Facebook bought tbh – but not the similar app with the same name that launched in 2013

Facebook has acquired a smartphone app named tbh (which stands for “To be honest“). It allows its currently 2.5 million users in the U.S., to give compliments to each other. According to TechCrunch, the app was launched in August by a Canadian startup called Midnight Labs, which according to its founder had built about 15 products since 2010. None of them really flourished. Until now.

The name “tbh” sounded familiar to me in an app context. I researched my old blog posts. Indeed, back in 2013, I had written an article (in German) mentioning an UK-based app called TBH. This service went nowhere. The app and website are not available anymore and any mentioning of it on the web dates back to 2013. The TBH website’s only available 2013 record on archive.org doesn’t produce a proper site anymore. But if you read the press release from TBH 2013, both apps’ philosophies sound very similar: Continue Reading

Benevolent digital dictators, without control

What is Facebook? That strange but relevant question was recently at the center of a long piece by Select All. Clearly, to describe Facebook and other highly influential tech firms simply as profit-driven companies like any other enterprise falls absurdly short, as it doesn’t allow us to grasp what they do and what they represent. It is like labeling every person as a “human”, and then ignoring what she/he does with their life. Obviously, it matters to our understanding of that person whether we are talking to a car mechanic, artist or president of a state.

The title of the article posed the question if Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg knows what Facebook is. Most likely he doesn’t. Facebook’s conflation with essentially every of our civilization’s and daily life’s major systems, has turned Facebook into a thing which doesn’t represent anything that humanity has seen before, and that lacks a proper descriptive name.

Bill Fitzgerald describes the status quo like this:

“For all the talk of disruptive innovation, how tech entrepreneurs are the smartest people in the room, etc, etc, we are now in a situation where billions of dollars have been spent creating platforms that the creators neither control nor understand.”

So we don’t know what Facebook, Twitter and other tech companies are. Neither do their leaders. Nor do they have control. Sounds awkward and uncomfortable.

This also leads to another question: Who/What is Mark Zuckerberg, who/what is Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey? If Facebook and Twitter aren’t just companies like [enter any major brand or manufacturer of consumer goods or traditional media company], then these guys aren’t just CEOs. They are something else.

Here is my proposal: They are a type of dictator. A digital equivalent, not ruling over geographical nations but over something akin to a digital nation. For now, these dictators are not intentionally evil. They are, or at least want to be, benevolent. And last but not least, as we just learned, they are kind of clueless and have lost control.

Digital, benevolent, clueless dictators without control over what’s happening with their platforms. But with the (accidental and undemocratic) power to change the whole world. That’s something to chew on.

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Facebook needs you to consume Stories, not news

Soon, Instagram will let users post Stories directly to their Facebook profile. This is huge. The launch of Stories has been a big success for Instagram. But Facebook’s own implementation of the functionality hasn’t seen widespread user adoption at all. With the latest move, Facebook makes clear that it is willing to do anything to make Facebook users consume Stories – even if the Stories “originally” have been uploaded to (Facebook-owned) Instagram.

By generating more Stories content on Facebook, the social network certainly hopes to create an additional opportunity to show ads. There is a natural limit on how many ads the company can show in the news feed before users get fed up. But, to speculate a bit, this is not the only reason for the introduction of a cross-posting feature from Instagram Stories to Facebook Stories: It might be simply that the Facebook management wants to get rid of the news feed altogether.

The news feed is the cause of many of Facebook’s current concerns and public conflicts in regards to fake news, (foreign) election meddling and the erosion of democracy and its institutions. Without the news feed, these issues would presumably become much less impactful. Even Stories can be utilized for malicious purposes, but Stories are created and consumed differently than the news feed, with a much bigger focus on people’s personal experiences, not world news. Re-purposing external content for viral distribution via Stories is, at least for the moment, harder, as is viral sharing. That could change in the future. But as a functionality in an early stage of its life cycle and with few to no expectations from Facebook users about their interaction with Stories, Facebook has the opportunity to leverage its learnings from the past to shape (and limit) Stories in a way so they’ll be less susceptible to systematic democracy hacking.

The news feed has become to Facebook what the Diesel now is for German car manufacturers: A big headache. The only reason why Facebook has to stick to it is because as long as the news feed is the heart of the Facebook experience, this is where people see ads, and so this is where Facebook needs people to spend as much time as possible. But there is no reason to believe that Facebook sees the existence of the news feed as essential to its future. In fact, in 2017 the news feed has become a weakness of Facebook, if not actually a threat to it. Aggressively pushing people to Stories is the best way for the company to put itself into a position where it can let go of the feed and all the issues associated with it.

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If you are worried about “hacked” democracy, quit Facebook

During a recent panel discussion, The Exponential View’s Azeem Azhar and a couple of invited expert guests talked about democracy’s vulnerability in the age of information technology and social media (you can listen to the recording here). As probably surprises no one, Facebook’s role in the weakening of democracy and its institutions came up several times. And, as also should surprise no one, there was little optimism among the participants about that dubious characters will suddenly stop leveraging Facebook through bots, micro-targeting, fake news and the creation of alternate realities to undermine democratic values and essential shared minimum consensus.

But there is something everyone who is worried about the damage of social-media-enabled manipulation to the public discourse, can do: quitting Facebook. Continue Reading

I stopped using Twitter and Facebook, but shareholders wouldn’t know

In their quarterly reports, publicly listed social networking companies highlight several key performance indicators (KPI). One of the metrics they often emphasize is “daily active users” (DAU). Facebook reached 1.28 billion DAU on average for March 2017. Snapchat reported 166 million DAU for Q1 2017. Twitter doesn’t specify the number of DAU in its quarterly reports, mentioning only a “14 % year-over-year increase” for DAUs for the most recent quarter, and 328 million monthly active users (MAU).

The DAU metric is useful to evaluate young companies with still a comparatively low number of users, since it clearly shows the growth rate over time. For maturing companies which have been around for a while, I’d argue that the DAU metric is a weak measurement of a company’s ability to engage and retain users. Here is why:

In November, I stopped tweeting and reading my Twitter timeline. Early 2017 I significantly reduced my use of the Facebook app (not counting Messenger, Instagram or WhatsApp, of course). I’d estimate that I cut the time I spend with both services by 90 %. But if you only look at the DAU, this drastic reduction would not be reflected. Because I still almost every day check both apps at least once in order to have a quick look at the notifications. Just in case. If you, like me, frequently publish stuff on the Internet, you might get mentioned/tagged somewhere, and it’s nice to know.

Nevertheless, my contributions to the bottom line of these two apps have shrunken dramatically, because I hardly see any advertisements anymore. I don’t scroll through the news feed nor the timeline. On most days, I spend no more than at max a few minutes with Facebook and Twitter. On average, Facebook earns $17,07 per year from a user in the U.S. and Canada, and $5.42 from a user in Europe. Assuming that my usage of Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger (the latter two are essentially not monetized at the moment) remains stable in 2017 and that my usage in 2016 was completely average, then this year, Facebook will generate significantly less revenue with my activity compared to last year’s $5.42.

The DAU metric masks negative changes in user patterns of long-term users, but these are in fact what matters when evaluating the outlook for mature social networking services. Only the radical step of deleting one’s account would be reflected in the DAU metric, at least in aggregate terms. I’d argue that this is not how most people actually behave. Rather, they’d grow increasingly tired and decrease their usage over time, while still wanting to be able to do quick checks on notifications, events, live streams or whatever. While these users are not totally lost (and Facebook is doing a brilliant job of keeping them engaged through their other apps), they nevertheless mean a reduction in revenue potential for the particular service. Even if this would be the case for millions of users who reduce their usage, shareholders would not see it when looking at the DAU.

Therefore, as much as publishing DAU numbers can be considered an improvement over the totally useless MAU, it’s still just an arbitrary vanity metric that masks actual changes in user behavior in order to entice investors.

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Facebook, Uber and the outsider’s harsh perspective on Silicon Valley

Two companies based in the Silicon Valley (which not geographically but culturally includes San Francisco) have been making headlines over the past days: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg published his globalization manifesto and Uber was confronted with the extensive, high-profile revelations of a former female engineer about the company’s systematic ignorance of sexism and generally hostile work culture.

Both stories have led to widespread criticism. In the case of Uber, it’s obvious why. But even Facebook’s manifesto, despite having been an active PR effort, was not received too well in the media. When the leader of the arguably most powerful company in the world outlines how he wants to use that power to shape the world, few are getting enthusiastic. Two of the negative responses to these stories stuck out though: They didn’t come from the usual suspects who professionally cover or comment on technology but from representatives of other firms. They also didn’t only focus on the specific matter, but used the occasion for a direct attack on the Silicon Valley way of doing things. Continue Reading

Zuckerberg’s globalization manifesto says: “it’s really, really… really complicated”

That’s the type of coincidence I like: Just a few days after I opened a blog post with the rhetorical question about what’s keeping Mark Zuckerberg up at night, the Facebook CEO published an extensive open letter titled “Building a global community”, offering a few hints (reading time according to Instapaper: 23 minutes).

In what certainly must be called a “manifesto”, Zuckerberg offers his view on why globalization is experiencing a backlash and outlines on which principles Facebook will attempt to help tackling these issues.

Significant self-criticism is (unsurprisingly) missing. The text lacks any sincere acknowledgements of possible direct causations between certain unfortunate global trends and the rise of Facebook – which grew from 0 to almost 2 billion active members within only a bit more than 10 years.

Continue Reading

Zuckerberg’s Lock-in Effect

What’s keeping Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg up at night? Is it imaginable that he, despite public denials, feels at least some kind of worry about Facebook’s prominent role in the dramatic reshaping of the political landscape and the increasing polarization that can be witnessed in many countries? Does he ever have doubts about whether the company lives up to its promise to “make the world more open and connected” in the long run? Could the 32-year-old at least occasionally ponder the possibility that the sweeping changes that are shaking the foundations and structures of modern societies, might be much more sever due to Facebook?

Only Mark Zuckerberg himself knows the honest answer. But let’s for hypothetical reasons entertain the idea that the creator and head of history’s probably most influential company at least wouldn’t totally rule out negative effects that his platform’s dominance has on trust in democracy and on the ability of public consensus-building – it tragically would not matter. Zuckerberg wouldn’t be able to do anything about it. And that despite him having managed to retain so many voting rights that he technically can do whatever he wants – as long as it serves the company goals, of course. Continue Reading

The U.S. election & Facebook’s other problem

Facebook might just face its biggest crisis since the founding more than 12 years ago.

A lot of people think that the social network’s newsfeed impacted the US presidential election by fostering filter bubbles and by encouraging (and benefiting from) the politically motivated creation and distribution of fake news. The allegations have been surfacing more frequently over the past months. Ater the surprising victory of Donald Trump, the pressure on the company to fix flaws is mounting. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg just published his thoughts on the issue, emphasizing the “extreme” unlikelihood that hoaxes changed the outcome of the election in one direction or the other. However, he promises improvements and further research into the matter nonetheless.

We’ll see what the company comes up with. But while many eyes are focusing on the factual issue of the newsfeed algorithm’s impact, the crisis includes a second dimension of trouble for the social networking giant, and it’s a significant one: The allegations pose a huge threat to Facebook’s internal unity and employer brand. Continue Reading

Smart Home: Google, Apple and Microsoft are watching the cake while Amazon is eating it

Here you can read this article in German.

The success of Amazon’s voice-controlled personal assistant Echo is by many considered a surprise. It’s easy to understand why: There was comparatively little media hype after its launch, the product category was unproven and Amazon’s track record regarding hardware products (other than the Kindle) has been rather mixed. But one and a half year after its release, the device, which so far can only be purchased in the US, has become a huge hit, highly rated by both Amazon reviewers as well as the technology crowd. Furthermore, thanks to the Echo, Amazon’s smart assistant software Alexa has become a poster child for the thriving category of artificial intelligence-powered assistants.

Here is what’s at least as surprising as the rise of Echo: The absence of competing products by the other big three: Google, Apple, Microsoft. Continue Reading