All posts in “Social”

Facebook downplays test banishing all Pages to buried Explore Feed


Facebook has caused a 60% to 80% drop in referral traffic to news outlets in six countries due to a test that removed Page posts from the News Feed and relocated them to a separate, hard-to-find Explore Feed. But now Facebook’s VP of News Feed Adam Mosseri writes that “We currently have no plans to roll this test out further.” But that doesn’t mean Facebook won’t move forward with implementing a similar change more widely if users prefer their News Feed just be post from friends.

Facebook recently launched its Explore Feed that shows posts from Pages you don’t follow, as well as other content like Events, Groups, Moments, and Saved items. It’s only accessible from the More tab for most users, making it relatively hidden. But Pages you do follow still had their best posts appear in your main News Feed.

But over the past week, Facebook tested a different version of the Explore Feed in Sri Lanka, Bolivia, Slovakia, Serbia, Guatemala, and Cambodia. It took all non-ad Page posts out of the News Feed and put them in the much less visble Explore Feed. This led to some Pages receiving 4X less engagement than before. A selection of the top Facebook Pages in Slovakia lost 2/3s to 3/4s of their reach — the amount of users who see their posts, according to Facebook-owned analytics tool CrowdTangle says The Guardian.

Interactions on 60 biggest Slovak media Facebook pages. Facebook is testing Explore Feed since Thursday. Data via CrowdTangle, published by Dennik N’s Filip Struharik

As for how long the test will last, Mosseri tweeted “Likely months as it can take that long for people to adapt, but we’ll be looking to improve the experience in the meantime.”

Those months of Facebook drought could be ruinous for some publishers who’ve grown to rely on the social network for referral traffic, and that have hired staff to produce content funded by the ad views driven by Facebook referrals. Publishers trying to follow the trend of increased video watching on Facebook could also have problems if a News Feed change massively decreases the viewership of videos that are expensive to produce.

Mosseri writes:

“The goal of this test is to understand if people prefer to have separate places for personal and public content. We will hear what people say about the experience to understand if it’s an idea worth pursuing any further. . . As with all tests we run, we may learn new things that lead to additional tests in the coming months so we can better understand what works best for people and publishers.”

The situation highlights the massive influence Facebook has on the publishing world, the widespread impact its product tests and changes can have, and how publishers have left themselves vulnerable by becoming dependent on a platform that has clearly stated that it puts users first. As long as the users are happy, they keep coming, and Facebook keeps advertising. What makes those users happy — be it friends’ status updates, re-shared videos, or news directly from publishers — is interchangeable and inconsequential to Facebook as long as it keeps increasing engagement with the app as a whole.

This same situation has played out a half dozen times on Facebook, all to the detriment of third-party developers and publishers. Facebook saw users didn’t like viral game spam, so it turned off game virality and developers like Zynga imploded. Apps like BandPage let musicians stream music from the landing tab of their Facebook Pages, until Facebook banned landing tabs and BandPage lost 90% of its traffic in 3 months. It saw its Open Graph social reader apps were clogging the feed, so it removed most of their visibility and the apps plummetted. The desktop sidebar Ticker showed what friends were doing in third-party apps and was filled with Spotify listening activity, until Facebook muted the channel and eventually all-but-deleted it.

The lesson should be clear despite no one wanting to learn it. Facebook can be an incredible source of referral traffic and growth, but there’s no guarantee it will last. Publishers and developers are not Facebook’s priority. Users are.

Ruthlessly prioritizing the Facebook experience is what’s kept the News Feed at the center of the Internet despite changes from desktop to mobile, from text to photos to video. Only by putting users first does Facebook still have users. But everyone else needs to understand that Facebook’s favor is fickle.

Snapchat dangles referral traffic with link sharing from other apps


Snapchat is embracing links beyond its native content and will now allow you to briefly disappear from its Snap Map. In an update to Snapchat’s iOS app today it added two important new features. You can now share links from other apps via the iOS share sheet, allowing you to send a private message with the link to one or several people. And rather than just turning live location sharing on or off permanently, you can now opt to hide in “Ghost Mode” for 3 or 24 hours.

Snapchat is also making it easier to watch people’s Stories by letting you tap and hold on their name anywhere in the app.

External link sharing could make Snap into a legitimate source of referral traffic for news and ecommerce sites. That’s especially important to publishers as Facebook recently began testing burying all non-ad Page posts in a separate Explore Feed instead of the standard News Feed, reducing referral traffic by over 50% to publishers where the test is running in five countries including Serbia and Cambodia.

Brands and businesses seeking to go viral with teens could benefit from easier link sharing using the standard procedure instead of forcing users to copy and paste URLs. Snapchat recently began allowing links to be attached to private Snaps and Stories, spurring an unofficial developer platform that apps like Sarahah and Polly are piggybacking upon with anonymous messaging and polls.

Temporary Ghost Mode could make sure that if users want to turn off their location briefly, they don’t forget and leave it off permanently. This feature is crucial because Snapchat already hides Snap Map behind the camera, making it accessible with a pinch motion some users might not even know about. It’s easy to forget whether your location sharing is on or off. Now if they’re going somewhere sensitive like a secret party or a romantic partner’s place, they can drop into Ghost Mode and automatically reappear later.

GitHub’s scandalized ex-CEO returns with Chatterbug

Translation earbuds might eliminate some utilitarian reasons to know a language, but if you want to understand jokes, read poetry, or fall in love in a foreign tongue, you’ll have to actually learn it. Unfortunately, products like Rosetta Stone leave people feeling burned after claiming the process should be easy while never helping you practice talking with a real native speaker. You know, the skill you actually want. Just memorizing vocabulary doesn’t make you fluent.

So after teaching millions of people to code better, a team of former GitHub co-founders and executives this week launched Chatterbug to combine the best of online and face-to-face foreign language learning. Starting with German, Chatterbug uses a homegrown video chat alternative to Skype that lets you simultaneously talk, type, read, and screenshare your way to becoming conversational.

But one of the co-founders’ past may cast a shadow over Chatterbug. Tom Preston-Werner resigned from his role as CEO and co-founder of GitHub following an investigation into allegations of harassment and intimidation of a female employee by he and his wife Theresa Preston-Werner.

GitHub employee Julie Horvath told TechCrunch that Theresa had bullied her about not writing negatively about the company, said she could read employees’ private chats and had spies at the startup, and verbally bullied her.

While an independent investigation claimed to have found no evidence of illegal behavior or gender-based harassment on Tom’s part, it did conclude that the former CEO showed “mistakes and errors of judgment” and “insensitivity to the impact of his spouse’s presence in the workplace and failure to enforce an agreement that his spouse should not work in the office.”

Ex-GitHub CEO and Chatterbug co-founder Tom Preston-Werner

We asked Tom how he’s building Chatterbug differently this time around. “With some hindsight, the organic management structures at GitHub were a double edged sword. It unleashed a lot of creativity, but was fragile in handling conflict” says Preston-Werner. “From the very beginning of Chatterbug I’ve had serious conversations with the other founders on how to use those experiences to create a more robust channel of communications.”

Former GitHub head of comms and Chatterbug co-founder Liz Clinkenbeard tells TechCrunch “In retrospect, I think one of the major challenges at GitHub back then was that the company’s fairly flat structure sometimes made it difficult to know who to talk to about problems, and how to resolve them before they escalated.” With Chatterbug, she says the team has “been very open and deliberate about wanting to foster a safe and supportive work environment.”

It’s possible that Tom’s inclusion on the team could make it tougher for Chatterbug to hire talent, especially women. Though at least it seems the company is taking office demeanor and harassment issues seriously as it grows.

“I’ve always tried my best to empower my teammates and create a work environment that every employee will love. I haven’t been perfect at that endeavor in the past” admits Preston-Werner. “But I’ve learned much from those experiences and intend to use that knowledge to ensure that Chatterbug is a safe, welcoming, and productive place to work for women and other folks traditionally underrepresented in the tech industry.”

Cutting Skype Out Of Language Learning

Scott Chacon discovered what was broken about the current crop of language learning tools when he tried to pick up French via Duolingo and Japanese through Skype chats before spending time in the two countries. “I realized there was a gap between the digital apps that are super flexible but aren’t very effective at teaching conversation with real people, and the tutoring systems or in-person schools that were inflexible and super difficult to do” Chacon tells TechCrunch.

So he started building his own tools that would blossom into Chatterbug. The former GitHub co-founder and CIO recruited GitHub’s Clinkenbeard, director of engineering Russell Belfer, and Preston-Werner over late 2015 and early 2016. They raised a $1.8 million seed round from SV Angel and Berlin’s Fly Ventures to have early-stage allies on both sides of the pond.

Setting goals in Chatterbug

Now after some private trials starting in March, Chatterbug just launched the public beta of its German learning program, with Spanish and French coming next. And right out of the gate, it’s trying to set reasonable expectations for how fast people can pick up a new tongue. “The most difficult part of being in the business is that Rosetta Stone and other companies try to sell the idea that language learning can be easy” Chacon says. “Learning a language is not easy. It’s like a marathon.”

That’s why one of the first things you do in Chatterbug is adjust a slider for when you want to be fluent by, and it tells you how frequently you’ll have to study and be tutored. The app then gives you a foundation of vocabulary using “spaced repetition”, a study method employed by medical students where questions you get wrong get shown more often while you’re displayed fewer questions like those you got right.

Chatterbug understands when you almost get an answer right

Then Chatterbug schedules you for one-on-one tutoring over its video chat system designed specifically for language learning. Rather than having to commit to a weekly session time, only learn when your particular tutor is available, or fall behind if you miss a group class, you just punch in when you want to practice. Chatterbug pairs you with whatever appropriate tutor is available, gets them up to speed on your progress, and provides a personalized curriculum of exercises to do together based on what you’ve been screwing up.

The heavy engineering background of the Chatterbug team allowed it to create a WebRTC-based video chat that lets you view files together with your tutor and see each other’s cursors as well as talk and type. That’s a huge improvement over trying to pass PDFs back and forth or figure out what exercise the teacher is discussing.

Chatterbug’s video chat lets you talk, type, view files, and see each other’s cursors

The pricing model flexes to accommodate your pace. You can get all the self-study features plus one live lesson a month for €15 or eight for €80 with extra sessions costing €12 each if you want to take a vacation next year. Or for €195 you get unlimited sessions and can learn a language in just a few months. Chatterbug is also going B2B, appealing to businesses trying to educate employees by offering discounts and easy expensing.

Turning Anyone Into A Teacher

Chatterbug co-founder Liz Clinkenbeard

The startup’s data-driven approach could make it quick to expand to more languages and identify what’s toughest to learn. Chatterbug gives you the option to have it store recordings of your video sessions, and even give it permission to use them for research. Clinkenbeard studied linguistics at Harvard, and is using her expertise to help the company determine what are the most common vocab and grammar mistakes to help you avoid them.

Long-term, turning native speakers into tutors could offer new employment options to those lacking other quantifiable skills. “After leaving GitHub, I wanted my next project to be something that would positively impact a lot of people. As a filter, I’d ask myself ‘could this idea lead to the creation of a million jobs?’” says Preston-Werner.

Chatterbug faces a wide range of competitors like Rosetta Stone, Duolingo, Busoo, Babbel, and HelloTalk — some with deep pockets and a penchant for downplaying the difficulty of reaching fluency. Being real with people doesn’t always make for great marketing, and people who failed with other products exhibit a “healthy amount of skepticism” says Clinkenbeard. Then there’s the looming threat of advancing translation technology, like the new Google auto-translating Pixel Buds headphones.

Still, “I don’t think it will destroy the need for language learning” says Chacon. “At some point, in-person translators will be obsolete. Not sure if that’s in 5 years or 45 years.” But even if we solve information translation, culture translation will still be in demand. “You don’t want to wear an ear bud while you’re getting married” he laughs. At a time when the world is increasingly polarized and xenophobic, understanding your fellow humans without a technological intermediary could generate some much-needed empathy.

You can now PayPal friends in Messenger and get help via chat


PayPal users in the U.S. will now be able to send and receive person-to-person payments over Facebook Messenger, the company announced this morning. The deeper integration with Messenger’s platform, which will also include PayPal’s first customer service bot for handling customer questions and requests for help, follows a series of tie-ups between the two companies.

Last year, Facebook and PayPal announced a deepened relationship that allowed customers in the U.S. to shop from online merchants using their Messenger chat bots, then transact in the messaging app via PayPal. Customers could also choose to link their PayPal account with Messenger in order to receive notifications and receipts from their online transactions within Messenger.

To date, over 2.5 million users have linked their PayPal account with Messenger, PayPal says, and that number is expected to grow with today’s news.

For starters, PayPal users can now pay their friends right inside Messenger – shifting some portion of PayPal’s $80 billion+ peer-to-peer payment volume to Facebook’s messaging app.

To be clear, this is an alternative to the existing payments feature that’s existed inside Messenger for a couple of years. The feature appeared, at first, to be Facebook’s own competitor to services like PayPal and PayPal-owned Venmo, Square, and others. But Facebook insisted it wasn’t aiming to build its own payments business – it largely saw the addition as something that just made Messenger better.

Earlier this year, Facebook added support for group payments, for example, but said it was still not taking a cut of transactions.

Starting today, Facebook is offering users the ability to choose PayPal as the funding source for peer-to-peer payments – and it can even be set as the default, PayPal tells us.

The new option is available by tapping the blue plus icon within Messenger, then selecting the green Payments button to send or request money. Here, you can select PayPal as the source when making a payment to a Messenger contact.

Beyond just being a simpler – and perhaps quicker – way to PayPal someone compared with using the native PayPal app, the addition will likely be used by those in Facebook’s buy-and-sell groups, including the local sales groups which are visited by some 450 million people monthly, according to data Facebook shared last fall.

While the Messenger integration will bring PayPal to a large audience, it’s not the first time PayPal has integrated with a messaging service – it’s already available via Apple’s iMessage, and can be launched through Siri.

When we asked PayPal if the plan was to offer a similar p2p option in other messaging apps in the future, PayPal COO Bill Ready said there was nothing to share right now.

“But I think this is part of a broader movement where we’re meeting the user in whatever context they’re in,” he added, noting that PayPal is also now available in services like Android Pay and Google Play, for example.

We also wondered if PayPal had plans to integrate Venmo into messaging experiences later on.

“There’s nothing we’re announcing with Venmo right now,” Ready replied. “But we really think about Venmo and PayPal as two interfaces that should get the user two common types of experiences,” he said. “Certainly, this general theme of users wanting to get p2p in new contexts – you see Venmo in iMessage and Siri – those types of things – we’re thinking [should be for] both PayPal and Venmo,” Ready said.

So…uh, yes, from the sounds of that.

PayPal’s new customer service bot

In addition to person-to-person payments, PayPal’s bot is gaining new capabilities, too. While it will still support notifications and receipts, PayPal users will now be able to get customer service help just by chatting with PayPal’s bot.

The automated system takes advantage of the natural language processing capabilities in Messenger’s platform to understand what people are saying.

That means, you can say something like “oh man, I totally forgot my password” and the bot should understand you need a password reset. The bot can also help answer questions about your PayPal transactions. But when the user’s request goes beyond the bot’s abilities, you’ll be connected with a live rep for help.

PayPal says it doesn’t have customer service staff dedicated to Messenger alone, but is using existing reps to handle in the incoming inquiries.

“The unique thing here is that Messenger has opened up a platform that allows us to not only have a one-to-one communication, but there’s a platform where we can go resolve things right inside of Messenger,” says Ready.

The Messenger bot and p2p payments option are going live today for Messenger users in the U.S., but PayPal expects to roll it out to its other supported global markets in time. Because of the size and scale of both companies, the feature will be rolled out gradually – which means you might not see it right away, but should soon.

The feature will initially launch on the web, with iOS and Android to follow.

Twitter bans ‘Hateful Display Names’ and shares Safety road map


Twitter has committed to a specific timeline for rolling out changes to its Safety features, and announced new policies, including a ban on hateful display names, and improvements for second-hand “witness reporting” of abuse.

By January, Twitter plans to have implemented all the abuse changes outlined in the internal email published by Wired earlier this week, as well as the new ones shared today. The company even apologized for frequently promising improvements but then failing to take action, writing, “Far too often in the past we’ve said we’d do better and promised transparency but have fallen short in our efforts.”

Here’s a breakdown of what’s new, beyond the enhancements to existing safety features:

  • Hateful Display Names – The ban on hateful display names could deter or punish people for “nameflaming” other users, wherein when a quote is tweeted by a critic, someone changes their display name to insult the critic, thereby having that insult show up to all the critic’s followers who see the quote tweet.
  • Witness Reporting – Twitter will use how you’re related to the victim and abuser when you to more strictly enforce rules against harassment. This could help ensure reports aren’t actually concerted trolling efforts and are instead coming from people legitimately offended by an abusive tweet. Twitter also will send notifications in-app and via email to second-hand reporters of abuse. This closing of the loop should boost people’s sense of safety on the platform even if they aren’t the victim in this instance.
  • Content Rules – Violent groups will be banned, hateful symbols in avatars and profile headers will be banned while this content in tweets will be obscured with an interstitial warning, account relationship signals will be used to determine if sexual advances were unwanted, spam will be better defined and technology will be adopted to prioritize the most egregious violations of these rules.

Here’s the calendar:

What’s missing

The most glaring gap in this road map is any functional change to the way that Twitter users interact. As we wrote about last week, and as had been suggested by Hunter Walk, Twitter’s biggest opportunity to shut down abuse lies in changing how replies work.

Right now, Twitter leaves it up to users to choose to mute replies from certain accounts, like ones that don’t follow them, have a newly set up account or that haven’t added a profile image, confirmed email or confirmed phone number. But the devil is the defaults that leave these off. Meanwhile, hard-set rules chosen by users could accidentally silence innocent replies.

Twitter should consider turning on some of these rules by default while warning repliers that their messages might not get through unless they complete their profiles. That’s important, because registering a phone number in particular makes it tough for trolls to abandon a suspended account and simply harass people from a different handle.

By using a combination of signals, Twitter could start more aggressively filtering out replies from suspected abusers, yet give people a path to regaining the ability to @ people by taking actions that introduce friction for trolls. Though it might take a little while to get right, and some benign content may be unnecessarily censored, right now the balance is far too skewed toward a laissez-faire approach that permits harassment.

For more on how tech could fight abuse, check out our feature article Silenced by ‘free speech.’

Featured Image: Bryce Durbin