My product launch wishlist for Instagram, Twitter, Uber and more

‘Twas the night before Xmas, and all through the house, not a feature was stirring from the designer’s mouse . . . Not Twitter! Not Uber, Not Apple or Pinterest! On Facebook! On Snapchat! On Lyft or on Insta! . . . From the sidelines I ask you to flex your code’s might. Happy Xmas to all if you make these apps right.

Instagram

See More Like This – A button on feed posts that when tapped inserts a burst of similar posts before the timeline continues. Want to see more fashion, sunsets, selfies, food porn, pets, or Boomerangs? Instagram’s machine vision technology and metadata would gather them from people you follow and give you a dose. You shouldn’t have to work through search, hashtags, or the Explore page, nor permanently change your feed by following new accounts. Pinterest briefly had this feature (and should bring it back) but it’d work better on Insta.

Web DMs Instagram’s messaging feature has become the defacto place for sharing memes and trash talk about people’s photos, but it’s stuck on mobile. For all the college kids and entry-level office workers out there, this would make being stuck on laptops all day much more fun. Plus, youth culture truthsayer Taylor Lorenz wants Instagram web DMs too.

Upload Quality Indicator – Try to post a Story video or Boomerang from a crummy internet connection and they turn out a blurry mess. Instagram should warn us if our signal strength is low compared to what we usually have (since some places it’s always mediocre) and either recommend we wait for Wi-Fi, or post a low-res copy that’s replaced by the high-res version when possible.

Oh, and if new VP of product Vishal Shah is listening, I’d also like Bitmoji-style avatars and a better way to discover accounts that shows a selection of their recent posts plus their bio, instead of just one post and no context in Explore which is better for discovering content.

Twitter

DM Search – Ummm, this is pretty straightforward. It’s absurd that you can’t even search DMs by person, let alone keyword. Twitter knows messaging is a big thing on mobile right? And DMs are one of the most powerful ways to get in contact with mid-level public figures and journalists. PS: My DMs are open if you’ve got a news tip — @JoshConstine.

Unfollow Suggestions – Social networks are obsessed with getting us to follow more people, but do a terrible job of helping us clean up our feeds. With Twitter bringing back the option to see a chronological feed, we need unfollow suggestions more than ever. It should analyze who I follow but never click, fave, reply to, retweet, or even slow down to read and ask if I want to nix them. I asked for this 5 years ago and the problem has only gotten worse. Since people feel like their feeds are already overflowing, they’re stingy with following new people. That’s partly why you see accounts get only a handful of new followers when their tweets go viral and are seen by millions. I recently had a tweet with 1.7 million impressions and 18,000 Likes that drove just 11 follows. Yes I know that’s a self-own.

Analytics Benchmarks – If Twitter wants to improve conversation quality, it should teach us what works. Twitter offers analytics about each of your tweets, but not in context of your other posts. Did this drive more or fewer link clicks or follows than my typical tweet? That kind of info could guide users to create more compelling content.

Facebook

(Obviously we could get into Facebook’s myriad problems here. A less sensationalized feed that doesn’t reward exaggerated claims would top my list. Hopefully its plan to downrank “borderline content” that almost violates its policies will help when it rolls out.)

Batched Notifications – Facebook sends way too many notifications. Some are downright useless and should be eliminated. “14 friends responded to events happening tomorrow”? “Someone’s fundraiser is half way to its goal?” Get that shit out of here. But there are other notifications I want to see but that aren’t urgent nor crucial to know about individually. Facebook should let us decide to batch notifications so we’d only get one of a certain type every 12 or 24 hours, or only when a certain number of similar ones are triggered. I’d love a digest of posts to my Groups or Events from the past day rather than every time someone opens their mouth.

I so don’t care

Notifications In The “Time Well Spent” Feature – Facebook tells you how many minutes you spent on it each day over the past week and on average, but my total time on Facebook matters less to me than how often it interrupts my life with push notifications. The “Your Time On Facebook” feature should show how many notifications of each type I’ve received, which ones I actually opened, and let me turn off or batch the ones I want fewer of.

Oh, and for Will Cathcart, Facebook’s VP of apps, can I also get proper syncing so I don’t rewatch the same Stories on Instagram and Facebook, the ability to invite people to Events on mobile based on past invite lists of those I’ve hosted or attended, and the See More Like This feature I recommended for Instagram?

Uber/Lyft/Ridesharing

“Quiet Ride” Button – Sometimes you’re just not in the mood for small talk. Had a rough day, need to get work done, or want to just zone out? Ridesharing apps should offer a request for a quiet ride that if the driver accepts, you pay them an extra dollar (or get it free as a loyalty perk), and you get ferried to your destination without unnecessary conversation. I get that it’s a bit dehumanizing for the driver, but I’d bet some would happily take a little extra cash for their compliance.

“I Need More Time” Button – Sometimes you overestimate the ETA and suddenly your car is arriving before you’re ready to leave. Instead of cancelling and rebooking a few minutes later, frantically rushing so you don’t miss your window and get smacked with a no-show fee, or making the driver wait while they and the company aren’t getting paid, Uber, Lyft, and the rest should offer the “I Need More Time” button that simply rebooks you a car that’s a little further away.

Spotify/Music Streaming Apps

Scan My Collection – I wish I could just take photos of the album covers, spines, or even discs of my CD or record collection and have them instantly added to a playlist or folder. It’s kind of sad that after lifetimes of collecting physical music, most of it now sits on a shelf and we forget to play what we used to love. Music apps want more data on what we like, and it’s just sitting there gathering dust. There’s obviously some fun viral potential here too. Let me share what’s my most embarrassing CD. For me, it’s my dual copies of Limp Bizkit’s “Significant Other” because I played the first one so much it got scratched.

Friends Weekly Spotify ditched its in-app messaging, third-party app platform, and other ways to discover music so its playlists would decide what becomes a hit in order to exert leverage over the record labels to negotiate better deals. But music discovery is inherently social and the desktop little ticker of what friends are playing on doesn’t cut it. Spotify should let me choose to recommend my new favorite song or agree to let it share what I’ve recently played most, and put those into a Discover Weekly-style social playlist of what friends are listening to.

Snapchat

Growth – I’m sorry, I had to.

Bulk Export Memories – But seriously, Snapchat is shrinking. That’s worrisome because some users’ photos and videos are trapped on its Memories cloud hosting feature that’s supposed to help free up space on your phone. But there’s no bulk export option, meaning it could take hours of saving shots one at a time to your camera roll if you needed to get off of Snapchat, if for example it was shutting down, or got acquired, or you’re just bored of it.

Add-On Cameras – Snapchat’s Spectacles are actually pretty neat for recording first-person or underwater shots in a circular format. But otherwise they don’t do much more, and in some ways do much less, than your phone’s camera and are a long way from being a Magic Leap competitor. That’s why if Snapchat really wants to become a “Camera Company”, it should build sleek add-on cameras that augment our phone’s hardware. Snap previously explored selling a 360-camera but never launched one. A little Giroptic iO-style 360 lens that attaches to your phone’s charging port could let you capture a new kind of content that really makes people feel like they’re there with you. An Aukey Aura-style zoom lens attachment that easily fits in your pocket unlike a DSLR could also be a hit

iOS

Switch Wi-Fi/Bluetooth From Control Center – I thought the whole point of Control Center was one touch access, but I can only turn on or off the Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. It’s silly having to dig into the Settings menu to switch to a different Wi-Fi network or Bluetooth device, especially as we interact with more and more of them. Control Center should unfurl a menu of networks or devices you can choose from.

Shoot GIFs – Live Photos are a clumsy proprietary format. Instagram’s Boomerang nailed what we want out of live action GIFs and we should be able to shoot them straight from the iOS camera and export them as actual GIFs that can be used across the web. Give us some extra GIF settings and iPhones could have a new reason for teens to choose them over Androids.

Gradual Alarms – Anyone else have a heart attack whenever they hear their phone’s Alarm Clock ringtone? I know I do because I leave my alarms on so loud that I’ll never miss them, but end up being rudely shocked awake. A setting that gradually increases the volume of the iOS Alarm Clock every 15 seconds or minute so I can be gently arisen unless I refuse to get up.

Maybe some of these apply to Android, but I wouldn’t know because I’m a filthy casual iPhoner. Send me your Android suggestions, as well as what else you want to see added to your favorite apps.

[Image Credit: Hanson Inc]

Why Oath keeps Tumblring

I dig on my employer Oath, and then Tencent Music notes and a major loss for the NYC ecosystem and what it means for open source.

TechCrunch is experimenting with new content forms. This is a rough draft of something new – provide your feedback directly to the author (Danny at danny@techcrunch.com) if you like or hate something here.

My three word Oath? I’m with stupid

It goes without saying that this piece about my employer is my work alone, doesn’t reflect management’s views, and is done under the auspices of TechCrunch’s independent editorial voice. No usage of internal information is assumed or implied.

This is a piece about TechCrunch’s parent company, formerly known as “Oath:” (okay just Oath, but who am I to flout a mandatory colon?) and now ReBranded™ as Verizon Media Group / Oath (See what they did there? They literally slashed Oath. Poetic).

Oath is essentially the creature of Frankenstein, a middle-school corporate alchemy experiment to fuse the properties of the companies formerly known as AOL and Yahoo into the larger behemoth known as Verizon. You can feel the terrible synergy emanating from the multiple firewalls it takes to get to our corporate resources.

Oath has a problem:* it needs to grow for Wall Street to be happy and for Verizon not to neuter it, but it has an incredible penchant for making product decisions that basically tell users to fuck off. Oath’s year over year revenues last quarter were down 6.9%, driven by extreme competition from digital ad leaders Google and Facebook.

The solution apparently? Drive page views down. If that logic doesn’t make sense, well then, maybe you should fill out a job application.

The kerfuffle is over Tumblr, which is among Oath’s most important brands, in that people actually know what it is and kind of still like it. Tumblr, which Yahoo notably acquired under Marissa Mayer back in 2013, has been something of a product orphan — one of the few true software platforms left in a world filled with editorial content like TechCrunch and HuffPost (Oath sold off Flickr earlier this year to SmugMug — which also seems to be going through its own boneheaded product decision phase).

All was well and good — well, at least quiet — in the Tumblr world until Apple pulled the plug on Tumblr’s app in the App Store a few weeks ago over claims of child porn. Now let’s be absolutely clear: child porn is abhorrent, and filtering it out of online photo sharing sites is a prime directive (and legally mandated).

But Oath has decided to do something equally obnoxious: it intends to ban anything that might be considered “adult content” starting December 17th, just in time for the holidays when purity around family gatherings is key.

In Tumblr’s policy, “Adult content primarily includes photos, videos, or GIFs that show real-life human genitals or female-presenting nipples, and any content—including photos, videos, GIFs and illustrations—that depicts sex acts.” You’ll notice the written legerdemain — “primarily” doesn’t exclude the wider world of adult-oriented content that almost invariably is going to be subsumed under this policy.

Obviously, adults (and presumably teens as well) are pissed. As users are starting to see what photos are getting flagged (hint: not the ones with porn in them), that’s only making them more angry.

Oath is attempting to compress the content moderation engineering and testing of Facebook down to a span of a few weeks. And Facebook hasn’t even figured this one out yet, which is why people are still being murdered across the world from viral messages and memes it hosts that incite ethnic hatred and genocide.

I get the pressure from Apple. I get the safety of saying “just ban all the images” à la Renaissance pope. I get the business decision of trying to maintain Tumblr’s clean image. These points are all reasonable, but they all are just useless without Tumblr’s core and long-time users.

What flummoxes me from a product perspective is that it’s not as if banning all adult content is the singular solution to the problem. There is an entire spectrum of product, policy, legal, and product cultural ingredients that could be drawn upon. There could be more age verification, better separation of “safe for children” and “meant for adults content,” and more focus on messaging to users that moderation was meant to help the product and focus audiences rather than to puritanically filter.

Or you can just kill the photos, the somehow still loyal core user base, a safe space for expression via nudity and sexuality and, well, traffic along with it. And then you look at -6.9% growth and think: huh, I wonder if there is a connection.

*Mandatory colon

Tencent Music reintroduces its IPO

Tencent Music. Photo by Zhan Min/VCG via Getty Images

Maybe the IPO markets are thawing a bit after the crash of the last few weeks and…tariffs. From my colleague Catherine Shu:

Tencent Music Entertainment’s initial public offering is back in motion, two months after the company reportedly postponed it amid a global selloff. In a regulatory filing today, the company, China’s largest streaming music service, said it plans to offer 82 million American depositary shares (ADS), representing 164 million Class A ordinary shares, for between $13 to $15 each. That means the IPO will potentially raise up to $1.23 billion.

My colleague Eric Peckham wrote a deeper dive behind the lessons of Tencent Music for the broader music industry:

At its heart, Tencent Music is an interactive media company. Its business isn’t merely providing music, it’s getting people to engage around music. Given its parent company Tencent has become the leading force in global gaming—with control of League of Legends maker Riot Games and Clash of Clans maker Supercell, plus a 40 percent stake in Fortnite creator Epic Games, and role as the top mobile games publisher in China—its team is well-versed in the dynamics of in-game purchasing.

Tencent Music has staked out a very differentiated business model from Spotify, Pandora, Apple Music, etc. It has used an engagement-based product model to make live-streaming and virtual gifts huge business lines, without dealing with the product marketing logistics of subscription. Where the West always asks you to pay for access, Tencent is asking you essentially to pay to have fun and be part of an experience.

Eric asks I think a deep question: why hasn’t this model (which seems particularly obvious in music given the overall events component of that business) been back-ported from China to the Western world? He sees a world where Facebook buys Spotify (I don’t) but I think there is absolutely a gap in the market for a music platform to really own this model.

NYC loses an open-source superstar

Photo: Amanda Hall / robertharding / Getty Images

Wes McKinney is a major open-source star and the engineer behind pandas, which is one of the fundamental Python data libraries, as well as a founding engineer of Apache Arrow, which is an in-memory data structure specification.

So it is big news that he has decided to decamp from New York City, where has has lived for ten years, to Nashville. Writing on his personal blog:

I’ve increasingly felt that open source development is at odds with the values that are driving a large portion of the corporate world, particularly in the United States. Many companies won’t fund open source work because there is no “return on investment”. This is deeply frustrating, and being surrounded by people whose actions align with profit-motive can be pretty discouraging. It’s not necessarily that people who work in NYC or SF are greedy or amorally concerned with making money. In many cases they are just responding to incentives coming from pretty low on the hierarchy of needs.

And

Full-time open source developers in many cases will make less money than their peers who work at Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, or another major tech company. If we are to enable more people to do open source development as a full-time vocation, we need to grow supportive tech communities in places that are more affordable. (emphasis his).

I think this is a very interesting trend to watch in the coming years. It’s not just the small business and art types who want to move to lower cost locales to match their lifestyle spending to the (economic) value of their work. Software developers who want to work on more meaningful projects outside of advertising and finance will also increasingly need to consider these sorts of geographical adjustments.

As I wrote a few months ago about digital nomads:

From cryptocurrency millionaires in Puerto Rico to digital nomads in hotspots like Thailand, Indonesia, and Colombia, there is increasingly a view that there is a marketplace for governance, and we hold the power as consumers. Much like choosing a cereal from the breakfast department of a supermarket, highly-skilled professionals are now comparing governments online — and making clear-headed choices based on which ones are most convenient and have the greatest amenities available.

Economic migration — whether from cost-of-living, ecosystem or governance culture, or just for new horizons — is the watchword of this century. It’s a huge loss for NYC that people like McKinney can no longer find their work compatible with the city.

What’s next

I am still obsessing about next-gen semiconductors. If you have thoughts there, give me a ring: danny@techcrunch.com.

Thoughts on Articles

Imagined Communities – a major classic book of social science thought, it’s amazing how well it has held up, and the lessons it holds for us in the cyber age. Intending to write a review of it for this weekend, so expect more notes later.

Quietly, Japan has established itself as a power in the aerospace industry – I love industrial policy and national economic development, and Eric Berger has done a great job on both fronts with his dispatch in Ars Technica. Japan is roaring back into space, increasing its launch capabilities and also preparing to deploy its own GPS infrastructure. An important contextual read for those who follow SpaceX.

Why we stopped trusting elites — a compelling deep dive by William Davies in The Guardian into how populism is animated by the failures of elites. Couldn’t agree more that elites have lost significant trust over the last few decades, mostly from hubris, corruption, and outright fraud (the financial crisis being just the largest). Elites need to hold themselves to much higher standards if we want to ask our fellow citizens for their support.

Reading docket

What I’m reading (or at least, trying to read)

  • Huge long list of articles on next-gen semiconductors. More to come shortly.

Why we lie to ourselves, every day

Human action requires motivation, but what exactly are those motivations? Donating money to a charity might be motivated by altruism, and yet, only 1% of donations are anonymous. Donors don’t just want to be altruistic, they also want credit for that altruism plus badges to signal to others about their altruistic ways.

Worse, we aren’t even aware of our true motivations — in fact, we often strategically deceive ourselves to make our behavior appear more pure than it really is. It’s a pattern that manifests itself across all kinds of arenas, including consumption, politics, education, medicine, religion and more.

In their book Elephant in the Brain, Kevin Simler, formerly a long-time engineer at Palantir, and Robin Hanson, an associate professor of economics at George Mason University, take the most dismal parts of the dismal science of economics and weave them together into a story of humans acting badly (but believing they are great!) As the authors write in their intro, “The line between cynicism and misanthropy — between thinking ill of human motives and thinking ill of humans — is often blurry.” No kidding.

Elephant in the Brain by Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson. Oxford University Press, 2018

The eponymous elephant in the brain is essentially our self-deception and hidden motivations regarding the actions we take in everyday life. Like the proverbial elephant in the room, this elephant in the brain is visible to those who search for it, but we often avoid looking at it lest we get discouraged at our selfish behavior.

Humans care deeply about being perceived as prosocial, but we are also locked into constant competition, over status attainment, careers, and spouses. We want to signal our community spirit, but we also want to selfishly benefit from our work. We solve for this dichotomy by creating rationalizations and excuses to do both simultaneously. We give to charity for the status as well as the altruism, much as we get a college degree to learn, but also to earn a degree which signals to employers that we will be hard workers.

The key is that we self-deceive: we don’t realize we are taking advantage of the duality of our actions. We truly believe we are being altruistic, just as much as we truly believe we are in college to learn and explore the arts and humanities. That self-deception is critical, since it lowers the cost of demonstrating our prosocial bona fides: we would be heavily cognitively taxed if we had to constantly pretend as if we cared about the environment when what we really care about is being perceived as an ethical consumer.

Elephant in the Brain is a bold yet synthetic thesis. Simler and Hanson build upon a number of research advances, such as Jonathan Haidt’s work on the righteous mind and Robert Trivers work on evolutionary psychology to undergird their thesis in the first few chapters, and then they apply that thesis to a series of other fields (ten, in fact) in relatively brief and facile chapters to describe how the elephant in the brain affects us in every sphere of human activity.

Refreshingly, far from being polemicists, the authors are quite curious and investigatory about this pattern of human behavior, and they realize they are pushing at least some of their readers into uncomfortable territory. They even begin the book by stating that “we expect the typical reader to accept roughly two-thirds of our claims about human motives and institutions.”

Yet, the book is essentially making one claim, just applied in a myriad of ways. It’s unclear to me who the reader would be who accepts only parts of the book’s premise. Either you have come around to the cynical view of humans (pre or post book), or you haven’t — there doesn’t seem to me to be a middle point between those two perspectives.

Worse, even after reading the book, I am left completely unaware of what exactly to do with the thesis now that I have read it. There is something of a lukewarm conclusion in which the authors push for us to have greater situational awareness, and a short albeit excellent section on designing better institutions to account for hidden motivations. The book’s observations ultimately don’t lead to any greater project, no path toward a more enlightened society. That’s fine, but disappointing.

Indeed, for a book that arguably strives to be optimistic, I fear its results will be nothing more than cynical fodder for Silicon Valley product designers. Don’t design products for what humans say they want, but design them to punch the buttons of their hidden motivations. Viewed in this light, Elephant in the Brain is perhaps a more academic version of the Facebook product manual.

The dismal science is dismal precisely because of this cynicism: because as a project, as a set of values, it leads pretty much nowhere. Everyone is secretly selfish and obsessed with status, and they don’t even know it. As the authors conclude in their final line, “We may be competitive social animals, self-interested and self-deceived, but we cooperated our way to the god-damned moon.” Yes we did, and it is precisely that surprise from such a dreary species that we should take solace in. There is indeed an elephant in our brain, but its influence can wax and wane — and ultimately humans hold their agency in their own hands.