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This Week in Apps: Apple’s vaping app ban, Disney+ gets installed, apps gear up for Black Friday

16 November, by Sarah Perez[ —]

Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the Extra Crunch series that recaps the latest OS news, the applications they support, and the money that flows through it all. What are developers talking about? What do app publishers and marketers need to know? How are politics impacting the App Store and app businesses? And which apps are everyone using?

As mid-November rolls around, we’re looking at a few big stories, including Apple’s decision to ban an entire category of apps due to health concerns, the launch of Disney+ from an app perspective, what Black Friday will mean for e-commerce apps, and more.

Fast Facts

With Disney+’s huge launch (10+ million users!) on everyone’s minds, it’s time to think about what these streaming newcomers mean for the overall landscape and the app stores. In this case, it seems that Disney+’s user base was highly mobile. The company itself announced more than 10 million users, while data on the Disney+ app’s first few days indicates it now has over 10 million downloads. It seems like consumers definitely want to take their new streaming service with them everywhere they go.

  • In 2020, App Annie forecasts consumers will spend more than 674 billion hours in the Entertainment and Video Player and Editor categories worldwide on Android phones, up from an expected 558 billion hours in 2019. Thanks to Disney+, Apple TV+ and soon, HBO Max, Peacock and Quibi, to making the landscape both richer and more complicated.
  • On its launch day, Disney+ hit #1 by iPhone Overall downloads at 8 AM in the U.S. and at 11 AM in Canada — an indication of the ability that strong IP has can really excite consumers to come out in droves. (Unfortunately, that led to some launch day glitches, too.)
  • Apptopia estimated Disney+ was downloaded 3.2 million times in its first 24 hours. The firm also estimated users collectively spent 1.3 million hours watching Disney+ on day one — ahead of Amazon Prime Video, but well behind Netflix.

  • Sensor Tower waited to collect a little more data instead. It found that the Disney+ app was installed approximately 9.6 million times in all available markets (the U.S., Canada, and the Netherlands), since its U.S. launch on Tuesday, Nov. 12. For comparison’s sake, HBO Now’s U.S. launch only saw 180,000 installs in its first three days — or 2% of the Disney+ total. Combined with the test period installs in the Netherlands, the app has now been installed over 10 million times.
  • The hype around Disney+ has had a halo effect. Hulu and ESPN, which were offered in a bundle with Disney+, also grew as a result of the Disney+ launch. Sensor Tower found combined users of the apps in the U.S. and Canada were up 30% in the past week over the week prior.

Headlines

Apple removed all vaping apps from the App Store, citing CDC health concerns

The CDC says 42 people have died due to vaping product use and thousands more cases of lung injuries have been reported from 49 states. Now, Apple has made the controversial decision to remove all 181 vaping-related apps from its App Store — including those with news and information about vaping and even vaping-related games, Axios reported this week.

Some say Apple is helping to protect kids and teens by limiting their exposure to e-cigarette and vaping products, which are being used to addict a younger generation to nicotine and cause serious disease. Others argue that Apple is over-reaching. After all, many of the lung illnesses involve people who were vaping illegally obtained THC, studies indicated.

This isn’t the first time Apple has banned a category of apps because of what appear to be moral concerns. The company in the past had booted apps that promoted weed or depicted gun violence, for example. In the case of vaping apps, Apple cited the public health crisis and youth epidemic as contributing factors, telling Axios that:

We take great care to curate the App Store as a trusted place for customers, particularly youth, to download apps. We’re constantly evaluating apps, and consulting the latest evidence, to determine risks to users’ health and well-being. Recently, experts ranging from the CDC to the American Heart Association have attributed a variety of lung injuries and fatalities to e-cigarette and vaping products, going so far as to call the spread of these devices a public health crisis and a youth epidemic. We agree, and we’ve updated our App Store Review Guidelines to reflect that apps encouraging or facilitating the use of these products are not permitted. As of today, these apps are no longer available to download.

Existing users will still be able to use their apps, but new users will not be able to download the banned apps going forward.

Minecraft Earth arrives 

Minecraft Earth launched early last week across 9 countries on both Android and iOS and now it’s come to the U.S., Canada, the U.K., and several other markets. Some expect the app will rival the success of the AR breakout hit, Pokémon Go, which was thought at the time to be the precursor to a new wave of massive AR gaming titles. But in reality, that didn’t happen. The highly anticipated follow-up from Niantic, Harry Potter: Wizards Unite didn’t come close to competing with its predecessor, generating $12 million in its first month, compared with Pokémon Go’s first-month earnings of $300 million. With Minecraft Earth now sitting at No. 2 (c’mon, you can’t unseat Disney+) on the U.S. App Store, it seems there’s potential for another AR kingpin.

App Annie releases a user acquisition playbook

A top name in App Store intelligence, App Annie this week released a new how-to handbook focused on user acquisition strategies on mobile. Sure the free download is just a bit of lead gen for App Annie, but the guide promises to fill you in on all you need to know to be successful in acquiring mobile users. The playbook’s arrival follows App Annie’s acquisition of adtech insights firm Libring this fall, as it expands to cover more aspects of running an app business. Just as important as rankings and downloads are the very real costs associated with running an app business — including the cost of acquiring users.


Daily Crunch: TikTok starts experimenting with commerce

15 November, by Anthony Ha[ —]

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 9am Pacific, you can subscribe here.

1. TikTok tests social commerce

The short-form video app said it’s allowing some users to add links to e-commerce sites (or any other destination) to their profile, while also offering creators the ability to easily send their viewers to shopping websites.

On their own, these changes might not sound that dramatic, and parent company ByteDance characterizes them as experiments. But it could eventually lead TikTok to become a major force in commerce — and to follow the lead of Instagram, where “link in bio” has become one of the most common promotional messages.

2. Despite bans, Giphy still hosts self-harm, hate speech and child sex abuse content

A new report from Israeli online child protection startup L1ght  has uncovered a host of toxic content hiding within the popular GIF-sharing community, including illegal child abuse content, depictions of rape and other toxic imagery associated with topics like white supremacy and hate speech.

3. Lyft is ceasing scooter operations in six cities and laying off 20 employees

Lyft notified employees today that it’s pulling its scooters from six markets: Nashville, San Antonio, Atlanta, the Phoenix area, Dallas and Columbus. A spokesperson told us, “We’re choosing to focus on the markets where we can have the biggest impact.”

4. Takeaways from Nvidia’s latest quarterly earnings

After yesterday’s earnings report, Wall Street seems to have barely budged on the stock price — everyone’s waiting for resolution on some of the key questions facing the company. (Extra Crunch membership required.)

5. Virgin Galactic begins ‘Astronaut Readiness Program’ for first paying customers

The program is being run out of the global headquarters of Under Armour, Virgin Galactic’s partner for its official astronaut uniforms. The training, with instruction from Chief Astronaut Instructor Beth Moses and Chief Pilot Dave Mackay, is required for all Virgin Galactic passengers.

6. AWS confirms reports it will challenge JEDI contract award to Microsoft

In a statement, an Amazon spokesperson suggested that there was possible bias in the selection process: “AWS is uniquely experienced and qualified to provide the critical technology the U.S. military needs, and remains committed to supporting the DoD’s modernization efforts.”

7. SoftBank Vision Fund’s Carolina Brochado is coming to Disrupt Berlin

At SoftBank’s Vision Fund, Brochado focuses on fintech, digital health and marketplace startups. Some of her past investments with both Atomico and SoftBank include LendInvest, Gympass, Hinge Health, Ontruck and Rekki.


Spotify confirms it’s testing real-time lyrics synced to music

14 November, by Sarah Perez[ —]

With the launch of iOS 13, Apple added perfectly timed live lyrics to its Apple Music app. Now Spotify may do the same. Several users in international markets are now seeing a similar synced lyrics feature in their Spotify mobile app, where lyrics scroll by in time with the music. The feature is powered by Musixmatch, according to the screenshots. Spotify confirmed to TechCrunch the feature is a test in a limited number of markets.

While Spotify didn’t confirm which regions have access, we’re seeing that users in Canada, Indonesia and Mexico appear to be among the test markets.

The feature sits beneath the playback controls where today, other enhancements like Behind the Lyrics or Storyline, currently appear. And users say they can also view the lyrics in a full-screen experience.

We were not able to duplicate the same experience here in the U.S., which indicates it’s still limited by geography.

Spotify had lyrics support on the desktop several years ago, but that feature was later removed. Since then, users have repeatedly asked when it would return. On Spotify’s user feedback community, for example, a request asking the company to “bring back lyrics” was upvoted more than 14,300 times. Spotify wouldn’t respond to user requests except to point users to its Genius integration, Behind the Lyrics.

Genius, however, doesn’t provide full lyrics. Instead, it’s a way to annotate tracks with a combination of lyrics and stories. While the feature can be both informative and entertaining, it’s not necessarily the experience people want when they’re trying to learn the words to a song.

Currently, neither Spotify’s desktop or mobile app has lyrics support, with a few exceptions including Japan, and Vietnam and Thailand, where they’re powered by LyricFind. It also regularly runs tests like this, so this is not a confirmation of a near-term launch.

Spotify’s decision to not make lyrics integration a priority has given Apple Music a competitive advantage in terms of its feature set. While it may not be a key selling point, per se — Spotify now has 113 million paying customers to Apple Music’s 60 million — it could help to retain users who don’t want to lose access by switching. Amazon has also capitalized on Spotify’s lack of lyrics with integrations of music and lyrics on Alexa devices.

Reached for comment, a Spotify spokesperson confirmed a synced lyrics experience is something it’s testing.

“We can confirm we are testing this feature in a small number of markets,” the spokesperson said. “At Spotify, we are always testing new products and experiences but have no further news to share at this time.”

Updated, 11/15/19 to include details about LyricFind’s markets. 


Facebook quietly built “Popular Photos”, an in-app Instagram

14 November, by Josh Constine[ —]

Facebook is copying Instagram while simultaneously invading its acquisition with branding and links back to the mothership. TechCrunch has spotted Facebook testing a feature called Popular Photos, which affixes an endless scroll of algorithmically selected pics from friends beneath the full-screen view of a photo opened from the News Feed. The result is an experience that feels like the Instagram feed, but inside of Facebook.

Popular Photos could offer users a more relaxing, lean-back browsing experience that omits links you have to click through, status updates you have to read, and other content types that bog down the News Feed. Instead, users can just passively watch the pretty pictures go by.

Facebook’s text and link-heavy feed looks increasingly stodgy and exhausting compared to visual communication-based social networks like Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok. Users have to do the work of digging into the meaning of News Feed each post rather than being instantly entertained. That experience doesn’t fit as well into short browsing sessions throughout the day, or when users are already drained from work, school, or family. Facebook used to have a dedicated Photos bookmark on desktop that would let you just browse that content type, but at some point it disappeared.

A Facebook spokesperson confirms that Facebook was running a small test of Popular Photos in October when we spotted it. That trial has concluded but the team is now iterating on the product and plans to do updated tests in the future. The company refused to disclose more details or its motives for Popular Photos. Given Facebook already has Stories, messaging, profiles, and its IGTV-esque Watch video hub, it’s only the Explore tab and a dedicated media feed that are missing from it being a full clone of Instagram.

Here’s how Popular Photos works. When users discover a photo in the News Feed or a profile, they can tap on it to see it full-screen on a black theater-view background. Typically, if users swipe or scroll on that photo, they’re just booted back out to where they came from. But with the Popular Photos feature, Facebook splays out more images for users to scroll through after the original.

By scrolling down past the Popular Photos title, they’ll see additional pics and a “See More Photos” label beckoning them to keep whipping through more public and friends-only images shared by friends and who they follow. Like on Instagram but unlike the News Feed, Facebook truncates the captions of Popular Photos after only around 65 characters so the stream doesn’t look overwhelmingly wordy. The black backgrounds give a more cinematic feel to the Popular Photos, putting emphasis on the imagery.

Facebook started showing Related Videos in 2014 when users scrolled past a video they’d opened full-screen. Now this “More Videos” feature will auto-play the next video and automatically bump users down the feed to view it. The feature even shows video ads. That could foreshadow Facebook inserting advertisers’ photos into the Popular Photos tab to monetize the extra browsing.

Facebook hasn’t been shy about trying to leverage Instagram to benefit itself. The company has placed an Open Facebook button in the Instagram navigation sidebar.

Previously, Instagram tried showing Facebook alerts in its own Notifications tab, and an annoying red counter for Facebook notifications on the three-line hamburger button that opens the Instagram sidebar in an attempt to drive referral traffic back to the Facebook app. Facebook has also tried notifying users in its app asking them to Like the Facebook Pages of people they follow on Instagram. And now, a “from Facebook” and new FACEBOOK logo can be found appended to the Instagram loading screen.

For Facebook to keep growing after 15 years in the market, it needs to fully embrace visual communication. It’s already copied Snapchat Stories and implemented the ephemeral photo and video format across its apps. Clearly it’s not above copying its own subsidiary Instagram to offer an alternative take on feed scrolling. I wonder how Instagram’s team feels about its parent company building a direct competitor?


Instagram tests hiding Like counts globally

14 November, by Josh Constine[ —]

Instagram is making Like counts private for some users everywhere. Instagram tells TechCrunch the hidden Likes test is expanding to a subset of people globally. Users will have to decide for themselves if something is worth Liking rather than judging by the herd. The change could make users more comfortable sharing what’s important to them without the fear of publicly receiving an embarrassingly small number of Likes.

Instagram began hiding Likes in April in Canada, then brought the test to Ireland, Italy, Japan, Brazil, Australia and New Zealand in July. Facebook started a similar experiment in Australia in September. Instagram said last week the test would expand to the U.S., but now it’s running everywhere to a small percentage of users in each country. Instagram tweets that feedback to the experiment so far has been positive, but it’s continuing to test because it’s such a fundamental change to the app.

Instagram wants its app to be a place people feel comfortable expressing themselves, and can focus on photos and videos they share rather than how many Likes they get, a spokesperson tells TechCrunch. Users can still see who Liked their own posts and a total count by tapping on the Likers list. Viewers of a post will only see a few names of mutual friends who Liked it. They can tap through to view the Likers list but would have to manually count them.

The expansion raises concerns that the test could hurt influencers and creators after a study by HypeAuditor found many of them of various levels of popularity lost 3% to 15% of their Likes in countries where Instagram hid the counts.

Instagram tells me it understands Like counts are important to many creators, and it’s actively working on ways that influencers will be able to communicate their value to partners. As Like counts won’t be public, influencer marketing agencies must rely on self-reported screenshots from creators that could be Photoshopped to score undue rewards.

Without even privately visible counts, agencies won’t be able verify a post got enough engagement to warrant payment. Instagram may need to offer some sort of private URL, partner dashboard or API creators can share with agencies that reveals Like counts.

Instagram CEO Adam Mosseri said last week at Wired25 that “We will make decisions that hurt the business if they help people’s well-being and health.” Hidden Like counts might reduce overall ad spend on Instagram if businesses feel it’s less important to rack up engagement and look popular. But it might also shift spend from influencer marketing that goes directly into the pockets of creators toward official Instagram ads, thereby earning the company more money.

An Instagram spokesperson provided this statement to TechCrunch:

Starting today, we’re expanding our test of private like counts to the rest of the world beyond Australia, Brazil, Canada, Ireland, Italy, and New Zealand. If you’re in the test, you’ll no longer see the total number of likes and views on photos and videos posted to Feed unless they’re your own. While the feedback from early testing has been positive, this is a fundamental change to Instagram, and so we’re continuing our test to learn more from our global community.

This is perhaps the final step of testing before Instagram might officially launch the change and hide Like counts for all users everywhere. It’s surely watching closely to determine how the test improves mental health, but also how it impacts usage of the app.

Hiding Likes is probably a win for the sanity of humanity, and a boon to creativity. Before, people often self-censored and declined to share posts they worried wouldn’t get enough Likes, or deleted posts that didn’t. They’d instinctually bend their public persona toward manicured selfies and images that made their life look glamorous, rather than what was authentic or that they wanted to communicate. Meanwhile, viewers would see high Like counts on friends’ or influencers’ posts, compare those to their own smaller Like counts and feel ashamed or inadequate.

Putting an end to the popularity contest might lead people to share more unconventional, silly or artsy posts regardless of their public reception. That could make Instagram’s content more diverse, surprising and alluring over time versus an increasingly stale aesthetic of perfection. Hidden counts might also decrease the need for “Finstagram” accounts, aka fake Insta profiles that users spin up to share what might not receive as many Likes.

While Facebook is credited for inventing the Like button, it’s Instagram that institutionalized the red heart icon that Twitter eventually adopted, and codified public approval into a concentrated dopamine hit. Instagram turning against Like counts could start a larger shift in the social media industry toward prioritizing more qualitative enjoyment of sharing, instead of obsessing over the quantification of validation.


Disney+ to launch in India, Southeast Asian markets next year

14 November, by Manish Singh[ —]

Disney plans to bring its on-demand video streaming service to India and some Southeast Asian markets as soon as the second half of next year, two sources familiar with the company’s plan told TechCrunch.

In India, the company plans to bring Disney+’s catalog to Hotstar, a popular video streaming service it owns, after the end of next year’s IPL cricket tournament in May, the people said.

Soon afterwards, the company plans to expand Hotstar with the Disney+ catalog to Indonesia and Malaysia, among other Southeast Asian nations, said those people on the condition of anonymity.

A spokesperson for Hotstar declined to comment.

Hotstar leads the Indian video streaming market. The service said it had more than 300 million monthly subscribers during the IPL cricket tournament and ICC World Cup earlier this year. More than 25 million users simultaneously streamed one of the matches, setting a new global record.

However, Hotstar’s monthly user base plummeted below 60 million in the weeks following the IPL tournament, according to people who have seen the internal analytics. The arrival of more originals from Disney on Hotstar, which already offers a number of Disney-owned titles in India, could help the service sustain users after cricket season.

The international expansion of Hotstar isn’t a surprise as it has entered the U.S., Canada and the U.K. in recent years. In an interview with TechCrunch earlier this year, Ipsita Dasgupta, president of Hotstar’s international operations, said so far the platform’s international strategy has been to enter markets with “high density of Indians.”

In an earnings call for the quarter that ended in June this year, Disney CEO Robert Iger hinted that the company, which snagged Indian entertainment conglomerate Star India as part of its $71.3 billion deal with 21st Century Fox, would bring Star India-operated Hotstar to Southeast Asian markets, though he did not offer a timeline.

Disney+, currently available in the U.S, Canada and the Netherlands, will expand to Australia and New Zealand next week, and the U.K., Germany, Italy, France and Spain on March 31, the company announced last week.

Price hike

Disney, which debuted its video streaming service in the U.S. this week and has already amassed more than 10 million subscribers, plans to raise the monthly subscription fee of Hotstar in India, where the service currently costs $14 a year, one of the two aforementioned people said.

A screenshot of Hotstar’s homepage

The price hike will happen toward the end of the first quarter next year, just ahead of commencement of next the IPL cricket tournament season, they said. The company has not decided exactly how much it intends to charge, but one of the people said that it could go as high as $30 a year.

In other Southeast Asian markets, the service is likely to cost above $30 a year, as well, both of the sources said. The prices have yet to be finalized, however, they said.

Even at those suggested price points, Disney would be able to undercut rivals on price. Until recently, Netflix charged at least $7 a month in India and other Southeast Asian markets. But this year, the on-demand streaming pioneer introduced a $2.8 monthly tier in India and $4 in Malaysia.

Hotstar offers a large library of local movies and titles syndicated from international cable networks and studios Showtime, HBO and ABC (also owned by Disney). In its current international markets, Hotstar’s catalog is limited to some local content and a large library of Indian titles.

In recent quarters, Hotstar has also set up an office in Tsinghua Science Park in Beijing, China and hired more than 60 engineers and researchers to expand its tech infrastructure to service more future users, according to job recruitment posts and other data sourced from LinkedIn.


Yahoo Japan and Line are reportedly going to merge

13 November, by Romain Dillet[ —]

According to Nikkei, messaging app Line and Yahoo Japan are about to merge and form a single tech company. Despite the name, Yahoo Japan is currently 100% owned by Z Holdings, a company that is controlled by Japanese telecom company SoftBank (Yahoo Japan isn’t related with TechCrunch’s parent company Verizon Media). Line Corporation is owned by Naver Corporation, a South Korean internet giant.

The two companies are still discussing terms of the deal according to Nikkei. But you could imagine Z Holdings becoming a 50-50 joint venture between SoftBank and Naver, with Z Holdings owning both Yahoo Japan and Line.

Line operates one of the most popular messaging apps in Japan. In addition to conversations, the company operates Line Pay, Line Taxi and other services. But competition has been fierce in the messaging space.

Yahoo Japan was originally formed by Yahoo and SoftBank in the late 1990s. When Verizon acquired Yahoo in 2017, Verizon didn’t acquire Yahoo’s stake in Alibaba and Yahoo Japan. Yahoo created a spin-out company called Altaba to hold those stakes.

Altaba first sold its stake in Yahoo Japan. In July 2018, SoftBank acquired part of Altaba’s stake in Yahoo Japan in order to increase its ownership of Yahoo Japan. Altaba later sold its remaining Yahoo Japan shares, its Alibaba shares and shut down. In 2019, SoftBank received additional shares to become Yahoo Japan’s parent company.

Yahoo Japan is a household name and a big internet conglomerate in Japan. It has an online advertising business, an e-commerce business, finance services and more. Yahoo Japan and Line probably hope to reach more users and boost engagement with the merger.

We’ve reached out to Line Corporation and Z Holdings and will update if we hear back.

Update: Z Holdings has sent me the following statement:

There were several media reports made by Nikkei and other media sources since last night regarding the merger of Z Holdings Corporation and LINE Corporation.

While it is true that the merger is being considered, no formal decisions have been made. If we make any decisions that need to be disclosed in the future, announcements thereof will be made promptly.

Line Corporation has sent me the following statement:

Since November 13th, 2019, the Nikkei and other media reported a merger between LINE Corporation and Z Holdings Corporation. This is not an official announcement by LINE Corporation. LINE Corporation continuously evaluates various opportunities to increase the corporate value including such merger, however, no decision has been made regarding the report.

Should there be facts that need to be disclosed, LINE Corporation will make appropriate disclosure.


Minecraft Earth is live, so get tapping

12 November, by Devin Coldewey[ —]

Microsoft’s big experiment in real-world augmented reality gaming, Minecraft Earth, is live now for players in North America, the U.K. and a number of other areas. The pocket-size AR game lets you collect blocks and critters wherever you go, undertake little adventures with friends and, of course, build sweet castles.

I played an early version of Minecraft Earth earlier this year, and found it entertaining and the AR aspect surprisingly seamless. The gameplay many were first introduced to in Pokémon GO is adapted here in a more creative and collaborative way.

You still walk around your neighborhood, rendered in this case charmingly like a Minecraft world, and tap little icons that pop up around your character. These may be blocks you can use to build, animals you can collect or events like combat encounters that you can do alone or with friends for rewards.

Ultimately all this is in service of building stuff, which you do on “build plates” of various sizes. These you place in AR mode on a flat surface, which they lock onto, letting you move around freely to edit and play with them. This sounded like it could be fussy or buggy when I first heard about it, but actually doing it was smooth and easy. It’s easy to “zoom in” to edit a structure by just moving your phone closer, and multiple people can play with the same blocks and plate at the same time.

Once you’ve put together something fun, you can take it to an outdoor location and have it represented at essentially “real” size, so you can walk around the interior of your castle or dungeon. Of course, you can’t climb steps, because they’re not real, but the other aspects work as expected: you can manipulate doors and other items, breed cave chickens and generally enjoy yourself.

The game is definitely more open-ended than the collection-focused Pokémon GO and Harry Potter: Wizards Unite. Whether that proves to be to its benefit or detriment when it comes to appeal and lasting power remains to be seen — but one thing is for sure: People love Minecraft and they’re going to want to at least try this out.

And now they can, if they’re in one of the following countries — with others coming throughout the holiday season:

  • United States
  • United Kingdom
  • Canada
  • South Korea
  • Philippines
  • Sweden
  • Mexico
  • Australia
  • New Zealand
  • Iceland

You can download Minecraft Earth for iOS here and for Android here.

 


Instagram Stories launches TikTok clone Reels in Brazil

12 November, by Josh Constine[ —]

Instagram is launching a video-music remix feature to finally fight back against Chinese social rival TikTok. Instagram Reels lets you make 15-second video clips set to music and share them as Stories, with the potential to go viral on a new Top Reels section of Explore. Just like TikTok, users can soundtrack their Reels with a huge catalog of music, or borrow the audio from anyone else’s video to create a remix of their meme or joke.

Reels is launching today on iOS and Android but is limited to just Brazil, where it’s called Cenas. Reels leverages all of Instagram’s most popular features to Frankenstein-together a remarkably coherent competitor to TikTok’s rich features and community of 1.5 billion monthly users, including 122 million in the U.S., according to Sensor Tower. Instead of trying to start from scratch like Facebook’s Lasso, Instagram could cross-promote Reels heavily to its own billion users.

But Instagram’s challenge will be retraining its populace to make premeditated, storyboarded social entertainment instead of just spontaneous, autobiographical social media like with Stories and feed posts.

“I think Musically before TikTok, and TikTok deserve a ton of credit for popularizing this format,” admits Instagram director of product management Robby Stein . That’s nearly verbatim what Instagram founder Kevin Systrom told me about Snapchat when Instagram launched Stories. “They deserve all the credit,” he said before copying Snapchat so ruthlessly that it stopped growing for three years.

Chinese startups were always criticized for copying American companies, but Reels’ launch signals the grand shift to cloning in the opposite direction.

Yet Stein insists, “No two products are exactly the same, and at the end of the day, sharing video with music is a pretty universal idea we think everyone might be interested in using. The focus has been on how to make this a unique format for us.” The key to that divergence? “Your friends are already all on Instagram. I think that’s only true of Instagram.”

Throwing around Instagram’s weight

Starting in Brazil before potentially rolling out elsewhere could help Instagram nail down its customization and onboarding strategy. Luckily, Brazil has a big Instagram population, a deeply musical culture and a thriving creator community, says Stein.

It also isn’t completely obsessed with TikTok yet, like fellow developing market India. As Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said about trying to grow Lasso, “We’re trying to first see if we can get it to work in countries where TikTok is not already big.” Instagram used this internationalization strategy to make Stories a hit where Snapchat hadn’t expanded yet, and it worked surprisingly well.

Instagram also has the U.S. government on its side for a change. While its parent company Facebook is being investigated for antitrust and privacy violations, TikTok is also under scrutiny.

Chinese tech giant ByteDance’s $1 billion 2017 acquisition of Musical.ly, another Chinese app similar to TikTok but with traction in the U.S., is under review by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States. ByteDance turned Musical.ly into TikTok, but it could have to unwind the acquisitions or make other concessions to U.S. regulators to protect the country’s national security. Several senators have also railed against TikTok injecting Chinese social values via censorship into the American discourse.

Perhaps Instagram’s best shot at differentiation is through its social graph. While TikTok is primarily a feed broadcasting app, Instagram can work Reels into its Close Friends and Direct messaging features, potentially opening a new class of creators — shy ones who only want to share with people they trust not to make fun of them. A lot of this lipsyncing / dancing / humor skit content can be kinda cringey when people don’t get it just right.

How Instagram Reels works

Users will find it in the Instagram Stories shutter modes tray next to Boomerang and Super-Zoom. They can either record with silence, borrow the audio of another video they find through hashtag search or Explore, or search a popular or trending song. Some audio snippets will even get their own pages showing off top videos made with them. Teaching users to poach audio for their remixes will be essential to getting Reels off the ground.

Facebook’s enormous music collection secured from all the major labels and many indie publishers powers Reels. Users pick the chunk of the song they want, and can then record or upload multiple video clips to fill out their Reel. Instagram has been building toward this moment since June 2018, when it first launched its Music stickers.

Instagram is adding some much-needed editing tools for Reels, like timed captions so words appear in certain scenes, and a ghost overlay option for lining up transitions so they look fluid. Still, Reels lacks some of the video filters and special effects that TikTok has purposefully built to power certain gags and cuts between scenes. Stein says those are coming.

Once users are satisfied with their editing job, they can post their Reel to Stories or Close Friends, or message it to people. If shared publicly, it also will be eligible to appear in the Top Reels section of the Explore tab. Most cleverly, Instagram works around its own ephemerality by letting users add their Reels to their profile’s non-disappearing Highlights for a shot to show up on Explore even after their 24-hour story expires.

Instead of having to monetize later somehow, Instagram can immediately start making money from Reels since it already shows ads in Stories and the Explore tab. The feature is sure to get plenty of exposure, as 500 million Instagram users already open Stories and Explore each month. Still, Reels’ composer and feed will be buried a few extra taps away from the homescreen compared to TikTok.

TikTok screenshots

Cloning TikTok isn’t just about the features, though Reels does a good job of copying the core ones. Creating scripted content is totally new for most Instagram users, and could feel too showy or goofy for an app known for its seriousness.

TikTok is 100% about acting ridiculous just to make people smile, your personal image be damned. That’s the opposite of the carefully manicured image of glamour and glory most Instagram users try to project. It could feel counter-intuitively more awkward to perform comedy in front of your real friends and fans than it does on a dedicated world stage.

Instagram, and Instagrammers, may have to lose their artful, cool aesthetic to embrace the silliness of tomorrow’s social entertainment. But if Reels can change Instagram’s culture to one where we’re comfortable looking stupid, it could beat TikTok’s talent competition by opening a million private karaoke rooms for goofing off just with friends.


Facebook finally lets you banish nav bar tabs & red dots

11 November, by Josh Constine[ —]

Are those red notification dots on your Facebook home screen driving you crazy? Sick of Facebook Marketplace wasting your screen space? Now you can control what appears in the Facebook app’s navigation bar thanks to a new option called Shortcut Bar Settings.

Over the weekend TechCrunch spotted the option to remove certain tabs like Marketplace, Watch, Groups, Events, Profile, Friend Requests, News, Today In, Gaming and Dating or just silence their notification dots. In response to our inquiry, Facebook confirms that Shortcut Bar Settings is now rolling out to everyone, with most iOS users already equipped and the rest of Android owners getting it in the next few weeks.

The move could save the sanity and improve the well-being of people who don’t want their Facebook cluttered with distractions. Users already get important alerts that they could actually control via their Notifications tab. Constant red notification counts on the homescreen are an insidious growth hack, trying to pull in people’s attention to random Group feeds, Event wall posts and Marketplace.

“We are rolling out navigation bar controls to make it easier for people to connect with the things they like and control the notifications they get within the Facebook app,” a Facebook spokesperson tells me.

Back in July 2018, Facebook said it would start personalizing the navigation bar based on which utilities you use most. But the navigation bar seemed more intent on promoting features Facebook wanted to be popular, like its Craigslist competitor Marketplace, which I rarely use, rather than its long-standing Events feature, which I access daily.

To use the Shortcut Bar Settings options, tap and hold on any of the shortcuts in your navigation bar that’s at the bottom of the Facebook homescreen on iOS and the top on Android. You’ll see a menu pop up letting you remove that tab entirely, or leave it but disable the red notification count overlays. That clears space in your nav bar for a more peaceful experience.

You’ll also now find in the three-line More tab -> Settings & Privacy -> Settings -> Shortcuts menu the ability to toggle any of the Marketplace, Groups, Events and Pages tabs on or off. Eagle-eyed reverse engineering specialist Jane Manchun Wong spotted that Facebook was prototyping this menu and the Notification Dots settings menu that’s now available too.

A Facebook spokesperson admits people should have the ability to take a break from notifications within the app. They tell me Facebook wanted to give users more control so they can have access to what’s relevant to them.

For all of Facebook’s talk about well-being, with it trying out hiding Like counts in its app and Instagram (this week starting in the U.S.), there’s still plenty of low-hanging fruit. Better batching of Facebook notifications would be a great step, allowing users to get a daily digest of Groups or Events posts rather than a constant flurry. Its Time Well Spent dashboard that counts your minutes on Facebook should also say how many notifications you get of each type, how many you actually open, and let you disable the most common but useless ones right from there.

If Facebook wants to survive long-term, it can’t piss off users by trapping them in an anxiety-inducing hellscape of growth hacks that benefit the company. The app has become bloated and cramped with extra features over the last 15 years. Facebook could get away with more aggressive cross-promotion of some of these forgotten features as long as it empowers us to hide what we hate.


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