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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.

Twitter restricts accounts in India to comply with government legal request

By Manish Singh

Twitter disclosed on Monday that it blocked four accounts in India to comply with a new legal request from the Indian government.

The American social network disclosed on Lumen Database, a Harvard University project, that it took action on four accounts — including those of hip-hop artist L-Fresh the Lion and singer and song-writer Jazzy B — to comply with a legal request from the Indian government it received over the weekend. The accounts are geo-restricted within India but accessible from outside of the South Asian nation. (As part of their transparency efforts, some companies including Twitter and Google make requests and orders they receive from governments and other entities public on Lumen Database.)

All four accounts, like several others that the Indian government ordered to be blocked in the country earlier this year, had protested New Delhi’s agriculture reforms and some had posted other tweets that criticized Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s seven years of governance in India, an analysis by TechCrunch found.

A Twitter spokesperson told TechCrunch that when the company receives a valid legal request, it reviews it under both its own rules and local laws.

“If the content violates Twitter’s Rules, the content will be removed from the service. If it is determined to be illegal in a particular jurisdiction, but not in violation of the Twitter Rules, we may withhold access to the content in India only. In all cases, we notify the account holder directly so they’re aware that we’ve received a legal order pertaining to the account,” the spokesperson added.

The new legal request, which hasn’t been previously reported, comes at a time when Twitter is making efforts to comply with the Indian government’s new IT rules, new guidelines that several of its peers including Facebook and Google have already complied with.

On Saturday, India’s Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology had given a “final notice” to Twitter to comply with its new rules, which it unveiled in February this year. The new rules require significant social media firms to appoint and share contact details of representatives tasked with compliance, nodal point of reference and grievance redressals to address on-ground concerns.

Tension has been brewing between Twitter and the government of India of late. Last month, police in Delhi visited Twitter offices to “serve a notice” about an investigation into its intel on classifying Indian politicians’ tweets as misleading. Twitter called the move a form of intimidation, and expressed concerns for its employees and requested the government to respect citizens’ rights to free speech. Late last month, Twitter had requested New Delhi to extend the deadline for compliance with the new rules by at least three months.

The Jack Dorsey-led company has grappled with several tough situations in India this year. After briefly complying with a New Delhi order early this year, the company faced heat from the government for restoring accounts that had posted tweets critical of the Indian government’s policy or the Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The two faced off again publicly in April after New Delhi ordered Twitter and Facebook to take down posts that were critical of the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

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.

Tinder finally adds a Block Contacts feature

By Amanda Silberling

Despite the complications of meeting new people in the midst of a global pandemic, dating apps have shown a recent spike in both downloads and usage. Now, as COVID-19 vaccines become more widely available, it’s likely that this trend will continue.

In other words, Tinder is anticipating a “post-pandemic uncuffing season,” and they’re rolling out a new feature to prepare. Now, users can upload their phone contacts to select certain people that they’d rather not see on the app, whether that’s an ex, a coworker, or a family member. According to a survey commissioned by Tinder, 40% of people have found an ex-partner on the app, 24% have encountered a family member, and one in ten have even encountered their professor.

Sure, it would be pretty awkward to see your ex out on the dating market again. But the new feature is more interesting for the user safety aspect. For example, if someone has previously encountered a stalker or otherwise abusive figure – whether on the app or off – they now have a tool to directly block them on Tinder.

However, instead of creating a simple form where you could enter in the phone number or email address of the abuser, Tinder is asking for permission to access the user’s entire contacts list. Ostensibly, this is for ease of use – Tinder even claims it only keeps the contact information for those you’ve blocked on hand, and not your entire address book – but users may still be wary. For years, social apps have used address book uploads as a big data grab from users, with little benefit beyond friend-finding functionality. More recently, this trend has reemerged with new apps like Poparazzi and Clubhouse. The latter thankfully stopped the practice in March after user outcry.

“We’re rolling out Block Contacts as an additional resource empowering members with peace of mind by helping create a worry-free space for them to spark new connections,” said Bernadette Morgan, Group Product Manager, Trust & Safety at Tinder, in a statement.

Tinder tested the Block Contacts feature in India, Korea, and Japan, reporting that members who used the feature blocked about a dozen people on average.

To use the feature, you’ll go to Settings under your profile icon, select “Block Contacts” then grant the app permission. To block individuals, you can’t rely on whether or not they were blocked on your phone. You’ll need to select each person you want to block under the “Contacts” tab then tap “Block Contacts.”

This user interface makes it easier to block abusers and exes, but it’s also designed for people who want to block a large number of people – like everyone in their family or close friend group. That makes the feature a big perk for those using Tinder’s app to cheat, too.

Tinder is strict about requiring a valid phone number to register, though it’s not impossible for people to circumvent the system by registering with a Google Voice number, for example. So, regardless of what safety features Tinder rolls out, proceed wisely.

Extra Crunch roundup: Guest posts wanted, ‘mango’ seed rounds, Expensify’s tech stack

By Walter Thompson

Prospective contributors regularly ask us about which topics Extra Crunch subscribers would like to hear more about, and the answer is always the same:

  • Actionable advice that is backed up by data and/or experience.
  • Strategic insights that go beyond best practices and offer specific recommendations readers can try out for themselves.
  • Industry analysis that paints a clear picture of the companies, products and services that characterize individual tech sectors.

Our submission guidelines haven’t changed, but Managing Editor Eric Eldon and I wrote a short post that identifies the topics we’re prioritizing at the moment:

  • How-to articles for early-stage founders.
  • Market analysis of different tech sectors.
  • Growth marketing strategies.
  • Alternative fundraising.
  • Quality of life (personal health, sustainability, proptech, transportation).

If you’re a skillful entrepreneur, founder or investor who’s interested in helping someone else build their business, please read our latest guidelines, then send your ideas to guestcolumns@techcrunch.com.

Thanks for reading; I hope you have a great weekend.

Walter Thompson
Senior Editor, TechCrunch
@yourprotagonist


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Use discount code ECFriday to save 20% off a one- or two-year subscription


Opting for a debt round can take you from Series A startup to Series B unicorn

Image of a tree in a field, with half barren to represent debt and half flush with cash to represent success.

Image Credits: olegkalina (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

Debt is a tool, and like any other — be it a hammer or handsaw — it’s extremely valuable when used skillfully but can cause a lot of pain when mismanaged. This is a story about how it can go right.

Mario Ciabarra, the founder and CEO of Quantum Metric, breaks down how his company was on a “tremendous growth curve” — and then the pandemic hit.

“As the weeks following the initial shelter-in-place orders ticked by, the rush toward digital grew exponentially, and opportunities to secure new customers started piling up,” Ciabarra writes. “A solution to our money problems, perhaps? Not so fast — it was a classic case of needing to spend in order to make.”

If companies want to preserve equity, debt can be an advantageous choice. Here’s how Quantum Metric did it.

4 proven approaches to CX strategy that make customers feel loved

CX is the hottest acronym in business

Image Credits: mucahiddin / Getty Images

People have been working to optimize customer experiences (CX) since we began selling things to each other.

A famous San Francisco bakery has an exhaust fan at street level; each morning, its neighbors awake to the scent of orange-cinnamon morning buns wafting down the block. Similarly, savvy hairstylists know to greet returning customers by asking if they want a repeat or something new.

Online, CX may encompass anything from recommending the right shoes to AI that knows when to send a frustrated traveler an upgrade for a delayed flight.

In light of Qualtrics’ spinout and IPO and Sprinklr’s recent S-1, Rebecca Liu-Doyle, principal at Insight Partners, describes four key attributes shared by “companies that have upped their CX game.”

Twitter’s acquisition strategy: Eat the public conversation

woman talking with megaphone

Image Credits: We Are (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

What is a microblogging service doing buying a social podcasting company and a newsletter tool while also building a live broadcasting sub-app? Is there even a strategy at all?

Yes. Twitter is trying to revitalize itself by adding more contexts for discourse to its repertoire. The result, if everything goes right, will be an influence superapp that hasn’t existed anywhere before. The alternative is nothing less than the destruction of Twitter into a link-forwarding service.

Let’s talk about how Twitter is trying to eat the public conversation.

Reading the IPO market’s tea leaves

Although it was a truncated holiday week here in the United States, there was a bushel of IPO news. We sorted through the updates and came up with a series of sentiment calls regarding these public offerings.

Earlier this week, we took a look at:

  • Marqeta‘s first IPO price range (fintech).
  • 1st Dibs‘ first IPO price range (e-commerce).
  • Zeta Global‘s IPO pricing (martech).
  • The start of SoFi trading post-SPAC (fintech).
  • The latest from BarkBox (e-commerce).

How Expensify hacked its way to a robust, scalable tech stack

Image Credits: Nigel Sussman

Part 4 of Expensify’s EC-1 digs into the company’s engineering and technology, with Anna Heim noting that the group of P2P pirates/hackers set out to build an expense management app by sticking to their gut and making their own rules.

They asked questions few considered, like: Why have lots of employees when you can find a way to get work done and reach impressive profitability with a few? Why work from an office in San Francisco when the internet lets you work from anywhere, even a sailboat in the Caribbean?

It makes sense in a way: If you’re a pirate, to hell with the rules, right?

With that in mind, one could assume Expensify decided to ask itself: Why not build our own totally custom tech stack?

Indeed, Expensify has made several tech decisions that were met with disbelief, but its belief in its own choices has paid off over the years, and the company is ready to IPO any day now.

How much of a tech advantage Expensify enjoys owing to such choices is an open question, but one thing is clear: These choices are key to understanding Expensify and its roadmap. Let’s take a look.

Etsy asks, ‘How do you do, fellow kids?’ with $1.6B Depop purchase

GettyImages 969952548

Image Credits: Getty Images

The news this week that e-commerce marketplace Etsy will buy Depop, a startup that provides a secondhand e-commerce marketplace, for more than $1.6 billion may not have made a large impact on the acquiring company’s share price thus far, but it provides a fascinating look into what brands may be willing to pay for access to the Gen Z market.

Etsy is buying Gen Z love. Think about it — Gen Z is probably not the first demographic that comes to mind when you consider Etsy, so you can see why the deal may pencil out in the larger company’s mind.

But it isn’t cheap. The lesson from the Etsy-Depop deal appears to be that large e-commerce players are willing to splash out for youth-approved marketplaces. That’s good news for yet-private companies that are popular with the budding generation.

Confluent’s IPO brings a high-growth, high-burn SaaS model to the public markets

Image Credits: Andriy Onufriyenko / Getty Images

Confluent became the latest company to announce its intent to take the IPO route, officially filing its S-1 paperwork this week.

The company, which has raised over $455 million since it launched in 2014, was most recently valued at just over $4.5 billion when it raised $250 million last April.

What does Confluent do? It built a streaming data platform on top of the open-source Apache Kafka project. In addition to its open-source roots, Confluent has a free tier of its commercial cloud offering to complement its paid products, helping generate top-of-funnel inflows that it converts to sales.

What we can see in Confluent is nearly an old-school, high-burn SaaS business. It has taken on oodles of capital and used it in an increasingly expensive sales model.

How to win consulting, board and deal roles with PE and VC funds

Jumping to the highest level - goldfish jumping in a bigger bowl - aspiration and achievement concept. This is a 3d render illustration

Image Credits: Orla (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

Would you like to work with private equity and venture capital funds?

There are relatively few jobs directly inside private equity and venture capital funds, and those jobs are highly competitive.

However, there are many other ways you can work and earn money within the industry — as a consultant, an interim executive, a board member, a deal executive partnering to buy a company, an executive in residence or as an entrepreneur in residence.

Let’s take a look at the different ways you can work with the investment community.

The existential cost of decelerated growth

Even among the most valuable tech shops, shareholder return is concentrated in share price appreciation, and buybacks, which is the same thing to a degree.

Slowly growing tech companies worth single-digit billions can’t play the buyback game to the same degree as the majors. And they are growing more slowly, so even a similar buyback program in relative scale would excite less.

Grow or die, in other words. Or at least grow or come under heavy fire from external investors who want to oust the founder-CEO and “reform” the company. But if you can grow quickly, welcome to the land of milk and honey.

Even among the most valuable tech shops, shareholder return is concentrated in share price appreciation, and buybacks, which is the same thing to a degree.

Slowly growing tech companies worth single-digit billions can’t play the buyback game to the same degree as the majors. And they are growing more slowly, so even a similar buyback program in relative scale would excite less.

Grow or die, in other words. Or at least grow or come under heavy fire from external investors who want to oust the founder-CEO and “reform” the company. But if you can grow quickly, welcome to the land of milk and honey.

Hormonal health is a massive opportunity: Where are the unicorns?

uterus un paper work.Pink backgroundArt concept of female reproductive health

Image Credits: Carol Yepes (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

There is a growing group of entrepreneurs who are betting that hormonal health is the key wedge into the digital health boom.

Hormones are fluctuating, ever-evolving, and diverse — but these founders say they’re also key to solving many health conditions that disproportionately impact women, from diabetes to infertility to mental health challenges.

Many believe it’s that complexity that underscores the opportunity. Hormonal health sits at the center of conversations around personalized medicine and women’s health: By 2025, women’s health could be a $50 billion industry, and by 2026, digital health more broadly is estimated to hit $221 billion.

Still, as funding for women’s health startups drops and stigma continues to impact where venture dollars go, it’s unclear whether the sector will remain in its infancy or hit a true inflection point.

3 lessons we learned after raising $6.3M from 50 investors

Image of businesspeople climbing ladders up an arrow toward three increasingly tall piles of cash.

Image Credits: sorbetto (opens in a new window)/ Getty Images

Two years ago, founders of calendar assistant platform Reclaim were looking for a “mango” seed round — a boodle of cash large enough to help them transition from the prototype phase to staffing up for a public launch.

Although the team received offers, co-founder Henry Shapiro says the few that materialized were poor options, partially because Reclaim was still pre-product.

“So one summer morning, my co-founder and I sat down in his garage — where we’d been prototyping, pitching and iterating for the past year — and realized that as hard as it was, we would have to walk away entirely and do a full reset on our fundraising strategy,” he writes.

Shapiro shares what he learned from embracing failure and offers three conclusions “every founder should consider before they decide to go out and pitch investors.”

For SaaS startups, differentiation is an iterative process

For SaaS success, differentiation is crucial

Image Credits: Kevin Schafer / Getty Images

Although software as a service has been thriving as a sector for years, it has gone into overdrive in the past year as businesses responded to the pandemic by speeding up the migration of important functions to the cloud, ActiveCampaign founder and CEO Jason VandeBoom writes in a guest column.

“We’ve all seen the news of SaaS startups raising large funding rounds, with deal sizes and valuations steadily climbing. But as tech industry watchers know only too well, large funding rounds and valuations are not foolproof indicators of sustainable growth and longevity.”

VandeBoom notes that to scale sustainably, SaaS startups need to “stand apart from the herd at every phase of development. Failure to do so means a poor outcome for founders and investors.”

“As a founder who pivoted from on-premise to SaaS back in 2016, I have focused on scaling my company (most recently crossing 145,000 customers) and in the process, learned quite a bit about making a mark,” VandeBoom writes. “Here is some advice on differentiation at the various stages in the life of a SaaS startup.”

Facebook will reconsider Trump’s ban in two years

By Devin Coldewey

The clock is ticking on former President Donald Trump’s ban from Facebook, formerly indefinite and now for a period of two years, the maximum penalty under a newly revealed set of rules for suspending public figures. But when the time comes, the company will reevaluate the ban and make a decision then whether to end or extend it, rendering it indefinitely definite.

The ban of Trump in January was controversial in different ways to different groups, but the issue on which Facebook’s Oversight Board stuck as it chewed over the decision was that there was nothing in the company’s rules that supported an indefinite ban. Either remove him permanently, they said, or else put a definite limit to the suspension.

Facebook has chosen… neither, really. The two year limit on the ban is largely decorative, since the option to extend it is entirely Facebook’s prerogative, as VP of public affairs Nick Clegg writes:

At the end of this period, we will look to experts to assess whether the risk to public safety has receded. We will evaluate external factors, including instances of violence, restrictions on peaceful assembly and other markers of civil unrest. If we determine that there is still a serious risk to public safety, we will extend the restriction for a set period of time and continue to re-evaluate until that risk has receded.

When the suspension is eventually lifted, there will be a strict set of rapidly escalating sanctions that will be triggered if Mr. Trump commits further violations in future, up to and including permanent removal of his pages and accounts.

It sort of fulfills the recommendation of the Oversight Board, but truthfully Trump’s position is no less precarious than before. A ban that can be rescinded or extended whenever the company chooses is certainly “indefinite.”

That said the Facebook decision here does reach beyond the Trump situation. Essentially the Oversight Board suggested they need a rule that defines how they act in situations like Trump’s, so they’ve created a standard… of sorts.

Diagram showing different lengths of bans for worse violations by public figures.

Image Credits: Facebook

This highly specific “enforcement protocol” is sort of like a visual representation of Facebook saying “we take this very seriously.” While it gives the impression of some kind of sentencing guidelines by which public figures will systematically be given an appropriate ban length, every aspect of the process is arbitrarily decided by Facebook.

What circumstances justify the use of these “heightened penalties”? What kind of violations qualify for bans? How is the severity decided? Who picks the duration of the ban? When that duration expires, can it simply be extended if “there is still a serious risk to public safety”? What are the “rapidly escalating sanctions” these public figures will face post-suspension? Are there time limits on making decisions? Will they be deliberated publicly?

It’s not that we must assume Facebook will be inconsistent or self-deal or make bad decisions on any of these questions and the many more that come to mind, exactly (though that is a real risk), but that this neither adds nor exposes any machinery of the Facebook moderation process during moments of crisis when we most need to see it working.

Despite the new official-looking punishment gradient and re-re-reiterated promise to be transparent, everything involved in what Facebook proposes seems just as obscure and arbitrary as the decision that led to Trump’s ban.

“We know that any penalty we apply — or choose not to apply — will be controversial,” writes Clegg. True, but while some people will be happy with some decisions and others angry, all are united in their desire to have the processes that lead to said penalties elucidated and adhered to. Today’s policy changes do not appear to accomplish that, regarding Trump or anyone else.

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…

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.

 

TikTok just gave itself permission to collect biometric data on US users, including ‘faceprints and voiceprints’

By Sarah Perez

A change to TikTok’s U.S. Privacy Policy on Wednesday introduced a new section that says the social video app “may collect biometric identifiers and biometric information” from its users’ content. This includes things like “faceprints and voiceprints,” the policy explained. Reached for comment, TikTok could not confirm what product developments necessitated the addition of biometric data to its list of disclosures about the information it automatically collects from users, but said it would ask for consent in the case such data collection practices began.

The biometric data collection details were introduced in the newly added section, “Image and Audio Information,” found under the heading of “Information we collect automatically” in the policy.

This is the part of TikTok’s Privacy Policy that lists the types of data the app gathers from users, which was already fairly extensive.

The first part of the new section explains that TikTok may collect information about the images and audio that are in users’ content, “such as identifying the objects and scenery that appear, the existence and location within an image of face and body features and attributes, the nature of the audio, and the text of the words spoken in your User Content.”

While that may sound creepy, other social networks do object recognition on images you upload to power accessibility features (like describing what’s in an Instagram photo, for example), as well as for ad targeting purposes. Identifying where a person and the scenery is can help with AR effects, while converting spoken words to text helps with features like TikTok’s automatic captions.

The policy also notes this part of the data collection is for enabling “special video effects, for content moderation, for demographic classification, for content and ad recommendations, and for other non-personally-identifying operations,” it says.

The more concerning part of the new section references a plan to collect biometric data.

It states:

We may collect biometric identifiers and biometric information as defined under US laws, such as faceprints and voiceprints, from your User Content. Where required by law, we will seek any required permissions from you prior to any such collection.

The statement itself is vague, as it doesn’t specify whether it’s considering federal law, states laws, or both. It also doesn’t explain, as the other part did, why TikTok needs this data. It doesn’t define the terms faceprints or voiceprints. Nor does it explain how it would go about seeking the “required permissions” from users, or if it would look to either state or federal laws to guide that process of gaining consent.

That’s important because as it stands today, only a handful of U.S. states have biometric privacy laws, including Illinois, Washington, California, Texas, and New York. If TikTok only requested consent, “where required by law,” it could mean users in other states would not have to be informed about the data collection.

Reached for comment, a TikTok spokesperson could not offer more details on the company’s plans for biometric data collection or how it may tie in to either current or future products.

“As part of our ongoing commitment to transparency, we recently updated our Privacy Policy to provide more clarity on the information we may collect,” the spokesperson said.

The company also pointed us to an article about its approach to data security, TikTok’s latest Transparency Report, and the recently launched privacy and security hub, which is aimed at helping people better understand their privacy choices on the app.

Photo by NOAH SEELAM / AFP) (Photo by NOAH SEELAM/AFP via Getty Images)

The biometric disclosure comes at a time when TikTok has been working to regain the trust of some U.S. users.

Under the Trump administration, the federal government attempted to ban TikTok from operating in the U.S. entirely, calling the app a national security threat because of its ownership by a Chinese company. TikTok fought back against the ban and went on record to state it only stores TikTok U.S. user data in its U.S. data centers and in Singapore.

It said it has never shared TikTok user data with the Chinese government nor censored content, despite being owned by Beijing-based ByteDance. And it said it would never do so, if asked.

Though the TikTok ban was initially stopped in the courts, the federal government appealed the rulings. But when President Biden took office, his administration put the appeal process on hold as it reviewed the actions taken by his predecessor. And although Biden has, as of today, signed an executive order to restrict U.S. investment in Chinese firms linked to surveillance, his administration’s position on TikTok remains unclear.

It is worth noting, however, that the new disclosure about biometric data collection follows a $92 million settlement in a class action lawsuit against TikTok, originally filed in May 2020, over the social media app’s violation of Illinois’ Biometric Information Privacy Act. The consolidated suit included more than 20 separate class filed against TikTok over the platform’s collection and sharing of the personal and biometric information without user consent. Specifically, this involved the use of facial filter technology for special effects.

In that context, TikTok’s legal team may have wanted to quickly cover themselves from future lawsuits by adding a clause that permits the app to collect personal biometric data.

The disclosure, we should also point out, has only been been added to the U.S. Privacy Policy, as other markets like the E.U. have stricter data protection and privacy laws.

The new section was part of a broader update to TikTok’s Privacy Policy, which included other changes both large and small, ranging from corrections of earlier typos to revamped or even entirely new sections. Most of these tweaks and changes could be easily explained, though — like new sections that clearly referenced TikTok’s e-commerce ambitions or adjustments aimed at addressing the implications of Apple’s App Tracking Transparency on targeted advertising.

In the grand scheme of things, TikTok still has plenty of data on its users, their content, and their devices, even without biometric data.

For example, TikTok policy already stated it automatically collects information about users’ devices, including location data based on your SIM card and IP addresses and GPS, your use of TikTok itself and all the content you create or upload, the data you send in messages on its app, metadata from the content you upload, cookies, the app and file names on your device, battery state, and even your keystroke patterns and rhythms, among other things.

This is in addition to the “Information you choose to provide,” which comes from when you register, contact TikTok or upload content. In that case, TikTok collects your registration info (username, age, language, etc.), profile info (name, photo, social media accounts), all your user-generated content on the platform, your phone and social network contacts, payment information, plus the text, images and video found in the device’s clipboard. (TikTok, as you may recall, got busted by Apple’s iOS 14 feature that alerted users to the fact that TikTok and other apps were accessing iOS clipboard content. Now, the policy says TikTok “may collect” clipboard data “with your permission.”)

The content of the Privacy Policy itself wasn’t of immediate concern to some TikTok users. Instead, it was the buggy rollout.

Some users reported seeing a pop-up message alerting them to the Privacy Policy update, but the page was not available when they tried to read it. Others complained of seeing the pop-up repeatedly. This issue doesn’t appear to be universal. In tests, we did not have an issue with the pop-up ourselves.

Hey @tiktok_us if you’re going to FORCE users to sign a new privacy policy I think you should make it available to read. pic.twitter.com/0qw9UfS8Q2

— Matthew Eric (@matthewericdoes) June 2, 2021

Yes Tiktok, you changed your privacy policy, you only need to tell me once pic.twitter.com/LRs7CxcNht

— Dieghoe (@diegheaux) June 2, 2021

if i open up tiktok one more time and see that notification that they’ve updated their privacy policy i might just- pic.twitter.com/uzArIoysZW

— alli 🌞 (@allimaemangsat) June 3, 2021

Additional reporting by Zack Whittaker

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.

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.

Once a buzzword, digital transformation is reshaping markets

By Ron Miller

The notion of digital transformation evolved from a buzzword joke to a critical and accelerating fact during the COVID-19 pandemic. The changes wrought by a global shift to remote work and schooling are myriad, but in the business realm they have yielded a change in corporate behavior and consumer expectation — changes that showed up in a bushel of earnings reports this week.

TechCrunch may tend to have a private-company focus, but we do keep tabs on public companies in the tech world as they often provide hints, notes and other pointers on how startups may be faring. In this case, however, we’re working in reverse; startups have told us for several quarters now that their markets are picking up momentum as customers shake up their buying behavior with a distinct advantage for companies helping customers move into the digital realm. And public company results are now confirming the startups’ perspective.

The accelerating digital transformation is real, and we have the data to support the point.

What follows is a digest of notes concerning the recent earnings results from Box, Sprout Social, Yext, Snowflake and Salesforce. We’ll approach each in micro to save time, but as always there’s more digging to be done if you have time. Let’s go!

Enterprise earnings go up

Kicking off with Yext, the company beat expectations in its most recent quarter. Today its shares are up 18%. And a call with the company’s CEO Howard Lerman underscored our general thesis regarding the digital transformation’s acceleration.

In brief, Yext’s evolution from a company that plugged corporate information into external search engines to building and selling search tech itself has been resonating in the market. Why? Lerman explained that consumers more and more expect digital service in response to their questions — “who wants to call a 1-800 number,” he asked rhetorically — which is forcing companies to rethink the way they handle customer inquiries.

In turn, those companies are looking to companies like Yext that offer technology to better answer customer queries in a digital format. It’s customer-friendly, and could save companies money as call centers are expensive. A change in behavior accelerated by the pandemic is forcing companies to adapt, driving their purchase of more digital technologies like this.

It’s proof that a transformation doesn’t have to be dramatic to have pretty strong impacts on how corporations buy and sell online.

Facebook changes misinfo rules to allow posts claiming COVID-19 is man-made

By Taylor Hatmaker

Facebook made a few noteworthy changes to its misinformation policies this week, including the news that the company will now allow claims that COVID was created by humans — a theory that contradicts the previously prevailing assumption that humans picked up the virus naturally from animals.

“In light of ongoing investigations into the origin of COVID-19 and in consultation with public health experts, we will no longer remove the claim that COVID-19 is man-made from our apps,” a Facebook spokesperson told TechCrunch. “We’re continuing to work with health experts to keep pace with the evolving nature of the pandemic and regularly update our policies as new facts and trends emerge.”

The company is adjusting its rules about pandemic misinformation in light of international investigations legitimating the theory that the virus could have escaped from a lab. While that theory clearly has enough credibility to be investigated at this point, it is often interwoven with demonstrably false misinformation about fake cures, 5G towers causing COVID and most recently the false claim that the AstraZeneca vaccine implants recipients with a Bluetooth chip.

Earlier this week, President Biden ordered a multi-agency intelligence report evaluating if the virus could have accidentally leaked out of a lab in Wuhan, China. Biden called this possibility one of two “likely scenarios.”

“… Shortly after I became President, in March, I had my National Security Advisor task the Intelligence Community to prepare a report on their most up-to-date analysis of the origins of COVID-19, including whether it emerged from human contact with an infected animal or from a laboratory accident,” Biden said in an official White House statement, adding that there isn’t sufficient evidence to make a final determination.

Claims that the virus was man-made or lab-made have circulated widely since the pandemic’s earliest days, even as the scientific community largely maintained that the virus probably made the jump from an infected animal to a human via natural means. But many questions remain about the origins of the virus and the U.S. has yet to rule out the possibility that the virus emerged from a Chinese lab — a scenario that would be a bombshell for international relations.

Prior to the COVID policy change, Facebook announced that it would finally implement harsher punishments against individuals who repeatedly peddle misinformation. The company will now throttle the News Feed reach of all posts from accounts that are found to habitually share known misinformation, restrictions it previously put in place for Pages, Groups, Instagram accounts and websites that repeatedly break the same rules.

Twitter Blue, a $3 monthly subscription service, could be coming soon

By Amanda Silberling

Great news for typo-prone tweeters: Twitter Blue, a $2.99 monthly subscription, appears to be coming soon to a Timeline near you.

Two weeks ago, researcher Jane Manchun Wong first reported that Twitter’s new subscription service is in the works. But yesterday, Twitter’s iOS App Store listing updated to list Twitter Blue as an in-app purchase, confirming earlier findings from this unofficial source. Though users can’t yet subscribe to Twitter Blue – even after downloading app update – Wong dug up details about the service, signaling that its launch could be imminent.  

In addition to the undo button, which Wong uncovered as early as March, this service will include a reader mode, which turns tweet threads into “easy-to-read text.” Twitter acquired Scroll and Revue this year in an effort to improve users’ reading experience on the app, so this addition makes sense. Plus, users will be able to change the color of the Twitter app icon, as well as the color theme of their Timeline, a feature that’s already available on the web. Twitter Blue subscribers can also organize tweets into Collections – this feature looks like an updated version of Bookmarks, but with the added ability to organize tweets into folders. 

Currently, Twitter ads make up 85% of the company’s revenue. Twitter told Bloomberg in February that it plans to “research and experiment” with new ways to monetize the platform, especially as its user growth has slowed. But over the last several months, Twitter has teased some of the platform’s biggest changes since doubling the 140-character tweet limit in 2018. These features include Super Follows, Tip Jar, Twitter Spaces, and more.

This week at J.P. Morgan’s Global Technology, Media, and Communications conference, Twitter CFO Ned Segal indicated that the company views Twitter Blue and Super Follows as two separate types of subscriptions. On Google Play, the Twitter app page lists an in-app product priced at $4.99 per item, which might indicate the upcoming launch of Super Follows, too. Segal also said that Twitter would offer more information about the service in the coming months, then “ultimately roll it out to people around the world.”

Finally, for those of us wondering – no, there’s no indication of plans for an “edit tweet” button at this time.

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. 

Paired pulls in $3.6M to encourage more couples to get cosy with app-based relationship care

By Natasha Lomas

Can an app improve your romantic relationships? The founders behind Paired, a “relationship care” app for couples, believe it can. And since launching in October, with $1M to kick things off, they’ve convinced 5,000+ coupled-up others to try their custom blend of partner quizzes, “relationship satisfaction” tracking, and audio tips from experts — to try to feel closer to their S.O.

Paired is now gunning for serious growth: It’s announcing $3.6M in seed funding today, led by Eka Ventures with participation from existing investors including Taavet Hinrikus (Wise, formerly TransferWise), Harold Primat (investor and former professional racing driver), and the co-founders of Runtastic.

As part of the seed funding, Camilla Dolan of Eka Ventures will join the board alongside the app’s co-founders Kevin Shanahan and Diego López (who previously worked together at language learning app Memrise).

Paired says its goal for the new funding is to grow its user-base from 5,000+ to 100k over the next 18 months.

All sorts of audio-led wellness ‘self-care’ apps have been bubbling up in recent years — offering individuals app-wrapped help with stuff like meditation and mindfulness; targeted motivation to combat anxiety and stress; or dishing up sex tips and sexual self awareness.

Paired fits within that broader trend, albeit with a more explicit nudge to extend the self-care phenomenon to a unit of two romantically connected people.

As it looks for growth, the UK-based startup says it will continue to target the US, UK, Canada, and Australia, which are its main markets at this point. “We expect the growth to continue to come from here over the next 12 months,” says Shanahan.

“We’re building out our product team — hiring engineers, a product manager, a data scientist — to begin offering more varied and personalised relationship conversations for our users,” he goes on.

“Personalisation is a particular focus as every relationship is different and the app will begin to understand what your interests are, what stage you’re in, what would be most useful for you to discuss, etc. We’re also growing our content, working with new experts to cover more relationship topics and marketing the app via influencers, partnerships, and other channels.”

Who are Paired’s early adopters? Currently, the average user is a straight, early 30s Millennial who’s been in their current relationship for two-three years, according to Shanahan. (He says around 5% of users are LGBTQ+.)

But he also claims Paired has a wide mix of users, adding: “We have couples who have been together for 6 months and those who have been together for 10+ years, so it’s a wide spectrum.”

He says the split of women and men using the app is “fairly even” but avoids specifying exactly how usage splits on gender lines.

The app can be used by only one half of a couple — for solo relationship support/self-care, if preferred — but users have the option to pair with their partner to swap answers to relationship questions in order to encourage discussion. And that’s where Paired can offer the most personalized experience to users, by opening up a dedicated ‘relationship’ discussion channel between the couple. (Paired does not obviously cater to open/polyamorous couples — but presumably could be used as a discussion tool for the primary partners.)

[gallery ids="2156320,2156321,2156322,2156324,2156325,2156327,2156329"]

The idea isn’t to replace couples therapy, per Shanahan. Rather Paired wants to create a whole new intermediating layer — based on the notion that communication problems in a relationship can be tackled earlier (and more easily) if you stick a piece of software between you which nudges both halves of the relationship to notice and address potential disconnect.

“If couples therapy is a dentist for your relationship, then we would be a toothbrush,” is how Shanahan puts it when asked if the idea is to replace couples therapy.

“Like a toothbrush is not a substitute for the dentist, we aren’t trying to replace couples therapy. Our goal is to promote healthy relationship behaviours between couples and believe our audience will eventually grow to become the majority of couples,” he suggests.

He points to a study Paired commissioned from the Open University and University of Brighton — which he says showed that couples who used the app over the course of three months saw on average a 36% increase in their “relationship satisfaction”. (Albeit quantifying such a subjective measure as a percentile increase may not appeal to every romantic person’s tastes.)

Shanahan says Paired wants to offer ongoing support, too — rather than (the opposite scenario) of its users arriving at such a point of mutual understanding they could feel they don’t never need to take another partner quiz to understand what their life partner is thinking/feeling.

Its philosophy is, no matter how thoughtful you get vis-a-vis your S.O., there’s always more to learn and thus you always need to keep working on ‘relationship care’. It is of course a very convenient philosophy for a subscription app.

“You probably wouldn’t say success when you’re fit is to stop going to the gym,” says Shanahan. “Or when your teeth are healthy to stop brushing your teeth. Similarly we want Paired to be a tool to help keep your relationship in a good place, so success for us is keeping your relationship satisfaction high over time.”

So what have the founders learned about their own relationships from using Paired?

Shanahan confirms that he and his partner have been using the app “a ton (and not just for testing)”, adding: “I’ve personally learnt that there is always more to discover about your partner and it’s a fun journey. Also that discussing issues when they are small is useful so they don’t become big later down the line.”

Diego López, Paired’s other co-founder and CTO, tells us that the daily questions posed by the app have “helped my partner and I fight lockdown monotony”. “There’s been many occasions where we give the same answer to a question. It’s a great feeling to know that we understand each other and a reminder of the things we have in common,” he adds.

Commenting on Paired’s seed round in a statement, Camilla Dolan from Eka Ventures, said: “Despite relationship health being such an important and truly global part of our lives there is not currently an accessible and affordable way of supporting it — Paired has set out to change that.

“We love Kevin & Diego’s vision to bring happiness and health to relationships and be the global category leader for relationship management. What really got us excited though was the Paired user stories and the level of change that Paired is already having on their early users.”

In another supporting statement, existing investor Taavet Hinrikus, co-founder of Wise, added: “Kevin and the Paired team have a vision for improving the relationships of hundreds of millions of couples. Building and strengthening relationships is something we all need help with from time to time, but lots of people feel unsure of where to turn for help. The rapid uptake from paid subscribers since their October launch makes me confident that it can become the global, digital platform for relationships.”

Paired’s app (available on iOS and Google Play) is free to download — but a monthly or yearly subscription is required to access the full range of content and support.

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