All posts in “Facebook Messenger”

Facebook prototypes Unsend 6 months after Zuckerberg retracted messages

In April, TechCrunch broke the news that some of Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook messages were deleted from recipients’ inboxes in what some saw as a violation of user trust. Then, Facebook suddenly announced that it would actually build this Unsend functionality for everyone. Then six months went by without a peep about the feature, furthering suspicions that the announcement that it would release an Unsend button was merely a PR driven response to the scandal.

Late last week, TechCrunch asked Facebook about its progress on Unsend, and the company told us “Though we have nothing to announce today, we have previously confirmed that we intend to ship a feature like this and are still planning to do so.”

Now we have our first look at the feature thanks to TechCrunch’s favorite tipster Jane Manchun Wong. She’s managed to generate screenshots of a prototype Unsend button from Facebook Messenger’s Android code. Currently, you can only delete messages from your own inbox — they still remain in the recipients’ inbox. But with this Unsend feature, you’ll be able to remove a message from both sides of a conversation. However, the code indicates that in the current prototype there’s a “time limit”. That may mean users would only have a certain amount of time after they send a message to unsend it. That would essentially be an editing window in which users could take back what they said.

In response, a spokesperson confirmed that “Facebook internally tests products and features before they ship to the public so we can ensure the quality of the experience.”

The Unsend feature could be useful to people who say something stupid or inappropriate, disclose a secret they shouldn’t have, or want to erase evidence of their misdeeds. That could make users more comfortable speaking freely on the app, since they know they can retract their texts. Snapchat’s messages self-destruct unless purposefully saved to the thread by a user, permitting more off-the-cuff chatting.

But Unsend could also open vectors for abuse, as users could harass people over Messenger and then delete the evidence. Facebook will need to ensure that Unsend doesn’t accidentally become a weapon for bullies. That might mean allowing users to turn off the ability for their conversation partners to Unsend messages on a thread by thread basis, and/or a report button specifically for flagging messages that have since been retracted.

Facebook’s acquisition Instagram already lets users Unsend messages. But that chat product is more designed for having fun, discussing memes, and sharing photos with close friends. Messenger has positioned itself as a core communications utility for the world. Messing with the permanence of messages could make it feel less reliable or truthful to some users. When we talk in person, our conversations aren’t written in stone forever…but there’s also no way to force someone to forget what you said.

Facebook Groups can now launch up to 250-person group chats

If you miss the old AOL chat rooms, you’ll love Facebook’s plan to combine Groups and with Messenger without spamming you to death. Starting today, Facebook will gradually roll out the abilty for members of Facebook Groups to launch group chats about specific sub-topics that up to 250 members can join. A dog owners’ Group could spawn threads for discussing spontaneous park meetups, grooming tips, or sharing photos as they’re puppies grow up. Chat for Groups could make Facebook’s discussion forums more real-time and engaging, strengthening loyalty to one of the social network’s most differentiated features.

But instead of immediately alerting you of every message in every thread, you’ll first get a Facebook Groups notification inviting you to each new group chat you have to voluntarily join to receive further notifications. If you miss that initial alert, you can always go to the new Chat tab on Facebook Groups to browse the active threads or launch a new one. And if a Group chat gets overwhelming, you can turn off notifications about message reactions and Messenger games, or opt to only be notified if you’re @ mentioned in the thread. As a last resort against spam, Group admins can always shut down a group chat or limit their creation to only other admins.

Facebook has been poking around how it could integrate Messenger and Groups for a while. It already offers group chat for up to 250 members of a Facebook Event, and in 2016 Messenger tested public discussion “Rooms”. Now Facebook has settled on building chat as an extension of its existing Groups instead.

As the News Feed gets more politically combative and the algorithm preferences generalist content that’s appealing to everyone, there’s less room for niche interest content on Facebook. That’s contributed to an explosion of group chat activity on competitors like Telegram. WhatsApp revamped its own group chats with more admin tools in May to fight off this threat.

With 1.4 billion people active in Facebook Groups each month as part of tens of millions of active Groups, the feature generates a ton of activity and return visits for Facebook. With Groups Chats, Facebook expects users could “plan events, arrange in-person meetings, or have deeper discussions”. Messaging could also help Facebook build towards its goal of getting 1 billion people into what it calls “meaningful Groups” after it announce 200 million people already were as of May. With all the scandals plaguing its reputation and concerns that it polarizes the populace, Facebook is eager to find more ways to show it actually brings people together

Facebook launches Portal auto-zooming video chat screens for $199/$349

Facebook’s first hardware product combines Alexa (and eventually Google Assistant) with a countertop video chat screen that zooms to always keep you in frame. Yet the fancy gadget’s success depends not on functionality, but whether people are willing to put a Facebook camera and microphone in their home even with a physical clip-on privacy shield.

Today Facebook launches pre-sales of the $199 10-inch screen Portal, and $349 15.6-inch swiveling screen with hi-fi audio Portal+, minus $100 if you buy any two. They’ve got “Hey Portal” voice navigation, Facebook Messenger for video calls with family, Spotify and Pandora for Bluetooth and voice-activated music, Facebook Watch and soon more video content providers, augmented reality Story Time for kids, a third-party app platform, and it becomes a smart photo/video frame when idle.

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Knowing buyers might be creeped out, Facebook’s VP of Portal Rafa Camargo tells me “We had to build all the stacks — hardware, software, and AI from scratch — and it allowed us to build privacy into each one of these layers”. There’s no facial recognition and instead just a technology called 2D pose that runs locally on the device to track your position so the camera can follow you if you move around. A separate chip for local detection only activates Portal when it hears its wake word, it doesn’t save recordings, and the data connection is encrypted. And with a tap you can electronically disable the camera and mic, or slide the plastic privacy shield over the lens to blind it while keeping voice controls active.

As you can see from our hands-on video demo here, Facebook packs features into high-quality hardware, especially in the beautiful Portal+ which has a screen you can pull from landscape to portrait orientation and impressive-sounding 4-inch woofer. The standard Portal looks and sounds a bit stumpy by comparison. The Smart Camera smoothly zooms in and out for hands-free use, though their are plenty of times that video chatting from your mobile phone will be easier. The lack of YouTube and Netflix is annoying, but Facebook promises there are more video partners to come.

The $199 Portal comes in $20 cheaper than the less functional Amazon Echo Show (read our gadget reviewer Brian Heater’s take on Portal below), and will also have to compete with Lenovo and Google’s upcoming version that might have the benefit of YouTube. Portal and the $39 Portal+ go on sale today on Portal.Facebook.com, Amazon, and Best Buy in both black and white base colors. They ship in November when they’ll also appear in physical Amazon Books and Best Buy stores.

Hands-On With Portal

Deep inside Facebook’s Menlo Park headquarters, the secretive Building 8 lab began work on Portal 18 months ago. The goal was to reimagine video chat not as a utilitarian communication tool, but for “the feeling of being in the same room even if you’re thousands of miles apart” Facebook Portal’s marketing lead Dave Kaufman tells me. Clearly drinking the social network’s kool-aid, he says that “it’s clear that Facebook has done a good job when you’re talking about the breadth of human connection, but we’re focusing on the depth of connection.”

The saddening motive? 93% of the face-to-face time we spend with our parents is done by the time we finish high-school, writes Wait but Why’s Tim Urban. “It felt like punch in the gut to people working at Facebook” says Kaufman. So the team built Portal to be simple enough for young children and grandparents to use, even if they’re too young or old to spend much time on smartphones.

Before you even wake up Portal, it runs a slideshow of your favorite Facebook photos and videos, plus shows birthday reminders and notifications. From the homescreen you’ll get suggested and favorite Messenger contacts you can tap to call, or you can just say “Hey Portal, call Josh.” Built atop the Android Open Source framework, Facebook designed a whole new UI for Portal for both touch and voice.

Portal uses your existing social graph instead of needing to import phone numbers or re-establish connections with friends. You can group video chat with up to seven friends, use augmented reality effects to hide your face or keep children entertained, and transfer calls to and from your phone. 400 million Facebookers use Messenger video chat monthly, racking up 17 billion calls in 2017, inspiring Facebook to build Portal around the feature. Kaufman says the ability to call phone numbers is in the roadmap, which could make Portal more tolerant of people who don’t live on Messenger.

Once a video call starts, the 140-degree, 12-megapixel Smart Lens snaps into action, automatically zooming and recentering so your face stays on camera even if you’re bustling around the kitchen or playing with the kids. If a second person comes into view, Portal will widen the frame so you’re both visible. Tap on a person’s face, and Portal Spotlight crops in tight around just them. Unfortunately it can’t track pets, but that got so many requests from testers that Facebook wants to add it in.

Portal’s most adorable feature is called Story Time. It turns public domain children’s books into augmented reality experiences that illustrate the action and turn you into the characters. You’ll see the three little pigs pop up on your screen, and an AR mask lets you become the big bad wolf when you might impersonate his voice. Kids and grandparents won’t always have much to talk about, and toddlers aren’t great conversation partners, so this could extend Portal calls beyond a quick hello.

Beyond chat, Facebook has built a grip of third-party experiences into Portal. You can use Alexa to summon Spotify, Pandora, or IHeartRadio, and even opt to have songs play simultaneously on you and someone else’s Portal for a distant dance party. Portal+ in portrait mode makes a great playlist display with artwork and easy song skipping. The Food Network and Newsy apps let you watch short videos so you follow recipes or catch up on the world as you do your housework. And while you can’t actually browse the News Feed, Facebook Watch pulls in original premium video as well as some viral pap to keep you occupied.

Still, after Cambridge Analytica and Facebook’s recent 50 million user breach, it’s understandable that some people would be scared to own Portal’s all-seeing eye. Privacy makes Portal a non-starter to many even as they seem comfortable with Google or Amazon having access to their dwelling. In hopes of assuaging fears, Facebook put a dedicated button atop Portal that electronically disconnects the camera and microphone so they can’t record, let alone transmit. Snap on the plastic privacy shield, and you’ll blind the lens while still being able to voice-activate music and other features. If you use these, especially when you’re not video chatting, the privacy threat drops signifcantly.

Facebook Portal’s physical camera privacy shield

Overall, Portal could replace your favorite Alexa device and add seamless video chatting through Messenger if you’re willing to pay the price. That’s both in terms of the higher cost, but also the ‘brand tax’ of welcoming the data-gobbler with a history of privacy stumbles into your home.

For a first-time hardware maker, Facebook did a remarkable job of building polished devices that add new value instead of reinventing the smart home wheel. Teaming up with Amazon and eventually Google instead of directly competing with their voice assistants shows a measure of humility most tech giants eschew. Yet a history of “move fast and break things” in search of growth has come back to haunt Facebook. Video chat is about spending time with people you love and trust, and Facebook hasn’t earned those feelings from us.

Facebook Messenger internally tests voice commands for chat, calls

Facebook Messenger could soon let you user your voice to dictate and send messages, initiate voice calls, and create reminders. Messenger for Android’s code reveals a new M assistant button atop the message thread screen that activates listening for voice commands for those functionalities. Voice control could make Messenger simpler to use hands-free or while driving, more accessible for the vision or dexterity-impaired, and perhaps one day, easier for international users whose native languages are hard to type.

Facebook Messenger was previously spotted testing speech transcription as part of the Aloha voice assistant believed to be part of Facebook’s upcoming Portal video chat screen device. But voice commands in the M assistant are new, and demonstrate an evolution in Facebook’s strategy since its former head of Messenger David Marcus told me voice “is not something we’re actively working on right now” in September 2016 on stage at TechCrunch Disrupt.

The prototype was discovered by all-star TechCrunch tipster Jane Manchun Wong, who’d previously discovered prototypes of Instagram Video Calling, Facebook’s screen time digital well-being dashboard, and Lyft’s scooter rentals before the officially launched. When reached for comment, a Facebook Messenger spokesperson confirmed to TechCrunch that Facebook is internally testing the voice command feature. The told TechCrunch “We often experiment with new experiences on Messenger with employees. We have nothing more to share at this time.”

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Messenger is eager to differentiate itself from SMS, Snapchat, Android Messages, and other texting platforms. The app has aggressively adopted visual communication features like Facebook Stories, augmented reality filters, and more. Wong today spotted Messenger prototyping augmented reality camera effects being rolled into the GIFs, Stickers, and Emoji menu in the message composer.

Facebook has found that users aren’t so keen on tons of bells and whistles like prominent camera access or games getting in the way of chat, so Facebook plans to bury those more in a forthcoming simplified redesign of Messenger. But voice controls add pure utility without obstructing Messenger’s core value proposition and could end up getting users to chat more if they’re eventually rolled out.

Inside Facebook Stories’ quest for originality amidst 300M users

There’s a secret Facebook app called Blink. Built for employees only, it’s how the company tests out new video formats its hoping will become the next Boomerang or SuperZoom. They range from artsy Blur effects to a way even old Android phones can use Slo-Mo. One exciting format in development offers audio beat detection that syncs visual embellishments to songs playing in the background or added via the Music feature for adding licensed songs as soundtracks that is coming to Facebook Stories after debuting on Instagram.

“When we first formed the team . . . we brought in film makers and cinematographers to help the broader team understand the tropes around storytelling and filmmaking” says Dantley Davis, Facebook Stories’ Director Of Design. He knows those tropes himself, having spent seven years at Netflix leading the design of its apps and absorbing creative tricks from countless movies. He wants to democratize those effects once trapped inside expensive desktop editing software. “We’re working on formats to enable people to take the video they have and turn it into something special.”

For all the jabs about Facebook stealing Stories from Snapchat, it’s working hard to differentiate. That’s in part because there’s not much left to copy, and because it’s largely succeeded in conquering the prodigal startup that refused to be acquired. Snapchat’s user count shrank last quarter to 188 million daily users.

Dantley Davis, Facebook Stories’ Director Of Design

Facebook’s versions continue to grow. After announcing in May that Facebook Stories had 150 million users, with Messenger citing 70 million last September, today the company revealed they have a combined 300 million daily users.

With the success of any product comes the mandate to monetize it. That push ended up pushing out the founders of Facebook acquisition WhatsApp, and encroachment on product decision-making did the same to Instagram’s founders who this week announced they were resigning.

Now the mandate has reached Facebook Stories which today opened up to advertisers globally, and also started syndicating those ads into Stories within Messenger. Facebook is even running “Stories School” programs to teach ad execs the visual language of ephemerality now that all four of its family of apps including Instagram and WhatsApp monetize with Stories ads. As sharing to Stories is predicted to surpass feed sharing in 2019, Facebook is counting on the ephemeral slideshows to sustain its ad revenue. Fears they wouldn’t lopped $120 billion off Facebook’s market cap this summer.

Facebook now lets US users add music to Stories just like Instagram

But to run ads you need viewers and that will require responses to questions that have dogged Facebook Stories since its debut in early 2017: Why do I need Stories here too when I already have Instagram Stories and WhatsApp Status.

Facebook user experience research manager Liz Keneski

The answer may be creativity, but Facebook is taking a scientific approach to determining which creative tools to build. Liz Keneski is a user experience research manager at Facebook. She leads the investigative trips, internal testing, and focus groups that shape Facebook’s products. Keneski laid out the different types of research Facebook employs to go from vague idea to po lished launch.

Foundational Research – “This is the really future looking research. It’s not necessarily about any specific products but trying to understand people’s needs.”

Contextual Inquiry – “People are kind enough to invite us into their homes and talk with us about how they use technology.” Sometimes Facebook does “street intercepts” where they find people in public and spend five minutes watching and discussing how they use their phone. It also conducts “diary studies” where people journal about how they spend their time with tech.

Descriptive Research – “When we’re exploring a defined product space”, this lets Facebook get feedback on exactly what users would want a new feature to do.

Participatory Design – “It’s kind of like research arts and crafts. We give people different artifacts and design elements and actually ask them to a deign what an experience that would be ideal for them might look like.”

Product Research – “Seeing how people interact with a specific product, the things they’re like or don’t like, the things they might want to change” lets Facebook figure out how to tweak features it’s built so they’re ready to launch.

Last year Facebook went on a foundational research expedition to India. Devanshi Bhandari who works on the globalization. She discovered that even in emerging markets where Snapchat never got popular, people already knew how to use Stories. “We’ve been kind of surprised to learn . . . Ephemeral sharing wasn’t as new to some people as we expected” she tells me. It turns out there are regional Stories copycats around the globe.

As Bhandari dug deeper she found that people wanted more creative tools, but not at the cost of speed. So Facebook began caching the Stories tray from your last visit so it’d still appear when you open Facebook Lite without having to wait for it to load. This week, Facebook will start offering creative tools like filters inside Facebook Lite Stories by enabling them server-side so users can do more than just upload unedited videos.

That trip to India ended up spawning whole new products. Bhandari noticed some users, especially women, weren’t comfortable showing their face in Stories. “People would sometimes put their thumb over the video camera but share the audio content” she tells me. That led Facebook to build Audio Stories

But to make Stories truly Facebook-y, it had to build them into all its products while solving problems rather than creating them. For example, birthday wall posts are one of the longest running emerging behaviors on the social network. But most people just post a thin, generic “happy birthday!” or “HBD” post which can feel impersonal, even dystopic. So after announcing the idea in May, Facebook is now running Birthday Stories that encourage friends to submit a short video clip of well wishes instead of bland text.

Facebook recently launched Group and Event Stories, where members can collaborate by all contributing clips that show up in the Stories tray atop the News Feed. Now Facebook is going to start building its own version of Snapchat’s Our Stories. Facebook is now testing holiday-based collaborative Stories, starting with the Mid-Autumn Festival in Vietnam. Users can opt to post to this themed Story, and friends (but not the public) will see those clips combined.

This is the final step of Facebook’s three-part plan to get people hooked on Stories, according to Facebook engineering director Rushabh Doshi who leads the product. The idea is that first, Facebook has to get people a taste of Stories by spotlighting them atop the app as well as amidst the feed. Then it makes it easy for people to post their own Stories by offering simple creative tools. And finally, it wants to “Build Stories for what people expect out of Facebook.” That encompasses all the integrations of Stories across the product.

Rushabh Doshi, Facebook’s engineering manager who oversees Stories

Still, the toughest nut to crack won’t be helping users figure out what to share but who to share to. Facebook Stories’ biggest disadvantage is that it’s built around an extremely broad social graph that includes not only friends but family, work colleagues, and distant acquaintances. That can apply a chilling effect to sharing as people don’t feel comfortable posting silly, off-the-cuff, or vulnerable Stories to such a wide audience.

Facebook has struggled with this problem in News Feed for over a decade. It ended up killing off its Friend List Feeds that let people select a subset of their friends and view a feed of just their posts because so few people were using them. Yet the problem remains rampant, and the invasion of parents and bosses has pushed users to Instagram, Snapchat, and other younger apps. Unfortunately for now, Doshi says there’s no plan to build Friend Lists or sharing to subsets of friends for Facebook Stories.

At 300 million daily users, Facebook Stories doesn’t deserve the “ghost town” label any more. People who were already accustomed to Stories elsewhere still see the feature as intrusive, interruptive, and somewhat desperate. But with 2.2 billion total Facebookers, the company can be forced to focus on one-size-fits-all solutions. Yet if Facebook’s Blink testing app can produce must-use filters and effects, and collaborative Stories can unlock new forms of sharing, Facebook Stories could find its purpose.