All posts in “Social”

Twitter’s de-algorithmizing ‘sparkle button’ rolls out on Android

After launching on iOS, Twitter is giving Android users the ability to easily switch between seeing the reverse-chronological “latest tweets” and the algorithmic “top tweets” feeds on their home page. The company announced the rollout at a media event in New York.

The “sparkle button” is a way for Twitter to appease long-time power tweeters while also shifting more of its user base to the algorithmic feed, which the company says has served to increase the number of conversations happening on the platform.

You can read more about the company’s algorithmic feed thinking here:

Instagram caught selling ads to follower-buying services it banned

Instagram has been earning money from businesses flooding its social network with spam notifications. Instagram hypocritically continues to sell ad space to services that charge clients for fake followers or that automatically follow/unfollow other people to get them to follow the client back. This is despite Instagram reiterating a ban on these businesses in November and threatening the accounts of people who employ them.

A TechCrunch investigation initially found 17 services selling fake followers or automated notification spam for luring in followers that were openly advertising on Instagram despite blatantly violating the network’s policies. This demonstrates Instagram’s failure to adequately police its app and ad platform. That neglect led to users being distracted by notifications for follows and Likes generated by bots or fake accounts. Instagram raked in revenue from these services while they diluted the quality of Instagram notifications and wasted people’s time.

In response to our investigation, Instagram tells me it’s removed all ads as well as disabled all the Facebook Pages and Instagram accounts of the services we reported were violating its policies. Pages and accounts that themselves weren’t in violation but whose ads were have been banned from advertising on Facebook and Instagram. However, a day later TechCrunch still found ads from two of these services on Instagram, and discovered five more companies paying to promote policy-violating follower growth services.

This raises a big question about whether Instagram properly protects its community from spammers. Why would it take a journalist’s investigation to remove these ads and businesses that brazenly broke Instagram’s rules when the company is supposed to have technical and human moderation systems in place? The Facebook-owned app’s quest to “move fast” to grow its user base and business seems to have raced beyond what its watchdogs could safeguard.

Hunting Spammers

I first began this investigation a month ago after being pestered with Instagram Stories ads by a service called GramGorilla. The slicked-back hipster salesmen boasted how many followers he gained with the service and that I could pay to do the same. The ads linked to the website of a division of Krends Marketing where for $46 to $126 per month, it promised to score me 1000 to 2500 Instagram followers.

Some apps like this sell followers directly, though these are typically fake accounts. They might boost your follower count (unless they’re detected and terminated) but won’t actually engage with your content or help your business, and end up dragging down your metrics so Instagram shows your posts to fewer people. But I discovered that GramGorilla/Krends and the majority of apps selling Instagram audience growth do something even worse.

You give these scammy businesses your Instagram username and password, plus some relevant topics or demographics, and they automatically follow and unfollow, like, and comment on strangers’ Instagram profiles. The goal is to generate notifications those strangers will see in hopes that they’ll get curious or want to reciprocate and so therefore follow you back. By triggering enough of this notification spam, they trick enough strangers to follow you to justify the monthly subscription fee.

That pissed me off. Facebook, Instagram, and other social networks send enough real notifications as is, growth hacking their way to more engagement, ad views, and daily user counts. But at least they have to weigh the risk of annoying you so much that you turn off notifications all together. Services that sell followers don’t care if they pollute Instagram and ruin your experience as long as they make money. They’re classic villains in the ‘tragedy of the commons’ of our attention.

This led me to start cataloging these spam company ads, and I was startled by how many different ones I saw. Soon, Instagram’s ad targeting and retargeting algorithms were backfiring, purposefully feeding me ads for similar companies that also violated Instagram’s policies.

The 17 services selling followers or spam that I originally indexed were Krends Marketing / GramGorilla, SocialUpgrade, MagicSocial, EZ-Grow, Xplod Social, Macurex, GoGrowthly, Instashop / IG Shops, TrendBee, JW Social Media Marketing, YR Charisma, Instagrocery, SocialSensational, SocialFuse, WeGrowSocial, IGWildfire, and GramFlare. TrendBee and GramFlare were found to still be running Instagram ads after the platform said they’ve been banned from doing so. Upon further investigation after Instagram’s supposed crackdown, I discovered five more services sell prohibited growth services: FireSocial, InstaMason/IWentMissing, NexStore2019, InstaGrow, and Servantify.

Knowingly Poisoning The Well

I wanted to find out if these companies were aware that they violate Instagram’s policies and how they justify generating spam. Most hide their contact info and merely provide a customer support email, but eventually I was able to get on the phone with some of the founders.

What we’re doing is obviously against their terms of service” said GoGrowthly’s co-founder who refused to provide their name. “We’re going in and piggybacking off their free platform and not giving them any of the revenue. Instagram doesn’t like us at all. We utilize private proxies depending on clients’ geographic location. That’s sort of our trick to reduce any sort of liability” so clients’ accounts don’t get shut down, they said. “It’s a careful line that we tread with Instagram. Similar to SEO companies and Google, Google wants the best results for customers and customers want the best results for them. There’s a delicate dance” said Macurex founder Gun Hudson.

EZ-Grow’s co-founder Elon refused to give his last name on the record, but told me “[Clients] always need something new. At first it was follows and likes. Now we even watch Stories for them. Every new feature that Instagram has we take advantage of it to make more visibility for our clients.” He says EZ-Grow spends $500 per day on Instagram ads, which are its core strategy for finding new customers. SocialFuse founder Alexander Heit says his company spends a couple hundred dollars per day on Instagram and Facebook ads, and was worried when Instagram reiterated its ban on his kind of service in November, but says “We thought that we were definitely going to get shut down but nothing has changed on our end.”

Several of the founders tried to defend their notification spam services by saying that at least they weren’t selling fake followers. Lacking any self-awareness, Macurex’s Hudson said “If it’s done the wrong way it can ruin the user experience. There are all sorts of marketers who will market in untasteful or spammy ways. Instagram needs to keep a check on that.” GoGrowthly’s founder actually told me “We’re actually doing good for the community by generating those targeted interactions.” WeGrowSocial’s co-founder Brandon also refused to give his last name, but was willing to rat out his competitor SocialSensational for selling followers.

Only EZ-Grow’s Elon seemed to have a moment of clarity. “Because the targeting goes to the right people . . . and it’s something they would like, it’s not spam” he said before his epiphany. “People can also look at it as spam, maybe.”

Instagram Finally Shuts Down The Spammers

In response to our findings, an Instagram spokesperson provided this lengthy statement confirming it’s shut down the ads and accounts of the violators we discovered, claiming that it works hard to fight spam, and admitting it needs to do better:

“Nobody likes receiving spammy follows, likes and comments. It’s really important to us that the interactions people have on Instagram are genuine, and we’re working hard to keep the community free from spammy behavior. Services that offer to boost an account’s popularity via inauthentic likes, comments and followers, as well as ads that promote these services, aren’t allowed on Instagram. We’ve taken action on the services raised in this article, including removing violating ads, disabling Pages and accounts, and stopping Pages from placing further ads. We have various systems in place that help us catch and remove these types of ads before anyone sees them, but given the number of ads uploaded to our platform every day, there are times when some still manage to slip through. We know we have more to do in this area and we’re committed to improving.”

Instagram tells me it uses machine learning tools to identify accounts that pay third-party apps to boost their popularity and claims to remove inauthentic engagement before it reaches the recipient of the notifications. By nullifying the results of these services, Instagram believes users will have less incentive to use them. It uses automated systems to evaluate the images, captions, and landing pages of all its ads before they run, and sends some to human moderators. It claims this lets it catch most policy-violating ads, and that users can report those it misses.

But these ads and their associated accounts were filled with terms like “get followers”, “boost your Instagram followers”, “real followers”, “grow your engagement”, “get verified”, “engagement automation”, and other terms tightly linked to policy-violating services. That casts doubt on just how hard Instagram was working on this problem. It may have simply relied on cheap and scalable technical approaches to catching services with spam bots or fake accounts instead of properly screening ads or employing sufficient numbers of human moderators to police the network.

That misplaced dependence on AI and other tech solutions appears to be a trend in the industry. When I recently reported that child sexual abuse imagery was easy to find on WhatsApp and Microsoft Bing, both seemed to be understaffing the human moderation team that could have hunted down this illegal content with common sense where complex algorithms failed. As with Instagram, these products have highly profitable parent companies who can afford to pour more dollars in policy enforcement.

Social networks and self-serve ad networks have been treated as efficient cash cows for too long. The profits from these products should be reinvested in policing them. Otherwise, crooks will happily fleece users for our money and attention.

To learn more about the future of Instagram, check out this article’s author Josh Constine’s SXSW 2019 keynote with Instagram co-founders Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger — their first talk together since leaving the company.

Facebook launches its first U.S. podcast with a series focused entrepreneurship

Everyone has to have a podcast, apparently. Even Facebook . The social network this week launched its second-ever original podcast series, and its first one in the U.S. An arm of Facebook’s business operation, the new show “Three and a Half Degrees” will focus on entrepreneurship – specifically the lessons learned, challenges faced, and other insights from successful business leaders.

The name is a reference to how technology has made it easier to connect – today, people are no longer six degrees apart, but only three and a half degrees, the company says.

“I consider it part of our mission to help the businesses we work with learn from one another,” explains David Fischer, Facebook’s VP of Business and Marketing Partnerships. “One way we’re doing this is with the new podcast ‘Three And A Half Degrees: The Power of Connection.’ Through the podcast, we hope to celebrate the journeys of entrepreneurs and business leaders on our platform, and scale their inspiring life lessons and learnings to other entrepreneurs and leaders,” he says.

Facebook today has over 90 million businesses using its platform, so it makes sense that it wants to further establish itself as a place where established businesses can share their knowledge with newcomers. Those smaller businesses could then grow to become a more active part of Facebook’s larger business network, which keeps the cycle – and the ad dollars – flowing.

Fischer will serve as podcast host, and kicks off the first episode with an interview with the creator of TOMS,  Blake Mycoskie, who is introduced on the show to Bryan and Bradford Manning. The Mannings say they were inspired by TOMS to start their own charitable business, Two Blind Brothers. The overall focus for the episode is on brands that prioritize their social mission over profit and growth.

Future episodes will include Monique & Chevalo from Charleston Burger Co. & Chris Kempcziski from McDonald’s (ep 2); Stephanie McMahon from WWE & Gary Vaynerchuk from Vayner Media (ep 3); ictor Lezama from PC Landing Zone & Jake Wood from Team Rubicon (ep 4); Suzanne Gildert from Sanctuary and Kindred AI & Beth Comstock, formerly with GE (ep 5); Antionette Carroll from Creative Reaction Lab & Jonathan Mildenhall from TwentyFirstCenturyBrand (ep 6); Ben Rattray from Change.org & Advisor Chip Conley (ep 7).

This first season includes just these seven episodes and fourteen guests, with new episodes arriving every two weeks.

It’s not a long season, and Facebook hasn’t yet confirmed plans to do another, we understand. That makes the “podcast” a bit more like a marketing initiative rather than a serious attempt at entering the podcasting market.

The podcast is also not monetized. The company has no plans to sell ad space within the podcast, either. It will be marketed across Facebook and Instagram.

Though this is the first time Facebook has done a podcast in the U.S., it has experimented in this space previously. Last summer, it tried a similar effort in Australia where leading marketers talked about connecting with consumers, in a podcast called Face 2 Face. That one seems to have even more of a tie to Facebook’s own bottom line. (Connect with consumers? Social ads, of course!).

This one is takes a step back from the nitty-gritty of reaching consumers through spending on marketing and ads, but rather on the business leaders themselves.

The vibe of the podcast is one of a highly-produced effort. It doesn’t begin as a sit-down, informal back-and-forth chat, but one where pre-recorded interviews are intercut with host narration and storytelling. It’s not until nearly halfway through before the introduction between Mycskie and the Mannings is made. At that point, it shifts from being a sort of NPR-Lite style effort, and one where you’re listening to a conversation – albeit one with a polished, media-trained exec like Mycskie.

Unfortunately, this more compelling part of the program is far too short, and quickly wrapped up with the host summarizing the learnings.

The new U.S. podcast is available on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, and TuneIn.

Facebook says it will invest $300M in local news

Facebook plans to make a significant investment in local news over the next three years, with $300 million going to a variety of initiatives and organizations.

The company has had a rocky relationship with news publishers recently. While it’s funded programming from partners like CNN and Fox News, it’s also played a role in some of the industry’s most dispiriting trends, like the so-called “pivot to video” — and several of the digital publishers that bet big on the platform have been struggling (to say the least).

So initiatives like this one (and a similar investment that Google announced last year) can seem like attempts to ameliorate the damage that the big digital platforms have already done to the news ecosystem. Or perhaps they’re simply protecting an important content source at a time when the local news business is under tremendous pressure.

Regardless of motivation, if it helps, it helps.

As for why Facebook is focusing on local news specifically, Vice President of Global News Partnerships Campbell Brown said in a blog post that after examining “what kind of news people want to see on Facebook” and talking to industry partners, “We heard one consistent answer: people want more local news, and local newsrooms are looking for more support.”

Brown said the investments will go into two broad areas — supporting journalists and newsrooms in the newsgathering process, and helping them build sustainable business models. More specifically, the company says it will invest:

  • $5 million in the Pulitzer Center (with a $5 million matching gift from Emily Rauh Pulitzer) to launch “Bringing Stories Home,” an initiative offering reporting grants to cover topics that affect local communities.
  • $2 million in Report for America, an initiative to place 1,000 journalists in local newsrooms across America over the next five years.
  • $1 million for the Knight-Lenfest Local News Transformation Fund, which is trying to create a hub for evaluating and improving how technology is used in U.S. newsrooms.
  • a $1 million investment in the Local Media Association and the Local Media Consortium, to helping their 2,000-plus member newsrooms develop branded content revenue streams (both on and off Facebook).
  • a $1 million commitment to the American Journalism Project, which is using “venture philanthropy” to support local news organizations.
  • $6 million for the Community News Project, which is partnering with U.K. publishers to recruit trainee “community journalists” and place them in local newsrooms over a two-year period.
  • More than $20 million to expand Facebook’s Accelerator program to help local publishers with their membership and subscription models.

“We are grateful for Facebook’s commitment to helping us meet the challenges of today’s journalism, especially in smaller cities where the survival of news outlets depends on new models of reporting and community engagement,” said Pulitzer Center founder and executive director Jon Sawyer in a statement. “We also applaud Facebook’s commitment to the editorial independence that is absolutely essential to our success.”

TikTok is giving China a video chat alternative to WeChat

ByteDance, the world’s most-valued startup, just launched a new social media product under its Douyin brand in what many people see as a serious attempt to challenge WeChat.

Tencent has long dominated China’s social networking space with WeChat and QQ. WeChat claims to have one billion monthly active users worldwide, most of whom are in China. Its older sibling QQ managed to survive the country’s transition from PC to mobile and still have a good chunk of 800 million MAUs at last count.

Over the years Tencent has drawn contenders from all fronts. Ecommerce behemoth Alibaba was one, whose app “Laiwang” to take on WeChat later pivoted to a Slack-like product for enterprise communication.

Now ByteDance is in the spotlight with its new brainchild, Duoshan. The app comes as a mix of TikTok, which is called Douyin in China, and Snap, to bet on a 5G-powered future in which new generations prefer using ephemeral videos to communicate.

Unlike TikTok, which incentivizes users to follow celebrities and strangers, Duoshan is built for private messaging. It offers a dazzling selection of special effects and filters as most other short-video apps do these days. The twist is that videos disappear after 72 hours to provide stress-free, off-the-cuff sharing, a need that WeChat also noticed and prompted the giant to come up with its own Snap-like Stories feature recently.

duoshan bytedance tiktok

Screenshots of Duoshan. Image: ByteDance

“We are seeing more and more Douyin users share their videos through other social media platforms and channels,” Douyin’s president Zhang Nan said in a statement. “With the launch of Duoshan, we are creating our first video-based social messaging app to allow users to share their creativity and interact directly with their family and friends.”

You may not know ByteDance, but its suite of media apps are turning heads all over the world thanks to millions of dollars spent on advertising. TikTok, which swallowed up Musical.ly last year, claims to have more than 250 million daily active users with MAUs reaching 500 million. That solid user base will surely help Duoshan during its initial user acquisition as the app allows easy login for existing Douyin users.

While TikTok is not a direct threat to WeChat — for it’s built for media consumption and WeChat is more of a tool for communication and a platform to run daily errands — Tencent did respond with a dozen of video apps over the past year to play catch-up. Now, Duoshan appears to be going after WeChat’s core — instant messaging.

“We hope WeChat doesn’t see [Duoshan] as a competitor. What they do in essence is to build an ‘infrastructure’. We, on the other hand, is only going after people who are closest to you,” Chen Lin, the newly appointed chief operating officer of ByteDance’s news app Jinri Toutiao said at a press event today.

Two other high-profile entrepreneurs are joining ByteDance to roll out their own social apps today. Smartisan, who backed a WeChat rival that turned out to be a blip, is announcing the product tonight in China. The other challenger is Wang Xin, a pioneer in China’s online video-streaming space who was sentenced to jail in 2016 after being charged with providing easy access to pornography. His take on social media — Matong — is already live and is greeted with such warm reception that its server went down.

Duoshan has got many people excited. Some of the top trending words on Weibo, China’s closest answer to Twitter, today are linked to ByteDance’s move, such as “social”, “waging a war” and “Zhang Yiming,” who founded ByteDance in 2012.