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Amid controversy, Dispo confirms Series A funding, high-profile advisors, and investors

By Amanda Silberling

It’s only been nine months since Dispo rebranded from David’s Disposables. But the vintage-inspired photo sharing app has experienced a whiplash of ups and downs, mostly due to the brand’s original namesake, YouTuber David Dobrik.

Like Clubhouse, Dispo was one of this year’s most hyped up new social apps, requiring an invite from an existing member to join. On March 9, when the company said “goodbye waitlist” and opened the app up to any iOS user, Dispo looked poised to be a worthy competitor to photo-sharing behemoths like Instagram. But, just one week later, Business Insider reported on sexual assault allegations regarding a member of Vlog Squad, a YouTube prank ensemble headed by Dispo co-founder David Dobrik. Dobrik had posted a now-deleted vlog about the night of the alleged assault, joking, “we’re all going to jail” at the end of the video.

It was only after venture capital firm Spark Capital decided to “sever all ties” with Dispo that Dobrik stepped down from the company board. In a statement made to TechCrunch at the time, Dispo said, “Dispo’s team, product, and most importantly — our community — stand for building a diverse, inclusive and empowering world.”

Dispo capitalizes on Gen Z and young millennial nostalgia for a time before digital photography, when we couldn’t take thirty selfies before choosing which one to post. On Dispo, when you take a photo, you have to wait until 9 AM the following day for the image to “develop,” and only then can you view and share it.

In both February and March of this year, the app hit the top ten of the Photo & Video category in the U.S. App Store. Despite the backlash against Dobrik, which resulted in the app’s product page being bombarded with negative comments, the app still hit the top ten in Germany, Japan, and Brazil, according to their press release. Dispo reportedly has not yet expended any international marketing resources.

Now, early investors in Dispo like Spark Capital, Seven Seven Six, and Unshackled have committed to donate any potential profits from their investment in the app to organizations working with survivors of sexual assault. Though Axios reported the app’s $20M Series A funding news in February, Dispo put out a press release this morning confirming the financing event. Though they intend to donate profits from the app, Seven Seven Six and Unshackled Ventures remain listed as investors, but Spark Capital is not. Other notable names involved in the project include high-profile photographers like Annie Leibovitz and Raven B. Varona, who has worked with artists like Beyoncé and Jay-Z. Actresses Cara Delevingne and Sofía Vergara, as well as NBA superstars Kevin Durant and Andre Iguodala, are also involved with the app as investors or advisors.

Dobrik’s role in the company was largely as a marketer – CEO Daniel Liss co-founded the app with Dobrik and has been leading the team since the beginning. After Dobrik’s departure, the Dispo team – which remains under twenty members strong – took a break from communications and product updates on the app. It’s expected that after today’s funding confirmation, the app will continue to roll out updates.

Dispo is quick to shift focus to the work of their team, which they call “some of the most talented, diverse leaders in consumer tech.” With the capital from this funding round, they hope to hire more staff to become more competitive with major social media apps with expansive teams, like Instagram and TikTok, and to experiment with machine learning. They will also likely have some serious marketing to do, now that their attempt at influencer marketing has failed massively.

Now more than ever, Dispo is promoting the app as a mental health benefit, hoping to shift the tide away from manufactured perfectionism toward more authentic social media experiences.

“A new era of start ups must emerge to end the scourge of big tech’s destruction of our political fabric and willful ignorance of its impact on body dysmorphia and mental health,” CEO Daniel Liss writes in a Substack post titled Dispo 2.0. “Imagine a world where Dispo is the social network of choice for every teen and college student in the world. How different a world would that be?”

But, for an app that propelled to success off the fame of a YouTuber with a history of less than savory behavior, that messaging might fall flat.

According to Sensor Tower, the highest Dispo has ever ranked in the Photo & Video category on the U.S. App Store was in January 2020, when it was still called David’s Disposables. The app ranked No. 1 in that category from January 7 to January 9, and on January 8, it reached No. 1 among all free iPhone apps.

Apple Music launches Spatial Audio and Lossless Audio, adds Spatial Audio playlists

By Sarah Perez

Last month, Apple announced it would soon add lossless audio streaming and Spatial Audio with support for Dolby Atmos to its Apple Music subscription at no extra charge. That upgrade has now gone live, Apple announced this morning — though many noticed the additions actually rolled out yesterday, following the WWDC keynote.

The entire Apple Music catalog of 75+ million songs will support lossless audio.

The lossless tier begins at CD quality — 16 bit at 44.1 kHz, and goes up to 24 bit at 48 kHz, Apple previously said. Audiophiles can also opt for the high-resolution lossless that goes up to 24 bit at 192 kHz. Apple has said you’ll need to use an external, USB digital-to-analog converter to take advantage of the latter — simply plugging in a pair of headphones to an iPhone won’t work.

Apple Music subscribers will be able to enable the new lossless option under Settings > Music > Audio quality. Here, you’ll be able to choose the different resolutions you want to use for different connections, including Wi-Fi, cellular, and download.

When you make your selection in Settings, iOS warns that lossless files will use “significantly more space” on your device, as 10 GB of storage would allow you to store approximately 3,000 songs at high quality, 1,000 songs with lossless, or 200 songs with high-res lossless.

Image Credits: Apple

Meanwhile, Spatial Audio will be enabled by default on hardware that supports Dolby Atmos, like Apple’s AirPods and Beats headphones with an H1 or W1 chip. The latest iPhone, iPad, and Mac models also support Dolby Atmos. Spatial Audio on Apple Music will also be “coming soon” to Android devices, Apple said.

To kick off launch, Apple Music is today rolling out new playlists designed to showcase Spatial Audio. These include:

Apple is also adding a special guide to Spatial Audio on Apple Music, which will help music listeners hear the difference. This will include tracks from artists like Marvin Gaye and The Weeknd, among others. And Apple will air a roundtable conversation about Spatial Audio featuring top sound engineers and experts, hosted by Zane Lowe at 9 am PT today on Apple Music.

Because songs have to be remastered for Dolby Atmos specifically, these guides and playlists will help music fans experience the new format without having to hunt around. Apple says it’s working with artists and labels to add more new releases and the best catalog tracks in Spatial Audio. To help on this front, Apple notes there are various initiatives underway — including doubling the number of Dolby-enabled studios in major markets, offering educational programs, and providing resources to independent artists.

Apple also said it will build music-authoring tools directly into Logic Pro. Later this year, the company plans to release an update to Logic Pro that will allow any musician to create and mix their songs in Spatial Audio for Apple Music.

read more about Apple's WWDC 2021 on TechCrunch

Free month of Extra Crunch included with TC Sessions: Mobility tickets

By Travis Bernard

TC Sessions: Mobility 2021 is coming up soon, and we’ve decided to sweeten the deal for what’s included with your event pass. Buy your ticket now and you’ll get a free month of access to Extra Crunch, our membership program focused on startups, founders and investors with more than 100 exclusive articles published per month.

Extra Crunch unlocks access to our weekly investor surveys, private market analysis and in-depth interviews with experts on fundraising, growth, monetization and other core startup topics. Get feedback on your pitch deck through Extra Crunch Live, and stay informed with our members-only Extra Crunch newsletter. Other benefits include an improved TechCrunch.com experience and savings on software services from AWS, Crunchbase and more.

Learn more about Extra Crunch benefits here, and buy your TC Sessions: Mobility 2021 tickets here.  

What is TC Sessions: Mobility 2021? 

TC Sessions: Mobility 2021 is where the transportation community gathers online for interactive discussions that break through the hype to understand the current state of the mobility revolution and reveal the future of transportation. The event will take place June 9, and we’d love to have you join. View the event agenda here, and purchase tickets here

Once you buy your TC Sessions: Mobility 2021 pass, you will be emailed a link and unique code you can use to claim the free month of Extra Crunch during the event.

Already bought your TC Sessions: Mobility 2021 ticket?

Existing ticket holders as well as any new purchasers will be emailed information during the event on how to claim the free month of Extra Crunch membership. 

Already an Extra Crunch member?

We’re happy to extend a free month of access to existing users. Please contact extracrunch@techcrunch.com, and mention that you are an existing Extra Crunch member who bought a ticket to TC Sessions: Mobility 2021.

Pinterest adds a Shopping List feature to round up your saved products

By Sarah Perez

Pinterest has long positioned itself a source for inspiration that could ultimately lead to online purchases. And over the years, it has worked on features to better connect consumers with the products and services they want to buy, like shoppable pins, visual search, AR try-on, product recommendations, and more. Today, the company is rolling out another feature aimed at turning users’ saved Pins into purchases: a shopping list.

The new Pinterest Shopping list feature saves all your Product Pins in one place, so when you’re ready to purchase you won’t have to hunt around through your saved Pins and Boards to find the products you had been considering. Here, you’ll find the information you need, including an item’s price, reviews, and shipping info in an even grid so you can compare products and make decisions.

The feature, however, isn’t just an organizational tool — Pinterest says it will also send out notifications if the items you’ve saved have dropped in price — which could encourage users to make the purchase.

The Shopping List is available on your Profile page above your other boards, and will include the shoppable items you’ve saved as well as items you’ve recently viewed. When you’re ready to buy, you can click on the pin to visit the retailer’s website to complete the transaction — giving Pinterest the credit for the referral, of course.

The feature will launch first in the U.S. and U.K., and will later roll out to Australia, Canada, France and Germany later in the year, Pinterest says.

Alongside the Shopping List, Pinterest today is also expanding merchant tools with the debut of its Verified Merchant Program in the U.K., Australia, Canada, France and Germany, plus a merchant storefront on profile feature, and new product tagging in Australia, Canada, France and Germany. Launched last year, the Verified Merchant Program offers retailers a way to sign up for a manual review to determine if they meet Pinterest’s qualifications for high-quality customer service experiences. If so, they receive a blue checkmark on their profile as a signal to consumers that they’re a trustworthy retailer.

Image Credits: Pinterest

In addition, the company is today launching a special two-week long Shopping Spotlight called “The Goods by Pinterest,” which offers users access to limited edition items sold by DTC brands including Brooklinen, Outdoor Voices, Clare Paint, Olive & June, and Maude. And it’s running a “Shop the mood” campaign offering curated trends from its annual report, “Pinterest Predicts.”

Though Pinterest notes its users, on average, outspend non-users by 2x every month and have a 85% larger basket size, the way people want to shop online is rapidly changing.

Historically an image-centric idea board of sorts, Pinterest may be left behind as more consumers — and particularly younger shoppers — begin to more heavily rely on shopping via video (both recorded and live), including through influencer-driven content across platforms like Facebook, Instagram and TikTok. Pinterest has only more recently expanded into this area, with the launch of video-first “Idea Pins” last month aimed at creators, and a test of livestreamed creator events around the same time.

The new launches follow a Pinterest earnings beat in April on both EPS and revenue (11 cents vs 7 cents expected, and $485M vs $474M expected), but slowing user growth. The company reported 478 million monthly active users versus the 480.5 million expected, causing the stock to drop 10% after the report came out. The company blamed the decline in user growth and user engagement on the easing of Covid-19 restrictions, as consumers began to spend less time online.

With the new additions, Pinterest wants to better ensure those users who are on its site are not just idly browsing, but actually checking out.

Equity Monday: Jeff’s going to space, and everyone wants a piece of Flipkart

By Alex Wilhelm

Hello and welcome back to Equity, TechCrunch’s venture capital-focused podcast where we unpack the numbers behind the headlines.

This is Equity Monday, our weekly kickoff that tracks the latest private market news, talks about the coming week, digs into some recent funding rounds and mulls over a larger theme or narrative from the private markets. You can follow the show on Twitter here and myself here.

It’s WWDC week, so expect a deluge of Apple news to overtake your Twitter feed here and there over the next few days. But there’s a lot more going on, so let’s dig in:

And that’s your start to the week. More to come from your friends here on Wednesday, and Friday. Chat soon!

Equity drops every Monday at 7:00 a.m. PST, Wednesday, and Friday at 6:00 AM PST, so subscribe to us on Apple PodcastsOvercastSpotify and all the casts!

Admit It: The Facebook Oversight Board Is Kind of Working

By Gilad Edelman
Facebook has agreed to follow some of the board’s nonbinding recommendations regarding the Donald Trump suspension. That’s progress.

Nigeria suspends Twitter operations, says platform ‘undermines its corporate existence’

By Tage Kene-Okafor

Through its Ministry of Information and Culture today, the Nigerian government announced its decision to suspend the activities of social media platform Twitter in the country.

The statement, made by Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed, and signed off by his media aide Segun Adeyemi, could see telecoms in the country prevent Nigerians from using Twitter.

Here’s the statement issued by the ministry:

The Federal Government has suspended indefinitely the operations of the microblogging and social networking service Twitter in Nigeria. The Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, announced the suspension in a statement issued in Abuja on Friday, citing the presistent use of the platform for activities that are capable of undermining Nigeria’s corporate existence.

The Minister said the Federal Government has also directed the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) to immediately commence the process of licensing all OTT and social media operations in Nigeria.

Today’s announcement is a culmination of events that have happened this past week. Yesterday, Twitter deleted tweets and videos of President Muhammadu Buhari making threats of punishment to a sect called IPOB in the South-Eastern part of the country after he blamed them for attacks on government buildings. He then referenced Nigeria’s civil war events in the 1960s, which seemed to offend many Nigerians.

Buhari, who was the country’s Head of State in the 1980s and served in the army against secessionists, said young Nigerians in the country’s southeastern part were too young to remember the horrible events that occurred during the war. According to him, the activities of the present-day secessionists are likely headed toward war; hence, it was proactive to stop them beforehand with force.

“Those of us in the fields for 30 months, who went through the war, will treat them in the language they understand,” he said.

Twitter chose to delete the tweet after violating its abusive behaviour policy and several calls by Nigerians to take it down. Twitter also suspended the president’s account, leaving it in a “read-only mode” for 12 hours.

Following its decision, Mr Mohammed called out the social media giant by saying its decision was biased and said the president had a right to express his thoughts on events that affect the country. He also raised suspicion about the platform’s intention in the country. “Twitter may have its own rules; it’s not the universal rule. If Mr President anywhere in the world feels very bad and concerned about a situation, he is free to express such views… The mission of Twitter in Nigeria is very, very suspect,” he said.

In a retaliation act, Nigeria has proceeded to suspend the platform’s operations in the country. While Twitter doesn’t have any offices in the country, this announcement can still play out. And although there hasn’t been any social media ban yet, Nigeria’s current administration is no stranger to making ploys to restrict access to the internet, certain websites or social media. It was one of the tactics used during the EndSARS protests that rocked the country in October 2020. Given past events in other African countries where the internet has been restricted or banned in one form or another, this is an obvious ploy by the Nigerian government to double down on these tactics and use telecoms operators to repress free speech.

TechCrunch has reached out to Twitter for comments.

This is a developing story…

Twitch introduces Animated Emotes for their 10th anniversary

By Amanda Silberling

Twitch announced today that they will release major updates to their Emotes this month to celebrate their 10th anniversary. These new features will include Animated Emotes, Follower Emotes, and a Library for Emotes. 

Since the origin of the live streaming platform for gamers, Emotes – Twitch’s version of emojis – have been a key component of Twitch culture. They’re micro memes, and images like Kappa, TriHard, and PogChamp have come to carry meaning in the greater gaming world, even off the Twitch platform. 

“Emotes are a language that transcends countries,” said Ivan Santana, Senior Director of Community Product at Twitch. “Anywhere you are in the world, they mean the same thing for us.”

The Amazon-owned platform regularly adds new global Emotes, which can be used on any streamer’s channel. Individual creators can make custom Emotes for their own community, which paying subscribers can use across the platform. But the ability to add animated gifs as Emotes is something that the community has been asking for since Santana can remember. 

“I’ve been at Twitch for four years, and it’s something people have been asking for since before I joined,” Santana told TechCrunch. “It’s certainly been a very, very long time.” 

Streamers who lack animation skills need not worry. While the more tech-savvy among us can upload custom gifs, Twitch will provide six templates for streamers to choose from, which can animate their existing Emotes. These animations include Shake, Rave, Roll, Spin, Slide In, and Slide Out. Viewers who are sensitive to animations will be able to turn off the feature in their Chat Settings. 

Image Credits: Twitch

Twitch is also beta testing Follower Emotes, which will be available to select Partners and Affiliates. This feature creates a fun, free incentive for viewers to hit the follow button on a channel they might be checking out for the first time. When viewers follow a channel, they’ll be notified when the creator is streaming, which can lead to an eventual subscription. Twitch takes 50% of streamers’ subscription money, creating a valuable revenue stream for the company.

In Q1 of 2021, Twitch viewership hit an all-time high, growing 16.5% since the previous quarter. Twitch viewers watched 6.34 billion hours of content in Q1, making up 72.3% of the market share. That’s double the total hours watched on Twitch in Q1 of 2020. Facebook Gaming and YouTube Gaming earned 12.1% and 15.6% of viewership in the sector respectively. 

“For a long time, creators have been asking for better ways to attract and welcome new viewers into their channel,” said Santana. “The idea is generally to create a lot of excitement around that community, and more feelings ultimately of community.”

Creators with beta access will be able to upload up to five Emotes for their followers, but unlike Subscriber Emotes, followers won’t be able to use these across other channels. There’s no guarantee that Follower Emotes will be here to stay – Santana says it’s a feature Twitch is “experimenting” with – but if all goes well, the feature will roll out more widely later in the year.

Finally, the Library function will make it easier for creators to to swap Emotes in and out of subscription tiers without having to delete and reupload them each time. This builds upon an upgrade that launched in January, which centralized channel-specific icons into an Emotes tab on the Creator Dashboard. As usual, new Emotes have to be approved by Twitch before they’re put into use. The Library will roll out soon to all Partners and Affiliates, staggered over a few months to account for an expected increase in volume of new Emotes. 

“As Twitch has scaled, we now have millions of communities across many different cultures across the world,” Santana said. “We can hand over more of the controls of our Emote language to our community, and let them sort of evolve in a way that we never could imagine that ultimately serves them in their unique ways.”

Twitch teased that there’s more in the works to celebrate the platform’s 10th anniversary, including an official 10 Year celebration. 

Facebook’s use of ad data triggers antitrust probes in UK and EU

By Natasha Lomas

Facebook is facing a fresh pair of antitrust probes in Europe.

The UK’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) and the EU’s Competition Commission both announced formal investigations into the social media giant’s operations today — with what’s likely to have been co-ordinated timing.

The competition regulators will scrutinize how Facebook uses data from advertising customers and users of its single sign-on tool — specifically looking at whether it uses this data as an unfair lever against competitors in markets such as classified ads.

The pair also said they will seek to work closely together as their independent investigations progress.

With the UK outside the European trading bloc (post-Brexit), the national competition watchdog has a freer rein to pursue investigations that may be similar to or overlap with antitrust probes the EU is also undertaking.

And the two Facebook investigations do appear similar on the surface — with both broadly focused on how Facebook uses advertising data. (Though outcomes could of course differ.)

The danger for Facebook, here, is that a higher dimension of scrutiny will be applied to its business as a result of dual regulatory action — with the opportunity for joint working and cross-referencing of its responses (not to mention a little investigative competition between the UK and the EU’s agencies).

The CMA said it’s looking at whether Facebook has gained an unfair advantage over competitors in providing services for online classified ads and online dating through how it gathers and uses certain data.

Specifically, the UK’s regulator said it’s concerned that Facebook might have gained an unfair advantage over competitors providing services for online classified ads and online dating.

Facebook plays in both spaces of course, via Facebook Marketplace and Facebook Dating respectively.

In a statement on its action, CMA CEO, Andrea Coscelli, said: “We intend to thoroughly investigate Facebook’s use of data to assess whether its business practices are giving it an unfair advantage in the online dating and classified ad sectors. Any such advantage can make it harder for competing firms to succeed, including new and smaller businesses, and may reduce customer choice.”

The European Commission’s investigation will — similarly — focus on whether Facebook violated the EU’s competition rules by using advertising data gathered from advertisers in order to compete with them in markets where it is active.

Although it only cites classified ads as its example of the neighbouring market of particular concern for its probe.

The EU’s probe has another element, though, as it said it’s also looking at whether Facebook ties its online classified ads service to its social network in breach of the bloc’s competition rules.

In a separate (national) action, Germany’s competition authority opened a similar probe into Facebook tying Oculus to use of a Facebook account at the end of last year. So Facebook now has multiple antitrust probes on its plate in Europe, adding to its woes from the massive states antitrust lawsuit filed against it on home turf also back in December 2020.

“When advertising their services on Facebook, companies, which also compete directly with Facebook, may provide it commercially valuable data. Facebook might then use this data in order to compete against the companies which provided it,” the Commission noted in a press release.

“This applies in particular to online classified ads providers, the platforms on which many European consumers buy and sell products. Online classified ads providers advertise their services on Facebook’s social network. At the same time, they compete with Facebook’s own online classified ads service, ‘Facebook Marketplace’.”

The Commission added that a preliminary investigation it already undertook has raised concerns Facebook is distorting the market for online classified ads services. It will now take an in-depth look in order to make a full judgement on whether the social media behemoth is breaking EU competition rules.

Commenting in a statement, EVP Margrethe Vestager, who also heads up competition policy for the bloc, added: “Facebook is used by almost 3 billion people on a monthly basis and almost 7 million firms advertise on Facebook in total. Facebook collects vast troves of data on the activities of users of its social network and beyond, enabling it to target specific customer groups. We will look in detail at whether this data gives Facebook an undue competitive advantage in particular on the online classified ads sector, where people buy and sell goods every day, and where Facebook also competes with companies from which it collects data. In today’s digital economy, data should not be used in ways that distort competition.”

Reached for comment on the latest European antitrust probes, Facebook sent us this statement:

“We are always developing new and better services to meet evolving demand from people who use Facebook. Marketplace and Dating offer people more choices and both products operate in a highly competitive environment with many large incumbents. We will continue to cooperate fully with the investigations to demonstrate that they are without merit.”

Up til now, Facebook has been a bit of a blind spot for the Commission’s competition authority — with multiple investigations and enforcements chalked up by the bloc against other tech giants, such as (most notably) Google and Amazon.

But Vestager’s Facebook ‘dry patch’ has now formally come to an end.

The CMA, meanwhile, is working on wider pro-competition regulatory reforms aimed squarely at tech giants like Facebook and Google under a UK plan to clip the wings of the adtech duopoly.

 

In latest Big Tech antitrust push, Germany’s FCO eyes Google News Showcase fine print

By Natasha Lomas

The Bundeskartellamt, Germany’s very active competition authority, isn’t letting the grass grow under new powers it gained this year to tackle Big Tech: The Federal Cartel Office (FCO) has just announced a third proceeding against Google.

The FCO’s latest competition probe looks very interesting, as it’s targeting Google News Showcase — Google’s relatively recently launched product which curates a selection of third-party publishers’ content to appear in story panels on Google News (and other Google properties), content for which the tech giant pays a licensing fee.

Google started cutting content licensing deals with publishers around the world for News Showcase last year, announcing a total pot of $1 billion to fund the arrangements — with Germany one of the first markets where it inked deals.

However, its motivation to pay publishers to licence their journalism is hardly pure.

It follows years of bitter accusations from media companies that Google is freeloading off their content. To which the tech giant routinely responded with stonewalling statements — saying it would never pay for content because that’s not how online aggregation works. It also tried to fob off the industry with a digital innovation fund (aka Google News Initiative), which distributes small grants and offers free workshops and product advice, seeking to frame publishers’ decimated business models as a failure of innovation, leaving Google’s adtech machine scot free to steamroller on.

Google’s stonewalling-plus-chicken-feeding approach worked to stave off regulatory action for a long time, but eventually enough political pressure built up around the issue of media business models versus the online advertising duopoly that legislators started to make moves to try to address the power imbalance between traditional publishers and intermediating tech giants.

Most infamously in Australia, where lawmakers passed a news media bargaining code earlier this year.

Prior to its passage, both Facebook and Google, the twin targets for that law, warned the move could result in dire consequences — such as a total shutdown of their products, reduced quality or even fees to use their services.

Nothing like that happened, but lawmakers did agree to a last-minute amendment — adding a two-month mediation period to the legislation which allows digital platforms and publishers to strike deals on their own before having to enter into forced arbitration.

Critics say that allows for the two tech giants to continue to set their own terms when dealmaking with publishers, leveraging market muscle to strike deals that may disproportionately benefit Australia’s largest media firms — and doing so without any external oversight and with no guarantees that the resulting content arrangements foster media diversity and plurality or even support quality journalism.

In the EU, lawmakers acted earlier — taking the controversial route of extending copyright to cover snippets of news content back in 2019. (And Monday June 7 is the deadline for Member States to have transposed the rules into national law.)

France was among the first EU countries to bake the provision into national law — and its competition watchdog quickly ordered Google to pay for news reuse back in 2020 after Google tried to wiggle out of the legislation by stopping displaying snippets in the market.

It responded to the competition authority’s order with more obfuscation, though, agreeing earlier this year to pay French publishers for content reuse but also for their participation in News Showcase — bundling required-by-law payments (for news reuse) with content licensing deals of its own devising. And thereby making it difficult to understand the balance of mandatory payments versus commercial arrangements.

The problem with News Showcase is that these licensing arrangements are being done behind closed doors, in many cases ahead of relevant legislation and thus purely on Google’s terms — which means the initiative risks exacerbating concerns about the power imbalance between it and traditional publishers caught in a revenue bind as their business models have been massively disrupted by the switch to digital.

If Google suddenly offers some money for content, plenty of publishers might well jump — regardless of the terms. And perhaps especially because any publishers that hold out against licensing content to Google at the price it likes risk being disadvantaged by reduced visibility for their content, given Google’s dominance of the search market and content discoverability (via its ability to direct traffic to specific media properties, such as based on how prominently News Showcase content is displayed, for example).

The competition implications look clear.

But it’s still impressive that the Bundeskartellamt is spinning up an investigation into News Showcase so quickly.

The FCO said it’s acting on a complaint from Corint Media — looking at whether the announced integration of the Google News Showcase service into Google’s general search function is “likely to constitute self-preferencing or an impediment to the services offered by competing third parties”.

It also said it’s looking at whether contractual conditions include unreasonable terms (“to the detriment of the participating publishers”); and, in particular, “make it disproportionately difficult for them to enforce the ancillary copyright for press publishers introduced by the German Bundestag and Bundesrat in May 2021” — a reference to the transposed neighbouring right for news in the EU copyright reform.

So it will be examining the core issue of whether Google is trying to use News Showcase to undermine the new EU rights publishers gained under the copyright reform.

The FCO also said it wants to look at “how the conditions for access to Google’s News Showcase service are defined”.

Google launched the News Showcase in Germany on October 1 2020, with an initial 20 media companies participating — covering 50 publications. Although more have been added since.

Per the FCO, the News Showcase “story panels” were initially integrated in the Google News app but can now also be found in Google News on the desktop. It also notes that Google has said the panels will soon also appear in the general Google search results — a move that will further dial up the competition dynamics around the product, given Google’s massive dominance of the search market in Europe.

Commenting on its proceeding in a statement, Andreas Mundt, president of the Bundeskartellamt, said: “Cooperating with Google can be an attractive option for publishers and other news providers and offer consumers new or improved information services. However, it must be ensured that this will not result in discrimination between individual publishers. In addition, Google’s strong position in providing access to end customers must not lead to a situation where competing services offered by publishers or other news providers are squeezed out of the market. There must be an adequate balance between the rights and obligations of the content providers participating in Google’s programme.”

Google was contacted for comment on the FCO’s action — and it sent us this statement, attributed to spokesperson, Kay Oberbeck:

Showcase is one of many ways Google supports journalism, building on products and funds that all publishers can benefit from. Showcase is an international licensing program for news — the selection of partners is based on objective and non-discriminatory criteria, and partner content is not given preference in the ranking of our results. We will cooperate fully with the German Competition Authority and look forward to answering their questions.

The FCO’s scrutiny of Google News Showcase, follows hard on the heels of two other Google proceedings it opened last month, one to determine whether or not the tech giant meets the threshold of Germany’s new competition powers for tackling Big Tech — and another examining its data processing practices. Both remain ongoing.

The competition authority has also recently opened a proceeding into Amazon’s market dominance — and is also looking to extend another recent investigation of Facebook’s Oculus business, also by determining whether the social media giant’s business meets the threshold required under the new law.

The amendment to the German Competition Act came into force in January — giving the FCO greater powers to proactively impose conditions on large digital companies that are considered to be of “paramount significance for competition across markets” in order to pre-emptively control the risk of market abuse.

That it’s taking on so many proceedings in parallel against Big Tech shows it’s keen not to waste any time — putting itself in a position to come, as quickly as possible, with proactive interventions to address competitive problems caused by platform giants just as soon as it determines it can legally do that.

The Bundeskartellamt also has a pioneering case against Facebook’s “superprofiling” on its desk — which links privacy abuse to competition concerns and could drastically limit the tech giant’s ability to profile users. That investigation and case has been ongoing for years but was recently referred to Europe’s top court for an interpretation of key legal questions.

 

Blackstone acquires tech publisher IDG for $1.3B, as private equity strikes again

By Ron Miller

It’s been a busy week for private equity with Cloudera, Stack Overflow and FireEye coming off the board on Tuesday and Wednesday. Today Blackstone bought media and data company IDG for $1.3 billion. The company had been owned by Oriental Rainbow, LLC, a subsidiary of China Oceanwide Holdings Group, Co. Ltd.

With IDG, Blackstone gets tech analyst firm IDC along with a collection of tech publications that includes CIO, Computerworld, InfoWorld, Macworld, Network World, PCWorld, and Tech Hive. The media publishing arm was once a powerhouse in the 1990s tech publishing world, although its shine has faded in recent years as the publishing industry in general has come under intense pressure.

The company has also been making some additions to the platform more recently with a stronger focus on data and analytics. Last year it bought Triblio, a marketing data platform to help companies deliver more personalized customer experiences. Last month it acquired Metri, an IT pricing service, which can help with IT budgeting and procurement. The latter could dovetail nicely with IDC’s consulting services.

Company CEO Mohamad Ali is hoping that Blackstone can infuse more capital into the company to keep building on its software services with a data focus. “Additional capital investment from Blackstone will allow us to cultivate our rich history of innovation and accelerate our product roadmaps to bring our customers the deeper insights and data they need to succeed in today’s rapidly evolving digital economy,” said in a statement.

That sounds like he wants to increase his data bet. It seems that the data side of the business was particularly attractive to Blackstone as well. “The high-quality data, analytics and insights IDG delivers to technology leaders are only becoming more critical as the pace of growth and innovation accelerates,” Peter Wallace, Global Head of Core Private Equity at Blackstone said in a statement.

The company launched in 1964 with the consulting side of the business, but founder Pat McGovern had a broader vision and began the publishing side of the company in 1967 with the launch of Computerworld. The publishing business actually grew to become integral part of the rise of the PC and the technology shift that occurred at a personal and business level in the 80s and 90s. It’s unclear what this deal will mean for the publishing side of the house or where that would even fit as it continues the push to focus on data and analytics.

It’s worth noting that Verizon Media, which owns this publication along with Engadget, was also recently sold to private equity firm, Apollo Global, as the private equity push into all parts of the technology ecosystem continues.

Twitter redesigns its mobile app to make Spaces the center tab

By Sarah Perez

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

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

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

Image Credits: Twitter

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roku debuts a 15-minute weekly series that recommends what to watch next

By Sarah Perez

Roku is expanding its programming for its free content hub, The Roku Channel, with today’s launch of its own weekly entertainment program called “Roku Recommends.” The 15-minute show will leverage Roku’s data to highlight the Top 5 titles for viewers to stream that week. While not exactly “original programming” the way that Roku’s recent additions of its acquired Quibi content is, the series will run only on Roku, where it can be found in The Roku Channel and Featured Free, with new episodes every Thursday.

The series is the first production to emerge from the new Roku Brand Studio — a studio that aims to produce video ads and other custom branded content for ad partners. The show is produced by Funny Or Die, and Mike Farah, Beth Belew and Jim Ziegler serve as executive producers.

The show’s co-hosts include entertainment reporter and AfterBuzz TV co-founder Maria Menounos and former NFL player Andrew “Hawk” Hawkins. The duo will present the Top 5 titles to viewers. These recommended shows or movies may come from any of the thousands of channels across the Roku platform, based on data exclusive to the platform.

“According to Nielsen data, the average streamer spends more than seven minutes searching for what to watch next,” said Chris Bruss, head of Roku Brand Studio, in a statement. “We are uniquely positioned to use our trending data both to help consumers find incredible movies and shows and to help advertisers go beyond the traditional 30-second ad to entertain streamers who otherwise spend time in ad-free, subscription-only environments,” he added.

The series will also allow for ad sponsors. The company says it has already signed on several national advertisers, starting with Walmart, to sponsor the program. Advertisers will have access to Roku’s Measurement Partner Program to determine whether or not their integration reaches subscription video on-demand (SVOD)-only streaming users, as well as view other metrics about their video ad campaign’s reach, brand perception and impact.

The series comes at a time when the streaming landscape is shifting. Today’s streaming services regularly serve up recommended content based on what their customers are watching — Netflix, for example, shows rows of popular and trending content, as well as a Top 10 list of newly popular titles. But as the number of available streaming services grows, larger entities merge, and content jumps around as licensing agreements end and start, consumers may be more in need of a set of current recommendations from across channels and services, not just those isolated inside one service.

Amazon Fire TV’s update recently addressed this need with the introduction of a new “Find” feature that aims to make it easier for users to search and browse movies, shows and free content across its platform. Roku, however, didn’t have a recommendation system of its own.

It’s also interesting to see that Roku is willing to use its proprietary streaming data in this way — something it could choose to do more with further down the road to help build out a broader set of recommendations.

Hide Your Instagram Likes—and Be Free

By Arielle Pardes
A feed without likes is far from a revolution. But I want to enjoy this summer with my friends, not my metrics.

Video e-learning platform for MENA, Almentor, closes $6.5M Series B led by Partech

By Tage Kene-Okafor

There are more than 400 million Arabic speakers globally and that number isn’t slowing down anytime soon. Arabic, to most people, is a tough language even to those who speak it. According to Duolingo, someone fluent in Egyptian Arabic might not fully understand Yemeni Arabic speakers because of the vast difference in dialect.

While individuals can easily navigate dialects, it can be relatively hard for them to find tailored Arabic content essential for everyday life.

Dr Ihab Fikry and Ibrahim Kamel founded Almentor.net in 2016 as an online video learning platform to compensate for this lack of online learning content for Arabic speakers. In collaboration with hundreds of leaders, educators, and experts, the platform offers courses and talks in various fields like health, humanities, technology, entrepreneurship, business management, lifestyle, drama, sports, corporate communication, and digital media.

In 2016, Almentor closed a $3.5 million seed round and two years ago raised $4.5 million Series A led by Egypt’s Sawari Ventures. With this Series B investment, the Dubai-based edtech company has raised $14.5 million in total. San Francisco and Paris-based VC firm Partech led the financing round with participation from Sawari Ventures, fellow Series A investor Egypt Ventures, and Sango Capital.

Almentor provides Arab learners with the necessary skills crucially needed to advance their professional careers and personal lives. The platform claims to have the biggest continuous learning library in the region and one of the biggest worldwide. With offices in Dubai, Cairo, and Saudi Arabia, its video content is developed in-house and made in Arabic and English.

“The vision and reason behind starting Almentor is we understand that in our region of more than 100 million people, of which 90% cannot properly learn with any other language other than Arabic,” Fikry said to TechCrunch. “So we wanted to have a cutting-edge state of the art platform that will change people’s ideology and help them be objective, and focus based on topics that can be taught as prodigious learning.”

For first-time products like Almentor, it can be hard to get both investors and customers on board. According to CEO Fikry, the first challenge was to convince the investment community in the MENA region that Almentor was creating a new industry in video e-learning that “had lots of potential to power tools in the region.”

Almentor’s business is an intersection of education, media, and technology. Its offerings are dissected into three: the flagship B2C product, a white-label B2B model for blue-chip companies, and the last, which Fikry calls the ‘special project’ for governmental bodies.

For its B2C product, Almentor sells courses to users for $20-$30 of which they get to keep for a lifetime. Fikry says that in June, the company is planning to introduce a subscription-based model where users can have unlimited access to all of its 12,000 video content for a fee to its more than 1 million registered users.

Almentor

The B2B model is where Almentor opens its library to companies to customize their content for employees. These videos are mainly tutorials or training needed to thrive at work, and since 2016, Almentor has executed 78 deals with partner companies

The special project’s model highlights Almentor’s work with the government. One time, the company had a partnership with the Egyptian government to upskill the country’s movie industry. It has completed 11 more similar special projects since launching five years ago. 

Across all three models, Fikry says Almentor has successfully delivered more than 2 million learning experiences. With this investment, the company wants to improve content production and quality and educate people in the MENA region on why they need the product.

“We are now leading the continuous video learning industry in the Arab region, and we have a responsibility that goes beyond our ambitions for Almentor. Our responsibility now is to work unceasingly to improve the industry as a whole in the Arab region, and this can only be achieved through gaining the confidence of the Arab learners in the value, professionalism and impartiality of the content provided by the platform and working in line with the global learning trends.”

Speaking on the investment for Partech, general partner Cyril Collon said: “Since our first interaction, we have been very impressed by Ihab and Ibrahim, two fantastic mission-driven entrepreneurs who have been executing on a bold vision since 2016, and who built the leading Arabic self-learning go-to content provider in the Middle East and Africa.  We are looking forward to supporting the company in its next phase of growth to serve the 430 million Arabic-speaking population and expand access to on-demand cutting-edge personal learning & developments options.”

EU to review TikTok’s ToS after child safety complaints

By Natasha Lomas

TikTok has a month to respond to concerns raised by European consumer protection agencies earlier this year, EU lawmakers said today.

The Commission has launched what it described as “a formal dialogue” with the video sharing platform over its commercial practices and policy.

Areas of specific concern include hidden marketing, aggressive advertising techniques targeted at children, and certain contractual terms in TikTok’s policies that could be considered misleading and confusing for consumers, per the Commission.

Commenting in a statement, justice commissioner Didier Reynders added: “The current pandemic has further accelerated digitalisation. This has brought new opportunities but it has also created new risks, in particular for vulnerable consumers. In the European Union, it is prohibited to target children and minors with disguised advertising such as banners in videos. The dialogue we are launching today should support TikTok in complying with EU rules to protect consumers.”

The background to this is that back in February the European Consumer Organisation (BEUC) sent the the Commission a report calling out a number of TikTok’s policies and practices — including what it said were unfair terms and copyright practices. It also flagged the risk of children being exposed to inappropriate content on the platform, and accused TikTok of misleading data processing and privacy practices.

Complaints were filed around the same time by consumer organisations in 15 EU countries — urging those national authorities to investigate the social media giant’s conduct.

The multi-pronged EU action means TikTok has not just the Commission looking at the detail of its small print but is facing questions from a network of national consumer protection authorities — which is being co-led by the Swedish Consumer Agency and the Irish Competition and Consumer Protection Commission (which handles privacy issues related to the platform).

Nonetheless, the BEUC queried why the Commission hasn’t yet launched a formal enforcement procedure.

We hope that the authorities will stick to their guns in this ‘dialogue’ which we understand is not yet a formal launch of an enforcement procedure. It must lead to good results for consumers, tackling all the points that BEUC raised. BEUC also hopes to be consulted before an agreement is reached,” a spokesperson for the organization told us. 

Also reached for comment, TikTok sent us this statement on the Commission’s action, attributed to its director of public policy, Caroline Greer: 

“As part of our ongoing engagement with regulators and other external stakeholders over issues such as consumer protection and transparency, we are engaging in a dialogue with the Irish Consumer Protection Commission and the Swedish Consumer Agency and look forward to discussing the measures we’ve already introduced. In addition, we have taken a number of steps to protect our younger users, including making all under-16 accounts private-by-default, and disabling their access to direct messaging. Further, users under 18 cannot buy, send or receive virtual gifts, and we have strict policies prohibiting advertising directly appealing to those under the age of digital consent.”

The company told us it uses age verification for personalized ads — saying users must have verified that they are 13+ to receive these ads; as well as being over the age of digital consent in their respective EU country; and also having consented to receive targeted ads.

However TikTok’s age verification technology has been criticized as weak before now — and recent emergency child-safety-focused enforcement action by the Italian national data protection agency has led to TikTok having to pledge to strengthen its age verification processes in the country.

The Italian enforcement action also resulted in TikTok removing more than 500,000 accounts suspected of belonging to users aged under 13 earlier this month — raising further questions about whether it can really claim that under-13s aren’t routinely exposed to targeted ads on its platform.

In further background remarks it sent us, TikTok claimed it has clear labelling of sponsored content. But it also noted it’s made some recent changes — such as switching the label it applies on video advertising from ‘sponsored’ to ‘ad’ to make it clearer.

It also said it’s working on a toggle that aims to make it clearer to users when they may be exposed to advertising by other users by enabling the latter users to prominently disclose that their content contains advertising.

TikTok said the tool is currently in beta testing in Europe but it said it expects to move to general availability this summer and will also amend its ToS to require users to use this toggle whenever their content contains advertising. (But without adequate enforcement that may just end up as another overlooked and easily abused setting.)

The company recently announced a transparency center in Europe in a move that looks intended to counter some of the concerns being raised about its business in the region, as well as to prepare it for the increased oversight that’s coming down the pipe for all digital platforms operating in the EU — as the bloc works to update its digital rulebook.

 

Twitter Spaces will be available for the web, including accessibility features

By Amanda Silberling

On Wednesday evening, Twitter announced that Spaces — its Clubhouse competitor — will start rolling out for use on the web. Earlier this month, Twitter Spaces became available for any user with more than 600 followers on the iOS or Android apps, and around the same time, Clubhouse finally released its long-awaited Android app. Still, Clubhouse has yet to debut on the web, marking a success for Twitter in the race to corner the live social audio market. 

Even Instagram is positioning itself as a Clubhouse competitor, allowing users to “go live” with the ability to mute their audio and video. How will each app differentiate itself? Twitter CFO Ned Segal attempted to address this at JP Morgan’s 49th Annual Technology, Media, & Communications conference this week. 

“Twitter is where you go to find out what’s happening in the world and what people are talking about,” said Segal. “So when you come to Twitter, and you look at your home Timeline and you see a Space, it’s gonna perhaps be people who you don’t know but who are talking about a topic that’s incredibly relevant to you. It could be Bitcoin, it could be the aftershock from the Grammys, it could be that they’re talking about the NFL Draft.” 

Twitter’s focus areas for the web version of Spaces include a UI that adapts to the user’s screen size and reminders for scheduled Spaces. Before joining a space, Twitter will display a preview that shows who is in a Space, and a description of the topic being discussed. Users will also be able to have a Space open on the right side of their screen while still scrolling through their Timeline.

Image Credits: Twitter

Most crucially, this update lists accessibility and transcriptions as a focus area. For an audio-only platform, live transcriptions are necessary for Deaf and hard-of-hearing people to join in on the conversation. In screenshots Twitter shared of the new features, we can see how live captions will appear in Spaces. As for how accurate these transcriptions will be, the jury’s still out.

Twitter fielded well-deserved criticism last year when it failed to include captioning on its audio tweet feature. In an apology tweet, Twitter Support wrote, “Accessibility should not be an afterthought.” By September, Twitter launched two accessibility teams

Still, accessibility has often been treated as an afterthought throughout the rise of live audio. Clubhouse does not yet support live captioning. 

Poparazzi hypes itself to the top of the App Store

By Sarah Perez

If Instagram’s photo tagging feature was spun out into its own app, you’d have the viral sensation Poparazzi, now the No. 1 app on the App Store. The new social networking app, from the same folks behind TTYL and others, lets you create a social profile that only your friends can post photos to — in other words, making your friends your own ‘paparazzi.’ To its credit, the new app has perfectly executed on a series of choices designed to fuel day one growth — from its pre-launch TikTok hype cycle to drive App Store pre-orders to its post-launch social buzz, including favorable tweets by its backers. But the app has also traded user privacy in some cases to amplify network effects in its bid for the Top Charts, which is a risky move in terms of its long-term staying power.

The company positions Poparazzi as a sort of anti-Instagram, rebelling against today’s social feeds filled with edited photos, too many selfies, and “seemingly effortless perfection.” People’s real lives are made up of many unperfect moments that are worthy of being captured and shared, too, a company blog post explains.

This manifesto hits the right notes at the right time. User demand for less performative social media has been steadily growing for years — particularly as younger, Gen Z users wake up to the manipulations by tech giants. We’ve already seen a number of startups try to siphon users away from Instagram using similar rallying cries, including MinutiaeVeroDayflashOggl, and more recently, the once-buzzy Dispo and the under-the-radar Herd.

Even Facebook has woken up to consumer demand on this front, with its plan to roll out new features that allow Facebook and Instagram users to remove the Like counts from their posts and their feeds.

Poparazzi hasn’t necessarily innovated in terms of its core idea — after all, tagging users in photos has existed for years. In fact, it was one of the first viral effects introduced by Facebook in its earlier days.

Instead, Poparazzi hit the top of the charts by carefully executing on growth strategies that ensured a rocket ship-style launch.

@poparazziappcomment it! ##greenscreen ##poparazziapp ##positivity ##foryoupage♬ Milkshake – BBY Kodie

The company began gathering pre-launch buzz by driving demand via TikTok — a platform that’s already helped mint App Store hits like the mobile game High Heels. TikTok’s powers are still often underestimated, even though its potential for to send apps up the Top Charts have successfully boosted downloads for a number of mobile businesses, including TikTok sister app CapCut and e-commerce app Shein, for example.

And Poparazzi didn’t just build demand on TikTok — it actually captured it by pointing users to its App Store pre-orders page via the link in its bio. By the time launch day rolled around, it had a gaggle of Gen Z users ready and willing to give Poparazzi a try.

The app launches with a clever onboarding screen that uses haptics to buzz and vibrate your phone while the intro video plays. This is unusual enough that users will talk and post about how cool it was — another potential means of generating organic growth through word-of-mouth.

@poparazzidotcom ‘s app & website (https://t.co/EGU0K6AVS3) experience is amazing 🤯🤯🤯🤯#poparazzi pic.twitter.com/NqJWD5T5Sg

— 𝔗𝔞𝔫𝔦𝔰𝔥 𝔄𝔯𝔬𝔯𝔞 (@tanishar0ra) May 25, 2021

After getting you riled up with excitement, Poparazzi eases you into its bigger data grab.

First, it signs up and authenticates users through a phone number. Despite Apple’s App Store policy, which requires it, there is no privacy-focused option to use “Sign In with Apple,” which allows users to protect their identity. That would have limited Poparazzi’s growth potential versus its phone number and address book access approach.

It then presents you with a screen where it asks for permission to access to your Camera (an obvious necessity), Contacts (wait, all of them?), and permission to send you Notifications. This is where things start to get more dicey. The app, like Clubhouse once did, demands a full address book upload. This is unnecessary in terms of an app’s usability, as there are plenty of other ways to add friends on social media — like by scanning each other’s QR code, typing in a username directly, or performing a search.

But gaining access someone’s full Contacts database lets Poparazzi skip having to build out features for the privacy-minded. It can simply match your stored phone numbers with those it has on file from user signups and create an instant friend graph.

As you complete each permission, Poparazzi rewards you with green checkmarks. In fact, even if you deny the permission being asked, the green check appears. This may confuse users as to whether whether they’ve accidently given the app access.

They had a killer and engaging intro video complete with gravity falling emoji and well-tuned haptics that built hype and informed proper use

(I feel like a lot of people these days actually download without knowing this stuff now, making onboarding even more important) pic.twitter.com/duUelcDm0H

— Chase Stubblefield 🛴 (@chasestubb) May 25, 2021

While you can “deny” the Address Book upload — a request met with a tsk tsk of a pop-up message — Poparazzi literally only works with friends, it warns you — you can’t avoid being found by other Poparazzi users who have your phone number stored in their phone.

When users sign up, the app matches their address book to the phone number it has on file and then — boom! — new users are instantly following the existing users. And if any other friends have signed up before you, they’ll be following you as soon as you log in the first time.

AND WHAT IF I DON’T HAVE ANY FRIENDS POPARAZZI pic.twitter.com/EeeWcFIEZn

— Corey Robison (@thefomosapien) May 25, 2021

In other words, there’s no manual curation of a “friend graph” here. The expectation is that your address book is your friend graph, and Poparazzi is just duplicating it.

Of course, this isn’t always an accurate presentation of reality.

Many younger people, and particularly women, have the phone numbers of abusers, stalkers and exes stored in their phone’s Contacts. By doing so, they can leverage the phone’s built-in tools to block the unwanted calls and texts from that person. But because Poparazzi automatically matches people by phone number, abusers could gain immediate access to the user profiles of the people they’re trying to harass or hurt.

Sure, this is an edge case. But it’s a non-trivial one.

It’s a well-documented problem, too — and one that had plagued Clubhouse, which similarly required full address book uploads during its early growth phase. It’s a terrible strategy to become the norm, and one that does not appear to have created a lasting near-term lock-in for Clubhouse. It’s also not a new tactic. Mobile social network Path tried address book uploads nearly a decade ago and almost everyone at the time agreed this was not a good idea.

As carefully designed as Poparazzi is — (it’s even a blue icon — a color that denotes trustworthiness!) — it’s likely the company intentionally chose the trade off. It’s forgoing some aspects of user privacy and safety in favor of the network effects that come from having an instant friend graph.

More on @poparazzidotcom: they force you to upload your contacts to use it, as well as phone number—and also have this aggressive strategy to pull users from Snapchat. pic.twitter.com/SFx0TdCkaR

— Chase Stubblefield 🛴 (@chasestubb) May 25, 2021

The rest of the app then pushes you to grow that friend graph further and engage with other users. Your profile will remain bare unless you can convince someone to upload photos of you. A SnapKit integration lets you beg for photo tags over on Snapchat. And if you can’t get enough of your friends to tag you in photos, then you may find yourself drawn to the setting “Allow Pops from Everyone,” instead of just “People You Approve.”

There’s no world in which letting “everyone” upload photos to a social media profile doesn’t invite abuse at some point, but Poparazzi is clearly hedging its bets here. It likely knows it won’t have to deal with the fallout of these choices until further down the road — after it’s filled out its network with millions of disgruntled Instagram users, that is.

Dozens of other growth hacks are spread throughout the app, too, from multiple pushes to invite friends scattered throughout the app to a very Snapchatt-y “Top Poparazzi” section that will incentivize best friends to keep up their posting streaks.

Looking at someone else’s profile.

The “Top Poparazzi” section is genius. Really incentivizes posting for your friends (which is the biggest friction point). pic.twitter.com/7WjH0S2hQd

— Connor V. (@ConnorVO) May 25, 2021

It’s a clever bag of tricks. And though the app does not offer comments or followers counts, it isn’t being much of an “anti-Instagram” when it comes to chasing clout. The posts — which can turn into looping GIFs if you snap a few in a row — may be more “authentic” and unedited than those on Instagram; but Poparazzi uses react to posts with a range of emojis and how many reactions a post receives is shown publicly.

For beta testers featured on the explore page, reactions can be in the hundreds or thousands — effectively establishing a bar for Pop influence.

Finally, users you follow have permission to post photos, but if you unfollow them — a sure sign that you no longer want them to be in your poparazzi squad — they can still post to your profile. As it turns out, your squad is managed under a separate setting under “Allow Pops From.” That could lead to trouble. At the very least, it would be nice to see the app asking users if they also want to remove the unfollowed account’s permission to post to your profile at the time of the unfollow.

Overall, the app can be fun — especially if you’re in the young, carefree demographic it caters to. Its friend-centric and ironically anti-glam stance is promising as well. But additional privacy controls and the ability to join the service in a way that offers far more granular control of your friend graph in order to boost anti-abuse protections would be welcome additions. 

TechCrunch tried to reach Poparazzi’s team to gain their perspective on the app’s design and growth strategy, but did not hear back. (We understand they’re heads down for the time being.) We understand, per SignalFire’s Josh Constine and our own confirmation, that Floodgate has invested in the startup, as has former TechCrunch co-editor Alexia Bonatsos’ Dream Machine and Weekend Fund.

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