Start Up: China’s selfie madness, better notifications, Russia blocks Telegram (and Google), Facebook’s later smart speaker, and more

Apple’s purchase of music recognition service Shazam has been delayed over data concerns. Photo by on Flickr.

A selection of 9 links for you. None owned by Sean Hannity. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

China’s selfie obsession • The New Yorker

Jiayang Fan visits Chinese phone maker Meitu:


The building’s interior evoked a giant Hello Kitty store. The walls were painted Jordan-almond shades—the color scheme changes every few months—and there were stuffed animals and bobblehead dolls on the desks. Conference rooms were named for aspirational spring-break locations: Hawaii, Bora-Bora, Fiji. (The average age of the employees is twenty-seven.) Stylishly clad men and women pecked at computers that were covered in garish stickers, like high-school lockers.

Chen Xiaojie, a twenty-seven-year-old with caramel-colored contact lenses and waist-length hair, gave me a demonstration of Meitu’s most popular apps, on her Meitu M8 phone. Holding the device at arm’s length, she tucked in her chin (“so the face comes out smaller”), snapped a photo of us, and handed me the result. My complexion looked smoother, my eyes bigger and rounder. I asked if I had been “P”-ed—the Chinese shorthand for Photoshopping. Chen said that the phone had automatically “upgraded” me. “Only when you enjoy taking selfies will you have the confidence to take more,” she explained. “And only when you look pretty will you enjoy taking selfies and ‘P’-ing the photo. It’s all very logical, you see.”

Next, using the BeautyPlus app, she showed me how to select a “beauty level” from 1 to 7—a progressive scale of paleness and freckle deletion. Then we could smooth out, tone, slim, and contour our faces, whiten our teeth, resize our irises, cinch our waists, and add a few inches in height. We could apply a filter—“celestial,” “voodoo,” “edge,” and “vibes” are some of the options. A recently added filter called “personality” attempts to counteract a foreseeable consequence of the technology: the more that people doctor their selfies, the more everyone ends up looking the same. Like everything else in the app, the personalities available—“boho,” “mystique,” and so on—are preset…

…I asked a number of Chinese friends how long it takes them to edit a photo before posting it on social media. The answer for most of them was about forty minutes per face; a selfie taken with a friend would take well over an hour. The work requires several apps, each of which has particular strengths. No one I asked would consider posting or sending a photo that hadn’t been improved.

When I met Meitu’s chairman, Cai Wensheng, later that day, he confirmed that editing your pictures had become a matter of ordinary courtesy. “In the same way that you would point out to your friend if her shirt was misbuttoned, or if her pants were unzipped, you should have the decency to Meitu her face if you are going to share it with your friends,” he said. He took enormous pride in the fact that “Meitu” had entered the Chinese lexicon as a verb.


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YouTube under fire for censoring video exposing conspiracy theorist Alex Jones • The Guardian

Sam Levin:


YouTube’s algorithm has long promoted videos attacking gun violence victims, allowing the rightwing conspiracy theorist Alex Jones to build a massive audience. But when a not-for-profit recently exposed Jones’ most offensive viral content in a compilation on YouTube, the site was much less supportive – instead deleting the footage from the platform, accusing it of “harassment and bullying”.

Media Matters, a leftwing watchdog, last week posted a series of clips of Jones spreading falsehoods about the 2012 Sandy Hook elementary school massacre, a newsworthy video of evidence after the victims’ families filed a defamation lawsuit against the Infowars host. But YouTube, for reasons it has yet to explain, removed the video three days after it was published, a move that once again benefitted Jones, who is now arguing that the defamation suit has defamed him.

The video was censored for several days, but reinstated Monday after the Guardian’s inquiry and backlash on social media. Still, the case offered yet another stark illustration of the way tech companies and social media algorithms have failed to distinguish between fake news and legitimate content – while continuing to provide a powerful platform to the most repugnant views and dangerous propaganda.

“This just shows the capriciousness and arbitrariness by which they are enforcing these standards,” said Angelo Carusone, the president of Media Matters.


Perhaps it was initially taken down because it was targeted by flying ants on behalf of Jones, reporting it as spam/evil/abusive?
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Apple’s deal for Shazam is delayed in Europe over data concerns • The New York Times

Adam Satariano:


Apple said in December that it would buy Shazam, the song-recognition service that has been a mainstay on people’s smartphones for years with its ability to name a track after listening for a few seconds. The app has also become a valuable source of data, giving music industry executives insight into what songs and artists are performing well and in what regions.

European authorities are raising alarms because Shazam has important data about Apple’s rivals, potentially allowing the company to “directly target its competitors’ customers and encourage them to switch” to Apple’s own streaming service, the European Commission, the European Union’s executive arm, said in a statement.

“Competing music streaming services could be put at a competitive disadvantage,” the commission said. It added that it wanted to prevent Apple from blocking Shazam from referring users to other music services.

The European Commission has until Sept. 4 to make a final decision on whether to block or approve the deal, or seek concessions from Apple.


A friend said to me that we won’t know what Apple’s planning for Shazam until we’ve have a WWDC following the completed acquisition – that’s when you’d see the fruits of its planning. If the decision is delayed past June, that’s probably going to mean quite a long delay on real integration.

But the question that the EC is asking is definitely the correct one to ask.
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Designing better notifications • Martiancraft

Ben Brooks:


We need to start being proactive in designing for the way people live. We should make use of Apple‘s tools for things like threading identifiers to consolidate updates into a single notification. Calendar access lets us determine when people are busy and should not be distracted; we can even determine if a person has enough time between meetings that they should see notifications, or if the app should wait. Notifications were never intended to be the all important and distracting force they’ve become. With a bit of discipline and care, we can craft notifications people will actually appreciate.

We could set notifications to auto-mute during meals, not just sleep, allowing us to focus on the time we spend with others. Notifications can even use geofencing to determine if we actually need notifications from a particular app. Home alarm push notifications are redundant when I’m at home. Nor do I need work-related notifications when I am not at work. In other words, notifications should only come in when they are relevant, important, and when I will want to deal with them. If smartphones are what chains people to their work, then as the creators of apps, we can help to unchain them by restricting work notifications not only to “work hours” but to work locations as well.


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How merchants use Facebook to flood Amazon with fake reviews • The Washington Post

Elizabeth Dwoskin and Craig Timberg:


an economy of paid reviews has flourished. Merchants pledge to drop reimbursements into a reviewer’s PayPal account within minutes of posting comments for items such as kitchen knives, rain ponchos or shower caddies, often sweetening the deal with a $5 commission or a $10 Amazon gift card. Facebook this month deleted more than a dozen of the groups where sellers and buyers matched after being contacted by The Post. Amazon kicked a five-star seller off its site after an inquiry from The Post.

“These days it is very hard to sell anything on Amazon if you play fairly,” said Tommy Noonan, who operates ReviewMeta, a website that helps consumers spot suspicious Amazon reviews. “If you want your product to be competitive, you have to somehow manufacture reviews.”

Sellers say the flood of inauthentic reviews makes it harder for them to compete legitimately and can crush profits. “It’s devastating, devastating,” said Mark Caldeira, owner of the baby-products company Mayapple Baby.


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Google confirms some of its own services are now getting blocked in Russia over the Telegram ban • TechCrunch

Ingrid Lunden:


currently, nearly 18 million IP addresses are knocked out from being accessed in Russia, all in the name of blocking Telegram.

And in the latest development, Google has now confirmed to us that its own services are now also being impacted. From what we understand, Google Search, Gmail and push notifications for Android apps are among the products being affected.

“We are aware of reports that some users in Russia are unable to access some Google products, and are investigating those reports,” said a Google spokesperson in an emailed response. We’d been trying to contact Google all week about the Telegram blockade, and this is the first time that the company has both replied and acknowledged something related to it.

(Amazon has acknowledged our messages but has yet to reply to them.)

Google’s comments come on the heels of RKN itself also announcing today that it had expanded its IP blocks to Google’s services. At its peak, RKN had blocked nearly 19 million IP addresses, with dozens of third-party services that also use Google Cloud and Amazon’s AWS, such as Twitch and Spotify, also getting caught in the crossfire.

Russia is among the countries in the world that has enforced a kind of digital firewall, blocking periodically or permanently certain online content. Some turn to VPNs to access that content anyway, but it turns out that Telegram hasn’t needed to rely on that workaround to get used.

“RKN is embarrassingly bad at blocking Telegram, so most people keep using it without any intermediaries,” said Ilya Andreev, COO and co-founder of Vee Security, which has been providing a proxy service to bypass the ban.


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Where countries are tinderboxes and Facebook is a match • The New York Times

Amanda Taub and Max Fisher:


Time and again, communal hatreds overrun the newsfeed — the primary portal for news and information for many users — unchecked as local media are displaced by Facebook and governments find themselves with little leverage over the company. Some users, energized by hate speech and misinformation, plot real-world attacks.

A reconstruction of Sri Lanka’s descent into violence, based on interviews with officials, victims and ordinary users caught up in online anger, found that Facebook’s newsfeed played a central role in nearly every step from rumor to killing. Facebook officials, they say, ignored repeated warnings of the potential for violence, resisting pressure to hire moderators or establish emergency points of contact.

Facebook declined to respond in detail to questions about its role in Sri Lanka’s violence, but a spokeswoman said in an email that “we remove such content as soon as we’re made aware of it.” She said the company was “building up teams that deal with reported content” and investing in “technology and local language expertise to help us swiftly remove hate content.”

Sri Lankans say they see little evidence of change. And in other countries, as Facebook expands, analysts and activists worry they, too, may see violence.


The question is whether it’s Facebooks’ design itself, or just the fact of easy communication, that enables this sort of explosive behaviour.
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Facebook delays smart speaker launch to October • Digitimes

Aron Lee and Joseph Tsai:


Facebook’s smart speakers reportedly will begin mass production in June as originally scheduled, but the order volumes for 2018 have been cut by around 20% from the original plan, while the product launch is estimated to be delayed to October, according to sources from the upstream supply chain. The order volumes for 2019 remain unchanged.

Facebook originally planned to unveil two smart speakers in May, but the plan has been postponed because the company founder Mark Zuckerberg had been summoned to the US congress to testify on the company’s privacy issues.

Facebook has prepared two smart speakers codenamed Fiona and Aloha, both equipped with a 15in in-cell panel supplied from LG Display. Pegatron is the sole manufacturer of the two devices.


Speakers with 15in screens.. so.. big tablets? Then again, given that FB content is primarily visual, the odd thing is the “speaker” part. Unless it’s for video calls (Messenger) and playing music/video. The video being ads, of course.
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Fake it till you make it: meet the wolves of Instagram • The Guardian

A great long read from Symeon Brown about how scammy financial products are sold to unsuspecting noobs on social media:


This is how it works. [Elijah] Oyefeso posts images of luxury goods he claims to have bought with his winnings. He gives the pictures hashtags such as #richkidsofinstagram and mass-follows young people online. One teenager told me he and his friends were drawn in by the sight of a young black man who grew up on a council estate similar to theirs, driving a Rolls-Royce. As soon as anyone follows Oyefeso back, he slides into their DMs with a message: “I’m offering a great opportunity to earn £100-400 per week from trading, no experience required, all done from home and only requires 15-30 min per day.” If you’re young, poor and want to defy the odds against you, the next question is: where do I sign up?

What wolves like Oyefeso fail to declare is that each of the trading platforms you sign up to (with a minimum deposit of £250) pays him around £40-80 – and that recruitment, rather than betting on these predatory financial products, is the way he makes his risk-free money (Oyefeso maintains he’s making money from trading). Young people join the platforms, make a few trades and can lose anything between £250 and several thousand pounds, then realise they can make it back by repeating the trick: becoming a paid marketing affiliate masquerading as a successful trader. It looks like a vintage pyramid scheme, rebooted for the social media era using a model of e-marketing that has boomed over the last 20 years.

In 2016, one of the wolves shared with me the presentation he was pitched by the leading software provider of binary options, SpotOption. The PowerPoint presentation revealed a system that is rigged against the consumer: the average user would lose 80% of everything he or she put in to “trade”. Later that year, the core of this presentation was published by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, and SpotOption was banned in its home country, Israel. SpotOption says that since the changes in Israeli law, it has ceased all activities related to binary options, and terminated agreements with clients found to be acting unethically.


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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

1 thought on “Start Up: China’s selfie madness, better notifications, Russia blocks Telegram (and Google), Facebook’s later smart speaker, and more

  1. Google being blocked over Telegram is why I think the small fracas about Chat not being encrypted is misplaced: we need a texting app that will Just Work ™ for anyone anywhere anytime, even if that means no privacy/security (there’s a separate app for that) and kowtowing to iffy regimes, let’s do it for that one app. Actually, encrypted apps that are not being blocked by the most evilest regime are probably collaborating behind the scenes, or being hacked.
    And I rather like that SMS/MMS are getting an upgrade.

    My main issue is that Chat requires a data contract. 10-20% of my contacts (the Olds ^^) don’t have one.

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