Facebook is expanding Spotify partnership with new ‘Boombox’ project

Facebook is deepening its relationship with music company Spotify and will allow users to listen to music hosted on Spotify while browsing through its apps as part of a new initiative called “Project Boombox,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said Monday.

Facebook is building an in-line audio player that will allow users to listen to songs or playlists being shared on the platforms without being externally linked to Spotify’s app or website. Zuckerberg highlighted the feature as another product designed to improve the experience of creators on its platforms, specifically the ability of musicians to share their work, “basically making audio a first-class type of media,” he said.

The news was revealed in a wide-ranging interview with reporter Casey Newton on the company’s future pursuits in the audio world as Facebook aims to keep pace with upstart efforts like Clubhouse and increased activity in the podcasting world. Zuckerberg notably didn’t give a timeline on the feature rollout of “Project Boombox” and it was not further detailed in a company blog post summarizing the audio announcements.

“We think that audio is going to be a first-class medium and that there are all these different products to be built across this whole spectrum,” said Zuckerberg. “Of course, it includes some areas that, that have been, you know, popular recently like like podcasting and and kind of live audio rooms like this, but I also think that there’s some interesting things that are that are under explored in the area overall.”

Spotify has already supported a fairly product relationship with the Facebook and Instagram platforms. In recent years the music and podcasts platform has been integrated more deeply into Instagram Stories where users can share content from the service, a feature that’s also been available in Facebook Stories.

#ceo, #computing, #facebook, #instagram, #mark-zuckerberg, #operating-systems, #reporter, #social-media, #social-software, #software, #spotify, #tc, #the-social-network

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The Chainsmokers, Alexis Ohanian, Amy Schumer, Kevin Hart, Mark Cuban, Marshmello, and Snoop Dogg back Pearpop

Pearpop, the marketplace for social collaborations between the teeming hordes of musicians, craftspeople, chefs, clowns, diarists, dancers, artists, actors, acrobats, aspiring celebrities and actual celebrities, has raised $16 million in funding that includes what seems like half of Hollywood, along with Alexis Ohanian’s Seven Seven Six venture firm and Bessemer Venture Partners.

The funding was actually split between a $6 million seed funding round co-led by Ashton Kutcher and Guy Oseary’s Sound Ventures and Slow Ventures, with participation from Atelier Ventures and Chapter One Ventures and a $10 million additional investment led by Ohanian’s Seven Seven Six with participation from Bessemer.

TechCrunch first covered pearpop last year and there’s no denying that the startup is on to something. It basically takes Cameo’s celebrity marketplace for private shout-outs and makes it public. Allowing social media personalities to boost their followers by paying more popular personalities to shout out, duet, or comment on their posts.

“I’ve invested in pearpop because it’s been on my mind for a while that the creator economy has resulted in a lot of not equitable outcomes for creators. Where i talked about the missing middle class of the creator economy,” said Li Jin, the founder of Atelier Ventures and author of a critical piece on creator economics, “The creator economy needs a middle class“. 

“When I saw pearpop I felt like there was a really big potential for pearpop to be the one of the creators of the creative middle class. They’ve introduced this mechanism by which larger creators can help smaller creators and everyone has something of value to offer something to everyone else in the ecosystem.”

Jin discovered pearpop through the TechCrunch piece, she said. “You wrote that article and then i reached out to the team,” said Jin.

The idea was so appealing, it brought in a slew of musicians, athletes, actors and entertainers, including: Abel Makkonen (The Weeknd), Amy Schumer, The Chainsmokers, Diddy, Gary Vaynerchuk, Griffin Johnson, Josh Richards, Kevin Durant (Thirty 5 Ventures), Kevin Hart (HartBeat Ventures), Mark Cuban, Marshmello, Moe Shalizi, Michael Gruen (Animal Capital), MrBeast (Night Media Ventures), Rich Miner (Android co-founder) and Snoop Dogg.

“Pearpop has the potential to benefit all social media platforms by delivering new users and engagement, while simultaneously leveling the playing field of opportunity for creators,” said Alexis Ohanian, Founder, Seven Seven Six, in a statement. “The company has created a revolutionary new marketplace model that is set to completely reimagine how we think of social media monetization. As both a social media founder and an investor, I’m excited for what’s to come with pearpop.”

Already Heidi Klum, Loren Gray, Snoop Dogg, and Tony Hawk have gotten paid to appear in social media posts from aspiring auteurs on the social media platform TikTok.

Using the platform is relatively simple. A social media user (for now, that means just TikTok) sends a post that exists on their social feed and requests that another social media user interacts with it in some way — either commenting, posting a video in response, or adding a sound. If the request seems okay, or “on brand”, then the person who accepts the request performs the prescribed action.

Pearpop takes a 25% cut of all transactions with the social media user who’s performing the task getting the other 75%.

The company wouldn’t comment on revenue numbers, except to say that it’s on track to bring in seven figures this year.

Users on the platform set their prices and determine which kinds of services they’re willing to provide to boost the social media posts of their contractors.

Prices range anywhere from $5 to $10,000 depending on the size of a user’s following and the type of request that’s being made. Right now, the most requested personality on the marketplace is the TikTok star, Anna Banana.

These kinds of transactions do have impacts. The company said that personalities on the platform were able to increase their follower count with the service. For instance, Leah Svoboda went from 20K to 141K followers, after a pearpop duet with Anna Shumate.

If this all makes you feel like you’ve tripped and fallen through a Black Mirror into a dystopian hellscape where everything and every interaction is a commodity to be mined for money, well… that’s life.

“What I appreciate most about pearpop is the control it gives me as a creator,” said Anna Shumate, TikTok influencer @annabananaxdddd. “The platform allows me to post what I want and when I want. My followers still love my content because it’s authentic and true to me, which is what sets pearpop apart from all of the other opportunities on social media.”

Talent agencies, too, see the draw. Early adopters include Talent X, Get Engaged, and Next Step Talent and The Fuel Injector, which has added its entire roster of talent to pearpop, which includes Kody Antle, Brooke Monk and Harry Raftus, the company said.

“The initial concept came out of an obvious gap within the space: no marketplace existed for creators of all sizes to monetize through simple, authentic collaborations that are mutually beneficial,” said Cole Mason, co-founder & CEO, pearpop.  “It soon became clear that this was a product that people had been waiting for, as thousands of people rely on our platform today to gain full control of their social capital for the first time starting with TikTok.”

#alexis-ohanian, #amy-schumer, #android, #anna-shumate, #ashton-kutcher, #atelier-ventures, #author, #bessemer-venture-partners, #bytedance, #cole-mason, #founder, #gary-vaynerchuk, #instagram, #kevin-durant, #kevin-hart, #li-jin, #mark-cuban, #pearpop, #slow-ventures, #snoop-dogg, #social-media, #social-media-monetization, #social-media-platforms, #software, #tc, #techcrunch, #tiktok, #tony-hawk, #video-hosting

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Deep fake video app Avatarify, which process on-phone, plans digital watermark for videos

Making deep fake videos used to be hard. Now all you need is a smartphone. Avatarify, a startup that allows people to make deep-fake videos directly on their phone rather than in the Cloud, is soaring up the app charts after being used by celebrities such as Victoria Beckham.

However, the problem with many deep fake videos is that there is no digital watermark to determine that the video has been tampered with. So Avatarify says it will soon launch a digital watermark to prevent this from happening.

Run out of Moscow but with a US HQ, Avatarify launched in July 2020 and since then has been downloaded millions of times. The founders say that 140 million deepfake videos were created with Avatarify this year alone. There are now 125 million views of videos with the hashtag #avatarify on TikTok. While its competitors include the well-funded Reface, Snapchat, Wombo.ai, Mug Life, Xpression, Avatarify has yet to raise any money beyond an Angel round.

Despite taking only $120,000 in angel funding, the company has yet to accept any venture capital and says it has bootstrapped its way from zero to almost 10 million downloads and claims to have a $10 million annual run-rate with a team of less than 10 people.

It’s not hard to see why. Avatarify has a freemium subscription model. They offer a 7-day free trial and a 12-month subscription for $34.99 or a weekly plan for $2.49. Without a subscription, they offer the core features of the App for free, but videos then carry a visible watermark.

The founders also say the app protects privacy, because the videos are processed directly on the phone, rather than in the cloud where they could be hacked.

Avatarify processes user’s photos and turns them into short videos by animating faces, using machine learning algorithms, and adding sounds. The user chooses a picture she wants to animate, chooses the effects and music, and then taps to animate the picture. This short video can then be posted on Instagram or TikTok.

The Avatarify videos are taking off on TikTok because teens no longer need to learn a dance or be much more creative than finding a photo of a celebrity to animate to.

Avartify says you can’t use their app to impersonate someone, but there is of course no way to police this.

Founders Ali Aliev and Karim Iskakov wrote the app during the COVID-19 lockdown in April 2020. Ali spent 2 hours writing a program in Python to transfer his facial expressions to the other person’s face and use a filter in Zoom. The result was a real-time video, which could be streamed to Zoom. He joined a call with Elon Mask’s face and everyone on the call was shocked. The team posted the video, which then went viral.

The code on Github and immediately saw the number of downloads grow. The repository was published on 6 April 2020, and as of 19 March 2021 had been downloaded 50,000 times.

Ali left his job at Samsung AI Centre and devoted himself to the app. After Avatarify’s iOS app was released on 28 June 2020, viral videos on TikTok, created with the app, led it to App Store’s top charts without paid acquisition. In February 2021, Avatarify was ranked first among Top Free Apps worldwide. Between February and March, the app 2021 generated more than $1M in revenue (Source: AppMagic).

However, despite Avartify’s success, the ongoing problems with deep-fake videos remain, such as using these apps to make non-consensual porn, using the faces of innocent people.

#apps, #artificial-intelligence, #europe, #github, #instagram, #mobile-applications, #mobile-software, #moscow, #python, #reface, #samsung, #smartphone, #snapchat, #software, #tc, #tiktok, #united-states, #venture-capital, #video-hosting

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Instagram’s new test lets you choose if you want to hide ‘Likes,’ Facebook test to follow

Instagram today will begin a new test around hiding Like counts on users’ posts, following its experiments in this area which first began in 2019. This time, however, Instagram is not enabling or disabling the feature for more users. Instead, it will begin to explore a new option where users get to decide what works best for them — either choosing to see the Like counts on others’ posts, or not. Users will also be able to turn off Like counts on their own posts, if they choose. Facebook additionally confirmed it will begin to test a similar experience on its own social network.

Instagram says tests involving Like counts were deprioritized after Covid-19 hit, as the company focused on other efforts needed to support its community. (Except for that brief period this March where Instagram accidentally hid Likes for more users due to a bug.)

The company says it’s now revisiting the feedback it collected from users during the tests and found a wide range of opinions. Originally, the idea with hiding Like counts was about reducing the anxiety and embarrassment that surrounds posting content on the social network. That is, people would stress over whether their post would receive enough Likes to be deemed “popular.” This problem was particularly difficult for Instagram’s younger users, who care much more about what their peers think — so much so that they would take down posts that didn’t receive “enough” Likes.

In addition, the removal of Likes helped reduce the sort of herd mentality that drives people to like things that are already popular, as opposed to judging the content for themselves.

But during tests, not everyone agreed the removal of Likes was a change for the better. Some people said they still wanted to see Like counts so they could track what was trending and popular. The argument for keeping Likes was more prevalent among the influencer community, where creators used the metric in order to communicate their value to partners, like brands and advertisers. Here, lower engagement rates on posts could directly translate to lower earnings for these creators.

Both arguments for and against Likes have merit, which is why Instagram’s latest test will put the choice back into users’ own hands.

This new test will be enabled for a small percentage of users globally on Instagram, the company says.

If you’ve been opted in, you’ll find a new option to hide the Likes from within the app’s Settings. This will prevent you from seeing Likes on other people’s posts as you scroll through your Instagram Feed. As a creator, you’ll be able to hide Likes on a per-post basis via the three-dot “…” menu at the top. Even if Likes are disabled publicly, creators are still able to view Like counts and other engagements through analytics, just as they did before.

The tests on Facebook, which has also been testing Like count removals for some time, have not yet begun. Facebook tells TechCrunch those will roll out in the weeks ahead.

Making Like counts an choice may initially seem like it could help to address everyone’s needs. But in reality, if the wider influencer community chooses to continue to use Likes as a currency that translates to popularity and job opportunities, then other users will continue to do the same.

Ultimately, communities themselves have to decide what sort of tone they want to set, preferably from the outset — before you’ve attracted millions of users who will be angry when you later try to change course.

There’s also a question as to whether social media users are really hungry for an “Like-free” safer space. For years we’ve seen startups focused on building an “anti-Instagram” of sorts, where they drop one or more Instagram features, like algorithmic feeds, Likes and other engagement mechanisms, such as Minutiae, Vero, Dayflash, Oggl, and now, newcomers like troubled Dispo, or under-the-radar Herd. But Instagram has yet to fail because of an anti-Instagram rival. If anything is a threat, it’s a new type of social network entirely, like TikTok –where it should be noted getting Likes and engagements is still very important for creator success.

Instagram didn’t say how long the new tests would last or if and when the features would roll out more broadly.

“We’re testing this on Instagram to start, but we’re also exploring a similar experience for Facebook. We will learn from this new small test and have more to share soon,” a Facebook company spokesperson said.

#apps, #facebook, #influencers, #instagram, #like-button, #likes, #social, #social-apps, #social-media, #social-network, #social-software

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Facebook, Instagram users can now ask ‘oversight’ panel to review decisions not to remove content

Facebook’s self-styled ‘Oversight Board’ (FOB) has announced an operational change that looks intended to respond to criticism of the limits of the self-regulatory content-moderation decision review body: It says it’s started accepting requests from users to review decisions to leave content up on Facebook and Instagram.

The move expands the FOB’s remit beyond reviewing (and mostly reversing) content takedowns — an arbitrary limit that critics said aligns it with the economic incentives of its parent entity, given that Facebook’s business benefits from increased engagement with content (and outrageous content drives clicks and makes eyeballs stick).

“So far, users have been able to appeal content to the Board which they think should be restored to Facebook or Instagram. Now, users can also appeal content to the Board which they think should be removed from Facebook or Instagram,” the FOB writes, adding that it will “use its independent judgment to decide what to leave up and what to take down”.

“Our decisions will be binding on Facebook,” it adds.

The ability to request an appeal on content Facebook wouldn’t take down has been added across all markets, per Facebook. But the tech giant said it will take some “weeks” for all users to get access as it said it’s rolling out the feature “in waves to ensure stability of the product experience”.

While the FOB can now get individual pieces of content taken down from Facebook/Instagram — i.e. if the Board believes it’s justified in reversing an earlier decision by the company not to remove content — it cannot make Facebook adopt any associated suggestions vis-a-vis its content moderation policies generally.

That’s because Facebook has never said it will be bound by the FOB’s policy recommendations; only by the final decision made per review.

That in turn limits the FOB’s ability to influence the shape of the tech giant’s approach to speech policing. And indeed the whole effort remains inextricably bound to Facebook which devised and structured the FOB — writing the Board’s charter and bylaws, and hand picking the first cohort of members. The company thus continues to exert inescapable pull on the strings linking its self-regulatory vehicle to its lucrative people-profiling and ad-targeting empire.

The FOB getting the ability to review content ‘keep ups’ (if we can call them that) is also essentially irrelevant when you consider the ocean of content Facebook has ensured the Board won’t have any say in moderating — because its limited resources/man-power mean it can only ever consider a fantastically tiny subset of cases referred to it for review.

For an oversight body to provide a meaningful limit on Facebook’s power it would need to have considerably more meaty (i.e. legal) powers; be able to freely range across all aspects of Facebook’s business (not just review user generated content); and be truly independent of the adtech mothership — as well as having meaningful powers of enforcement and sanction.

So, in other words, it needs to be a public body, functioning in the public interest.

Instead, while Facebook applies its army of in house lawyers to fight actual democratic regulatory oversight and compliance, it has splashed out to fashion this bespoke bureaucracy that can align with its speech interests — handpicking a handful of external experts to pay to perform a content review cameo in its crisis PR drama.

Unsurprisingly, then, the FOB has mostly moved the needle in a speech-maximizing direction so far — while expressing some frustration at the limited deck of cards Facebook has dealt it.

Most notably, the Board still has a decision pending on whether to reverse Facebook’s indefinitely ban on former US president Donald Trump. If it reverses that decision Facebook users won’t have any recourse to appeal the restoration of Trump’s account.

The only available route would, presumably, be for users to report future Trump content to Facebook for violating its policies — and if Facebook refuses to take that stuff down, users could try to request a FOB review. But, again, there’s no guarantee the FOB will accept any such review requests. (Indeed, if the board chooses to reinstate Trump that may make it harder for it to accept requests to review Trump content, at least in the short term (in the interests of keeping a diverse case file, so… )

How to ask for a review after content isn’t removed

To request the FOB review a piece of content that’s been left up a user of Facebook/Instagram first has to report the content to Facebook/Instagram.

If the company decides to keep the content up Facebook says the reporting person will receive an Oversight Board Reference ID (a ten-character string that begins with ‘FB’) in their Support Inbox — which they can use to appeal its ‘no takedown’ decision to the Oversight Board.

There are several hoops to jump through to make an appeal: Following on-screen instructions Facebook says the user will be taken to the Oversight Board website where they need to log in with the account to which the reference ID was issued.

They will then be asked to provide responses to a number of questions about their reasons for reporting the content (to “help the board understand why you think Facebook made the wrong decision”).

Once an appeal has been submitted, the Oversight Board will decide whether or not to review it. The board only selects a certain number of “eligible appeals” to review; and Facebook has not disclosed the proportion of requests the Board accepts for review vs submissions it receives — per case or on aggregate. So how much chance of submission success any user has for any given piece of content is an unknown (and probably unknowable) quantity.

Users who have submitted an appeal against content that was left up can check the status of their appeal via the FOB’s website — again by logging in and using the reference ID.

A further limitation is time, as Facebook notes there’s a time limit on appealing decisions to the FOB

“Bear in mind that there is a time limit on appealing decisions to the Oversight Board. Once the window to appeal a decision has expired, you will no longer be able to submit it,” it writes in its Help Center, without specifying how long users have to get their appeal in (we asked Facebook to confirm this and it’s 15 days). 

#content-moderation, #content-takedowns, #donald-trump, #facebook, #facebook-oversight-board, #freedom-of-expression, #instagram, #oversight-board, #policy, #social, #social-media, #user-generated-content

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Facebook takes down 16,000 groups trading fake reviews after another poke by UK’s CMA

Facebook has removed 16,000 groups that were trading fake reviews on its platform after another intervention by the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), the regulator said today.

The CMA has been leaning on tech giants to prevent their platforms being used as thriving marketplaces for selling fake reviews since it began investigating the issue in 2018 — pressuring both eBay and Facebook to act against fake review sellers back in 2019.

The two companies pledged to do more to tackle the insidious trade last year, after coming under further pressure from the regulator — which found that Facebook-owned Instagram was also a thriving hub of fake review trades.

The latest intervention by the CMA looks considerably more substantial than last year’s action — when Facebook removed a mere 188 groups and disabled 24 user accounts. Although it’s not clear how many accounts the tech giant has banned and/or suspended this time it has removed orders of magnitude more groups. (We’ve asked.)

Facebook was contacted with questions but it did not answer what we asked directly, sending us this statement instead:

“We have engaged extensively with the CMA to address this issue. Fraudulent and deceptive activity is not allowed on our platforms, including offering or trading fake reviews. Our safety and security teams are continually working to help prevent these practices.”

Since the CMA has been raising the issue of fake review trading, Facebook has been repeatedly criticised for not doing enough to clean up its platforms, plural.

Today the regulator said the social media giant has made further changes to the systems it uses for “identifying, removing and preventing the trading of fake and/or misleading reviews on its platforms to ensure it is fulfilling its previous commitments”.

It’s not clear why it’s taken Facebook well over a year — and a number of high profile interventions — to dial up action against the trade in fake reviews. But the company suggested that the resources it has available to tackle the problem had been strained as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and associated impacts, such as home working. (Facebook’s full year revenue increased in 2020 but so too did its expenses.)

According to the CMA changes Facebook has made to its system for combating traders of fake reviews include:

  • suspending or banning users who are repeatedly creating Facebook groups and Instagram profiles that promote, encourage or facilitate fake and misleading reviews
  • introducing new automated processes that will improve the detection and removal of this content
  • making it harder for people to use Facebook’s search tools to find fake and misleading review groups and profiles on Facebook and Instagram
  • putting in place dedicated processes to make sure that these changes continue to work effectively and stop the problems from reappearing

Again it’s not clear why Facebook would not have already been suspending or banning repeat offenders — at least, not if it was actually taking good faith action to genuinely quash the problem, rather than seeing if it could get away with doing the bare minimum.

Commenting in a statement, Andrea Coscelli, chief executive of the CMA, essentially makes that point, saying: “Facebook has a duty to do all it can to stop the trading of such content on its platforms. After we intervened again, the company made significant changes — but it is disappointing it has taken them over a year to fix these issues.”

“We will continue to keep a close eye on Facebook, including its Instagram business. Should we find it is failing to honour its commitments, we will not hesitate to take further action,” Coscelli added.

A quick search on Facebook’s platform for UK groups trading in fake reviews appears to return fewer obviously dubious results than when we’ve checked in on this problem in 2019 and 2020. Although the results that were returned included a number of private groups so it was not immediately possible to verify what content is being solicited from members.

We did also find a number of Facebook groups offering Amazon reviews intended for other European markets, such as France and Spain (and in one public group aimed at Amazon Spain we found someone offering a “fee” via PayPal for a review; see below screengrab) — suggesting Facebook isn’t applying the same level of attention to tackling fake reviews that are being traded by users in markets where it’s faced fewer regulatory pokes than it has in the UK.

Screengrab: TechCrunch

#competition-and-markets-authority, #europe, #facebook, #fake-reviews, #instagram, #policy, #social, #social-media, #united-kingdom

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Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp are super broken right now

Are Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp down for you right now? Us too! And lots and lots of other people too, it seems.

We’re getting reports of outages left and right across the three Facebook properties, with no indication so far as to the cause. It’s all down so hard that Facebook’s status page won’t even load to explain what’s up. Some of the respective apps appear to load, but are just loading cached data; refresh or try to pull in a new page, and things probably won’t load correctly.

When Facebook does load, it’s largely throwing the following error message:

 

This outage comes just a few weeks after one that took out Instagram and Whatsup in March.

Story developing…

 

#facebook, #instagram, #tc, #whatsapp

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Lawmakers press Instagram for details on its plans for kids

A group of Democratic lawmakers wrote to Mark Zuckerberg this week to press the CEO on his plans to curate a version of Instagram for children. In a hearing last month, Zuckerberg confirmed reporting by BuzzFeed that the company was exploring an age-gated version of its app designed for young users.

Senators Ed Markey (D-MA), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Representatives Lori Trahan (D-MA) and Kathy Castor (D-FL) signed the letter, expressing “serious concerns” about the company’s ability to protect the privacy and well being of young users.

“Facebook has an obligation to ensure that any new platforms or projects targeting children put those users’ welfare first, and we are skeptical that Facebook is prepared to fulfill this obligation,” the lawmakers wrote.

They cited previous failures with products like Messenger Kids, which had a flaw that allowed kids to chat with people beyond their privacy parameters.

“Although software bugs are common, this episode illustrated the privacy threats to children online and evidenced Facebook’s inability to protect the kids the company actively invited onto this platform,” the lawmakers wrote.

“In light of these and other previous privacy and security issues on Facebook’s platforms, we are not confident that Facebook will be able to adequately protect children’s privacy on a version of Instagram for young users.”

The letter set a deadline of April 26 for the company to provide answers to a comprehensive and helpfully specific set of questions about a future kid-targeted product.

In the letter, lawmakers posed a number of questions about how Facebook will handle the private data for young users and if that data would be deleted when an account is terminated. They also asked the company to commit to not targeting kids with ads and not employing push alerts and behavior-shaping features designed to make apps more addictive.

During last month’s big tech hearing in the House, committee members from both political parties grilled Zuckerberg about how Facebook and Instagram adversely affect mental health in young users. Rep. Castor also pressed the chief executive about underage users who circumvent Instagram’s existing age guidelines to use a platform full of posts, videos and ads designed for adults.

“Of course, every parent knows there are kids under the age of 13 on Instagram, and the problem is that you know it,” Zuckerberg said.

#congress, #facebook, #government, #instagram, #kids, #messenger-kids, #social, #tc, #the-battle-over-big-tech

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Lowkey raises $7 million from a16z to help game streamers capitalize on short-form video

While the growth of game-streaming audiences have continued on desktop platforms, the streaming space has felt surprisingly stagnant at times, particularly due to the missing mobile element and a lack of startup competitors.

Lowkey, a gaming startup that builds software for game streamers, is aiming to build out opportunities in bit-sized clips on mobile. The startup wants to be a hub for both creating and viewing short gaming clips but also sees a big opportunity in helping streamers cut down their existing content for distribution on platforms like Instagram and TikTok where short-form gaming content sees a good deal of engagement.

The startup announced today that they’ve closed a $7 million Series A led by Andreessen Horowitz with participation from a host of angel investors including Figma’s Dylan Field, Loom’s Joe Thomas and Plaid’s Zach Perret & William Hockey.

We last covered Lowkey in early 2020 when the company was looking to build out a games tournament platform for adults. At the time, the company had already pivoted after going through YC as Camelot but which allowed audiences on Twitch and YouTube pay creators to take on challenges. This latest shift brings Lowkey back to the streaming world but more focused on becoming a tool for streamers and a hub for viewers.

Twitch and YouTube Gaming have proven to be pretty uninterested in short-form content, favoring the opportunities of long-form streams that allow creators to press broadcast and upload lengthy streams. Lowkey users can easily upload footage captured from Lowkey’s desktop app or directly import a linked stream. This allows content creators to upload and comment on their own footage or remix and respond to another streamer’s content.

One of the challenges for streamers has been adapting widescreen content for a vertical video form factor, but CEO Jesse Zhang says that it’s not really a problem with most modern games. “Games inherently want to focus you attention on the center of the screen,” Zhang tells TechCrunch. “So, almost all clips extend really cleanly to like a mobile format, which is what we’ve done.”

Lowkey’s desktop app is available on Windows and their new mobile app is now live for iOS.

#andreessen-horowitz, #ceo, #digital-media, #gaming, #hockey, #instagram, #joe-thomas, #mass-media, #microsoft-windows, #twitch, #video-hosting, #world-wide-web, #youtube, #zach-perret

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Instagram officially launches Remix on Reels, a TikTok Duets-like feature

Instagram today is officially launching a new feature called Remix, which offers a way to record your Reels video alongside a video from another user. The option is similar to TikTok’s existing Duets feature, which also lets users to react to or interact with another person’s video content while creating their own. Instagram’s new feature has been in public testing before today, so some Instagram users may have already gained access.

We recently reported on Instagram’s plans with Remix, when noting that Snapchat was developing a Remix feature of its own. In fact, Snapchat is also using the name “Remix” for its TikTok Duets rival that’s currently in development.

On TikTok, Duets are a key part to making the app feel more like a social network and less of just a passive video-watching experience. Users take advantage of Duets to sing, dance, joke or act alongside another user’s video. They will do things like cook someone else’s recipe, record a reaction video, or even just watch a video from a smaller creator to give them a boost.

Meanwhile, TikTok competitors — like Instagram Reels, Snapchat’s Spotlight or YouTube’s Shorts, for example — have launched their short-form video experiences without a full set of engagement or editing features like TikTok has, making their apps feel like pale knock-offs of the original. Remix on Reels is a first step towards changing that perception, by giving users at least one important option to engage and collaborate with their fellow creatives.

To use the new Remix feature, you’ll first tap on the three-dot menu on a Reel and select the new “Remix this Reel” option. The screen will then split into the original Reel and your own new one, where you can begin to record side-by-side with the original. When you’ve finished, you can tweak other aspects of the recording like the volume of the original video or your audio and you can optionally add a voiceover. After applying these or any other edits, you can publish the Remix.

The feature will only be available on newly uploaded Reels — so unfortunately, if you want your older Reels to be duetted, you’ll need to reupload them, it seems.

Image Credits: Instagram

Your Remixes will appear alongside any other Reels you’ve recorded on the Reels tab on your Instagram profile, and you’ll be able to track who has remixed your content through Instagram’s Activity tab.

The feature is rolling out, starting today, says Instagram.

#apps, #duets, #facebook, #instagram, #mobile-applications, #reel, #reels, #social, #social-media, #social-network, #tiktok, #video

0

“Link-in-bio” company Linktree raises $45M Series B for its social commerce features

If you browse Instagram, you are probably familiar with the term “link in bio.” Links aren’t allowed in post captions, and users are only allowed one URL in their bios, so many create a simple website with multiple links for their followers. Linktree, one of the most popular “link in bio” services with more than 12 million users, announced today it has raised $45 million in Series B funding. The round was co-led by Index Ventures and Coatue, with participation from returning investors AirTree Ventures and Insight Partners.

Coatue chairman Dan Rose will join Linktree’s board of directors. The Sydney, Australia-based startup’s last round was a $10.7 million Series A announced in October 2020. Linktree’s latest funding will be used on tools that make social commerce easier.

Linktree says about a third, or 4 million, of its users signed up within the last three months. This is in partly because people have been spending more time on social media and e-commerce shopping during the pandemic.

Founded in 2016, Linktree now competes with a roster of “link in bio” services, including Shorby, Linkin.bio and the recently launched Beacons.

“When we launched Linktree, we created an entirely new category. We were first to market and, with over 12 million users globally, still hold 88% of market share,” founder and chief executive officer Alex Zaccaria told TechCrunch. “Inevitably we’ve seen plenty of competitors pop up as a result, but part of the uniqueness of Linktree is its deceptively simple design.”

Zaccaria added that one of Linktree’s differentiators is its adoption by users in a wide range of categories, including health and wellness, real estate, sports, music, politics, publishing and food. It’s used for bio links by Shopify, Facebook, TikTok, YSL, HBO and Major League Baseball, and celebrities like Jonathan Van Ness, Jamie Oliver and Pharrell.

“We might have started as a link-in-bio tool, but over time Linktree has evolved and the platform has become a social identity layer of the internet. Our vision for how the platform will sit at the intersection of digital self-expression and action means we’re thinking boldly when it comes to our roadmap.”

#australia, #fundings-exits, #instagram, #link-in-bio, #linktree, #social-commerce, #social-media, #startups, #tc

0

Instagram and WhatsApp hit by outage

Instagram and WhatsApp experienced an apparent outage on Friday. It began around 1:40 p.m. ET and lasted for more than half an hour.

WhatsApp was unable to connect to the server, and messages were not being delivered. It’s not clear if the issue also affected Facebook Messenger, which last year rolled out new functionality to allow cross-platform messaging between Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram.

Instagram was showing a 500 message, suggesting a back-end server error.

Instagram's error page

Instagram’s error page. (Image: TechCrunch)

WhatsApp unable to connect to the server. (Image: TechCrunch)

WhatsApp has more than two billion users, and Instagram has about one billion users. Facebook’s developer status page did not show any immediate outages.

We’ve reached out to Facebook, which owns the two units, but did not immediately hear back. We’ll update when we know more.

More on TechCrunch:

#apps, #instagram, #social, #tc, #whatsapp

0

Instagram adds new teen safety tools as competition with TikTok heats up

Earlier this year, TikTok made an update to its privacy settings and defaults to further lock down the app for its teenage users. This morning, Instagram followed suit with teen-focused privacy updates of its own. But the Facebook-owned social app didn’t choose to add more privacy to teen accounts by default, as TikTok did — it largely made it more difficult for adults to interact with the app’s teen users.

The company said it’s rolling out new safety features that would restrict adult users from being able to contact teens who didn’t already follow them. The exception to this rule would still allow the teen to interact with adult family members and other trusted adults on the platform, like family friends. In the case that an adult tried to DM a teen who didn’t follow them, they’d receive a notification informing them this wasn’t possible.

And if the teen has already connected with an adult and is DM’ing with them, they’ll be notified if that adult is exhibiting suspicious behavior — like sending a large amount of friend requests or messages to users under 18. This tool will also then allow the teen to end the conversation, block, report or restrict the adult from further contact.

Image Credits: Instagram

In addition, Instagram said it will make it more difficult for adults to find and follow teens in other places within the Instagram app, including Explore, Reels, and more. This will include restricting adults from seeing teen accounts in the “Suggested Users” section of the app, as well as hiding their comments on public posts.

The company also noted it’s developing new A.I. and machine learning-based technology that would make it possible to find teens lying about their age on the app. This could result in these features being applied, even if the teen in question had lied about their birth date when signing up for the app, but the technology isn’t fully live yet.

Other additions rolling out as part of today’s updates include new safety resources for parents in the app’s Parents Guide and educational material for teens that will better explain what it means to have a public account on the app, and encourage them to choose private options.

Image Credits: Instagram

The launch timing here is notable, as TikTok has recently focused on making its platform safer for teens — not only with the changes to its default settings, but also with the addition of parental controls last year. The company last year took the unusual step of bundling a parental control mechanism directly into its app that lets a parent link to a child’s TikTok account to control their profile’s privacy, what they’re allowed to do on the app, and even which feed they can view. The company has continued to expand these controls following their launch, indicating that it considers these core features. By making privacy and parental controls a key part of the experience, the app is more likely to be blessed by parents who would otherwise restrict their teens’ social media access — and that helps TikTok grow its user base and teens’ time spent in the app, sometimes at Instagram’s expense.

#a-i, #apps, #facebook, #family, #instagram, #mobile-applications, #parents, #privacy, #safety, #social, #social-media, #teens, #tiktok

0

Facebook to label all COVID-19 vaccine posts with pointer to official info

Facebook will soon label all posts discussing the coronavirus vaccination with a pointer to official information about COVID-19, it said today.

It also revealed it has implemented some new “temporary” measures aimed at limiting the spread of vaccine misinformation/combating vaccine hesitancy — saying it’s reducing the distribution of content from users that have violated its policies on COVID-19 and vaccine misinformation; or “that have repeatedly shared content debunked as False or Altered by our third-party fact-checking partners”.

It’s also reducing distribution of any COVID-19 or vaccine content that fact-checking partners have rated as “Missing Context”, per the blog post.

While admins for groups with admins or members who have violated its COVID-19 policies will also be required to temporarily approve all posts within their group, it said. (It’s not clear what happens if a group only has one admin and they have violated its policies.)

Facebook will also “further elevate information from authoritative sources when people seek information about COVID-19 or vaccines”, it added.

It’s not clear why users who repeatedly violate Facebook’s COVID-19 policies do not face at least a period of suspension. (We’ve asked the company for clarity on its policies.)

“We’re continuing to expand our efforts to address COVID-19 vaccine misinformation by adding labels to Facebook and Instagram posts that discuss the vaccines,” Facebook said in the Newsroom post today.

“These labels contain credible information about the safety of COVID-19 vaccines from the World Health Organization. For example, we’re adding a label on posts that discuss the safety of COVID-19 vaccines that notes COVID-19 vaccines go through tests for safety and effectiveness before they’re approved.”

The incoming COVID-19 information labels are rolling out globally in English, Spanish, Indonesian, Portuguese, Arabic and French (with additional languages touted “in the coming weeks”), per Facebook.

As well as soon rolling out labels “on all posts generally about COVID-19 vaccines” — pointing users to its COVID-19 Information Center — Facebook said it would add additional “targeted” labels about “COVID-19 vaccine subtopics”. So it sounds like it may respond directly to specific anti-vaxxer misinformation it’s seeing spreading on its platform.

“We will also add an additional screen when someone goes to share a post on Facebook and Instagram with an informational COVID-19 vaccine label. It will provide more information so people have the context they need to make informed decisions about what to share,” Facebook added.

The moves follow revelations that an internal Facebook study of vaccine hesitancy — which was reported on by the Washington Post yesterday after it obtained documents on the large-scale internal research effort — found a small number of US users are responsible for driving most of the content that’s hesitant about getting vaccinated.

“Just 10 out of the 638 population segments [Facebook’s study divided US users into] contained 50 percent of all vaccine hesitancy content on the platform,” the Post reported. “And in the population segment with the most vaccine hesitancy, just 111 users contributed half of all vaccine hesitant content.”

Last week the MIT Technology Review also published a deep-dive article probing Facebook’s approach to interrogating, via an internal ‘Responsible AI’ team, the impacts of AI-fuelled content distribution — which accused the company of prioritizing growth and engagement and neglecting the issue of toxic misinformation (and the individual and societal harms that can flow from algorithmic content choices which amplify lies and hate speech).

In the case of COVID-19, lies being spread about vaccination safety or efficacy present a clear and present danger to public health. And Facebook’s PR machine does appear to have, tardily, recognized the extent of the reputational risk it’s facing if it’s platform is associated with driving vaccine hesitancy.

To wit: Also today it’s announced the launch of a global COVID-19 education drive that it says it hopes will bring 50M people “closer to getting vaccinated”.

“By working closely with national and global health authorities and using our scale to reach people quickly, we’re doing our part to help people get credible information, get vaccinated and come back together safely,” Facebook writes in the Newsroom post that links directly to a Facebook post by founder Mark Zuckerberg also trailing the new measures, including the launch of a tool that will show U.S. Facebook users where they can get vaccinated and provide them with a link to make an appointment.

Facebook said it plans to expand the tool to other countries as global vaccine availability steps up.

Facebook’s vaccine appointment finder tool (Image credits: Facebook)

Facebook has further announced that the COVID-19 information portal it launched in the Facebook app in March last year which points users to “the latest information about the virus from local health ministries and the World Health Organization” is finally being brought to Instagram.

It’s not clear why Facebook hadn’t already launched the portal on Instagram. But it’s decided to double down on fighting bad speech (related to vaccines) with better speech — saying Instagram users will get new stickers they can add to their Instagram Stories “so people can inspire others to get vaccinated when it becomes available to them”.

In other moves being trailed in Facebook’s crisis PR blitz today it has touted “new data and insights” on vaccine attitudes being made available to public officials via COVID-19 dashboards and maps it was already offering (the data is collected by Facebook’s Data for Good partners for the effort at Carnegie Mellon University and University of Maryland as part of the COVID-19 Symptom Survey).

Albeit, it doesn’t specify what new information is being added there (or why now).

Also today it said it’s “making it easy to track how COVID-19 vaccine information is being spread on social media through CrowdTangle’s COVID-19 Live Displays“.

“Publishers, global aid organizations, journalists and others can access real-time, global streams of vaccine-related posts on Facebook, Instagram and Reddit in 34 languages. CrowdTangle also offers Live Displays for 104 countries and all 50 states in the US to help aid organizations and journalists track posts and trends at a regional level as well,” Facebook added, again without offering any context on why it hadn’t made it easier to use this tool to track vaccine information spread before.

Its blog post also touts “new” partnerships with health authorities and governments on vaccine registration — while trumpeting the ~3BN messages it says have already been sent “by governments, nonprofits and international organizations to citizens through official WhatsApp chatbots on COVID-19”. (As WhatsApp is end-to-end encrypted there is no simple way to quantify how many vaccine misinformation messages have been sent via the same platform.)

Per Facebook, it’s now “working directly with health authorities and governments to get people registered for vaccinations” (such as in the city and province of Buenos Aires, Argentina, which is using WhatsApp as the official channel to send notifications to citizens when it’s their turn to receive the vaccine).

“Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have partnered with ministries of health and health-focused organizations in more than 170 countries by providing free ads, enabling partners to share their own public health guidance on COVID-19 and information about the COVID-19 vaccine,” Facebook’s PR adds in a section of the post which it’s titled “amplifying credible health information and resources from experts”.

#artificial-intelligence, #coronavirus, #covid-19, #facebook, #health, #instagram, #misinformation, #social, #vaccine, #whatsapp

0

Instagram launches ‘Live Rooms’ for live broadcasts with up to four creators

Instagram today announced it’s adding a much-requested feature to its app with the launch of “Live Rooms,” which allow up to four people to broadcast live together at the same time. Previously, the app only allowed users to live stream with one other person, similar to Facebook Live. The company says it hopes Live Rooms will open up more creative opportunities in terms of live broadcast formats to allow for things like live talk shows, expanded Q&A’s or interviews, jam sessions for musicians, live shopping experiences, and more.

In addition to the ability to live stream with more people, Instagram also touts how the new feature can help creators to make more money. Last year, in the early days of the COVID-19 crisis, Instagram introduced badges as a way for fans to support their favorite creators during a live video. Once purchased, the badges appear next to a fan’s name throughout the live video, helping them to stand out in the comments and unlock other special features, like placement on the creator’s list of badge holders and access to a special heart.

Badges became more broadly available last fall, at three price points: $0.99, $1.99, or $4.99.

With Live Rooms, fans can buy badges to support the hosts (one badge per person) as well as use other interactive features like Shopping and Live Fundraisers. The company says it’s also now developing other tools, like moderator controls and audio features that will roll out in the months to come.

To start a Live Room, you’ll swipe left and select the Live camera option, then title the Room and tap the Room icon to add guests. Here, you’ll see a list of people who’ve already requested to go live with you and you’ll be able to search for other guests to add.

Image Credits: Instagram

When you start the Live Room, you’ll remain at the top of the screen while guests are added. The guests can be added all at once or individually, depending on your preference. This allows for opportunities to add “surprise guests” to live streams to keep fans engaged.

The ability to add more guests to a live stream can also help a creator grow their follower base, as all the guests’ followers are notified about the Live Room, in addition to your own.

For safety reasons, any person that’s been blocked by any of the Live Room participants will not have access to join the live stream. Plus, any guests who have previously had their live access revoked due to violations of Instagram’s Community Guidelines won’t be able to join any Live Rooms.

During live broadcasts, the hosts can also report and block comments and use comment filters to maintain a safer experience for all viewers.

Live broadcasts became an increasingly important way for creators, business owners and brands to stay connected with followers during the pandemic, which shut down in-person live events, including concerts, shows, classes, conferences, meetups, and more. Instagram reported a 70% increase in Live views from February to March, for instance, as creators and businesses shifted their work online.

Image Credits: Instagram

As the pandemic wore on throughout 2020 and into 2021, the lack of in-person connection has allowed for other opportunities and even new social networks to grow. Live audio platform Clubhouse, for example, has seen rapid adoption, particularly by the tech and creative crowds, who today use the app to tune into live shows, chat sessions, and even big-name interviews. Twitter is now building a rival, and reportedly, so is Facebook.

But while Clubhouse offers a very different experience, it still operates in the same broader space of allowing fans to connect with high-profile individuals of some sort — entrepreneurs and founders, celebrities, market experts, thought leaders, influencers, and so on. And because users’ time is limited, seeing this type of activity shift to non-Facebook owned platforms is likely of concern to Instagram and its parent.

Meanwhile, in the live video broadcasting space, Instagram today faces a number of competitors, from those focused on a particular niche — like game streaming site Twitch, live shopping apps, and more— as well as general purpose live platforms offered by YouTube and TikTok. (The latter was spotted offering a four-up live stream format just last month, in fact.)

Instagram says Live Rooms are rolling out now to both iOS and Android to all global markets. The company expects the rollout to reach 100% of its user base within the week.

 

#apps, #clubhouse, #facebook, #instagram, #instagram-live, #livestreaming, #mobile, #social, #social-media, #social-networks, #streaming, #tiktok, #video-hosting

0

India sets more stringent rules for social media, streaming services

India announced sweeping changes to its guidelines for social media, on-demand video streaming services, and digital news outlets on Thursday, joining several other nations in posing new challenges for giants such as Facebook and Google that count the nation as its biggest market by users.

Ravi Shankar Prasad, India’s IT, Law, and Justice minister, said in a press conference that social media companies will be required to acknowledge takedown requests of unlawful content within 24 hours and deliver a complete redressal in within 15 days. In sensitive cases that surround rape or other similar criminal cases, firms will be required to take down the objectionable content within 24 hours.

These firms will also be required to appoint a chief compliance officer, a nodal contact officer, who shall be reachable round the clock, and a resident grievance officer. They will also have to set up a local office in India.

Prasad said social media firms will have to disclose the originator of objectionable content. “We don’t want to know the content, but firms need to be able to tell who was the first person who began spreading misinformation and other objectionable content,” he said. WhatsApp has previously said that it can’t comply with such traceability requests without compromising end-to-end encryption security for every user.

Firms will also be required to publish a monthly compliance report to disclose the number of requests they received and what actions they took. They will also be required to offer a voluntary option to users who wish to verify their accounts.

The guidelines, which replace the law from 2011, go into effect for small firms effective immediately, but bigger services will be provided three months to comply, said Prasad.

New Delhi has put together these guidelines because citizens in India have long requested a “mechanism to address grievances,” said Prasad. India has been working on a law aimed at intermediaries since 2018. You can read the final version of the draft here, courtesy of New Delhi-based advocacy group Internet Freedom Foundation.

“India is the world’s largest open Internet society and the Government welcomes social media companies to operate in India, do business and also earn profits. However, they will have to be accountable to the Constitution and laws of India,” he said, adding that WhatsApp had amassed 530 million users, YouTube, 448 million users, Facebook’s marquee service 410 million users, Instagram 210 million users, and Twitter, 175 million users in the country.

Full guidelines for social media firms and other intermediaries. (Source: Indian government.)

For streaming platforms, the rules have outlined a three-tier structure for “observance and adherence to the code.” Until now, on-demand services such as Netflix, Disney+ Hotstar, and MX Player have operated in India with little to no censorship.

New Delhi last year said India’s broadcasting ministry, which regulates content on TV, will also be overseeing digital streaming platforms. 17 popular streaming firms including international giants had banded together to devise a self-regulation code. Prakash Javedkar, Minister of Information and Broadcasting, said in the conference that the proposed solution from the industry wasn’t adequate and there will be an oversight mechanism from the government to ensure full compliance with the code.

Streaming services will also have to attach a content ratings to their titles. “The OTT platforms, called as the publishers of online curated content in the rules, would self-classify the content into five age based categories- U (Universal), U/A 7+, U/A 13+, U/A 16+, and A (Adult). Platforms would be required to implement parental locks for content classified as U/A 13+ or higher, and reliable age verification mechanisms for content classified as “A”,” the Indian government said.

“The publisher of online curated content shall prominently display the classification rating specific to each content or programme together with a content descriptor informing the user about the nature of the content, and advising on viewer description (if applicable) at the beginning of every programme enabling the user to make an informed decision, prior to watching the programme.”

The new rules will also force digital news outlets to disclose the size of their reach and structure of their ownership.

Industry executives have expressed concerns over the new proposed regulation, saying New Delhi hasn’t consulted them for these changes. IAMAI, a powerful industry body that represents nearly all on-demand streaming services, said it was “dismayed” by the guidelines, and hoped to have a dialogue with the government.

Javedkar and Prasad were asked if there will be any consultation with the industry before these guidelines become law. The ministers said that they had already received enough inputs from the industry.

This is a developing story. Check back for more information…

#apps, #asia, #disney, #facebook, #google, #government, #hotstar, #iamai, #india, #instagram, #mx-player, #netflix, #social, #twitter, #whatsapp

0

Twitter explored buying India’s ShareChat and turning Moj into a global TikTok rival

Twitter recently held talks to acquire Indian social media startup ShareChat as the company explored ways to expand its presence in the world’s second largest internet market and build a global rival to TikTok, three sources familiar with the matter told TechCrunch.

The American firm, which is already an investor in Bangalore-based ShareChat, offered to buy the Indian startup for $1.1 billion and had committed an additional investment of $900 million, two of the sources said.

The talks are no longer ongoing, two sources said, requesting anonymity as the matter is private. TechCrunch could not determine why the talks did not materialize into a deal.

Two sources said Twitter had expressed intention to take Moj, a short-form video app that ShareChat owns, to international markets and position it as a rival to Chinese app TikTok.

Twitter declined to comment and ShareChat did not respond to a request for comment.

India’s ban on TikTok last year prompted scores of local startups and international giants to try their hands at short-form video format.

Moj, with over 80 million users already, has emerged as one of the largest players in the category. Earlier this month, Snap inked a deal with ShareChat to integrate its Camera Kit into the Indian short video app. This is the first time Snap had formed a partnership of this kind with a firm in India.

With the buyout offer no longer being entertained, ShareChat has resumed talks with other investors for its new financing round. These investors include Google, Snap, as well as Tinder-parent firm Match Group, the sources said. TechCrunch reported in January that the Indian startup was talking to Google and Snap as well as some existing investors including Twitter to raise over $200 million. A potential acquisition by Twitter prolonged the investment talks.

ShareChat, which claims to have over 160 million users, offers its social network app in 15 Indian languages and has a large following in small Indian cities and towns, or what venture capitalist Sajith Pai of Blume Ventures refer as “India 2.” Very few players in the Indian startup ecosystem have a reach to this segment of this population, which thanks to users from even smaller towns and villages — called “India 3” — getting online has expanded in recent years.

In an interview with TechCrunch last year, Ankush Sachdeva, co-founder and chief executive of ShareChat, said the startup’s marquee app was growing “exponentially” and that users were spending, on an average, more than 30 minutes a day on the service.

Twitter, itself, has struggled to make inroads outside of bigger cities and towns in India. Its app reached about 75 million users in the country in the month of January, according to mobile insight firm AppAnnie, data of which an industry executive shared with TechCrunch. It inked a deal with news and social app Dailyhunt to bring Moments — curated tweets pertaining to news and other local events — to the Google-backed Indian app.

The American social network has broadened its product offering in the past year amid pressure from activist investors to accelerate growth.

#apps, #asia, #facebook, #google, #india, #instagram, #match, #moj, #sharechat, #snap, #social, #tinder, #twitter

0

Instagram bans top anti-vaxxer Robert F. Kennedy Jr. over COVID falsehoods

Robert Kennedy Jr. heads up to a meeting at Trump Tower on January 10, 2017 in New York City.

Enlarge / Robert Kennedy Jr. heads up to a meeting at Trump Tower on January 10, 2017 in New York City. (credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Instagram has permanently banned the account of Robert F. Kennedy Jr., an infamous and prolific peddler of dangerous anti-vaccine and COVID-19 misinformation.

The move will likely be cheered by public health advocates who have struggled to combat such harmful bunkum online during the devastating pandemic. However, Kennedy’s account on Facebook—which owns Instagram—remained active Thursday and lists over 300,000 followers.

In an email to Ars, a Facebook spokesperson said Kennedy’s Instagram account was removed “for repeatedly sharing debunked claims about the coronavirus or vaccines.” The account had over 800,000 followers prior to its removal, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Read 6 remaining paragraphs | Comments

#anti-vaccine, #covid-19, #facebook, #instagram, #misinformation, #robert-f-kennedy-jr, #science

0

Shopify expands its payment option, Shop Pay, to its merchants on Facebook and Instagram

Shopify announced this morning it’s partnered with Facebook to expand its payment option, Shop Pay, to all Shopify merchants selling across both Facebook and Instagram. This is the first time Shop Pay will be made available outside of Shopify’s own platform, and represents a significant expansion for the e-commerce platform’s payments technology.

The company tells TechCrunch Shop Pay will first become available to all Shopify merchants using checkout on Instagram in the U.S., and will then be rolled out to Facebook in the weeks that follow.

Prior to this launch, Facebook’s platform has been one of Shopify’s most popular sales and marketing channels for merchants, Shopify says. At the beginning of the pandemic last year (March through April 2020), marketing on Facebook and Instagram via Shopify’s channel integration saw 36% growth in monthly active users, and that trend continues to rise.

Today, Shop Pay’s payment option is used by a number of top direct-to-consumer and newer brands, including Allbirds, Kith, Beyond Yoga, Kylie Cosmetics, Jonathan Adler, Loeffler Randall, Blueland and others. Over 40 million buyers now regularly use Shop Pay at these merchants and others on Shopify’s platform to complete their purchases.

Image Credits: Shopify

Through the course of 2020, Shop Pay helped buyers complete 137 million orders. And by the end of the year, Shop Pay had facilitated nearly $20 billion in cumulative GMV since its launch in 2017. Through its carbon offsetting feature, this also represented 75,000 tons of carbon emissions.

In addition to the carbon offsets, Shopify claims Shop Pay on its own platform is 70% faster with a conversion rate that’s 1.72x higher than a typical checkout. It also includes order tracking and management, which, to date, have tracked over 430 million orders across over 450 million miles.

Once available on Instagram, consumers will be able to find tagged products from Shopify merchants in the app, then add them to their in-app cart. At checkout, they can then select Shop Pay as their preferred payment option from among credit card, debit card, and PayPal. The consumer will receive a confirmation code to their phone, then enter the code to complete the order without leaving Instagram. A similar experience will be available on Facebook.

These orders can also be tracked via Shopify’s Shop app, the same as those processed on Shopify itself.

Image Credits: Shopify

“People are embracing social platforms not only for connection, but for commerce,” said Carl Rivera, General Manager of Shop, in a statement. “Making Shop Pay available outside of Shopify for the first time means even more shoppers can use the fastest and best checkout on the Internet. And there’s more to come; we’ll continue to work with Facebook to bring a number of Shopify services and products to these platforms to make social selling so much better.”

This is not the first third-party payment option integrated into Facebook’s shopping platforms, as PayPal is also accepted. But it is a notable addition, given how heavily Facebook has pushed its own “shops” platform, which encourages merchants to sell and transact within its own apps — an even more critical source of revenue now that Apple’s privacy changes will impact Facebook’s ads business to the tune of billions of dollars. But likely, working with a third-party like Shopify is allowing the company to spin up a new revenue stream.

Shopify, however, declined to discuss its financial arrangement with Facebook.

Shopify isn’t limiting itself to Facebook in an effort to expand its e-commerce business. Last fall, it also partnered with TikTok on social commerce, allowing merchants to publish their marketing ads directly to the video platform.

#e-commerce, #ecommerce, #facebook, #fintech, #instagram, #merchants, #payments, #shopify, #shopping, #shops, #tc

0

Daily Crunch: Myanmar blocks Twitter and Instagram

Myanmar’s government extends its internet crackdown, Microsoft’s lobbying arm blacklists presidential election objectors and Dublin’s Frontline Ventures raises a new fund. This is your Daily Crunch for February 5, 2021.

The big story: Myanmar blocks Twitter and Instagram

The military government in Myanmar recently told telecom operators and internet service providers to block access to Facebook. Now it’s doing the same thing to Twitter and Instagram.

This comes after the military staged a coup in Myanmar to take power from the civilian government. The new government claims that Twitter and Instagram were being abused to spread propaganda and misinformation, posing a threat to the country’s stability.

Telenor Group, one of the country’s largest telecom providers, said in a statement that it is “gravely concerned with this development in Myanmar” and that “freedom of expression through access to communication services should be maintained at all times, especially during times of conflict.”

The tech giants

Microsoft PAC blacklists election objectors and shifts lobbying weight towards progressive organizations — After “pausing” political giving to any politician who voted to overturn the 2020 election, Microsoft has clarified changes to the lobbying policy of its employee-funded PAC.

Peloton will pump $100M into delivery logistics to ease supply concerns — Peloton has announced that it will invest more than $100 million in air and ocean freight deliveries due to “longer-than-acceptable wait times for the delivery of our products.”

PayPal is shutting down domestic payments business in India — It’s been less than four years since PayPal kickstarted local operations in the world’s second-largest internet market.

Startups, funding and venture capital

Dublin’s Frontline Ventures raises new $83.8M seed fund for European B2B startups — The firm is aiming to invest in up to 45 companies over the next four years.

BeGreatTV to offer MasterClass-like courses taught by Black and brown innovators — The courses are designed to teach folks how to execute and succeed in a particular industry.

Why these co-founders turned their sustainability podcast into a VC-backed business — These podcast co-hosts are turning validation from listeners into the blueprint for a standalone business called Brightly.

Advice and analysis from Extra Crunch

Lightspeed’s Gaurav Gupta and Grafana’s Raj Dutt discuss pitch decks, pricing and how to nail the narrative — The duo explained how they came together for Grafana’s Series A … and eventually, its Series B.

How the GameStop stonkathon helped Robinhood raise $3.4B last week — Robinhood has shown an impressive ability to raise enormous amounts of capital.

TechCrunch’s favorite companies from 500 Startups’ latest demo day — Startup picks from Alex Wilhelm and Jonathan Shieber.

(Extra Crunch is our membership program, which helps founders and startup teams get ahead. You can sign up here.)

Everything else

House punishes Republican lawmaker who promoted violent conspiracy theories — As the House moved to vote on the highly unusual resolution, Marjorie Taylor Greene claimed that her embrace of QAnon was in the past.

‘Orwellian’ AI lie detector project challenged in EU court — This suit highlights questions of ethics and efficacy attached to the bloc’s flagship R&D program.

Learn about the importance of accessible product design at TechCrunch Sessions: Justice — At our event on March 3, we will examine the importance of ensuring accessible product design from the beginning.

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 3pm Pacific, you can subscribe here.

#daily-crunch, #instagram, #myanmar, #policy, #social, #twitter

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The biggest exit for this L.A. venture firm may wind up being . . . canned water

Earlier this week, Science Inc, the 10-year-old, L.A.-based incubator and venture firm, rolled out a blank-check company onto the Nasdaq, raising $270 for what firm founders Peter Pham and Mike Jones say will ultimately be used to take public a company in the mobile, entertainment or direct-to-consumer service space — or maybe one that combines all three.

If they have one of their own portfolio companies in mind to take public, they wouldn’t say in conversation yesterday. Still, Science would have some interesting candidates from which to choose. It helped incubate the amateur esports platform PlayVS after Pham met its founder, Delane Parnell, on a dance floor at a South by Southwest festival. It’s also an investor in Bird, the micro-mobility company that is reportedly working with Credit Suisse to strike a deal with the right blank-check company. And it helped create and grow Liquid Death, a company that’s selling mountain water in aluminum cans — a lot of it, says Pham.

Indeed, we spent much of our time with the duo talking about how to create a powerful consumer brand in 2021 when so man are vying for attention over the same, saturated platforms. More from that talk follows, edited lightly for length and clarity.

TC: You have this new blank-check company. You’re about to start talking with potential targets. Will you consider a company that you’ve incubated or else funded at Science?

MJ: No. So the SPAC is an independent entity. We think that there’s a universe of well over 100 companies that would fit the credentials of what we’re looking for within the stack. Some of those companies, we may or may not have investment exposure [to them], but the process of analysis is independent of the Science portfolio.

TC: So you wouldn’t rule it out.

MJ: We have independent directors. So there’s a different process that would go through if we were looking at a company in the portfolio. But right now we’re just aggregating the right universe of potential targets. And then we’ll go through a formal process on it.

TC: What are the metrics you want to see? You are specialists, including in direct-to-consumer companies. Do the companies that you’re targeting have to be profitable?

MJ: When we look at the different, potential companies that we’re interested in, we’re not saying that they have to have some specific level of profitability or specific level of revenue . . . We don’t expose the the core metrics and revenue drivers that we think make for successful companies within sectors. But we’re a super data-focused team. We’re very much on the forefront of next-generation Gen Z and millennial-oriented marketing. And there are very specific things we look for that we think may build breakout brands.

TC: Both of you know the social media space. There are other new social media plays that are gaining a lot of attention, such as Clubhouse. Back to your core business at Science, are there any investments in those areas in that area that you’re looking at?

PP: A decade ago is when YouTube became a platform for marketing. Then six of seven years ago, Instagram [became a platform for marketing]. And then Snapchat came along, and then all of a sudden Instagram stories [emerged], and then TikTok and now another platform, which is Clubhouse. There’s always something new coming around the corner.

You can’t take your eye off of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat, but Clubhouse is real. It’s almost radio, but it’s participatory. If you go to South by Southwest, it’s almost like SWSX panels around the clock. There’s this really interesting dynamic where you could be in crowd, raise your hand, and if they’ll pull you up on stage, now you’re part of the panel. That’s why a lot of people are there — for the chance of getting discovered [and] the chance of letting their voice be heard by a larger audience.

TC: What makes you think its growth is sustainable?

PP: The moment marketers join a platform [you know]. When real marketers, people who are selling classes on how to make money, how to have real estate, how to make money [selling] real estate, that type of marketing — when [they show up], it’s an arbitrage. It’s basically very smart people who make a lot of money realizing for that every minute they spend doing this, it’s more valuable in terms of ROI, customer acquisition cost, and revenue, than spending time on this other thing that everyone else is on.

TC: How do your portfolio companies use these platforms in 2021? You are investors in Liquid Death. You helped incubate MeUndies, a subscription underwear company that raised saw $40 million late last year. You were involved in the early days of Dollar Shave Club. How do you break through the noise with things like water, underwear and razors?

PP: Platforms are always just a springboard. You can’t rely on these places long term because the rules of game change, the feed changes. Ten years ago, when we launched Dollar Shave Club, we had on the homepage an autoplay of this YouTube video that was just about driving customers to buy something. At the time, no one thought about posting YouTube videos to get somebody to buy something. MeUndies was really well Instagram. Who would imagine subscription underwear. But every month, there’s a holiday — Christmas, New Year’s, Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day. What if there was something interesting fun that you could wear?

With Liquid Death is still very much [focused on] Instagram and now probably TikTok. But in all cases, the brand has to be worthy for somebody to talk about what’s interesting about it, and even to defend it. When you see customers defending a brand, you’ve won.

Mike underplays our data side, but we measure incessantly everything that’s happening in terms of the each one of our businesses, including their social reach, their engagements, business retention, how often customers are coming back, how much revenue we’re generating from each individual, what piece of marketing is worth. All of these tie into this complex engine that [helps us determine], is there a business behind this thing? Can it grow on its own without a reliance on Facebook? With most companies, if you don’t understand how to build your own community, your own brand, and your own audience, ultimately the winner on the back end is Google or Facebook.

In the early days of Liquid death,  I just remember handing it to a bunch of teenagers, and six out of 10 would take a photo and Snap it to their friend. It was just this instant moment I kept seeing over and over and I just knew, this is gonna work. If you noticed in March and April and May how boring your Instagram feed was because everyone was staying home and there was nothing to do. But we [had this insight to] give somebody a piece of content.

TC: Liquid Death is now available in some stores, including 7-Elevens. Are people buying the water online? What percentage of them buy it through a subscription?

PP: One third of our customers who buy online [at the site] buy merchandise. They’re buying $24 hats, $45 hoodies — we’re selling out merch constantly. It’s the brand, it’s a lifestyle. Mike Cessario, the CEO, says he’s building something that’s like your favorite band. The product lets you be a fan of the thing [including] because it’s not a piece of plastic that’s going to go the ocean [like other water bottles]. It’s not sugar. It’s not alcohol that might result in a drunk driving incident.

The trajectory we’re on is hard to measure; you have to see it, and when you see it over and over, it’s obvious.

#clubhouse, #dollar-shave-club, #instagram, #liquid-death, #meundies, #mike-jones, #peter-pham, #science-inc, #social-media, #tc

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Augmented reality and the next century of the web

Howdy friends, this is the web version of my Week in Review newsletter, it’s here to entice you to sign up and get it in your inbox every week.

Last week, I showcased how Twitter was looking at the future of the web with a decentralized approach so that they wouldn’t be stuck unilaterally de-platforming the next world leader. This week, I scribbled some thoughts on another aspect of the future web, the ongoing battle between Facebook and Apple to own augmented reality. Releasing the hardware will only be the start of a very messy transition from smartphone-first to glasses-first mobile computing.

Again, if you so desire you can get this in your inbox from the newsletter page, and follow my tweets @lucasmtny


The Big Thing

If the last few years of new “reality” tech has telegraphed anything, it’s that tech companies won’t be able to skip past augmented reality’s awkward phase, they’re going to have to barrel through it and it’s probably going to take a long-ass time.

The clearest reality is that in 2021 everyday users still don’t seem quite as interested in AR as the next generation of platform owners stand to benefit from a massive transition. There’s some element of skating to where the puck is going among the soothsayers that believe AR is the inevitable platform heir etc. etc., but the battle to reinvent mobile is at its core a battle to kill the smartphone before its time has come.

A war to remake mobile in the winner’s image

It’s fitting that the primary backers of this AR future are Apple and Facebook, ambitious companies that are deeply in touch with the opportunities they could’ve capitalized on if they could do it all over again.

While Apple and Facebook both have thousands of employees toiling quietly in the background building out their AR tech moats, we’ve seen and heard much more on Facebook’s efforts. The company has already served up several iterations of their VR hardware through Oculus and has discussed publicly over the years how they view virtual reality and augmented reality hardware converging. 

Facebook’s hardware and software experiments have been experimentations in plain sight, an advantage afforded to a company that didn’t sell any hardware before they started selling VR headsets. Meanwhile Apple has offered up a developer platform and a few well-timed keynote slots for developers harnessing their tools, but the most ambitious first-party AR project they’ve launched publicly on iOS has been a measuring tape app. Everything else has taken place behind closed doors.

That secrecy tends to make any reporting on Apple’s plans particularly juicy. This week, a story from Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman highlights some of Apple’s next steps towards a long-rumored AR glasses product, reporting that Apple plans to release a high-end niche VR device with some AR capabilities as early as next year. It’s not the most surprising but showcases how desperate today’s mobile kingpins are to ease the introduction of a technology that has the potential to turn existing tech stacks and the broader web on their heads.

Both Facebook and Apple have a handful of problems getting AR products out into the world, and they’re not exactly low-key issues:

  1. hardware isn’t ready
  2. platforms aren’t ready
  3. developers aren’t ready
  4. users don’t want it yet

This is a daunting wall, but isn’t uncommon among hardware moonshots. Facebook has already worked its way through this cycle once with virtual reality over several generations of hardware, though there were some key difference and few would call VR a mainstream success quite yet.

Nevertheless, there’s a distinct advantage to tackling VR before AR for both Facebook and Apple, they can invest in hardware that’s adjacent to the technologies their AR products will need to capitalize on, they can entice developers to build for a platform that’s more similar to what’s coming and they can set base line expectations for consumers for a more immersive platform. At least this would all be the case for Apple with a mass market VR device closer to Facebook’s $300 Quest 2, but a pricey niche device as Gurman’s report details doesn’t seem to fit that bill quite so cleanly.

The AR/VR content problem 

The scenario I’d imagine both Facebook and Apple are losing sleep over is that they release serviceable AR hardware into a world where they are wholly responsible for coming up with all the primary use cases.

The AR/VR world already has a hefty backlog of burnt developers who might be long-term bullish on the tech but are also tired of getting whipped around by companies that seem to view the development of content ecosystems simply as a means to ship their next device. If Apple is truly expecting the sales numbers of this device that Bloomberg suggests — similar to Valve’s early Index headset sales — then color me doubtful that there will be much developer interest at all in building for a stopgap device, I’d expect ports of Quest 2 content and a few shining stars from Apple-funded partners.

I don’t think this will me much of a shortcut for them.

True AR hardware is likely going to have different standards of input, different standards of interaction and a much different approach to use cases compared to a device built for the home or smartphone. Apple has already taken every available chance to entice mobile developers to embrace phone-based AR on iPhones through ARKit, a push they have seemed to back off from at recent developer-centric events. As someone who has kept a close eye on early projects, I’d say that most players in the space have been very underwhelmed by what existing platforms enable and what has been produced widely.

That’s really not great for Apple or Facebook and suggests that both of these companies are going to have to guide users and developers through use cases they design. I think there’s a convincing argument that early AR glasses applications will be dominated by first-party tech and may eschew full third-party native apps in favor of tightly controlled data integrations more similar to how Apple has approached developer integrations inside Siri.

But giving developers a platform built with Apple or Facebook’s own dominance in mind is going to be tough to sell, underscoring the fact that mobile and mobile AR are going to be platforms that will have to live alongside each other for quite a bit. There will be rich opportunities for developers to create experiences that play with 3D and space, but there are also plenty of reasons to expect they’ll be more resistant to move off of a mutually enriching mobile platform onto one where Facebook or Apple will have the pioneer’s pick of platform advantages. What’s in it for them?

Mobile’s OS-level winners captured plenty of value from top-of-funnel apps marketplaces, but the down-stream opportunities found mobile’s true prize, a vastly expanded market for digital ads. With the opportunity of a mobile do-over, expect to find pioneering tech giants pitching proprietary digital ad infrastructure for their devices. Advertising will likely be augmented reality’s greatest opportunity allowing the digital ads market to create an infinite global canvas for geo-targeted customized ad content. A boring future, yes, but a predictable one.

For Facebook, being a platform owner in the 2020s means getting to set their own limitations on use cases, not being confined by App Store regulations and designing hardware with social integrations closer to the silicon. For Apple, reinventing the mobile OS in the 2020s likely means an opportunity to more meaningfully dominate mobile advertising.

It’s a do-over to the tune of trillions in potential revenues.

What comes next

The AR/VR industry has been stuck in a cycle of seeking out saviors. Facebook has been the dearest friend to proponents after startup after startup has failed to find a speedy win. Apple’s long-awaited AR glasses are probably where most die-hards are currently placing their faith.

I don’t think there are any misgivings from Apple or Facebook in terms of what a wild opportunity this to win, it’s why they each have more people working on this than any other future-minded project. AR will probably be massive and change the web in a fundamental way, a true Web 3.0 that’s the biggest shift of the internet to date.

That’s doesn’t sound like something that will happen particularly smoothly.

I’m sure that these early devices will arrive later than we expect, do less than we expect and that things will be more and less different from the smartphone era’s mobile paradigms in ways we don’t anticipate. I’m also sure that it’s going to be tough for these companies to strong-arm themselves into a more seamless transition. This is going to be a very messy for tech platforms and is a transition that won’t happen overnight, not by a long shot.


Other things

The Loon is dead
One of tech’s stranger moonshots is dead, as Google announced this week that Loon, it’s internet balloon project is being shut down. It was an ambitious attempt to bring high-speed internet to remote corners of the world, but the team says it wasn’t sustainable to provide a high-cost service at a low price. More

Facebook Oversight Board tasked with Trump removal
I talked a couple weeks ago — what feels like a lifetime ago — about how Facebook’s temporary ban of Trump was going to be a nightmare for the company. I wasn’t sure how they’d stall for more time of a banned Trump before he made Facebook and Instagram his central platform, but they made a brilliant move, purposefully tying the case up in PR-favorable bureaucracy, tossing the case to their independent Oversight Board for their biggest case to date. More

Jack is Back
Alibaba’s head honcho is back in action. Alibaba shares jumped this week when the Chinese e-commerce giant’s billionaire CEO Jack Ma reappeared in public after more than three months after his last public appearance, something that stoked plenty of conspiracies. Where he was during all this time isn’t clear, but I sort of doubt we’ll be finding out. More

Trump pardons Anthony Levandowski
Trump is no longer President, but in one of his final acts, he surprisingly opted to grant a full pardon to one Anthony Levandowski, the former Google engineer convicted of stealing trade secrets regarding their self-driving car program. It was a surprising end to one of the more dramatic big tech lawsuits in recent years. More

Xbox raises Live prices
I’m not sure how this stacks in importance relative to what else is listed here, but I’m personally pissed that Microsoft is hiking the price of their streaming subscription Xbox Live Gold. It’s no secret that the gaming industry is embracing a subscription economy, it will be interesting to see what the divide looks like in terms of gamer dollars going towards platform owners versus studios. More

Musk offers up $100M donation to carbon capture tech
Elon Musk, who is currently the world’s richest person, tweeted out this week that he will be donating $100 million towards a contest to build the best technology for carbon capture. TechCrunch learned that this is connected to the Xprize organization. More details


Extra Things

I’m adding a section going forward to highlight some of our Extra Crunch coverage from the week, which dives a bit deeper into the money and minds of the moneymakers.

Hot IPOs hang onto gains as investors keep betting on tech
“After setting a $35 to $39 per-share IPO price range, Poshmark sold shares in its IPO at $42 apiece. Then it opened at $97.50. Such was the exuberance of the stock market regarding the used goods marketplace’s debut.
But today it’s worth a more modest $76.30 — for this piece we’re using all Yahoo Finance data, and all current prices are those from yesterday’s close ahead of the start of today’s trading — which sparked a question: How many recent tech IPOs are also down from their opening price?” More

How VCs invested in Asia and Europe in 2020
“Wrapping our look at how the venture capital asset class invested in 2020, today we’re taking a peek at Europe’s impressive year, and Asia’s slightly less invigorating set of results. (We’re speaking soon with folks who may have data on African VC activity in 2020; if those bear out, we’ll do a final entry in our series concerning the continent.)” More

Hello, Extra Crunch Community!
“We’re going to be trying out some new things around here with the Extra Crunch staff front and center, as well as turning your feedback into action more than ever. We quite literally work for you, the subscriber, and want to make sure you’re getting your money’s worth, as it were.” More


Until next week,
Lucas Matney

#alibaba, #anthony-levandowski, #app-store, #apple, #apple-inc, #ar, #arkansas, #asia, #augmented-reality, #ceo, #computing, #engineer, #europe, #facebook, #google, #head, #high-speed-internet, #instagram, #itunes, #jack-ma, #lucas-matney, #microsoft, #mobile-computing, #mobile-developers, #oculus, #oversight-board, #poshmark, #president, #siri, #smartphone, #smartphones, #software, #tc, #technology, #trump, #twitter, #virtual-reality, #vr, #xprize, #yahoo

0

This Week in Apps: TikTok viral hit breaks Spotify records, inauguration boosts news app installs, judge rules against Parler

Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the weekly TechCrunch series that recaps the latest in mobile OS news, mobile applications and the overall app economy.

The app industry is as hot as ever, with a record 218 billion downloads and $143 billion in global consumer spend in 2020.

Consumers last year also spent 3.5 trillion minutes using apps on Android devices alone. And in the U.S., app usage surged ahead of the time spent watching live TV. Currently, the average American watches 3.7 hours of live TV per day, but now spends four hours per day on their mobile devices.

Apps aren’t just a way to pass idle hours — they’re also a big business. In 2019, mobile-first companies had a combined $544 billion valuation, 6.5x higher than those without a mobile focus. In 2020, investors poured $73 billion in capital into mobile companies — a figure that’s up 27% year-over-year.

This week, we’re looking into how President Biden’s inauguration impacted news apps, the latest in the Parler lawsuit, and how TikTok’s app continues to shape culture, among other things.

Top Stories

Judge says Amazon doesn’t have to host Parler on AWS

logos for AWS (Amazon Web Services) and Parler

Logos for AWS (Amazon Web Services) and Parler. Image Credits: TechCrunch

U.S. District Judge Barbara Rothstein in Seattle this week ruled that Amazon won’t be required to restore access to web services to Parler. As you may recall, Parler sued Amazon for booting it from AWS’ infrastructure, effectively forcing it offline. Like Apple and Google before it, Amazon had decided that the calls for violence that were being spread on Parler violated its terms of service. It also said that Parler showed an “unwillingness and inability” to remove dangerous posts that called for the rape, torture and assassination of politicians, tech executives and many others, the AP reported.

Amazon’s decision shouldn’t have been a surprise for Parler. Amazon had reported 98 examples of Parler posts that incited violence over the past several weeks before its decision. It told Parler these were clear violations of the terms of service.

Parler’s lawsuit against Amazon, however, went on to claim breach of contract and even made antitrust allegations.

The judge shot down Parler’s claims that Amazon and Twitter were colluding over the decision to kick the app off AWS. Parler’s claims over breach of contract were denied, too, as the contract had never said Amazon had to give Parler 30 days to fix things. (Not to mention the fact that Parler breached the contract on its side, too.) It also said Parler had fallen short in demonstrating the need for an injunction to restore access to Amazon’s web services.

The ruling only blocks Parler from forcing Amazon to again host it as the lawsuit proceeds, but is not the final ruling in the overall case, which is continuing.

TikTok drives another pop song to No. 1 on Billboard charts, breaks Spotify’s record

@livbedumb♬ drivers license – Olivia Rodrigo

We already knew TikTok was playing a large role in influencing music charts and listening behavior. For example, Billboard last year noted how TikTok drove hits from Sony artists like Doja Cat (“Say So”) and 24kGoldn (“Mood”), and helped Sony discover new talent. Columbia also signed viral TikTok artists like Lil Nas X, Powfu, StaySolidRocky, Jawsh 685, Arizona Zervas and 24kGoldn. Meanwhile, Nielsen has said that no other app had helped break more songs in 2020 than TikTok.

This month, we’ve witnessed yet another example of this phenomenon. Olivia Rodrigo, the 17-year-old star of Disney+’s “High School Musical: The Musical: the Series” released her latest song, “Drivers License” on January 8. The pop ballad and breakup anthem is believed to be referencing the actress’ relationship with co-star Joshua Bassett, which gave the song even more appeal to fans.

Upon its release the song was heavily streamed by TikTok users, which helped make it an overnight sensation of sorts. According to a report by The WSJ, Billboard counted 76.1 million streams and 38,000 downloads in the U.S. during the week of its release. It also made a historic debut at No. 1 on the Hot 100, becoming the first smash hit of 2021.

On January 11, “Drivers License” broke Spotify’s record for most streams per day (for a non-holiday song) with 15.17 million global streams. On TikTok, meanwhile, the number of videos featuring the song and the views they received doubled every day, The WSJ said.

Charli D’Amelio’s dance to it on the app has now generated 5 million “Likes” across nearly 33 million views, as of the time of writing.

@charlidamelio♬ drivers license – Olivia Rodrigo

Of course, other TikTok hits have broken out in the past, too — even reaching No. 1 like “Blinding Lights” (The Weeknd) and “Mood” (24kGoldn). But the success of “Drivers License” may be in part due to the way it focuses on a subject that’s more relevant to TikTok’s young, teenage user base. It talks about first loves and being dumped for the other girl. And its title and opening refer to a time many adults have forgotten: the momentous day when you get your driver’s license. It’s highly relatable to the TikTok crowd who fully embraced it and made it a hit.

Weekly News

Platforms: Apple

  • Apple stops signing iOS 12.5, making iOS 12.5.1 the only versions of iOS available to older devices.
  • A report claims Apple’s iOS 15 update will cut support for devices with an A9 chip, like the iPhone 6, iPhone 6s Plus and the original iPhone SE.
  • New analysis estimates Apple’s upcoming iOS privacy changes will cause a roughly 7% revenue hit for Facebook in Q2. The revenue hit will continue in following quarters and will be “material.”

Platforms: Google

  • Google adds “trending” icons to the Play Store. New arrow icons appeared in the Top Charts tab, which indicate whether an app’s downloads are trending up or down, in terms of popularity. This could provide an early signal about those that may still be rising in the charts or beginning to fall out of favor, despite their current high position.
  • Google appears to be working on a Restricted Networking mode for Android 12. The mode, discovered by XDA Developers digging in the Android Open Source Project, would disable network access for all third-party apps.

Gaming

  • Goama (or Go Games) introduced a way for developers to integrate social games into their apps, which was showcased at CES. The company focuses on Asia and Latin America and has more than 15 partners, including GCash and Rappi, for digital payments and communications.
  • Fortnite maker Epic Games is getting into movies. The animated feature film Gilgamesh will use Epic’s Unreal Engine technology to tell the story of the king-turned-deity. The movie is not an in-house project, but rather is financed through Epic’s $100M MegaGrants fund.

Augmented Reality

  • Patents around Apple’s AR and VR efforts describe how a system could be identified in a way that’s similar to FaceID, then either permitted or denied the ability to change their appearance in the game.
  • Pinterest launches AR try-on for eyeshadow in its mobile app using Lens technology and ModiFace data. The app already offered AR try-on for lipsticks.

Entertainment

  • The CW app became the No. 1 app on the App Store this week, topping TikTok, Instagram and YouTube, thanks to CW’s season premieres of Batwoman, All American, Riverdale and Nancy Drew.
  • Users of podcasting app Anchor, owned by Spotify, say the app isn’t bringing them any sponsorship opportunities, as promised, beyond those from Spotify and Anchor itself.
  • YouTube launches hashtag landing pages on the web and in its mobile app. The pages are accessible when you click hashtags on YouTube, not via search, and weirdly rank the “best” videos through some inscrutable algorithm.
  • Apple’s Podcasts app adds a new editorial feature, Apple Podcasts Spotlight, meant to increase podcast listening by showcasing the best podcasts as selected by Apple editors.

E-commerce

  • WeChat facilitated 1.6 trillion yuan (close to $250 billion) in annual transactions through its “mini programs” in 2020. The figure is more than double that of 2019.

Fintech

  • Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, launched an e-wallet, Douyin Pay. The wallet will supplement the existing payment options, Alipay and WeChat Pay, and will help to support the Douyin app’s growing e-commerce business.
  • Neobank Monzo founder Tom Blomfield left the startup, saying he struggled during the pandemic. “I think [for] a lot of people in the world…going through a pandemic, going through lockdown and the isolation involved in that has an impact on people’s mental health,” he told TechCrunch.
  • New estimates indicate about 50% of the iPhone user base (or 507 million users) now use Apple Pay. 
  • Samsung’s newest phones drop support for MST, which emulates a mag stripe at terminals that don’t support NFC.

Social

  • Indian messaging app, StickerChat, owned by Hike, is shutting down. Founder Kavin Bharti Mittal said India will never have a homegrown messenger unless it bars Western companies from its market. Hike pivoted this month to virtual social apps, Vibe and Rush, which it believes have more potential.
  • Instagram head Adam Mosseri, in a Verge podcast, said he’s not happy with Reels so far, and how he feels most people probably don’t understand the difference between Instagram video and IGTV. He says the social network needs to simplify and consolidate ideas.
  • Facebook and Instagram improve their accessibility features. The apps’ AI-generated image captions now offer far more details about who or what is in the photos, thanks to improvements in image recognition systems.
  • TikTok launches a Q&A feature that lets creators respond to fan questions using text or videos. The feature, rolled out to select creators with more than 10,000 followers, makes it easier to see all the questions in one place.

Health & Fitness

  • Health and fitness app spending jumped 70% last year in Europe to record $544 million, a Sensor Tower report says. The year-over-year increase is far larger than 2019, when growth was just 37.2%. COVID-19 played a large role in this shift as people turned to fitness apps instead of gyms to stay in shape.

Government & Policy

  • Biden’s inauguration boosted installs of U.S. news apps up to 170%, Sensor Tower reported. CNN was the biggest mover, climbing 530 positions to reach No. 41 on the App Store, and up 170% in terms of downloads. News Break was the second highest, climbing 13 positions to No. 65. Right-wing outlet Newsmax climbed 43 spots to reach No. 108. In 2020, the top news apps were: News Break (23.7 million installs); SmartNews (9 million); CNN (5 million); and Fox News (4 million). This month, however, News Break saw 1.2 million installs, followed by Newsmax with about 863,000 installs, the report said.
  • Ireland’s Data Protection Commission (DPC) sent a draft decision to fellow EU Data Protection Authorities over the WhatsApp-Facebook data sharing policy. This means a decision on the matter is coming closer to a resolution in terms of what standards of transparency is required by WhatsApp.
  • German app developer Florian Mueller of FOSS Patents filed a complaint with the EU, U.S. DOJ and other antitrust watchdogs around the world over Apple and Google’s rejection of his COVID-related mobile game. Both stores had policies to only approve official COVID-19 apps from health authorities. Mueller renamed the game Viral Days and removed references to the novel coronavirus to get the app approved. However, he still feels the stores’ rules are holding back innovation.

Productivity

  • Basecamp’s Hey, which famously fought back against Apple’s App Store rules over IAP last year, has launched a business-focused platform, Hey for Work, expected to be public in Q1. The app has more App Store ratings than rival Superhuman, a report found. Currently, Hey has a 4.7-star rating across 3.3K reviews; Superhuman has 3.9 rating across only 274 reviews.

Trends

  • Baby boomers are increasingly using apps. Baby boomers/Gen Xers in the U.S. spent 30% more time year-over-year in their most used apps, App Annie reports. That’s a larger increase than either Millennials or Gen Z, at 18% and 16%, respectively.

Funding and M&A

  • Curtsy, a clothing resale app for Gen Z women, raised an $11 million Series A led by Index Ventures. The app tackles some of the problems with online resale by sending shipping supplies and labels to sellers, and by making the marketplace accessible to new and casual sellers.
  • Storytelling platform Wattpad acquired by South Korea’s Naver for $600 million. The reading apps whose stories have turned into book and Netflix hits will be incorporated into Naver’s publishing platform Webtoon.
  • On-demand delivery app Glovo partnered with Swiss-based real estate firm, Stoneweg, which is investing €100 million in building and refurbishing real estate in key markets to build out Glovo’s network of “dark stores.”
  • Pocket Casts app is up for sale. The podcast app was acquired nearly three years ago by a public radio consortium of top podcast producers (NPR, WNYC Studios, WBEZ Chicago and This American Life). The owners have now agreed to sell the app, which posted a net loss in 2020. (NPR’s share of the loss was over $800,000.)
  • Travel app Maps.me raised $50 million in a round led by Alameda Research. The funding will go toward the launch of a multi-currency wallet. Cryptocurrency lender Genesis Capital and institutional cryptocurrency firm CMS Holdings also participated in the round, Coindesk reported.
  • Bangalore-based hyperlocal delivery app Dunzo raised $40 million in a round that included investment from Google, Lightbox, Evolvence, Hana Financial Investment, LGT Lightstone Aspada and Alteria.
  • London-based food delivery app Deliveroo raised $180 million in new funding from existing investors, led by Durable Capital Partners and Fidelity Management, valuing the business at more than $7 billion.
  • Dating Group acquired Swiss startup Once, a dating app that sends one match per day, for $18 million.

Downloads

Bodyguard

Image Credits: Bodyguard

A French content moderation app called Bodyguard, detailed here by TechCrunch, has brought its service to the English-speaking market. The app allows you to choose the level of content moderation you want to see on top social networks, like Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and Twitch. You can choose to hide toxic content across a range of categories, like insults, body shaming, moral harassment, sexual harassment, racism and homophobia and indicate whether the content is a low or high priority to block.

Beeper

Image Credits: Beeper

Pebble’s founder and current YC Partner Eric Migicovsky has launched a new app, Beeper, that aims to centralize in one interface 15 different chat apps, including iMessage. The app relies on an open-source federated, encrypted messaging protocol called Matrix that uses “bridges” to connect to the various networks to move the messages. However, iMessage support is more wonky, as the company actually ships you an old iPhone to make the connection to the network. But this system allows you to access Beeper on non-Apple devices, the company says. The app is slowly onboarding new users due to initial demand. The app works across MacOS, Windows, Linux‍, iOS and Android and charges $10/mo for the service.

 

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Facebook and Instagram’s AI-generated image captions now offer far more details

Every picture posted to Facebook and Instagram gets a caption generated by an image analysis AI, and that AI just got a lot smarter. The improved system should be a treat for visually impaired users, and may help you find your photos faster in the future.

Alt text is a field in an image’s metadata that describes its contents: “A person standing in a field with a horse,” or “a dog on a boat.” This lets the image be understood by people who can’t see it.

These descriptions are often added manually by a photographer or publication, but people uploading photos to social media generally don’t bother, if they even have the option. So the relatively recent ability to automatically generate one — the technology has only just gotten good enough in the last couple years — has been extremely helpful in making social media more accessible in general.

Facebook created its Automatic Alt Text system in 2016, which is eons ago in the field of machine learning. The team has since cooked up many improvements to it, making it faster and more detailed, and the latest update adds an option to generate a more detailed description on demand.

The improved system recognizes 10 times more items and concepts than it did at the start, now around 1,200. And the descriptions include more detail. What was once “Two people by a building” may now be “A selfie of two people by the Eiffel Tower.” (The actual descriptions hedge with “may be…” and will avoid including wild guesses.)

But there’s more detail than that, even if it’s not always relevant. For instance, in this image the AI notes the relative positions of the people and objects:

The Facebook smartphone app showing detailed captions for an image.Obviously the people are above the drums, and the hats are above the people, none of which really needs to be said for someone to get the gist. But consider an image described as “A house and some trees and a mountain.” Is the house on the mountain or in front of it? Are the trees in front of or behind the house, or maybe on the mountain in the distance?

In order to adequately describe the image, these details should be filled in, even if the general idea can be gotten across with fewer words. If a sighted person wants more detail they can look closer or click the image for a bigger version — someone who can’t do that now has a similar option with this “generate detailed image description” command. (Activate it with a long press in the Android app or a custom action in iOS.)

Perhaps the new description would be something like “A house and some trees in front of a mountain with snow on it.” That paints a better picture, right? (To be clear, these examples are made up but it’s the sort of improvement that’s expected.)

The new detailed description feature will come to Facebook first for testing, though the improved vocabulary will appear on Instagram soon. The descriptions are also kept simple so they can be easily translated to other languages already supported by the apps, though the feature may not roll out in other countries simultaneously.