Twitter is a useful place for following breaking news and keeping up with what the people you’re already interested in are doing, but its relative dearth of discovery features and a lack of organized community spaces make it pretty hard to connect with anyone you aren’t actively seeking out.
The company is thinking about changing that. Twitter is on a tear with new features lately and its latest experiment, called Communities, is designed to make it easier to connect around shared interests. Users will be able to join these new social hubs and tweet directly to other people with shared interests rather than their regular group of followers. Those tweets will still be public, but replies will be limited to other community members.
Communities will be user generated, though Twitter says that will be “limited,” for now, so most people will have to wait a few months before starting their own groups. The earliest Communities will center around popular and generally benign topics on Twitter including “dogs, weather, sneakers, skincare, and astrology.” Twitter’s example images also include cryptocurrency, plants and Black women photographers.
The test begins Wednesday and will show up in a dedicated spot at the bottom of the iOS app or in the side menu on Twitter.com. Twitter says that Android users will be able to read Community tweets too, though “more functionality” is on the way soon — presumably a dedicated app tab and the ability to join and participate in the new groups.
Communities will be created and maintained by designated moderators, who will have the ability to invite other users to the group via DM and remove content posted within the group. Initially invites will be the only way into a Community, but it sounds like Twitter has some grand plans for discovery features that make it easier for people to find places they might want to hang out.
“Some conversations aren’t for everyone, just the people who want to talk about the thing you want to talk about,” Twitter Staff Product Manager David Regan wrote in a blog post announcing the feature. ” … We want to continue to support public conversation and help people find Communities that match their interests, while also creating a more intimate space for conversation.”
With any user-driven community space on social media — particularly one where algorithmic discovery factors in — moderation is the big concern. Twitter says that anyone will be able to read, report and quote content posted in a Community, so you don’t have to be a member of a community to flag harmful content like you would in a private Facebook group. Twitter says that it is working on “new reporting flows, and bespoke enforcement actions” to proactively identify problem Communities.
The introduction of Communities pairs well with Twitter’s recent efforts to court creator communities. The company rolled out Super Follows, its paid subscription tool, earlier this month and also recently invited some users to sell tickets for audio rooms with Ticketed Spaces. It’s also testing one-time payments with a feature called Tip Jar that’s currently only available for a subset of accounts.
Communities are a pretty big departure for Twitter, which is obviously in the throes of reimagining the platform as a more dynamic place for community building. By carving out substantial space for subcommunities on Twitter, the company seems to be inching in the direction of a platform like Discord or Reddit, where everything revolves around self-moderating interest-based communities. Those platforms grapple with their own moderation headaches, but specific, interest-driven communities invite users to go deep in a way that makes interactions on Twitter look shallow by comparison.
The introduction of Communities is an interesting direction for a prominent social network that’s remained largely unchanged for more than a decade at this point. If the test sticks, Communities could build connective tissue between users and make the social network generally a more dynamic place to hang out — but that’s only possible if Twitter can strike the right balance between encouraging its newly imagined subcommunities to grow and keeping them safe.
Twitter’s newest test could provide some long-awaited relief for anyone facing harassment on the platform.
The new product test introduces a feature called “Safety Mode” that puts up a temporary line of defense between an account and the waves of toxic invective that Twitter is notorious for. The mode can be enabled from the settings menu, which toggles on an algorithmic screening process that filters out potential abuse that lasts for seven days.
“Our goal is to better protect the individual on the receiving end of Tweets by reducing the prevalence and visibility of harmful remarks,” Twitter Product Lead Jarrod Doherty said.
Safe Mode won’t be rolling out broadly — not yet, anyway. The new feature will first be available to what Twitter describes as a “small feedback group” of about 1,000 English language users.
In deciding what to screen out, Twitter’s algorithmic approach assesses a tweet’s content — hateful language, repetitive, unreciprocated mentions — as well as the relationship between an account and the accounts replying. The company notes that accounts you follow or regularly exchange tweets with won’t be subject to the blocking features in Safe Mode.
For anyone in the test group, Safety Mode can be toggled on in the privacy and safety options. Once enabled, an account will stay in the mode for the next seven days. After the seven-day period expires, it can be activated again.
In crafting the new feature, Twitter says it spoke with experts in mental health, online safety and human rights. The partners Twitter consulted with were able to contribute to the initial test group by nominating accounts that might benefit from the feature, and the company hopes to focus on female journalists and marginalized communities in its test of the new product. Twitter says that it will start reaching out to accounts that meet the criteria of the test group — namely accounts that often find themselves on the receiving end of some of the platform’s worst impulses.
Earlier this year, Twitter announced that it was working on developing new anti-abuse features, including an option to let users “unmention” themselves from tagged threads and a way for users to prevent serial harassers from mentioning them moving forward. The company also hinted at a feature like Safety Mode that could give users a way to defuse situations during periods of escalating abuse.
Being “harassed off of Twitter” is, unfortunately, not that uncommon. When hate and abuse get bad enough, people tend to abandon Twitter altogether, taking extended breaks or leaving outright. That’s obviously not great for the company either, and while it’s been slow to offer real solutions to harassment, it’s obviously aware of the problem and working toward some possible solutions.
As one of the frontrunners in the race to build the metaverse, Roblox is thinking ahead to what virtual worlds really need. And while the platform has had no shortage of growth on its current path — as of July, it boasted 47 million daily active users — it’s looking to chart a course toward deeper, richer virtual experiences that will keep people coming back for years to come.
To that end, Roblox is taking careful but decisive steps toward weaving voice chat into the platform’s core experience. The first move: inviting a group of trusted developers to explore how they can integrate proximity-based audio into the wildly popular experiences that beat at the heart of the platform — from chill, vaporwavey vibe games to pulling off kickflips in a Vans-sponsored skate park.
With spatial audio, users will be able to speak with other people nearby through live voice chat. Roblox sees its new voice product as a natural extension of the way that text chat works now, but instead of text bubbles that pop up over an avatar’s head, visible to anybody around them, players will be able to talk naturally to the other people they bump into.
Say you’re hanging out in a virtual skatepark in Roblox with spatial audio enabled: skaters in the half pipe with you would sound loud and clear, just like they would in real life. But you wouldn’t be able to hear someone walking around on the sidewalk across the street, since they’re too far away. To have a private conversation with a nearby friend, you might peel off and walk toward a store down the block.
“As we think about the future of communication in the metaverse, we think that it needs to be very natural and feel very similar to the way we communicate in the real world,” Roblox Chief Product Officer Manuel Bronstein told TechCrunch in an interview. “But it also can transcend, some of the limitations that physics and space create in the real world.”
Bronstein joined the company in March, leaving Google to help realize Roblox’s particular vision for the metaverse. Prior to hopping over to Roblox, Bronstein worked on product teams at Zynga, Xbox and YouTube — three very different companies that are probably equal parts relevant to his current work.
“If you think about the metaverse as the next incarnation of where you know I could go shopping or I could go to a concert, I could go to school, I think that you need to be relevant to everybody in society and you need to both build the content, the rules, the features that support all of those behaviors,” Bronstein said. “And part of bringing voice to the platform is to ensure that our older audiences have a natural way to communicate.”
Voice chat is very much on the way to Roblox, but that doesn’t mean it will appear overnight — and that’s by design. The company is inviting an initial group of 5,000 developers, all 13 and older, to try out the new spatial voice chat capabilities in a custom-built Roblox community space.
“We’ve put a bunch of neat features in there and places for them to chat and hang out and they’re going to be able to learn from the code that we wrote for that community space… So a few weeks later or a month later they can put that into their experiences and turn it on,” Bronstein said.
Bronstein emphasizes that Roblox will take this process slowly, building new moderation and safety tools in parallel as it goes. The voice rollout will go slowly, starting with the chosen circle of developers and gradually expanding out from there as the company feels confident that it can create a safe enough environment with its moderation tools.
“I think we want to take it slowly and we want to learn as we go through it,” Bronstein said. “We may start, as I mentioned, with the developers. It is likely that right after that, we may go to an audience that is 13+ and park there for a while until we understand exactly if all the pieces are falling into place before deciding if we ever open it to a younger audience.”
To moderate its sprawl of virtual worlds, Roblox uses a blend of automated scanning and a 3,000-person safety team of human reviewers. Like in any social network, players can report, block and mute other players to make their own experiences feel more comfortable. And because half of its player base is under 13, Roblox gives parents options on what kinds of age-appropriate experiences to allow and toggles for things like text chat. If voice chat ever makes its way to younger age groups, parents would be able to disable it altogether.
Roblox’s under-13 crowd comprises a massive chunk of its user base, but a surprising number of older kids and young adults hang out there too. According to the company, 50% of its users are over the age of 13 and it’s seeing the most explosive user growth among 17- to 24-year-olds. Roblox is attracting new users, but its core users are also growing up and the company knows it needs to grow alongside them.
Whether voice chat ever rolls out for younger users or not, Roblox seems well aware that keeping a virtual environment with voice chat feeling safe and friendly is a steep challenge. The company plans to rely on user-initiated reporting as voice rolls out and it’s exploring other tools that could bolster those efforts. The company is looking at a few different tools, including automatically recording a snippet of conversation just prior to a user being reported as a way to capture bad behavior for reviewers. It’s also interested in expanding reputation systems that automatically restrict users who have a certain number of strikes against them.
Much like any social platform, Roblox will likely lean heavily on user reporting, which disproportionately shifts the burden to users on the receiving end of hate and harassment — an unfortunate outcome that no social company has properly dedicated the human resources to solving.
Next on the voice roadmap
Bronstein describes spatial audio as “one component” of Roblox’s vision for natural communication. The next step is integrating a voice chat experience that’s persistent across experiences, letting users who know each other hang out even when they aren’t doing the same thing. For anyone who paid attention to the company’s quiet acquisition of a company called Guilded last month, that won’t come as a surprise. Though Roblox’s work on voice pre-dates the acquisition, Guilded will lay the groundwork for Roblox’s future voice plans.
A Discord competitor, Guilded similarly built out a chat platform for gamers, doubling down on the competitive gaming scene where Discord expanded its horizons beyond gaming. Beyond group voice chat, Guilded gives gamers built-in scheduling and community management tools that ease the hassle of organizing complex online social events, like wrangling 20-some-odd gamers to run raids in World of Warcraft.
“In the near term, Guilded has an amazing road map, we want to just continue with that road map and grow it without any hardcore integration at this point,” Bronstein said.
Into the metaverse
Moderation challenges aside, there’s basically nothing in Roblox’s way. The company went public in March and today it’s worth $ 49 billion, making it easily one of the most valuable companies in gaming. Investors, content creators and tech giants alike are going all-in on the metaverse, and really, it looks like a pretty safe bet.
Metaverse is a buzzy term right now, but it’s more shorthand than empty hype. When people talk about the metaverse, they generally want to evoke a futuristic vision of interconnected virtual worlds — online spaces that we can move through, socialize and shop within (for better or worse, that last part is key). Whether this will all be in virtual reality or not and when is a point of some debate, but really the interconnected part is the bigger challenge. In the app age, software was siloed by design. But to realize the promise of the metaverse, our virtual selves and our virtual stuff will need to be able to move through online worlds fluidly.
A few companies are ahead of the curve on this, and it’s no coincidence that two of the big ones, Roblox and Fortnite-maker Epic — best known for their virtual worlds stocked with custom avatars, in-game economies and a seamless social layer — are elevating user-created content. Those experiences, and the ability to easily hang out with friends while doing stuff in them and elsewhere in virtual space, may wind up being what the metaverse is all about.
Most adults can hardly grasp the appeal of the blocky, suburban worlds that their kids love hanging out in, but Roblox understands something fundamental about where online life is going. Or rather where we’ll all going — into online worlds like Roblox.
The feature, first revealed in February, will allow users to subscribe to accounts they like for a monthly subscription fee in exchange for exclusive content. For creators, Super Follows are another useful tool in the emerging patchwork of monetization options across social platforms.
Eligible accounts can set the price for Super Follow subscriptions, with the option of charging $ 2.99, $ 4.99 or $ 9.99 per month, prices fairly comparable to a paid newsletter. They can then choose to mark some tweets for subscribers only, while continuing to reach their unpaid follower base in regular tweets.
Paid subscribers will be marked with a special Super Follower badge, differentiating them from unpaid followers in the sea of tweets. The badge shows up in replies, elevating a follower’s ability to interact directly with accounts they opt to support. For accounts that have Super Follows turned on, the option will show up with a distinct button on the profile page.
Super Follows aren’t turned on for everyone. For now, the process remains application only, with a waitlist. The option lives in the Monetization options in the app’s sidebar, though users will need to be U.S.-based with 10K followers and at least 25 tweets within the last month to be eligible.
U.S. and Canada-based iOS Twitter users will be able to Super Follow some accounts starting today, with more users globally seeing the rollout in the coming weeks. On the creator side, Super Follows are only enabled in iOS for now, though support for Android and desktop are “coming soon.”
Twitter says that Super Follow income will be subject to the standard, though controversial, 30% in-app purchase fees collected by Apple or Google. Twitter will only take a 3% cut of earnings for up to the first $ 50,000 generated through Super Follows — a boon for smaller accounts getting off the ground or anyone who uses the paid Twitter feature as a way to supplement other creator income elsewhere. After an account hits the $ 50,000 earnings mark, Twitter will begin taking a 20% cut.
Super Follows aren’t Twitter’s first monetization experiment to make it out in the wild. In May, Twitter introduced Tip Jar, a way for accounts to receive one-time payments through integration with the Cash App and other payment platforms. The test is limited to a subset of eligible accounts including “creators, journalists, experts, and nonprofits” for the time being.
Last week Twitter rolled out Ticketed Spaces for users who applied for the paid audio room feature back in June. Twitter’s cut from Ticketed Spaces mirrors the same fee structure it uses for Super Follows and users will be able to charge anywhere from one dollar to $ 999 for advanced ticketing.
The product is the latest in a flurry of activity from the social platform after a lengthy period of product stagnation. But Twitter has been busy in the last 12 months, from releasing and killing its ill-fated Fleets to finally showing signs of life on the kind of anti-abuse features many people have been calling for for years.
Giving users the ability to charge for premium content is a pretty major departure for Twitter, which mostly stayed the course until activist shareholders threatened to oust CEO Jack Dorsey. It’s also a major move for the company into the white-hot creator space, as more platforms add tools to empower their users to make a living through content creation — ideally keeping them loyal and generating revenue in the process.
Popular instant messaging app Telegram has joined the elite club of apps that have been downloaded over 1 billion times globally, according to Sensor Tower.
The Dubai-headquartered app, which was launched in late 2013, surpassed the milestone on Friday, the mobile insight firm told TechCrunch. As is the case with the app’s chief rival, WhatsApp, India is the largest market for Telegram. The world’s second-largest internet market represents approximately 22% of its lifetime installs, Sensor Tower said.
“[India is] followed by Russia and Indonesia, which represent about 10% and 8% of [all installs], respectively. The app’s installs accelerated in 2021, reaching about 214.7 million installs in the first half of 2021, up 61% year-over-year from 133 million in H1 2020,” it added.
It’s worth noting that the number of installs doesn’t equate to the app’s active userbase. Telegram had about 500 million monthly active users as of early this year, for instance. But the surge in downloads, which coincides with WhatsApp’s poor handling of relaying its privacy policies to its massive userbase, nonetheless suggests that Telegram has enjoyed some additional attention in recent quarters.
Telegram, which earlier this year raised over $ 1 billion, is the fifteenth app worldwide to have been downloaded 1 billion times or more, Sensor Tower told TechCrunch. Other apps on the list include WhatsApp, Messenger, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Spotify and Netflix, according to Sensor Tower. (Mobile research firms don’t track the installs of most Google apps that come pre-installed on Android devices.)
Telegram didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
With more than 270,000 stickers, Stipop’s library of colorful, character-driven expressions has a little something for everyone.
The company offers keyboard and social app stickers through ad-supported mobile apps on iOS and Android, but it’s recently focused more on providing stickers to developers, creators and other online businesses.
“We were able to gather so many artists because we actually began as our own app that provided stickers,” Stipop co-founder Tony Park told TechCrunch. The team took what they learned from running their own consumer-facing app — namely that collecting and licensing hundreds of thousands of stickers from artists around the world is hard work — and adapted their business to help solve that problem for others.
Stipop was the first Korean company to go through Yellow, Snapchat’s exclusive accelerator. The company is also part of Y Combinator’s Summer 2021 cohort.
Stipop’s sticker library is accessible through an SDK and an API, letting developers slot the searchable sticker library into their existing software. The company already has more than 200 companies that tap into its huge sticker trove, which offers a “single-day solution” for a process that would otherwise necessitate a lot more legwork. Stipop launched a website recently that helps developers integrate its SDK and API through quick installs.
“They can just add a single line of code inside their product and will have a fully customized sticker feature [so] users will be able to spice up their chats,” Park said.
Park points out that stickers encourage engagement — and for social software, engagement means growth. Stickers are a playful way to send characters back and forth in chat, but they also pop up in a number of other less obvious spots, from dating apps to e-commerce and ridesharing apps. Stipop even drives the sticker search in work collaboration software Microsoft Teams.
The company has already partnered with Google, which uses Stipop’s sticker library in Gboard, Android Messages and Tenor, a GIF keyboard platform that Google bought in 2018. That partnership drove 600 million sticker views within the first month. A new partnership between Stipop and Coca-Cola on the near horizon will add Coke-branded stickers to its sticker library and the company is opening its doors to more brands that understand the unique appeal of stickers in messaging apps.
Park says that people tend to compare stickers and gifs, two ways of wordlessly expressing emotion and social nuance, but stickers are a world unto themselves. Stickers exist in their own creative universe, with star artists, regional themes and original casts of characters that take on a life of their own among fans. “Sticker creators have their own profession,” Park said.
Visual artists can also find a lot of traction releasing stickers, even without sophisticated illustrations. And since they’re all about meaning rather than refinement, non-designers and less skilled artists can craft hit stickers too.
“Stickers are great for them because it [is] so easy to go viral,” Park said. The company has partnered with 8,000 sticker creators across 25 languages, helping those artists monetize their creations and generate income based on how many times a sticker is shared.
Stickers command their own visual language around the world, and Park has observed interesting cultural differences in how people use them to communicate. In the West, stickers are often used in place of text, but in Asia, where they’re used much more frequently, people usually send stickers to enhance rather than replace the meaning of text.
In East Asia, users tend to prefer simple black and white stickers, but in India and Saudi Arabia, bright, golden stickers top the trends. In South America, popular stickers take on a more pixelated, unique quality that resonates culturally there.
“With stickers, you fall in love with [the] characters you send… that becomes you,” Park said.
A London-headquartered startup called LOVE, valued at $ 17 million following its pre-seed funding, aims to redefine how people stay in touch with close family and friends. The company is launching a messaging app that offers a combination of video calling as well as asynchronous video and audio messaging, in an ad-free, privacy-focused experience with a number of bells and whistles, including artistic filters and real-time transcription and translation features.
But LOVE’s bigger differentiator may not be its product alone, but rather the company’s mission.
LOVE aims for its product direction to be guided by its user base in a democratic fashion as opposed to having the decisions made about its future determined by an elite few at the top of some corporate hierarchy. In addition, the company’s longer-term goal is ultimately to hand over ownership of the app and its governance to its users, the company says.
These concepts have emerged as part of bigger trends towards a sort of “Web 3.0,” or next phase of internet development, where services are decentralized, user privacy is elevated, data is protected and transactions take place on digital ledgers, like a blockchain, in a more distributed fashion.
LOVE’s founders are proponents of this new model, including serial entrepreneur Samantha Radocchia, who previously founded three companies and was an early advocate for the blockchain as the co-founder of Chronicled, an enterprise blockchain company focused on the pharmaceutical supply chain.
As someone who’s been interested in emerging technology since her days of writing her anthropology thesis on currency exchanges in “Second Life’s” virtual world, she’s now faculty at Singularity University, where she’s given talks about blockchain, AI, Internet of Things, Future of Work, and other topics. She’s also authored an introductory guide to the blockchain with her book “Bitcoin Pizza.”
Co-founder Christopher Schlaeffer, meanwhile, held a number of roles at Deutsche Telekom, including chief product & innovation officer, corporate development officer and chief strategy officer, where he along with Google execs introduced the first mobile phone to run Android. He was also chief digital officer at the telecommunication services company VEON.
The two crossed paths after Schlaeffer had already begun the work of organizing a team to bring LOVE to the public, which includes co-founders Chief Technologist Jim Reeves, also previously of VEON, and Chief Designer Timm Kekeritz, previously an interaction designer at international design firm IDEO in San Francisco, design director at IXDS and founder of design consultancy Raureif in Berlin, among other roles.
Explained Radocchia, what attracted her to join as CEO was the potential to create a new company that upholds more positive values than what’s often seen today — in fact, the brand name “LOVE” is a reference to this aim. She was also interested in the potential to think through what she describes as “new business models that are not reliant on advertising or harvesting the data of our users,” she says.
To that end, LOVE plans to monetize without any advertising. While the company isn’t ready to explain its business model in full, it would involve users opting in to services through granular permissions and membership, we’re told.
“We believe our users will much rather be willing to pay for services they consciously use and grant permissions to in a given context than have their data used for an advertising model which is simply not transparent,” says Radocchia.
LOVE expects to share more about the model next year.
As for the LOVE app itself, it’s a fairly polished mobile messenger offering an interesting combination of features. Like any other video chat app, you can video call with friends and family, either in one-on-one calls or in groups. Currently, LOVE supports up to five call participants, but expects to expand that as it scales. The app also supports video and audio messaging for asynchronous conversations. There are already tools that offer this sort of functionality on the market, of course — like WhatsApp, with its support for audio messages, or video messenger Marco Polo. But they don’t offer quite the same expanded feature set.
For starters, LOVE limits its video messages to 60 seconds, for brevity’s sake. (As anyone who’s used Marco Polo knows, videos can become a bit rambling, which makes it harder to catch up when you’re behind on group chats.) In addition, LOVE allows you to both watch the video content as well as read the real-time transcription of what’s being said — the latter which comes in handy not only for accessibility’s sake, but also for those times you want to hear someone’s messages but aren’t in a private place to listen or don’t have headphones. Conversations can also be translated into 50 languages.
“A lot of the traditional communication or messenger products are coming from a paradigm that has always been text-based,” explains Radocchia. “We’re approaching it completely differently. So while other platforms have a lot of the features that we do, I think that…the perspective that we’ve approached it has completely flipped it on its head,” she continues. “As opposed to bolting video messages on to a primarily text-based interface, [LOVE is] actually doing it in the opposite way and adding text as a sort of a magically transcribed add-on — and something that you never, hopefully, need to be typing out on your keyboard again,” she adds.
The app’s user interface, meanwhile, has been designed to encourage eye-to-eye contact with the speaker to make conversations feel more natural. It does this by way of design elements where bubbles float around as you’re speaking and the bubble with the current speaker grows to pull your focus away from looking at yourself. The company is also working with the curator of Serpentine Gallery in London, Hans Ulrich-Obrist, to create new filters that aren’t about beautification or gimmicks, but are instead focused on introducing a new form of visual expression that makes people feel more comfortable on camera.
For the time being, this has resulted in a filter that slightly abstracts your appearance, almost in the style of animation or some other form of visual arts.
The app claims to use end-to-end encryption and the automatic deletion of its content after seven days — except for messages you yourself recorded, if you’ve chosen to save them as “memorable moments.”
“One of our commitments is to privacy and the right-to-forget,” says Radocchia. “We don’t want to be or need to be storing any of this information.”
LOVE has been soft-launched on the App Store, where it’s been used with a number of testers and is working to organically grow its user base through an onboarding invite mechanism that asks users to invite at least three people to join. This same onboarding process also carefully explains why LOVE asks for permissions — like using speech recognition to create subtitles.
LOVE says its valuation is around $ 17 million USD following pre-seed investments from a combination of traditional startup investors and strategic angel investors across a variety of industries, including tech, film, media, TV and financial services. The company will raise a seed round this fall.
The app is currently available on iOS, but an Android version will arrive later in the year. (Note that LOVE does not currently support the iOS 15 beta software, where it has issues with speech transcription and in other areas. That should be resolved next week, following an app update now in the works.)
With the hasty U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan underway after two decades occupying the country, social media platforms have a complex new set of policy decisions to make.
The Taliban has been social-media-savvy for years, but those companies will face new questions as the notoriously brutal, repressive group seeks to present itself as Afghanistan’s legitimate governing body to the rest of the world. Given its ubiquity among political leaders and governments, social media will likely play an even more central role for the Taliban as it seeks to cement control and move toward governing.
Facebook has taken some early precautions to protect its users from potential reprisals as the Taliban seizes power. Through Twitter, Facebook’s Nathaniel Gleicher announced a set of new measures the platform rolled out over the last week. The company added a “one-click” way for people in Afghanistan to instantly lock their accounts, hiding posts on their timeline and preventing anyone they aren’t friends with from downloading or sharing their profile picture.
4/ We’ve launched a one-click tool for people in Afghanistan to quickly lock down their account. When their profile is locked, people who aren’t their friends can’t download or share their profile photo or see posts on their timeline. pic.twitter.com/pUANh5uBgn
— Nathaniel Gleicher (@ngleicher) August 19, 2021
Facebook also removed the ability for users to view and search anyone’s friends list for people located in Afghanistan. On Instagram, pop-up alerts will provide Afghanistan-based users with information on how to quickly lock down their accounts.
The Taliban has long been banned on Facebook under the company’s rules against dangerous organizations. “The Taliban is sanctioned as a terrorist organization under U.S. law … This means we remove accounts maintained by or on behalf of the Taliban and prohibit praise, support and representation of them,” a Facebook spokesperson told the BBC.
The Afghan Taliban is actually not designated as a foreign terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department, but the Taliban operating out of Pakistan has held that designation since 2010. While it doesn’t appear on the list of foreign terrorist organizations, the Afghanistan-based Taliban is defined as a terror group according to economic sanctions that the U.S. put in place after 9/11.
While the Taliban is also banned from Facebook-owned WhatsApp, the platform’s end-to-end encryption makes enforcing those rules on WhatsApp more complex. WhatsApp is ubiquitous in Afghanistan and both the Afghan military and the Taliban have relied on the chat app to communicate in recent years. Though Facebook doesn’t allow the Taliban on its platforms, the group turned to WhatsApp to communicate its plans to seize control to the Afghan people and discourage resistance in what was a shockingly swift and frictionless sprint to power. The Taliban even set up a WhatsApp number as a sort of help line for Afghans to report violence or crime, but Facebook quickly shut down the account.
Earlier this week, Facebook’s VP of content policy Monika Bickert noted that even if the U.S. does ultimately remove the Taliban from its lists of sanctioned terror groups, the platform would reevaluate and make its own decision. “ … We would have to do a policy analysis on whether or not they nevertheless violate our dangerous organizations policy,” Bickert said.
Like Facebook, YouTube maintains that the Taliban is banned from its platform. YouTube’s own decision also appears to align with sanctions and could be subject to change if the U.S. approach to the Taliban shifts.
“YouTube complies with all applicable sanctions and trade compliance laws, including relevant U.S. sanctions,” a YouTube spokesperson told TechCrunch. “As such, if we find an account believed to be owned and operated by the Afghan Taliban, we terminate it. Further, our policies prohibit content that incites violence.”
On Twitter, Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid has continued to share regular updates about the group’s activities in Kabul. Another Taliban representative, Qari Yousaf Ahmadi, also freely posts on the platform. Unlike Facebook and YouTube, Twitter doesn’t have a blanket ban on the group but will enforce its policies on a post-by-post basis.
If the Taliban expands its social media footprint, other platforms might be facing the same set of decisions. TikTok did not respond to TechCrunch’s request for comment, but previously told NBC that it considers the Taliban a terrorist organization and does not allow content that promotes the group.
The Taliban doesn’t appear to have a foothold beyond the most mainstream social networks, but it’s not hard to imagine the former insurgency turning to alternative platforms to remake its image as the world looks on.
While Twitch declined to comment on what it might do if the group were to use the platform, it does have a relevant policy that takes “off-service conduct” into account when banning users. That policy was designed to address reports of abusive behavior and sexual harassment among Twitch streamers.
The new rules also apply to accounts linked to violent extremism, terrorism or other serious threats, whether those actions take place on or off Twitch. That definition would likely preclude the Taliban from establishing a presence on the platform, even if the U.S. lifts sanctions or changes its terrorist designations in the future.
Facebook is out with a new report collecting the most popular posts on the platform, responding to critics who believe the company is deliberately opaque about its top-performing content.
Facebook’s new “widely viewed content reports” will come out quarterly, reflecting most viewed top News Feed posts in the U.S. every three months — not exactly the kind of real-time data monitoring that might prove useful for observing emerging trends.
With the new data set, Facebook hopes to push back against criticism that its algorithms operate within a black box. But like its often misleading blogged rebuttals and the other sets of cherry-picked data it shares, the company’s latest gesture at transparency is better than nothing, but not particularly useful.
So what do we learn? According to the new data set, 87% of posts that people viewed in the U.S. during Q2 of this year didn’t include an outside link. That’s notable but not very telling since Facebook still has an incredibly massive swath of people sharing and seeing links on a daily basis.
YouTube is predictably the top domain by Facebook’s chosen metric of “content viewers,” which it defines as any account that saw a piece of content on the News Feed, though we don’t get anything in the way of potentially helpful granular data there. Amazon, Gofundme, TikTok and others also in the top 10, no surprises there either.
Things get weirder when Facebook starts breaking down its most viewed links. The top five links include a website for alumni of the Green Bay Packers football team, a random online CBD marketplace and reppnforchrist.com, an apparently prominent portal for Christianity-themed graphic T-shirts. The subscription page for the Epoch Times, a site well known for spreading pro-Trump conspiracies and other disinformation, comes in at No 10, though it was beaten by a Tumblr link to two cats walking with their tails intertwined.
Yahoo and ABC News are the only prominent national media outlets that make the top 20 when the data is sliced and diced in this particular way. Facebook also breaks down which posts the most people viewed during the period with a list of mostly benign if odd memes, including one that reads “If your VAGINA [cat emoji] or PENIS [eggplant emoji] was named after the last TV show/Move u watched what would it be.”
If you’re wondering why Facebook chose to collect and present this set of data in this specific way, it’s because the company is desperately trying to prove a point: That its platform isn’t overrun by the political conspiracies and controversial right-wing personalities that make headlines.
The dataset is Facebook’s latest argument in its long feud with New York Times reporter Kevin Roose, who created a Twitter account that surfaces Facebook’s most engaging posts on a daily basis, as measured through the Facebook-owned social monitoring tool CrowdTangle.
The top-performing link posts by U.S. Facebook pages in the last 24 hours are from:
1. Dan Rather
2. Ben Shapiro
3. Love Meow
4. Ben Shapiro
5. Dinesh D'Souza
6. Ben Shapiro
7. Ben Shapiro
8. Sean Hannity
9. Fox News
10. Steven Crowder
— Facebook's Top 10 (@FacebooksTop10) August 10, 2021
By the metric of engagement, Facebook’s list of top-performing posts in the U.S. are regularly dominated by far-right personalities and sites like Newsmax, which pushes election conspiracies that Facebook would prefer to distance itself from.
The company argues that Facebook posts with the most interactions don’t accurately represent the top content on the platform. Facebook insists that reach data, which measures how many people see a given post, is a superior metric, but there’s no reason that engagement data isn’t just as relevant if not more so.
“The content that’s seen by the most people isn’t necessarily the content that also gets the most engagement,” Facebook wrote, in a dig clearly aimed at Roose.
The platform wants to de-emphasize political content across the board, which isn’t surprising given its track record of amplifying Russian disinformation, violent far-right militias and the Stop the Steal movement, which culminated in deadly violence at the U.S. Capitol in January.
As The New York Times previously reported, Facebook actually scrapped plans to make its reach data widely available through a public dashboard over fears that even that version of its top-performing posts wouldn’t reflect well on the company.
Instead, the company opted to offer a taste of that data in a confusingly condensed quarterly report. The result shows plenty of inexplicable junk content (no really, what’s with the Packers site?), but less in the way of politics. Facebook’s cursory gesture of transparency notwithstanding, it’s worth remembering that nothing is stopping the company from letting people see a deeper, broader leaderboard of its most popular content. This isn’t that.
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