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Watch Sacha Baron Cohen skewer Zuckerberg’s ‘twisted logic’ on hate speech and fakes

By Natasha Lomas

Comedian Sacha Baron Cohen has waded into the debate about social media regulation.

In an award-acceptance speech to the Anti-Defamation League yesterday, the creator of Ali G and Borat delivered a precision take-down of what he called Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s “bullshit” arguments against regulating his platform.

The speech is well worth watching in full as Cohen articulates, with a comic’s truth-telling clarity, the problem with “the greatest propaganda machine in history” (aka social media platform giants) and how to fix it: Broadcast-style regulation that sets basic standards and practices of what content isn’t acceptable for them to amplify to billions.

“There is such a thing as objective truth,” said Cohen. “Facts do exist. And if these internet companies really want to make a difference, they should hire enough monitors to actually monitor, work closely with groups like the ADL and the NAACP, insist on facts and purge these lies and conspiracies from their platforms.”

Attacking social media platforms for promulgating “a sewer of bigotry and vile conspiracy theories that threaten our democracy and to some degree our planet,” he pointed out that freedom of speech is not the same as freedom of reach.

“This can’t possibly be what the creators of the internet had in mind,” he said. “I believe that’s it’s time for a fundamental rethink of social media and how it spreads hate, conspiracies and lies.”

“Voltaire was right. Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities — and social media lets authoritarians push absurdities to billions of people,” he added.

Cohen also rubbished Zuckerberg’s recent speech at Georgetown University in which the Facebook founder sought to appropriate the mantle of “free speech” to argue against social media regulation.

“This is not about limiting anyone’s free speech. This is about giving people — including some of the most reprehensible people in history — the biggest platform in history to reach a third of the planet.”

“We are not asking these companies to determine the boundaries of free speech across society, we just want them to be responsible on their platforms,” Cohen added.

On Facebook’s decision to stick by its morally bankrupt position of allowing politicians to pay it to spread lying, hatefully propaganda, Cohen also had this to say: “Under this twisted logic if Facebook were around in the 1930s it would have allowed Hitler to post 30-second ads on his solution to the ‘Jewish problem.’ ”

Ouch.

YouTube also came in for criticism during the speech, including for its engagement-driven algorithmic recommendation engine which Cohen pointed out had single-handedly recommended videos by conspiracist Alex Jones “billions of times.”

Just six people decide what information “so much of the world sees,” he noted, name-checking the “silicon six” — as he called Facebook’s Zuckerberg, Google’s Sundar Pichai, Alphabet’s Larry Page and Sergey Brin, YouTube’s Susan Wojcicki and Twitter’s Jack Dorsey.

“All billionaires, all Americans, who care more about boosting their share price than about protecting democracy. This is ideological imperialism,” he went on. “Six unelected individuals in Silicon Valley imposing their vision on the rest of the world, unaccountable to any government and acting like they’re above the reach of law.

“It’s like we’re living in the Roman Empire and Mark Zuckerberg is Caesar. At least that would explain his haircut.”

Cohen ended the speech with an appeal for societies to “prioritize truth over lies, tolerance over prejudice, empathy over indifference, and experts over ignoramuses” and thereby save democracy from the greed of “high tech robber barons.”

Austin-based Next Coast Ventures just closed its second fund with $130 million

By Connie Loizos

It’s November. We’re eleven years into a bull run. And a protracted trade war with China — not to mention the impeachment proceedings — are causing some nervousness about what next year will hold.

Little wonder that venture firms, which have been writing checks faster than ever in recent years, are also stocking up on dry powder. In the 10 days alone, some of the many firms to announce new funds include Boldstart Ventures, Drive Capital, .406 Ventures, CAVU Venture Partners, Unusual Ventures, Northzone, Kindred Ventures, EQT Ventures, Inspired Capital, and Norwest Venture Partners.

Newly in the same company is Next Coast Ventures, a firm that just closed on $130 million in fresh capital commitments to pursue a thematic approach and focused (for now) on the future of work, the rise of digital natives, the death of traditional retail, and the ways that ubiquitous connectivity is changing marketplaces.

It’s the second fund for the firm, which closed its debut fund with a very respectable $85 million, thanks in large part to its two managing directors: Michael Smerlko previously bought a technology services company called ServiceSource that he ran for 12 years and eventually took public. His cofounder, Thomas Ball, previously spent more than a decade with Austin Ventures.

Interestingly, for many years, Austin Ventures was the only game in town in Austin, but that has changed meaningfully since it announced in 2015 that it wouldn’t be raising more capital. Not only has Next Coast just gathered up more capital, but so have numerous other regional firms this year. In April, for example, we reported on the newest, $105 million, fund raisedLiveOak Ventures. Meanwhile, Silverton Partners, one of the city’s most active investors, is zeroing in on a new $120 million fund just one year after closing a $108 million fund and several other firms — including ATX Ventures and Quake Capital are trying to raise sizable debut funds.

As for Next Coast, some of its many current bets include Everylywell, a company that sells tens of in-home diagnostic tests and that closed on $50 million in funding earlier this year and AlertMedia, a cloud-based mass notification system that aims to streamline notifications across devices and platforms and which raised $25 million in Series C funding back in January.  (You can check out a longer list of its investments here.)

The firm has also seen five companies in its portfolio sell to acquirers (all for undisclosed terms). While one has yet to be announced, the other four are OnRamp, a cloud hosting company that sold last year to a data and IT company called LightEdge; the personal finance startup Clarity Money, which sold to Goldman Sachs last year; the wardrobe tech company Finery, which sold to Stitch Fix in September; was the smart oven maker Brava, which just yesterday disclosed that it’s being acquired by Middleby, an industrial equipment company.

We were in touch with in touch yesterday with Smerlko to learn how Next Coast’s new and bigger fund might differ from its predecessor and the answer seems to be: not much. He said check sizes will increase, from a range of $3 million to $7 million into Series A stage companies to more like $5 million to $10 million at the upper end. He also suggested that NextCoast remains as committed as ever to uncovering and funding talent regionally, something that’s getting easier all the time, evidently.

“Austin’s entrepreneurial and startup ecosystem is absolutely booming,” Smerlko wrote us via email. “It’s never been cheaper to start a company, and places like Austin with a high quality of life, growing available capital and a strong entrepreneurial spirit will continue to be a hotbed for founders and tech talent.”

OutVoice officially launches its freelancer payment tools

By Anthony Ha

OutVoice, a startup that allows editors to pay freelancers with the click of a button, has officially left beta testing and is open to any publication.

The company is also announcing that it has raised an undisclosed amount of seed funding from content monetization startup Coil.

OutVoice was founded by Matt Saincome and Issa Diao (pictured above). When the product was still in beta last year, Saincome told me it was created to solve “a horrible problem for everyone” involved in publishing freelance work: When he was a freelance writer, he’d have to constantly bug editors so that he could get paid, but then as the founder of the satirical sites The Hard Times and Hard Drive, he realized that managing payments was a huge headache.

OutVoice simplifies the whole process by integrating directly into WordPress and other content management systems. When editors load a story into the CMS, they can also identify the contributor and the payment amount. Then once they hit publish, the payment is sent and should arrive in the freelancer’s back account within a few days.

This means freelancers don’t have to worry about payment delays, while publications don’t have to worry about tracking invoices and writing checks (or losing their best writers and photographers if they don’t stay on top of this).

OutVoice also handles the initial on-boarding paperwork that the freelancers need to fill out, and it creates monthly reports for accounting and taxes. Publications can pay for the service on either a per-transaction basis (5% of payments plus $1 per transaction) or through a monthly subscription, which starts at $29 per month.

And by working with Coil, OutVoice says it can take advantage of new payment technologies like Interledger.

“Our goal at Coil is to make it easy and effortless for content creators to get paid,” said Coil CEO Stefan Thomas in a statement. “During their beta, OutVoice has already erased hundreds of years of lag time between freelance content creators and their paycheck. We’re excited to partner with OutVoice to promote more efficient payment solutions and processes, giving creators more time and money to create.”

Keywee introduces a new Loyalty Score to help publishers reach the most valuable readers

By Anthony Ha

I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but here’s the truth: Not all readers are created equal.

At least, that’s how things look from a user acquisition perspective, where publishers running ad campaigns to reach new readers might end up bringing in a whole bunch of random visitors who are unlikely to ever return their site again.

“It’s less about just getting eyeballs on the content,” said Jared Lansky, chief commercial officer at marketing startup Keywee. “Loyalty is just more valuable for publishers.”

Keywee (backed Eric Schmidt’s Innovation Endeavors and The New York Times) is trying to solve this problem with a new feature called the Loyalty Score. Lansky told me that the score does exactly what the name suggests – it measures reader loyalty, based on how many times someone returns to the site and how many pages they view.

This, in turn, can help publishers make smarter decisions about growth. They can see which of the Facebook ad campaigns run through Keywee are actually bringing in loyal readers and which aren’t. And they can tweak the campaigns accordingly, targeting audiences and highlighting articles in a way that’s most likely to attract loyal readers rather than random visitors.

The score can also shape the way that publishers interact with visitors on their own site. For example, if they’re trying to build a subscription business, they can target their subscription offers and paywalls at readers with a higher Loyalty Score.

Lansky also noted that the data used to calculate the score comes from the Keywee pixel and the Facebook pixel, with no additional data collection required.

“Loyalty Score has given us a whole new world of insights into our user acquisition campaigns,” said Kiplinger.com Director of Digital Operations & Advertising Andy Price in a statement. “For example, we’re seeing that promoting content that talks about planning for retirement drives more return visitors than posts about saving money on groceries.”

Splice teaches AI to sell Similar Sounds as users double

By Josh Constine

Splice is blowing up like a hit song. The audio sample marketplace has doubled revenue and user count in a year, and now reaches 3 million musicians. 70% of those visit weekly to hunt down the freshest and trendiest sounds that give their tracks that special something, and many pay $7.99 for unlimited access.

But words can’t always describe music. Searching by genre and subjective tags can take forever and leave artists frustrated when the sounds they find they don’t resonate right. So Splice has taught a machine learning algorithm to draw connections between samples. That allows it for the first time to recommend Similar Sounds to one a musician is currently listening to, based on their pitch, melody, rhythm, and harmonic profile. Sometimes the similarities are surprising — something only a machine could hear.

Splice co-founder and CEO Steve Martocci

It’s an express lane down sonic rabbit hole. Splice is seeing a double-digit increase in artists successfully finding and downloading a sample after a search. That means more subscribers, and more creators relying on Splice to power their artistic process. No wonder Splice was able to raise a $57.5 million Series C from Union Square in March.

“Like with Google Reverse Image Search…now you can do that for any sound” says Splice co-founder and CEO Steve Martocci. “Lots of companies do machine learning that might help them on the backend but this is a real user feature that’s providing value.”

Splice Similar Sounds

Prioritizing where to provide value next is Splice’s biggest challenge amidst hyper growth. The startup launched in 2013 as sort of a Github for music production that saved between every change so artists could revert to old versions and easily coordinate with collaborators. More recently it fought rampant digital instrument piracy by letting users pay a fee per month for access to popular but pricey synthesizers and plug-ins with a rent-to-own model.

Its breakout product has been the Splice Sounds marketplace where musicians preview 60 million audio samples per day from keyboard flourishes to snare drum hits. The snippets are royalty-free to use, leading many sourced from Splice to end up in chart-topping songs like Demi Lovato’s Billboard #1 “Sorry Not Sorry”. The platform charges $7.99 for unlimited access and splits the revenue with artists who create the sounds, to which Splice has paid out $20 million to date.

Yet once musicians narrow their search with keywords and genres based on tagging by Splice’s human staff, they still often have to scan through tons of sounds to find what feels right.

“People tell me their production process changed so much” Martocci says. “I know there’s one sound that’s close enough if I just keep pressing down on Splice.” With AI able to scan sounds to augment human tagging, and find the similarities to suggest related ones, “Now you might have to just press down once.” I hope to see Splice build new ways to browse Sounds beyond search so you can just follow your ears. It could also offer more ways for sound creators to stay in touch with their fans, as DJs are discovering some concert attendees love their samples more than their sets.

“My job is to keep as many people inspired to create as possible” beams Martocci, who famously sold his TechCrunch Disrupt Hackathon chat app Group.Me to Skype for $85 million just a year after launching. Others want in to the sample business too, though. Music hardware maker Native Instruments launched a competing Sounds.com marketplace last year, while there’s another called Blend.

But Martocci is differentiating with new label deals like one with Spinnin’ Records that sees its artists specially producing sound packs for Splice. It’s not actually other startups that are the biggest limiting factor for Splice. “My biggest competition is people giving up on themselves or thinking they’re not musical” says Martocci.

A big part of maintaining that momentum for artists is making sure they get paid. Stem, Kobalt, Dubset, and more startups have emerged to clean up the messy royalties distribution process. Martocci admits he’s eyeing the space too. “Full disclosure: I think there’s a long-term future for Splice to play a part in doing it right across the board” he tells me. “The royalty-free ecosystem has been a great start for us to get people opening up the creative process and it’s just the beginning of making sense of the whole space.”

After a decade of musictech being a graveyard, Spotify’s success and its direct listing entrance to the stock market have reinvigorated the industry. Streaming grew to $4.3 billion in the first half of the year to make up 80% of US recorded music business. Payouts from streaming are convincing artists the age of the CD is gone and they need to embrace technology and new revenue streams.

That certainly seems to have emboldened Martocci. “We want to build a multi-generational business here. We want to build the most iconic company in music history!” That passion has attracted tons of part-time DJ / full-time techies to work at Splice, including former Secret co-founder Chrys Bader-Wechseler and ex-Facebook video PM Matt Pakes. “We have our in-office studio that’s used every night by an employe. We have DJ equipment team members can rent out and use for their gigs” Martocci notes. “You need to have a team who understands the problems.”

Facebook Dating now integrates with Instagram and Facebook Stories

By Sarah Perez

Facebook Dating, an opt-in feature of the main Facebook app, will begin to tap into the content users are already creating across both Facebook and Instagram to enhance its service. Today, Facebook Dating users will be able to add their Facebook or Instagram Stories to Facebook Dating, in order to share their everyday moments with daters.

As opposed to more polished profile photos, Stories can give someone better insight into what a person is like by showcasing what activities they like to engage in, their hobbies, their interests, their personality, and their humor, among other things. And if the daters themselves appear in a Story, it lets others see what they really look like, even if their online photos are out-of-date.

The way the feature is being implemented on Facebook Dating puts the user in control of what’s being shared. That is, your Facebook or Instagram Stories are not automatically copied over to Facebook Dating by default. Instead, users can select which of their Stories are shared and which are not.

In addition, people daters have blocked or passed on Facebook Dating won’t be able to see them.

If a Story is inappropriate, you can also block the user and report it, like you can with other content elsewhere on Facebook.

One thing to be aware of is that this feature is a way to share a Story to Facebook Dating, but the Story isn’t exclusively designed for Facebook Dating. That means, if you decide to use the Story feature as some sort of video dating intro, your Facebook and Instagram friends could see this, as well.

When browsing Facebook Dating, you’ll be able to view other people’s Stories along with their profiles. And if you match with someone, you can continue to view their Stories and then even use that to spark a conversation, which takes place in the app. This is similar to how you can respond to someone’s Facebook or Instagram Story today, which then appears in Messenger or Instagram’s Messages section, respectively.

The new Stories feature could be a potential competitive advantage for Facebook Dating, because it allows users a new way to express themselves without requiring them to create new content just for the dating service itself. Even if a rival dating app like Tinder or Bumble introduced their own version of Stories, many wouldn’t think to launch a dating app to capture their everyday moments.

Stories integration is rolling out starting today to Facebook Dating.

Dating, as a Facebook feature, is currently available in 20 countries, including Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Laos, Malaysia, Mexico, Paraguay, Peru, the Philippines, Singapore, Suriname, Thailand, United States, Uruguay, and Vietnam. It will be in Europe by early 2020, Facebook says.

The company has not disclosed how many people are using Facebook Dating at this time.

YouTube to update harassment and gaming policies, clarify changes to kids content

By Sarah Perez

In YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki quarterly letter, released today, the exec addresses a number of changes to YouTube policies, including the recent FTC-mandated rules for kids content that have alternately confused and infuriated video creators, as well as forthcoming policies around harassment and gaming videos, among other things.

On the latter, Wojcicki said the company was now in the process of developing a new harassment policy and was talking to creators about what needed to be addressed. She did not give an ETA for the rollout, but said creators would be posted when the changes were finalized.

YouTube also responded to creator concerns over policies around gaming videos that include violence.

“We’ve heard loud and clear that our policies need to differentiate between real-world violence and gaming violence,” Wojcicki said. “We have a policy update coming soon that will do just that. The new policy will have fewer restrictions for violence in gaming, but maintain our high bar to protect audiences from real-world violence.”

This topic was recently discussed at YouTube’s Gaming Creator Summit, as well.

The company also said it’s now working to match edgier content with advertisers who may be interested in it –like a marketer who wants to promote an R-rated movie, for example.

The letter briefly addressed the creator uproar over kids’ content, with promises of more clarity.

In September, YouTube reached a settlement with the Federal Trade Commission over its violation of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), which required it to pay a $170 million fine and set into place a series of new rules for creators to comply with. These rules require creators to mark videos that are directed at kids (or entire channels, if need be.). This, in turn, will limit data collection, put an end to personalized ads on kids’ content, disable comments, and reduce their revenues, creators say.

Creators will also lose out on a number of key YouTube features, The Verge recently reported, including click-through info cards, end screens, notification functions, and the community tab.

YouTube creators say they don’t have enough clarity around where to draw the line between content that’s made for kids and content that may attract kids. For example, family vlog channels and some gaming videos may appeal to kids and adults alike. And if the FTC decides a creator is in violation, they can be held liable for future COPPA violations now that YouTube’s new policy and content labeling system is in place. YouTube’s advice to creators on how to proceed? Consult a lawyer, it has said.

In today’s letter, Wojcicki acknowledges the fallout of these changes, but doesn’t offer any further clarity — only promises of updates to come.

“We know there are still many questions about how this is going to affect creators and we’ll provide updates as possible along the way,” Wojcicki said.

She also points to a long thread on the YouTube Community forum where many questions about the system are being answered — like the policy’s reach, what’s changing, how and when to mark content as being for kids or not, and more. The forum’s Q&A also addressed some of the questions that keep coming up about all-ages content, including some example scenarios. Creators, of course, have read through these materials and say they still don’t understand how to figure out if their video is for kids or not. (And clearly, they don’t want to err on the side of caution at the risk of reduced income.)

The being said, the rise of a kid-friendly YouTube has had a range of negative consequences. YouTube had to shut down comments after finding a ring of child predators on videos with kids, for instance. Parents roped in their kids to the “family business” before the children even knew what being public on the internet meant. Some young stars have been put to work more than should be legal due to the lack of child labor laws for online content. There’s even been child abuse at the hands of the parents. Children watching the vides, meanwhile, were being marketed to without their understanding, addicted to consumerism by toy unboxings and playtime videos, and targeted with personalized ads. Kid YouTube was overdue for a reigning in.

The letter addresses a few other key issues, as well, including the launch of the new Creator Studio and the latest on the EU’s copyright directive Article 17, which is now being translated into local law. Wojcicki cheers some of the changes to the policy, including the one that secures liability protections when YouTube makes its best efforts to match copyright material with rights owners.

And Wojcicki addresses the growing concerns over creator burnout, by reminding video creators to take a break and practice self-care — adding that it won’t harm their business by doing so. In fact, YouTube scoured its data from the past 6 years and found that on average, channels both large and small had more views when they returned than they had right before they left.

“If you need to take some time off, your fans will understand,” she said.

 

Reserve your demo table at TC Sessions: Robotics & AI 2020

By Emma Comeau

Robotics and AI is the hottest scientific mashup since The Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper met Amy Farrah Fowler. If you play a role in these world-changing technologies, join us at TC Sessions: Robotics & AI on March 3, 2020 at UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall. What could be better than spending an entire day focused on melding minds with machines?

Well, how about exhibiting your early-stage startup to 1,500 of the world’s leading robotics and AI technologists, researchers, innovators and investors? It’s easy. Buy an Early-Stage Startup Exhibitor Package. The price includes four tickets, a 30-inch round highboy table, power, linen and a tabletop sign. Exhibitor space is limited, and we have only 11 tables left. Don’t miss this opportunity to showcase your work to people with the power to change the trajectory of your early-stage startup.

Want even more spotlight opportunity? Of course, you do. This year, in addition to interviews, panel discussions, speakers, breakout sessions and Q&As, we’re adding a pitch competition. Founders of any early-stage startup focused on robotics and AI can participate. It’s free, and all you need to do is apply here by February 1.

TechCrunch will review all applications and select 10 startups to pitch at a private event on March 2. You’ll pitch to TechCrunch editors, main-stage speakers and industry experts. We’ll have a panel of VC judges there to narrow the field to five finalists. The following day, those teams will take to the Main Stage at TC Sessions: Robotics + AI and pitch to the attending masses.

Whether you exhibit or pitch — why not do both? — you’ll expose your startup to the top leaders and investors in robotics and AI. Opportunity’s knocking and it’s up to you to kick down the door.

The next TC Sessions: Robotics & AI takes place on March 3, 2020 at UC Berkeley. Get your business in front of the people who can help you achieve your startup dreams. Buy your Early-Stage Startup Exhibitor Package today.

Is your company interested in sponsoring or exhibiting at TC Sessions: Robotics & AI 2020? Contact our sponsorship sales team by filling out this form.

Twitter rolls out its ‘Hide Replies’ feature to all users worldwide

By Sarah Perez

Twitter’s radical “Hide Replies” feature, one of the biggest changes to how Twitter works since the invention of the Retweet, is now available to Twitter’s global user base. The company says the feature will roll out to all Twitter users across platforms by today, with only one slight tweak since earlier tests.

Designed to balance the conversation on Twitter by putting the original poster back in control of which replies to their tweets remain visible, Hide Replies has been one of Twitter’s more controversial features to date. While no replies are actually deleted from Twitter when a user chooses to hide them, they are placed behind an extra click. That means the trolling, irrelevant, insulting, or otherwise disagreeable comments don’t get to dominate the conversation.

Twitter’s thinking is that if people know that hateful remarks and inappropriate behavior could be hidden from view, it will encourage more online civility.

However, the flip side is that people could use the “Hide Replies” feature to silence their critics or stifle dissent, even when warranted — like someone offering a fact check, for example.

The feature was first tested in Canada in July, then in the U.S. and Japan this September, across both web and mobile platforms.

Since its launch, Twitter found that most people hide the replies they find irrelevant, off-topic, or annoying. It also found people were using this instead of harsher noise reduction controls, like block or mute. In Canada, 27% of surveyed users who had their tweets hidden said they would reconsider how they interacted with others in the future, which is a somewhat promising metric.

The feature is, however, getting a slight change with its global debut. Twitter says some people wanted to take further action after hiding a reply, so now it will check to see if they want to block the replier, too. It also heard from some users that they were afraid of retaliation because the icon remains visible. It’s not making a change on that front at this time, but is still considering how to address this.

Another concern that was often mentioned on Twitter as the new feature first rolled out was the large pop-up notification that appears when users encountered a tweet with hidden replies.

Some people found the notification was so large and disruptive that it actually encouraged people to pay more attention to the hidden replies than they would otherwise.

What is the point of people hiding unwanted tweet replies if twitter fills the screen with a giant pop-up calling attention to the fact that there are replies they have hidden, which can still be clicked through to view anyway? pic.twitter.com/YBy47jdZcN

— J. Scott Holland (@Telecrylic) October 13, 2019

I wonder if this pop up makes people more likely to pay attention to hidden replies than if they were never hidden in the first place https://t.co/FCECR6Fi0C

— Alex Kantrowitz (@Kantrowitz) November 18, 2019

I like the idea of @Twitter's new hidden replies feature, but this pop up actually draws way more attention to the messages an author has chosen to hide. pic.twitter.com/xOAkV9OtJU

— •–|C|–• (@CamCron) September 26, 2019

Twitter says this screen only displays the first time a Twitter user encounters a tweet with hidden replies, however. Afterward, an icon will show people replies are hidden — and those are hidden on another page, not below the tweet.

But even though that’s a one-time notification, the attention it demands from the user outweighs the information it’s trying to convey — essentially, that twitter has launched a new feature and here’s where to find it. And if someone is engaged in trolling, being told that this particular Twitter user is hiding replies could enrage them even more.

In addition to the global rollout, Twitter also says it will soon be launching a new hide replies endpoint in its API so developers can build additional conversation management tools.

And Twitter notes it will be testing other changes to conversations, including more options around who can reply or even see specific conversations, as well as engagement changes designed to encourage healthier conversations.

“Everyone should feel safe and comfortable while talking on Twitter,” writes Suzanne Xie, Twitter’s Director of Product Management, who recently joined by way of an acquisition. “To make this happen, we need to change how conversations work on our service,” she says.

Twitter’s development in this area is interesting because it’s actively experimenting with ways to encourage civility on a platform that’s known for hot takes, sarcasm, snark, and outrage. It’s willing to change and evolve its features over time as it learns what works and scrap changes that don’t. It’s even been running a beta product (twttr) in parallel with Twitter, to try new ideas. If Twitter is ever able to turn things around by way of its feature set, it would be a marvel of product management.

The option to hide replies is rolling out globally on iOS, Android, Twitter Lite, and twitter.com, starting today.

 

Daily Crunch: Free Spotify comes to Alexa

By Anthony Ha

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 9am Pacific, you can subscribe here.

1. Spotify’s free music service will now stream on Alexa devices, plus Bose and Sonos smart speakers

Spotify has worked with Amazon Echo since 2016, but only for premium subscribers. Today, that changes.

The Alexa support — which includes playing Spotify’s Top Hits playlist, Discover Weekly and more — will be available for users in the U.S., Australia and New Zealand. Support for Sonos and Bose is more broadly available to users around the world.

2. Facebook’s latest experiment is a meme-creation app, Whale

Currently, the app allows users to decorate photos with text and stickers in order to create memes that can be shared to social media or texted to friends.

3. Vayyar nabs $109M for its “4D” radar tech, which detects and tracks images while preserving privacy

Vayyar is an Israeli startup that builds radar-imaging chips and sensors, as well as the software that reads and interprets the resulting images, for use in automotive and IoT applications.

4. Google Assistant introduces personalized playlists of audio news

When you say “Hey Google, play me the news” to a Google Assistant-enabled phone or smart speaker, you’ll get a tailored playlist of the day’s big headlines and stories. Your News Update draws from a variety of publisher partners, focusing on the stories that seem relevant to your interests and your location.

5. Bunch, the Discord for mobile games, raises $3.85M from Supercell, Tencent, Riot Games

Users who download the game can connect with friends and join an audio or video chat with them. From there, users can choose a game to load and the whole party is instantly taken into a multiplayer game session with their friends.

6. Build trust with remote users to get qualitative feedback

As co-founder of a digital health company, Alex Gold had to build a community of test patients. And because of security and privacy concerns, he had to approach this process unconventionally. (Extra Crunch membership required.)

7. 5 reasons you need to be at Disrupt Berlin

We’re one month out from Disrupt Berlin. And no matter which part of the startup ecosystem you inhabit, the event should be a huge opportunity. (I’ll be there!)

Sundance Institute’s Co//ab offers online education and feedback for filmmakers

By Anthony Ha

The Sundance Institute is looking to reach a broader community of up-and-coming filmmakers with a new website called Co//ab.

The institute’s chief product officer Tara Hein-Phillips told me that a small pilot version of the site first launched early in 2018, before beginning a “proper beta” in November of that year. And it spent a full year in beta testing — growing to 20,000 members — before Sundance took the label off earlier this month.

Hein-Phillips described Co//ab as an extension of the institute’s existing artist’s programs — leveraging the internet so that the programs can “have more impact.” There are plenty of other filmmaking tutorials out there (I’m both tickled and tempted by the existence of this David Lynch MasterClass), but she said they tend to be “inspirational,” whereas Co//ab is designed to be “more practical, more hands-on.”

“We really wanted the sweet spot to focus around works in progress — to give artists a completely safe and trusted space with other artists to take that work to the next level,” she said. “That’s its whole purpose in the world.”

So Co//ab offers a general library of instructional videos, but also more in-depth courses and master classes. There’s also an opportunity to participate in monthly challenges (the current one involves rewriting an unsatisfying final scene) and to share scripts and films for feedback from other members of the Sundance community.

Asked about whether that feedback ever gets too harsh, Hein-Phillips noted that there’s a very “hands-on” community manager.

“We really do work to cultivate the spirit of generosity,” she added. “In part, it’s a little bit in reaction too what we’ve seen in online community today. We’re really trying to allow artists to redefine what online community is … We’re seeing that really happen. We get so little negative feedback toward other people.”

Access to the video library is free, with pricing starting at $10 per month for a membership that includes members-only webinars and feedback on your work. There’s an additional fee for the individual classes — but Hein-Phillips noted that Co//ab will be offering need-based scholarships to 20% of all participants.

“We’re clearly a not-for-profit,” she said. “Our goal is not to make money with this. We’d like it to be self-sustaining, and if it did happen to make money, that would filter back to our artist’s programs.”

Facebook’s latest experiment is a meme creation app, Whale

By Sarah Perez

Facebook’s NPE Team, a division inside the social networking giant that will build experimental consumer-facing social apps, has now added a third app to its lineup with the launch of meme creation app Whale. Currently, the app allows users to decorate photos with text and stickers in order to create memes that can be shared to social media or texted to friends.

The app isn’t all that original, given the plethora of image-editing apps on the App Store today with similar feature sets. But it does have the advantage of being free to use without in-app purchases or subscriptions.

In Whale, users can take a photo, select a picture from their camera roll, or browse the app’s library of stock images in order to create a meme. Blank, 2-grid, 3-grid, and 4-grid canvas layouts are also available. To customize the images, users can add emojis, text, effects, and filters like laser eyes, vortex or bulge, for example.

In addition to making shareable memes, users can make their own image stickers using the crop and cut tools. And those with artistic capabilities can use the included freeform drawing tool, as well.

Like other NPE Team apps, Whale isn’t offered for download in the U.S. Instead, it’s only available in Canada for the time being — the home market for the first two NPE Team apps, Aux and Bump. The latter was also available in the Philippines, but neither have reached the U.S. Canada is likely being chosen as it’s a good proxy for the U.S., in terms of consumer demographics and user behavior, but has fewer users to contend with, in case an app takes off and has to quickly scale.

Facebook had announced its plans for the NPE Team back in July, explaining that its goal would be to rapidly experiment with new ideas, and shut down those projects that didn’t gain traction.

Its investment in creating new mobile social experiences comes at a time when Facebook’s suite of apps is facing serious competition from newer publishers, including most notably, Snapchat and TikTok. More broadly, the social networking app market is today filled with Snapchat platform apps, like Yolo or LMK, at the top of the charts, alongside newer video chat apps like Houseparty and Marco Polo.

App store intelligence firm Apptopia was first to spot Whale’s launch, which was reported by The Information. The app arrived on November 15, 2019, according to App Annie but it hasn’t yet ranked in any App Store category at this time.

Facebook says it’s not commenting on individual NPE Team apps, but had previously noted that the availability of the apps would depend on each app itself.

 

Linode launches its Kubernetes Engine into beta

By Frederic Lardinois

Before the hyperclouds, there were Linode, Mediatemple, HostGator and seemingly a million other hosting services that let you rent affordable virtual private servers for your development needs. And while we don’t talk about them all that much these days, with maybe the exception of Digital Ocean, which disrupted that market a few years ago thanks to its low prices, these services are still doing quite well and are working to adapt their offerings to today’s developers. Unsurprisingly, that often means adding support for containers, which is exactly what Linode is doing with the beta launch of its Linode Kubernetes Engine (LKE) this week.

Like similar services, 16-year old Linode argues that its offering will help enable more developers to adopt containers, even if they are not experts in managing this kind of infrastructure.

“With the launch of Linode Kubernetes Engine, we’ve democratized Kubernetes for developers, regardless of their resources or expertise,” said Linode CEO and Founder Christopher Aker. “By automating the configuration, node provisioning and management of Kubernetes clusters, we’ve made it faster and easier to ship modern applications. And with realtime autoscaling, free master services, and our intuitive cloud manager interface and open API, developers can bypass the complexities of traditional container management and focus on innovating.”

The service is, of course, integrated with the rest of Linode’s tools, which these days include block and object storage, for example, as well as load balancing, in addition to the usual server options. There’s also support for autoscaling and while advanced users can use tools like Helm charts, Terraform and Rancher, there’s also one-click app support for deploying often-used applications.

Linode’s service is entering a market that already features plenty of other players. But it’s also a growing market with room for lots of different tools that cater to a variety of needs. Tools like Kubernetes now allow companies like Linode to reach beyond their current customer base and offer businesses a platform that allows them to easily develop and test new services on one platform and then put them into production somewhere else — or, of course, put them into production on Lindode, too.

 

Google Assistant introduces personalized playlists of audio news

By Anthony Ha

Starting today, when you say “Hey Google, play me the news” to a Google Assistant-enabled phone or smart speaker, you’ll get a tailored playlist of the day’s big headlines and stories.

That’s probably what many of us are hoping for when we listen to a news radio station or a daily news podcast during the morning commute. But those come from a single broadcaster, and may require you to hop around to get all the news you’re looking for.

In contrast, the feature that Google is calling Your News Update draws stories from a variety of publisher partners, focusing on the ones that seem relevant to your interests and your location.

“Audio has always been great,” said Audio News Product Manager Liz Gannes (a former tech journalist herself.) “It’s a tremendously evocative medium that conveys an immense amount of information.”

But she suggested that “the distribution technology has been slower [t evolve] than things like text and video,” which is why Google has been experimenting in this area. For example, it’s already added news stories to Google Assistant, as well as responses to news-related questions like “What’s the latest news about Brexit?”

Gannes added that behind the scenes, the company has been developing “an open specification for single topic audio stories.” So rather than dealing with an unwieldy hourlong broadcast or podcast, Google Assistant is working clips focused on a specific piece of news.

Your News Update usually starts with a few brief, general interest clips — namely, the big headlines of the day. Then it starts playing longer stories that are selected based on what Google knows about you.

For example, when I tried it out this morning, my update began with a 30-second update on the impeachment from Fox News (not one of my regular news sources) and ran through other then major stories of the day, then switched to longer (two- to three-minute) entertainment stories from sources like The Hollywood Reporter.

Gannes noted that “there’s a big emphasis on local news in this product — that don’t just mean where you live, but also other locations you care about.” And she said the average update will be around an hour and a half — so it can keep you occupied during a long commute, no dial-fiddling required.

John Ciancutti, Google’s director of engineering for search, added that the recommendations should get smarter over time: “If you want to skip a story … the more you listen, the better sense we get of your tastes and interests.” He also suggested that Your News Update could become more sensitive to context, offering different stories depending on whether (say) you’re in your car or in your kitchen.

“You can imagine in the future, you tune in and we know you’re in your car on Tuesday morning at 7:36, and we can predict based on other listening that you’ve got about a 28-minute commute,” Ciancutti said.

Your News Update is currently available in English in the United States, with plans for international expansion next year.

Meet Dongtu, the Giphy of China

By Rita Liao

With its own universe of homegrown social networks, e-commerce platforms and search engines, the Chinese internet is a world apart from its counterpart in the U.S. But in some areas, the two countries are surprisingly similar. That’s particularly true of people’s love for GIFs .

Some feelings are better expressed in pictures and animations than words. Starting in the 2010s, the onset of smartphones gave rise to the need for portable, flexible ways to send images and videos in chats. GIFs, the 1987-invention otherwise known as the graphics interchange format, is a perfect solution for transmitting lightweight pixels. These endlessly looping images quickly caught on in China, where mobile-first internet has flourished over the last decade.

Noticing the trend, Californian Grant Long moved to China and partnered with local entrepreneurs Ann Ding and Jiaming Yin to create Dongtu, which means “moving pictures” in Chinese. Much like Giphy and Google-owned Tenor, Dongtu runs an in-house creative team that pumps out a bountiful supply of GIFs; it also distributes works of third-party creators such as entertainment studios and contracted designers, as well as popular memes sourced from the web. The startup’s content is then baked into some 3,000 apps with chatting features, including mainstream ones like WeChat, Twitter-like Weibo and Dingtalk, Alibaba’s answer to Slack.

Dongtu claims it generates 750 million daily searches and over 3 billion views per day through the GIFs it provides to third-party platforms. In comparison, its American predecessor Giphy, which uses different performance metrics, had some 300 million daily users as of last March. Aside from tapping into China’s obsession with GIFs, the journey of Dongtu is as much about a foreign entrepreneur carving out his spot in the crowded Chinese market as it is about a budding startup surviving alongside the giants.

Navigating the Chinese internet

Dongtu’s logo

Before his time in China, Long managed product and business development at Swyft Media, a New York-based company that made branded micro-content like stickers and fonts. In 2015, Swyft began working closely with rising messengers Kik, KakaoTalk and Viber, through which Long came to believe that a major growth opportunity was coming up in Asia. He wanted Swyft to enter this part of the world, but it became harder to push for changes after the startup got acquired by publicly-traded Monotype Imaging.

In 2016, Long packed up for China and began studying the market on the ground from Shanghai. Before long, he realized that a fully foreign entity would not be able to succeed alone for “both localization challenges as well as political reasons,” he told TechCrunch in a phone interview. The American entrepreneur approached Biaoqingyun (“Emoji Cloud”), a local sticker startup that would otherwise be his competitor, to partner and create Dongtu together.

“It’s definitely not the case that China is 100% different from America and America is 100% different from China because ultimately, we’re all humans. And we have very similar tendencies of natural behaviors and desires for things,” said Long, who now leads business strategy at Dongtu. “If you have a lot of understanding from another market, a lot of that actually does translate [in a new market]. You just have to localize it in terms of the platforms and services.”

Having a local partner is crucial to navigating local media regulations. Apps in China can get pulled for spreading content that is illegal or simply deemed “inappropriate,” a liability that’s often vaguely defined. Before anything goes live, publishers are compelled to conduct stringent screening and GIF distributors are no exception.

Dongtu does not currently allow open uploads of user-generated content because doing so can be risky in China without significant content moderation efforts. “I’m personally very impressed by [China’s] short video platforms,” said Long. “If you think of the volume of content created and shared, and the fact that they’re able to survive for as long as they have under the oversight that that is required.”

Source: Dongtu

Even with the advance of machine learning technology, Chinese media platforms still rely on large armies of human auditors to address the ever-changing whims of regulators. “Historically, something might be considered appropriate, but now suddenly, it isn’t. I think the risk is that it’s hard to draw a line and decide, well, what makes this piece of content inappropriate and different from this other thing that looks similar but is fine,” noted the founder.

Dealing with Chinese giants

Dongtu has over time found a sweet spot in China’s fierce internet industry by providing the essential content that thousands of apps need to enrich user communication. One big-name client is WeChat. The startup runs a GIF store inside Tencent’s billion-user messenger where users can search for trending GIFs and load up their sticker arsenal.

A less expected partner is e-commerce titan Alibaba. While Amazon shoppers normally make decisions based on what others have to say on the products, Chinese consumers not only pore over reviews but also tend to pose detailed questions to vendors. Direct messaging is thus an inseparable part of Chinese e-commerce apps. Livestreaming has also emerged to allow shoppers and sellers to interact in a real-time manner. GIFs can play a big part in social commerce just like they would lighten up conversations in messengers.

Dongtu GIFs are integrated into the chatting feature of Alibaba’s Taobao marketplace. Source: Dongtu

Chinese users might be similarly into animated images as Americans, but the adaptability of the format is far wider in China. Dongtu’s vast library contains everything from NFL-themed stickers to soap opera memes. “A grandma in a rural city who’s on WeChat can be quite familiar with sending sticker content whereas, in the U.S., I think it’s far more of a young person’s behavior,” Long observed.

The way that Chinese apps adapt GIFs is also reflective of their hands-on approach to the customer journey. Most critically, the majority of Dongtu’s integrations with partners happen through SDK instead of API. The former, which stands for Software Development Kit, gives third-party developers a more “turnkey” user experience. For instance, a Dongtu-powered GIF on China’s largest podcast app Ximalaya can lead to a landing page that Dongtu has predetermined, a process that would not be otherwise achievable through the lightweight Application Programming Interface, which leaves it to the main app to display content the way they want.

In contrast, Giphy and Google-owned rival Tenor were originally built on API integrations. “For us, it’s more like our SDK talking to our back end, so we’re having a two-way conversation with ourselves. It’s decentralized across all these different channels,” suggested Long.

Working with giants brings Dongtu a steady revenue stream — and potential funding opportunities. The rivaling pair Alibaba and Tencent rarely invest in the same startup, but for Long, “the ideal scenario would be if we could raise from both Alibaba and Tencent, because we do so much with both of them.”

Dongtu makes money from a combination of paid consumer functions as well as paid promotions commissioned by marketers who want the brands they represent to be part of people’s GIF-powered communication, including a structure that incentivizes large app partners to co-sell these GIF campaigns to their own large base of direct clients.

Dongtu counts ZhenFund as one of its seed investors. Cheetah Mobile, the Chinese firm known for developing utility apps, led its Series A round. Other investors from these rounds include InnoAngel, a venture fund started by alumni of China’s prestigious Tsinghua University, and Creation Ventures, an investment fund specializing in entertainment and content.

Spotify turns its personalization technology to podcasts with launch of Your Daily Podcasts

By Sarah Perez

Spotify is taking the personalization technology that powers its music playlists, like Discover Weekly and Daily Mix, and turning it to podcasts. The company announced this morning the launch of a new podcast playlist called Your Daily Podcasts, that allows users to discover new shows and keep up with their favorites. In other words, it’s a discovery mechanism for finding new podcasts — similar to how Discovery Weekly will recommend new music.

The playlist will only appear when you’ve listened to at least four podcasts in the past 90 days, Spotify says. It will be available in the “Your Top Podcasts” shelf in the Home tab or in the “Made for You” hub in the app.

As with Spotify’s music playlists, algorithms will be used to analyze your podcast listening behavior like what’s you’ve recently streamed and what you follow. It will then recommend what episode to listen to next based on this history and what sort of podcasts you like. This could be the next episode in something you’re already listening to, a standalone evergreen episode from a popular podcast, or a more timely episode from a daily updating podcast, the company says. It also promises it won’t skip ahead if you’re listening to a story-driven sequential series.

After a few recommended episodes from your own subscriptions or history, Spotify will suggest new shows and begin playing their episodes after a brief intro that says, “And now, something new based on your listening.”

But unlike Discover Weekly, where the main goal is to keep users engaged and subscribed to Spotify’s service, Your Daily Podcasts has a secondary motive as well — to point users to Spotify’s own, in-house programs. While the new playlist at launch doesn’t appear to be favoring Spotify’s shows over others, it certainly is including them.

Over time, Spotify’s playlist could help grow the fan bases for its own programming, which listeners can’t get elsewhere. That also keeps them subscribed. Plus, podcasts are another surface against which Spotify can advertise, and they don’t have the hefty licensing fees associated with streaming music — especially when their creation is handled in-house.

In the third quarter, Spotify launched 22 original and exclusive titles from Spotify Studios, including The Ringer: The Hottest Take and The Conversation with Amanda de Cadenet in the U.S. It also launched a number of originals from the studios it recently acquired, Gimlet and Parcast, the company said. As a result of its efforts, it’s seeing exponential growth in podcast hours streamed (up 39% from the prior quarter).

However, podcast adoption among the overall user base lags…just under 14% of users are listening to the audio programs. A new playlist like this could help, but it also misunderstands how some people listen to audio shows. They don’t necessarily want to hear any ol’ program they like at any time. Much like selecting something to watch on TV, people will be in the “mood” for one type of podcast over another at different times. Sometimes, it may be true crime, sometimes news, sometimes pop culture, sometimes comedy, etc. Throwing all those genres into the same mix is a disjointed experience.

If anything, Spotify should be trying to design a podcast experience that looks more like Netflix than a music app. Perhaps with rows where there are different grouping by genre or topic, or rows featuring short-form quick bites or longer, in-depth shows. A row with clips where you could check out new shows then click “subscribe” to keep following them. It could even put easy-to-access buttons next to these rows in order to launch a stream of favorites from a given genre. Basically, personalize the whole podcast interface so it feels like your own rather than trying to do that within a single playlist.

This is not Spotify’s first attempt at a podcast playlist. It also recently launched “Your Daily Drive” which combines music and podcasts. And it now allows users to create their own playlists using podcasts.

Spotify says the new playlist is available free and Premium users in U.S., U.K., Germany, Sweden, Mexico, Brazil, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

 

Amazon makes its music streaming service free with ads

By Sarah Perez

Amazon is making its music streaming service free. The company previously offered free, ad-supported streaming only to customers who owned an Amazon Echo device. Now it’s rolling out free streaming to anyone using the Amazon Music app on iOS, Android, Fire TV and Amazon Music on the web in the U.S., U.K., and Germany.

The company has been steadily making its music streaming service more accessible by reducing prices. Earlier this year, for example, Amazon said it would no longer charge the $3.99 per month for streaming from Amazon Music Unlimited to Echo devices or require customers to pay for Amazon Prime in order to gain access to Prime Music’s smaller, 2+ million song catalog. Instead, it rolled out an ad-supported version of Amazon Music for free to Echo owners.

This is basically the same 2 million song catalog that comes with Prime Music, it just includes advertising and doesn’t require Prime membership.

Now, it’s making Amazon Music free for anyone — Echo owner or not — across a range of devices. This will allow users to play thousands of stations based on any song, artist, era, or genre, similar to Pandora. They’ll also gain access to top playlists, like “All Hits” featuring the world’s top songs, or the “Holiday Favorites” station, among others.

The move doesn’t really threaten paid subscription services like Spotify or Pandora’s premium tier or Apple Music, as Amazon’s free service has a much smaller catalog. It’s also not nearly as advanced in terms of its personalization technology, which powers things like Spotify’s Discover Weekly and other custom playlists. These are a big draw for music fans, and a reason they opt for one streaming service over another.

Instead, Amazon’s free music service serves more as a way to upsell consumers by encouraging them to join Amazon Prime in order to remove the ads from their music. (Prime Music’s 2 million songs are an added perk of a Prime subscription.) This is Amazon’s true motive: lock in more customers to Amazon Prime, ensure they realize the value of the free shipping and other benefits, then get them to renew every year. Once a Prime member, people will shop more often from Amazon, which is where the retailer’s profits lie.

The free music service also serves as an entry point into Amazon’s wider music ecosystem. If customers decide they want a larger, ad-free catalog, they can up to join Amazon Music Unlimited instead, which offers 50 million songs at $7.99 per month for Prime members, or $9.99 per month for others. And true audiophiles can upgrade to Amazon Music HD for $12.99 per month for Prime members, or $14.99 per month for non-members.

For the time being, Amazon is offering 4 months of Amazon Music Unlimited for $0.99.

Playbuzz becomes Ex.co and expands its content marketing platform

By Anthony Ha

Playbuzz, a startup that helps publishers to add things like polls and galleries to their articles, has rebranded itself as Ex.co.

Co-founder and CEO Tom Pachys told me the name stands for “the experience company,” and he said it reflects the company’s broader content marketing ambitions. Ex.co will continue working with news publishers, but Pachys said there’s a bigger market for what the company has built.

“We’re seeing businesses wanting to become publishers in a way, to interact with their users in a way that’s very similar to what a publisher does,” Pachys said.

Playbuzz/Ex.co is hardly the first publishing startup realize that there may be more money in content marketing, but Pachys argued that this isn’t just a sudden pivot. After all, the company is already working with clients like Visa, Red Bull and Netflix (as well as our corporate siblings at The Huffington Post).

“The previous name does not reflect the values that we stand for today — not even future values,” he said.

Tom Pachys

Tom Pachys

Pachys also suggested that existing content marketing tools are largely focused on operations and workflow — things like hiring the right freelancer — while Ex.co aims at making it easier to actually create the content.

“We’re the ones innovate within the core — not around it, but the core itself,” he said. “And rather than trying to call them competition, we want to integrate with as much players in the ecosystem as possible.”

In addition to announcing the rebrand, Ex.co is also relaunching its platform as a broader content marketing tool, with new features like content templates, real-time analytics and lead generation.

Pachys, by the way, is new to the CEO role, having served as COO until recently, while previous Playbuzz CEO Shaul Olmert has become the company’s president. Pachys said the move wasn’t “directly correlated” with the other changes, and instead allows the two of them to focus on their strengths — Pachys oversees day-to-day operations, while Olmert focuses on investor relations and strategic deals.

“I co-founded the company with Shaul, who’s a very good friend of mine, we’ve known each other 20 years,” Pachys said. “Shaul is very much involved in the company.”

Mubi launches streaming service in India

By Manish Singh

Mubi, a 12-year-old on-demand movie streaming and rental service, has arrived in India. Like other streaming services giants such as Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV+ and Disney’s Hotstar, Mubi is offering its service at a slightly lower price in the key overseas entertainment market.

The London-headquartered firm is offering a three-month subscription in India at Rs 199 ($2.8), after which it would charge $7 a month or $67 a year (this way, the monthly cost works out to about $5.5). This is substantially lower than the £9.99 monthly subscription fee it charges to subscribers in the U.K., and the $10.99 it charges in the U.S.

Perhaps the lesser-known streaming service among all the usual names, Mubi has earned a name for itself by offering a selection of critically acclaimed movies. Unlike other services, Mubi’s platter is small. At any moment, the service offers only 30 recent and vintage movies. One new title arrives every day and another vanishes at the same time. No movie stays longer than 30 days on the platform.

Mubi, founded in 2007, started with the ambition of becoming just like what Netflix is today. But it became apparent to the company that they couldn’t afford to offer thousands of titles to users, founder and chief executive of the company Efe Cakarel told The New York Times in an interview two years ago.

“In the beginning, we wanted to be like Netflix, but the unit economies of an ‘all-you-can-eat’ site is very capital-intensive,” Cakarel told the Times. “The question becomes, how do you create a compelling experience? If you can’t get 10,000 titles, how about a limited selection?”

Mubi has amassed 9 million subscribers, the company said. (Cakarel will be speaking at Disrupt Berlin next month.)

In an interview last month, Cakarel said most streaming platforms are today focused on the biggest TV series. “But Mubi focuses on finding gems, often going back decades, that very few people know of. We are giving distribution to such films. You may not like a film, but it is there for a reason,” he said.

In India, Mubi has additionally launched a dedicated channel (first time it has done so for any market), where local movies are being showcased. Customers in India have access to the global feed as well, meaning that they have access to 60 titles in a month, a spokesperson said. Additionally, like in other markets, Mubi is offering a rental service to subscribers in India, allowing them to pick any movie from a selection of a few dozen for $3.5.

For its India business, the company has appointed film producer and Academy Award winner Guneet Monga (known for titles such as Gangs of Wasseypur, The Lunchbox and Masaan) as its content advisor. It also maintains a partnership with Times Bridge, the venture arm of Indian internet services and content conglomerate Times Internet.

“Monga has the sensibility for great cinema. The kind of films she produces, the kind of films she champions are the type of films more people should see. I cannot be more fortunate that she sees our vision in India,” Cakarel said in an interview.

A still from Indian movie “Duvidha”

In a statement, Monga said, “I’m thrilled we have launched a dedicated channel for Indian cinema as it means that film lovers can now watch amazing films like Salaam Bombay and Andaz Apna Apna, alongside globally renowned gems like Moonlight.”

The company has secured deals with local distributors FilmKaravan, NFDC, PVR Pictures, Shemaroo, and Ultra to populate titles on India section every day. Some of the upcoming titles include Kamal Swaroop’s cult film Om Dar-B-Dar, Kanu Behl’s Binnu Ka Sapna, which premiered at Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival this year, and ghost film Duvidha from Indian art-house master Mani Kaul.

Mubi Go, a service available in the U.K. and Ireland, which allows subscribers in those markets to get a movie ticket each week in a local theatre, is not available to customers in India.

Pitch onstage at TechCrunch’s Robotics & AI show — March 3 at UC Berkeley

By Robert Frawley

On March 3 next year, TechCrunch will host the fourth annual TC Sessions: Robotics + AI at UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall. This time around we’re adding a new twist to the incredible line-up of speakers, breakout sessions and Q&As: a pitch-off for early-stage companies in the robotics and AI space.

How it works: The night before the event, 10 startups, chosen through an online application process, will pitch at a private event with TechCrunch editors, main-stage speakers and industry experts. A panel of VC judges will select the top five teams to then pitch the next day on the main stage at TC Sessions: Robotics + AI.

It is a once in a lifetime opportunity for founders to get their company in front of the tier-one leaders and investors in the industry, as well as receive video coverage on TechCrunch. We expect 1,500 attendees at the show and tens of thousands online.

Extra treat: Each of the 10 startup team finalists will receive two free tickets to attend the show the next day.

Apply here by February 1. TechCrunch will review applications and notify companies by February 15 so the founders have time to prepare. So, what are you waiting for? Get some spotlight!

Not interested in the pitch-off but want to attend this fantastic, show? Grab your Early-Bird pass here before it’s too late!

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