YC-backed Mutiny helps B2B business personalize their website for each visitor

Mutiny, which is part of the current batch of startups at accelerator Y Combinator, helps business-to-business, software-as-a-service companies present a message that’s customized to each visitor on their website.

Co-founder and CEO Jaleh Rezaei said this concept is alive and well in the analog world: When she was at VMware, sales reps were given materials to help them tailor their pitch for each prospective customer. Then, when she was one of the early employees at HR services startup Gusto, she tried to do something similar online, only to find that existing software wasn’t quite up to the task.

There are landing page optimization tools, but Rezaei asked, “Who wants to create a thousand versions of your website?” And there are A/B testing tools, but Rezaei argued that they’re really designed to test “generic content” and use “very little audience intelligence.” And as for creating your own personalization tools, many companies will find that it requires “way too much engineering effort.”

That’s where Mutiny comes in. It integrates with existing data sources to allow businesses to divide their customers into segments. Then they can use Mutiny’s graphical interface to create personalized elements of the webpage for each segment.

For example, when you visit the homepage of Mutiny customer Amplitude, things like the customer testimonials and the call to action will change depending on the size of the company. Or when Brex customers click through from an email marketing campaign, they’ll see a credit card offer tailored to their name and company.

Brex -- personalized with Mutiny

These kinds of changes might not seem all that significant, but Rezaei said that when someone visits a B2B website, they’re probably interested in the product or service already. If they’re not converting, it’s probably because “they didn’t find what they wanted right away.” Mutiny can help surface the right content or the right message for the right customer.

The startup will also compare the personalized results to the generic webpage to help determine what does and doesn’t improve the bottom line. Rezaei said some of Mutiny’s early customers (who include Gusto, Infusionsoft and Brex) have seen conversion rates improve by 20 to 180 percent.

“That’s not to say that every test performs better, but the nice thing here is that you immediately see how something is performing,” she added.

Eventually, Rezaei is hoping to expand Mutiny’s technology so that it can personalize every aspect of the B2B purchase experience, including email and ad retargeting.

“Our passion as a founding team is growth,” she said. “Progress occurs not when you just build something, but when that product makes it into the hands of the person for whom it was intended to help.”

Openbook is the latest dream of a digital life beyond Facebook

As tech’s social giants wrestle with antisocial demons that appear to be both an emergent property of their platform power, and a consequence of specific leadership and values failures (evident as they publicly fail to enforce even the standards they claim to have), there are still people dreaming of a better way. Of social networking beyond outrage-fuelled adtech giants like Facebook and Twitter.

There have been many such attempts to build a ‘better’ social network of course. Most have ended in the deadpool. A few are still around with varying degrees of success/usage (Snapchat, Ello and Mastodon are three that spring to mine). None has usurped Zuckerberg’s throne of course.

This is principally because Facebook acquired Instagram and WhatsApp. It has also bought and closed down smaller potential future rivals (tbh). So by hogging network power, and the resources that flow from that, Facebook the company continues to dominate the social space. But that doesn’t stop people imagining something better — a platform that could win friends and influence the mainstream by being better ethically and in terms of functionality.

And so meet the latest dreamer with a double-sided social mission: Openbook.

The idea (currently it’s just that; a small self-funded team; a manifesto; a prototype; a nearly spent Kickstarter campaign; and, well, a lot of hopeful ambition) is to build an open source platform that rethinks social networking to make it friendly and customizable, rather than sticky and creepy.

Their vision to protect privacy as a for-profit platform involves a business model that’s based on honest fees — and an on-platform digital currency — rather than ever watchful ads and trackers.

There’s nothing exactly new in any of their core ideas. But in the face of massive and flagrant data misuse by platform giants these are ideas that seem to sound increasingly like sense. So the element of timing is perhaps the most notable thing here — with Facebook facing greater scrutiny than ever before, and even taking some hits to user growth and to its perceived valuation as a result of ongoing failures of leadership and a management philosophy that’s been attacked by at least one of its outgoing senior execs as manipulative and ethically out of touch.

The Openbook vision of a better way belongs to Joel Hernández who has been dreaming for a couple of years, brainstorming ideas on the side of other projects, and gathering similarly minded people around him to collectively come up with an alternative social network manifesto — whose primary pledge is a commitment to be honest.

“And then the data scandals started happening and every time they would, they would give me hope. Hope that existing social networks were not a given and immutable thing, that they could be changed, improved, replaced,” he tells TechCrunch.

Rather ironically Hernández says it was overhearing the lunchtime conversation of a group of people sitting near him — complaining about a laundry list of social networking ills; “creepy ads, being spammed with messages and notifications all the time, constantly seeing the same kind of content in their newsfeed” — that gave him the final push to pick up the paper manifesto and have a go at actually building (or, well, trying to fund building… ) an alternative platform. 

At the time of writing Openbook’s Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign has a handful of days to go and is only around a third of the way to reaching its (modest) target of $115k, with just over 1,000 backers chipping in. So the funding challenge is looking tough.

The team behind Openbook includes crypto(graphy) royalty, Phil Zimmermann — aka the father of PGP — who is on board as an advisor initially but billed as its “chief cryptographer”, as that’s what he’d be building for the platform if/when the time came. 

Hernández worked with Zimmermann at the Dutch telecom KPN building security and privacy tools for internal usage — so called him up and invited him for a coffee to get his thoughts on the idea.

“As soon as I opened the website with the name Openbook, his face lit up like I had never seen before,” says Hernández. “You see, he wanted to use Facebook. He lives far away from his family and facebook was the way to stay in the loop with his family. But using it would also mean giving away his privacy and therefore accepting defeat on his life-long fight for it, so he never did. He was thrilled at the possibility of an actual alternative.”

On the Kickstarter page there’s a video of Zimmermann explaining the ills of the current landscape of for-profit social platforms, as he views it. “If you go back a century, Coca Cola had cocaine in it and we were giving it to children,” he says here. “It’s crazy what we were doing a century ago. I think there will come a time, some years in the future, when we’re going to look back on social networks today, and what we were doing to ourselves, the harm we were doing to ourselves with social networks.”

“We need an alternative to the social network work revenue model that we have today,” he adds. “The problem with having these deep machine learning neural nets that are monitoring our behaviour and pulling us into deeper and deeper engagement is they already seem to know that nothing drives engagement as much as outrage.

“And this outrage deepens the political divides in our culture, it creates attack vectors against democratic institutions, it undermines our elections, it makes people angry at each other and provides opportunities to divide us. And that’s in addition to the destruction of our privacy by revenue models that are all about exploiting our personal information. So we need some alternative to this.”

Hernández actually pinged TechCrunch’s tips line back in April — soon after the Cambridge Analytica Facebook scandal went global — saying “we’re building the first ever privacy and security first, open-source, social network”.

We’ve heard plenty of similar pitches before, of course. Yet Facebook has continued to harvest global eyeballs by the billions. And even now, after a string of massive data and ethics scandals, it’s all but impossible to imagine users leaving the site en masse. Such is the powerful lock-in of The Social Network effect.

Regulation could present a greater threat to Facebook, though others argue more rules will simply cement its current dominance.

Openbook’s challenger idea is to apply product innovation to try to unstick Zuckerberg. Aka “building functionality that could stand for itself”, as Hernández puts it.

“We openly recognise that privacy will never be enough to get any significant user share from existing social networks,” he says. “That’s why we want to create a more customisable, fun and overall social experience. We won’t follow the footsteps of existing social networks.”

Data portability is an important ingredient to even being able to dream this dream — getting people to switch from a dominant network is hard enough without having to ask them to leave all their stuff behind as well as their friends. Which means that “making the transition process as smooth as possible” is another project focus.

Hernández says they’re building data importers that can parse the archive users are able to request from their existing social networks — to “tell you what’s in there and allow you to select what you want to import into Openbook”.

These sorts of efforts are aided by updated regulations in Europe — which bolster portability requirements on controllers of personal data. “I wouldn’t say it made the project possible but… it provided us a with a unique opportunity no other initiative had before,” says Hernández of the EU’s GDPR.

“Whether it will play a significant role in the mass adoption of the network, we can’t tell for sure but it’s simply an opportunity too good to ignore.”

On the product front, he says they have lots of ideas — reeling off a list that includes the likes of “a topic-roulette for chats, embracing Internet challenges as another kind of content, widgets, profile avatars, AR chatrooms…” for starters.

“Some of these might sound silly but the idea is to break the status quo when it comes to the definition of what a social network can do,” he adds.

Asked why he believes other efforts to build ‘ethical’ alternatives to Facebook have failed he argues it’s usually because they’ve focused on technology rather than product.

“This is still the most predominant [reason for failure],” he suggests. “A project comes up offering a radical new way to do social networking behind the scenes. They focus all their efforts in building the brand new tech needed to do the very basic things a social network can already do. Next thing you know, years have passed. They’re still thousands of miles away from anything similar to the functionality of existing social networks and their core supporters have moved into yet another initiative making the same promises. And the cycle goes on.”

He also reckons disruptive efforts have fizzled out because they were too tightly focused on being just a solution to an existing platform problem and nothing more.

So, in other words, people were trying to build an ‘anti-Facebook’, rather than a distinctly interesting service in its own right. (The latter innovation, you could argue, is how Snap managed to carve out a space for itself in spite of Facebook sitting alongside it — even as Facebook has since sought to crush Snap’s creative market opportunity by cloning its products.)

“This one applies not only to social network initiatives but privacy-friendly products too,” argues Hernández. “The problem with that approach is that the problems they solve or claim to solve are most of the time not mainstream. Such as the lack of privacy.

“While these products might do okay with the people that understand the problems, at the end of the day that’s a very tiny percentage of the market. The solution these products often present to this issue is educating the population about the problems. This process takes too long. And in topics like privacy and security, it’s not easy to educate people. They are topics that require a knowledge level beyond the one required to use the technology and are hard to explain with examples without entering into the conspiracy theorist spectrum.”

So the Openbook team’s philosophy is to shake things up by getting people excited for alternative social networking features and opportunities, with merely the added benefit of not being hostile to privacy nor algorithmically chain-linked to stoking fires of human outrage.

The reliance on digital currency for the business model does present another challenge, though, as getting people to buy into this could be tricky. After all payments equal friction.

To begin with, Hernández says the digital currency component of the platform would be used to let users list secondhand items for sale. Down the line, the vision extends to being able to support a community of creators getting a sustainable income — thanks to the same baked in coin mechanism enabling other users to pay to access content or just appreciate it (via a tip).

So, the idea is, that creators on Openbook would be able to benefit from the social network effect via direct financial payments derived from the platform (instead of merely ad-based payments, such as are available to YouTube creators) — albeit, that’s assuming reaching the necessary critical usage mass. Which of course is the really, really tough bit.

“Lower cuts than any existing solution, great content creation tools, great administration and overview panels, fine-grained control over the view-ability of their content and more possibilities for making a stable and predictable income such as creating extra rewards for people that accept to donate for a fixed period of time such as five months instead of a month to month basis,” says Hernández, listing some of the ideas they have to stand out from existing creator platforms.

“Once we have such a platform and people start using tips for this purpose (which is not such a strange use of a digital token), we will start expanding on its capabilities,” he adds. (He’s also written the requisite Medium article discussing some other potential use cases for the digital currency portion of the plan.)

At this nascent prototype and still-not-actually-funded stage they haven’t made any firm technical decisions on this front either. And also don’t want to end up accidentally getting into bed with an unethical tech.

“Digital currency wise, we’re really concerned about the environmental impact and scalability of the blockchain,” he says — which could risk Openbook contradicting stated green aims in its manifesto and looking hypocritical, given its plan is to plough 30% of its revenues into ‘give-back’ projects, such as environmental and sustainability efforts and also education.

“We want a decentralised currency but we don’t want to rush into decisions without some in-depth research. Currently, we’re going through IOTA’s whitepapers,” he adds.

They do also believe in decentralizing the platform — or at least parts of it — though that would not be their first focus on account of the strategic decision to prioritize product. So they’re not going to win fans from the (other) crypto community. Though that’s hardly a big deal given their target user-base is far more mainstream.

“Initially it will be built on a centralised manner. This will allow us to focus in innovating in regards to the user experience and functionality product rather than coming up with a brand new behind the scenes technology,” he says. “In the future, we’re looking into decentralisation from very specific angles and for different things. Application wise, resiliency and data ownership.”

“A project we’re keeping an eye on and that shares some of our vision on this is Tim Berners Lee’s MIT Solid project. It’s all about decoupling applications from the data they use,” he adds.

So that’s the dream. And the dream sounds good and right. The problem is finding enough funding and wider support — call it ‘belief equity’ — in a market so denuded of competitive possibility as a result of monopolistic platform power that few can even dream an alternative digital reality is possible.

In early April, Hernández posted a link to a basic website with details of Openbook to a few online privacy and tech communities asking for feedback. The response was predictably discouraging. “Some 90% of the replies were a mix between critiques and plain discouraging responses such as “keep dreaming”, “it will never happen”, “don’t you have anything better to do”,” he says.

(Asked this April by US lawmakers whether he thinks he has a monopoly, Zuckerberg paused and then quipped: “It certainly doesn’t feel like that to me!”)

Still, Hernández stuck with it, working on a prototype and launching the Kickstarter. He’s got that far — and wants to build so much more — but getting enough people to believe that a better, fairer social network is even possible might be the biggest challenge of all. 

For now, though, Hernández doesn’t want to stop dreaming.

“We are committed to make Openbook happen,” he says. “Our back-up plan involves grants and impact investment capital. Nothing will be as good as getting our first version through Kickstarter though. Kickstarter funding translates to absolute freedom for innovation, no strings attached.”

You can check out the Openbook crowdfunding pitch here.

Founder Zain Jaffer may be looking to take back control of Vungle

Zain Jaffer may be gearing up for a fight to take back control of Vungle, the mobile ad company he founded.

Jaffer was removed from his role as CEO last fall following his arrest on charges of assault with a deadly weapon and performing a lewd act on a child.

However, a San Mateo County judge subsequently dismissed the charges. The district attorney’s office released a statement offering more context for the dismissal, saying that they did not believe there was any sexual conduct on the evening in question, and that “the injuries were the result of Mr. Jaffer being in a state of unconsciousness caused by prescription medication.”

So what’s next for Jaffer and Vungle? There are hints in a recent letter from Jaffer’s attorney, John Pernick, which was sent to current Vungle CEO Rick Tallman.

TechCrunch has obtained a copy of the letter, which requests access to Vungle’s records, specifically the names and addresses of company shareholders. Pernick’s letter suggests that this could be a prelude to further action (emphasis added):

Mr. Jaffer is considering various options with respect to Vungle and his shares of Vungle. He has considered selling some portion of his Vungle shares. However, he is also considering pursuing a leadership change at Vungle through calling for a shareholders meeting for the purpose of voting on a new board of directors and/or purchasing shares of additional Vungle stock. Communicating with Vungle shareholders with respect to their interest in purchasing or selling Vungle stock or in a change in the board of directors is an entirely proper purpose for Mr. Jaffer’s request to inspect the shareholder information that will enable him to make these communications.

When TechCrunch contacted Pernick, he confirmed the authenticity of the letter but declined to comment further. A spokesperson for Jaffer also declined to comment, and Vungle did not respond to our inquiries.

As you can see in the quote above, the letter indicates that Jaffer is considering multiple courses of action.

But if he decides to pursue a leadership change at Vungle, either by winning over existing shareholders or by purchasing a controlling stake in the company, it sounds like there are investors willing to back him — for starters, Jun Hong Heng at Crescent Cove Capital Management confirmed that his firm is working with Jaffer.

“We think Zain and Vungle have incredible potential,” Heng said in a statement. “We look forward to working with Zain and giving him the support he needs to help him regain control of his company.”

We also reached out to Anne-Marie Roussel, who recently resigned from Vungle’s board of directors. Roussel said via email that “the Vungle controversy is an interesting proxy for a much larger debate: the fuzziness surrounding ethical conduct in the tech industry.”

She added, “My personal prediction is that boards of tech companies will be held increasingly accountable for the ethics of the key decisions they make.” As for how that applies to Vungle, she said:

How does it reflect on ethical values when a CEO is dismissed based on presumption of guilt? Don’t we live in a democracy where one of the key legal right is “presumption of innocence” (as in a defendant is innocent until proven guilty). Upholding that principle by collaborating with his defense team was what led to my resignation from Vungle’s board.

Letter to Vungle by TechCrunch on Scribd

Google slowly lifting ban on addiction center ads after adding vetting process

Google will now allow ads to run on addiction-related keywords and phrases after a nearly year-long ban instituted to crack down on shady providers cashing in on vulnerable patients. A small group of providers vetted by a third party have been approved by the company to appear in results for searches like “help quitting pills” or “meth addiction.”

The ban on these ads was rolled out in stages starting in September of last year in the U.S. and going global in January. It was provoked by a series of reports showing that people looking for help were being essentially traded like commodities and sent to incredibly expensive “addiction centers” that often provided little recovery help at all.

At the time Google pledged to keep the ban in place until it could find a way to reintroduce ads safely and ethically, and it has taken its time doing so. All addiction-related ad words were shut off completely, and while this introduced problems of its own (people searching for “help quitting pills” don’t want the WebMD page for addiction) it was probably the only logical choice.

Following this, Google partnered with LegitScript, a Portland company that specializes in verifying medicine-related businesses online. It has a 15-point checklist to make sure businesses are licensed and compliant, list medications and treatment plans, demonstrate qualifications and professionalism (i.e. not a quack operating out of their living room), have no shady history or what have you and so on. The whole list is here.

Only recovery and addiction centers vetted by LegitScript will be allowed to run ads against addiction-related queries on Google.

Recovery Centers of America (RCA), which has a handful of facilities around the country, is one of the first wave of approved advertisers.

“What they were trying to get rid of were these ‘lead aggregators’ that were posing as treatment centers, but were basically selling the patients,” said RCA’s director of marketing strategy and operations, Grant McClernon. “They wanted people who were operating under state scrutiny, providing real treatment.”

“It was a wild wild west out there,” added Bill Koroncai, the company’s director of communications. “So we support Google’s work to weed out the unethical providers in the industry.”

They explained that Google originally planned to greenlight 30 providers — which is to say facilities, of which a provider like RCA might have just one or dozens — but they were inundated with applications and had to expand the first wave of the program to closer to 100.

That’s not necessarily indicative of a rush on Google’s part; it seems more likely that the larger number turned out to be the realistic one if most regions and most needs were to be served. With 30 facilities you wouldn’t even have one in every state.

Addiction treatment providers won’t be treated any differently from other keyword purchasers, except that there will have to be a yearly check-up process through LegitScript to make sure they’re still worthy of being included.

It’s probably wise that Google didn’t get into the vetting process itself; this sets an easier precedent for the ad giant in that when conflicts like this one come up, it doesn’t have to hire a specialized team dedicated to combating fraud in that specific domain.

A Google representative said that ads should start running as soon as the companies paying for them are certified, which could be right now depending on the region and keyword.

Short video service Musical.ly is merging into sister app TikTok

Musical.ly, the short video app that’s popular among teens and young people, is going away. Kinda.

The app and all user data and accounts is being merged with Toktok, a sister app that’s owned by ByteDance, the Chinese company that acquired Musical.ly for around $1 billion last year.

The switch-over happens today (Thursday) and it should be relatively seamless. Users of Musical.ly will see their app switch to TikTok once they update the app, and they should find their account, videos and personal settings inside the new app as per usual.

One notable new addition is a setting that alerts a user when they have been active in the app for two hours that day. Its addition comes just a day after Facebook added similar ‘well-being’ features to its core social network and Instagram.

ByteDance is making the move to consolidate its audiences on both apps. Four-year-old Musical.ly, which is particularly popular in the U.S., has around 100 million users while TikTok, which was created in 2016 and operates worldwide minus China, claims 500 million monthly active users. In China, the sister product is Douyin, while the company also offers news apps Toutiao in China and TopBuzz across the rest of the world.

“TikTok, the sound of a ticking clock, represents the short nature of the video platform. We want to capture the world’s creativity and knowledge under this new name and remind everyone to treasure every precious life moment. Combining musical.ly and TikTok is a natural fit given the shared mission of both experiences,” said Alex Zhu, co-founder of Musical.ly and Senior Vice President of TikTok, in a statement.

The app merger follows the closure of Musical.ly’s standalone live-streaming app Live.ly in June. That was part of the deal agreed to for the Musical.ly acquisition, and the company directed its users to Live.me, an app that counts ByteDance among its investors.

It makes sense that ByteDance is consolidating its sibling apps since Facebook is stalking out the short video space. The social network giant has tested a Musical.ly style app and just this week we found hints that it is planning to launch “Talent Show,” which would allow users to compete by singing popular songs then submitting their audition for review.

There’s also the revenue side. A global platform plays better for advertisers rather than forcing them to pick either Musical.ly or TikTok, or going through the added rigmarole of working on both.

Techmeme introduces contextual ads tied to news topics

Tech news aggregator Techmeme is trying out a new way to make money — ad units that are directly tied to the stories on the front page.

The idea is that advertisers can specify company names or news categories that they want to target, then Techmeme will automatically include their message below relevant news stories.

For example, as I write this, the top story on the site is about Google’s potential plans to launch in China a censored version of the search engine, and underneath, there’s an ad from Yelp arguing that Google is “hurting the open internet.”

Techmeme founder Gabe Rivera tweeted that this could be a good way to “antagonize a particular company” or “hijack all news concerning that company on Techmeme to insert your rebuttal.” Or you could do something that’s a little less confrontational, like crypto wallet company BRD, which will run ads alongside cryptocurrency news.

Techeme contextual ad

The idea of using advertisers to take on your competitors or hijack their message isn’t new — for example, it’s a normal tactic to target competitors’ brand names and other keywords in search campaigns. But this allows advertisers to do so in a way that’s both automated and centered on the latest headlines.

“Why is Techmeme the right venue for ads that react to news in this way? Because it’s where readers go to see ideas in conflict,” Rivera wrote in his announcement. “Techmeme is, after all, the arena where industry-driven news meets critical reaction and analysis. So by letting companies speak out and confront issues in this manner, we provide an additive, even entertaining experience for readers.”

Of course, it can be hard to predict when or how a company or topic will pop up in the news (and to be clear, Rivera said the editorial news mix on Techmeme won’t be affected by who’s purchasing ads). The idea, though, is to keep running the ads alongside relevant stories until Techmeme has delivered the placement hours committed to the advertiser.

And to provide a little extra incentive, Rivera noted that Techmeme won’t allow anyone to buy negative ads targeting current advertisers.

“Gabe has kept Techmeme mostly free of advertising since its inception,” BRD VP of Global Marketing Spencer Chen told me via email. “Despite his Twitter persona, the man actually loves his readers. So anytime he rolls out a new ad product, there’s always a buzz to get in early to reach Techmeme’s highly influential and elevated audience.”

Why unskippable Stories ads could revive Facebook

Prepare for the invasion of the unskippables. If the Stories social media slideshow format is the future of mobile TV, it’s going to end up with commercials. Users won’t love them. And done wrong they could pester people away from spending so much time watching what friends do day-to-day. But there’s no way Facebook and its family of apps will keep letting us fast-forward past Stories ads just a split-second after they appear on our screens.

We’re on the cusp of the shift to Stories. Facebook estimates that across social media apps, sharing to Stories will surpass sharing through feeds some time in 2019. One big reason is they don’t take a ton of thought to create. Hold up your phone, shoot a photo or short video and you’ve instantly got immersive, eye-catching, full-screen content. And you never had to think.

Facebook CPO Chris Cox at F8 2018 charts the rise of Stories that will see the format surpass feed sharing in 2019

Unlike text, which requires pre-meditated reflection that can be daunting to some, Stories are point and shoot. They don’t even require a caption. Sure, if you’re witty or artistic you can embellish them with all sorts of commentary and creativity. They can be a way to project your inner monologue over the outside world. But the base level of effort necessary to make a Story is arguably less than sharing a status update. That’s helped Stories rocket to more than 1.3 billion daily users across Facebook’s apps and Snapchat.

The problem, at least for Facebook, is that monetizing the News Feed with status-style ads was a lot more straightforward. Those ads, which have fueled Facebook’s ascent to earning $13 billion in revenue and $5 billion in profit per quarter, were ostensibly old-school banners. Text, tiny photo and a link. Advertisers have grown accustomed to them over 20 years of practice. Even small businesses on a tight budget could make these ads. And it at least took users a second to scroll past them — just long enough to make them occasionally effective at implanting a brand or tempting a click.

Stories, and Stories ads, are fundamentally different. They require big, tantalizing photos at a minimum, or preferably stylish video that lasts five to 15 seconds. That’s a huge upward creative leap for advertisers to make, particularly small businesses that’ll have trouble shooting that polished content themselves. Rather than displaying a splayed out preview of a link, users typically have to swipe up or tap a smaller section of a Story ad to click through.

And Stories are inherently skippable. Users have learned to rapidly tap to progress slide by slide through friends’ Stories, especially when racing through those with too many posts or that come from more distant acquaintances. People are quick with the trigger finger the moment they’re bored, especially if it’s with an ad.

A new type of ad blindness has emerged. Instead of our eyes glazing over as we scroll past, we stare intensely searching for the slightest hint that something isn’t worth our time and should be skipped. A brand name, “sponsored” label, stilted product shot or anything that looks asocial leads us to instantly tap past.

This is why Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg scared the hell out of investors on the brutal earnings call when she admitted about Stories that, “The question is, will this monetize at the same rate as News Feed? And we honestly don’t know.” It’s a radically new format advertisers will need time to adopt and perfect. Facebook had spent the past year warning that revenue growth would decelerate as it ran out of News Feed ad inventory, but it’d never stressed the danger as what it was: Stories. That contributed to its record-breaking $120 billion share price drop.

The shift from News Feed ads to Stories ads will be a bigger transition than desktop ads to mobile ads for Facebook. Feed ads looked and worked identically, it was just the screen around them changing. Stories ads are an entirely new beast.

Stories ads are a bigger shift than web to mobile

There is one familiar format Stories ads are reminiscent of: television commercials. Before the age of TiVo and DVRs, you had to sit through the commercials to get your next hit of content. I believe the same will eventually be true for Stories, to the tune of billions in revenue for Facebook.

Snapchat is cornered by Facebook’s competition and desperate to avoid missing revenue estimates again. So this week, it rolled out unskippable vertical video ads it actually calls “Commercials” to 100 more advertisers, and they’ll soon be self-serve for buyers. Snap first debuted them in May, though the six-second promos are still only inserted into its longer-form multi-minute premium Shows, not user-generated Stories. A Snap spokesperson said they couldn’t comment on future plans. But I’d expect its stance will inevitably change. Friends’ Stories are interesting enough to compel people to watch through entire ads, so the platform could make us watch.

Snapchat is desperate, and that’s why it’s already working on unskippable ads. If Facebook’s apps like Instagram and WhatsApp were locked in heated battle with Snapchat, I think we’d see more brinkmanship here. Each would hope the other would show unskippable ads first so it could try to steal their pissed-off users.

But Facebook has largely vanquished Snapchat, which has seen user growth sink significantly. Snapchat has 191 million daily users, but Facebook Stories has 150 million, Messenger Stories has 70 million, Instagram Stories has 400 million and WhatsApp Stories (called Status) leads with 450 million. Most people’s friends around the world aren’t posting to Snapchat Stories, so Facebook doesn’t risk pushing users there with overly aggressive ads, except perhaps amongst U.S. teens.

Instagram’s three-slide Stories carousel ads

That’s why I expect we’ll quickly see Facebook start to test unskippable Stories ads. They’ll likely be heavily capped at first, to maybe one to three per day per user. Facebook took a similar approach to slowly rolling out auto-play video News Feed ads back in 2014. And Facebook’s apps will probably only show them after a friend’s story before your next pal’s, in-between rather than as dreaded pre-rolls. Instagram already offers carousel Stories ads with up to three slides instead of one, so users have to tap three times to blow past them.

An Instagram spokesperson told me they had “no plans to share right now” about unskippable ads, and a Facebook spokesperson said “We don’t have any plans to test unskippable stories ads on Facebook or Instagram.” But plans can change. A Snap spokesperson noted that unlike a full 30-second TV spot, Snapchat’s Commercials are up to six seconds, which matches an emerging industry trend for mobile video ads. Budweiser recently made some six-second online ads that it also ran on TV, showing the format’s reuseability that could speed up adoption. For brand advertisers not seeking an on-the-spot purchase, they need time to leave an impression.

By making some Stories ads unskippable, Facebook’s apps could charge more while making them more impactful for advertisers. It would also reduce the creative pressure on businesses because they won’t be forced to make that first split-second so flashy so people don’t fast-forward. Employing unskippable ads could also create an incentive for people to pay for a hypothetical ad-free Facebook Premium subscription in the future.

If Facebook makes the Stories ad format work, it has a bright future that contrasts with the doomsday vibes conjured by its share price plummet. Facebook has more than 5X more (duplicated) Stories users across its apps than its nearest competitor Snapchat. The social giant sees libraries full of Stories created each day waiting to be monetized.

Alibaba boosts its offline reach with $2B+ investment in outdoor digital marketing firm

Alibaba is investing big bucks into offline distribution. The Chinese e-commerce giant has forked out $2.23 billion in exchange for a sizeable piece of Focus Media, a Shanghai-based company that operates outdoor digital advertising screens across China, Singapore and Hong Kong, according to a U.S. filing.

The deal itself is broken up into a few pieces. Alibaba itself is paying $1.43 billion for a 6.62 percent share of Focus Media, which is listed in Shanghai, It is also spending $504.7 million to buy 10 percent of an entity (managed by Focus Media founder and chairman Jason Nanchun Jiang) which controls 23.34 percent of Focus Media.

In addition, an Alibaba-aligned fund called ‘New Retail Strategic Opportunities’ is buying 1.37 percent of Focus Media, while Alibaba itself is planning to exercise an option to buy five percent more of the business over the next twelve months. That additional transaction will add another $1 billion or so to the total investment, dependent, of course, on Focus Media’s stock price.

That’s quite a mouthful but the objective of the deal is simpler to grok: Alibaba already has a formidable online channel to interact with consumers and now it is expanding what it can do offline.

Focus Media currently claims to reach 200 million middle-class consumers across 300 Chinese cities via its outdoor advertising platform, which includes digital screens in streets, in subways and in elevators. The company plans to grow that to 500 million people across 500 cities, and that ties into Alibaba’s online-to-offline strategy, which it also calls ‘New Retail.’

That has seen the company buy up expensive stakes in offline retail businesses with the goal of marrying the benefits of online shopping — such as quick delivery, easy to find products and easy payment — with the customer experience of brick and mortar stores, like in-person customer service and try-before-you-buy.

It isn’t hard to imagine a scenario in which a consumer sees a product advertised via Focus Media with the option to buy it, or arrange to see it in a store, simply by scanning a QR code. (Lest you forgot, QR codes are huge in China and a very key component in online/offline shopping.)

Beyond the New Retail push, the distribution provided by Focus Media offers sellers on Alibaba’s e-commerce platform an alternative avenue through which to reach potential customers, particularly within China’s growing middle class.

Will people reject being bombarded with ads on their commute or downtime, especially when they could just open an app on their phone? Alibaba likely isn’t keen to take the risk, and given the vast amount of cash it is sitting on this deal isn’t going to be a huge risk.

Google gets slapped with $5BN EU fine for Android antitrust abuse

Google has been fined a record breaking €4.34 billion (~$5BN) by European antitrust regulators for abusing the dominance of its Android mobile operating system.

Competition commissioner Margrethe Vestager has tweeted to confirm the penalty ahead of a press conference about to take place. Stay tuned for more details as we get them.

In a longer statement about the decision, Vestager said:

Today, mobile internet makes up more than half of global internet traffic. It has changed the lives of millions of Europeans. Our case is about three types of restrictions that Google has imposed on Android device manufacturers and network operators to ensure that traffic on Android devices goes to the Google search engine. In this way, Google has used Android as a vehicle to cement the dominance of its search engine. These practices have denied rivals the chance to innovate and compete on the merits. They have denied European consumers the benefits of effective competition in the important mobile sphere. This is illegal under EU antitrust rules.

In particular, the EC has decided that Google:

  • has required manufacturers to pre-install the Google Search app and browser app (Chrome), as a condition for licensing Google’s app store (the Play Store);
  • made payments to certain large manufacturers and mobile network operators on condition that they exclusively pre-installed the Google Search app on their devices; and
  • has prevented manufacturers wishing to pre-install Google apps from selling even a single smart mobile device running on alternative versions of Android that were not approved by Google (so-called “Android forks”).

The decision also concludes that Google is dominant in the markets for general internet search services; licensable smart mobile operating systems; and app stores for the Android mobile operating system.

During the press conference Vestager said the Commission had determined that Google had breached its competition rules with Android since 2011. (Although its press release also notes that during 2013, after being called out by the Commission, Google gradually stopped making illegal payments to device manufacturers to exclusively pre-install Google Search. “The illegal practice effectively ceased as of 2014,” it adds.)

“The decision today concludes that the restrictions Google imposed on manufacturers and network operators using Android have breached [EU] rules since 2011,” said Vestager. “First that’s because Google’s practices have denied rival search engines the possibility to compete on their merits. They made sure that Google search engine is pre-installed on practically all Android devices, which is an advantage that cannot be matched.

“And by making payments to major manufacturers and network operators on condition that no other search app or search engine was pre-installed — well, then rivals were excluded from this opportunity.”

“Google’s practices also harmed competition and further innovation in the wider mobile space, beyond just Internet search — and that’s because they prevented other mobile browsers from competing effectively with the pre-installed Google Chrome browser.

“Finally they obstructed the development of Android forks. This could have provided a platform for rival search engines as well as other app developers to thrive.”

She raised the example of Amazon’s Android fork, Fire OS, as a rival Android platform that has suffered from Google’s contractual arrangements with device manufacturers.

“In 2012 and 2013 Amazon tried to license to device manufacturers its Android fork, called Fire OS. It wanted to co-operate with manufacturers to increase its chances of commercial success. And manufacturers were interested but due to Google’s restrictions, manufacturers could not launch Fire OS on even a single device,” she said.

“They would have lost the right to sell any Android phone with key Google apps. Nowadays, very few devices run with Fire OS. Namely only those manufactured by Amazon themselves. And this is not a proportionate outcome. Google is entitled to set technical requirements to ensure that functionality and apps within its own Android ecosystem runs smoothly. But these technical requirements cannot serve as a smokescreen to prevent the development of competing Android ecosystems.

“Google cannot have its cake and eat it.”

Vestager also made a point of characterizing Google’s actions as monopolistic towards data, saying that by blocking rival apps and services it “also denied rivals access to valuable data from increased user traffic which in turn could have allowed rivals to improve their products”.

What about breaking Google up?

During the press conference she was asked several times about whether breaking up Google might not be a more effective remedy than the cease & desist decision the Commission has reached today — which hands responsibility for Google to come up with a compliance remedy for its illegal behavior with Android (albeit, subject to ongoing monitoring by the Commission).

She replied that she wasn’t sure that breaking up Google would make for an effective competition remedy, arguing there are “no silver bullets” to ensuring competitive markets.

“Here we have a decision that is very clear, which will allow mobile device producers to have a choice — that will us, as consumers, to have a choice as well. That’s what competition is about. And I think that is much more important than a discussion of whether or not breaking up a company would do that,” she said, when asked whether she would exclude the possibility of breaking up Google — so she was sidestepping a direct answer to that.

“I think what will serve competition is for more players to have a real go, to be able to reach consumers so that we can use our choice to find what suits us the best,” she added. “Test out new search engines, new browsers, have maybe a phone that works in a slightly different way [via an Android fork]… maybe the totality of the phone, in the way it was presented, that would work to allow others to compete on the merits, to show consumers what can we do, what have we invented, this is where we put our efforts, this is the that innovation we want to present for you. This I think would enable competition.”

She also emphasized the importance of passing proposed EU legislation related to transparency and fairness for businesses that are reliant on online platforms.

“I think there is a very important discussion which is to discuss how to pass the legislation that my colleagues have tabled — legislation that will ensure that you have transparency and fairness in the business to platform relationship,” she said.

“So that if you’re a business and you find that ‘oh, my traffic has stopped’, that you know why it happened, when it happened and what to do to get your traffic back…. Because this will change the marketplace, and it will change the way we are protected as consumers but also as businesses.”

Google has tweeted an initial reaction to the decision, claiming Android has created “a vibrant ecosystem, rapid innovation and lower prices”.

A company spokesperson confirmed to us that it will appeal the Commission’s decision.

In a lengthy blog post response, CEO Sundar Pichai expands on the company’s argument that the Android ecosystem has “created more choice, not less” — writing for example:

Today, because of Android, there are more than 24,000 devices, at every price point, from more than 1,300 different brands,including DutchFinnishFrenchGermanHungarianItalianLatvianPolishRomanianSpanish and Swedish
phone makers.

The phones made by these companies are all different, but have one thing in common — the ability to run the same applications. This is possible thanks to simple rules that ensure technical compatibility, no matter what the size or shape of the device. No phone maker is even obliged to sign up to these rules — they can use or modify Android in any way they want, just as Amazon has done with its Fire tablets and TV sticks.

He also has a veiled warning about the consequences should Google’s “free distribution” model for Android come unstuck, writing:

The free distribution of the Android platform, and of Google’s suite of applications, is not only efficient for phone makers and operators—it’s of huge benefit for developers and consumers. If phone makers and mobile network operators couldn’t include our apps on their wide range of devices, it would upset the balance of the Android ecosystem. So far, the Android business model has meant that we haven’t had to charge phone makers for our technology, or depend on a tightly controlled distribution model.

The fine is the second major penalty for the ad tech giant for breaching EU competition rules in just over a year — and the highest ever issued by the Commission for abuse of a dominant market position.

In June 2017 Google was hit with a then-record €2.4BN (~$2.7BN) antitrust penalty related to another of its products, search comparison service, Google Shopping. The company has since made changes to how it displays search results for products in Europe.

According to the bloc’s rules, companies can be fined 10 per cent of their global revenue if they are deemed to have breached European competition law.

Google’s parent entity Alphabet reported full year revenue of $110.9 billion in 2017. So the $5BN fine is around half of what the company could have been on the hook for if EU regulators had levied the maximum penalty possible.

“It’s a very serious illegal behavior”

The Commission said the size of the fine takes into account “the duration and gravity of the infringement”.

It also specified it had been calculated on the basis of the value of Google’s revenue from search advertising services on Android devices in the European Economic Area (per its own guidelines on fines).

Pressed during the press conference on how the Commission had determined the size of the penalty, which is double the penalty it issued in the Google Shopping case, Vestager emphasized the time period over which it had been going on, the fact of it having three components, and the effect of it, combined with Google’s rising turnover — adding finally for emphasis: “It’s a very serious infringement. It’s a very serious illegal behavior.”

Google will have three months to pay the fine but has confirmed it will appeal the decision — and legal wrangling could drag the process out for many years.

Vestager confirmed that while antitrust fines must technically be paid to the EU within the three month deadline they are placed in a closed account until the end of any appeals process — meaning the money cannot be used in the meanwhile.

So, in the Android case, the $5BN will likely be locked up until the late 2020s — assuming Google’s appeals aren’t successful. Should Google fail to overturn the Commission’s decision in the courts, Vestager said the money would be returned to EU Member States “using the same key as the contribution to the European budget”.

“You can impose a fine if someone has done someone wrong, you cannot impose a fine because you need the money. That would be wrong,” she added. “This of course means that it will take quite some time… if we win in court — and I can assure you we have done our best to make that possible — then, eventually, the money will come back to Member States to serve European citizens.”

Prior to the Commission’s record pair of fines for Google products, its next highest antitrust penalty is a €1.06BN antitrust fine for chipmaker Intel all the way back in 2009.

Yet only last year Europe’s top court ruled that the case against Intel — which focused on it offering rebates to high-volume buyers — should be sent back to a lower court to be re-examined, nearly a decade after the original antitrust decision. So Google’s lawyers are likely to have a spring in their step going into this next European antitrust battle.

The latest EU fine for Android has been on the cards for more than two years, given the Commission’s preliminary findings and consistently prescriptive remarks from Vestager during the course of what has been a multi-year investigation process.

And, indeed, given multiple EU antitrust investigations into Google businesses and business practices (the EU has also been probing Google’s AdSense advertising service — a separate investigation that Vestager today confirmed remains ongoing).

The Commission’s prior finding that Google is a dominant company in Internet search — a judgement reached at the culmination of its Google Shopping investigation last year — is also important, making the final judgement in the Android case more likely because the status places the onus on Google not to abuse its dominant position in other markets, adjacent or otherwise.

Announcing the Google Shopping penalty last summer, Vestager made a point of emphasizing that dominant companies “need to be more vigilant” — saying they have a “special responsibility” to ensure they are not in breach of antitrust rules, and also specifying this applies “in the market where it’s dominant” and “in any other market”. So that means — as here in the Android case — in mobile services too.

While a one-off financial penalty — even one that runs to so many billions of dollars — cannot cause lasting damage to a company as wealthy as Alphabet, of greater risk to its business are changes the regulators can require to how it operates Android which could have a sustained impact on Google if they end up reshaping the competitive landscape for mobile services.

In search of a remedy

At least that’s the Commission’s intention: To reset what has been judged an unfair competitive advantage for Google via Android, and foster competitive innovation because rival products get a fairer chance to impress consumers. Although it is avoiding prescribing any specific remedies — beyond telling Google to stop it.

For instance Vestager was asked whether the Commission might want Google to send push notifications to existing Android users to highlight alternatives, and thereby offer a remedy to consumers who had already been impacted by the choice constraints it placed on device makers and carriers.

“It is for Google to figure out how to lift this responsibility,” she told reporters. “It’s for them to do this… Google may make that kind of choice [i.e. sending push notifications] — on that we have taken no position.”

However the popularity and profile of Google services suggests that even if Android users are offered a choice as a result of an EU antitrust remedy — such as of which search engine, maps service, mobile browser or even app store to use — most will likely pick the Google-branded offering they’re most familiar with.

That said, the antitrust remedy could have the chance to shift consumers’ habits over time — if, for instance, OEMs start offering Android devices that come preloaded with alternative mobile services, thereby raising the visibility of non-Google apps and services. Which is clearly the Commission’s hope.

Interestingly, Google has been striking deals with Chinese OEMs in recent months — to brings its ARCore technology to markets where its core services are censored and its Play Store is restricted. And its strategy to workaround regional restrictions in China by working more closely with device makers may also be part of a plan to hedge against fresh regulatory restrictions being placed on Android elsewhere. 

Complainants in the EU’s earlier Google Shopping antitrust case continue to express displeasure with the outcome of the remedies Google has come up with on that front. And in a pointed statement responding to news that another EU antitrust penalty was incoming for Android, Shivaun Raff, CEO of Foundem, the lead complainant in Google Shopping case, said: “Fines make headlines. Effective remedies make a difference.”

So the devil will be in the detail of the Android remedies that Google comes up with.

“The decision requires Google to bring its illegal conduct to an end within 90 days in an effective manner,” said Vestager today. “At a minimum, our decision requires Google to stop and not to re-engage in the three types of restrictions that I have described. In other words our decision stops Google from controlling which search and browser apps manufacturers can pre-install on Android devices, or which Android operating system they can adopt. But it is Google’s sole responsibility to make sure that it changes its conduct in a way that brings the infringements to an effective end.”

“We will monitor this very closely,” she added, warning that failure to comply would invite further penalty payments — of up to 5% of the average daily turnover of Alphabet for each day of non-compliance, back dated to when the non-compliance started. “Our decision requires Google to change the way it operates and face the consequences of its action.”

Aptoide, one of the original app store complainants — which filed an antitrust complaint with the European Commission in 2014 complaining that Google’s policies did not allow any alternative app stores which competed with the Play Store to be valid content — welcomed today’s decision, albeit cautiously, as a “positive first step”. So there’s a lot of ‘wait and see’ in the air.

CEO Paulo Trezentos told us: “The EU’s ruling justifying our antitrust arguments is a positive first step forward, for a market more open, more competitive and better tailored for the users. It is these types of decisions that push industries to bigger levels and we hope that this will help everyone evolve.”

On the Google Shopping compliance front, Vestager had some additional words of warning for Google — saying: “We have not yet taken a position on whether Google has complied with the decision. And since we haven’t done so this remains very much an open question.”

She also said the Commission is continuing to investigate other elements of Google’s business practices related to other vertical search services.

“I cannot prejudge the outcome of these ongoing investigations,” she said, also citing the ongoing AdSense probe, and adding that they continue to be “a top priority for us”.

Android as an antitrust ‘Trojan horse’

The European Commission announced its formal in-depth probe of Android in April 2015, saying then that it was investigating complaints Google was “requiring and incentivizing” OEMs to exclusively install its own services on devices on Android devices, and also examining whether Google was hindering the ability of smartphone and tablet makers to use and develop other OS versions of Android (i.e. by forking the open source platform).

Rivals — banding together under the banner ‘FairSearch‘ — complained Google was essentially using the platform as a ‘Trojan horse’ to unfairly dominate the mobile web. The lobby group’s listing on the EU’s transparency register describes its intent as promoting “innovation and choice across the Internet ecosystem by fostering and defending competition in online and mobile search within the European Union”, and names its member organizations as: Buscapé, Cepic, Foundem, Naspers, Nokia, Oracle, TripAdvisor and Yroo.

On average, Android has around a 70-75% smartphone marketshare across Europe. But in some European countries the OS accounts for an even higher proportion of usage. In Spain, for example, Android took an 86.1% marketshare as of March, according to market data collected by Kantar Worldpanel.

In recent years Android has carved an even greater market share in some European countries, while Google’s Internet search product also has around a 90% share of the European market, and competition concerns about its mobile OS have been sounded for years.

Last year Google reached a $7.8M settlement with Russian antitrust authorities over Android — which required the company to no longer demand exclusivity of its applications on Android devices in Russia; could not restrict the pre-installation of any competing search engines and apps, including on the home screen; could no longer require Google Search to be the only general search engine pre-installed.

Google also agreed with Russian antitrust authorities that it would no longer enforce its prior agreements where handset makers had agreed to any of these terms. Additionally, as part of the settlement, Google was required to allow third parties to include their own search engines into a choice window, and to allowing users to pick their preferred default search engine from a choice window displayed in Google’s Chrome browser. The company was also required to develop a new Chrome widget for Android devices already being used in Russia, to replace the standard Google search widget on the home screen so they would be offered a choice when it launched.

A year after Vestager’s public announcement of the EU’s antitrust probe of Android, she issued a formal Statement of Objections, saying the Commission believed Google has “implemented a strategy on mobile devices to preserve and strengthen its dominance in general Internet search”; and flagging as problematic the difficulty for Android users whose devices come pre-loaded with the Google Play store to use other app stores (which cannot be downloaded from Google Play).

She also raised concerns over Google providing financial incentives to manufacturers and mobile carriers on condition that Google search be pre-installed as the exclusive search provider. “In our opinion, as we see it right now, it is preventing competition from happening because of the strength of the financial incentive,” Vestager said in April 2016.

Google was given several months to respond officially to the antitrust charges against Android — which it finally did in November 2016, having been granted an extension to the Commission’s original deadline.

Thriving competition?

In its rebuttal then, Google argued that, contrary to antitrust complaints, Android had created a thriving and competitive mobile app ecosystem. It further claimed the EU was ignoring relevant competition in the form of Apple’s rival iOS platform — although iOS does not hold a dominant marketshare in Europe, nor Apple have a status as a dominant company in any EU markets.

Google also argued that its “voluntary compatibility agreements” for Android OEMs are a necessary mechanism for avoiding platform fragmentation — which it said would make life harder for app developers — as well as saying its requirement for Android OEMs to use Google search by default is effectively its payment for providing the suite for free to device makers (given there is no formal licensing fee for Android).

It also couched “free distribution is an efficient solution for everyone” — arguing it lowers prices for phone makers and consumers, while “still letting us sustain our substantial investment in Android and Play”.

In addition, Google sought to characterize open source platforms as “fragile” — arguing the Commission’s approach risked upsetting the “balance of needs” between users and developers, and suggesting their action could signal they favor “closed over open platforms”.

During today’s press conference, Vestager was asked whether she has concerns that the costs of handsets might rise should Google respond to the antitrust remedy by deciding to charge a licensing fee for OEMs to use Android, instead of distributing it for free.

She pointed to the revenue Google generates via the Play Store. “The revenue made from that is quite substantial so I think there is still a possibility for Google to recoup the investment made in developing the Android operating system,” she suggested.

“I think a number of different choices can be made by Google and it is for Google to make these choices,” she added. “What we see in general is that competition makes prices come down, gives you better choices. So you can have a theory that prices will come up, it is as likely that prices will come down because of more competition. The thing is now it’s open — there can be competition as to how this should work. And that’s the very point of the decision.”

Reminder: Other people’s lives are not fodder for your feeds

#PlaneBae

You should cringe when you read that hashtag. Because it’s a reminder that people are being socially engineered by technology platforms to objectify and spy on each other for voyeuristic pleasure and profit.

The short version of the story attached to the cringeworthy hashtag is this: Earlier this month an individual, called Rosey Blair, spent all the hours of a plane flight using her smartphone and social media feeds to invade the privacy of her seat neighbors — publicly gossiping about the lives of two strangers.

Her speculation was set against a backdrop of rearview creepshots, with a few barely there scribbles added to blot out actual facial features. Even as an entire privacy invading narrative was being spun unknowingly around them.

#PlanePrivacyInvasion would be a more fitting hashtag. Or #MoralVacuumAt35000ft

And yet our youthful surveillance society started with a far loftier idea associated with it: Citizen journalism.

Once we’re all armed with powerful smartphones and ubiquitously fast Internet there will be no limits to the genuinely important reportage that will flow, we were told.

There will be no way for the powerful to withhold the truth from the people.

At least that was the nirvana we were sold.

What did we get? Something that looks much closer to mass manipulation. A tsunami of ad stalking, intentionally fake news and social media-enabled demagogues expertly appropriating these very same tools by gamifying mind-less, ethically nil algorithms.

Meanwhile, masses of ordinary people + ubiquitous smartphones + omnipresent social media feeds seems, for the most part, to be resulting in a kind of mainstream attention deficit disorder.

Yes, there is citizen journalism — such as people recording and broadcasting everyday experiences of aggression, racism and sexism, for example. Experiences that might otherwise go unreported, and which are definitely underreported.

That is certainly important.

But there are also these telling moments of #hashtaggable ethical blackout. As a result of what? Let’s call it the lure of ‘citizen clickbait’ — as people use their devices and feeds to mimic the worst kind of tabloid celebrity gossip ‘journalism’ by turning their attention and high tech tools on strangers, with (apparently) no major motivation beyond the simple fact that they can. Because technology is enabling them.

Social norms and common courtesy should kick in and prevent this. But social media is pushing in an unequal and opposite direction, encouraging users to turn anything — even strangers’ lives — into raw material to be repackaged as ‘content’ and flung out for voyeuristic entertainment.

It’s life reflecting commerce. But a particularly insidious form of commerce that does not accept editorial let alone ethical responsibility, has few (if any) moral standards, and relies, for continued function, upon stripping away society’s collective sense of privacy in order that these self-styled ‘sharing’ (‘taking’ is closer to the mark) platforms can swell in size and profit.

But it’s even worse than that. Social media as a data-mining, ad-targeting enterprise relies upon eroding our belief in privacy. So these platforms worry away at that by trying to disrupt our understanding of what privacy means. Because if you were to consider what another person thinks or feels — even for a millisecond — you might not post whatever piece of ‘content’ you had in mind.

For the platforms it’s far better if you just forget to think.

Facebook’s business is all about applying engineering ingenuity to eradicate the thoughtful friction of personal and societal conscience.

That’s why, for instance, it uses facial recognition technology to automate content identification — meaning there’s almost no opportunity for individual conscience to kick in and pipe up to quietly suggest that publicly tagging others in a piece of content isn’t actually the right thing to do.

Because it’s polite to ask permission first.

But Facebook’s antisocial automation pushes people away from thinking to ask for permission. There’s no button provided for that. The platform encourages us to forget all about the existence of common courtesies.

So we should not be at all surprised that such fundamental abuses of corporate power are themselves trickling down to infect the people who use and are exposed to these platforms’ skewed norms.

Viral episodes like #PlaneBae demonstrate that the same sense of entitlement to private information is being actively passed onto the users these platforms prey on and feed off — and is then getting beamed out, like radiation, to harm the people around them.

The damage is collective when societal norms are undermined.

#PlaneBae

Social media’s ubiquity means almost everyone works in marketing these days. Most people are marketing their own lives — posting photos of their pets, their kids, the latte they had this morning, the hipster gym where they work out — having been nudged to perform this unpaid labor by the platforms that profit from it.

The irony is that most of this work is being done for free. Only the platforms are being paid. Though there are some people making a very modern living; the new breed of ‘life sharers’ who willingly polish, package and post their professional existence as a brand of aspiration lifestyle marketing.

Social media’s gift to the world is that anyone can be a self-styled model now, and every passing moment a fashion shoot for hire — thanks to the largess of highly accessible social media platforms providing almost anyone who wants it with their own self-promoting shopwindow in the world. Plus all the promotional tools they could ever need.

Just step up to the glass and shoot.

And then your vacation beauty spot becomes just another backdrop for the next aspirational selfie. Although those aquamarine waters can’t be allowed to dampen or disrupt photo-coifed tresses, nor sand get in the camera kit. In any case, the makeup took hours to apply and there’s the next selfie to take…

What does the unchronicled life of these professional platform performers look like? A mess of preparation for projecting perfection, presumably, with life’s quotidian business stuffed higgledy piggledy into the margins — where they actually sweat and work to deliver the lie of a lifestyle dream.

Because these are also fakes — beautiful fakes, but fakes nonetheless.

We live in an age of entitled pretence. And while it may be totally fine for an individual to construct a fictional narrative that dresses up the substance of their existence, it’s certainly not okay to pull anyone else into your pantomime. Not without asking permission first.

But the problem is that social media is now so powerfully omnipresent its center of gravity is actively trying to pull everyone in — and its antisocial impacts frequently spill out and over the rest of us. And they rarely if ever ask for consent.

What about the people who don’t want their lives to be appropriated as digital windowdressing? Who weren’t asking for their identity to be held up for public consumption? Who don’t want to participate in this game at all — neither to personally profit from it, nor to have their privacy trampled by it?

The problem is the push and pull of platforms against privacy has become so aggressive, so virulent, that societal norms that protect and benefit us all — like empathy, like respect — are getting squeezed and sucked in.

The ugliness is especially visible in these ‘viral’ moments when other people’s lives are snatched and consumed voraciously on the hoof — as yet more content for rapacious feeds.

#PlaneBae

Think too of the fitness celebrity who posted a creepshot + commentary about a less slim person working out at their gym.

Or the YouTuber parents who monetize videos of their kids’ distress.

Or the men who post creepshots of women eating in public — and try to claim it’s an online art project rather than what it actually is: A privacy violation and misogynistic attack.

Or, on a public street in London one day, I saw a couple of giggling teenage girls watching a man at a bus stop who was clearly mentally unwell. Pulling out a smartphone, one girl hissed to the other: “We’ve got to put this on YouTube.”

For platforms built by technologists without thought for anything other than growth, everything is a potential spectacle. Everything is a potential post.

So they press on their users to think less. And they profit at society’s expense.

It’s only now, after social media has embedded itself everywhere, that platforms are being called out for their moral vacuum; for building systems that encourage abject mindlessness in users — and serve up content so bleak it represents a form of visual cancer.

#PlaneBae

Human have always told stories. Weaving our own narratives is both how we communicate and how we make sense of personal experience — creating order out of events that are often disorderly, random, even chaotic.

The human condition demands a degree of pattern-spotting for survival’s sake; so we can pick our individual path out of the gloom.

But platforms are exploiting that innate aspect of our character. And we, as individuals, need to get much, much better at spotting what they’re doing to us.

We need to recognize how they are manipulating us; what they are encouraging us to do — with each new feature nudge and dark pattern design choice.

We need to understand their underlying pull. The fact they profit by setting us as spies against each other. We need to wake up, personally and collectively, to social media’s antisocial impacts.

Perspective should not have to come at the expense of other people getting hurt.

This week the women whose privacy was thoughtlessly repackaged as public entertainment when she was branded and broadcast as #PlaneBae — and who has suffered harassment and yet more unwelcome attention as a direct result — gave a statement to Business Insider.

“#PlaneBae is not a romance — it is a digital-age cautionary tale about privacy, identity, ethics and consent,” she writes. “Please continue to respect my privacy, and my desire to remain anonymous.”

And as a strategy to push against the antisocial incursions of social media, remembering to respect people’s privacy is a great place to start.