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Facebook launches Portal TV, a $149 video chat set-top box

Facebook wants to take over your television with a clip-on camera for video calling, AR gaming and content co-watching. If you can get past the creepiness, the new Portal TV lets you hang out with friends on your home’s biggest screen. It’s a fresh product category that could give the social network a unique foothold in the living room, where, unlike on phones where it’s beholden to Apple and Google, Facebook owns the hardware and operating system.

Today Facebook unveiled a new line of Portal devices that bring to smaller smart screen form factors its auto-zooming AI camera, in-house voice assistant speaker, Alexa, apps like Spotify and newly added Amazon Prime Video, Messenger video chat and now end-to-end encrypted WhatsApp video calls.

The $149 Portal TV is the star of the show, turning most televisions with an HDMI connection into a video chat device. And if you video call between two Portal TVs, you can use the new Watch Together feature to co-view Facebook Watch videos simultaneously while chilling together over picture-in-picture. The Portal TV is a genius way for Facebook to make its hardware both cheaper yet more immersive by co-opting a screen you already own and have given a space in your life, thereby leapfrogging smart speakers like Amazon Echo and Google Home.

There’s also the new pint-size 8-inch Portal Mini for just $129, which makes counter-top video chat exceedingly cheap. The 10-inch Portal that launched a year ago now has a sleeker, minimal bezel look with a price drop (from $199 to $179). Both look more like digital picture frames, which they are, and can be stood on their side or end for optimal full-screen chatting. Lastly, the giant 15.6-inch Portal+ swivel screen falls to $279 instead of $349, and you still get $50 off if you buy any two Portal devices.

Facebook

“The TV has been a staple of living rooms around the world, but to date it’s been primarily about people who are physically interacting with the device,” Facebook’s VP of consumer hardware Andrew “Boz” Bosworth tells me at a press event inside a San Francisco Victorian house. “We see the opportunity for people to use their TVs not just to do that but also to interact with other people.”

The new Portals go on pre-sale today from Portal.facebook.com, Amazon and Best Buy in the U.S. and Canada, plus new markets like the U.K., Australia, New Zealand, Spain, Italy and France (though the “Hey Portal” assistant only works in English). Portal and Portal Mini ship October 15th and Portal TV ships November 5th.

Portal

The whole Portal gang lack essential video apps like Netflix and HBO, and Boz claims he’s not trying to compete directly with Roku, Fire TV, etc. Instead, Facebook is trying to win where it’s strongest, on communication and video chat where rivals lack a scaled social network.

“You’re kind of more hanging out. It isn’t as transactional. It’s not as urgent as when you sacrifice your left arm to the cause,” explains Boz. Like how Fortnite created a way for people to just chill together while gaming remotely, Portal TV could do the same for watching television together, apart.

Battling the creepiness

The original Portal launched a year ago to favorable reviews, except for one sticking point: journalists all thought it was too sketchy to bring Facebook surveillance tech inside their homes. Whether the mainstream consumer feels the same way is still a mystery, as the company has refused to share sales numbers. Though Boz told me, “The engagement, the retention numbers are all really positive,” we haven’t seen developers like Netflix rush to bring their apps to the Portal platform.

To that end, privacy on Portal no longer feels clipped on like the old plastic removable camera covers. “We have to always do more work to grow the number of people who have that level of comfort, and bring that technology into their home,” says Boz. “We’ve done what we can in this latest generation of products, now with integrated camera covers that are hardware, indicator lights when the microphone is off and form factors that are less obtrusive and blend more into the background of the home.”

Portal

One major change stems from a scandal that spread across the tech sector, with Apple, Google, Amazon and Facebook all being criticized for quietly sending voice clips to human reviewers to improve speech recognition in what felt like a privacy violation. “Part of the Portal out-of-box experience is going to be a splash screen on data storage and it will literally walk through how . . . when we hear ‘Hey Portal’ a voice recording and transcription is sent, it may be reviewed by humans, and people have the ability to opt out.”

Facebook will let users disable storage of Portal voice snippets

But if Portal is battling the perception of creepiness, why make human reviews the default? Boz defended the move from the perspective of accessibility. “We say, ‘oh they’re good enough,’ but for a lot of people that might have a mild speech impediment, a subtle accent, who might use different words because they’re from a different region, these assistants aren’t inclusive.” He claims more voice data reviewed by humans means better products for everyone, though I bet better sales for Facebook wouldn’t hurt.

Portal

Instead, Facebook is leaning on the evolution of the smart screen market in general to help its camera blend in. “The more value we can create, not just any one player but as an entire industry, that allows consumers to feel — ‘yeah, I both am comfortable with how the data is being used and why.’ ”

One reason Facebook is forging forward despite all the criticism about launching a “surveillance” device amidst its scandals: This is its shot to control its destiny, unlike on phones. Facebook has always been vulnerable to Apple and Google because its app lives in their app stores on their devices. “You don’t have a huge amount of influence over what the phone itself is or what the operating system provides. You’re kind of at the mercy of what those manufacturers or developers provide you,” Boz notes. With Portal, Facebook can ensure communication tech like cameras stay part of the smart home, even if they’re creepy now.

Hands-on with the new Portals

If you can get past Facebook’s toxic brand, the new Portals are quite pleasing. They’re remarkably polished products for a company just a year into selling consumer hardware. They all feel sturdy and elegant enough to place in your kitchen or living room.

Portal

The Portal and Portal Mini work just like last year’s models, but without the big speaker bezel they can be flipped on their side and look much more like picture frames while running Portal’s Smart Frame showing your Facebook, Instagram or camera roll photos.Portal

Portal TV’s flexible form factor is a clever innovation, first spotted as “Codename: Ripley” by Jane Manchun Wong and reported by Alex Heath for Cheddar a year ago. It has an integrated stand for placing the gadget on your TV console, but that stand also squeezes onto a front wing to let it clip onto both wide and extremely thin new flatscreen televisions. With just an HDMI connection it brings a 12.5 megapixel, 120-degree camera and 8-mic array to any tube. It also ships with a stubby remote control for basic browsing without having to shout across the room.

Portal TV includes an integrated smart speaker that can be used even when the TV is off or on a different input, and offers HDMI CEC for control through other remotes. The built-in camera cover gives users peace of mind and a switch conjures a red light to signal that all sensors are disabled. Overall, control responsiveness felt a tad sluggish, but passable.

Portal

Portal’s software is largely the same as before, with a few key improvements, the addition of WhatsApp and one big bonus feature for Portal TVs. The AI Smart Camera is the best part, automatically tracking multiple people to keep everyone in frame and zoomed-in as possible. Improved adaptive background modeling and human pose estimation lets it keep faces in view without facial recognition, and all video processing is done locally on the device. A sharper Spotlight feature lets you select one person, like a child running around the room, so you don’t miss the gymnastics routines.

The Portal app platform that features Spotify and Pandora is gaining Amazon’s suite of apps, starting with Prime Video while Ring doorbell and smart home controls are on the way. Beyond Messenger calls and AR Storytime, where you don characters’ AR masks as you read aloud a children’s book, there are new AR games like Cats Catching Donuts With Their Mouths. Designed for kids and casual players, the games had some trouble with motion tracking and felt too thin for more than a few seconds of play. But if Facebook gave Portal TV a real controller or bought a better AR games studio, it could dive deeper into gaming as a selling point.

Portal

WhatsApp is the top new feature for all the Portals. Though you can’t use the voice assistant to call people, you can now WhatsApp video chat friends with end-to-end encryption rather than just Messenger’s encryption in transit. The two messaging apps combined give Portal a big advantage over Google and Amazon’s devices since their parents have screwed up or ignored chat over the years. Still, there’s no way to send text messages, which would be exceedingly helpful.

Reserved for Portal TV-to-Portal TV Messenger chats is the new Watch Together feature we broke the news of a year ago after Ananay Arora spotted it in Messenger’s code. This lets you do a picture-in-picture video chat with friends while you simultaneously view a Facebook Watch video. It even smartly ducks down the video’s audio while friends are talking so you can share reactions. While it doesn’t work with other content apps like Prime Video, Watch Together shows the potential of Portal: passive hang out time.

PortalTV

“Have you ever thought about how weird bowling is, Josh? Bowling is a weird thing to go do. I enjoy bowling. I don’t enjoy bowling by myself that much. I enjoy going with other people,” Boz tells me. “It’s just a pretext, it’s some reason for us to get together and have some beers and to have time and have conversation. Whether it’s video calling or the AR games . . . those are a pretext, to have an excuse to go be together.”

This is Portal’s true purpose. Facebook has always been about time spent, getting deeper into your life and learning more about you. While other companies’ products might feel less creepy or be more entertaining, none have the ubiquitous social connection of Facebook and Portal. When your friends are on screen too, a mediocre game or silly video is elevated into a memorable experience. You can burn hours simply co-chilling. With Portal TV, Facebook finally has something unique enough to possibly offset its brand tax and earn it a place in your home.

Read more: https://techcrunch.com/2019/09/18/facebook-portal-tv/

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Why is Facebook doing robotics research?

It’s a bit strange to hear that the world’s leading social network is pursuing research in robotics rather than, say, making search useful, but Facebook is a big organization with many competing priorities. And while these robots aren’t directly going to affect your Facebook experience, what the company learns from them could be impactful in surprising ways.

Though robotics is a new area of research for Facebook, its reliance on and bleeding-edge work in AI are well known. Mechanisms that could be called AI (the definition is quite hazy) govern all sorts of things, from camera effects to automated moderation of restricted content.

AI and robotics are naturally overlapping magisteria — it’s why we have an event covering both — and advances in one often do the same, or open new areas of inquiry, in the other. So really it’s no surprise that Facebook, with its strong interest in using AI for a variety of tasks in the real and social media worlds, might want to dabble in robotics to mine for insights.

What then could be the possible wider applications of the robotics projects it announced today? Let’s take a look.

Learning to walk from scratch

“Daisy,” the hexapod robot

Walking is a surprisingly complex action, or series of actions, especially when you’ve got six legs, like the robot used in this experiment. You can program in how it should move its legs to go forward, turn around, and so on, but doesn’t that feel a bit like cheating? After all, we had to learn on our own, with no instruction manual or settings to import. So the team looked into having the robot teach itself to walk.

This isn’t a new type of research — lots of roboticists and AI researchers are into it. Evolutionary algorithms (different but related) go back a long way, and we’ve already seen interesting papers like this one:

This robo-bug can improvise its walk like a real insect

By giving their robot some basic priorities like being “rewarded” for moving forward, but no real clue how to work its legs, the team let it experiment and try out different things, slowly learning and refining the model by which it moves. The goal is to reduce the amount of time it takes for the robot to go from zero to reliable locomotion from weeks to hours.

What could this be used for? Facebook is a vast wilderness of data, complex and dubiously structured. Learning to navigate a network of data is of course very different from learning to navigate an office — but the idea of a system teaching itself the basics on a short timescale given some simple rules and goals is shared.

Learning how AI systems teach themselves, and how to remove roadblocks like mistaken priorities, cheating the rules, weird data-hoarding habits and other stuff is important for agents meant to be set loose in both real and virtual worlds. Perhaps the next time there is a humanitarian crisis that Facebook needs to monitor on its platform, the AI model that helps do so will be informed by the auto-didactic efficiencies that turn up here.

Leveraging “curiosity”

Researcher Akshara Rai adjusts a robot arm in the robotics AI lab in Menlo Park (Facebook)

This work is a little less visual, but more relatable. After all, everyone feels curiosity to a certain degree, and while we understand that sometimes it kills the cat, most times it’s a drive that leads us to learn more effectively. Facebook applied the concept of curiosity to a robot arm being asked to perform various ordinary tasks.

Now, it may seem odd that they could imbue a robot arm with “curiosity,” but what’s meant by that term in this context is simply that the AI in charge of the arm — whether it’s seeing or deciding how to grip, or how fast to move — is given motivation to reduce uncertainty about that action.

That could mean lots of things — perhaps twisting the camera a little while identifying an object gives it a little bit of a better view, improving its confidence in identifying it. Maybe it looks at the target area first to double check the distance and make sure there’s no obstacle. Whatever the case, giving the AI latitude to find actions that increase confidence could eventually let it complete tasks faster, even though at the beginning it may be slowed by the “curious” acts.

What could this be used for? Facebook is big on computer vision, as we’ve seen both in its camera and image work and in devices like Portal, which (some would say creepily) follows you around the room with its “face.” Learning about the environment is critical for both these applications and for any others that require context about what they’re seeing or sensing in order to function.

The future of photography is code

Any camera operating in an app or device like those from Facebook is constantly analyzing the images it sees for usable information. When a face enters the frame, that’s the cue for a dozen new algorithms to spin up and start working. If someone holds up an object, does it have text? Does it need to be translated? Is there a QR code? What about the background, how far away is it? If the user is applying AR effects or filters, where does the face or hair stop and the trees behind begin?

If the camera, or gadget, or robot, left these tasks to be accomplished “just in time,” they will produce CPU usage spikes, visible latency in the image and all kinds of stuff the user or system engineer doesn’t want. But if it’s doing it all the time, that’s just as bad. If instead the AI agent is exerting curiosity to check these things when it senses too much uncertainty about the scene, that’s a happy medium. This is just one way it could be used, but given Facebook’s priorities it seems like an important one.

Seeing by touching

Although vision is important, it’s not the only way that we, or robots, perceive the world. Many robots are equipped with sensors for motion, sound and other modalities, but actual touch is relatively rare. Chalk it up to a lack of good tactile interfaces (though we’re getting there). Nevertheless, Facebook’s researchers wanted to look into the possibility of using tactile data as a surrogate for visual data.

If you think about it, that’s perfectly normal — people with visual impairments use touch to navigate their surroundings or acquire fine details about objects. It’s not exactly that they’re “seeing” via touch, but there’s a meaningful overlap between the concepts. So Facebook’s researchers deployed an AI model that decides what actions to take based on video, but instead of actual video data, fed it high-resolution touch data.

Turns out the algorithm doesn’t really care whether it’s looking at an image of the world as we’d see it or not — as long as the data is presented visually, for instance as a map of pressure on a tactile sensor, it can be analyzed for patterns just like a photographic image.

What could this be used for? It’s doubtful Facebook is super interested in reaching out and touching its users. But this isn’t just about touch — it’s about applying learning across modalities.

Think about how, if you were presented with two distinct objects for the first time, it would be trivial to tell them apart with your eyes closed, by touch alone. Why can you do that? Because when you see something, you don’t just understand what it looks like, you develop an internal model representing it that encompasses multiple senses and perspectives.

Similarly, an AI agent may need to transfer its learning from one domain to another — auditory data telling a grip sensor how hard to hold an object, or visual data telling the microphone how to separate voices. The real world is a complicated place and data is noisier here — but voluminous. Being able to leverage that data regardless of its type is important to reliably being able to understand and interact with reality.

So you see that while this research is interesting in its own right, and can in fact be explained on that simpler premise, it is also important to recognize the context in which it is being conducted. As the blog post describing the research concludes:

We are focused on using robotics work that will not only lead to more capable robots but will also push the limits of AI over the years and decades to come. If we want to move closer to machines that can think, plan, and reason the way people do, then we need to build AI systems that can learn for themselves in a multitude of scenarios — beyond the digital world.

As Facebook continually works on expanding its influence from its walled garden of apps and services into the rich but unstructured world of your living room, kitchen and office, its AI agents require more and more sophistication. Sure, you won’t see a “Facebook robot” any time soon… unless you count the one they already sell, or the one in your pocket right now.

Read more: https://techcrunch.com/2019/05/20/why-is-facebook-doing-robotics-research/

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Facebook, are you kidding?

Facebook is making a video camera. The company wants you to take it home, gaze into its single roving-yet-unblinking eye and speak private thoughts to your loved ones into its many-eared panel.

The thing is called Portal and it wants to live on your kitchen counter or in your living room or wherever else you’d like friends and family to remotely hang out with you. Portal adjusts to keep its subject in frame as they move around to enable casual at-home video chat. The device minimizes background noise to boost voice clarity. These tricks are neat but not revelatory.

Sounds useful, though. Everyone you know is on Facebook. Or they were anyway… things are a bit different now.

Facebook, champion of bad timing

As many users are looking for ways to compartmentalize or scale back their reliance on Facebook, the company has invited itself into the home. Portal is voice activated, listening for a cue-phrase (in this case “Hey Portal) and leverages Amazon’s Alexa voice commands, as well. The problem is that plenty of users are already creeped out enough by Alexa’s always-listening functionality and habit of picking up snippets of conversation from the next room over. It may have the best social graph in the world, but in 2018 people are looking to use Facebook for less — not more.

Facebook reportedly planned to unveil Portal at F8 this year but held the product back due to the Cambridge Analytica scandal, among other scandals. The fact that the company released the device on the tail end of a major data breach disclosure suggests that the company couldn’t really hold back the product longer without killing it altogether and didn’t see a break in the clouds coming any time soon. Facebook’s Portal is another way for Facebook to blaze a path that its users walk daily to connect to one another. Months after its original intended ship date, the timing still couldn’t be worse.

Facebook launches Portal auto-zooming video chat screens for $199/$349

Over the last eight years Facebook insisted time and time again that it is not and never would be a hardware company. I remember sitting in the second row at a mysterious Menlo Park press event five years ago as reporters muttered that we might at last meet the mythological Facebook phone. Instead, Mark Zuckerberg introduced Graph Search.

It’s hard to overstate just how much better the market timing would have been back in 2013. For privacy advocates, the platform was already on notice, but most users still bobbed in and out of Facebook regularly without much thought. Friends who’d quit Facebook cold turkey were still anomalous. Soul-searching over social media’s inexorable impact on social behavior wasn’t quite casual conversation except among disillusioned tech reporters.

Trusting Facebook (or not)

Onion headline-worthy news timing aside, Facebook showed a glimmer of self-awareness, promising that Portal was “built with privacy and security in mind.” It makes a few more promises:

“Facebook doesn’t listen to, view, or keep the contents of your Portal video calls. Your Portal conversations stay between you and the people you’re calling. In addition, video calls on Portal are encrypted, so your calls are always secure.”

“For added security, Smart Camera and Smart Sound use AI technology that runs locally on Portal, not on Facebook servers. Portal’s camera doesn’t use facial recognition and doesn’t identify who you are.”

“Like other voice-enabled devices, Portal only sends voice commands to Facebook servers after you say, ‘Hey Portal.’ You can delete your Portal’s voice history in your Facebook Activity Log at any time.”

This stuff sounds okay, but it’s standard. And, like any Facebook product testing the waters before turning the ad hose on full-blast, it’s all subject to change. For example, Portal’s camera doesn’t identify who you are, but Facebook commands a powerful facial recognition engine and is known for blurring the boundaries between its major products, a habit that’s likely to worsen with some of the gatekeepers out of the way.

Facebook does not command a standard level of trust. To recover from recent lows, Facebook needs to establish an extraordinary level of trust with users. A fantastic level of trust. Instead, it’s charting new inroads into their lives.

Hardware is hard. Facebook isn’t a hardware maker and its handling of Oculus is the company’s only real trial with the challenges of making, marketing — and securing — something that isn’t a social app. In 2012, Zuckerberg declared that hardware has “always been the wrong strategy” for Facebook. Two years later, Facebook bought Oculus, but that was a bid to own the platform of the future after missing the boat on the early mobile boom — not a signal that Facebook wanted to be a hardware company.

Reminder: Facebook’s entire raison d’être is to extract personal data from its users. For intimate products — video chat, messaging, kitchen-friendly panopticons — it’s best to rely on companies with a business model that is not diametrically opposed to user privacy. Facebook isn’t the only one of those companies (um, hey Google) but Facebook’s products aren’t singular enough to be worth fooling yourself into a surfeit of trust.

Gut check

Right now, as consumers, we only have so much leverage. A small handful of giant tech companies — Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Google and Microsoft — make products that are ostensibly useful, and we decide how useful they are and how much privacy we’re willing to trade to get them. That’s the deal and the deal sucks.

As a consumer it’s worth really sitting with that. Which companies do you trust the least? Why?

Everything you need to know about Facebook’s data breach affecting 50M users

It stands to reason that if Facebook cannot reliably secure its flagship product — Facebook itself — then the company should not be trusted with experimental forays into wildly different products, i.e. physical ones. Securing a software platform that serves 2.23 billion users is an extremely challenging task, and adding hardware to that equation just complicates existing concerns.

You don’t have to know the technical ins and outs of security to make secure choices. Trust is leverage — demand that it be earned. If a product doesn’t pass the smell test, trust that feeling. Throw it out. Better yet, don’t invite it onto your kitchen counter to begin with.

If we can’t trust Facebook to safely help us log in to websites or share news stories, why should we trust Facebook to move into our homes an always-on counter-mounted speaker capable of collecting incredibly sensitive data? Tl; dr: We shouldn’t! Of course we shouldn’t. But you knew that.

Read more: https://techcrunch.com/2018/10/08/facebook-portal-are-you-serious-rn/

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Facebook launches Portal auto-zooming video chat screens for $199/$349

Facebook’s first hardware product combines Alexa (and eventually Google Assistant) with a countertop video chat screen that zooms to always keep you in frame. Yet the fancy gadget’s success depends not on functionality, but whether people are willing to put a Facebook camera and microphone in their home even with a physical clip-on privacy shield.

Today Facebook launches pre-sales of the $199 10-inch screen Portal, and $349 15.6-inch swiveling screen with hi-fi audio Portal+, minus $100 if you buy any two. They’ve got “Hey Portal” voice navigation, Facebook Messenger for video calls with family, Spotify and Pandora for Bluetooth and voice-activated music, Facebook Watch and soon more video content providers, augmented reality Story Time for kids, a third-party app platform, and it becomes a smart photo/video frame when idle.

Knowing buyers might be creeped out, Facebook’s VP of Portal Rafa Camargo tells me “We had to build all the stacks — hardware, software, and AI from scratch — and it allowed us to build privacy into each one of these layers”. There’s no facial recognition and instead just a technology called 2D pose that runs locally on the device to track your position so the camera can follow you if you move around. A separate chip for local detection only activates Portal when it hears its wake word, it doesn’t save recordings, and the data connection is encrypted. And with a tap you can electronically disable the camera and mic, or slide the plastic privacy shield over the lens to blind it while keeping voice controls active.

As you can see from our hands-on video demo here, Facebook packs features into high-quality hardware, especially in the Portal+ which has a screen you can pull from landscape to portrait orientation and an impressive-sounding 4-inch woofer. The standard Portal looks and sounds a bit stumpy by comparison. The Smart Camera smoothly zooms in and out for hands-free use, though there are plenty of times that video chatting from your mobile phone will be easier. The lack of YouTube and Netflix is annoying, but Facebook promises there are more video partners to come.

The $199 Portal comes in $20 cheaper than the less functional Amazon Echo Show (read our gadget reviewer Brian Heater’s take on Portal below), and will also have to compete with Lenovo and Google’s upcoming version that might have the benefit of YouTube. Portal and the $349 Portal+ go on sale today in the US on Portal.Facebook.com, Amazon, and Best Buy in both black and white base colors. They ship in November when they’ll also appear in physical Amazon Books and Best Buy stores.

Facebook tries its hand at hardware with Portal

Hands-On With Portal

Deep inside Facebook’s Menlo Park headquarters, the secretive Building 8 lab began work on Portal 18 months ago. The goal was to reimagine video chat not as a utilitarian communication tool, but for “the feeling of being in the same room even if you’re thousands of miles apart” Facebook Portal’s marketing lead Dave Kaufman tells me. Clearly drinking the social network’s Kool-Aid, he says that “it’s clear that Facebook has done a good job when you’re talking about the breadth of human connection, but we’re focusing on the depth of connection.”

The saddening motive? 93% of the face-to-face time we spend with our parents is done by the time we finish high-school, writes Wait but Why’s Tim Urban. “It felt like punch in the gut to people working at Facebook” says Kaufman. So the team built Portal to be simple enough for young children and grandparents to use, even if they’re too young or old to spend much time on smartphones.

Before you even wake up Portal, it runs a slideshow of your favorite Facebook photos and videos, plus shows birthday reminders and notifications. From the homescreen you’ll get suggested and favorite Messenger contacts you can tap to call, or you can just say “Hey Portal, call Josh.” Built atop the Android Open Source framework, Facebook designed a whole new UI for Portal for both touch and voice. Alex is integrated already. “We definitely have been talking to Google as well” Camargo tells me. “We view the future of these home devices . . . as where you will have multiple assistants and you will use them for whatever they do best . . . We’d like to expand and integrate with them.”

Portal uses your existing social graph instead of needing to import phone numbers or re-establish connections with friends. You can group video chat with up to seven friends, use augmented reality effects to hide your face or keep children entertained, and transfer calls to and from your phone. 400 million Facebookers use Messenger video chat monthly, racking up 17 billion calls in 2017, inspiring Facebook to build Portal around the feature. Kaufman says the ability to call phone numbers is in the roadmap, which could make Portal more tolerant of people who don’t live on Messenger.

Once a video call starts, the 140-degree, 12-megapixel Smart Lens snaps into action, automatically zooming and recentering so your face stays on camera even if you’re bustling around the kitchen or playing with the kids. A four-microphone array follows you too to keep the audio crisp from a distance. If a second person comes into view, Portal will widen the frame so you’re both visible. Tap on a person’s face, and Portal Spotlight crops in tight around just them. Facebook worked with an Oscar award-winning cinematographer to make Smart Lens feel natural. Unfortunately it can’t track pets, but that got so many requests from testers that Facebook wants to add it in. I suggested Portal should let you call businesses so you could move around or be entertained while on hold, though the team says it hasn’t discussed that.

Portal’s most adorable feature is called Story Time. It turns public domain children’s books into augmented reality experiences that illustrate the action and turn you into the characters. You’ll see the three little pigs pop up on your screen, and an AR mask lets you become the big bad wolf when you might impersonate his voice. Kids and grandparents won’t always have much to talk about, and toddlers aren’t great conversation partners, so this could extend Portal calls beyond a quick hello.

Facebook Portal Story Time

Beyond chat, Facebook has built a grip of third-party experiences into Portal. You can use any Alexa to summon Spotify, Pandora, or iHeartRadio, and even opt to have songs play simultaneously on yours and someone else’s Portal for a decentralized dance party. Portal also acts as a Bluetooth speaker, and Spotify Connect lets it power multi-room audio. Portal+ in portrait mode makes a great playlist display with artwork and easy song skipping. The Food Network and Newsy apps let you watch short videos so you follow recipes or catch up on the world as you do your housework. And while you can’t actually browse the News Feed, Facebook Watch pulls in original premium video as well as some viral pap to keep you occupied.

My biggest gripe with Portal is that there’s no voice controlled text messaging feature. Perhaps we’ll see that down the line, though, as Facebook Messenger is now internally testing speech transcription and voice navigation. You can’t use WhatsApp, Instagram Direct, or pop open a web browser either. Even with the Smart Lens subject tracking, Portal is stuck on a table and lacks the convenience of video chatting from a phone in your portable, stabilized gimbal commonly known as your hand. Other shortcomings could be shored up with the gadget’s app platform that is currently invite-only, but Facebook will have to prove there are enough Portal buyers out there to lure developers.

So how will Facebook make money on Portal? “we definitely don’t have ads on the devices, and we don’t see that coming” says Camargo. Facebook wouldn’t reveal the margin it will earn selling the device, but when asked if it’s a loss leader for driving ad views on its social network, Camargo tells me “I wouldn’t say that’s the case”, though boosting engagement is surely an incentive. Portal could earn money from enterprise clients, though, as Facebook is already internally testing a version of its Workplace team collaboration’s video chat feature on Portal. The team laughs that Facebook employees are starting to prefer Portal to their office’s expensive and complex video conference hardware.

Privacy vs Utility

After Cambridge Analytica and Facebook’s recent 50 million user breach, it’s understandable that some people would be scared to own Portal’s all-seeing eye. Privacy makes Portal a non-starter to many even as they seem comfortable with Google or Amazon having access to their dwelling. In hopes of assuaging fears, Facebook put a dedicated button atop Portal that electronically disconnects the camera and microphone so they can’t record, let alone transmit. Portal isn’t allowed to save video, and Facebook says it won’t store your voice commands (though Alexa does). Oh, and just to kill this pervasive rumor, Camargo definitively confirmed that Facebook’s smartphone apps don’t secretly record you either.

Facebook Portal’s physical camera privacy shield

For added protection, snap on the plastic privacy shield and you’ll blind the lens while still being able to voice-activate music and other features. If you use these, especially when you’re not video chatting, the privacy threat drops significantly. The fact that the shield isn’t attached on a hinge to swing on the place makes it feel like a last-minute scramble after a year of privacy scandals, even though Camargo claims all hardware decisions were locked in before this year.

Doing his part on the PR offensive to combat the privacy narrative, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg shared a photo of his young daughters playing with Portal, and wrote “Our girls don’t use a lot of screens yet, but we’re happy for them to do video calls to see their grandparents or so I can see them when I’m traveling.”

You could see Zuckerberg’s willingness to ship Portal amidst a storm of negative press as either infuriatingly negligent as Facebook’s privacy troubles remain, or a show of impressive conviction that the smart home is a future people want that the company must be part of. Maybe Portal is an improbable Hail Mary, but maybe it’s a calculated bet that the cynical and vocal minority don’t represent the average person who cares more about convenience than privacy. Camargo admits that “If no one wants it, ever, we will reassess. But we also don’t think we’ll come and get it all right so we will continue to evolve, we’re already investing in expanding the product line with more products we want to launch next year.”

Mark Zuckerberg’s daughters play with a Facebook Portal

Overall, Portal could replace your favorite Alexa device and add seamless video chatting through Messenger if you’re willing to pay the price. That’s both in terms of the higher cost, but also the ‘brand tax’ of welcoming the data-gobbler with a history of privacy stumbles into your home. But Facebook also benefits as a neutral party to Amazon Alexa and Google. If it can integrate both assistant into one device alongside Portal’s own, it could offer the best of all worlds.

For a first-time hardware maker, Facebook did a remarkable job of building polished devices that add new value instead of reinventing the smart home wheel. Teaming up with Amazon and eventually Google instead of directly competing with their voice assistants shows a measure of humility most tech giants eschew. Yet a history of “move fast and break things” in search of growth has come back to haunt Facebook. Video chat is about spending time with people you love and trust, and Facebook hasn’t earned those feelings from us.

Read more: https://techcrunch.com/2018/10/08/facebook-portal/

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Sex, Beer, and Coding: Inside Facebooks Wild Early Days

Everyone who has seen The Social Network knows the story of Facebook’s founding. It was at Harvard in the spring semester of 2004. What people tend to forget, however, is that Facebook was only based in Cambridge for a few short months. Back then it was called TheFacebook.com, and it was a college-specific carbon copy of Friendster, a pioneering social network based in Silicon Valley.

Mark Zuckerberg’s knockoff site was a hit on campus, and so he and a few school chums decided to move to Silicon Valley after finals and spend the summer there rolling Facebook out to other colleges, nationwide. The Valley was where the internet action was. Or so they thought.

In Silicon Valley during the mid-aughts the conventional wisdom was that the internet gold rush was largely over. The land had been grabbed. The frontier had been settled. The web had been won. Hell, the boom had gone bust three years earlier. Yet nobody ever bothered to send the memo to Mark Zuckerberg—because at the time, Zuck was a nobody: an ambitious teenaged college student obsessed with the computer underground. He knew his way around computers, but other than that, he was pretty clueless—when he was still at Harvard someone had to explain to him that internet sites like Napster were actually businesses, built by corporations.

Excerpted from VALLEY OF GENIUS by Adam Fisher. Copyright © 2018. Available from Twelve Books, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

But Zuckerberg could hack, and that fateful summer he ended up meeting a few key Silicon Valley players who would end up radically changing the direction of what was, at the time, a company in name only. For this oral history of those critical months back in 2004 and 2005, I interviewed all the key players and talked to a few other figures who had insight into the founding era. What emerged, as you’ll see, is a portrait of a corporate proto-culture that continues to exert an influence on Facebook today. The whole enterprise began as something of a lark, it was an un-corporation, an excuse for a summer of beer pong and code sprints. Indeed, Zuckerberg’s first business cards read, “I’m CEO … bitch.” The brogrammer ’tude was a joke … or was it?

Zuckerberg, photographed in March 2006 at the headquarters of Facebook in Palo Alto. His first business card read “I’m CEO … bitch.”

Elena Dorfman/Redux

Sean Parker (cofounder of Napster and first president of Facebook): The dotcom era sort of ended with Napster, then there’s the dotcom bust, which leads to the social media era.

Steven Johnson (noted author and cultural commentator): At the time, the web was fundamentally a literary metaphor: “pages”—and then these hypertext links between pages. There was no concept of the user; that was not part of the metaphor at all.

Mark Pincus (co-owner of the fundamental social media patent): I mark Napster as the beginning of the social web—people, not pages. For me that was the breakthrough moment, because I saw that the internet could be this completely distributed peer-to-peer network. We could disintermediate those big media companies and all be connected to each other.

Steven Johnson: To me it really started with blogging in the early 2000s. You started to have these sites that were oriented around a single person’s point of view. It suddenly became possible to imagine, Oh, maybe there’s another element here that the web could also be organized around? Like I trust these five people, I’d like to see what they are suggesting. And that’s kind of what early blogging was like.

Ev Williams (founder of Blogger, Twitter, and Medium): Blogs then were link heavy and mostly about the internet. “We’re on the internet writing about the internet, and then linking to more of the internet, and isn’t that fun?”

Steven Johnson: You would pull together a bunch of different voices that would basically recommend links to you, and so there was a personal filter.

Mark Pincus: In 2002 Reid Hoffman and I started brainstorming: What if the web could be like a great cocktail party? Where you can walk away with these amazing leads, right? And what’s a good lead? A good lead is a job, an interview, a date, an apartment, a house, a couch.

And so Reid and I started saying, “Wow, this people web could actually generate something more valuable than Google, because you’re in this very, very highly vetted community that has some affinity to each other, and everyone is there for a reason, so you have trust.” The signal-to-noise ratio could be be very high. We called it Web 2.0, but nobody wanted to hear about it, because this was in the nuclear winter of the consumer internet.

Sean Parker: So during the period between 2000 and 2004, kind of leading up to Facebook, there is this feeling that everything that there was to be done with the internet has already been done. The absolute bottom is probably around 2002. PayPal goes public in 2002, and it’s the only consumer internet IPO. So there’s this weird interim period where there’s a total of only six companies funded or something like that. Plaxo was one of them. Plaxo was a proto–social network. It’s this in-between thing: some kind of weird fish with legs.

Aaron Sittig (graphic designer who invented the Facebook "like"): Plaxo is the missing link. Plaxo was the first viral growth company to really succeed intentionally. This is when we really started to understand viral growth.

Sean Parker: The most important thing I ever worked on was developing algorithms for optimizing virality at Plaxo.

Aaron Sittig: Viral growth is when people using the product spreads the product to other people—that’s it. It’s not people deciding to spread the product because they like it. It’s just people in the natural course of using the software to do what they want to do, naturally spreading it to other people.

Sean Parker: There was an evolution that took place from the sort of earliest proto–social network, which is probably Napster, to Plaxo, which only sort of resembled a social network but had many of the characteristics of one, then to LinkedIn, MySpace, and Friendster, then to this modern network which is Facebook.

Ezra Callahan (one of Facebook's very first employees): In the early 2000s, Friendster gets all the early adopters, has a really dense network, has a lot of activity, and then just hits this breaking point.

Aaron Sittig: There was this big race going on and Friendster had really taken off, and it really seemed like Friendster had invented this new thing called “social networking,” and they were the winner, the clear winner. And it’s not entirely clear what happened, but the site just started getting slower and slower and at some point it just stopped working.

Ezra Callahan: And that opens the door for MySpace.

Ev Williams: MySpace was a big deal at the time.

Sean Parker: It was a complicated time. MySpace had very quickly taken over the world from Friendster. They’d seized the mantle. So Friendster was declining, MySpace was ascending.

Scott Marlette (programmer who put photo tagging on Facebook): MySpace was really popular, but then MySpace had scaling trouble, too.

Aaron Sittig: Then pretty much unheralded and not talked about much, Facebook launched in February of 2004.

Dustin Moskovitz (Zuckerberg's original right-hand man): Back then there was a really common problem that now seems trivial. It was basically impossible to think of a person by name and go and look up their picture. All of the dorms at Harvard had individual directories called face books—some were printed, some were online, and most were only available to the students of that particular dorm. So we decided to create a unified version online and we dubbed it “The Facebook” to differentiate it from the individual ones.

Zuckerberg, left, cofounded, Facebook with his Harvard roommate, Dustin Moskovitz, center. Sean Parker, right, joined the company as president in 2004. The trio was photographed in the company’s Palo Alto office in May 2005.

Jim Wilson/New York Times/Redux

Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook's founder and current CEO): And within a couple weeks, a few thousand people had signed up. And we started getting emails from people at other colleges asking for us to launch it at their schools.

Ezra Callahan: Facebook launched at the Ivy Leagues originally, and it wasn’t because they were snooty, stuck-up kids who only wanted to give things to the Ivy Leagues. It was because they had this intuition that people who go to the Ivy Leagues are more likely to be friends with kids at other Ivy League schools.

Aaron Sittig: When Facebook launched at Berkeley, the rules of socializing just totally transformed. When I started at Berkeley, the way you found out about parties was you spent all week talking to people figuring out what was interesting, and then you’d have to constantly be in contact. With Facebook there, knowing what was going on on the weekend was trivial. It was just all laid out for you.

Facebook came to the Stanford campus—in the heart of Silicon Valley— quite early: March 2004.


Sean Parker: My roommates in Portola Valley were all going to Stanford.

Ezra Callahan: So I was a year out of Stanford, I graduated Stanford in 2003, and me and four of my college friends rented a house for that year just near the campus, and we had an extra bedroom available, and so we advertised around on a few Stanford email lists to find a roommate to move into that house with us. We got a reply from this guy named Sean Parker. He ended up moving in with us pretty randomly, and we discovered that while Napster had been a cultural phenomenon, it didn’t make him any money.

Sean Parker: And so the girlfriend of one of my roommates was using a product, and I was like, “You know, that looks a lot like Friendster or MySpace.” She’s like, “Oh yes, well, nobody in college uses MySpace.” There was something a little rough about MySpace.

Mark Zuckerberg: So MySpace had almost a third of their staff monitoring the pictures that got uploaded for pornography. We hardly ever have any pornography uploaded. The reason is that people use their real names on Facebook.

Adam D’Angelo (Zuckerberg's high school hacking buddy): Real names are really important.

Aaron Sittig: We got this clear early on because of something that was established as a community principle at the Well: You own your own words. And we took it farther than the Well. We always had everything be traceable back to a specific real person.

Stewart Brand (founder of the Well, the first important social networking site): The Well could have gone that route, but we did not. That was one of the mistakes we made.

Mark Zuckerberg: And I think that that’s a really simple social solution to a possibly complex technical issue.

Ezra Callahan: In this early period, it’s a fairly hacked-together, simple website: just basic web forms, because that’s what Facebook profiles are.

Ruchi Sanghvi (coder who created Facebook's Newsfeed): There was a little profile pic, and it said things like, “This is my profile” and “See my friends,” and there were three or four links and one or two other boxes below that.

Aaron Sittig: But I was really impressed by how focused and clear their product was. Small details—like when you went to your profile, it really clearly said, “This is you,” because social networking at the time was really, really hard to understand. So there was a maturity in the product that you don’t typically see until a product has been out there for a couple of years and been refined.

Sean Parker: So I see this thing, and I emailed some email address at Facebook, and I basically said, “I’ve been working with Friendster for a while, and I’d just like to meet you guys and see if maybe there’s anything to talk about.” And so we set up this meeting in New York—I have no idea why it was in New York—and Mark and I just started talking about product design and what I thought the product needed.

Aaron Sittig: I got a call from Sean Parker and he said, “Hey, I’m in New York. I just met with this kid Mark Zuckerberg, who is very smart, and he’s the guy building Facebook, and they say they have a ‘secret feature’ that’s going to launch that’s going to change everything! But he won’t tell me what it is. It’s driving me crazy. I can’t figure out what it is. Do you know anything about this? Can you figure it out? What do you think it could be?” And so we spent a little time talking about it, and we couldn’t really figure out what their “secret feature” that was going to change everything was. We got kind of obsessed about it.

Two months after meeting Sean Parker, Mark Zuckerberg moved to Silicon Valley with the idea of turning his dorm‐room project into a real business. Accompanying him were his cofounder and consigliere, Dustin Moskovitz, and a couple of interns.

Mark Zuckerberg: Palo Alto was kind of like this mythical place where all the tech used to come from. So I was like, I want to check that out.

Ruchi Sanghvi: I was pretty surprised when I heard Facebook moved to the Bay Area, I thought they were still at Harvard working out of the dorms.

Zuckerberg recruited fellow Harvard student Chris Hughes in the early days of Facebook to help make suggestions about the fledgling service. The two were photographed at Eliot House in May 2004.

Rick Friedman/Getty Images

Ezra Callahan: Summer of 2004 is when that fateful series of events took place: that legendary story of Sean running into the Facebook cofounders on the street, having met them a couple months earlier on the East Coast. That meeting happened a week after we all moved out of the house we had been living in together. Sean was crashing with his girlfriend’s parents.

Sean Parker: I was walking outside the house, and there was this group of kids walking toward me—they were all wearing hoodies and they looked like they were probably pot-smoking high-school kids just out making trouble, and I hear my name. I’m like, Oh, it’s coincidence, and I hear my name again and I turn around and it’s like, “Sean, what are you doing here?”

It took me about 30 seconds to figure out what was going on, and I finally realize that it’s Mark and Dustin and a couple of other people, too. So I’m like, “What are you guys doing here?” And they’re like, “We live right there.” And I’m like, “That’s really weird, I live right here!” This is just super weird.

Aaron Sittig: I get a call from Sean and he’s telling me, “Hey, you won’t believe what’s just happened.” And Sean said, “You’ve got to come over and meet these guys. Just leave right now. Just come over and meet them!”

Sean Parker: And so I don’t even know what happened from there, other than that it just became very convenient for me to go swing by the house. It wasn’t even a particularly formal relationship.

Aaron Sittig: So I went over and met them, and I was really impressed by how focused they were as a group. They’d occasionally relax and go do their thing, but for the most part they spent all their time sitting at a kitchen table with their laptops open. I would go visit their place a couple times a week, and that was always where I’d find them, just sitting around the kitchen table working, constantly, to keep their product growing.

All Mark wanted to do was either make the product better, or take a break and relax so that you could get enough energy to go work on the product more. That’s it. They never left that house except to go watch a movie.

Ezra Callahan: The early company culture was very, very loose. It felt like a project that’s gotten out of control and has this amazing business potential. Imagine your freshman dorm running a business, that’s really what it felt like.

Mark Zuckerberg: Most businesses aren’t like a bunch of kids living in a house, doing whatever they want, not waking up at a normal time, not going into an office, hiring people by, like, bringing them into your house and letting them chill with you for a while and party with you and smoke with you.

Ezra Callahan: The living room was the office with all these monitors and workstations set up everywhere and just whiteboards as far as the eye can see.

At the time Mark Zuckerberg was obsessed with file sharing, and the grand plan for his Silicon Valley summer was to resurrect Napster. It would rise again, but this time as a feature inside of Facebook. The name of Zuckerberg’s pet project? Wirehog.

Aaron Sittig: Wirehog was the secret feature that Mark had promised was going to change everything. Mark had gotten convinced that what would make Facebook really popular and just sort of cement its position at schools was a way to send files around to other people—mostly just to trade music.

Mark Pincus: They built in this little thing that looked like Napster—you could see what music files someone had on their computer.

Ezra Callahan: This is at a time when we have just watched Napster get completely terminated by the courts and the entertainment industry is starting to sue random individuals for sharing files. The days of the Wild West were clearly ending.

Aaron Sittig: It’s important to remember that Wirehog was happening at a time where you couldn’t even share photos on your Facebook page. Wirehog was going to be the solution for sharing photos with other people. You could have a box on your profile and people could go there to get access to all your photos that you were sharing—or whatever files you were sharing. It might be audio files, it might be video files, it might be photos of their vacation.

Ezra Callahan: But at the end of the day it’s just a file-sharing service. When I joined Facebook, most people had already kind of come around to the idea that unless some new use comes up for Wirehog that we haven’t thought of, it’s just a liability. “We’re going to get sued someday, so what’s the point?” That was the mentality.

Mark Pincus: I was kind of wondering why Sean wanted to go anywhere near music again.

Aaron Sittig: My understanding was that some of Facebook’s lawyers advised that it would be a bad idea. And that work on Wirehog was kind of abandoned just as Facebook user growth started to grow really quickly.

Ezra Callahan: They had this insane demand to join. It’s still only at a hundred schools, but everyone in college has already heard of this, at all schools across the country. The usage numbers were already insane. Everything on the whiteboards was just all stuff related to what schools were going to launch next. The problem was very singular. It was simply, “How do we scale?”


Aaron Sittig: Facebook would launch at a school, and within one day they would have 70 percent of undergrads signed up. At the time, nothing had ever grown as fast as Facebook.

Ezra Callahan: It did not seem inevitable that we were going to succeed, but the scope of what success looked like was becoming clear. Dustin was already talking about being a billion-dollar company. They had that ambition from the very beginning. They were very confident: two 19-year-old cocky kids.

Mark Zuckerberg: We just all kind of sat around one day and were like, “We’re not going back to school, are we?” Nahhhh.

Ezra Callahan: The hubris seemed pretty remarkable.

David Choe (noted graffiti artist): And Sean is a skinny, nerdy kid and he’s like, “I’m going to go raise money for Facebook. I’m going to bend these fuckers’ minds.” And I’m like, “How are you going to do that?” And he transformed himself into an alpha male. He got like a fucking super-sharp haircut. He started working out every day, got a tan, got a nice suit. And he goes in these meetings and he got the money!

Mark Pincus: So it’s probably like September or October of 2004, and I’m at Tribe’s offices in this dusty converted brick building in Potrero Hill—the idea of Tribe.net was like Friendster meets Craigslist—and we’re in our conference room, and Sean says he’s bringing the Facebook guy in. And he brings Zuck in, and Zuck is in a pair of sweatpants, and these Adidas flip-flops that he wore, and he’s so young looking and he’s sitting there with his feet up on the table, and Sean is talking really fast about all the things Facebook is going to do and grow and everything else, and I was mesmerized.

Because I’m doing Tribe, and we are not succeeding, we’ve plateaued and we’re hitting our head against the wall trying to figure out how to grow, and here’s this kid, who has this simple idea, and he’s just taking off! I was kind of in awe already of what they had accomplished, and maybe a little annoyed by it. Because they did something simpler and quicker and with less, and then I remember Sean got on the computer in my office, and he pulled up The Facebook, and he starts showing it to me, and I had never been able to be on it, because it’s college kids only, and it was amazing.

People are putting up their phone numbers and home addresses and everything about themselves and I was like, I can’t believe it! But it was because they had all this trust. And then Sean put together an investment round quickly, and he had advised Zuck to, I think, take $500,000 from Peter Thiel, and then $38,000 each from me and Reid Hoffman. Because we were basically the only other people doing anything in social networking. It was a very, very small little club at the time.

Ezra Callahan: By December it’s—I wouldn’t say it’s like a more professional atmosphere, but all the kids that Mark and Dustin were hanging out with are either back at school back East or back at Stanford, and work has gotten a little more serious for them. They are working more than they were that first summer. We don’t move into an office until February of 2005. And right as we were signing the lease, Sean just randomly starts saying, “Dude! I know this street artist guy. We’re going to come in and have him totally do it up.”

David Choe: I was like, “If you want me to paint the entire building it’s going to be $60,000.” Sean’s like, “Do you want cash or do you want stock?”

Ezra Callahan: He pays David Choe in Facebook shares.

David Choe: I didn’t give a shit about Facebook or even know what it was. You had to have a college email to get on there. But I like to gamble, you know? I believed in Sean. I’m like, This kid knows something and I am going to bet my money on him.

Ezra Callahan: So then we move in, and when you first saw this graffiti it was like, “Holy shit, what did this guy do to the office?” The office was on the second floor, so as you walk in you immediately have to walk up some stairs, and on the big 10-foot-high wall facing you is just this huge buxom woman with enormous breasts wearing this Mad Max–style costume riding a bulldog.

It’s the most intimidating, totally inappropriate thing. “God damn it, Sean! What did you do?” It’s not so much that we set out to paint that, because that was the culture. It was more that Sean just did it, and that set a tone for us. A huge-breasted warrior woman riding a bulldog is the first thing you see as you come in the office, so like, get ready for that!

Ruchi Sanghvi: Yes, the graffiti was a little racy, but it was different, it was vibrant, it was alive. The energy was just so tangible.

Katie Geminder (project manager for early Facebook): I liked it, but it was really intense. There was certain imagery in there that was very sexually charged, which I didn’t really care about but that could be considered a little bit hostile, and I think we took care of some of the more provocative ones.

Ezra Callahan: I don’t think it was David Choe, I think it was Sean’s girlfriend who painted this explicit, intimate lesbian scene in the woman’s restroom of two completely naked women intertwined and cuddling with each other—not graphic, but certainly far more suggestive than what one would normally see in a women’s bathroom in an office. That one only actually lasted a few weeks.

Max Kelly (Facebook's first cyber-security officer): There was a four-inch by four-inch drawing of someone getting fucked. One of the customer service people complained that it was “sexual in nature,” which, given what they were seeing every day, I’m not sure why they would complain about this. But I ended up going to a local store and buying a gold paint pen and defacing the graffiti—just a random design— so it didn’t show someone getting fucked.

Jeff Rothschild (investor turned Facebook employee): It was wild, but I thought that it was pretty cool. It looked a lot more like a college dorm or fraternity than it did a company.

Katie Geminder: There were blankets shoved in the corner and video games everywhere, and Nerf toys and Legos, and it was kind of a mess.

Jeff Rothschild: There’s a PlayStation. There’s a couple of old couches. It was clear people were sleeping there.

Karel Baloun (one of the earliest Facebook programmers): I’d probably stay there two or three nights a week. I won an award for “most likely to be found under your desk” at one of the employee gatherings.

Jeff Rothschild: They had a bar, a whole shelf with liquor, and after a long day people might have a drink.

Ezra Callahan: There’s a lot of drinking in the office. There would be mornings when I would walk in and hear beer cans move as I opened the door, and the office smells of stale beer and is just trashed.

Ruchi Sanghvi: They had a keg. There was some camera technology built on top of the keg. It basically detected presence and posted about who was present at the keg—so it would take your picture when you were at the keg, and post some sort of thing saying “so-and-so is at the keg.” The keg is patented.

Ezra Callahan: When we first moved in, the office door had this lock we couldn’t figure out, but the door would automatically unlock at 9 am every morning. I was the guy that had to get to the office by 9 to make sure nobody walked in and just stole everything, because no one else was going to get there before noon. All the Facebook guys are basically nocturnal.

Katie Geminder: These kids would come in—and I mean kids, literally they were kids—they’d come into work at 11 or 12.

Ruchi Sanghvi: Sometimes I would walk to work in my pajamas and that would be totally fine. It felt like an extension of college; all of us were going through the same life experiences at the same time. Work was fantastic. It was so interesting. It didn’t feel like work. It felt like we were having fun all the time.

Ezra Callahan: You’re hanging out. You’re drinking with your coworkers. People start dating within the office …


Ruchi Sanghvi: We found our significant others while we were at Facebook. All of us eventually got married. Now we’re in this phase where we’re having children.

Katie Geminder: If you look at the adults that worked at Facebook during those first few years—like, anyone over the age of 30 that was married—and you do a survey, I tell you that probably 75 percent of them are divorced.

Max Kelly: So, lunch would happen. The caterer we had was mentally unbalanced and you never knew what the fuck was going to show up in the food. There were worms in the fish one time. It was all terrible. Usually, I would work until about 3 in the afternoon and then I’d do a circuit through the office to try and figure out what the fuck was going to happen that night. Who was going to launch what? Who was ready? What rumors were going on? What was happening?

Steve Perlman (Silicon Valley veteran who started in the Atari era): We shared a break room with Facebook. We were building hardware: a facial capture technology. The Facebook guys were doing some HTML thing. They would come in late in the morning. They’d have a catered lunch. Then they leave usually by mid-afternoon. I’m like, man, that is the life! I need a startup like that. You know? And the only thing any of us could think about Facebook was: Really nice people but never going to go anywhere.

Max Kelly: Around 4 I’d have a meeting with my team, saying “here’s how we’re going to get fucked tonight.” And then we’d go to the bar. Between like 5 and 8-ish people would break off and go to different bars up and down University Avenue, have dinner, whatever.

Ruchi Sanghvi: And we would all sit together and have these intellectual conversations: “Hypothetically, if this network was a graph, how would you weight the relationship between two people? How would you weight the relationship between a person and a photo? What does that look like? What would this network eventually look like? What could we do with this network if we actually had it?”

Sean Parker: The “social graph” is a math concept from graph theory, but it was a way of trying to explain to people who were kind of academic and mathematically inclined that what we were building was not a product so much as it was a network composed of nodes with a lot of information flowing between those nodes. That’s graph theory. Therefore we’re building a social graph. It was never meant to be talked about publicly. It was a way of articulating to somebody with a math background what we were building.

Ruchi Sanghvi: In retrospect, I can’t believe we had those conversations back then. It seems like such a mature thing to be doing. We would sit around and have these conversations and they weren’t restricted to certain members of the team; they weren’t tied to any definite outcome. It was purely intellectual and was open to everyone.

Max Kelly: People were still drinking the whole time, like all night, but starting around 9, it really starts solidifying: “What are we going to release tonight? Who’s ready to go? Who’s not ready to go?” By about 11-ish we’d know what we were going to do that night.

Katie Geminder: There was an absence of process that was mind-blowing. There would be engineers working stealthily on something that they were passionate about. And then they’d ship it in the middle of the night. No testing—they would just ship it.

Ezra Callahan: Most websites have these very robust testing platforms so that they can test changes. That’s not how we did it.

Ruchi Sanghvi: With the push of a button you could push out code to the live site, because we truly believed in this philosophy of “move fast and break things.” So you shouldn’t have to wait to do it once a week, and you shouldn’t have to wait to do it once a day. If your code was ready you should be able to push it out live to users. And that was obviously a nightmare.

Katie Geminder: Can our servers stand up to something? Or security: How about testing a feature for security holes? It really was just shove it out there and see what happens.

Jeff Rothschild: That’s the hacker mentality: You just get it done. And it worked great when you had 10 people. By the time we got to 20, or 30, or 40, I was spending a lot of time trying to keep the site up. And so we had to develop some level of discipline.

Ruchi Sanghvi: So then we would only push out code in the middle of the night, and that’s because if we broke things it wouldn’t impact that many people. But it was terrible because we were up until like 3 or 4 am every night, because the act of pushing just took everybody who had committed any code to be present in case anything broke.

Max Kelly: Around 1 am, we’d know either we’re fucked or we’re good. If we were good, everyone would be like “whoopee” and might be able to sleep for a little while. If we were fucked then we were like, “OK, now we’ve got to try and claw this thing back or fix it.”

Katie Geminder: 2 am: That was when shit happened.

Ruchi Sanghvi: Then another push, and this would just go on and on and on and on and on until like 3 or 4 or 5 am in the night.

Max Kelly: If 4 am rolled around and we couldn’t fix it, I’d be like, “We’re going to try and revert it.” Which meant basically my team would be up till 6 am So, go to bed somewhere between 4 and 6, and then repeat every day for like nine months. It was crazy.

Jeff Rothschild: It was seven days a week. I was on all the time. I would drink a large glass of water before I went to sleep to assure that I’d wake up in two hours so I could go check everything and make sure that we hadn’t broken it in the meantime. It was all day, all night.

Katie Geminder: That was very challenging for someone who was trying to actually live an adult life with, like, a husband. There was definitely a feeling that because you were older and married and had a life outside of work that you weren’t committed.

Mark Zuckerberg: Why are most chess masters under 30? Young people just have simpler lives. We may not own a car. We may not have family … I only own a mattress.

Kate Geminder: Imagine being over 30 and hearing your boss say that!

Mark Zuckerberg: Young people are just smarter.

Ruchi Sanghvi: We were so young back then. We definitely had tons of energy and we could do it, but we weren’t necessarily the most efficient team by any means whatsoever. It was definitely frustrating for senior leadership, because a lot of the conversations happened at night when they weren’t around, and then the next morning they would come in to all of these changes that happened at night. But it was fun when we did it.


Ezra Callahan: For the first few hundred employees, almost all of them were already friends with someone working at the company, both within the engineering circle and also the user support people. It’s a lot of recent grads. When we move into the office was when the dorm room culture starts to really stick out and also starts to break a little bit. It has a dorm room feeling, but it’s not completely dominated by college kids. The adults are coming in.

Jeff Rothschild: I joined in May 2005. On the sidewalk outside the office was the menu board from a pizza parlor. It was a caricature of a chef with a blackboard below it, and the blackboard had a list of jobs. This was the recruiting effort.

Sean Parker: At the time there was a giant sucking sound in the universe, and it was called Google. All the great engineers were going to Google.

Kate Losse (early customer service rep): I don’t think I could have stood working at Google. To me Facebook seemed much cooler than Google, not because Facebook was necessarily like the coolest. It’s just that Google at that point already seemed nerdy in an uninteresting way, whereas like Facebook had a lot of people who didn’t actually want to come off as nerds. Facebook was a social network, so it has to have some social components that are like really normal American social activities—like beer pong.

Kate Geminder: There was a house down the street from the office where five or six of the engineers lived that was one ongoing beer pong party. It was like a boys’ club—although it wasn’t just boys.

Terry Winograd (noted Stanford computer-science professor): The way I would put it is that Facebook is more of an undergraduate culture and Google is more of a graduate student culture.

Jeff Rothschild: Before I walked in the door at Facebook, I thought these guys had created a dating site. It took me probably a week or two before I really understood what it was about. Mark, he used to tell us that we are not a social network. He would insist: “This is not a social network. We’re a social utility for people you actually know.”

MySpace was about building an online community among people who had similar interests. We might look the same because at some level it has the same shape, but what it accomplishes for the individual is solving a different problem. We were trying to improve the efficiency of communication among friends.

Max Kelly: Mark sat down with me and described to me what he saw Facebook being. He said, “It’s about connecting people and building a system where everyone who makes a connection to your life that has any value is preserved for as long as you want it to be preserved. And it doesn’t matter where you are, or who you’re with, or how your life changes: because you’re always in connection with the people that matter the most to you, and you’re always able to share with them.”

I heard that, and I thought, I want to be a part of this. I want to make this happen. Back in the '90s all of us were utopian about the internet. This was almost a harkening back to the beautiful internet where everyone would be connected and everyone could share and there was no friction to doing that. Facebook sounded to me like the same thing. Mark was too young to know that time, but I think he intrinsically understood what the internet was supposed to be in the '80s and in the '90s. And here I was hearing the same story again and conceivably having the ability to help pull it off. That was very attractive.

Aaron Sittig: So in the summer of 2005 Mark sat us all down and he said, “We’re going to do five things this summer.” He said, “We’re redesigning the site. We’re doing a thing called News Feed, which is going to tell you everything your friends are doing on the site. We’re going to launch Photos, we’re going to redo Parties and turn it into Events, and we’re going to do a local-businesses product.” And we got one of those things done, we redesigned the site. Photos was my next project.

Ezra Callahan: The product at Facebook at the time is dead simple: profiles. There is no News Feed, there was a very weak messaging system. They had a very rudimentary events product you could use to organize parties. And almost no other functions to speak of. There’s no photos on the website, other than your profile photo. There’s nothing that tells you when anything on the site has changed. You find out somebody changed their profile picture by obsessively going to their profile and noticing, Oh, the picture changed.

Aaron Sittig: We had some people that were changing their profile picture once an hour, just as a way of sharing photos of themselves.

Scott Marlette: At the time photos was the number-one most requested feature. So, Aaron and I go into a room and whiteboard up some wireframes for some pages and decide on what data needs to get stored. In a month we had a nearly fully functioning prototype internally to play with. It was very simple. It was: You post a photo, it goes in an album, you have a set of albums, and then you can tag people in the photos.

Jeff Rothschild: Aaron had the insight to do tagging, which was a tremendously valuable insight. It was really a game changer.

Aaron Sittig: We thought the key feature is going to be saying who is in the photo. We weren’t sure if this was really going to be that successful; we just felt good about it.

Facebook Photos went live in October 2005. There were about 5 million users, virtually all of them college students.

Scott Marlette: We launched it at Harvard and Stanford first, because that’s where our friends were.

Zuckerberg started coding while growing up in Dobbs Ferry, New York, where he was raised by his parents, Edward and Karen along with his sisters Randi, left, and Arielle, right.

SHERRY TESLER/New York Times/Redux

Aaron Sittig: We had built this program that would fill up a TV screen and show us everything that was being uploaded to the service, and then we flicked it on and waited for photos to start coming in. And the first photos that came in were Windows wallpapers: Someone had just uploaded all their wallpaper files from their Windows directory, which was a big disappointment, like, Oh no, maybe people don’t get it? Maybe this is not going to work?

But the next photos were of a guy hanging out with his friends, and then the next photos after that were a bunch of girls in different arrangements: three girls together, these four girls together, two of them together, just photos of them hanging out at parties, and then it just didn’t stop.

Max Kelly: You were at every wedding, you were at every bar mitzvah, you were seeing all this awesome stuff, and then there’s a dick. So, it was kind of awesome and shitty at the same time.

Aaron Sittig: Within the first day someone had uploaded and tagged themselves in 700 photos, and it just sort of took off from there.

Jeff Rothschild: Inside of three months, we were delivering more photos than any other website on the internet. Now you have to ask yourself: Why? And the answer was tagging. There isn’t anyone who could get an email message that said, “Someone has uploaded a photo of you to the internet”—and not go take a look. It’s just human nature.

Ezra Callahan: The single greatest growth mechanism ever was photo tagging. It shaped all of the rest of the product decisions that got made. It was the first time that there was a real fundamental change to how people used Facebook, the pivotal moment when the mindset of Facebook changes and the idea for News Feed starts to germinate and there is now a reason to see how this expands beyond college.


Jeff Rothschild: The News Feed project was started in the fall of 2005 and delivered in the fall of 2006.

Dustin Moskovitz: News Feed is the concept of viral distribution, incarnate.

Ezra Callahan: News Feed is what Facebook fundamentally is today.

Sean Parker: Originally it was called “What’s New,” and it was just a feed of all of the things that were happening in the network—really just a collection of status updates and profile changes that were occurring.

Katie Geminder: It was an aggregation, a collection of all those stories, with some logic built into it because we couldn’t show you everything that was going on. There were sort of two streams: things you were doing and things the rest of your network was doing.

Ezra Callahan: So News Feed is the first time where now your homepage, rather than being static and boring and useless, is now going to be this constantly updating “newspaper,” so to speak, of stuff happening on Facebook around you that we think you’ll care about.

Ruchi Sanghvi: And it was a fascinating idea, because normally when you think of newspapers, they have this editorialized content where they decide what they want to say, what they want to print, and they do it the previous night, and then they send these papers out to thousands if not hundreds of thousands of people. But in the case of Facebook, we were building 10 million different newspapers, because each person had a personalized version of it.

Ezra Callahan: It really was the first monumental product-engineering feat. The amount of data it had to deal with: all these changes and how to propagate that on an individual level.

Ruchi Sanghvi: We were working on it off and on for a year and a half.

Ezra Callahan: … and then the intelligence side of all this stuff: How do we surface the things that you’ll care about most? These are very hard problems engineering-wise.

Ruchi Sanghvi: Without realizing it, we ended up building one of the largest distributed systems in software at that point in time. It was pretty cutting-edge.

Ezra Callahan: We have it in-house and we play with it for weeks and weeks—which is really unusual.

Katie Geminder: So I remember being like, “OK, you guys, we have to do some level of user research,” and I finally convinced Zuck that we should bring users into a lab and sit behind the glass and watch our users using the product. And it took so much effort for me to get Dustin and Zuck and other people to go and actually watch this. They thought this was a waste of time. They were like, “No, our users are stupid.” Literally those words came out of somebody’s mouth.

Ezra Callahan: It’s the very first time we actually bring in outside people to test something for us, and their reaction, their initial reaction is clear. People are just like, “Holy shit, like, I shouldn’t be seeing this, like this doesn’t feel right,” because immediately you see this person changed their profile picture, this person did this, this person did that, and your first instinct is Oh my God! Everybody can see this about me! Everyone knows everything I’m doing on Facebook.

Max Kelly: But News Feed made perfect sense to all of us, internally. We all loved it.

Ezra Callahan: So in-house we have this idea that this isn’t going to go right: This is too jarring a change, it needs to be rolled out slowly, we need to warm people up to this—and Mark is just firmly committed. “We’re just going to do this. We’re just going to launch. It’s like ripping off a Band-Aid.”

Ruchi Sanghvi: We pushed the product in the dead of the night, we were really excited, we were celebrating, and then the next morning we woke up to all this pushback. I had written this blog post, “Facebook Gets a Facelift.”

Katie Geminder: We wrote a little letter, and at the bottom of it we put a button. And the button said, “Awesome!” Not like, “OK.” It was, “Awesome!” That’s just rude. I wish I had a screenshot of that. Oh man! And that was it. You landed on Facebook and you got the feature. We gave you no choice and not a great explanation and it scared people.

Jeff Rothschild: People were rattled because it just seemed like it was exposing information that hadn’t been visible before. In fact, that wasn’t the case. Everything shown in News Feed was something people put on the site that would have been visible to everyone if they had gone and visited that profile.

Ruchi Sanghvi: Users were revolting. They were threatening to boycott the product. They felt that they had been violated, and that their privacy had been violated. There were students organizing petitions. People had lined up outside the office. We hired a security guard.

Katie Geminder: There were camera crews outside. There were protests: “Bring back the old Facebook!” Everyone hated it.

Jeff Rothschild: There was such a violent reaction to it. We had people marching on the office. A Facebook group was organized protesting News Feed and inside of two days, a million people joined.

Ruchi Sanghvi: There was another group that was about how “Ruchi is the devil,” because I had written that blog post.

Max Kelly: The user base fought it every step of the way and would pound us, pound Customer Service, and say, “This is fucked up! This is terrible!”

Ezra Callahan: We’re getting emails from relatives and friends. They’re like, “What did you do? This is terrible! Change it back.”

Katie Geminder: We were sitting in the office and the protests were going on outside and it was, “Do we roll it back? Do we roll it back!?”

Ruchi Sanghvi: Now under usual circumstances if about 10 percent of your user base starts to boycott the product, you would shut it down. But we saw a very unusual pattern emerge.

Max Kelly: Even the same people who were telling us that this is terrible, we’d look at their user stream and be like: You’re fucking using it constantly! What are you talking about?

Ruchi Sanghvi: Despite the fact that there were these revolts and these petitions and people were lined up outside the office, they were digging the product. They were actually using it, and they were using it twice as much as before News Feed.

Ezra Callahan: It was just an emotionally devastating few days for everyone at the company. Especially for the set of people who had been waving their arms saying, “Don’t do this! Don’t do this!” because they feel like, “This is exactly what we told you was going to happen!”

Ruchi Sanghvi: Mark was on his very first press tour on the East Coast, and the rest of us were in the Palo Alto office dealing with this and looking at these logs and seeing the engagement and trying to communicate that “It’s actually working!,” and to just try a few things before we chose to shut it down.

Katie Geminder: We had to push some privacy features right away to quell the storm.

Ruchi Sanghvi: We asked everyone to give us 24 hours.

Katie Geminder: We built this janky privacy “audio mixer” with these little slider bars where you could turn things on and off. It was beautifully designed—it looked gorgeous—but it was irrelevant.

Jeff Rothschild: I don’t think anyone ever used it.

Ezra Callahan: But it gets added and eventually the immediate reaction subsides and people realize that the News Feed is exactly what they wanted, this feature is exactly right, this just made Facebook a thousand times more useful.

Katie Geminder: Like Photos, News Feed was just—boom!—a major change in the product and one of those sea changes that just leveled it up.

Jeff Rothschild: Our usage just skyrocketed on the launch of News Feed. About the same time we also opened the site up to people who didn’t have a .edu address.

Ezra Callahan: Once it opens to the public, it’s becoming clear that Facebook is on its way to becoming the directory of all the people in the world.

Jeff Rothschild: Those two things together—that was the inflection point where Facebook became a massively used product. Prior to that we were a niche product for high-school and college students.

Mark Zuckerberg: Domination!

Ruchi Sanghvi: “Domination” was a big mantra of Facebook back in the day.

Max Kelly: I remember company meetings where we were chanting “dominate.”

Ezra Callahan: We had company parties all the time, and for a period in 2005, all Mark’s toasts at the company parties would end with “Domination!”

Mark Zuckerberg: Domination!!


Max Kelly: I especially remember the meeting where we tore up the Yahoo offer.

Mark Pincus: In 2006 Yahoo offered Facebook $1.2 billion ,I think it was, and it seemed like a breathtaking offer at the time, and it was difficult to imagine them not taking it. Everyone had seen Napster flame out, Friendster flame out, MySpace flame out, so to be a company with no revenues, and a credible company offers a billion-two, and to say no to that? You have to have a lot of respect to founders that say no to these offers.

Dustin Moskovitz: I was sure the product would suffer in a big way if Yahoo bought us. And Sean was telling me that 90 percent of all mergers end in failure.

Mark Pincus: Luckily, for Zuck, and history, Yahoo’s stock went down, and they wouldn’t change the offer. They said that the offer is a fixed number of shares, and so the offer dropped to like $800 million, and I think probably emotionally Zuck didn’t want to do it and it gave him a clear out. If Yahoo had said, “No problem, we’ll back that up with cash or stock to make it $1.2 billion,” it might have been a lot harder for Zuck to say no, and maybe Facebook would be a little division of Yahoo today.

Max Kelly: We literally tore the Yahoo offer up and stomped on it as a company! We were like, “Fuck those guys, we are going to own them!” That was some malice-ass bullshit.

Mark Zuckerberg: Domination!!!

Kate Losse: He had kind of an ironic way of saying it. It wasn’t a totally flat, scary “domination.” It was funny. It’s only when you think about a much bigger scale of things that you’re like, Hmmmm: Are people aware that their interactions are being architected by a group of people who have a certain set of id

Read more: https://www.wired.com/story/sex-beer-and-coding-inside-facebooks-wild-early-days/

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How to Lock Down Your Facebook Privacy Settings

Facebook deserves a lot of the flack it gets, be it for providing Russian propaganda with a platform or gradually eroding privacy norms. Still, it has some genuine usefulness. And while the single best way to keep your privacy safe on Facebook is to delete your account, taking these simple steps in the settings is the next best thing.

Remember, it's not just friends of friends you need to think about hiding from; it's an army of advertisers looking to target you not just on Facebook itself, but around the web, using Facebook's ad platform. In the video above and the post below, we'll show you how to deal with both.

Fine-Tuning Friends

Limiting who can see which of your posts is an easy first step. On a desktop, go to the little dropdown arrow in the upper-right corner, and click Settings. From there, click on Privacy on the left-hand side. This is where the magic happens.

Under Who can see my stuff, click on Who can see your future posts to manage your defaults. You can make public to anyone at all, limited to your friends, or exclude specific friends. You can quarantine your posts by geography, or by current or previous employers or schools, or by groups. Just remember that the next time you change it, the new group becomes the default. So double check every time you post.

This section has other important privacy tools you can fiddle with, including who can look you up with your email address or phone number. We'd recommend not listing either in the first place, but if you do, keep the circle as small as possible. (If you do have to share one or the other with Facebook for account purposes, you can hide them by going to your profile page, clicking Contact and Basic Info, then Edit when you mouse over the email field. From there, click on the downward arrow with two silhouettes to customize who can see it, including no one but you.)

But pay special attention to the option to (deep breath) Limit the audience for posts you’ve shared with friends of friends or public? If you ever had a public account, taking it private wasn't retroactive. If you want to hide those previously viewable posts, lock this setting down.

Over on Timeline and Tagging you can control over what shows up on your own Facebook timeline. Basically, you can’t stop your friends from tagging you (sorry!), but you can stop those embarrassing photos from popping up on your page. At the very least, you should go to Review posts you’re tagged in before the post appears on your timeline, and enable that so that you can screen any tags before they land on your page.

To test out your changes, go to Review what other people see on your timeline. You can even see how specific people view your page, like your boss or your ex or complete strangers. It also never hurts to take stock of you present yourself to the world. (Looking at you, people who haven't updated your cover photo since the Obama administration.)

That should about cover your friends. Now onto advertisers, which are like friends, except they never leave you alone, even if you ask nicely.

Ad It Up

In that same Settings panel, head down to Ads. As you probably realized, Facebook knows what you do pretty much everywhere online. So does Google, so do dozens of ad networks you’ve never heard of. You're being tracked pretty much all the time, by everyone, thanks to this here internet.

You can still limit how Facebook uses that information, though. Tired of that lawnmower you looked at following you to Facebook? Turn off Ads based on my use of websites and apps. Saying no to Ads on apps and websites off the Facebook companies does the same, except for all the sites Facebook serves ads to around the web. Which is most of them.

Lastly, for some fun insight into how advertisers think of you, click on Your Interests. There you’ll find all the categories Facebook uses to tailor ads for you. You can remove any you don’t like, and marvel at the ones that don’t make any sense. This won't make the ads go away, but it'll at least you can banish all those off-brand kitchen gadgets from your News Feed.

And you’re good! Or at least, as good as can be expected. It’s still Facebook, after all.


Facebook Privacy

Read more: https://www.wired.com/story/how-to-lock-down-facebook-privacy-settings/

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‘Our minds can be hijacked’: the tech insiders who fear a smartphone dystopia

The Google, Apple and Facebook workers who helped make technology so addictive are disconnecting themselves from the internet. Paul Lewis reports on the Silicon Valley refuseniks who worry the race for human attention has created a world of perpetual distraction that could ultimately end in disaster

Justin Rosenstein had tweaked his laptops operating system to block Reddit, banned himself from Snapchat, which he compares to heroin, and imposed limits on his use of Facebook. But even that wasnt enough. In August, the 34-year-old tech executive took a more radical step to restrict his use of social media and other addictive technologies.

Rosenstein purchased a new iPhone and instructed his assistant to set up a parental-control feature to prevent him from downloading any apps.

He was particularly aware of the allure of Facebook likes, which he describes as bright dings of pseudo-pleasure that can be as hollow as they are seductive. And Rosenstein should know: he was the Facebook engineer who created the like button in the first place.

A decade after he stayed up all night coding a prototype of what was then called an awesome button, Rosenstein belongs to a small but growing band of Silicon Valley heretics who complain about the rise of the so-called attention economy: an internet shaped around the demands of an advertising economy.

These refuseniks are rarely founders or chief executives, who have little incentive to deviate from the mantra that their companies are making the world a better place. Instead, they tend to have worked a rung or two down the corporate ladder: designers, engineers and product managers who, like Rosenstein, several years ago put in place the building blocks of a digital world from which they are now trying to disentangle themselves. It is very common, Rosenstein says, for humans to develop things with the best of intentions and for them to have unintended, negative consequences.

Rosenstein, who also helped create Gchat during a stint at Google, and now leads a San Francisco-based company that improves office productivity, appears most concerned about the psychological effects on people who, research shows, touch, swipe or tap their phone 2,617 times a day.

There is growing concern that as well as addicting users, technology is contributing toward so-called continuous partial attention, severely limiting peoples ability to focus, and possibly lowering IQ. One recent study showed that the mere presence of smartphones damages cognitive capacity even when the device is turned off. Everyone is distracted, Rosenstein says. All of the time.

But those concerns are trivial compared with the devastating impact upon the political system that some of Rosensteins peers believe can be attributed to the rise of social media and the attention-based market that drives it.

Drawing a straight line between addiction to social media and political earthquakes like Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump, they contend that digital forces have completely upended the political system and, left unchecked, could even render democracy as we know it obsolete.

In 2007, Rosenstein was one of a small group of Facebook employees who decided to create a path of least resistance a single click to send little bits of positivity across the platform. Facebooks like feature was, Rosenstein says, wildly successful: engagement soared as people enjoyed the short-term boost they got from giving or receiving social affirmation, while Facebook harvested valuable data about the preferences of users that could be sold to advertisers. The idea was soon copied by Twitter, with its heart-shaped likes (previously star-shaped favourites), Instagram, and countless other apps and websites.

It was Rosensteins colleague, Leah Pearlman, then a product manager at Facebook and on the team that created the Facebook like, who announced the feature in a 2009 blogpost. Now 35 and an illustrator, Pearlman confirmed via email that she, too, has grown disaffected with Facebook likes and other addictive feedback loops. She has installed a web browser plug-in to eradicate her Facebook news feed, and hired a social media manager to monitor her Facebook page so that she doesnt have to.

Justin
Justin Rosenstein, the former Google and Facebook engineer who helped build the like button: Everyone is distracted. All of the time. Photograph: Courtesy of Asana Communications

One reason I think it is particularly important for us to talk about this now is that we may be the last generation that can remember life before, Rosenstein says. It may or may not be relevant that Rosenstein, Pearlman and most of the tech insiders questioning todays attention economy are in their 30s, members of the last generation that can remember a world in which telephones were plugged into walls.

It is revealing that many of these younger technologists are weaning themselves off their own products, sending their children to elite Silicon Valley schools where iPhones, iPads and even laptops are banned. They appear to be abiding by a Biggie Smalls lyric from their own youth about the perils of dealing crack cocaine: never get high on your own supply.

One morning in April this year, designers, programmers and tech entrepreneurs from across the world gathered at a conference centre on the shore of the San Francisco Bay. They had each paid up to $1,700 to learn how to manipulate people into habitual use of their products, on a course curated by conference organiser Nir Eyal.

Eyal, 39, the author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, has spent several years consulting for the tech industry, teaching techniques he developed by closely studying how the Silicon Valley giants operate.

The technologies we use have turned into compulsions, if not full-fledged addictions, Eyal writes. Its the impulse to check a message notification. Its the pull to visit YouTube, Facebook, or Twitter for just a few minutes, only to find yourself still tapping and scrolling an hour later. None of this is an accident, he writes. It is all just as their designers intended.

He explains the subtle psychological tricks that can be used to make people develop habits, such as varying the rewards people receive to create a craving, or exploiting negative emotions that can act as triggers. Feelings of boredom, loneliness, frustration, confusion and indecisiveness often instigate a slight pain or irritation and prompt an almost instantaneous and often mindless action to quell the negative sensation, Eyal writes.

Attendees of the 2017 Habit Summit might have been surprised when Eyal walked on stage to announce that this years keynote speech was about something a little different. He wanted to address the growing concern that technological manipulation was somehow harmful or immoral. He told his audience that they should be careful not to abuse persuasive design, and wary of crossing a line into coercion.

But he was defensive of the techniques he teaches, and dismissive of those who compare tech addiction to drugs. Were not freebasing Facebook and injecting Instagram here, he said. He flashed up a slide of a shelf filled with sugary baked goods. Just as we shouldnt blame the baker for making such delicious treats, we cant blame tech makers for making their products so good we want to use them, he said. Of course thats what tech companies will do. And frankly: do we want it any other way?

Without irony, Eyal finished his talk with some personal tips for resisting the lure of technology. He told his audience he uses a Chrome extension, called DF YouTube, which scrubs out a lot of those external triggers he writes about in his book, and recommended an app called Pocket Points that rewards you for staying off your phone when you need to focus.

Finally, Eyal confided the lengths he goes to protect his own family. He has installed in his house an outlet timer connected to a router that cuts off access to the internet at a set time every day. The idea is to remember that we are not powerless, he said. We are in control.

But are we? If the people who built these technologies are taking such radical steps to wean themselves free, can the rest of us reasonably be expected to exercise our free will?

Not according to Tristan Harris, a 33-year-old former Google employee turned vocal critic of the tech industry. All of us are jacked into this system, he says. All of our minds can be hijacked. Our choices are not as free as we think they are.

Harris, who has been branded the closest thing Silicon Valley has to a conscience, insists that billions of people have little choice over whether they use these now ubiquitous technologies, and are largely unaware of the invisible ways in which a small number of people in Silicon Valley are shaping their lives.

A graduate of Stanford University, Harris studied under BJ Fogg, a behavioural psychologist revered in tech circles for mastering the ways technological design can be used to persuade people. Many of his students, including Eyal, have gone on to prosperous careers in Silicon Valley.

Tristan
Tristan Harris, a former Google employee, is now a critic of the tech industry: Our choices are not as free as we think they are. Photograph: Robert Gumpert for the Guardian

Harris is the student who went rogue; a whistleblower of sorts, he is lifting the curtain on the vast powers accumulated by technology companies and the ways they are using that influence. A handful of people, working at a handful of technology companies, through their choices will steer what a billion people are thinking today, he said at a recent TED talk in Vancouver.

I dont know a more urgent problem than this, Harris says. Its changing our democracy, and its changing our ability to have the conversations and relationships that we want with each other. Harris went public giving talks, writing papers, meeting lawmakers and campaigning for reform after three years struggling to effect change inside Googles Mountain View headquarters.

It all began in 2013, when he was working as a product manager at Google, and circulated a thought-provoking memo, A Call To Minimise Distraction & Respect Users Attention, to 10 close colleagues. It struck a chord, spreading to some 5,000 Google employees, including senior executives who rewarded Harris with an impressive-sounding new job: he was to be Googles in-house design ethicist and product philosopher.

Looking back, Harris sees that he was promoted into a marginal role. I didnt have a social support structure at all, he says. Still, he adds: I got to sit in a corner and think and read and understand.

He explored how LinkedIn exploits a need for social reciprocity to widen its network; how YouTube and Netflix autoplay videos and next episodes, depriving users of a choice about whether or not they want to keep watching; how Snapchat created its addictive Snapstreaks feature, encouraging near-constant communication between its mostly teenage users.

The techniques these companies use are not always generic: they can be algorithmically tailored to each person. An internal Facebook report leaked this year, for example, revealed that the company can identify when teens feel insecure, worthless and need a confidence boost. Such granular information, Harris adds, is a perfect model of what buttons you can push in a particular person.

Tech companies can exploit such vulnerabilities to keep people hooked; manipulating, for example, when people receive likes for their posts, ensuring they arrive when an individual is likely to feel vulnerable, or in need of approval, or maybe just bored. And the very same techniques can be sold to the highest bidder. Theres no ethics, he says. A company paying Facebook to use its levers of persuasion could be a car business targeting tailored advertisements to different types of users who want a new vehicle. Or it could be a Moscow-based troll farm seeking to turn voters in a swing county in Wisconsin.

Harris believes that tech companies never deliberately set out to make their products addictive. They were responding to the incentives of an advertising economy, experimenting with techniques that might capture peoples attention, even stumbling across highly effective design by accident.

A friend at Facebook told Harris that designers initially decided the notification icon, which alerts people to new activity such as friend requests or likes, should be blue. It fit Facebooks style and, the thinking went, would appear subtle and innocuous. But no one used it, Harris says. Then they switched it to red and of course everyone used it.

Facebooks
Facebooks headquarters in Menlo Park, California. The companys famous likes feature has been described by its creator as bright dings of pseudo-pleasure. Photograph: Bloomberg/Bloomberg via Getty Images

That red icon is now everywhere. When smartphone users glance at their phones, dozens or hundreds of times a day, they are confronted with small red dots beside their apps, pleading to be tapped. Red is a trigger colour, Harris says. Thats why it is used as an alarm signal.

The most seductive design, Harris explains, exploits the same psychological susceptibility that makes gambling so compulsive: variable rewards. When we tap those apps with red icons, we dont know whether well discover an interesting email, an avalanche of likes, or nothing at all. It is the possibility of disappointment that makes it so compulsive.

Its this that explains how the pull-to-refresh mechanism, whereby users swipe down, pause and wait to see what content appears, rapidly became one of the most addictive and ubiquitous design features in modern technology. Each time youre swiping down, its like a slot machine, Harris says. You dont know whats coming next. Sometimes its a beautiful photo. Sometimes its just an ad.

The designer who created the pull-to-refresh mechanism, first used to update Twitter feeds, is Loren Brichter, widely admired in the app-building community for his sleek and intuitive designs.

Now 32, Brichter says he never intended the design to be addictive but would not dispute the slot machine comparison. I agree 100%, he says. I have two kids now and I regret every minute that Im not paying attention to them because my smartphone has sucked me in.

Brichter created the feature in 2009 for Tweetie, his startup, mainly because he could not find anywhere to fit the refresh button on his app. Holding and dragging down the feed to update seemed at the time nothing more than a cute and clever fix. Twitter acquired Tweetie the following year, integrating pull-to-refresh into its own app.

Since then the design has become one of the most widely emulated features in apps; the downward-pull action is, for hundreds of millions of people, as intuitive as scratching an itch.

Brichter says he is puzzled by the longevity of the feature. In an era of push notification technology, apps can automatically update content without being nudged by the user. It could easily retire, he says. Instead it appears to serve a psychological function: after all, slot machines would be far less addictive if gamblers didnt get to pull the lever themselves. Brichter prefers another comparison: that it is like the redundant close door button in some elevators with automatically closing doors. People just like to push it.

All of which has left Brichter, who has put his design work on the backburner while he focuses on building a house in New Jersey, questioning his legacy. Ive spent many hours and weeks and months and years thinking about whether anything Ive done has made a net positive impact on society or humanity at all, he says. He has blocked certain websites, turned off push notifications, restricted his use of the Telegram app to message only with his wife and two close friends, and tried to wean himself off Twitter. I still waste time on it, he confesses, just reading stupid news I already know about. He charges his phone in the kitchen, plugging it in at 7pm and not touching it until the next morning.

Smartphones are useful tools, he says. But theyre addictive. Pull-to-refresh is addictive. Twitter is addictive. These are not good things. When I was working on them, it was not something I was mature enough to think about. Im not saying Im mature now, but Im a little bit more mature, and I regret the downsides.

Not everyone in his field appears racked with guilt. The two inventors listed on Apples patent for managing notification connections and displaying icon badges are Justin Santamaria and Chris Marcellino. Both were in their early 20s when they were hired by Apple to work on the iPhone. As engineers, they worked on the behind-the-scenes plumbing for push-notification technology, introduced in 2009 to enable real-time alerts and updates to hundreds of thousands of third-party app developers. It was a revolutionary change, providing the infrastructure for so many experiences that now form a part of peoples daily lives, from ordering an Uber to making a Skype call to receiving breaking news updates.

Loren
Loren Brichter, who in 2009 designed the pull-to-refresh feature now used by many apps, on the site of the home hes building in New Jersey: Smartphones are useful tools, but theyre addictive I regret the downsides. Photograph: Tim Knox for the Guardian

But notification technology also enabled a hundred unsolicited interruptions into millions of lives, accelerating the arms race for peoples attention. Santamaria, 36, who now runs a startup after a stint as the head of mobile at Airbnb, says the technology he developed at Apple was not inherently good or bad. This is a larger discussion for society, he says. Is it OK to shut off my phone when I leave work? Is it OK if I dont get right back to you? Is it OK that Im not liking everything that goes through my Instagram screen?

His then colleague, Marcellino, agrees. Honestly, at no point was I sitting there thinking: lets hook people, he says. It was all about the positives: these apps connect people, they have all these uses ESPN telling you the game has ended, or WhatsApp giving you a message for free from your family member in Iran who doesnt have a message plan.

A few years ago Marcellino, 33, left the Bay Area, and is now in the final stages of retraining to be a neurosurgeon. He stresses he is no expert on addiction, but says he has picked up enough in his medical training to know that technologies can affect the same neurological pathways as gambling and drug use. These are the same circuits that make people seek out food, comfort, heat, sex, he says.

All of it, he says, is reward-based behaviour that activates the brains dopamine pathways. He sometimes finds himself clicking on the red icons beside his apps to make them go away, but is conflicted about the ethics of exploiting peoples psychological vulnerabilities. It is not inherently evil to bring people back to your product, he says. Its capitalism.

That, perhaps, is the problem. Roger McNamee, a venture capitalist who benefited from hugely profitable investments in Google and Facebook, has grown disenchanted with both companies, arguing that their early missions have been distorted by the fortunes they have been able to earn through advertising.

He identifies the advent of the smartphone as a turning point, raising the stakes in an arms race for peoples attention. Facebook and Google assert with merit that they are giving users what they want, McNamee says. The same can be said about tobacco companies and drug dealers.

That would be a remarkable assertion for any early investor in Silicon Valleys most profitable behemoths. But McNamee, 61, is more than an arms-length money man. Once an adviser to Mark Zuckerberg, 10 years ago McNamee introduced the Facebook CEO to his friend, Sheryl Sandberg, then a Google executive who had overseen the companys advertising efforts. Sandberg, of course, became chief operating officer at Facebook, transforming the social network into another advertising heavyweight.

McNamee chooses his words carefully. The people who run Facebook and Google are good people, whose well-intentioned strategies have led to horrific unintended consequences, he says. The problem is that there is nothing the companies can do to address the harm unless they abandon their current advertising models.

Googles
Googles headquarters in Silicon Valley. One venture capitalist believes that, despite an appetite for regulation, some tech companies may already be too big to control: The EU recently penalised Google $2.42bn for anti-monopoly violations, and Googles shareholders just shrugged. Photograph: Ramin Talaie for the Guardian

But how can Google and Facebook be forced to abandon the business models that have transformed them into two of the most profitable companies on the planet?

McNamee believes the companies he invested in should be subjected to greater regulation, including new anti-monopoly rules. In Washington, there is growing appetite, on both sides of the political divide, to rein in Silicon Valley. But McNamee worries the behemoths he helped build may already be too big to curtail. The EU recently penalised Google $2.42bn for anti-monopoly violations, and Googles shareholders just shrugged, he says.

Rosenstein, the Facebook like co-creator, believes there may be a case for state regulation of psychologically manipulative advertising, saying the moral impetus is comparable to taking action against fossil fuel or tobacco companies. If we only care about profit maximisation, he says, we will go rapidly into dystopia.

James Williams does not believe talk of dystopia is far-fetched. The ex-Google strategist who built the metrics system for the companys global search advertising business, he has had a front-row view of an industry he describes as the largest, most standardised and most centralised form of attentional control in human history.

Williams, 35, left Google last year, and is on the cusp of completing a PhD at Oxford University exploring the ethics of persuasive design. It is a journey that has led him to question whether democracy can survive the new technological age.

He says his epiphany came a few years ago, when he noticed he was surrounded by technology that was inhibiting him from concentrating on the things he wanted to focus on. It was that kind of individual, existential realisation: whats going on? he says. Isnt technology supposed to be doing the complete opposite of this?

That discomfort was compounded during a moment at work, when he glanced at one of Googles dashboards, a multicoloured display showing how much of peoples attention the company had commandeered for advertisers. I realised: this is literally a million people that weve sort of nudged or persuaded to do this thing that they werent going to otherwise do, he recalls.

He embarked on several years of independent research, much of it conducted while working part-time at Google. About 18 months in, he saw the Google memo circulated by Harris and the pair became allies, struggling to bring about change from within.

Williams and Harris left Google around the same time, and co-founded an advocacy group, Time Well Spent, that seeks to build public momentum for a change in the way big tech companies think about design. Williams finds it hard to comprehend why this issue is not on the front page of every newspaper every day.

Eighty-seven percent of people wake up and go to sleep with their smartphones, he says. The entire world now has a new prism through which to understand politics, and Williams worries the consequences are profound.

The same forces that led tech firms to hook users with design tricks, he says, also encourage those companies to depict the world in a way that makes for compulsive, irresistible viewing. The attention economy incentivises the design of technologies that grab our attention, he says. In so doing, it privileges our impulses over our intentions.

That means privileging what is sensational over what is nuanced, appealing to emotion, anger and outrage. The news media is increasingly working in service to tech companies, Williams adds, and must play by the rules of the attention economy to sensationalise, bait and entertain in order to survive.

Tech
Tech and the rise of Trump: as the internet designs itself around holding our attention, politics and the media has become increasingly sensational. Photograph: John Locher/AP

In the wake of Donald Trumps stunning electoral victory, many were quick to question the role of so-called fake news on Facebook, Russian-created Twitter bots or the data-centric targeting efforts that companies such as Cambridge Analytica used to sway voters. But Williams sees those factors as symptoms of a deeper problem.

It is not just shady or bad actors who were exploiting the internet to change public opinion. The attention economy itself is set up to promote a phenomenon like Trump, who is masterly at grabbing and retaining the attention of supporters and critics alike, often by exploiting or creating outrage.

Williams was making this case before the president was elected. In a blog published a month before the US election, Williams sounded the alarm bell on an issue he argued was a far more consequential question than whether Trump reached the White House. The reality TV stars campaign, he said, had heralded a watershed in which the new, digitally supercharged dynamics of the attention economy have finally crossed a threshold and become manifest in the political realm.

Williams saw a similar dynamic unfold months earlier, during the Brexit campaign, when the attention economy appeared to him biased in favour of the emotional, identity-based case for the UK leaving the European Union. He stresses these dynamics are by no means isolated to the political right: they also play a role, he believes, in the unexpected popularity of leftwing politicians such as Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, and the frequent outbreaks of internet outrage over issues that ignite fury among progressives.

All of which, Williams says, is not only distorting the way we view politics but, over time, may be changing the way we think, making us less rational and more impulsive. Weve habituated ourselves into a perpetual cognitive style of outrage, by internalising the dynamics of the medium, he says.

It is against this political backdrop that Williams argues the fixation in recent years with the surveillance state fictionalised by George Orwell may have been misplaced. It was another English science fiction writer, Aldous Huxley, who provided the more prescient observation when he warned that Orwellian-style coercion was less of a threat to democracy than the more subtle power of psychological manipulation, and mans almost infinite appetite for distractions.

Since the US election, Williams has explored another dimension to todays brave new world. If the attention economy erodes our ability to remember, to reason, to make decisions for ourselves faculties that are essential to self-governance what hope is there for democracy itself?

The dynamics of the attention economy are structurally set up to undermine the human will, he says. If politics is an expression of our human will, on individual and collective levels, then the attention economy is directly undermining the assumptions that democracy rests on. If Apple, Facebook, Google, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat are gradually chipping away at our ability to control our own minds, could there come a point, I ask, at which democracy no longer functions?

Will we be able to recognise it, if and when it happens? Williams replies. And if we cant, then how do we know it hasnt happened already?

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/oct/05/smartphone-addiction-silicon-valley-dystopia

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Facebook’s original video is something publishers are actually excited for


Virtually Dating" is a five-episode series produced by Cond Nast Entertainment.
Image: conde nast entertainment

For all of Facebook’s big talk about video, it was still just part of the almighty News Feed.

Publishers hoping to capture a moment of a user’s attention looked for thumb-stopping moments, which gave rise to a new and not-terribly compelling format of video that remains endemic to Facebook.

Watch is something different. Facebook’s new original video program features TV-like shows made by media companies. Perhaps most importantly, the shows are showcased in a brand new section of the social network.

That’s enough to convince publishers, who have spent years contorting to fit into Facebook’s plans, that Watch could be big.

“We are really excited,” said Dawn Ostroff, president of Cond Nast Entertainment, which is producing a dating show with a virtual reality twist for Watch. “This is a new opportunity, a new type of content. [Facebook’s] trying to open up a whole new area for content makers.”

Oren Katzeff, Tastemade‘s head of programming, offered similar excitement. The food-focused media company has created six shows for Facebook Watch.

“Were able to be a part of appointment viewing, and thats huge,” Katzeff said

That enthusiasm is quite unlike how publishers have previously behaved when asked about their work with and on Facebook. Typically, there’s a roll of the eyes, a sigh, and a list of grievances.

“The problem with Facebook’s entire ‘news team’ is that they’re glorified client services people,” the head of digital operations at a major news outlet told Mashable at F8, the company’s annual developer conference in April.

Now, there’s a new sense of hope among the media industry. Facebook’s massive scale has always tempted publishers, but revenue has been elusive. Facebook’s new program, with its emphasis on quality content and less on thumb-bait, seems ready-made for high-end ads. These original shows, in concept, also compete with what’s available live on TV and bingeable on Netflix and Huluplatforms that most publishers haven’t cracked.

“I think it is where people will go to watch on-demand programming and live news, and I intend Cheddar to be the leading live news player on Watch,” Jon Steinberg, CEO of business news show Cheddar, wrote in a private Twitter message.

Facebook’s Watch platform

Image: facebook

Simultaneously, there’s little stress for publishers about potential revenuefor now. Facebook has guaranteed minimum earnings for each episode, according to an executive at a participating publisher who could not be named since financial discussions are private. Facebook not only pays a licensing fee to publishers but also will split revenue from mid-roll ads.

It’s not the first time Facebook has cut checks for publishers to support video efforts. Last year, Facebook paid publishers, including Mashable, to produce live videos, requiring a minimum number of minutes streamed per month. (Mashable is also a Watch partner.)

But Facebook’s live video effort was slow to start, and publishers didn’t reap in rewardsespecially when it came to the return of their investments, several participants told Mashable.

It wasn’t all their fault or Facebook’s. For one, Facebook users weren’t really used to going to the site or the app for live video. Since then, Facebook has released several products, including a redesigned version of the current video tab and a TV app, both of which better support the new ecosystem. Publishers’ series will be spotlighted on the Facebook’s new tab for shows, for example. The experience is slowly being rolled out to users over the next month.

Participating publishers are going all in.

Tastemade produced six shows over the last few months and is still wrapping up a couple. Three are food focused: Kitchen Little, Struggle Meals, and Food To Die For. Two are more home and lifestyle: Move-In Day and Safe Deposit. The sixth is a late-night comedy show with celebrity interviews, hosted by an animated taco, called Let’s Taco Bout It.

“Tomas grew up as a Taco, and he had adopted parents, and his life goal has been to discover who his true parents are. He tries to relate with his guests,” Katzeff said.

Tomas Taco

Image: tastemade

What’s exciting here is not just an animated taco, but the fact that these publishers are well positioned to scale these tacos… err video series.

Maybe an animated taco won’t appeal to all 2 billion of Facebook’s users, but it doesn’t necessarily need to. Unlike TV, these shows aren’t locked into specific networks with a specific time-slot. Rather, they can be directed to actual people, based on their interests (Facebook likes) and demographic information.

“With Facebook Watch, the era of audience parting has truly arrived,” wrote Nick Cicero of Delmondo, a Facebook media solutions partner for video analytics.

Unlike TV, Facebook has a built-in platform for conversation. Ostroff of Cond Nast Entertainment said she believed Facebook greenlighted Virtually Dating, a show where blind dates take place in a virtual reality world, for the Watch platform because of the potential for online conversation.

“If it works, it was something that could go viral or a show that everyone could weigh in on,” Ostroff said. “Were excited about learning, learning how the viewer and the consumer is going to use [Watch]. Whats going to succeed and whats not.”

No one is saying it’s been easy. Several publishers told Mashable they have been careful to make sure they are staying in budget. They also noted that it is still a testone that they will be closely monitoring. Now that the shows are near launch, publishers said they will need to focus on promotion.

Watch “is really great for those who were actually able to get into the program,” said Jarrett Moreno, cofounder of ATTN, which has created Health Hacks starring Jessica Alba and We Need to Talk with Nev Schulman and Laura Perlongo.”It’s a priority for Facebook. They’ve emphasized that.”

A priority, for now.

Read more: http://mashable.com/2017/08/12/facebook-watch-original-video-publishers-pitchfork/

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Facebook launches Watch tab of original video shows

Facebook has a new home for original video content produced exclusively for it by partners, who will earn 55 percent of ad break revenue while Facebook keeps 45 percent. The Watch tab and several dozen original shows will start rolling out to a small group of U.S. users tomorrow on mobile, desktop and Facebooks TV apps.

By hosting original programming, Facebook could boost ad revenue and give people a reason to frequently return to the News Feed for content they cant get anywhere else.

Watch features personalized recommendations of live and recorded shows to watch, plus categories like Most Talked About, Whats Making People Laugh and Shows Your Friends Are Watching. Publishers can also share their shows to the News Feed to help people discover them. A Watchlist feature lets you subscribe to updates on new episodes of your favorite shows. Fans can connect with each other and creators through a new feature that links shows to Groups.

Facebook says it plans to roll out access to Watch to more users and more content creators soon, starting with the rest of the U.S. before expanding internationally. Users with access will see a TV-shaped Watch button in the bottom navigation bar of Facebooks main app that opens the new video hub.

Facebook admits that weve also funded some shows as examples, but notes that these are only a small percentage of all the available shows. We want any publisher/creator who is interested to be able to create a show in the future, a Facebook spokesperson tells me. So there will be hundreds of shows at launch, and well hopefully scale to thousands.

Business Insider reported some leaked details about the redesign earlier today, but pegged the launch of original programming as starting August 28th, when the shows actually will begin to roll out tomorrow.


What Facebooks First Shows Look Like

Facebooks shows will run the gamut from live event coverage to reality TV to scripted programs. More and more people are coming to Facebook in order to watch video Facebooks director of video product Daniel Danker tells me. When they come with that in mind, we want to make a place for them where they can find that video, connect with the creators and publishers they love, and know they wont miss out if theres a new episode from one of those creators.

Heres a list of some of the original programming that will be available on Watch:

  • Tastemades Kitchen Little This cooking show sees kids watch a how-to recipe video, then instruct a pro chef how to make the dish with comedic results
  • Major League Baseball The MLB will broadcast one game a week live on Facebook
  • Major League Baseball 12:25Live A comedic look at baseball with help from the fans
  • Mike Rowe Rowe finds people whove done great things for their community and gives them a special experience in return
  • Nas Daily Vlogger Nas (Correction: Not the rapper) makes videos with his biggest friends each day
  • Gabby Bernstein Motivational speaker and author answers fans life questions in live and recorded segments
  • A&Es Bae or Bail: Reality TV game show where couples face their fears and see who runs
  • All Def Digitals Inside the Office A look inside the office life at Russel Simmons hip-hop media empire
  • BillboardsHow it Went Down A documentary series of musicians sharing crazy stories
  • David Lopezs My Social Media Life A reality show about the social media stars life
  • Golden State Warriors Championship Rewind A behind-the-scenes look at the Bay Areas NBA championship 2016-2017 season
  • Univision DeportesLiga MX Live coverage of LigaMX soccer matches
  • National GeographicsWere Wired that Way: Mini-documentaries about weird quirks of humanity like songs you cant get out of your head
  • National Geographics Safari Live Watch live safaris led by National Geographics guides
  • NASAs Science @ NASA Explore science topics in quick four to five-minute episodes
  • NBAs WNBA All-Access A behind the scenes show with womens basketball stars
  • The Dodos Comeback Kids: Animal Edition features determined animals facing difficult conditions or challenges meet people who refuse to give up on them.
  • Tommy Mac A master woodworker gives live tutorials on how to make furniture

Whats clearly absent is the type of longer-form scripted dramas and comedies people are used to watching on television. Instead, there are plenty of mini-documentaries, reality shows, and sports coverage.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg writes that We believe its possible to rethink a lot of experiences through the lens of building community including watching video. Watching a show doesnt have to be passive . . .Youll be able to chat and connect with people during an episode, and join groups with people who like the same shows afterwards to build community.

When you open Watch, youll be able to scroll through a long list of categories of shows to view. Alternatively, you can either swipe over or arrive from a notification about a new episode to view the Watchlist of all the lastest shows released by creators you follow. Once youve opened an episode youll see all the details about it, with one tab for joining a live comment reel with other viewers, and an Up Next tab displaying what youll view after the current episode if you prefer a glazed-eyes lean-back experience.

Theres no specific content restrictions on swearing or violence beyond Facebooks existing community standards, but Facebook will monitor for shows that get flagged.

Publishers can choose to insert ad breaks if they want to earn money off their shows, though the guidelines on where and how long they can be are still being finalized. If publishers want to give away their content, they dont have to show ads. Another option is to do product placed or branded content, in which case the creator has to tag the sponsor paying them for transparency. Shows will have their own dedicated Facebook Pages, and creators can set up special show Groups where fans can ask questions and geek out together.

Beyond the Watch tab, you can also discover shows through the News Feed if a publisher you follow posts an episode or friends are talking about it. That gives Facebook the opportunity to artificially boost the presence of shows in News Feed to build a bigger audience for the new content initiative.

Evolving From Spontaneous To Deliberate Viewing

Facebook first launched its dedicated video tab in April 2016, but it only hosted the more generic News Feed videos people were already seeing from Pages and friends. Now Facebook is in the business of funding original content, initially through direct payments, though it seeks to switch entirely to a revenue-share model in the future to make its original programming effort sustainable.

Facebooks competitors like YouTube and Snapchat have already experimented with creating original video content. YouTube Red funds several original series, giving bigger production budgets to some of its biggest stars. Snapchat has tried making its own shows in-house, but now focuses on signing deals with partners like TV studios to get fresh, vertical video content into its Discover section.

Facebooks benefit is that Watch is cross-platform, allowing people to view videos from all their devices, while also being a daily destination for 1.32 billion users. Its already become a powerhouse in serendipitous video discovery via the News Feed, and Watch will surely provide enough suggestions to get people hooked on shows they werent expecting.

But through premium original programming, Facebook is also trying to become a home for deliberate video consumption where people come to view a specific show. While there are already plenty of reasons to visit Facebook, original shows give people a reason to spend longer staring at their screens. If it can drive enough viewers to these shows thanks to its 2 billion total users, Facebook could offer significant revenue-share payouts, attracting better and better content creators.

Facebooks been trying to eat the whole internet for years now. With Watch and these shows, its breaking out of the web to challenge traditional television, which is seeing viewership slide. As ad spends follow eyeballs from TV to the web, Watch could give Facebook a way to net more attention and dollars.

Read more: https://techcrunch.com/2017/08/09/facebook-watch/

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