The Technology 202: Social networks want you to stay home — and to tell your friends to do the same

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With Tonya Riley

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Social networks perfected peer pressure. Now the coronavirus crisis is testing whether they can use that power to encourage social distancing aimed at stopping the spread of the virus.

Companies are increasingly experimenting with new features that make staying home part of a friendly competitive game. Zenly, a location-sharing app acquired by Snap, yesterday launched a leader board allowing friends to compare who stays at home the most. 

“While spending too much time at home could be perceived as uncool, we wanted to flip the narrative to make it something that our community would be proud of and do our part in stopping the spread,” Zenly head of design Danny Trinh told me. 

Foursquare Swarm, a social app for location check-ins, has made changes that reward people for checking in at their homes and to discourage them from going to gyms, bars or stores (besides groceries).

“Swarm has always had a bit of a snarky ‘we’ll shame you’ vibe to it, so giving people zero points for going to bars (with copy that says ‘Stay home!’) and giving people extra points for staying at home is right up our ally,” Foursquare co-founder and chairman Dennis Crowley told me. He added the app’s warnings to stay at home are very similar to the warnings he’s giving his own father.

Niko Bonatsos, a managing director at General Catalyst who has invested in social media companies, said it’s time for Foursquare check-ins to make a comeback or at least be “reborn” during this crisis. 

“So that I can check in… and maybe become the mayor of my apartment building,” he told me.

Instagram recently launched a “Stay Home” sticker. The company is placing posts from any accounts you follow in a shared Instagram story which allows you to see how others are practicing social distancing. The feature was so popular that Instagram chief Adam Mosseri said that “it almost took down Instagram,” during a live broadcast on the app yesterday. The company had to rebuild it to keep up with the demand and then relaunched it.

Even Pokémon Go, the augmented-reality game that sends people out in the world to capture digital characters, has revamped its app to optimize for indoor play. Tera Randall, a spokeswoman for the app’s maker Niantic, tells me the game reduced its walking requirements to zero, and it increased new rewards to boost the experience from home. 

Snapchat has launched an “I’m Staying Home” lens people can add to their photos. 

The updates underscore the critical role social networks stand to play as states and counties across the United States adopt lockdowns, stay-at-home orders and shelter-in-place rules as covid-19 claims more than 19,000 lives around the world. Policymakers and public-health experts say social pressure could play a key role in limiting the spread.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D), whose state is one of the hot zones acutely affected by the coronavirus, has said that social pressure is key to enforcing his statewide “stay-at-home” order.

“There’s a social contract here; people I think recognize the need to do more … They will begin to adjust and adapt as they have been quite significantly. We will have social pressure and that will encourage people to do the right thing,” he said.

Some technology investors think the broad orders to stay at home could be a transformational moment for tech companies and entrepreneurs.

“I am personally really excited about all the new-use cases that are emerging for existing or new products,” Bonatsos said. “When consumers have time in their hands or have to do things differently, they experiment.”

Hunter Walk, a co-founder of Homebrew Ventures who previously worked at YouTube, said he hopes tech companies’ efforts now can be applied beyond public health.

“Generally I’d say it’s fantastic to see these companies understand how they can influence people’s actions in a manner which promotes safety and wellness,” Walk said.  “I hope this opens doors to them all thinking creatively about other civic collective action issues, such as getting out the vote and volunteerism. ”

BITS, NIBBLES AND BYTES

BITS: Oracle and the White House are working together to develop a platform to promote unproven coronavirus treatments, my colleagues Yasmeen Abutaleb, Laurie McGinley and Josh Dawsey report. The platform will likely collect information about the use of chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine, two drugs for malaria that President Trump has promoted as a potential cure that have not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration to treat covid-19. 

Conversations with Oracle founder Larry Ellison, a prominent Trump fundraiser and supporter, helped convince Trump the drug may be a cure to the coronavirus, my colleagues report. Top health officials also attended Trump’s meeting with Ellison.

The president’s fixation on chloroquine has ramped up demand nationally, making it difficult for some patients who need the drug for diagnostic uses to find it.  An Arizona man died on Monday self-medicating with chloroquine phosphate, a fish tank cleaner, after watching a Trump briefing, NBC News reported.

Oracle declined requests to comment. The White House did not respond to request for comment.

NIBBLES: Workers from at least six Amazon warehouses in the United States tested positive for covid-19 in the past few days, my colleague Jay Greene reports. The cases, confirmed by local media outlets and Amazon, highlight the dangers Amazon workers face as the company races to meet increased customer demands. 

Amazon shut down facilities for cleaning in some cases where employees reported diagnoses, and some co-workers who were in close contact with their infected colleagues have been quarantined.

It’s unclear how effective those measures will be to slow the spread of the disease. Amazon workers say the company has taken insufficient steps to protect them from the virus, such as failing to provide them with appropriate sanitation materials and forcing them to work in close proximity, Jay previously reported. Amazon has struggled to procure enough face masks for its hundreds of thousands of warehouse workers, CEO Jeff Bezos admitted in a letter to employees. (Bezos also owns The Washington Post.)

Amazon recently announced it would hire 100,000 new workers to meet the increased demands posed by the coronavirus. But a rapid spread of the illness within its existing workforce could further stress the company’s operations, which are currently prioritizing essential items.

BYTES: Firms that gather cellphone location data for marketers are now compiling that data to track how people move during the coronavirus pandemic, my colleague Geoffrey A. Fowler reports. The new tools raise serious privacy concerns about how efforts to crack down on the pandemic could exploit location data users may already unknowingly give up to marketers and tech companies. 

Unacast, a company that analyzes phone location data for marketers, recently launched a scoreboard for how well regions were complying with quarantine orders using the data. Unacast uses reductions in travel for an index of how well people are socially isolating. Locations with a 40 percent or more reduction — like Washington — get an A; places with 10 percent or less get an F, like Wyoming.  The company declined to name which apps it draws data from but says all request location-tracking permission from users. The findings haven’t been vetted by public health officials. Another firm, Logo Grab, used public Instagram stories to track where Italians appeared to be breaking quarantine orders.

Unacast says it can’t track individual users, but the technology raises serious concerns as the U.S. government discusses potential means of using anonymous location data to combat the coronavirus with tech companies. Other countries have already taken more aggressive surveillance measures to track individuals using cellphone data.

“Following health experts’ guidance to ‘flatten the curve’ by limiting contact with others keeps everyone safer,” Geoffrey writes. ” But if you don’t want your phone’s location showing up on a social distancing map — or in the hands of marketers — carefully vet the apps you have installed or just turn off the phone’s location services.” 

FAST FWD

— News about tech workforce and culture:

— The San Francisco Board of Supervisors introduced a resolution aimed at enforcing workplace protections for gig workers. The action ramps up political pressure against Uber, Lyft, Instcart and other gig economy companies to provide health insurance and other protective benefits to workers while they continue to operate during the pandemic.

Gig Workers Rising and We Drive Progress pushed for the resolution, which urges state labor regulators to enforce AB5, a law they say requires companies employing gig workers to classify them as employees. The classification would give gig workers access to benefits such as paid sick leave, unemployment insurance and more.  The resolution also asks city and state attorneys to file for an immediate injunction to give workers access to basic workplace rights.

Lyft responded to the resolution with a statement praising workers for providing essential services to vulnerable populations during the pandemic, such as taking individuals to doctor appointments. 

But driver Mekela Edwards said that Lyft and other ride-hailing companies haven’t provided their workers with safety equipment, such as masks, or training to safely take on those jobs.

It’s a risk to have us going into hospitals right now, she told The Post during a press call organized by the groups.

Lyft has also introduced a fund for two weeks’ paid leave for drivers who are diagnosed or quarantined. But it declined to share data on how many drivers applied for the aid of have received it.

PRIVATE CLOUD

— News from the private sector:

PUBLIC CLOUD

— News from the public sector:

As the Trump administration moves to lower barriers to using virtual health care services during the coronavirus pandemic, experts say the efforts will still leave a key demographic struggling to access the online services in the outbreak: older, higher-risk Americans in rural communities who lack high-speed internet.

Morning Consult

#TRENDING

— News trending around the web:





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