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Today — April 22nd 2021Your RSS feeds

Facebook Announces Live Audio Rooms, Its Clubhouse Clone

By Arielle Pardes
Clubhouse is the latest startup to get cloned by Facebook, as the social media giant announces a suite of new audio features. Who will use them?
Before yesterdayYour RSS feeds

AI-driven audio cloning startup gives voice to Einstein chatbot

By Natasha Lomas

You’ll need to prick up your ears for this slice of deepfakery emerging from the wacky world of synthesized media: A digital version of Albert Einstein — with a synthesized voice that’s been (re)created using AI voice cloning technology drawing on audio recordings of the famous scientist’s actual voice.

The startup behind the ‘uncanny valley’ audio deepfake of Einstein is Aflorithmic (whose seed round we covered back in February).

While the video engine powering the 3D character rending components of this ‘digital human’ version of Einstein is the work of another synthesized media company — UneeQ — which is hosting the interactive chatbot version on its website.

Alforithmic says the ‘digital Einstein’ is intended as a showcase for what will soon be possible with conversational social commerce. Which is a fancy way of saying deepfakes that make like historical figures will probably be trying to sell you pizza soon enough, as industry watchers have presciently warned.

The startup also says it sees educational potential in bringing famous, long deceased figures to interactive ‘life’.

Or, well, an artificial approximation of it — the ‘life’ being purely virtual and Digital Einstein’s voice not being a pure tech-powered clone either; Alforithmic says it also worked with an actor to do voice modelling for the chatbot (because how else was it going to get Digital Einstein to be able to say words the real-deal would never even have dreamt of saying — like, er, ‘blockchain’?). So there’s a bit more than AI artifice going on here too.

“This is the next milestone in showcasing the technology to make conversational social commerce possible,” Alforithmic’s COO Matt Lehmann told us. “There are still more than one flaws to iron out as well as tech challenges to overcome but overall we think this is a good way to show where this is moving to.”

In a blog post discussing how it recreated Einstein’s voice the startup writes about progress it made on one challenging element associated with the chatbot version — saying it was able to shrink the response time between turning around input text from the computational knowledge engine to its API being able to render a voiced response, down from an initial 12 seconds to less than three (which it dubs “near-real-time”). But it’s still enough of a lag to ensure the bot can’t escape from being a bit tedious.

Laws that protect people’s data and/or image, meanwhile, present a legal and/or ethical challenge to creating such ‘digital clones’ of living humans — at least not without asking (and most likely paying) first.

Of course historical figures aren’t around to ask awkward questions about the ethics of their likeness being appropriated for selling stuff (if only the cloning technology itself, at this nascent stage). Though licensing rights may still apply — and do in fact in the case of Einstein.

“His rights lie with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem who is a partner in this project,” says Lehmann, before ‘fessing up to the artist licence element of the Einstein ‘voice cloning’ performance. “In fact, we actually didn’t clone Einstein’s voice as such but found inspiration in original recordings as well as in movies. The voice actor who helped us modelling his voice is a huge admirer himself and his performance captivated the character Einstein very well, we thought.”

Turns out the truth about high-tech ‘lies’ is itself a bit of a layer cake. But with deepfakes it’s not the sophistication of the technology that matters so much as the impact the content has — and that’s always going to depend upon context. And however well (or badly) the faking is done, how people respond to what they see and hear can shift the whole narrative — from a positive story (creative/educational synthesized media) to something deeply negative (alarming, misleading deepfakes).

Concern about the potential for deepfakes to become a tool for disinformation is rising, too, as the tech gets more sophisticated — helping to drive moves toward regulating AI in Europe, where the two main entities responsible for ‘Digital Einstein’ are based.

Earlier this week a leaked draft of an incoming legislative proposal on pan-EU rules for ‘high risk’ applications of artificial intelligence included some sections specifically targeted at deepfakes.

Under the plan, lawmakers look set to propose “harmonised transparency rules” for AI systems that are designed to interact with humans and those used to generate or manipulate image, audio or video content. So a future Digital Einstein chatbot (or sales pitch) is likely to need to unequivocally declare itself artificial before it starts faking it — to avoid the need for Internet users to have to apply a virtual Voight-Kampff test.

For now, though, the erudite-sounding interactive Digital Einstein chatbot still has enough of a lag to give the game away. Its makers are also clearly labelling their creation in the hopes of selling their vision of AI-driven social commerce to other businesses.

Apple Music streaming revenue detailed in letter to artists

By Brian Heater

Streaming revenue has been a longtime concern for musicians, especially those scraping by in the wake of an industry-wide implosion of record labels. Of course, a year that has made touring an impossibility has only brought those issues into starker relief as the primary revenue source for many has completely dried up.

Apple is hoping to clarify some of the major questions around streaming revenue in a letter it sent to artists. The note, reported by The Wall Street Journal, outlines a revenue that amounts to around double what Spotify pays out.

“As the discussion about streaming royalties continues, we believe it is important to share our values,” the company notes. “We believe in paying every creator the same rate, that a play has a value, and that creators should never have to pay for featuring music in prime display space on its service.”

The company’s comment is a clear shot at Spotify’s much more varied payment model. What that actually works out to at the end of the day, however, is a slightly more complicated question. Things start at around a penny-per-stream (though it can go down from there). That amount is paid out to rights holders — be they record labels or publishers. It’s another in a long line of issues that have led many musicians to question the efficacy of intermediaries in 2021.

Spotify CEO Daniel Ek fanned the flames in an interview last year, stating, “Some artists that used to do well in the past may not do well in this future landscape, where you can’t record music once every three to four years and think that’s going to be enough.”

At the end of the day, it’s a battle of pennies — or fractions thereof, for many artists. And it has become immensely difficult for mid-tier and truly independent artists to maintain a living as the world has shifted to a streaming model. Services like Bandcamp and Soundcloud have worked to make things more manageable for smaller artists, but the life of a modern musician remains a struggle — especially in the age of COVID-19.

 

Soona raises $10.2M to make remote photo and video shoots easy

By Anthony Ha

Soona, a startup aiming to satisfy the growing content needs of the e-commerce ecosystem, is announcing that it has raised $10.2 million in Series A funding led by Union Square Ventures.

When I wrote about Soona in 2019, the model focused on staging shoots that can deliver videos and photos in 24 hours or less. The startup still operates studios in Austin, Denver and Minneapolis, but co-founder and CEO Liz Giorgi told me that during the pandemic, Soona shifted to a fully virtual/remote model — customers ship their products to Soona, then then watch the shoot remotely and offer immediate feedback, and only pay for the photos ($39 each) and video clips ($93 each) that they actually want.

In some cases, the studio isn’t even necessary — Giorgi said that 30% of Soona’s photographers and crew members are working from home.

Soona has now worked with more than 4,000 customers, including Lola Tampons, The Sill, and Wild Earth, with revenue growing 400% last year. Giorgi said that even as larger in-person shoots become possible again, this approach still makes sense for many clients.

“There’s nothing we sell online that does not require a visual, but not every single visual requires a massive full day shoot,” she said.

Soona

Image Credits: Soona

Giorgi also suggested that Soona’s approach has unlocked a “new level of scalability,” adding, “Internally at Soona, we really believe in the remote shoot experience. It’s not only more efficient, it’s a lot more fun not having to fly a brand manager from Miami and have them spend a full day at a warehouse in New York. That’s not only cost-prohibitive, it’s also a time-consuming and exhausting process for everyone.”

The new funding follows a $1.2 million seed round. Giorgi said the Series A will allow Soona to develop a subscription product with more collaboration tools and more data about what kinds of visual content is most effective.

“There’s an opportunity to own the visual ecosystem of e-commerce from beginning to end,” she said.

Giorgi also noted that Soona continues to employ its “candor clause” requiring investors to disclose whether they’ve ever faced complaints of sexual harassment or discrimination. In fact, the clause has been expanded to cover complaints around racism, ableism or anti-LGBTQ discrimination.

“In some ways it’s a gate that prevents bad actors from being involved […] but it really drives a deeper connection with the investor and the founder,” Giorgi said. “We can have conversation about our values and how we see the world. We get to have a conversation about equality and justice at at time when we’re talking a lot about equity and the cap table.”

Facebook’s decision-review body to take ‘weeks’ longer over Trump ban call

By Natasha Lomas

Facebook’s self-styled and handpicked ‘Oversight Board’ will make a decision on whether or not to overturn an indefinite suspension of the account of former president Donald Trump within “weeks”, it said in a brief update statement on the matter today.

The high profile case appears to have attracted major public interest, with the FOB tweeting that it’s received more than 9,000 responses so far to its earlier request for public feedback.

It added that its commitment to “carefully reviewing all comments” after an earlier extension of the deadline for feedback is responsible for the extension of the case timeline.

The Board’s statement adds that it will provide more information “soon”.

(2/2): The Board’s commitment to carefully reviewing all comments has extended the case timeline, in line with the Board’s bylaws. We will share more information soon.

— Oversight Board (@OversightBoard) April 16, 2021

Trump’s indefinite suspension from Facebook and Instagram was announced by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg on January 7, after the then-president of the U.S. incited his followers to riot at the nation’s Capitol — an insurrection that led to chaotic and violent scenes and a number of deaths as his supporters clashed with police.

However Facebook quickly referred the decision to the FOB for review — opening up the possibility that the ban could be overturned in short order as Facebook has said it will be bound by the case review decisions issued by the Board.

After the FOB accepted the case for review it initially said it would issue a decision within 90 days of January 21 — a deadline that would have fallen next Wednesday.

However it now looks like the high profile, high stakes call on Trump’s social media fate could be pushed into next month.

It’s a familiar development in Facebook-land. Delay has been a long time feature of the tech giant’s crisis PR response in the face of a long history of scandals and bad publicity attached to how it operates its platform. So the tech giant is unlikely to be uncomfortable that the FOB is taking its time to make a call on Trump’s suspension.

After all, devising and configuring the bespoke case review body — as its proprietary parody of genuine civic oversight — is a process that has taken Facebook years already.

In related FOB news this week, Facebook announced that users can now request the board review its decisions not to remove content — expanding the Board’s potential cases to include reviews of ‘keep ups’ (not just content takedowns).

This report was updated with a correction: The FOB previously extended the deadline for case submissions; it has not done so again as we originally stated

Facebook faces ‘mass action’ lawsuit in Europe over 2019 breach

By Natasha Lomas

Facebook is to be sued in Europe over the major leak of user data that dates back to 2019 but which only came to light recently after information on 533M+ accounts was found posted for free download on a hacker forum.

Today Digital Rights Ireland (DRI) announced it’s commencing a “mass action” to sue Facebook, citing the right to monetary compensation for breaches of personal data that’s set out in the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

Article 82 of the GDPR provides for a ‘right to compensation and liability’ for those affected by violations of the law. Since the regulation came into force, in May 2018, related civil litigation has been on the rise in the region.

The Ireland-based digital rights group is urging Facebook users who live in the European Union or European Economic Area to check whether their data was breach — via the haveibeenpwned website (which lets you check by email address or mobile number) — and sign up to join the case if so.

Information leaked via the breach includes Facebook IDs, location, mobile phone numbers, email address, relationship status and employer.

Facebook has been contacted for comment on the litigation.

The tech giant’s European headquarters is located in Ireland — and earlier this week the national data watchdog opened an investigation, under EU and Irish data protection laws.

A mechanism in the GDPR for simplifying investigation of cross-border cases means Ireland’s Data Protection Commission (DPC) is Facebook’s lead data regulator in the EU. However it has been criticized over its handling of and approach to GDPR complaints and investigations — including the length of time it’s taking to issue decisions on major cross-border cases. And this is particularly true of Facebook.

With the three-year anniversary of the GDPR fast approaching, the DPC has multiple open investigations into various aspects of Facebook’s business but has yet to issue a single decision against the company.

(The closest it’s come is a preliminary suspension order issued last year, in relation to Facebook’s EU to US data transfers. However that complaint long predates GDPR; and Facebook immediately filed to block the order via the courts. A resolution is expected later this year after the litigant filed his own judicial review of the DPC’s processes).

Since May 2018 the EU’s data protection regime has — at least on paper — baked in fines of up to 4% of a company’s global annual turnover for the most serious violations.

Again, though, the sole GDPR fine issued to date by the DPC against a tech giant (Twitter) is very far off that theoretical maximum. Last December the regulator announced a €450k (~$547k) sanction against Twitter — which works out to around just 0.1% of the company’s full-year revenue.

That penalty was also for a data breach — but one which, unlike the Facebook leak, had been publicly disclosed when Twitter found it in 2019. So Facebook’s failure to disclose the vulnerability it discovered and claimed to fix by September 2019 — which led to the leak of 533M accounts now — suggests it should face a higher sanction from the DPC than Twitter received.

However even if Facebook ends up with a more substantial GDPR penalty for this breach the watchdog’s caseload backlog and plodding procedural pace makes it hard to envisage a swift resolution to an investigation that’s only now a few days old.

Judging by past performance it’ll be years before the DPC decides on this 2019 Facebook leak — which likely explains why the DRI sees value in instigating class-action style litigation in parallel to the regulatory investigation.

“Compensation is not the only thing that makes this mass action worth joining. It is important to send a message to large data controllers that they must comply with the law and that there is a cost to them if they do not,” DRI writes on its website.

It also submitted a complaint about the Facebook breach to the DPC earlier this month, writing then that it was “also consulting with its legal advisors on other options including a mass action for damages in the Irish Courts”.

It’s clear that the GDPR enforcement gap is creating a growing opportunity for litigation funders to step in in Europe and take a punt on suing for data-related compensation damages — with a number of other mass actions announced last year.

In the case of DRI its focus is evidently on seeking to ensure that digital rights are upheld. But it told RTE that it believes compensation claims which force tech giants to pay money to users whose privacy rights have been violated is the best way to make them legally compliant.

Facebook, meanwhile, has sought to play down the breach it failed to disclose — claiming it’s ‘old data’ — a deflection that ignores the fact that dates of birth don’t change (nor do most people routinely change their mobile number or email address).

Plenty of the ‘old’ data exposed in this latest massive Facebook data leak will be very handy for spammers and fraudsters to target Facebook users — and also now for litigators to target Facebook for data-related damages.

Substack announces a $1M initiative to fund local journalists

By Anthony Ha

While the seemingly unending debate around Substack has focused on well-known writers with a national profile, the newsletter platform just announced that it will be supporting local (presumably non-famous) journalists through a new program.

The startup described Substack Local as a $1 million initiative that will fund independent writers creating local news publications. Similar to the Substack Pro program, the company will offer cash advances of up to $100,000, as well as mentorship and “subsidized access” to health insurance and design services. In exchange, Substack will take 85% of subscription revenue for a year (its cut goes back to the standard 10% after that).

Applications are due by April 29, with participants selected by a panel of judges with their own Substack publications — Zeynep Tufekci of Insight, Anne Helen Petersen of Culture Study, Dick Tofel of Second Rough Draft and Rachel Larimore, managing editor of The Dispatch.

Substack said that through this initiative, it’s also partnering with New Zealand-based Stuff to launch two new publications covering under-served regions in the country.

A Substack skeptic might suggest that programs like this are an easy way to drum up positive publicity. (Facebook and Google have also announced programs to support local news.) In Substack’s case, this comes after the platform has been criticized for bankrolling transphobic writers with big advances — just a few days ago, the company revealed that it has recently signed lucrative contracts with transgender writers including Daniel Lavery.

Regardless of motivation, the need for more local journalism is real, with news deserts created by the shutdowns and struggles of many local newspapers. If there’s going to be any hope, it seems more likely to come from new, digitally-focused publications and independent journalists.

“This is not a grants program, nor is it inspired by philanthropic intent,” the company wrote in a blog post. “Our goal is to foster an effective business model for independent local news that provides ample room for growth.”

Facebook to test new business discovery features in U.S. News Feed

By Sarah Perez

Facebook announced this morning it will begin testing a new experience for discovering businesses in its News Feed in the U.S. When live, users to tap on topics they’re interested in underneath posts and ads in their News Feed in order to explore related content from businesses. The change comes at a time when Facebook has been arguing how Apple’s App Tracking Transparency update will impact its small business customers — a claim many have dismissed as misleading, but nevertheless led some mom and pop shops to express concern about the impacts to their ad targeting capabilities, as a result. This new test is an example of how easily Facebook can tweak its News Feed to build out more data on its users, if needed.

The company suggests users may see the change under posts and ads from businesses selling beauty products, fitness or clothing, among other things.

The idea here is that Facebook would direct users to related businesses through a News Feed feature, when they take a specific action to discover related content. This, in turn, could help Facebook create a new set of data on its users, in terms of which users clicked to see more, and what sort of businesses they engaged with, among other things. Over time, it could turn this feature into an ad unit, if desired, where businesses could pay for higher placement.

“People already discover businesses while scrolling through News Feed, and this will make it easier to discover and consider new businesses they might not have found on their own,” the company noted in a brief announcement.

Facebook didn’t detail its further plans with the test, but said as it learned from how users interacted with the feature, it will expand the experience to more people and businesses.

Image Credits: Facebook

Along with news of the test, Facebook said it will roll out more tools for business owners this month, including the ability to create, publish and schedule Stories to both Facebook and Instagram; make changes and edits to Scheduled Posts; and soon, create and manage Facebook Photos and Albums from Facebook’s Business Suite. It will also soon add the ability to create and save Facebook and Instagram posts as drafts from the Business Suite mobile app.

Related to the businesses updates, Facebook updated features across ad products focused on connecting businesses with customer leads, including Lead Ads, Call Ads, and Click to Messenger Lead Generations.

Facebook earlier this year announced a new Facebook Page experience that gave businesses the ability to engage on the social network with their business profile for things like posting, commenting and liking, and access to their own, dedicated News Feed. And it had removed the Like button in favor of focusing on Followers.

It is not a coincidence that Facebook is touting its tools for small businesses at a time when there’s concern — much of it loudly shouted by Facebook itself — that its platform could be less useful to small business owners in the near future, when ad targeting capabilities becomes less precise as users vote ‘no’ when Facebook’s iOS app asks if it can track them.

Social audio startup Stationhead looks beyond music as it hits 100K monthly active users

By Anthony Ha

When I’ve written about Stationhead in the past, I’ve focused on how the startup aims to recapture bring personality and interactivity of a live radio broadcast to streaming music. But CEO Ryan Star said his ambitions are broader now: “We’re going to be the largest social audio platform in the world.”

The startup says it’s growing quickly, with 100,000 monthly active users — a number that’s growing by 65% each month — and 500,000 total users. There are 6,300 hosts on the platform, and they created nearly 2 million live and recorded streams in the first three months of the year.

COO Murray Levison told me that the pandemic has brought more artists to the platform as they look for new ways to reach their fans. For example, Cardi B joined the fan show Bardigangradio last month, prompting 132,000 paid streams of her new single on Apple Music and Spotify during the broadcast. (Stationhead integrates with both music streaming services — when a DJ cues up a song, it’s actually playing through your account.)

At the same time, both Star (who co-founded the company due to his own frustrations as an independent musician) and Levison suggested that playing music is not quite as central to their vision as it used to be. Instead, they said Stationhead is all about live audio broadcasting, with or without music.

From a product perspective, Levison said they’re trying to build “the best broadcasting tools for creators and everybody people to use.” At the same time, he added, “Music is still at the core of what we’ve built. Just like games are to Twitch, music is our social glue.”

Ryan Star CEO Photo credit Shervin Lainez

Image Credits: Shervin Lainez / Stationhead

While the company emphasizes the live experience (which Levison described as “the core value prop”), Stationhead also supports recording shows for listening later, and apparently 50% of users are listening to both live and recorded shows. It has also been beta testing a tipping feature that will allow broadcasters to monetize their shows.

Of course, you can’t talk about social audio without talking about Clubhouse, which was attracting 2 million active users each week in January, according to CEO Paul Davison. Levison suggested that the buzz around Clubhouse has also benefited Stationhead as potential acquirers and investors get more excited about social audio. And Star argued that the companies are taking very different approaches.

“It’s in the name Clubhouse, it’s exclusive,” Star said. “It’s about social climbing and getting closer to the stage. [Stationhead is] living in the world where Cardi B was excited to meet her fans. We are for the 99 percent.”

UserZoom raises $100M, acquires EnjoyHQ, to grow its platform to improve UX and other interactive design elements

By Ingrid Lunden

Graphic designer Paul Rand once famously said that the public was more familiar with bad design than good design. While he was referring to most of the design in the world being “bad”, these days that phrase might take on a second meaning: people typically only notice and talk about (and usually complain about) design when it is ugly, or works badly. Conversely, if it’s good, and it works, you don’t hear much.

Today a startup called UserZoom that has built a platform used by companies like Google, Microsoft, PayPal, Salesforce and many others stay off the bad design radar — with tools to evaluate their design and identify where and when it doesn’t work, and how to link it up better with bigger customer experience strategies — is announcing some significant funding to expand its business.

The company has raised $100 million — money that CEO and co-founder Alfonso de la Nuez said will be used to continue building its tools and mission to make design as critical to a company’s mission as sales might be to an e-commerce company. Alongside this, it has made an acquisition, of another experience insights company called EnjoyHQ, to expand its research operations.

“We feel companies are only scratching the surface of what they could be doing,” he said. “We think experience management could become the third system of record, similar to ERP or CRM.”

This funding is being led by Owl Rock, with other unnamed investors participating. Prior to this, UserZoom raised some $34 million. It is not disclosing valuation, but de la Nuez notes that this latest investment represents a minority stake UserZoom, that the startup is profitable and grew revenues by 40% last year, and that it’s currently on an annual run rate of $80 million.

De la Nuez and UserZoom are currently based out of Los Gatos in the South Bay Area, but the company actually got its start in Barcelona, Spain, where de la Nuez and his co-founder Xavier Mestres originally ran a more old-school user experience design consulting company.

“We had physical labs, testing sites, were we ran focus groups,” he recalled. “It was tedious and manual.”

Years of working like that, and he and Mestres and a third co-founder who has since left the company, Javier Darriba, decided to see how and if they could retool the concept as a piece of software.

Their timing was perfect: It was 2007, the year of the iPhone debut, and the smaller screen of that device, and Apple’s prowess in nailing design and user experience, suddenly got the tech world (and the rest of the world) thinking about how they, too, could rethink their own digital experiences. You might think of it as an earlier iteration of the kind of digital transformation that people talk about today.

The company was growing in Spain at a time when it was much harder for startups to raise substantial rounds, so UserZoom made the decision move to California, but Mestres, who is the CTO, still runs the startup’s engineering, design and customer support teams (100 out of 300 staff in all) out of Barcelona. The cost base of employing tech people in Spain are completely different from the Bay Area, “and it’s helped us become profitable,” de la Nuez said.

The core of the company’s product is a platform that runs what it refers to as “XIM” (Experience Insights Management), which lets customers test out any digital experience — be it something on the web, or a phone, or a smartwatch or an interactive voice service, and soon, other interfaces such as automotive. (And it’s a list that is likely to grow as more hardware and services are built.) It can recruit testers to evaluate design, product interaction, marketing decisions that the company is trying out, and so on.

That testing interface is essentially started as product development begins, the idea being that customers can apply the principle of “agile development” as they continue to work on the product, rather than leave all of that to be tested after a product is technically already completed.

As a company users UserZoom, the results of tests can be shared among different stakeholders who can make notes on how product development would work (or wouldn’t work) with how they are envisioning, say, a new sales strategy or engagement goal. It also helps develop KPIs for customers to determine how and if a design is meeting KPIs.

These can cover not just basic goals like “more conversions” or “less shopping cart abandonment” or “opting in to cookies” but also whether a design is meeting accessibility goals. (As seen with the recent controversy around Ravelry, this is indeed a growing issue and one that de la Nuez said will be getting more attention at UserZoom.)

The space of UX and testing to improve it is a pretty crowded and well-funded one, with others in it including LogRocket, UserTesting, ContentSquare, companies focusing on specific verticals, like AB Tasty and many others. What’s giving UserZoom an edge, it seems, is not just its extensive and impressive customer base, but its focus on trying to provide an end-to-end concept of design and experience and how it might fit in with a bigger business strategy.

“In today’s digital economy, the quality of the customer and user experience is the driving factor that helps businesses retain customers and generate increased revenue,” said Pravin Vazirani, managing director at Owl Rock, in a statement. “Despite this, many organizations are still unable to properly extract and manage the potential insights that lie within a customer journey. UserZoom enables companies to harness these insights and drive improved digital experiences.” Andy Lefkarites, an investor at Owl Rock said in a statement, “We see a tremendous market opportunity for UserZoom, which enables companies of all sizes and industries to continually enhance and prioritize their digital experience strategy. We are pleased to be able to support UserZoom with growth capital to enable them to seize that opportunity.”

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

By Jonathan Shieber

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Building customer-first relationships in a privacy-first world is critical

By Ram Iyer
Travis Clinger Contributor
Travis Clinger is SVP, head of addressability and ecosystem at LiveRamp, a data connectivity platform safely moving data through the pipes connecting most every brand, tech platform, publisher and advertiser on the open internet.
Jeff Nienaber Contributor
Jeff Nienaber is senior director, global audience ads at Microsoft Advertising, which provides intelligent solutions that empower advertisers to deliver engaging, personalized experiences to over half a billion people worldwide.

In business today, many believe that consumer privacy and business results are mutually exclusive — to excel in one area is to lack in the other. Consumer privacy is seen by many in the technology industry as an area to be managed.

But the truth is, the companies who champion privacy will be better positioned to win in all areas. This is especially true as the digital industry continues to undergo tectonic shifts in privacy — both in government regulation and browser updates.

By the end of 2022, all major browsers will have phased out third-party cookies — the tracking codes placed on a visitor’s computer generated by another website other than your own. Additionally, mobile device makers are limiting identifiers allowed on their devices and applications. Across industry verticals, the global enterprise ecosystem now faces a critical moment in which digital advertising will be forever changed.

Up until now, consumers have enjoyed a mostly free internet experience, but as publishers adjust to a cookie-less world, they could see more paywalls and less free content.

They may also see a decrease in the creation of new free apps, mobile gaming, and other ad-supported content unless businesses find new ways to authenticate users and maintain a value exchange of free content for personalized advertising.

When consumers authenticate themselves to brands and sites, they create revenue streams for publishers as well as the opportunity to receive discounts, first-looks, and other specially tailored experiences from brands.

To protect consumer data, companies need to architect internal systems around data custodianship versus acting from a sense of data entitlement. While this is a challenging and massive ongoing evolution, the benefits of starting now are enormous.

Putting privacy front and center creates a sustainable digital ecosystem that enables better advertising and drives business results. There are four steps to consider when building for tomorrow’s privacy-centric world:

Transparency is key

As we collectively look to redesign how companies interact with and think about consumers, we should first recognize that putting people first means putting transparency first. When people trust a brand or publishers’ intentions, they are more willing to share their data and identity.

This process, where consumers authenticate themselves — or actively share their phone number, email or other form of identity — in exchange for free content or another form of value, allows brands and publishers to get closer to them.

TikTok funds first episodic public health series ‘VIRAL’ from NowThis

By Sarah Perez

TikTok is taking another step towards directly funding publishers’ content with today’s announcement that it’s financially backing the production of media publisher NowThis’ new series, “VIRAL,” which will feature interviews with public health experts and a live Q&A session focused on answering questions about the pandemic. The partnership represents TikTok’s first-ever funding of an episodic series from a publisher, though TikTok has previously funded creator content.

Through TikTok’s Instructive Accelerator Program, which was formerly known as the Creative Learning Fund, other TikTok publishers have received grants and hands-on support from TikTok so they could produce quality instructive content for TikTok’s #LearnOnTikTok initiative. The program today is structured as four, eight-week cycles during which time publishers post videos four times per week.

NowThis had also participated in the Creative Learning Fund last year and was selected for the latest cycle of the Instructive Accelerator Program. But its “VIRAL” series is separate from these efforts.

NowThis says it brought the concept for the show to TikTok earlier this year outside of the accelerator program, and TikTok greenlit it. TikTok then co-produced the series and provided some funding. Neither NowThis nor TikTok would comment on the extent of the financial backing involved, however.

The “VIRAL” series itself is hosted by infectious disease clinical researcher Laurel Bristow, who spent the last year working on COVID treatments and research. Every Thursday, Bristow will break down COVID facts in easy-to-understand language, NowThis says, including things like vaccine efficacy, transmission timelines, and treatment. The show will also bust COVID myths, provide information about ongoing public health risks, and feature interviews with a cross-section of experts.

Each episode of the will be 45 minutes in length and will also include an interactive segment where the TikTok viewing audience will be able to engage in a real-time Q&A session about the show’s content. In total, five episodes are being produced, and will air starting on Thursday April 15 at 6 PM ET and will run through Thursday May 13 on the @NowThis main TikTok page.

@nowthisTune in to our new TikTok live show VIRAL on Thursdays at 6pm ET with host @kinggutterbaby

♬ original sound – nowthis

NowThis has become one of the most-followed news media accounts on TikTok, with 4.6 million followers across its news and politics channels, since launching a little over a year ago. Because of its focus on video, it’s been a good fit for the TikTok’s platform.

The approach TikTok is taking with “VIRAL’s” production, it’s worth noting, stands in contrast to how other social media platforms are handling the pandemic and COVID-19 information. While most, including TikTok, have pledged to fact check COVID-19 information, remove misinformation and conspiracies, point users to official sources for health information, and provide other resources, TikTok is directly funding public health content featuring scientists and researchers, and then promoting it on its network.

The company explained to TechCrunch its thinking on the matter.

“As the pandemic continues to evolve, we think it’s important to provide our community an outlet to dispel misinformation and communicate with public health experts in real-time,” said Robbie Levin, Manager of Media Partnerships at TikTok. “NowThis has consistently been a great partner that produces engaging and informative content, so we felt this series would be an impactful and important avenue for our users to receive credible information on our platform,” Levin noted.

While the pandemic has driven the topic of choice here, paying creators for content is not new. And TikTok isn’t the only one to do so. Instagram and Snapchat are both funding creator content for their TikTok clones, Reels and Spotlight, respectively. And new social platforms like Clubhouse are funding creators’ shows, as well.

TikTok says it’s not currently talking to other publishers to produce more series like “VIRAL,” but it isn’t ruling out the idea of expanding its creator funding and producing efforts. In addition to its accelerator program, which is continuing, TikTok says if “VIRAL” proves successful and the community responds positively, it will pursue similar opportunities in the future.

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

By Sarah Perez

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

By Sarah Perez

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Plex raises $50M growth round to fuel ad-supported streaming, expansions

By Sarah Perez

Streaming media software maker Plex announced today it has raised a $50 million growth equity round from existing investor Intercap ahead of its planned business expansion into rentals, purchases and subscription content. This is the first financing Plex has taken on since 2014 and is being partly used to purchase shares and options from Plex’s early seed investors and shareholders from prior acquisitions, and to give the company’s earliest employees a bit of liquidity. Of the $50 million raised, $15 million will be put to work as new growth capital.

The company declined to disclose its valuation as a result of the funding — technically Plex’s Series C — but says it resulted in a relatively low dilution for its existing investors who have stayed in, including Kleiner Perkins and Nexstar, for example. Meanwhile, some of its earliest investors were able to get a 10x return or greater on their shares.

As part of the round, Intercap chairman and CEO Jason Chapnik joined the board of directors as chairman, and Intercap president James Merkur also joined the board. Including this financing, Plex has raised more than $60 million.

To date, Plex has been cautious about fundraising because, as Plex CEO Keith Valory says, “we really hadn’t had to.” That is, the company has been profitable on its own.

But things have been changing at Plex in recent years. Though it has always catered to the home media enthusiast with its software for organizing movies, TV, music and photos on users’ home networks, Plex more seriously began to go after the larger market of cord cutters with its 2017 launch of a low-cost, DIY streaming TV service. In the years since, it expanded into free, ad-supported streaming and last year took on rivals like ViacomCBS-owned Pluto TV with its own launch of a live TV service, also supported by ads.

Today, Plex now offers more than 20,000 free on-demand movies and shows and over 150 free live TV channels in 193 countries, alongside access to other content, including personal media libraries, streaming music and podcasts.

As it expanded the types of services it offers, it also lowered the barriers to entry for Plex newcomers. Users now no longer have to sign up for an account to access the ad-supported video or live linear streaming service, which impacts Plex’s business model.

Image Credits: Plex

“That is much more tailored towards paid marketing — like getting integrated into the search capabilities for devices like Roku, Fire TV or Vizio, etc. But then, also, using [search engine marketing] and Facebook and other, even on-device paid marketing programs to get people to get in and start watching something,” says Valory. “We found that the kind of paid marketing and customer acquisition costs for that business is really efficient. We’ve been able to get profitable on that marketing investment really, really quickly,” he adds.

That model is what prompted Plex to consider raising capital to grow this aspect of its business and expand in new areas, as well.

That included managing subscription content and offering rentals and purchases — something Plex began to talk about last year as part of its roadmap, saying they could potentially arrive in 2020. But then COVID hit, and though streaming itself grew — particularly ad-supported video in April through June or July — some Plex employees were hit harder than others by the pandemic. And Plex also needed more time to ready the infrastructure involved.

It’s now preparing to launch these efforts this year, perhaps initially with a video rental marketplace or a subscription aggregator. (Plex says it’s not sure which will get out of the gate first because both are being built simultaneously.)

With the subscription play, Plex isn’t looking just at selling subscriptions the way that say, Amazon or Apple do through Prime Video Channels or Apple TV Channels. It’s also considering deep linking technology to get users to their favorite streaming apps, including those from the big-name brands that otherwise wouldn’t want to be a part of someone else’s service. This could position Plex as a competitor to services like Reelgood, which today allows users to track what they’re watching and get recommendations across all their streaming apps, not just within each individual app.

Plex’s video rental (and maybe purchases) marketplace, meanwhile, will be much like any other, offering users a chance to pay for content they couldn’t find a way to stream.

Both ideas fit in with Plex’s larger goal to become a one-stop shop for all your media needs.

“We’ve always had a fairly audacious mission. You shouldn’t have to go to 20 different apps to get the content you care about. You should be able to go to one place and we should be able to do all that for you,” notes Valory.

Image Credits: Plex

To fuel its growth on both this front and for its ad-supported businesses, Plex plans to use the funds to expand its now 100-person team with investments in marketing and monetization teams, as well as on the development side.

“Certainly, there’s still way more work to do in terms of amplifying the efforts on our performance and growth marketing and engagement,” Valory says. “I mean, the business is growing super fast, so we’ve done a pretty good job, to date, of building out the muscles to get new users in the pipeline for the AVOD business. There’s still a ton of work to do there, but a lot of the muscles that we’re building there will help in terms of the top-of-funnel and increasing engagement for the whole product,” he adds.

Intercap, which led Plex’s round, is in it for the long haul — citing in particular how the fragmentation happening now in the streaming landscape could ultimately be good for Plex’s own growth.

“Content providers, creators and consumers are all paying the price for the explosion of so many streaming media services and the industry needs a trusted way for the experience to be as enjoyable as possible,” says Chapnik. “Plex has always been at the forefront of solving new media challenges and we believe they are primed to solve this problem — they are the cable company of the future.”

The TechCrunch Survey of Tech Startup Hubs in England and Wales

By Mike Butcher

TechCrunch is embarking on a major new project to survey European founders and investors in cities outside the major European capitals.

Over the next few weeks, we will ask entrepreneurs in these cities to talk about their ecosystems, in their own words. For this survey we are interested in startup hubs in England and Wales. (Scotland will follow, and Northern Ireland is here).

So this is your chance to put your cities on the Techcrunch Map!

We’re like to hear from founders and investors. We are particularly interested in hearing from diverse founders and investors. These are our humble suggestions for the cities we’d most like to hear from:

Birmingham
Brighton
Bristol & Bath
Cambridge
Cardiff
Liverpool
Manchester
Newcastle
Oxford
Reading and Thames valley
York

If you are a tech startup founder or investor in one of the above cities please fill out the survey form here.

The more founders/investors we hear from in a particular city, the more likely it is that city will be featured in TechCrunch.

This is the follow-up to the huge survey of investors (see also below) we’ve done over the last six or more months, largely in capital cities.

These formed part of a broader series of surveys we’re doing regularly for ExtraCrunch, our subscription service that unpacks key issues for startups and investors.

In the first wave of surveys, the cities we wrote about were largely capitals. You can see them listed here.

This time, we will be surveying founders and investors in Europe’s other cities to capture how European hubs are growing, from the perspective of the people on the ground.

We’d like to know how your city’s startup scene is evolving, how the tech sector is being impacted by COVID-19, and generally how your city will evolve.

We leave submissions mostly unedited and are generally looking for at least one or two paragraphs in answers to the questions.

So if you are a tech startup founder or investor in one of these cities please fill out our survey form here.

Thank you for participating. If you have questions you can email mike@techcrunch.com and/or reply on Twitter to @mikebutcher.

Daily Crunch: Spotify unveils an in-car entertainment system

By Anthony Ha

Spotify wants to have a bigger presence in your car, Apple hints at iPad-centric announcements and Microsoft’s new Surface Laptop goes on sale. This is your Daily Crunch for April 13, 2021.

The big story: Spotify unveils an in-car entertainment system

Spotify’s new device is the oddly (but memorably!) named Car Thing. While there are plenty of other ways to listen to Spotify while driving, the company said this will provide a “more seamless” and personalized experience. Car Thing includes a touchscreen, a navigation knob, voice control and preset buttons to access your favorite music, podcasts and playlists.

This is actually an updated version of an in-car device that Spotify started testing a couple years ago. While Spotify is now making Car Thing available more broadly, it sounds like the company still views this as a bit of an experiment — during this limited U.S. release, it’s available for free, with users just paying for the cost of shipping.

The tech giants

Apple’s next event is April 20 — Invites for its “Spring Loaded” event went out today, sporting what appears to be a doodle drawn on an iPad.

Microsoft’s latest Surface Laptop goes on sale this week, starting at $999 — Sometimes the classics are classics for a reason.

Facebook, Instagram users can now ask ‘oversight’ panel to review decisions not to remove content — The move expands the Oversight Board’s remit beyond reviewing (and mostly reversing) content takedowns.

Startups, funding and venture capital

Fortnite-maker Epic completes $1B funding round — The company is amassing a large portfolio of titles through acquisitions, a trend that is almost certain to continue with this latest massive round.

Home gym startup Tempo raises $220M to meet surge in demand for its workout device — Tempo’s freestanding cabinet, which the company launched in February 2020, includes a 42-inch touchscreen with a 3D motion-tracking camera that consistently scans, tracks and coaches users as they work out.

ConsenSys raises $65M from JP Morgan, Mastercard, UBS to build infrastructure for DeFi — The fundraise looks like a highly strategic one, based around the idea that traditional institutions will need visibility into the increasingly influential world of “decentralized finance.”

Advice and analysis from Extra Crunch

What’s fueling hydrogen tech? — In 2021, the world may be ready for hydrogen.

Five product lessons to learn before you write a line of code — To uncover some basic truths about building products, we spoke to three entrepreneurs who have each built more than one company.

Expect an even hotter AI venture capital market in the wake of the Microsoft-Nuance deal — The $19.7 billion transaction is Microsoft’s second-largest to date, only beaten by its purchase of LinkedIn.

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

Everything else

Republican antitrust bill would block all big tech acquisitions — There are about to be a lot of antitrust bills taking aim at big tech.

Startup Alley at TechCrunch Disrupt 2021 is filling up fast — If you’re busy shoving envelopes and busting down boundaries, don’t miss your chance to exhibit in Startup Alley at TechCrunch Disrupt 2021 in September.

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

Facebook tests video speed dating events with ‘Sparked’

By Sarah Perez

Facebook confirmed it’s testing a video speed-dating app called Sparked, after the app’s website was spotted by The Verge. Unlike dating app giants such as Tinder, Sparked users don’t swipe on people they like or direct message others. Instead, they cycle through a series of short video dates during an event to make connections with others. The product itself is being developed by Facebook’s internal R&D group, the NPE Team, but had not been officially announced.

“Sparked is an early experiment by New Product Experimentation,” a spokesperson for Facebook’s NPE Team confirmed to TechCrunch. “We’re exploring how video-first speed dating can help people find love online.”

They also characterized the app as undergoing a “small, external beta test” designed to generate insights about how video dating could work, in order to improve people’s experiences with Facebook products. The app is not currently live on app stores, only the web.

Sparked is, however, preparing to test the experience at a Chicago Date Night event on Wednesday, The Verge’s report noted.

Image Credits: Facebook

 

During the sign-up process, Sparked tells users to “be kind,” “keep this a safe space,” and “show up.” A walkthrough of how the app also works explains that participants will meet face to face during a series of 4-minute video dates, which they can then follow up with a 10-minute date if all goes well. They can additionally choose to exchange contact info, like phone numbers, emails, or Instagram handles.

Facebook, of course, already offers a dating app product, Facebook Dating.

That experience, which takes place inside Facebook itself, first launched in 2018 outside the U.S., and then arrived in the U.S. the following year. In the early days of the pandemic, Facebook announced it would roll out a sort of virtual dating experience that leveraged Messenger for video chats — a move came at a time when many other dating apps in the market also turned to video to serve users under lockdowns. These video experiences could potentially compete with Sparked, unless the new product’s goal is to become another option inside Facebook Dating itself.

Image Credits: Facebook

Despite the potential reach, Facebook’s success in the dating market is not guaranteed, some analysts have warned. People don’t think of Facebook as a place to go meet partners, and the dating product today is still separated from the main Facebook app for privacy purposes. That means it can’t fully leverage Facebook’s network effects to gain traction, as users in this case may not want their friends and family to know about their dating plans.

Facebook’s competition in dating is fierce, too. Even the pandemic didn’t slow down the dating app giants, like Match Group or newly IPO’d Bumble. Tinder’s direct revenues increased 18% year-over-year to $1.4 billion in 2020, Match Group reported, for instance. Direct revenues from the company’s non-Tinder brands collectively increased 16%. And Bumble topped its revenue estimates in its first quarter as a public company, pulling in $165.6 million in the fourth quarter.

Image Credits: Facebook

Facebook, on the other hand, has remained fairly quiet about its dating efforts. Though the company cited over 1.5 billion matches in the 20 countries it’s live, a “match” doesn’t indicate a successful pairing — in fact, that sort of result may not be measured. But it’s early days for the product, which only rolled out to European markets this past fall.

The NPE Team’s experiment in speed dating could ultimately help to inform Facebook of what sort of new experiences a dating app user may want to use, and how.

The company didn’t say if or when Sparked would roll out more broadly.

❌