How Australia Became Silicon Valley’s Favorite Testing Ground

October 5, 2018

Facebook, Spotify, Tinder—all have used the land down under as a test dummy for new features.

On the other side of the world, there is a remote and mysterious land where countries and companies alike go to perform dangerous underground experiments. Between 1952 and 1958, the United Kingdom conducted multiple nuclear weapons trials there, using highly radioactive materials, the locals kept mostly unaware of the risks. China allegedly uses the place to test its influence campaigns, including “strategies for breaking up the global reach of the United States.”

It has a relatively small, uninfluential economy, making it a great place to play around with money: Private equity firms have used it to test “so-called unitranche loans,” popular in the U.S. and Europe but untested in the region, while it’s also been called the “ideal testing ground for blockchain-based trading” due to the lack of fragmentation in its markets. Domino’s, meanwhile, tested pizza-delivering robots there.

The most far-reaching experiments, however, are conducted from afar. Managed from across the Pacific, in Silicon Valley, they take place on the inhabitants’ smartphones. Facebook, Spotify, Tinder—all have used the society as a test dummy for new features.

That land is Australia, and it is social media’s favorite guinea pig—or guinea pygmy possum, if you will. Australia has become a favored testing ground for new features, a popular place to give them a crack. As Fortune asked in 2015, “if a product flops in the outback and no one hears about it, did it really happen?”

Remember Facebook Messenger’s “Rooms”? No? Messenger tested the “bulletin board-style” messaging feature on Australians in 2016, allowing them to chat with strangers about specific topics, not unlike in a public Facebook group. (The trial appears to have failed, never making it out of Australia and Canada, and was discontinued in 2017.)

How ’bout Messenger Day? In October 2016, Facebook tested its Stories precursor on us, a feature that allowed users to share sticker-filled content on Messenger that would expire after 24 hours (Australia was the first English-speaking nation to trial it). The feature was soon rolled out globally, although Day was later killed off in favor of Stories.

In August 2016, Facebook tried video with autoplaying sound to see how much it would piss Aussies off. Apparently they could handle it, because it launched globally the following year (as did a bunch of articles explaining how to turn it off, with some annoyance at whoever gave that “positive feedback”).

In January 2017, Messenger tested inbox ads in Australia and Thailand, then expanded the trial after “promising results.” In November 2017, Facebook used Australia as a practice pen for fighting revenge porn by asking users to upload their own nudes—not a trial you want going wrong.

This year, Facebook—which still treats me as an Australian, even though I now live in the U.S.—let me test its comment upvote and downvote feature. That trial appears to have ended, but it’s now being tested on limited accounts in the U.S. The wording of the instructions has since been tweaked, from “Press the down arrow if a comment has bad intentions or is disrespectful” to “Support comments that are thoughtful, and demote ones that are uncivil or irrelevant.”

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