TikTok tests an Instagram-style grid and other changes

Short-form video app TikTok, the fourth most downloaded app in the world as of last quarter, is working on several new seemingly Instagram-inspired features — including a Discover page, a grid-style layout similar to Instagram Explore, an Account Switcher, and more.

The features were uncovered this week by reverse-engineering specialist Jane Manchun Wong, who published screenshots of these features and others to Twitter.

A TikTok spokesperson declined to offer further details on the company’s plans, but confirmed the features were things the company is working on.

“We’re always experimenting with new ways to improve the app experience for our community,” the spokesperson said.

The most notable change uncovered by Wong is one to TikTok’s algorithmically generated “For You” page. Today, users flip through each video on this page, one by one, in a vertical feed-style format. The updated version instead offers a grid-style layout, which looks more like Instagram’s Explore page. This design would also allow users to tap on the videos they wanted to watch, while more easily bypassing those they don’t. And because it puts more videos on the page, too, the change could quickly increase the amount of input into TikTok’s recommendation engine about a user’s preferences.

 

Another key change being developed is the addition of a “Discover” tab to TikTok’s main navigation.

The new button appears to replace the current Search tab, which today is labeled with a magnifying glass icon. The Search section currently lets you enter keywords, and returns results that can be filtered by users, sounds, hashtags or videos. It also showcases trending hashtags on the main page. The “Discover” button, meanwhile, has a people icon on it, which hints that it could be helping users find new people to follow on TikTok, rather than just videos and sounds.

This change, if accurately described and made public, could be a big deal for TikTok creators, as it arrives at a time when the app has gained critical mass and has penetrated the mainstream. The younger generation has been caught up in TikTok, finding the TikTok stars more real and approachable than reigning YouTubers.  TikTokers and their fans even swarmed VidCon this month, leading some to wonder if a paradigm shift for online video was soon to come.

A related feature, “Suggested Users” could also come into play here, in terms of highlighting top talent.

Getting on an app’s “Suggested” list is often key to becoming a top creator on the platform. It’s how many Viners and Twitter users initially grew their follower bases, for instance.

However, TikTok diverged from Instagram with the testing of two other new features Wong found which focused on popularity metrics. One test shows the “Like” counts on each video on the Sounds and Hashtags pages, and another shows the number of Downloads on the video itself, in addition to the Likes and Shares.

This would be an interesting change in light of the competitive nature of social media. And its timing is significant. Instagram is now backing away from showing Like counts, in a test running in a half dozen countries. The company made the change in response to public pressure regarding the anxiety that using its service causes.

Of course, in the early days of a social app, Like counts and other metrics are tools that help point users to the breakout, must-follow stars. They also encourage more posting as users try to find content that resonates — which then, in turn, boosts their online fame in a highly trackable way.

TikTok is also taking note of how integrations with other social platforms could benefit its service, similar to how the Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger apps have offered features to drive traffic to one another and otherwise interoperate.

A couple of features Wong found were focused on improving connections with social apps, including one that offered better integration with WhatsApp, and another that would allow users to link their account to Google and Facebook.

A few other changes being tested included an Instagram-like Account switcher interface, a “Liked by Creator” comment badge, and a downgrade to the TikCode (QR code) which moves from the user profile the app’s settings.

Of course, one big caveat here with all of this is that just because a feature is spotted in the app’s code, that doesn’t mean it will launch to the public.

Some of these changes may be tested privately, then scrapped entirely, or are still just works in progress. But being able to see a collection of experiments at one time like this — something that’s not possible without the sort of reverse engineering that Wong does — helps to paint a larger picture of the direction an app may be headed. In TikTok’s case, it seems to understand its potential, as well as when to borrow successful ideas from others who have come before it, and when to go its own direction.

Twitter tests a new way to label replies

Twitter is testing a new way to make conversation threads easier to follow, with the launch of a new test that labels notable replies with special icons. If the original poster replies somewhere in the thread, their tweet will have a small microphone icon next to their profile picture. Other tweets may be labeled, as well — including those from users who were mentioned in the original tweet and replies from people you’re already following on Twitter.

These will be labeled with the at symbol (@) and a small person icon with a checkmark by it, respectively.

The new test is the latest in a series of experiments Twitter has been running focused on making its product easier to use, particularly when conversations around a tweet become lengthy.

At the beginning of this year, the company first began a test where it labeled the original poster in a conversation thread as the “Original Tweeter.” That may have been a bit too confusing for some, because a few months later, Twitter changed it to “Author.” It then also added two other labels, for people who were mentioned in the original tweet, and those replies from people you’re following.

These, however, were text labels — meaning they took up valuable screen space on small mobile devices. They also cluttered up the already text-heavy interface with more distracting text to read.

The new icons don’t have that problem. But they’re also small and light gray and white in color, which makes them hard to see. In addition, their meaning isn’t necessarily clear to anyone who doesn’t hang around online forums like Reddit, for example, where it’s common to use a microphone to showcase the original poster’s follow-up comments.

It’s also unclear why Twitter thinks users are clamoring to see this information. Highlighting the original poster is fine, I guess, but the other labels seem extraneous.

While this is a minor change, it’s one of many things Twitter is tweaking in the hopes of making its service simpler and more approachable. It’s also running an experimental prototype app called twttr where it’s trying out new ideas around threaded conversations, like using color-coded replies or branching lines to connect tweets and their responses.

A lot of these changes feel a little unnecessary. Twitter isn’t as difficult to understand as the company believes it is.

At the end of the day, it’s a way to publish a public status update and reply to those others have posted. That’s its core value proposition — not live streaming video, not its clickable newsreels it calls “Moments,” and not its article bookmarking tools. Those are useful and fun additions, sure, but optional.

Instead, Twitter’s challenges around user growth aren’t because the service is overly complex, but because a public platform like this is rife for issues around online bullying and abuse, disinformation and propaganda, hate speech, spambots, and everything else that an unmoderated forum would face.

Twitter tests are live now, but not be showing for all users.

Twitter to attempt to address conversation gaps caused by hidden tweets

Twitter’s self-service tools when it comes to blocking content you don’t want to see, as well as a growing tendency for users to delete a lot of the content they post, is making some of the conversations on the platform look like Swiss cheese. The company says it will introduce added “context” on content that’s unavailable in conversations in the next few weeks, however, to help make these gaps at least less mystifying.

There are any number of reasons why tweets in a conversation you stumble upon might not be viewable, including that a poster has a private account, that the tweet was taken down due to a policy violation, that it was deleted after the fact or that specific keywords are muted by a user and present in those posts.

Twitter’s support account notes that the fix will involve providing “more context” alongside the notice that tweets in the conversation are “unavailable,” which, especially when presented in high volume, doesn’t really offer much help to a confused user.

Last year, Twitter introduced a new process for adding additional context and transparency to why an individual tweet was deleted, and it generally seems interested in making sure that conversations on the platform are both easy to follow, and easy to access and understand for users who may not be as familiar with Twitter’s behind-the-scenes machinations.

Instagram will now warn you before your account gets deleted, offer in-app appeals

Instagram this morning announced several changes to its moderation policy, the most significant of which is that it will now warn users if their account could become disabled before that actually takes place. This change goes to address a longstanding issue where users would launch Instagram only to find that their account had been shut down without any warning.

While it’s one thing for Instagram to disable accounts for violating its stated guidelines, the service’s automated systems haven’t always gotten things right. The company has come under fire before for banning innocuous photos, like those of mothers breastfeeding their children, for example, or art. (Or, you know, Madonna.)

Now the company says it will introduce a new notification process that will warn users if their account is at risk of becoming disabled. The notification will also allow them to appeal the deleted content in some cases.

For now, users will be able to appeal moderation decisions around Instagram’s nudity and pornography policies, as well as its bullying and harassment, hate speech, drug sales and counter-terrorism policies. Over time, Instagram will expand the appeal capabilities to more categories.

The change means users won’t be caught off guard by Instagram’s enforcement actions. Plus, they’ll be given a chance to appeal a decision directly in the app, instead of only through the Help Center as before.

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In addition, Instagram says it will increase its enforcement of bad actors.

Previously, it could remove accounts that had a certain percentage of content in violation of its policies. But now it also will be able to remove accounts that have a certain number of violations within a window of time.

“Similarly to how policies are enforced on Facebook, this change will allow us to enforce our policies more consistently and hold people accountable for what they post on Instagram,” the company says in its announcement.

The changes follow a recent threat of a class-action lawsuit against the photo-sharing network led by the Adult Performers Actors Guild. The organization claimed Instagram was banning the adult performers’ accounts, even when there was no nudity being shown.

“It appears that the accounts were terminated merely because of their status as an adult performer,” James Felton, the Adult Performers Actors Guild legal counsel, told The Guardian in June. “Efforts to learn the reasons behind the termination have been futile,” he said, adding that the Guild was considering legal action.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) also this year launched an anti-censorship campaign, TOSSed Out, which aimed to highlight how social media companies unevenly enforce their terms of service. As part of its efforts, the EFF examined the content moderation policies of 16 platforms and app stores, including Facebook, Twitter, the Apple App Store and Instagram.

It found that only four companies — Facebook, Reddit, Apple and GitHub — had committed to actually informing users when their content was censored as to which community guideline violation or legal request had led to that action.

“Providing an appeals process is great for users, but its utility is undermined by the fact that users can’t count on companies to tell them when or why their content is taken down,” said Gennie Gebhart, EFF associate director of research, at the time of the report. “Notifying people when their content has been removed or censored is a challenge when your users number in the millions or billions, but social media platforms should be making investments to provide meaningful notice.”

Instagram’s policy change focused on cracking down on repeat offenders is rolling out now, while the ability to appeal decisions directly within the app will arrive in the coming months.

Facebook accused of contradicting itself on claims about platform policy violations

Prepare your best * unsurprised face *: Facebook is being accused of contradicting itself in separate testimonies made on both sides of the Atlantic.

The chair of a UK parliamentary committee which spent the lion’s share of last year investigating online disinformation, going on to grill multiple Facebook execs as part of an enquiry that coincided with a global spotlight being cast on Facebook as a result of the Cambridge Analytica data misuse scandal, has penned another letter to the company — this time asking which versions of claims it has made regarding policy-violating access to data by third party apps on its platform are actually true.

In the letter, which is addressed to Facebook global spin chief and former UK deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, Damian Collins cites paragraph 43 of the Washington DC Attorney General’s complaint against the company — which asserts that the company “knew of other third party applications [i.e. in addition to the quiz app used to siphon data off to Cambridge Analytica] that similarly violated its Platform Policy through selling or improperly using consumer data”, and also failed to take “reasonable measures” to enforce its policy.

The Washington, D.C. Attorney General, Karl Racine, is suing Facebook for failing to protect user data — per allegations filed last December.

Collins’ letter notes Facebook’s denial of the allegations in paragraph 43 — before raising apparently contradictory evidence the company gave the committee last year on multiple occasions, such as the testimony of its CTO Mike Schroepfer, who confirmed it is reviewing whether Palantir improperly used Facebook data, among “lots” of other apps of concern; and testimony by Facebook’s Richard Allen to an international grand committee last November when the VP of EMEA public policy claimed the company has “taken action against a number of applications that failed to meet our policies”.

The letter also cites evidence contained in documents the DCMS committee seized from Six4Three, pertaining to a separate lawsuit against Facebook, which Collins asserts demonstrate “the lax treatment of abusive apps and their developments by Facebook”.

He also writes that these documents show Facebook had special agreements with a number of app developers — that allowed some preinstalled apps to “circumvent users’ privacy settings or platform settings, and to access friends’ information”, as well as noting that Facebook whitelisted some 5,200 apps “according to our evidence”.

“The evidence provided by representatives of Facebook to this Select committee and the International Grand Committee as well as the Six4Three files directly contradict with Facebook’s answer to Paragraph 43 of the complaint filed against Facebook by the Washington, D.C. Attorney General,” he writes.

“If the version of events presented in the answer to the lawsuit is correct, this means the evidence given to this Committee and the International Grand Committee was inaccurate.”

Collins goes on to ask Facebook to “confirm the truthfulness” of the evidence given by its reps last year, and to provide the list of applications removed from its platform in response to policy violations — which, in November, Allan promised to provide the committee with but has so far failed to do so.

We’ve also reached out to Facebook to ask which of the versions of events it’s claimed are true is the one it’s standing by at this time.

Instagram will now hide likes in 6 more countries

Would the internet be a better place if we all paid a little less attention to fake internet points? Instagram is still trying to figure it out.

Just a few months back, Instagram started testing a design tweak that would no longer show the total number of “likes” other users’ posts had received. You could still see everyone that liked your photos and videos — but anyone else’s stuff? Don’t worry about it.

While the company hasn’t said much about how the tests are going so far, it seems they’re going well enough to expand them. Initially rolled out in just Canada, it’ll roll out to users in six more countries starting today:

  • Ireland
  • Italy
  • Japan
  • Brazil
  • Australia
  • New Zealand

Curiously, some users in Canada (the first country where hidden likes were tested) reported yesterday that likes had returned to their feed. Instagram confirmed to us that the testing in Canada is still ongoing. Meanwhile, likes seem to be gone again in Canada as of this afternoon.

We wrote about Instagram’s like-hiding experiments a few weeks prior to the public tests, after the pending rollout was discovered by reverse-engineering extraordinaire Jane Manchun Wong.

So why hide likes? Instagram says it’s “because [they] want your followers to focus on the photos and videos you share, not how many likes they get.”

In other words: when likes are public, people care too much about them. People view it as a metric of success — teasing those who get too few, or buying likes to try to gain admiration. If a post doesn’t get enough likes, people delete them to make it seem like all of their photos are hits. In theory, hiding likes from the feed but making them visible to the creator lets people get some sense of what’s working, without having to worry so much about whatever anyone else is taking away from the like count on any given photo.

Here’s what Instagram looks like with the design tweak. Note the banner up top giving the user a heads up of the change, and that the like bar just says “Liked by username and others” instead of any specific number of users:

 

Twitter launches the ‘Hide Replies’ feature, in hopes of civilizing conversations

Twitter today is beginning its test of a radical and controversial change to its service with the launch of a new “Hide Replies” feature. Effectively, this option gives users the ability to wrestle back control over a conversation they’ve started by hiding any replies they feel aren’t worthy contributions — for example, replies that are irrelevant or outright offensive.

One of the problems with Twitter — and with many social networks, for that matter — is that an otherwise healthy conversation can easily be disrupted by a single individual or a small number of people who don’t contribute in a positive fashion. They come into a thread to start drama or they make inappropriate, rude or even hateful remarks.

Of course, users can choose for themselves to either Mute or Block people like this, which limits their ability to affect their own personal experience on Twitter. But this doesn’t remove their comments from others’ view. The “Hide Replies” feature, however, will.

But it’s not the equivalent of a delete button. In other words, hidden replies are not removed from Twitter entirely, they are just placed behind an icon. If people want to see the hidden replies, they can press this icon to view them.

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Twitter’s goal with the feature is to encourage more civil conversation on its platform. It could work, as those who want their comments seen by a wide audience will have to find a way to express themselves in an appropriate fashion — without taking the conversation off course or resorting to insults or trolling. Otherwise, they know their replies could be hidden from the default view.

But this change is not without significant downsides.

For example, a user could choose to hide replies that simply (and even politely!) disagreed with their view. This would then create a “filter bubble” where only people who shared the original poster’s same opinion would have their comments prominently displayed. In this case, the feature would be silencing other viewpoints — and that’s in direct opposition to Twitter’s larger goal of creating a public town square on the web, where every voice has a chance to be heard.

More worryingly, a user could choose to hide replies that attempt to correct misinformation or offer a fact check. That’s a significant concern at a time when social media platforms have turned into propaganda dissemination machines, and have been infiltrated by state-supported actors from foreign governments looking to manipulate public sentiment and influence elections.

Twitter claims the feature provides transparency because hidden replies are still available for viewing to anyone who wishes to see them. But this assumes that people will notice the small “hidden replies” icon and bother to click it.

The ability to hide replies is initially available only to users in Canada, but tweets with hidden replies will be accessible by all Twitter users worldwide.

In a statement posted as a series of tweets and replies to others, Twitter explained its goals around the new addition:

We’re testing a feature to hide replies from conversations. This experience will be available for everyone around the world, but at this time, only people in Canada can hide replies to their Tweets…They’ll be hidden from the main conversation for everyone behind a new icon. As long as it hasn’t been deleted and/or is not from an account with protected Tweets, everyone can still interact with a hidden reply by clicking the icon to view. We want everyone on Twitter to have healthy conversations, and we’re working on features that will help people feel more comfortable. We’re testing a way for people to hide replies they feel are irrelevant or offensive.

Twitter had previously confirmed its plans to test a “Hide Replies” feature, and had announced its plan to launch the feature sometime this week.

Social media is due for a course correction, and Twitter at least isn’t afraid to try significant changes to its platform. (It’s even trying a new prototype of its app, called twttr.) However, some would argue that permanent bans on rulebreakers and more attention to enforcing existing policies would negate the need for features like this.

 

Social chat app Capture launches to take a shot at less viral success

At first glance launching a new social app may seem as sensible a startup idea as plunging headfirst into shark-infested waters. But with even infamous curtain-ripper Facebook now making grand claims about a ‘pivot to privacy’ it’s clear something is shifting in the commercial shipping channels that contain our digital chatter.

Whisper it: Feeds are tiring. Follows are tedious. Attention is expiring. There’s also, of course, the damage that personal digital baggage left out in the open can wreak long after the fact of a blown fuse or fleeting snap.

Public feeds have become vehicles of self-promotion; carefully and heavily curated — which of course brings its own peer pressures to keep up with friends’ lux exploits and the influencer ‘gram aesthetic that pretends life looks like a magazine spread.

Yet for a brief time, in the gritty early years of social media, there was something akin to spontaneous, confessional reality on show online. People do like to share. That’s mostly been swapped for the polish of aspirational faking it on apps like Facebook-owned Instagram. While genuine friend chatter has moved behind the quasi-closed doors of group messaging apps, like Facebook-owned WhatsApp (or rival Telegram).

If you want to chat more freely online without being defined by your existing social graph the options are less mainstream friendly to say the least.

Twitter is genuinely great if you’re willing to put in the time and effort to find interesting strangers. But its user growth problem shows most consumers just aren’t willing (or able) to do that. Telegram groups also require time and effort to track down.

Also relevant in interest-based chat: Veteran forum Reddit, and game chat platform Disqus — both pretty popular, though not in a way that really cuts across the mainstream, tending to cater to more niche and/or focused interests. Neither is designed for mobile first either.

This is why Capture’s founders are convinced there’s a timely opportunity for a new social app to slot in — one which leverages smartphone sensors and AI smarts to make chatting about anything as easy as pointing a camera to take a shot.

They’re not new to the social app game, either. As we reported last year, two of Capture’s founders were part of the team behind the style transfer app Prisma, which racked up tens of millions of downloads over a few viral months of 2016.

And with such a bright feather in their cap, a number of investors — led by General Catalyst — were unsurprisingly eager to chip into Capture’s $1M seed, setting them on the road to today’s launch.

Point and chat

“The main idea behind the app is during the day you’ve got different experiences — working, watching some TV series etc, you’re sitting in an arena watching some sports, or something like that. So we imagine that you should open the app during any type of experience you have during the day,” says Capture co-founder and CEO Alexey Moiseenkov fleshing out the overarching vision for the app.

“It’s not for your friends; it’s the moment when you should share something or just ask something or discuss something with other people. Like news, for example… I want to discuss news with the people who are relevant, who want to discuss it. And so on and on. So I imagine it is about small groups with the same goal, discussing the same experience, or something like that. It’s all about your everyday life.”

“Basically you can imagine our app as like real-time forum,” he adds. “Real-time social things like Reddit. So it’s more about live discussion, not postponing something.”

Chat(room) recommendations are based on contextual inferences that Capture can glean from the mobile hardware. Namely where you are (so the app needs access to your location) and even whether you’re on the move or lounging around (it also accesses the accelerometer so can tell the angle of the phone).

The primary sensory input comes from the camera of course. So like Snap it’s a camera-first app, opening straight into the rear lens’ live view.

By default chats in Capture are public so it also knows what topics users are discussing — which in turn further feeds and hones its recommendations for chats (and indeed matching users).

Co-founder and CMO Aram Hardy (also formerly at Prisma) gives the example of the free-flowing discussion you can see unrolling in YouTube comments when a movie trailer gets its first release — as the sort of energetic, expressive discussion Capture wants to channel inside its app.

“It’s exploding,” he says. “People are throwing those comments, discussing it on YouTube, on web, and that’s a real pain because there is no tool where you can simply discuss it with people, maybe with people around you, who are just interested in this particular trailer live on a mobile device — that’s a real pain.”

“Everything which is happening around the person should be taken into consideration to be suggested in Capture — that’s our simple vision,” he adds.

Everything will mean pop culture, news, local events and interest-based communities.

Though some of the relevant sources of pop/events content aren’t yet live in the app. But the plan is to keep bulking out the suggestive mix to expand what can be discovered via chat suggestions. (There’s also a discovery tab to surface public chats.)

Discovery 1

Hardy even envisages Capture being able to point users to an unfolding accident in their area — which could generate a spontaneous need for locals or passers by to share information.

The aim for the app — which is launching on iOS today (Android will come later; maybe by fall) — is to provide an ever ready, almost no-barrier-to-entry chat channel that offers mobile users no-strings-attached socializing free from the pressures (and limits) of existing social graphs/friend networks; as well as being a context-savvy aid for content and event discovery, which means helping people dive into relevant discussion communities based on shared interests and/or proximity.

Of course location-based chatting is hardly a new idea. (And messaging giant Telegram just added a location-based chats feature to its platform.)

But the team’s premise is that mobile users are now looking for smart ways to supplement their social graph — and it’s betting on a savvy interface unlocking and (re)channelling underserved demand.

“People are really tired of something really follower based,” argues Moiseenkov. “All this stuff with a following, liking and so on. I feel there is a huge opportunity for all the companies around the world to make something based on real-time communication. It’s more like you will be heard in this chat so you can’t miss a thing. And I think that’s a powerful shot.

“We want to create a smaller room for every community in the Internet… So you can always join any group and just start talking in a free way. So you never shared your real identity — or it’s under your control. You can share or not, it’s up to you. And I think we need that.

“It’s what we miss during this Facebook age where everybody is ‘real’. Imagine that it’s like a game. In a game you’re really free — you can express yourself what way you want. I think that’s a great idea.”

“The entry threshold [for Twitter] is enormous,” adds Hardy. “You can’t have an account on Twitter and get famous within a week if you’re not an influencer. If you’re a simple person who wants to discuss something it’s impossible. But you can just create a chat or enter any chat within Capture and instantly be heard.

“You can create a chat manually. We have an add button — you can add any chat. It will be automatically recognized and suggested to other users who are interested in these sort of things. So we want every user to be heard within Capture.”

How it works

Capture’s AI-powered chatroom recommendations are designed to work as an onboarding engine for meeting relevant strangers online — using neural networks and machine learning to do the legwork of surfacing relevant people and chats.

Here’s how the mobile app works: Open the app, point the camera at something you view as a conversational jumping off point — and watch as it processes the data using computer vision technology to figure out what you’re looking at and recommend related chats for you to join.

For example, you might point the camera around your front room and be suggested a chatroom for ‘interior design trends and ideas’ , or at a pot plant and get ‘gardeners’ chat, or at your cat and get ‘pet chat’ or ‘funny pets’.

Capture app

Point the camera at yourself and you might see suggestions like ‘Meet new friends’, ‘Hot or not?’, ‘Dating’, ‘Beautiful people’ — or be nudged to start a ‘Selfie chat’, which is where the app will randomly connect you with another Capture user for a one-to-one private chat.

Chat suggestions are based on an individual user’s inferred interests and local context (pulled via the phone) and also on matching users across the app based on respective usage of the app.

At the same time the user data being gathered is not used to pervasively profile uses, as is the case with ad-supported social networks. Rather Capture’s founders say personal data pulled from the phone — such as location — is only retained for a short time and used to power the next set of recommendations.

Capture users are also not required to provide any personal data (beyond creating a nickname) to start chatting. If they want to use Capture’s web platform they can provide an email to link their app and web accounts — but again that email address does not have to include anything linked to their real identity.

“The key tech we want to develop is a machine learning system that can suggest you the most relevant stuff and topics for you right now — based on data we have from your phone,” continues Moiseenkov. “This is like a magical moment. We do not know who you are — but we can suggest something relevant.

“This is like a smart system because we’ve got some half graph of connection between people. It’s not like the entire graph like your friends and family but it’s a graph on what chat you are in, so where are you discussing something. So we know this connection between people [based on the chats you’re participating in]… so we can use this information.

“Imagine this is somehow sort of a graph. That’s a really key part of our system. We know these intersections, we know the queries, and the intersection of queries from different people. And that’s the key here — the key machine learning system then want to match this between people and interests, between people and topics, and so on.

“On top of that we’ve got recognition stuff for images — like six or seven neural networks that are working to recognize the stuff, what are you seeing, how, what position and so on. We’ve got some quite slick computer vision filters that can do some magic and do not miss.

“Basically we want to perform like Google in terms of query we’ve got — it’s really big system, lots of tabs — to suggest relevant chats.”

Image recognition processing is all done locally on the user’s device so Capture is not accessing any actual image data from the camera view — just mathematical models of what the AI believes it’s seen (and again they claim they don’t hold that data for long).

“Mostly the real-time stuff comes from machine learning, analyzing the data we have from your phone — everybody has location. We do not store this location… we never store your data for a long time. We’re trying to move into more private world where we do not know who you are,” says Moiseenkov.

“When you log into our app you just enter the nickname. It’s not about your phone number, it’s not about your social networks. We sometimes — when you just want to log in from other device — we ask you an email. But that’s all. Email and nickname it’s nothing. We do not know nothing about you. About your person, like where you work, who’s your friends, so on and so on. We do not know anything.

“I think that’s the true way for now. That’s why gaming is so fast in terms of growing. People just really want to share, really want to log in and sign up [in a way] that’s easy. And there is no real barriers for that — I think that’s what we want to explore more.”

Chatroulette

Having tested Capture’s app prior to launch I can report that the first wave chat suggestions are pretty rudimentary and/or random.

Plus its image recognition often misfires (for instance my cat was identified as, among other things, a dog, hamster, mouse and even a polar bear (!) — as well as a cat — so clearly the AI’s eye isn’t flawless, and variable environmental conditions around the user can produce some odd and funny results).

 

Capture app

The promise from the founders is that recommendations will get better as the app ingests more data and the AI (and indeed Capture staff performing manual curation of chat suggestions) get a better handle on what people are clicking on and therefore wanting to talk with other users about.

They also say they’re intending to make better linkage leaps in chat suggestions — so rather than being offered a chatroom called ‘Pen’ (as I was),  if you point the Capture camera at a pen, the app might instead nudge you towards more interesting-sounding chats — like ‘office talk’ or ‘writing room’ and so on.

Equally, if a bunch of users point their Capture cameras at the same pen the app might in future be smart enough to infer that they all want to join the same chatroom — and suggest creating a private group chat just for them.

On that front you could imagine members of the same club, say, being able to hop into the same discussion channel — summoning it by scanning a mutual object or design they all own or have access to. And you could also imagine people being delighted by a scanner-based interface linked to custom stuff in their vicinity — as a lower friction entry point vs typing in their directions. (Though — to be clear — the app isn’t hitting those levels of savvy right now.)

“Internally we imagine that we’re like Google but without direct query typing,” Moiseenkov tells TechCrunch. “So basically you do the query — like scanning the world around you. Like you are in some location, like some venue, imagine all this data is like a query — so then step by step we know what people are clicking, then improving the results and this step by step, month by month, so after three month or four month we will be better. So we know what people are clicking, we know what people are discussing and that’s it.”

“It’s tricky stuff,” he adds. “It’s really really hard. So we need lots of machine learning, we need lots of like our hands working on this moderating stuff, replacing some stuff, renaming, suggest different things. But I think that’s the way — that’s the way for onboarding people.

“So when people will know that they will open the app in the arena and they will receive the right results the most relevant stuff for this arena — for the concert, for the match, or something like that, it will be the game. That’s what we want to achieve. So every time during the day you open the app you receive relevant community to join. That’s the key.”

Right now the founders say they’re experimenting with various chat forms and features so they can figure out how people want to use the app and ensure they adapt to meet demand.

Hence, for example, the chatroulette-style random ‘selfie chat’ feature. Which does what it says on the tin — connecting you to another random user for a one-to-one chat. (If selfie chats do end up getting struck out of the app I hope they’ll find somewhere else to house the cute slide-puzzle animation that’s displayed as the algorithms crunch data to connect you to a serendipitous interlocutor.)

They’re also not yet decided on whether public chat content in Capture will persist indefinitely — thereby potentially creating ongoing, topics-based resources — or be ephemeral by default, with a rolling delete which kicks in after a set time to wipe the chat slate clean.

“We actually do not know what will be in the next one to three months. We need to figure out — will it be consistent or ephemeral,” admits Moiseenkov. “We need to figure out certain areas, like usage patterns. We should watch how people behave in our app and then decide what will be the feed.”

Capture does support private group chats as well as public channels — so there’s certainly overlap with the messaging platform Telegram, which also supports both. Though one nuance between them is Capture Channels let everyone comment but only admins post vs Telegram channels being a pure one-way broadcast.

But it’s on interface and user experience where Capture’s approach really diverges from the more standard mobile messaging playbook.

If you imagine it as a mash-up of existing social apps Capture could be thought of as something like a Snap-style front end atop a Telegram-esque body yet altogether sleeker, with none of the usual social baggage and clutter. (Some of that may creep in of course, if users demand it, and they do have a reactions style feature linked up to add in so… )

“With our tool you can find people not from your graph,” says Moiseenkov. “That’s the key here. So with WhatsApp it’s really hard to invite people not from your graph — or like friends of friends. And that’s a really tough question — where I can find the relevant people whom I chat about football? So now we add the tool for you in our app to just find these people and invite them to your [chat].”

“It’s really really hard not to like your friend’s post on Instagram because it’s social capital,” he adds. “You are always liking these posts. And we are not in this space. We do not want to move in this direction of followers, likers, and all this stuff — scrolling and endless communication.

“Time is changing, my life is changing, my friends and family somehow is changing because life is changing… We’re mobile like your everyday life… the app is suggesting you something relevant for this life [now]. And you can just find people also doing the same things, studying, discussing the same things.”

Community building

Why include private chats at all in Capture? Given the main premise (and promise) of the app is its ability to combine strangers with similar interests in the same virtual spaces — thereby expanding interest communities and helping mobile users escape the bubbles of closed chat groups.

On that Moiseenkov says they envisage communities will still want to be able to create their own closed groups — to maintain “a persistent, consistent community”.

So Capture has been designed to contain backchannels as well as open multiple windows into worlds anyone can join. “It’s one of opportunities to make this and I think that we should add it because we do not know exact scenarios right from the launch,” he says of including private conduits alongside public chats.

Given the multiple chat channels in the first release Capture does risk being a bit confusing. And during our interview the founders joke about having created a “maximal viable product” rather than the usual MVP.

But they say they’re also armed to be able to respond quickly to usage patterns — with bits and pieces lined up in the background so they can move quickly to add/remove features based on the usage feedback they get. So, basically, watch this space.

All the feature creep and experimentation has delayed their launch a little though. The app had been slated to arrive in Q4 last year. Albeit, a later-than-expected launch is hardly an unusual story for a startup.

Capture also of course suffers from a lack of users for people to chat to at the point of release — aka, the classic network effect problem (which also makes testing it prior to launch pretty tricky; safe to say, it was a very minimalist messaging experience).

Not having many users also means Capture’s chat suggestions aren’t as intelligent and savvy as the founders imply they’ll be.

So again the MVP will need some time to mature before it’s safe to pass judgement on the underlying idea. It does feel a bit laggy right now — and chat suggestions definitely hit and miss but it will be interesting to see how that evolves as/if users pile in. capture app

Part of their plan is to encourage and nurture movie/TV/entertainment discussion communities specifically — with Hardy arguing there’s “no such tool” that easily supports that. So in future they want Capture users to be notified about new series coming up on Netflix, or Disney’s latest release. Then, as users watch that third party content, their idea is they’ll be encouraged to discuss it live on their mobiles via Capture.

But movie content is only partially launched at this stage. So again that’s all just a nice idea at this stage.

Testing pre-launch on various celebrity visages also drew a suggestive blank — and Hardy confirmed they’ve got more pop culture adds planned for the future.

Such gaps will likely translate into a low stickiness rate at first. But when the team’s ambition is to support a Google-esque level of content queries the scale of the routing and pattern matching task ahead of them is really both massive and unending.

To get usage off the ground they’re aiming to break the content recommendation problem down into more bite-size chunks — starting by seeding links to local events and news (sourced from parsing the public Internet); and also by focusing on serving specific communities (say around sports), and also linked to particular locations, such as cities — the latter two areas likely informed by in what and where the app gets traction.

They’ve also hired a content manager to help with content recommendations. This person is also in charge of “banning some bad things and all that stuff”, as they put it. (From the get go they’re running a filter to ban nudity; and don’t yet support video uploads/streams to reduce their moderation risk. Clearly they will need to be very ‘on it’ to avoid problem usage mushrooming into view and discouraging positive interactions and community growth within the app. But again they say they’re drawing on their Prisma experience.)

They also say they want this social app to be more a slow burn on the growth front — having seen the flip side of burn out viral success at Prisma — which, soon after flooding the social web with painterly selfies, had to watch as tech giants ruthlessly cloned the style transfer effect, reducing their novelty factor and pushing users to move on to their next selfie lens fix.

“As data-driven guys we’re mostly looking for some numbers,” says Moiseenkov when asked where they hope to be with Capture in 12 months’ time. “So I think achieving something like 1M or 2M MAU with a good retention and engagement loop by then is our goal.

“We want to keep this growth under control. So we could release the features step by step, more about engagement not more about viral growth. So our focus is doing something that can keep engagement loop, that can increase our spend time in the app, increase the usage and so on, not driving this into the peak and like acquiring all the trends.”

“Conclusions are drawn from Prisma!” adds Hardy with investor-winning levels of chutzpah.

While it’s of course super early to talk business model, the question is a valid one given Capture’s claims of zero user profiling. Free apps backed by VC will need to monetize the hoped for scale and usage at some point. So how does Capture plan to do that?

The founders say they envisage the app acting as a distribution tool. And for that use case their knowing (only) the timing, location and subject of chats is plenty enough data to carry out contextual targeting of whatever stuff they can get paid to distribute to their users.  

They are also toying with models in a Patreon style — such as users being able to donate to content authors who are in turn distributing stuff to them via Capture. But again plans aren’t fully formed at this nascent stage.

“Our focus right now is more like going into partnerships with different companies that have lots of content and lots of events going on,” says Hardy. “We also are going to ask for permission to get access to music apps like Spotify or Apple Music to be aware of those artists and songs a person is interested in and is listening to. So this will give us an opportunity to suggest relevant new albums, maybe music events, concerts and so on and so forth.

“For example if a band is coming to your city and we know we have access to Apple Music we know you’re listening to it we’ll suggest a concert — we’ll say ‘hey maybe you can win a free ticket’ if we can partner… with someone, so yeah we’re moving into this in the near future I think.”