Calendar influencers? Event social network IRL raises $8M

Why is there no app where you can follow party animals, concert snobs, or conference butterflies for their curated suggestions of events? That’s the next phase of social calendar app IRL that’s launching today on iOS to help you make and discuss plans with friends or discover nearby happenings to fill out your schedule.

The calendar, a historically dorky utility, seems like a strange way to start the next big social network. Many people, especially teens, either don’t use apps like Google Calendar, keep them professional, or merely input plans made elsewhere. But by baking in an Explore tab of event recommendations and the option to follow curators, headliners, and venues, IRL could make calendars communal like Instagram did to cameras.

“There’s Twitter for ‘follow my updates’, there’s Soundcloud for ‘follow my music’, but there’s no ‘follow my events'” IRL CEO Abe Shafi tells me of his plan to turbocharge his calendar app. “They’re arguably the best product that’s been built for organizing what you’re doing but no one has Superhuman’d or Slack’d the calendar. Let’s build a super f*cking dope calendar!” he says with unbridled excitement. He’ll need that passion to persevere as IRL tries to steal a major use case from SMS, messaging apps, and Facebook .

Finding a new opportunity for a social network has attracted a new $8 million Series A funding round for IRL led by Goodwater Capital and joined by Founders Fund and Kleiner Perkins. That builds on its $3 million seed from Founders Fund and Floodgate, whose partner Mike Maples is joining IRL’s board. The startup has also pulled in some entertainment and event CEOs as strategic investors including Warner Bros president Greg Silverman, Lionsgate films president Joe Drake, and Classpass CEO Fritz Lanman to help it recruit calendar influencers users can follow.

Filling Your Social Calendar

In Shafi, investors found a consumate extrovert who can empathize with event-goers. He dropped out of Berkeley to build out his recruitment software startup getTalent before selling it to HR platform Dice where he became VP of product. He started to become disillusioned by tech’s impact on society and almost left the industry before some time at Burning Man rekinkled his fever for events.

IRL CEO Abe Shafi

Shafi teamed up with PayPal’s first board member Scott Banister and early social network founder Greg Tseng. Shafi’s first attempted Gather pissed off a ton of people with spammy invites in 2017. By 2018, he’d restarted as IRL with a focus on building a minimalist calendar where it was easy to create events and invite friends. Evite and Facebook Events were too heavy for making less formal get-togethers with close friends. He wisely chose to geofence his app and launch state by state to maximize density so people would have more pals to plan with.

IRL is now in 14 states with a modest 1.3 million monthly active users and 175,000 dailies, plus 3 million people on the waitlist. “50% of all teens in Texas have downloaded IRL. I wanted to focus on the central states, not Silicon Valley” Shafi explains. Users log in with a phone number or Google, two-way sync their Google Calendar if they have one, and can then manage their existing schedule and create mini-events. The stickiest feature is the ability to group chat with everyone invited so you can hammer out plans. Even users without the app can chime in via text or email. And unlike Facebook where your mom or boss are liable to see your RSVPs, your calendar and what you’re doing on IRL is always private unless you explicitly share it.

The problem is that most of this could be handled with SMS and a more popular calendar. That’s why IRL is doubling-down on event discovery through influencers, which you can’t do anywhere else at scale. With the new version of the app launching today, you’ll be recommended performers, locations, and curators to follow. You’ll see their suggestions in the Explore tab that also includes sub-tabs of Nearby and Trending happenings. There’s also a college-specific feed for users that auth in with their school email address. Curators and event companies like TechCrunch can get their own IRL.com/… URL people can follow more easily than some janky list of events of gallery of flyers on their website. Since pretty much every promoter wants more attendees, IRL’s had little resistance to it indexing all the events from Meetup.com and whatever it can find.

IRL is concentrating on growth for now, but Shafi believes all the intent data about what people want to do could be valuable for directing people to certain restaurants, bars, theaters, or festivals, though he vows that “we’re never going to sell your data to advertisers.” For now IRL is earning money from affiliate fees when people buy tickets or make reservations. Event affiliate margins are infamously slim, but Shafi says IRL can bargain for higher fees as it gains sway over more people’s calendars.

Unfortunately without reams of personal data and leading artificial intelligence that Facebook owns, IRL’s in-house suggestions via the Explore tab can feel pretty haphazard. I saw lots of mediocre happy hours, crafting nights, and community talks that weren’t quite the hip nightlife recommendations I was hoping for, and for now there’s no sorting by category. That’s where Shafi hopes influencers will fill in. And he’s confident that Facebook’s business model discourages it moving deeper into events. “Facebook’s revenue driver is time spent on the app. While meaningful to society, events as a feature is not a primary revenue driver so they don’t get the resources that other features on Facebook get.”

Yet the biggest challenge will be rearranging how people organize their lives. A lot of us are too scatterbrained, lazy, or instinctive to make all our plans days or weeks ahead of time and put them on a calendar. The beauty of mobile is that we can communicate on the fly to meet up. “Solving for spontaneity isn’t our focus so far” Shafi admits. But that’s how so much of our social lives come together.

My biggest problem isn’t finding events to fill my calendar, but knowing which friends are free now to hang out and attend one with me. There are plenty of calendar, event discovery, and offline hangout apps. IRL will have to prove they deserve to be united. At least Shafi says it’s problem worth trying to solve. “I know for a fact that the product of a calendar will outlive me.” He just wants to make it more social first.

Dropbox relaunches as an enterprise collaboration workspace & portal

Dropbox is evolving from a file storage system to an enterprise software portal and collaboration workspace. Today it launches this new version of Dropbox that lets you launch apps with shortcuts for Slack and G Suite, search across all your files inside your other enterprise tools, and communicate and comment on your team’s work. Dropbox is also becoming a task manager, with the ability to add notes and tag co-workers in to-do lists attached to files. The new Dropbox launches today for all of its 13 million business users across  400,000 teams.

The launch includes deep integrations with Slack so you can comment on files from within Dropbox, and Zoom so you can video chat without leaving the workspace. Web and enterprise app shortcuts relieve you from keeping all your other tools constantly open in other tabs.

Dropbox is launching a new desktop app for all users so it wont have to live inside your Mac or Windows file system. When you click a file, you can see a preview, activity on that file from co-workers, and presence data about who has viewed it, who is currently, and who has access.

CEO Drew Houston described how people spend 60% of our office time on work about work like organization and communication instead of actually working — a marketing angle frequently used by task management startup Asana that Dropbox is now competiting with more directly. He pointed out that it’s easier to find info from the public than our own company’s knowledge that’s scattered across our computers and the cloud. The “Finder” on our computers hasn’t evolved to embrace a post-download era. Now Dropbox wants to be both your file tree, your finder, and your desktop for the cloud.

Maker Faire halts operations and lays off all staff

Financial troubles have forced Maker Media, the company behind crafting publication MAKE: magazine as well as the science and art festival Maker Faire, to lay off its entire staff of 22 and pause all operations. TechCrunch was tipped off to Maker Media’s unfortunate situation which was then confirmed by the company’s founder and CEO Dale Dougherty.

For 15 years, MAKE: guided adults and children through step-by-step do-it-yourself crafting and science projects, and it was central to the maker movement. Since 2006, Maker Faire’s 200 owned and licensed events per year in over 40 countries let attendees wander amidst giant, inspiring art and engineering installations.

Maker Media Inc ceased operations this week and let go of all of its employees — about 22 employees” Dougherty tells TechCrunch. “I started this 15 years ago and it’s always been a struggle as a business to make this work. Print publishing is not a great business for anybody, but it works…barely. Events are hard . . . there was a drop off in corporate sponsorship.” Microsoft and Autodesk failed to sponsor this year’s flagship Bay Area Maker Faire.

But Dougherty is still desperately trying to resuscitate the company in some capacity, if only to keep MAKE:’s online archive running and continue allowing third-party organizers to license the Maker Faire name to throw affiliated events. Rather than bankruptcy, Maker Media is working through an alternative Assignment for Benefit of Creditors process.

“We’re trying to keep the servers running” Dougherty tells me. “I hope to be able to get control of the assets of the company and restart it. We’re not necessarily going to do everything we did in the past but I’m committed to keeping the print magazine going and the Maker Faire licensing program.” The fate of those hopes will depend on negotiations with banks and financiers over the next few weeks. For now the sites remain online.

The CEO says staffers understood the challenges facing the company following layoffs in 2016, and then at least 8 more employees being let go in March according to the SF Chronicle. They’ve been paid their owed wages and PTO, but did not receive any severance or two-week notice.

“It started as a venture-backed company but we realized it wasn’t a venture-backed opportunity” Dougherty admits, as his company had raised $10 million from Obvious Ventures, Raine Ventures, and Floodgate. “The company wasn’t that interesting to its investors anymore. It was failing as a business but not as a mission. Should it be a non-profit or something like that? Some of our best successes for instance are in education.”

The situation is especially sad because the public was still enthusiastic about Maker Media’s products  Dougherty said that despite rain, Maker Faire’s big Bay Area event last week met its ticket sales target. 1.45 million people attended its events in 2016. MAKE: magazine had 125,000 paid subscribers and the company had racked up over one million YouTube subscribers. But high production costs in expensive cities and a proliferation of free DIY project content online had strained Maker Media.

“It works for people but it doesn’t necessarily work as a business today, at least under my oversight” Dougherty concluded. For now the company is stuck in limbo.

Regardless of the outcome of revival efforts, Maker Media has helped inspire a generation of engineers and artists, brought families together around crafting, and given shape to a culture of tinkerers. The memory of its events and weekends spent building will live on as inspiration for tomorrow’s inventors.

The Ticket Fairy is tech’s best hope against Ticketmaster

Ticketmaster’s dominance has led to ridiculous service fees, scalpers galore, and exclusive contracts that exploit venues and artists. The moronic approval of venue operator and artist management giant Live Nation’s merger with Ticketmaster in 2010 produced an anti-competitive juggernaut. It pressures venues to sign ticketing contracts under veiled threat that artists would otherwise be routed to different concert halls. Now it’s become difficult for venues, artists, and fans to avoid Ticketmaster, which charges fees as high as 50% that many see as a ripoff.

But The Ticket Fairy wants to wrestle control of venues away from Ticketmaster while giving fans ways to earn tickets for referring their friends. The startup is doing that by offering the most technologically advanced ticketing platform that not only handle sales and checkins, but acts as a full-stack Salesforce for concerts that can analyze buyers and run ad campaigns while thwarting scalpers. Co-founder Ritesh Patel says The Ticket Fairy has increased revenue for event organizers by 15% to 25% during its private beta focused on dance music festivals.

Now after 850,000 tickets sold, it’s officially launching its ticketing suite and actively poaching venues from EventBrite as it moves deeper into esports and conventions. With a little more scale, it will be ready to challenge Ticketmaster for lucrative clients.

Ritesh’s combination of product and engineering skills, rapid progress, and charismatic passion for live events after throwing 400 of his own has attracted an impressive cadre of angel investors. They’ve delivered a $2.5 million seed round for Ticket Fairy adding to its $485,000 pre-seed from angels like Twitch/Atrium founder Justin Kan, Twitch COO Kevin Lin, and Reddit CEO Steve Huffman. The new round includes YouTube founder Steve Chen, former Kleiner Perkins partner and Mark’s sister Arielle Zuckerberg, and funds like 500 Startups, ex-Uber angels Fantastic Ventures, G2 Ventures, Tempo Ventures, and WeFunder. It’s also scored music industry angels like Serato DJ hardware CEO AJ Bertenshaw, Spotify’s head of label licensing Niklas Lundberg, and celebrity lawer Ken Hertz who reps Will Smith and Gwen Stefani.

“The purpose of starting The Ticket Fairy was not to be another EventBrite, but to reduce the risk of the person running the event so they can be profitable. We’re not just another shopping cart” Patel says. The Ticket Fairy charges a comparable rate to EventBrite’s $1.59 + 3.5% per ticket plus payment processing that brings it closer to 6%, but Patel insists it offers far stronger functionality.

Constantly clad in his golden disco hoodie over a Ticket Fairy t-shirt, Patel lives his product, spending late nights dancing and taking feedback at the events his clients host. He’s been a savior of SXSW the past two years, injecting the aging festival that shuts down at 2am with multi-night after-hours raves. Featuring top DJs like Pretty Lights in creative locations cab drivers don’t believe are real, The Ticket Fairy’s parties have won the hearts of music industry folks.

The Ticket Fairy co-founders. Center and inset left: Ritesh Patel. Inset right: Jigar Patel

Now the Y Combinator startup hopes its ticketing platform will do the same thanks to a slew of savvy features:

Earn A Ticket – The Ticket Fairy supercharges word of mouth marketing with a referral system that lets fans get a rebate or full-free ticket if they get enough friends to buy a ticket. 30% of ticket buyers are now sharing a Ticket Fairy referral link, and Patel says the return on investment is $30 in revenue for each $1 paid out in rewards, with 10% to 25% of all ticket sales coming from referrals. A public leaderboard further encourages referrals, with those at the top eligible for backstage passes, free merch, and bar tabs. And to prevent mass spamming, only buyers, partners, and street teamers get a referral code.

Creative Payment Options – The startup offers “FreeFund” tickets for free events that otherwise see huge no-show rates. Users pay a small deposit that’s refunded when they scan their ticket for entry, discouraging RSVPs from those who won’t come. Buyers can also pay on layaway with Affirm or LayBuy and then earn a ticket before their debt is due.

Anti-Scalping – The Ticket Fairy offers identity-locked tickets that must be presented with the buyer’s ID on arrival, which means customers can’t scalp them. Instead, the startup offers a waitlist for sold out events, and buyers can sell their tickets back to the company which then redistributes them at face value with a new QR code to a specific friend or whoever’s at the top of the waitlist. Patel says client SunAndBass Festival hasn’t had a scalped ticket in five years of working with the ticketer.

Clever Analytics – Never wasting an opportunity, The Ticket Fairy lets events collect contact info and demand before ticket sales start with its pre-registration system. It can ceate multiple variants of ticketing sites designed for different demographics like rock vs dance fans for a festival, track sales and demographics in real-time, and relay instant stats about checkins at the door. Integration of email managers like MailChimp and sales pixels like Facebook plus the ability to instantly retarget people who abandoned their shopping via Facebook Custom Audience ads makes marketing easier. And all the metrics, budgets, and expenses are automatically organized into financial reports to eliminate spreadsheet busywork.

Still, the biggest barrier to adoption remains the long exclusive contracts Ticketmaster and other giants like AEG coerce venues into in the US. Abroad, venues typically work with multiple ticket promoters who sell from the same pool, which is why 80% of The Ticket Fairy’s business is international right now. In the US, ticketing is often handled by a single company except for the 8% of tickets artists can sell however they want. That’s why The Ticket Fairy has focused on signing up non-traditional venues for festivals, trade convention halls, newly built esports arenas, as well as concert halls.

“Coming from the event promotion background, we understand the risk event organizers take in creating these experiences” The Ticket Fairy’s co-founder and Ritesh’s brother Jigar Patel explains. “The odds of breaking even are poor and many are unable to overcome those challenges, but it is sheer passion that keeps them going in the face of financial uncertainty and multi-year losses.” As competitors’ contracts expire, The Ticket Fairy hopes to swoop in by dangling its sales-boosting tech. “We get locked out of certain things because people are locked in a contract, not because they don’t want to use our system.”

The live music industry can brutal, though. Events can have slim margins, organizers are loathe to change their process, it’s a sales heavy process convincing them to try new software. But while record business has been redefined by streaming, ticketing looks a lot like it did a decade ago. That makes it ripe for disruption.

“The events industry is more important than ever, with artists making the bulk of their income from touring instead of record sales, and demand from fans for live experiences is increasing at a global level” Jigar concludes. “When events go out of business, everybody loses, including artists and fans. Everything we do at The Ticket Fairy has that firmly in mind – we are here to keep the ecosystem alive.”

Instagram one-ups TikTok with karaoke lyrics

Lip-syncing jumpstarted TikTok’s rise to the center of teen culture, arguably displacing Instagram . Now the Facebook-owned app is striking back with a new feature that lets you displays lyrics on your video Story synced to a soundtrack you’ve added with the Music sticker. Lyrics could help creators and their fans sing along, and the visual flare could make the amateur MTV content more watchable.

Instagram scored a big endorsement from teen scare-pop phenomenon Billie Eilish who’s featured in the demo video for Story lyrics, which are now available in all the countries where Instagram Music has launched including the US, Germany, and France.

To play with the feature, first select the Music lens type (amidst Boomerang and other options) before you shoot or the Music sticker after. Once you pick a song, you’ll see lyrics pop up which can help you cue the segment of the music you want to play. Then you can cycle through a bunch of animation styles like traditional karaoke teleprompter, a typewriter version that preserves mystery by only revealing lyrics as they’re sung, and big flashy billboard font.

“Music can be a big part of expression on Instagram – between adding music to Stories, connecting with artists, sending song recs back-and-forth, there are lots of ways to connect with music on IG” an Instagram spokesperson tells me. “Now, we’re building on our music features and introducing the ability to add lyrics when you add a song to your story.” As with pretty much everything Instagram launches, it was first dug out of Android code and revealed to the world by frequent TechCrunch tipster and reverse engineering master Jane Manchun Wong. She first spotted Lyrics in March and we wrote about the prototype in April.

But TikTok isn’t waiting up. Today it launched its own text feature for adding overlaid captions to videos. Typically, creators had to use Snapcat, Instagram Stories, or desktop editing software to add text. Creators are sure to find plenty of hilarious use cases for text on TikTok, and it could help replace the common trope of writing captions on paper and holding them up during clips.

All of these features are about keeping social video from going stale. The manicured, painstakingly posed Instagram aesthetic is over, as The Atlantic’s Taylor Lorenz deftly identified. Fans are sick of perfection, which breeds envy and feels plastic or inauthentic. Comedy, absurdity, and the rough edges of reality are becoming the new ‘look’ of social media. Tools to overlay lyrics and text give creators more freedom to express complex jokes or just act silly. The popularity of Billie Eilish’s own dirtbag chic fashion and willingness to reveal her own insecurities exemplifies this shift, so it’s smart Instagra

Facebook plans June 18th cryptocurrency debut. Here’s what we know

Facebook is finally ready to reveal details about its cryptocurrency codenamed Libra. It’s currently scheduled for a June 18th release of a white paper explaining its cryptocurrency’s basics, according to a source who says multiple investors briefed on the project by Facebook were told that date.

Meanwhile, the company’s Head of Financial Services & Payment Partnerships for Northern Europe Laura McCracken told German magazine WirtschaftsWoche‘s Sebastian Kirsch that the white paper would debut June 18th, and that the cryptocurrency would indeed be pegged to a basket of currencies rather than a single one like the US dollar to prevent price fluctuations. Kirsch tells me “I met Laura at Money2020 Europe in Amsterdam on Tuesday” after she watched fellow Facebook payments exec Paulette Rowe’s talk. “She told me that she wasn’t involved in what David Marcus’ [Facebook Blockchain] team was doing. But that I’d have to wait until June 18th when a whitepaper was supposed to be published to get more details.” She told him she thought the date was already a publicly known fact, which it wasn’t.

Then, yesterday TechCrunch received a request for a June 18th news embargo from one of the communications managers for Facebook’s blockchain team. The Information’s Alex Heath and Jon Victor also reported yesterday that Facebook’s cryptocurrency project would launch later this month.

Facebook declined to comment on any news regarding its cryptocurrency project. There is always a chance that the announcement date could fluctuate if snafus with partners or governments arise. One source says Facebook is targeting a 2020 formal launch of the cryptocurrency

The debut of Libra or whatever Facebook decides to call it could unlock a new era of commerce and payments for the social network. It could be used to offer low or no-fee payments between friends or remittance of earnings to familys from migrant workers abroad who are often gouged by money transfer services.

Sidestepping credit card transaction fees could also allow Facebook’s cryptocurrency to offer a cheaper way to pay merchants for traditional ecommerce, or facilitate microtransactions for a la carte news articles or tipping of content creators. And a better understanding of who buys what or which brands or popular could aid Facebook in ad measurement, ranking, and targeting to amplify its core business.

How Facebook’s cryptocurrency works

Here’s what we know about Facebook’s blockchain project:

Name: Facebook will likely use the Libra codename as the public facing name for its cryptocurrency, which The Information reports won’t be called GlobalCoin as the BBC had claimed. Facebook has registed a company called Libra Networks in Switzerland for financial services, Reuters reported. Libra could be a play on the word LIBOR, an abbreviation for the London Inter-bank Offered Rate that’s used as a benchmark interest rate for borrowing between banks. LIBOR is for banks, while Libra is meant to be for the people.

Token: The cryptocurrency will be a stablecoin — a token designed to have a stable price to prevent discrepancies and complications due to price fluctuations during a payment or negotiation process. Facebook has spoken with financial institutions regarding contributing capital to form a $1 billion basket of multiple international fiat currencies and low-risk securities that will serve as collateral to stabilize the price of the coin, The Information reports. Facebook is working with various countries to pre-approve the rollout of the stablecoin.

The head of Facebook’s Blockchain team David Marcus (left) speaks at TechCrunch Disrupt 2016

Usage: Facebook’s cryptocurrency will be transferrable with zero fees via Facebook products including Messenger and WhatsApp. Facebook is working with merchants to accept the token as payment, and may offer sign-up bonuses. The Information also reports Facebook also wants to roll out physical devices for ATMs so users can exchange traditional assets for the cryptocurrency.

Team: Facebook’s blockchain project is overseen by former PayPal President and VP of Facebook Messenger David Marcus. His team includes former Instagram VP of product Kevin Weil, Facebook’s former corporate head of treasury operations Sunita Parasuraman who The Information reports will oversee the token’s treasury, and many elite engineers cherrypicked from Facebook’s ranks. They’ve been working in a dedicated part of Facebook’s headquarters off-limits to other employees to boost secrecy, though the nature of the partnerships needed for launch have led to many leaks.

Governance: Facebook is in talks to create an independent foundation to oversee its cryptocurrency, The Information reports. It’s asking companies to pay $10 million to operate a node that can validate transactions made with its cryptocurrency in exchange for a say in governance of the token. It’s possible that node operators could benefit financially too. By introducing a level of decentralization to the governance of the project, Facebook may be able to avoid regulation related to it holding too much power over a global currency.

YouTube will let bigot monetize if he removes link to homophobic merch

YouTube has made the weakest, least courageous response to mass backlash regarding its ruling yesterday that right-wing personality Steven Crowder’s racist and homophobic attacks on Vox video producer Carlos Maza didn’t violate its policies. Now YouTube says it’s demonetized Crowder’s channel because his “pattern of egregious actions has harmed the broader community”…but it will restore Crowder’s ability to earn a cut of YouTube ad revenue as long as he removes the link in his videos/channel to his offensive merchandise shop and fixes “all of the issues” with his channel. Specifically, Crowder’s shop sells [Warning: disturbing language not condoned by TechCrunch] “Socialism is for f*gs” t-shirts, baby onesies, and beer pong cups.

The unwillingness to remove Crowder from YouTube counters the frequent calls by conservative politicians and pundits that they’re discriminated against on social media. Instead, it seems YouTube is too scared of being called bias to do what’s right and enforce its policies that dictate Crowder’s content or whole channel be removed. And even if Crowder does make YouTube’s required fixes, which it’s yet to publicly detail, he can still toe the line of its hate speech policies while promoting his merchandise shop within his videos.

YouTube needs to completely rethink its approach to policy and enforcement here. Otherwise it’s likely to embolden harassers and bigots across the Internet.

For those just stumbling into this social media policy dumpster fire, Canadia-American conservative commentator Crowder publishes politically inflammatory videos to his 3.8 million YouTube subscribers. They often include hosting bad faith “debates” with those who disagree with him, where he uses twisted rhetoric, aggression, and obstinance to goad guests into getting angry so he can paint them as crazy and wrong. He’s also known for targeting specific media figures with verbal abuse, which leads his followers to harass them in en masse.

In this case, Crowder called Vox’s Maza a “gay Mexican” and “lispy queer”, amongst other hate speech-laden taunts across multiple videos. Last week Maza compiled a viral Twitter thread detailing the abuse and imploring YouTube to enforce it’s policy that bans hate speech and harassment.

Yesterday, YouTube tweeted its confusing and contradictory ruling from a review of Crowder’s videos. “While we found language that was clearly hurtful, the videos as posted don’t violate our policies . . . As an open platform, it’s crucial for us to allow everyone–from creators to journalists to late-night TV hosts–to express their opinions w/in the scope of our policies. Opinions can be deeply offensive, but if they don’t violate our policies, they’ll remain on our site . . . Even if a video remains on our site, it doesn’t mean we endorse/support that viewpoint.”

That makes zero sense considering YouTube’s policy expressly forbids this kind of content, and says it will be taken down. YouTube specifically bans content that’s deliberately meant to “humiliate someone”, that includes “hurtful and negative personal comments/videos about another person”, or features hate speech regarding “ethnicity” and “sexual orientation”. Crowder’s content violates all of these rules, and so consistent enforcement would require its removal.

 

That’s why the public momentarily applauded today when YouTube announced that it suspended Crowder’s monetization. This still fell far short of what YouTube’s policies dictate, but it at least meant that Crowder couldn’t monetize his YouTube views directly, even if he could still promote his merchandise, live events, and Patreon paid subscription page. Then the Internet got rightfully mad again when YouTube said he just had to remove the link to his homophobic t-shirt shop to regain monetization, given he could just promote the shop in his videos while still benefiting from his YouTube reach.

And then just as this article was published, YouTube made yet another flip-flop and apologized for all the confusion (that it caused by waffling). It now claims that “this channel is demonetized due to continued egregious actions that have harmed the broader community. To be reinstated, he will need to address all of the issues with his channel.” Yet YouTube did not respond to a request for details about exactly what must be changed.

It’s tough to even know where to begin criticism of YouTube’s behavior here:

  • YouTube ignored Crowder’s abuse of Maza and others for years while earning money from a hateful audience
  • It only took a closer look after Maza’s thorough expose on abuse from Crowder received 20,000 retweets and got media attention
  • YouTube claimed that “while we found language that was clearly hurtful, the videos as posted don’t violate our policies” despite clearly violating its policies
  • The company had the gaul to put out a blog post about its “ongoing work to tackle hate” without any reference to the Maza situation
  • A day later after saying he didn’t violate policy, YouTube reversed itself and claimed Crowder did violate policies. However, he’s only getting demonetized, some believe because he’s popular, brings his fans to YouTube, and Google might face allegations of anti-conservative bias if it suspended him
  • YouTube repeatedly refused to be transparent about why Crowder’s content was or wasn’t in violation of its policies, or what he’d need to change to be remonetized. It’s refused to put anyone on the record, and even emailed responses to our press inquiries were answered by an anonymous Google Press email account.

AntiToxin sells safetytech to clean up poisoned platforms

The big social networks and video games have failed to prioritize user well-being over their own growth. As a result, society is losing the battle against bullying, predators, hate speech, misinformation and scammers. Typically when a whole class of tech companies have a dire problem they can’t cost-effectively solve themselves, a software-as-a-service emerges to fill the gap in web hosting, payment processing, etc. So along comes AntiToxin Technologies, a new Israeli startup that wants to help web giants fix their abuse troubles with its safety-as-a-service.

It all started on Minecraft. AntiToxin co-founder Ron Porat is cybersecurity expert who’d started popular ad blocker Shine. Yet right under his nose, one of his kids was being mercilessly bullied on the hit children’s game. If even those most internet-savvy parents were being surprised by online abuse, Porat realized the issue was bigger than could be addressed by victims trying to protect themselves. The platforms had to do more, research confirmed.

A recent Ofcom study found almost 80% of children had a potentially harmful online experience in the past year. Indeed, 23% said they’d been cyberbullied, and 28% of 12 to 15-year-olds said they’d received unwelcome friend or follow requests from strangers. A Ditch The Label study found of 12 to 20-year-olds who’d been bullied online, 42% were bullied on Instagram.

Unfortunately, the massive scale of the threat combined with a late start on policing by top apps makes progress tough without tremendous spending. Facebook tripled the headcount of its content moderation and security team, taking a noticeable hit to its profits, yet toxicity persists. Other mainstays like YouTube and Twitter have yet to make concrete commitments to safety spending or staffing, and the result is non-stop scandals of child exploitation and targeted harassment. Smaller companies like Snap or Fortnite-maker Epic Games may not have the money to develop sufficient safeguards in-house.

“The tech giants have proven time and time again we can’t rely on them. They’ve abdicated their responsibility. Parents need to realize this problem won’t be solved by these companies” says AntiToxin CEO Zohar Levkovitz, who previously sold his mobile ad company Amobee to Singtel for $321 million. “You need new players, new thinking, new technology. A company where ‘Safety’ is the product, not an after-thought. And that’s where we come-in.” The startup recently raised a multimillion-dollar seed round from Mangrove Capital Partners and is allegedly prepping for a double-digit millions Series A.

AntiToxin’s technology plugs into the backends of apps with social communities that either broadcast or message with each other and are thereby exposed to abuse. AntiToxin’s systems privately and securely crunch all the available signals regarding user behavior and policy violation reports, from text to videos to blocking. It then can flag a wide range of toxic actions and let the client decide whether to delete the activity, suspend the user responsible or how else to proceed based on their terms and local laws.

Through the use of artificial intelligence, including natural language processing, machine learning and computer vision, AntiToxin can identify the intent of behavior to determine if it’s malicious. For example, the company tells me it can distinguish between a married couple consensually exchanging nude photos on a messaging app versus an adult sending inappropriate imagery to a child. It also can determine if two teens are swearing at each other playfully as they compete in a video game or if one is verbally harassing the other. The company says that beats using static dictionary blacklists of forbidden words.

AntiToxin is under NDA, so it can’t reveal its client list, but claims recent media attention and looming regulation regarding online abuse has ramped up inbound interest. Eventually the company hopes to build better predictive software to identify users who’ve shown signs of increasingly worrisome behavior so their activity can be more closely moderated before they lash out. And it’s trying to build a “safety graph” that will help it identify bad actors across services so they can be broadly deplatformed similar to the way Facebook uses data on Instagram abuse to police connected WhatsApp accounts.

“We’re approaching this very human problem like a cybersecurity company, that is, everything is a Zero-Day for us” says Levkowitz, discussing how AntiToxin indexes new patterns of abuse it can then search for across its clients. “We’ve got intelligence unit alums, PhDs and data scientists creating anti-toxicity detection algorithms that the world is yearning for.” AntiToxin is already having an impact. TechCrunch commissioned it to investigate a tip about child sexual imagery on Microsoft’s Bing search engine. We discovered Bing was actually recommending child abuse image results to people who’d conducted innocent searches, leading Bing to make changes to clean up its act.

AntiToxin identified publicly listed WhatsApp Groups where child sexual abuse imagery was exchanged

One major threat to AntiToxin’s business is what’s often seen as boosting online safety: end-to-end encryption. AntiToxin claims that when companies like Facebook expand encryption, they’re purposefully hiding problematic content from themselves so they don’t have to police it.

Facebook claims it still can use metadata about connections on its already encrypted WhatApp network to suspend those who violate its policy. But AntiToxin provided research to TechCrunch for an investigation that found child sexual abuse imagery sharing groups were openly accessible and discoverable on WhatsApp — in part because encryption made them hard to hunt down for WhatsApp’s automated systems.

AntiToxin believes abuse would proliferate if encryption becomes a wider trend, and it claims the harm that it  causes outweighs fears about companies or governments surveiling unencrypted transmissions. It’s a tough call. Political dissidents, whistleblowers and perhaps the whole concept of civil liberty rely on encryption. But parents may see sex offenders and bullies as a more dire concern that’s reinforced by platforms having no idea what people are saying inside chat threads.

What seems clear is that the status quo has got to go. Shaming, exclusion, sexism, grooming, impersonation and threats of violence have started to feel commonplace. A culture of cruelty breeds more cruelty. Tech’s success stories are being marred by horror stories from their users. Paying to pick up new weapons in the fight against toxicity seems like a reasonable investment to demand.

Uber eats Uber Eats, embedding it in the main app

Uber’s best hope to beat all its ride sharing and food delivery competitors is that it does both. Through cross-promotion, it can combine activities people might only do a few times per week or month into a product they open daily.

Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi said cryptically on the company’s first earnings call last month that “Suffice it to say we are starting to experiment in ways in which we can upsell our ride customers to Eats deals in a way that — you know, to be plain spoken — isn’t annoying . . . I will tell you that we are very, very early in the stages of exploring the many, many ways in which our Ride business can help continue to build our Eats business and vice versa by the way . . . I don’t want to give away too much.”

But TechCrunch has discovered that specifically, Uber is starting to make a web view of Uber Eats accessible from its main app. A tipster in Boston first clued us in to the feature and now Uber confirms that it’s merging a fully functional web version of Uber Eats into its ride-hailing product. Uber quietly began rolling out a pilot of the merged app in late April. Uber Eats app will remain available as a standalone app.

The move could give Uber a customer acquisition and retention edge on single-product competitors like Lyft or DoorDash, while helping it keep up with multi-product peers like Careem and Bolt (which recently added food delivery), and its biggest global foe Didi from China which just launched food delivery in Uber stronghold Mexico. Combining functionality means Uber’s ride hailing customers could see a promotion for Eats and instantly try it without downloading a new app as their tummy rumbles. It could also get the 50% of Eats customers who don’t ride in Ubers to try it for transportation.

“We’re rolling out a new way to order Eats directly in the Uber app on Android (we’ve already been experimenting on iOS)” an Uber spokesperson tells me. “This cross-promotion gives riders who are new to Eats a seamless way to order a meal via a webview instead of opening up the App Store for download.”

The merged app is now available to all iOS users in cities where Uber doesn’t offer bikes and scooters that already clutter the interface of its car service app such as SF, LA, and NYC. The Android version is out to 17% of riders in Uber’s 500 other markets with the goal of the cross-promotional tool being available to all riders outside of micromobility cities soon.

A third of all Boston riders should have the feature by June 5th, while a third of riders in more markets like Washington D.C. and Atlanta will get it a week later. Uber plans to roll the feature out to all markets  (except for Japan). And eventually Uber wants all its Eats markets to sport the cross-promotion in its main app.

We believe our platform model allows us to acquire, engage and retain customers with the cost, as well as efficiency and effectiveness advantage over our rivals, typically monoline competitors” Khosrowshahi said on the earnings call. “What we found is that with Rides and Eats . . . we are seeing early signal where essentially you can have very little if any cannibalization of a Ride and throw a significant amount of potential demand onto the Eats side.”

The CEO also mentioned Uber’s loyalty and subscription programs are vital to cross-promotion. Its Uber Rewards that rolled out in January earns users points for both rides and food orders, and higher reward tiers score users free Eats deliveries that could get them hooked on the convenience. And last month, TechCrunch broke the news of Uber prototyping a $9.99 Uber Eats Pass subscription that offers unlimited free Eats deliveries.

“Really what we are looking to do is significantly increase the percentage of our MAPCs [monthly active platform consumers] that use both products [ride-hailing and Eats] and when we see customers using more than one product, their engagement with the platform more than doubles” Khosrowshahi concluded on the call. “So not only does engagement with Uber increase, but the engagement with our individual products increases as well, so it’s kind of a win, win, win.”

Uber’s market is all about lifetime value. If it can lock users in now, it could earn a fortune off them in the decades to come. That’s why it’s spending so much on marketing and expansion now even if it means racking up earnings losses. But its best (and cheapest) marketing channel is likely cross-promotion through the apps it’s already gotten people to install.

Apple attacks Facebook by becoming the asocial network

Sharing with everyone is passé and more than a little bit scary these days. We want to send photos to friends without posting them publicly. We want to reminisce without being permanently defined by our timelines. And we want the utility of apps without giving away our contact info to developers.

The problem is that this philosophy is hard to monetize for a social network that needs to maximize broadcasted content and engagement to score ad views. But it’s easy to monetize if you sell the phone and then let people be as private as they want on it. That’s why today at WWDC, Apple showed off changes that turn iOS into the asocial network — software that mimics the tools of Facebook but without the pressure to overshare.

Most stunningly, Apple will require apps that offer third-party login options like those from Facebook and Google to integrate its new Sign In With Apple feature that lets users hide their email addresses from developers. It’s a power move that makes Facebook look wreckless with your contact info by comparison.

Privacy has been a core Apple talking point for years, from the iPhone’s secure enclave and FaceID to message encryption to protection against tracking. But those safeguards have been focused on getting out of the way to let Apple’s products to ‘just work’. Increasingly, Apple is moving privacy further forward in the user experience to highlight how you can get more out of sharing less. That’s a wise strategy since the company has proven its inability to build full scale social networks out of Ping, Apple Music Connect, and iMessage.

“At Apple, we believe privacy is a fundamental human right and we engineer it into every single thing we do” said Apple SVP Craig Federighi .  Mark Zuckerberg declared “The future is private” at Facebook’s F8 conference a month ago, but proved it wasn’t his company’s past or present by failing to launch products that protect users. Now like Google did at I/O a few weeks ago with a slew of privacy tech launches, Apple is actually living up to its talking points with today’s beta release of iOS 13.

Photo Message Recommendations – When you bring up the Share Sheet for a photo or video in iOS 13, Apple will recommend people to send it to over iMessage or Mail based on who you frequently share with and if friends appear in the content. With a few taps you can privately deliver your imagery to a slew of your closest friends and favorite group chats, which could eliminate the need to post it more widely on Facebook or Instagram.

Asocial Media Tools – Instagram offers no way to download a photo or video you edit without first posting it to the feed first. That greedy growth hack leaves room for Apple to usurp more of the creative process. iOS 13 will let you edit videos for lighting, color, contrast, and more plus rotate clips you accidentally shot sideways — all which Instagram and Facebook can’t do. Forgoing the social network side lets Apple focus on tools that you’re free to use however you want.

And with the new Photo Day feature, Apple automatically hides and emphasizes different photos from each day to create magazine-style layouts. These ignite nostalgia and create a visual diary without the embarassment of all that content being on social media to power those TimeHop and Facebook On This Day features.

Memoji – To date, Apple’s interest in animated avatar masks that look like you has centered around FaceTime and video messages. But now it’s realizing how these virtual mini-me’s can enhance privacy while connecting more deeply. iOS 13 will let you opt to share your name and Memoji (or a real photo) as your message thread thumbnail in iMessage so new conversation partners like group chat friends-of-friends can better identify you without showing strangers your actual face. And Memoji can now be used as pre-generated stickers in chat, making it a direct competitor to Snapchat’s Bitmoji and Facebook’s Avatars that just launched today.

AirPods Audio Sharing – What if instead of trumpeting what you’re listening to on social media or fumbling to text a song link to a friend, they could just instantly pipe the sound into their headphones too so you’re rocking out in sync? That’s how the upcoming AirPods Audio Sharing works to let you exchange music privately over Bluetooth without exposing your guilty pleasure jams.

Sign In With Apple, Not Facebook

Apple’s most brazen attack saw it call out the social network by name on screen at WWDC. Flashing logos for “Sign In With Facebook” and “Sign In With Google” that are popular for joining new apps without setting up an account, Federighi noted that “This can be convenient, but it also can come at the cost of your privacy. Your personal information sometimes gets shared behind the scenes. These logins can be used to track you.”

As an alternative, Apple is launching “Sign In With Apple”. It uses FaceID in lieu of asking you to create a new username and password to register for a third-party app. Federighi told users they can opt to hide their email addresses from app developers and instead have Apple provide a randomized proxy address that forwards to their real one. That means users can permanently block spam messages from the app, prevent the developer from sharing or selling their contact info, and avoid being targeted with marketing via their email address as with Facebook Custom Audience ads. 

The announcement drew the loudest cheers of any at WWDC. And it seems Apple is determined to wring as much competitive advantage out of its Sign In feature as possible. You might imagine that adoption by developers would be outside of Apple’s control, and it’d have to prove it drove more lifetime value than login options that always provide a user’s real email.

But while Apple failed to mention this on stage, the fine print of its developer news brief notes that “Sign In with Apple will be available for beta testing this summer. It will be required as an option for users in apps that support third-party sign-in when it is commercially available later this year.”

Sure, developers want to maximize signups by minimizing onboarding friction, which is why Sign In With features that don’t make you remember more passwords have grown popular. Adding the Apple sign-in option should theoretically help. But developers also rely on sucking in email addresses to wake up lapsed users with message blasts, target them and people similar to them with reengagement or install ads, and exclude existing users to save money when buying ads to recruit new users.

If developers fear Sign In With Apple’s proxy email address feature will hurt them by cannibalizing registrations made with Facebook or Google that don’t offer users a way to hide their real contact info more than the convenience of a third sign-in option will help, they may try their best to bury or minimize the mandatory feature. Apple might have to incentivize growth for developers in other ways, such as heavily promoting them in the App Store if they prioritize its login option to offset the lifetime value per user decline from the loss of contact info. Unless compelled by some moral imperative, developers aren’t likely to risk their business any more than they have to in the name of privacy.

It’s here that Apple will learn that taking the high road can have its speed bumps. It might monetize selling hardware, but its developer partners often still rely on constantly grabbing our attention.

Privacy is often an abstract concept to the mainstream consumer, that doesn’t dictate their decisions, judging by Facebook’s continued user growth. That’s why promotional campaigns around the philosophy of privacy can seem to have little impact. But by building products and platforms that are objectively more useful yet more privacy-friendly than those of competitors, Apple can allow natural market forces to sweep users in the right direction — which just happens to lead into its shiny retail stores.