Spotify’s Clubhouse clone adds six new weekly shows, some that tie to Spotify playlists

This summer, Spotify launched its live audio app and Clubhouse rival, Spotify Greenroom, with the promises of more programming to come in the months ahead to augment its then primarily user-generated live content. Today, the company is making good on that earlier commitment, with the launch of six new shows on Spotify Greenroom focused on pop culture and music, in addition to what Spotify calls “playlist-inspired shows” — meaning those that are inspired by Spotify’s own playlists.

This includes a new show based on the popular playlist Lorem, which launched in 2019, showcasing an eclectic mix of music that has included indie pop, R&B, garage rock, hip-hop, and more, focused on a younger, Gen Z audience. That playlist today has over 884,000 “likes” on Spotify and has risen to become one of the places new artists are able to break through on the platform. Now, Lorem listeners will be connected to “Lorem Life,” a Spotify Greenroom show that will feature a mix of culture and discussions about music, the environment, sustainability, fashion, and space, Spotify says. The show is hosted by Gen Z influencers and TikTok stars, Dev Lemons and Max Motley, who will engage with other artists and influencers. It begins airing on Wednesday, September 15, at 9 PM ET.

Another new “playlist-inspired” show is “The Get Up LIVE.” If the name sounds familiar, it’s because “The Get Up” was introduced last fall as Spotify’s own take on a daily morning show by mixing music with talk radio-style content led by hosts who discuss the news, pop culture, entertainment, and other topics. To date, that content has not been provided as a live program, however. Instead, the show has been pre-recorded then made available as a playlist that gives listeners the feel of a daily FM radio show. Now, “The Get Up’s” co-hosts Kat Lazo and Xavier “X” Jernigan will record their show live on Greenroom, starting on Wednesday, Sept. 15 at 11 AM ET.

This odd time seems to contradict Spotify’s original intention of providing a show for those who commute to the office. But with the rise of remote work in the face of the unending pandemic, addressing the commuter audience may be of less interest, with the new program. However, Spotify tells us “The Get up LIVE” will be complementary to the daily show, which will still run as normal — that’s why it has a later airing.

Other new Greenroom shows include “A Gay in the Life,” hosted by the married couple, actor Garrett Clayton and writer and educator Blake Knight, who will discuss LGBTQIA+ news and issues (weekly, 8 PM ET, starting today); “Take a Seat,” hosted by Ben Mandelker and Ronnie Karam of the “Watch What Crappens” podcast, who will recap reality shows and dive into other pop culture fascinations (weekly, 10 PM ET, starting today); “The Movie Buff,” hosted by film buff and comedian Jon Gabrus, who will review and break down the latest hot movies (weekly, 11 PM ET, starting today); and “The Most Necessary: Live,” a complement to Spotify’s “Most Necessary” playlist, where host B.Dot will discuss up-and-comers in hip-hop (weekly, 9 PM ET, starting Tuesday).

In addition to the new programs, Deuxmoi’s show “Deux Me After Dark” will also air this evening (Sept. 13) at 9 PM ET to recap the red carpet looks and gossip from this year’s Met Gala alongside guest Hillary Kerr, co-founder of Who What Wear.

Image Credits: Spotify

Greenrom is now available to listeners in over 135 global markets and has been quietly expanding with live audio from sports site and podcast network “The Ringer” as well as from artists like Pop Smoke, the company says. Other programs added include Men In BlazersDeaux Me After DarkTrue Crime Rewind and Ask The Tarot.

The app had gotten off to a slower start this year, given its roots had been in sports talk live programming, which didn’t necessarily connect with Spotify’s music fans. Plus, it has faced growing competition from not only Clubhouse, which inspired its creation, but also other top social networks like Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Discord, and more. Without dedicated programs to garner user interest in yet another live audio app, the company had only seen 141,000 new downloads for Greenroom on iOS a little over a month after its launch, and fewer on Google Play. But Spotify’s long-term vision for the service was to more closely tie Greenroom to the music, artists, programs, and podcasts that were already available on its flagship music streaming app — and these new shows are an example of that plan in action.

#apps, #clubhouse, #internet-culture, #media, #mobile, #mobile-applications, #social-audio, #social-networks, #software, #spotify, #spotify-greenroom

Dispo launches a test to gauge user interest in selling their photos as NFTs

The photo-sharing app that emulates disposable cameras, Dispo started rolling out a test yesterday that will record user interest in selling photos as NFTs. Some users will now see a sell button on their photos, and when they tap it, they can sign up to be notified when the ability to sell Dispo photos launches.

CEO and co-founder Daniel Liss told TechCrunch that Dispo is still deciding how it will incorporate NFT sales into the app, which is why the platform is piloting a test with its users. Dispo doesn’t know yet what blockchain it would use, if it would partner with an NFT marketplace, or what cut of sales Dispo would take.

“I think it’s safe to say from the test that there will be an experience native to the Dispo app,” Liss said. “There are a number of ways it could look — there could be a native experience within Dispo that then connects through an API to another platform, and in turn, they’re our partner, but to the community, it would look native to the Dispo app.”

Image Credits: Dispo

This marks a new direction for the social media app, which seeks to redefine the photo-sharing experience by only letting users see the photos they took at 9 AM the next morning. From Dispo’s perspective, this gimmick helps users share more authentically, since you take one photo and then you’re done — the app isn’t conducive to taking dozens of selfies and posting the “best” image of yourself. But though it only launched in December 2019, Dispo has already faced both buzzy hype and devastating controversy.

Until about a year ago, the app was called David’s Disposables, named after co-founder and YouTuber David Dobrik. The app was downloaded over a million times in the first week after its release and hit number one on the App Store charts. In March 2021, the app dropped its waitlist and relaunched with social network features, but just weeks later, Insider reported sexual assault allegations against a member of Vlog Squad, Dobrik’s YouTube prank ensemble. In response, Spark Capital severed ties with the company, leading to Dobrik’s departure. Other investors like Seven Seven Six and Unshackled Ventures, who contributed to the company’s $20 million Series A round, announced that they would donate any profits from their investments in Dispo to organizations working with survivors of sexual assault.

Liss told TechCrunch in June, when the company confirmed its Series A, that Dobrik’s role with the company was as a marketing partner — Liss has been CEO since the beginning. In light of the controversy, Liss said the app focused on improving the product itself and took a step back from promotion.

According to data from the app analytics firm SensorTower, Dispo has reached an estimated 4.7 million global installs to date since launch. Though the app saw the most downloads in January 2020, when it was installed over 1 million times, the app’s next best month came in March 2021, when it removed its waitlist — that month, about 616,000 people downloaded Dispo. Between March and the end of August, the app was downloaded around 1.4 million times, which is up 118% year over year compared to the same time frame in 2020 — but it should be expected that this year’s numbers would be higher, since last year, the app’s membership was exclusive.

Image Credits: Dispo

Now, with the announcement that Dispo is pursuing NFTs, Liss hopes that his company won’t just change how people post photos, but what the relationship will be between platforms and the content that users create.

“Why NFTs? The most powerful memories of our lives have value. And they have economic value, because we created them, and the past of social media fails to recognize that,” Liss told TechCrunch. “As a result, the only way that a creator with a big following is compensated is by selling directly to a brand, as opposed to profiting from the content itself.”

Adding NFT sales to the app offers Dispo a way to profit from a cut of user sales, but it stands to question how adding NFT sales could impact the community-focused feel of Dispo.

“I think there is tremendous curiosity and interest,” Liss said. “But these problems and questions are why we need more data.”

#app-store, #apps, #ceo, #co-founder, #computing, #daniel-liss, #david-dobrik, #dispo, #freeware, #instagram, #internet-culture, #mobile, #mobile-applications, #nfts, #operating-systems, #series-a, #social, #social-media, #social-media-app, #software

Playbyte’s new app aims to become the ‘TikTok for games’

A startup called Playbyte wants to become the TikTok for games. The company’s newly launched iOS app offers tools that allow users to make and share simple games on their phone, as well as a vertically scrollable, fullscreen feed where you can play the games created by others. Also like TikTok, the feed becomes more personalized over time to serve up more of the kinds of games you like to play.

While typically, game creation involves some aspect of coding, Playbyte’s games are created using simple building blocks, emoji and even images from your Camera Roll on your iPhone. The idea is to make building games just another form of self-expression, rather than some introductory, educational experience that’s trying to teach users the basics of coding.

At its core, Playbyte’s game creation is powered by its lightweight 2D game engine built on web frameworks, which lets users create games that can be quickly loaded and played even on slow connections and older devices. After you play a game, you can like and comment using buttons on the right-side of the screen, which also greatly resembles the TikTok look-and-feel. Over time, Playbyte’s feed shows you more of the games you enjoyed as the app leverages its understanding of in-game imagery, tags and descriptions, and other engagement analytics to serve up more games it believes you’ll find compelling.

At launch, users have already made a variety of games using Playbyte’s tools — including simulators, tower defense games, combat challenges, obbys, murder mystery games, and more.

According to Playbyte founder and CEO Kyle Russell — previously of Skydio, Andreessen Horowitz, and (disclosure!) TechCrunch — Playbyte is meant to be a social media app, not just a games app.

“We have this model in our minds for what is required to build a new social media platform,” he says.

What Twitter did for text, Instagram did for photos and TikTok did for video was to combine a constraint with a personalized feed, Russell explains. “Typically. [they started] with a focus on making these experiences really brief…So a short, constrained format and dedicated tools that set you up for success to work within that constrained format,” he adds.

Similarly, Playbyte games have their own set of limitations. In addition to their simplistic nature, the games are limited to five scenes. Thanks to this constraint, a format has emerged where people are making games that have an intro screen where you hit “play,” a story intro, a challenging gameplay section, and then a story outro.

In addition to its easy-to-use game building tools, Playbyte also allows game assets to be reused by other game creators. That means if someone who has more expertise makes a game asset using custom logic or which pieced together multiple components, the rest of the user base can benefit from that work.

“Basically, we want to make it really easy for people who aren’t as ambitious to still feel like productive, creative game makers,” says Russell. “The key to that is going to be if you have an idea — like an image of a game in your mind — you should be able to very quickly search for new assets or piece together other ones you’ve previously saved. And then just drop them in and mix-and-match — almost like Legos — and construct something that’s 90% of what you imagined, without any further configuration on your part,” he says.

In time, Playbyte plans to monetize its feed with brand advertising, perhaps by allowing creators to drop sponsored assets into their games, for instance. It also wants to establish some sort of patronage model at a later point. This could involve either subscriptions or even NFTs of the games, but this would be further down the road.

The startup had originally began as a web app in 2019, but at the end of last year, the team scrapped that plan and rewrote everything as a native iOS app with its own game engine. That app launched on the App Store this week, after previously maxing out TestFlight’s cap of 10,000 users.

Currently, it’s finding traction with younger teenagers who are active on TikTok and other collaborative games, like Roblox, Minecraft, or Fortnite.

“These are young people who feel inspired to build their own games but have been intimidated by the need to learn to code or use other advanced tools, or who simply don’t have a computer at home that would let them access those tools,” notes Russell.

Playbyte is backed by $4 million in pre-seed and seed funding from investors including FirstMark (Rick Heitzmann), Ludlow Ventures (Jonathon Triest and Blake Robbins), Dream Machine (former Editor-in-Chief at TechCrunch, Alexia Bonatsos), and angels such as Fred Ehrsam, co-founder of Coinbase; Nate Mitchell, co-founder of Oculus; Ashita Achuthan, previously of Twitter; and others.

The app is a free download on the App Store.

#alexia-bonatsos, #andreessen-horowitz, #app-store, #apps, #blake-robbins, #byte, #ceo, #co-founder, #coinbase, #editor-in-chief, #firstmark, #fred-ehrsam, #gaming, #instagram, #internet-culture, #iphone, #jonathon-triest, #kyle-russell, #legos, #ludlow-ventures, #mobile, #mobile-applications, #mobile-software, #nate-mitchell, #oculus, #rick-heitzmann, #roblox, #skydio, #social-media-app, #software, #startups, #tiktok, #twitter, #web-app

Twitter Spaces now let you invite co-hosts

Fleets weren’t long for this world, but Twitter’s product teams aren’t slowing down on bringing new stuff to Spaces, the company’s own take on audio rooms. Twitter introduced Spaces in a limited test last year, expanding the Clubhouse copycat feature more broadly to anyone with at least 600 followers in May.

Now, Twitter is giving Space hosts the ability to add two co-hosts, who they can rope in through an invite system. Spaces will allow one main host, two additional co-hosts and up to 10 speakers. Additional co-hosts will make the task of moderation much more manageable, as they’ll be able to vet speaker requests, tap speakers and give anyone in the Space the boot.

With Fleets out of the picture, Twitter’s Spaces are the only feature for now that lives above the main feed in the Twitter app. That virtual real estate, which has echoes of Instagram’s Stories, draws the eye to anything that a social network wants its users to check out first. Twitter also began rolling out a dedicated tab to make it easier to discover Spaces, surfacing live audio rooms in real time in a central location.

A number of major apps spliced live audio chat rooms into their platforms in light of Clubhouse’s breakout run. In June, Spotify launched Greenroom, a standalone app that allows people to create 1,000-person voice events. Naturally, Facebook also launched its own spin on live audio rooms (called Live Audio Rooms) in June. Discord, already a leader in voice-based chat, added its own Clubhouse-like event channels in March. Twitter followed the same trend with Spaces, but unlike with Fleets, it looks like the company plans to continue supporting the relatively new feature.

#chat-room, #clubhouse, #computing, #facebook, #google-allo, #internet-culture, #leader, #mobile-applications, #operating-systems, #social, #social-audio, #social-network, #software, #speaker, #spotify, #tc, #twitter

Facebook Messenger is stepping up its emoji game

If you can’t say it with words, say it with an emoji. Facebook is announcing a few minor updates today to its Messenger platform, which make it easier than ever to find the exact emoji you’re looking for when reacting to a friend’s message (let’s be real, there’s a big difference between the “crying laughing” and “crying” emoji). This includes a search bar for emoji reactions, and a recently used emojis section. And, if you weren’t let down by the long-awaited “Space Jam” sequel, you can sport your love for hoopster Bugs Bunny with a “Space Jam 2” chat theme, available both on Messenger and in Instagram DMs. Don’t get too excited though — even though this theme sets a basketball as the chat’s emoji, the long lost, beloved basketball mini game has not yet made its triumphant return to the Messenger app.

Image Credits: Facebook Messenger

It may not feel like there’s room for innovation in, um, the emoji space, but even Twitter has explored the option of allowing people to emoji-react to tweets. And as live audio has become ever present — from Clubhouse, to Twitter Spaces, to Spotify’s Greenroom — why not add audio to emojis?

Last week, Messenger debuted Soundmojis, which are what they sound like — emojis with sounds. On the Messenger app, you can use Soundmojis by clicking the smiley face icon in the chat box, which opens up the expressions menu. When you select the loudspeaker icon, you can select from just under 30 standard emojis, but when you click on them, they play sounds including “Brooklyn 99” quotes, Olivia Rodrigo clips, and lines from “Bridgerton.” The “X” emoji plays “Oh No” by Capone, a song that went viral on TikTok.

According to Facebook Messenger, people send more than 2.4 billion messages with emojis on the platform each day. That’s great and all, but if we can tap the car emoji to hear sounds from “Fast & Furious,” when will we be able to tap the soccer emoji to play “keepie uppie” again?

#apps, #clubhouse, #computing, #emoji, #facebook-messenger, #fast-furious, #internet-culture, #line, #messenger, #mobile-applications, #operating-systems, #smiley, #social-media, #software, #space-jam, #spotify

Discord buys Sentropy, which makes AI moderation software to fight online hate and abuse

The online chat platform Discord is buying Sentropy, a company that makes AI-powered software to detect and remove online harassment and hate.

Discord currently uses a “multilevel” approach to moderation, relying on an in-house human moderation team as well as volunteer mods and admins to create ground rules for individual servers. A Trust and Safety team dedicated to protecting users and shaping content moderation policies comprised 15% of Discord’s workforce as of May 2020.

Discord plans to integrate Sentropy’s own products into its existing toolkit and the company will also bring the smaller company’s leadership group aboard. The terms of the deal were not disclosed, but the acquisition is a sign that taking toxic content and harassment seriously isn’t just the right thing to do — it’s good business too.

“T&S tech and processes should not be used as a competitive advantage,” Sentropy CEO John Redgrave said in a blog post on the announcement. “We all deserve digital and physical safety, and moderators deserve better tooling to help them do one of the hardest jobs online more effectively and with fewer harmful impacts.”

Discord hasn’t always had a reputation for taking dangerous content seriously. Far-right groups with ties to real-world violence previously thrived on the platform. Discord cracked down on hate and extremism following the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, which left anti-racist protester Heather Heyer dead.

By February of 2018, the company was purging white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups, cleaning up the platform on its journey to transcend its gaming roots and grow into a mainstream social network. Now, Discord boasts 150 million monthly active users and is positioning itself as a comfy home for all kinds of communities while holding onto its core user base of gamers.

In a blog post, Redgrave elaborated on the company’s natural connection with Discord:

“Discord represents the next generation of social companies — a generation where users are not the product to be sold, but the engine of connectivity, creativity, and growth. In this model, user privacy and user safety are essential product features, not an afterthought. The success of this model depends upon building next-generation Trust and Safety into every product. We don’t take this responsibility lightly and are humbled to work at the scale of Discord and with Discord’s resources to increase the depth of our impact.”

Sentropy launched out of stealth last summer with an AI system designed to detect, track and cleanse platforms of online harassment and abuse. The company emerged then with $13 million in funding from notable backers including Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian and his VC firm Initialized Capital, King River Capital, Horizons Ventures and Playground Global.

Sentropy will offer existing enterprise customers who use its software products Detect and Defend service through the end of September. The company shut down its free consumer dashboard, Sentropy Protect, earlier this month.

Sentropy’s products were conceived as social network-agnostic tools rather than as platform-specific solutions. It sounds like even under Discord’s wing, the team plans to share insights on building safer online spaces with the internet at large.

“We are excited to help Discord decide how we can most effectively share with the rest of the Internet the best practices, technology, and tools that we’ve developed to protect our own communities,” Redgrave said.

Discord’s future is looking bright. The company walked away from a possible acquisition by Microsoft earlier this year that reportedly valued it at around $10 billion. Discord looks content to remain independent for now and could chart a path toward an IPO in the not-too-distant future.

#alexis-ohanian, #artificial-intelligence, #discord, #horizons-ventures, #initialized-capital, #internet-culture, #john-redgrave, #king-river-capital, #online-harassment, #playground-global, #reddit, #sentropy, #social, #software, #tc

Everyone you know is a Disney princess, which means AR is queen

This weekend, all of your friends morphed one by one into animated, Pixar-inspired characters. This isn’t a fever dream, and you’re not alone.

On Thursday, Snapchat released a Cartoon 3D Style Lens, which uses AR to make you look like a background character from “Frozen.” Naturally, even though TikTok’s own AR cartoon effects aren’t quite as convincing as Snapchat’s, people are turning to TikTok to share videos of themselves as Disney princesses, because of course they are.

This isn’t the first time that a Disney-esque AR trend has gone viral. In August 2020, Snapchat had 28.5 million new installs, which was its biggest month since May 2019, when it got 41.2 million new installs. It might not be a coincidence that in early August 2020, Snapchat released the Cartoon Face lens, which users realized could be used to “Disneyfy” their pets – the tag #disneydog got 40.9 million views across platforms on TikTok. Then, Snapchat struck viral gold again in December, when they released the Cartoon lens, which rendered more realistic results for human faces than the previous iteration.

According to Sensor Tower, Snapchat’s global installs continued to climb month-over-month throughout the rest of 2020, though installs slightly declined in December. Still, Snapchat got 36 million downloads that month. Now, after the newest Cartoon Style 3D lens went viral again, Snapchat hit number 6 on the App Store’s free apps charts, compared to TikTok’s number 2 slot. Still, Snapchat downloads in May were 32 million, down from 34 million in April, while TikTok saw 80.3 million installs in May, up from 59.3 million in April.

Image Credits: Snapchat, screenshots by TechCrunch

But there’s a new app in the number 1 slot that also made an impact on this weekend’s cartoon explosion. Released in March, Voilà AI Artist is yet another platform that turns us into cartoon versions of ourselves. Unlike the AR-powered effects on Snapchat or TikTok, Voilà is a photo editor. Users upload a selfie, and after watching an ad (the ad-free version costs $3 per week), it reveals what you would look like as a cartoon.

Voilà AI Artist was only downloaded 400 times globally in March 2021. By May, the app surpassed 1 million downloads, and during the first two weeks of this month alone, the app has been downloaded over 10.5 million times.

Again, like the repetitive iterations on the “Disneyfy” trend, apps like Voilà aren’t new. FaceApp went viral in 2019, showing people what they’ll look like when they’re old, graying, and wrinkled. The app became the center of a privacy controversy, since it uploaded users’ photos to the cloud to edit their selfies with AI. FaceApp made a statement that it “might store updated photos in the cloud” for “performance and traffic reasons,” but that “most images” are deleted “within 48 hours.” Still, this ambiguous language set off the warning bells, urging us to think about the potentially nefarious implications of seeing what we’ll look like in sixty years. Two years earlier, FaceApp put out a “hotness” filter, which made users’ skin lighter – FaceApp apologized for its racist AI. Voilà, which is owned by Wemagine.AI LLP in Canada, has also been criticized for its AI’s eurocentrism. As these apps grow in popularity, they can also uphold some of our culture’s most harmful biases.

Image Credits: Voilà

Like FaceApp, Voilà requires an internet connection to use the app. Additionally, its terms outline that users grant the company “a non-exclusive, worldwide, royalty-free, sublicensable, and transferable license to host, store, use in any way, display, reproduce, modify, adapt, edit, publish, and distribute Uploaded and Generated content.” Basically, that means that if you upload an image to the platform, Voilà has the right to use it, but they don’t own it. This isn’t abnormal for these apps – when we upload photos to Instagram, for example, we also grant the platform the right to use our images.

Still, it’s a good thing that apps like Voilà force us to consider what we give up in exchange for the knowledge that we’d make a good Disney princess. Earlier this month, TikTok updated its U.S. privacy policy to dictate that the app “may collect biometric identifiers and biometric information” from users’ content. This includes “faceprints and voiceprints,” terms that TikTok left undefined. When TechCrunch reached Tiktok for comment, they couldn’t confirm why the terms now changed to allow for the automatic collection of biometric data, which refers to any features, measurements, or characteristics of our body that distinguish us, even fingerprints.

It’s no wonder that as Voilà climbed to the number one slot on the App Store, Snapchat re-upped their Pixar-inspired AR lens. Facebook’s own Spark AR platform is rolling out new features, and last week at WWDC, Apple announced a major update to RealityKit, its AR software. But these trends reveal more about our growing comfort with face-altering AR than they do about our nostalgia for Disney.

#app-store, #apple, #apps, #ar, #augmented-reality, #canada, #computing, #disney, #instagram, #internet-culture, #mobile-applications, #photo-editor, #realitykit, #snapchat, #software, #technology, #tiktok, #united-states

Amid controversy, Dispo confirms Series A funding, high-profile advisors, and investors

It’s only been nine months since Dispo rebranded from David’s Disposables. But the vintage-inspired photo sharing app has experienced a whiplash of ups and downs, mostly due to the brand’s original namesake, YouTuber David Dobrik.

Like Clubhouse, Dispo was one of this year’s most hyped up new social apps, requiring an invite from an existing member to join. On March 9, when the company said “goodbye waitlist” and opened the app up to any iOS user, Dispo looked poised to be a worthy competitor to photo-sharing behemoths like Instagram. But, just one week later, Business Insider reported on sexual assault allegations regarding a member of Vlog Squad, a YouTube prank ensemble headed by Dispo co-founder David Dobrik. Dobrik had posted a now-deleted vlog about the night of the alleged assault, joking, “we’re all going to jail” at the end of the video.

It was only after venture capital firm Spark Capital decided to “sever all ties” with Dispo that Dobrik stepped down from the company board. In a statement made to TechCrunch at the time, Dispo said, “Dispo’s team, product, and most importantly — our community — stand for building a diverse, inclusive and empowering world.”

Dispo capitalizes on Gen Z and young millennial nostalgia for a time before digital photography, when we couldn’t take thirty selfies before choosing which one to post. On Dispo, when you take a photo, you have to wait until 9 AM the following day for the image to “develop,” and only then can you view and share it.

In both February and March of this year, the app hit the top ten of the Photo & Video category in the U.S. App Store. Despite the backlash against Dobrik, which resulted in the app’s product page being bombarded with negative comments, the app still hit the top ten in Germany, Japan, and Brazil, according to their press release. Dispo reportedly has not yet expended any international marketing resources.

Now, early investors in Dispo like Spark Capital, Seven Seven Six, and Unshackled have committed to donate any potential profits from their investment in the app to organizations working with survivors of sexual assault. Though Axios reported the app’s $20M Series A funding news in February, Dispo put out a press release this morning confirming the financing event. Though Seven Seven Six and Unshackled Ventures intend to donate profits from the app, they remain listed as investors, while Spark Capital is not. Other notable names involved in the project include high-profile photographers like Annie Leibovitz and Raven B. Varona, who has worked with artists like Beyoncé and Jay-Z. Actresses Cara Delevingne and Sofía Vergara, as well as NBA superstars Kevin Durant and Andre Iguodala, are also involved with the app as investors or advisors.

Dobrik’s role in the company was largely as a marketer – CEO Daniel Liss co-founded the app with Dobrik and has been leading the team since the beginning. After Dobrik’s departure, the Dispo team – which remains under twenty members strong – took a break from communications and product updates on the app. It’s expected that after today’s funding confirmation, the app will continue to roll out updates.

Dispo is quick to shift focus to the work of their team, which they call “some of the most talented, diverse leaders in consumer tech.” With the capital from this funding round, they hope to hire more staff to become more competitive with major social media apps with expansive teams, like Instagram and TikTok, and to experiment with machine learning. They will also likely have some serious marketing to do, now that their attempt at influencer marketing has failed massively.

Now more than ever, Dispo is promoting the app as a mental health benefit, hoping to shift the tide away from manufactured perfectionism toward more authentic social media experiences.

“A new era of start ups must emerge to end the scourge of big tech’s destruction of our political fabric and willful ignorance of its impact on body dysmorphia and mental health,” CEO Daniel Liss writes in a Substack post titled Dispo 2.0. “Imagine a world where Dispo is the social network of choice for every teen and college student in the world. How different a world would that be?”

But, for an app that propelled to success off the fame of a YouTuber with a history of less than savory behavior, that messaging might fall flat.

According to Sensor Tower, the highest Dispo has ever ranked in the Photo & Video category on the U.S. App Store was in January 2020, when it was still called David’s Disposables. The app ranked No. 1 in that category from January 7 to January 9, and on January 8, it reached No. 1 among all free iPhone apps.

#advisors, #andre-iguodala, #annie-leibovitz, #app-store, #apps, #brazil, #ceo, #co-founder, #computing, #david-dobrik, #digital-photography, #dispo, #freeware, #germany, #instagram, #internet-culture, #japan, #kevin-durant, #mobile-applications, #national-basketball-association, #nba, #social-media, #software, #spark-capital, #techcrunch, #united-states, #unshackled-ventures, #venture-capital, #world-wide-web

Poparazzi hypes itself to the top of the App Store

If Instagram’s photo tagging feature was spun out into its own app, you’d have the viral sensation Poparazzi, now the No. 1 app on the App Store. The new social networking app, from the same folks behind TTYL and others, lets you create a social profile that only your friends can post photos to — in other words, making your friends your own ‘paparazzi.’ To its credit, the new app has perfectly executed on a series of choices designed to fuel day one growth — from its pre-launch TikTok hype cycle to drive App Store pre-orders to its post-launch social buzz, including favorable tweets by its backers. But the app has also traded user privacy in some cases to amplify network effects in its bid for the Top Charts, which is a risky move in terms of its long-term staying power.

The company positions Poparazzi as a sort of anti-Instagram, rebelling against today’s social feeds filled with edited photos, too many selfies, and “seemingly effortless perfection.” People’s real lives are made up of many unperfect moments that are worthy of being captured and shared, too, a company blog post explains.

This manifesto hits the right notes at the right time. User demand for less performative social media has been steadily growing for years — particularly as younger, Gen Z users wake up to the manipulations by tech giants. We’ve already seen a number of startups try to siphon users away from Instagram using similar rallying cries, including MinutiaeVeroDayflashOggl, and more recently, the once-buzzy Dispo and the under-the-radar Herd.

Even Facebook has woken up to consumer demand on this front, with its plan to roll out new features that allow Facebook and Instagram users to remove the Like counts from their posts and their feeds.

Poparazzi hasn’t necessarily innovated in terms of its core idea — after all, tagging users in photos has existed for years. In fact, it was one of the first viral effects introduced by Facebook in its earlier days.

Instead, Poparazzi hit the top of the charts by carefully executing on growth strategies that ensured a rocket ship-style launch.

@poparazziappcomment it! ##greenscreen ##poparazziapp ##positivity ##foryoupage♬ Milkshake – BBY Kodie

The company began gathering pre-launch buzz by driving demand via TikTok — a platform that’s already helped mint App Store hits like the mobile game High Heels. TikTok’s powers are still often underestimated, even though its potential for to send apps up the Top Charts have successfully boosted downloads for a number of mobile businesses, including TikTok sister app CapCut and e-commerce app Shein, for example.

And Poparazzi didn’t just build demand on TikTok — it actually captured it by pointing users to its App Store pre-orders page via the link in its bio. By the time launch day rolled around, it had a gaggle of Gen Z users ready and willing to give Poparazzi a try.

The app launches with a clever onboarding screen that uses haptics to buzz and vibrate your phone while the intro video plays. This is unusual enough that users will talk and post about how cool it was — another potential means of generating organic growth through word-of-mouth.

After getting you riled up with excitement, Poparazzi eases you into its bigger data grab.

First, it signs up and authenticates users through a phone number. Despite Apple’s App Store policy, which requires it, there is no privacy-focused option to use “Sign In with Apple,” which allows users to protect their identity. That would have limited Poparazzi’s growth potential versus its phone number and address book access approach.

It then presents you with a screen where it asks for permission to access to your Camera (an obvious necessity), Contacts (wait, all of them?), and permission to send you Notifications. This is where things start to get more dicey. The app, like Clubhouse once did, demands a full address book upload. This is unnecessary in terms of an app’s usability, as there are plenty of other ways to add friends on social media — like by scanning each other’s QR code, typing in a username directly, or performing a search.

But gaining access someone’s full Contacts database lets Poparazzi skip having to build out features for the privacy-minded. It can simply match your stored phone numbers with those it has on file from user signups and create an instant friend graph.

As you complete each permission, Poparazzi rewards you with green checkmarks. In fact, even if you deny the permission being asked, the green check appears. This may confuse users as to whether whether they’ve accidently given the app access.

While you can “deny” the Address Book upload — a request met with a tsk tsk of a pop-up message — Poparazzi literally only works with friends, it warns you — you can’t avoid being found by other Poparazzi users who have your phone number stored in their phone.

When users sign up, the app matches their address book to the phone number it has on file and then — boom! — new users are instantly following the existing users. And if any other friends have signed up before you, they’ll be following you as soon as you log in the first time.

In other words, there’s no manual curation of a “friend graph” here. The expectation is that your address book is your friend graph, and Poparazzi is just duplicating it.

Of course, this isn’t always an accurate presentation of reality.

Many younger people, and particularly women, have the phone numbers of abusers, stalkers and exes stored in their phone’s Contacts. By doing so, they can leverage the phone’s built-in tools to block the unwanted calls and texts from that person. But because Poparazzi automatically matches people by phone number, abusers could gain immediate access to the user profiles of the people they’re trying to harass or hurt.

Sure, this is an edge case. But it’s a non-trivial one.

It’s a well-documented problem, too — and one that had plagued Clubhouse, which similarly required full address book uploads during its early growth phase. It’s a terrible strategy to become the norm, and one that does not appear to have created a lasting near-term lock-in for Clubhouse. It’s also not a new tactic. Mobile social network Path tried address book uploads nearly a decade ago and almost everyone at the time agreed this was not a good idea.

As carefully designed as Poparazzi is — (it’s even a blue icon — a color that denotes trustworthiness!) — it’s likely the company intentionally chose the trade off. It’s forgoing some aspects of user privacy and safety in favor of the network effects that come from having an instant friend graph.

The rest of the app then pushes you to grow that friend graph further and engage with other users. Your profile will remain bare unless you can convince someone to upload photos of you. A SnapKit integration lets you beg for photo tags over on Snapchat. And if you can’t get enough of your friends to tag you in photos, then you may find yourself drawn to the setting “Allow Pops from Everyone,” instead of just “People You Approve.”

There’s no world in which letting “everyone” upload photos to a social media profile doesn’t invite abuse at some point, but Poparazzi is clearly hedging its bets here. It likely knows it won’t have to deal with the fallout of these choices until further down the road — after it’s filled out its network with millions of disgruntled Instagram users, that is.

Dozens of other growth hacks are spread throughout the app, too, from multiple pushes to invite friends scattered throughout the app to a very Snapchatt-y “Top Poparazzi” section that will incentivize best friends to keep up their posting streaks.

It’s a clever bag of tricks. And though the app does not offer comments or followers counts, it isn’t being much of an “anti-Instagram” when it comes to chasing clout. The posts — which can turn into looping GIFs if you snap a few in a row — may be more “authentic” and unedited than those on Instagram; but Poparazzi uses react to posts with a range of emojis and how many reactions a post receives is shown publicly.

For beta testers featured on the explore page, reactions can be in the hundreds or thousands — effectively establishing a bar for Pop influence.

Finally, users you follow have permission to post photos, but if you unfollow them — a sure sign that you no longer want them to be in your poparazzi squad — they can still post to your profile. As it turns out, your squad is managed under a separate setting under “Allow Pops From.” That could lead to trouble. At the very least, it would be nice to see the app asking users if they also want to remove the unfollowed account’s permission to post to your profile at the time of the unfollow.

Overall, the app can be fun — especially if you’re in the young, carefree demographic it caters to. Its friend-centric and ironically anti-glam stance is promising as well. But additional privacy controls and the ability to join the service in a way that offers far more granular control of your friend graph in order to boost anti-abuse protections would be welcome additions. 

TechCrunch tried to reach Poparazzi’s team to gain their perspective on the app’s design and growth strategy, but did not hear back. (We understand they’re heads down for the time being.) We understand, per SignalFire’s Josh Constine and our own confirmation, that Floodgate has invested in the startup, as has former TechCrunch co-editor Alexia Bonatsos’ Dream Machine and Weekend Fund.

#alexia-bonatsos, #app-store, #apple, #apps, #clubhouse, #computing, #e-commerce, #facebook, #freeware, #instagram, #internet-culture, #josh-constine, #mobile, #mobile-applications, #snapchat, #social-media, #software, #startups, #tc, #tiktok

Skittish is what you’d get if you crossed Animal Crossing with Clubhouse

If the Instagram ads feel like they’re closing in and you can’t bring yourself to toggle your Zoom camera on these days, you’re far from alone. Well into 2021, many of the social apps and virtual chat tools that kept the world connected during the pandemic feel more exhausting than the real-life interactions they’re meant to simulate.

But what if hanging out online was… not miserable?

That’s the idea behind Skittish, a virtual browser-based event platform from XOXO co-founder Andy Baio. Skittish is a playful cross between a social audio chat app like Discord or Clubhouse and a cute video game, replete with round, colorful animal avatars to choose from. Unlike a Zoom call, Skittish is a place — one where its inhabitants can bump into one another, do activities together and wait for serendipity to strike.

Skittish is a natural extension of Baio’s interests, a sort of inviting, lightly indie-gamified space where creative people can showcase their work and hang out. “I think I’m just drawn to places where people can be themselves,” Baio told TechCrunch. “With Skittish, it’s been really important to me that people can engage at the level they’re comfortable with.”

Baio has a reputation for curating social spaces, though previously they were mostly IRL. In 2012, Baio co-created XOXO, a whimsical Portland-based festival for quirky people who make stuff. While the festival took a few years off due to Covid, the event lives on in a bustling online community full of indie game devs, offbeat podcasters and digital artists. Prior to XOXO, Baio worked on Kickstarter pre-launch and went on to serve as the crowdfunding site’s first chief technology officer. (Full disclosure: I’m a former XOXO attendee who is part of the community.)

The aptly named Skittish is meant to create an online social space that doesn’t put people on the spot. In Baio’s ideal virtual world, introverts could circle the periphery while extroverts could plunge right in and hold court at the center, just like they might in real life. That range of social styles that isn’t reflected in virtual environments that are either explicitly for work or modeled after work and it’s enough to inspire dread for a lot of people.

For Baio, audio chat hits a sweet spot. Taking the camera out of the equation makes people feel socially fluid, but audio still evokes a degree of social presence that text can’t compete with.

“There’s an assumption in a lot of virtual events that people want to be on camera all the time with strangers, which feels alien to me,” Baio said. “Skittish is audio by default, and uses spatial audio so that you can hear people around you and lurk a little bit before deciding if you want to jump into a conversation. Socializing anywhere, even online, can be really anxiety-inducing.”

Clubhouse might be synonymous with social audio right now, but its structure still doesn’t appeal to everyone. “I like the casual and conversational approach to audio, but [it] just feels like a series of conference panels and needs a strong moderator to be compelling enough to tune in,” Baio said.

How Skittish works

In Skittish, walking up to a group of people (animals, really — Skittish users can differentiate themselves by choosing one of more than 75 deeply cute animal avatars) allows you to hear a conversation just like you would in real life. Backing away, you’d hear that chatter fade until eventually it wouldn’t be audible any more. To have a more private side conversation, you and a friend (a crocodile, maybe?) could peel off from a cluster of other people and deepen your chat on a virtual walk.

Inside a Skittish room, event participants can walk around, chat with others over a mic, place virtual objects and even hop through portals to other rooms. Anyone running a Skittish space can stream videos and music from YouTube or Soundcloud to a virtual screen. Event organizers can also broadcast themselves or other speakers to the full room, overriding the normal proximity rules that let you hear what’s around you.

Skittish avatars watching a video

Baio doesn’t imagine Skittish as a persistent social space, but instead wants it to provide a flexible, playful platform for all kinds of events, everything from live podcast readings and tabletop games to larger company events. Baio says the core target audience for Skittish is “anybody with a Patreon,” and larger company events will offset costs for creators who use Skittish to connect with their communities. Anyone hosting an event can choose to either populate a virtual space with pre-designed virtual objects (think pirate ships and giant doughnuts) or dream up their own environment from scratch.

By designing a service that only exists when people need it, he hopes to avoid the harassment and toxicity that abounds on big social networks. Skittish will still pack a set of tools that allow a space’s creator to mute, kick or even ban users, but ideally, it won’t need it.

“I’m a big fan of dark social, in general, where people can feel more like themselves and moderation is much more human and manageable,” Baio said.

Skittish mod tools (mute, kick, ban buttons)

Building Skittish and what’s next

The pandemic shed new light on what people really want out of online social spaces. Zoom’s novelty wore off quickly, and by late 2020 group video chat felt like an entrenched fixture of virtual work, not virtual play. It shouldn’t be surprising that a gentle social simulator with light multiplayer features emerged as the game of 2020.

“It’s a bit of a cliché, but Animal Crossing: New Horizons became a reliable escape for me during the pandemic, a daily source of comfort and routine when we couldn’t go outside,” Baio said. He was charmed by his first foray into the series’ famously soothing rhythms and the game helped him envision Skittish.

“… I think what inspired me most were the simplicity of the controls and camera, the overall tone of the game, and the social features, limited as they are,” Baio said. “You’re capped at seven visitors and it takes forever for people to fly in, but despite that, it’s just a joyful experience to have a bunch of people over to your island.”

With the Nintendo Switch sold out everywhere and Animal Crossing racing up the console’s all-time sales charts, it was obvious early on that something resonated. People who wouldn’t normally consider themselves gamers bought Switches and spent hours shaking virtual trees, chatting with squirrels and touring friends’ islands for interior design tips. With Skittish, Baio hopes to capture a little of that same magic.

Games that double as social networks are booming right now — and with good reason. For many people it’s more natural to socialize when you’re ambiently doing something else together, whether that’s teaming up for a Fortnite duo, building a viking longhouse in Valheim or sampling user-built games within Roblox.

Socializing online with avatars also lets you express yourself in a meaningful enough way that Epic built an entire business around it, with sales of skins (virtual outfits) and emotes (dance moves and gestures) making up the lion’s share of Fortnite revenue.

Skittish - Asset Editor

Skittish grew out of a $100,000 grant awarded by Grant For The Web, a fund created by Coil, Mozilla and Creative Commons to support projects that incorporate micropayments for online creators. Baio began prototyping Skittish last July, imagining it as a pop-up space for events rather than a persistent virtual world.

Skittish spaces initially accommodated up to 120 mixed voices in a single room, but the audio capacity is even higher now. Though he’s still testing what the new limits might be, Skittish is getting closer to Baio’s goal of hosting 1000-person events. Skittish rooms can now be password protected, invite-only or public, and Baio imagines special “cozy” 3-5 person spaces in the project’s future.

For its high quality spatial audio chat, Skittish uses an API from High Fidelity, the latest project from Second Life creator Philip Rosedale. Amazingly, Second Life added spatial audio to its online worlds all the way back in 2007fourteen years ago.

Skittish will host its first paid events this month as a test, with invites to follow after that. Baio plans to rely on paid events for revenue and he’s on the fence about offering a free tier due to moderation concerns and the costs associated with hosting hundreds of simultaneous conversations between virtual elephants, zebras and raccoons.

A walk in Skittish

I met up with Baio in Skittish to chat about the project and it immediately felt less awkward than a Zoom call or Google Hangout. As a noble trash panda, I followed Baio’s owl around the colorful polygonal virtual set like we might have walked around a park having coffee together.

Skittish looks like a video game and you can move around using WASD if you want, but it’s straightforward enough that anyone can get the hang of it right away. The world’s simple graphical style sets a chill, creative vibe and the avatars even have a gentle idle animation, a kind of bounce that brings your respective elephant, raccoon or zebra to life.

Like experiences I’ve had in a few other innovative avatar-based virtual worlds (AltspaceVR comes to mind), the sense of really being there, just hanging out, feels revelatory. Multiplayer games have been miles ahead of traditional social networks on this phenomenon for ages; it’s no wonder that Fortnite and Minecraft are de facto social networks for a huge swath of younger people. In Skittish, the high quality spatial audio and playful sense of presence offer something similarly transporting.

Virtual owls aside, Baio says says Skittish will be a success when people start make real connections there that follow them beyond the virtual world he’s created.

“Just like the events I’ve run in real life, I’ll know it’s working when I hear stories about people meeting each other in a playful environment and making new friends,” Baio said.

#andy-baio, #high-fidelity, #internet-culture, #new-horizons, #nintendo, #online-community, #philip-rosedale, #roblox, #social, #social-networks, #tc, #xoxo

Triller owner gets a new CEO with acquisition of Amplify.AI; also acquires live streaming service FITE TV

Would be TikTok competitor Triller, operated by parent company TrillerNet, is gaining a new CEO, the company announced today. The short-form video app said it’s acquiring an A.I.-based customer engagement platform, Amplify.AI, whose co-founder Mahi de Silva will now become TrillerNet’s CEO. Existing CEO Mike Lu will transition to President of TrillerNet and will focus on investor relations. The company separately announced the acquisition of FITE TV, a live event and pay-per-view combat sports streaming platform.

New CEO Mahi de Silva had been closely involved with Triller before today. The company’s press release today says he’s been serving as non-executive chairman since 2016, but his LinkedIn notes the year was 2019 (which would be following Triller’s 2019 funding by Proxima Media, when the press release at the time noted he was assuming the role of “chairman.”)  These are both wrong, the company discovered when we reached out for clarity. The correct year is 2018.

Ahead of the acquisition, de Silva had been serving as CEO and co-founder to Amplify.AI since 2017, and before that was CEO of Opera Mediaworks, the marketing and advertising arm of Opera Software, and co-founder and CEO of Botworx.

Amplify.AI, which works with brands in CPG, financial services, automotive, telecom, politics, and digital media, among others, will continue to operate as a subsidiary of TrillerNet following the deal. Other team members include former RSA and Verisign executive Ram Moskowitz who helped design and develop the digital certificates for SSL and code signing; and Amplify.ai co-founder and CTO Manoj Malhotra, a pioneer in B2C SMS messaging, the company notes.

TrillerNet also today announced it’s acquiring another strategic property to help shift its business further into the direction of live events: FITE TV. This deal gives Triller more of a foothold in the live events and pay-per-view streaming market, it says. As a result, FITE, which touts 10 million users, will become the exclusive digital distributor of all Triller Fight Club boxing events going forward.

“Acquiring FITE is part of the larger Triller strategy to bring together content, creators and commerce for the first time and the only place where they truly interact,” said Triller’s Ryan Kavanaugh, the former head of movie studio Relativity Media (and controversial figure) whose Proxima Media became Triller’s majority investor in 2019. “We have invested hundreds of millions of dollars and believe we have created a better more efficient e-commerce content platform,” he added.

The acquisition follows several others TrillerNet has made to expand into live events, now that becoming a TikTok replacement in the U.S. is no longer a viable option, as the Trump ban was put on hold by the Biden administration. Triller also in March acquired live music streaming platform Verzuz, founded by Swizz Beats and Timbaland. And it operates Triller Flight Club in partnership with Snoop Dogg, as well as a streaming platform Triller TV.

While specific deal terms were not revealed, Triller told TechCrunch it’s spent $250 million in the aggregate on its acquisitions, including Halogen, Mashtraxx, Verzuz, FITE and Amplify today.

#amplify, #apps, #biden-administration, #ceo, #chairman, #co-founder, #computing, #digital-media, #executive, #financial-services, #fundings-exits, #internet-culture, #mike-lu, #opera-mediaworks, #opera-software, #president, #sms, #snoop, #software, #ssl, #tiktok, #triller, #trump, #united-states, #verisign, #video-hosting

Twitter said to have held acquisition talks with Clubhouse on potential $4B deal

Twitter held talks with Clubhouse around a potential acquisition of the live drop-in audio networking platform, with a deal value somewhere around $4 billion, according to a report from Bloomberg. TechCrunch has also confirmed the discussions took place from a source familiar with the conversations.

While the talks occurred over the past several months, they’re no longer taking place, though the reason they ended isn’t known according to the report. It’s also worth noting that just a few days ago, Bloomberg reported that Clubhouse was seeking to raise a new round of funding at a valuation of around $4 billion, but the report detailing the potential acquisition talks indicate that the discussions with Twitter collapsed first, leading to a change in strategy to pursue securing additional capital in exchange for equity investment.

Twitter has its own product very similar to Clubhouse — Spaces, a drop-in audio chatroom feature that it has been rolling out gradually to its user base over the past few months. Clubhouse, meanwhile, just launched the first of its monetization efforts, Clubhouse Payments, which lets users send direct payments to other creators on the platform, provided that person has enabled receipt of said payments.

Interestingly, the monetization effort from Clubhouse actually doesn’t provide them with any money; instead, it’s monetization for recipient users who get 100% of the funds directed their way, minus a small cut for processing that goes directly to Stripe, the payment provider Clubhouse is using to enable the virtual tips.

While we aren’t privy to the specifics of these talks between Twitter and Clubhouse, it does seem like an awfully high price tag for the social network to pay for the audio app, especially given its own progress with Spaces. Clubhouse’s early traction has been undeniable, but there are a lot of questions still remaining about its longevity, and it’s also being cloned left and right by other platforms, begging the age-old startup question of whether it’s a feature or a product on its own.

Whatever went down, the timing of this revelation seems likely to prime the pump for Clubhouse’s conversation with potential investors at its target valuation for the round it’s looking to raise. Regardless, it’s exciting to have this kind of activity, buzz and attention paid to a consumer software play after many years of what one could argue has been a relatively lacklustre period for the category.

#apps, #clubhouse, #computing, #freeware, #internet-culture, #ma, #mobile-applications, #monetization, #operating-systems, #social-media, #social-network, #software, #startups, #tc, #twitter, #valuation

Twitter is exploring the use of Facebook-style emoji reactions

If you’re old enough to remember the outrage that followed Twitter’s decision to replace stars with hearts (aka likes instead of favorites), then you know that Twitter’s user base has strong feelings about how it wants to engage with tweets. Now, Twitter is considering another radical change on this front that could shake things up yet again. The company has been surveying users throughout the month to get input on how they feel about a broader set of emoji-style reactions, similar to what you’d see on Facebook.

“We’re exploring additional ways for people to express themselves in conversations happening on Twitter,” a Twitter spokesperson said of the survey.

Specifically, Twitter’s survey proposed a few different sets of reaction emojis, all of which include the heart (like), laughing face with tears (funny), thinking face (interesting) and crying face (sad).

It then proposed some variations on this basic set, where the “awesome” sentiment could be expressed with either the shocked face or fire emoji, or where a “support” sentiment could be indicated with either the hug emoji or the raised hands.

More controversially, Twitter is considering a way for users to signal a general like or dislike for the tweet with either a thumbs up or thumbs down, a “100” in either green or red to indicate “agree” or “disagree,” or a green up arrow icon or red down arrow icon, reminiscent of Reddit’s upvote and downvote mechanisms.

The survey questions demonstrated that Twitter is aware of the challenges that come with introducing emoji reactions that could imply negative sentiments. It asked the respondents how they would want to take advantage of a downvote or dislike, for example — whether they would use the reaction instead of replying to a tweet, or whether they would downvote irrelevant or offensive tweets, as well.

Twitter also asked how users would feel if their own tweets were downvoted and whether that would discourage them from tweeting in the future, or if they would take it more as “constructive” feedback about their content. (Ha!)

The company clearly understands that the introduction of reaction sets could have a significant impact on how people engage with Twitter content and, potentially, could even lead to a chilling effect on Twitter usage if people became overly concerned about having their tweets downvoted.

That said, the upvote and downvote mechanism — whether as thumbs or arrows or anything else — remains a common way to engage with content elsewhere on the web. This includes not only forum sites like Reddit and others, but also YouTube, Imgur and Pandora, to name a few. A “thumbs up” signal by itself, meanwhile, is even more popular thanks to Facebook’s lead. But today, this like button can also take the shape of an arrow, heart or just a box to click — like when you mark an Amazon.com user review as “Helpful,” for example.

Meanwhile, the use of expanded emoji reactions has become more common since Facebook’s emoji reaction set debuted in 2015. Since then, other social media sites adopted their use, like LinkedIn. Twitter even added emoji reactions to its DMs (direct messages) last year.

Twitter’s survey additionally asked users about how the thought the emoji reactions should be displayed — like whether negative reaction counts should be visible, for instance.

Twitter told TechCrunch the work it’s doing in the space of reactions is exploratory — it’s only running this survey now because the company is thinking about ways people could add more nuance to the conversations they’re having, and how, by doing so, readers would be able to better understand the additional context around those conversations. Plus, Twitter notes that the new emoji reactions would not replace the “heart;” they’re additive.

But although Twitter hasn’t yet built out its emoji reaction set or put it into testing, it appears it’s on the path to do so.

In response to a user’s recent request to test emoji reactions instead of just hearts, Twitter Chief Design Officer Dantley Davis replied, “we’ll have something for you soon.”

 

#apps, #emoji, #hearts, #internet-culture, #like-button, #social, #social-media, #social-software, #twitter

Reducing the spread of misinformation on social media: What would a do-over look like?

The news is awash with stories of platforms clamping down on misinformation and the angst involved in banning prominent members. But these are Band-Aids over a deeper issue — namely, that the problem of misinformation is one of our own design. Some of the core elements of how we’ve built social media platforms may inadvertently increase polarization and spread misinformation.

If we could teleport back in time to relaunch social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and TikTok with the goal of minimizing the spread of misinformation and conspiracy theories from the outset … what would they look like?

This is not an academic exercise. Understanding these root causes can help us develop better prevention measures for current and future platforms.

Some of the core elements of how we’ve built social media platforms may inadvertently increase polarization and spread misinformation.

As one of the Valley’s leading behavioral science firms, we’ve helped brands like Google, Lyft and others understand human decision-making as it relates to product design. We recently collaborated with TikTok to design a new series of prompts (launched this week) to help stop the spread of potential misinformation on its platform.

The intervention successfully reduces shares of flagged content by 24%. While TikTok is unique amongst platforms, the lessons we learned there have helped shape ideas on what a social media redux could look like.

Create opt-outs

We can take much bigger swings at reducing the views of unsubstantiated content than labels or prompts.

In the experiment we launched together with TikTok, people saw an average of 1.5 flagged videos over a two-week period. Yet in our qualitative research, many users said they were on TikTok for fun; they didn’t want to see any flagged videos whatsoever. In a recent earnings call, Mark Zuckerberg also spoke of Facebook users’ tiring of hyperpartisan content.

We suggest giving people an “opt-out of flagged content” option — remove this content from their feeds entirely. To make this a true choice, this opt-out needs to be prominent, not buried somewhere users must seek it out. We suggest putting it directly in the sign-up flow for new users and adding an in-app prompt for existing users.

Shift the business model

There’s a reason false news spreads six times faster on social media than real news: Information that’s controversial, dramatic or polarizing is far more likely to grab our attention. And when algorithms are designed to maximize engagement and time spent on an app, this kind of content is heavily favored over more thoughtful, deliberative content.

The ad-based business model is at the core the problem; it’s why making progress on misinformation and polarization is so hard. One internal Facebook team tasked with looking into the issue found that, “our algorithms exploit the human brain’s attraction to divisiveness.” But the project and proposed work to address the issues was nixed by senior executives.

Essentially, this is a classic incentives problem. If business metrics that define “success” are no longer dependent on maximizing engagement/time on site, everything will change. Polarizing content will no longer need to be favored and more thoughtful discourse will be able to rise to the surface.

Design for connection

A primary part of the spread of misinformation is feeling marginalized and alone. Humans are fundamentally social creatures who look to be part of an in-group, and partisan groups frequently provide that sense of acceptance and validation.

We must therefore make it easier for people to find their authentic tribes and communities in other ways (versus those that bond over conspiracy theories).

Mark Zuckerberg says his ultimate goal with Facebook was to connect people. To be fair, in many ways Facebook has done that, at least on a surface level. But we should go deeper. Here are some ways:

We can design for more active one-on-one communication, which has been shown to increase well-being. We can also nudge offline connection. Imagine two friends are chatting on Facebook messenger or via comments on a post. How about a prompt to meet in person, when they live in the same city (post-COVID, of course)? Or if they’re not in the same city, a nudge to hop on a call or video.

In the scenario where they’re not friends and the interaction is more contentious, platforms can play a role in highlighting not only the humanity of the other person, but things one shares in common with the other. Imagine a prompt that showed, as you’re “shouting” online with someone, everything you have in common with that person.

Platforms should also disallow anonymous accounts, or at minimum encourage the use of real names. Clubhouse has good norm-setting on this: In the onboarding flow they say, “We use real names here.” Connection is based on the idea that we’re interacting with a real human. Anonymity obfuscates that.

Finally, help people reset

We should make it easy for people to get out of an algorithmic rabbit hole. YouTube has been under fire for its rabbit holes, but all social media platforms have this challenge. Once you click a video, you’re shown videos like it. This may help sometimes (getting to that perfect “how to” video sometimes requires a search), but for misinformation, this is a death march. One video on flat earth leads to another, as well as other conspiracy theories. We need to help people eject from their algorithmic destiny.

With great power comes great responsibility

More and more people now get their news from social media, and those who do are less likely to be correctly informed about important issues. It’s likely that this trend of relying on social media as an information source will continue.

Social media companies are thus in a unique position of power and have a responsibility to think deeply about the role they play in reducing the spread of misinformation. They should absolutely continue to experiment and run tests with research-informed solutions, as we did together with the TikTok team.

This work isn’t easy. We knew that going in, but we have an even deeper appreciation for this fact after working with the TikTok team. There are many smart, well-intentioned people who want to solve for the greater good. We’re deeply hopeful about our collective opportunity here to think bigger and more creatively about how to reduce misinformation, inspire connection and strengthen our collective humanity all at the same time.

#column, #facebook, #internet-culture, #mark-zuckerberg, #misinformation, #opinion, #qanon, #social, #software, #tiktok

WallStreetBets goes dark

After a wild day for public markets driven by Reddit traders commandeering stocks and combatting hedge fund short sellers, the community at r/wallstreetbets no longer has a home on Discord and its Reddit community has been locked down as an invite-only subreddit for the time being.

Discord announced this afternoon that they had banned the WallStreetBets Discord server following hate speech violations after “repeated warnings.” The Discord server had been seeing heavy traffic of new users in the past several days as traffic surged to the subreddit as well.

On Reddit’s end, it’s not quite so clear what has happened. It does not appear as though Reddit took direct action against the community, but instead that r/wallstreetbets moderators were overwhelmed by the influx of new users and have taken the subreddit down themselves. The site notes that only moderators and “approved users” are currently allowed in the community. A number of long-time subscribers have noted on social media that they are unable to access the community which boasted several million subscribers.

We’ve reached out to Reddit for further clarification.

In a statement given to TechCrunch earlier today before the WallStreetBets subreddit went private, a company spokesperson says, “Reddit’s site-wide policies prohibit posting illegal content or soliciting or facilitating illegal transactions. We will review and cooperate with valid law enforcement investigations or actions as needed.”

The full statement from a Discord spokesperson to TechCrunch:

The WallStreetBets server has been on our Trust & Safety team’s radar for some time due to occasional content that violates our Community Guidelines, including hate speech, glorifying violence, and spreading misinformation. Over the past few months, we have issued multiple warnings to the server admin.

Today, we decided to remove the server and its owner from Discord for continuing to allow hateful and discriminatory content after repeated warnings.

To be clear, we did not ban this server due to financial fraud related to GameStop or other stocks. Discord welcomes a broad variety of personal finance discussions, from investment clubs and day traders to college students and professional financial advisors. We are monitoring this situation and in the event there are allegations of illegal activities, we will cooperate with authorities as appropriate.

Updating

#articles, #discord, #gamestop, #internet-culture, #reddit, #software, #spokesperson, #tc, #wikis

Opal raises $4.3 million for its ‘digital well-being’ assistant for iPhone

Many people want to develop better screen-time habits, but don’t have a good set of tools to do so. A new startup, Opal, aims to help. The company, now backed by $4.3 million in seed funding, has developed a digital well-being assistant for iOS that allows you to block distracting websites and apps, set schedules around app usage, lock down apps for stricter and more focused quiet periods, and more.

The service works by way of a VPN system that limits your access to apps and sites. But unlike some VPNs on the market, Opal is committed to not collecting any personal data on its users or their private browsing data. Instead, its business model is based on paid subscriptions, not selling user data, it says.

Timed with its public debut, Opal also today announced its initial financing in a round led by Nicolas Wittenborn at Adjacent, a mobile-focused VC fund. Other investors included Harry Stebbings, Steve Schlafman, Alex Zubillaga, Kevin Carter, Thibaud Elziere, Jean-Charles Samuelian-Werve, Alban Denoyel, Isai, Secocha Ventures, Speedinvest, and others.

Image Credits: Opal, founder Kenneth Schlenker

The idea for Opal comes from Paris-based Kenneth Schlenker, a longtime technologist who previously founded and sold an art marketplace startup ArtList and later led mobility company Bird’s expansion in France.

Schlenker, who grew up in a small, quiet village in the Alps, says he got into technology at a young age.

“I sort of got obsessed, like many of us, by the potential of technology and its amazing power of attraction — making connections, learning new things, all sorts of incredible opportunities,” he explains. “But I’ve then spent the last 10 years and more trying to seek a balance between this need for connection and this need for disconnection.”

In more recent years, Schlenker came to realize that others were having the same problem, including those outside the tech industry. That drove him to build Opal, with the goal of helping people better achieve balance in their lives so they could reconnect with loved ones, spend time in nature or just generally go offline to focus on other areas of their lives.

At a basic level, Opal’s VPN allows users to block themselves from using dozens of distracting apps and sites for certain periods of time, including social media, news, productivity apps and more.

Social media, in particular, has been a huge problem in recent years, Schlenker says.

“In particular, Instagram, Facebook and Twitter — social media is where you feel like you’re learning something, and you feel like you’re connecting with people. So it’s good. But on the other hand, it’s very hard to stay intentional,” he explains. “It’s okay to pick up your phone and go to Instagram, but when you ‘wake up’ 30 minutes later, you usually feel really bad. You feel like, ‘where’s the time gone?’, ‘what did I just do?,’ ” he says.

Opal addresses this problem through a handful of features.

Image Credits: Opal

The free service allows you to block distracting websites and apps and take breaks throughout the day. By upgrading to the paid membership, Opal users can schedule time off from apps to establish recurring downtimes — whether that’s for family dinners or working hours, or anything else. They also can use a more extreme version of this feature called Focus Mode, which locks you out of apps in a way that’s not cancelable.

While the company is using a VPN to make this system work, it’s being transparent and straightforward about its data collection practices.

“There is zero private browsing data that leaves your phone,” Schlenker insists. “Anything you do on your phone outside of Opal’s app stays local on your phone and is never stored on any of our servers or any other servers. That’s very important to us,” he says.

From inside Opal’s app, the company claims it only collects usability and crash information — not browsing data. And the usability data is completely anonymized for another layer of privacy. Opal also doesn’t require an email to begin using the app. It only asks for one if you choose to pay.

Image Credits: Opal

 

These core principles are also documented on Opal’s privacy page, and are why Schlenker believes his app won’t face the challenges that other screen-time apps on the App Store have experienced in the past.

As you may recall, Apple cracked down on the screen time app industry a couple of years ago — a move Apple said was focused on protecting user privacy, but has also been raised as a possible example of anticompetitive behavior. Many of the apps at the time had been using techniques Apple claimed put consumers’ privacy and security at risk, as they gave third-parties elevated access to users’ devices. This was particularly concerning because many of the impacted apps were marketed as parental control services — meaning the end users were often children.

Opal, meanwhile, is targeting adults, and perhaps teenagers, who want to develop better screen-time habits. It is not selling this as a parental control system, however.

Image Credits: Opal

At launch, Opal can block over 100 apps and sites across several categories, including Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, Reddit, Pinterest, YouTube, Netflix, Twitch, Gmail, Outlook, Slack, Robinhood, WhatsApp, WeChat and others, including those in the news, adult and gambling categories.

Users can choose to block the apps for short breaks — 5, 10 or 60 minutes — throughout the day. You can also set an intention and set a timer before using an app, to help you avoid the issue of losing track of time. And you can set focus timers or scheduled times to automatically shut off app usage.

You can track your progress by viewing the “time saved” and you can share your successes across social media. In time, Schlenker plans to add more of a scoring mechanism to Opal that will help you stay accountable to your original goals.

Image Credits: Opal

Though work on the app only began in 2020, Opal began attracting attention as it publicized its plans on Twitter and ran its private beta, which grew from hundreds to thousands of users this year, saving its users an average of two hours per day.

Though Schlenker had connections with many of the angel investors who have since backed Opal, he says the interest from institutional and larger investors was all inbound.

“It was not our intention to raise so much, so early,” Schlenker notes.

The funds will be used to help Opal grow its team, particularly engineering, design as well as product. The company will also soon launch a version of Opal for Chrome and later, Android, and will experiment with more social features around sharing and hosting group sessions.

The app is currently a free download on the App Store with an optional $59.99/year subscription plan.

 

#apps, #digital-wellbeing, #internet-culture, #ios-apps, #mobile, #mobile-app, #mobile-applications, #opal, #recent-funding, #screen-time, #social-media, #startups

Cosmos Video – a ‘Club Penguin for adults’ to socialise and work – raises $2.6M from LocalGlobe

All over the world startups are piling into the space marked “virtual interaction and collaboration”. What if a startup created a sort of ‘Club Penguin for adults’?

Step forward Cosmos Video, which has a virtual venues platform that allows people to work, hang out and socialize together. It has now raised $2.6m in seed funding LocalGlobe with participation from Entrepreneur First, Andy Chung and Phillip Moehring (AngelList), and Omid Ashtari (former President of Citymapper).

Founders Rahul Goyal and Karan Baweja previously led product teams at Citymapper and TransferWise respectively.

Cosmos allows users to create virtual venues by combining game mechanics with video chat. The idea is to bring back the kinds of serendipitous interactions we used to have in the real world. You choose an avatar, then meet up with their colleagues or friends inside a browser-based game. As you move your avatars closer to one another person you can video chat with them, as you might in real life.

The competition is the incumbent video conferencing platforms such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams, but calls on these platforms have a set agenda, and are timeboxed – they’re rigid and repetitive. On Cosmos you sit on the screen and consume one video call after another as you move around the space, so it is mimicking serendipity, after a fashion.

As well as having a social application, office colleagues can work collaboratively on tools such as whiteboards, Google documents and Figma; play virtual board games or gather around a table to chat.

Cosmos is currently being used in private beta by a select group of companies to host their offices and for social events such as Christmas parties. Others are using it to host events, meetup groups and family gatherings.

Co-founder Rahul Goyal said in a statement: “Once the pandemic hit, we both saw productivity surge in our respective teams but at the same time, people were missing the in-office culture. Video conferencing platforms provide a great service when it comes to meetings, but they lack spontaneity. Cosmos is a way to bring back that human connection we lack when we spend all day online, by providing a virtual world where you can play a game of trivia or pong after work with colleagues or gather round a table to celebrate a friend’s birthday.”

George Henry, partner, LocalGlobe: “We were really impressed with the vision and potential of Cosmos. Scaling live experiences online is one of the big internet frontiers where there are still so many opportunities. Now that the video infrastructure is in place, we believe products like Cosmos will enable new forms of live online experiences.”

#angellist, #christmas, #citymapper, #club-penguin, #co-founder, #computing, #entrepreneur, #europe, #google, #groupware, #internet-culture, #microsoft, #president, #tc, #telecommunications, #teleconferencing, #video, #video-conferencing, #virtual-reality, #virtual-world

L’Oréal rolls out a line of ‘virtual makeup’

Selfie filters have improved immensely over the past several years, but companies on the forefront of the tech see plenty of room to grow.

The cosmetics world has also seen some rapid change in the past several years as makeup has proven particularly ripe for up-and-coming direct-to-consumer and influencer-endorsed brands to take hold. Plenty of legacy brands have seen their revenues decimated, while others have proven resilient by leaning into new tech and sales channel trends.

Back in 2018, L’Oréal made the interesting decision to buy an augmented reality filter company called Modiface. Fast forward to 2020 and they’ve opted to roll out a line of “virtual makeup” selfie filters. The “Signature Face” filters show off eye makeup, lipsticks, and hair products from the company.

They’ve gone fairly wide with the rollout supporting Instagram, Snapchat, Snap Camera and Google Duo. Snap Camera support in particular enables the selfies to be used across plenty of video chat services like Houseparty and Zoom, L’Oréal is marketing these selfies as a way to spice up your look on video calls specifically. You can check our more details on where you can use the filters on their site.

In terms of the filters themselves, there’s nothing terribly more advanced about them than the makeup-centric selfie filters that have been floating around Snapchat for years, but it is interesting to see such a substantial brand leaning in so heavily and pitching this idea where people use selfie filters during video calls in a non-gimmicky way. It’s not clear whether the technology or consumer habits are there yet but it’s certainly plausible that things could move in that direction, especially as social media apps begin a more-focused drive towards becoming commerce platforms.

#computing, #google, #instagram, #internet-culture, #loreal, #mobile-applications, #mobile-software, #operating-systems, #selfie, #snap, #snap-inc, #snapchat, #software, #tc

TikTok takes down election misinformation aimed at younger users

TikTok confirmed today it has taken down videos spreading election misinformation that had been posted to two high-profile Republican-supporting accounts, The Republican Hype House and The Republican Boys. The accounts, popular with young, conservative voters, reach more than a million followers combined, and have the potential to reach even more users who would find their videos through other means — such as hashtags, shares or algorithmic recommendations.

The videos, which had made claims of “election fraud,” were first spotted by Taylor Lorenz, a reporter for The New York Times.

Though TikTok had committed to addressing election misinformation on its network, it was initially unclear to what extent it would challenge video content in cases such as this. However, the company reacted fairly quickly in taking down the disputed videos, as it turned out. It responded to Lorenz’s tweet in less than an hour’s time to confirm the content’s removal.

Reached for comment, TikTok also confirmed to TechCrunch it removed the videos in question for violating its policies against misleading information, but didn’t share any further comment on the decision.

This is not the first time The Republican Hype House has been penalized by TikTok for spreading political misinformation. In August, Media Matters noted it, along with another conservative TikTok account, had published a deceptively edited clip of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden. Previously, the TikTok account had also been involved in spreading a conspiracy theory related to the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement.

As TechCrunch earlier reported, the close U.S. election results have plunged social media platforms into a battle against misinformation and conspiracies. On platforms like Facebook, Twitter and now TikTok, misinformation can go viral quickly, reaching hundreds, thousands or even millions of users before the platforms react.

Today, Twitter has already hidden behind warning labels multiple tweets from President Trump, due to its policies regarding election-related misinformation, for example. Facebook has labeled Trump’s posts, as well, and displayed in-app notifications to remind users the election results weren’t yet final as votes were still being counted.

Image Credits: Screenshot of a banned video on TikTok, courtesy of Media Matters

Less attention has been given to TikTok, however, despite its power to reach around 100 million monthly active U.S. users of a largely younger demographic, who collectively post some 46 million videos daily.

The U.S. elections have been one of the first big tests of TikTok’s ability to quickly enforce its misinformation policies.

Of note, TikTok’s future in the U.S. may also hinge on whether Trump — who banned the Chinese-owned video app citing national security concerns — continues to remain in power when all the votes are counted.

#2020-election, #apps, #bytedance, #culture, #internet-culture, #joe-biden, #misinformation, #mobile-applications, #president, #social-media-platforms, #the-new-york-times, #tiktok, #trump, #united-states

3 reforms social media platforms should make in light of ‘The Social Dilemma’

“The Social Dilemma” is opening eyes and changing digital lives for Netflix bingers across the globe. The filmmakers explore social media and its effects on society, raising some crucial points about impacts on mental health, politics and the myriad ways firms leverage user data. It interweaves interviews from industry executives and developers who discuss how social sites can manipulate human psychology to drive deeper engagement and time spent within the platforms.

Despite the glaring issues present with social media platforms, people still crave digital attention, especially during a pandemic, where in-person connections are strained if not impossible.

So, how can the industry change for the better? Here are three ways social media should adapt to create happier and healthier interpersonal connections and news consumption.

Stop censoring

On most platforms, like Facebook and Instagram, the company determines some of the information presented to users. This opens the platform to manipulation by bad actors and raises questions about who exactly is dictating what information is seen and what is not. What are the motivations behind those decisions? And some of the platforms dispute their role in this process, with Mark Zuckerberg saying in 2019, “I just believe strongly that Facebook shouldn’t be the arbiter of truth of everything that people say online.”

Censorship can be absolved with a restructured type of social platform. For example, consider a platform that does not rely on advertiser dollars. If a social platform is free for basic users but monetized by a subscription model, there is no need to use an information-gathering algorithm to determine which news and content are served to users.

This type of platform is not a ripe target for manipulation because users only see information from people they know and trust, not advertisers or random third parties. Manipulation on major social channels happens frequently when people create zombie accounts to flood content with fake “likes” and “views” to affect the viewed content. It’s commonly exposed as a tactic for election meddling, where agents use social media to promote false statements. This type of action is a fundamental flaw of social algorithms that use AI to make decisions about when and what to censor as well as what it should promote.

Don’t treat users like products

The issues raised by “The Social Dilemma” should reinforce the need for social platforms to self-regulate their content and user dynamics and operate ethically. They should review their most manipulative technologies that cause isolation, depression and other issues and instead find ways to promote community, progressive action and other positive attributes.

A major change required to bring this about is to eliminate or reduce in-platform advertising. An ad-free model means the platform does not need to aggressively push unsolicited content from unsolicited sources. When ads are the main driver for a platform, then the social company has a vested interest in using every psychological and algorithm-based trick to keep the user on the platform. It’s a numbers game that puts profit over users.

More people multiplied by more time on the site equals ad exposure and ad engagement and that means revenue. An ad-free model frees a platform from trying to elicit emotional responses based on a user’s past actions, all to keep them trapped on the site, perhaps to an addictive degree.

Encourage connections without clickbait

A common form of clickbait is found on the typical social search page. A user clicks on an image or preview video that suggests a certain type of content, but upon clicking they are brought to unrelated content. It’s a technique that can be used to spread misinformation, which is especially dangerous for viewers who rely on social platforms for their news consumption, instead of traditional outlets. According to the Pew Research Center, 55% of adults get their news from social media “often” or “sometimes.” This causes a significant problem when clickbait articles make it easier to offer distorted “fake news” stories.

Unfortunately, when users engage with clickbait content, they are effectively “voting” for that information. That seemingly innocuous action creates a financial reason for others to create and disseminate further clickbait. Social media platforms should aggressively ban or limit clickbait. Management at Facebook and other firms often counter with a “free speech” argument when it comes to stopping clickbait. However, they should consider the intent is not to act as censors that are stopping controversial topics but protecting users from false content. It’s about cultivating trust and information sharing, which is much easier to accomplish when post content is backed by facts.

“The Social Dilemma” is rightfully an important film that encourages a vital dialogue about the role social media and social platforms play in everyday life. The industry needs to change to create more engaged and genuine spaces for people to connect without preying on human psychology.

A tall order, but one that should benefit both users and platforms in the long term. Social media still creates important digital connections and functions as a catalyst for positive change and discussion. It’s time for platforms to take note and take responsibility for these needed changes, and opportunities will arise for smaller, emerging platforms taking a different, less-manipulative approach.

#column, #facebook, #internet-culture, #opinion, #social, #social-media

The coronavirus has hastened the post-human era

In the mid-1970s, Professor Fereidoun M. Esfandiary decided to change his name. From then on he would be legally called “FM-2030.”

“Conventional names define a person’s past: ancestry, ethnicity, nationality, religion. I am not who I was ten years ago … The name 2030 reflects my conviction that the years around 2030 will be a magical time. In 2030 we will be ageless and everyone will have an excellent chance to live forever. 2030 is a dream and a goal,” he offered in explanation.

It didn’t hurt that by 2030 he would be 100 years old, an age he was sure he would reach.

Already in his forty-odd years of living, FM — which some speculated stood for “Future Man” — defied easy categorization. The son of an Iranian diplomat, he’d lived in 17 countries by the age of 11 and would go on to represent his country’s basketball team at the 1948 Olympic Games before beginning an academic career. He was educated at Berkeley and UCLA, later becoming one of the first professors of futurology at the New School. It was there that he would begin to espouse his “new concepts of the human,” discussing the steps necessary to transition to the age of post-humanity. FM described this as an epoch in which Homo sapiens became “post-biological organisms,” transcending the limits of their body through technology.

 

Much of the 21st century has seen us hurtle toward a post-human future, fulfilling predictions FM made half a century earlier. Over the course of his career, he foresaw the creation of 3D printers — which he referred to as “Santa Claus machines” — along with the advent of telemedicine, teleconferencing, teleshopping and genetic editing.

Though that suggests the process of post-humanization is well under way, we may look back on 2020 and the coronavirus crisis as a crossing over. A time in which our relationship to core aspects of our humanity is fundamentally remade. In particular, I believe we are seeing meaningful recalibrations of our relationship to identity, labor, health and love. In short, the post-human era is beginning in earnest.

Identity

The shift to a locked-in world has accelerated the acceptance of identity as distinct from physical body or place. We still want to communicate, socialize and play during this time, but have only a digital version to offer. Those constraints are forcing new expressions of selfhood, from the Zoom background used to express a personal interest or make a joke, to the avatars roaming rich, interactive metaverses. Nintendo has seen millions turn to Animal Crossing to socialize, trade virtual assets and host both weddings and conferences, while Travis Scott’s surreal performance inside of Fortnite attracted 12.3 million concurrent views, and 27.7 million unique attendees. We are showcasing even the darker aspects of our nature via these platforms, with some on Animal Crossing bullying and torturing villagers they deem “ugly.”

Tools like Pragli illustrate how this development manifests in the workplace beyond Zoom backgrounds ripped from “Tiger King” or “Love Is Blind.” Rather than hopping onto a video call with co-workers, Pragli offers the ability to connect with anime-style avatars of your officemates. Changing one’s appearance on the platform is determined by the options the company rolls out, with a recent update showcasing the ability for men to sport a bun, braid or ponytail. Set “happy” or “sad” expressions blur the lines between real and performative feelings.

All of this is in stark contrast to the masked, distant, de-individuated person we show outside our homes, something a little less than human. There are indications that this redacted version of ourselves is becoming something of a style. G95’s “biohoodie” features a built-in face-cover, while creative studio Production Club showed off a hazmat suit designed for socializing. Even once the worst is over, we may see a new cautiousness and implied distance expressed in fashion.

Labor

“Work gives you meaning and purpose and life is empty without it,” said Stephen Hawking. Whether that is an assessment you agree with, much of our conception of ourselves is tied up in our labor. COVID-19 is accelerating a shift away from humans and toward machines, doing so at a time in which we may actually feel grateful for cyborg usurpers as they keep critical services running and spare us from disease. Neolix, a Chinese manufacturer of driverless vans, has seen a spike in demand since the outbreak and has been trusted to ferry food and medical supplies, and to disinfect streets. Suppliers like AMP, UVD, Nuro and Starship have experienced a similar surge, while the order books of industrial behemoths like Harmonic Drive and Fanuc suggest more universal demand. The latter saw orders increase 7% between Q4 and March.

This insinuation is not limited to manual labor. With customer support and moderation offices closing down, many companies are aggressively employing AI solutions. Facebook and Google have expanded automated moderation, while PayPal used chatbots for 65% of customer inquiries in recent weeks, a record for the firm.

Those lucky enough to retain their jobs may face a very different work environment in which they are forced to collaborate with robots and be treated as an increasingly mechanized system themselves. Walmart greeters will stand side-by-side with automated floor-scrubbers, and McDonald’s cooks may soon be joined by a kitchen full of bionic sous-chefs. Amazon warehouse workers — old-hands at human-robot collaboration thanks to the company’s acquisition of Kiva Systems — must adapt to being managed more like their pallet-ferrying co-workers, with temperatures monitored by thermal cameras. That is just a small part of the broader surveillance blitz being undertaken around the world and across industries. China is installing more cameras to monitor the comings-and-goings of citizens, while companies dip into budgets to purchase “tattleware,” software designed to surveil employees. Among the beneficiaries are companies like InterGuard, which provide minute-by-minute breakdowns of how workers spend time online. Sneek takes photos of workers as often as once a minute. The company’s CEO joked that the “sneeksnap” command came in particularly handy when a colleague did something embarrassing like picking their nose.

Health

Much of our waking life is filled with health-related ruminations. As we become more aware of our vulnerabilities, we are turning to technologies to extend corporeal limitations, treating our bodies more like software with which we can experiment. Consumers are turning to immunity-boosting supplements such as Vitamin C and zinc, which have soared in sales, in addition to courting riskier treatments like “rectal ozone insufflations,” peddled by influencers. Spurred on by world-leaders like Trump and Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, demand for hydroxychloroquine has grown rapidly, with prescriptions increasing ~500%.

Whatever your opinion of the president or the treatment in question, this represents a rapid, iterative model of medicine more akin to the Silicon Valley mantra of “move fast and break things” than a considered FDA approval process. Biohacking communities, a group with high-tolerance for health-related risks, are teaming up online to research COVID-19 vaccines on their own time. “Biohacking used to be a fringe space, but I think this is becoming a kind of breakout moment for things like DIY biology and community labs and hackerspaces,” one contributor noted.

Beyond immediate experimentation, we are looking to extend the limits of our bodies in order to accommodate changing plans for the future. Reports suggest that men have turned to at-home sperm collection companies like Legacy during quarantine, motivated by fears of diminished fertility and perhaps the acknowledgment that with life on hold, children may have to wait. That certainly seems to be the case for 1,894 women surveyed by Modern Fertility and SoFi: 31% noted that the pandemic had affected their fertility plans, while 41% stated they are delaying childbearing because of the coronavirus.

Love

“The trouble is not that I am single and likely to stay single,” novelist Charlotte Brontë once wrote, “but that I am lonely and likely to stay lonely.”

The current state of affairs does not offer many ways to amend that state of misery, prompting some to turn to AI companions. Created in 2015, Replika provides a sympathetic texting partner, designed to serve as a digital therapist. But for many of the company’s 500K monthly active users, Replika is too charming to resist: up to 40% consider the bot a romantic partner. The coronavirus may serve as the ideal catalyst for relationships between humans and artificial personalities to deepen. There are signs we may already prefer their company: research on Microsoft’s XiaoIce indicated that conversations with the chatbot last longer than human-to-human interactions.

For those committed to finding love among creatures of blood and bone, the pandemic has forced a recalibration of what it means to date. Interactions take place almost entirely online, through chat or video calls, changing the necessary criteria for a match. Location matters much less now than availability and responsiveness. When the desire for touch, or “skin hunger” as it is gruesomely called, becomes too much to bear, interested parties must navigate a meeting. In the process, we treat partners as potential threats, owners of a corpus that may endanger us, despite best intentions. In doing so, we view the individual as distinct from their body, a separate being in possession of a liability with which we must negotiate. Depending on the length of the pandemic, we may see this fear harden into an unconscious aversion, reviving the disgust for the corporeal felt by more puritanical eras. These mores may take time to correct.

The self, as we know it, is being decimated. That may not be a bad thing. As identity moves online, as work is stripped from us, as our physical bodies are optimized like an OS, as love sheds its carnality, new opportunities will emerge. Humans will find meaning in new modes of self-expression, discover purpose beyond work (or reclassify what work means), reengineer physical limits as “biology eats the world” and find affection in new beings. We are undergoing a period of Schumpeterian “creative destruction,” felt at the anthropological rather than industrial level. Great things may come of it.

For FM-2030, the future was something at which to marvel, where “people will belong to no specific families or factions … we will free-flow across the planet and beyond. Highly individual yet universal.” Though the changes wrought by the coronavirus appear bleak, some of FM’s vision feels true: We are united as a world, fighting against a common enemy, more connected than ever before. Perhaps, in time, the rest of FM’s dream will be made manifest.

For all of his prescience, however, FM-2030 got one prediction very wrong. He did not make his 100th birthday, dying of pancreatic cancer in 2000. He was just 69. If he has his way though, he may still have a role to play in the creation of the future. Though dead, FM’s body remains frozen in a state of cryonic suspension in Scottsdale, Ariz. Perhaps he is waiting for the world to catch up.

#artificial-intelligence, #avatar, #column, #coronavirus, #covid-19, #health, #identity-management, #internet-culture, #opinion, #science, #telemedicine, #transhumanism, #virtual-reality

The Midnight is the new synth pop you need in your life, here’s the world premiere of their new video

If you follow me on Twitter you may have seen me waxing poetic about The Midnight, an LA-based synthwave band that has been putting out modern nostalgia for the 80’s set since 2012. Yeah yeah, why is this on TechCrunch? Because I love it and I know a good chunk of our audience will too, simple as that. Also I’m the boss so no one can tell me what not to post. Deal.

The Midnight is Tyler Lyle and Tim McEwan and their latest album Monsters hits in July of 2020 — but you can check out their discography on Spotify or Apple Music. There is also a dope visual scene on YouTube cutting together their songs with movie montages from the synth era — as well as new bit heavy compositions from video artists.

I’ve been a fan for a few years now, and have listened to all of their releases many times on loop. Especially when I’m in full flow state writing or working on projects. It’s seriously nostalgia rich but also crisp and tight and not at all indulgent beyond the degree it needs to be.

I’m stoked to be able to drop in the world premiere of their new video with Gustavo Torres AKA Kidmograph — a visual artist working in motion design and music videos.  “We’ve been fans of Kidmograph for a very long time and we’re so thankful that we get to partner with him on this lyric video,” said the band. “The ethos of this record about connection uses inspiration from the early PC culture of the late 80s and early 90s. Kidmograph totally nailed it.”

“The idea was to recreate some sort of retro video game where the character goes on an adventure into the depths of the sea (which in fact is the depths of its own mind) looking for an adventure (his love),” says Kidmograph. “At the end, we realize it was all an illusion, built in a small corner of a teenager’s room. The excuse of the lyric video as a video game representation was really fun and a different take to work with. Emulating an old operating system designed for the band, we dive through both the lyrics and visuals as an adventure into the unknown.”

Check out the lyric video premiere for Deep Blue here:

#apple-music, #internet-culture, #me, #operating-system, #songs, #tc, #the-midnight

Facebook to pay $52 million to content moderators suffering from PTSD

Facebook has agreed in principle to pay $52 million to compensate current and former content moderators who developed mental health issues on the job.

The Verge reported Tuesday that the settlement will cover more than 11,000 content moderators who developed depression, addictions and other mental health issues while they worked moderating content on the social media platform.

In fact, it was The Verge that sparked the inquiry to begin with. Silicon Valley editor Casey Newton reported that Facebook content moderators, hired through outsourcing giant Cognizant in Phoenix and Tampa, were subject to hate speech, murders, suicides, and other graphic content.

Facebook employs thousands of content moderators to sift through the vast number of posts, images and other content posted to the site. If a potentially rule-breaking post is flagged by other users, it’s often reviewed by a content moderator who makes the final call on whether it says or is deleted.

One former content moderator, Selena Scola, said she developed post-traumatic stress disorder — or PTSD — and sued Facebook to start a fund to create a testing and treatment program for current and former moderators.

Cognizant later pulled out of the content moderation market altogether following The Verge’s investigations.

The preliminary settlement will cover moderators in Arizona, California, Florida, and Texas from 2015, and each moderator will receive at least $1,000. Others could receive up to $50,000 in damages.

The California court overseeing the case will make the final call, expected later this year.

A Facebook spokesperson told TechCrunch: “We are grateful to the people who do this important work to make Facebook a safe environment for everyone. We’re committed to providing them additional support through this settlement and in the future.”

If you or someone you know needs help, call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also text HOME to 741-741 for free, 24-hour support from the Crisis Text Line. Outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of resources.

#articles, #california, #cognizant, #editor, #facebook, #florida, #internet-culture, #silicon-valley, #social, #tampa, #texas, #united-states