Company / division: Facebook
How Messenger and “M” Are Shifting Gears — The Information (Feb 22, 2017)
Facebook’s M assistant in its original conception was a virtual assistant a la Siri or Cortana which lived in Messenger, but one which was being trained by humans while it was available to a very limited number of users. Over time, it became clear that the process of handing off from humans to AI for the broad set of tasks M was supposed to be able to handle wasn’t going well, and it appears Facebooks somewhat went back to the drawing board on that. At the same time, the bot strategy within Messenger hasn’t gone well either, with limited developer and user adoption. Facebook now seems to have decided to combine these two failing projects into a new one which it presumably hopes will go better – M will pop up from time to time in Messenger conversions between friends to offer to complete certain tasks based on context. That’s probably a better, narrower use case for an AI assistant, but it also has serious potential to be creepy to users having what they will perceive to be a private conversation. And herein lies one of the biggest challenges with AI and bots – in order to be useful, they need to insert themselves into private conversations, which means they need to listen in on private conversations, much like Google’s advertising within Gmail has always been context based. In theory, only computers are eavesdropping, but that doesn’t stop people from objecting. I’m not convinced yet that this is the right answer either for Facebook’s M or bot strategies.
via The Information
This is a fascinating confluence of a couple of different things – mobile money transfers and Facebook’s bot strategy. Facebook already offers money transfers directly through Messenger, but only in the US, while it began pushing bots in Messenger early last year without much success. It appears TransferWise, a young but successful European money transfer provider, is leveraging the bot platform in Messenger to enable mobile money transfers between multiple additional countries. As far as I can tell, the bot side of things is incidental – this is really about leveraging the network that exists on Messenger for painless payments, and a bot happens to be the mechanism. In that sense, it’s very similar to the iMessage integrations for payment providers Apple offers in iOS 10 – this is mostly about adding a financial layer to existing interactions.
Pirate Soccer Streams Thrive on Facebook – El Pais (Feb 21, 2017)
There have been a couple of stories recently about Facebook finding ways to detect and either crack down on or monetize pirated music on the platform, but this analysis from Spanish newspaper El Pais demonstrates that music is far from the only thing being pirated regularly on Facebook. It appears that there are massively popular streams – the article cites a recent game between Barcelona and Real Madrid where one stream alone had 700,000 viewers – which go largely unchecked on Facebook. The key to their success is that users follow Pages which post links to streams hosted by other entities – because the aggregators themselves never infringe on any copyright, they can build big audiences and merely direct them at whatever streams are available. As Facebook gets ever more serious about video on the platform, it’s going to have to get better at detecting infringing live streams in real time, especially if it wants to win the trust of traditional broadcasters.
via El Pais (in Spanish)
Yet another use for Facebook’s very successful cloning of Snapchat’s Stories feature in Instagram, this time coming to WhatsApp. This is also another feature-level attempt to take share from Snapchat, which again seems to be what’s finally working for Facebook, in contrast to the whole-app approach it once favored. In this case, Facebook is ditching the Stories name and instead putting this feature in the Status slot in WhatsApp, but it looks like the format is very much the same.
Zuckerberg manifesto removes reference to Facebook monitoring ‘private channels’ – Business Insider (Feb 17, 2017)
Kudos to Mashable, which first noticed that one paragraph in a 6,000-word manifesto had been changed from the original to the final version (I covered the manifesto itself yesterday). And kudos, too, to Business Insider for following up with Facebook to find out why it was removed. The official explanation is that the paragraph talked too specifically about a capability Facebook hasn’t finalized yet, but it’s at least as likely that Facebook worried it would cause major privacy concerns. The paragraph in question talked about using AI to detect terrorists in private channels, which rather flies in the face of Facebook’s commitment to encryption and protecting privacy. As with much else in the letter, I think it was likely intended to be mostly aspirational rather than specific, but the original paragraph was rather tone deaf about how such an idea would be received even in such high-level terms.
via Business Insider
Mark Zuckerberg Pens a Personal and Facebook Manifesto (Feb 16, 2017)
Mark Zuckerberg has posted a combination personal and Facebook manifesto to the site, and has also been speaking to a variety of reporters about it over the last day or so. The manifesto is long and covers a ton of ground, some of it about the state of the world but much of it at least indirectly and often quite directly about Facebook and its role in such a world. In some ways, this builds on comments Zuckerberg made at the F8 developer conference last year, and it mostly stays at a similar high level, talking about grand ideas and issues at the 30,000 foot level rather than naming particular politicians or being more specific. To the extent that Zuckerberg is talking about how to use Facebook as a force for good in the world, this is admirable at least to a point. He clearly now both recognizes and is willing to admit to a greater extent than previously the role Facebook has played in some of the negative trends (and I believe this piece contains his first proactive use of the phrase “fake news”), and wants to help fix them, though much of his commentary on what’s going wrong spreads the blame more broadly. I’m also a little concerned that, although many of the problems Facebook creates stem from the service’s massive and increasing power over our lives, the solutions he proposes mostly seem to be about increasing Facebook’s power rather than finding ways to limit it. To some extent, that’s natural given who he is, but it suggests an ongoing unwillingness to recognize the increasing mediation of our world by big forces like Facebook and Google and the negative impact that can have. Still, it’s good to see more open communication on issues like this from a major tech leader – I’d love to see more of this kind of thing (as I wrote last summer in this piece).
Facebook has one of the biggest global audiences – perhaps the biggest – of any technology company, and it seems constantly tempted to try to leverage that audience for more things, with the next on the list recruiting services a la LinkedIn. I’m hugely skeptical about this – it’s one thing to know that a potential employer might scour social media accounts, but quite another to serve up your personal account directly in the application. I just don’t think most applicants want their Facebook profile to be front and center in their job hunting. In addition, even in the unlikely event Facebook were to match LinkedIn’s scale in this business, that’s a half-billion-a-quarter business, or about a tenth of Facebook’s current revenues. In other words, this is unlikely to take off, and even if it does, it won’t make a huge difference to Facebook’s business.
via USA Today
More news out of Recode’s Code Media conference today (after Apple’s last night). This one was actually reported by the Wall Street Journal a little while ago and I commented on it then. I’m still a little skeptical about this, but there weren’t many more details in the announcement, and so we’ll have to see what the app actually looks like and how it works – I do think there’s potential for Facebook to use some of its clever technology to present people with a better feed of relevant video, but I think that’s some way off still. Also worth noting: Facebook will have apps for Amazon and Apple TV boxes as well as Samsung smart TVs, but not for Android TV. And of course Twitter already has a TV app, mostly useful for its live video, though there as here the big questions remains whether the companies can actually sell enough ads around this video to make the effort worthwhile.
Billboard reported at the end of December that Facebook was working on a Content ID-like system for policing music rights infringement on the site, and this Bloomberg piece suggests more of the same. There are several challenges here. Firstly, most Facebook video is published privately, so it’s impossible for outsiders to truly gauge the scale of infringing content. Secondly, a lot of the music videos shared on Facebook are covers, not originals, making detection tough. And third, though Facebook wants to set itself up as a more attractive alternative to YouTube, with advertising as its business model it’s unlikely to pay out at a much higher rate, and in fact may detract from the progress being made by paid streaming services in compensating artists more adequately by creating yet another massive source of free music listening. As such, I’m not convinced that the labels should jump too quickly into bed with Facebook. And that’s tough for Facebook because it clearly wants to take share from YouTube, but music is a huge component of the latter’s popularity.
I’ve changed the headline here to make it a bit more specific, but there’s actually quite a lot more to this speech, and although the article is a little hyperbolic, I do think this is important. Procter & Gamble is the world’s biggest advertiser, so its views and policies with regard to digital advertising are worth paying attention to. Its chief brand officer just gave a speech in which he railed against programmatic advertising and the broader opaque digital advertising supply chain, the power of Facebook and Google, inconsistent standards for measuring ad viewability, and more. Some of the very same things big ad-centric companies are constantly touting as key to their businesses are the same things that are causing consternation among major advertisers, and that’s a tension that isn’t going away anytime soon. Facebook is making strides on its metrics screwups from late last year, but programmatic – which Google talks up every quarter – is getting terrible press at the moment in relation to ads showing up on unappealing sites, and it feels like there are changes coming here. Worth reading the whole article just to see some of the big frustrations advertisers are working through and the possible impacts.
via Marketing Week
This is yet another bit of damage control by Facebook in the wake of its metrics problems in late 2016, and the MRC partnership has been in the works for some time (see the full timeline on the “Facebook’s Bad Metrics” narrative page). It sounds like marketers are reassured by some of these moves, which combine better third party auditing with some new video ad buying options.
Billboard does an annual Power 100 ranking of the most important/influential execs in the music industry. Coming at this from a tech angle, there are several notable companies on the list: Spotify’s Daniel Ek takes the top spot, several Apple folks are at #4, Amazon at #12, iHeartMedia at #19, YouTube at #30, Pandora at #34, Facebook is at #54, and various others are scattered through the second 50. Amazon’s ranking is surprisingly high, but is entirely due to Billboard’s perception of Echo and Alexa’s role in transforming music, as illustrated by Billboard’s interview with Jeff Bezos and Amazon Music head Steve Boom. I think the take here is a little overblown, but there’s no doubt Echo and Alexa are changing the experience of music for the small minority of people who use them. YouTube’s relatively low ranking is surprising given how important a channel the site is for the music industry, but of course its relationship with the labels and artists is complicated. This kind of ranking exercise is always somewhat arbitrary, but it’s interesting to get a music industry take on the tech companies and their relative importance here.
Facebook has to this point been focused entirely on making it easy to share and enjoy content created by others, whether that’s its nearly 2 billion users, news organizations, TV stations, or others. To the extent that Facebook has tried to begin hosting some content, that content has still been created by other entities, even if it now lives on Facebook in either its native video platform or Facebook Instant Articles. However, it looks like that might start changing soon, with this hire from MTV. Lefevre doesn’t specify in her Facebook post what exactly she’s going to be working on, but does say she’s going to help build “Facebook’s original content”, and given her past expertise in TV, it seems reasonable to assume video will be a focus. There’s obviously a broader trend of platforms owning more of their own content, from HBO to Netflix and Amazon to Apple and so on, but this is new for Facebook. I’m very curious what the focus will be here – there are so many possible directions Facebook could go in with original video, though scripted dramas a la Netflix seem like a poor fit.
On Facebook’s earnings call recently, it was asked what drove recent stellar growth in Asia (133 million new MAUs year on year, and 28 million DAUs quarter on quarter), and answered that there were three drivers: Internet.org, Android improvements including Facebook Lite, and third party promotional free data plans in places like India, which was the strongest single growth market. Internet.org actually only accounts for a small amount of growth – the last update the company provided was 40 million total users back in November 2016, so although it’s a high profile project for the company it’s not that significant. But today Facebook announced that Facebook Lite has 200 million users, which is over 10% of its total MAUs, and over a quarter of its combined Asia and Rest of World users, which is the vast majority of the target base. So this is the real success story here, and it’s just about making the app more bandwidth efficient for emerging markets, not about zero rating. Now, obviously those 200 million aren’t all incremental new users for Facebook – some will have switched from using the regular app – but this is a big growth driver for Facebook. Also worth noting is that all those three growth drivers are about either bandwidth efficiency or paying less (or nothing) for the same bandwidth – this is the single biggest factor in Facebook’s growth in emerging markets.
This is another one of those times where it feels like the Facebook copying Snapchat narrative might have been a little over-applied. It seems as though Snap has hired and/or acquired an engineer and his firm in Switzerland, whose expertise is making it harder for outsiders to reverse engineer code. The Facebook read here implies that Facebook is actually reverse engineering the code rather than simply building equivalent features from scratch. To the extent that this is about preventing copying, it’s far likelier to be a response to smaller outfits cloning Snapchat than Facebook, which has many engineers more than capable of building these features without reverse engineering code.
Facebook closing 200 Oculus VR Best Buy pop-ups due to poor store performance – Business Insider (Feb 8, 2017)
One of the biggest challenges VR faces at this point is suggestions that it’s somehow failing to take off despite a big push into the mainstream, and that’s a narrative Business Insider has pushed before. This is where narratives are dangerous – the fact here is that VR is that VR is still in its infancy as a mainstream technology – other than the mobile flavors, it’s expensive, requires other expensive hardware, and there’s not a ton of content there beyond gaming. But if the narrative instead becomes that it’s fizzling as it attempts to break into the mainstream, that is a lot more damaging than merely talking about a technology that has small but growing adoption. VR can, however, already be fairly compelling as a demo, which is why it’s a blow that Facebook is closing these Oculus demo stations, because VR is really impossible to grok without trying it in person. But those trying to sell VR have to be very careful not to oversell it to mainstream users – it still has quite a long way to go before it crosses the chasm, and making it seem bigger than it is feeds this dangerous narrative.
via Business Insider
Though the NetEase tie-up is the main “new news” here, the broader story is that there are still important barriers to Google getting back into China (just as there are for Facebook), the thorniest of which is whether Google sacrifices its stance on censorship in order to re-enter the market. That was the primary reason it left back in 2010, and yet the Chinese government’s approach hasn’t really changed in the interim. Unlike Facebook, which is prevented by the government from operating in China at all, Google chose to leave China of its own volition, and the main barrier to re-entry would be deciding to go back in despite the moral quandaries inherent in such a choice. This is where Apple’s history in China is interesting – as first and foremost a hardware company, it has been able to run the core part of its business just as it does elsewhere, with any censorship applying to narrow slices of its overall business, such as individual apps in the App Store or the iBooks store as a whole. For Google and Facebook, however, access to information is their central value proposition, and so sacrificing the completeness of that offering to censorship is a much bigger concession.
via The Information
Google and Facebook to help French newsrooms combat ‘fake news’ ahead of presidential election – VentureBeat (Feb 6, 2017)
If only these companies had made such a concerted effort to combat fake news in the US a year ago rather than only really springing into action in the very late stages of last year’s presidential campaign (and in Facebook’s case, mostly after it was over). It appears both companies are taking their duty to put accuracy above ad revenue a bit more seriously in France than they did in the US, a sign of increased realism about the power that each company has in shaping the news people see.
Last week, Recode reported that several big tech companies were drafting a letter to the Trump administration on immigration, though I still can’t find confirmation that this letter has actually been sent. However, those tech companies and many others have now filed an official friend of the court brief in the lawsuit being brought against the administration by the states of Minnesota and Washington. This steps things up a notch, formally putting the 97 companies behind the brief on the other side of a court case from the administration. As with the early condemnations of the executive orders just over a week ago, Amazon is notable by its absence, as is Tesla (whose CEO Elon Musk has continued to sit on the advisory council Uber CEO Travis Kalanick vacated last week). Tesla’s absence is consistent with Musk’s overall stated strategy of trying to bring change from within, but Amazon’s absence may simply be due to the fact that it weighed in on the case separately earlier in the process (though Microsoft has participated at both stages).
Update: this tweet explains that Amazon was asked not to sign the amicus brief because it was a witness in the original case.
The topic of fake news and the related topic of filter bubbles has been one BuzzFeed has been particularly strong on in recent months (abuse on Twitter is another). This analysis is fascinating, and shows how even the experience of watching video on Facebook can be colored by the outlets a user chooses to follow. This isn’t quite the same as Facebook’s algorithms showing users different things – in this experiment, the user consciously chose to watch either a Fox News or Fusion live video stream. But it’s a great illustration of how users on Facebook can have completely different experiences even when engaging with the same underlying content.