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

By Sarah Perez

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

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

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

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

We made an app called Playbyte that lets you make games on your phone, discover games made by other users, and challenge your friends https://t.co/FFnMbKG1ls pic.twitter.com/eqhabN3kM1

— Playbyte (@PlaybyteInc) May 25, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The cutest lil sprite blob I’ve ever seen 😭#pixelart #gamedev pic.twitter.com/7uBRzs6ix0

— Playbyte (@PlaybyteInc) August 21, 2021

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

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

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

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

The app is a free download on the App Store.

UK now expects compliance with children’s privacy design code

By Natasha Lomas

In the UK, a 12-month grace period for compliance with a design code aimed at protecting children online expires today — meaning app makers offering digital services in the market which are “likely” to be accessed by children (defined in this context as users under 18 years old) are expected to comply with a set of standards intended to safeguard kids from being tracked and profiled.

The age appropriate design code came into force on September 2 last year however the UK’s data protection watchdog, the ICO, allowed the maximum grace period for hitting compliance to give organizations time to adapt their services.

But from today it expects the standards of the code to be met.

Services where the code applies can include connected toys and games and edtech but also online retail and for-profit online services such as social media and video sharing platforms which have a strong pull for minors.

Among the code’s stipulations are that a level of ‘high privacy’ should be applied to settings by default if the user is (or is suspected to be) a child — including specific provisions that geolocation and profiling should be off by default (unless there’s a compelling justification for such privacy hostile defaults).

The code also instructs app makers to provide parental controls while also providing the child with age-appropriate information about such tools — warning against parental tracking tools that could be used to silently/invisibly monitor a child without them being made aware of the active tracking.

Another standard takes aim at dark pattern design — with a warning to app makers against using “nudge techniques” to push children to provide “unnecessary personal data or weaken or turn off their privacy protections”.

The full code contains 15 standards but is not itself baked into legislation — rather it’s a set of design recommendations the ICO wants app makers to follow.

The regulatory stick to make them do so is that the watchdog is explicitly linking compliance with its children’s privacy standards to passing muster with wider data protection requirements that are baked into UK law.

The risk for apps that ignore the standards is thus that they draw the attention of the watchdog — either through a complaint or proactive investigation — with the potential of a wider ICO audit delving into their whole approach to privacy and data protection.

“We will monitor conformance to this code through a series of proactive audits, will consider complaints, and take appropriate action to enforce the underlying data protection standards, subject to applicable law and in line with our Regulatory Action Policy,” the ICO writes in guidance on its website. “To ensure proportionate and effective regulation we will target our most significant powers, focusing on organisations and individuals suspected of repeated or wilful misconduct or serious failure to comply with the law.”

It goes on to warn it would view a lack of compliance with the kids’ privacy code as a potential black mark against (enforceable) UK data protection laws, adding: “If you do not follow this code, you may find it difficult to demonstrate that your processing is fair and complies with the GDPR [General Data Protection Regulation] or PECR [Privacy and Electronics Communications Regulation].”

Tn a blog post last week, Stephen Bonner, the ICO’s executive director of regulatory futures and innovation, also warned app makers: “We will be proactive in requiring social media platforms, video and music streaming sites and the gaming industry to tell us how their services are designed in line with the code. We will identify areas where we may need to provide support or, should the circumstances require, we have powers to investigate or audit organisations.”

“We have identified that currently, some of the biggest risks come from social media platforms, video and music streaming sites and video gaming platforms,” he went on. “In these sectors, children’s personal data is being used and shared, to bombard them with content and personalised service features. This may include inappropriate adverts; unsolicited messages and friend requests; and privacy-eroding nudges urging children to stay online. We’re concerned with a number of harms that could be created as a consequence of this data use, which are physical, emotional and psychological and financial.”

“Children’s rights must be respected and we expect organisations to prove that children’s best interests are a primary concern. The code gives clarity on how organisations can use children’s data in line with the law, and we want to see organisations committed to protecting children through the development of designs and services in accordance with the code,” Bonner added.

The ICO’s enforcement powers — at least on paper — are fairly extensive, with GDPR, for example, giving it the ability to fine infringers up to £17.5M or 4% of their annual worldwide turnover, whichever is higher.

The watchdog can also issue orders banning data processing or otherwise requiring changes to services it deems non-compliant. So apps that chose to flout the children’s design code risk setting themselves up for regulatory bumps or worse.

In recent months there have been signs some major platforms have been paying mind to the ICO’s compliance deadline — with Instagram, YouTube and TikTok all announcing changes to how they handle minors’ data and account settings ahead of the September 2 date.

In July, Instagram said it would default teens to private accounts — doing so for under 18s in certain countries which the platform confirmed to us includes the UK — among a number of other child-safety focused tweaks. Then in August, Google announced similar changes for accounts on its video charing platform, YouTube.

A few days later TikTok also said it would add more privacy protections for teens. Though it had also made earlier changes limiting privacy defaults for under 18s.

Apple also recently got itself into hot water with the digital rights community following the announcement of child safety-focused features — including a child sexual abuse material (CSAM) detection tool which scans photo uploads to iCloud; and an opt in parental safety feature that lets iCloud Family account users turn on alerts related to the viewing of explicit images by minors using its Messages app.

The unifying theme underpinning all these mainstream platform product tweaks is clearly ‘child protection’.

And while there’s been growing attention in the US to online child safety and the nefarious ways in which some apps exploit kids’ data — as well as a number of open probes in Europe (such as this Commission investigation of TikTok, acting on complaints) — the UK may be having an outsized impact here given its concerted push to pioneer age-focused design standards.

The code also combines with incoming UK legislate which is set to apply a ‘duty of care’ on platforms to take a rboad-brush safety-first stance toward users, also with a big focus on kids (and there it’s also being broadly targeted to cover all children; rather than just applying to kids under 13s as with the US’ COPPA, for example).

In the blog post ahead of the compliance deadline expiring, the ICO’s Bonner sought to take credit for what he described as “significant changes” made in recent months by platforms like Facebook, Google, Instagram and TikTok, writing: “As the first-of-its kind, it’s also having an influence globally. Members of the US Senate and Congress have called on major US tech and gaming companies to voluntarily adopt the standards in the ICO’s code for children in America.”

“The Data Protection Commission in Ireland is preparing to introduce the Children’s Fundamentals to protect children online, which links closely to the code and follows similar core principles,” he also noted.

And there are other examples in the EU: France’s data watchdog, the CNIL, looks to have been inspired by the ICO’s approach — issuing its own set of right child-protection focused recommendations this June (which also, for example, encourage app makers to add parental controls with the clear caveat that such tools must “respect the child’s privacy and best interests”).

The UK’s focus on online child safety is not just making waves overseas but sparking growth in a domestic compliance services industry.

Last month, for example, the ICO announced the first clutch of GDPR certification scheme criteria — including two schemes which focus on the age appropriate design code. Expect plenty more.

Bonner’s blog post also notes that the watchdog will formally set out its position on age assurance this autumn — so it will be providing further steerage to organizations which are in scope of the code on how to tackle that tricky piece, although it’s still not clear how hard a requirement the ICO will support, with Bonner suggesting it could be actually “verifying ages or age estimation”. Watch that space. Whatever the recommendations are, age assurance services are set to spring up with compliance-focused sales pitches.

Children’s safety online has been a huge focus for UK policymakers in recent years, although the wider (and long in train) Online Safety (neé Harms) Bill remains at the draft law stage.

An earlier attempt by UK lawmakers to bring in mandatory age checks to prevent kids from accessing adult content websites — dating back to 2017’s Digital Economy Act — was dropped in 2019 after widespread criticism that it would be both unworkable and a massive privacy risk for adult users of porn.

But the government did not drop its determination to find a way to regulate online services in the name of child safety. And online age verification checks look set to be — if not a blanket, hardened requirement for all digital services — increasingly brought in by the backdoor, through a sort of ‘recommended feature’ creep (as the ORG has warned). 

The current recommendation in the age appropriate design code is that app makers “take a risk-based approach to recognising the age of individual users and ensure you effectively apply the standards in this code to child users”, suggesting they: “Either establish age with a level of certainty that is appropriate to the risks to the rights and freedoms of children that arise from your data processing, or apply the standards in this code to all your users instead.” 

At the same time, the government’s broader push on online safety risks conflicting with some of the laudable aims of the ICO’s non-legally binding children’s privacy design code.

For instance, while the code includes the (welcome) suggestion that digital services gather as little information about children as possible, in an announcement earlier this summer UK lawmakers put out guidance for social media platforms and messaging services — ahead of the planned Online Safety legislation — that recommends they prevent children from being able to use end-to-end encryption.

That’s right; the government’s advice to data-mining platforms — which it suggests will help prepare them for requirements in the incoming legislation — is not to use ‘gold standard’ security and privacy (e2e encryption) for kids.

So the official UK government messaging to app makers appears to be that, in short order, the law will require commercial services to access more of kids’ information, not less — in the name of keeping them ‘safe’. Which is quite a contradiction vs the data minimization push on the design code.

The risk is that a tightening spotlight on kids privacy ends up being fuzzed and complicated by ill-thought through policies that push platforms to monitor kids to demonstrate ‘protection’ from a smorgasbord of online harms — be it adult content or pro-suicide postings, or cyber bullying and CSAM.

The law looks set to encourage platforms to ‘show their workings’ to prove compliance — which risks resulting in ever closer tracking of children’s activity, retention of data — and maybe risk profiling and age verification checks (that could even end up being applied to all users; think sledgehammer to crack a nut). In short, a privacy dystopia.

Such mixed messages and disjointed policymaking seem set to pile increasingly confusing — and even conflicting — requirements on digital services operating in the UK, making tech businesses legally responsible for divining clarity amid the policy mess — with the simultaneous risk of huge fines if they get the balance wrong.

Complying with the ICO’s design standards may therefore actually be the easy bit.

 

Move fast and break Facebook: A bull case for antitrust enforcement

By Annie Siebert
Daniel Liss Contributor
Daniel Liss is the founder and CEO of Dispo, the digital disposable camera social network.
More posts by this contributor

This is the second post in a series on the Facebook monopoly. The first post explored how the U.S. Federal Trade Commission should define the Facebook monopoly. I am inspired by Cloudflare’s recent post explaining the impact of Amazon’s monopoly in its 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.


Mark Zuckerberg has reached his Key Largo moment.

In May 1972, executives of the era’s preeminent technology company — AT&T — met at a secret retreat in Key Largo, Florida. Their company was in crisis.

At the time, Ma Bell’s breathtaking monopoly consisted of a holy trinity: Western Electric (the vast majority of phones and cables used for American telephony), the lucrative long distance service (for both personal and business use) and local telephone service, which the company subsidized in exchange for its monopoly.

Over the next decade, all three government branches — legislators, regulators and the courts — parried with AT&T’s lawyers as the press piled on, battering the company’s reputation in the process. By 1982, a consent decree forced AT&T’s dismantling. The biggest company on earth withered to 30% of its book value and seven independent “Baby Bell” regional operating companies. AT&T’s brand would live on, but the business as the world knew it was dead.

Mark Zuckerberg is, undoubtedly, the greatest technologist of our time. For over 17 years, he has outgunned, outsmarted and outperformed like no software entrepreneur before him. Earlier this month, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission refiled its sweeping antitrust case against Facebook.

Its own holy trinity of Facebook Blue, Instagram and WhatsApp is under attack. All three government branches — legislators, regulators and the courts — are gaining steam in their fight, and the press is piling on, battering the company’s reputation in the process. Facebook, the AT&T of our time, is at the brink. For so long, Zuckerberg has told us all to move fast and break things. It’s time for him to break Facebook.

If Facebook does exist to “make the world more open and connected, and not just to build a company,” as Zuckerberg wrote in the 2012 IPO prospectus, he will spin off Instagram and WhatsApp now so that they have a fighting chance. It would be the ultimate Zuckerbergian chess move. Zuckerberg would lose voting control and thus power over all three entities, but in his action he would successfully scatter the opposition. The rationale is simple:

  1. The United States government will break up Facebook. It is not a matter of if; it is a matter of when.
  2. Facebook is already losing. Facebook Blue, Instagram and WhatsApp all face existential threats. Pressure from the government will stifle Facebook’s efforts to right the ship.
  3. Facebook will generate more value for shareholders as three separate companies.

I write this as an admirer; I genuinely believe much of the criticism Zuckerberg has received is unfair. Facebook faces Sisyphean tasks. The FTC will not let Zuckerberg sneeze without an investigation, and the company has failed to innovate.

Given no chance to acquire new technology and talent, how can Facebook survive over the long term? In 2006, Terry Semel of Yahoo offered $1 billion to buy Facebook. Zuckerberg reportedly remarked, “I just don’t know if I want to work for Terry Semel.” Even if the FTC were to allow it, this generation of founders will not sell to Facebook. Unfair or not, Mark Zuckerberg has become Terry Semel.

The government will break up Facebook

It is not a matter of if; it is a matter of when.

In a speech on the floor of Congress in 1890, Senator John Sherman, the founding father of the modern American antitrust movement, famously said, “If we will not endure a king as a political power, we should not endure a king over the production, transportation and sale of any of the necessities of life. If we would not submit to an emperor, we should not submit to an autocrat of trade with power to prevent competition and to fix the price of any commodity.”

This is the sentiment driving the building resistance to Facebook’s monopoly, and it shows no sign of abating. Zuckerberg has proudly called Facebook the fifth estate. In the U.S., we only have four estates.

All three branches of the federal government are heating up their pursuit. In the Senate, an unusual bipartisan coalition is emerging, with Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Mark Warner (D-VA), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Josh Hawley (R-MO) each waging a war from multiple fronts.

In the House, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) has called Facebook “part of the problem.” Lina Khan’s FTC is likewise only getting started, with unequivocal support from the White House that feels burned by Facebook’s disingenuous lobbying. The Department of Justice will join, too, aided by state attorneys general. And the courts will continue to turn the wheels of justice, slowly but surely.

In the wake of Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes’ scathing 2019 New York Times op-ed, Zuckerberg said that Facebook’s immense size allows it to spend more on trust and safety than Twitter makes in revenue.

“If what you care about is democracy and elections, then you want a company like us to be able to invest billions of dollars per year like we are in building up really advanced tools to fight election interference,” Zuckerberg said.

This could be true, but it does not prove that the concentration of such power in one man’s hands is consistent with U.S. public policy. And the centralized operations could be rebuilt easily in standalone entities.

Time and time again, whether on Holocaust denial, election propaganda or vaccine misinformation, Zuckerberg has struggled to make quick judgments when presented with the information his trust and safety team uncovers. And even before a decision is made, the structure of the team disincentivizes it from even measuring anything that could harm Facebook’s brand. This is inherently inconsistent with U.S. democracy. The New York Times’ army of reporters will not stop uncovering scandal after scandal, contradicting Zuckerberg’s narrative. The writing is on the wall.

Facebook is losing

Facebook Blue, Instagram and WhatsApp all face existential threats. Pressure from the government will stifle Facebook’s efforts to right the ship.

For so long, Facebook has dominated the social media industry. But if you ask Chinese technology executives about Facebook today, they quote Tencent founder Pony Ma: “When a giant falls, his corpse will still be warm for a while.”

Facebook’s recent demise begins with its brand. The endless, cascading scandals of the last decade have irreparably harmed its image. Younger users refuse to adopt the flagship Facebook Blue. The company’s internal polling on two key metrics — good for the world (GFW) and cares about users (CAU) — shows Facebook’s reputation is in tatters. Talent is fleeing, too; Instacart alone recently poached 55 Facebook executives.

In 2012 and 2014, Instagram and WhatsApp were real dangers. Facebook extinguished both through acquisition. Yet today they represent the company’s two most promising, underutilized assets. They are the underinvested telephone networks of our time.

Weeks ago, Instagram head Adam Mosseri announced that the company no longer considers itself a photo-sharing app. Instead, its focus is entertainment. In other words, as the media widely reported, Instagram is changing to compete with TikTok.

TikTok’s strength represents an existential threat. U.S. children 4 to 15 already spend over 80 minutes a day on ByteDance’s TikTok, and it’s just getting started. The demographics are quickly expanding way beyond teenagers, as social products always have. For Instagram, it could be too little too late — as a part of Facebook, Instagram cannot acquire the technology and retain the talent it needs to compete with TikTok.

Imagine Instagram acquisitions of Squarespace to bolster its e-commerce offerings, or Etsy to create a meaningful marketplace. As a part of Facebook, Instagram is strategically adrift.

Likewise, a standalone WhatsApp could easily be a $100 billion market cap company. WhatsApp has a proud legacy of robust security offerings, but its brand has been tarnished by associations with Facebook. Discord’s rise represents a substantial threat, and WhatsApp has failed to innovate to account for this generation’s desire for community-driven messaging. Snapchat, too, is in many ways a potential WhatsApp killer; its young users use photography and video as a messaging medium. Facebook’s top augmented reality talents are leaving for Snapchat.

With 2 billion monthly active users, WhatApp could be a privacy-focused alternative to Facebook Blue, and it would logically introduce expanded profiles, photo-sharing capabilities and other features that would strengthen its offerings. Inside Facebook, WhatsApp has suffered from underinvestment as a potential threat to Facebook Blue and Messenger. Shareholders have suffered for it.

Beyond Instagram and WhatsApp, Facebook Blue itself is struggling. Q2’s earnings may have skyrocketed, but the increase in revenue hid a troubling sign: Ads increased by 47%, but inventory increased by just 6%. This means Facebook is struggling to find new places to run its ads. Why? The core social graph of Facebook is too old.

I fondly remember the day Facebook came to my high school; I have thousands of friends on the platform. I do not use Facebook anymore — not for political reasons, but because my friends have left. A decade ago, hundreds of people wished me happy birthday every year. This year it was 24, half of whom are over the age of 50. And I’m 32 years old. Teen girls run the social world, and many of them don’t even have Facebook on their phones.

Zuckerberg’s newfound push into the metaverse has been well covered, but the question remains: Why wouldn’t a Facebook serious about the metaverse acquire Roblox? Of course, the FTC would currently never allow it.

Facebook’s current clunky attempt at a hardware solution, with an emphasis on the workplace, shows little sign of promise. The launch was hardly propitious, as CNN reported, “While Bosworth, the Facebook executive, was in the middle of describing how he sees Workrooms as a more interactive way to gather virtually with coworkers than video chat, his avatar froze midsentence, the pixels of its digital skin turning from flesh-toned to gray. He had been disconnected.”

This is not the indomitable Facebook of yore. This is graying Facebook, freezing midsentence.

Facebook will generate more value for shareholders as three separate companies

Zuckerberg’s control of 58% of Facebook’s voting shares has forestalled a typical Wall Street reckoning: Investors are tiring of Zuckerberg’s unilateral power. Many justifiably believe the company is more valuable as the sum of its parts. The success of AT&T’s breakup is a case in point.

Five years after AT&T’s 1984 breakup, AT&T and the Baby Bells’ value had doubled compared to AT&T’s pre-breakup market capitalization. Pressure from Japanese entrants battered Western Electric’s market share, but greater competition in telephony spurred investment and innovation among the Baby Bells.

AT&T turned its focus to competing with IBM and preparing for the coming information age. A smaller AT&T became more nimble, ready to focus on the future rather than dwell on the past.

Standalone Facebook Blue, Instagram and WhatsApp could drastically change their futures by attracting talent and acquiring new technologies.

The U.K.’s recent opposition to Facebook’s $400 million GIPHY acquisition proves Facebook will struggle mightily to acquire even small bolt-ons.

Zuckerberg has always been one step ahead. And when he wasn’t, he was famously unprecious: “Copying is faster than innovating.” If he really believes in Facebook’s mission and recognizes that the situation cannot possibly get any better from here, he will copy AT&T’s solution before it is forced upon him.

Regulators are tying Zuckerberg’s hands behind his back as the company weathers body blows and uppercuts from Beijing to Silicon Valley. As Zuckerberg’s idol Augustus Caesar might have once said, carpe diem. It’s time to break Facebook.

Popcorn’s new app brings short-form video to the workplace

By Sarah Perez

A new startup called Popcorn wants to make work communication more fun and personal by offering a way for users to record short video messages, or “pops,” that can be used for any number of purposes in place of longer emails, texts, Slack messages or Zoom calls. While there are plenty of other places to record short-form video these days, most of these exist in the social media space, which isn’t appropriate for a work environment. Nor does it make sense to send a video you’ve recorded on your phone as an email attachment, when you really just want to check in with a colleague or say hello.

Popcorn, on the other hand, lets you create the short video and then send a URL to that video anywhere you would want to add a personal touch to your message.

For example, you could use Popcorn in a business networking scenario, where you’re trying to connect with someone in your industry for the first time — aka “cold outreach.” Instead of just blasting them a message on LinkedIn, you could also paste in the Popcorn URL to introduce yourself in a more natural, friendly fashion. You also could use Popcorn with your team at work for things like daily check-ins, sharing progress on an ongoing project or to greet new hires, among other things.

Image Credits: Popcorn

Videos themselves can be up to 60 seconds in length — a time limit designed to keep Popcorn users from rambling. Users also can opt to record audio only if they don’t want to appear on video. And you can increase the playback speed if you’re in a hurry. Users who want to receive “pops” could also advertise their “popcode” (e.g. try mine at U8696).

The idea to bring short-form video to the workplace comes from Popcorn co-founder and CEO Justin Spraggins, whose background is in building consumer apps. One of his first apps to gain traction back in 2014 was a Tinder-meets-Instagram experience called Looksee that allowed users to connect around shared photos. A couple years later, he co-founded a social calling app called Unmute, a Clubhouse precursor of sorts. He then went on to co-found 9 Count, a consumer app development shop which launched more social apps like BFF (previously Wink) and Juju.

9 Count’s lead engineer, Ben Hochberg, is now also a co-founder on Popcorn (or rather, Snack Break, Inc. as the legal entity is called). They began their work on Popcorn in 2020, just after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. But the rapid shift to remote work in the days that followed could now help Popcorn gain traction among distributed teams. Today’s remote workers may never again return to in-person meetings at the office, but they’re also growing tired of long days stuck in Zoom meetings.

With Popcorn, the goal is to make work communication fun, personal and bite-sized, Spraggins says. “[We want to] bring all the stuff we’re really passionate about in consumer social into work, which I think is really important for us now,” he explains.

“You work with these people, but how do you — without scheduling a Zoom — how do you bring the ‘human’ to it?,” Spraggins says. “I’m really excited about making work products feel more social, more like Snapchat than utility tools.”

There is a lot Popcorn would still need to figure out to truly make a business-oriented social app work, including adding enhanced security, limiting spam, offering some sort of reporting flow for bad actors, and more. It will also eventually need to land on a successful revenue model.

Currently, Popcorn is a free download on iPhone, iPad and Mac, and offers a Slack integration so you can send video messages to co-workers directly in the communication software you already use to catch up and stay in touch. The app today is fairly simple, but the company plans to enhance its short videos over time using AR frames that let users showcase their personalities.

The startup raised a $400,000 pre-seed round from General Catalyst (Nico Bonatsos) and Dream Machine (Alexia Bonatsos, previously editor-in-chief at TechCrunch.) Spraggins says the company will be looking to raise a seed round in the fall to help with hires, including in the AR space.

Romanian marketing expert Robert Katai explains how to get the most out of your content

By Anna Heim

There’s a lot of advice out there on how to grab people’s attention, but there’s one aspect of marketing that Robert Katai thinks isn’t talked about as often: maintaining their attention. The solution, he says, is a combination of content strategy and positioning.

Based in Romania, Katai is known for his podcasts and speeches covering the gamut of content marketing. A product manager at online graphic design platform Creatopy, he also works with clients as a freelance content strategist, and it is in this capacity that he was recommended to TechCrunch via our growth marketer survey. (If you have growth marketers to recommend, please fill out the survey!)

Katai was recommended by multiple Romanian clients and contacts who vouched for his content strategy prowess, so we were curious to know more. Who is he? And is his advice applicable beyond borders?

The short answer is yes. In a freewheeling interview, Katai spoke about how content marketing should integrate with users’ daily lives, and how content can be repurposed across multiple formats. He also shared some insights on the booming Romanian startup ecosystem.

Editor’s note: The interview below has been edited for length and clarity.

TC: How do you help your clients as a freelancer?

Robert Katai: One of the two things I’m doing is that I’m helping clients with creating their content strategy based on their objective. You can get web traffic, but you can also create a message and build the brand. You don’t have to start at the beginning; You can rebuild the brand later.

For instance, I’m working with a Romanian outsourcing company that started in 1993. They pioneered this industry in our city of Cluj-Napoca, but lately they started to realize that they should be more attractive from a sales as well as from an employee perspective. So I worked with them to perform an internal audit to see why employees love the company, why they leave, why they stay and what they want from the company.

Robert Katai

Image Credits: Robert Katai.

From there, I got to the idea that they needed to reshape their brand to not just have people notice them but to also maintain their attention. And here comes the content: I started an ambassador program, because there are people outside of the company who love it.

I also recommended they create an internal print magazine. It’s a very well-designed magazine that their 200 to 300 employees can take home and read. It’s not just about the job; it’s also about their hobbies, things to do in the city and some thought leadership articles that can inspire them to have a better life.

What’s the second way you are helping clients?

Apart from content strategy, I’m working with clients on their positioning for their audience, community and market, but also sometimes in terms of employer branding. Content can be a bridge between the two ways I am helping clients, because I’m using a lot of content marketing here and not focusing only on performance or growth marketing hacks. I’m helping them understand that if they want to establish a memorable, long-lasting brand in the market, they have to make content marketing part of their life.

If they want to reposition themselves in the industry, they need to say: Okay, these are the kinds of content we have to create for our goals; who will amplify the content, who will connect with us, and who will consume the content. Today, content creation is free — everybody can do it. The hard part is how you distribute and amplify that. And here’s how I can help the startups: Make a big piece of content and repurpose it in several small pieces; get it in front of people so that the brand is on their minds.


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How can brands achieve that top-of-mind status?

We all know that there are four kinds of content: Text, video, pictures and audio. These four formats never die. The platform can change, but the format will stay the same. A video can be an Instagram Reel, a documentary or something else, but it’s a video. The same goes for a photo. So the content strategy I’m working with is how brands can use that content ecosystem.

When I work with my clients — and also with Creatopy where I’m a product marketer — I recommend them to use content to build their brand and be visible to their users every day in their feeds. Every morning, when their customers are waking up and checking their phones, they don’t open a newspaper. They will open Twitter, Instagram or Facebook, and maybe then when they get out of the bathroom and make coffee, they will open YouTube and connect with Alexa.

I really believe that brands should create content that can just be in the mind of the user. Snackable content, Reels, TikTok … It doesn’t matter what we call it.

You also talked about repurposing content. Can you explain that?

Let’s take the interview you’ve done with Peep Laja. You could have recorded it as a video. And he covered several topics, so you could have several short videos — 30 seconds, three minutes, whatever. You can publish them daily on your site or social media channels with a comment that says, “Here’s the link to the full article.” But remember that on LinkedIn, that link will need to go into the comments section, not the post itself.

You can also have a longer video that you can publish on social media or on Wistia, asking people to give their email — so now you also have subscribers.

Then the second type of content you can create is audio. You already have it from the recording. You don’t have to publish the full 45-minute conversation, but you can have a five-minute audio clip, and again link to the articles.

Now we have video and audio, but what if you also designed quotes with his headshot and messaging? If it’s part of a series, you should also give it a name.

And it’s not just motivational; it’s educational, too, so you should take these quotes and create carousels for Instagram and LinkedIn. The first slide should grab attention — it can be a question. The second slide can be a link to the interview so that even if people don’t click it, it will be on their minds. Then you can have slides with insights.

The last slide will always be a call to action: Asking people to share, comment or save it for later — it’s the new currency on Instagram! And once you have your Instagram carousel, you create a PDF and publish it on LinkedIn.

So now you have five formats of content from one piece of content.

Wow, how much do we owe you?! Just kidding, we actually do some of that for the Equity podcast, for instance. Now, what other advice do you have for startups?

I’m a big advocate of documenting the process. Just imagine if Mark Zuckerberg had done that and you could read how he launched Facebook and so on. Noah Kagan is doing that right now. I think startup founders should do it, not just from the PR and marketing perspective, but for their audience. Even if your audience is not paying for your product right now, they are staying with you and giving your brand an essence in the industry.

Just think about what Salesforce is doing right now: They launched Salesforce+, which is like Netflix for B2B. It’s to get the attention of professionals and also maintain it, and I believe this is the currency of the big companies today: People’s attention.

Do you work with any startups in Romania? And do you have any impressions to share on the Romanian startup ecosystem?

Yes, I help a few Romanian startups with their content marketing and positioning. Sometimes other startups email me with questions, so I help them, too, but I don’t charge for email advice. I work with the ones that are looking for a long-term or project-based collaboration.

Startup founders here in Romania are curious, and very courageous to experiment even if it won’t necessarily work. And Romanian startups are very smart. For instance, Planable is doing a great job with content, social media and positioning. We also have social media analytics company Socialinsider, which this year launched virtual events, and TypingDNA, which wants to get rid of needing to log in with passwords and was founded by a former colleague.

I also found that the founders here work harder than their teams and don’t just leave others do the work — at least the ones I have met. We have several startup events in Romania: How to Web, and Techsylvania here in Transylvania.

I don’t like this name, but people say that Cluj-Napoca is the “Silicon Valley of Romania.” Lots of startups have been launched here, but the city that is getting more and more traction is Oradea, where the bet on education is paying off.

(If you are a tech startup founder or investor in Cluj or Oradea, fill in TechCrunch’s European Cities Survey 2021.)

Messenger celebrates its 10th anniversary with new features and a plan to become the ‘connective tissue’ for real-time experiences

By Amanda Silberling

To celebrate its ten year anniversary, Messenger today announced a handful of new features: poll games, word effects, contact sharing, and birthday gifting via Facebook Pay. But beyond the fun features, Facebook has been testing a way to add voice and video calls back into the Facebook app, rather than on Messenger.

“We are testing audio and video calls within the Facebook app messaging experience so people can make and receive calls regardless of which app they’re using,” a representative from Facebook told TechCrunch. “This will give people on Facebook easy ways to connect with their communities where they already are.”

Although earlier in Facebook history, the Messenger app had operated as a standalone experience, Facebook tells us that it’s now starting to see Messenger less as a separate entity — more of an underlying technology that can help to power many of the new experiences Facebook is now developing.

“We’ve been focused more on real-time experiences — Watch Together, Rooms, Live Audio Rooms — and we’ve started to think of Messenger as a connective tissue regardless of the surface,” a Facebook spokesperson told us.  “This is a test, but the bigger vision is for us to unlock content and communities that may not be accessible in Messenger, and that the Facebook app is going to become more about shared real-time experiences,” they added.

Given the company’s move in recent months to integrate its underlying communication infrastructure, it should come to reason that Facebook would ultimately add more touchpoints for accessing its new Messenger-powered features inside the desktop app, as well. When asked for comment on this point, the spokesperson said the company didn’t have any details to share at this time. However, they noted that the test is a part of Facebook’s broader vision to enable more real-time experiences across Facebook’s services.

Despite the new integrations, the standalone version of Messenger isn’t going away.

Facebook says that people who want a more “full-featured” messaging, audio and video calling experience” should continue to use Messenger.

Image Credits: Messenger

As for today’s crop of new features — including polls, word effects, contact sharing, and others — the goal is to  celebrate Messenger’s ability to keep people in touch with their family a friends.

To play the new poll games, users can tap “Polls” in their group chat and select the “Most Likely To” tab — then, they can choose from questions like “most likely to miss their flight?” or “most likely to give gifts on their own birthday?”, select names of chat participants to be included as potential answers, and send the poll.

Contact sharing will make it easier to share others’ Facebook contacts through Messenger, while birthday gifting lets users send birthday-themed payments on Messenger via Facebook Pay. There will also be other “birthday expression tools,” including a birthday song soundmoji, “Messenger is 10!” sticker pack, a new balloon background, a message effect, and AR effect to celebrate Messenger’s double-digit milestone.

Image Credits: Messenger

Meanwhile, word effects lets users manually input a phrase, and any time they send a message with that phrase, an accompanying emoji will float across the screen. In an example, Messenger showed the phrase “happy birthday” accompanied with a word effect of confetti emojis flooding the screen. (That one’s pretty tame, but this could be a remarkable application of the poop emoji.) The company only shared a “sneak peak” of this feature, as it’s not rolling out immediately.

In total, Facebook is announcing a total of ten features, most of which will begin rolling out today.

Messenger has come a long way over the past decade.

Ten years ago, Facebook acqui-hired a small group messaging start-up called Beluga, started by three former Google employees (apparently, a functional group thread was a white whale back then — simpler times). Several months later, the company unveiled Messenger, a standalone messaging app.

But three years into Messenger’s existence, it was no longer an optional add-on to the Facebook experience, but a mandatory download for anyone who wanted to keep up with their friends on the go. Facebook removed the option to send messages within its flagship app, directing users to use Messenger instead. Facebook’s reasoning behind this, the company told TechCrunch at the time, was that they wanted to eliminate the confusion of having two different mobile messaging systems. Just months earlier, Facebook had spent $19 billion to acquire WhatsApp and woo international users. Though removing Messenger from the Facebook app was controversial, the app reached 1.2 billion users three years later in 2017.

Today, Facebook has declared that it wants to evolve into a “metaverse” company, and on the same day as the anti-trust filing last week, Mark Zuckerberg unveiled a product that applies virtual reality in an impressively boring way: helping people attend work meetings. This metaverse would be enabled by technologies built by Facebook’s platform team, noted Vice President of Messenger Stan Chudnovsky. However, he added that people in the metaverse will still need platforms like Messenger.

“I don’t think messaging is going anywhere, even in the metaverse, because a asynchronous communication is going to continue to exist,” Chudnovsky said. People will still need to send messages to those who aren’t currently available to chat, he explained. Plus, Chudnovsky believes this sort of communication will become even more popular with the launch of the metaverse, as the technology will help to serve as a bridge between your phone, real life, and the metaverse.

“if anything is gonna happen more, not less. Because messaging is that things that just continues to grow with every new platform leap,” he said.

Additional reporting: Sarah Perez

Instagram is ditching ‘swipe-up’ links in favor of stickers

By Sarah Perez

Instagram is ditching the “swipe-up” link in Instagram Stories starting on August 30. The popular feature has historically allowed businesses and high-profile creators a way to direct their Story’s viewers to a website where they could learn more about a product, read an article, sign-up for a service, or do anything else the creator wanted to promote. In place of the “swipe up” call-to-action, Instagram users who previously had access to the feature will instead be able to use the new Link Sticker, the company says.

This sticker had been in testing starting in June with a small handful of users, the company said. But on August 30, it will begin to roll out more broadly.

App researcher Jane Manchun Wong first noticed the announcement which warned creators of the plan to shut down swipe-up links.

IG said the swipe up links will go away starting from Aug 30 and that I should use the “link sticker”

… but I searched my Stories Sticker sheet and I’m not seeing the link sticker at all (not rolled out to me).

Does that mean I’ll lose the ability to add links to my Stories?

— Jane Manchun Wong (@wongmjane) August 23, 2021

Instagram says it will begin to convert those who currently have access to the swipe-up link to the Link Sticker starting on August 30, 2021. This will include businesses and creators who are either verified or who have met the threshold for follower count. (While Instagram doesn’t publicly comment on this count, it’s widely reported to be at least 10,000 followers.)

The new Link Sticker has a couple of key advantages over the older “swipe-up” link.

For starters, it offers greater creator control over their Stories.

Like polls, questions and location stickers, the Link Sticker lets creators toggle between different styles, resize the sticker, and then place it anywhere on the Story for maximum engagement. In addition, viewers will now be able to react and reply to posts that have the Link Sticker attached, just like any other Story. Before, that sort of feedback wasn’t possible on posts with the swipe-up link, Instagram noted.

While there isn’t a change to who will gain access to the Link Sticker for now, Instagram says it’s evaluating whether or not to expand link access to more accounts in the future. The decision to expand access is one that has to be made carefully, however, as it could impact the app’s integrity and safety. For instance, if Link Sticker were to be adopted by bad actors, it could be used to spread misinformation or post spam. The shift to the Link Sticker is the first step in making it possible to broaden access to link sharing in Stories, if Instagram chooses to go that route.

Overall, the move away from a gesture to sticker is more in line with Instagram’s current creative direction, where interactive features are added to posts in the form of stickers. The new Link Sticker will join others already available in the app, including stickers for donations, music, and polls.

This Week in Apps: OnlyFans bans sexual content, SharePlay delayed, TikTok questioned over biometric data collection

By Sarah Perez

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

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

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

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

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

Top Stories

OnlyFans to ban sexually explicit content

OnlyFans logo displayed on a phone screen and a website

(Photo Illustration by Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Creator platform OnlyFans is getting out of the porn business. The company announced this week it will begin to prohibit any “sexually explicit” content starting on October 1, 2021 — a decision it claimed would ensure the long-term sustainability of the platform. The news angered a number of impacted creators who weren’t notified ahead of time and who’ve come to rely on OnlyFans as their main source of income.

However, word is that OnlyFans was struggling to find outside investors, despite its sizable user base, due to the adult content it hosts. Some VC firms are prohibited from investing in adult content businesses, while others may be concerned over other matters — like how NSFW content could have limited interest from advertisers and brand partners. They may have also worried about OnlyFans’ ability to successfully restrict minors from using the app, in light of what appears to be soon-to-come increased regulations for online businesses. Plus, porn companies face a number of other issues, too. They have to continually ensure they’re not hosting illegal content like child sex abuse material, revenge porn or content from sex trafficking victims — the latter which has led to lawsuits at other large porn companies.

The news followed a big marketing push for OnlyFans’ porn-free (SFW) app, OFTV, which circulated alongside reports that the company was looking to raise funds at a $1 billion+ valuation. OnlyFans may not have technically needed the funding to operate its current business — it handled more than $2 billion in sales in 2020 and keeps 20%. Rather, the company may have seen there’s more opportunity to cater to the “SFW” creator community, now that it has big names like Bella Thorne, Cardi B, Tyga, Tyler Posey, Blac Chyna, Bhad Bhabie and others on board.

U.S. lawmakers demand info on TikTok’s plans for biometric data collection

The TikTok logo is seen on an iPhone 11 Pro max

The TikTok logo is seen on an iPhone 11 Pro max. Image Credits: Nur Photo/Getty Images

U.S. lawmakers are challenging TikTok on its plans to collect biometric data from its users. TechCrunch first reported on TikTok’s updated privacy policy in June, where the company gave itself permission to collect biometric data in the U.S., including users’ “faceprints and voiceprints.” When reached for comment, TikTok could not confirm what product developments necessitated the addition of biometric data to its list of disclosures about the information it automatically collects from users, but said it would ask for consent in the case such data collection practices began.

Earlier this month, Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and John Thune (R-SD) sent a letter to TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew, which said they were “alarmed” by the change, and demanded to know what information TikTok will be collecting and what it plans to do with the data. This wouldn’t be the first time TikTok got in trouble for excessive data collection. Earlier this year, the company paid out $92 million to settle a class-action lawsuit that claimed TikTok had unlawfully collected users’ biometric data and shared it with third parties.

Weekly News

Platforms: Apple

Image Credits: Apple

  • ⭐ Apple told developers that some of the features it announced as coming in iOS 15 won’t be available at launch. This includes one of the highlights of the new OS, SharePlay, a feature that lets people share music, videos and their screen over FaceTime calls. Other features that will come in later releases include Wallet’s support for ID cards, the App Privacy report and others that have yet to make it to beta releases.
  • Apple walked back its controversial Safari changes with the iOS 15 beta 6 update. Apple’s original redesign had shown the address bar at the bottom of the screen, floating atop the page’s content. Now the tab bar will appear below the page’s content, offering access to its usual set of buttons as when it was at the top. Users can also turn off the bottom tab bar now and revert to the old, Single Tab option that puts the address bar back at the top as before.
  • In response to criticism over its new CSAM detection technology, Apple said the version of NeuralHash that was reverse-engineered by a developer, Asuhariet Ygvar, was a generic version, and not the complete version that will roll out later this year.
  • The Verge dug through over 800 documents from the Apple-Epic trial to find the best emails, which included dirt on a number of other companies like Netflix, Hulu, Sony, Google, Nintendo, Valve, Microsoft, Amazon and more. These offered details on things like Netflix’s secret arrangement to pay only 15% of revenue, how Microsoft also quietly offers a way for some companies to bypass its full cut, how Apple initially saw the Amazon Appstore as a threat and more.

Platforms: Google

  • A beta version of the Android Accessibility Suite app (12.0.0) which rolled out with the fourth Android beta release added something called “Camera Switches” to Switch Access, a toolset that lets you interact with your device without using the touchscreen. Camera Switches allows users to navigate their phone and use its features by making face gestures, like a smile, open mouth, raised eyebrows and more.
  • Google announced its Pixel 5a with 5G, the latest A-series Pixel phone, will arrive on August 27, offering IP67 water resistance, long-lasting Adaptive Battery, Pixel’s dual-camera system and more, for $449. The phone makes Google’s default Android experience available at a lower price point than the soon to arrive Pixel 6.
  • An unredacted complaint from the Apple-Epic trial revealed that Google had quietly paid developers hundreds of millions of dollars via a program known as “Project Hug,” (later “Apps and Games Velocity Program”) to keep their games on the Play Store. Epic alleges Google launched the program to keep developers from following its lead by moving their games outside the store.

Augmented Reality

  • Snap on Thursday announced it hired its first VP of Platform Partnerships to lead AR, Konstantinos Papamiltiadis (“KP”). The new exec will lead Snap’s efforts to onboard partners, including individual AR creators building via Lens Studio as well as large companies that incorporate Snapchat’s camera and AR technology (Camera Kit) into their apps. KP will join in September, and report to Ben Schwerin, SVP of Content and Partnerships.

Fintech

  • Crypto exchange Coinbase will enter the Japanese market through a new partnership with Japanese financial giant Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group (MUFG). The company said it plans to launch other localized versions of its existing global services in the future.

Social

Image Credits: Facebook

  • Facebook launched a “test” of Facebook Reels in the U.S. on iOS and Android. The new feature brings the Reels experience to Facebook, allowing users to create and share short-form video content directly within the News Feed or within Facebook Groups. Instagram Reels creators can also now opt in to have their Reels featured on users’ News Feed. The company is heavily investing its its battle with TikTok, even pledging that some portion of its $1 billion creator fund will go toward Facebook Reels.
  • Twitter’s redesign of its website and app was met with a lot of backlash from users and accessibility experts alike. The company choices add more visual contrast between various elements and may have helped those with low vision. But for others, the contrast is causing strain and headaches. Experts believe accessibility isn’t a one-size fits all situation, and Twitter should have introduced tools that allowed people to adjust their settings to their own needs.
  • The pro-Trump Twitter alternative Gettr’s lack of moderation has allowed users to share child exploitation images, according to research from the Stanford Internet Observatory’s Cyber Policy Center.
  • Pinterest rolled out a new set of more inclusive search filters that allow people to find styles for different types of hair textures — like coily, curly, wavy, straight, as well as shaved or bald and protective styles. 

Photos

  • Photoshop for iPad gained new image correction tools, including the Healing Brush and Magic Wand, and added support for connecting an iPad to external monitors via HDMI or USB-C. The company also launched a Photoshop Beta program on the desktop.

Messaging

  • WhatsApp is being adopted by the Taliban to spread its message across Afghanistan, despite being on Facebook’s list of banned organizations. The company says it’s proactively removing Taliban content — but that may be difficult to do since WhatsApp’s E2E encryption means it can’t read people’s texts. This week, Facebook shut down a Taliban helpline in Kabul, which allowed civilians to report violence and looting, but some critics said this wasn’t actually helping local Afghans, as the group was now in effect governing the region.
  • WhatsApp is also testing a new feature that will show a large preview when sharing links, which some suspect may launch around the time when the app adds the ability to have the same account running on multiple devices.

Streaming & Entertainment

  • Netflix announced it’s adding spatial audio support on iPhone and iPad on iOS 14, joining other streamers like HBO Max, Disney+ and Peacock that have already pledged to support the new technology. The feature will be available to toggle on and off in the Control Center, when it arrives.
  • Blockchain-powered streaming music service Audius partnered with TikTok to allow artists to upload their songs using TikTok’s new SoundKit in just one click.
  • YouTube’s mobile app added new functionality that allows users to browse a video’s chapters, and jump into the chapter they want directly from the search page.
  • Spotify’s Anchor app now allows users in global markets to record “Music + Talk” podcasts, where users can combine spoken word recordings with any track from Spotify’s library of 70 million songs for a radio DJ-like experience.
  • Podcasters are complaining that Apple’s revamped Podcasts platform is not working well, reports The Verge. Podcasts Connect has been buggy, and sports a confusing interface that has led to serious user errors (like entire shows being archived). And listeners have complained about syncing problems and podcasts they already heard flooding their libraries.

Dating

  • Tinder announced a new feature that will allow users to voluntarily verify their identity on the platform, which will allow the company to cross-reference sex offender registry data. Previously, Tinder would only check this database when a user signed up for a paid subscription with a credit card.

Gaming

Image Source: The Pokémon Company

  • Pokémon Unite will come to iOS and Android on September 22, The Pokémon Company announced during a livestream this week. The strategic battle game first launched on Nintendo Switch in late July.
  • Developer Konami announced a new game, Castlevania: Grimoire of Souls, which will come exclusively to Apple Arcade. The game is described as a “full-fledged side-scrolling action game,” featuring a roster of iconic characters from the classic game series. The company last year released another version of Castelvania on the App Store and Google Play.
  • Dragon Ball Z: Dokkan Battle has now surpassed $3 billion in player spending since its 2015 debut, reported Sensor Tower. The game from Bandai Namco took 20 months to reach the figure after hitting the $2 billion milestone in 2019. The new landmark sees the game joining other top-grossers, including Clash Royale, Lineage M and others.
  • Sensor Tower’s mobile gaming advertising report revealed data on top ad networks in the mobile gaming market, and their market share. It also found puzzle games were among the top advertisers on gaming-focused networks like Chartboost, Unity, IronSource and Vungle. On less game-focused networks, mid-core games were top titles, like Call of Duty: Mobile and Top War. 

Image Credits: Sensor Tower

Health & Fitness

  • Apple is reportedly scaling back HealthHabit, an internal app for Apple employees that allowed them to track fitness goals, talk to clinicians and coaches at AC Wellness (a doctors’ group Apple works with) and manage hypertension. According to Insider, 50 employees had been tasked to work on the project.
  • Samsung launched a new product for Galaxy smartphones in partnership with healthcare nonprofit The Commons Project, that allows U.S. users to save a verifiable copy of their vaccination card in the Samsung Pay digital wallet.

Image Credits: Samsung

Adtech

Government & Policy

  • China cited 43 apps, including Tencent’s WeChat and an e-reader from Alibaba, for illegally transferring user data. The regulator said the apps had transferred users location data and contact list and harassed them with pop-up windows. The apps have until August 25 to make changes before being punished.

Security & Privacy

  • A VICE report reveals a fascinating story about a jailbreaking community member who had served as a double agent by spying for Apple’s security team. Andrey Shumeyko, whose online handles included JVHResearch and YRH04E, would advertise leaked apps, manuals and stolen devices on Twitter and Discord. He would then tell Apple things like which Apple employees were leaking confidential info, which reporters would talk to leakers, who sold stolen iPhone prototypes and more. Shumeyko decided to share his story because he felt Apple took advantage of him and didn’t compensate him for the work.

Funding and M&A

💰 South Korea’s GS Retail Co. Ltd will buy Delivery Hero’s food delivery app Yogiyo in a deal valued at 800 billion won ($685 million USD). Yogiyo is the second-largest food delivery app in South Korea, with a 25% market share.

💰 Gaming platform Roblox acquired a Discord rival, Guilded, which allows users to have text and voice conversations, organize communities around events and calendars and more. Deal terms were not disclosed. Guilded raised $10.2 million in venture funding. Roblox’s stock fell by 7% after the company reported earnings this week, after failing to meet Wall Street expectations.

💰 Travel app Hopper raised $175 million in a Series G round of funding led by GPI Capital, valuing the business at over $3.5 billion. The company raised a similar amount just last year, but is now benefiting from renewed growth in travel following COVID-19 vaccinations and lifting restrictions.

💰 Indian quiz app maker Zupee raised $30 million in a Series B round of funding led by Silicon Valley-based WestCap Group and Tomales Bay Capital. The round values the company at $500 million, up 5x from last year.

💰 Danggeun Market, the publisher of South Korea’s hyperlocal community app Karrot, raised $162 million in a Series D round of funding led by DST Global. The round values the business at $2.7 billion and will be used to help the company launch its own payments platform, Karrot Pay.

💰 Bangalore-based fintech app Smallcase raised $40 million in Series C funding round led by Faering Capital and Premji Invest, with participation from existing investors, as well as Amazon. The Robinhood-like app has over 3 million users who are transacting about $2.5 billion per year.

💰 Social listening app Earbuds raised $3 million in Series A funding led by Ecliptic Capital. Founded by NFL star Jason Fox, the app lets anyone share their favorite playlists, livestream music like a DJ or comment on others’ music picks.

💰 U.S. neobank app One raised $40 million in Series B funding led by Progressive Investment Company (the insurance giant’s investment arm), bringing its total raise to date to $66 million. The app offers all-in-one banking services and budgeting tools aimed at middle-income households who manage their finances on a weekly basis.

Public Markets

📈Indian travel booking app ixigo is looking to raise Rs 1,600 crore in its initial public offering, The Economic Times reported this week.

📉Trading app Robinhood disappointed in its first quarterly earnings as a publicly traded company, when it posted a net loss of $502 million, or $2.16 per share, larger than Wall Street forecasts. This overshadowed its beat on revenue ($565 million versus $521.8 million expected) and its more than doubling of MAUs to 21.3 million in Q2.  Also of note, the company said dogecoin made up 62% of its crypto revenue in Q2.

Downloads

Polycam (update)

Image Credits: Polycam

3D scanning software maker Polycam launched a new 3D capture tool, Photo Mode, that allows iPhone and iPad users to capture professional-quality 3D models with just an iPhone. While the app’s scanner before had required the use of the lidar sensor built into newer devices like the iPhone 12 Pro and iPad Pro models, the new Photo Mode feature uses just an iPhone’s camera. The resulting 3D assets are ready to use in a variety of applications, including 3D art, gaming, AR/VR and e-commerce. Data export is available in over a dozen file formats, including .obj, .gtlf, .usdz and others. The app is a free download on the App Store, with in-app purchases available.

Jiobit (update)

Jiobit, the tracking dongle acquired by family safety and communication app Life360, this week partnered with emergency response service Noonlight to offer Jiobit Protect, a premium add-on that offers Jiobit users access to an SOS Mode and Alert Button that work with the Jiobit mobile app. SOS Mode can be triggered by a child’s caregiver when they detect — through notifications from the Jiobit app — that a loved one may be in danger. They can then reach Noonlight’s dispatcher who can facilitate a call to 911 and provide the exact location of the person wearing the Jiobit device, as well as share other details, like allergies or special needs, for example.

Tweets

When your app redesign goes wrong…

Image Credits: Twitter.com

Prominent App Store critic Kosta Eleftheriou shut down his FlickType iOS app this week after too many frustrations with App Review. He cited rejections that incorrectly argued that his app required more access than it did — something he had successfully appealed and overturned years ago. Attempted follow-ups with Apple were ignored, he said. 

Image Credits: Twitter.com

Anyone have app ideas?

In growing battle with TikTok, Facebook to test ‘Facebook Reels’ in the US

By Sarah Perez

Reels are coming to Facebook in the U.S. The company this morning announced it will begin testing a new feature, Facebook Reels, which will give Facebook users the ability to create and share short-form video content directly within the News Feed or within Facebook Groups. The addition is an expansion of tests launched earlier this year in India, Mexico and Canada, which had focused on bringing short-form videos to Facebook users, including by sharing existing Instagram Reels to Facebook, as had been reported.

In addition, Facebook today says it will also test a new feature that will give Instagram creators in the U.S. the option to have their Instagram Reels shown as recommended content on Facebook. If the creators opt in, their videos will appear in the “Reels” section in users’ News Feed, alongside other Reels created on Facebook.

There will be many places where users can create Reels from Facebook, as the new feature launches.

Initially, you’ll be able to tap a “Create” button from the Reels’ section that appears as you scroll the News Feed, while you’re watching Reels, or by tapping on “Reels” at the top of your News Feed. From here, users will gain access to a standard set of creation tools, including those for video capture, music selection, camera roll import, timed text, and more — much like you would have access to on Instagram.

For audio, you can either choose a song from Facebook’s music library, record your own original audio, or even use someone else’s audio, if their Reels are set to “public.” There are also a variety of effects and editing tools to choose from, including a timer for recording Reels hands-free, tools to speed up or slow down a part of the video or your original audio, and a number of augmented reality effects created either by Facebook or third-party developers.

Facebook told us that, for the time being, “most” of Instagram Reels’ features will also be available on Facebook Reels. But other features — like Remix (its take on TikTok’s side-by-side videos called Duets) — will be added over time as the test scales to more people. The user interface for Reels may also evolve over time to look somewhat different from Reels on Instagram, depending on user feedback.

After a Reel has been created, you can choose who to share it with — such as “Friends,” a specific audience like “Friends except…”, or the general public. The latter is the default setting.

The feature will be made available within Facebook Groups, where Reels can be created then shared with members of the community who have similar interests.

Users can also choose to tap into “My Reels,” to view past creations. And you can browse Reels created by others in the News Feed, and in select Groups and Pages — where you can like, comment or share them, just as you could with any other type of post. Reels will now be surfaced in Search results, too, Facebook told us.

Like much of what appears on Facebook, Reels will be recommended to users based on what people are interested in, what they engage with, and what’s broadly popular. This will apply to both the shared Instagram Reels and the Facebook Reels.

Image Credits: Facebook (Reels in Groups)

The company explained the decision to replicate the Reels product inside Facebook is a result of consumers’ growing interest in video, and particularly short-form video. Today, video accounts for almost half of all time spent on Facebook, in fact. On Facebook’s latest earnings call, CEO Mark Zuckerberg remarked that Reels was “already the largest contributor to engagement growth on Instagram,” given the popularity of short-form video.

“We’re very focused on making it easy for anyone to create video, and then for those videos to be viewed across all of our different services, starting with Facebook and Instagram first,” he had told investors.

But Facebook also understands that people have different communities and audiences on Instagram and Facebook, so simply offering a cross-posting option may not have sufficed.

However, for existing Reels creators who do want to tap into Facebook’s large audience, a new option will allow them to opt-in to have their Reels shared to Facebook. This could be useful for those producing more general-interest Reels content.

These shared Reels will display the creator’s Instagram username, as well, which could help them to build a following. Creators’ Reels can also be remixed, with the creator’s permission, and their original audio can be re-used in other people’s Reels — again, much like on TikTok.

This feature will also be first introduced as a “test,” Facebook said.

While Instagram is already beginning to monetize Reels through ads, Facebook told us that Reels on Facebook don’t currently include ads. But: “we plan to roll out ads in the future,” a Facebook spokesperson added.

Image Credits: Facebook (sharing Instagram Reels to Facebook opt-in flow)

Reels, which is Facebook’s answer to the growing threat of TikTok, first launched to global audiences a year ago. This launch alone was not enough to win Instagram the top spot as the world’s most downloaded mobile app. In 2020, that win went to TikTok, after years where Facebook-owned apps dominated the top charts. And TikTok today continues to sit at the top of App Store charts in terms of both app installs and consumer spending, according to multiple third-party reports. 

For Facebook, TikTok represents an existential threat to its business. If users’ time and attention are being spent elsewhere, Facebook’s advertisers could then follow, impacting Facebook’s bottom line. So instead of competing with TikTok in just one app, Facebook is now using two. And it’s leveraging its apps’ interoperability to ensure the best content can easily flow to both places.

The company is also directly investing in the creator community in hopes of tipping the scales back in its direction.

In July, the company announced a plan to invest over $1 billion in creators across both Facebook and Instagram through 2022. This fund will reward more than just Reels’ creators, to be clear, as it will also pay out bonuses for videos with in-stream ads enabled or for enabling IGTV ads, among other things. It will also bonus top creators who have invited fans to send them tips in the form of a virtual currency, “stars.” But Instagram Reels, and now Facebook Reels, will be looped into that initiative.

Today, Facebook said it will announce additional bonus programs and seed funding in the months ahead that will pay out bonuses for Reels on Facebook. These will be funded from that $1 billion commitment. The company declined to share details on this front, but this news alone indicates Facebook Reels is far more than just “a test” in Facebook’s eyes.

The new Facebook Reels features will begin to roll out starting today, Aug. 19, in the U.S. It will first be available to a “small percentage” of U.S. users on iOS and Android.

The feature will continue to operate in India, Mexico and Canada, as well.

Facebook is bringing end-to-end encryption to Messenger calls and Instagram DMs

By Carly Page

Facebook has extended the option of using end-to-end encryption for Messenger voice calls and video calls.

End-to-end encryption (E2EE) — a security feature that prevents third-parties from eavesdropping on calls and chats — has been available for text conversations on Facebook’s flagship messaging service since 2016. Although the company has faced pressure from governments to roll back its end-to-end encryption plans, Facebook is now extending this protection to both voice and video calls on Messenger, which means that “nobody else, including Facebook, can see or listen to what’s sent or said.”

“End-to-end encryption is already widely used by apps like WhatsApp to keep personal conversations safe from hackers and criminals,” Ruth Kricheli, director of product management for Messenger, said in a blog post on Friday. “It’s becoming the industry standard and works like a lock and key, where just you and the people in the chat or call have access to the conversation.”

Facebook has some other E2EE features in the works, too. It’s planning to start public tests of end-to-end encryption for group chats and calls in Messenger in the coming weeks and is also planning a limited test of E2EE for Instagram direct messages. Those involved in the trial will be able to opt-in to end-to-end encrypted messages and calls for one-on-one conversations carried out on the photo-sharing platform.

Beyond encryption, the social networking giant is also updating its expiring messages feature, which is similar to the ephemeral messages feature available on Facebook-owned WhatsApp. It’s now offering more options for people in the chat to choose the amount of time before all new messages disappear, from as few as five seconds to as long as 24 hours.

“People expect their messaging apps to be secure and private, and with these new features, we’re giving them more control over how private they want their calls and chats to be,” Kricheli added.

News of Facebook ramping up its E2EE rollout plans comes just days after the company changed its privacy settings — again.

WhatsApp and other social media platforms restricted in Zambia amidst ongoing elections

By Tage Kene-Okafor

Several users from Zambia have taken to Twitter informing the general public that WhatsApp has been restricted in the country amidst ongoing general elections today.

The president and parliamentary elections culminate in a face-off between current President Edgar Lungu and opposition Hakainde Hichilema.

Internet monitoring organization Netblocks further corroborated these reports, adding that multiple internet providers in Zambia had restricted access to the American social messaging platform. Some of these networks include Zambian government-owned Zamtel, Airtel Zambia, Liquid Telecom and MTN.

⚠ Confirmed: WhatsApp messaging app restricted in #Zambia on election day; real-time network data show loss of service on multiple internet providers as polls get under way, corroborating widespread user reports; incident ongoing #ZambiaDecides2021

📰https://t.co/HZOMpYXdSX pic.twitter.com/9b2GZ87UHO

— NetBlocks (@netblocks) August 12, 2021

Just this week, reports circulated that the Zambian government had threatened to shut down the internet if Zambians “failed to use the cyberspace during this year’s election correctly.” The reports say the government intended to go through with its plans from Thursday, the polling day, till Sunday, when vote counts are expected to have ended.

However, the Zambian government, via its Information and Broadcasting Services Permanent Secretary, Amos Malupenga, came out to deny the reports, calling them “malicious.” Nevertheless, he mentioned that the government would not tolerate abuse of the internet and if any mischief occurred, there would be no hesitation to take appropriate measures.

“The government, therefore, expects citizens to use the internet responsibly. But if some people choose to abuse the internet to mislead and misinform, the government will not hesitate to invoke relevant legal provisions to forestall any breakdown of law and order as the country passes through the election period,” Malupenga said.

Zambia isn’t the first African country to witness this during an election as social media restrictions and internet shutdowns are now a recurring theme for most African states.

Countries like Cameroon, Congo, Uganda, Tanzania, Guinea, Togo, Benin, Mali and Mauritania have faced social media restrictions and internet shutdowns during elections. A handful of others like Chad, Nigeria and Ethiopia, on the other hand, have experienced similar restrictions for unrelated events.

Most governments argue that they carry out social media restrictions and internet shutdowns to maintain security during elections; however, it’s glaring to see the process as a means to curb the spread of vital information among voters and the media within and outside the country.

Today’s event shows that despite denying reports about an imminent internet shutdown, the Zambian government is heading in that direction by first cutting off WhatsApp. While writing on the WhatsApp restriction, Netblocks also reported that the Zambian government has proceeded to restrict other social media platforms, including Facebook, Instagram, Messenger and Twitter.

Still, internet users in Zambia are now using VPN services to bypass the restrictions on WhatsApp and these other social media platforms. Yet, it remains to be seen if the government will enforce a full internet shutdown.

Link-in-bio monetization platform Snipfeed raises a $5.5M seed round

By Amanda Silberling

The link-in-bio business is heating up as more mobile website builders compete for a coveted slice of real estate on a creator’s TikTok, Instagram, or Twitter. Linktree leads the space, securing a recent $45 million Series B raise to build out e-commerce features, but Beacons boasts competitive creator monetization tools with just a $6 million seed round in May. Now, Snipfeed enters the ring with its own $5.5 million seed round, including investments from CRV, Abstract Ventures, Crossbeam (Ali Hamed), id8, Michael Ovitz (founder of CAA), Michael Bosstick, Diaspora Ventures, and others.

Linktree has been around since 2016 and has more funding than its up-and-coming competitors. But for creators seeking to monetize their following, these newer platforms may be more attractive to some creators, since they already have built-in tools to help them monetize their followings. Linktree currently supports tipping on the platform for users subscribed to its $6 Linktree Pro platform, but Snipfeed offers a wider range of monetization options; some creators are making over $20,000 per month on the platform, according to CEO and co-founder Rédouane Ramdani.

Snipfeed started as a content discovery platform with 44,000 weekly active users — but when Snipfeed added a creator monetization tool to its platform, it became its most popular feature. So, in February 2020, with little to no funding left, the company completely pivoted to its current link-in-bio business. Since then, Snipfeed has amassed 50,000 registered users, with the user base growing 500% in the last six months (Linktree, for comparison, has over 12 million users).

Based in Paris and Los Angeles, Snipfeed’s 15-person staff is particularly interested in the “long tail” of creators, which it says encompasses over 46 million people.

“Content creator doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to be the next Addison Rae or a TikTok star,” explained Ramdani. “It means that you might be a doctor or lawyer, and on top of that, you’re going to have a TikTok where you explain how to file your taxes and that kind of stuff. They have this expertise, and they’re wondering, ‘How can I turn that into a side-hustle?'”

Image Credits: Snipfeed

In addition to a standard tipping tool, Snipfeed allows users to sell digital goods, like on-demand video, ebooks, access to livestreams, and one-on-one consultations. But Snipfeed’s biggest differentiator is its Cameo-like system for selling personalized content. For example, TikToker maylikethemonthh uses Snipfeed to sell asynchronous, video-recorded tarot readings. While asking a single, personalized astrology question costs $5, a more in-depth reading can cost up to $20 or $40.

Snipfeed is free to set up, but if you make sales, the company takes 15% — this percentage is inclusive of any transaction fees. Through Snipfeed’s referral program, creators can make 5% of sales from anyone they onboard to the platform (this comes out of Snipfeed’s commission).

“We decided to go with this model because we really want to have a relationship where we help the creators really make money. We only make money if they make money,” Ramdani said.

If a creator or celebrity were to sell personalized videos on Cameo, they’d lose 25% to the platform. Meanwhile, Beacons takes 9% of sales from its free version, and 5% from its $10 per month version, which offers more customization, integrations, analytics.

Image Credits: Snipfeed

Still, depending on the type of creator, the features that each link-in-bio startup offers might matter more than the cost. Beacons allows users to share a shopping-enabled TikTok feed, which could be huge a money-maker for creators that often share product recommendations with affiliate links, which give them a commission from sales. Ramdani said that astrologers have been particularly successful on Snipfeed, since fans can book a variety of asynchronous services at a wide range of prices. But these features could benefit any creator who can profit from answering followers’ specific questions — a chef could offer recipe ideas based on what’s in a fan’s fridge, or a life coach could make a personalized video if a follower requests advice.

With its $5.5 million in seed funding, Snipfeed plans to build out its e-commerce tools so that creators can sell physical products on their link-in-bio (Beacons and Linktree are also working on this with their recent funding rounds — but Beacons’ and Snipfeed’s seed rounds are small compared to Linktree’s Series B). The company also wants to develop educational content to show its users how to best monetize their platform — if Snipfeed can help its creators make money, then it’ll make more money too.

In the wake of recent racist attacks, Instagram rolls out more anti-abuse features

By Sarah Perez

Instagram today is rolling out a set of new features aimed at helping people protect their accounts from abuse, including offensive and unwanted comments and messages. The company will introduce tools for filtering abusive direct message (DM) requests as well as a way for users to limit other people from posting comments or sending DMs during spikes of increased attention — like when going viral. In addition, those who attempt to harass others on the service will also see stronger warnings against doing so, which detail the potential consequences.

The company recently confirmed it was testing the new anti-harassment tool, Limits, which Instagram head Adam Mosseri referenced in a video update shared with the Instagram community last month. The feature aims to give Instagram users an easy way to temporarily lock down their accounts when they’re targeted with a flood of harassment.

Such an addition could have been useful to combat the recent racist attacks that took place on Instagram following the Euro 2020 final, which saw several England footballers viciously harassed by angry fans after the team’s defeat. The incidents, which had included racist comments and emoji, raised awareness of how little Instagram users could do to protect themselves when they’ve gone viral in a negative way.

Image Credits: Instagram

During these sudden spikes of attention, Instagram users see an influx of unwanted comments and DM requests from people they don’t know. The Limits feature allows users to choose who can interact with you during these busy times.

From Instagram’s privacy settings, you’ll be able to toggle on limits that restrict accounts that are not following you as well as those belonging to recent followers. When limits are enabled, these accounts can’t post comments or send DM requests for a period of time of your choosing, like a certain number of days or even weeks.

Twitter had been eyeing a similar set of tools for users who go viral, but has yet to put them into action.

Instagram’s Limits feature had already been in testing, but is now becoming globally available.

The company says it’s currently experimenting with using machine learning to detect a spike in comments and DMs in order to prompt people to turn on Limits with a notification in the Instagram app.

Another feature, Hidden Words, is also being expanded.

Designed to protect users from abusive DM requests, Hidden Words automatically filters requests that contain offensive words, phrases and emojis and places them into a Hidden Folder, which you can choose to never view. It also filters out requests that are likely spam or are otherwise low-quality. Instagram doesn’t provide a list of which words it blocks to prevent people from gaming the system, but it has now updated that database with new types of offensive language, including strings of emoji — like those that were used to abuse the footballers — and included them in the filter.

Hidden Words had already been rolled out to a handful of countries earlier this year, but will reach all Instagram users globally by the end of the month. Instagram will push accounts with a larger following to use it, with messages both in their DM inbox and in their Stories tray.

The feature was also expanded with a new option to “Hide More Comments,” which would allow users to easily hide comments that are potentially harmful, but don’t go against Instagram’s rules.

Another change will involve the warnings that are displayed when someone posts a potentially abusive comment. Already, Instagram would warn users when they first try to post a comment, and it would later display an even stronger warning when they tried to post potentially offensive comments multiple times. Now, the company says users will see the stronger message the first time around.

Image Credits: Instagram

The message clearly states the comment may “contain racist language” or other content that goes against its guidelines, and reminds users that the comment may be hidden when it’s posted as a result. It also warns the user if they continue to break the community guidelines, their account “may be deleted.”

While systems to counteract online abuse are necessary and underdeveloped, there’s also the potential for such tools to be misused to silence dissent. For example, if a creator was spreading misinformation or conspiracies, or had people calling them out in the comments, they could turn to anti-abuse tools to hide the negative interactions. This would allow the creator to paint an inaccurate picture of their account as one that was popular and well-liked. And that, in turn, can be leveraged into marketing power and brand deals.

As Instagram puts more power into creators’ hands to handle online abuse, it has to weigh the potential impacts those tools have on the overall creator economy, too.

“We hope these new features will better protect people from seeing abusive content, whether it’s racist, sexist, homophobic or any other type of abuse,” noted Mosseri, in an announcement about the changes. “We know there’s more to do, including improving our systems to find and remove abusive content more quickly, and holding those who post it accountable.”

Livestream e-commerce: Why companies and brands need to tune in

By Ram Iyer
Alanna Gregory Contributor
Alanna Gregory is a marketing executive and is currently senior global director at Afterpay. Previously, she was VP at Hairstory, the founder and CEO of VIVE Lifestyle, and was an AVP at Barclays.

What comes to mind when you think of livestreaming? In the U.S., most people would name their favorite celebrity leading a Q&A on Instagram or a gamer doing a speedrun on Twitch.

In China, it’s shopping, streamed live.

Livestream e-commerce has taken off in China in the last few years and is expected to yield more than $60 billion this year. In 2019, 37% of online shoppers in China (a cool 265 million people) made purchases on livestreams — and that was well before quarantine. In 2020, it’s estimated to have reached around 560 million people.

During Taobao’s annual Single’s Day Global Shopping Festival in 2020 (China’s Black Friday), livestreams accounted for $6 billion in sales — nearly doubled from a year earlier.

Starting to see a trend? The big U.S. companies have noticed, and they’re jumping on the bandwagon faster than you can say, “Swipe up to buy now!”

Last December, Walmart livestreamed shopping events on TikTok. Amazon released a live platform where influencers promote items and chat with customers. Instagram launched a Shop feature that encourages users to browse and buy within the app. Facebook also kicked off Live Shopping Fridays for the beauty and fashion categories.

“It’s an entertaining way for shops to tell the story behind their products. It brings buyers closer than ever to their favorite creators and allows them to have a voice in the conversation.”

Startups are growing fast to keep up with the heavy hitters — PopShop.Live raised $20 million to let people buy everything from books and toys to jewelry from sellers who livestream their offerings, and Whatnot raised a $50 million Series B, largely to expand its livestream commerce infrastructure. There’s also a burgeoning category of SaaS tools such as Bambuser, which is working with brands like Klarna to test native livestream shopping directly within branded apps.

At this pace, retailers will all welcome livestream commerce teams like they have influencer partnerships in recent years. It’ll just be part of the digital equation to stay competitive and relevant in the future of marketplaces and e-commerce.

From B.C. to 5G: The evolution of shopping

What is old is new again. Your grandparents spent years watching QVC because it balanced the experience of speaking with an associate with the convenience of their retirement community’s TV room. Livestream is today’s version of “shoptainment,” where hosts showcase products dynamically, interact with their audiences and build urgency with short-term offers, giveaways and limited-edition items.

Now, with livestream commerce, hosts can form deeper customer connections and answer questions in real time. It’s a new standard of communication that holds a longstanding truth from Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar to smartphones: People shop to kill time and are more likely to buy when they feel connected with a salesperson.

Zuckerberg is turning trillion-dollar Facebook into a ‘metaverse’ company, he tells investors

By Lucas Matney

Facebook warns of ‘headwinds’ to its ad business from regulators and Apple

By Taylor Hatmaker

Facebook posted its second quarter earnings Wednesday, beating expectations with $29 billion in revenue.

The world’s biggest social media company was expected to report $27.8 billion in revenue for the quarter, a 50 percent increase from the same period in 2020. Facebook reported earnings per share of $3.61, which also bested expectations. The company’s revenue was $18.6 billion in the same quarter of last year.

In the first financial period to really reflect a return to quasi-economic normalcy after a very online pandemic year, Facebook met user growth expectations. At the end of March, Facebook boasted 2.85 billion monthly active users across its network of apps. At the end of its second quarter, Facebook reported 2.9 billion monthly active users, roughly what was expected.

The company’s shares opened at $375 on Wednesday morning and were down to $360 in a dip following the earnings report.

In spite of a strong quarter, Facebook is warning of change ahead — namely impacts to its massive ad business, which generated $28.5 billion out of the company’s $29 billion this quarter. The company specifically named privacy-focused updates to Apple’s mobile operating system as a threat to its business.

“We continue to expect increased ad targeting headwinds in 2021 from regulatory and platform changes, notably the recent iOS updates, which we expect to have a greater impact in the third quarter compared to the second quarter,” the company stated its investor report outlook.

On the company’s investor call, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg pointed to Facebook’s plans to reduce its reliance on ad revenue, noting the company’s expanded efforts to attract and support content creators and its e-commerce plans in particular. “We want our platforms to be the best place for creators to make a living,” Zuckerberg said, adding that the company plans to monetize creator tools starting in 2023.

Zuckerberg also emphasized Facebook’s grand aspirations for social experiences in VR. “Virtual reality will be a social platform, which is why we’re so focused on building it,” Zuckerberg said.

No matter what Facebook planned to report Wednesday, the company is a financial beast. Bad press and user mistrust in the West haven’t done much to hurt its bottom line and the company’s ad business is looking as dominant as ever. Short of meaningful antitrust reform in the U.S. or a surging competitor, there’s little to stand in Facebook’s way. The former might still be a long shot given partisan gridlock in Congress, even with the White House involved, but Facebook is finally facing a threat from the latter.

For years, it’s been difficult to imagine a social media platform emerging as a proper rival to the company, given Facebook’s market dominance and nasty habit of acquiring competitors or brazenly copying their innovations, but it’s clear that TikTok is turning into just that. YouTube is huge, but the platforms matured in parallel and co-exist, offering complementary experiences.

TikTok hit 700 million monthly active users in July 2020 and surpassed three billions global downloads earlier this month, becoming the only non-Facebook owned app to do so, according to data from Sensor Tower. If the famously addictive short form video app can successfully siphon off some of the long hours that young users spend on Instagram and Facebook’s other platforms and make itself a cozy home for brands in the process, the big blue giant out of Menlo Park might finally have something to lose sleep over.

Trouble in fandom paradise: Tumblr users lash out against its beta subscription feature

By Amanda Silberling

The Tumblr community often refers to itself as the Wild West of the internet, and they’re not wrong. A text post with over 70,000 notes puts it best: “Tumblr is my favorite social media site because this place is literally uninhabitable for celebrities. No verification system, no algorithm that boosts their posts, it’s a completely lawless wasteland for them.”

But like any social media company, Tumblr needs to keep itself afloat in order for its users to continue sharing esoteric fan art, incomprehensible shitposts, and overly personal diary entries hidden beneath a “Read More” button. Yesterday, Tumblr announced the limited beta test of its Post+ subscription feature, which — if all goes as planned — will eventually let Tumblr users post paywalled content to subscribers that pay them $3.99, $5.99 or $9.99 per month.

Image Credits: Tumblr

Tumblr is far from the first social media platform to seek out revenue this way — Twitter is rolling out Super Follows and a Tip Jar feature, and this week, YouTube announced a tipping feature too. Even Instagram is working on its own version of Twitter’s Super Follows that would let users create “exclusive stories.” But on a website with a community that prides itself as being a “completely lawless wasteland” for anyone with a platform (save for Wil Wheaton and Neil Gaiman, who are simply just vibing), the move toward paywalled content was not welcomed with open arms.

Monetization is a double-edged sword. It’s not considered uncool for a Tumblr artist to link to a third-party Patreon or Ko-fi site on their blog, where their most enthusiastic followers can access paywalled content or send them tips. So Post+ seems like an obvious way for Tumblr to generate revenue — instead of directing followers to other websites, they could build a way for fans to support creators on their own platform while taking a 5% cut. This isn’t unreasonable, considering that Twitter will take 3% revenue from its new monetization tools, while video-centric platforms like YouTube and Twitch take 30% and 50%, respectively. But Tumblr isn’t Twitter, or YouTube, or Twitch. Unlike other platforms, Tumblr doesn’t allow you to see other people’s follower counts, and no accounts are verified. It’s not as easy to tell whether the person behind a popular post has 100 followers or 100,000 followers, and the users prefer it that way. But Post+ changes that, giving bloggers an icon next to their username that resembles a Twitter blue check.

A Tumblr Post+ creator profile

Tumblr rolled out Post+ this week to a select group of hand-picked creators, including Kaijuno, a writer and astrophysicist. The platform announced Post+ on a new blog specific to this product, rather than its established staff blog, which users know to check for big announcements. So, as the most public user who was granted access, the 24-year-old blogger was the target of violent backlash from angry Tumblrites who didn’t want to see their favorite social media site turn into a hypercapitalist hellscape. When Kaijuno received death threats for beta testing Post+, Tumblr’s staff intervened and condemned harassment against Post+ users.

“We want to hear about what you like, what you love, and what concerns you. Even if it’s not very nice. Tell us. We can take it,” Tumblr wrote on its staff blog. “What we won’t ever accept is the targeted harassment and threats these creators have endured since this afternoon. […] all they’re doing is testing out a feature.”

Before making their post, a representative from Tumblr’s staff reached out to Kaijuno directly to check in on them regarding the backlash, but there’s only so much that Tumblr can do after a user has already been threatened for using their product.

“I felt like the sacrificial lamb, because they didn’t announce Post+ beforehand and only gave it to a few people, which landed me in the crosshairs of a very pissed off user base when I’m just trying to pay off medical bills by giving people the option to pay for content,” Kaijuno told TechCrunch. “I knew there’d be some backlash because users hate any sort of change to Tumblr, but I thought that the brunt of the backlash would be at the staff, and that the beta testers would be spared from most of it.”

Why do Tumblr users perceive monetization as such a threat? It’s not a question of whether or not it’s valuable to support creators, but rather, whether Tumblr is capable of hosting such a service. Multiple long-time, avid Tumblr users that spoke to TechCrunch referenced an incident in late 2020 when people’s blogs were being hacked by spam bots that posted incessant advertisements for a Ray-Ban Summer Sale.

“Tumblr is not the most well-coded website. It’s easy to break features,” Kaijuno added. “I think anything involving trusting Tumblr with your financial information would have gotten backlash.”

Tumblr users also worried about the implications Post+ could have on privacy — in the limited beta, Post+ users only have the ability to block people who are subscribed to their blog if they contact Tumblr support. In cases of harassment by a subscriber, this could leave a blogger vulnerable in a potentially dangerous situation.

“Ahead of our launch to all U.S.-based creators this fall, Post+ will allow creators to block subscribers directly,” a Tumblr spokesperson told TechCrunch.

Still, the Extremely Online Gen Z-ers who now make up 48% of Tumblr know that they can’t expect the platform to continue existing if it doesn’t pull in enough money to pay for its staff and server fees. In 2018, Tumblr lost almost one-third of its monthly page views after all NSFW content was banned — since then, the platform’s monthly traffic has remained relatively stagnant.

Image Credits: SimilarWeb

A former Tumblr employee told TechCrunch that the feature that became Post+ started out as a Tip Jar. But higher-ups at Tumblr — who do not work directly with the community — redirected the project to create a paywalled subscription product.

“I think a Tip Jar would be a massive improvement,” said the creator behind the Tumblr blog normal-horoscopes. Through the core audience they developed on Tumblr, they make a living via Patreon, but they don’t find Post+ compelling for their business. “External services [like Patreon] have more options, more benefits, better price points, and as a creator I get to choose how I present them to my audience.”

But a paywalled subscription service is different in the collective eyes of Tumblr. For a site that thrives on fandom, creators that make fan art and fanfiction worry that placing this derivative work behind a paywall — which Post+ encourages them to do — will land them in legal trouble. Even Archive of Our Own, a major fanfiction site, prohibits its users from linking to sites like Patreon or Ko-Fi.

“Built-in monetization attracts businesses, corporate accounts, people who are generally there to make money first and provide content second,” said normal-horoscopes. “It changes the culture of a platform.”

Across Tumblr, upset users are rallying for their followers to take Post+’s feedback survey to express their frustrations. The staff welcomes this.

“As with any new product launch, we expect our users to have a healthy discussion about how the feature will change the dynamics of how people use Tumblr,” a Tumblr spokesperson told TechCrunch. “Not all of this feedback will be positive, and that’s ok. Constructive criticism fuels how we create products and ultimately makes Tumblr a better place.”

Tumblr’s vocal community has been empowered over the years to question whether it’s possible for a platform to establish new revenue streams in a way that feels organic. The protectiveness that Tumblr’s user base feels for the site — despite their lack of faith in staff — sets it apart from social media juggernauts like Facebook, which can put ecommerce front and center without much scrutiny. But even three years after the catastrophic porn ban, it seems hard for Tumblr to grow without alienating the people that make the social network unique.

Platforms like Reddit and Discord have remained afloat by selling digital goods, like coins to reward top posters, or special emojis. Each company’s financial needs are different, but Tumblr’s choice to monetize with Post+ highlights the company’s lack of insight into its own community’s wishes.

Instagram confirms test of new anti-harassment tool, Limits, designed for moments of crisis

By Sarah Perez

Instagram head Adam Mosseri confirmed the company is testing a new feature called “Limits,” which would give users the ability to temporary lock down their accounts when they’re being targeted by a flood of harassment. The announcement of the new feature was made today during a video where Mosseri condemned the recent racism that took place on Instagram’s platform following the Euro 2020 final, and noted the company was working on improvements to both internal and customer-facing tools to help address this problem.

The company had previously commented on and condemned the racist abuse, which had seen England footballers Bukayo Saka, Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho viciously harassed by angry fans making racist comments after the team’s defeat earlier this month. Mosseri explained at the time the company was using technology to try to prioritize user reports, and it mistakenly marked some reports as benign comments instead of referring them to human moderators. One of the possible complications was that many of the harassing comments were using emoji, which Instagram’s systems may have struggled to understand given emoji can have different meanings in different contexts.

Today, Mosseri again acknowledged Instagram’s mistake and noted it has since fixed the issue. He said Instagram had been proactively sweeping the footballers’ comments, but hadn’t anticipated the wave of user reports.

He also pointed out that Instagram receives millions of user reports per day and even getting 1% of them wrong leads to tens of thousands of problematic posts that remain on the platform in error.

Mosseri then mentioned several user-facing tools that could help people deal with harassment more directly on their own accounts to prevent abuse. This includes Instagram’s tools like Block and Restrict. The latter is tool that allows users to approve a user’s comments before anyone else sees them or read someone’s messages without sending read receipts. Another more recently added tool called Hidden Words lets users block certain keywords in both comments and direct messages.

He added that Instagram was also testing a new tool called Limits, which would allow users to lock down their accounts in a “moment of risk.” This feature could have helped the footballers, as it would have offered simple settings to limit unwanted comments and reactions.

The feature had been spotted earlier this month by social media consultant Matt Navarra, who shared screenshots of how it worked, but Instagram had yet to formally announce it.

Here’s a few more screenshots of Instagram’s ‘Limits’ features pic.twitter.com/ssR7VmpG7m

— Matt Navarra (@MattNavarra) July 8, 2021

In the images that were shared, users with the feature would find a new section called Limits in Instagram’s privacy controls which explained that they could temporarily limits comments and messages from specific groups of followers.

Users could then toggle on or off groups to limit, including recent followers and accounts that are not following you, as these could include accounts that were spam or those created just to harass you. As is often the case, when there’s a flood of incoming abuse, it will not come from an account’s longtime followers, but rather from newcomers who have sought out the account just to harass them.

The feature will also allow users to set a duration for the Limits in terms of a number of days or even weeks.

An Instagram spokesperson also confirmed the feature worked as the images show, noting it would be a tool that would help people manage “intense instances of harassment or abuse.”

“Maybe you’re in high school and you are going through break up or you just switched schools. Or maybe you are professional footballer and you’re receiving a lot of harassment,” explained Mosseri, when detailing how Limits could be useful in different situations. “Whatever it is, we know that people sometimes are in temporary moments of real risk of pain, and we want to give them tools to protect themselves in those situations,” he added.

Instagram declined to say when the feature would become publicly available, but noted it’s being tested on mobile in select countries for the time being.

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

By Taylor Hatmaker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Instagram adds new controls for limiting ‘sensitive’ content in the Explore tab

By Taylor Hatmaker

Instagram is giving its users a tiny bit more power to see what they want — and not see what they don’t want — in its content discovery hub. The company introduced a new toggle called “Sensitive Content Control” on Tuesday that allows anyone to screen posts that it thinks could be offensive, hiding them from the Explore tab.

The new feature appears in the settings menu and lets users choose to either allow more content that could be “upsetting or offensive,” limit that content or “limit even more.” The phrasing is kind of weird but it acknowledges that the company’s moderation efforts aren’t perfect, and that’s realistic at least.

“You can think of sensitive content as posts that don’t necessarily break our rules, but could potentially be upsetting to some people – such as posts that may be sexually suggestive or violent,” Instagram explained in the announcement.

TechCrunch asked the company to expand on what kinds of posts are screened out under each category and if human or algorithmic moderation determines what is sensitive, but did not receive a response.

We also asked if the company has any plans to create separate toggles for violence and sexual content, considering that a lot of people comfortable with the latter might be less inclined to see violence bubble up among the app’s makeup tutorials and influencer junkets.

On Instagram, “sensitive” content is a massive catch-all category for stuff it allows but doesn’t want to be seen as directly promoting. In its own guidelines on content it recommends, Instagram states that sexually suggestive content like “pictures of people in see-through clothing” aren’t eligible for the Explore tab. Instagram’s definition of sensitive content also includes dangerous forms of content like “exaggerated health claims” and posts promoting weight loss supplements.

Instagram is notorious for over-policing content that the platform deems to be sexual. A campaign from Black plus-size model Nyome Nicholas-Williams successfully pressured the platform into relaxing one of its overly restrictive nudity rules last year.

Instagram contextualized the new content controls as part of a new effort to give users more power to determine what shows up in their feed. “We believe people should be able to shape Instagram into the experience that they want,” the company wrote in a blog post, noting that recent changes like being able to disable comments also give users more choice.

While the company is giving users more control over its algorithm in some small ways, it’s also considering giving them less. Last month, Instagram began testing algorithmic suggestions mixed into the main feed, a design choice that would let the company inject the platform with even more of what it wants you to see.

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