Viral communications app Plague “infects” 150K in two months

It’s been an interesting two months for new social communications app Plague as it tries to prove its concept of a content sharing network built entirely on viral principles. When we first covered Plague after its launch in November, it only had a few hundred users, but in two months time, the app its seen 150,000 downloads and attracted a community of 38,000 daily active users, the app’s co-creator Ilya Zudin told me.

That’s pretty small potatoes compared to the giant social networks of the world, but its just getting started and to be frank, this rather sinister sounding app isn’t for everyone. Plague (not to be confused with the mobile game Plague Inc.) is designed as a way to spread content the same way a pathogen would spread across the globe.

A user creates a content card – say a photo, animated gif or plain text message – and that card “infects” the four nearest smartphones with the Plague app located. If you’re on the receiving end, you can choose to spread the infection further by up-voting the card or impede its spread by down-voting the card. Any up vote sends the infection off to the next four closest Plague users.

It’s a pretty simple concept but one that’s taken off in Plague’s small but growing community, Zudin said. So far users have created 334,000 cards, and through Plague’s viral vectors those cards have crisscrossed the globe 70 million times to infect other users’ phones. The most up votes a single card has received is 6,674 (with a nearly equal number of down votes), but the average infection is spread on 83 times, Zudin said.

An infection map for a typical Plague content post

An infection map for a typical Plague content post

As the app has taken on more widespread user base, the creepiness that characterized some of its early content shares has largely gone away, replaced with much more innocuous posts, ranging from celebrity quotes to amateur photography. What surprised Zudin and Plague’s developers at Lithuanian startup Deep Sea Marketing is that users began gravitating toward the comments sections of individual content post. So while each pathogen stops infecting new phones after seven days, their content lives in comments.

“Now that we understand how people are using Plague, we’re seeing they’re using it as a platform to have conversation,” Zudin said. “Our users are creating a community.”

But that community isn’t like another social network community. Users can’t follow or friend one another, and they remain strangers within the app. They can only interact within the context of a single content card they’ve all managed to become infected by. Some posts have generated over 1,000 comments.

Consequently, Deep Sea has tried to bump up the community features of Plague, Zudin said. Last week it launched an update to the Plague iOS and Android apps that allows users to follow comment threads on a particular content card as well as tools that let you share cards via SMS, email, Twitter and Facebook.

When I first spoke to Zudin he was concerned that Plague could be used as way to anonymously spread offensive or illegal material like child pornography, but he said those fears turned out to be unwarranted. Though Plague has option to report a particular user or post, the community has been largely self-policing, he said. After all, if a post is truly distasteful it usually gets voted down before it can spread beyond the first four Plague users, thus disappearing from the network.

Facebook tests enterprise product with a few companies

Facebook is finally getting into the office game. According to multiple reports, on Wednesday morning the company launched a pilot of its long-rumored Facebook at Work product, an application that aims to compete against the likes of Yammer and Slack.

[company]Facebook[/company] at Work does exactly what it sounds like. It doesn’t connect to your personal profile. Instead, companies sign up their employees, forming a closed social network with familiar functions like news feeds and profiles. Facebook at Work will have its own separate iOS and Android apps, which Facebook put in the app store today. Most people won’t be able to download it, though, since the company limited its trial run to select companies.

The application may be too little too late, given that enterprise social networking companies have existed for years. The popular Slack is the latest entrant and was able to make headway in the market because existing products were too buggy or didn’t offer enough group chat functionality. Facebook might also struggle to convince people it’s a serious product that belongs in an office and not just a socializing app for personal use.

Conversely, companies that don’t already use a communication application might sign up for Facebook at Work due to their familiarity with the Facebook brand.

A spokesperson told Re/code that there are no ads in Facebook at Work and the pilot group of companies is using the service for free, so it’s not clear how Facebook intends to make money off the product.

Bebo attempts the near-impossible: A comeback

Remember the popular ’90s social networking app Bebo? Yeah, me neither.

The Facebook predecessor, which dominated British social networking for awhile, sold to AOL for $850 million in 2008. The corporate behemoth wasted no time at all in killing it.

But Bebo will not go softly into that dark night. In July of 2013, founder Michael Birch, with the help of his business wingman Shaan Puri, bought back the brand for a pittance of what he sold it for. Last week, he relaunched it.

The new Bebo is a whole new beast. Gone is the social network of yore, and in its place is — what else? — a chatting application.

Bebo is now all about the custom avatar, letting you pick from a range of hair styles, colors, skin tones, glasses, clothing, and accessories. Then when you chat with a friend on the app you can animate your avatar using hashtags. Check me and Product Hunt founder Ryan Hoover in #goddamnit, #chucknorris, #Snapchat #firstworldproblems #ohsnap and #hashtags. There’s no one set list of hashtag illustration options — you have to play with the app to figure out what you can animate. But the options seemed endless.

Clockwise from top left: #goddamnit, #ChuckNorris, #Snapchat, #firstworldproblems, #OhSnap, and #hashtags

Clockwise from top left: #goddamnit, #ChuckNorris, #Snapchat, #firstworldproblems, #OhSnap, and #hashtags

Within minutes of chatting with Hoover, I started feeling unnaturally fond of my avatar, like she was my little sister in the cartoon dimension or something. One of my favorite features was a custom emoji keyboard that automatically populated in the app, turning regular winky faces and smirks into an approximation of your own face. I wish they’d break it out into a third-party keyboard that integrates with regular iOS 8 messaging.

carmelemojisIt’s easy to dismiss Bebo as yet another frivolous first world app. And it totally is. But the app gives chatting an element of personalization, emotion, and imagery.

It could do for messaging what the emoticon did for text: Add a layer of sentiment that was previously hard to translate. Given that we’re moving to an increasingly chat centric world, that matters.

But that’s only if you dream big for Bebo. In reality, the app will struggle to convince people to download it in this noisy app environment. There’s a cognitive barrier to the conversations themselves, where you feel the need to conjure up witty hashtags in the hopes they’ll turn into funny pictures. In other words, it’s not an entirely natural way to chat.

Could it overcome those problems and revamp the Bebo brand? I guess we’ll see; after all, #YOLO.

The #YOLO animation on Bebo

The #YOLO animation on Bebo

Say goodbye to text in Grindr. It’s embracing the visual web

The new Grindr is all about that face. The company redesigned its iOS and Android app this month, abolishing text from a person’s first glance profile. If a user wants more information on someone than just their picture, they’ll have to click further to surface the profile summary. The matchmaking app for gay men also introduced a timing feature that tells two matches how long it would take them to walk to one another. It’s a little like Uber’s interface, but for your hookup — the bold new world of on-demand dating.

Despite the fact that it’s a comparably old app in smartphone years, Grindr has held sway over the gay male population since its launch in 2009. It’s self-funded with advertisements and subscriptions, and its biggest challenge is making sure it doesn’t lose its users to a new up-and-comer.

The redesign helps with that mission. By staying one step ahead of mobile dating trends, setting them instead of following them, Grindr hopes to keep its crown. And as Om Malik explored in this thoughtful post, the future of the web is visual. Images are easier and faster for our brain to process, they transcend language barriers, and they tap into our emotional reservoirs. As Om put it, “We are built to process visual data…That’s why the web is increasingly becoming visual.”

Grindr’s new imagery focus strips away any semblance of profile depth, arguably catering to a mobile dater’s more shallow instincts. But Grindr founder Joel Simkhai says he’s just giving the users what they want.

“One of the things we’re big believers in is men are visual creatures,” Simkhai says. “Copy and text are a lot less important. At this stage you’re not that interested in every little thing they’re interested in.”

The picture cues speed up people’s processing time for each profile. It allows users to swipe quickly through their choices, making faster split second decisions.

And speedy selection is, after all, the hallmark of mobile dating. Grindr arguably pioneered the industry, launching years in advance of the more heterosexually inclined Tinder app. When Grindr makes design decisions, it’s worth watching in case the rest of the mobile dating players follow suit.

But Simkhai doesn’t think we’ll see Tinder, Hinge, or other mobile dating apps minimize profile text any time soon. “Our target market is men and their target market is women because that’s what they need to make their app successful,” Simkhai says. “Women prefer it to be a little slower.”

Old Grindr profile (left) New Grindr profile (right)

Old Grindr profile (left) New Grindr profile (right)

Check out Nextdoor’s crowdsourced map for holiday lights

If you wanted to know where all the best holiday spots are in town, this might be your year. Social networking application Nextdoor has reached out to its users in 47,000 neighborhoods to map their cities’ best lights and attractions.

Nextdoor is an application where neighbors can connect to each other, share safety warnings, plan local events, and sell items ala Craigslist. It has grown in popularity in the United States, and using census data, the company estimates that one in four neighborhoods are on it.

The holiday map is a feature of the app. Little icons tell you where to find the best Christmas tree lots, best light displays, charity locations, Santa sightings, and holiday events. Find your neighborhood here.

Neighborhoods join the Nextdoor network when someone applies to draw their neighborhood boundary (and gets a handful of people to sign up with them). Some areas are far more active on Nextdoor than others, so the strength of your holiday cheer map might vary. Here’s a snapshot of San Francisco’s:

San Francisco's holiday cheer map on Nextdoor

San Francisco’s holiday cheer map on Nextdoor

The next WeChat is hiding in Canada and eyeing the U.S.

Four years since its launch, Kik is positioning itself as America’s version of WeChat, the messaging behemoth of China. It believes it has the right product (text messaging, the old-fashioned kind) and the right audience (almost half of U.S. youth) to become a proper mobile first platform.