YouTube to end unskippable 30-second ads in 2018

In an official statement to Campaign, Google announced this week that they are ending 30-second unskippable ads on Youtube videos in 2018:

In an official statement, Google explained that its aim is to provide a better advertising experience for online users. “As part of that, we’ve decided to stop supporting 30-second unskippable ads as of 2018 and focus instead on formats that work well for both users and advertisers,” said a Google spokesman.

Unskippable ads were a double-edged sword for YouTube and publishers. While they guaranteed that users would have to watch the whole ad before getting to see the content they wanted, the drop off rates on these videos were significantly higher than for normal videos. Publishers had to balance the higher revenue received for the ads with the worse reach/retention, plus the user experience was degraded. Of course, skippable ads have their own problems, too.

My prediction? We will see more of a shift towards unskippable 5- or 6-second ads that make their point extremely quickly. Folks like Geico seem to have already mastered this format.

The 80-20 rule of trolls 

Annalee Newitz at Ars Technica has a write-up on a new report by Jigsaw (an arm of Alphabet) and Wikipedia, which seeks to identify the sources of online abuse in Wikipedia comments:

The researchers unleashed their algorithm on Wikipedia comments made during 2015, constantly checking results for accuracy. Almost immediately, they found that they could debunk the time-worn idea that anonymity* leads to abuse. Although anonymous comments are “six times more likely to be an attack,” they represent less than half of all attacks on Wikipedia. “Similarly, less than half of attacks come from users with little prior participation,” the researchers write in their paper. “Perhaps surprisingly, approximately 30% of attacks come from registered users with over a 100 contributions.” In other words, a third of all personal attacks come from regular Wikipedia editors who contribute several edits per month. Personal attacks seem to be baked into Wikipedia culture.

The researchers also found that an outsized percentage of attacks come from a very small number of “highly toxic” Wikipedia contributors. A whopping 9% of attacks in 2015 came from just 34 users who had made 20 or more personal attacks during the year. “Significant progress could be made by moderating a relatively small number of frequent attackers,” the researchers note. This finding bolsters the idea that problems in online communities often come from a small minority of highly vocal users.

This data reinforces something many of us already suspected: The harshest trolls aren’t necessarily more numerous — they’re just louder than everyone else.

Vizio’s Smart TVs have been spying on us

One of the most troubling stories of the week: Vizio’s Smart TVs have been secretly recording information about our viewing habits and selling it to analytics companies, media companies, and other partners. Dan Goodin at Ars Technica has a good summary of the situation, as does Sapna Maheshwari from the NYTimes. From the FTC’s complaint:

Through the ACR software, Vizio’s televisions transmit information about what a consumer is watching on a second-by-second basis. Defendants’ ACR software captures information about a selection of pixels on the screen and sends that data to Vizio servers, where it is uniquely matched to a database of publicly available television, movie, and commercial content. Defendants collect viewing data from cable or broadband service providers, set-top boxes, external streaming devices, DVD players, and over-the-air broadcasts. Defendants have stated that the ACR software captures up to 100 billion data points each day from more than 10 million VIZIO televisions. Defendants store this data indefinitely.

Defendants’ ACR software also periodically collects other information about the television, including IP address, wired and wireless MAC addresses, WiFi signal strength, nearby WiFi access points, and other items.

Vizio agreed to pay $2.2 million and delete a lot of the relevant data. Over at Vizio’s website, they have info on how to opt out of the program.

Microsoft changes its sharing icon

Windows 10 is great but I’ve always been confused by the sharing icon, which has been quite different from other commonly accepted versions. Turns out I wasn’t the only one.

Microsoft is changing their icon, and Paula Chuchro has written a piece explaining why:

Recently, our own share icon got us thinking. Does the current visual representation convey sharing in the best way? From data in our usability labs, we’ve consistently seen people misunderstanding or looking past the icon in the user interface, especially when a label didn’t accompany it. When it stood alone, many people saw its circular shape and mistakenly interpreted it against other ring-shaped icons like sync or refresh or loading […]

In the end, we designed an icon that benefits from ubiquity and familiarity. We looked at the icons users were seeing out in the wild and tested similar variations to see which icons best represented what it meant to share. We A/B tested them against the old share icon in the Photos app, with and without labels. You may have seen us testing a few different kinds of icons in the past few months if you used the Photos app.

I’m always impressed when a massive company like Microsoft can rethink and reevaluate fundamental aspects of its UI.

Google Brain can now “enhance” photos for real 

Sebastian Anthony at Ars Technica has written about Google Brain’s new software that has the ability to create detailed images out of extremely pixelated ones. The results in the article are spectacular, but there’s one thing to keep in mind:

It’s important to note that the computed super-resolution image is not real. The added details—known as “hallucinations” in image processing jargon—are a best guess and nothing more. This raises some intriguing issues, especially in the realms of surveillance and forensics. This technique could take a blurry image of a suspect and add more detail—zoom! enhance!—but it wouldn’t actually be a real photo of the suspect. It might very well help the police find the suspect, though.

Twitter releases new anti-harassment tools, still has a long way to go

In a viral post last year, Anil Dash laid out suggestions on how to save Twitter. Near the top of the list? Stopping abuse:

This is one of the rare areas where you shouldn’t just show, you should tell: Explain loudly and clearly that you don’t want organized mobs of attackers on your site. Make sure features like quoting tweets aren’t being abused by people who set others up as targets. Fighting these large-scale attacks matters even more than banning individual bad actors. Harassment mobs like the alt-right already think you’re censoring them, so you might as well make their dreams come true.

Not too long ago, one of Twitter’s top engineers promised more anti-harassment features were coming, and soon:

Today, we have the first glimpse of what these might be. In a new blog post, Twitter identifies three features they’re rolling out:

  • Stopping the creation of new abusive accounts – Shutting down a troll’s account used to be a largely meaningless act; they could just create a new one. Now Twitter is saying they’re finding a way to prevent users from doing that.
  • Introducing safer search results – It sounds like results will exclude content from profiles that have been blocked and muted. But will it algorithmically exclude similar content?
  • Collapsing potentially abusive or low-quality tweets – You now have the ability to collapse these in-feed and not see them.

Twitter says they’ll be unrolling new features in the days/months to come and this is definitely a good sign. But there are still some extremely basic things you should be able to do (or not do) that I think would go a long way towards preventing harassment, such as:

  • Preventing users from following you if their account is less than X days/months old.
  • Preventing users from following you if they have less than X followers
  • Preventing users from tagging you or quoting a tweet even after they’ve been blocked. Often a troll who’s been blocked will try to incite their own friends/followers to attack you.

Those are just things would like to have happen. Last year Randi Lee Harper put together a pretty comprehensive list of suggestions as well. I hope Twitter keeps shipping this stuff, and quickly.

Well, that didn’t last long

Not too long ago I linked to a corporate profile of Odyssey, a content engine that relied on free and low-paid individuals to generate viral material. Turns out they haven’t nailed down the business model quite yet:

Digital media startup Odyssey has laid off 55 people, slashing over a third of its full-time, paid staff less than a year after raising $25 million, CEO Evan Burns confirmed to Business Insider.

This is a dramatic change for a company that board member Michael Lazerow described in April as being the most exciting company to him since he invested in BuzzFeed.

How Grindr ruined one man’s life

At Wired, Andy Greenberg has the bizarre story of how one man’s Grindr account got spoofed, turning his life upside-down:

This is the months-long nightmare Herrick describes in a lawsuit he filed against Grindr last week in the Supreme Court of New York. He accuses Grindr of negligence, intentional infliction of emotional distress, false advertising, and deceptive business practices for allowing him to be impersonated and turned into an unwitting beacon for stalkers and harassers. Herrick’s civil complaint against the company states that despite contacting Grindr more than 50 times, Grindr hasn’t offered a single response beyond auto-replies saying that it’s looking into the profiles he’s reported. Even after a judge signed an injunctive relief order Friday to force Grindr to stop the impersonating profiles, they persist: Herrick says that at least 24 men have come to his home and work since then. In total, he counts over 700 sex-soliciting men thrown into his daily life by the spoofed accounts since the ordeal began.

The end of Moore’s Law

Tim Cross over at The Guardian has an interesting piece on how Moore’s Law is bumping against the realities of physics and business:

Shrinking a chip’s components gets harder each time you do it, and with modern transistors having features measured in mere dozens of atoms, engineers are simply running out of room. There have been roughly 22 ticks of Moore’s law since the launch of the 4004 in 1971 through to mid-2016. For the law to hold until 2050 means there will have to be 17 more, in which case those engineers would have to figure out how to build computers from components smaller than an atom of hydrogen, the smallest element there is. That, as far as anyone knows, is impossible.

Yet business will kill Moore’s law before physics does, for the benefits of shrinking transistors are not what they used to be. Moore’s law was given teeth by a related phenomenon called “Dennard scaling” (named for Robert Dennard, an IBM engineer who first formalised the idea in 1974), which states that shrinking a chip’s components makes that chip faster, less power-hungry and cheaper to produce. Chips with smaller components, in other words, are better chips, which is why the computing industry has been able to persuade consumers to shell out for the latest models every few years. But the old magic is fading.

Review: Slack Threads are great, but have a few big usability issues

I’m a Slack junkie, so I was excited when they recently announced they’d finally be rolling out a Threads feature. I was particularly keen to try it out since I recently launched a Slack community for the /Filmcast podcast. Would threads make it easier or more confusing to organize conversation in a freewheeling channel with hundreds of users?

Slack threads allow users to essentially convert any message into a thread, and then add replies to that thread. Replies are only one message deep (they cannot go further), and show up on the right-hand pane, which is otherwise used for giving info on the thread as a whole.

Slack also compiles all threads into a handy “All Threads” view that lights up whenever someone responds to any of your threads.

This feature is particularly beneficial for replying to earlier messages in channels. If a message appeared hours ago and the entire channel has moved onto a different topic of conversation, it’s a lot easier to make a thread and reply — the original user gets a notification, and the conversation can continue on that topic while the channel is blissfully unaware.

Overall, I think the threads work really well and help to declutter conversations when they are used correctly. However, there are a few issues with threads right now as they are currently implemented:

Converting messages to threads – The ability to convert any message into a thread doesn’t work too well with how people typically use Slack. In many of my Slack Teams, thoughts come out in a series of incomplete messages, often with crosstalk. A single one of these messages would be inappropriate to start a thread with. Thus, being able to group multiple messages into the start of the thread would be helpful.

Moreover, it would be really useful if the user could give some kind of cue (via the UI or otherwise) when they want to start a thread. In our Slack, we’ve taken to putting “Thread: [Topic here]” or something similar. But it’s not always clear what’s better as a thread, or what’s better as further conversation in the channel. Sometimes people use both to respond, creating confusion.

Ways to resolve
– Develop some kind of usage convention, or educate users on proper etiquette when it comes to creating threads
– If possible, allow users to group multiple consecutive messages into a thread

The “Also send to #channel” button – Slack offers you the ability to send any message in a thread back to the general channel. Let me be clear: This button is an abomination and must be changed or destroyed. It’s not that the concept of sending a thread message back to the channel is a bad one; it’s more that the messaging around it is very confusing.

Most people, when they see that checkbox, are going to want to send the message back to the #channel. Why wouldn’t you? Your message is important and the channel should read it, right? We have a lot of first-time users in our Slack and initially, every single one of them clicked on this checkbox. This resulted in exchanges like the one below in the channel itself:

The threads were making the actual channel much more difficult to read. Thus, we had to lay down a ground rule about not checking that checkbox. The results have been much better since.

In short, “Also send to #channel” is terrible messaging. It should say something like, “Do you think this message is important enough that you want to barge into the main conversation with it, interrupting everything else going on over there? Then check this box.” But I understand why they didn’t put that there. Maybe a happy medium would be appropriate?

Ways to resolve
– Do more to explain the dire consequences of sending a thread reply back to the channel
– Remove the button completely

Overall: I really like the Threads and I hope Slack continues to take steps to improve their usability. But I  think that a lot more education could have gone into the roll-out, which would’ve saved a lot of confusion and headaches.

Despite its marketing, Slack’s free tier limits your total number of users

I recently launched a Slack group for my podcast, the /Filmcast:

I used Slack’s free tier, which lets you view 10K of your team’s most recent messages. After just a few days, we’ve already accumulated about 600 members and even crowdsourced a neat spreadsheet with all their podcast recommendations.

As the group has continued to expand, I’ve started to wonder about what the group’s maximum size could be, so I went looking for whether or not Slack’s free tier had a user limit. I was dismayed to find freecodecamp’s blog post, So Yeah We Tried Slack… and We Deeply Regretted It, which points out that yeah, there is a limit, despite what Slack’s marketing says:

I woke up this morning to a mountain of tweets and emails from new campers saying they weren’t receiving our automatically sent Slack invites. Not exactly what you want to happen three days after your open source community is featured in Wired Magazine.

Slack’s support team was enthusiastic about helping, and kept saying the email notifications had gone out. In my desperation, I tried to manually send out the invites. That’s when I was confronted with an ominous message: “You have reached the maximum number of users”.

My heart sank. Our contributors had sunk so many hours into building Slack features. We’d endorsed Slack to thousands of people on our streams, and even mentioned it in interviews with the media. We were heavily dependent on their service.

In a cold sweat, I started googling. There was literally nothing on web saying anything about Slack having a maximum number of users — only marketing material saying that free tier organizations could have as many users as we wanted. Apparently, we were the first community to ever hit Slack’s undisclosed limit.

Sounds like the service starts struggling at around 5,000 users and poops out completely after 8,500. This is still a pretty healthy number for any community — I think it will be more than sufficient for my needs — but it’s still a limit that Slack’s marketing does nothing to disclose, despite the fact that the above blog post was written more than a year ago.

So, users hoping to build a massive 10K+ sized community on Slack should look elsewhere before investing a ton of resources into this thing (or until they update their marketing to be more clear on how many users they actually allow).

Update: Evidently the limit has been raised since the above articles were published.

Still no word on what the new limit is. I guess there aren’t any communities that invested into Slack’s free tier long enough to find out?

Building Slack Threads

Very interesting behind-the-scenes piece by Harry McCracken for Fast Company, on Slack’s new Threads feature:

Threads aren’t just a major new Slack feature. They’re also a case study in how its designers approach product development. The company has never operated under the guiding principle that Mark Zuckerberg once famously summed up as “move fast and break things.” Instead, it has thrived in part because it aspires to offer tools that feel fully baked from the get-go. Its fit and finish resemble those of the slickest consumer apps, in a world in which many business-centric tools still don’t feel like they were designed for use by human beings.

Even by Slack standards, threaded conversations got extra TLC, because their impact is so great and so many people had been asking for them for so long. “Threads are so close to the heart of what Slack is that they might be an escalated case,” says Joshua Goldenberg, head of design.

The key decisions: Allowing threads to only be one reply deep, and placing them on the right-hand “flex pane.”

Do not back drones on Kickstarter

The Lily drone wowed people with its concept video (above) and raised millions in crowdfunding. Now, it’s closing its doors and getting sued by the San Francisco District Attorney’s office.

Ryan Mac, writing for Forbes, on the making (and unmaking) of the failed Lily drone:

The lawsuit alleged that Lily did not have a single prototype that functioned as advertised at the time of the launch video’s filming. Instead, it claimed Balaresque and Bradlow brought non-functioning models to the shoot for “beauty shots,” while the first-person angles that supposedly came from the Lily Camera were actually shot by GoPro units that had been strapped to the robot.

This is yet another high-profile failure in drone manufacturing. Zano, also funded by Kickstarter, went spectacularly wrong, and the GoPro Karma was recalled within its first few weeks of launch after the devices started falling out of the sky.

The lesson could not be more clear: Don’t back drones on crowdfunding sites. And if the company is new in the drone space, wait a few months to see how things play out. In the meantime: DJI all the way.


I’ve always wondered why Youtube stops counting views publicly when videos hit around 301 views. Presumably it’s for some sort of verification process, but how does that work? And why 301? Numberphile has the answer after speaking with Youtube’s analytics team, and it’s fascinating:

The Life and Times of an Apple Store Retail Employee

How can Apple manage to pay its retail employees about the same amount as those of other, much less profitable companies? Because they believe in the cause:

The phrase that trainees hear time and again, which echoes once they arrive at the stores, is “enriching people’s lives.” The idea is to instill in employees the notion that they are doing something far grander than just selling or fixing products. If there is a secret to Apple’s sauce, this is it: the company ennobles employees. It understands that a lot of people will forgo money if they have a sense of higher purpose. That empowerment is important because aspiring sales employees would clearly be better off working at one of the country’s other big sellers of Apple products, AT&T and Verizon Wireless, if they were searching for a hefty paycheck. Both offer sales commissions.

Why Facebook Stopped Using Facebook Credits

When Facebook first introduced its Facebook Credits system in 2009, some pundits that believed it foretold one of Facebook’s future line of business. Those sorts of prognostications ended this week as Facebook announced it’d be phasing out the virtual currency, although it would continue to facilitate payments.

Peter Vogel explains why Facebook ended its Credits experiment:

Ironically, it’s the enormous potential of Payments as a revenue source that is causing Facebook to phase out the Credits currency. Payments as a revenue source is too important to Facebook’s future to take the risk of promoting an untested and unproven currency. To establish Facebook Credits, Facebook would have had to spend significant resources educating the public and building the brand of Credits. It’s a much easier solution to simply transact in an already established currency that users understand and utilize.

The First 30 Days

What is one year like in the life of David Chen? We’re all about to find out.

Earlier this year, a woman named Madeline released an interesting video on Vimeo. She had shot one second of video for every day of her life during the year 2011. I found the result to be unexpectedly inspiring and moving.

Several months later, /Filmcast listener and all-around awesome dude Cesar Kuriyama took to the stage at TED to unveil his own “one second every day project“, which he’d been filming every day for the 30th year of his life.

Kuriyama is passionate about the project and believes everyone should engage in it. I think the final result is fascinating, a seemingly endless series of context-less images. Context-less, that is, to everyone but the filmmaker. It’s a compelling snapshot of one’s life, a video that is evocative for the creator and intriguing and enigmatic for the viewer.

So, I’m pleased to announce that I am also undertaking this project. My birthday this year was May 20th, right around the same time I uprooted my life from Boston and moved to Seattle. Starting on that day, I have filmed one second of video every single day. Around this time next year, I’ll plan to publish the result, a chronicle of my first year here.

In doing this project, I’ve made a few observations about how best to approach it. First of all, I think this project works best when the second that you record is somehow representative of the day that you had, or at least, how you want to remember that day. In practice, this can get a bit tricky; often times the most interesting that happens to me is an interaction I have with someone else. While I can frequently “anticipate” when a good “second” will arrive, it’s often inopportune to whip out a camera and start recording. Secondly, it’s useful to record multiple seconds for each day, giving you the option to choose from a number of them. As a result, it’s also important to have a robust cataloging system for all of your “potential seconds.” Finally, I don’t have experience with this yet, but it sounds like it’s useful to create a master file for the final video, then stitch the videos together intermittently and continuously add them to that file, as opposed to doing them all at the end. Alternatively, one could also create videos for each month, then bind them all together in the end. I may end up going this path because it will allow me to release regular video content, but it also robs the final video of some of its uniqueness. We’ll see. 

As a proof-of-concept, I’ve stitched together my first 30 seconds, representing my first month here. You can find this video below:

When I began working on the project, I asked Cesar Kuriyama, “What if you do this every day for a year and the resulting video ends up being incredibly boring?”

Kuriyama responded, “That’s good! Because then you’ll look back on how boring your life was and you’ll resolve to change things.”

Not a bad point, that. I don’t know what the end result will motivate me to do. I can only hope it will show a life lived full, with love, laughter, and friends, a humble aspiration for the beginning of my new life.

[I am indebted to Cesar Kuriyama for his counsel and for helping me to establish a workflow for pulling these clips together. Be sure to check out his other work.]

Microsoft Unveils Surface Tablet

Microsoft pulled the curtain back on a bold new hardware initiative yesterday: the Surface tablet. Here’s Microsoft’s official press release on the topic. And here are a bunch of people explaining why it’s awesome:

Gizmodo says it “made the Macbook Air and the iPad look obsolete.”

Joshua Topolsky says it signifies the start of Microsoft’s “next chapter.”

VentureBeat’s John Koetsier has an unexpectedly moving write-up on this product’s significance:

There’s something quintessentially American about Microsoft. Start, grow, fight, claw, win. Get knocked down, get back up. Fight again, lose again. Get mocked, laughed at, ridiculed, and ignored. But never give up. Never say die. Never stop believing that the dream is possible … that you can do it.

There’s not much I can add to the chorus, other than that I was impressed with the secrecy that the company was able to maintain around the product. Much of the speculating by the press was either partially or totally incorrect. I certainly didn’t know what was about to be announced and I imagine the same is true of many in the company. For an organization as big as ours, they kept a super tight lid on things, and that was impressive.

It’s so incredibly exciting to be working for a company that has the entire tech press excited about a product launch. May it be the first of many.

A Case Against File Sharing

The Trichordist (via Matthew) responds to a blog post by Emily White at NPR, in which White grapples with the ethics of file sharing:

“[S]mall” personal decisions have very real consequences, particularly when millions of people make the decision not to compensate artists they supposedly “love”. And it is up to us individually to examine the consequences of our actions. It is not up to governments or corporations to make us choose to behave ethically. We have to do that ourselves.