Reminder: Other people’s lives are not fodder for your feeds

#PlaneBae

You should cringe when you read that hashtag. Because it’s a reminder that people are being socially engineered by technology platforms to objectify and spy on each other for voyeuristic pleasure and profit.

The short version of the story attached to the cringeworthy hashtag is this: Earlier this month an individual, called Rosey Blair, spent all the hours of a plane flight using her smartphone and social media feeds to invade the privacy of her seat neighbors — publicly gossiping about the lives of two strangers.

Her speculation was set against a backdrop of rearview creepshots, with a few barely there scribbles added to blot out actual facial features. Even as an entire privacy invading narrative was being spun unknowingly around them.

#PlanePrivacyInvasion would be a more fitting hashtag. Or #MoralVacuumAt35000ft

And yet our youthful surveillance society started with a far loftier idea associated with it: Citizen journalism.

Once we’re all armed with powerful smartphones and ubiquitously fast Internet there will be no limits to the genuinely important reportage that will flow, we were told.

There will be no way for the powerful to withhold the truth from the people.

At least that was the nirvana we were sold.

What did we get? Something that looks much closer to mass manipulation. A tsunami of ad stalking, intentionally fake news and social media-enabled demagogues expertly appropriating these very same tools by gamifying mind-less, ethically nil algorithms.

Meanwhile, masses of ordinary people + ubiquitous smartphones + omnipresent social media feeds seems, for the most part, to be resulting in a kind of mainstream attention deficit disorder.

Yes, there is citizen journalism — such as people recording and broadcasting everyday experiences of aggression, racism and sexism, for example. Experiences that might otherwise go unreported, and which are definitely underreported.

That is certainly important.

But there are also these telling moments of #hashtaggable ethical blackout. As a result of what? Let’s call it the lure of ‘citizen clickbait’ — as people use their devices and feeds to mimic the worst kind of tabloid celebrity gossip ‘journalism’ by turning their attention and high tech tools on strangers, with (apparently) no major motivation beyond the simple fact that they can. Because technology is enabling them.

Social norms and common courtesy should kick in and prevent this. But social media is pushing in an unequal and opposite direction, encouraging users to turn anything — even strangers’ lives — into raw material to be repackaged as ‘content’ and flung out for voyeuristic entertainment.

It’s life reflecting commerce. But a particularly insidious form of commerce that does not accept editorial let alone ethical responsibility, has few (if any) moral standards, and relies, for continued function, upon stripping away society’s collective sense of privacy in order that these self-styled ‘sharing’ (‘taking’ is closer to the mark) platforms can swell in size and profit.

But it’s even worse than that. Social media as a data-mining, ad-targeting enterprise relies upon eroding our belief in privacy. So these platforms worry away at that by trying to disrupt our understanding of what privacy means. Because if you were to consider what another person thinks or feels — even for a millisecond — you might not post whatever piece of ‘content’ you had in mind.

For the platforms it’s far better if you just forget to think.

Facebook’s business is all about applying engineering ingenuity to eradicate the thoughtful friction of personal and societal conscience.

That’s why, for instance, it uses facial recognition technology to automate content identification — meaning there’s almost no opportunity for individual conscience to kick in and pipe up to quietly suggest that publicly tagging others in a piece of content isn’t actually the right thing to do.

Because it’s polite to ask permission first.

But Facebook’s antisocial automation pushes people away from thinking to ask for permission. There’s no button provided for that. The platform encourages us to forget all about the existence of common courtesies.

So we should not be at all surprised that such fundamental abuses of corporate power are themselves trickling down to infect the people who use and are exposed to these platforms’ skewed norms.

Viral episodes like #PlaneBae demonstrate that the same sense of entitlement to private information is being actively passed onto the users these platforms prey on and feed off — and is then getting beamed out, like radiation, to harm the people around them.

The damage is collective when societal norms are undermined.

#PlaneBae

Social media’s ubiquity means almost everyone works in marketing these days. Most people are marketing their own lives — posting photos of their pets, their kids, the latte they had this morning, the hipster gym where they work out — having been nudged to perform this unpaid labor by the platforms that profit from it.

The irony is that most of this work is being done for free. Only the platforms are being paid. Though there are some people making a very modern living; the new breed of ‘life sharers’ who willingly polish, package and post their professional existence as a brand of aspiration lifestyle marketing.

Social media’s gift to the world is that anyone can be a self-styled model now, and every passing moment a fashion shoot for hire — thanks to the largess of highly accessible social media platforms providing almost anyone who wants it with their own self-promoting shopwindow in the world. Plus all the promotional tools they could ever need.

Just step up to the glass and shoot.

And then your vacation beauty spot becomes just another backdrop for the next aspirational selfie. Although those aquamarine waters can’t be allowed to dampen or disrupt photo-coifed tresses, nor sand get in the camera kit. In any case, the makeup took hours to apply and there’s the next selfie to take…

What does the unchronicled life of these professional platform performers look like? A mess of preparation for projecting perfection, presumably, with life’s quotidian business stuffed higgledy piggledy into the margins — where they actually sweat and work to deliver the lie of a lifestyle dream.

Because these are also fakes — beautiful fakes, but fakes nonetheless.

We live in an age of entitled pretence. And while it may be totally fine for an individual to construct a fictional narrative that dresses up the substance of their existence, it’s certainly not okay to pull anyone else into your pantomime. Not without asking permission first.

But the problem is that social media is now so powerfully omnipresent its center of gravity is actively trying to pull everyone in — and its antisocial impacts frequently spill out and over the rest of us. And they rarely if ever ask for consent.

What about the people who don’t want their lives to be appropriated as digital windowdressing? Who weren’t asking for their identity to be held up for public consumption? Who don’t want to participate in this game at all — neither to personally profit from it, nor to have their privacy trampled by it?

The problem is the push and pull of platforms against privacy has become so aggressive, so virulent, that societal norms that protect and benefit us all — like empathy, like respect — are getting squeezed and sucked in.

The ugliness is especially visible in these ‘viral’ moments when other people’s lives are snatched and consumed voraciously on the hoof — as yet more content for rapacious feeds.

#PlaneBae

Think too of the fitness celebrity who posted a creepshot + commentary about a less slim person working out at their gym.

Or the YouTuber parents who monetize videos of their kids’ distress.

Or the men who post creepshots of women eating in public — and try to claim it’s an online art project rather than what it actually is: A privacy violation and misogynistic attack.

Or, on a public street in London one day, I saw a couple of giggling teenage girls watching a man at a bus stop who was clearly mentally unwell. Pulling out a smartphone, one girl hissed to the other: “We’ve got to put this on YouTube.”

For platforms built by technologists without thought for anything other than growth, everything is a potential spectacle. Everything is a potential post.

So they press on their users to think less. And they profit at society’s expense.

It’s only now, after social media has embedded itself everywhere, that platforms are being called out for their moral vacuum; for building systems that encourage abject mindlessness in users — and serve up content so bleak it represents a form of visual cancer.

#PlaneBae

Human have always told stories. Weaving our own narratives is both how we communicate and how we make sense of personal experience — creating order out of events that are often disorderly, random, even chaotic.

The human condition demands a degree of pattern-spotting for survival’s sake; so we can pick our individual path out of the gloom.

But platforms are exploiting that innate aspect of our character. And we, as individuals, need to get much, much better at spotting what they’re doing to us.

We need to recognize how they are manipulating us; what they are encouraging us to do — with each new feature nudge and dark pattern design choice.

We need to understand their underlying pull. The fact they profit by setting us as spies against each other. We need to wake up, personally and collectively, to social media’s antisocial impacts.

Perspective should not have to come at the expense of other people getting hurt.

This week the women whose privacy was thoughtlessly repackaged as public entertainment when she was branded and broadcast as #PlaneBae — and who has suffered harassment and yet more unwelcome attention as a direct result — gave a statement to Business Insider.

“#PlaneBae is not a romance — it is a digital-age cautionary tale about privacy, identity, ethics and consent,” she writes. “Please continue to respect my privacy, and my desire to remain anonymous.”

And as a strategy to push against the antisocial incursions of social media, remembering to respect people’s privacy is a great place to start.

Octi raises $7.5M to create augmented reality that understands human movement

The team at Octi says it’s building a crucial piece of the augmented reality puzzle — the ability to understand the human body and its movement.

Co-founder and CEO Justin Fuisz told me that most existing AR technologies (including Apple’s ARKit) tend to be “plane-based” — in other words, while they can make something cool appear against a real-world background, it’s usually on a flat surface, like a table or the floor.

Octi, on the other hand, recognizes where people are in-camera, and it can use that understanding to apply a variety of different effects.

For example, Fuisz and his team showed me how they could dance around their office while bright, squiggly lines overlaid their bodies — and then they erased their bodies entirely. They also showed me how effects could be tied to different gestures, like how a “make it rain” motion could result in dollar bills flying out of their hands.

To do this, Octi says it’s built sophisticated machine learning and computer vision technology. For starters, it looks at a human being and detects key points, like eyes, nose, hips and elbows, then uses those points to construct a model of a skeleton.

Fuisz suggested that the technology could be applied to a number of different industries, including fashion, fitness, entertainment and gaming. In fact, the company is announcing a partnership and strategic investment from the OneTeam Collective, the accelerator of the NFL Players Association. As a result, Octi plans to create and distribute avatars of more than 2,000 NFL players.

In addition, Octi is announcing that it has raised $7.5 million in seed funding from Shasta Ventures, I2BF Ventures, Bold Capital Partners, Day One Ventures, Human Ventures Live Nation and AB InBev, plus individuals, including former Pandora and Snap executive Tom Conrad, WeWork Chief Product Officer of Technology Shiva Rajaraman, Adobe Chief Product Officer Scott Belsky, A&D Networks Chairman Abbe Raven and Joshua Kushner.

If you want to try this out for yourself, the startup has its own iOS app — Fuisz described the app as a technology showcase for potential partners, but he added, “The app is available to the public and is totally awesome.”

Twitter lets advertisers “takeover” the Explore tab

Twitter is ready to squeeze a lot more money out of its trending topics. After minimizing its mediocre Moments feature and burying it inside the renamed Explore tab, Twitter is now starting to test Promoted Trend Spotlight ads. These put a big visual banner equipped with a GIF or image background atop Explore for the first two times you visit that day before settling back into the Trends list, with the first batch coming from Disney in the US.

These powerful new ad units demote organic content in Explore, which could make it less useful for getting a grip on what’s up in the world at a glance. But they could earn Twitter  strong revenue by being much more eye-catching than the traditional Timeline ads that people often skip past. That could further fuel Twitter’s turnaround after it soundly beat revenue estimates in Q1 with $665 million. Its share price of about $44 is near its 52-week high, and almost 3X its low for the year.

“We are continuing to explore new ways to enhance our takeover offerings and give brands more high-impact opportunities to drive conversation and brand awareness on our platform” a Twitter spokesperson told TechCrunch.

The Promoted Trend Spotlight ads are bought as an add-on to the existing Promoted Trends ads that are inserted amongst the list of Twitter’s most popular topics. When tapped, they open a feed of tweets with that headline with one of the advertiser’s related tweets at the top. Back in February AdAge reported whispers of a new visual redesign for Promoted Trends. You can view a demo of the experience below.

Anthy Price, Disney’s Executive Vice President for Media provided TechCrunch with a statement, saying “The Promoted Trend Spotlight on Twitter allowed us to prominently highlight Winnie the Pooh & celebrate the launch of ticket sales for Christopher Robin while four of the characters took over major Disney handles on the platform to engage with fans.”

Historically, Twitter’s biggest problem was that people skimmed past ads. The old unfiltered Timeline trained users to pick and choose what they read, looking past anything that didn’t seem relevant including paid marketing. But with the shift to an algorithmic Timeline and bigger focus on video, Twitter has slowly retrained users to expect relevant content in every slot. Explore’s design with imagery at the top followed by a text list of Trends pulls attention to where these new Spotlight ads sit. With better monetization, Twitter will now have to concentrate on building better ways to get users to open Explore instead of just their feed, notifications, and DMs.

Facebook is testing augmented reality ads in the News Feed

Facebook is giving advertisers new ways to show off their products, including with augmented reality.

At its F8 developer conference earlier this year, Facebook announced that it was working with businesses to use AR to show off products in Messenger. Now a similar experience will start appearing in the News Feed, with a select group of advertisers testing out AR ads.

Ty Ahmad-Taylor, vice president of product marketing for Facebook’s global marketing solutions, showed off ads that incorporated his face into Candy Crush gameplay footage, and other ads that allowed shoppers to see how virtual sunglasses and makeup would look on their own faces.

“People traditionally have to go into stores to do this,” Ahmad-Taylor said. “People still really love that experience, but they would like to try it at home” — so this “bridges the gap.”

These ads look like normal in-feed ads at first, but they include a “Tap to try it on” option, which opens up the AR capabilities. And of course if you like the way it looks in AR, you can go ahead and buy the product.

Facebook says Michael Kors was the first brand to test out AR ads in the News Feed, with Sephora, NYX Professional Makeup, Bobbi Brown, Pottery Barn, Wayfair and King planning their own tests for later this summer.

Ahmad-Taylor made the announcement this morning at a New York City event for journalists and marketers highlighting Facebook’s advertising plans for the holidays.

In addition, he announced a new Video Creation Kit, which will allow advertisers to incorporate existing images into templates for mobile video ads. According to weight loss company Noom, which has been testing out these tools, the resulting videos performed 77 percent better than the static images.

Lastly, Facebook says it will continue to expand its support for shopping in Instagram Stories. It made shopping tags available to select brands in Stories last month, and for the holidays, it plans to roll that out to all brands that have enabled shopping in Instagram. It’s also making its collections ad format available to all advertisers.

Captiv8 is making its influencer database available for free

You might think that the main selling point of an influencer marketing startup like Captiv8 is to help marketers find influencers and creators to work with. Maybe so, but that isn’t stopping the company from making its creator discovery product available for free.

“We felt that we really wanted to just open up that ecosystem, to provide brands access to find and research influencers without having to pay for it,” co-founder Krishna Subramanian told me.

Through the free product, marketers can look through the 1 million-plus influencers indexed on the platform — in some cases, those profiles are based entirely on public data, but influencers can also claim them and provide additional data.

Marketers can then search based on filters like personality archetype, content type, location, representation and much more. Plus, Captiv8 is offering demographic and brand affinity data about an influencer’s audiences.

Until now, Subramanian said that if you weren’t paying for a service like Captiv8, you could only find influencers in scattershot, ad hoc ways, like reading articles about the top influencers in various categories.

Captiv8 Creator Discovery

On Captiv8, meanwhile, marketers are apparently spending two hours per day on creator discovery, saving them 60 percent of the time they would have spent on the process.

So why make it available for free? While brands like Dr Pepper, Snapple, StubHub and Honda already use Captiv8, Subramanian said the goal is to “widen the funnel,” turning this into “the default place” where marketers go to learn about influencers.

And then, of course, the company can upsell you on Captiv8’s entire “end-to-end SaaS platform,” charging for additional audience data, as well as tools like campaign management, measurement and social listening.

UK job ad indicates Amazon wants to bring TV advertising and free TV channels to Prime

People have long wondered if one of Amazon’s goals in video and advertising — two key areas in Amazon’s media strategy — ultimately would be to bring the two together, with Amazon-powered ads running in video streams also served by Amazon. A job ad in the U.K. appears to indicate that the company might be gearing up for such a play. According to the ad, the company is currently hiring for someone to lead its efforts in free-to-air TV and advertising in Europe.

Free-to-air TV refers to the range of ad-supported (or TV license-supported) TV channels that you can access through a digital TV tuner, satellite or cable without paying anything to receive them.

The advertisement for the job when it was posted four weeks ago was titled, “Head of Free to Air TV & Advertising.” Yesterday, after people started noticing it (and what it implied about Amazon’s plans), Amazon appeared to change it to a slightly more muddled “Head of Prime Video Channels Free To Air TV & Advertising TV Partner Channels.” Then this morning, as we started asking questions, the title appeared to change again, to “Head of Prime Video Partner Channels” — without any reference to free-to-view or advertising. All the ads had the same job ID number.

“Channels have launched in US, UK and Germany and this is a new and fast-growing area within Prime Video,” the advertisement reads. “As part of this expansion we are seeking a senior leader to join the European Channels & Sports team, based in London. This individual will be responsible for widening the content range with the development of free and advertising-funded channels.”

The job ad notes that the responsibilities will include developing Prime Video’s European strategy for free-to-air and advertising-funded channels; collaborating with global peers; and working with major broadcasters across Europe, “translating their requirements into Amazon capabilities and execution for our customers.”

The person will also work with various internal teams — product, tech, ad sales, marketing, finance, operations — “and act as internal champion for free-to-air and advertising funded content.”

This is notable because currently it appears that Amazon does not have any free-to-air channels on its U.K. service (and an Amazon spokesperson would not directly answer me on this point and declined to provide a comment on the record for this story), and it’s also gearing up to have some free significant sports content on its platform, in the form of Premier League football matches.

Amazon’s current Prime Video offerings in the U.K. include films and TV shows it picks up by way of licensing deals with third parties; Amazon original content; and a selection of live-streamed broadcast channels (which include HBO, Showtime and Starz for now, Discovery and Eurosport in the U.K., as part of Amazon Channels, launched in March 2017). We’ve also heard it has been eyeing purchasing at least one commerce-minded broadcaster outright. Globally, Prime Video is live in 200 countries worldwide.

But as with its TV streams in the U.S., the TV streams in the Channels list are focused on premium subscriptions, where users have to pay extra fees, on top of their Prime subscriptions, to get the extra channels.

Offering free-to-air would be a significant move for the company not only because it would be “free,” but because it would represent a large jumpstart on the amount of content that Amazon presents to its users. Bringing in what are essentially table stakes in TV services, a large range of free channels could be another way of attracting more would-be cord cutters to switch over to Amazon for all of their video and TV interests, rather than using Amazon’s video offerings as a supplement to a core service from another provider.

And that, in turn, could become one more sweetener — alongside the other free video services, the free shipping, and many other perks — for people to pony up for the Prime annual subscription.

Amazon has never disclosed figures for how many viewers it has for its video service, in the U.K. or elsewhere, but a document leaked earlier this year that said it had 26 million viewers of its video content in early 2017. The company is estimated to be putting $5 billion per year into original content production and licensing content to drive more audience to its platforms, which it ties to its ultimate drive for more shopping on Amazon.

“When we win a Golden Globe, it helps us sell more shoes,” CEO Jeff Bezos has been quoted as saying.

That strategy is also playing out in the U.K., where Amazon recently won the rights to stream 20 Premier League football matches in the 2019/2020 season — which it will show to viewers at no extra charge, another twist on the “free to view.”

Amazon has not disclosed the price it paid, but as a point of comparison, BT is paying £975 million for 52 live games a season for three years, while Sky is paying £3.75 billion for 128 live games.

Ramping up the amount of streamed, free content on Amazon’s platform will pave the way for the other part of the job Amazon is seeking to fill: advertising.

Currently, Amazon does not sell ads into any of the live-streamed channels on its platform, although some of them do run ads. However, if Amazon were to scale up the advertising opportunity by way of popular sports content and a wider range of free-to-air channels, suddenly the idea of creating its own TV-based ad network to inject ads into those various streams might be a little more compelling both to Amazon and would-be advertisers.

In the U.S., Amazon has dipped its toes in the waters by running ads during broadcasts of NFL games it had acquired the rights to broadcast — although by one account advertisers were paying up to $1 million less than Amazon had hoped they would for their packages.

Amazon has been quite gradual in building out its ads business. The company made $4 billion in advertising revenues in 2017, from a variety of services that range from native ads across third-party websites, through to banners on top of the Fire TV landing page and display units that run on Kindle devices. Its ad business is projected to make $9.5 billion in 2018. Relatively speaking, this is still modest in comparison to Google, which made $95 billion in advertising revenues in 2017.

But while Amazon slowly grows its ads business, it’s also chopping and changing, and it appears that one aim is to focus more on opportunities that speak to more scale for the business overall.

Just last week, we reported that Amazon quietly announced that it would be retiring an ad unit called CPM Ads, one of its earlier efforts in building a display network, which was aimed at smaller websites that were a part of its Associates program.

All charges against ex-Vungle CEO Zain Jaffer, including lewd act on a child, dismissed by judge

All charges against former Vungle CEO Zain Jaffer, including a sexual abuse of a child, have been dropped. According to a statement from Jaffer’s representatives, San Mateo County Judge Stephanie Garratt dismissed the charges today. Jaffer was arrested last October and charged with several serious offenses, including a lewd act on one of his children, child abuse and battery on a police officer.

The dismissal is confirmed by San Mateo County Superior Court’s online records. The case (number 17NF012415A) had been scheduled to go to jury trial in late August.

Jaffer, whose full name is Zainali Jaffer, said in a statement that:

Being wrongfully accused of these crimes has been a terrible experience, which has had a deep and lasting impact on my family and the employees of my business. Those closest to me knew I was innocent and were confident that all of the charges against me would eventually be dismissed. I want to thank the San Mateo County District Attorney’s Office for carefully reviewing and considering all of the information and evidence in this case and dropping all the charges. I am also incredibly grateful for the continued and unwavering support of my wife and family, and look forward to spending some quality time with them.

Vungle, the fast-rising mobile ad startup Jaffer co-founded in 2011, removed him from the company immediately after they learned about the charges in October. TechCrunch has contacted Vungle and the San Mateo County District Attorney’s Office for comment.

Facebook will allow you to see all the active ads from any Page

Facebook made two announcements about ad transparency today — one around the ads purchased by any Page and another around expanding its recently announced archive of political ads.

It seems like ad transparency is a big focus today, as Twitter just launched its own Ads Transparency Center, allowing anyone to see ads bought by any account.

In terms of bringing more transparency to Facebook Pages, the company says there will be a new section in Pages allowing users to bring up general information about Pages (like recent name changes and date of creation), and another where anyone can view all the active ads the Page is currently running.

As with any ad on Facebook, you’ll be able to flag ads viewed this way if you think they violate Facebook policies, and they will then be reviewed. Speaking to journalists via videoconference, Rob Leathern, a director of product management on the Facebook advertising team, noted that this is in addition to the “proactive” reviewing, performed both by humans and artificial intelligence, that Facebook already performs on every ad.

COO Sheryl Sandberg also said that Facebook is doing more to review political ads, which is resulting in more delays before those ads appear.

“We do not like the delays in the system [but] more manual review and more checks means more delays,” she said.

Now it might not seem like Facebook is sharing a tremendous amount of information here, especially since you only see the ad itself, not additional context like targeting, money spent or past advertising. When asked about this, Sandberg acknowledged that Facebook has more to do.

“There are lots of ways we can do more,” she said. “These are the first steps.”

Facebook Pages transparency

Sandberg also said she doesn’t expect the additional transparency to affect ad spend on Facebook. She suggested that advertisers are aware of the changes, and while some of them have expressed concerns about competitors seeing their advertising, most of them are on-board.

“I think advertisers for most part stand behind the ads they’re running,” she said. “You actually can see a lot of your competitors’ ads [already], you just have to catch them.”

Meanwhile, Facebook says it will be launching its political archive in Brazil next month start accepting registration from political advertisers in Brazil. These archives only start saving ads from the date that they launch (the one for the U.S. launched in May), but ultimately the plan is to store things for up seven years at a time.

As for why the archive will also include ads from news publishers that promote articles with political content, Sandberg said, “We decided that our goal is transparency. We are just erring on the side of being transparent.” She also noted that Facebook is now placing those ads in a separate section for “promoted news.”

Sandberg was also asked about recent leaks to Motherboard and other publications of Facebook’s training material around hate speech — specifically around how it views white supremacy and neo-Nazis. Why not just make that training material public?

Sandberg argued that Facebook has already released extensive information about its policies, and she suggested that the leaked material is often taken out of context, outdated or just represents “bad training things.”

“I don’t think any other company has come close to the transparency we’ve put out,” she said.