Today in call with reporters preceded by a frantic if fairly uneventful distraction-pushing media blitz, Facebook responded to a damning New York Times story published yesterday that cited interviews with more than 50 sources privy to Facebook’s decision making.
The call kicked off with the operator’s suggestion that Facebook is “happy to take a couple of questions on yesterday’s news” but would prefer to focus on what it wants to talk about — namely anything but the New York Times story. Amidst the strategic fluff, Zuckerberg did come out strongly on one thing — denying any knowledge of or involvement in Facebook’s hiring of Definers Public Affairs, a Washington D.C.-based Republican opposition research firm.
“I learned about this reading it in the New York Times yesterday,” Zuckerberg said. “As soon as I read about this… I got on the phone with our team and we’re no longer working with this firm.”
Facebook used Definers Public Affairs to push negative stories about competitors, including plenty to TechCrunch’s own inboxes, including a report on Apple employee’s lopsided Democratic campaign donations and Google’s “lack of cooperation” with the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing. As Recode reported, Definers Public Affairs set up a Silicon Valley shop last year with the explicit goal of courting the Bay Area’s biggest companies for some lucrative “dark arts” mudslinging.
When pressed to answer to who at Facebook was aware that the company had hired the oppo research firm:
“Someone on our comms team must have hired them, in general we need to go through and look at all the relations we have and see if there are more like this.”
Zuckerberg revisited the categorical denial a few times:
“I learned about this yesterday.”
“In general, this kind of firm might be normal in Washington…. but it’s not the kind of firm that Facebook should be working with.”
“This is not the type of work that i want us to be doing so we won’t be doing it.”
“The bottom line here is that as soon as we learned about this, we were no longer working with this firm.”
“As soon as I read it, I looked into if this was the type of firm we wanted to be working with.”
And finally, abdication:
“Look I feel like I’ve answered this question a bunch of times… I’m not sure I have much more to say on that here.”
The notion that the company’s founder and chief executive would be unaware of Facebook’s involvement with the company is… suspect, to put it lightly. It’s a natural assumption that Facebook’s upper echelons would have made the call to begin with, though Zuckerberg stopped just short of making it clear that is was someone else up there, just not him. Given Sheryl Sandberg’s considerable political savvy, it’s not a stretch to assume that she initiated the contract or at least signed off on it with full knowledge.
Update: One hour and 12 minutes into the call, Zuckerberg addressed Sandberg’s implied involvement. “I want to be clear that i’ve mentioned a number of times that i was not in the loop,” he said. “Sheryl was also not involved. She learned about this at the same time that I did.”
As Facebook coalesces around its PR response, at the moment centered around denying that executives at the company interfered with its own investigation into Russian disinformation, Facebook’s leadership returns to a pattern familiar to anyone who so much as glanced at the New York Times report: Delay, Deny and Deflect, indeed.
Facebook secretly retracted messages sent by CEO Mark Zuckerberg, TechCrunch reported seven months ago. Now for the first time, Facebook Messenger users will get the power to unsend too so they can remove their sent messages from the recipient’s inbox. Messages can only be unsent for the first 10 minutes after they’re delivered so that you can correct a mistake or remove something you accidentally pushed, but you won’t be able to edit ancient history. Formally known as “Remove for Everyone,” the button also leaves a “tombstone” indicating a message was retracted. And to prevent bullies from using the feature to cover their tracks, Facebook will retain unsent messages for a short period of time so if they’re reported, it can review them for policy violations.
The Remove feature rolls out in Poland, Bolivia, Colombia and Lithuania today on Messenger for iOS and Android. A Facebook spokesperson tells me the plan is to roll it out globally as soon as possible, though that may be influenced by the holiday App Store update cut-off. In the meantime, it’s also working on more unsend features, potentially including the ability to preemptively set an expiration date for specific messages or entire threads.
“The pros are that users want to be in control . . . and if you make a mistake you can correct it. There are a lot of legitimate use cases out there that we wanted to enable,” Facebook’s head of Messenger Stan Chudnovsky tells me in an exclusive interview. But conversely, he says, “We need to make sure we don’t open up any new venues for bullying. We need to make sure people aren’t sending you bad messages and then removing them because if you report them and the messages aren’t there we can’t do anything.”
Facebook claimed this was to protect the privacy of its executives and the company’s trade secrets, telling me that “After Sony Pictures’ emails were hacked in 2014 we made a number of changes to protect our executives’ communications. These included limiting the retention period for Mark’s messages in Messenger.” But it seems likely that Facebook also wanted to avoid another embarrassing situation like when Zuckerberg’s old instant messages from 2004 leaked. One damning exchange saw Zuckerberg tell a friend “if you ever need info about anyone at harvard . . . just ask . . . i have over 4000 emails, pictures, addresses, sns.” “what!? how’d you manage that one?” the friend replied. “People just submitted it . . i don’t know why . . . they ‘trust me’ . . . dumb fucks” Zuckerberg replied.
The company told me it was actually already working on an Unsend button for everyone, and wouldn’t delete any more executives’ messages until it launched. Chudnovsky tells me he felt like “I wish we launched this sooner” when the news broke. But then six months went by without progress or comment from Facebook before TechCrunch broke the news that tipster Jane Manchun Wong had spotted Facebook prototyping the Remove feature. Then a week ago, Facebook Messenger’s App Store release notes accidentally mentioned that a 10-minute Unsend button was coming soon.
So why the seven-month wait? Especially given Instagram already allows users to unsend messages no matter how old? “The reason why it took so long is because on the server side, it’s actually much harder. All the messages are stored on the server, and that goes into the core transportation layer of our how our messaging system was built,” Chudnovsky explains. “It was hard to do given how we were architected, but we were always worried about the integrity concerns it would open up.” Now the company is confident it’s surmounted the engineering challenge to ensure an Unsent message reliably disappears from the recipient.
“The question becomes ‘who owns that message?’ Before that message is delivered to your Messenger app, it belongs to me. But when it actually arrives, it probably belongs to both of us,” Chudnovsky pontificates.
How Facebook Messenger’s “Remove for Everyone” button works
Facebook settled on the ability to let you remove any kind of message — including text, group chats, photos, videos, links and more — within 10 minutes of sending. You can still delete any message on just your side of the conversation, but only messages you sent can be removed from their recipients. You can’t delete from someone else what they sent you, the feature’s PR manager Kat Chui tells me. And Facebook will keep a private copy of the message for a short while after it’s deleted to make sure it can review if it’s reported for harassment.
To use the unsend feature, tap and hold on a message you sent, then select “Remove.” You’ll get options to “Remove for Everyone” which will retract the message, or “Remove for you,” which replaces the old delete option and leaves the message in the recipient’s inbox. You’ll get a warning that explains “You’ll permanently remove this message for all chat members. They can see that you removed a message and still report it.” If you confirm the removal, a line of text noting “you [or the sender’s name] removed a message” (known as a tombstone) will appear in the thread where the message was. If you want to report a removed message for abuse or another issue, you’ll tap the person’s name, scroll to “Something’s Wrong” and select the proper category such as harassment or that they were pretending to be someone else.
Why the 10-minute limit specifically? “We looked at how the existing delete functionality works. It turns out that when people are deleting messages because it’s a mistake or they sent something they didn’t want to send, it’s under a minute. We decided to extend it to 10, but decided we didn’t need to do more,” Chudnovsky reveals.
He says he’s not sure if Facebook’s security team will now resume removing executive messages. However, he stresses that the Unsend button Facebook is launching “is definitely not the same feature” as what was used on Zuckerberg’s messages. If Facebook wanted to truly respect its users, it would at least insert the tombstone when it erases old messages from executives.
Messenger is also building more unsend functionality. Taking a cue from encrypted messaging app Signal’s customizable per thread expiration date feature, Chudnovsky tells me “hypothetically, if I want all the messages to be deleted after six months, they get purged. This is something that can be set up on a per thread level,” though Facebook is still tinkering with the details. Another option would be for Facebook to extend to all chats the per message expiration date option from its encrypted Secret messages feature.
“It’s one of those things that feels very simple on the surface. And it would be very easy if the servers were built one way or another from the very beginning,” Chudnovsky concludes. “But it’s one of those things philosophically and technologically that once you get to the scale of 1.3 billion people using it, changing from one model to another is way more complicated.” Hopefully in the future, Facebook won’t give its executives extrajudicial ways to manipulate communications… or at least not until it’s sorted out the consequences of giving the public the same power.
Starting this weekend, Tinder will allow college students on its Tinder U service to match with others outside their own university for the first time. The dating app is positioning this market test of a potential Tinder U expansion as the “Rivals Week” – a way to match users with those who attend a rival university for a limited period of time.
Tinder U’s Rivalry Week starts November 17 in the U.S. for students attending 4-year, degree-granting colleges and universities. It ends November 24, Tinder says.
Tinder U itself is still a relatively new feature, having only launched a few months ago as a way to attract more younger users to its service and re-engaged lapsed users.
College students can choose to opt into Tinder U by signing up with their “.edu” email address. Once enrolled, the users can switch over to Tinder U using a toggle switch at the top of the app.
Until now, however, Tinder U limited users to matching only with those who attend their same school.
That changes with “Rivals Week,” as Tinder will now let students match with others at nearby schools – or even cross-country – just so long as those schools are considered a “rival.”
Tinder is not, of course, calling out the move as anything more than just a bit of fun. But the week-long event could return valuable data to the dating app maker, in terms of consumer demand for a Tinder U product that was less restrictive in terms of its catalog of potential matches.
The launch also notably fits in with Tinder’s new strategy to position itself as a dating app for younger users who are less interested in settling down into long-term relationships. The company is investing in a marketing campaign across the U.S. where it promotes the “single lifestyle” Tinder offers.
Essentially, the company is embracing Tinder’s reputation as the “hook-up app,” but in a way that brands short-term dating – if you can call it that – as a more positive thing.
Tinder is able to do this because its parent company, Match Group, now owns a majority stake in Hinge. It says it simultaneously plans to invest in growing that app’s user base along with its reputation for serious relationships.
Meanwhile, Tinder sees Tinder U as a possible growth engine for the young adult-oriented service.
“We created Tinder U to both attract new college students to the Tinder experience and re-engage students who have been part of the Tinder community in the past. Ultimately, we see it as a way to deliver more value to the college user by providing more relevant recommendations, which helps to increase engagement,” said Match Group CEO Mandy Ginsberg. “We’ve seen strong early traction with Tinder U, both in terms of driving higher swipe rates and higher retention,” she noted.
The Tinder U product is live in over 1,200 colleges across the U.S.
Truecaller first started as a call screening app. Some countries are more affected than others. But it’s clear that text and call spam is the most intrusive form of spam.
The Swedish company then leveraged this user base to quietly turn the app into a full-fledged messaging app with one focus in particular — India.
With the acquisition of Chillr, the company shows that it wants to recreate a sort of WeChat for India. The company launched payment features — Truecaller Pay lets you pay other Truecaller users as well as pay your bills.
Eventually, Truecaller wants to open up its platform to third-party services. Back in April, the company reported that it had 100 million daily active users.
If you’re impressed by Truecaller’s growth strategy, you should buy your ticket to Disrupt Berlin to listen to this discussion and many others. The conference will take place on November 29-30.
In addition to fireside chats and panels, like this one, new startups will participate in the Startup Battlefield Europe to win the highly coveted Battlefield cup.
CEO & Co-founder, Truecaller
Alan Mamedi is the CEO and Co-founder of Truecaller. Truecaller is one of the leading communication apps in the world with services in messaging, payment, caller ID, spam detection, dialer functionalities, and has more than 300 million users globally. In this position, Alan focuses on product development and innovation, and charting the strategic roadmap for the company’s success. To date, Truecaller has raised 80 million USD from Sequoia Capital, Atomico, and Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.
Renren, which was once heralded as the ‘Facebook of China’ and later became China’s answer to MySpace after falling out of fashion among its core young users, is selling its social networking business.
Renren’s parent company Beijing Qianxiang Wangjing has agreed to sell all tangible and intangible assets of renren.com to Beijing Infinities Interactive Media, according to a statement. As part of the deal, Qianxiang will receive $40 million worth of shares in Beijing Infinities, a $700 million firm that owns one of China’s major IT news sites DoNews.
“I am happy to find a home for renren.com,” says Renren’s chairman and chief executive officer Joseph Chen in the statement.
The social network won’t be foreign to its new home. On the list of the buyer’s shareholders is Oak Pacific Holdings, which Chen and James Liu, Renren’s executive director and chief operating officer, control.
Once a highflyer in China’s PC era, Renren’s prospects have faded as it fell behind peers like Tencent and Weibo in the mobile space. Its stocks hover around $2 today, compared with its spectacular moment at $84 when it debuted on the New York Stock Exchange in 2011. That put its market cap only behind Tencent and Baidu. Renren says it plans to remain listed in the US after disposing of its social networking arm.
Shedding its social network legacy, the company says, will allow it to focus on the more promising ventures. In recent years, Renren has diversified into areas outside the social space, including a used car platform in China, US-based transportation network Trucker Path, and a SaaS business in the US. The auto unit has been a key revenue driver, accounting for more than 90 percent of its total revenues in Q2 this year, a spike from 60 percent throughout 2017.
Renren has also been a prolific startup investor with a portfolio valued at $500 million (paywalled) after deducting debt, according to the Financial Times. The company was also mulling an ICO earlier this year but reportedly shelved the plan after talks with Chinese regulators.
A glorious past
These days, Chinese youngsters hang out on WeChat, QQ, Weibo, and increasingly Douyin – TikTok’s China version – but back in the PC days, teens and college students flocked to renren.com.
Like Facebook, Renren started from the dorm rooms at China’s top universities. Its founders aptly named it “Xiaonei”, which means “on campus”, when they started the site to target student users in 2005. Among its early founders was Wang Xing, who would go on to launch Meituan Dianping, a neighborhood services provider that has blossomed into a $300 billion giant listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange.
A year later, Chen bought out Xiaonei and merged it with his own Xiaonei rival. He later renamed the new entity to Renren, which means “everybody”. The social network flourished and got a further boost after China blocked its American competitor Facebook in 2009.
In its heyday, Renren had over 100 million active users. Today, it’s more like a time capsule, but its once loyal users haven’t erased it from their memories. In August, Renren staged a marketing stunt that got waves of internet users reminiscing their good old days on the site. Topics ranged from how they played browser games together and sent anonymous notifications to crushes. But the excitement was transient, and people soon resumed their routines on the mainstream social apps of 2018.
Renren has not mentioned plans to close down its forgotten social network, so users can still log in whenever they feel nostalgic, safe from the agony that their Path counterparts had to go through when the latter recently shuttered.
Facebook Lasso has a steep uphill climb ahead as it hopes to chase the musical video app it cloned, China’s TikTok (which merged with Musically). Lasso lets you overlay popular songs on 15-second clips of you lip syncing, dancing, or just being silly — kind of like Vine with a soundtrack. It’s off to a slow start since launching Friday, having failed to reach the overall app download charts as it falls from #169 to #217 on the US iOS Photo and Video App chart, according to App Annie.
Forme Facebook Lead Product Designer Brady Voss
And now one of the Lasso team’s bosses Brady Voss is leaving Facebook for a job at Netflix. He’d spent five years as a lead product designer at Facebook working on standalone apps like Hello and major feature launches like Watch, Live, 360 video, and the social network’s smart TV app. He previously designed products for TiVo and Microsoft’s XBox.
“After five life-changing years at Facebook, my last day will be this Friday, 11/16” Voss wrote on Facebook. “Following our launch of our new app, Lasso, a project I’ve been working on for a while now, the timing works well to explore what’s coming next . . . As for what’s next? I have accepted a position at Netflix in Los Gatos, California.” A Facebook spokesperson responded that “Yes, I can confirm that Brady is leaving Facebook.”
Voss added some color about joining Facebook, noting “There was actually a discussion about whether or not I’d be a great culture fit because I wore a tie to my interviews–which is funny because we don’t believe dressing like that is what enables people to bring their best everyday. Thankfully, they saw past the common clichés–because suits and ties are not me.” As for Facebook’s troubles, he wrote that “I was even there for the big freak out moments along the way–we’ll keep them unnamed ”, which could refer to his work on Facebook Live that spawned big problems with real-time broadcasts of violence and self-harm.
While it’s reasonable for anyone to want a change of pace after five years, especially after the brutal year Facebook’s had in the press, his departure just a week after Lasso’s launch doesn’t inspire a ton of confidence in the app’s trajectory. It might have been a sensible stopping point haven gotten the app out the door, but you’d also think that if Lasso had a real shot at popularity, he’d have wanted to stick around to oversee that growth.
TechCrunch asked the company for some more details about the Lasso roadmap. A spokesperson told me that Facebook will be evolving Lasso and adding new features with time, and may test a feature for uploading videos instead of being restricted to shooting them in-app right now. Voss’ departure post includes a “Made With Lasso” video featuring an augmented reality effect with him conjuring Facebook Like thumbs-ups out of his hand. [Update: He tells me he added this in AfterEffects, but it shows that Facebookers think AR should be part of Lasso.]
As for monetization, Facebook tells me there are no plans to show ads right now. Typically, Facebook tries to build products to have hundreds of millions of users before it potentially endangers growth by layering in revenue generators. I asked if users might be able to pay their favorite video creators with tips, and the company says that while that’s not currently available, it hopes to explore ways to allow creators to earn money in the future. Instagram said the same thing about IGTV when it launched in June, and we still haven’t heard anything on that front. Facebook likely won’t be able to lure creators to new platforms with smaller audiences than their main channels unless it’s going to let them earn money there.
If Facebook is truly serious about challenging TikTok, it may need to build closer ties between Lasso and Instagram. Facebook left its previous standalone video apps like Slingshot and Poke out to dry, eventually shuttering them after providing little cross promotion. Given the teen audience Lasso craves is already on Instagram, it will be fascinating to see if former VP of News Feed Adam Mosseri who’s now running Instagram will insert some links to Lasso. A Facebook spokesperson says that Facebook may investigate promoting Lasso on its other apps down the line.
And one final concern regarding Lasso is that Facebook isn’t doing much to prevent underage kids below 13 from getting on the app. Tweens flocked to Musically, leading to some worrisome content. 10-year-old girls in revealing clothing singing along to the scandalous lyrics of pop songs frequently populated the Musically leaderboard. That prompted me to question Musically CEO Alex Zhu on stage at TechCrunch Disrupt London 2015 about whether his app violated the Child Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) that prohibits online services from collecting photos or videos of kids under 13. He denied wrongdoing with flimsy excuses, claiming parents were always aware of what kids were doing, and stormed out of the backstage area after our talk.
So I asked Facebook how it would prevent such issues on Lasso, where all content is public and adults can follow children. A spokesperson told me that you need a Facebook or Instagram account to sign up for Lasso, and those services require people to be 13 older. But “require” isn’t exactly the right word. It asks people to state they’re of age, but doesn’t do anything to confirm that. Lasso does have a report button for flagging inappropriate content, and the company claims to be taking privacy and safety seriously.
But if the tech giants are going to build apps purposefully designed for young audiences, asking for kids to merely promise they’re old enough to join may not be sufficient.
Tinder is preparing to roll out more gender options in its app in India. The company will announce shortly that users will be able to edit their profile in order to choose a different option for their gender identity, instead of just “Man” or “Woman,” as well as toggle a setting that will display their gender on their profile in Tinder’s app.
These same options have been live in the U.S. since November 2016, when the dating app added options for transgender and gender non-conforming people.
The news was published earlier today to Tinder’s blog ahead of a planned announcement, a spokesperson said. It plans to share more information later tonight, they noted. (We’ll update if that’s the case).
In the post Tinder published, the company admits it hasn’t always “had the right tools” to serve its community in the past, and is now trying to learn to be a better ally to transgender and gender non-conforming people using its app. On this front, Tinder says it’s expanding its support team and educating its staff about the issues that these communities face in India.
Additionally, the company is opening up its support channels and inviting back users who were banned after being unfairly reported by others due to their gender. Tinder users will be able to email the company with a link to their Facebook profile in order to have their request reviewed by Tinder’s team, in order to be let back in. To what extent banned users will want to return, of course, is less clear at this point.
Tinder has not fared well with the trans community in particular, as some users in the past have been banned from the app even when using the identifiers for trans people and displaying this on their profile.
For the U.S. launch of the expanded gender options, Tinder had worked with organizations like GLAAD, activists and others.
In India, it worked with users and consultants, including an LGBTQ organization working for the health and human rights of the LGBTQ community since 1994, The Humsafar Trust, as well as LGBTQ author and inclusion advocate, Parmesh Shahani.
The post also pointed users to Umang, a Mumbai-based support group run by The Humsafar Trust, which offers mental health counselling, legal support, community support and events. And it linked to the clinical and counselling unit of The Humsafar Trust.
The group also runs a helpline Monday through Friday, 10 AM to 8:30 PM at +91 9930095856, and is available on Whatsapp.
“Every new person in your life expands your horizons in some way. Inclusion and acceptance drive this expansion, and we want Tinder to reflect the world that surrounds us every day. No one will ever be banned from Tinder because of their gender,” said Tinder.
The move is notable not just because of arrival of these important and inclusive features, but because of how critical the Indian market is for dating apps. So far, it seems straight Indian men have been flocking to Tinder and other apps in large numbers, but they’ve had trouble diversifying their user base. To address this problem, Tinder and others have focused efforts on recruiting the millions of young, educated India users who have left home to go live and work in cities.
Tinder – like all major tech companies – sees India as a key market, because of the rapid smartphone adoption and the population’s size. It even launched its Bumble-inspired “My Move” feature there first, back in September.
Chappy, the dating app for gay men, has today announced a partnership with GLAAD. As part of the partnership, Chappy will make a donation to GLAAD for each conversation initiated on the dating app, from now throughout 2019.
The company won’t disclose the amount of the donation, but said that it hopes to raise “hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
Chappy launched in 2017 to give gay men an authentic, discrimination-free way to connect with one another. The app uses a sliding scale to let users indicate what they’re looking for in a relationship, ranging from “Cute” to “Sexy.” The app has more than 650,000 registered users, and has seen more than 1 billion swipes.
Chappy is backed by Bumble and controlled by Bumble shareholders, falling under the Badoo umbrella of dating apps. Last month, Bumble named Chappy its official dating app for gay men. As part of that relationship, Bumble and Chappy will be cross-promoting each other’s apps.
Adam Cohen-Aslatei, managing director at Chappy, says the donations to GLAAD will be unrestricted, and can be used by GLAAD however they see fit. Cohen-Aslatei also hopes to contribute to GLAAD’s research projects, and said that he sees the opportunity for the Chappy community to provide data-based insights to that research.
Cohen-Aslatei joins the Chappy team from Jun Group, where he was vice president of marketing. He was appointed to the position last month.
“There are a lot of dating apps out there and a lot of gimmicks out there,” said Cohen-Aslatei. “We’re trying to improve the way the gay community meets each other and thinks about relationships, but also the way they think about their commitment to the community. We’re a relationship and advocacy app, and we want to partner with the right organizations to drive awareness to what we are.”