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Facebook is clamping down on posts that shamelessly beg for your engagement


A lot of crap gets shared on Facebook, but coming soon the volume may be a little less after Facebook made a move to penalize content that shamelessly begs people for engagement.

The social network giant said today that it will penalize Page owners and people who resort to “engagement bait,” which means posts that encourage users to like, comment or tag people in the comments section in order to gain wider visibility of their content.

The incentives — such as “Share with friends to win a free trip” or “Like if you’re an Aries” — gets content shared through engagement, ultimately helping the post, and the Page owner/author, grow its reach as users interact and it shows up on their friends’ Newsfeeds.

Not so now. A new tweak to the Newsfeed algorithm will mean “stricter demotions” for Pages, and/or individual, who adopt engagement bait tactics. Starting in a couple of weeks, offenders will have the total reach on all of their posts reduced if their content is begging or baiting users to interact. As you’d expect, serial offenders will be hit hardest.

But, Facebook is extending an olive branch and — initially, at least — engagement baiters can earn their original reach back with good behavior, i.e. less of the sludge and ‘better’ content all round.

Three examples of “engagement baiting” shared by Facebook

Facebook did specify that there are some exceptions to this clampdown, and that includes examples like a missing child report, raising money for a cause, or asking for travel tips, to quote the company directly.

The crackdown itself is led by a machine learning model that the social network said has been fed “hundreds of thousands of posts” to detect different kinds of engagement bait.

This push to close down some of the spammier types of content follows a clampdown on sites with crappy web experiences — for example those caked in advertising — and moves to weed out clickbait in multiple languages.

Facebook is, of course, still answering tougher question about the overall impact that its service is having on society across the world. In addition to explaining how Russian actors used the site to try to manipulate the U.S. general election and the UK’s Brexit vote, it is also being criticized from former executives who accuse it of “destroying how society works.”

Netflix will look for a repeat play in 2018 after a strong year


Netflix had a pretty good year by very Netflix-y standards: it added a ton of subscribers; its international growth plans seem to be playing out as hoped; it cleaned up in the Golden Globe nominations, and users are watching a ton of Netflix.

While the company has continued to show growth with its existing strategy — investing a ton in its original content strategy in the hope that it’ll convert Emmy and Grammy awards into subscribers — it’s going to get more expensive. Netflix has basically acknowledged that as it says it’s going to ramp up its original content and marketing spend, and in October said it would raise up to $1.6 billion in debt. In short, its strategy that worked this year will, in theory, play out next year as it looks to continue putting out strong original shows.

The company has said it expects to spend between $7 billion and $8 billion on original content, a clear sign that it’s going to double down on that strategy that seems to have given it a pretty successful strategy in 2017. It had to raise prices, which could create a bigger barrier to consumers. But if all goes well, a successful repeat of that strategy — which means it has to continue to come out with great shows — will help it continue to grow where it needs.

The company’s performance as a whole has made it look quite good for Wall Street. Netflix’s share price has risen more than 50% in the past year. That carries with it a whole batch of benefits: it looks great as a public barometer for the company, it means the company can woo talent with good compensation packages, and it keeps away activist investors that are looking to agitate change in the company. The whole time this is happening, Netflix’s content costs are ballooning, but that seems to have yet to faze investors.

And that’s a group that, for better or worse, Netflix needs to keep happy. Netflix is going to have to grapple with an increasingly competitive group including Hulu and Amazon, which are now churning out shows that are getting similar accolades to Netflix’s best series. Hulu came out with The Handmaid’s Tale, which received high praise, showing that there’s an opportunity to go after Netflix’s sweet spot with its own original content.

If Netflix is going to have a repeat of 2017, it’s going to have to figure out how to both keep picking up users (with a strategy that seems to be working in place) and keep them from flipping to other services. Each service offers some unique original content, but they also have huge backlogs of content that serve as the backbone of a video streaming service. With rising prices, Netflix has to ensure that it makes good shows, but also ensure that it creates an experience that keeps people coming back to watch — whether that’s through improvements in its recommendation engine or a robust backlog of content that it can keep signing on.

Netflix passed a pretty significant milestone when it comes to its international expansion plans: (slightly) more than half of its subscribers now come from outside the U.S. Its users are watching around 1 billion hours of content per week (that’s billion-with-a-B). Its spending on original content appears to be working there, too, with internationally-oriented shows like 3%. Its user base appears to be growing, though it’s not clear when it’ll hit that absolute saturation point where it has to start figuring out what the next generation of products looks like.

That may be something along the lines of allowing offline viewing of some shows, which it began in November this year, or it may be improved recommendation engines to help a user discover that they like Twin Peaks as much as they’d like American Vandal. Either way, it still seems like there’s an overhead that Netflix hasn’t quite hit yet as it continues to beat Wall Street’s — and its own — expectations for subscriber growth.

So we’ll see if the company is not only able to continue to churn out that content but also actually have the capital to stick to that aggressive spending plan it set for itself. That, and it probably needs to stop creeping on its members.

Featured Image: Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Erik Huggers is stepping down as CEO of Vevo


Vevo, the music video service backed by major record labels, just announced that its CEO Erik Huggers is departing.

Huggers previously worked at the BBC, at Verizon (which owns TechCrunch) and elsewhere. He joined Vevo in 2015.

Under his leadership, Vevo was working to become less reliant on YouTube (which was its major syndication partner) by developing more apps and products like the Watch Party chat feature. The company was also working on a subscription service, although Huggers said earlier this year that those plans had been delayed in favor of international expansion.

Vevo says Huggers is departing “to pursue new opportunities,” with CFO Alan Price stepping in as interim CEO. Price had a similar role after the departure of founding CEO Rio Caraeff.

“We would like to thank Erik for his hard work, dedication and leadership at Vevo, which grew dramatically during his tenure and helped forge stronger connections between artists and fans through popular features and original programming,” said Vevo’s board of directors in the announcement.

Featured Image: Getty Images

Finnish autonomous car goes for a leisurely cruise in the driving snow


It’s one thing for an autonomous car to strut its stuff on smooth, warm California tarmac, and quite another to do so on the frozen winter mix of northern Finland. Martti, a self-driving vehicle system homegrown in Finland, demonstrated just this in a record-setting drive along a treacherous (to normal drivers) Laplandish road.

Martti is one of two cars designed by VTT Technical Research Center; it’s designed to handle rough and icy conditions, while it’s “spouse” Marilyn is made for more ordinary urban drives. Different situations call for different sensors and strategies — for instance, plain optical cameras perform poorly on snowy roads, and lidar is less effective, so Martti will rely more on radar. But Marilyn has a rear-mounted lidar for better situational awareness in traffic.

Recently Martti accomplished what the researchers claim is a world first: driving fully autonomously on a real snow-covered road (and hitting 25 MPH at that). Others from Yandex to Waymo have tested cars in snow, but from their reports these seem to have been more controlled conditions. Martti’s drive took place in Muonio on a public road almost totally obscured by snow.

It probably also made a new world record in fully automated driving, making 40 km/h in a snowfall on snow-covered terrain without lane markings,” said project manager Matti Kutila in a VTT news release. “It could have had even more speed, but in test driving it is programmed not to exceed the limit of 40 km/h.”

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I’m not sure going any faster would be wise even on straightaways. But winter driving isn’t my specialty.

The point isn’t to make a perfect consumer car for snowy weather, but to tackle the unique technical problems pertaining to it. For instance, can Martti’s optical instruments tweak the wavelength they use depending on conditions in order to gain a small but significant increase in accuracy? What about detecting icy conditions and traction problems ahead of time — how should the car collect this data, and how should it act until it’s sure what to do?

Inter-car networks may be critical for this, the researchers suggested, including both other autonomous cars on the road and specialty vehicles that can test for and broadcast information like snow pack, traction, road temperature, and so on.

Ultimately this intelligence could prove highly useful for applications like self-driving tractors, logging trucks, or emergency vehicles.

Soon the team will be going even deeper into the Nordic environment: “Next spring one of our vehicles can also be spotted in forest environments, when Marilyn and Martti get a new friend capable of tackling all terrains.”

Featured Image: VTT

EyeEm’s new products aim to understand brand aesthetics


EyeEm is unveiling new tools to help the brands and marketers using the site to source their images.

Underlying these tools is a technology called EyeEm Vision, which we described in-depth earlier this year. The goal is to expand image recognition so that it’s not just identifying the objects in the photo, but also its aesthetic qualities.

EyeEm’s co-founder and chief product officer Lorenz Aschoff described EyeEm Vision as an extension of the photography marketplace’s broader mission to address “the content crisis” — namely the fact that when EyeEm was founded in 2011, Aschoff felt that there was a “massive flood of images” that had “completely destroyed the visual aesthetics of the web.”

EyeEm aims to fix that by helping brands find beautiful photographs. And Aschoff said EyeEm Vision has been trained to identify many of the visual elements that make for a good photograph — it is, in his words, “technology that understands, in general, beauty.”

At the same time, he acknowledged, “What I think is beautiful might be different from what you think is beautiful.” Plus, individual brands are going to have their own specific standards and guidelines that go beyond beauty. So each customer can upload photos that train EyeEm Vision to identify photos that match their own aesthetic — Aschoff said EyeEm’s analysis is looking at around half a million different factors.

EyeEm personalized search

One of the ways EyeEm is actually deploying the technology is by launching a new Missions Dashboard. Brands use Missions to crowdsource campaign photos from the EyeEm community, and the new dashboard allows them to track how their Mission is going — how many photographers are participating, how many photos have been uploaded and so on. EyeEm says that the average Mission results in more than 100,000 photos, which why it’s important to use EyeEm Vision to surface the photos that best match the brand’s style.

EyeEm is also incorporating Vision into a personalized search product, where marketers can search the EyeEm image library, filtered based on their own brand guidelines. For example, BCG’s 11,000 consultants can now search for images to use in their presentations and marketing materials, and EyeEm will only show the images that are a good fit with the BCG brand.

And while this is less directly related to Vision, EyeEm is also announcing a new program called Custom, where brands can work with EyeEm photographers on custom shoots.

Lastly, if you’re curious about Vision, you can try it out for yourself on the EyeEm website.

Featured Image: Eunice Eunny/EyeEm