the team before this, but Tillman said, “In our previous company, we didn’t have a ton of resources — we always had to choose which thing to work on.” Apparently that changed last year with Ghostery’s acquisition by German browser company Cliqz.

The first big launch after the acquisition was Ghostery 8, the latest version of the team’s privacy-focused extension for desktop browsers. Next up: Bringing those features over to mobile.

Tillman said the goal was to create “a browser that can go toe-to-toe with Chrome” while also incorporating Ghostery’s privacy protection capabilities. Those capabilities include the ability to block different kinds of ad tracking by category (tracking for advertising, adult advertising and site analytics are turned on by default).

There’s also a built-in ad blocker, and Ghost Search, a privacy-focused search engine based on Cliqz technology that does not store any personally identifiable information. (If you’re not satisfied with the Ghost Search results, you can also see results from other search engines.) The presentation is different from a standard search engine, with three “dynamic result cards” that surface content as soon as you start entering search terms. And there’s Ghostery Tab, a home screen that highlights your favorite or most visited sites, as well as the latest news stories.

The Android version includes additional features, including AI-powered anti-tracking and “smart blocking” that’s supposed to improve page performance.

Tillman described the result as “a cleaner, faster, safer mobile browsing experience.” He also said that moving forward, Ghostery will be working to provide “an ecosystem of products” that “protect our users wherever they’re interacting with the Internet.”

The launch comes as the big Internet platforms face growing scrutiny over how they handle user data. Tillman argued that by simply giving consumers a more privacy-friendly alternative, “We’re sort of collectively negotiating a better Internet for them” — and he’s hoping Ghostery can be more involved as publishers try to find alternatives to advertising.

“Our goal isn’t to, say, topple Google and Facebook, but to provide that alternative to those that want it — both for content creators but also for users themselves,” he said.

Telegram to replace iOS messaging app with Telegram X Swift rebuild

Telegram has announced it will be migrating iOS users of its messaging app to a rebuilt-from-scratch Swift version.

It’s been running two versions of its app in parallel on iOS and Android during 2018 — officially announcing Telegram X in January, when it billed it as an experiment and said the alternative app “may or may not eventually replace the existing official apps”.

Well, that maybe has now become a certainty — at least on iOS.

In a post on his Telegram channel, founder Pavel Durov says the company will be replacing the iOS app with the Swift rebuild “within the next week or two”.

“As a result, Telegram will become faster, slicker and more efficient,” he writes. “Since it will rely on an entirely new codebase, some minor bugs and glitches might occur, but we’ll make sure they are quickly — or should I say “swiftly” — fixed.”

“This change will make Telegram the most popular messaging app written fully in Swift. Some would say it’s a big risk, but I think somebody has to take such risks and be the first to implement new technologies, such as e2e [end-to-end] encryption — or Swift,” adds Durov.

At the time of writing, the original Telegram iOS app and the Telegram X rebuild are both currently still available for download in the App Store.

It’s not clear whether Telegram will also be entirely replacing the Android app with the Telegram X Android version (or not). Nor what the iOS switch will mean for Telegram users running the app on a version of Apple’s mobile OS that doesn’t support Swift apps (iOS 6 or earlier).

Telegram may well be calculating that only a very small few number of its iOS users are likely that far behind on iOS updates. (Whereas the Android ecosystem is far more fragmented.)

Also unclear: Whether or not Telegram plans to open source Telegram X code.

It has open sourced Telegram client-side code in the past but has also faced criticism for not immediately publishing the most recent versions and for not open sourcing server-side code. (Though in an FAQ it still makes the claim that: “All code will be released eventually.”)

We’ve reached out to the company with additional questions about the switch to Telegram X and will update this post with any response.

In the current App Store description for Telegram X the iOS app is billed as “an alternative Telegram client built in Swift, with higher speed, slicker animations, themes and more efficient battery use”.

The Swift rebuild, which has been available on the App Store since January, has a 4.0 (out of 5) star rating — with reviewers lauding its faster speed but also reporting a few bugs and/or complaining about some missing features.