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Lawyers hate timekeeping — Ping raises $13M to fix it with AI

Counting billable time in six-minute increments is the most annoying part of being a lawyer. It’s a distracting waste. It leads law firms to conservatively under-bill. And it leaves lawyers stuck manually filling out timesheets after a long day when they want to go home to their families.

Life is already short, as Ping CEO and co-founder Ryan Alshak knows too well. The former lawyer spent years caring for his mother as she battled a brain tumor before her passing. “One minute laughing with her was worth a million doing anything else,” he tells me. “I became obsessed with the idea that we spend too much of our lives on things we have no need to do — especially at work.”

That’s motivated him as he’s built his startup Ping, which uses artificial intelligence to automatically track lawyers’ work and fill out timesheets for them. There’s a massive opportunity to eliminate a core cause of burnout, lift law firm revenue by around 10% and give them fresh insights into labor allocation.

Ping co-founder and CEO Ryan Alshak (Image Credit: Margot Duane)

That’s why today Ping is announcing a $13.2 million Series A led by Upfront Ventures, along with BoxGroup, First Round, Initialized and Ulu Ventures. Adding to Ping’s quiet $3.7 million seed led by First Round last year, the startup will spend the cash to scale up enterprise distribution and become the new timekeeping standard.

I was a corporate litigator at Manatt Phelps down in LA and joke that I was voted the world’s worst timekeeper,” Alshak tells me. “I could either get better at doing something I dreaded or I could try and build technology that did it for me.”

The promise of eliminating the hassle could make any lawyer who hears about Ping an advocate for the firm buying the startup’s software, like how Dropbox grew as workers demanded easier file sharing. “I’ve experienced first-hand the grind of filling out timesheets,” writes Initialized partner and former attorney Alda Leu Dennis. “Ping takes away the drudgery of manual timekeeping and gives lawyers back all those precious hours.”

Traditionally, lawyers have to keep track of their time by themselves down to the tenth of an hour — reviewing documents for the Johnson case, preparing a motion to dismiss for the Lee case, a client phone call for the Sriram case. There are timesheets built into legal software suites like MyCase, legal billing software like TimeSolv and one-off tools like Time Miner and iTimeKeep. They typically offer timers that lawyers can manually start and stop on different devices, with some providing tracking of scheduled appointments, call and text logging, and integration with billing systems.

Ping goes a big step further. It uses AI and machine learning to figure out whether an activity is billable, for which client, a description of the activity and its codification beyond just how long it lasted. Instead of merely filling in the minutes, it completes all the logs automatically, with entries like “Writing up a deposition – Jenkins Case – 18 minutes.” Then it presents the timesheet to the user for review before they send it to billing.

The big challenge now for Alshak and the team he’s assembled is to grow up. They need to go from cat-in-sunglasses logo Ping to mature wordmark Ping.  “We have to graduate from being a startup to being an enterprise software company,” the CEO tells meThat means learning to sell to C-suites and IT teams, rather than just build a solid product. In the relationship-driven world of law, that’s a very different skill set. Ping will have to convince clients it’s worth switching to not just for the time savings and revenue boost, but for deep data on how they could run a more efficient firm.

Along the way, Ping has to avoid any embarrassing data breaches or concerns about how its scanning technology could violate attorney-client privilege. If it can win this lucrative first business in legal, it could barge into the consulting and accounting verticals next to grow truly huge.

With eager customers, a massive market, a weak status quo and a driven founder, Ping just needs to avoid getting in over its heads with all its new cash. Spent well, the startup could leap ahead of the less tech-savvy competition.

Alshak seems determined to get it right. “We have an opportunity to build a company that gives people back their most valuable resource — time — to spend more time with their loved ones because they spent less time working,” he tells me. “My mom will live forever because she taught me the value of time. I am deeply motivated to build something that lasts . . . and do so in her name.”

Dutch court orders Facebook to ban celebrity crypto scam ads after another lawsuit

A Dutch court has ruled that Facebook can be required to use filter technologies to identify and pre-emptively take down fake ads linked to crypto currency scams that carry the image of a media personality, John de Mol, and other well known celebrities.

The Dutch celerity filed a lawsuit against Facebook in April over the misappropriation of his and other celebrities’ likeness to shill Bitcoin scams via fake ads run on its platform.

In an immediately enforceable preliminary judgement today the court has ordered Facebook to remove all offending ads within five days, and provide data on the accounts running them within a week.

Per the judgement, victims of the crypto scams had reported a total of €1.7 million (~$1.8M) in damages to the Dutch government at the time of the court summons.

The case is similar to a legal action instigated by UK consumer advice personality, Martin Lewis, last year, when he announced defamation proceedings against Facebook — also for misuse of his image in fake ads for crypto scams. Lewis withdrew the suit at the start of this year after Facebook agreed to apply new measures to tackle the problem: Namely a scam ads report button. It also agreed to provide funding to a UK consumer advice organization to set up a scam advice service.

In the de Mol case the lawsuit was allowed to run its course — resulting in today’s preliminary judgement against Facebook.

It’s not yet clear whether the company will appeal but in the wake of the ruling Facebook has said it will bring the scam ads report button to the Dutch market early next month.

In court, the platform giant sought to argue that it could not more proactively remove the Bitcoin scam ads containing celebrities’ images on the grounds that doing so would breach EU law against general monitoring conditions being placed on Internet platforms.

However the court rejected that argument, citing a recent ruling by Europe’s top court related to platform obligations to remove hate speech, also concluding that the specificity of the requested measures could not be classified as ‘general obligations of supervision’.

It also rejected arguments by Facebook’s lawyers that restricting the fake scam ads would be restricting the freedom of expression of a natural person, or the right to be freely informed — pointing out that the ‘expressions’ involved are aimed at commercial gain, as well as including fraudulent practices.

Facebook also sought to argue it is already doing all it can to identify and take down the fake scam ads — saying too that its screening processes are not perfect. But the court said there’s no requirement for 100% effectiveness for additional proactive measures to be ordered.

Its ruling further notes a striking reduction in fake scam ads using de Mol’s image since the lawsuit was announced

Facebook’s argument that it’s just a neutral platform was also rejected, with the court pointing out that its core business is advertising. It also took the view that requiring Facebook to apply technically complicated measures and extra effort, including in terms of manpower and costs, to more effectively remove offending scam ads is not unreasonable in this context.

The judgement orders Facebook to remove fake scam ads containing celebrity likenesses from Facebook and Instagram within five days of the order — with a penalty of €10k per day that Facebook fails to comply with the order, up to a maximum of €1M (~$1.1M).

The court order also requires that Facebook provides data to the affected celebrity on the accounts that had been misusing their likeness within seven days of the judgement, with a further penalty of €1k per day for failure to comply, up to a maximum of €100k.

Facebook has also been ordered to pay the case costs.

Responding to the judgement in a statement, a Facebook spokesperson told us:

We have just received the ruling and will now look at its implications. We will consider all legal actions, including appeal. Importantly, this ruling does not change our commitment to fighting these types of ads. We cannot stress enough that these types of ads have absolutely no place on Facebook and we remove them when we find them. We take this very seriously and will therefore make our scam ads reporting form available in the Netherlands in early December. This is an additional way to get feedback from people, which in turn helps train our machine learning models. It is in our interest to protect our users from fraudsters and when we find violators we will take action to stop their activity, up to and including taking legal action against them in court.

One legal expert describes the judgement as “pivotal“. Law professor Mireille Hildebrandt told us that it provides for as an alternative legal route for Facebook users to litigate and pursue collective enforcement of European personal data rights. Rather than suing for damages — which entails a high burden of proof.

Injunctions are faster and more effective, Hildebrandt added.

The judgement also raises questions around the burden of proof for demonstrating Facebook has removed scam ads with sufficient (increased) accuracy; and what specific additional measures it might deploy to improve its takedown rate.

Although the introduction of the ‘report scam ad button’ does provide one clear avenue for measuring takedown performance.

The button was finally rolled out to the UK market in July. And while Facebook has talked since the start of this year about ‘envisaging’ introducing it in other markets it hasn’t exactly been proactive in doing so — up til now, with this court order. 

Instagram Stories launches TikTok clone Reels in Brazil

Instagram is launching a video-music remix feature to finally fight back against Chinese social rival TikTok. Instagram Reels lets you make 15-second video clips set to music and share them as Stories, with the potential to go viral on a new Top Reels section of Explore. Just like TikTok, users can soundtrack their Reels with a huge catalog of music, or borrow the audio from anyone’s else video to create a remix of their meme or joke. 

Reels is launching today on iOS and Android but limited to just Brazil where it’s called Cenas. Reels leverages all of Instagram’s most popular features to frankenstein together a remarkably coherent competitor to TikTok’s rich features and community of 1.5 billion monthly users including 122 million in the US according to Sensor Tower. Instead of trying to start from scratch like Facebook’s Lasso, Instagram could cross-promote Reels heavily to its own billion users.

But Instagram’s challenge will be retraining its populace to make premeditated, storyboarded social entertainment instead of just spontaneous, autobiographical social media like with Stories and feed posts.

“I think Musically before TikTok, and TikTok deserve a ton of credit for popularizing this format” admits Instagram director of product management Robby Stein. That’s nearly verbatim what Instagram founder Kevin Systrom told me about Snapchat when Instagram launched Stories. “They deserve all the credit”, he said before copying Snapchat so ruthlessly that it stopped growing for three years.

Yet Stein insists “No two products are exactly the same, and at the end of the day sharing video with music is a pretty univeral idea we think everyone might be interested in using. The focus has been on how to make this a unique format for us.” The key to that divergence? “Your friends are already all on Instagram. I think thats only true of Instagram.”

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Throwing Instagram’s Weight Around

Starting in Brazil before potentially rolling out elsewhere could help Instagram nail down its customization and onboarding strategy. Luckily, Brazil has a big Instagram population, a deeply musical culture, and a thriving creator community, says Stein.

It also isn’t completely obsessed with TikTok yet like fellow developing market India. As Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said about trying to grow Lasso, “We’re trying to first see if we can get it to work in countries where TikTok is not already big.” Instagram used this internationalization strategy to make Stories a hit where Snapchat hadn’t expanded yet, and it worked surprisingly well.

Instagram also has the US government on its side for a change. While its parent company Facebook is being investigated for anti-trust and privacy violations, TikTok is also under scrutiny.

Chinese tech giant ByteDance’s $1 billion 2017 acquisition of Musical.ly, another Chinese app similar to TikTok but with traction in the US, is under review by the Committee For Foreign Investment In The United States. ByteDance turned Musical.ly into TikTok, but it could have to unwind the acquisitions or make other concessions to US regulators to protect the country’s national security. Several Senators have also railed against TikTok injecting Chinese social values via censorship into the American discourse.

Perhaps Instagram’s best shot at differentiation is through its social graph. While TikTok is primarily a feed broadcasting app, Instagram can work Reels into its Close Friends and Direct messaging features potentially opening a new class of creators — shy one who only want to share with people they trust not to make fun of them. A lot of this lipsyncing / dancing / humor skit content can be kinda cringey when people don’t get it just right.

How Instagram Reels Works

Users will find it in the Instagram Stories shutter modes tray next to Boomerang and Super-Zoom. They can either record with silence, borrow the audio of another video they find through hashtag search or Explore, or search a popular or trending song.

Facebook’s enormous music collection secured from all the major labels and many indie publishers powers Reels. Users pick the chunk to the song they want, and can then record or upload multiple video clips to fill out their Reel. Instagram has been building towards this moment since June 2018 when it first launched its Music stickers.

Instagram is adding some much-needed editing tools for Reels like timed captions so words appear in certain scenes, and a ghost overlay option for lining up transitions so they look fluid. Still, Reels lacks some of the video filters and special effects that TikTok has purposefully built to power certain gags and cuts between scenes. Stein says those are coming though.

Once users are satisfied with their editing job, they can post their Reel to Stories, Close Friends, or message it to people. If shared publicly, it will also be eligible to appear in the Top Reels section of the Explore tab. Most cleverly, Instagram works around its own ephemerality by letting users add their Reels to their profile’s non-disappearing Highlights for a shot to show up on Explore even after their 24-hour story expires.

Instead of having to monetize later somehow, Instagram can immediately start making money from Reels since it already shows ads in Stories and the Explore tab. The feature is sure to get plenty of exposure since 500 million of Instagram’s users already open Stories and Explore each month. Still, Reels’ composer and feed will be buried a few extra taps away from the homescreen compared to TikTok.

TikTok Screenshots

Cloning TikTok isn’t just about the features, though Reels does a good job of copying the core ones. Creating scripted content is totally new for most Instagram users, and could feel too showy or goofy for an app known for its seriousness.

TikTok is 100% about acting ridiculous just to make people smile, your personal image be damned. That’s the opposite of the carefully manicured image of glamor and glory most Instagram users try to project. It could feel counterintuitively more awkward to perform comedy in front of your real friends and fans than it does on a dedicated world stage.

Instagram, and Instagrammers, may have to lose their artful, cool aesthetic to embrace the silliness of tomorrow’s social entertainment. But if Reels can change Instagram’s culture to one where we’re comfortable looking stupid, it could beat TikTok’s talent competition by opening a million private karaoke rooms for goofing off just with friends.

Snapchat Spectacles 3 review: Pretty, pricey

No one’s going to pay $380 for decent point-of-view video glasses and some trippy filters. But that’s kind of the point of Snapchat Spectacles 3. They’re merely a stepping stone toward true augmented reality eyewear — a public hardware beta for the Snap Lab R&D team that Apple and Facebook aren’t getting as they tinker in their bunkers.

Still, I hoped for something that could at least unlock the talents of forward-thinking video creators. Yet the unpredictable and uncontrollable AR effects sadly fail to make use of Spectacles‘ fashionable form factor in premium steel. The clunky software requires clips be uploaded for processing and then re-downloaded before you can apply the 10 starter effects, like a rainbow landscape filter or a shimmering fantasy falcon. This all makes producing AR content a chore instead of a joy for something only briefly novel.

Spectacles 3 go on sale today for $380 in black “Carbon” or rose gold-ish “Mineral” color schemes on Spectacles.com, Neiman Marcus and Ron Robinson, shipping in a week. Announced in August, they’re sunglasses with two stereoscopic lenses capable of capturing depth to produce “3D” photos and videos to which you can add AR effects on your phone. You also get a very nice folds-flat leather USB-C charging case that powers up the glasses four times, and a Google Cardboard-style VR viewer.

“Spectacles 3 is a limited-production run. We’re not looking for massive sales here. We’re targeting people who are excited about these effects — creative storytellers,” says Matt Hanover of the Snap Lab team.

Gen 1 featured a “toy-like design to get people used to wearing tech on their face,” while Gen 2 and 2.1 had a more subdued look, abandoning the coral color schemes to push mainstream adoption. What Gen 3 can’t do is force a $40 million write-off due to poor sales, as V1 did after only shipping 220,000, with hundreds of thousands more gathering dust somewhere. Snap is already losing $227 million per quarter as it scrambles to break even.

So it seems with Spectacles 3 that Snap is gathering data and biding its time, trying to avoid burning too much cash until it can build a version that overlays effects atop a user’s view through the glasses. “We’re still able to get feedback from the customer and inform the future of Spectacles. That’s really the goal for us,” Hanover confirms.

His CEO, Evan Spiegel, agrees, telling me onstage at TechCrunch Disrupt that it would be 10 years until we see augmented reality glasses worthy of mainstream consumer adoption. That’s a long time for an unprofitable company to spend competing to invest in R&D versus cash-rich companies like Facebook and Apple. The battle for early adopters could start much sooner, though, as The Information reports Apple plans to launch its AR/VR headset in 2022 and more portable AR glasses in 2023.

tl;dr

Spectacles could be worth the steep $380 if you’re a videographer for a living, perhaps making futuristic social media clips like Karen X Cheng, a creator Snap hired to demonstrate the device’s potential. They’re cool enough looking that you could wear them around Cannes or Coachella without people getting weirded out like they did with Google Glass. And as Snap’s Lens Studio lets anyone build 3D effects for Spectacles 3, perhaps we’ll see some filters and imaginary characters that are more than just a momentary gimmick.

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But for those simply seeking first-person camera glasses, I’d still recommend the Spectacles 2 at $150 to $200, depending on style which remain available. The 3D features don’t carry the weight of paying double the price for Spec 3s. And at least the second-gen Specs are waterproof, which make them great for ocean play, with fun underwater shooting when you don’t want to risk losing or fizzling your phone.

“We’re testing the price point and the premium aesthetic to see if it lands with this demographic,” Hanover says. But Snap’s director of Communications, Liz Markman, notes that “there isn’t this perfect one-to-one overlap with the core Snap users.”

The result is that Spectacles 3 are really more for Snap’s benefit than yours.

Slick eyewear, now where’s the AR?

The Spectacles 3 software is disappointing, but you’ll be delighted when you open the box. Slick black packaging reveal sturdily built metal sunglasses with a luxury matte finish. As they magnetically dislodge from their charging case, you definitely get the sense you’re trying on something futuristic.

The style concurs, with a flat black bar at the top connecting the round lenses with a camera on both corners. Unlike the old Specs that sat right on your nose, feeling heavy at times, Spectacles 3 offers adjustable acetate non-slip nose tips to keep the weight off. All the tech is built discreetly into the hinges and temples without appearing too chunky.

Tap the button on either arm and LED light swooshes in a circle to let people know you’re recording a video for 10 seconds, with multiple presses growing that to up to 60. Tap and hold to shoot a photo, and the light blinks. There’s no obnoxious yellow rubber ring to shout “these are cameras,” and the defused LEDs are more subtle than Gen 2’s dots, while remaining an obvious enough signal to passersby so they’re not creepy.

One charge powers up to 70 captures and transfers to your phone over a combined Bluetooth built-in Wi-Fi connection. The 4 gigabyte storage holds up to 100 videos or 1,200 photos, and Spectacles 3 even have GPS and GLOSNASS on-board. A four-mic array picks up audio from others and your own voice, though they’re susceptible to windshear if you’re biking or running. They shoot at 60 frames per second in 1216 x 1216 pixels resolution; photos come in at 1642 x 1642.

The magnetically sealing folding leather USB-C charging case is my favorite part. I wish I could get an even flatter one without a battery in it for my other sunglasses. It’s a huge improvement on the unpocketable bulky triangular case of the previous versions.

A toy not fun enough for the price

So far so good, right? But then it comes time to actually see and augment what you shot.

Pairing and syncing is much easier than Gen 1. The glasses forge a Bluetooth connection, then spawn a Wi-Fi network for getting media to your phone faster.

If you just want to share to Snapchat, you’re in luck. Spectacles content posts to Stories or messages in its cool circular format that lets viewers tilt their phones around while always staying full-screen to reveal the edges of your shots. Otherwise, you still have to go through the chore of exporting from Snapchat to your camera roll. Spectacles can at least now export in a variety of croppings for better sharing on Instagram and elsewhere.

What’s new are the 3D photos and videos. They utilize the space between the stereoscopic cameras in the corners of Spectacles and employ parallax to sense the depth of a scene. After tapping the 3D button on a photo, you can wiggle the perspective of the image to almost see around the edges of what you’re looking at. Spectacles will automatically pan back and forth for you, and export 3D photos as short Boomerang-esque six-second videos.

Unfortunately, I found that I didn’t get much sense of depth from most of the 3D photos I shot or saw. It takes a very particular kind of three-dimensional object from the right angle in the right light to make much sense of movement from the wiggle. Snapchat’s algorithms also had a bad habit of mistakenly assigning bits of the foreground and background to each other, breaking the illusion. Occasionally you’ll have someone’s ear or their hair left behind and disembodied by the 3D effect.

Don’t expect these to flood social media or convince prospective Spectacles buyers. The 3D selfies you can shoot on Snapchat for free look better anyways.

The biggest problem comes with the delay when playing with 3D videos. Snapchat has to do the depth processing on its servers, so you have to wait for your video to upload, get scanned and be re-downloaded before you can apply the 3D AR filters. On Wi-Fi that takes about 35 seconds per 10-second video, which is quite a bore. It takes forever over a mobile connection. That means you often won’t be able to apply the filters and see how they look until you’re home and unable to reshoot anything.

The filter set is also limited and haphazard. You can add a 3D bird or balloons around you, wander through golden snow or neon arcs, overlay flower projections or rainbow waves, or sprinkle on sparkles and light-bending blobs. While the bird is cute, and the rainbows and flowers are remarkably psychedelic, none of them are more than briefly entertaining.

The 3D objects often glitch through real pieces of scenery, and you can’t control them at all. No summoning the bird mid-video. My favorite trick, learned from Karen X Cheng, was to export unedited and filtered versions of a video and splice them together on my computer as seen in my demo video above. You can’t actually do that from within Snapchat.

One extra feature the team is working on is to let you see a special colored light flash on the glasses’ internal recording-on signal to alert you to incoming Snaps from certain friends. If that’s popular, would Snap try giving us more notifications through that light? Hanover says “potentially in the future.”

Snap will have to build a lot cooler filters with interactivity if they’re going to compel creators to fork over $380 for Spectacles 3. It could hope to rely on its Lens Studio community platform, but so few developers or users will have the glasses that most will stick to making and using filters for phones.

Spectacles 3 are too expensive to be a toy, but don’t excel at being much more. Videography influencers might enjoy having a pair in their tool bag, but it’s hard to imagine anyone not sharing content professionally paying for the gadget.

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Iteration vs Ideation

“We’re now pushing to elevate the technology and the design to master depth technically,” Hanover tells me. “Holing ourselves up within an R&D center for years and years? That’s not our approach. It’s important to meet the customer where they are today and continue to iterate and get that feedback.”

But this iteration doesn’t feel like Snap meeting the customer where they are. That raises the question of whether Snapchat is really getting enough data out of the whole endeavor to justify publicly releasing Spectacles at all. The company will have to hope that testing short-term is worth thinking short-term, when it’s trying to win the long-term war in augmented reality eyewear.

Facebook finally lets you banish nav bar tabs & red dots

Are those red notification dots on your Facebook home screen driving you crazy? Sick of Facebook Marketplace wasting your screen space? Now you can control what appears in the Facebook app’s navigation bar thanks to a new option called Shortcut Bar Settings.

Over the weekend TechCrunch spotted the option to remove certain tabs like Marketplace, Watch, Groups, Events, Profile, Friend Requests, News, Today In, Gaming and Dating or just silence their notification dots. In response to our inquiry, Facebook confirms that Shortcut Bar Settings is now rolling out to everyone, with most iOS users already equipped and the rest of Android owners getting it in the next few weeks.

The move could save the sanity and improve the well-being of people who don’t want their Facebook cluttered with distractions. Users already get important alerts that they could actually control via their Notifications tab. Constant red notification counts on the homescreen are an insidious growth hack, trying to pull in people’s attention to random Group feeds, Event wall posts and Marketplace.

“We are rolling out navigation bar controls to make it easier for people to connect with the things they like and control the notifications they get within the Facebook app,” a Facebook spokesperson tells me.

Back in July 2018, Facebook said it would start personalizing the navigation bar based on which utilities you use most. But the navigation bar seemed more intent on promoting features Facebook wanted to be popular, like its Craigslist competitor Marketplace, which I rarely use, rather than its long-standing Events feature, which I access daily.

To use the Shortcut Bar Settings options, tap and hold on any of the shortcuts in your navigation bar that’s at the bottom of the Facebook homescreen on iOS and the top on Android. You’ll see a menu pop up letting you remove that tab entirely, or leave it but disable the red notification count overlays. That clears space in your nav bar for a more peaceful experience.

You’ll also now find in the three-line More tab -> Settings & Privacy -> Settings -> Shortcuts menu the ability to toggle any of the Marketplace, Groups, Events and Pages tabs on or off. Eagle-eyed reverse engineering specialist Jane Manchun Wong spotted that Facebook was prototyping this menu and the Notification Dots settings menu that’s now available too.

A Facebook spokesperson admits people should have the ability to take a break from notifications within the app. They tell me Facebook wanted to give users more control so they can have access to what’s relevant to them.

For all of Facebook’s talk about well-being, with it trying out hiding Like counts in its app and Instagram (this week starting in the U.S.), there’s still plenty of low-hanging fruit. Better batching of Facebook notifications would be a great step, allowing users to get a daily digest of Groups or Events posts rather than a constant flurry. Its Time Well Spent dashboard that counts your minutes on Facebook should also say how many notifications you get of each type, how many you actually open, and let you disable the most common but useless ones right from there.

If Facebook wants to survive long-term, it can’t piss off users by trapping them in an anxiety-inducing hellscape of growth hacks that benefit the company. The app has become bloated and cramped with extra features over the last 15 years. Facebook could get away with more aggressive cross-promotion of some of these forgotten features as long as it empowers us to hide what we hate.