IRL pivots into virtual event calendar In Remote Life

What do you do if you’re an event discovery startup and suddenly it’s illegal to attend events? You lean into the cultural shift and pivot. Today, $11 million-funded calendar app IRL is morphing from In Real Life to In Remote Life. It will now focus on helping people find, RSVP for, plan, share, and chat about virtual events from livestreamed concerts to esports tournaments to Zoom cocktail parties.

Coronavirus could make IRL relevant to a wider audience because before an event “only mattered if it was around you. But now with In Remote Life, content has no geographical limitations” says IRL co-founder and CEO Abe Shafi. “The need is exponentially greater because everyone’s routines have been shattered.” IRL ranked #138 in US App Store today, making it the top calendar app, even above Google’s (#168).

Robinhood’s Josh Elman joins IRL

IRL has some fresh product development talent to lead it through the transition. The startup has hired stock trading app Robinhood’s VP of Product Josh Elman . The former Greylock investor is well known for his product chops from jobs at Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. Elman joined Robinhood in early 2018 but left late last year, notably before its rash of recent outages that enraged users.

“I just realized more than anything that the company needed people who had 110% to give, and it wasn’t clear that was going to be me” Elman said of Robinhood, now valued at $7.6 billion and struggling to scale. “My first passions and all the things I’ve talked about over the years have been social and media.”

For now, IRL is a part time gig where he’ll be heading up a Secret Projects division. While most apps “try to suck more of our time”, he sees IRL as a chance to give this precious resource back to people. Though he insists “Robinhood’s great I’m a very happy shareholder.

Events without borders

“We were on a tear, hitting a stride with usaging and growth related to real life events” says Shafi. “Then this happened”, motioning on our Zoom call to the COVID-19 reality we’re now stuck in. “We realized we had to pull all of our content because it wasn’t happening.”

Today IRL’s iOS app launches a redesign of its Discover homescreen content to center on virtual events people can attend from home. There’s now tabs for gaming, podcasts, TV, and EDU, as well as music, food, lifestyle, and a catch-all ‘fun’ section. Each event can be added to your calendar that syncs with Google Cal, or Liked to add it to your profile that friends and fans can follow. You can also instantly launch a group chat about the event in IRL, or share it to Instagram Stories or another messaging app.

If you can’t find something public to do, you can make plans with friends using the composer with suggestions like “Let’s video chat”, “Zoom workout”, “gaming sesh”, or “Netflix party”. That instantly sets up a calendar event you can invite people to. And if you’re not sure when you want to host, IRL’s “soon” option lets you keep the schedule vague so you and friends can figure out when everyone’s available. 50% of IRL plans start out as “Soon” Shafi reveals, identifying a gap in rigid time/date calendars.

Beyond individual events, IRL also wants to make it easier to develop habits by letting you subscribe to workout, meditation, and other schedules. With sports seasons suspended, IRL lets people sync with calendars of hip-hop album releases and more instead. Or you can subscribe to an influencer’s life and digitally accompany them to events. The goal is that IRL will be able to merge offline events back into its content recommendations as social distancing subsides.

The biggest challenge for IRL will be tuning its event recommendation algorithm. It’s lost a lot of the traditional relevance signals about events like how close they are to your home, how much they cost, or if they’re even in your city. Transitioning to In Remote Life means a global range of happenings is now available to everyone, and since they’re often free to host, many lonely low-quality events have sprung up. That makes it much tougher for IRL to determine what to show.

For now, it’s basing recommendations on what you engage with most on its homescreen, but I found that can make the initial experience very hit-or-miss. The top events in each category were rarely exciting. But IRL is planning to beef up its onboarding process to ask about your interests, and integrate with Spotify so it knows which musicians’ online concerts you’d want to attend.

Still, Shafi thinks IRL is already better than asocial alternatives. “Our main age range is 13 to 25, college and post-college metropolitan areas and across college campuses. Our average user has never used a calendar before, or they’re just used a default calendar like Gcal or iCal.

A cure for loneliness

Hopefully, IRL will take a more serious swing at helping friends realize they’re free at the same time and can hang out. While Down To Lunch failed in this space, now Facebook Messenger and Instagram are exploring it with their auto-status feature, and location apps like Snap Map and Zenly could adapt to share not just where you are, but if you have the intention to hang out.

“How can we use just a little bit of nudging, transparency or suggestion to get people to just do one more thing per month?” Shafi asks. IRL is trying to figure out how to let you passively share that “I have 2 hours free” in a way that “never makes you feel rejected if they don’t respond.”

Facebook did launch a standalone Events calendar app back in 2016, but later paired down the calendaring features, folded it in with restaurant recommendations and renamed it Local. “As big as Facebook is, it can only do so many things insanely well” Elman says of his old employer. “They could do more [on Events], but it’s never been the juggernaut like photos.”

Shafi is happy to have the opportunity in such a foundational space. He describes the concept of the calendar as one he’s sure will outlive him, so it’s worth the effort to make it social no matter how long it takes — though I’m sure his investors like Goodwater Capital, Founders Fund, Kleiner Perkins, and Floodgate hope it’ll find a way to monetize eventually.

Revenue could come in the form of selling access to events through the app, or letting promoters and local businesses pay for enhanced discovery. For now, though, IRL is building a deeper connection with event and content publishers with the upcoming launch of its free Add To Calendar button they can build into their sites and emails. Elman says several services charge for these buttons that integrate with Apple and Google’s calendars, but IRL hopes giving them away will help fill its app with things to do, whatever that might be.

“Our tagline is ‘live your best life’. It’s not judgmental. If your best life is playing video games on your couch with your homies, we don’t judge you for that.”

Google to shut down its India-focused Q&A app Neighbourly

Google is shutting down Neighbourly, a Q&A social app that it launched in select parts of India two years, the company has informed users.

The app, developed by company’s Next Billion Initiative, aimed to give local communities an outlet to seek answers to practical questions about life, routine and more.

At the time of its release, Google told TechCrunch that it believed that an increase in urban migration, short-term leasing and busy lives had changed the dynamic of local communities and made it harder to share information quite so easily.

The app supported voice-based entry for questions and a range of local languages.

In an email, Google said Neighbourly helped users find answers to over a million questions, but it did not get the traction the company was hoping for. The app will shut down on May 12, but users have another six months to download their answers.

“We launched Neighbourly as a Beta app to connect you with your neighbors and make sharing local information more human and helpful. As a community, you’ve come together to celebrate local festivals, shared crucial information during floods, and answered over a million questions,” the company wrote to users.

“But Neighbourly hasn’t grown as we had hoped. In these difficult times, we believe that we can help more people by focusing on other Google apps that are already serving millions of people everyday,” it added, pointing users to explore Google Maps’ Local Guide, which also allows sharing of knowledge with local communities.

The app had such low-traction that third-party intelligence services such as App Annie and Sensor Tower don’t have any substantial data about it. But on Play Store, Neighbourly is listed to have more than 10 million downloads.

More to follow…

“Content network effect” makes TikTok tough to copy

Many TikTok videos don’t start from scratch, so neither can its competitors. TikTok is all about remixes where users shoot a new video to recontextualize audio pulled from someone else’s clip, or riff on an existing meme or concept. That only works because TikTok’s had time to build up an immense armory of content to draw inspiration from.

Creators will find themselves unequipped trying to get started on TikTok copycats including Facebook Lasso, and Instagram Reels which is testing in Brazil. Direct competitors like Triller and Dubsmash are racing to build up their archives. YouTube Shorts, which The Information today reported is in development, only has a shot if Google lets users harness the 5 billion videos people already watch on YouTube each day.

This is the power of what I call “content network effect”: Each piece of content adds value to the rest. That’s TikTok.

You’re likely familiar with traditional network effect — ‘a phenomenon whereby a product or service gains additional value as more people use it.’ It’s not just the network itself that gains value, as the value delivered to each user increases too. Today’s top social networks are shining examples. The more people there are on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter, the more people you can connect to, and the more material their relevance algorithms can draw on to fill your feeds.

If you had to choose between using two identical social networks, you’re probably going to pick the one with more friends or creators already onboard. Network effects raise the switching cost of moving to a different network. Even if it has better features, fewer ads, or less misinformation and bullying, you’re unlikely to leave a robust network behind and decamp to a sparser one. That makes scaled social networks difficult to Disrupt. All the top ones have been around for almost a decade or more.

Except for TikTok. The Chinese music/video app has managed to demonstrate a new concept of “content network effect”. In its case, each video uploaded to the app makes every future potential video more valuable. That’s because all the content on TikTok serves as remix fodder for the rest. Every song, dance, joke, prank, and monologue generates resources for other creators to exploit. It’s a bottomless well of inspiration.

TikTok productizes remix culture by making it easy to “use this sound”. Tap the audio button on any video and it becomes yours. Click through and you’ll see all the other videos that use it. TikTok even offers a whole search engine for sorting through sounds by categories like Trending, Greatest Hits, Love, Gaming, and travel. Sometimes remixes are based on an idea rather than an audio. #FlipTheSwitch sees couples instantly swapping clothes when the light flicks off, and has collected over 3.6 billion videos across over 500,000 remixed versions of the video.

You can even duet with the original creator, sharing your video and theirs side-by-side simultaneously. A solo performance becomes a chorus as more duets are hitched together. Meanwhile, remixes of remixes of remixes provide an esoteric reward for hardcore users who recognize how a gag has evolved or spiraled into absurdity.

Other apps in the past have spawned video responses, hashtags, quote-tweets, surveys, and chain letters and other ways for pieces of content to interact or iterate. And there’s always been parodies. But TikTok proves the power of forging a social app with content network effect at its core.

Facilitating remixes offers a way to lower the bar for producing user generated content. You’d don’t have to be astoundingly creative or original to make something entertaining. Each individual’s life experiences inform their perspective that could let them interpret an idea in a new way.

What began with someone ripping audio of two people chanting “don’t be Suspicious, don’t be suspicious” while sneaking through a graveyard in TV show Parks & Recs led to people lipsyncing it while trying to escape their infant’s room without waking them up, leaving the house wearing clothes they stole from their sister’s closet, trying to keep a llama as a pet, and photoshopping themselves to look taller. Unless someone’s already done the work to record an audio clip, there’s nothing to inspire and enable others to put their spin on it.

That’s why I wrote that Mark Zuckerberg misunderstands the huge threat of TikTok after the CEO told Facebook’s staff that “I kind of think about TikTok as if it were Explore for Stories”. Facebook and Instagram found massive success cloning Snapchat Stories because all they had to do was copy its features. Stories are autobiographical life vlogging. All you need are the creative tools, which Instagram and Facebook rebuilt, and people to share to, which the apps had billions of.

But TikTok isn’t about sharing what you’re up to like Stories that typically start from scratch since each user’s life is different. It’s micro-entertainment powered by content network effect. If TikTok competitors give people the same video recording features and distribution potential, they’ll still be missing the archive of source material.

Facebook’s Lasso looks just like TikTok but it’s failed to gain steam since launching in November 2018. Instagram Reels smartly copies TikTok’s remixing tools, but if the Brazilian tests go well and it eventually launches in English, it will start out flat footed.

When YouTube launches Shorts, as The Information’s Alex Heath and Jessica Toonkel report it’s planning to do before the end of the year, it will be buried inside its main app. That could make it impossible to compete with a dedicated app like TikTok that opens straight to its For You page. Its one saving grace would be if YouTube unlocks its entire database of videos for remixing.

Thanks to its position as the default place to host videos and its experience with searchability that Facebook and Instagram lack, YouTube Shorts could at least have all the ingredients necessary. But given YouTube’s non-stop failures in social with everything from Google+ to YouTube Stories to its dozen deadpooled messaging apps, it may not have the chef skills necessary to combine them.

Other social networks should consider how the concept applies to them. Could Facebook turn your friends’ photos into collage materials? Could Instagram let you share themed collections of your favorite posts? Remix culture isn’t going away, so neither will the value of fostering content network effects. With video consumption outpacing professional production, remixes are how the world will stay entertained and how amateurs can contribute creations worthy of going viral.

LinkedIn’s making its job listing tools free to those recruiting to fight the coronavirus pandemic

Like many other websites at the moment, the career-oriented networking platform LinkedIn has seen a big boost in traffic as a result of people being asked to work from home and stay indoors overall to slow the spread of the coronavirus, with a bump of 55% more conversational activity between existing connections in recent weeks. Now, to leverage that attention in a way that’s more directly helpful during this health crisis, LinkedIn is announcing new measures specifically around job listings.

From today and for the next three months, LinkedIn says it will provide free job postings for “essential” businesses globally — companies in healthcare, as well as warehousing, supermarket, freight delivery, and non-profits working in support or relief roles — in other words, those providing critical front-line services to keep the economy and society in motion. Healthcare will include companies working in areas like medical devices, medical practice (including hospitals), and mental health care.

Alongside this, LinkedIn is creating an “urgent jobs” board to give these openings more priority visibility. People whose skills match up with those needed for these jobs who visit LinkedIn’s jobs homepage will see the special listings highlighted. Those who sign up for job alerts with matching skills will in turn get real-time alerts of the jobs as they get posted.

The volunteer ads also link up with an expanded Recruiting for Good program to help bring in more people to work with non-profits in both volunteer and paid roles. And those doing the recruiting will also get three months of free access to LinkedIn’s talent insights tools to figure out where their (free) ads are best placed around hiring trends and more.

Organizations that have already signed up to use these include the American Red Cross of Los Angeles, the CommonSpirit Health hospital network, Doctors on Demand, and New York Presbyterian Hospital.

The new initiatives underscore the bigger trend of how tech companies are looking to provide whatever assistance they can bring to the table in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

(Others include Google, which is trying to help with testing, while also providing a landing page for official and local information, while both Facebook and Twitter are trying to stamp out fake news while surfacing links to official organizations for help.)

Recruitment — which has traditionally been LinkedIn’s biggest revenue generator (as part of Microsoft, it does not regularly report financials on its business lines) — has been in an interesting position within that.

On the one hand, recruitment and its counterpart, employment, have been two of the essential levers in fighting this pandemic.

On the clinical front, hospitals and related care organizations are scrambling to keep up with the surge in demand for their services, leading to major recruitment drives to bring in people with relevant experience, in some cases going straight to the ranks of those who may have left the profession and now are being asked to step in again.

In the UK, for example, some 4,500 doctors and nurses have so far answered the open call to come back into medical service (many will have moved on to other non-clinical or managerial roles in the NHS, or left the public sector, or the profession altogether, not just retired due to age), with more likely to come. And that’s just on the clinical front. We’re seeing a multitude of call outs across other sectors, like technology, to bring in experts in AI and other areas to help design software and hardware to slow the spread of the virus, to alleviate some of the side effects, to identify it faster, and maybe even to potentially cure it.

In another vein, the closures of restaurants and public places has put a big shift on to supermarkets and other food providers to beef up their workforces to meet their rising demands. That’s meant that while many people have lost their old jobs due to closures, they are getting opportunities to redeploy elsewhere.

(The same goes for the collective groundswell of people who have emerged as volunteers to help others who are in need, with hundreds of thousands volunteering to help deliver medications or other essential tasks to supplement the work of front-line healthcare providers.)

On another level, beyond addressing the pandemic in a direct way, employment and recruitment have become something of a canary in the coal mine when it comes to assessing how different sectors and the economy overall is faring, and how it will look when the pandemic starts to subside.

We’ve charted some notable developments of hiring freezes, layoffs and furloughs in the tech world already — as well as hiring boosts for those suddenly finding their businesses in huge demand — and the same thing is playing out across other sectors, a trend LinkedIn, as one of the bigger recruitment portals in the world, is well positioned to see.

“The trend as the virus moves through the world has been a decline in job posts,” said Blake Barnes, Blake Barnes, LinkedIn’s head of careers and talent solutions. “It’s a pattern we saw starting in China with the first wave of the pandemic.” Positively, he noted that “we have also seen that recovery brings growth as well.”

For now, LinkedIn has set some criteria in place to tailor eligibility. For example, nonprofit organization need to be US 501c3 registered, or the global equivalent), providing disaster response or services for COVID-19 relief​. Hospitals meanwhile need to be in critical areas of coronavirus outbreak (based on impact data) and understaffed and in need of urgent clinical frontline workers for COVID-19 response.

Over time, there will likely be more types of businesses added to the mix of “essential” companies (for example, as a car parts company retools to become a ventilator maker) and non-profits over time, and also more evolutions in how job ads get seen by people. The main point was to deploy quickly to start work as soon as possible.

“We are keeping a close eye on situation, but we have already have seen a critical talent shortage,” said Barnes. “We’re starting with the obvious companies, but we’re getting these tools to market where they are most needed. But things change every single day so we’ll be assessing in real time to understand how different sectors are evolving and changing.”

YouTube sellers found touting bogus coronavirus vaccines and masks

YouTube has been criticized for continuing to host coronavirus disinformation on its video sharing platform during a global health emergency.

Two US advocacy groups which campaign for online safety undertook an 18-day investigation of the video sharing platform in March — finding what they say were “dozens” of examples of dubious videos, including videos touting bogus vaccines the sellers claimed would protect buyers from COVID-19.

They also found videos advertising medical masks of unknown quality for sale.

There have been concerns about shortages of masks for front-line medical staff, as well as the risk of online scammers hawking low grade kit that does not offered the claimed protection against the virus.

Google said last month that it would temporarily take down ads for masks from its ad network but sellers looking to exploit the coronavirus crisis appear to be circumventing the ban by using YouTube’s video sharing platform as an alternative digital shop window to lure buyers.

Researchers working for the Digital Citizens Alliance (DCA) and the Coalition for a Safer Web (CSW) initiated conversations with sellers they found touting dodgy coronavirus wares on YouTube — and were offered useless ‘vaccines’ for purchase and hundreds of masks of unknown quality.

“There was ample reason to believe the offers for masks were dubious as well [as the vaccines], as highlighted by interactions with representatives from some of the sellers,” they said.

Their report includes screengrabs of some of the interactions with the sellers. In one a seller tells the researchers they don’t accept credit cards — but they do accept CashApp, PayPal, Google or Amazon gift cards or Bitcoin.

The same seller offered the researchers vaccines priced at $135 each, and suggested they purchase MMR/Varicella when asked which one is “the best”. Such a vaccine, even if it functioned for MMR/Varicella, would obviously offer no protection against COVID-19.

Another seller was found to be hawking “COVID-19 drugs” using a YouTube account name “Real ID Card Fake Passport Producer”.

“How does a guy calling himself ‘Real ID Card Fake Passport Producer’ even get a page on YouTube?” said Eric Feinberg, lead researcher for CSW, in a statement accompanying the report. “It’s all too easy to get ahold of these guys. We called some of them. Once you contact them, they are relentless. They’ll call you back at all hours and hound you until you buy something. They’ll call you in the middle of the night. They are predators looking to capitalize on our fear.”

A spokesman for the DCA told us the researchers compiled the report based on content from around 60 videos they identified hawking coronavirus-related ‘cures’ or kit between March 6-24.

“There are too many to count. Everyday, I find more,” added Feinberg.

The groups are also critical of how YouTube’s platform risks lending credibility to coronavirus disinformation because the platform now displays official CDC-branded banners under any COVID-19 related material — including the dubious videos their report highlights.

“YouTube also mixes trusted resources with sites that shouldn’t be trusted and that could confuse consumers — especially when they are scared and desperate,” said DCA executive director, Tom Galvin, in a statement. “It’s hard enough to tell who’s legitimate and who’s not on YouTube.”

The DCA and CSW have written letters to the US Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission laying out their findings and calling for “swift action” to hold bad actors accountable.

YouTube, and its parent company Google, are shirking their formal policy that prohibits content that capitalizes off sensitive events,” they write in a letter to attorney general Barr.

“Digital Citizens is sharing this information in the hopes your Justice Department will act swiftly to hold bad actors, who take advantage of the coronavirus, accountable. In this crisis, strong action will deter others from engaging in criminal or illicit acts that harm consumers or add to confusion and anxiety,” they add.

Responding to the groups’ findings a YouTube spokesperson said some of the videos the researchers had identified had not received many views.

After we contacted the company about the content YouTube told us it had removed three channels identified by the researchers in the report for violating its Community Guidelines.

In a statement YouTube added:

Our thoughts are with everyone affected by the coronavirus around the world. We’re committed to providing helpful information at this critical time, including raising authoritative content, reducing the spread of harmful misinformation and showing information panels, using WHO / CDC data, to help combat misinformation. To date, there have been over 5B impressions on our information panels for coronavirus related videos and searches. We also have clear policies against COVID-19 misinformation and we quickly remove videos violating these policies when flagged to us.

The DCA and CSW also recently undertook a similar review of Facebook’s platform — finding sellers touting masks for sale despite the tech giant’s claimed ban on such content. “Facebook promised CNN when they did a story on our report about them that the masks would be gone a week ago, but the researchers from CSW are still finding the masks now,” their spokesman told us.

Earlier this week the Tech Transparency Project also reported still being able to find masks for sale on Facebook’s platform. It found examples of masks showing up in Google’s targeted ads too.

What does a pandemic say about the tech we’ve built?

There’s a joke* being reshared on chat apps that takes the form of a multiple choice question — asking who’s the leading force in workplace digital transformation? The red-lined punchline is not the CEO or CTO but: C) COVID-19.

There’s likely more than a grain of truth underpinning the quip. The novel coronavirus is pushing a lot of metaphorical buttons right now. ‘Pause’ buttons for people and industries, as large swathes of the world’s population face quarantine conditions that can resemble house arrest. The majority of offline social and economic activities are suddenly off limits.

Such major pauses in our modern lifestyle may even turn into a full reset, over time. The world as it was, where mobility of people has been all but taken for granted — regardless of the environmental costs of so much commuting and indulged wanderlust — may never return to ‘business as usual’.

If global leadership rises to the occasional then the coronavirus crisis offers an opportunity to rethink how we structure our societies and economies — to make a shift towards lower carbon alternatives. After all, how many physical meetings do you really need when digital connectivity is accessible and reliable? As millions more office workers log onto the day job from home that number suddenly seems vanishingly small.

COVID-19 is clearly strengthening the case for broadband to be a utility — as so much more activity is pushed online. Even social media seems to have a genuine community purpose during a moment of national crisis when many people can only connect remotely, even with their nearest neighbours.

Hence the reports of people stuck at home flocking back to Facebook to sound off in the digital town square. Now the actual high street is off limits the vintage social network is experiencing a late second wind.

Facebook understands this sort of higher societal purpose already, of course. Which is why it’s been so proactive about building features that nudge users to ‘mark yourself safe’ during extraordinary events like natural disasters, major accidents and terrorist attacks. (Or indeed why it encouraged politicians to get into bed with its data platform in the first place — no matter the cost to democracy.)

In less fraught times, Facebook’s ‘purpose’ can be loosely summed to ‘killing time’. But with ever more sinkholes being drilled by the attention economy that’s a function under ferocious and sustained attack.

Over the years the tech giant has responded by engineering ways to rise back to the top of the social heap — including spying on and buying up competition, or directly cloning rival products. It’s been pulling off this trick, by hook or by crook, for over a decade. Albeit, this time Facebook can’t take any credit for the traffic uptick; A pandemic is nature’s dark pattern design.

What’s most interesting about this virally disrupted moment is how much of the digital technology that’s been built out online over the past two decades could very well have been designed for living through just such a dystopia.

Seen through this lens, VR should be having a major moment. A face computer that swaps out the stuff your eyes can actually see with a choose-your-own-digital-adventure of virtual worlds to explore, all from the comfort of your living room? What problem are you fixing VR? Well, the conceptual limits of human lockdown in the face of a pandemic quarantine right now, actually…

Virtual reality has never been a compelling proposition vs the rich and textured opportunity of real life, except within very narrow and niche bounds. Yet all of a sudden here we all are — with our horizons drastically narrowed and real-life news that’s ceaselessly harrowing. So it might yet end up wry punchline to another multiple choice joke: ‘My next vacation will be: A) Staycation, B) The spare room, C) VR escapism.’

It’s videoconferencing that’s actually having the big moment, though. Turns out even a pandemic can’t make VR go viral. Instead, long lapsed friendships are being rekindled over Zoom group chats or Google Hangouts. And Houseparty — a video chat app — has seen surging downloads as barflies seek out alternative night life with their usual watering-holes shuttered.

Bored celebs are TikToking. Impromptu concerts are being livestreamed from living rooms via Instagram and Facebook Live. All sorts of folks are managing social distancing and the stress of being stuck at home alone (or with family) by distant socializing — signing up to remote book clubs and discos; joining virtual dance parties and exercise sessions from bedrooms. Taking a few classes together. The quiet pub night with friends has morphed seamlessly into a bring-your-own-bottle group video chat.

This is not normal — but nor is it surprising. We’re living in the most extraordinary time. And it seems a very human response to mass disruption and physical separation (not to mention the trauma of an ongoing public health emergency that’s killing thousands of people a day) to reach for even a moving pixel of human comfort. Contactless human contact is better than none at all.

Yet the fact all these tools are already out there, ready and waiting for us to log on and start streaming, should send a dehumanizing chill down society’s backbone.

It underlines quite how much consumer technology is being designed to reprogram how we connect with each other, individually and in groups, in order that uninvited third parties can cut a profit.

Back in the pre-COVID-19 era, a key concern being attached to social media was its ability to hook users and encourage passive feed consumption — replacing genuine human contact with voyeuristic screening of friends’ lives. Studies have linked the tech to loneliness and depression. Now we’re literally unable to go out and meet friends the loss of human contact is real and stark. So being popular online in a pandemic really isn’t any kind of success metric.

Houseparty, for example, self-describes as a “face to face social network” — yet it’s quite the literal opposite; you’re foregoing face-to-face contact if you’re getting virtually together in app-wrapped form.

While the implication of Facebook’s COVID-19 traffic bump is that the company’s business model thrives on societal disruption and mainstream misery. Which, frankly, we knew already. Data-driven adtech is another way of saying it’s been engineered to spray you with ad-flavored dissatisfaction by spying on what you get up to. The coronavirus just hammers the point home.

The fact we have so many high-tech tools on tap for forging digital connections might feel like amazing serendipity in this crisis — a freemium bonanza for coping with terrible global trauma. But such bounty points to a horrible flip side: It’s the attention economy that’s infectious and insidious. Before ‘normal life’ plunged off a cliff all this sticky tech was labelled ‘everyday use’; not ‘break out in a global emergency’.

It’s never been clearer how these attention-hogging apps and services are designed to disrupt and monetize us; to embed themselves in our friendships and relationships in a way that’s subtly dehumanizing; re-routing emotion and connections; nudging us to swap in-person socializing for virtualized fuzz that designed to be data-mined and monetized by the same middlemen who’ve inserted themselves unasked into our private and social lives.

Captured and recompiled in this way, human connection is reduced to a series of dilute and/or meaningless transactions. The platforms deploying armies of engineers to knob-twiddle and pull strings to maximize ad opportunities, no matter the personal cost.

It’s also no accident we’re also seeing more of the vast and intrusive underpinnings of surveillance capitalism emerge, as the COVID-19 emergency rolls back some of the obfuscation that’s used to shield these business models from mainstream view in more normal times. The trackers are rushing to seize and colonize an opportunistic purpose.

Tech and ad giants are falling over themselves to get involved with offering data or apps for COVID-19 tracking. They’re already in the mass surveillance business so there’s likely never felt like a better moment than the present pandemic for the big data lobby to press the lie that individuals don’t care about privacy, as governments cry out for tools and resources to help save lives.

First the people-tracking platforms dressed up attacks on human agency as ‘relevant ads’. Now the data industrial complex is spinning police-state levels of mass surveillance as pandemic-busting corporate social responsibility. How quick the wheel turns.

But platforms should be careful what they wish for. Populations that find themselves under house arrest with their phones playing snitch might be just as quick to round on high tech gaolers as they’ve been to sign up for a friendly video chat in these strange and unprecedented times.

Oh and Zoom (and others) — more people might actually read your ‘privacy policy‘ now they’ve got so much time to mess about online. And that really is a risk.

*Source is a private Twitter account called @MBA_ish

No proof of a Houseparty breach, but its privacy policy is still gatecrashing your data

Houseparty has been a smashing success with people staying home during the coronavirus pandemic who still want to connect with friends.

The group video chat app, interspersed with games and other bells and whistles, raises it above the more mundane Zooms and Hangouts (fun only in their names, otherwise pretty serious tools used by companies, schools and others who just need to work) when it comes to creating engaged leisure time, amid a climate where all of them are seeing a huge surge in growth.

All that looked like it could possibly fall apart for Houseparty and its new owner Epic Games when a series of reports appeared Monday claiming Houseparty was breached, and that malicious hackers were using users’ data to access their accounts on other apps such as Spotify and Netflix.

Houseparty was swift to deny the reports and even go so far as to claim — without evidence — it was investigating indications that the “breach” was a “paid commercial smear to harm Houseparty,” offering a $1 million reward to whoever could prove its theory.

For now, there is no proof that there was a breach, nor proof that there was a paid smear campaign, and when we reached out to ask Houseparty and Epic about this investigation, a spokesperson said: “We don’t have anything to add here at the moment.”

But that doesn’t mean that Houseparty doesn’t have privacy issues.

As the old saying goes, “if the product is free, you are the product.” In the case of the free app Houseparty, the publishers detail a 12,000+ word privacy policy that covers any and all uses of data that it might collect by way of you logging on to or using its service, laying out the many ways that it might use data for promotional or commercial purposes.

There are some clear lines in the policy about what it won’t use. For example, while phone numbers might get shared for tech support, with partnerships that you opt into, to link up contacts to talk with and to authenticate you, “we will never share your phone number or the phone numbers of third parties in your contacts with anyone else.”

But beyond that, there are provisions in there that could see Houseparty selling anonymized and other data, leading Ray Walsh of research firm ProPrivacy to describe it as a “privacy nightmare.”

“Anybody who decides to use the Houseparty application to stay in contact during quarantine needs to be aware that the app collects a worrying amount of personal information,” he said. “This includes geolocation data, which could, in theory, be used to map the location of each user. A closer look at Houseparty’s privacy policy reveals that the firm promises to anonymize and aggregate data before it is shared with the third-party affiliates and partners it works with. However, time and time again, researchers have proven that previously anonymized data can be re-identified.”

There are ways around this for the proactive. Walsh notes that users can go into the settings to select “private mode” to “lock” rooms they use to stop people from joining unannounced or uninvited; switch locations off; use fake names and birthdates; disconnect all other social apps; and launch the app on iOS with a long press to “sneak into the house” without notifying all your contacts.

But with a consumer app, it’s a longshot to assume that most people, and the younger users who are especially interested in Houseparty, will go through all of these extra steps to secure their information.

Facebook launches a global version of its Community Help feature in response to the COVID-19 pandemic

Facebook first launched its Community Help feature in 2017, to give users a way to offer assistance, search for and receive help in the wake of a crisis. The feature has since been used to connect Facebook users after man-made, accidental, and natural disasters, like terrorist attacks or weather events, for example. Today, Facebook is expanding Community Help as part of its COVID-19 efforts. The new COVID-19 Community Help hub will allow people to request or offer help to those impacted by the coronavirus outbreak as well as donate to nonprofit fundraisers.

This is the first time Facebook has launched Community Help on a global scale. It’s also the first time it’s been used for a health pandemic.

The feature will launch first in the U.S., Canada, France, U.K. and Australia, Facebook says.

A somewhat similar feature, Help Map, was recently introduced by the neighborhood social network and Facebook competitor Nextdoor, but it hasn’t yet seen widespread adoption. In part, that’s because Nextdoor isn’t making the new addition as obvious as it could be — it’s currently buried in the “More” tab instead of being a central focus in the app. Also, the Help Map simply allows people to list themselves as being able to offer assistance to someone in need or as being in need of aid.

Facebook’s Community Help hub, meanwhile, builds on Facebook’s earlier efforts with Crisis Response, which connected multiple tools in one place.

The COVID-19 Community Help feature will be found within Facebook’s existing COVID-19 Information Center, which is live in over 30 countries.

Launched earlier in March, the COVID-19 Information Center today sits at the top of the News Feed and connects users to authoritative health information from global health authorities along with curated posts from politicians, journalists, and other public figures.

Since its debut, over 1 billion users have accessed the information shared by health authorities on the Information Center and through the educational pop-ups on Facebook and Instagram, the company claims. More than 100 million people clicked through to learn more from the sources directly.

Before today’s official launch, the COVID-19 Information Center tested Community Help in select U.S. cities. There, local users have been posting requests for help — like those about a hospital in need of masks or volunteers to help distribute food. Others shared their free assistance being offered — like free meals for hourly workers now out of a job or free virtual workouts for those missing their gym routine.

This now continues as the Community Hub launches across the supported markets. However, it will now exist as its own destination, which includes fundraisers. It will also include additional categories, like Food, Baby Supplies, Toiletries, and Business Support — the latter which allows local businesses to ask for help and respond to offers for help.

Facebook also clarifies that users will be able to post or comment in reply to posts about offering assistance, as either an individual user or as a Facebook Page. And both individuals and Facebook Pages will be able to share posts to let others know what they need.

In addition, the COVID-19 Community Help hub will fundraise through two COVID-response efforts: the UNF/WHO COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund Facebook Fundraiser and the Combat Coronavirus with the CDC Foundation Facebook Fundraiser (U.S.-only), where Facebook is matching donations, up to $10 million to each fundraiser. While not available today, Facebook will soon allow people to seek out and donate to local fundraisers, it says.

Facebook says the COVID-10 Community Hub will arrive in more countries around the world in the next few weeks, starting first with higher-risk countries across Europe and Asia-Pacific.

Facebook deletes Brazil President’s coronavirus misinfo post

Facebook has diverted from its policy of not fact-checking politicians in order to prevent the spread of potentially harmful coronavirus misinformation from Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. Facebook made the decisive choice to remove a video shared by Bolsonaro on Sunday where he claimed that “hydroxychloroquine is working in all places.” That’s despite the drug still undergoing testing to determine its effectiveness for treating COVID-19, which researchers and health authorities have not confirmed.

“We remove content on Facebook and Instagram that violates our Community Standards, which do not allow misinformation that could lead to physical harm” a Facebook spokesperson told TechCrunch. Facebook specifically prohibits false claims regarding cure, treatments, the availability of essential services, and the location or intensity of contagion outbreaks.

BBC News Brazil first reported the takedown today in Portuguese. In the removed video, Bolsonaro had been speaking to a street vendor, and the President claimed “They want to work”, in contrast to the World Health Organization’s recommendation that people practice social distancing. He followed up that “That medicine there, hydroxychloroquine, is working in all places.”

If people wrongly believe there’s an widely-effective treatment for COVID-19, they may be more reckless about going out in public, attending work, or refusing to stay in isolation. That could cause the virus to spread more quickly, defeat efforts to flatten the curve, and overrun health care systems.

This why Twitter removed two of Bolsonaro’s tweets on Sunday, as well as one from Rudy Giuliani, in order to stop the distribution of misinformation. But to date, Facebook has generally avoided acting as an arbiter of truth regarding the veracity of claims by politicians. It notoriously refuses to send blatant misinformation in political ads, including those from Donald Trump, to fact-checkers.

Last week, though, Facebook laid out that COVID-19 misinformation “that could contribute to imminent physical harm” would be directly and immediately removed as it’s done about other outbreaks since 2018, while less urgent conspiracy theories that don’t lead straight to physical harm are sent to fact-checkers that can then have the Facebook reach of those posts demoted.

Now the question is whether Facebook would be willing to apply this enforcement to Trump, who’s been criticized for spreading misinformation about the severity of the outbreak, potential treatments, and the risk of sending people back to work. Facebook is known to fear backlash from conservative politicians and citizens who’ve developed a false narrative that it discriminates against or censors their posts.

Facebook Messenger preps Auto Status location type sharing

Facebook Messenger could soon automatically tell your closest friends you’re at the gym, driving, or in Tokyo. Messenger has been spotted prototyping a ported version of the Instagram close friends-only Threads app’s Auto Status option that launched in October.

The unreleased Messenger feature would use your location, accelerometer, and battery life to determine what you’re up to and share it with a specific subset of your friends. But instead of sharing your exact coordinates, it overlays an emoji on your Messenger profile pic to indicate that you’re at the movies, biking, at the airport, or charging your phone.

It’s unclear if or when Messenger might launch Auto Status. But if released, the feature could become Facebook’s version of the AOL Away Message, allowing people to stay in closer touch without the creepiness of exact location sharing. It might also help people coordinate online or offline meetups by revealing what friends are up to. Auto Status creates an ice breaker, so if it says a close friend is “at a cafe”, or “chilling” you could ask to hang out.

Back in 2016, I wrote about how exact location sharing had failed to become mainstream because knowing where someone is doesn’t tell you their intention. What matters is whether they’re free to interact with you, which none of the social networks offered.

A few products like Down To Lunch and Free have came and went in the meantime. Snapchat’s Snap Map and its acquisition Zenly both doubled down on precise location sharing, yet still we’re often stuck home wondering if anyone we care about is similarly bored and might want to hang out.

Facebook has been experimenting in this space since at least early 2018, when its manual Emoji Status was spotted. That allowed you to append an emoji of your choosing to your Messenger profile pic. Then in October Facebook introduced Auto Status, but only in the Instagram side-app Threads.

Some users were initially creeped out by the idea of Facebook relaying battery status. But Instagram director of Product Management Robby Stein explained to me that since you might not respond to a message if your phone goes dead or is left on the charger, it’s useful info to relay to friends who might be wondering what you’re doing.

Then earlier this month, reverse engineering master and constant TechCrunch tipster Jane Manchun Wong revealed a new, unreleased version of Emoji Status hidden in Messenger’s Android code. Then today, Wong showed off how she similarly spotted Facebook trying to port Auto Status to Messenger. That would bring the feature to over one billion monthly users compared to the relatively small base for Threads.

With Auto Status, you can “Let specific freidns see what you’re up to as you go about your day. Share location info, weather, and more, even when you’re not in the app.” Auto Status is only visible to a special list of friends you can change at any time, similar to Instagram Close Friends. And the feature shares “no addresses or place names. Just types of locations, like “at a cafe”. Movement (driving, biking, walking), venue (at the movies, airport), cities  (in Tokyo), and battery status (low battery, charging), are some of categories of what Auto Status shares.

A Facebook Messenger communications representative confirmed to TechCrunch that the Auto Status feature was being prototyped by Messenger, noting that “We’re always exploring new features to improve your Messenger experience. This feature is still in early development and not externally testing.” The company also tweeted the statement.

One of the biggest unsolved problems in social networking and messaging remains knowing whether friends are free to chat or hang out without having to ask them directly. Reaching out at the wrong time only to be ignored or rejected can feel awkward, intimidating, and discourage connection later. But if you have a vague idea of what a close friend is up to, you can more deftly plan when to message them, and be more likely to get to spend time together in person or just online.

That could be a cure to the loneliness that endless feed scrolling by ourselves can leave us feeling.