A brief review of Apple Airpods

I’ve been using Apple Airpods for the past week or so and I really enjoy them. I primarily got them so I could listen to podcasts while falling asleep without disturbing those around me. It can be difficult to do this with corded headphones, but the Airpods fit that extremely specific need very well.

Beyond that, here are a few pros and cons for the product.

Pros

  • The way they connect with iOS devices (using Apple’s proprietary W1 chip) is incredibly smooth. My bluetooth devices probably have about a 70-80% success rate when it comes to connecting seamlessly. Airpods have closer to a 90-95% success rate in this regard. To quote Steve Jobs, “it just works.”
  • Every component of Airpods feels like it was designed to delight you. The way the bluetooth connection just happens. The fun menus and their animations. The fact that you can program the Airpods to respond to touch commands, not to mention the fact that by default, they pause your music when you remove one of them from your ear. I’m a big fan of the whole product experience.
  • The case looks like a container of dental floss but inside it hides a battery that can charge the Airpods for up to 24 hours. The case can also give the Airpods 3 hours of battery life with only 15 minutes of charging. This effectively means that, even though the Airpods themselves only have 4-5 hours of battery life, I’ve never found the battery life to be a problem.
  • Apparently, the Airpods are extremely durable. In this absolutely insane video, the folks at EverythingApplePro put the Airpods through an increasingly outlandish series of punishing tests. The Airpods came out the other side working fine. Very impressive.
  • The sound is pretty good — better than Apple’s default earpods. However, there is no noise mitigation of outside sounds, so Airpods aren’t great to use in a vehicle or in transit.

Cons

  • At $160, they are very expensive for headphones that are only slightly above-average in terms of sound quality. You aren’t paying that price for the audio — you’re paying it for the convenience (side note: the ship time for these things is still several weeks. Crazy that you still can’t go into an Apple store and buy them easily).
  • Maybe one day these things will become fashionable, but for now, I do not find them stylish. I find them to be anti-style. I can’t help but feeling like I look like a doofus when I’m wearing them. I’m fortunate to work at a company where people don’t really care what you look like, but I still feel self-conscious every time I put them in.
  • I’ve never had an Airpod fall out of my ears, but they do have a very specific shape and if your ear isn’t suited to it then you are pretty much SOL. I have found that the Airpods get loose with even mild jostling, such as if I’m going on a jog or even just briskly walking across the street. Losing one of these in public would be a nightmare, so I find that I’m very nervous when I use them outdoors. Indoor usage is probably safest.

Overall, Airpods feel like the full realization of Apple’s utopian wireless future. I just wish Apple would license out their W1 tech so that all types of headphones and devices could enjoy this level of connectivity.

Why I’m getting an iPhone 8 Plus and not an iPhone X

I’m typically a fan of buying the newest/latest/best, so I was psyched to see Apple’s presentation of its newest suite of smartphones this past week. Going in, there was much chatter about an “iPhone X” that would feature a larger screen than the iPhone 7, but in a smaller body than the iPhone 7 Plus.

As usual, Apple delivered in a big way when it came to sparking online conversation about its products. But for the first time in awhile, I struggled with the decision on whether to go in for its top-of-the-line phone (you can read feature comparisons here and here, and a neat MKBHD video here). After a lot of deliberation, I’ve decided to go with the iPhone 8 Plus. Here are some reasons why.

Most of the specs for the two phones are the same

The processors. The rear-facing camera. The wireless charging. They’re all identical in both phones. For me, the primary differences are the front-facing camera (which supports Face  ID and animoji in the iPhone X), the iPhone X’s OLED screen, and the fact that the iPhone X screen is taller by a few pixels. Additionally, I believe the iPhone X’s secondary telephoto lens has a slightly better aperture than that of the iPhone 8 Plus. If these sound like compelling upgrades to you, then the iPhone X is definitely the phone for you. But for me, they weren’t enough to justify the additional $200+ on the price tag.

On that note…

Think of the compromises

The iPhone X completely re-imagines the paradigm of how users interact with their smartphones. Face ID replaces Touch ID as how people unlock their phones. There is no more home button — instead, everything is driven by new gestures.

I have no doubt that Face ID will one day be the new standard by which all forms of biometric authentication are measured. I also think that one day it’s likely we will look at phones like the iPhone 8 and wonder how we ever dealt with a barbaric, massive bezel “chin” like that, whose only purpose was to house a home button in the center. But for now, those features feel purposeful and useful to me.

Due to screen size, one-handed operation would be too challenging with the iPhone X for me. The iPhone X requires you to swipe down from the top right for control center. Right now, I can unlock my iPhone before I even look at it, and/or swipe up from the bottom to quickly get to control center. These are actions I perform dozens of times a day without thinking about them, and I simply won’t be able to do those things with the iPhone X.

The iPhone 8 Plus still has better battery life

It’s supposed to last slightly longer than the iPhone X at a couple of primary tasks. Since battery life is one of the most important features for me in a smartphone, this almost swung the decision single-handedly.

The Notch

Maybe one day “The Notch” will be like vertical video — something we used to hate but is no so ubiquitous that most people don’t give a crap anywhere. For now though, it looks pretty terrible.

How SoundCloud lost its way

Dani Deahl and Casey Newton, writing for The Verge:

SoundCloud experimented with a variety of business models, including content-related ads and charging the creators for premium accounts that host more audio. But much of the audio uploaded to its servers contained derivative copyrighted material: DJ sets, mashups, and unofficial remixes using songs the SoundCloud artists didn’t have rights to. As those tracks racked up millions of views, record labels pressured the company to crack down. While the company worked to develop its paid platform, the service began to fray around the edges. SoundCloud’s increasingly confusing system of paid tiers caused contention for creators and their teams: unwarranted song takedowns ruined PR for new releases, labels pulled music off SoundCloud against artists’ will, and those who had helped make SoundCloud a force from the beginning now found it had simply stopped paying attention to their needs.

What’s happening to SoundCloud is sad. What was once a great platform for discovery and creativity is a confusing mess to use and is in danger of shutting down. For my part, I am freaked and will be attempting to move my SoundCloud podcasts off the platform as soon as possible.

Canon announces C200 cinema camera

Yesterday, the press embargo lifted on Canon’s newest addition to its cinema camera line, the C200. Here are the tech specs:

  • Internal 4K recording with Cinema RAW Light and MP4 format
  • Continuous 120fps (maximum) High Frame Rate with no cropping at Full HD
  • Up to 15-stops dynamic range (Cinema RAW Light)
  • Super 35mm CMOS Sensor
  • Dual Pixel CMOS AF Technology
  • Dual DIGIC DV 6 Processors
  • 4K DCI and UHD, 1920 x 1080
  • 59.94p, 50p, 29.97p, 25p, 24p, 23.98p
  • Canon RAW Light, MP4, MP4 Proxy
  • Integrated EVF, 2 x XLR Audio Inputs
  • Rotating 4″ LCD Monitor, Camera Grip
  • 1 x CFast Card, 2 x SD Card Slots
  • 1 x SDI Output, 1 x Ethernet Connector

Here’s a pretty good summary by Pro AV of the key features:

My opinion: This is a weird set of features for a camera that cost $7500.

The default recording mode in HD provides only 35Mbps of quality, which is pretty much the same as the C100 Mark I (yes, Mark I) from five years ago. I’m sure the image will look great, but that data rate is painful in this day and age.

But the camera comes with RAW Light, which is great, and comes with dramatically higher data rates and file sizes (bafflingly, the much more expensive C300 Mark II does not currently support RAW Light). RAW Light records at 12bit 4K DCI at 30p and 10bit 4K DCI at 60p. There’s also talk of support for the XF-AVC codec in 2018, so that’s a huge positive.

That being said, I think it’s also Canon’s first camera for under $8000 that allows for high frame rate capture (up to 120p) in full HD, something that competitors such as Panasonic and Sony have already featured for years.

There are also a bunch of other cool things, like the fact that it supports 2 SD Cards AND a CFast card, as well as a better top-handle system than the C100 Mark II.

There’s a lot that’s appealing about the camera. There’s also a few head-scratching decisions. I wish it cost about $1000-2000 less than it does. In other words: It’s a Canon camera.

For more reading, I’d  recommend Erik Naso’s commentary on the C200.

Facebook organic reach continues to plunge

Facebook has publicly stated that organic reach on its pages for businesses and publications will decline as time goes on. For many large publishers, organic reach has been approaching 1% for a long time (that is, the number of people who see a post from a Facebook page on their personal News Feed is 1% of the people who Like that page).

Now comes a new report from Kurt Gessler at the Chicago Tribune that illustrates just how far organic reach has dropped:

Starting in January of this year, we at the Chicago Tribune started to anecdotally see a fairly significant change in our post reach.

We weren’t seeing a huge difference in post consumption or daily average reach, but we were just seeing more misses than hits. At the Tribune, we have a fairly stable and predictable audience. We had around a half million fans at the end of March and have seen slow but steady growth in the last year. Most Facebook posts fell into the 25,000 to 50,000 reach range — with a few big successes and few spectacular failures each day, usually based on the quality of the content or the quality and creativity of the share.

But starting earlier this year, we started to see far more misses. And not reaches in the low 20,000’s but 4,000 reach or 6,000 reach. Digital Editor Randi Shaffer was one of the first to notice […]

In December of 2016, we had only 8 posts with 10,000 reach or less. In January of 2017, that had grown to 80. In February, 159. And in March, a ridiculous 242 posts were seen by fewer than 10,000 people. And while late 2016 saw record lows in that lowest quartile, that 242 is far above any prior month in our dataset. And we were seeing a steady decrease in that 25,001 to 50,000 quartile. That had gone from 248 in January 2016 to 141 in March 2017.

What did this mean? In baseball terms, we were hitting far fewer doubles and we were striking out 1 every 3 times at the plate. Four months earlier, we struck out 1 of every 90 at-bats.

Gessler speculates on reasons for this change, the most plausible of which is Facebook’s algorithm. Usage of Facebook’s app as a whole could be declining, but it seems unlikely based on mobile usage statistics.

Either way, it’s a difficult time to rely on Facebook if you’re a publisher. According to a recent report from The Verge, Facebook’s Instant Articles experiment seems to not be panning out as they’d hoped, from a subscription/revenue perspective.

Media has always been a side interest for Facebook, and not essential to its core function. But I hope for the sake of a well-informed citizenry that they continue tweaking their algorithms to surface content, including news, that is relevant, interesting, and true for all users.

See also: Why Facebook’s tips for spotting fake news don’t really work very well.

Recommendation for the new Mac Pro: Make it as versatile as possible

Marco Arment, writing for his blog, on how Apple should design the new Mac Pro:

The requirements are all over the map, but most pro users seem to agree on the core principles of an ideal Mac Pro, none of which include size or minimalism:

  • More internal capacity is better.
  • Each component should have a reasonably priced base option, but offer the ability to configure up to the best technology on the market.
  • It needs to accommodate a wide variety of needs, some of which Apple won’t offer, and some of which may require future upgrades.

Or, to distill the requirements down to a single word:

  • Versatility

I agree with all of Arment’s recommendations. The pro market needs versatility to accommodate a huge variety of use cases.

I’m skeptical that Apple, which seems to prize thinness above all other design principles these days, will follow this path. That being said, their recent mea culpa seems to indicate they are open to a hard pivot on a product for this product.

Burger King is trying to trigger your Google Home

Jacob Kastrenakes, writing for The Verge, about one of Burger King’s new ads:

Burger King is unveiling a horrible, genius, infuriating, hilarious, and maybe very poorly thought-out ad today that’s designed to intentionally set off Google Homes and Android phones.

The 15-second ad features someone in a Burger King uniform leaning into the camera before saying, “OK Google, what is the Whopper burger?”

For anyone with a Google Home near their TV, that strangely phrased request will prompt the speaker to begin reading the Wikipedia entry for the Whopper. It’s a clever way of getting viewers’ attention, but it’s also a really quick way of getting on viewers’ nerves — just look at the reactions people had when ads accidentally triggered voice assistants in the past.

After much use, my home assistants now feel like an extension of my household. I don’t like companies like Burger King messing with them without permission.

Side note: I’ve noticed that whenever an Amazon Echo ad comes on TV, it typically doesn’t trigger my Echo (or the ad briefly triggers the Echo before it powers down again). Not sure how Amazon is pulling this off — my guess is it involves “teaching” Alexa the audio profile of the ads and telling Alexa to ignore them — but it’s impressive.

UPDATE: Google seems to have disabled the ad’s ability to communicate with your Google Home:

New Mac Pros are coming

The Mac Pro, long thought dead by many pro users, will return. Apple recently invited several journalists from places like TechCrunch, Mashable, and Buzzfeed, to an on-the-record conversation about the future of its Mac Pros and iMacs. John Gruber at Daring Fireball sums up the news most succinctly:

Apple is currently hard at work on a “completely rethought” Mac Pro, with a modular design that can accommodate high-end CPUs and big honking hot-running GPUs, and which should make it easier for Apple to update with new components on a regular basis. They’re also working on Apple-branded pro displays to go with them.

I also have not-so-great news:

These next-gen Mac Pros and pro displays “will not ship this year”. (I hope that means “next year”, but all Apple said was “not this year”.) In the meantime, Apple is today releasing meager speed-bump updates to the existing Mac Pros. The $2999 model goes from 4 Xeon CPU cores to 6, and from dual AMD G300 GPUs to dual G500 GPUs. The $3999 model goes from 6 CPU cores to 8, and from dual D500 GPUs to dual D800 GPUs. Nothing else is changing, including the ports. No USB-C, no Thunderbolt 3 (and so no support for the LG UltraFine 5K display).

There are also upgraded iMacs on the way for this year, with some models theoretically targeted at professionals.

I’m fascinated by the quotes from executives, such as this one Craig Federighi:

I think we designed ourselves into a bit of a thermal corner, if you will. We designed a system with the kind of GPUs that at the time we thought we needed, and that we thought we could well serve with a two GPU architecture. That that was the thermal limit we needed, or the thermal capacity we needed. But workloads didn’t materialize to fit that as broadly as we hoped.

Also, here’s Phil Schiller on the decision to take a different path:

As we’ve said, we made something bold that we thought would be great for the majority of our Mac Pro users. And what we discovered was that it was great for some and not others. Enough so that we need to take another path. One of the good things, hopefully, with Apple through the years has been a willingness to say when something isn’t quite what we wanted it do be, didn’t live up to expectations, to not be afraid to admit it and look for the next answer.

It’s rare for any major company, let alone one with a culture like Apple’s, to admit they’ve made a strategic error of this magnitude, so kudos to them for their honesty. The most recent Mac Pro was indeed a massive miscalculation.

But will a new Mac Pro next year be enough to satisfy professionals? Many are already fleeing the platform due to the lack of communication up to this point. I’m not sure this news will be enough to reassure them to stay.

Why anonymous apps like Secret and Yik Yak failed

Miranda Katz, writing for Backchannel, on why apps like Secret, Yik Yak, and Whisper failed to gain traction or live up to their promise:

From the bulletin boards of the early internet to the subreddits of today, anonymity has always had a place online. But as Secret, Yik Yak, and Whisper all discovered, anonymous social networks are something of an oxymoron. An anonymous app that relies on social connections to be relevant all too easily breeds foul behavior, and quickly becomes antisocial. An anonymous app that lacks real-world social or geographical ties, meanwhile, struggles to be addictive. What does work, more or less, is an anonymous or pseudonymous group that forms around an interest, where a person’s identity matters less than their willingness to engage on a shared passion.

In Byttow’s view, a fatal flaw of anonymous social media is that using the apps doesn’t pay dividends. Users can’t build relationships or burnish their own reputations while operating without names. From time to time, people may have a piece of information they’d like to share with the world without revealing their identity, but that’s not enough to sustain a network. What makes an app sticky is positive reinforcement: more followers, more friends, more retweets. “For the most part people want to communicate with an audience,” says North. “People want credit for what they’ve said and done. Anonymity flies in the face of people’s need to have acknowledgment.”

This passage nails it: app retention is largely built around “stickiness” — what gets people to come back and keep engaging with the app. In an anonymous social network, the incentives are largely missing.

Vimeo now supports 360-degree video

Nathan Ingraham, writing for Engadget:

From a playback perspective, 360-degree playback is now integrated into the website as well as the iOS and Android apps. You can watch video in either monoscopic or stereoscopic mode — the latter of which means you’ll be able to properly view this footage while wearing a VR headset. Not all headsets are supported today, however. For starters, Vimeo’s 360 video will work with Google Daydream, Samsung’s Gear VR and the Zeiss VR One. But support for the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive is coming soon.

Watching these videos is pretty straightforward. On the web, you can just click and drag anywhere in the video to look around; on a smartphone, you just swipe around the screen. You can also use your computer’s trackpad to pan around, and there’s also a helpful little compass that shows which way you’re “facing” in the 360-degree landscape — tapping or clicking that restores you to the default point of view, assuming the uploader enabled it.

I am super excited about what stories 360-video will enable, especially on a site with as strong a commitment to filmmaking as Vimeo has.

First Nintendo Switch reviews hit the web

In a rather odd turn of events, the press embargo for the Nintendo Switch lifted today, resulting in a wave of console reviews. This is weird because it seemed clear from “first impressions” posts that a Day One patch might fix a lot of problems. This patch has not yet been issued, as the console does not release until March 3, 2017. As of this writing, Nintendo has not detailed what, if anything, might be in that patch.

Overall, while the reviews are cautiously optimistic (with universal praise for Switch launch title “Zelda: Breath of the Wild”), nearly every writer suggests waiting rather than buying this thing on Day One. There are just too many unanswered questions about the product roadmap and software titles at this point to make the Switch a decent investment.

Let’s begin with Kyle Orland from Ars Technica:

At this point, it looks like buying the Switch as your only game console means missing out on everything from Mass Effect and Call of Duty to The Witcher and Assassin’s Creed to Tomb Raider and Destiny. That list can go on and on. Maybe those major franchises will eventually be forced to pay attention to a Switch that absolutely flies off the shelves. For now, though, relying on the Switch for all of your gaming means risking that you’ll miss out on a huge array of the most popular and well-received current franchises. That’s a big price to pay for access to fully portable Zelda and Mario games.

Even as a secondary system, though, it’s hard for me to recommend you go out and buy the Switch immediately unless you have a burning desire to play the latest Zelda literally anywhere. The system as it exists now feels a little like it was rushed to make it to store shelves before the end of Nintendo’s fiscal year. After all, at launch there are some lingering hardware issues and extremely limited initial software support.

Ross Miller, writing for The Verge:

The most shocking thing about the Switch might be how many obvious pitfalls Nintendo has managed to elegantly avoid. Going from playing on the tablet to the TV is completely effortless, and there’s no sense of compromise whichever way you choose to play. Once you hold and use the Switch, it just makes sense.

Great hardware alone isn’t enough, of course. I have little doubt Nintendo’s first-party lineup will be amazing — Breath of the Wild alone is almost worth the cost of admission here — but the company’s weak spots have always been continuing and expanding third-party support, as well as providing a robust online service. Those are the potential pitfalls to come.

Jeff Bakalar, writing for CNet:

Unless you absolutely need to have the latest and greatest hardware on day one, you should hold off buying a Switch. If you’re a die-hard Zelda fan and have to play Breath of the Wild right away, just be aware you’re going to be shelling out $360…Wii U owners should keep in mind that the game is also hitting that console the same day.

There’s a lot that’s up in the air regarding the Switch’s future. Anything can happen. A purchase right now is definitely a gamble. First wait and see how the online functionality rolls out. E3 is less than four months away too, so hopefully there’s more clarity coming about the Switch’s roadmap.

Devin Coldewey, writing for TechCrunch, has perhaps the most positive take:

I think Nintendo has a winner here. The Switch is well made, super easy to get the “gimmick” of, though that’s not really the right term, and it does what it promises. Problem is: there’s just not much to play, and there won’t be for some time to come. I firmly believe Nintendo will make the Switch more than worth its purchase price, but there’s no reason for you to pay up front unless you really want to.

Specifically, unless you really must have Zelda on the go (it’s available for the Wii U as well), the Switch is not by any means a day-one purchase, and you can feel perfectly secure holding off for a bit. In a couple months you’re going to see game bundles, deals on accessories, additional info on things like the online services and virtual console, and more. Armed with that information you can form a better idea of what you’re willing to pay for the console. Hell, in six months you may even be able to find one used.

Personally I’m looking forward to the Switch not just as a platform for the next few first-party games, but as a platform fitting to lighter indie titles and innovative mobile crossovers. It’ll be great for kids, for people on the go, and for gamers who don’t always have the time or inclination to sit down and do the big screen thing.

Vince Ingenito, writing for IGN:

As a handheld, the Switch is a powerful piece of hardware with a gorgeous screen, but it’s too large and power hungry to feel like you can really take it anywhere. As a console, it’s underpowered, unreliable, and lacking basic features and conveniences that all of its competitors offer. It’s nicely built and cleverly designed to be used in a variety of ways, but the bottom line is that the Switch doesn’t do any one of the many things it can do without some sort of significant compromise. Our testing will continue for the next few days as we try out the online features and other functions enabled by the day-one patch, but if I had to score it now I’d give it a 6.7.

Kirk Hamilton, writing for Kotaku:

Big picture: I fundamentally like using the Switch. It accomplishes its central goal admirably, and has already gotten me thinking about it differently than my other game consoles. It also has a number of irritating flaws and hidden costs, and there are so many things about it that Nintendo still hasn’t explained.

Any new gaming hardware is defined by the games it can play, and here the Switch bucks convention. It has a single sensational launch game, albeit one that can also be played on the Wii U you might already own. The rest of its launch lineup is nowhere near as compelling, but the fact remains that playing this Zelda on the Switch has been one of the finest gaming experiences I’ve had in years. I suspect that, Wii U version or no, Breath of the Wild will entice a lot of people to buy a Switch. I couldn’t fault them for doing so.

The Polygon Staff:

Compared to the Wii U on its merits, the Switch is a slam dunk. It takes the basic concept of the Wii U, of a tablet-based console, and fulfills the promise of it in a way Nintendo simply wasn’t capable of realizing in 2012. It’s launching with a piece of software that, more than anything in the Wii U’s first year, demonstrates its inherent capability of delivering what Nintendo says is one of the Switch’s primary missions: a big-budget, AAA game that exists across a handheld device and a television-connected portable. The hardware lives up to its name in how easily and smoothly it moves between those two worlds, in how dead simple it all is to make something pretty magical happen.

But beyond Breath of the Wild’s test run and the stunning basic functionality of the Switch lies a field of other obligations and requirements for an internet-connected gaming platform in 2017, and thus far, Nintendo hasn’t done much to prove it knows what it needs to do to recover from years of blind eyes and stubborn avoidance of modern ideas. The best example that Nintendo has a finger on the pulse of the modern gaming audience is a mobile game made by another studio.

Chris Kohler, writing for Wired:

From what I’ve seen, I have high hopes: The user interface currently installed on the device is clean, fast, responsive, well-designed. You can tap the Power button to send the unit into sleep mode immediately during gameplay, and pick up your game of Zelda right where you left off. It seems like it’s a thousand times better than Wii U’s slow, clunky interface. You just can’t do anything with it yet besides start and stop a game of Zelda.

And right now, that’s about all one can say about Switch: It has a new Zelda, you can definitely play it in handheld mode, and you might be able to play it in TV mode if you’re lucky. Switch has the potential to be all things to all people: TV console, next-gen Game Boy, wacky motion controls, traditional hardcore game machine, even multiplayer-in-a-box. But today, with just hours to go before launch, Switch is lacking some basic functionality.

Twitter launches additional tools to filter out trolls

Twitter’s anti-abuse initiative continues. Today on its blog, it announced several new features. Ed Ho writes:

We’re working to identify accounts as they’re engaging in abusive behavior, even if this behavior hasn’t been reported to us. Then, we’re taking action by limiting certain account functionality for a set amount of time, such as allowing only their followers to see their Tweets. For example, this change could come into effect if an account is repeatedly Tweeting without solicitation at non-followers or engaging in patterns of abusive behavior that is in violation of the Twitter Rules. Our platform supports the freedom to share any viewpoint, but if an account continues to repeatedly violate the Twitter Rules, we will consider taking further action.

“Repeatedly tweeting without solicitation at non-followers” is something that happens frequently on Twitter. In fact, it is arguably one of the most common activities. I’m curious how this filter will do its job without flagging a bunch of false positives.

Ho continues:

We’re also introducing new filtering options for your notifications to give you more control over what you see from certain types of accounts, like those without a profile photo, unverified email addresses or phone numbers. Many people requested more filter options for their notifications, and we’re excited to bring these to everyone on Twitter.

We’re also expanding the mute feature to build on the work we did in November which lets you remove certain keywords, phrases, or entire conversations from your notifications. Now, you’ll be able to mute from your home timeline and you can decide how long this content is muted – one day, one week, one month, or indefinitely. This was another big request from you and we’re looking forward to rolling it out.

It is nuts to me that this feature has taken so long to add. Twitter Eggs (new users or new accounts with no profile photos) have become so synonymous with troll accounts that it’s an internet meme at this point. But better late than never.

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.