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Seven reasons not to trust Facebook to play cupid

20:00 | 22 September

This week Facebook has launched a major new product play, slotting an algorithmic dating service inside its walled garden as if that’s perfectly normal behavior for an ageing social network.

Insert your [dad dancing GIF of choice] right here.

Facebook getting into dating looks very much like a mid-life crisis — as a veteran social network desperately seeks a new strategy to stay relevant in an age when app users have largely moved on from social network ‘lifecasting’ to more bounded forms of sharing, via private messaging and/or friend groups inside dedicated messaging and sharing apps.

The erstwhile Facebook status update has long been usurped by the Snapchat (and now Instagram) Story as the social currency of choice for younger app users. Of course Facebook owns the latter product too, and has mercilessly cloned Stories. But it hardly wants its flagship service to just fade away into the background like the old fart it actually is in Internet age terms.

Not if it can reinvigorate the product with a new purpose — and so we arrive at online dating.

Facebook — or should that be ‘Datebook’ now?! — is starting its dating experiment in Colombia, as its beta market. But the company clearly has ambitious designs on becoming a major global force in the increasingly popular online dating arena — to challenge dedicated longtime players like eHarmony and OkCupid, as well as the newer breed of more specialized dating startups, such as female-led app, Bumble.

Zuckerberg is not trying to compete with online dating behemoth Tinder, though. Which Facebook dismisses as a mere ‘hook up’ app — a sub category it claims it wants nothing to do with.

Rather it’s hoping to build something more along the lines of ‘get together with friends of your friends who’re also into soap carving/competitive dog grooming/extreme ironing’ than, for e.g., the raw spank in the face shock of ‘Bang with Friends‘. (The latter being the experimental startup which tried, some six years ago, to combine Facebook and sex — before eventually exiting to a Singapore-based dating app player, Paktor, never to be heard of again. Or, well, not until Facebook decided to get into the dating game and reminded us all how we lol’d about it.)

Mark Zuckerberg’s company doesn’t want to get into anything smutty, though. Oh no, no, NO! No sex please, we’re Facebook!

Facebook Dating has been carefully positioned to avoid sounding like a sex app. It’s being flogged as a tasteful take on the online dating game, with — for instance — the app explicitly architected not to push existing friends together via suggestive matching (though you’ll just have to hope you don’t end up being algorithmically paired with any exes, which judging by Facebook’s penchant for showing users ‘photo memories’ of past stuff with exes may not pan out so well… ). And no ability to swap photo messages with mutual matches in case, well, something pornographic were to pass through.

Facebook is famously no fan of nudes. Unsurprisingly, then, nor is its buttoned up dating app. Only ‘good, old-fashioned wholesome’ text-based chat-up lines (related to ‘good clean pieces of Facebook content’) here please.

If you feel moved to text an up-front marriage proposal — feeling 100% confident in Facebook’s data scientists’ prowess in reading the social media tea leaves and plucking your future life partner out of the mix — its algorithms will probably smile on that though.

The company’s line is that dating will help fulfil its new mission of encouraging ‘time well spent’ — by helping people forge more meaningful (new) relationships thanks to the power of its network (and the data it sucks out of it).

This mission is certainly an upgrade on Facebook’s earlier and baser interest in just trying to connect every human on planet Earth to every other human on planet Earth in some kind of mass data-swinging orgy — regardless of the ethical and/or moral consequences (as Boz memorably penned it), as if it was trying to channel the horror-loving spirit of Pasolini’s Salò. Or, well, a human centipede.

But that was then. These days, in its mid teens, Facebook wants to be seen as grown up and a bit worth. So its take on dating looks a lot more ‘marriage material’ than ‘casual encounters’. Though, well, products don’t always pan out how their makers intend. So it might need to screw its courage to the sticking place and hope things don’t go south.

From the user perspective, there’s a whole other side here too though. Because given how much baggage inevitably comes with Facebook nowadays, the really burning question is whether any sensible person should be letting Mark Zuckerberg fire cupid’s arrows on their behalf?

He famously couldn’t tell malicious Kremlin propaganda from business as usual social networking like latte photos and baby pics — so what makes you think he’s going to be attuned to the subtle nuances of human chemistry?!

Here are just a few reasons why we think you should stay as far away from Facebook’s dalliance with dating as you possibly can…

  1. It’s yet another cynical data grab
    Facebook’s ad-targeting business model relies on continuous people tracking to function — which means it needs your data to exist. Simply put: Your privacy is Facebook’s lifeblood. Dating is therefore just a convenient veneer to slap atop another major data grab as Facebook tries to find less icky ways to worm its way back and/or deeper into people’s lives. Connecting singles to nurture ‘meaningful relationships’ is the marketing gloss being slicked over its latest invitation to ask people to forget how much private information they’re handing it. Worse still, dating means Facebook is asking people to share even more intimate and personal information than they might otherwise willingly divulge — again with a company whose business model relies upon tracking everything everyone does, on or offline, within its walled garden or outside it on the wider web, and whether they’re Facebook a user or not.
    This also comes at a time when users of Facebook’s eponymous social network have been showing signs of Facebook fatigue, and even changing how they use the service after a string of major privacy scandals. So Facebook doing dating also looks intended to function as a fresh distraction — to try to draw attention away from its detractors and prevent any more scales falling away from users’ eyes. The company wants to paper over growing scepticism about ad-targeting business models with algorithmic heart-shaped promises.
    Yet the real underlying passion here is still Facebook’s burning desire to keep minting money off of your private bits and bytes.
  2. Facebook’s history of privacy hostility shows it simply can’t be trusted
    Facebook also has a very long history of being outright hostile to privacy — including deliberately switching settings to make previously private settings public by default (regulatory intervention has been required to push back against that ratchet) — so its claim, with Dating, to be siloing data in a totally separate bucket, and also that information shared for this service won’t be used to further flesh out user profiles or to target people with ads elsewhere across its empire should be treated with extreme scepticism.
    Facebook also said WhatsApp users’ data would not be mingled and conjoined with Facebook user data — and, er, look what ended up happening there…!!
    ————————————————————————————————–>

    And then there’s Facebook record of letting app developers liberally rip user data out of its platform — including (for years and years) ‘friend data’. Which almost sounded cosy. But Facebook’s friends data API meant that an individual Facebook user could have their data sucked out without even agreeing to a particular app’s ToS themselves. Which is part of the reason why users’ personal information has ended up all over the place — and in all sorts of unusual places. (Facebook not enforcing its own policies, and implementing features that could be systematically abused to suck out user data are among some of the many other reasons.)
    The long and short history of Facebook and privacy is that information given to it for one purpose has ended up being used for all sorts of other things — things we likely don’t even know the half of. Even Facebook itself doesn’t know which is why it’s engaged in a major historical app audit right now. Yet this very same company now wants you to tell it intimate details about your romantic and sexual preferences? Uhhhh, hold that thought, truly.
  3. Facebook already owns the majority of online attention — why pay the company any more mind? Especially as dating singles already have amazingly diverse app choice…
    In the West there’s pretty much no escape from Facebook Inc. Not if you want to be able to use the social sharing tools your friends are using. Network effects are hugely powerful for that reason, and Facebook owns not just one popular and dominant social network but a whole clutch of them — given it also bought Instagram and WhatsApp (plus some others it bought and just closed, shutting down those alternative options). But online dating, as it currently is, offers a welcome respite from Facebook.
    It’s arguably also no accident that the Facebook-less zone is so very richly served with startups and services catering to all sorts of types and tastes. There are dating apps for black singlesmatchmaking services for Muslims; several for Jewish people; plenty of Christian dating apps; at least one dating service to match ex-pat Asians; another for Chinese-Americansqueer dating apps for women; gay dating apps for men (and of course gay hook up apps too), to name just a few; there’s dating apps that offer games to generate matches; apps that rely on serendipity and location to rub strangers together via missed connections; apps that let you try live video chats with potential matches; and of course no shortage of algorithmic matching dating apps. No singles are lonely for dating apps to try, that’s for sure.
    So why on earth should humanity cede this very rich, fertile and creative ‘stranger interaction’ space, which caters to singles of all stripes and fancies, to a social network behemoth — just so Facebook can expand its existing monopoly on people’s attention?
    Why shrink the luxury of choice to give Facebook’s business extra uplift? If Facebook Dating became popular it would inexorably pull attention away from alternatives — perhaps driving consolidation among a myriad of smaller dating players, forcing some to band together to try to achieve greater scale and survive the arrival of the 800lb Facebook gorilla. Some services might feel they have to become a bit less specialized, pushed by market forces to go after a more generic (and thus larger) pool of singles. Others might find they just can’t get enough niche users anymore to self-sustain. The loss of the rich choice in dating apps singles currently enjoy would be a crying shame indeed. Which is as good a reason as any to snub Facebook’s overtures here.
  4. Algorithmic dating is both empty promise and cynical attempt to humanize Facebook surveillance
    Facebook typically counters the charge that because it tracks people to target them with ads its in the surveillance business by claiming people tracking benefits humanity because it can serve you “relevant ads”. Of course that’s a paper thin argument since all display advertising is something no one has chosen to see and therefore is necessarily a distraction from whatever a person was actually engaged with. It’s also an argument that’s come under increasing strain in recent times, given all the major scandals attached to Facebook’s ad platform, whether that’s to do with socially divisive Facebook ads, or malicious political propaganda spread via Facebook, or targeted Facebook ads that discriminate against protected groups, or Facebook ads that are actually just spreading scams. Safe to say, the list of problems attached to its ad targeting enterprise is long and keeps growing.
    But Facebook’s follow on claim now, with Dating and the data it intends to hold on people for this matchmaking purpose, is it has the algorithmic expertise to turn a creepy habit of tracking everything everyone does into a formula for locating love.
    So now it’s not just got “relevant” ads to sell you; it’s claiming Facebook surveillance is the special sauce to find your Significant Other!

    Frankly, this is beyond insidious. (It is also literally a Black Mirror episode — and that’s supposed to be dysfunctional sci-fi.) Facebook is moving into dating because it needs a new way to package and sell its unpleasant practice of people surveillance. It’s hoping to move beyond its attempt at normalizing its business line (i.e. that surveillance is necessary to show ads that people might be marginally more likely to click on) — which has become increasingly problematic as its ad platform has been shown to be causing all sorts of knock-on societal problems — by implying that by letting Facebook creep on you 24/7 it could secure your future happiness because its algorithms are working to track down your perfect other half — among all those 1s and 0s it’s continuously manhandling.
    Of course this is total bunkum. There’s no algorithmic formula to determine what makes one person click with another (or not). If there was humans would have figured it out long, long ago — and monetized it mercilessly. (And run into all sorts of horrible ethical problems along the way.)
    Thing is, people aren’t math. Humans cannot be made to neatly sum to the total of their collective parts and interests. Which is why life is a lot more interesting than the stuff you see on Facebook. And also why there’s a near infinite number of dating apps out there, catering to all sorts of people and predilections.
    Sadly Facebook can’t see that. Or rather it can’t admit it. And so we get nonsense notions of ‘expert’ algorithmic matchmaking and ‘data science’ as the underpinning justification for yet another dating app launch. Sorry but that’s all just marketing.
    The idea that Facebook’s data scientists are going to turn out to be bullseye hitting cupids is as preposterous as it is ridiculous. Like any matchmaking service there will be combinations thrown up that work and plenty more than do not. But if the price of a random result is ceaseless surveillance the service has a disproportionate cost attached to it — making it both an unfair and an unattractive exchange for the user. And once again people are being encouraged to give up far more than they’re getting in return.
    If you believe that finding ‘the one’ will be easier if you focus on people with similar interests to you or who are in the same friend group there’s no shortage of existing ‘life avenues’ you can pursue without having to resort to Facebook Dating. (Try joining a club. Or going to your friends’ parties. Or indeed taking your pick from the scores of existing dating apps that already offer interest-based matching.)
    Equally you could just take a hike up a mountain and meet your future wife at the top (as one couple I know did). Safe to say, there’s no formula to love. And thankfully so. Don’t believe anyone trying to sell you a dating service with the claim their nerdtastic data scientists will hook you up good and proper.
    Facebook’s chance of working any ‘love magic’ will be as good/poor as the next app-based matchmaking service. Which is to say it will be random. There’s certainly no formula to be distilled beyond connecting ‘available to date’ singles — which dating apps and websites have been doing very well for years and years and years. No Facebook dates necessary.
    The company has little more to offer the world of online dating than, say, OkCupid, which has scale and already combines the location and stated interests of its users in an attempt to throw up possible clicks. The only extra bit is Facebook’s quasi-bundling of Events into dating, as a potential avenue to try and date in a marginally more informal setting than agreeing to go on an actual date. Though, really, it just sounds like it might be more awkward to organize and pull off.
    Facebook’s generic approach to dating is also going to offer much less for certain singles who benefit from a more specialized and tailored service (such as a female-focused player like Bumble which has created a service to cater to women’s needs; or, indeed, any of the aforementioned community focused offerings cited above which help people meet other likeminded singles).
    Facebook appears to believe that size matters in dating. And seems to want to be a generic giant in a market that’s already richly catering to all sorts of different communities. For many singles that catch-all approach is going to earn it a very hard left swipe.
  5. Dating takes resource and focus away from problems Facebook should actually be fixing
    Facebook’s founder made ‘fixing Facebook’ his personal priority this year. Which underlines quite how many issues the company has smashing through its plate. We’re not talking little bug fixes. Facebook has a huge bunch of existentially awful hellholes burning through its platform and punching various human rights in the process. This is not at all trivial. Some really terrible stuff has been going on with its platforms acting as the conduit.
    Earlier this year, for instance, the UN blasted Facebook saying its platform had became a “beast” in Myanmar — weaponized and used to accelerate ethnic violence against the Rohingya Muslim minority.
    Facebook has admitted it did not have enough local resource to stop its software being used to amplify ethnic hate and violence in the market. Massacres of Rohingya refuges have been described by human rights organizations as a genocide.
    And it’s not an isolated instance. In the Philippines the country has recently been plunged into a major human rights crisis — and the government there, which used Facebook to help get elected, has also been using Facebook to savage its critics at the same time as carrying out thousands of urban killings in a bloody so-called ‘war on drugs’.
    In India, Facebook’s WhatsApp messaging app has been identified as a contributing factor in multiple instances of mob violence and killings — as people have been whipped up by lies spread like lightning via the app.
    Set against such awful problems — where Facebook’s products are at very least not helping — we now see the company ploughing resource into expanding into a new business area, and expending engineering resource to build a whole new interface and messaging system (the latter to ensure Facebook Dating users can only swap texts, and can’t send photos or videos because that might be a dick pic risk).
    So it’s a genuine crying shame that Facebook did not pay so much close attention to goings on in Myanmar — where local organizations have long been calling for intelligent limits to be built in to its products to help stop abusive misuse.
    Yet Facebook only added the option to report conversations in its Messenger app this May
    So the sight of the company expending major effort to launch a dating product at the same time as it stands accused of failing to do enough to prevent its products from being conduits for human rights abuses in multiple markets is ethically uncomfortable, to say the least.
    Prospective users of Facebook Dating might therefore feel a bit queasy to think that their passing fancies have been prioritized by Zuckerberg & co over and above adding stronger safeguards and guardrails to the various platforms they operate to try to safeguard humans from actual death in other corners of the globe.
  6. By getting involved with dating, Facebook is mixing separate social streams
    Talking of feeling queasy, with Facebook Dating the company is attempting to pull off a tricky balancing act of convincing existing users (many of whom will already be married and/or in a long term relationship) that it’s somehow totally normal to just bolt on a dating layer to something that’s supposed to be a generic social network.
    All of a sudden a space that’s always been sold — and traded — as a platonic place for people to forge ‘friendships’ is suddenly having sexual opportunity injected into it. Sure, the company is trying to keep these differently oriented desires entirely separate, by making the Dating component an opt-in feature that lurks within Facebook (and where (it says) any activity is siloed and kept off of mainstream Facebook (at least that’s the claim)). But the very existence of Facebook Dating means anyone in a relationship who is already on Facebook is now, on one level, involved with a dating app company.
    Facebook users may also feel they’re being dangled the opportunity to sign up to online dating on the sly — with the company then committed itself to being the secret-keeping go-between ferrying any flirtatious messages they care to send in a way that would be difficult for their spouse to know about, whether they’re on Facebook or not.
    How comfortable is Facebook going to be with being a potential aid to adultery? I guess we’ll have to wait and see how that pans out. As noted above, Facebook execs have — in the past — suggested the company is in the business of ‘connecting people, period’. So there’s perhaps a certain twisted logic working away as an undercurrent and driving its impulse to push for ever more human connections. But the company could be at risk of applying its famous “it’s complicated” relationship status to itself with the dating launch — and then raining complicated consequences down upon its users as a result. (As, well, it so often seems to do in the name of expanding its own business.)
    So instead of ‘don’t mix the streams’, with dating we’re seeing Facebook trying to get away with running entirely opposite types of social interactions in close parallel. What could possibly go wrong?! Or rather what’s to stop someone in the ‘separate’ Facebook dating pool trying to Facebook-stalk a single they come across there who doesn’t responded to their overtures? (Given Facebook dating users are badged with their real Facebook names there could easily be user attempts to ‘cross over’.)
    And if sentiments from one siloed service spill over into mainstream Facebook things could get very messy indeed — and users could end up being doubly repelled by its service rather than additionally compelled. The risk is Facebook ends up fouling not feathering its own nest by trying to combine dating and social networking. (This less polite phrase also springs to mind.)
  7. Who are you hoping to date anyway?!
    Outside emerging markets Facebook’s growth has stalled. Even social networking’s later stage middle age boom looks tapped out. At the same time today’s teens are not at all hot for Facebook. The youngest web users are more interested in visually engaging social apps. And the company will have its work cut out trying to lure this trend-sensitive youth crowd. Facebook dating will probably sound like a bad joke — or a dad joke — to these kids.
    Going up the age range a bit, the under ~35s are hardly enamoured with Facebook either. They may still have a profile but also hardly think Facebook is cool. Some will have reduced their usage or even taken a mini break. The days of this age-group using Facebook to flirt with old college classmates are as long gone as sending a joke Facebook poke. Some are deleting their Facebook account entirely — and not looking back. Is this prime dating age-group suddenly likely to fall en masse for Facebook’s love match experiment? It seems doubtful.
    And it certainly looks like no accident Facebook is debuting Dating outside the US. Emerging markets, which often have young, app-loving populations, probably represent its best chance at bagging the critical mass of singles absolutely required to make any dating product even vaguely interesting.
    But in its marketing shots for the service Facebook seems to be hoping to attract singles in the late twenties age-range — dating app users who are probably among the ficklest, trickiest people for Facebook to lure with a late-stage, catch-all and, er, cringey proposition.
    After that, who’s left? Those over 35s who are still actively on Facebook are either going to be married — and thus busy sharing their wedding/baby pics — and not in the market for dating anyway; or if they are single they may be less inclined towards getting involved with online dating vs younger users who are now well accustomed to dating apps. So again, for Facebook, it looks like diminishing returns up here.
    And of course a dating app is only as interesting and attractive as the people on it. Which might be the most challenging hurdle for Facebook to make a mark on this well-served playing field — given its eponymous network is now neither young nor cool, hip nor happening, and seems to be having more of an identity crisis with each passing year.
    Perhaps Facebook could carve out a dating niche for itself among middle-age divorcees — by offering to digitally hand-hold them and help get them back into the dating game. (Although there’s zero suggestion that’s what it’s hoping to do with the service it debuted this week.)
    If Zuckerberg really wants to bag the younger singles he seems most interested in — at least judging by Facebook Dating’s marketing — he might have been better off adding a dating stream to Instagram.
    I mean, InstaLovegram almost sounds like it could be a thing.

 


0

Instagram denies it’s building Regramming. Here’s why it’d be a disaster

21:05 | 21 September

Instagram tells me Regramming, or the ability to instantly repost someone else’s feed post to your followers like a retweet, is “not happening”, not being built, and not being tested. And that’s good news for all Instagrammers. The denial comes after it initially issued a “no comment” to The Verge’s Casey Newton, who published that he’d seen screenshots of a native Instagram resharing sent to him by a source.

Regramming would be a fundamental shift in how Instagram works, not necessarily in terms of functionality, but in terms of the accepted norms of what and how to post. You could always screenshot, cite the original creator, and post. But the Instagram has always about sharing your window to the world — what you’ve lived and seen. Regramming would legitimize suddenly assuming someone else’s eyes.

And the result would be that users couldn’t trust that when they follow someone, that’s whose vision would appear in their feed. Instagram would feel a lot more random and unpredictable. And it’d become more like its big brother Facebook whose News Feed has waned in popularity – Susceptible to viral clickbait bullshit, vulnerable to foreign misinformation campaigns, and worst of all, impersonal.

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Newton’s report suggested a Instagram reposts would appear under the profile picture of the original sharer, and could regrams could be regrammed once more in turn, showing a stack of both profile thumbnails of who previously shared it. That would at least prevent massive chains of reposts turning posts into all-consuming feed bombs. It could certainly widen what appears in your feed, which some might consider more interesting. It could spur growth by creating a much easier way for users to share in feed, especially if they don’t live a glamorous life themself. And Instagram’s algorithm could hide the least engaging regrams.

These benefits are why Instagram has internally considered building regramming for years. CEO Kevin Systrom told Wired last year “We debate the re-share thing a lot . . . But really that decision is about keeping your feed focused on the people you know rather than the people you know finding other stuff for you to see. And I think that is more of a testament of our focus on authenticity”.

See, right now, Instagram profiles are cohesive. You can easily get a feel for what someone posts and make an educated decision about whether to follow them from a quick glance at their grid. What they share reflects on them, so they’re cautious and deliberate. Everyone is putting on a show for Likes, so maybe it’s not quite ‘authentic’, but at least the content is personal. Regramming would make it impossible to tell what someone would post next, and put your feed at the mercy of their impulses without the requisite accountability. If they regram something lame, ugly, or annoying, it’s the original author who’d be blamed.

Instagram already offers a demand release valve in the form of re-sharing posts to your Story as stickers

Instagram already has a release valve for demand for regramming in the form of the ability to turn people’s public feed posts into Stickers you can paste into your Story. Launched in May, you can add your commentary, complimenting on dunking on the author. There, regrams are ephemeral, and your followers have to pull them out of their Stories tray rather than having them force fed to them via the feed. Effectively, you can reshare others’ content, but not make it a central facet of Instagram or emblem of your identity. And if you want to just make sure a few friends see something awesome you’ve discovered, you can send them people’s feed posts as Direct messages.

Making it much easier to repost to feed instead of sharing something original could turn Instagram into an echo chamber. It’d turn Instagram even more into a popularity contest, with users jockeying for viral distribution and a chance to plug their SoundCloud mixtapes like on Twitter. Personal self-expression would be overshadowed even further by people playing to the peanut gallery. If you want to discover something new and unexpected, there’s a whole Explore page full of it.

Newton is a great reporter, and I suspect the screenshots he saw were real, but I think Instagram should have given him the firm denial right away. My guess is that it wanted to give its standard no comment because if it always outright denies inaccurate rumors and speculation, that means journalists can assume they’re right when it does ‘no comment’.

But once Newton published his report, backlash quickly mounted about how regramming could ruin Instagram. Rather than leaving users worried, confused, and constantly asking when the feature would launch and how it would work, the company decided to issue firm denials after the fact. It became worth diverging from its PR playbook. Maybe it had already chosen to scrap its regramming prototype, maybe the screenshots were just of an early mock-up never meant to be seriously considered, or maybe it hadn’t actually finalized that decision to abort until the public weighed in against the feature yesterday.

In any case, introducing regramming would risk an unforced error. The elemental switch from chronological to the algorithmic feed, while criticized, was critical to Instagram being able to show the best of the massive influx of content. Instagram would eventually break without it. There’s no corresponding urgency fix what ain’t broke when it comes to not allowing regramming.

Instagram is already growing like crazy. It just hit a billion monthly users. Stories now has 400 million daily users and that feature is growing six times faster than Snapchat as a whole. The app is utterly dominant in the photo and short video sharing world. Regramming would be an unnecessary gamble.

 


0

Facebook named in suit alleging job ads on its platform unlawfully discriminated against women

17:43 | 18 September

Facebook’s ad platform is facing charges that it has enabled gender-based discrimination against millions of women in a class action suit filed on behalf of three female workers and backed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

The legal action also names ten employers who are alleged to have used the social media giant’s platform to exclusively and unlawfully target job adverts at male Facebook users, thereby excluding women and non-binary users from receiving the ads.

The ACLU, law firm Outten & Golden LLP, and the Communications Workers of America have filed charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

The ten employers and employment agency advertisers named in the suit, which the charges allege ran discriminatory jobs in “mostly” male-dominated fields, include a police department, multiple retailers, a software development firm and various installation, repair and remodelling companies. (All ten named in the suit are listed in the ACLU’s press release.)

“I’ve heard stories about when people looked for jobs in the classified ads and big bold letters read ‘help wanted-male’ or ‘help wanted-female.’ I was shocked to find that this discrimination is still happening, just online instead of in newspapers,” said Bobbi Spees, a job-seeker and lead complainant in the case, commenting in a statement.  “I shouldn’t be shut out of the chance to hear about a job opportunity just because I am a woman.”

“The internet did not erase our civil rights laws.  It violates the law if an employer uses Facebook to deny job ads to women,” added Peter Romer-Friedman, an attorney at Outten & Golden, in another supporting statement. “The last time I checked, you don’t have to be a man to be a truck driver or a police officer.  But Facebook and employers are acting like it’s the 1950s, before federal employment law banned sex discrimination.”

The charges allege that Facebook, via its platform, delivers job ads selectively based on age and sex categories that employers expressly choose, and that it earns revenue from placing job ads that exclude women and older workers from receiving the ads.

The ACLU notes that targeting job ads by sex is unlawful under federal, state, and local civil rights laws, including Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

“Sex segregated job advertising has historically been used to shut women out of well-paying jobs and economic opportunities,” said Galen Sherwin, senior staff attorney at the ACLU Women’s Rights Project, in another supporting statement. “We can’t let gender-based ad targeting online give new life to a form of discrimination that should have been eradicated long ago.”

While online platforms are not as heavily regulated as publishing platforms the lawsuit argues that Facebook can be held legally responsible for:

  1. creating and operating the system that allows and encourages employers to select the gender and age of the people who get their job ads, including providing employers with data on users’ gender and age for targeting purposes;
  2. delivering the gender- and age-based ads based on employers’ preferences; and
  3. acting as a recruiter connecting employers with prospective employees

We’ve reached out to Facebook for comment on the lawsuit.

It’s by no means the first time the company has faced civil rights complaints related to its ad platform.

Back in 2016 ProPublica exposed how Facebook’s ad tools could be used to exclude users based on their “ethnic affinity” — including in protected categories such as housing, employment and credit opportunities which prohibit discriminatory advertising.

The company responded by saying it would build tools to prevent advertisers from applying ethnic affinity targeting in the protected categories. And also by rewording its ad policies to more clearly prohibit discrimination.

But the following year another ProPublica investigation showed it was still failing to block discriminatory ads — leaving Facebook to apologize for failing to effectively enforce its own policies (hmmm, now where else have we heard the company accused of that… ), and saying: “Our systems continue to improve but we can do better.”

Last year the company was also shown to have allowed ads that included hateful sentiments targeted at Jewish people.

Around about the same time that Facebook was facing renewed criticism over ethnic affinity targeting on its platform being used as a tool for racial discrimination, the company said it would also take a look at how advertisers are using exclusion targeting across other “sensitive segments” — such as those relating to members of the LGBTQ community and people with disabilities.

It’s not clear whether Facebook included gender-based discrimination in those 2017 self reviews too. (We’ve asked and will update this post with any response.)

Either way, it appears Facebook has failed to pick up on the potential for gender-based discrimination to be carried out via its ad platform.

And given all the attention its ad tools have attracted lately as a vector for discrimination and other types of abuse that looks careless to say the least.

Facebook’s ad platform has faced additional criticism in Europe for sensitive inferences it makes about users — given the platform allows advertisers to target people based on political and religious interests, meaning Facebook’s platform is quietly making sensitive inferences about individuals.

Privacy experts argue this modus operandi entails Facebook processing the sensitive personal data of individuals without explicitly asking people for their upfront consent (as would be required under EU law when you’re processing sensitive personal data such as political or religious affiliation). An opinion on a person is still personal data of that person, they contend.

Facebook disagrees, disputing that the inferences its ad platform makes about users (based off of its tracking and data-mining of people) constitutes personal data. But it’s yet another bone of legal contention now being lobbed at the company.

 


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Symantec offers free anti-spoofing services to US political campaigns and election groups

16:00 | 18 September

Symantec is the latest private security company to offer its expertise to vulnerable political targets on the house. Today the company announced that it would extend its “Project Dolphin” service (dolphins eat phish, get it) to political campaigns, candidates and election officials, all “prime target[s] for malicious actors seeking to influence the outcome of the upcoming U.S. midterm elections.” The service allows for anyone to run a check on their own website to make sure no illegitimate or “spoofed” versions of it are floating around and luring unsuspecting victims.

Individuals in those qualifying groups can sign up for free for Project Dolphin, Symantec’s AI-powered system that scans for and notifies users of illegitimate websites pretending to be the real thing — just one flavor of the common hacking technique called “spoofing.” Through spoofed sites, much like spoofed email accounts, hackers can steal login credentials and other sensitive data and wreak whatever kind of havoc they want, much like they did with the DNC prior to the 2016 US presidential election.

The company will also offer some educational services on a new dedicated election security site, including best practice for poll workers and election officials, anti-tampering training, and an election security news hub.

Whether the intended audience for these materials and services will actually take note of them remains to be seen, but cobbling together election security guides now could help smooth the path to more secure elections by 2020.

“The issues that plagued the 2016 election are still prevalent today and are likely to continue to persist through the midterm elections, into 2020, and into elections globally,” Symantec CEO Greg Clark said.

“It is important for all parties, public and private, to contribute to protecting the security and integrity of our elections and democracy.”

While it’s quite late to the game — at least for 2018 midterms — Symantec joins a number of security companies that have extended free or deeply discounted services to candidates and election bodies, including Cloudflare, Valimail and Synack.

 


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Instagram Shopping gets personalized Explore channel, Stories tags

22:30 | 17 September

Instagram is embracing its true identity as a mail-order catalog. The question will be how much power merchants will give Instagram after seeing what its parent Facebook did to news outlets that relied on it. In a move that could pit it against Pinterest and Wish, Instagram is launching Shopping features across its app to let people discover and consider possible purchases before clicking through to check out on the merchant’s website.

Today, Instagram Explore is getting a personalized Shopping channel of items it thinks you’ll want most. And it’s expanding its Shopping tags for Instagram Stories to all viewers worldwide after a limited test in June, and it’s allowing brands in 46 countries to add the shopping bag icon to Stories that users can click through to buy what they saw.

Instagram clearly wants to graduate from where people get ideas for things to purchase to being a measurable gateway to their spending. The new features could soak up more user attention and lead them to see more ads. But perhaps more importantly, demonstrating that Instagram can earn retail businesses revenue for free through Stories and Explore could whet their appetite to buy Instagram ads to amplify their reach and juice the conversion channel.

For now Instagram is maintaining its “no comment” regarding whether it’s working on a standalone Instagram Shopping app as per a report from The Verge last month.  Instagram first launched its Shopping tags for feeds in 2016. It still points users out to merchant sites for the final payment step, though, in part because retailers want to control their relationships with customers. But long-term, allowing businesses to opt in to offering in-Instagram checkout could shorten the funnel and get more users actually buying.

Shopping joins the For You, Art, Beauty, Sports, Fashion and other topic channels that launched in Explore in June. The Explore algorithm will show you shopping-tagged posts from businesses you follow and ones you might like based on who you follow and what shopping content engages you. This marks the first time you can view a dedicated shopping space inside of Instagram, and it could become a bottomless well of browsing for those in need of some retail therapy.

With Shopping Stickers, brands can choose to add one per story and customize the color to match their photo or video. A tap opens the product details page, and another sends them to the merchant’s site. Businesses will be able to see the number of taps on their Shopping sticker, and how many people tapped through to their website. Partnerships with Shopify (500,000+ merchants) and BigCommerce (60,000+ merchants) will make it easy for retailers of all sizes to use Instagram’s Shopping Stickers. 

What about bringing Shopping to IGTV? A company spokesperson tells me, “IGTV and live video present interesting opportunities for brands to connect more closely with their customers, but we have no plans to bring shopping tools to those surfaces right now.”

For now, the new shopping features feel like a gift to merchants hoping to boost sales. But so did the surge of referral traffic Facebook sent to news publishers a few years ago. Those outlets soon grew dependent on Facebook, changed their news room staffing and content strategies to chase this traffic, and now find themselves in dire straights after Facebook cut off the traffic fire hose as it refocuses on friends and family content.

Retail merchants shouldn’t take the same bait. Instagram Shopping might be a nice bonus, but just how much it prioritizes the feature and spotlights the Explore channel are entirely under its control. Merchants should still work to develop an unmediated relationship directly with their customers, encouraging them to bookmark their sites or sign up for newsletters. Instagram’s favor could disappear with a change to its algorithm, and retailers must always be ready to stand on their own two feet.

 


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Facebook expands bug bounty program to third-party apps and websites

19:01 | 17 September

Facebook announced this morning it’s expanding its bug bounty program – which pays researchers who find security vulnerabilities within its platform – to now include issues found in third-party apps and websites. Specifically, Facebook says it will reward valid reports of vulnerabilities that relate to the improper exposure of Facebook user access tokens.

Typically, when a user logs into another app using their Facebook account information, they’re able to decide what information the token and, therefore, the app can access and what actions it can take.

But if the token becomes compromised, users’ personal information could be misused.

Facebook says it will pay a minimum reward of $500 per vulnerable app or website, if the report is valid. The company also noted it wasn’t aware of any other programs offering rewards of this scope for all eligible third-party apps.

If a vulnerability is determined to be legit, Facebook will then work with the affected app developer or website operator to fix their code. Any apps that don’t comply with Facebook’s request to address the issue will be suspended from the platform until the problem has been solved and undergoes a security review.

In addition, Facebook says it will revoke all the access tokens that could have been compromised in order to prevent potential misuse. If it believes anyone has actually been impacted by the problem, it will notify them, if need be.

The company spells out what sort of information researchers (the white hat hackers) should include in their reports in order to receive the reward. It also says it’s only accepting reports where the bug is discovered by passively viewing data sent to and from a device and the affected app or website – not through any more of manipulation on the researchers’ part.

The news comes at a time when Facebook is still dealing with the fallout from the Cambridge Analytica scandal, which compromised the personal data from as many as 87 million Facebook users. This was followed by news this summer that a quiz app had been leaking data on 120 million users for years.

Since then, the company has been tightening its API platform, reviewing all apps, suspending hundreds of apps deemed suspicious, rolling out tools to help people better manage their apps, and more.

As a part of those changes, Facebook said earlier this year that its bug bounty program would be expanded.

Separately from this new program, the company now also runs a Data Abuse Bounty program which rewards first-hand knowledge of third-parties that collect user data in order to pass it off to malicious parties.

“We would like to emphasize that our bug bounty program does not replace the obligations on app developers to maintain appropriate technical and organizational measures to protect personal data — either regulatory obligations (for example, if the app developer is a data controller for the purposes of GDPR) or the rigorous controls we require through our terms of service and policies that apply to all developers on the Facebook platform,” wrote Dan Gurfinkel, Facebook Security Engineering Manager, in an announcement.

More details on the program are here.

 


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Base10’s debut fund is the largest-ever for a Black-led VC firm

14:30 | 17 September

Adeyemi Ajao (above left), the co-founder and managing director of Base10 Partners, was surprised to hear his firm’s $137 million fund was the largest debut to date for a black-led venture capital firm.

He and his co-founder — managing director TJ Nahigian (above right) — found out from none other than their fund’s own limited partners, who told them they should seek out institutions looking to invest in diverse fund managers.

“Oh man, I was like, ‘yeah, I know I’m black but so what?'” Ajao told TechCrunch. “I can be a little bit naive about these things until they become extremely apparent.”

Ajao is African, European, Latin, and now, having spent a decade in San Francisco, American. Growing up in between Spain and Nigeria, it wasn’t until landing in the Bay Area that he was forced to confront a social dynamic absent in his international upbringing: racial inequality and being black in America.

“The U.S. is pretty different about those things,” he said. “I was surprised when at Stanford I got an invitation to a dinner of the Black Business Student Association. I’m like, ‘why would there be a Black Business Student Association? That’s so weird?’ It took me a while, a good, good while, to be like ok, here there’s actually a really entrenched history of a clash and people being treated differently day-to-day.”

In the business of venture capital, the gap in funding for black founders and other underrepresented entrepreneurs is jarring. There’s not a lot of good data out there to illustrate the gap, but one recent study by digitalundivided showed the median amount of funding raised by black women founders is $0, because most companies founded by black women receive no money.  

Ajao certainly hadn’t thought the color of his skin would impact his fundraising process, and, in retrospect, he doesn’t think it did. Still, he recognizes that pattern recognition and implicit bias continue to be barriers for diverse founders and investors.

Now, he plans to leverage his unique worldview to identify the next wave of unicorns others VCs are missing. Base10 doesn’t have a diversity thesis per say but it plans to invest in global companies fixing problems that affect 99 percent of the world, not the Silicon Valley 1 percent. 

I sat down with Ajao in Base10’s San Francisco office to discuss his background, the firm’s investment focus and the importance of looking beyond the Silicon Valley bubble.

Automation of the real economy

Base10 is writing seed and Series A checks between 500,000 and $5 million. It’s completed 10 investments so far, including in Brazilian mobility startups Grin and Yellow, which closed a $63 million Series A last week.

The firm is looking for entrepreneurs who have spent years in their industries, whether that be agriculture, logistics, waste management, construction, real estate or otherwise, and are trying to solve problems they’ve experienced first-hand.

“We are much more likely to fund someone that actually worked for eight years on a construction site and was like, ‘you know what, I think this could be done better and maybe I can make my life easier with automation,’ rather than a Ph.D. in AI out of the Stanford lab that says ‘I think construction is inefficient and it can be done without people,'” Ajao said. “[We are] kind of flipping the paradigm in that sense.”

The firm has also backed birth control delivery startup The Pill Club, on-demand staffing company Wonolo and Tokensoft, a platform for compliant token sales. 

Beyond the bubble

Ajao and Nahigian have a mix of operational and investing experience.

On the VC side, Nahigian, a Los Angeles native, spent seven years investing via Summit Partners, Accel, then Coatue Management. In 2014, he co-founded Jobr, a mobile job platform that was later acquired by Monster, where he became the VP of product and head of mobile.

Ajao was most recently a VP at Workday where he led the launch of Workday Ventures, a VC fund focused on AI for enterprise software. He joined Workday after the company acquired his startup, Identified, in what was his second successful exit to date. Before that, he co-founded Spanish social media company Tuenti, which Telefonica paid $100 million for in 2010

He also helped incubate and launch Cabify, a Spanish ride-hailing company based in Madrid. The Uber competitor raised $160 million at a $1.4 billion valuation earlier this year.

Ajao was Nahigian’s first investor in Jobr, which was also backed by Tim Draper, Redpoint Ventures, Eniac Ventures, Lowercase Capital and more. The pair stayed in touch, discussed startups and potential deals, ultimately deciding to go into business together. 

They agreed Base10 should support companies solving real problems and that as investors, they needed to be able to see beyond the Silicon Valley bubble.

Do we feel a little bit of a responsibility? Like … ‘hey, you should help Silicon Valley be more aware of global issues.’ Yes,” Ajao said. “I try to spend a lot of time meeting with founders that either look different or are trying to make it here and I try to be super open about my journey and my travels.”

His piece of advice to other VCs is one that countless diverse founders and investors have been shouting at the top of their lungs: Invest in underrepresented founders, it’s just good business.

“If you have the same company and one is run by a female and one is run by a male, and it’s the same stuff, you should probably invest in the female, because that person probably had a harder time getting there,” he said. “It’s actually good business. I believe that.”

“The more open and comfortable we get about talking about these things, the better it is for both parties.”

 


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Twitter now puts live broadcasts at the top of your timeline

00:55 | 16 September

Twitter will now put live streams and broadcasts started by accounts you follow at the top of your timeline, making it easier to see what they’re doing in realtime.

In

, Twitter said that that the new feature will include breaking news, personalities and sports.

The social networking giant included the new feature in its iOS and Android apps, updated this week. Among the updates, Twitter said it’s now also supporting audio-only live broadcasts, as well as through its sister broadcast service Periscope.

Last month, Twitter discontinued its app for iOS 9 and lower versions, which according to Apple’s own data still harbors some 5 percent of all iPhone and iPad users.

 


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Facebook unveils “SapFix” AI auto-debugger and AI chip partners like Intel

20:29 | 13 September

Facebook has quietly built and deployed an artificial intelligence programming tool called SapFix that scans code, automatically identifies bugs, tests different patches, and suggests the best ones that engineers can choose to implement. Revealed today at Facebook’s @Scale engineering conference, SapFix is already running on Facebook’s massive code base and the company plans to eventually share it with the developer community.

“To our knowledge, this marks the first time that a machine-generated fix — with automated end-to-end testing and repair — has been deployed into a codebase of Facebook’s scale” writes Facebook’s developer tool team. “It’s an important milestone for AI hybrids and offers further evidence that search-based software engineering can reduce friction in software development.” SapFix can run with or without Sapienz, Facebook’s previous automated bug spotter. It uses them in conjunction with SapFix suggesting solutions to problems Sapienz discovers.

These types of tools could allow smaller teams to build more powerful products, or let big corporations save a ton on wasted engineering time. That’s criticalfor Facebook isince it has so many other problems to worry about.

Glow AI Hardware Partners

Meanwhile, Facebook is pressing forward with its strategy of reorienting the the computing hardware ecosystem around its own machine learning software. Today it announced that its Glow compiler for machine learning hardware acceleration has signed up the top silicon manufacturers like Cadence, Esperanto, Intel, Marvell, and Qualcomm to support Glow. The plan mirrors Facebook’s Open Compute Project for open sourcing server designs and Telecom Infra Project for connectivity technology.

“Hardware accelerators are specialized to solve the task of machine learning execution. They typically contain a large number of execution units, on-chip memory banks, and application-specific circuits that make the execution of ML workloads very efficient” Facebook’s team writes. “To execute machine learning programs on specialized hardware, compilers are used to orchestrate the different parts and make them work together . . . Hardware partners that use Glow can reduce the time it takes to bring their product to market.”

Essentially, Facebook needs help in the silicon department. Instead of isolating itself and building its own chips like Apple and Google, it’s effectively outsourcing the hardware development to the experts. That means it might forego a competitive advantage from this infrastructure, but it also allows it to save money and focus on its core strengths.

 


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European parliament gives thumbs up to controversial copyright reforms

14:42 | 12 September

The European Parliament has just voted to back controversial proposals to reform online copyright — including supporting an extension to cover snippets of publishers content (Article 11), and to make platforms that hold significant amounts of content liable for copyright violations by their users (Article 13).

Plenary adopts it’s negotiating position on copyright rules for the digital single market. Negotiations with Council will begin soon. pic.twitter.com/hJOhClrZyf

— JURI Committee Press (@EP_Legal)

Today’s plenary vote in the European parliament was on amended proposals that had been rejected by MEPs in a vote in July with parliamentarians arguing for a fuller debate and more balanced measures.

The vote is a major victory for MEP Axel Voss who has been driving the copyright reform.

MEPs largely backed Voss’ amended proposals today which had narrowed the scope of the rejected text, such as, in the case of Article 11, by allowing for links to contain individual words from the linked to publishers’ content — an attempt to respond to critics’ contention that the measure would outlaw hyperlinks (which can often contain the headline of an article).

On Article 13 Voss’ amended proposal had reduced the scope to platforms that both host “significant” amounts of content and also “promote” them. It also includes an exception for small businesses.

As the votes were announced a visibly delighted Voss beamed, clapped and hugged his seat neighbours, as well as giving a broad thumbs up to all those watching.

But critics and free speech advocates described it as a catastrophe.

Final vote for Parliament position on the copyright directive with

and
: adopted. Parliament has failed to listen to citizens’ and experts’ concerns.
pic.twitter.com/gtGi6rg5kL

— Julia Reda (@Senficon)

MEP Marietje Schaake expressed disappointment with the result, telling us: “The Parliament squandered the opportunity to get the copyright reform on the right track. This is a disastrous result for the protection of our fundamental rights, ordinary internet users and Europe´s future in the field of artificial intelligence. We have set a step backwards instead of creating a true copyright reform that is fit for the 21st century.”

“Members of the house, a heartfelt thanks for the job that we have done together. This is a good sign for the creative industries in Europe,” said Voss after the vote, as he asked for the report to be sent back to committee to begin institutional negotiations with Member States, via the European Council.

MEPs duly obliged.

There was just one interruption prior to that last vote, with a single MEP standing up to denounce the result as “an enormous strike against freedom of speech on the Internet”. Proceedings continued.

Other amendments that had been tabled by MEPs but were rejected by the parliament as a whole included ditching the reforms entirely and leaving the current law as is.

Welcoming the parliament’s vote in a statement, the European Commission’s VP for the Digital Single Market Andrus Ansip and commissioner for Digital Economy and Society, Mariya Gabriel, put out this joint statement:

We welcome today’s vote at the European Parliament. It is a strong and positive signal and an essential step to achieving our common objective of modernising the copyright rules in the European Union.

Discussions between the co-legislators can now start on a legislative proposal which is a key element of the Digital Single Market strategy and one of the priorities for the European Commission .

Our aim for this reform is to bring tangible benefits for EU citizens, researchers, educators, writers, artists, press and cultural heritage institutions and to open up the potential for more creativity and content by clarifying the rules and making them fit for the digital world. At the same time, we aim to safeguard free speech and ensure that online platforms – including 7,000 European online platforms – can develop new and innovative offers and business models.

The Commission stands ready to start working with the European Parliament and the Council of the EU, so that the directive can be approved as soon as possible, ideally by the end of 2018. We are fully committed to working with the co-legislators in order to achieve a balanced and positive outcome enabling a true modernisation of the copyright legislation that Europe needs.

Also very happy with the result a swathe of creative industries. The European Publishers Council welcome the adoption of the Publisher’s neighbouring right. In a statement its exec director, Angela Mills Wade, said: “Today, we give credit to MEPs who voted for press freedom, democracy, professional journalism and European values.  We thank the Rapporteur, Axel Voss, MEP, for working tirelessly to achieve a balanced outcome.”

 


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