Snapchat has added one of its biggest new features in recent memory with the addition of Context Cards, which will be reached through a swipe up on a Snap tied to a specific location. The Context Cards will offer various additional details about the place, and also provide links to ride sharing and restaurant booking services as well as information like address, reviews, and so on. This is yet another move by Snapchat beyond its original limitations, along with the addition a while back of outbound linking from Snaps. What both of those features offer is a way to add additional detail and context to a Snap beyond the limited photo/video formats Snapchat has supported natively. It’s also an interesting alternative to voice assistants, bots, and other ways to add context to what’s currently happening on screen without the user having to type text into a search box. The feature certainly lends itself well to monetization opportunities in future too, whether advertising or revenue sharing with the initial or additional partners. However, as with other Snapchat features, it doesn’t feel particularly tough for others to emulate if successful.
Also worth noting, briefly, is the fact that Evan Spiegel, who has rarely done press interviews, did not one but two as part of the launch of this feature, as a sort of follow-on to his recent comments that he realizes he needs to do more public communication now that Snap is a public company.
Twitter Announces It’s Working on a Bookmarking Tool (Oct 10, 2017)
Several Twitter employees tweeted on Monday evening about a new feature the company is working on, which would allow users to bookmark tweets. This is a fix for the ambiguity of what started out as the “favorite” feature (denoted by a star) but morphed into a “like” feature symbolized by a heart – while some users have undoubtedly used it for bookmarking, it connotes approval of the tweet as well, which can send the wrong signals. Why Twitter feels the need to test this feature, which seems to work perfectly fine in the screenshots the employees shared, is beyond me – it feels like Twitter could have just pushed this feature out without testing it broadly, especially because it doesn’t break anything connected to the way Twitter works today and merely adds value. That’s indicative of the slow speed with which Twitter has fixed basic issues with the service over the last several years. More importantly, though, as with the recent change to the character limit (also still in testing), it still feels like Twitter is tinkering around the edges rather than fundamentally changing the experience in ways that would make it more accessible, especially to new or casual users.
Update: later in the day, Twitter also announced another feature, also covered by BuzzFeed here. This one feels much better aligned with what Twitter really needs to be working on in terms of making the site more usable for those who haven’t spent ages curating feeds, and it appears to be built on work the company previously did for its live video events. However, it’s still event-based and therefore somewhat limited – it doesn’t, for example, allow people to follow topics of ongoing interest.
Instagram Offers Cross-Posting of Stories to Facebook (Oct 5, 2017)
Facebook seems determined to keep trying to make the Stories format a success in its core app, even as all the evidence shows that hardly anyone is using it. The latest push is a feature which enables users of Instagram’s Stories feature to cross-post a Story created in that app over to the Facebook equivalent as well. That will certainly provide a low-friction way to get people to create content for the Facebook Stories feature, and will therefore likely lead to at least a small increase in usage. But the big difference between Instagram and Facebook is often the size and nature of the audience. Yes, some people have big followings in both places and for them cross-posting will be natural and even useful, but for many others the appeal of Instagram is the smaller, more intimate audience they publish to there in contrast to the mishmash of people known well and not so well that clutter many people’s Facebook networks. As such, the appeal and usage of the feature is likely to be somewhat limited, for all the same reasons that Facebook’s Stories feature in general hasn’t taken off.
Twitter has just made the surprise announcement that it’s testing expanding the 140-character limit that’s characterized the service from its inception to 280 characters in all languages except Japanese, Chinese, and Korean, which make far more efficient use of characters. Various people have suggested expanding the Twitter limit over time as a way to make the service more useful and less frustrating, but the 140-character limit has been a defining feature, forcing brevity and making streams of tweets very easy to consume. Even just looking at the first few 280-character tweets I’ve seen from Twitter executives has broken up my feed and forced a mental shift in my consumption. There’s something magical about the 140 character limit which makes the vast majority of tweets inherently glanceable in a way a 280 character tweet never will be. I continue to maintain that expanding the character limit and other superficial changes are peripheral to the real changes Twitter needs to make to go more mainstream – those changes instead need to revolve around getting beyond the account-by-account following model. This is a bold step for Twitter (albeit one still in testing) but it feels like it misses the mark in terms of making Twitter more useful. I’d argue that if removing constraints was the focus, Twitter should have found a way to attach longer blocks of text to tweets natively instead – that would have replaced the many screenshots of text people post, which aren’t searchable or readable by accessibility software, without breaking the fundamental model. Personally, I’m not a fan, but more importantly, I’m skeptical this will actually improve the Twitter experience in ways which lead to more usage and most importantly more users, which continues to be one of Twitter’s biggest challenges.
Facebook has Sprawling, Unfocused Plans for Marketplace (Aug 18, 2017)
Twitter Finally Adds Curation by Topic, But It’s Flawed (Aug 16, 2017)
Twitter has finally added curation by topic, but only as part of its Explore tab, and the implementation seems to be pretty flawed. I argued that Twitter needed to get beyond its account-centric model to enable further growth in a piece written a year ago this week, so I welcome the move in principle. But the topic-based feeds are buried behind the search button, and the actual content in the various feeds feels unfocused and often irrelevant. More to the point, this topic-based approach needs to be part of the on boarding experience for Twitter, which has remained far too account-centric and therefore overwhelming for new users, something I documented here a few months back. So this is a step in the right direction, but needs to go further.
Today’s Instagram announcement is ostensibly about the launch of live video replays, a new feature that allows users to save their live videos for 24 hours as an Instagram Story. However, the part most outlets I’ve seen have focused on is the announcement of 250 million daily active users for Instagram Stories as a whole, which is naturally being compared once again with Snapchat’s overall user numbers. That’s always a bit disingenuous because comparing a single feature in an app with 700 monthly active users with daily active user numbers for a standalone app isn’t a like for like comparison – some large number of people who regularly use Instagram as an app might occasionally dip into Stories without ever posting one, while the average Snapchat daily active user spend sover 30 minutes in the app every day, suggesting a very different level of engagement. But this is the inevitable comparison, not just because the Stories feature was copied from Snapchat but also because its launch seems to have come at just the time Snapchat user growth slowed. The reality is that Facebook’s reach is now such across its many apps that it can easily launch new features and services and have them reach this kind of scale, and in the process eat into the time spent in other apps, but I don’t think anyone at Facebook would suggest that Instagram Stories by themselves generate nearly the engagement of Snapchat as an app, and even Instagram as an app likely only generates the same engagement and time spent as Snapchat among a minority of users. But that doesn’t mean Instagram Stories isn’t a huge hit for Instagram and a great way to neutralize the ongoing threat presented by Snapchat as a competitor, especially among the demographics where it hasn’t yet gained wide adoption.
Amazon Adds Reminders and Named Timers to Alexa (Jun 2, 2017)
Skype is one of those odd products – a fairly sizable communications property owned by a major tech company, and yet one which doesn’t make much money, isn’t growing much, and hasn’t really been focused on either messaging or social communication. It’s been clear, though, for some time that Microsoft would very much like Skype to be a big part of its consumer push and become more of a messaging- centric app, and the makeover it announced today seems like a big step in that direction. The new design, rolling out first on Android and later on other platforms, puts social sharing and messaging much more prominently in the app, but that’s no guarantee that people will actually use those features more or even see Skype as a natural place to do that kind of sharing. I only ever use Skype for work phone calls at this point, and others I’ve spoken to who use its messaging features use those almost exclusively for work communication too, so I’d be very curious to hear more from Microsoft about who is using messaging on Skype and what they’re using it for. My guess is that, for all the changes Microsoft is making here, it won’t be that much more successful than in the past in making Skype a mainstream consumer service or app for social communication and messaging. It doesn’t have the brand or the user base to make that objective work. It’s also adding in more bots, an effort that began with a bang at Build last year but has been quiet since, but again those will only be relevant inasmuch as people are spending a lot of time in Skype already and want and expect to find those interactions with brands and companies there. In the end, I don’t see anything here that makes me think Skype is going to become a radically different animal, even if it might look quite different after these changes. And that’s emblematic of Microsoft’s broader consumer challenges: it simply doesn’t have a broad-based consumer play at this point beyond productivity.