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.
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.
When people are uncertain, they look to others for behavioral guidance. This is called social proof, which is a physiological effect that influences your decisions every day, whether you know it or not.
At Demand Curve and through our agency Bell Curve, we’ve helped over 1,000 startups improve their ability to convert cold traffic into repeat customers. We’ve found that effectively using social proof can lead to up to 400% improvement in conversion.
This post shares exactly how to collect and use social proof to help grow your SaaS, e-commerce, or B2B startup.
Surprisingly, we’ve actually seen negative reviews help improve conversion rates. Why? Because they help set customer expectations.
How businesses use social proof
Have you ever stopped to check out a restaurant because it had a large line of people out front? That wasn’t by chance.
It’s common for restaurants to limit the size of their reception area. This forces people to wait outside, and the line signals to people walking past that the restaurant is so good it’s worth waiting for.
But for Internet-based businesses, social proof looks a bit different. Instead of people lining up outside your storefront, you’re going to need to create social proof that resonates with your target customers — they’ll be looking for different clues to signal whether doing business with your company is “normal” or “acceptable” behavior.
Social proof for B2B
People love to compare themselves to others, and this is especially true when it comes to the customers of B2B businesses. If your competitor is able to get a contract with a company that you’ve been nurturing for months, you’d be upset (and want to know how they did it).
Therefore, B2B social proof is most effective when you display the logos of companies you do business with. This signals to people checking out your website that other businesses trust you to deliver on your offer. The more noteworthy or respected the logos on your site, the stronger the influence will be.
Social proof for SaaS
Depending on the type of SaaS product or service you’re selling, you’ll either be selling to an individual or to a business. The strategy remains the same, but the channels will vary slightly.
The most effective way to generate social proof for SaaS products is through positive reviews from trusted sources. For consumer SaaS, that will be through influential bloggers and YouTubers speaking highly of your product. For B2B SaaS, it will be through positive ratings on review sites like G2 or Capterra. Proudly display these testimonials on your site.
Social proof for e-commerce brands
E-commerce brands will typically sell directly to an individual through ads, but because anyone can purchase an ad, you’re going to need to signal trust in other ways. The most common way we see e-commerce brands building social proof is by nurturing an organic social media following on Instagram or TikTok.
This signals to new customers that you’ve gotten the seal of approval from others like them. Having an audience also allows you to showcase user-generated content from your existing customers.
How to collect social proof
There are five avenues startups can tap to collect social proof:
Public relations and earned media
Social media and community
Here are a few tactics we’ve used to help startups build social proof.
While LinkedIn doubles down on creators to bring a more human, less manicured element to its networking platform for professionals, a company that has built a reputation for publishing primarily the more messy and human impressions of work life has made an acquisition that might help it compete better with LinkedIn.
Glassdoor, the platform that lets people post anonymous and candid feedback about the organizations they work for, has acquired Fishbowl — an app that gives users an anonymous option also to provide frank employee feedback, as well as join interest-based conversation groups to chat about work, and search for jobs. Glassdoor, which has 55 million users, is already integrating Fishbowl content into its main platform, although Fishbowl, with its 1 million users, will also continue for now to operate as a standalone app, too.
Christian Sutherland-Wong, the CEO of Glassdoor, said that he sees Fishbowl as the logical evolution of how Glassdoor is already being used. Similarly, since people are already seeking out feedback on prospective employers, it makes sense to bring recruitment and reviews closer together.
“We’ve always been about workplace transparency,” he said in an interview. “We expect in the future that jobseekers will use Glassdoor reviews, and also look to existing professionals in their fields to get answers from each other.” Fishbowl has seen a lot of traction during the Covid-19 pandemic, growing its user base threefold in the last year.
The acquisition is technically being made by Recruit Holdings, the Japanese employment listings and tech giant that acquired Glassdoor for $1.2 billion in 2018, and the companies are not disclosing any financial terms. San Francisco-based Fishbowl — founded in 2016 by Matt Sunbulli and Loren Appin — had raised less than $8 million, according to PitchBook data, from a pretty impressive set of investors, including Binary Capital, GGV, Lerer Hippeau Ventures, and Scott Belsky.
Microsoft-owned LinkedIn towers over the likes of Glassdoor in terms of size. It now has more than 774 million users, making it by far the biggest social media platform targeting professionals and their work-related content. But for many, even some of those who use it, the platform leaves something to be desired.
LinkedIn is a reliable go-to for putting out a profile of yourself, for the public, for those in your professional life, or for recruiters, to find. But what LinkedIn largely lacks are normal people talking about work in an honest way. To read about other’s often self-congratulatory professional developments, or to see motivational words on professional development from already hugely successful personalities, or to browse developments relative to your industry that probably have already seen elsewhere is not everyone’s cup of tea. It’s anodyne. Sometimes people just want tea to be spilled.
That’s where something like Glassdoor comes into the picture: the format of making comments anonymous on there turns it into something of the anti-LinkedIn. It is caustic, perhaps sometimes bitter, talk about the workplace, balanced out with positive words seem to get periodically suspected of being seeded by the companies themselves. Motivational, inspirational and aspirational are generally not part of the Glassdoor lexicon; honest, illuminating, and sobering perhaps are.
Fishbowl will be used to augment this and give Glassdoor another set of tools now to see how it might build out its platform beyond workplace reviews. The idea is to target people who come to Glassdoor to read about what people think of a company, or to put in their own comments: they can now also jump into conversations with others; and if they are coming to complain about their employer, now they can also look for a new one!
In the meantime, it feels like the swing to more authenticity is also a result of the shift we’ve seen in the world of work.
Covid-19 mandated office closures and social distancing have meant that many professionals have been working at home for the majority of the last year and a half (and many continue to do so). That has changed how we “come to work”, with many of our traditional divides between work and non-work personas and time management blurring. That has had an inevitable impact on how we see ourselves at work, and what we seek to get out of that engagement. And it also has led many people to feel isolated and in need of more ways to connect with colleagues.
Glassdoor’s acquisition, it said, was in part to meet this demand. A Harris Poll commissioned by Glassdoor found that 48% of employees felt isolated from coworkers during the COVID-19 pandemic; 42% of employees felt their career stall due to the lack of in-person connection; and 45% of employees expect to work hybrid or full-time remotely going forward — all areas that Glassdoor believes can be addressed with better tools (like Fishbowl) for people to communicate.
Of course, it will remain to be seen whether Glassdoor can convert its visitors to use the new Fishbowl-powered tools, but if there really is a population of users out there looking for a new kind of LinkedIn — there certainly are enough who love to complain about it — then maybe this cold be one version of that.
A U.S. federal judge last week struck down Apple rules restricting app developers from selling directly to customers outside the App Store.
Apple’s stock fell 3% on the news, which is being regarded as a win for small and midsize app developers because they’ll be able to build direct billing relationships with their customers. But Apple is just one of many Big Tech companies that dominate their sector.
The larger issue is how this development will impact Amazon, Facebook, Grubhub and other tech giants with online marketplaces that use draconian terms of service to keep their resellers subservient. The skirmish between Apple and small and midsize app developers is just a smaller battle in a much larger war.
App makers pay up to 30% on every sale they make on the Apple App Store. Resellers on Amazon pay a monthly subscription fee, a sales commission of 8% to 15%, fulfillment fees and other miscellaneous charges. Grubhub charges restaurants 15% of every order, a credit card processing fee, an order processing fee and a 10% delivery commission.
Like app developers, online resellers and social media influencers are all falling for the same big lie: that they can build a sustainable business with healthy margins on someone else’s platform. The reality is the App Store, online marketplaces and even social networks that dominate their sectors have the unilateral power to selectively deplatform and squeeze their users, and there’s not much to be done about it.
Healthy competition exists inside the App Store and among marketplace resellers and aspiring social media influencers. But no one seems to be talking about the real elephants in the room, which are the social networks and online marketplace providers themselves. In some respects, they’ve become almost like digital dictators with complete control over their territories.
It’s something every small and midsize business that gets excited about some new online service catering to their industry should be aware of because it directly impacts their ability to grow a stable business. The federal judge’s decision suggests the real goal in digital business is a direct billing relationship with the end user.
On the internet, those who are able to lead a horse to water and make them drink — outside the walled gardens of digital marketplace operators like Uber, Airbnb and Udemy — are the true contenders. In content and e-commerce, this is what most small and midsize companies don’t realize. Your own website or owned media, at a top-level domain that you control, is the only unfettered way to sell direct to end users.
Mobile app makers on Apple’s App Store, resellers on Amazon and aspiring content creators on Instagram, YouTube and TikTok are all subject to the absolute control of digital titans who are free to govern by their own rules with unchecked power.
For access to online marketplaces and social networks, we got a raw deal. We’re basically plowing their fields like digital sharecroppers. Resellers on Amazon are forced to split their harvest with a landlord who takes a gross percentage with no caps. Amassing followers on TikTok is building an audience that’s locked inside their venue.
These tech giants — all former startups that built their audiences from scratch — are free to impose and selectively enforce oppressive rules. If you’re a small fry, they can prohibit you from asking for your customer’s email address and deplatform you for skimming, but look the other way when Spotify and The New York Times do the same thing. Both were already selling direct and through the App Store prior to Friday’s ruling.
How is that competitive? Even after the ruling, Big Tech still gets to decide who they let violate their terms of service and who they deplatform. It’s not just their audience. It’s their universe, their governance, their rules and their enforcement.
In the 1948 court case United States v. Paramount Pictures, the Supreme Court ruled that film studios couldn’t own their own theaters because that meant they could exclusively control what movies were screened. They stifled competition by controlling what films made it to the marquee, so SCOTUS broke them up.
Today, social networks control what gets seen on their platforms, and with the push of a button, they can give the hook to whoever they want, whenever they want. The big challenge that the internet poses to capitalism is that the network effect is fundamentally anti-competitive. Winner-take-all markets dominated by tech giants look more like government-controlled than free-market economies.
On the one hand, the web gives us access to a global marketplace of buyers and sellers. On the other, a few major providers control the services that most people use to do business, because they don’t have the knowledge or resources to stand up a competitive website. But unless you have your own domain and good search visibility, you’re always in danger of being deplatformed and losing access to your customers or audience members with no practical recourse.
The network effect is such that once an online marketplace becomes dominant, it neutralizes the competitive market, because everyone gravitates to the dominant service to get the best deal. There’s an inherent conflict between the goals of a winner-takes-all tech company and the goals of a free market.
Dominant online marketplaces are only competitive for users. Meanwhile, marketplace providers operate with impunity. If they decide they want to use half-baked AI or offshore contractors to police their terms of service and shore up false positives, there’s no practical way for users to contest. How can Facebook possibly govern nearly 3 billion users judiciously with around 60,000 employees? As we’ve seen, it can’t.
For app makers, online resellers and creators, the only smart option is open source on the open web. Instead of relying on someone else’s audience (or software for that matter), you own your online destination powered by software like WordPress or Discord, and you never have to worry about getting squeezed when the founders go public or their platform gets bought by profit-hungry investment bankers. Only then can you protect your profit margins. And only then are the terms of service the laws of the land.
Politics aside, as former President Donald Trump’s deplatforming demonstrated, if you get kicked off Facebook and Twitter, there’s really nowhere else to go. If they want you out, it’s game over. It’s no coincidence Trump lost his Facebook and Twitter accounts on the same day the Republicans lost the Senate. If the GOP takes back the Senate, watch Trump get his social media accounts back. Social networks ward off regulators by appeasing the legislative majority.
So don’t get too excited about the new Amazon Influencer Program. If you want to build a sustainable digital business, you need an owned media presence powered by software that doesn’t rake commissions, have access to your customer contact information and has an audience that can’t be commandeered with an algorithm tweak.
When LinkedIn first launched Stories format, and later expanded its tools for creators earlier this year, one noticeable detail was that the Microsoft-owned network for professionals hadn’t built any kind of obvious monetization into the program — noticeable, given that creators earn a living on other platforms like Instagram, YouTube and TikTok, and those apps had lured creators, their content, and their audiences in part by paying out.
“As we continue to listen to feedback from our members as we consider future opportunities, we’ll also continue to evolve how we create more value for our creators,” is how LinkedIn explained its holding pattern on payouts to me at the time. But that strategy may have backfired for the company — or at least may have played a role in what came next: last month, LinkedIn announced it would be scrapping its Stories format and going back to the proverbial drawing board to work on other short-form video content for the platform.
Now comes the latest iteration in that effort. To bring more creators to the platform, the company today announced that it would be launching a new $25 million creator fund, which initially will be focused around a new Creator Accelerator Program.
It’s coming on the heels of LinkedIn also continuing to work on one of its other new-content experiments: a Clubhouse-style live conversation platform. As we previously reported, LinkedIn began working on this back in March of this year. Now, we are hearing that the feature will make an appearance as part of a broader events strategy for the company.
Notably, in a blog post announcing the creator fund, LinkedIn also listed a number of creator events coming up. Will the Clubhouse-style feature pop up there? Watch this space. Or maybe… listen up.
In any case, the creator accelerator that LinkedIn is announcing today could help feed into that wider pool of people that LinkedIn is hoping to cultivate on its platform as a more dynamic and lively set of voices to get more people talking and spending time on LinkedIn.
Andrei Santalo, global head of community at LinkedIn, noted in the blog post that the accelerator/incubator will be focused on the whole creator and the many ways that one can engage on LinkedIn.
“Creating content on LinkedIn is about creating opportunity, for yourselves and others,” he writes. “How can your words, videos and conversations make 774+ million professionals better at what they do or help them see the world in new ways?”
The incubator will last for 10 weeks and will take on 100 creators in the U.S. to coach them on building content for LinkedIn. It will also give them chances to network with like-minded individuals (naturally… it is LinkedIn), as well as a $15,000 grant to do their work. The deadline for applying (which you do here) is October 12.
The idea of starting a fund to incentivize creators to build video for a particular platform is definitely not new — and that is one reason why it was overdue for LinkedIn to think about its own approach.
Leading social media platforms like TikTok, Snapchat, Instagram and Facebook, and YouTube all have announced hundreds of millions of dollars in payouts in the form of creator funds to bring more original content to their platforms.
You could argue that for mass-market social media sites, it’s important to pay creators because competition is so fierce among them for consumer attention.
But on the other hand, those platforms have appeal for creators because of the potential audience size. At 774 million users, LinkedIn isn’t exactly small, but the kind of content that tends to live on there is so different, and maybe drier — it’s focused on professional development, work, and “serious” topics — that perhaps it might need the most financial incentive of all to get creators to bite.
LinkedIn’s bread and butter up to now has been around professional development: people use it to look for work, to get better jobs, to hire people, and to connect with people who might help them get ahead in their professional lives.
But it’s done so in a very prescribed set of formats that do not leave much room for exploring “authenticity” — not in the modern sense of “authentic self”, and not in the more old-school sense of just letting down your guard and being yourself. (Even relatively newer initiatives like its education focus directly play into this bigger framework.)
With authenticity becoming an increasing priority for people — and maybe more so as we have started to blur the lines between work and home because of Covid-19 and the changes that it has forced on us — I can’t help but wonder whether LinkedIn will use this opportunity to rethink, or at least expand the concept of, what it means to spend time on its platform.
This summer, Spotify launched its live audio app and Clubhouse rival, Spotify Greenroom, with the promises of more programming to come in the months ahead to augment its then primarily user-generated live content. Today, the company is making good on that earlier commitment, with the launch of six new shows on Spotify Greenroom focused on pop culture and music, in addition to what Spotify calls “playlist-inspired shows” — meaning those that are inspired by Spotify’s own playlists.
This includes a new show based on the popular playlist Lorem, which launched in 2019, showcasing an eclectic mix of music that has included indie pop, R&B, garage rock, hip-hop, and more, focused on a younger, Gen Z audience. That playlist today has over 884,000 “likes” on Spotify and has risen to become one of the places new artists are able to break through on the platform. Now, Lorem listeners will be connected to “Lorem Life,” a Spotify Greenroom show that will feature a mix of culture and discussions about music, the environment, sustainability, fashion, and space, Spotify says. The show is hosted by Gen Z influencers and TikTok stars, Dev Lemons and Max Motley, who will engage with other artists and influencers. It begins airing on Wednesday, September 15, at 9 PM ET.
Another new “playlist-inspired” show is “The Get Up LIVE.” If the name sounds familiar, it’s because “The Get Up” was introduced last fall as Spotify’s own take on a daily morning show by mixing music with talk radio-style content led by hosts who discuss the news, pop culture, entertainment, and other topics. To date, that content has not been provided as a live program, however. Instead, the show has been pre-recorded then made available as a playlist that gives listeners the feel of a daily FM radio show. Now, “The Get Up’s” co-hosts Kat Lazo and Xavier “X” Jernigan will record their show live on Greenroom, starting on Wednesday, Sept. 15 at 11 AM ET.
This odd time seems to contradict Spotify’s original intention of providing a show for those who commute to the office. But with the rise of remote work in the face of the unending pandemic, addressing the commuter audience may be of less interest, with the new program. However, Spotify tells us “The Get up LIVE” will be complementary to the daily show, which will still run as normal — that’s why it has a later airing.
Other new Greenroom shows include “A Gay in the Life,” hosted by the married couple, actor Garrett Clayton and writer and educator Blake Knight, who will discuss LGBTQIA+ news and issues (weekly, 8 PM ET, starting today); “Take a Seat,” hosted by Ben Mandelker and Ronnie Karam of the “Watch What Crappens” podcast, who will recap reality shows and dive into other pop culture fascinations (weekly, 10 PM ET, starting today); “The Movie Buff,” hosted by film buff and comedian Jon Gabrus, who will review and break down the latest hot movies (weekly, 11 PM ET, starting today); and “The Most Necessary: Live,” a complement to Spotify’s “Most Necessary” playlist, where host B.Dot will discuss up-and-comers in hip-hop (weekly, 9 PM ET, starting Tuesday).
In addition to the new programs, Deuxmoi’s show “Deux Me After Dark” will also air this evening (Sept. 13) at 9 PM ET to recap the red carpet looks and gossip from this year’s Met Gala alongside guest Hillary Kerr, co-founder of Who What Wear.
Image Credits: Spotify
Greenrom is now available to listeners in over 135 global markets and has been quietly expanding with live audio from sports site and podcast network “The Ringer” as well as from artists like Pop Smoke, the company says. Other programs added include Men In Blazers, Deaux Me After Dark, True Crime Rewind and Ask The Tarot.
The app had gotten off to a slower start this year, given its roots had been in sports talk live programming, which didn’t necessarily connect with Spotify’s music fans. Plus, it has faced growing competition from not only Clubhouse, which inspired its creation, but also other top social networks like Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Discord, and more. Without dedicated programs to garner user interest in yet another live audio app, the company had only seen 141,000 new downloads for Greenroom on iOS a little over a month after its launch, and fewer on Google Play. But Spotify’s long-term vision for the service was to more closely tie Greenroom to the music, artists, programs, and podcasts that were already available on its flagship music streaming app — and these new shows are an example of that plan in action.
Twitter is a useful place for following breaking news and keeping up with what the people you’re already interested in are doing, but its relative dearth of discovery features and a lack of organized community spaces make it pretty hard to connect with anyone you aren’t actively seeking out.
The company is thinking about changing that. Twitter is on a tear with new features lately and its latest experiment, called Communities, is designed to make it easier to connect around shared interests. Users will be able to join these new social hubs and tweet directly to other people with shared interests rather than their regular group of followers. Those tweets will still be public, but replies will be limited to other community members.
Communities will be user-generated, though Twitter says that will be “limited,” for now, so most people will have to wait a few months before starting their own groups. The earliest Communities will center around popular and generally benign topics on Twitter including “dogs, weather, sneakers, skincare, and astrology.” Twitter’s example images also include cryptocurrency, plants and Black women photographers.
The test begins Wednesday and will show up in a dedicated spot at the bottom of the iOS app or in the side menu on Twitter.com. Twitter says that Android users will be able to read Community tweets too, though “more functionality” is on the way soon — presumably a dedicated app tab and the ability to join and participate in the new groups.
Communities will be created and maintained by designated moderators, who will have the ability to invite other users to the group via DM and remove content posted within the group. Initially invites will be the only way into a Community, but it sounds like Twitter has some grand plans for discovery features that make it easier for people to find places they might want to hang out.
“Some conversations aren’t for everyone, just the people who want to talk about the thing you want to talk about,” Twitter Staff Product Manager David Regan wrote in a blog post announcing the feature. “… We want to continue to support public conversation and help people find Communities that match their interests, while also creating a more intimate space for conversation.”
With any user-driven community space on social media — particularly one where algorithmic discovery factors in — moderation is the big concern. Twitter says that anyone will be able to read, report and quote content posted in a Community, so you don’t have to be a member of a community to flag harmful content like you would in a private Facebook group. Twitter says that it is working on “new reporting flows, and bespoke enforcement actions” to proactively identify problem Communities.
The introduction of Communities pairs well with Twitter’s recent efforts to court creator communities. The company rolled out Super Follows, its paid subscription tool, earlier this month and also recently invited some users to sell tickets for audio rooms with Ticketed Spaces. It’s also testing one-time payments with a feature called Tip Jar that’s currently only available for a subset of accounts.
Communities are a pretty big departure for Twitter, which is obviously in the throes of reimagining the platform as a more dynamic place for community building. By carving out substantial space for subcommunities on Twitter, the company seems to be inching in the direction of a platform like Discord or Reddit, where everything revolves around self-moderating interest-based communities. Those platforms grapple with their own moderation headaches, but specific, interest-driven communities invite users to go deep in a way that makes interactions on Twitter look shallow by comparison.
The introduction of Communities is an interesting direction for a prominent social network that’s remained largely unchanged for more than a decade at this point. If the test sticks, Communities could build connective tissue between users and make the social network generally a more dynamic place to hang out — but that’s only possible if Twitter can strike the right balance between encouraging its newly imagined subcommunities to grow and keeping them safe.
TikTok is expanding its in-app parental controls feature, Family Pairing, with educational resources designed to help parents better support their teenage users, the company announced morning. The pairing feature, which launched to global users last year, allows parents of teens aged 13 and older to connect their accounts with the child’s so the parent can set controls related to screen time use, who the teen can direct message, and more. But the company heard from teens that they also want their voices to be heard when it comes to parents’ involvement in their digital life.
To create the new educational content, TikTok partnered with the online safety nonprofit, Internet Matters. The organization developed a set of resources in collaboration with teens that aim to offer parents tips about navigating the TikTok landscape and teenage social media usage in general.
Teens said they want parents to understand the rules they’re setting when they use features like Family Pairing and they want them to be open to having discussions about the time teens spend online. And while teens don’t mind when parents set boundaries, they also want to feel they’ve earned some level of trust from the adults in their life.
The older teens get, the more autonomy they want to have on their own device and social networks, as well. They may even tell mom or dad that they don’t want them to follow them on a given platform.
This doesn’t necessarily mean the teen is up to no good, the new resources explain to parents. The teens just want to feel like they can hang out with their friends online without being so closely monitored. This has become an important part of the online experience today, in the pandemic era, where many younger people are spending more time at home instead of socializing with friends in real-life or participating in other in-person group activities.
Image Credits: TikTok
Teens said they also want to be able to come to parents when something goes wrong, without fearing that they’ll be harshly punished or that the parent will panic about the situation. The teens know they’ll be consequences if they break the rules, but they want parents to work through other tough situations with them and devise solutions together, not just react in anger.
All this sounds like straightforward, common sense advice, but parents on TikTok often have varying degrees of comfort with their teens’ digital life and use of social networks. Some basic guidelines that explain what teens want and feel makes sense to include. That said, the parents who are technically savvy enough to enable a parental control feature like Family Pairing may already be clued into best practices.
Image Credits: TikTok
In addition, this sort of teen-focused privacy and safety content is also designed to help TikTok better establish itself as a platform working to protect its younger users — an increasingly necessary stance in light of the potential regulation which big tech has been trying to ahead of, as of late. TikTok, for instance, announced in August it would roll out more privacy protections for younger teens aimed to make the app safer. Facebook, Google and YouTube also did the same.
TikTok says parents or guardians who have currently linked their account to a teen’s account via the Family Pairing feature will receive a notification that prompts them to find out more about the teens’ suggestions and how to approach those conversations about digital literacy and online safety. Parents who sign up and enable Family Pairing for the first time, will also be guided to the resources.
Spotify today is officially rolling out its shared playlist feature called Blend to global users, with a few changes. Earlier this summer, Spotify had first launched the new shared playlist experience into beta testing. The feature, which allows two people to combine their favorite songs into one shared playlist, uses the same music mixing technology that powers other multi-person playlists like Spotify’s Family Mix and Duo Mix. However, Blend allows any Spotify user, including both free users and paid subscribers, to merge their musical tastes, too.
The feature has been further developed since its beta release, Spotify says.
Now, users who create a Blend (aka their shared playlist) will get something called a “taste match score” that shows them how similar or different their listening preferences are, when compared with their friends. After the Blend is created for the first time, this taste match score is demonstrated as a percentage and will be accompanied by text that tells users which song brings them together.
Blends will also feature new cover art to help users find their playlists more easily.
Premium subscribers will get an extra perk, as well. On their version of a Blend, listeners will be able to see which of the user’s preferences contributed to each song on the playlist.
Spotify says during tests of Blend, Olivia Rodrigo took the top spot for the most-streamed artist on Blend playlists, followed by others like Doja Cat, Taylor Swift, The Weeknd, and Lil Nas X.
The feature isn’t only meant to be serve a fun addition to Spotify. It’s also a user acquisition strategy. Since free users are able to create or join a Blend, the feature can serve as a way to entice someone to join Spotify for the first time — even if they currently don’t pay for music, or if they subscribe to a rival service. But once they’re in Spotify’s app, they may decide to stay, the thinking goes.
Blend was announced in June alongside a new in-app experience called Only You, which focuses on your favorite music and how you listen — sort of like a mid-year version of Spotify’s popular annual retrospective, Spotify Wrapped. Like Only You, Blend includes support for social sharing. Users will be able to share Blend’s “data stories” across their social channels. This is the screen that pops up immediately after a Blend is created, but can also be accessed from any time within the Blend playlist itself.
You can access Blend from the Made for You hub on Spotify’s mobile app. To get started, you’ll click “Create Blend” then “invite” to select a friend to join your Blend. When the friend accepts, Spotify will create the cover art, tracklists and display your taste match score. You can then click “Share this Story” to post your data story to your social networks.
Blend will begin rolling out to all users worldwide, starting today. Large-scale rollouts can take time, so you don’t see it immediately, just check back later.
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.
To the average person, Facebook’s monopoly seems obvious. “After all,” as James E. Boasberg of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia put it in his recent decision, “No one who hears the title of the 2010 film ‘The Social Network’ wonders which company it is about.” But obviousness is not an antitrust standard. Monopoly has a clear legal meaning, and thus far Lina Khan’s FTC has failed to meet it. Today’s refiling is much more substantive than the FTC’s first foray. But it’s still lacking some critical arguments. Here are some ideas from the front lines.
To the average person, Facebook’s monopoly seems obvious. But obviousness is not an antitrust standard.
First, the FTC must define the market correctly: personal social networking, which includes messaging. Second, the FTC must establish that Facebook controls over 60% of the market — the correct metric to establish this is revenue.
Though consumer harm is a well-known test of monopoly determination, our courts do not require the FTC to prove that Facebook harms consumers to win the case. As an alternative pleading, though, the government can present a compelling case that Facebook harms consumers by suppressing wages in the creator economy. If the creator economy is real, then the value of ads on Facebook’s services is generated through the fruits of creators’ labor; no one would watch the ads before videos or in between posts if the user-generated content was not there. Facebook has harmed consumers by suppressing creator wages.
A note: This is the first of a series on the Facebook monopoly. I am inspired by Cloudflare’s recent post explaining the impact of Amazon’s monopoly in their industry. Perhaps it was a competitive tactic, but I genuinely believe it more a patriotic duty: guideposts for legislators and regulators on a complex issue. My generation has watched with a combination of sadness and trepidation as legislators who barely use email question the leading technologists of our time about products that have long pervaded our lives in ways we don’t yet understand. I, personally, and my company both stand to gain little from this — but as a participant in the latest generation of social media upstarts, and as an American concerned for the future of our democracy, I feel a duty to try.
According to the court, the FTC must meet a two-part test: First, the FTC must define the market in which Facebook has monopoly power, established by the D.C. Circuit in Neumann v. Reinforced Earth Co. (1986). This is the market for personal social networking services, which includes messaging.
Second, the FTC must establish that Facebook controls a dominant share of that market, which courts have defined as 60% or above, established by the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in FTC v. AbbVie (2020). The right metric for this market share analysis is unequivocally revenue — daily active users (DAU) x average revenue per user (ARPU). And Facebook controls over 90%.
The answer to the FTC’s problem is hiding in plain sight: Snapchat’s investor presentations:
Snapchat July 2021 investor presentation: Significant DAU and ARPU Opportunity. Image Credits: Snapchat
This is a chart of Facebook’s monopoly — 91% of the personal social networking market. The gray blob looks awfully like a vast oil deposit, successfully drilled by Facebook’s Standard Oil operations. Snapchat and Twitter are the small wildcatters, nearly irrelevant compared to Facebook’s scale. It should not be lost on any market observers that Facebook once tried to acquire both companies.
The market Includes messaging
The FTC initially claimed that Facebook has a monopoly of the “personal social networking services” market. The complaint excluded “mobile messaging” from Facebook’s market “because [messaging apps] (i) lack a ‘shared social space’ for interaction and (ii) do not employ a social graph to facilitate users’ finding and ‘friending’ other users they may know.”
This is incorrect because messaging is inextricable from Facebook’s power. Facebook demonstrated this with its WhatsApp acquisition, promotion of Messenger and prior attempts to buy Snapchat and Twitter. Any personal social networking service can expand its features — and Facebook’s moat is contingent on its control of messaging.
The more time in an ecosystem the more valuable it becomes. Value in social networks is calculated, depending on whom you ask, algorithmically (Metcalfe’s law) or logarithmically (Zipf’s law). Either way, in social networks, 1+1 is much more than 2.
Social networks become valuable based on the ever-increasing number of nodes, upon which companies can build more features. Zuckerberg coined the “social graph” to describe this relationship. The monopolies of Line, Kakao and WeChat in Japan, Korea and China prove this clearly. They began with messaging and expanded outward to become dominant personal social networking behemoths.
In today’s refiling, the FTC explains that Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat are all personal social networking services built on three key features:
“First, personal social networking services are built on a social graph that maps the connections between users and their friends, family, and other personal connections.”
“Second, personal social networking services include features that many users regularly employ to interact with personal connections and share their personal experiences in a shared social space, including in a one-to-many ‘broadcast’ format.”
“Third, personal social networking services include features that allow users to find and connect with other users, to make it easier for each user to build and expand their set of personal connections.”
Unfortunately, this is only partially right. In social media’s treacherous waters, as the FTC has struggled to articulate, feature sets are routinely copied and cross-promoted. How can we forget Instagram’s copying of Snapchat’s stories? Facebook has ruthlessly copied features from the most successful apps on the market from inception. Its launch of a Clubhouse competitor called Live Audio Rooms is only the most recent example. Twitter and Snapchat are absolutely competitors to Facebook.
Messaging must be included to demonstrate Facebook’s breadth and voracious appetite to copy and destroy. WhatsApp and Messenger have over 2 billion and 1.3 billion users respectively. Given the ease of feature copying, a messaging service of WhatsApp’s scale could become a full-scale social network in a matter of months. This is precisely why Facebook acquired the company. Facebook’s breadth in social media services is remarkable. But the FTC needs to understand that messaging is a part of the market. And this acknowledgement would not hurt their case.
The metric: Revenue shows Facebook’s monopoly
Boasberg believes revenue is not an apt metric to calculate personal networking: “The overall revenues earned by PSN services cannot be the right metric for measuring market share here, as those revenues are all earned in a separate market — viz., the market for advertising.” He is confusing business model with market. Not all advertising is cut from the same cloth. In today’s refiling, the FTC correctly identifies “social advertising” as distinct from the “display advertising.”
But it goes off the deep end trying to avoid naming revenue as the distinguishing market share metric. Instead the FTC cites “time spent, daily active users (DAU), and monthly active users (MAU).” In a world where Facebook Blue and Instagram compete only with Snapchat, these metrics might bring Facebook Blue and Instagram combined over the 60% monopoly hurdle. But the FTC does not make a sufficiently convincing market definition argument to justify the choice of these metrics. Facebook should be compared to other personal social networking services such as Discord and Twitter — and their correct inclusion in the market would undermine the FTC’s choice of time spent or DAU/MAU.
Ultimately, cash is king. Revenue is what counts and what the FTC should emphasize. As Snapchat shows above, revenue in the personal social media industry is calculated by ARPU x DAU. The personal social media market is a different market from the entertainment social media market (where Facebook competes with YouTube, TikTok and Pinterest, among others). And this too is a separate market from the display search advertising market (Google). Not all advertising-based consumer technology is built the same. Again, advertising is a business model, not a market.
In the media world, for example, Netflix’s subscription revenue clearly competes in the same market as CBS’ advertising model. News Corp.’s acquisition of Facebook’s early competitor MySpace spoke volumes on the internet’s potential to disrupt and destroy traditional media advertising markets. Snapchat has chosen to pursue advertising, but incipient competitors like Discord are successfully growing using subscriptions. But their market share remains a pittance compared to Facebook.
An alternative pleading: Facebook’s market power suppresses wages in the creator economy
The FTC has correctly argued for the smallest possible market for their monopoly definition. Personal social networking, of which Facebook controls at least 80%, should not (in their strongest argument) include entertainment. This is the narrowest argument to make with the highest chance of success.
But they could choose to make a broader argument in the alternative, one that takes a bigger swing. As Lina Khan famously noted about Amazon in her 2017 note that began the New Brandeis movement, the traditional economic consumer harm test does not adequately address the harms posed by Big Tech. The harms are too abstract. As White House advisor Tim Wu argues in “The Curse of Bigness,” and Judge Boasberg acknowledges in his opinion, antitrust law does not hinge solely upon price effects. Facebook can be broken up without proving the negative impact of price effects.
However, Facebook has hurt consumers. Consumers are the workers whose labor constitutes Facebook’s value, and they’ve been underpaid. If you define personal networking to include entertainment, then YouTube is an instructive example. On both YouTube and Facebook properties, influencers can capture value by charging brands directly. That’s not what we’re talking about here; what matters is the percent of advertising revenue that is paid out to creators.
YouTube’s traditional percentage is 55%. YouTube announced it has paid $30 billion to creators and rights holders over the last three years. Let’s conservatively say that half of the money goes to rights holders; that means creators on average have earned $15 billion, which would mean $5 billion annually, a meaningful slice of YouTube’s $46 billion in revenue over that time. So in other words, YouTube paid creators a third of its revenue (this admittedly ignores YouTube’s non-advertising revenue).
Facebook, by comparison, announced just weeks ago a paltry $1 billion program over a year and change. Sure, creators may make some money from interstitial ads, but Facebook does not announce the percentage of revenue they hand to creators because it would be insulting. Over the equivalent three-year period of YouTube’s declaration, Facebook has generated $210 billion in revenue. one-third of this revenue paid to creators would represent $70 billion, or $23 billion a year.
Why hasn’t Facebook paid creators before? Because it hasn’t needed to do so. Facebook’s social graph is so large that creators must post there anyway — the scale afforded by success on Facebook Blue and Instagram allows creators to monetize through directly selling to brands. Facebooks ads have value because of creators’ labor; if the users did not generate content, the social graph would not exist. Creators deserve more than the scraps they generate on their own. Facebook suppresses creators’ wages because it can. This is what monopolies do.
Facebook’s Standard Oil ethos
Facebook has long been the Standard Oil of social media, using its core monopoly to begin its march upstream and down. Zuckerberg announced in July and renewed his focus today on the metaverse, a market Roblox has pioneered. After achieving a monopoly in personal social media and competing ably in entertainment social media and virtual reality, Facebook’s drilling continues. Yes, Facebook may be free, but its monopoly harms Americans by stifling creator wages. The antitrust laws dictate that consumer harm is not a necessary condition for proving a monopoly under the Sherman Act; monopolies in and of themselves are illegal. By refiling the correct market definition and marketshare, the FTC stands more than a chance. It should win.
Twitter’s ambitious upstart decentralized social media working group “bluesky” took an important step Monday as the social media company appointed a formal project lead who will direct how the protocol develops moving forward.
Crypto developer Jay Graber was tapped by Twitter to helm the initiative, which the company hopes will eventually create a decentralized social media protocol that a number of social networks including Twitter will operate on. The separate bluesky organization will operate independently but to date has been funded and managed largely by employees at Twitter.
Graber had already been working in a less formal role inside the bluesky team, with Twitter paying her to create a technical review of the decentralized social ecosystem for a working group of developers in the space. Graber previously worked on the developer team behind privacy focused cryptocurrency Zcash and built out her own decentralized social network called Happening, designed to compete with Facebook Events. Graber eventually walked away from the effort after having issues bootstrapping a user base interested in the benefits of decentralization, something that has grown to be a near-insurmountable issue for most upstart networks in the space.
In an interview back in January, Graber told TechCrunch she saw a major opportunity in Twitter entering the decentralized social space due to the hefty user base on the Twitter platform, which will itself eventually migrate to the protocol, the company has said.
“The really powerful thing about Twitter doing a decentralized protocol move is that if you could design a protocol that works in an ideal way, you don’t have to go through the initial effort of finding the niche to bootstrap from because Twitter will bring so many users,” Graber told us.
In January, TechCrunch profiled the initiative as it gathered more attention following Twitter’s permanent ban of former President Donald Trump from its platform. Following Trump’s removal, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey highlighted the bluesky effort as one of the company’s ongoing initiatives to ensure that social media moderation could be less decentralized in the future. A decentralized social media protocol would allow for individual networks to govern themselves without one company or organization exercising monolithic control over the sphere of online conversations.
“I think a huge focus for everyone involved has been thinking how do we enable better moderation, and not just coming from one source,” Graber told TechCrunch.
The bluesky organization is still in its earliest stages. Graber’s next task is bulking up the team with its first hires, which include a protocol developer and web developer.
Spotify’s recently launched live audio app and Clubhouse rival, Spotify Greenroom, has a long road ahead of it if it wants to take on top social audio platforms like Clubhouse, Airtime, Spoon and others, not to mention those from top social networks, like Twitter and Facebook. To date, the new Greenroom app has only been downloaded a total of 141,000 times on iOS, according to data from app intelligence firm Sensor Tower. This includes downloads from its earlier iteration, Locker Room — an app Spotify acquired to make its move into live audio.
On Android, Google Play data indicates the app has been installed over 100,000 times, but Sensor Tower cannot yet confirm this figure.
For comparison, Clubhouse today has 30.2 million total installs, 18.7 million of which are on iOS, Sensor Tower says.
Other top audio apps include Airtime, with 11.4 million iOS installs, out of a total of 14.3 million (including Android); and Spoon, with 7.6 million iOS installs, out of a total of 27.3 million.
International apps like UAE’s Yalla and China’s Lizhi are massive, as well, with the former sporting 48.1 total installs, 3.8 million of which are on iOS. The latter has 29.5+ million total installs, but only a handful on iOS.
There are other newcomers that have managed to stake smaller claims in the social audio space, too, including Fishbowl (759,000 total installs), Cappuccino (497,000 installs), Riff (339,000 installs) and Sonar (154,000 installs.)
Image Credits: Sensor Tower. The firm analyzed 34 social audio apps. The chart shows those with the most installs.
The majority of Greenroom’s installs — around 106,000 — took place after Greenroom’s official launch on July 16, 2021 through July 25, 2021, Sensor Tower says. Counting only its Greenroom installs, the app is ranked at No. 12 among social audio apps. It follows Tin Can, which gained 127,000 installs since launching in early March.
Because Greenroom took over Locker Room’s install base, some portion of Greenroom’s total iOS installs (141K) included downloads that occurred when the app was still Locker Room. But that number is fairly small. Sensor Tower estimates Locker Room saw only around 35,000 total iOS installs to date. That includes the time frame of October 26, 2020 — the month when the sports chat app launched to the public — up until the day before Greenroom’s debut (July 15, 2021).
We should also point out that downloads are not the same thing as registered users, and are far short of active users. Many people download a new app to try it, but then abandon it shortly after downloading it, or never remember to open it at all.
That means the number of people actively using Greenroom at this time, is likely much smaller that these figures indicate.
Spotify declined to comment on third-party estimates.
While Sensor Tower looked at competition across social audio apps on the app stores, Spotify’s competition in the live audio market won’t be limited to standalone apps, of course.
Other large tech platforms have more recently integrated social audio into their apps, too, including Facebook (Live Audio Rooms), Twitter (Spaces), Discord (Stage Channels) and trading app Public. A comparison with Greenroom here is not possible, as these companies would have to disclose how many of their active users are engaging with live audio, and they have not yet done so.
Despite what may be a slower uptake, Greenroom shouldn’t be counted out yet. The app is brand-new, and has time to catch up if all goes well. (And if the market for live audio, in general, continues to grow — even though the height of Covid lockdowns, which prompted all this live audio socializing in the first place, seems to have passed.)
Spotify’s success or failure with live audio will be particularly interesting to watch given the potential for the company to cross-promote live audio shows, events, and artist-produced content through its flagship streaming music application. What sort of programming Greenroom may later include is still unknown, however.
Following Spotify’s acquisition of Locker Room maker Betty Labs, the company said it would roll out programmed content related to music, culture, and entertainment, in addition to sports. It also launched a Creator Fund to help fuel the app with new content.
But so far, Spotify hasn’t given its users a huge incentive to visit Greenroom.
The company, during its Q2 2021 earnings, explained why. It said it first needed to get Greenroom stabilized for a “Spotify-sized audience,” which it why it only soft-launched the app in June. Going forward, Spotify says there will be “more tie-ins” with the main Spotify app, but didn’t offer any specifics.
“Obviously we’ll leverage our existing distribution on Spotify,” noted Spotify CEO Daniel Ek. “But this feels like a great way to learn, experiment and iterate, much faster than if we had to wait for a full on integration into the main app,” he added.
Pinterest today is increasing its investment in the creator community by introducing new tools that will allow creators to make money from their content. Now, creators will be able to tag products in their Idea Pins — a video-first feature the company first launched this spring — to make their content “shoppable.” They’ll also now be able to earn commissions through affiliate links and partner with brands on sponsored content, much like on other social platforms like Instagram, YouTube and TikTok.
Despite its general focus on turning product inspiration into clicks and purchases, Pinterest has been slower to embrace the creator community which today is responsible for driving a significant amount of interest in new products among online shoppers. Over the past several years, brands have increased their influencer marketing budgets from $1.7 billion in 2016 to now $13.8 billion in 2021. However, Pinterest offered few tools for creators to tap into that market on its own site, until its more recent debut of Idea Pins in May.
These Pins are somewhat like Pinterest’s take on TikTok, mixed with Stories, as they offer a way for creators to produce content that combines music, video, and other interactive elements. The videos in Idea Pins can be up to 60 seconds per page, with up to 20 total pages per Pin. Creators can also add other features to their Pins, like stickers or music, and tag other creators with their @username.
Image Credits: Pinterest
While similar in some ways to TikTok, the videos can include “detail pages” where viewers can find associated content, like the ingredient list and instructions for a recipe, or a list of how-to instructions for a craft project.
Now, explains Pinterest, creators will be able to tag products in their Pins, as well. That means fans viewing the Pin content can now go from inspiration to purchase from the Pinterest app. However, the path isn’t as straightforward as it is on Instagram, where a tap on a tag leads you to a page where you can then add an item to a shopping cart. Instead, Pinterest’s product tags tend to take you to another Pinterest page for the product in question, and from there you have to click again to visit the retailer’s website to complete your order.
The new Idea Pins product tagging tool will roll out to all business accounts in the U.S. and U.K. and will then continue to roll out access over the coming months to international creators.
Image Credits: Pinterest
Other new monetization features rolling out now include support for affiliate programs and brand sponsorships.
Creators will now be able to integrate their affiliate programs for Rakuten and ShopStyle to generate additional revenue from their recommendations. Meanwhile, creators who come to the platform with brand partnerships will be able to use a new tool, still in beta, that will let them disclose those partnerships to their followers.
When they then produce branded content on Pinterest and add the brands to their Idea Pins, the brand will then be able to approve the tag, and the Idea Pin will feature a label that reads “Paid Partnership.”
This paid partnerships tool is now live for select Creators in the U.S., U.K., Canada, Australia, Ireland, New Zealand, France, Spain, Italy Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Sweden, Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, Chile, Colombia and Peru.
Image Credits: Pinterest
Most of Pinterest’s new monetization tools are not necessarily all that innovative or unique.
Instead, they represent a company that’s playing catch up to larger social platforms — like Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, an d YouTube — which have been better catering to creators in recent years by allowing them to build their own businesses on their respective platforms and expand their reach. Instagram, in particular, has moved in on Pinterest’s territory to such an extent that many users today start their shopping inspiration searches on its app first.
And Instagram has catered to this growing group of online shoppers by turning its platform into an online shop of sorts, compete with a dedicated Shop button, built-in checkout features, alerts about product drops, and numerous ways for creators to generate profits from their work.
Now that influencer shopping is the norm, the race is on among large platforms and startups alike to bring a similar set of shopping tools to live streamed video.
Given the significant competition, Pinterest’s pitch to the creator community is that its user base is already primed to shop.
By the end of 2020, the company says it saw a 20x increase in product searches on its platform. It also notes that Pinterest users are 89% more likely to exhibit shopping intent on products tagged in creators’ Idea Pins than on its standalone Pins. Plus, the company says that its focus will be more on inspirational content, rather than “influence and entertainment” — a seeming knock at social media and its influencer stars.
“Pinterest is the place where creators with inspiring and actionable ideas get discovered. With this latest update, we’re empowering Creators to reach millions of shoppers on the platform and monetize their work,” said Pinterest Head of Content and Creator Partnerships, Aya Kanai. “Creators deserve to be rewarded for the inspiration they deliver to their followers, and the sales they drive for brands. Creators are central to our mission to bring everyone the inspiration to create a life they love, and we’ll continue working with them to build their businesses and find success on Pinterest,” she added.
Much has been made of the rise of the “creator economy” in the last year. With the Pandemic biting, millions flooded online, looking for a way to make money or promote themselves. The podcasting world has exploded, and with it platforms like Patreon, Clubhouse, and many others. But the thorny problem remains: Do you really own your audience as a creator, or does the platform own you? Companies like Mighty Networks, Circle and Tribe have tried to address this, giving creators greater control than social networks do over their audiences. Now another joins the fray.
Disciple Media bills itself as a SaaS platform to enable online creators to build community-led businesses. It’s now raised $6 million in funding in what it calls a ‘large Angel round’. It already claims to have garnered 2 million members and 500 communities since launching in 2018. Investors include Nick Mason (drummer in Pink Floyd), Sir Peter Michael (CEO of Cray Computers, founder of classic FM, Quantel and Cosworth Engineering), Rob Pierre (founder and CEO of Jellyfish), and Keith Morris (ex. chairman Sabre Insurance). It’s also announced a new Chairman, Eirik Svendsen, a expert in online marketplaces, SaaS and the publishing and media industry.
On its communities so far it has American country star and American Idol judge Luke Bryan, Gor Tex, and Body by Ciara. The platform is also available on iOS and Android and comes with community management tools, a CRM, and monetization options. The company claims its creators are now “earning millions in revenue each year.”
Benji Vaughan, Founder and CEO said: “The scale and rapid growth of the creator economy is extraordinary, and today that growth is being driven by entrepreneurial creators looking to build independent businesses outside of Youtube and the social networks.”
Vaughan, a Techno DJ and artist-turned-entrepreneur, says he came up with the idea after building similar communities for clients. He says the data created on Disciple communities is owned entirely by the host who built the network, “removing third-party risk and allowing insights to be actioned immediately”.
He told me: “We are moving from a position of effectively having ‘gig economy workers for social networks’ to owners of businesses who use social networks for their needs, not the other way around. Therefore, these people are starting to leave social networks to build their businesses and using social networks as marketing channels, as the rest of the world does. Once that migration happens where they move away from social networks as their prime platform, they need a hub where their data is going to get pulled together, they have an audience, which we see as a community that connects with itself as much as they do with the host.”
He thinks the equivalent of Salesforce or HubSpot in the creative economy is going to be a community platform: “That’s where they’re going to aggregate all the information about their valuable audience or community engagement. So, we are looking to, over time, to build out something very akin to what HubSpot sites they have for tech companies or SaaS businesses: a complete package, a complete platform to manage your engagement with your users, grow your user base and then convert that into revenue.”
Rob Pierre, founder and CEO Jellyfish said: “Creating and engaging with your community digitally has never been more important. Disciple allows you to do both of those things with a fully functional, feature-rich platform which requires very little upfront capital expenditure. It also provides numerous options to monetize your community.”
The company behind ubiquitous livestreaming software Streamlabs is introducing a new way for streamers to share their gaming highlights to platforms well beyond Twitch. Streamlabs calls the new tool Crossclip, and it’s available now as an iOS app and as a lightweight web tool.
With Crossclip, creators can easily convert Twitch clips into a format friendly to TikTok, Instagram Reels, YouTube Shorts and Facebook videos. Adapting a snippet from Twitch that you’d like to share is as simple as putting in the clip’s URL and choosing an output format (landscape, vertical or square) and a pre-loaded layout.
You can crop the clip’s length within Crossclip, blur part of the background and choose from a handful of layouts that let you place the frames in different places (to show the facecam view and the stream view together in vertical orientation, for example).
Crossclip’s core functionality is free, but a premium subscription version ($4.99/month or $49.99/year) removes a branded watermark and unlocks exports in 1080/60fps, larger uploads, added layers and pushes your edits to the front of the processing queue.
Discovery on Twitch is tough. Established streamers grow their audiences easily but anybody just getting started usually has to slog through long stretches of lonely Stardew Valley sessions with only the occasional viewer popping in to say hi. The idea behind Crossclip is to make it easier for streamers to build audiences on other social networks that have better discoverability features, subcommunities and tags to make that process less grueling.
“For a creator, making your content more discoverable is a huge advantage,” Streamlabs Head of Product Ashray Urs told TechCrunch. “When you consider the most popular Twitch streamers, you will notice that they have extremely popular YouTube channels and actively post on Twitter, Instagram, TikTok. If you aren’t sharing content and building your audience with different platforms, you’re making things more difficult for yourself.”
Urs notes that creators are increasingly using TikTok’s algorithmic discovery abilities to grow their audiences. TikTok’s recent addition of longer, three-minute videos is a boon for many kinds of creators interested in leveraging the platform, including gamers and other Twitch streamers.
Anyone with an established audience will find Crossclip a breeze to use too, making it dead-simple to share gaming highlights or Just Chatting clips wherever they’re trying to build up a following. The average clip conversation takes two to three minutes and is a simple one-click process. There are a few tools out there that have similar functionality, independent web tool StreamLadder probably being the most notable, but Streamlabs takes the same idea, refines it and adds a mobile app.
Streamlabs, now owned by Logitech, has released a few useful products in recent months. In February, the company launched Willow, its own link-in-bio tool with built-in tipping. In May, Streamlabs deepened its relationship with TikTok — an emerging hub for all kinds of gaming content — adding the ability to “go live” on TikTok into its core livestreaming platform, Streamlabs OBS.
Facebook today introduced a new set of tools aimed at helping Facebook Group administrators get a better handle on their online communities and, potentially, help keep conversations from going off the rails. Among the more interesting new tools is a machine learning-powered feature that alerts admins to potentially unhealthy conversations taking place in their group. Another lets the admin slow down the pace of a heated conversation, by limiting how often group members can post.
Facebook Groups are today are significant reason why people continue to use the social network. Today, there are “tens of millions” of groups, that are managed by over 70 million active admins and moderators worldwide, Facebook says.
The company for years has been working to roll out better tools for these group owners, who often get overwhelmed by the administrative responsibilities that come with running an online community at scale. As a result, many admins give up the job and leave groups to run somewhat unmanaged — thus allowing them to turn into breeding grounds for misinformation, spam and abuse.
Facebook last fall tried to address this problem by rolling out new group policies to crack down on groups without an active admin, among other things. Of course, the company’s preference would be to keep groups running and growing by making them easier to operate.
That’s where today’s new set of features come in.
A new dashboard called Admin Home will centralize admin tools, settings and features in one place, as well as present “pro tips” that suggest other helpful tools tailored to the group’s needs.
Image Credits: Facebook
Another new Admin Assist feature will allow admins to automatically moderate comments in their groups by setting up criteria that can restrict comments and posts more proactively, instead of forcing admins to go back after the fact and delete them, which can be problematic — especially after a discussion has been underway and members are invested in the conversation.
For example, admins can now restrict people from posting if they haven’t had a Facebook account for very long or if they had recently violated the group’s rules. Admins can also automatically decline posts that contain specific promotional content (perhaps MLM links! Hooray!) and then share feedback with the author of the post automatically about why those posts aren’t allowed.
Admins can also take advantage of suggested preset criteria from Facebook to help with limiting spam and managing conflict.
Image Credits: Facebook
One notable update is a new moderation alert type dubbed “conflict alerts.” This feature, currently in testing, will notify admins when a potentially contentious or unhealthy conversation is taking place in the group, Facebook says. This would allow an admin to quickly take an action — like turning off comments, limiting who could comment, removing a post, or however else they would want to approach the situation.
Conflict alerts are powered by machine learning, Facebook explains. Its machine learning model looks at multiple signals, including reply time and comment volume to determine if engagement between users has or might lead to negative interactions, the company says.
This is sort of like an automated expansion on the Keyword Alerts feature many admins already use to look for certain topics that lead to contentious conversations.
Image Credits: Facebook
A related feature, also new, would allow admins to also limit how often specific members could comment, or how often comments could be added to posts admins select.
When enabled, members can leave 1 comment every 5 minutes. The idea here is that forcing users to pause and consider their words amid a heated debate could lead to more civilized conversations. We’ve seen this concept enacted on other social networks, as well — such as with Twitter’s nudges to read articles before retweeting, or those that flag potentially harmful replies, giving you a chance to re-edit your post.
Image Credits: Facebook
Facebook, however, has largely embraced engagement on its platform, even when it’s not leading to positive interactions or experiences. Though small, this particular feature is an admission that building a healthy online community means sometimes people shouldn’t be able to immediately react and comment with whatever thought first popped into their head.
Additionally, Facebook is testing tools that allow admins to temporarily limit activity from certain group members.
If used, admins will be able to determine how many posts (between 1 and 9 posts) per day a given member may share, and for how long that limit should be in effect for (every 12 hours, 24 hours, 3 days, 7 days, 14 days, or 28 days). Admins will also be able to determine how many comments (between 1 and 30 comments, in 5 comment increments) per hour a given member may share, and for how long that limit should be in effect (also every 12 hours, 24 hours, 3 days, 7 days, 14 days, or 28 days).
Along these same lines of building healthier communities, a new member summary feature will give admins an overview of each member’s activity on their group, allowing them to see how many times they’ve posted and commented, have had posts removed, or have been muted.
Image Credits: Facebook
Facebook doesn’t say how admins are to use this new tool, but one could imagine admins taking advantage of the detailed summary to do the occasional cleanup of their member base by removing bad actors who continually disrupt discussions. They could also use it to locate and elevate regulator contributors without violations to moderator roles, perhaps.
Admins will also be able to tag their group rules in comment sections, disallow certain post types (e.g. Polls or Events), and submit an appeal to Facebook to re-review decisions related to group violations, if in error.
Image Credits: Facebook
Of particular interest, though a bit buried amid the slew of other news, is the return of Chats, which was previously announced.
Facebook had abruptly removed Chat functionality back in 2019, possibly due to spam, some had speculated. (Facebook said it was product infrastructure.) As before, Chats can have up to 250 people, including active members and those who opted into notifications from the chats. Once this limit is reached, other members will not be able to engage with that specific chat room until existing active participants either leave the chat or opt out of notifications.
Now, Facebook group members can start, find and engage in Chats with others within Facebook Groups instead of using Messenger. Admins and moderators can also have their own chats.
Social calendar app IRL has been busy building a messaging-based social network, or what founder and CEO Abraham Shafi calls a “WeChat of the West.” Following its pandemic-fueled growth and further push into the social networking space with group chat and other features, IRL is today announcing a sizable $170 million Series C growth round, led by SoftBank’s Vision Fund 2. The fundraise also mints IRL as a new unicorn with a $1.17 billion valuation.
Besides SoftBank, new investor Dragoneer also participated in the oversubscribed round, alongside returning investors Goodwater Capital, Founders Fund and Floodgate. To date, IRL has raised over $200 million.
The startup began its life as a tool for discovering real-world events — an industry that went to zero almost overnight due to the COVID-19 pandemic. That could have been the end for IRL, but the startup quickly pivoted to prioritize discovery of online events instead. Under COVID lockdowns, users could turn to the app to find things like livestreamed concerts, esports events, Zoom parties and more.
Image Credits: IRL
IRL focused on pulling in popular online events from places like Live Nation, Twitch, YouTube, TikTok and others.
As a result, IRL became more accessible because its audience was no longer limited only to those who had time and money to travel to real-world events.
That focus also helped the app to attract a crowd of younger users who are of the generation that doesn’t use Facebook.
“They essentially use Snapchat, Instagram and TikTok,” explains Shafi. “But there is no groups and events product for that generation,” he points out.
Earlier this year, the company doubled down on its social networking features with the launch of a new site that added things like user profiles, support for group chats, the ability to join group events, personalized recommendations and more. As users could now network with friends across both web and mobile, IRL began to feel more like a social network, not just an event-discovery engine.
Image Credits: IRL
Today, IRL has 20 million users and 12 million who use the app monthly, which are not startling numbers in comparison to major social networks and their billions of users. But the numbers are representative of a steady approach that helped IRL grow 400% over the past 15 months, despite COVID’s impact to real-world events.
But as of recently, things are starting to change. In-person events are starting to return. California, the home state for San Francisco-based IRL, is today re-opening, for example. That opens up IRL to once again focus on connecting people not just online, but also “in real life,” as its name implies.
That could mean helping people better connect around events with not just their own friend group, as is often the case today, but helping them discover new groups in their local area or on campus. The company is even planning to use a portion of its fundraise to help fuel the new events economy by allocating a certain amount of money per city that will go toward helping people put on real-world events. The exact details are still being worked out, Shafi says, but says the idea is that IRL wants to help “bring culture back in cities that are opening up again.”
IRL also plans to expand its international footprint by finding ways to bring in non-U.S. users to its platform — possibly beginning with the events focused on watching the Olympics. (If the Games are not again delayed or canceled due to a COVID surge.)
Shafi says IRL hadn’t been planning to fundraise, but they decided to take the meetings when they were approached.
“The philosophy is not to raise when you have to, but to raise when it makes sense. And we were scaling like crazy to the point where our servers were melting. It made sense to take those discussions very seriously when they came to us,” he says.
The addition of SoftBank and Dragoneer brings some expertise in scaling large social networks to the IRL team. SoftBank’s other notable social networking investment is with TikTok owner’s Bytedance, while Dragoneer has backed Snap. IRL has already has a close relationship with TikTok as it’s worked with the video app to pull in interesting events for discovery. It more recently integrated with TikTok’s new “Login Kit,” too, allowing TikTok users to authenticate with IRL using their TikTok credentials.
Now, IRL plans to add an even deeper TikTok integration — something that caught SoftBank’s attention.
Shafi is cagey on the details, but says more will be announced in the “coming weeks.”
“But what I can say is that we’ve seen a ton of growth of TikTok users linking to IRL group chats and IRL events through their TikTok profiles as a way to communicate and go deeper in relationships,” he says. “If you think about it, right now Instagram has really great messaging…whereas TikTok is still developing that,” he hints.
Image Credits: IRL
Beyond its value to growing social networks for the younger, Facebook-less generation, IRL is thinking about how to build a profitable business without ad revenue. On this front, it sees potential in helping people connect through paid events — although these wouldn’t have to be influencer-driven as on other platforms. In fact, when IRL recently piloted paid group chats, users were willing to pay for access to things like a calc homework help group, for example.
IRL also sees demand for tools that help groups and clubs collect membership dues and other fees, as well as for events that are too small for Ticketmaster or Eventbrite.
“Whether we succeed or fail will be based on our ability to execute on our opportunity,” says Shafi, adding that most social networks today are focused on media more so than helping users make connections. “What we’re building isn’t the media part of social, it’s the real human interaction part of social, because that hasn’t been paid attention to as much.”
“We’re building a messaging social network,” he continues, comparing it to the biggest messaging social network in the world, WeChat. “The big vision that we’re going for is building the WeChat of the West — a messaging super social network. And it starts with people organizing groups and doing things together,” he says.
With the additional funding, IRL will invest in product growth, international expansion and its Creator and Culture Fund, and will grow its now 25-person remotely distributed team to 100 by year-end.
“People are increasingly seeking more in-person social connections and are looking to share meaningful experiences together. As an innovative event-based social network, IRL sits at the intersection of group and event discovery, social calendaring, and group messaging, enabling people to do more together,” added Serena Dayal, director at SoftBank Investment Advisers, in a statement about its investment. “We are excited to partner with Abraham and the IRL team to support their ambition of helping everyone deepen their connections to friends and family.”
The Supreme Court has given LinkedIn another chance to stop a rival company from scraping personal information from users’ public profiles, a practice LinkedIn says should be illegal but one that could have broad ramifications for internet researchers and archivists.
LinkedIn lost its case against Hiq Labs in 2019 after the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the CFAA does not prohibit a company from scraping data that is publicly accessible on the internet.
The Microsoft-owned social network argued that the mass scraping of its users’ profiles was in violation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, or CFAA, which prohibits accessing a computer without authorization.
Hiq Labs, which uses public data to analyze employee attrition, argued at the time that a ruling in LinkedIn’s favor “could profoundly impact open access to the Internet, a result that Congress could not have intended when it enacted the CFAA over three decades ago.” (Hiq Labs has also been sued by Facebook, which it claims scraped public data across Facebook and Instagram, but also Amazon Twitter, and YouTube.)
The Supreme Court said it would not take on the case, but instead ordered the appeal’s court to hear the case again in light of its recent ruling, which found that a person cannot violate the CFAA if they improperly access data on a computer they have permission to use.
The CFAA was once dubbed the “worst law” in the technology law books by critics who have long argued that its outdated and vague language failed to keep up with the pace of the modern internet.
Journalists and archivists have long scraped public data as a way to save and archive copies of old or defunct websites before they shut down. But other cases of web scraping have sparked anger and concerns over privacy and civil liberties. In 2019, a security researcher scraped millions of Venmo transactions, which the company does not make private by default. Clearview AI, a controversial facial recognition startup, claimed it scraped over 3 billion profile photos from social networks without their permission.
Security researchers say at-home exercise giant Peloton and its closest rival Echelon were not stripping user-uploaded profile photos of their metadata, in some cases exposing users’ real-world location data.
Almost every file, photo or document contains metadata, which is data about the file itself, such as how big it is, when it was created, and by whom. Photos and video will often also include the location from where they were taken. That location data helps online services tag your photos or videos that you were at this restaurant or that other landmark.
But those online services — especially social platforms, where you see people’s profile photos — are supposed to remove location data from the file’s metadata so other users can’t snoop on where you’ve been, since location data can reveal where you live, work, where you go, and who you see.
Jan Masters, a security researcher at Pen Test Partners, found the metadata exposure as part of a wider look at Peloton’s leaky API. TechCrunch verified the bug by uploading a profile photo with GPS coordinates of our New York office, and checking the metadata of the file while it was on the server.
The bugs were privately reported to both Peloton and Echelon.
Peloton fixed its API issues earlier this month but said it needed more time to fix the metadata bug and to strip existing profile photos of any location data. A Peloton spokesperson confirmed the bugs were fixed last week. Echelon fixed its version of the bug earlier this month. But TechCrunch held this report until we had confirmation that both companies had fixed the bug and that metadata had been stripped from old profile photos.
It’s not known how long the bug existed or if anyone maliciously exploited it to scrape users’ personal information. Any copies, whether cached or scraped, could represent a significant privacy risk to users whose location identifies their home address, workplace, or other private location.
Parler infamously didn’t scrub metadata from user-uploaded photos, which exposed the locations of millions of users when archivists exploited weaknesses on the platform’s API to download its entire contents. Others have been slow to adopt metadata stripping, like Slack, even if it got there in the end.
Life is complicated and so — increasingly — is work-life. That’s the premise underpinning Polywork, a new professional social network founded by Lystable/Kalo founder, Peter Johnson.
It’s announcing a $3.5 million seed round today, led by by Caffeinated Capital’s Ray Tonsing (who it notes was the first investor in Clubhouse, Airtable and Brex), with participation from the founders of YouTube (Steve Chen), Twitch (Kevin Lin), PayPal (Max Levchin), VSCO (Joel Flory), Behance (Scott Belsky), and Worklife VC (Brianne Kimmel) — to name a few of its long list of angels.
Albeit we’ve also learned that his earlier startup, which was focused on tools to help companies manage freelancers and gig workers, is no longer active. Kalo/Lystable has hit the deadpool.
We’re told the founders took the decision to pull the plug after being unable to convince investors to keep supporting the business — which had, presumably, been severely impacted by the pandemic as companies laid off freelancers.
Although, in parallel, VC investment has been flowing into startups building marketplaces to help companies work with external talent (as the remote work boom is clearly driving more flexible ways of working) so it’s not clear where exactly Kalo went wrong — perhaps its focus on management tools was simply being overtaken by more fully featured marketplaces which are baking in the kind of admin support its SaaS offered.
Lystable/Kalo had raised close to $30M over its seven year run, per Crunchbase, including from some of the same investors putting money into Polywork. Though most of the latter’s investors aren’t the same and look to be coming more from the social/entertainment side.
So what is Johnson’s new startup all about? It’s still focused on the world of work. It’s his “moonshot mission” — which, we’re told, has been fed by learnings gleaned from Lystable about creating a professional network.
But if you take a look at the site it’s a lot more Twitter in look and feel than LinkedIn. So the social element is really being put front and center here.
A Polywork profile (Image credits: Polywork)
In short, Polywork sums to a Twitter-style social feed where professionals can post updates about what they’re up to (in work and, if they like, in life too).
Users skills and interests (e.g. “UX design”, “founder”, “dinosaur enthusiast”); personality quirks (“introvert”); and achievements (“life partner”) — or indeed the opposite (“bad golfer”, “failure”) — can be displayed as custom badges at the top of their profile — again with the chance to blend personal and professional to offer a fuller portrait of who you are and what you offer.
In the feed itself, individual posts can be given related tags (e.g. “conducted user research”, which files under “UX Design”) — to illustrate relevant activity. (Clicking on a specific badge shows the sliced view of that user’s related tagged content.)
The result is an interface that feels gamified and informal — where you’re actively encouraged to inject your own personality — but which is simultaneously intended for showing off work activity and achievements.
On the professional networking side, the approach allows users to get a quick visual overview of an individual — perhaps fleshing out some of the dry details they already saw on their LinkedIn account — and quickly navigate to individual examples of specific activity. Recruiters or others looking for professional ice-breakers will probably relish the chance to find more up-to-date material to work with, ahead of making a cold pitch.
Polywork also lets users send collaboration requests to others on the network — aka, its version of LinkedIn’s in-mail. But (thankfully) it looks like users have controls to set whether or not they’re open to receiving such requests or not.
It’s certainly true that home and work have never been so blended as now, given the pandemic-fuelled remote work boom.
At the same time professionals may well — out of necessity — be more focused on the range of skills and interests they have or can acquire, rather than viewing any single job title as defining them, as was true for earlier generations of workers. As the saying goes, there’s no such thing as a ‘job for life’ anymore. Careers paths are complicated, multi-faceted — and, for some, may be more a tapestry, than a linear trajectory.
Polywork’s Millennial-friendly premise is thus to offer a place where people can present a more personal and well-rounded flavor of themselves as professionals and individuals — encompassing not just their skills and work achievements but their passions, quirks and obsessions — showing off a lot more than feels possible (or sensible) in the staid environs of LinkedIn.
That said, LinkedIn isn’t the only place for professionals to express themselves of course; People are already doing that all the time over on social media sites like Twitter (or indeed Instagram for more visually minded professions). Either social network is basically already an informal professional network in its own right — without the need for badges or labels (hashtags do a fairly decent job).
So while Polywork’s product design may look inviting, trying to reinvent the networking wheel is undoubtedly a massive challenge.
It’s not only fighting for attention with boring professional networks like LinkedIn (which everyone loves to hate), it’s treading directly into highly contested social media territory. Er, good luck with that!
Convincing people to duplicate their social networking activity — or indeed ditch their existing hard-won social media networks — looks like a big ask. So the risk is irrelevance, despite a pretty interface. (Sure LinkedIn is boring — but, guys, the whole point is that it’s low maintenance… )
Polywork’s name and philosophy suggests it might be okay with being added to the existing mix of professional and social networks, i.e. rather than replacing either. But, well, a supplementary professional network sounds like a bit of a sideline.
Polywork launched in April but isn’t disclosing user numbers yet — and is currently operating a wait list for sign ups.
Commenting on the seed funding in a statement Caffeinated Capital’s Tonsing said: “There’s a new generation that wants to work and live on their own terms, not destined for a single track identity. The pandemic accelerated this trend and humans are reevaluating who they are and what’s most important to them in life. Polywork will usher in and facilitate this permanent shift in human behavior. We’re excited to partner with Peter again!”
If the Instagram ads feel like they’re closing in and you can’t bring yourself to toggle your Zoom camera on these days, you’re far from alone. Well into 2021, many of the social apps and virtual chat tools that kept the world connected during the pandemic feel more exhausting than the real-life interactions they’re meant to simulate.
But what if hanging out online was… not miserable?
That’s the idea behind Skittish, a virtual browser-based event platform from XOXO co-founder Andy Baio. Skittish is a playful cross between a social audio chat app like Discord or Clubhouse and a cute video game, replete with round, colorful animal avatars to choose from. Unlike a Zoom call, Skittish is a place — one where its inhabitants can bump into one another, do activities together and wait for serendipity to strike.
Skittish is a natural extension of Baio’s interests, a sort of inviting, lightly indie-gamified space where creative people can showcase their work and hang out. “I think I’m just drawn to places where people can be themselves,” Baio told TechCrunch. “With Skittish, it’s been really important to me that people can engage at the level they’re comfortable with.”
Baio has a reputation for curating social spaces, though previously they were mostly IRL. In 2012, Baio co-created XOXO, a whimsical Portland-based festival for quirky people who make stuff. While the festival took a few years off due to Covid, the event lives on in a bustling online community full of indie game devs, offbeat podcasters and digital artists. Prior to XOXO, Baio worked on Kickstarter pre-launch and went on to serve as the crowdfunding site’s first chief technology officer. (Full disclosure: I’m a former XOXO attendee who is part of the community.)
The aptly named Skittish is meant to create an online social space that doesn’t put people on the spot. In Baio’s ideal virtual world, introverts could circle the periphery while extroverts could plunge right in and hold court at the center, just like they might in real life. That range of social styles that isn’t reflected in virtual environments that are either explicitly for work or modeled after work and it’s enough to inspire dread for a lot of people.
For Baio, audio chat hits a sweet spot. Taking the camera out of the equation makes people feel socially fluid, but audio still evokes a degree of social presence that text can’t compete with.
“There’s an assumption in a lot of virtual events that people want to be on camera all the time with strangers, which feels alien to me,” Baio said. “Skittish is audio by default, and uses spatial audio so that you can hear people around you and lurk a little bit before deciding if you want to jump into a conversation. Socializing anywhere, even online, can be really anxiety-inducing.”
Clubhouse might be synonymous with social audio right now, but its structure still doesn’t appeal to everyone. “I like the casual and conversational approach to audio, but [it] just feels like a series of conference panels and needs a strong moderator to be compelling enough to tune in,” Baio said.
In Skittish, walking up to a group of people (animals, really — Skittish users can differentiate themselves by choosing one of more than 75 deeply cute animal avatars) allows you to hear a conversation just like you would in real life. Backing away, you’d hear that chatter fade until eventually it wouldn’t be audible any more. To have a more private side conversation, you and a friend (a crocodile, maybe?) could peel off from a cluster of other people and deepen your chat on a virtual walk.
Inside a Skittish room, event participants can walk around, chat with others over a mic, place virtual objects and even hop through portals to other rooms. Anyone running a Skittish space can stream videos and music from YouTube or Soundcloud to a virtual screen. Event organizers can also broadcast themselves or other speakers to the full room, overriding the normal proximity rules that let you hear what’s around you.
Baio doesn’t imagine Skittish as a persistent social space, but instead wants it to provide a flexible, playful platform for all kinds of events, everything from live podcast readings and tabletop games to larger company events. Baio says the core target audience for Skittish is “anybody with a Patreon,” and larger company events will offset costs for creators who use Skittish to connect with their communities. Anyone hosting an event can choose to either populate a virtual space with pre-designed virtual objects (think pirate ships and giant doughnuts) or dream up their own environment from scratch.
By designing a service that only exists when people need it, he hopes to avoid the harassment and toxicity that abounds on big social networks. Skittish will still pack a set of tools that allow a space’s creator to mute, kick or even ban users, but ideally, it won’t need it.
“I’m a big fan of dark social, in general, where people can feel more like themselves and moderation is much more human and manageable,” Baio said.
Building Skittish and what’s next
The pandemic shed new light on what people really want out of online social spaces. Zoom’s novelty wore off quickly, and by late 2020 group video chat felt like an entrenched fixture of virtual work, not virtual play. It shouldn’t be surprising that a gentle social simulator with light multiplayer features emerged as the game of 2020.
“It’s a bit of a cliché, but Animal Crossing: New Horizons became a reliable escape for me during the pandemic, a daily source of comfort and routine when we couldn’t go outside,” Baio said. He was charmed by his first foray into the series’ famously soothing rhythms and the game helped him envision Skittish.
“… I think what inspired me most were the simplicity of the controls and camera, the overall tone of the game, and the social features, limited as they are,” Baio said. “You’re capped at seven visitors and it takes forever for people to fly in, but despite that, it’s just a joyful experience to have a bunch of people over to your island.”
With the Nintendo Switch sold out everywhere and Animal Crossing racing up the console’s all-time sales charts, it was obvious early on that something resonated. People who wouldn’t normally consider themselves gamers bought Switches and spent hours shaking virtual trees, chatting with squirrels and touring friends’ islands for interior design tips. With Skittish, Baio hopes to capture a little of that same magic.
Games that double as social networks are booming right now — and with good reason. For many people it’s more natural to socialize when you’re ambiently doing something else together, whether that’s teaming up for a Fortnite duo, building a viking longhouse in Valheim or sampling user-built games within Roblox.
Socializing online with avatars also lets you express yourself in a meaningful enough way that Epic built an entire business around it, with sales of skins (virtual outfits) and emotes (dance moves and gestures) making up the lion’s share of Fortnite revenue.
Skittish grew out of a $100,000 grant awarded by Grant For The Web, a fund created by Coil, Mozilla and Creative Commons to support projects that incorporate micropayments for online creators. Baio began prototyping Skittish last July, imagining it as a pop-up space for events rather than a persistent virtual world.
Skittish spaces initially accommodated up to 120 mixed voices in a single room, but the audio capacity is even higher now. Though he’s still testing what the new limits might be, Skittish is getting closer to Baio’s goal of hosting 1000-person events. Skittish rooms can now be password protected, invite-only or public, and Baio imagines special “cozy” 3-5 person spaces in the project’s future.
Skittish will host its first paid events this month as a test, with invites to follow after that. Baio plans to rely on paid events for revenue and he’s on the fence about offering a free tier due to moderation concerns and the costs associated with hosting hundreds of simultaneous conversations between virtual elephants, zebras and raccoons.
I met up with Baio in Skittish to chat about the project and it immediately felt less awkward than a Zoom call or Google Hangout. As a noble trash panda, I followed Baio’s owl around the colorful polygonal virtual set like we might have walked around a park having coffee together.
Skittish looks like a video game and you can move around using WASD if you want, but it’s straightforward enough that anyone can get the hang of it right away. The world’s simple graphical style sets a chill, creative vibe and the avatars even have a gentle idle animation, a kind of bounce that brings your respective elephant, raccoon or zebra to life.
Like experiences I’ve had in a few other innovative avatar-based virtual worlds (AltspaceVR comes to mind), the sense of really being there, just hanging out, feels revelatory. Multiplayer games have been miles ahead of traditional social networks on this phenomenon for ages; it’s no wonder that Fortnite and Minecraft are de facto social networks for a huge swath of younger people. In Skittish, the high quality spatial audio and playful sense of presence offer something similarly transporting.
Virtual owls aside, Baio says says Skittish will be a success when people start make real connections there that follow them beyond the virtual world he’s created.
“Just like the events I’ve run in real life, I’ll know it’s working when I hear stories about people meeting each other in a playful environment and making new friends,” Baio said.