Facebook activates Safety Check after Nigeria bombing

Facebook has activated its Safety Check feature in response to a market bombing in Nigeria that killed at least 32 people and wounded dozens of other bystanders.
Safety Check was originally meant to be used in the wake of natural disasters like earthquakes and hurricanes. Facebook rolled out the feature in response to a terror attack for the first time last Friday, when several gunmen killed 129 people and wounded more than 400 others in coordinated attacks throughout Paris.
The company was criticized for making Safety Check available during the Paris attacks because a double suicide bombing in Beirut, Lebanon didn’t get the same treatment. Critics said Facebook was giving preferential treatment to a Western city targeted by terror attacks while ignoring similar tragedies in the Middle East.
I wrote at the time that the criticism shows Facebook’s indispensability problem: The company simply isn’t used to the expectations attached to introducing a tool that can affect people’s lives beyond letting them share photos or status updates. Safety Check has turned Facebook from a social network to a vital public utility.
Now the company has responded to that criticism by making Safety Check available for the second time in a single week. Yet as a report from Al Jazeera shows, that isn’t quite enough for many people on social media: They’re still complaining that Facebook hasn’t introduced a tool that allows people to overlay their profile pictures with the colors of Nigeria’s flag like it did after Paris’ attack.

Safety Check shows Facebook’s indispensability problem

Facebook has an indispensability problem: Whenever people discover a feature they feel as if they can’t live without, the company is immediately scrutinized more than it is when it’s seen as little more than a social network.
For instance, in the wake of an attack that killed more than 120 people and injured at least 400 more, Facebook repurposed a tool built to be used during natural disasters so people near the affected areas in Paris could tell their friends and family that they were alive. It was the first time Facebook made the feature, Safety Check, available in response to a terror attack instead of an earthquake or similar event.
Facebook said in an email that more than 4 million people used Safety Check after the Paris attack, and that 360 million people received notifications about the status of a friend or family member. That’s more than other disasters, like recent earthquakes in Afghanistan and Chile, but less than the earthquakes that struck Nepal in April and May. Safety Check, it turns out, is popular in a crisis.
The episode highlighted Facebook’s utility in a disaster.
“Facebook is clearly a place people expect to see frequent updates from their friends, and given Facebook’s penetration in some of its biggest markets, it’s also going to be a place where the vast majority of your friends have accounts,” said Jackdaw Research chief analyst Jan Dawson. “So it’s a logical place for people to go to see if their friends are OK after a disaster (whether man-made or otherwise), and it’s also logical for Facebook to make that checkin process as easy as possible.”
But the reaction to Safety Check wasn’t all positive. Critics were quick to point out that Facebook made the feature available in response to the Paris attack, but it didn’t do so for a double suicide attack in Beirut, Lebanon the day before. Some blamed this on the inherent biases of Facebook’s engineers; Facebook vice president of growth Alex Schultz said it was because Safety Check is still young.
“This activation will change our policy around Safety Check and when we activate it for other serious and tragic incidents in the future. We want this tool to be available whenever and wherever it can help,” Schultz said in a blog post. “We will learn a lot from feedback on this launch, and we’ll also continue to explore how we can help people show support for the things they care about through their Facebook profiles, which we did in the case for Paris, too.” Safety Check could become the go-to utility whenever disaster strikes around the world.
That would inevitably bring even more criticism. Facebook thrives because its users think it’s indispensable. They use the service to message friends, share pictures, and share their opinions on whatever happens to be in the news cycle. For some people it’s hard to imagine life without Facebook — but the truth is that most of the service’s users would be able to replace the network if needed.
People know this. It’s why they pretend to freak out whenever Facebook goes down. If they were actually concerned it wouldn’t seem like a joke; it would be a crippling failure of a critical system. Facebook reaps the benefits of people thinking they need to use its service without often being held to the same standards applied to systems that people actually consider a basic need.
The response to Safety Check brought this truth into stark relief. The moment people thought they might have needed Facebook — in this case to share that they were safe following the attack in Beirut — they demanded to know why it seemed to care more about an attack in France than an attack in Lebanon. No good deed (or in this case disaster-focused feature) seems to go unpunished.
Facebook “appears to be trying to help out and are responding to user feedback but their good will in this situation may not be received in the way they intended,” said Gartner analyst Brian Blau. “I don’t see their safety check as trying to replace official government efforts to help those impacted by the tragedy, but in [an] awkward way people are assuming their efforts to [be] nefarious in nature, and I just don’t think that is the case. I’m sure they feel some responsibility to help their users communicate given they are so popular globally.”
The company is caught between triviality and indispensability. People need to think it’s integral to their lives for Facebook to continue to thrive, but in cases when the service is actually viewed as more than just a social networking tool, the company often invites criticism. (Just look to the campaign for the company to change its real-name policy for evidence this isn’t confined to Safety Check.)
Given how many people used Safety Check the night of the Paris attack, it’s clear that they view the feature as an important way to communicate with the people they care about in a tragedy. Facebook seems to understand this, and is taking the criticism about not using Safety Check during other terror attacks seriously. But there’s sure to be more complaints — that’s what happens when more than a billion people use a service, and several million actually need it in their lives.
Safety Check made sure Facebook is finally indispensable. Now the company will have to learn how to manage all the expectations that come from that new status.

Facebook’s new Notify app merges RSS feeds with push notifications

Facebook has released a new application called Notify that will allow its users to receive push notifications about breaking news, new movie trailers, and more.
The move into real-time news is significant because could help Facebook achieve two goals: It could make the company more important to the media, and it could increase the traffic it sends to publishers. Now, whether the app will be successful or just something that clogs up your phone’s notifications feed is another set of questions all together.
But as for the app itself, Notify users are tasked with choosing “stations” they want to follow. These are divided into categories from sports and politics to health and entertainment. Stations are managed by sources like the New York Times or People Magazine. Every source can offer multiple stations devoted to different areas of interest.
That might sound confusing. An easier way to think about it is that Facebook has basically taken the RSS feeds publishers used to have on their websites, renamed them, and made it so they can send push notifications to their followers’ phones instead of quietly updating in the background of those followers’ RSS readers.
It’s also brought them into an application it can control, and which will receive credit if publishers get extra attention for their stories. Facebook is essentially appropriating RSS feeds — a freely available tool any publisher could use — the same way it took the Web page and sought to replace it with Instant Articles.
Facebook has been transparent about its efforts to become the only platform that matters to large publishers. Instant Articles promise many benefits, especially the speed with which they load on mobile devices, but their primary function is keeping Facebook users engaged with its platform instead of the broader web.

Many publishers have bought into this scheme. Startup companies like Vox Media quickly supported Instant Articles, and even old media publishers like the Washington Post have decided to publish all of its stories directly to Facebook. Facebook is already the most important referrer to most news sites, and it offers publishers a cut of advertising revenues — so, why not give Instant Articles a try?
Notify makes a similar value proposition. The notifications sent by the service appear on someone’s phone almost instantaneously; most RSS readers don’t offer similar mechanisms. Modern readers are all about speed, and making it so they don’t even have to load a website to read something is as fast as it gets.
Push notifications could also help Facebook bolster the traffic it sends to publishers. Digiday reported earlier this week that referral traffic to large publishers fell 32 percent between January and October. Such a large decline seriously threatens the control Facebook is able to exert over the media. But that’s only if people have stopped clicking on article links while also avoiding Instant Articles. The fall in referral traffic could well have been influenced by the rising popularity of Instant Articles, Digiday reports, because they’re specifically meant to keep users inside Facebook’s products instead of sending them away.
There’s also a bright side: Instant Articles are reportedly shared more often than links to outside websites. Facebook might have damned the media industry by making publishers rely on its service for traffic, but it might also have provided the solution by creating a content delivery mechanism its users actually prefer.
The same principle could hold true for Notify. The app will buzz people’s phones when one of their stations shares something, and those people could then share that notification to Facebook. (They don’t even have to unlock their phone to do so; a “share” option is available right next to the notification on the lock screen.)
All of which means Facebook could funnel more users into its products instead of other solutions, just like it did with Instant Articles. In the process it could benefit publishers who support it and condemn the publishers who don’t because its users would rather share things via Notify than another service.
Notify is restricted to iPhone owners in the United States at launch. It’s not clear when it might expand to other platforms or locations — Facebook only says that it’s “excited to explore this evolving medium with participating sources.” This most likely means Notify’s performance in the US will dictate any expansions.

Why it’s impossible to put Snapchat’s 6B daily video views in context

The last few weeks have seen a handful of massive social services announced measurements for video views that reach into the billions. But those figures are actually far less impressive (at least right now) when you consider the value of each view.
For instance, Snapchat users watch a collective 6 billion videos every day. That seems like a lot, especially when compared against the 8 billion videos watched by Facebook users and the 7 or 8 billion videos watched on YouTube in the same time period. Snapchat doesn’t have nearly as many users as those services, so if it’s coming close to their videos-watched tallies, its users must be moving picture fanatics.
That said, there is some discrepancy between what each of these services counts as a video being watched. As the BBC reports, Facebook only charges advertisers if a video is watched for more than three seconds; YouTube does the same after 30 seconds; and Snapchat charges advertisers if a video plays for less than a second. Apparently these companies can’t even agree on what “watching a video” means.
Those are just the numbers that determine when an advertiser is charged. While advertising is the lifeblood of these services — though each also has other ways to make money, whether it’s ad-free subscriptions or offering in-app purchases — that doesn’t always line up with what the companies focus their attentions on. YouTube touts the number of hours its users spend on its service each day, for example, while Facebook emphasizes how many videos its users are watching.
Then there are the differences in how the videos are presented to their viewers. Facebook automatically plays videos that appear in users’ News Feeds (as long as those users haven’t disabled auto-playing videos in the service’s settings) so it could tally up videos that no-one is paying attention to. YouTube and Snapchat, on the other hand, don’t play videos until their users signal their desire to do so.
Facebook’s method has its fans. The Wall Street Journal reports that more companies reliant on videos are considering the addition of auto-play features to their websites. But automatically playing videos have their detractors, too, and some Web browsers have even introduced features that make it easy to mute obnoxious videos that play even though someone isn’t actually watching them.
This problem isn’t restricted to videos. Tech companies measure success in whatever metric suits them, whether that’s the number of people who have downloaded their application or the amount of in-app purchases those apps facilitate. There’s no widely-accepted definition; even something as simple as “active users” is presented in the way that most benefits the affected company.
Nor is this statistic favoritism restricted to tech companies. Publishers will often do the same thing: Some tout their pageviews, others their unique visitors, and still others the amount of time the average visitor spends on their website. These numbers are all calculated using different analytics tools that produce differing measurements. Objectivity in measuring the audience for journalism is dead.
All of which leaves reports on user growth, or increases in the time people spend on a site, or whatever metric is being touted limited to talking about changing numbers. Company X has Metric Y and that figure changed by Number Z. (Oh, which reminds me, the 6 billion video views Snapchat is touting is an increase from the 2 million daily views chief executive Evan Spiegel shared back in May.)
So there isn’t much sense in comparing the number of videos watched on Snapchat to those watched on Facebook or YouTube. The three services don’t just have different purposes — they’re also tallying things up differently. Until that changes (which is unlikely) the comparisons don’t mean that much.

Facebook debuts streaming-focused ‘music stories,’ with help from Spotify & Apple Music

It’s been a while since the world’s largest social network gave any attention to music, but today it’s making another attempt.
Facebook introduced a new post format today called “music stories” that allows its users to listen to 30-second previews of songs their friends share from Apple Music or Spotify. People who like what they hear will also be able to add the song to their streaming libraries or purchase the track via iTunes.
“We hope by making this experience better, artists will share more, friends will share and engage more, and music will become a better part of the Facebook experience overall,” Facebook director of product Michael Cerda said in a blog post. The feature is currently limited to Facebook’s iPhone app.
These new music stories are limited in their scope. The songs will be streamed via the service from which they were shared. And at least for now, all interactions will be limited to those two services. This means someone who likes a song shared from Spotify is screwed if they prefer Apple Music and vice versa.
There are also many other streaming services — Deezer, Rdio, Pandora, Slacker, 8Tracks, Tidal, and probably a dozen others I can’t remember — that aren’t supported with this feature. I suspect that won’t bother most Facebook users, the majority of whom probably use Spotify or Apple Music, but it’s still likely to irk some.
The feature is reminiscent of Twitter’s #Music service, which tapped Rdio and Spotify to allow its users to listen to music shared by their networks. That service wasn’t long for this world: Twitter reportedly considered pulling the plug on it six months after its debut, and it was shut down in April 2014.
Facebook’s music stories are probably longer for this world. The company hasn’t yet built an entire service around streaming music — it’s just made it easier for people to listen to the songs their friends already share. That’s a far lower commitment to the category than a standalone service like #Music was.
That said, it will be interesting to see how this affects streaming music services that aren’t supported by the new format. How many music stories will Rdio or Tidal users have to see before they sign up for Apple Music? How many songs will Deezer subscribers listen to before jumping ship to Spotify?
If music really is as social as Facebook imagines — and the company is often right about what people are sharing to its network, thanks to the vast amount of data it collects and parses every day — this could make a big difference to people whose friends and family all use a different streaming music service.
Or perhaps it will lumber about without making much difference to most people. If #Music taught us anything, it’s that even though music is a social experience, it’s not necessarily a social networking experience. There’s a difference — Facebook’s about to find out exactly how much that matters.

Facebook’s transformation into a mobile company is complete

Investors are likely to be happy with Facebook’s third-quarter earnings results, which were announced this afternoon. All of the company’s most important metrics — from the number of people who use its service to how much money it makes — beat expectations. Wall Street might also appreciate something else shown in the report: Facebook’s efforts to become a mobile-focused company appear to have come to fruition.
It wasn’t too long ago when people were concerned Facebook couldn’t survive the shift from the desktop web to mobile applications. The service’s newest features, such as Graph Search, appeared on desktops before smartphones. It hadn’t yet started to make piles of cash from mobile advertisements. And it wasn’t as popular among smartphone owners as it was among web users.
All that has changed. Some of Facebook’s most interesting features, like redesigned profiles or the pseudo-artificially intelligent assistant called M, debut on smartphones first. And this earnings report shows that Facebook’s mobile-only users continue to rise, as does the percentage of revenues drawn from advertisements shown to those smartphone owners around the world.
First the mobile-only users. Facebook said in its report that it has 727 million monthly active users who only use its service on their smartphones — a large increase from even just two years ago, when it had 254 million similar users. (It’s worth noting that Facebook calculations for monthly active users includes people who use its service to log into other non-Facebook apps, so these figures are likely to be inflated.)
Next, the revenues drawn from mobile advertisements. The company says the category represents 78 percent of total advertising revenue, as compared to the 66 percent slice of total advertising revenue it represented a year ago. Facebook doesn’t just have more people accessing it via their smartphones, it’s also monetizing each of those users better than it has in the past, too.
It would be interesting — especially to investors — to see Facebook break out the numbers on how much of that money comes from Instagram’s new ads, or how many people use WhatsApp on their smartphones. The company has bought up quite a few smaller competitors over the years, and knowing how each has contributed to their new corporate overlord would be welcome.
But investors aren’t waiting for that information to indicate their approval of this latest report. Facebook’s share price rose from around $103 to roughly $106 in after-hours trading this evening. Facebook’s gone mobile, and if nothing else, that means it should make Wall Street happier than ever before.

Facebook changes iOS share sheet, announces F8 2016 dates

Facebook has announced that members of FbStart, a program devoted to helping early-stage startups, have received more than $250 million in benefits since the program was introduced during its developer conference in 2014.
The program is supposed to help startups by giving them free access to products from Facebook’s partners; offering guidance from people inside the social network; and providing a network of startups that can help each other.
Facebook says more than 7,200 startups across 130 countries have signed up for the program. It’s also announced that new companies — including Dropbox, Animoto, and Twilio, among others — have partnered up with the program.
The company has also updated the “share sheet” used to post content from other apps to its service. (That’s the thing that pops up whenever you tap the “share” tool on an iPhone.) Here’s a comparison of the old and new versions:
“Since F8, we’ve been testing versions of the share sheet to incorporate feedback from people and developers,” the company says in its blog post. “We learned that people want a simple experience that takes them directly to the composer after they click ‘Share,’ shows a clear preview of what they’re sharing, and allows them to complete the share quickly in just a few steps.”
Developers whose apps already support sharing to Facebook won’t have to do anything to enable the new share sheet, and getting the new one set up is just as easy as it was before. Users should “start to see the new experience” today.
In addition to those changes, the company also announced that F8, its annual developer conference, will be held between April 12 and 13 next year in San Francisco. Facebook often uses these conferences to announce new products, give developers new tools, and offer guidance on how to work with its services.

With updated notifications, Facebook pulls people down the rabbit hole

Facebook is rolling out an updated notifications tab today that puts local news, upcoming events, and other miscellaneous information next to the messages informing people that someone has liked a status update or shared a photo.

Facebook's newly updated Notifications tab aims to move beyond alerts for comments, likes, and friend requests.

Facebook’s newly updated Notifications tab aims to move beyond alerts for comments, likes, and friend requests.

The update is a tacit admission that Facebook holds too much information that people are expected to hunt down. A friend’s birthday is on their profile page, the address for a concert is on its event page; and the time a television show airs is found on yet another page. Now that will all be funneled into a single place with today’s update.
Facebook will offer other information, too, in this updated notifications tab. Want to know about the weather? How about when a movie is playing? Or a list of recommendations for dinner spots? Sure, you can find all those things with other services, but now you can also see everything right from Facebook’s app.
It’s a bit like Google Now but for Facebook. Google wanted to become the one place where people turn to find information; now Facebook wants to do the same. There are differences — Google Now pulls information from other apps, whereas Facebook seems to be limited to its own data — but the idea’s the same.
Facebook also has the benefit of sticking this in a place where everyone will see it. The company has occasion to make people’s phones buzz in their pockets many times throughout the day, thanks to the sheer amount of comments, likes, shares, and other forms of interaction available on everything that’s shared to it.
Now, every time one of those notifications is sent, people have a chance to fall down the rabbit hole. Only instead of finding the Wonderland into which Alice fell, they’ll enter a world where people share their opinions, their photographs, and the funniest memes in exchange for the only currency that matters, “Likes.”
It’s a good plan to make people more dependent on Facebook, to spend more time in its mobile app, and even to provide yet another place where the company can put advertisements between the things people really want to see. The update is rolling out to Android and iPhone users in the United States now.
For a closer look, check out the demo video below from Facebook.

Facebook search tools take aim at Twitter’s relationship with news

Facebook is updating its search tool to make it easier for users to find things that interest them among the 2 trillion items archived by the company’s index.
The update boasts personalized search suggestions, the ability to search through public posts in addition to those made by friends or family, and a new tool that allows people to view public conversations around news stories. That last item is by far the most interesting — and the one most likely to worry Twitter.
Twitter often bills itself as a forum for public conversations. Unless someone makes their entire account private, every 140-characters-or-fewer missive is indexed and can be found by anyone using the service’s search function. This makes it relatively easy to find and participate in active conversations — especially when used in conjunction with hashtags, Twitter’s defining mark. Facebook has basically just recreated one of the most useful parts of Twitter.
I doubt this will convince Twitter users to suddenly use Facebook as a home for their pithy, snarky-or-smarmy remarks about the day’s news. And that’s OK. Facebook has many times as many monthly active users as Twitter; and with more and more people using services like Instagram or Messenger, it’s already established itself as the social network of choice for more than a billion people. Now, it just has to make sure those people don’t have dalliances with other apps.
Put another way: Facebook has just removed another reason people might decide to sign up for Twitter instead of remaining content with its services. (Or, at the very least, given casual Twitter users one less reason to occasionally stray from Facebook.) The company has become a magician willing to pull anything — Snapchat clones, standalone messaging apps, improved search tools, etc. — from its hat to prevent its all-but-captive audience from checking out another exhibit.
The changes to Facebook’s search tool will likely seem weird to people who joined the network for the purpose of staying in touch with their real-life social circles. But if Twitter and other platforms (like Reddit) have shown us anything, it’s that many will also want to have conversations with interesting folks they’ve never met, and discuss topics that might not appeal to the people in their daily lives. It’s a very kumbaya-esque mission to connect people with random people who happen to share their interests as well as the people in their everyday lives.
Still, the changes are unlikely to make Twitter a ghost town. Twitter users have their cliques; they prize their follower counts; and probably value having a place where they can express an opinion without repercussion. One of the main things stopping people from having public conversations on Facebook’s platform is the “real name” policy that prevents users from hiding their identities. (Or in some cases embracing their true selves, trying to escape dangerous situations, or simply using whatever unique name their parents gave them.) Twitter and Reddit are both popular at least partly because they don’t have policies like that.
Then again, Facebook doesn’t have to win anyone’s heart or mind — it just has to hold its users’ attention tightly enough that it doesn’t wander. This improved search feature is just the latest beast it’s pulled from its hat to do just that.

Details emerge about Facebook’s news app, Notify

There’s no better way for a company to capture someone’s attention than sending a notification to that person’s smartphone. We’ve turned into Pavlov’s dogs, only instead of salivating when a scientists rings a bell, we fire little shots of dopamine upon feeling the familiar vibration of a handset coming from our pockets. Facebook knows this, and will reportedly take full advantage via a new news application called Notify that may debut soon.
For those keeping track, Notify would be Facebook’s second mobile news app after Paper — third if you count the main Facebook app.
So, how is this one different? Notify will apparently allow select publishers to send notifications to people who subscribe to a publication’s “Station” for breaking news alerts, according to a recent report from The Awl. This meshes with an earlier report from Business Insider, which states that Facebook is working on a “stand-alone mobile news application” meant to rival Twitter. A Facebook spokesperson declined to discuss Notify, telling Gigaom the standard “We don’t comment on rumors and speculation.”
So far, there haven’t been any reports about Notify having a connection to Facebook’s Instant Articles, which allow publishers to host content directly on Facebook rather than their own (usually slower) website. If news of the app is true, I wouldn’t be surprised if that changed before Notify’s debut.
Notify’s functionality could be enough to entice publishers struggling to get people to pay attention to their articles. News organizations are becoming more reliant on using push notifications to drive engagement to breaking news or exclusive coverage. Why? Well, as New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan stated in a response to reader complaints about push notifications, those little nudges can “quadruple mobile readership on Times digital platforms within about 15 minutes.”
In other words, Notify could help publishers reach more people, and presumably even drive higher traffic to their websites. It could also increase the value of being first and/or fast to breaking news. In return, Facebook would get even more control over the media — even among publishers it hasn’t convinced to sign up for Instant Articles — while making its users more important in the process. Facebook likely enjoys its position as the funnel between readers and reporters, and Notify could be yet another way to make sure that doesn’t change.
Then again, Notify could also fizzle out soon after its release. As previously mentioned, Facebook experimented with another news delivery platform, Paper, earlier this year. The app itself features a refreshing design, and clearly segregates real news from personal updates. But Paper also hasn’t been updated since March, and isn’t as popular as other Facebook apps, according to data gathered by the App Annie intelligence tool. (A Facebook spokesperson declined to discuss Paper’s fate with me.)
The rumored news app may debut later this month, according to The Awl’s report. We’ll have until then to enjoy the bliss of relatively quiet smartphones.