Author Archives: Taylor Hatmaker

Research finds heavy Facebook users make impaired decisions like drug addicts

Researchers at Michigan State University are exploring the idea that there’s more to “social media addiction” than casual joking about being too online might suggest. Their paper, titled “Excessive social media users demonstrate impaired decision making in the Iowa Gambling Task” (Meshi, Elizarova, Bender and Verdejo-Garcia) and published in the Journal of Behavioral Addictions, indicates that people who use social media sites heavily actually display some of the behavioral hallmarks of someone addicted to cocaine or heroin.

The study asked 71 participants to first rate their own Facebook usage with a measure known as the Bergen Facebook Addiction Scale. The study subjects then went on to complete something called the Iowa Gambling Task (IGT), a classic research tool that evaluates impaired decision making. The IGT presents participants with four virtual decks of cards associated with rewards or punishments and asks them to choose cards from the decks to maximize their virtual winnings. As the study explains, “Participants are also informed that some decks are better than others and that if they want to do well, they should avoid the bad decks and choose cards from the good decks.”

What the researchers found was telling. Study participants who self-reported as excessive Facebook users actually performed worse than their peers on the IGT, frequenting the two “bad” decks that offer immediate gains but ultimate result in losses. That difference in behavior was statistically significant in the latter portion of the IGT, when a participant has had ample time to observe the deck’s patterns and knows which decks present the greatest risk.

The IGT has been used to study everything from patients with frontal lobe brain injuries to heroin addicts, but using it as a measure to examine social media addicts is novel. Along with deeper, structural research, it’s clear that researchers can apply to social media users much of the existing methodological framework for learning about substance addiction.

The study is narrow, but interesting, and offers a few paths for follow-up research. As the researchers recognize, in an ideal study, the researchers could actually observe participants’ social media usage and sort them into categories of high or low social media usage based on behavior rather than a survey they fill out.

Future research could also delve more deeply into excessive users across different social networks. The study only looked at Facebook use, “because it is currently the most widely used [social network] around the world,” but one could expect to see similar results with the billion-plus monthly Instagram and potentially the substantially smaller portion of people on Twitter.

Ultimately, we know that social media is shifting human behavior and potentially its neurological underpinnings, we just don’t know the extent of it — yet. Due to the methodical nature of behavioral research and the often extremely protracted process of publishing it, we likely won’t know for years to come the results of studies conducted now. Still, as this study proves, there are researchers at work examining how social media is impacting our brains and our behavior — we just might not be able to see the big picture for some time.

The queer dating app Her expands with curated community spaces

After carving out a niche as the first dating app by and for queer women, Her is broadening its mission. Today, the app formerly known as Dattch is launching a Communities feature — kind of like a set of mini queer subreddits — to let people connect around interests and identity as a group.

“We spent the past three years bringing people together in one on one conversations and introductions — communities is about taking it beyond the one on one,” Her founder Robyn Exton told TechCrunch.

“We started paying attention to the number of queer spaces that are closing,” Exton said, noting that women’s centers, lesbian bars, queer bookshops and other queer IRL spaces are closing in record numbers in recent years. “We actually think they’re needed more than ever.”

Her’s new Communities feature aims to create a digital version of those collective queer spaces, letting users connect with interest and identity-based groups, with message boards custom built for Her’s unique user base. Users can post content in Communities or follow another person’s feed to stay up to date on what’s going in the Her universe.

A curated starter pack of Communities launches today, though Exton plans to add more over time with the potential for user-generated Communities and pop-ups around specific events. The first set includes a space for queer women of color, one centered around mindfulness and wellbeing and another for news and entertainment, among others.

The categories are pretty broad for now, but it sounds like Her plans to adapt Communities to whatever its users end up wanting. That flexibility coupled with Exton’s commitment to maintaining a space that’s “so ragingly queer” set Her apart from dating apps that generally fumble any dating experience that isn’t explicitly for straight people or gay men.

Her also plans to push toward internationalization in 2018 to grow its 3 million registered users. The app is already live in 55 countries and its largest non-English speaking markets are France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Brazil, Mexico, Indonesia and the Philippines. The app will host events tailored toward each of those locales in the coming year.

Just in time for Pride Month, Her is also launching a rebrand aimed at making the app more inclusive and reflective of what Exton calls “the future of fluidity that we believe in.”

“Our community and our audience has changed hugely, even in the last three years,” Exton said. “We needed to reflect that as a brand.”

According to Exton, there’s been a massive spike in Her users under the age of 29 describing their gender as non-binary or their sexuality as pansexual — a shift reflective of language and identity evolution in the queer community at large. The language of the rebrand describes a vision in which “sexuality and gender are found on a spectrum, where labels remain but are not set in stone.”

Exton hopes that Communities will create meaningful spaces in which Her users can gather and explore their own identities as they evolve and change. “So much queerness that happens inside of Her,” Exton said. “People describe it as feeling like you’re coming home.”

Hello Alfred raises $40M to bring hotel-style hospitality to more households

New York-based chore wizard Hello Alfred is about expand its mission to make life easier, one to-do list at a time. The company commands a small army of thoroughly trained home helpers who take care of domestic tasks like sorting mail, taking out the trash and picking up groceries. Those helpers pop by on a weekly basis, and subscribers pay a monthly subscription fee to free their lives of little things that tend to add up to more than the sum of their parts.

Now, with a new $40 million Series B round, Hello Alfred is set to scale. The round was led by investors including real estate developers Divco West and Invesco. Spark Capital and New Enterprise Associates (NEA) also participated in the $40 million round after previously investing in the company. The company won our Startup Battlefield at Disrupt in 2014, back when it was just “Alfred .”

With its Series B, Hello Alfred will execute its plan to expand from serving 10,000 homes (some in Alfred partnered apartment buildings) to serving 100,000 by the end of the year. The company also intends to invest further in its technology data operations and its own line of home goods, known as Alfred Home Essentials.

Hello Alfred began in New York and currently operates in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Boston, Washington D.C., San Francisco, Chicago and Los Angeles with planned launches in Atlanta, Austin, Dallas, Denver, Houston, Miami, Portland, Raleigh and San Jose on the horizon. The company also intends to double the size of its team in 2018 while continuing to expand partnerships with vendors and products and real estate developers that fit its brand.

While many startups work to to automate away the human aspect of their business, Hello Alfred is all about the human touch. Instead of relying on contractors à la TaskRabbit or so many other services in the on-demand economy, Hello Alfred’s “Home Managers” are all full-time W-2 employees. Those workers get to know their clients, developing familiarity that ideally leads to even better hospitality over time.

Another thing that sets Hello Alfred apart: It’s profitable. The company opted to scale slowly, paying employee salary out of the profits it’s been generating since launch. With investors interested and a sustainable business model that could do without them anyway, Hello Alfred seems to be hitting its stride.

Twitter will give political candidates a special badge during U.S. midterm elections

Ahead of 2018 U.S. midterm elections, Twitter is taking a visible step to combat the spread of misinformation on its famously chaotic platform. In a blog post this week, the company explained how it would be adding “election labels” to the profiles of candidates running for political office.

“Twitter has become the first place voters go to seek accurate information, resources, and breaking news from journalists, political candidates, and elected officials,” the company wrote in its announcement. “We understand the significance of this responsibility and our teams are building new ways for people who use Twitter to identify original sources and authentic information.”

These labels feature a small government building icon and text identifying the position a candidate is running for and the state or district where the race is taking place. The label information included in the profile will also appear elsewhere on Twitter, even when tweets are embedded off-site.

The labels will start popping up after May 30 and will apply to candidates in state governor races as well as those campaigning for a seat in the Senate or the House of Representatives.

Twitter will partner with nonpartisan political non-profit Ballotpedia to create the candidate labels. In a statement announcing its partnership, Ballotpedia explains how that process will work:

“Ballotpedia covers all candidates in every upcoming election occurring within the 100 most-populated cities in the U.S., plus all federal and statewide elections, including ballot measures. After each state primary, Ballotpedia will provide Twitter with information on gubernatorial and Congressional candidates who will appear on the November ballot. After receiving consent from each candidate, Twitter will apply the labels to each candidate profile.”

The decision to create a dedicated process to verify political profiles is a step in the right direction for Twitter. With major social platforms still in upheaval over revelations around foreign misinformation campaigns during the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Twitter and Facebook need to take decisive action now if they intend to inoculate their users against a repeat threat in 2018.

US news sites are ghosting European readers on GDPR deadline

A cluster of U.S. news websites has gone dark for readers in Europe as the EU’s new privacy laws went into effect on Friday. The ruleset, known as General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), outlines a robust set of requirements that internet companies collecting any personal data on consumers must follow. The consequences are considerable enough that the American media company Tronc decided to block all European readers from its sites rather than risk the ramifications of its apparent noncompliance.

Tronc -owned sites affected by the EU blackout include the Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune, The New York Daily News, The Orlando Sentinel and The Baltimore Sun. Some newspapers owned by Lee Enterprises also blocked European readers, including The St. Louis Post Dispatch and The Arizona Daily Star.

While Tronc deemed its European readership disposable, at least in the short-term, most major national U.S. outlets took a different approach, serving a cleaned-up version of their website or asking users for opt-in consent to use their data. NPR even pointed delighted users toward a plaintext version of their site.

While many of the regional papers that blinked offline for EU users predominantly serve U.S. markets, some are prominent enough to attract an international readership, prompting European users left out in the cold to openly criticize the approach.

Those criticisms are well-deserved. The privacy regulations that GDPR sets in place were first adopted in April 2016, meaning that companies had two years to form a compliance plan before the regulations actually went live today.

What we can learn from the 3,500 Russian Facebook ads meant to stir up U.S. politics

On Thursday, Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee released a massive new trove of Russian government-funded Facebook political ads targeted at American voters. While we’d seen a cross section of the ads before through prior releases from the committee, the breadth of ideological manipulation is on full display across the more than 3,500 newly released ads — and that doesn’t even count still unreleased unpaid content that shared the same divisive aims.

After viewing the ads, which stretch from 2015 to late 2017, some clear trends emerged.

Russia focused on black Americans

Many, many of these ads targeted black Americans. From the fairly large sample of ads that we reviewed, black Americans were clearly of particular interest, likely in an effort to escalate latent racial tensions.

Many of these ads appeared as memorials for black Americans killed by police officers. Others simply intended to stir up black pride, like one featuring an Angela Davis quote. One ad posted by “Black Matters” was targeted at Ferguson, Missouri residents in June 2015 and only featured the lyrics to Tupac’s “California Love.” Around this time, many ads targeted black Facebook users in Baltimore and the St. Louis area.

Some Instagram ads targeted black voters interested in black power, Malcolm X, and the new Black Panther party using Facebook profile information. In the days leading up to November 8, 2016 other ads specifically targeted black Americans with anti-Clinton messaging.

Not all posts were divisive (though most were)

While most ads played into obvious ideological agendas, those posts were occasionally punctuated by more neutral content. The less controversial or call-to-action style posts were likely designed to buffer the politically divisive content, helping to build out and grow an account over time.

For accounts that grew over the course of multiple years, some “neutral” posts were likely useful for making them appear legitimate and build trust among followers. Some posts targeting LGBT users and other identity-based groups just shared positive messages specific to those communities.

Ads targeted media consumers and geographic areas

Some ads we came across targeted Buzzfeed readers, though they were inexplicably more meme-oriented and not political in nature. Others focused on Facebook users that liked the Huffington Post’s Black Voices section or Sean Hannity.

Many ads targeting black voters targeted major U.S. cities with large black populations (Baltimore and New Orleans, for example). Other geo-centric ads tapped into Texas pride and called on Texans to secede.

Conservatives were targeted on many issues

We already knew this from the ad previews, but the new collection of ads makes it clear that conservative Americans across a number of interest groups were regularly targeted. This targeting concentrated on stirring up patriotic and sometimes nationalist sentiment with anti-Clinton, gun rights, anti-immigrant and religious stances. Some custom-made accounts spoke directly to veterans and conservative Christians. Libertarians were also separately targeted.

Events rallied competing causes

Among the Russian-bought ads, event-based posts became fairly frequent in 2016. The day after the election, an event called for an anti-Trump rally in Union Square even as another ad called for Trump supporters to rally outside Trump tower. In another instance, the ads promoted both a pro-Beyoncé and anti-Beyoncé event in New York City.

Candidate ads were mostly pro-Trump, anti-Clinton

Consistent with the intelligence community’s assessment of Russia’s intentions during the 2016 U.S. election, among the candidates, posts slamming Hillary Clinton seemed to prevail. Pro-Trump ads were fairly common, though other ads stirred up anti-Trump sentiment too. Few ads seemed to oppose Bernie Sanders and some rallied support for Sanders even after Clinton had won the nomination. One ad in August 2016 from account Williams&Kalvin denounced both presidential candidates and potentially in an effort to discourage turnout among black voters. In this case and others, posts called for voters to ignore the election outright.

While efforts like the Honest Ads Act are mounting to combat foreign-paid social media influence in U.S. politics, the scope and variety of today’s House Intel release makes it clear that Americans would be well served to pause before engaging with provocative, partisan ideological content on social platforms — at least when it comes from unknown sources.

Instagram adds emoji slider stickers to spice up polls

If you’ve been meaning to ask your friends just how eggplant emoji your new summer cutoffs are, you’re in luck. Today, Instagram is introducing a feature it’s calling the “emoji slider,” a new audience feedback sticker that polls your viewers on a rating scale using any emoji. The updated Instagram app is available now in the App Store and in Google Play.

For example, if you decide to stay in on a Friday night and take risqué selfies you could ask your friends to rate just how angel emoji or how inexplicably-purple-devil-emoji your behavior is. Or say you see an animal and can’t quite figure out if it’s a snake or a salamander with those little tiny legs, you could poll your Instagram story-goers to ask how snake emoji the thing was on a scale of no snake emoji to 100 percent snake emoji. The impractical applications are endless.

Instagram says the emoji slider grew out of the natural popularity of the poll sticker, which is admittedly a pretty fun way to pressure your friends and admirers into spontaneous audience participation. With the emoji slider, you can ask how [emoji] something is instead of just asking your followers to operate under a binary set of options, because binaries are over, man.

If you’re into it, you can find the emoji slider in the sticker tray with most of the other excellent stoner nonsense. Just select it, write out your question, slap that baby on your story and wait for the sweet, sweet feedback to roll in.

Cryptojacking malware was secretly mining Monero on many government and university websites

A new report published by security researched Troy Mursch details how the cryptocurrency mining code known as Coinhive is creeping onto unsuspecting sites around the web. Mursch recently detected the Coinhive code running on nearly 400 websites, including ones belonging to the San Diego Zoo, Lenovo and another for the National Labor Relations Board. The full list is available here.

Notably, the list names a number of official government and education websites, including the Office of the Inspector General Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and sites for the University of Aleppo and the UCLA Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences program.

Most of the affected sites are hosted by Amazon and are located in the United States and Mursch believes that they were compromised through an outdated version of Drupal:

“Digging a little deeper into the cryptojacking campaign, I found in both cases that Coinhive was injected via the same method. The malicious code was contained in the “/misc/jquery.once.js?v=1.2” JavaScript library. Soon thereafter, I was notified of additional compromised sites using a different payload. However, all the infected sites pointed to the same domain using the same Coinhive site key.

Once the code was deobfuscated, the reference to “http://vuuwd.com/t.js” was clearly seen. Upon visiting the URL, the ugly truth was revealed. A slightly throttled implementation of Coinhive was found.”

Coinhive, a JavaScript program, mines the cryptocurrency known as Monero in the background through a web browser. While Coinhive isn’t intrinsically malicious, it can be injected into unsuspecting code in a “cryptojacking” attack, forcing it to mine Monero without the victim’s knowledge.

Cryptojacking malware was secretly mining Monero on many government and university websites

A new report published by security researched Troy Mursch details how the cryptocurrency mining code known as Coinhive is creeping onto unsuspecting sites around the web. Mursch recently detected the Coinhive code running on nearly 400 websites, including ones belonging to the San Diego Zoo, Lenovo and another for the National Labor Relations Board. The full list is available here.

Notably, the list names a number of official government and education websites, including the Office of the Inspector General Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and sites for the University of Aleppo and the UCLA Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences program.

Most of the affected sites are hosted by Amazon and are located in the United States and Mursch believes that they were compromised through an outdated version of Drupal:

“Digging a little deeper into the cryptojacking campaign, I found in both cases that Coinhive was injected via the same method. The malicious code was contained in the “/misc/jquery.once.js?v=1.2” JavaScript library. Soon thereafter, I was notified of additional compromised sites using a different payload. However, all the infected sites pointed to the same domain using the same Coinhive site key.

Once the code was deobfuscated, the reference to “http://vuuwd.com/t.js” was clearly seen. Upon visiting the URL, the ugly truth was revealed. A slightly throttled implementation of Coinhive was found.”

Coinhive, a JavaScript program, mines the cryptocurrency known as Monero in the background through a web browser. While Coinhive isn’t intrinsically malicious, it can be injected into unsuspecting code in a “cryptojacking” attack, forcing it to mine Monero without the victim’s knowledge.

Telegram blocked in Iran as the government orders telecoms to cut off access

As Moscow erupts in protests over its own ban, Iran’s judiciary has just ordered the nation’s telecommunications providers to block Telegram . According to the Wall Street Journal, Iran’s Islamic Republic News Agency stated that the decision was issued via a court ruling in Tehran. An estimated 40 million Iranians — half of the country’s population — use Telegram to communicate.

“Considering various complaints against Telegram social networking app by Iranian citizens, and based on the demand of security organisations for confronting the illegal activities of Telegram, the judiciary has banned its usage in Iran,” Iranian state TV reported, according to Reuters.

As of Monday, Telegram appears to still be functioning in the country following the court order. When the ban is executed, the popular messaging app will join the ranks of Facebook and Twitter, two other social media platforms banned in Iran. Government employees were ordered to quit the app earlier this month and the Iranian government launched its own Telegram competitor, a messaging app called Soroush, last week.

In January, Iran temporarily restricted Telegram access, ostensibly to quell anti-government demonstrations. When bans have occurred in the past, tech-savvy Iranians have turned to proxy services and other tools to keep connected.

In the past, Iran has suggested that it would allow Telegram and other messaging apps to operate domestically if they transferred their data servers into the country rather than storing data abroad. Given that such a move would meaningfully compromise a messaging app’s privacy in such a restrictive country — something Telegram’s founder Pavel Durov isn’t keen on — Iran will pursue control of the  messaging service with an outright ban instead.

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