Archive for the ‘Social’ Category

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Stealing a page right out of a startup called
Aggregift’s playbook, Amazon today launched a new
feature called “Amazon Birthday Gift,” which allows a
group of Facebook friends to go in on an
Amazon.com Gift Card together. That gift isn’t posted
to the recipients’ Facebook Timeline until their big day arrives. To get started with the service, a user buys an
Amazon.com gift card, then invites other mutual
friends to donate using the Birthday Gift website here.
When the birthday arrives, the recipient is tagged in a
Facebook Timeline wall post, receiving the digital
card and everyone’s birthday greetings. The new addition is a further expansion of Amazon’s
deepening integration with Facebook, as the company
last December launched a “Friends and Family
Gifting” feature just ahead of the holidays to
generate Facebook-enabled gift suggestions, send
out reminders, and enable gift list sharing via both email and social networks. Online competitor
Walmart, too, had previously launched a similar
Facebook-based gift recommendation service in
2011, which was added to the Walmart.com site
ahead of the 2012 holiday season. Social gifting is still very much in the experimental
phase, despite the support from e-commerce giants
like Walmart, Amazon and others. For instance,
Facebook has also dabbled in this area with the fall
2012 debut of Facebook Gifts (built on top of former
social gifting startup Karma). The service is meant to tie into one of Facebook’s most regular draws — its
birthday reminders. The idea is that users could visit
the site, and in addition to wishing their friend “happy
birthday,” they could also add a gift to accompany
that message. The social network offers gifts like
iTunes digital Gift Cards and physical goods, and it even launched its own self-branded “Facebook
Card” earlier this year. However, even with Facebook’s broad reach, its Gifts
service has been struggling to generate serious
revenue, and certainly falling short of earlier
projections and estimations regarding its potential.
Meanwhile, some startups like Sincerely (with
Sesame) and recently funded Wrapp, carry on in this space, while others head off in new directions. Giftly,
for instance, exited to GiftCards.com this March,
while Boomerang has turned its focus to the B2B
market instead in recent months. That being said, Amazon still has a shot at winning
the social gifting space with its new Amazon Birthday
Gift feature, since it can be argued that users don’t
associate Facebook’s brand with spending or
shopping the way they do with Amazon. (See also:
various f-commerce struggles). Plus, Amazon’s cards are the go-to for the “generic” gift option, which people
buy when they don’t know what to get, or when they
need something last minute. However, the new service is still limited today to
smaller gift amounts ($1, $5, $10 and $25), which can
be a challenge for those attempting to raise funds for
a larger present like an electronics purchase. Plus,
being tied only to birthdays eliminates the big holiday,
graduation or wedding presents users may want to go in on together. Often these larger presents are led by
a close family member or friend who puts in a big
chunk of change, to which others pile on. Not
supporting these other types of gifting narrows the
already potentially narrow market for digital, social
gifting even further. Amazon Birthday Gift is live now here for interested
users.

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We’ve been working on getting more details on a
press event that Facebook is having this week.
Earlier, we wrote it could launch a news-reading app,
but we have since heard more details that point to
something else entirely. On June 20, a source says
Facebook will unveil that Instagram, its popular photo- sharing app, will begin to let people also take and
share short videos. Call it the Vine effect. We are still looking for more information because we
understand that Facebook has not wanted the details
of June 20 to leak out — so this could be an
intentional blind alley. But if the Instagram video
report is true, you could say the event invite itself —
sent by snail mail, coffee cup stain charmingly in one corner — is a red herring of its own. Earlier reports about Instagram getting video provide
some indication, though, that this is not coming out of
the blue. Most recently, about three weeks ago
Matthew Keys broke a story noting that such a
service was getting tested internally. At the time,
there wasn’t any information on when it would be coming out, nor whether there would be filters, nor
whether this would be in a separate app or part of an
Instagram update. The videos would be between five
and 10 seconds in length, he noted. Getting video on Instagram is a move that would
make sense. Specifically, it looks like a direct
response to the rising popularity of video-sharing
services, namely Twitter’s Vine. It, and others like
Viddy, Cinemagram and Socialcam, sometimes get
described as “Instragram for video” apps. The Vine app — which lets users take six seconds of
video footage on an iOS or Android handset and then
share those clips to Vine’s own network, Twitter or
Facebook — has shot up in popularity since going
live in January. After Twitter debuted an Android
version of Vine in the beginning of June, usage reached a tipping point: shares of Vines surpassed
those of Instagram photos on Twitter — usage that
has only diverged even more since then: Of course, you could argue that part of the reason is
because Twitter no longer shows inline views of
Instagram photos — that may have affected how
many Instagram photos have been shared to Twitter. When those Instagram/Twitter cards disappeared, we
noted that part of the reason for the move — taken by
Facebook/Instagram, not Twitter — appeared to be to
drive more direct traffic to Instagram itself, a popular
social network in its own right, with over 100 million
monthly active users, rising sharply since Facebook bought the company last year for $715 million. Putting in a video service could serve to further that
strategy even more, before new-but-already-popular
services like Vine get more of a foothold. It will mean
one less app and social network for users to build up,
and, for those who like to take and share videos,
another reason to visit Instagram. You can see how something like video could be a very sticky
complement to its photo service. There could be another reason for adding video to the
service: it’s a very attractive medium for advertisers
and marketers. Of course, Instagram is not running any ads yet — in
fact, Facebook and Instagram got a lot of heat over
changes in their terms of service in December over
how it could implement advertising services in the
future — so much heat that they rolled back the ToS
and apologized. And in Facebook’s last quarterly earnings call, CEO Mark Zuckerberg made a point of
noting that while big brands were interested in
advertising on Instagram, for now there were no plans
to implement this. (That’s not to say that Instagram is
not already a substantial marketing platform for
brands.) And with 100 million+ users, you could argue that
there may not be enough scale there yet to really
monetize ads properly. Adding in video is laying the
groundwork — and providing one more engine to grow
that Instagrammer base.

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What better way for an anti-social app to get noticed
than by insulting its target audience? London-based
app design studio ustwo has just put up a pair of
billboards in the hipster heartland of Shoreditch, East
London, a stone’s throw from where its own studio is
based, which brazenly proclaim: You have no friends and No one likes you. The billboards, which will be teasing Shoreditch’s
hipsters for two weeks, are an experimental ad
campaign for one of ustwo’s recent apps: random
photo-sharing app Rando, which launched back in
March on iOS. Rando has now also been rolled out on
to Android and Windows Phone. Last month ustwo said the app had racked up a full five million of its
entirely social-less random photo shares after around
two months in the wild. So what’s with the anti-social insults? Rando’s
schtick is that it eschews all the usual social
paraphernalia developers typically embed in their
apps. There’s no Facebook sign-in, zero social
sharing options at all, no comments, no likes, no
favourites, no followers/followees. There’s also no way to tell who gets the photos you share/receive,
beyond a general location. It’s deliberately —
liberatingly — stripped of context. Turning to a fixed-location, paper-based advertising
medium may seem pretty old school but Silicon
Valley has long had a bit of a thing with billboards.
ustwo’s Matt Miller tells TechCrunch that’s certainly
one reason he was keen to experiment with papering
giant fliers atop one of Shoreditch’s busier junctions. “I’ve always been interested in billboards since flying
out to San Fran in 2012. I remember during a taxi
journey over there, being really impressed with the
billboards and thinking to myself how I’d love to see
our work pushed that way back home,” he says. The cost of the Rando billboard campaign is “around
the same amount it would cost us to develop a small
app”, according to Mills. But it’s the only paid
marketing ustwo intends to do for Rando — relying
instead on “the virality of the concept” to keep it
travelling, which, ironically enough, has led to plenty of organic chatter on social sites like Twitter and
Instagram. “The irony of Rando is that the majority of promotion
very much is driven by the virality of the concept.
We’ve had a range of people talking about it on
Twitter and Instagram — with a lot saying how much
they love the anti-social element of the app. Other
than the billboards we won’t be advertising though… we’d rather someone influential picks is up organically
and spreads the word,” he says. The point of the billboards is thus to provoke and
spark debate – ustwo is certainly not expecting them
to trigger a goldrush of downloads — but if it’s virality
you’re after, debate and controversy are your (anti-
social) friends. “We hope people will talk, and be
intrigued,” Mills adds. That said, he does also reckon the billboards help to
“validate Rando as a quality brand” — showing how,
despite everything going digital, paper advertising is
still clinging to cachet and a lasting sheen, perhaps
even more so as digital ads have cheapened and
proliferated. And that despite the impact of paper- based marketing being far more elusive vs
measurable clicks. “We wanted to raise awareness of Rando within the
tech and design scene in and around our studio in
East London. Also to make the point that in a world
so dominated by digital development, we still believe
that old school display advertising has the power that
no digital can match on a local level in terms of making a big statement,” he says. “We originally came up with the straplines a few
months back and mocked them up into billboards. We
had a lot of interest with people asking if they were
real or not – which made us decide to actually run
them. The ‘no one likes you’ and ‘you have no friends’
message was something we wanted to get out there. The straplines themselves are perfect for Rando and
so far removed from the majority of other advertising
messages you see out there by big brands, that we
had to go for it.” As for the anti-social stuff in general — that’s always
been and continues to be another experiment for
ustwo. “Consolidation of anything that people want to
engage in, without social validation, is something that
really fascinates us and hopefully Rando means we
learn a lot more about it,” he adds. So yeah, Shoreditch hipsters, for the next few week
read this and weep…

Facebook Through Glass

Updated. As the PRISM scandal shows no signs of dying down in the public consciousness,Facebook has just released the fullest account to date of the requests it has received from United States law enforcement and governmental authorities for the data surrounding its users.

To borrow a phrase from local news sizzle reels, the numbers may surprise you.

In a report issued today on Facebook’s company blog, general counsel Ted Ullyot wrote:

“For the six months ending December 31, 2012, the total number of user-data requests Facebook received from any and all government entities in the U.S. (including local, state, and federal, and including criminal and national security-related requests) – was between 9,000 and 10,000. These requests run the gamut – from things like a local sheriff trying to find a missing child, to a federal marshal tracking a fugitive, to a police department investigating an assault, to a national security official investigating a terrorist threat. The total number of Facebook user accounts for which data was requested pursuant to the entirety of those 9-10 thousand requests was between 18,000 and 19,000 accounts.

With more than 1.1 billion monthly active users worldwide, this means that a tiny fraction of one percent of our user accounts were the subject of any kind of U.S. state, local, or federal U.S. government request (including criminal and national security-related requests) in the past six months. We hope this helps put into perspective the numbers involved, and lays to rest some of the hyperbolic and false assertions in some recent press accounts about the frequency and scope of the data requests that we receive.”

More information can be found here, and we’re updating the story as it develops.

UPDATE: Microsoft has followed suit, releasing its own figures on official U.S. data requests including FISA orders in its own blog post shortly following Facebook’s disclosures, writing:

“For the six months ended December 31, 2012, Microsoft received between 6,000 and 7,000 criminal and national security warrants, subpoenas and orders affecting between 31,000 and 32,000 consumer accounts from U.S. governmental entities (including local, state and federal).”

But at first blush, those numbers may not seem as scary as the initial reports on governmental surveillance of web activity would imply. Though the government under FISA does have the right to request as much information as it would like in the name of national security, it seems that those requests have affected a relatively tiny fraction of Facebook users.

For a bit of background: Facebook this week joined several other technology giants including Microsoft and Google in publicly asking the government to change the restrictions prohibiting them from being fully transparent about the extent of their cooperation in the U.S. government’s surveillance activities.

Thus far, requests that Facebook has received from the National Security Agency (NSA) have been kept secret because they are by definition confidential orders executed under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) — the secrecy is mandated in the name of keeping American citizens safe from equally secretive terrorist organizations. In short, anything under FISA is just like Fight Club — the first and most important rule is that it isn’t discussed.

Facebook has said recently that one reason it has refrained from issuing public statements about its involvement with governmental authorities (such as Google does with its Transparency Report) is because the existence of FISA would make such statements incomplete. In many ways, these companies’ hands have been tied if they want to keep complying with the law.

Now, many of us would love to see whistleblowers within these tech firms flout the law and talk about what exactly is going on, as Edward Snowden has — FISA be damned. Michael Arrington, who I personally think has been nailing exactly how the tech industry should be viewing this issue from day one on his Uncrunched blog, has issued a some compelling calls for industry folks to do just that — but up until now, we’ve only had tech companies asking for a bit more leeway and permission to talk.

While staying within the confines of the law, Facebook today has made a significant stride toward really opening up the way that the government handles its information gathering and disclosures — it will be interesting to see how other companies follow suit.

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The upcoming death of Google Reader  and the addition of hashtags signal Facebook will likely launch a new way to discover and read news at the June 20th press event it’s just sent out mysterious invites to. It could be a sort of “trending articles on Facebook” feature, or a more full-blown RSS reader-style product.

Either could take advantage of Facebook’s massive treasure trove of aggregate data on what people share to surface popular and personally recommended news articles.

The event invite, first spotted by Joanna Stern of ABC News, says “A small team has been working on a big idea. Join us for coffee and learn about a new product.” The conspicuously analog invite was sent out via paper snail mail instead of by email like Facebook usually does. There’s also a coffee stain on the invite. You know where else you find coffee stains? On the newspaper, while you’re reading it, over coffee.

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Nobody knows what Facebook knows. Since most users share semi-privately, it can’t be scraped for trending topics. But Facebook’s algorithms see all. Similar to how it offers ad targeting data in anonymous aggregate, Facebook could surface what articles are being shared most frequently across its user base without violating privacy.

The product could potentially ket people follow outside sources of news through a format like RSS, but we can’t confirm that. The product is likely to take advantage of hashtags that Facebook users can now add to posts to help its algorithms understand what topics different news articles are about.

When I asked Facebook about what more it could do with its data on what people share, it initially offered to put me on the phone with someone, but ended up just referring me to the hashtag announcement from earlier this week. That blog post notes ”Hashtags are just the first step to help people more easily discover what others are saying about a specific topic and participate in public conversations. We’ll continue to roll out more features in the coming weeks and months.”

A better way to surface news could be that next step. In fact, I’m pretty much positive it is, though I couldn’t get anyone at Facebook to confirm on the record.

media3Whether the new product includes formal RSS reading capabilities that take advantage of the long-running content syndication standard remains to be seen. Asking users to choose different sources and subscribe to feeds of them could be a lot of work and seem somewhat redundant for the average Facebook user. Still, that kind of functionality could find an audience amongst hardcore Internet users.

As our Ingrid Lunden wrote yesterday, “Lines of code referring to “rssfeeds” have recently started to appear in Facebook’s Graph API code (as spotted by developer and Facebook sleuth Tom Waddington). Linking the RSS feed to a user’s Facebook ID, the code schema also covers such aspects as title, URL and update time. Each RSS feed subsequently has entries and subscribers.” This code could be part of the new product, but it also may be unrelated, having to do with a user’s own posts being an RSS feed, rather than a user reading feeds produced by others.

A Facebook news reader with RSS would come at a perfect time, just two weeks before Google shuts down Google Reader for good. The June 20th launch date might give Facebook just enough time to help people migrate onto its version.

Alternatively, Facebook’s new product could more resemble Reddit or a list trending articles based on what’s being shared the most on the social network. That would make it instantly and easily valuable to people.

Whatever it’s exact design, I hope it won’t just be a clone, but something that combines the unique social signals Facebook has access to with tried-and-true news consumption mediums.

A reader of any form would certainly qualify as a “big idea”, as Facebook is all about connecting you to people, things, and information you care about, and news is by definition what people care about. A successful launch could drastically increase time spent on Facebook, fill it with useful data about what topics people are interested in, offer new advertising opportunities around current events, and most importantly, make us all better informed citizens of Earth.