Snapchat entering the breaking news business could be a good thing

Imagine that a mass shooting is happening. What should you do? Well, if you’re in danger, you should probably find safety. And if you’re safe, there’s a good chance that you should wait until the next day to learn more about what the shooting because of how much misinformation is involved with a major story such as this. But, if you must follow breaking news, you might want to check Snapchat first.
Snapchat might seem like an improbable source of breaking news updates. The service is known primarily for letting people superimpose goofy stickers over their selfies and taking some of the risk out of sharing nude photographs with others (because those photos sort of disappear forever). As the San Bernardino shooting that killed 14 people and injured another 21 on December 2 unfolded, though, the service became a source of up-to-the-minute briefings on what was happening in neighborhoods around the targeted area.
Offering these updates required Snapchat to find publicly-posted snaps, curate them into one story, and, in some cases, use text to clarify what was happening. This gave Snapchat users an idea of what people in the area were sharing — and provided much needed background information that informed users without making it seem like Snapchat knew the entire story. It was just a simple service gathering news and making it available to the people who might benefit from seeing it.
Combine this with the ephemeral nature of Snapchat’s content and it seems like the service might be a good source for breaking news. It can react quickly, use content from many users, and pass along brief updates on the situation as they happen. When the situation has resolved, all that content disappears, making it less likely to contribute to the flood of misinformation that can haunt the web, while law enforcement and the journalists covering it struggle to find the truth.
It’s easy for misinformation to spread on the web. Hitting “like” or “retweet” on a false report doesn’t require much effort — certainly less than it does to spend a few seconds looking for accurate information or sharing new info as it becomes available. That misinformation often remains until someone goes through and deletes it, which is another opportunity for someone to get the wrong idea about something, share that idea, and keep the perpetual ignorance machine going.
Snapchat’s self-deleting updates don’t afford this opportunity. There’s no perpetuity. It’s a bit like talking on the phone with someone: Unless they’ve taken extra steps to record whatever was said, the information is passed along once before it disappears into the aether. The photo-and-video-based nature of the service also lends itself to eyewitness accounts, which limits the claims people can make. (Not that video or photo evidence on social media is infallible.)
I reached out to Snapchat to get their perspective on their news-aggregation. I was given a statement attributed to the company’s head of communications: “We published this story because we felt that the content, which comes from the LA Local Story, was newsworthy and held national significance” — and later told that my followup questions wouldn’t be answered. “We have nothing more to share at this time, sorry,” a spokesperson said in a rather short email. “Thanks!”
Still, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Snapchat did something similar in the future.  It’s in a unique position to offer people lightweight updates about a developing situation from the eyes of the people most affected by it. Combined with a little editorial judgment and some other features, like the one that allows Snapchat users to view similar content from other public stories, that seems like a nice setup for anyone who wants to know what’s happening in a breaking news story.
Will there be downsides? Of course. Some of Snapchat’s verbiage doesn’t mesh with what it’s showing during stories like this. (“Swipe up to Explore similar Snaps!” read a line of text shown over a photo of kids lining up to leave a locked-down school.) And there’s always the chance that the company will pass along videos or images that somehow mislead their viewers. I wouldn’t expect the company to have all the answers about important story developments, either.
But if someone is unwilling to wait for law enforcement to investigate the situation, for journalists to get to the bottom of the story, and for the frenzied masses to stop sharing whatever information comes to them, they could do worse than to check Snapchat. And even if they end up getting bad information they can at least take solace in knowing that their blunder won’t be available for anyone to see hours, days, weeks, months, or years after the truth is revealed.

Will anyone care that Yahoo brought Messenger back from the dead?

You have to feel bad for the people braving it out in Yahoo’s offices. First, people say the most valuable thing about Yahoo is its stake in Alibaba. Then, many reports indicate that the company’s board is thinking about selling off its web businesses. And now? The all-but-forgotten Messenger service has received a long-delayed revamping.
The new Messenger looks good enough. Yahoo has included some interesting features, like the ability to lump contacts into groups or delete anything from a conversation, into an app that looks like pretty much every other messaging tool. But is that enough to convince anyone to use an app they’ve already abandoned?
There was a time when Yahoo Messenger’s primary competition was AOL Instant Messenger. (Which, as I learned this morning, apparently still exists.) That time has passed. Now, the messaging market is overrun with apps like Facebook Messenger, Google Hangouts, WeChat, and many similar services.
This has become something of a theme for Yahoo. Its email service was also quite popular — now, at least in my experience, its inboxes function mostly as a digital trashcan for notifications from long-abandoned Myspace accounts and spam. That service received an update similar to Messenger’s earlier this year.
There are some good ideas tucked into all these updates. Besides the features mentioned above, the new Messenger also deserves special mention because it uses Yahoo’s other properties to assist in photo-sharing (Flickr) or make it easy for people to search GIFs (Tumblr) without requiring much effort on their part.
The Verge reports that the new Messenger builds off “at least 10” of the acquisitions Yahoo has made since Marissa Mayer became its chief executive. Finding a way to make these seemingly haphazard buyouts do something useful might just be the most interesting thing about this updated Messenger service.
Still, the fact of the matter is that people are unlikely to use the new Messenger. Most already have a few messaging services on their phone, and unless people resuscitate their Yahoo accounts to be more than secondary email addresses, it would be surprising if more than a few diehards gave this app a second chance.
Yahoo was willing to pull Messenger from the brink — this update comes months after the company pulled the app from the App Store to “to better focus on our core and future offerings,” as it said in a support article. Given that many people probably sought replacements in that time, and that using Yahoo Messenger in 2015 feels a lot like searching the web with AskJeeves, this app seems like a decent idea that’s arriving a few years too late to make much difference to Yahoo.

‘Breaker’ mixes content discovery with a messaging platform

Holiday dinners hosted by my wife’s family are bound to have three things: sugary desserts; copious amounts of wine; and heated discussions about politics. The exact mix changes depending on the holiday, but each of those things is bound to be there, just as sure as there will be a smorgasbord of different foods.
A new messaging app called Breaker wants to encourage people to have those conversations without requiring them to gorge themselves on turkey or guzzle untold glasses of wine every time they want to discuss something in the news. Instead, it blends content discovery features with a dedicated message platform.
The app works by asking people to identify their interests. Once they do, it will recommend content it culls from hundreds of different sources to them. If they like what they read and want to discuss it with someone else, they can do so right from the app, instead of switching between services like Nuzzel and WhatsApp.
Breaker chief executive Shailo Rao says the app is supposed to facilitate private, meaningful conversations. “Instead of broadcasting to all your friends or all the people who follow you,” like you would via social networks like Facebook and Twitter, “it’s all about having a focused conversation with just a few friends.”
Those conversations are facilitated by a feature that allows people to send the same link to multiple people either as a group or as individual conversations. This makes it easier to talk about things with more than one person without forcing people to participate in hellish group messages they can never escape.
Rao says this feature rose from research he did as an intern at Google, when he found that Google Chat users would often send links to multiple people at the same time, but didn’t want to lump everyone into the same conversation. This seems small, but in day-to-day usage it could make life a lot easier for people.

Breaker in action via its iOS app.

Breaker in action via its iOS app.

That’s the thinking behind another feature that allows Breaker users to hold conversations through the platform even if their friends don’t use the app. If that’s the case, Breaker will send an SMS message to the non-user with a link to a Web view where they can see the article being discussed and talk about it.
That isn’t the most elegant process — who wants to tap a link to have a conversation through a mobile Web browser? — it could help Breaker sidestep the problem of consumers being overwhelmed by the sheer number of services they have to use if they want to be able to communicate with all their friends.
“People have enough messaging apps on their phones,” Rao says. “It’s okay because there’s a centralized inbox with the lockscreen, so people can manage multiple messaging apps because that’s the pathway into them, but it is tough to get all your friends to download another messaging app.” That’s understating it.
There’s also the problem of convincing people to use another content discovery platform. Many could already use something like Flipboard or Nuzzel, which have the benefits of being around longer and name recognition, and they might not be keen to switch to a different app just to make it easier to chat with friends.
Breaker has raised $375,000 from Tandem Capital and undisclosed angel investors. The app is currently available on iOS, and will debut on Android later. Right now it’s available for free, but Rao says eventually the app could utilize in-app purchases or advertising, once it has a large enough user base to do so.
Will that happen? It depends on how well the politically-charged conversations held around dinner tables across the country translate to a messaging app, how many people want to download another messaging app when they can send links via existing apps without too much hassle, or how often people really talk about their interests with friends and family with any sort of depth or meaningfulness.

Cola builds a messaging app to enhance your conversations

The homescreen is dead. Or at least that’s what the many companies trying to make it so people never have to use the springboard from which they can launch countless apps would like you to think. Why bounce from app to homescreen to another app when everything can happen all in one place? Why hunt for an app when it can send up-to-the-minute push notifications right to your lock screen?
Questioning the foundational assumption upon which modern smartphones were built — this being that apps are discrete entities that rarely interact — has led developers to make software that breaks down the silos between services. These apps have snuck into software keyboards, made their way into one of the world’s most popular messaging apps, and found other ways to be omnipresent.
Cola, an iPhone messaging application that collects and presents information relevant to whatever its users are discussing, is exiting stealth today to enter that market. The app was created by former employees of Apple, Macromedia, AOL, and Adobe, and right now it’s asking people to sign up for its private beta test. It’s not clear when its creators plan to make Cola available to the general public.
Cola users will be able to schedule meetings, share task lists, and share their location through “Cola Bubbles” that present information without requiring people to leave the application. Eventually the app is supposed to get fizzier — sorry, add new features — that will allow its users to share information from third-party applications like the Fandango movie site or the FlightAware utility.

The “Cola Bubbles” will appear in-line for people using the app. For people who aren’t using it, however, the information will be sent through a link to a website. (Text messages are sent via SMS and will look the same across platforms.) This is supposed to make it so Cola users can use the app even if their friends aren’t, and it will also get the app in front of people who might not have heard of it.
It might still be frustrating for Cola users to make sure all their communications pass through the app. Non-users can’t initiate conversations; they’re restricted to responding to message threads started by Cola users. That might bother some people — how often do people start a new message thread? — but it will lead to some back-and-forth if a thread is closed or someone uses a new smartphone.
So how will Cola make money? “This is a free app. Everything you see now (and more) will always be free. Over time we will offer premium, for-pay features, so it will be a ‘freemium’ model,” chief executive David Temkin says in an email. “We have a set of ideas of what those features might be, but the first order of business for us is to get users using the app. For-pay features will come later.”
Temkin assures me that user information will not be shared with advertisers, and that communications through Cola are encrypted, with the company holding the encryption keys. This means Cola is more secure than unencrypted apps but less secure than other services, like Apple’s iMessage, that don’t hold the keys.
All of this is supposed to make Cola a one-stop app that makes messaging a little less frustrating. Like other messaging apps its utility is limited if users’ friends don’t use the service, and it might struggle in a world where many people have already downloaded a bunch of messaging services because the people they know are unable to settle on a single app through which they can all be reached.
Still, it’s clear that Cola is part of a growing movement to make it easier for people to manage their lives without fumbling around with a bunch of apps. Given how pernicious these types of apps have proven — like I said before, they’re everywhere, from the iPhone’s keyboard to Facebook’s Messenger — perhaps it really is time to ring a death knell for the iPhone’s homescreen.

Snapchat monetizes a feature that runs counter to its reason for being

Snapchat has released an update today that allows its users to pay for the ability to replay the photos and videos their friends send.
While the feature could help the company make some money,it could also damage the perception of ephemerality that made it popular.
People have actually been able to access a single disappeared snap (message, photo, or short video) for a while now. These second chances to see old messages are what the company refers to as a “Replay,” which were previously free and available every 24-hour period. (The first taste is always free.) Now the company wants users to pay 99 cents for a pack of three Replays.
Snapchat has also pulled Replays out from behind several layers of navigation. Instead of living inside the “Manage” section of the app’s “Settings” page, Replays are now available by default. A free-and-hidden feature’s now “freemium” and readily apparent.
It’s similar in concept to Tinder’s decision to restrict the number of people a user is allowed to express interest in each day. The specifics differ — Replay is being expanded instead of restricted — but the concept of asking people to pay for tools they could previously use for free is the same across services.
Yet, this also feels like a much bigger shift. The whole appeal of Snapchat is that most of the content shared to it will be viewed once before it’s sent to oblivion. Making it easier for someone to view one of these items again, thus providing another opportunity for the item to be saved, runs counter to all that.
There is one notable restriction: Users can only Replay an item, whether it’s a photo or a video, once. This means anything sent via the service can be viewed a maximum of twice — provided the item isn’t part of the not-so-ephemeral Stories — at any time. That’s good, but I can’t help but wonder if it will be enough.
For Snapchat, the rules of communication aren’t supposed to be flexible. Tinder could introduce metered matches because the concept of meeting people (whether for hookups or relationships) remained the same. But Snapchat has now popularized and, indeed, monetized, a concept that runs counter to the notions that made it popular in the first place.
Today it’s paying a little less than a buck to re-watch some videos or take another peek at a photo. What might it be later? A few dollars to view a snap more than twice? Doing away with the restriction when teens don’t pay for Replays? Perhaps that won’t happen, but it seems more likely than it did yesterday.
On the upside, now it’s a little clearer why the company has been cracking down on third-party services. I used to think it was because it really believed that people shouldn’t be able to save content sent to them via its service. Now I think the company was just protecting a future monetization strategy.
Oh, the difference a single feature can make.

Instagram hits 300M monthly active users, plans verified profiles

Facebook’s photo sharing service is starting to show some impressive user stats. Just nine months after hitting 200 million monthly active users, Instagram has passed the 300 million threshold. Meanwhile, WhatsApp has 600 million monthly active users and Facebook Messenger has 500 million. Instagram is far past Snapchat, which reportedly has 100 million monthly actives.

With the news, [company]Instagram[/company] also announced that it will be introducing verified profiles for public figures and companies.

Here’s a table of the latest Instagram stats and where the company stands compared to March:

December 2014 March 2014
Monthly actives: 300 million 200 million
International: More than 70 percent of users outside U.S. 65 percent of users outside U.S.
Photos Shares: More than 30 billion to date 20 billion
Daily Likes: 2.5 billion (average) 1.6 billion (average)
Photos/day: 70 million (average) 60 million (average)

Slack buys small, two-man work-collaboration startup Spaces

Slack, one of the many startups making a name for itself in the work-collaboration space, today said it acquired the two-man, bootstrapped startup Spaces for an undisclosed amount. Spaces’ core product is a sharable document in which users can collaborate together with graphics, text, annotations and other work-related items; with Slack providing a chat platform that aims to centralize an enterprise’s work into one locale, the deal makes sense. Slack’s rise to startup stardom highlights the importance major cloud providers are putting on work-collaboration tools, like Amazon’s Zocalo product; Slack is also putting the pressure on Box and Dropbox who have both been boosting their workflow-management features in recent months.

It’s no Facebook Phone: Home looks nice but could have limited impact

After years of speculation about a “Facebook Phone,” Facebook finally rolled out its version of the deeply-integrated Facebook mobile experience. But aside from a slightly nicer messaging and greater ad opportunities for the company, it wasn’t terribly exciting for users.