Ben Rubin, who founded Houseparty, Meerkat and Slashtalk, will peer into the future of social at Disrupt

Ben Rubin understands where social is going. In fact, he understands it so well, he’s always there early.

Rubin is the current CEO and co-founder of Slashtalk and an angel investor who scouts for Sequoia Capital. He previously founded Houseparty and Meerkat — apps that pioneered group video chat and mobile livestreaming, respectively — shaping massive social trends in their earliest stages.

In 2015, Meerkat took SXSW by storm. The app seemed to have captured lightning in a bottle, and entrenched players in social noticed. Twitter was early to the trend too, having bought Periscope earlier that year, and leveraged Meerkat’s momentum to attract people to its own product. Half a year later, Facebook vaulted into the space with Facebook Live.

Meerkat didn’t keep up, but it did transform. In 2016, the same team launched Houseparty, a group video chat app geared toward connecting established friends in casual virtual hangouts rather than streaming to the masses. Three years later, in a world not yet ravaged by the pandemic, it sold to Fortnite maker Epic Games.

With people driven indoors and away from IRL social interactions, Houseparty boomed. In a single month during the pandemic’s early phase, the app saw 50 million new signups and hit the top of the charts across the iOS App Store and Google Play. But Houseparty struggled to retain users, and by fall of 2021 Epic announced that it would unceremoniously wind down the project and pull Houseparty from app stores.

Only time will tell if Houseparty’s technology will play a role in Epic’s vision for the metaverse — an interconnected series of seamless virtual worlds for people to explore and socialize in. But regardless of the app’s eventual fate, Houseparty’s take on social spontaneity and casual group video was ahead of its time.

If anyone is well positioned to know where social networks are going in the near future, it’s probably Rubin. He’s now working on Slashtalk, “an anti-meeting tool for fast, decentralized conversations.” Slashtalk’s ethos echoes both Meerkat and Houseparty’s belief in social serendipity, but this time Rubin is focused on the workplace rather than consumer social.

Rubin will join us onstage at TechCrunch Disrupt 2021 to talk about his new company and the trends powering current upheavals in social networking, from decentralization and ownership to the future of a connected post-pandemic world.

#ben-rubin, #epic-games, #events, #facebook, #house-party, #houseparty, #ios-app-store, #meerkat, #periscope, #sequoia-capital, #slashtalk, #social, #social-networking, #social-networks, #tc, #tc-disrupt-2021

Epic Games to shut down Houseparty in October, including the video chat ‘Fortnite Mode’ feature

Houseparty, the social video chat app acquired by Fortnite maker Epic Games for a reported $35 million back in 2019, is shutting down. The company says Houseparty will be discontinued in October when the app will stop functioning for its existing users; it will be pulled from the app stores today, however. Related to this move, Epic Games’ “Fortnite Mode” feature, which leveraged Houseparty to bring video chat to Fortnite gamers, will also be discontinued.

Founded in 2015, Houseparty offered a way for users to participate in group video chats with friends and even play games, like Uno, trivia, Heads Up and others. Last year, Epic Games integrated Houseparty with Fortnite, initially to allow gamers to see live feeds from friends while gaming, then later adding support to livestream gameplay directly into Houseparty. At the time, these integrations appeared to be the end goal that explained why Epic Games had bought the social startup in the first place.

Now, just over two years after the acquisition was announced, and less than half a year since support for livestreaming was added to the app, Houseparty is shutting down.

The company didn’t offer any solid insight into what, at first glance, feels like an admission of failure to capitalize on its acquisition. But the reality is that Epic Games may have something larger in store beyond just video chat. That said, all Epic Games would say today is that the Houseparty team could no longer give the app the attention it required — a statement that indicates an executive decision to shift the team’s focus to other matters.

While none of the Houseparty team members are being let go as a result of this move, we’re told, they will be joining other teams where they will work on new ways to allow for “social interactions” across the Epic Games family of products. The company’s announcement hinted that those social features would be designed and built at the “metaverse scale.”

The “metaverse” is an increasingly used buzzword that references a shared virtual environment, like those provided by large-scale online gaming platforms such as Fortnite, Roblox and others. Facebook, too, claims the metaverse is the next big gambit for social networking, with CEO Mark Zuckerberg having described it as an “embodied internet that you’re inside of rather than just looking at.”

To some extent, Fortnite has begun to embrace the metaverse by offering non-gaming experiences like online concerts you attend as your avatar, and other live events. Ahead of its shutdown, Houseparty also toyed with live events that users would co-watch and participate in alongside their friends.

An Epic Games spokesperson tells TechCrunch the Houseparty team has worked on (and continues to work on) a number of other projects that focus on social. But some of the “multiple, larger projects” Epic Games has in the works remain undisclosed, we’re told.

In terms of social products, Houseparty’s technology now underpins all of Fortnite voice chat and the features they built are widely available for free to developers through Epic Games Services. They also worked on building out new social experiences, which have ranged from the social RSVP functions for Fortnite’s global events, like the recent Ariana Grande concert, to the upcoming “Operation: Sky Fire” event for collaborating quests and other game mechanics. More social functionality and new experiences are also being built into Fortnite’s user-generated content platform, Create Mode.

While it may seem odd to close an app that only last year experienced a boost in usage due to the pandemic, it appears the COVID bump didn’t have staying power.

At the height of lockdowns, Houseparty had reported it had gained 50 million new sign-ups in a month’s time as users looked to video apps to connect with family and friends while the world was shut down. But as the pandemic wore on, other video chat experiences gained more ground. Zoom, which had established itself as an essential tool for remote work, became a tool for hanging out with friends after-hours, as well. Facebook also started to eat Houseparty’s lunch with its debut of drop-in video chat “Rooms” last year, which offered a similar group video experience. And bored users shifted to audio-based social networking on apps like Clubhouse or Twitter Spaces.

Image Credits: Apptopia

According to data from Apptopia, Houseparty has been continually declining since the pandemic bump. To date, its app has seen a total of 111 million downloads across iOS and Android, with the majority (63 million) on iOS. The U.S. was Houseparty’s largest market, accounting for 43.4% of downloads, followed by the U.K. (9.8%), then Germany (5.6%).

Epic Games, meanwhile, said the app served “tens of millions” of users worldwide. It insists the closure wasn’t decided lightly, nor was the decision to shutter “Fortnite Mode” made due to lack of adoption.

Houseparty will alert users to the shutdown via in-app notifications ahead of its final closure in October. At that point, Fortnite Mode will also no longer be available.

#android, #app-store, #apps, #computing, #epic-games, #exit, #facebook, #fortnite, #gaming, #houseparty, #mark-zuckerberg, #metaverse, #mobile, #online-games, #roblox, #social, #social-networking, #software, #uno, #video-gaming

Social network Peanut expands to include more women with launch of Peanut Menopause

Peanut, a social networking app for women, initially found traction connecting women in the earlier stages of their motherhood journey. But over the years, the network expanded to support women through other life stages. Now, that will include menopause, as well — a life stage that will impact nearly half the world’s population at some point, but where opportunities there are few online communities where women can connect and learn.

“We’ve been thinking about this life stage for a long time, in terms of how it is so underserved,” explains Peanut founder and CEO Michelle Kennedy. “By 2025, there are going to be a billion women who are in menopause at that moment…and yet, when you think about what is there and accessible in terms of community, social [networking], and support — there’s literally nothing,” she says.

The company saw the opportunity in this market by observing what women were already discussing on the app, Kennedy says.

Although the app had historically skewed towards younger women just getting started with marriages and family, there were a number of women who had undergone surgical or chemically-induced menopause because of something like breast cancer or some other medical condition. This had put them into early or premature menopause, and they began to discuss how that was impacting their life — particularly as younger parents. There were also women who felt like they may have begun to experience menopause but were having their concerns dismissed by their doctors because they were too young. They wanted to talk about their symptoms with others who were going through the same thing. Others, meanwhile, were older and entering menopause, and were in search of community.

Image Credits: Peanut

To address this market, Peanut is expanding with the launch of Peanut Menopause, a dedicated space in the app where women can meet others who are at a similar life stage — whether that’s other premenopausal, menopausal, or postmenopausal women.

Women can join groups, ask questions, and get advice, or even join live audio conversations hosted by experts, through Peanut’s newer live audio rooms feature, Peanut Pods.  And they can use the app’s matchmaking feature to discover other women who are also in their same demographic, where they can chat using messaging or video.

Kennedy notes that the topic of menopause is something women have historically kept quiet about, often suffering in silence due to the lack of resources available to them when it comes on online networking and support groups.

“Men are never going to build this for us, so we have to build it for ourselves,” she says. “We have to build what we want and what we need.”

Image Credits: Peanut

The expansion may bring a broader group of women to Peanut. Today, the average age of the Peanut user is around 32, but the menopause-focused communities may attract women in the 49-plus age demographic, in addition to those who are going through the experience at a younger age, for other reasons.

Unfortunately for Peanut, not all investors see the opportunity in addressing the needs of menopausal women. In fact, on a recent phone call, Kennedy said one investor seemed dismayed about the expansion, noting they had really loved “the younger age demo.” Kennedy said this comment blew her away.

“They are women who are at a stage in their life where they probably have more disposable income,” she said of the new demographic Peanut is now including. “They are more considered users, in many respects. They’re not as flighty. They don’t have 30 apps on their phone, and the ones they have on their phone they’re really invested in. It’s just astonishing to me that someone in the investment community would make a comment like that,” she adds.

Peanut is not yet monetizing its users and doesn’t intend to do so using ads Instead, the company’s plan is to eventually introduce the freemium model where women will pay to unlock a set of premium features — a model that worked well in the dating app industry, where Kennedy has roots as the former deputy CEO at dating app Badoo and an inaugural board member at Bumble.

The feature is the latest in a long line of expansions over the years — including Q&A forums, Peanut Pages, Peanut Groups, and recently, Peanut Pods — that have helped Peanut evolve into an online community that serves over 2 million users. The Peanut app is available as a free download across both iOS and Android, while a preview of its communities are available on the web.

#apps, #ceo, #menopause, #michelle-kennedy, #middle-age, #online-communities, #online-community, #peanut, #social, #social-media, #social-networking, #startups, #womens-health

Instagram will require users to provide their birthday

Instagram will begin prodding users to share their birthday with the service, if they haven’t already done so. The company today announced it will now start popping up a notification that asks you to add your birthday to “personalize your experience.” But the prompt can only be dismissed a handful of times before becoming a requirement. The move is a part of Instagram’s larger goal to create new safety features aimed at younger users, the company explains. This includes the teen privacy protections introduced earlier this year, as well as Instagram’s longer-term plan to launch a version of its service aimed at users under the age of 13.

This March, Instagram rolled out new features that made it more difficult for adults to contact teens through its app. Then in July, the company announced a larger series of changes to the default settings for new users under the age of 16. It will now default these users’ accounts to “private” and limit their accounts from being suggested elsewhere in the app. It also now restricts adults whose accounts are flagged as “potentially suspicious” from being able to reach out to other minors or interact with their posts.

Starting this week, Instagram says users who have not yet shared their birthday will begin to see pop-up notifications when they open the Instagram app.

These notifications will appear a handful of times, but at some point, users will no longer be able to dismiss the message by tapping “Not Now.” Instead, everyone will ultimately be required to share their birthday to continue to use Instagram.

The company will also now request you to share your birthday information when you come across a post with a warning screen. These screens, which hide content that’s flagged as sensitive or graphic, are not new. But Instagram has never before asked for a user’s birthday before displaying the hidden content.

Image Credits: Instagram

The birthday entry form itself is not complex. You simply scroll to choose the month, day and year of your birthday.

Of course, kids are commonly known to lie on these entry forms in order to bypass restrictions when signing up for apps. On this front, Instagram has developed A.I. technology to help it identify accounts were kids may have lied. For instance, it may be able to infer someone’s birthday based on comments left on “Happy Birthday” posts, where the user’s age may be referenced. The company also hints at further plans in this area, noting how it will later require users to verify their age when Facebook’s technology determines a mismatch between the age the user submitted and what appears to be their real age, based on other signals.

That technology is still in the “early stages,” says Instagram, but will involve a menu of options that will allow someone to verify their age.

The need to have users’ birthdays on hand isn’t only meant to power the recently launched teen protection features. Instagram is also working to bring its app to younger users — a decision that’s been met with a hostile response from legislators and consumer advocacy groups alike. In addition, age remains an important data point for ad targeting. Even as Instagram pulled back on the ability for marketers to target teens using interest data or their activity on other apps, it will continue to allow ad targeting based on age, gender and location across age groups.

The company is now one of several to have rolled out added protections for younger teen users, ahead of regulations that would force them to do so. Over the course of this year, TikTok, YouTube, and Google have also announced changes to how younger teens can use their services and how they can be targeted by ads, in anticipation of a regulatory crackdown. While each has crafted its own set of teen safety features independently, the changes have largely addressed making the default settings for new teenage users more restrictive.

Instagram says the new birthday pop-up notifications will begin to appear this week on the mobile app and will continue to roll out over the weeks ahead to reach more users.

#adtech, #apps, #children, #computing, #data-collection, #facebook, #instagram, #mobile, #mobile-applications, #mobile-apps, #privacy, #regulations, #social, #social-media, #social-networking, #social-networks, #software, #teenagers, #teens

Clay debuts a new tool to help people better manage their business and personal relationships

A new startup called Clay, backed by $8 million in seed funding, has built a system designed to help you be more thoughtful with the people in your life, which operates somewhat like a personal CRM. With Clay, you build a collection of the people you meet by connecting your email and calendar with social apps, including Twitter and LinkedIn. Clay then populates each person’s entry with all the relevant information you would need to recall for any future meeting — ranging from their work history to latest tweets to the details on how you met and when you last communicated, among other things.

You also can add notes of your own to each entry, click to activate reminders to follow up with certain people and organize entries into groups. The app supports a command bar, keyboard shortcuts and home screen widgets, as well.

The end result is something that’s not exactly an address book but also not necessarily as sales and pipeline-focused as a CRM system.

Clay’s founders instead refer to their app as a “home for your people,” as it’s attempting to carve out a new space in the market for a more personal system of tracking who you know and how.

Image Credits: Clay

The idea for the startup comes from entrepreneurs Matthew Achariam and Zachary Hamed, Clay’s co-founders and co-CEOs, who met back in their early days of working with startups. Prior to starting Clay, Achariam helped lead product at Y Combinator-backed analytics company, Custora, and Hamed led the product management team for Goldman Sachs’ web platform, Marquee.

“We think that people and relationships have played such an important role in our own career trajectories. And we wanted to dive into that,” Hamed explains, when speaking about what prompted their interest in building Clay.

To get started with Clay — which is available as a web, desktop and mobile app — you’ll first connect your accounts. At present, Clay supports Microsoft Outlook/Office 365, Google Calendar, Gmail/Google Mail and Twitter. You also can add other services via Zapier integrations. After setup, Clay will then automatically track your meetings and personal connections, and augment people’s entries with other details pulled from the web, like their background and work experience listed on LinkedIn and latest tweets.

People’s entries will also detail how you met the person — something people tend to forget over time. For example, they may be noted as a connection you made on LinkedIn, or someone you met in person or in an online meeting.

Through Clay’s desktop app, you also can optionally connect Clay with iMessage, which allows it to augment its people entries with phone numbers and details about when you last communicated. However, this feature should be met with some caution. While Clay doesn’t import the content of your messages, the company says, it has to work around the lack of an official API or SDK to perform this integration. That means the feature requires full disk access in order to function. That’s an elevated security permission some will not feel comfortable using.

Image Credits: Clay

The founders, however, say they’ve built Clay to respect people’s privacy and security. The company’s privacy policy is human-readable and each integration is explained in terms of what data is pulled, what’s not pulled and how the data is used. Currently, data is encrypted on Clay’s servers and in transit, but the goal — and part of what the funding round is going toward — is to make Clay work fully locally on users’ devices.

“We want it to work fully on your machine. We don’t want to be storing any data at all,” says Hamed. “To do that is a very technically complex task, so it was prohibitively out of reach for Matt and I as we were building Clay in the beginning. But now that we have resources, that is our eventual goal.”

Still, Clay may face a difficult time convincing users that it’s safe, due to how many times people have been burned in the past over “smart” address books that abused users’ private data. Only last year, a new startup in this space, Sunshine Contacts, was found to be distributing people’s home addresses, even though these people hadn’t signed up for the app. Many other prior efforts also failed because they overstepped user privacy concerns in order to generate revenue.

Achariam believes the problem with these earlier products was often the business model they adopted.

“That was one of the things we really were thinking about when we started going into the space — because we, ourselves, wanted something like this — and every product that we saw kind of rubbed us the wrong way or exploded because of those reasons,” notes Achariam, of the smart address market’s history. “A lot of these things started off with making the user the product. And then you weren’t paying for it. There was no sustainable business model and at some point, they had to balance those trade-offs,” he says.

Image Credits: Clay

Clay is doing things differently. It’s starting from day one with a pricing plan that will allow it to self-sustain. Right now, that’s a fairly steep $20 per month, but the goal is to bring that down over time and introduce a free plan. (It’s also offering cheaper access to certain groups, like students and nonprofits, if a request is emailed.)

During testing, Clay was adopted by a number of different types of users, including teachers who wanted to remember students and their parents; a congressional candidate who wanted to track their constituents; and a veterinarian who wanted to remember customers and their pets.

“We intentionally made it really cross-industry, cross-disciplinary. We didn’t think that this was a tech problem or investor problem. We went broader,” notes Hamed.

The startup has raised a total of $8 million in seed funding from 2019 through 2020. The funding was led by Forerunner Ventures, with participation from General Catalyst.

Angel investors include Shannon Brayton, former CMO at LinkedIn; Kevin Hartz, former CEO of Eventbrite; Kelvin Beachum, an NFL player, philanthropist and investor; Lindsay Kaplan, co-founder of Chief and former VP of Communications and Brand at Casper; Zoelle Egner, former marketing lead at Airtable; Adam Evans, former CTO of RelateIQ; Charlie Songhurst, former head of corporate strategy at Microsoft; Sam Lessin, former VP of product management at Facebook; Jonah Goodhart, former CEO of Moat and SVP at Oracle; Jeff Morris Jr., Chapter One Ventures and others.

“Emerging from COVID, people are recognizing what had already become true. Relationships are increasingly digital, formed through online interaction and honed through messaging apps. So, how is it that we can be continuously connected, yet increasingly lonely at the same time?” stated Forerunner GP Brian O’Malley, about his firm’s investment. “The problem is that existing social products don’t serve you as the end user. You are just a pawn for some other customer, like a recruiter or some unknown advertiser. Clay is the first relationship software company built to understand all the signals that drive your connections, helping you form better ones with a broader set of people. Clay understands that your network is yours, so you should be empowered to own it,” he added.

Clay is currently opened to sign-ups through its website.

#apps, #computing, #crm, #customer-relationship-management, #desktop-app, #facebook, #forerunner-ventures, #funding, #general-catalyst, #google, #linkedin, #microsoft, #mobile, #networking, #privacy, #relationship-management, #relationships, #social-networking, #software, #startups, #web-app

Flip bags $28M to turn beauty, wellness social commerce on its head

Social commerce startup Flip is mixing live commerce mobile apps with real customer reviews to improve the buying experience and opportunity for the creator economy. Today, the Los Angeles-based company closed on a $28 million Series A led Streamlined Ventures.

Nooruldeen “Noor” Agha, a serial e-commerce entrepreneur, founded Flip in 2019 after emigrating to the United States from Iraq. He had previously lived in Dubai, where he built some companies in the e-commerce space.

It was while leading the companies that he realized that the vision of commerce was broken and that people had a fragmented path to purchase: They may start on social media, then move to video platforms and conclude on yet another site to make the purchase.

Agha believes the future of e-commerce will be driven by shoppers and the experiences they have with social media, so Flip is pulling all of those experiences into one app, mixing in user-generated reviews and live shopping shows for beauty, wellness and health brands. It then adds same-day shipping and back-end logistics, Agha told TechCrunch. Users post video reviews of their purchases and can see in real-time data how they did, as well as receive commissions from sales that resulted from their posts.

“It’s not only a social platform, it is the best post-purchase experience — shipping, rewards, returns — everything people love and in a two-click process,” he added. “Our app is like if TikTok and Amazon had a baby.”

Joining Streamlined Ventures in the latest round is Mubadala Capital Ventures, BDMI and a group of early backers and angel investors, including Ruby Lu, an early investor in Kuaishou, China’s leading social commerce platform. In total, Flip raised $31.5 million, which includes a small seed two years ago, Agha said.

He intends to use the new funding to scale the company and its creator ecosystem, while also expanding the end-to-end logistics part of the platform.

Live commerce originated in China, where McKinsey estimates the market reached $171 billion in 2020 and will jump to a valuation of $423 billion by 2022. Meanwhile, U.S. live commerce market is trailing behind, expecting to reach $11 billion by the end of 2021.

Flip is now signing an average of 20 new brands per week and has already gained partnerships with Unilever and Coty. Agha expects to hit 500 brands by this year’s holiday season. In addition, the company has 1 million downloads and in the last quarter shopped out 30,000 orders, which Agha predicts will double in coming months.

“We were hiding on purpose so we could build out everything and be done when we launched,” he added. “We focused on onboarding brands instead of pushing for growth, but now we expect to have a grand launch at the end of September where we start aggressively pushing growth.”

Ullas Naik, founder and general partner of Streamlined Ventures, said his firm does a lot of investment in e-commerce and marketplaces and was one of the first investors in DoorDash and also backed Rappi.

Commerce has evolved over the past 20 years in a meaningful way, he said. During that time, spend shifted from retail and online, while the quality of the experience has also evolved. He has seen evidence of similar models in other geographies, particularly in China when they have “had massive success.”

“We are most intrigued with how live commerce intersects with social networking to create enhanced shopping experiences,” Naik said. “When I met with Noor and he told me he was going to start with beauty and cosmetics, I thought he was building a unique experience and wanted him to be in a broad range of categories, not just beauty. With what he is building on the back end, with the logistics piece, he is creating a super experience and I’m intrigued by what can be built.”

#advertising-tech, #apps, #bdmi, #ecommerce, #flip, #funding, #mubadala-capital-ventures, #nooruldeen-noor-agha, #recent-funding, #retailers, #social-commerce, #social-media, #social-networking, #startups, #streamlined-ventures, #supply-chain-management, #tc, #ullas-naik, #video

This Week in Apps: In-app events hit the App Store, TikTok tries Stories, Apple reveals new child safety plan

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

The app industry continues to grow, with a record 218 billion downloads and $143 billion in global consumer spend in 2020. Consumers last year also spent 3.5 trillion minutes using apps on Android devices alone. And in the U.S., app usage surged ahead of the time spent watching live TV. Currently, the average American watches 3.7 hours of live TV per day, but now spends four hours per day on their mobile devices.

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

This Week in Apps offers a way to keep up with this fast-moving industry in one place, with the latest from the world of apps, including news, updates, startup fundings, mergers and acquisitions, and suggestions about new apps and games to try, too.

Do you want This Week in Apps in your inbox every Saturday? Sign up here: techcrunch.com/newsletters

Top Stories

Apple to scan for CSAM imagery

Apple announced a major initiative to scan devices for CSAM imagery. The company on Thursday announced a new set of features, arriving later this year, that will detect child sexual abuse material (CSAM) in its cloud and report it to law enforcement. Companies like Dropbox, Google and Microsoft already scan for CSAM in their cloud services, but Apple had allowed users to encrypt their data before it reached iCloud. Now, Apple’s new technology, NeuralHash, will run on users’ devices, tatformso detect when a users upload known CSAM imagery — without having to first decrypt the images. It even can detect the imagery if it’s been cropped or edited in an attempt to avoid detection.

Meanwhile, on iPhone and iPad, the company will roll out protections to Messages app users that will filter images and alert children and parents if sexually explicit photos are sent to or from a child’s account. Children will not be shown the images but will instead see a grayed-out image instead. If they try to view the image anyway through the link, they’ll be shown interruptive screens that explain why the material may be harmful and are warned that their parents will be notified.

Some privacy advocates pushed back at the idea of such a system, believing it could expand to end-to-end encrypted photos, lead to false positives, or set the stage for more on-device government surveillance in the future. But many cryptology experts believe the system Apple developed provides a good balance between privacy and utility, and have offered their endorsement of the technology. In addition, Apple said reports are manually reviewed before being sent to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC).

The changes may also benefit iOS developers who deal in user photos and uploads, as predators will no longer store CSAM imagery on iOS devices in the first place, given the new risk of detection.

In-App Events appear on the App Store

Image Credits: Apple

Though not yet publicly available to all users, those testing the new iOS 15 mobile operating system got their first glimpse of a new App Store discovery feature this week: “in-app events.” First announced at this year’s WWDC, the feature will allow developers and Apple editors alike to showcase directly on the App Store upcoming events taking place inside apps.

The events can appear on the App Store homepage, on the app’s product pages or can be discovered through personalized recommendations and search. In some cases, editors will curate events to feature on the App Store. But developers will also be provided tools to submit their own in-app events. TikTok’s “Summer Camp” for creators was one of the first in-app events to be featured, where it received a top spot on the iPadOS 15 App Store.

Weekly News

Platforms: Apple

Apple expands support for student IDs on iPhone and Apple Watch ahead of the fall semester. Tens of thousands more U.S. and Canadian colleges will now support mobile student IDs in the Apple Wallet app, including Auburn University, Northern Arizona University, University of Maine, New Mexico State University and others.

Apple was accused of promoting scam apps in the App Store’s featured section. The company’s failure to properly police its store is one thing, but to curate an editorial list that actually includes the scams is quite another. One of the games rounded up under “Slime Relaxations,” an already iffy category to say the least, was a subscription-based slime simulator that locked users into a $13 AUD per week subscription for its slime simulator. One of the apps on the curated list didn’t even function, implying that Apple’s editors hadn’t even tested the apps they recommend.

Tax changes hit the App Store. Apple announced tax and price changes for apps and IAPs in South Africa, the U.K. and all territories using the Euro currency, all of which will see decreases. Increases will occur in Georgia and Tajikistan, due to new tax changes. Proceeds on the App Store in Italy will be increased to reflect a change to the Digital Services Tax effective rate.

Game Center changes, too. Apple said that on August 4, a new certificate for server-based Game Center verification will be available via the publicKeyUrl.

Fintech

Robinhood stock jumped more than 24% to $46.80 on Tuesday after initially falling 8% on its first day of trading last week, after which it had continued to trade below its opening price of $38.

Square’s Cash app nearly doubled its gross profit to $546 million in Q2, but also reported a $45 million impairment loss on its bitcoin holdings.

Coinbase’s app now lets you buy your cryptocurrency using Apple Pay. The company previously made its Coinbase Card compatible with Apple Pay in June.

Social

An anonymous app called Sendit, which relies on Snap Kit to function, is climbing the charts of the U.S. App Store after Snap suspended similar apps, YOLO and LMK. Snap was sued by the parent of child who was bullied through those apps, which led to his suicide. Sendit also allows for anonymity, and reviews compare it to YOLO. But some reviews also complained about bullying. This isn’t the first time Snap has been involved in a lawsuit related to a young person’s death related to its app. The company was also sued for its irresponsible “speed filter” that critics said encouraged unsafe driving. Three young men died using the filter, which captured them doing 123 mph.

TikTok is testing Stories. As Twitter’s own Stories integrations, Fleets, shuts down, TikTok confirmed it’s testing its own Stories product. The TikTok Stories appear in a left-hand sidebar and allow users to post ephemeral images or video that disappear in 24 hours. Users can also comment on Stories, which are public to their mutual friends and the creator. Stories on TikTok may make more sense than they did on Twitter, as TikTok is already known as a creative platform and it gives the app a more familiar place to integrate its effects toolset and, eventually, advertisements.

Facebook has again re-arranged its privacy settings. The company continually moves around where its privacy features are located, ostensibly to make them easier to find. But users then have to re-learn where to go to find the tools they need, after they had finally memorized the location. This time, the settings have been grouped into six top-level categories, but “privacy” settings have been unbundled from one location to be scattered among the other categories.

A VICE report details ban-as-a-service operations that allow anyone to harass or censor online creators on Instagram. Assuming you can find it, one operation charged $60 per ban, the listing says.

TikTok merged personal accounts with creator accounts. The change means now all non-business accounts on TikTok will have access to the creator tools under Settings, including Analytics, Creator Portal, Promote and Q&A. TikTok shared the news directly with subscribers of its TikTok Creators newsletter in August, and all users will get a push notification alerting them to the change, the company told us.

Discord now lets users customize their profile on its apps. The company added new features to its iOS and Android apps that let you add a description, links and emojis and select a profile color. Paid subscribers can also choose an image or GIF as their banner.

Twitter Spaces added a co-hosting option that allows up to two co-hosts to be added to the live audio chat rooms. Now Spaces can have one main host, two co-hosts and up to 10 speakers. Co-hosts have all the moderation abilities as hosts, but can’t add or remove others as co-hosts.

Messaging

Tencent reopened new user sign-ups for its WeChat messaging app, after having suspended registrations last week for unspecified “technical upgrades.” The company, like many other Chinese tech giants, had to address new regulations from Beijing impacting the tech industry. New rules address how companies handle user data collection and storage, antitrust behavior and other checks on capitalist “excess.” The gaming industry is now worried it’s next to be impacted, with regulations that would restrict gaming for minors to fight addiction.

WhatsApp is adding a new feature that will allow users to send photos and videos that disappear after a single viewing. The Snapchat-inspired feature, however, doesn’t alert you if the other person takes a screenshot — as Snap’s app does. So it may not be ideal for sharing your most sensitive content.

Telegram’s update expands group video calls to support up to 1,000 viewers. It also announced video messages can be recorded in higher quality and can be expanded, regular videos can be watched at 0.5 or 2x speed, screen sharing with sound is available for all video calls, including 1-on-1 calls, and more.

Streaming & Entertainment

American Airlines added free access to TikTok aboard its Viasat-equipped aircraft. Passengers will be able to watch the app’s videos for up to 30 minutes for free and can even download the app if it’s not already installed. After the free time, they can opt to pay for Wi-Fi to keep watching. Considering how easy it is to fall into multi-hour TikTok viewing sessions without knowing it, the addition of the addictive app could make long plane rides feel shorter. Or at least less painful.

Chinese TikTok rival Kuaishou saw stocks fall by more than 15% in Hong Kong, the most since its February IPO. The company is another victim of an ongoing market selloff triggered by increasing investor uncertainty related to China’s recent crackdown on tech companies. Beijing’s campaign to rein in tech has also impacted Tencent, Alibaba, Jack Ma’s Ant Group, food delivery company Meituan and ride-hailing company Didi. Also related, Kuaishou shut down its controversial app Zynn, which had been paying users to watch its short-form videos, including those stolen from other apps.

Twitch overtook YouTube in consumer spending per user in April 2021, and now sees $6.20 per download as of June compared with YouTube’s $5.60, Sensor Tower found.

Image Credits: Sensor Tower

Spotify confirmed tests of a new ad-supported tier called Spotify Plus, which is only $0.99 per month and offers unlimited skips (like free users get on the desktop) and the ability to play the songs you want, instead of only being forced to use shuffle mode.

The company also noted in a forum posting that it’s no longer working on AirPlay2 support, due to “audio driver compatibility” issues.

Mark Cuban-backed audio app Fireside asked its users to invest in the company via an email sent to creators which didn’t share deal terms. The app has yet to launch.

YouTube kicks off its $100 million Shorts Fund aimed at taking on TikTok by providing creators with cash incentives for top videos. Creators will get bonuses of $100 to $10,000 based on their videos’ performance.

Dating

Match Group announced during its Q2 earnings it plans to add to several of the company’s brands over the next 12 to 24 months audio and video chat, including group live video, and other livestreaming technologies. The developments will be powered by innovations from Hyperconnect, the social networking company that this year became Match’s biggest acquisition to date when it bought the Korean app maker for a sizable $1.73 billion. Since then, Match was spotted testing group live video on Tinder, but says that particular product is not launching in the near-term. At least two brands will see Hyperconnect-powered integrations in 2021.

Photos

The Photo & Video category on U.S. app stores saw strong growth in the first half of the year, a Sensor Tower report found. Consumer spend among the top 100 apps grew 34% YoY to $457 million in Q2 2021, with the majority of the revenue (83%) taking place on iOS.

Image Credits: Sensor Tower

Gaming

Epic Games revealed the host of its in-app Rift Tour event is Ariana Grande, in the event that runs August 6-8.

Pokémon GO influencers threatened to boycott the game after Niantic removed the COVID safety measures that had allowed people to more easily play while social distancing. Niantic’s move seemed ill-timed, given the Delta variant is causing a new wave of COVID cases globally.

Health & Fitness

Apple kicked out an app called Unjected from the App Store. The new social app billed itself as a community for the unvaccinated, allowing like-minded users to connect for dating and friendships. Apple said the app violated its policies for COVID-19 content.

Google Pay expanded support for vaccine cards. In Australia, Google’s payments app now allows users to add their COVID-19 digital certification to their device for easy access. The option is available through Google’s newly updated Passes API which lets government agencies distribute digital versions of vaccine cards.

COVID Tech Connect, a U.S. nonprofit initially dedicated to collecting devices like phones and tablets for COVID ICU patients, has now launched its own app. The app, TeleHome, is a device-agnostic, HIPAA-compliant way for patients to place a video call for free at a time when the Delta variant is again filling ICU wards, this time with the unvaccinated — a condition that sometimes overlaps with being low-income. Some among the working poor have been hesitant to get the shot because they can’t miss a day of work, and are worried about side effects. Which is why the Biden administration offered a tax credit to SMBs who offered paid time off to staff to get vaccinated and recover.

Popular journaling app Day One, which was recently acquired by WordPress.com owner Automattic, rolled out a new “Concealed Journals” feature that lets users hide content from others’ viewing. By tapping the eye icon, the content can be easily concealed on a journal by journal basis, which can be useful for those who write to their journal in public, like coffee shops or public transportation.

Edtech

Recently IPO’d language learning app Duolingo is developing a math app for kids. The company says it’s still “very early” in the development process, but will announce more details at its annual conference, Duocon, later this month.

Educational publisher Pearson launched an app that offers U.S. students access to its 1,500 titles for a monthly subscription of $14.99. the Pearson+ mobile app (ack, another +), also offers the option of paying $9.99 per month for access to a single textbook for a minimum of four months.

News & Reading

Quora jumps into the subscription economy. Still not profitable from ads alone, Quora announced two new products that allow its expert creators to monetize their content on its service. With Quora+ ($5/mo or $50/yr), subscribers can pay for any content that a creator paywalls. Creators can choose to enable a adaptive paywall that will use an algorithm to determine when to show the paywall. Another product, Spaces, lets creators write paywalled publications on Quora, similar to Substack. But only a 5% cut goes to Quora, instead of 10% on Substack.

Utilities

Google Maps on iOS added a new live location-sharing feature for iMessage users, allowing them to more easily show your ETA with friends and even how much battery life you have left. The feature competes with iMessage’s built-in location-sharing feature, and offers location sharing of 1 hour up to 3 days. The app also gained a dark mode.

Security & Privacy

Controversial crime app Citizen launched a $20 per month “Protect” service that includes live agent support (who can refer calls to 911 if need be). The agents can gather your precise location, alert your designated emergency contacts, help you navigate to a safe location and monitor the situation until you feel safe. The system of live agent support is similar to in-car or in-home security and safety systems, like those from ADT or OnStar, but works with users out in the real world. The controversial part, however, is the company behind the product: Citizen has been making headlines for launching private security fleets outside law enforcement, and recently offered a reward in a manhunt for an innocent person based on unsubstantiated tips.

Funding and M&A

🤝 Square announced its acquisition of the “buy now, pay later” giant AfterPay in a $29 billion deal that values the Australian firm at more than 30% higher than the stock’s last closing price of AUS$96.66. AfterPay has served over 16 million customers and nearly 100,000 merchants globally, to date, and comes at a time when the BNPL space is heating up. Apple has also gotten into the market recently with an Affirm partnership in Canada.

🤝 Gaming giant Zynga acquired Chinese game developer StarLark, the team behind the mobile golf game Golf Rival, from Betta Games for $525 million in both cash and stock. Golf Rival is the second-largest mobile golf game behind Playdemic’s Golf Clash, and EA is in the process of buying that studio for $1.4 billion.

💰  U.K.-based Humanity raised an additional $2.5 million for its app that claims to help slow down aging, bringing the total raise to date to $5 million. Backers include Calm’s co-founders, MyFitness Pal’s co-founder and others in the health space. The app works by benchmarking health advice against real-world data, to help users put better health practices into action.

💰 YELA, a Cameo-like app for the Middle East and South Asia, raised $2 million led by U.S. investors that include Tinder co-founder Justin Mateen and Sean Rad, general partner of RAD Fund. The app is focusing on signing celebrities in the regions it serves, where smartphone penetration is high and over 6% of the population is under 35.

💰 London-based health and wellness app maker Palta raised a $100 million Series B led by VNV Global. The company’s products include Flo.Health, Simple Fasting, Zing Fitness Coach and others, which reach a combined 2.4 million active, paid subscribers. The funds will be used to create more mobile subscription products.

🤝 Emoji database and Wikipedia-like site Emojipedia was acquired by Zedge, the makers of a phone personalization app offering wallpapers, ringtones and more to 35 million MAUs. Deal terms weren’t disclosed. Emojipedia says the deal provides it with more stability and the opportunity for future growth. For Zedge, the deal provides🤨….um, a popular web resource it thinks it can better monetize, we suspect.

💰 Mental health app Revery raised $2 million led by Sequoia Capital India’s Surge program for its app that combines cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia with mobile gaming concepts. The company will focus on other mental health issues in the future.

💰 London-based Nigerian-operating fintech startup Kuda raised a $55 million Series B, valuing its mobile-first challenger bank at $500 million. The inside round was co-led by Valar Ventures and Target Global.

💰 Vietnamese payments provider VNLife raised $250 million in a round led by U.S.-based General Atlantic and Dragoneer Investment Group. PayPal Ventures and others also participated. The round values the business at over $1 billion.

Downloads

Mastodon for iPhone

Fans of decentralized social media efforts now have a new app. The nonprofit behind the open source decentralized social network Mastodon released an official iPhone app, aimed at making the network more accessible to newcomers. The app allows you to find and follow people and topics; post text, images, GIFs, polls, and videos; and get notified of new replies and reblogs, much like Twitter.

Xingtu

@_666eveITS SO COOL FRFR do u guys want a tutorial? #fypシ #醒图 #醒图app♬ original sound – Ian Asher

TikTok users are teaching each other how to switch over to the Chinese App Store in order to get ahold of the Xingtu app for iOS. (An Android version is also available.) The app offers advanced editing tools that let users edit their face and body, like FaceTune, apply makeup, add filters and more. While image-editing apps can be controversial for how they can impact body acceptance, Xingtu offers a variety of artistic filters which is what’s primarily driving the demand. It’s interesting to see the lengths people will go to just to get a few new filters for their photos — perhaps making a case for Instagram to finally update its Post filters instead of pretending no one cares about their static photos anymore.

Tweets

Facebook still dominating top charts, but not the No. 1 spot:  

Not cool, Apple: 

This user acquisition strategy: 

Maybe Stories don’t work everywhere: 

#adt, #afterpay, #alibaba, #android, #ant-group, #api, #app-maker, #app-store, #apple, #apps, #australia, #automattic, #beijing, #biden-administration, #canada, #china, #cloud-services, #coinbase, #coinbase-card, #computing, #day-one, #dragoneer-investment-group, #driver, #dropbox, #duolingo, #emojipedia, #eta, #facebook, #fintech-startup, #food-delivery, #game-center, #game-developer, #general-atlantic, #general-partner, #georgia, #gif, #google, #hyperconnect, #instagram, #ios, #ios-devices, #ipad, #iphone, #italy, #itunes, #jam-fund, #justin-mateen, #kuaishou, #kuda, #law-enforcement, #london, #ma, #maine, #meituan, #microsoft, #middle-east, #mobile, #mobile-app, #mobile-applications, #mobile-devices, #online-creators, #onstar, #operating-system, #palta, #playdemic, #quora, #sean-rad, #sensor-tower, #sequoia-capital, #smartphone, #snap, #snapchat, #social-network, #social-networking, #software, #south-africa, #south-asia, #spotify, #stories, #target-global, #tc, #this-week-in-apps, #tiktok, #twitch, #united-kingdom, #united-states, #valar-ventures, #viasat, #vnv-global, #wi-fi, #wordpress-com, #zedge, #zynga

Match Group to add audio and video chat, including group live video, to its dating app portfolio

Dating app maker and Tinder parent, Match Group, said during its Q2 earnings it will bring audio and video chat, including group live video, and other livestreaming technologies to several of the company’s brands over the next 12 to 24 months. The developments will be powered by innovations from Hyperconnect, the social networking company that this year became Match’s biggest acquisition to date, when it bought the Korean app maker for a sizable $1.73 billion. 

Since then, Match Group has been relatively quiet about its specific plans for Hyperconnect’s tech or its longer-term strategy with the operation, although Tinder was briefly spotted testing a group video chat feature called Tinder Mixer earlier this summer. The move had seemed to signal some exploration of social discovery features in the wake of the Hyperconnect deal. However, Tinder told us at the time the company had no plans to bring that specific product to market in the year ahead.

On Tuesday’s earnings, Match Group offered a little more insight into the future of Hyperconnect, following the acquisition’s official close in mid-June.

According to Match Group CEO Shar Dubey, who stepped into the top job last January, the company is excited about the potential to integrate technologies Hyperconnect has developed into existing Match-owned dating apps.

This includes, she said, “AR features, self-expression tools, conversational A.I., and a number of what we would consider metaverse elements, which have the element to transform the online meeting and getting-to-know-each-other process,” Dubey explained, without offering further specific details about how the products would work or which apps would receive these enhancements.

Many of these technologies emerged from Hyperconnect’s lab, Hyper X — the same in-house incubator whose first product is now one of the company’s flagship apps, Azar, which joined Match Group with the acquisition.

Dubey also noted that the work to begin these tech integrations was already underway at the company.

By year-end, Match Group said it expects to have at least two of its brands integrated with technologies from Hyperconnect. A number of other brands will implement Hyperconnect capabilities by year-end 2022.

In doing so, Match aims to transform what people think of when it comes to online dating.

To date, online dating been a fairly static experience across the industry, where apps focus largely on profiles and photos, and then offer some sort of matching technique — whether swipes or quizzes or something else. Tinder, in more recent years, began to break out of that mold as it innovated with an array of different experiences, like its choose-your-own-adventure in-app video series, “Swipe Night,” video profiles, instant chat features (via Tinder’s product, Hot Takes), and others. But it still lacked some the real-time elements that people have when meeting one another in the real world.

This is an area where Match believes Hyperconnect can help to improve the online dating experience.

“One of the holy grails for us in online dating has always been to bridge the disconnect that happens between people chatting online and then meeting someone in person,” Dubey said. “These technologies will eventually allow us to build experiences that will help people determine if they have that much elusive chemistry or not… Our ultimate vision here is for people to never have to go on a bad first date again,” she added.

Of course, Match Group’s positioning of the Hyperconnect deal as being more interesting because the innovation it brings — and not just the standalone apps it operates — also comes at a time when those apps have not met the company’s expectations on revenue.

In the second half the of 2021, Match Group said it expects Hyperconnect to contribute to $125 to $135 million in revenue — a financial outlook that the company admits reflects some pullback. It attributed this largely to Covid impacts, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region where Hyperconnect’s apps operate. Other impacts to Hyperconnect’s growth included a more crowded marketplace and Apple’s changes to IDFA (Identifier for Advertisers), which has impacted a number of apps — including other social networking apps, like Facebook.

While Match still believes Hyperconnect will post “solid revenue growth” in 2021, it said that these new technology integrations into the Match Group portfolio are now “a higher priority” for the company.

Match Group posted mixed earnings in Q1 with revenue of $707.8 million, above analyst estimates, but earnings per share of 46 cents, below projections of 49 cents a share. Paying customers grew 15% to 15 million, up from 13 million in the year-ago quarter. Shares declined by 7% on Wednesday morning, following the earnings announcement.

#a-i, #app-maker, #apps, #hyperconnect, #live-audio, #live-video, #livestreaming, #match-group, #mobile, #social, #social-networking, #social-software, #tinder, #video

Zebra raises $1.1M in a pre-seed round for messaging that pairs photos with voice chat

A new voice-based social app that cites Clubhouse as its biggest inspiration offers a playful new way to stay in touch with close friends and family. Zebra leaves video out of the equation altogether, inviting users to snap on-the-fly photos and send them off paired with casual voice updates.

Zebra focuses on asynchronous sharing, but it also lets users call one another if they’re both already hanging out on the app. The result is a fun and casual way to stay in touch for anyone who doesn’t feel like accidentally getting sucked into Instagram’s endless, ad-strewn feed every time they want to give a friend a quick update.

For now Zebra is a two-person team consisting of CEO Dennis Gecaj, a product designer based in Berlin and Amer Shahnawaz, Zebra’s Head of Engineering, who previously worked on Snap Maps at Snapchat. With the pre-seed funding, led by Alexis Ohanian’s fresh early stage venture firm Seven Seven Six, which the Reddit co-founder announced in June. The app will launch formally in August but is now open for pre-orders through the App Store and as a beta in TestFlight.

“It’s no secret that we are in the midst of an audio revolution, one that has ushered in a series of new audio-first social platforms and content vehicles,” Ohanian said, noting that Zebra’s unique blend of photos and voice is what caught his eye.

Gecaj sees voice-based social networking as a much richer alternative to text-dominant platforms. While products like Instagram allow voice messages and technically let users make voice calls by disabling the camera, voice usually plays second fiddle to video. But video calls are more taxing and require more commitment — it’s no coincidence more and more Zoom cameras blinked offline as the pandemic dragged on.

Unlike Clubhouse, which Gecaj calls a “huge inspiration, Zebra is social audio designed for your inner circle. “With everything opening back up we saw an incredible opportunity for an asynchronous format for that,” he told TechCrunch.

Gecaj hopes that Zebra’s “talking photos” can capture the collective imagination in a way that makes early growth natural. Anyone who downloads Zebra can invite friends individually without needing to share their full contact list (and they’ll need to since you can’t do anything on the app without friends). Because Zebra’s interface is so clean and streamlined, this process is painless and doesn’t necessitate any extra digging through menus.

The idea of a “zebra” — naturally, Zebra is trying to make “zebra” happen — is that people like to see what they are talking about. On a different messaging app, this would require sending a photo and then sending a voice message in quick succession. But on Zebra, sending a photo is the main thing you can do. The app opens right to the camera where you snap a picture. You then hold the photo to record a snippet of voice to go along with it and send it off to friends and family, who appear in a row beneath the camera.

Zebra isn’t worried about the prospect of talking people into downloading another app. Gecaj sees a natural split emerging as creators and audiences increasingly become the focus of social platforms that were initially designed to help friends stay in touch.

“I think the trend is a division between creator platforms where you go to be entertained and platforms you go to hang out with your friends,” Gecaj told TechCrunch.

On top of that, he hopes that Zebra’s dual focus on voice and photos, two aspects of social networking that platforms either don’t prioritize or are actively abandoning, can make it appealing for people who aren’t as interested in video.

“We really also think that text messaging doesn’t have the same emotion as voice… and voice has been really neglected,” Gecaj said. “There’s really a richness to voice, a power to voice that nothing else has.”

#alexis-ohanian, #clubhouse, #instagram, #instant-messaging, #line, #messaging-apps, #mobile-applications, #seven-seven-six, #snapchat, #social, #social-media, #social-networking, #software, #startups, #tc

How one founder pivoted a startup designed for in-person interaction in light of the pandemic

When Ashley Sumner designed and launched Quilt, it was meant to be a response to digital social networking, preferring creating authentic in-person interactions between people who didn’t necessarily know each other before. The app would match members for in-person conversations and informal meetups in their own homes — but when COVID-19 arrived, the fundamentals of the model obviously changed.

After first trying out Zoom-powered virtual video meetups as one alternative, Quilt instead settled on creating an audio platform that provided real-time conversation centered around wellness. It might sound like it has a lot in common with the rash of other audio networking startups out there, but unlike the buzzier Clubhouse or its many competitors, Quilt has carefully crafted a very different kind of community thanks to patience and building with intention.

Ashley talks to us this week on Found about making that big change, while also keeping intact the core mission that Quilt has been focused on from the beginning. She also tells us all about her own approach to being a founder and a leader, which is both unique and refreshing.

We loved our time chatting with Ashley, and we hope you love yours listening to the episode. And of course, we’d love if you can subscribe to Found in Apple Podcasts, on Spotify, on Google Podcasts or in your podcast app of choice. Please leave us a review and let us know what you think, or send us direct feedback either on Twitter or via email at found@techcrunch.com. And please join us again next week for our next featured founder.

#found, #social-networking, #startups, #tc

Twitter redesigns its mobile app to make Spaces the center tab

Twitter is updating its app to make its audio chat room feature, Twitter Spaces, a central part of the user experience. Today, the company will begin to roll out a dedicated tab for Twitter Spaces in the main navigation bar of its mobile app, initially on iOS to select users. The feature will see Twitter Spaces gain the middle spot in this bar, in between the Search magnifying glass icon and the bell icon for Notifications. As Spaces is not replacing any other tab, that means the navigation bar will now have to accommodate five icons instead of only four.

Not everyone will see the update immediately. Instead, only around 500 people from the original Spaces beta test will first see the new Spaces discovery tab, as it’s called, when it rolls out today.

Twitter says the tab will showcase the Spaces being hosted by people you follow, but these won’t appear like they do on the Fleet line today at the top of the Timeline. Instead, the discovery tab will present Spaces in a more visual format, similar to the promotion cards that appear when you tweet about upcoming Spaces.

Image Credits: Twitter

 

The company told TechCrunch that, even though Spaces can be fun, it understands the live events have been hard to find and keep track of, given there’s been no dedicated place where Spaces can be discovered. The new tab aims to change that.

Within the tab, users will be able to see active Spaces with more details, including Space names, hosts, and people you know who are participating. The tab will also allow users to manage reminders for scheduled Spaces so you’re be notified when they’re about to begin, and give Twitter feedback about which Spaces you’d like to see more of.

App researcher Jane Manchun Wong had uncovered Twitter’s plans to revamp its app to include Spaces on the nav bar last month.

Currently, only Twitter users with at least 600 followers have been granted the ability to host Spaces, and Twitter told us that figure has not changed with the launch of the tab. However, the company still has grand plans for the Spaces product, including not only scheduled Spaces which are now becoming easier to find with this discovery feature, but also things like ticketed events, co-hosted events, accessibility improvements and more.

Putting Spaces directly in navigation bar represents a big push for Twitter’s audio chat rooms, which have otherwise been fairly easy to ignore by those who aren’t that interested in Twitter’s Clubhouse competitor. It also arrives at a time when Clubhouse is expanding access to its own social audio app. Following its debut on Android, Clubhouse said 2 million Android users have already joined its platform.

Twitter, meanwhile, hasn’t yet publicized how many users have tested out Spaces at this point, either as a host or an end user.

Alongside today’s launch, Twitter will also begin to roll out another Spaces feature that was previously being tested: displaying the purple ring around someone’s profile pictures from the Home Timeline.

Currently, profile pics can be highlighted with a blue ring that takes you to the user’s Fleets when tapped, but the new purple ring will indicate they’re actively using Spaces at that time. You can then tap their profile pic to join them. The feature makes it easier to find Spaces while you’re just scrolling your Twitter Timeline as usual.

After the new Spaces tab is tried out with the original beta test group, it will begin rolling out more people, Twitter says.

#android, #apps, #audio, #chat-rooms, #clubhouse, #mobile-applications, #social, #social-audio, #social-media, #social-networking, #twitter, #twitter-spaces, #voice-chat

Upstream, a Miami-based professional networking platform, raises a $2.75M seed round

If you’re reading this, there’s a pretty good chance you have a LinkedIn profile with your digital resume and hundreds — if not thousands — of professional connections. But how many of those people do you actually know well, and, more importantly, do you ever connect with them and meet others from their networks?

“You don’t go to LinkedIn to meet people. You don’t hang out and spend meaningful time there,” said Alex Taub, co-founder and CEO of Upstream, a new professional networking platform that just closed a $2.75 million seed round, bringing their total raised to $3.25 million. The round was led by Ibex Investors and managing partner Nicole Priel (who joins the board) and includes participation by 8-Bit Capital, Human Ventures, NYVP, Converge Venture Partners and a number of angel investors.

“Your LinkedIn network is not a good representation of who you actually know and how well you know them. We see these places that LinkedIn isn’t particularly focused [on] and believe there are opportunities for multiple big companies to better serve the needs of professionals,” Taub added.

Unlike LinkedIn, Upstream focuses on generating meaningful connections between its members, and one way they go about it is by hosting digital events that start with a speaker, followed by breakout matched sessions that are five minutes each.

To get a sense of the product, Upstream invited me to be the speaker at last Friday’s “Upstream Social,” where I talked about my work as a journalist and then coincidently got matched with two founders — one in Brazil and the other in Boston. The week before, the guest speaker was U.S. Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey.

To me, the experience felt like LinkedIn meets Clubhouse meets Hoppin.

Upstream, which is pre-revenue and is Miami-based, is a company whose founder was attracted to the Sunshine State from NYC during the pandemic. Taub and his family signed a two-year lease here and plan to reevaluate their residence in the summer of 2022; they are one of the movers who are cautiously optimistic about the tech industry’s recent explosion in the Magic City.

The origin story

Taub and his co-founder, Michael Schonfeld, are both serial entrepreneurs, having built and sold Social Rank for an undisclosed amount before launching Upstream in October 2020. The impetus for the company came as a solution to a struggle Taub faced in his daily life.

“Throughout my life, regardless of the job I’ve been in, I spend my time making introductions, connecting people and helping friends hire rock-star talent. Like many people, I get energy from helping others,” Taub said. “When COVID-19 hit and the job market took a dive last March, the number of requests for help I received increased 100X. I noticed quickly that my speed of responding to emails and brain capacity to connect the dots became the limiting factor in getting people help,” he added.

So it’s no surprise that Upstream started as a product where people could ask for help, and others from the community pitched in. The company now has more than 200 communities (similar to LinkedIn groups), and about 75% of the people who attend an initial Upstream event return for a second one.

“I joke that we are building a product that people need because I need it. We feel that we are the right team to solve this problem because we so desperately want it ourselves,” Taub said.

#alex-taub, #cory-booker, #human-resource-management, #human-ventures, #ibex-investors, #labor, #linkedin, #miami, #michael-schonfeld, #nicole-priel, #recent-funding, #recruitment, #social, #social-networking, #startups, #tc, #united-states, #upstream, #work

PicPay, the Brazilian mobile payments platform, files for an IPO on Nasdaq

Brazilian mobile payments app PicPay filed an F-1 with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) for an IPO valued at up to $100 million on Wednesday. The company plans to list on the Nasdaq under the ticker symbol PICS.

PicPay operates largely as a financial services platform that includes a credit card; a digital wallet similar to that of Apple Pay; a Venmo-style P2P payments element; e-commerce, and social networking features.

“We want to transform the way people and companies interact, make transactions, and communicate in an intelligent, connected, and simple experience,” said José Antonio Batista, CEO of PicPay, in a statement.

While the company is based in Sao Paulo now and operates across Brazil, PicPay originally launched in Vitoria in 2012, a coastal city north of Rio. In 2015 the company was acquired by the group J&F Investimentos SA, a holding company owned by Brazilian billionaire brothers Wesley and Jose Antonio Batista, which also own the gigantic meatpacker JBS SA.

2020 was an explosive year for PicPay as the company saw its active userbase grow from 28.4 million to 36 million as of March 2021. According to the company’s 2020 financial report, which PicPay shared with TechCrunch, the company’s revenues also grew drastically from $15.5 million in 2019, to $71 million in 2020. The company is not yet profitable, however, and PicPay shelled out $146 million in 2020 to fuel its growth.

“We believe that the growth of our base and user engagement in our ecosystem demonstrates the scalability of our business model and reveals a great opportunity to generate more value for these customers,” Batista added.

Fintech is one of the most popular sectors in Brazil today, because there’s a lot of room for improvement in the region. The country has traditionally been controlled by four major banks, which have been slow to adapt to technology and also charge very high fees.

PicPay’s IPO is being led by Banco Bradesco BBI, Banco BTG Pactual, Santander Investment Securities Inc., and Barclays Capital Inc. 

*The Brazilian Real was valued at 5.50 to $1 USD on the date of publication.

#brazil, #e-commerce, #fintech, #initial-public-offering, #mobile-payments, #securities-and-exchange-commission, #social-networking, #tc

A race to reverse engineer Clubhouse raises security concerns

As live audio chat app Clubhouse ascends in popularity around the world, concerns about its data practices also grow.

The app is currently only available on iOS, so some developers set out in a race to create Android, Windows and Mac versions of the service. While these endeavors may not be ill-intentioned, the fact that it takes programmers little effort to reverse engineer and fork Clubhouse — that is, when developers create new software based on its original code — is sounding an alarm about the app’s security.

The common goal of these unofficial apps, as of now, is to broadcast Clubhouse audio feeds in real-time to users who cannot access the app otherwise because they don’t have an iPhone. One such effort is called Open Clubhouse, which describes itself as a “third-party web application based on flask to play Clubhouse audio.” The developer confirmed to TechCrunch that Clubhouse blocked its service five days after its launch without providing an explanation.

“[Clubhouse] asks a lot of information from users, analyzes those data and even abuses them. Meanwhile, it restricts how people use the app and fails to give them the rights they deserve. To me, this constitutes monopoly or exploitation,” said Open Clubhouse’s developer nicknamed AiX.

Clubhouse cannot be immediately reached for comment on this story.

AiX wrote the program “for fun” and wanted it to broaden Clubhouse’s access to more people. Another similar effort came from a developer named Zhuowei Zhang, who created Hipster House to let those without an invite browse rooms and users, and those with an invite to join rooms as a listener though they can’t speak — Clubhouse is invite-only at the moment. Zhang stopped developing the project, however, after noticing a better alternative.

These third-party services, despite their innocuous intentions, can be exploited for surveillance purposes, as Jane Manchun Wong, a researcher known for uncovering upcoming features in popular apps through reverse engineering, noted in a tweet.

“Even if the intent of that webpage is to bring Clubhouse to non-iOS users, without a safeguard, it could be abused,” said Wong, referring to a website rerouting audio data from Clubhouse’s public rooms.

Clubhouse lets people create public chat rooms, which are available to any user who joins before a room reaches its maximum capacity, and private rooms, which are only accessible to room hosts and users authorized by the hosts.

But not all users are aware of the open nature of Clubhouse’s public rooms. During its brief window of availability in China, the app was flooded with mainland Chinese debating politically sensitive issues from Taiwan to Xinjiang, which are heavily censored in the Chinese cybserspace. Some vigilant Chinese users speculated the possibility of being questioned by the police for delivering sensitive remarks. While no such event has been publicly reported, the Chinese authorities have banned the app since February 8.

Clubhouse’s design is by nature at odds with the state of communication it aims to achieve. The app encourages people to use their real identity — registration requires a phone number and an existing user’s invite. Inside a room, everyone can see who else is there. This setup instills trust and comfort in users when they speak as if speaking at a networking event.

But the third-party apps that are able to extract Clubhouse’s audio feeds show that the app isn’t even semi-public: It’s public.

More troublesome is that users can “ghost listen,” as developer Zerforschung found. That is, users can hear a room’s conversation without having their profile displayed to the room participants. Eavesdropping is made possible by establishing communication directly with Agora, a service provider employed by Clubhouse. As multiple security researchers found, Clubhouse relies on Agora’s real-time audio communication technology. Sources have also confirmed the partnership with TechCrunch.

Some technical explanation is needed here. When a user joins a chatroom on Clubhouse, it makes a request to Agora’s infrastructure, as the Stanford Internet Observatory discovered. To make the request, the user’s phone contacts Clubhouse’s application programming interface (API), which then creates “tokens”, the basic building block in programming that authenticates an action, to establish a communication pathway for the app’s audio traffic.

Now, the problem is there can be a disconnect between Clubhouse and Agora, allowing the Clubhouse end, which manages user profiles, to be inactive while the Agora end, which transmits audio data, remains active, as technology analyst Daniel Sinclair noted. That’s why users can continue to eavesdrop on a room without having their profile displayed to the room’s participants.

The Agora partnership has sparked other forms of worries. The company, which operates mainly from the U.S. and China, noted in its IPO prospectus that its data may be subject to China’s cybersecurity law, which requires network operators in China to assist police investigations. That possibility, as the Stanford Internet Observatory points out, is contingent on whether Clubhouse stores its data in China.

While the Clubhouse API is banned in China, the Agora API appears unblocked. Tests by TechCrunch find that users currently need a VPN to join a room, an action managed by Clubhouse, but can listen to the room conversation, which is facilitated by Agora, with the VPN off. What’s the safest way for China-based users to access the app, given the official attitude is that it should not exist? It’s also worth noting that the app was not available on the Chinese App Store even before its ban, and Chinese users had downloaded the app through workarounds.

The Clubhouse team may be overwhelmed by data questions in the past few days, but these early observations from researchers and hackers may urge it to fix its vulnerabilities sooner, paving its way to grow beyond its several million loyal users and $1 billion valuation mark.

#audio, #clubhouse, #privacy, #security, #social-audio, #social-networking, #surveillance, #tc, #voice-chat

Now with over 10M monthly users, IRL turns its events website into a social network

Following its $16 million Series B last fall, event discovery network IRL is launching a new website that adds more social features around events, including profiles, chats, and the ability to join group events, among other things. With the changes, users will also be able to receive personalized event recommendations, participate in group events, as well as talk about events with their friends, across both web and mobile. The combined efforts make IRL.com feel less like an online event search engine and more like a real social network.

The startup, which had previously focused on real-world events, could have easily imploded last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which effectively shut down the in-person events industry overnight. But it instead quickly pivoted its event discovery app to include virtual events. In April, IRL adapted to the government lockdowns and restrictions on in-person gatherings by indexing online events, like live-streamed concerts, esports events, Zoom parties, and more.

The changes, in a way, made IRL more accessible because it became a tool that anyone could use — not only those with the time and money to travel and attend real-world events.

Image Credits: IRL

In fitting with those changes, the company also last year redesigned its mobile app to make it easier for users to find new events to attend remotely.

It organized events into categories like gaming, music, tv, wellness, sports, podcasts, lifestyle and more — including those sourced from partners like TikTok, Meetup, Twitch, Spotify, SoundCloud, HBO, Ticketmaster, Eventbrite and others. (We’re also seeing Apple TV+ shows on the site, but IRL can’t officially confirm if Apple is a partner. We’re told IRL does have permission to display these events, however.)

The new IRL website is meant to better mirror the recently redesigned mobile experience.

As users join IRL.com for the first time, they can pick event categories they’re interested in and find their friends who are already using the service.

Also like the mobile app, you can now click across filters at the top of the website to drill down into events by category — like gaming, music, TV, sports, wellness, lifestyle, podcasts, and others. And you can filter to see events taking place this weekend or view IRL’s own suggestions of “Top Picks.”

The site directs users to create their own group events with friends through the new built-in chat feature, which had previously only been available on mobile.

“Because everybody’s at home, there’s a big demand for a web messenger,” notes IRL founder and CEO Abraham Shafi.

Image Credits: IRL

He explains that the startup’s focus around messaging as the basis for a group is what allows IRL to differentiate itself from other groups-focused products. Facebook Groups, for example, are built around the idea of discussion boards, he says. But IRL is instead building its social network around messaging.

“There’s no group chatting app that also allows you to add events,” Shafi says. “We’re seeing that become really valuable for any groups that have upcoming and scheduled activities. It could be a TV show that you really like. Or it could be your friends playing Among Us or playing video games. [On IRL], you can imagine, literally, any type of group — like a book club that meets weekly and has weekly events coming up,” he says.

In addition, students who sign up with an .edu email address can now find on campus events and groups that are available only to those who attend the same school. These aren’t typically indexed publicly, and won’t appear on the IRL homepage.

Image Credits: IRL

The startup’s focus on group messaging has helped the app grow, despite the pandemic.

The company now reports over 10 million monthly active users, and its group messaging feature has been growing at around 30% month-over-month since August. Today, there are over 30 million chats sent on IRL per day, with over a billion chats that have been sent to date, Shafi says.

In time, IRL plans to expand the site to include more local events as well as deepen its relationship with partners.

 

For example, the IRL TikTok account has been the first to reach over a million followers. But currently, all the events TikTok posts to the site are hand-curated. IRL says it’s working on a deeper integration that will help pull in more TikTok content, including top trends.

The company also expects to attract more influencers with the website launch, like those who want to build a name for themselves as a “cool curator” of a specific type of event — such as the Sneakerheads account, for instance, which tracks sneaker drops.

Image Credits: IRL

As users participate on the website and app by following events, adding friends, and joining chats, IRL will be able to make better recommendations as to what sort of events they might like to try next.

And as the world recovers from COVID, allowing in-person events once again, the company believes usage will jump.

“When in-person returns — because that’s inevitable — we’ll be supporting that, for sure,” says Shafi, adding that he expects IRL to then “explode.”

“We’re not going to take virtual away. Virtual will always be there…quite honestly, it will probably always be a hybrid,” he says. “This pandemic has allowed us to focus on something that will actually help us grow once we can support both the real and the remote.”

“Me and the team are very grateful that we’ve had the opportunity to build something deeply meaningful in these times —  even though at the outset, it would have seemed like we were screwed,” Shafi adds.

Initially, IRL tested the web app’s revamp only with its existing users. But the relaunch of the site now makes the changes accessible to all.

#apps, #events, #irl, #social, #social-network, #social-networking

Early Snapchat employee debuts Yoni Circle, a social storytelling app for womxn

An early Snapchat employee who once architected the “Our Stories” product, Chloë Drimal, has now launched her own social app, Yoni Circle. Described as a membership-based community, the app aims to connect womxn using storytelling — including through both live video chat sessions as well as with pre-recorded stories that are available at any time.

The company has been quietly operating in beta since April 2020, but is now making its public launch.

Drimal came up with the idea for a social storytelling app, in part, because she saw the potential when working on the Snapchat “Our Stories” product.

Image Credits: Yoni Circle; founder Chloë Drimal

“I got to see that storytelling connects us,” she explains. “I got to peer into global experiences like New Year’s Eve or witnessing the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, and I just saw firsthand how connected we are as people,” Drimal continues. “I got to see how that was affecting our Snapchat users and making them feel more connected to the world because of this art of storytelling,” she adds.

But another inspiration came from Drimal’s personal experience in being taken off the “Our Stories” product to work on other projects at Snap — a difficult time in her career that started to make her feel very alone. She later ended up having conversations with other women — often older women who shared their own experiences — who helped her realized that she wasn’t as alone as she first thought.

“Their stories empowered me to write my next chapter, and know that this wasn’t the end of my career as I dramatically thought as a twenty-five or twenty-four year-old. It really was just the beginning and it helped me see the healing of storytelling — but also the importance of what strangers being vulnerable can do,” she says.

After leaving Snap, where she had later run women’s initiatives, Drimal began hosting an in-person community focused around more structured storytelling circles. The community evolved to become what’s now the Yoni Circle app, whose beta version was built with help from former Snap engineer Akiva Bamberger, now a Yoni Circle advisor.

Image Credits: Yoni Circle

Today, the app has two main features: the interactive Storytelling Circles component and the more passive Yoni Radio.

The former allows members to join 60-minute moderated live video chat sessions with up to six womxn who connect with one another by listening to each others’ stories. During the Circle, a trained “Salonniere” guide will first lead the group through introductions, a breathing exercise, and will then introduce a storytelling prompt based on a specific theme, like “Stories on Gratitude,” or “Stories on Surprise,” for example.

The Salonnieres are not volunteers, but rather paid contractors who have undergone specific training to lead these sorts of sessions. Over time, they’ll also be able to gather members to paid web-based events, which could be things like yoga classes, book clubs, cooking classes and more.

Image Credits: Yoni Circle

The Circle sessions have a basic rule: take the stories with you, and leave the names behind. In other words, what’s shared in circles is meant to remain confidential, unless the member chooses to share it publicly. Anyone violating that rule will be banned.

Members are also advised to speak simply, leave their egos at the door, and respect differences. No one receives the topic beforehand, either, so members can’t rehearse their speeches and put on a “performance.” The act of participating is meant to be about authenticity and vulnerability.

During the session, each participant takes their turn to share their own story and will listen to the others’ in return. Users only speak when they have the “talking piece,” and they can react to another story with snaps, or by clicking a snap icon.

While the sessions may uplift members the way that group therapy does, they’re not really focused on addressing psychological issues. Instead, Drimal says members compare them to “a slumber party combined with a mindfulness class.”

Still, she says, members feel like participating is an act of self-care.

“You just feel lighter,” Drimal explains. “It’s hard not to listen to other stories, to see yourself and just be reminded that you aren’t alone in the highs and lows of life.”

Image Credits: Yoni Circle

Members can also opt to record their own stories and then set them as either public or private on their Yoni Circle profile. The team then curates the public stories to share as highlights on the app’s homepage, allowing users to listen at any time. This also powers the Yoni Radio feature.

Recently, the company had been testing a weekly broadcast of these recorded stories, but will soon trial a new “story of the day” feature instead.

The Yoni Circle app first launched into beta last April, just as the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S. had begun. That led to people isolating themselves at home away from friends, extended family, and other social interactions — driving demand for new social experiences.

But Yoni Circle doesn’t quite fit into the new live, interactive mobile market that’s developed as of late, led by apps like Clubhouse and Twitter Spaces.

“I like to think we’ve carved out something different,” says Drimal. “It is intimate because we’re creating a safe space to be vulnerable…the things that I share in any circle I would never share on Clubhouse,” she says. “I think that’s also why we’ve been so focused on the way we grow our community. Yes, we’re looking to have millions of members, but we need to get there carefully.”

Currently, Yoni Circle is open to people who identify as womxn, and it involves an application process where you have to share who you are and what you’re looking to gain from the experience. Longer-term, the goal is to evolve the platform into a safe space that’s open to all.

Though the pandemic helped generate initial interest in the app  — it now has members from 1,000 cities across 80 countries — the startup sees a future in the post-pandemic market with in-person events that further connect its members.

Yoni Circle today is available on iOS for free. It will later monetize through an Audible-like credits model which provides access to the Circle sessions.

The L.A. and New York-based team of seven is backed by $1.3 million in pre-seed funding, led by BoxGroup. Investors include Cassius Family, Advancit, and angels including Rent the Runway co-founder Jenny Fleiss, Mirror founder and CEO Brynn Putnam, Beme CTO Matt Hackett, early Snap engineer Daniel Smith.

Yoni Circle plans to raise a seed round in a few weeks.

#apps, #ios-apps, #mindfulness, #networking, #self-care, #snap, #snapchat, #social, #social-media, #social-networking, #startups, #tc, #video-chat, #women

Hands on with Telepath, the social network taking aim at abuse, fake news and, to some extent, ‘free speech’

There’s no doubt that modern social networks have let us down. Filled with hate speech and abuse, moderation and anti-abuse tools were an afterthought they’re now trying to cram in. Meanwhile, personalization engines deliver us only what will keep us engaged, even if it’s not the truth. Today, a number of new social networks are trying to flip the old model on its head — whether that’s attempting to use audio for more personal connections, like Clubhouse, eliminate clout chasing, like Twelv, or, in the case of new social network Telepath, by designing a platform guided by rules that focus on enforcing kindness, countering abuse, and disabling the spread of fake news.

Many of these early efforts are already facing challenges.

Private social network Clubhouse has repeatedly demonstrated that allowing free-flowing communication in the form of audio conversations is an area that’s notoriously difficult to moderate. The app, though still unavailable to the broader public, courted controversy in September when it allowed anti-Semitic content to be discussed in one of its chat rooms. In the past, it had also allowed users to harass an NYT reporter openly.

Meanwhile, Twelv, a sort of Instagram alternative, ditches the “Like” button concept and all the other features now overloading Instagram, which had once been just a photo-sharing network. But, unfortunately, this also means there’s no easy way to find and follow interesting users or trends on Twelv — you have to push friends to join the app with you or know someone’s username to look them up, otherwise it shows you no content. The result is a social network without the “social.”

Telepath, meanwhile, is a more interesting development.

It’s pursuing an even loftier goal in social networking — creating a hate speech-free platform where fake news can’t be distributed.

No social network to date has been able to accomplish what Telegraph claims it will be able to do in terms of content moderation. Its ambitions are optimistic and, as the network remains in private beta, they’re also untested at scale.

Though positioned as a different kind of social network, Telepath isn’t actually focused on developing a new sharing format that could encourage participation — the way TikTok popularized the 15-second video clip, for example, or how Snapchat turned the world onto “Stories.”

Instead, Telepath, at first glance, looks very much like just another feed to scroll through. (And given the amount of linked Twitter content in Telepath posts, it’s almost serving as a backchannel for the rival platform.)

The startup itself was founded by former Quora employees, including former Quora Business & Community head, Marc Bodnick, now Telepath Executive Chairman; and former Quora Product Lead, Richard Henry, now Telepath CEO. They’re aided by former Quora Global Writer Relations Lead, Tatiana Estévez, now Telepath Head of Community and Safety; and Ro Applewhaite, previously research staff for Pete Buttigieg for America, now Telepath Head of Outreach.

It’s backed by a couple million in seed funding, led by First Round Capital (Josh Kopelman). Other backers include Unusual Ventures (Andy Johns), Slow Ventures (Sam Lessin), and unnamed angels. Bodnick and his wife, Michelle Sandberg, also invested.

Image Credits: Telepath

When talking about Telepath, it’s clear the founders are nostalgic for the early days of the web — before all the people joined, that is. In smaller, online communities in years past, people connected and made internet friends who would become real-world friends. That’s a moment in time they hope to recapture.

“I’ve benefited a lot by meeting people through the internet, forming relationships and having conversations — that sort of thing,” says Henry. “But the internet just isn’t fun in the ways that it used to be fun.”

He suggests that the anonymity offered by networks like Reddit and Twitter make it more difficult for people to make real-world connections. Telepath, with its focus on conversations, aims to change that.

“If we facilitate a really fun, kind, and empathetic conversation environment, then lots of good things can happen. And it might be that you potentially find someone you want to work with, or you end up getting a job, or you meet new friends, or you end up meeting offline,” Henry says.

Getting Started

To get started on Telepath, you join the network with your mobile phone number and name, find and follow other users, similar to Twitter, then join interest-based communities as you would on Reddit. When you launch the app, you’re meant to browse a home feed where conversation topics from your communities and interesting replies are highlighted — orange for those replies from people you follow and gray for those that Telepath has determined are worth being elevated to the home screen.

As you read through the posts and visit the communities, you can “Thumbs Up” content you like, downvote what you don’t, reply, mute, block, and use @usernames to flag someone.

Image Credits: Telepath, screenshot via TechCrunch

Another interesting design choice: everything on Telepath disappears after 30 days. No one will get to dig through your misinformed posts from a decade ago to shame you in the present, it seems.

What’s most different about Telepath, however, is not the design or format. It’s what’s taking place behind the scenes, as detailed by Telepath’s rules.

Users who join Telepath must agree to “be kind,” which is rule number one. They must also not attack one another based on identity or harass others. They must use a real name (or their preferred name, if transgender), and not post violent content or porn. “Fake news” is banned, as determined by a publisher’s attempts at disseminating misinformation on a regular basis.

Telepath has even tried to formalize rules around how polite conversations should function online with rules like “don’t circle the drain” — meaning don’t keep trying to have the last word in a contentious debate or circumvent a locked thread; and “stay on topic,” which means don’t bombard a pro-x network with an anti-x agenda (and vice versa.)

Image Credits: Telepath

To enforce its rules, Telepath begins by requiring users to sign up with a mobile phone number, which is verified as a “real” number associated with a SIM card, and not a virtual one — like the kind you could grab through a “burner” app.

In order to the create its “kind environment,” Telepath says it will sacrifice growth and hire moderators who work in-house as long-term, trusted employees.

“All the major social networks essentially grew in an unbounded way,” explains Henry. “They had 100 million-plus active users, then were like, ‘okay, now how do we moderate this enormous thing?’,” he continues. “We’re in a lucky position because we get to moderate from day one. We get to set the norms.”

Moderation

“Day one” was a long time in the making, however. The team rebuilt the product four times over a couple of years. Now, they say they’ve developed internal tools that provide moderators with visibility into the system.

According to moderator head Estévez, these include a reporting system, real-time content streams organized in to buckets (e.g. a bucket for “only new users”), as well as various searchable ways to get context around a report or a particular problematic user.

“Really good tools — including real-time streams of content, classifiers for problematic behavior, searchable context, and making it hard for banned users to return — mean that each moderator we hire will be quite scalable. We think that there are network effects around positive behavior,” she says.

Image Credits: Telepath

“It’s our intention to scale up fast and high accuracy moderation decision-making, which means that we’re going to be investing a lot of engineering effort in getting these tools right,” she adds.

The founders have decided not to use any third-party systems to aid in moderation at this time, they told TechCrunch.

“We looked at a bunch of off-the-shelf [moderation systems], and we’re basically building everything that we need from scratch,” says Henry. “We just need more control over being able to tweak how these systems work in order to get the outcome that we want.”

The investment in human moderation over automation will also require additional capital to scale. And Telepath’s decision to not run ads means it will eventually need to consider alternative business models to sustain itself. The company, for now, is interested in subscriptions, but hasn’t made decisions on this front yet.

Banning the trolls

Though Telepath has only 4,000-plus users in its private beta, the two-person moderation team is already tasked with moderating posts from across the thousands of pieces of content shared on a daily basis. (The company doesn’t disclose how many violations it takes action against per day, on average.)

When a user breaks the rules, moderators may first warn them about the violation and may require them to take down or edit a specific post. No one is punished for making a mistake or being unaware of the rules — they’re first given a chance to fix it.

But if a user breaks the rules repeatedly or in a way that seems intentional, such as engaging in a harassment campaign around another user, they are banned entirely. Because of the phone number verification system, they also can’t easily return — unless they go out and purchase a new phone, that is.

These moderation actions don’t necessarily have to follow strict guidelines, like a “three strikes rule,” for example. Instead, the way the rules may be enforced are determined on a case-by-case basis. Where Telepath leans towards stricter enforcement is around intentional and flagrant violations, or those where there’s a pattern of bad behavior. (As with Reply Guys and sealioning behavior.)

In addition, unlike on Facebook and Twitter — platforms that sometimes seem to be caught off guard by viral trends in need of moderation — Telepath intends for nothing to go viral on its platform without having been seen by a human moderator, the company says.

Fake News

Telepath is also working to develop a reputation score for users and trust scores for publishers.

In the case of the former, the goal is help the company determine how likely the user is to break Telepath’s rules. This isn’t developed yet, but would be something used behind the scenes, not put on display for all to see.

For publishers, the trust score will be how factually correct they are what percentage of the time.

Image Credits: Thomas Faull (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

“For example, if the most popular article in terms of views from the publisher is just completely factually incorrect or intentionally misleading…that should have a bigger penalty on the trust score,” explains Henry. “The problem is that the incumbent platforms have rules against disinformation, but the problem is that they don’t enforce them out of this desire to appear balanced.”

Bodnick adds this challenge is not as insurmountable as it seems.

“Our view is that, actually, a handful of outlets are responsible for most of the disinformation…I don’t think our intent is to build out some modern-day truth system that will figure out if The Washington Post is slightly more accurate than The New York Times. I think the main goal will be to identify repeat disinformation publishers — determine that they are perpetual publishers of disinformation, and then crush their distribution,” says Bodnick.

This plan, however, involves setting rules on Telepath that fly in the face of what many today consider “free speech.” In fact, Telepath’s position is that free speech-favoring social networks are a failed system.

“The problem, in our view, is that when you take this free-speech centered approach that sort of says: ‘I don’t care how many disinformation posts Breitbart has published in the last — three years, three months, three weeks — we’re going to treat every new post as if it could be equally likely to be truthful as any other post in the system,’” says Bodnick. “That is inefficient.”

“That’s how we will scale this disinformation rule — by determining which relatively small group of publishers — I’m guessing it’s hundreds, low hundreds — are responsible for publishing lots of disinformation. And then take their distribution down,” he says.

This opinion on free speech is shared by the team.

“We’re trying to build a community, which means that we have to make certain tradeoffs,” adds Estévez. “In the rules we refer to Karl Popper’s paradox of tolerance — to maintain a tolerant society, you have to be intolerant of intolerance. We have no interest in giving a platform to certain kinds of speech,” she notes.

This is the exact opposite approach that conservative social media sites are taking, like Parler and Gab. There, the companies believe in free speech to the point that they’ve left up content posted by an alleged Russian disinformation campaign, saying that no one filed a report about the threat, and law enforcement hadn’t reached out. These MAGA-friendly social networks are also filled with conspiracies, un-fact checked reports, and, frankly, a lot of vitriol.

The expectation is that if you go on their platforms, you’re in charge of muting and blocking trolls or the content you don’t like. But by their nature, those who join these platforms will generally find themselves among like-minded users.

Twitter, meanwhile, tries to straddle the middle ground. And in doing so, has alienated a number of users who think it doesn’t go far enough in counteracting abuse. Users report harassment and threats, then wait for days for their report to be reviewed only to be told the tweet in question didn’t break Twitter’s terms.

Telepath sits on the other end of the spectrum, aggressively moderating content, blocking and banning users if needed, and punishing publications that don’t fact check or those that peddle misinformation.

“Kindness” carve-outs

And yet, despite all this extra effort, Telepath doesn’t always feature only thoughtful and kind-hearted conversations.

That’s because it has carved out an exception in its kindness rule that allows users to criticize public figures, and because it doesn’t appear to be taking action on what could be problematic, if not violating, conversations.

Image Credits: Telepath

A user’s experience in these “gray” areas may vary by community.

Telepath’s communities today focus on hobbies and interests, and can range from the innocuous — like Books or Branding or Netflix or Cooking, for example — to the potentially fraught, like Race in America. In the latter, there have been discussions about the capitalization of “Black” where it was suggested that maybe this wasn’t a useful idea. In another, sympathy is expressed for a person who was falsely pretending to be a person of color.

In a post about affordable housing, someone openly wondered if a woman who said she didn’t want to live near poor people was actually racist. Another commenter then noted that gang members can bring down property values.

A QAnon community, meanwhile, discusses the movement and its ridiculous followers from afar — which is apparently permitted — though supporting it in earnest would not be.

There are also nearly 20 groups about things that “suck,” as in GOPSucks or CNNSucks or QuibiSucks.

Anti-Trump content, meanwhile, can be found on a network called “DumbHitler.”

Meanwhile, online publishers who routinely post discredited information are banned from Telepath, but YouTube is not. So if feel you need to share a link to a video of Rudy Giuliani accusing Biden of dementia, you can do so — so long as you don’t call it the truth.

And you can post opinions about some terrible people in which you describe them as terrible, thanks to the public figure carve-out.

Cheater and deadbeat dad? Go ahead and call them a “disgusting human being.” VP Pence was referred to by a commenter as “SmugFace mcWhitey” and Ronny Jackson is described as “such a piece of sh**.”

Explains Estévez, that’s because Telepath’s “be kind” rule is not intended to protect public figures from criticism.

“It is important to note that toxicity on the internet around politics isn’t because people are using bad words, but because people are using bad faith arguments. They are spreading misinformation. They are gaslighting marginalised groups about their experiences. These are the real issues we’re addressing,” she says.

She also notes that online “civility” is often used to silence people from marginalized groups.

“We don’t want Telepath’s focus on kindness to be turned against those who criticize powerful people,” she adds.

In practice, the way this plays out on Telepath today is that it’s become a private, closed door network where users can bash Trump, his supporters and right-wing politicians in peace from Twitter trolls. And it’s a place where a majority agrees with those opinions, too.

It has, then, seemingly built the Twitter that many on the left have wanted, the way that conservative social media, like Gab and Parler, built what the right had wanted. But in the end, it’s not clear if this is the solution for the problems of modern social media or merely an escape. It also remains to be seen whether a mainstream user base will follow.

Telepath remains in a closed beta of indefinite length. You need an invite to join.

#apps, #mobile, #social-media, #social-networking, #tc, #telepath

LA gets a big SAAS exit as Fastly nabs the Culver City-based Signal Sciences for $775M

Los Angeles was always more than a one industry town, even when it comes to technology startups, but media and entertainment (and social networking) were always the big draws in tinseltown.

Now the city’s enterprise tech scene can claim a really big winner with Signal Sciences, the security monitoring and management company that is getting bought by Fastly, a provider of content delivery networking services, for $775 million.

“Our team couldn’t be more excited about the opportunity to join Fastly to continue to drive forward security protections that empower developers. But we also believe this is a great moment to showcase the diversity of the LA technology scene,” wrote Signal Sciences chief executive, Andrew Peterson, in a direct message. “Being the largest enterprise tech outcome ever here, we’re just one of so many great deep technology companies who are paving the way for the next generation of SoCal based start ups. We’re thrilled to help lead the way for the broader tech community in Los Angeles.”

Content delivery and security go hand-in-hand and some of the biggest companies online use businesses like Fastly and its competitor, Cloudflare, to ensure that their online presence doesn’t go offline — and that browsers can quickly download and deliver websites.

Fastly said that the acquisition of Signal Sciences’ business will boost its ability to provide better security for applications and APIs — the connective fabric between different services that knit different technologies together behind the scenes.

With the acquisition, Fastly is planting a flag as a new competitor in the cybersecurity market, even as companies like Amazon, Microsoft, and Google offer a wider array of services under their Internet as a service business lines.

Application security is a higher value piece of the services stack and it takes advantage of the natural position that a company like Fastly has as a content distribution network.

“Fastly was founded to meet developers’ need for greater visibility and control. Now, as the digital transformation movement continues to accelerate, DevOps teams are struggling with inadequate and inflexible security tools,” said Joshua Bixby, Chief Executive Officer of Fastly, in a statement. “Together with Signal Sciences, we will give developers modern security tools designed for the way they work.”

Los Angeles, California, USA – March 23, 2016: Aerial view of the Hollywood sign at dusk in Los Angeles. The image has been taken from an helicopter flying over LA. Image Credit: Getty Images/franckreporter

Under the terms of the agreement Fastly is buying Signal Sciences for $200 million in cash and approximately $575 million worth of stock, subject to customary adjustments for transactions, according to a statement.

Fastly is also setting up a $50 million retention pool of restricted stock units to give out to Signal Sciences employees.

Signal Sciences employees aren’t the only winners in the deal. The company raised $63 million in venture financing from investors including CRV, Harrison Metal, Index Ventures, Oreilly Alphatech Ventures, Lead Edge Capital, and individual investors including former Facebook security officer Alex Stamos, and Etsy chief executive Chad Dickerson.

The company’s last round was a $35 million investment raised about two years ago, and one investor with knowledge of the company’s cap table called it a “pretty efficient exit” for its backers.

Morgan Stanley & Co. and Union Square Advisors are acting as financial advisors to Fastly, and Cooley LLP is acting as its legal advisor with regard to the transaction, according to a statement. Qatalyst Partners is acting as financial advisor to Signal Sciences, while Goodwin Procter was the company’s lawyer.

#alex-stamos, #amazon, #chad-dickerson, #chief-executive-officer, #cloudflare, #computing, #cooley-llp, #etsy, #facebook, #fastly, #financial-advisor, #financial-advisors, #google, #harrison-metal, #internet, #internet-security, #joshua-bixby, #lawyer, #lead-edge-capital, #los-angeles, #microsoft, #oreilly-alphatech-ventures, #qatalyst-partners, #signal-sciences, #social-networking, #tc, #union-square-advisors

This subscription social network is happy to be an Albatross in a pandemic

In discussions of ethically dubious social networks Facebook is the usual reference choice. But spare a thought for subscribers of InterNations, a Munich-based social networking community for expats, who have found themselves unable to obtain refunds for full-year payments charged in the middle of the coronavirus crisis.

InterNations has operated an expat networking experience since 2007, offering a free ‘Basic’ tier of membership that gives users some access to site content and community-organized events (if they pay an entry fee); or a premium tier which requires shelling out for a year’s subscription up front to get free/reduced price entry to networking events, plus access to some additional site features.

The German company appears to be a fan of nominative determinism — having named the subscription tier of membership ‘Albatross‘, given how difficult it is for users to exit once they upgrade from Basic to paying, perpetually renewing contract.

Several former members told us their memberships were auto-renewed for a full year without any warning in the middle of the pandemic. When they contacted InterNations to request a refund they were point-blank refused — with the company saying they were bound by the terms of the contract they’d entered into when they paid to upgrade the year before.

In emails we’ve reviewed between users and InterNations’ staff the company repeatedly ignores requests for refunds.

One UK-based user, who told us she had signed up to use the service to attend networking events in London and Paris, where she travelled regularly for work, found herself put on furlough in March when the UK went into lockdown. She only noticed the InterNations subscription had autorenewed when she saw a charge as she was checking her bank statement.

She contacted InterNations to request a refund — pointing out there were now no physical events near her, nor would she be able to attend in-person networking events for the foreseeable future due to shielding as a result of personal vulnerability to the health risk posed by COVID-19. But InterNations still refused to refund her subscription.

Instead it offered to put the year’s ‘Albatross’ membership on hold until 2022 — suggesting she might be able to make use of the services she’d just been billed for in two years’ time.

“Many of the people complaining feel aggrieved by InterNation because the entire event offering is very much voluntary and community based. It relies on people stepping forward to organise groups of people to attend events, walks, screening etc. Most of them do not make financial gain out of it,” she told us.

“So for this organisation not to be looking after its very own community feels like a slap on our faces.”

“My local gym froze my membership from April 2020 without any of its members having to request it. They informed us by email, they would do this. I was able to cancel in July without any question asked,” she added. “If my small gym is able to do this, how come InterNations is not stopping the auto-renewal of the membership at such a time?

“When everyone almost worldwide is worrying about their health, their livelihood, their relatives, we are not remembering to cancel or to stop memberships.”

Another user, who signed up to the service after moving from the US to Singapore, told us he was sent repeated payment demands in the middle of the coronavirus crisis after his on-file credit card had expired — which meant InterNations couldn’t auto collect his payment.

He told it he wanted to cancel the subscription but it told him he would only able to delete his account if he paid up for a full second year. Eventually he said he felt he had no choice but to pay the demand for around $100 in order that he could downgrade from ‘Albatross’ to ‘Basic’ and have his account deleted.

“I was (and still am) a paid subscriber and during the height of the pandemic I never received an offer of ‘free months’ of membership,” he said. “Instead, all I got was a deluge of threatening emails about how they couldn’t process my credit card information. Nothing even remotely about whether I was sick or even still alive. They just wanted my credit card details.”

A third user, who signed up for the service after moving to Hanoi, summed up her experience as “not the best”. She pointed us to a blog post in which she recounts a similar story — finding herself charged for a renewal in the middle of the coronavirus without any advance warning and having forgotten to cancel the subscription herself.

“I didn’t realise I’d been charged until a notification from PayPal arrived in my inbox,” she writes. “Say, what? Where was the email reminder? Where was the ‘now due’ invoice that is the hallmark of good business? Turns out InterNations don’t send them.”

This user was finally able to obtain a refund — but only via disputing the charge through PayPal. She got no joy asking for her money back from InterNations itself.

A deluge of similar complaints about the company can be seen on Trustpilot — where InterNations has an 81% ‘bad’ rating at the time of writing.

“An annual membership was taken from my account, and refund was refused. A year on and I am being threatened with non payment of a new invoice,” writes one reviewer.

“I cancelled my membership the past two years and every year it shows that I didn’t and their records conveniently show no record of my cancellation. Then they will refuse refunds,” recounts another.

“InterNations contacted me via automated email about my membership payment being due. When I responded, asking to cancel membership since I haven’t logged in in months and can’t afford membership during these times, they refused to help,” says another irate reviewer. “They make it impossible to do this simple task. They’re greedily unable to help with anything other than take your money. No empathy. All they have to do is cancel the membership.”

“They don’t even send a reminder for end of membership. Some people have seen their credit card debited, without any reminder. And if your credit card you registered has expired, they keep harassing you and threaten you,” runs another despairing former user.

In emails to users who are requesting a refund which we’ve seen InterNations simply points them to German law — which does appear to be the legal sticking point here. As a number of expat blogs warn, service contracts in Germany can be a lot harder to get out of than into.

Though, of course, it’s unlikely to have been immediately clear to people signing up to a global social network in cities like Hanoi and Singapore that they needed to understand German contract law before hitting ‘subscribe’.

BEUC, the European consumer rights group, told us there’s no pan-EU requirement for a notification to be actively sent to users ahead of an auto-renewal of a services contract — and the lack of such a notification ahead of the InterNations subscription renewal is one of the key recurring complaints.

“EU law only requires the consumer to be informed of the final price and the contractual conditions,” a spokesperson said, noting that consumer rights can vary substantially from member state to member state as the area isn’t harmonised at EU level.

So, while BEUC noted that, for example, Belgium law does have a specific provision which allows the consumer to terminate a contract at no cost after its tacit renewal — Germany, self evidently, does not. Although domestic pressure appears to be growing for reform of its one-sided contract rules.

When we put the various complaints we’d heard about refunds and cancelations (and indeed dark patterns) to InterNations, its founder and co-CEO, Malte Zeeck, said the company does not breach consumer law — and further claimed it “clearly communicates” subscription renewals to users.

“InterNations is operating on a standard subscription model like many other businesses, which is at no point in breach of consumer protection laws,” he said. “Subscriptions are renewed automatically, which is clearly communicated at the beginning of each subscription period, in each invoice, and in every user’s membership and account settings. This is also where a subscription can be cancelled at any time, without a notice period that has to be observed.

“Our members have a continual visual reminder of their membership status through the Albatross symbol found on their profile picture. They can also always see their current membership status by visiting their membership page.”

And while he conceded that InterNations had had to cancel in-person events “during the height of the pandemic” he said it substituted this reduction in service by offering “additional free months of membership” and “working very hard to respond to the situation and find ways for our members to still meet and spend time together online”.

“After only a few weeks, we already offered over 500 online activities worldwide to help expats and global minds connect and share experiences — more online events were being added every day,” he added. “In addition, our users continued to benefit from other online networking and information features our premium membership offers. Since restrictions on in-person events are being lifted around the world, we have started to offer many opportunities for our members again to meet in person.”

EU consumer protection rules do bake in requirements that contract terms be fair — with provisions intended to protect against things like one-sided changes to a service without a valid reason. But it’s pretty clear that InterNations could argue a pandemic is a valid reason for canceling in person events and replacing them with online networking. So angry users are unlikely to find much solace there.

Still, maintaining such an inflexible and user hostile attitude during a pandemic does look risky for InterNations and its reputation, given new users are likely to be far less easy for it to net now the coronavirus has settled like a dead calm on so much foreign travel.

So while it might be legally entitled to sit and claw in revenue from people who — living through a pandemic and worried about things like their jobs, health and loved ones — forgot to cancel a subscription that only comes round once a year, it’s hardly a recipe for long-term customer loyalty.

Indeed, we’ve seen these kind of auto-renewing subscription gigs crop up in the ecommerce space in years past. And none of those dubious tactics went the distance.

Tricking consumers into recurring payments is never a good long term business strategy and it certainly isn’t now that reputational damage can scale all over social media in seconds. (To wit: Irate InterNations users have been organizing via Twitter and have set up a website to amplify negative reviews where they urge people to boycott the service.)

None of the people who’ve been stung by InterNations’ auto-renewing subscription are likely to forget to cancel a second time so won’t be a source of recurring revenue in future. And treating users like so much chum when the company also relies upon their community spirit to power its service looks like a rotten business model long past its sell-by-date. (However many members InterNations claims have contacted it “to say how much our online events