3 fixes for Netflix’s “What to watch?” problem

Wasting time every night debating with yourself or your partner about what to watch on Netflix is a drag. It burns people’s time and good will, robs great creators of attention, and leaves Netflix vulnerable to competitors who can solve discovery. Netflix itself says the average user spends 18 minutes per day deciding.

To date, Netflix’s solution has been its state-of-the-art artificial intelligence that offers personalized recommendations. But that algorithm is ignorant of how we’re feeling in the moment, what we’ve already seen elsewhere, and if we’re factoring in what someone else with us wants to watch too.

Netflix is considering a Shuffle button. [Image Credit: AndroidPolice]

This week Netflix introduced one basic new approach to discovery: a shuffle button. Click on a show you like such as The Office, and it will queue up a random episode. But that only works if you already know what you want to watch, it’s not a movie, and it’s not a linear series you have to watch in order.

Here are three much more exciting, applicable, and lucrative ways for Netflix (or Hulu, Amazon Prime Video, or any of the major streaming services) to get us to stop browsing and start chilling:

Netflix Channels

For the history of broadcast television, people surfed their way to what to watch. They turned on the tube, flipped through a few favorite channels, and jumped in even if a show or movie had already started. They didn’t have to decide between infinite options, and they didn’t have to commit to starting from the beginning. We all have that guilty pleasure we’ll watch until the end whenever we stumble upon it.

Netflix could harness that laziness and repurpose the concept of channels so you could surf its on-demand catalog the same way. Imagine if Netflix created channels dedicated to cartoons, action, comedy, or history. It could curate non-stop streams of cherry-picked content, mixing classic episodes and films, new releases related to current events, thematically relevant seasonal video, and Netflix’s own Original titles it wants to promote.

For example, the comedy channel could run modern classic films like 40-Year Old Virgin and Van Wilder during the day, top episodes of Arrested Development and Parks And Recreation in the afternoon, a featured recent release film like The Lobster in primetime, and then off-kilter cult hits like Monty Python or its own show Big Mouth in the late night slots. Users who finish one video could get turned on to the next, and those who might not start a personal favorite film from the beginning might happily jump in at the climax.

Short-Film Bundles

There’s a rapidly expanding demographic of post-couple pre-children people desperately seeking after-work entertainment. They’re too old or settled to go out every night, but aren’t so busy with kids that they lack downtime.

But one big shortcoming of Netflix is that it can be tough to get a satisfying dose of entertainment in a limited amount of time before you have to go to bed. A 30-minute TV show is too short. A lot of TV nowadays is serialized so it’s incomprehensible or too cliffhanger-y to watch a single episode, but sometimes you can’t stay up to binge. And movies are too long so you end up exhausted if you manage to finish in one sitting.

Netflix could fill this gap by bundling three or so short films together into thematic collections that are approximately 45 minutes to an hour in total.

Netflix could commission Originals and mix them with the plethora of untapped existing shorts that have never had a mainstream distribution channel. They’re often too long or prestigious to live on the web, but too short for TV, and it’s annoying to have to go hunting for a new one every 15 minutes. The whole point here is to reduce browsing. Netflix could create collections related to different seasons, holidays, or world news moments, and rebundle the separate shorts on the fly to fit viewership trends or try different curational angles.

Often artful and conclusive, they’d provide a sense of culture and closure that a TV episode doesn’t. If you get sleepy you could save the last short, and there’s a feeling of low commitment since you could skip any short that doesn’t grab you.

The Nightly Water Cooler Pick

One thing we’ve lost with the rise of on-demand video are some of those zeitgeist moments where everyone watches the same thing the same night and can then talk about it together the next day. We still get that with live sports, the occasional tent pole premier like Game Of Thrones, or when a series drops for binge-watching like Stranger Things. But Netflix has the ubiquity to manufacture those moments that stimulate conversation and a sense of unity.

Netflix could choose one piece of programming per night per region, perhaps a movie, short arc of TV episodes, or one of the short film bundles I suggested above and stick it prominently on the home page. This Netflix Zeitgeist choice would help override people’s picky preferences that get them stuck browsing by applying peer pressure like, “well, this is what everyone else will be watching.”

Netflix’s curators could pick content matched with an upcoming holiday like a Passover TV episode, show a film that’s reboot is about to debut like Dune or Clueless, pick a classic from an actor that’s just passed away like Luke Perry in the original Buffy movie, or show something tied to a big event like Netflix is currently doing with Beyonce’s Coachella concert film. Netflix could even let brands and or content studios pay to have their content promoted in the Zeitgeist slot.

As streaming service competition heats up and all the apps battle for the best back catalog, it’s not just exclusives but curation and discovery that will set them apart. These ideas could make Netflix the streaming app where you can just turn it on to find something great, be exposed to gorgeous shorts you’d have never known about, or get to participate in a shared societal experience. Entertainment shouldn’t have to be a chore.

Instagram hides Like counts in leaked design prototype

“We want your followers to focus on what you share, not how many likes your posts get. During this test, only the person who share a post will see the total number of likes it gets.” That’s how Instagram describes a seemingly small design change test with massive potential impact on users’ well-being.

Hiding Like counts could reduce herd mentality, where people just Like what’s already got tons of Likes. It could reduce the sense of competition on Instagram, since users won’t compare their own counts with those of more popular friends or superstar creators. And it could encourage creators to post what feels most authentic rather than trying to rack of Likes for everyone to see.

The design change test was spotted by Jane Manchun Wong, the prolific reverse engineering expert and frequent TechCrunch tipster whose spotted tons of Instagram features before they’re officially confirmed or launched. Wong discovered the design change test in Instagram’s Android code and was able to generate the screenshots above.

You can see on the left that the Instagram feed post lacks a Like count, but still shows a few faces and a name of other people who’ve Liked it. Users are alerted that only they’ll see their post’s Like counts, and anyone else won’t. Many users delete posts that don’t immediately get ‘enough’ Likes or post to their fake ‘Finstagram’ accounts if they don’t think they’ll be proud of the hearts they collect. Hiding Like counts might get users posting more since they’ll be less self-conscious.

An Instagram confirmed to TechCrunch that this design is an internal prototype that’s not visible to the public yet. A spokesperson told us: “We’re not testing this at the moment, but exploring ways to reduce pressure on Instagram is something we’re always thinking about.” Other features we’ve reported on in the same phase, such as video calling, soundtracks for Stories, and the app’s time well spent dashboard all went on to receive official launches.

Instagram’s prototypes (from left): feed post reactions, Stories lyrics, and Direct stickers

Meanwhile, Wong has also recently spotted several other Instagram prototypes lurking in its Android code. Those include chat thread stickers for Direct messages, augmented reality filters for Direct Video calls, simultaneous co-watching of recommended videos through Direct, karaoke-style lyrics that appear synced to soundtracks in Stories, emoji reactions to feed posts, and a shopping bag for commerce.

It appears that there’s no plan to hide follower counts on user profiles, which are the true measure of popularity but also serve a purpose of distinguishing great content creators and assessing their worth to marketers. Hiding Likes could just put more of a spotlight on follower and comment counts. And even if users don’t see Like counts, they still massively impact the feed’s ranking algorithm, so creators will still have to battle for them to be seen.

Close-up of Instagram’s design for feed posts without Like counters

The change matches a growing belief that Like counts can be counter-productive or even harmful to users’ psyches. Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom told me back in 2016 that getting away from the pressure of Like counts was one impetus for Instagram launching Stories. Last month, Twitter began testing a design which hides retweet counts behind an extra tap to similarly discourage inauthentic competition and herd mentality. And Snapchat has never shown Like counts or even follower counts, which has made it feel less stressful but also less useful for influencers.

Narcissism, envy spiraling, and low self-image can all stem from staring at Like counts. They’re a constant reminder of the status hierarchies that have emerged from social networks. For many users, at some point it stopped being fun and started to feel more like working in the heart mines. If Instagram rolls the feature out, it could put the emphasis back on sharing art and self-expression, not trying to win some popularity contest.

Twitter acquihires highlight sharing app Highly

Quotes from articles work much better than links on Twitter, so the social giant is scooping up the team behind highlight sharing app Highly. This talent could help Twitter build its own version of Highly or develop other ways to excerpt the best content from websites and get it into the timeline.

Highly will shut down its iOS and Slack app on April 26th, though it promises that “No highlights will be harmed”. It’s also making its paid “Crowd Control” for private highlight sharing plus Highly For Teams free in the meantime. Twitter confirmed to TechCrunch that the deal was an acquihire, and a spokesperson provided this statement: “We are excited to welcome the Highly team to Twitter. Their expertise will accelerate our product and design thinking around making Twitter more conversational.”

“Social highlights can make sharing stories online feel personal, efficient and alive — like retelling a story to a friend, over coffee. They give people shared context and spark meaningful conversations” the Highly team writes.

Quotes can make the difference between someone breezing past a link they don’t want to leave Twitter to explore, and getting a peek at what’s smart about an article so they know if it’s worth diving deeper. Many people use OneShot to generate Twitter-formatted screenshots of posts. But Highly lets you just rub your finger over text to turn it into an image with a link back to the article for easy tweeting.

“Sharing highlights, not headlines — sharing thinking instead of lazily linking — helps spark the kind of conversation that leaves participants and observers alike a bit better off than they started. We’d like to see more of this” the Highly teams writes. That’s why it’s joining Twitter to work on improving conversation health. Founded in 2014, Highly had raised a seed round in 2017.

 

How-to video maker Jumprope launches to leapfrog YouTube

Sick of pausing and rewinding YouTube tutorials to replay that tricky part? Jumprope is a new instructional social network offering a powerful how-to video slideshow creation tool. Jumprope helps people make step-by-step guides to cooking, beauty, crafts, parenting and more using voice-overed looping GIFs for each phase. And creators can export their whole lesson for sharing on Instagram, YouTube, or wherever.

Jumprope officially launches its iOS app today with plenty of how-tos for making chocolate chip bars, Easter eggs, flower boxes, or fierce eyebrows. “By switching from free-form linear video to something much more structured, we can make it much easier for people to share their knowledge and hacks” says Jumprope co-founder and CEO Jake Poses.

The rise of Snapchat Stories and Pinterest have made people comfortable jumping on camera and showing off their niche interests. By building a new medium, Jumprope could become the home for rapid-fire learning. And since viewers will have tons of purchase intent for the makeup, art supplies, or equipment they’ll need to follow along, Jumprope could make serious cash off of ads or affiliate commerce.

The opportunity to bring instruction manuals into the mobile video era has attracted a $4.5 million seed round led by Lightspeed Venture Partners and joined by strategic angels like Adobe Chief Product Officer Scott Belsky and Thumbtack co-founders Marco Zappacosta and Jonathan Swanson. People are already devouring casual education content on HGTV and the Food Network, but Jumprope democratizes its creation.

Jumprope co-founders (from left): CTO Travis Johnson and CEO Jake Poses

The idea came from a deeply personal place for Poses. “My brother has pretty severe learning differences, and so growing up with him gave me this appreciation for figuring out how to break things down and explain them to people” Poses reveals. “I think that attached me to this problem of ‘how do you organize information so its simple and easy to understand?’. Lots and lots of people have this information trapped in their heads because there isn’t an a way to easily share that.”

Poses was formerly the VP of product at Thumbtack where he helped grow the company from 8 to 500 people and a $1.25 billion valuation. He teamed up with AppNexus’ VP of engineering Travis Johnson, who’d been leading a 50-person team of coders. “The product takes people who have knowledge and passion but not the skill to make video [and gives them] guard rails that make it easy to communicate” Poses explains.

Disrupting incumbents like YouTube’s grip on viewers might take years, but Jumprope sees its guide creation and export tool as a way to infiltrate and steal their users. That strategy mirrors how TikTok’s watermarked exports colonized the web

How To Make A Jumprope.

Jumprope lays out everything you’ll need to upload, including a cover image, introduction video, supplies list, and all your steps. For each, you’ll record a video that you can then enhance with voice over, increased speed, music, and filters.

Creators are free to suggest their own products or enter affiliate links to monetize their videos. Once it has enough viewers, Jumprope plans to introduce advertising, but it could also add tipping, subscriptions, paid how-tos, or brand sponsorship options down the line. Creators can export their lessons with five different border themes and seven different aspect ratios for posting to Instagram’s feed, IGTV, Snapchat Stories, YouTube, or embedding on their blog.

“Like with Stories, you basically tap through at your own pace” Poses says of the viewing experience. Jumprope offers some rudimentary discovery through categories, themed collections, or what’s new and popular. The startup has done extensive legwork to sign up featured creators in all its top categories. That means Jumprope’s catalog is already extensive, with food guides ranging from cinnabuns to pot roasts to how to perfectly chop an onion. 

“You’re not constantly dealing with the frustration of cooking something and trying to start and stop the video with greasy hands. And if you don’t want all the details, you can tap through it much faster” than trying to skim a YouTube video or blog post, Poses tells me. Next the company wants to build a commenting feature where you can leave notes, substitution suggestions, and more on each step of a guide.

Poses claims there’s no one building a direct competitor to its mobile video how-to editor. But he admits it will be an uphill climb to displace viewership on Instagram and YouTube. One challenge facing Jumprope is that most people aren’t hunting down how-to videos every day. The app will have to work to remind users it exists and that they shouldn’t just go with the lazy default of letting Google recommend the videos it hosts.

The internet has gathered communities around every conceivable interest. But greater access to creation and consumption necessitates better tools for production and curation. As we move from a material to an experiential culture, people crave skills that will help them forge memories and contribute to the world around them. Jumprope makes it a lot less work to leap into the life of a guru.

Facebook prototypes a swipeable hybrid carousel of feed posts & Stories

Feed and Stories unite! Facebook is so eager to preempt the shift to Stories that it might even let us use the same interface of horizontally swipeable cards to sift through News Feed posts. If users won’t scroll down any more, Facebook’s ad business could take a huge hit. But by allowing traditional feed posts and ads to appear amidst Stories in the same carousel you’re more prone to swipe through, it could squeeze more views and dollars out of that content. This would help Facebook gracefully transition to the post-News Feed era while it teaches advertisers how to use the full-screen Stories ad format.

In this image, you can see a user in mid-swipe through the hybrid carousel between a News Feed story about a friend updating their profile photo to an animated GIF-style video on the left and a Stories video on the right.

We’re awaiting comment from Facebook about this. There’s a chance it was just caused by a bug like the briefly side-scrollable Instagram feed that popped up in December, or that it will never be publicly tested let alone launch. But given the significance of Facebook potentially reimagining navigation of its main revenue stream, we considered it worth covering immediately. After all, Facebook predicts that Stories sharing will surpass feed sharing across all social apps sometime this year,. it alrady has 300 million daily users across Stories on Facebook and Messenger, plus another 500 million on Instagram Stories and 450 million on WhatsApp Status.

This swipeable hybrid carousel was first spotted by reverse engineering specialist and frequent TechCrunch tipster Jane Manchun Wong. She discovered this unreleased feature inside of the Android version of Facebook and screenrecorded the new navigation method. In this prototype, when a News Feed post’s header or surrounding space is tapped, users see a full-screen version of the post. From there they can swipe left to reveal the next content in the hybrid carousel, which can include both traditional News Feed posts, News Feed ads, and purposefully vertical Stories and Stories ads. Users can tap to Like, react to, or comment on feed posts while still in the carousel interface.

If Facebook moved forward with offering this as an optional way to browse its social network, it would hedge the business against the biggest behavior change it’s seen since the move from desktop to mobile. Vertically-scrolling News Feeds are useful for browsing text-heavy content, but the navigation requires more work. Users have to stop and start scrolling precisely to get a whole post in view, and it takes longer to move between pieces of content.

In contrast, swipeable Stories carousels offer a more convenient lean-back navigation style where posts always appear fully visible. All it takes to advance to the next full-screen piece of content is a single tap, which is easier on your joints. This allows rapid-fire fast-forwarding through friends’ lives, which works well with more visual, instantly digestible content. While cramming text-filled News Feed posts may not be ideal, at least they might get more attention. If Facebook combined all this with unskippable Stories ads like Snapchat is increasingly using, the medium shift could lure more TV dollars to the web.

The hybrid posts and Stories carousel can contain both traditional image plus caption News Feed posts and News feed ads as well as Stories

Facebook has repeatedly warned that it’s out of space for more ads in the News Feed, and that users are moving their viewing time to Stories where advertisers are still getting acclimated. When Facebook made it clear on its Q2 2018 earnings call that this could significantly reduce revenue growth, its share price dropped 20 percent vaporizing $120 billion in value. Wall Street is rightfully concerned that the Stories medium shift could upend Facebook’s massive business.

Stories is a bustling up-and-coming neighborhood. News Feed is a steadily declining industrial city that’s where Facebook’s money is earned but that’s on its way to becoming a ghost town. A hybrid Stories/posts carousel would build a super highway between them, connecting where Facebook users want to spend time with where the municipality generates the taxes necessary to keep the lights on.

Mutiny at HQ Trivia fails to oust CEO

This week’s banishment of host Scott Rogowsky was merely a symptom of the ongoing struggle to decide who will lead HQ Trivia. According to multiple sources, over half of the startup’s staff signed an internal petition to depose CEO Rus Yusupov who they saw as mismanaging the company. But Yusupov then fired three core supporters of the mutiny, leading to a downward spiral of morale that mirrors HQ’s plummeting App Store rank.

TechCrunch spoke to multiple sources familiar with HQ Trivia’s internal troubles to piece together how the live video mobile game went from blockbuster to nearly bust. Two sources said HQ recently only had around $6 million in the bank but was burning over $1 million per month, meaning its runway could be dwindling. But its early investors are reluctant to hand Yusupov any more cash. “

Employees petitioned to remove HQ Trivia’s CEO Rus Yusupov

HQ reimagined gaming and mobile entertainment with the launch of its 12-question trivia game in August 2017 where players all competed live in twice-daily shows with anyone who got all the answers right split a cash jackpot. The games felt urgent since you could only participate at designated times, fun to play against friends or strangers, and winning carried a significance no single-player or non-stop online game could match.

When TechCrunch wrote the first coverage of HQ Trivia in October 2017, it had just 3500 concurrent players. But by January it had climbed to the #3 game and #6 overall app in the App Store, and grown to 2.38 million players by March. Quickly, copycats from China and Facebook entered the market. But they all lacked HQ’s secret weapon — its plucky host comedian Scott Rogowsky. Affectionately awarded nicknames like Quiz Daddy, Quiz Khalifa, Host Malone, and Trap Trebek from the “HQties” who played daily, he was the de facto face of the startup.

Yet HQ had some shaky foundations. Co-founder Colin Kroll, who’d also started Vine with Yusupov and sold it to Twitter, had been fired from Twitter after 18 months for being a bad manager, Recode reported. He’d also picked up a reputation of being creepy around female employees, as well as Vine stars, TechCrunch has learned. Rapid growth and an investigation by early HQ investor Jeremy Liew that found no egregious misconduct by Kroll paved the way for a $15 million investment. The round was led by Founders Fund’s Cyan Bannister, and it valued HQ at over $100 million.

Yusupov failed to translate that cash into sustained growth and product innovation. His public behavior had already raised flags. He yelled at a Daily Beast reporter after the outlet’s Taylor Lorenz interviewed Rogowsky without Yusupov’s approval, threatening to fire the host. “You’re putting Scott’s job in jeopardy. Is that what you want? . . .  Please read me your story word for word,” Yusupov said. When he learned Rogowsky had expressed his preference for salad restaurant chain Sweetgreen, Yusupov shouted “He cannot say that! We do not have a brand deal with Sweetgreen! Under no circumstances can he say that.” The next day, Yusupov falsely claimed he’d never threatened Rogowsky’s job.

With HQ’s bank account full, sources say Yusupov was extremely slow to make decisions, allowing HQ to stagnate. The novelty of playing trivia for money via phone has begun to wear off, and people increasingly ignored HQ’s push notifications to join its next game. But beyond bringing in some guest hosts and the option to buy a second chance after a wrong answer, HQ ceased to evolve. HQ fell to the #196 game on iOS and the #585 overall app as concurrent players waned.

That’s when things started to get a bit Game Of Thrones.

Pawns In A CEO War

Liew pushed for HQ to swap Kroll into the CEO spot in September 2018 while moving Yusupov to Chief Creative Officer, which was confirmed despite an HR complaint against Kroll for aggressive management. However, three sources tell TechCrunch that Yusupov pushed that HQ employee to file the complaint against Kroll. As the WSJ reported after Kroll’s death, that employee later left the startup because they felt that they’d been exploited. “There was definitely what felt like manipulation there, and that’s also why that employee resigned from the company.” one source said. Another source said that staffer “believed Rus used their unhappiness about work to use them as a pawn in his CEO war and not because Rus actually cared about resolving things.”

Cyan of Founders Fund stepped down from HQ’s board after the decision to swap out Yusupov due to her firm’s reputation of keeping founders in control, Recode’s Kurt Wagner reported. Sources say that despite Kroll’s reputation, the staff believed in him. “Colin loved HQ and was dedicated to all the employees more than Rus. Rus cares about Rus. Colin cared about the content” a source tells me. 

Three sources say that in a desperate ploy to retain power and prevent Kroll’s rise, Yusupov suggested Rogowsky, a comedian with no tech or management experience, be made CEO of HQ Trivia. He even suggested the company film a reality show about Rogowsky taking over. That idea was quickly shot down as preposterous.

“It was a very personal desperation tactic not to have Colin be CEO. It was not a professionally thought-out idea” a source tells me, though another said it was always hard to tell if Yusupov’s crazy ideas were jokes. Both Yusupov and HQ Trivia declined to respond to multiple requests for comment, but we’ll update if we hear back.

HQ Trivia co-founder Colin Kroll passed away in December

Then tragedy struck in December. Kroll, then CEO, was found dead in his apartment from a drug overdose. Employees were distraught over what would happen next. “Colin’s plan was to ship fast, and get new things out there” a source says, noting that Kroll had pushed for the release of HQ’s first new game type HQ Words modeled after Wheel Of Fortune. “He wasn’t perfect but in the time he was in charge, the ship started to turn, but when Rus took over again it was like the 9 months where we did nothing.”

Coup d’éHQ

By February 2019, HQ’s staff was fed up. Two sources confirm that 20 of the roughly 35 employees signed a letter asking the board to remove Yusupov and establish a new CEO. With HQ’s download rate continuing to sink, they feared he’d run the startup into the ground. One source suggested Yusupov might rather have seen the whole startup come crashing down with the blame placed on the product than have it come to light that he played a large hand in the fall. The tone of the letter, which was never formally delivered but sources believe the board knew of, wasn’t accusatory but a plea for transparency about the company’s future and the staff’s job security.

At a hastily convened all-hands meeting in late February, HQ investor Liew told the company his fund Lightspeed would support a search for a new CEO to replace Yusupov, and provide that new CEO with funding for 18 more months of runway. Liew told the staff he would step down from the board once that CEO was found, but the search continues and so Liew remains on HQ’s board.

Mostly everyone was on Jeremy’s side as no one wanted to work under Rus. Jeremy wasn’t trying to screw him over the way Rus would screw other people over. He just wanted to do what was right, getting behind what everyone wanted” a source said of Liew. 

Instead, HQ’s board moved forward with instituting a new executive decision-making committee composed of Yusupov, HQ’s head of production Nick Gallo, and VP of engineering Ben Sheats. Yusupov would remain interim CEO, and he continued to cling to power and there’s been little transparency about the CEO replacement process. Until a new CEO is found, HQ must subsist on its existing funds. The staff is “always worried about running out of runway” and are given vague answers when they ask leadership about how much money is left.

On March 1st, the committee emerged from a meeting and fired three employees who had spearheaded the petition and been vocal about Yusupov’s failings.

One who wasn’t fired was Rogowsky, despite sources saying at one point he’d tried to organize the staff to go on strike. Other employees had been cautious about standing up to Yusupov. “Everyone was terrified of retaliation. Their fears have totally been validated” a source explains. Engineers and other staffers with strong employment prospects began to drain out of the company. Those left were just trying to hold onto their jobs. Without inspiring leadership or a strategy to reverse user shrinkage, recruiting replacements would prove difficult.

Yusupov remains on the board, along with Tinder CEO Elie Seidman who Yusupov appointed to his additional common seat. Liew retains his seat until the new CEO is found and given that seat. And Kroll’s seat appears to have gone to Lightspeed partner Merci Victoria Grace. Lightspeed and Cyan of Founders Fund declined to respond to requests for comment.

Losing Face

Tensions at HQ and a desire to diversify his prospects led Rogowsky to pick up a side gig hosting baseball talk show ChangeUp on the DAZN network, TMZ reported this week. He’d hoped to continue hosting HQ during its big weekend contests. But tensions with Yusupov and the CEO’s desire for the host to remain exclusively at HQ led negotiations to sour causing Rogowsky to leave the startup entirely. TechCrunch was first to report that he’s been replaced by former HQ guest host Matt Richards, who Yusupov bluntly told me Friday had polled higher than Rogowsky in a SurveyMonkey survey of HQ’s top players.

In tweets, Rogowsky revealed that that “Sadly, it won’t be possible for me to continue hosting HQ concurrently as I had hoped” noting, “I wasn’t given the courtesy of a farewell show.” Finding a way to preserve Rogowsky’s ties to HQ likely would have been best for the startup.  TechCrunch had raised the concern a year ago that unless Rogowsky was properly locked in with an adequate equity vesting schedule at HQ, he could leave. Or worse, he could be poached by Facebook, Snapchat, or YouTube to host an HQ competitor.

“Rus is a visionary but not a good leader. He is extremely manipulative in an unproductive way. He’s a dude who just cares a lot about his reputation” a source noted. “A lot of the negative sentiment amongst staff is the belief that he cares more about his reputation than the company itself.”

HQ’s next attempt to revive growth appears to be HQ Editor’s Picks, is described as “a new live show on your phone where our host shows funny viral videos and you decide on who gets paid.” Finally it seems willing to embrace the potential of interactive live video entertainment outside of trivia and puzzles. HQ Editor’s Picks will face an uphill battle, since HQ dropped out of the top 1500 iOS apps last month, according to App Annie. Sensor Tower estimates that HQ saw just 8 percent as many downloads in March 2019 as March 2018.

After the loss of its spirit animal Rogowsky, the employees’ chosen leader Kroll, the supervision of veteran investor Cyan, and its product momentum, tough questions are what remain for HQ Trivia. The company’s struggles have paralyzed its progress towards finding a new viral mechanic or game format that attracts users. While HQ Words is fun, it’s too similar to its trivia competition to change the startup’s trajectory. And all of the in-fighting could scare off any talent hoping to turn HQ around. Unfortunately, securing an extra life for the game will take a more than a $3.99 in-app purchase.

HQ Trivia replaces Quiz Daddy Scott Rogowsky

Quiz Khalifa aka Host Malone aka Trap Trebek aka HQ Trivia’s Scott Rogowsky has been pushed out of the live mobile gaming startup. The two split due to disagreements about Rogowsky attempting to take a second full-time job hosting sports streaming service DAZN’s baseball show ChangeUp while moving to only hosting HQ on weekends, TMZ first reported. HQ wanted someone committed to their show.

Now HQ co-founder and CEO Rus Yusupov confirms to TechCrunch that Rogowsky will no longer host HQ Trivia. He tells me that the company ran a SurveyMonkey survey of its top players and they voted that former guest host Matt Richards rated higher than Rogowsky. Yusupov says HQ is excited to have Richards as its new prime time host. It’s also putting out offers to more celebrity guests to host for a few shows, a few weeks, or even a whole season of one of its time slots.

HQ Trivia’s new host Matt Richards

The departure could still shake HQ’s brand since Rogowsky had become the defacto face of the company. But he was also prone to talking a lot on the air and promoting himself, sometimes in ways that felt distracting from the game. Rogowsky has also been using HQ’s brand to further his standup comedy career, splashing its logo on advertising for his shows like this one below at a casino where “The centerpiece is a live trivia competition”, he told WPTV5.

TechCrunch had predicted that Rogowsky might depart if he wasn’t properly compensated with equity in HQ Trivia that would only vest and earn him money if he stuck around. The damage to HQ could worsen if he’s scooped up by Facebook, Snapchat, or another tech company to build out their own live video gaming shows.

HQ Trivia provided this statement on Rogowsky’s exit:

“We continue to build an incredible company at HQ Trivia, from drawing hundreds of thousands of players to the platform daily, to increasing the size of the prize, to attracting strong talent. We’ve come a long way since Scott Rogowsky’s first trivia game and we’re grateful for everything he’s done for the platform. This is a team that creates products for talent to really shine—we’re just getting started at HQ Trivia, and as he makes his next move, wanted to take a minute to thank him for being part of our journey.”

Yusupov tells me he’s excited about exploring new hosts, noting that Richards in a person of color who brings more diversity to HQ’s lineup. Richards is a standup comic who has appeared on CBS’ 2 Broke Girls, Nickelodeon’s School of Rock and was a voice-over host for game show Trivial Takedown on FUSE. Yusupov says the team feels jazzed about the new creative opportunities beyond Rogowsky, though the CEO says he appreciates all that its former host contributed.

Richards will have the tall task of trying to revive HQ’s popularity. It climbed the app store charts to become the #3 top game and #6 overall app in January 2018, and peaked at 2.38 million concurrent players in March 2018. But it’s been on a steady decline since, falling to the #585 overall app in August, and it dropped out of the top #1500 last month according to App Annie. HQ Trivia was installed over 160,000 times last month on iOS and Android with approximately $200,000 in in-app purchase revenue, according to Sensor Tower. But that’s just 8% as many downloads as the 1.97 million new installs HQ got in March 2018.

Exhaustion with the game format, so many winners splitting jackpots to just a few dollars per victor, and laggy streams have all driven away players. The introduction of a new Wheel Of Fortune-style HQ Words game in August hasn’t stopped the decline. And the tragic death of HQ co-founder and former CEO Colin Kroll may have impeded efforts to turn things around. There’s a ton of pressure on the company after it raised $23 million, including a $15 million round at a $100 million valuation.

Even if HQ Trivia fades from the zeitgeist, it and Rogowsky will have inspired a new wave of innovation in what it means to play with our phones.

Instagram now demotes vaguely “inappropriate” content

Instagram is home to plenty of scantily-clad models and edgy memes that may start to get fewer views starting today. Now Instagram says “We have begun reducing the spread of posts that are inappropriate but do not go against Instagram’s Community Guidelines”. That means if a post is sexually suggestive, but doesn’t depict a sex act or nudity, it could still get demoted. Similarly, if a meme doesn’t constitute hate speech or harassment, but is considered in bad taste, lewd, violent, or hurtful, it could get fewer views.

Specifically, Instagram says “this type of content may not appear for the broader community in Explore or hashtag pages” which could severely hurt the ability of creators to gain new followers. The news came amidst a flood of “Integrity” announcements from Facebook to safeguard its family of apps revealed today at a press event a the company’s Menlo Park headquarters.

“We’ve started to use machine learning to determine if the actual media posted is eligible to be recommended to our community” Instagram’s Product Lead for Discovery Will Ruben said. Instagram is now training its content moderators to label borderline content when they’re hunting down policy violations, and Instagram then uses those labels to train an algorithm to identify.

These posts won’t be fully removed from the feed, and Instagram tells me for now the new policy won’t impact Instagram’s feed or Stories bar. But Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s November manifesto described the need to broadly reduce the reach of this “borderline content”, which on Facebook would mean being shown lower in News Feed. That’s policy could easily be expanded to Instagram in the future. That would likely reduce the ability of creators to reach their existing fans, which can impact their ability to monetize through sponsored posts or direct traffic to ways they make money like Patreon.

Today Facebook’s Henry Silverman explained that “As content gets closer and closer to the line of our Community Standards at which point we’d remove it, it actually gets more and more engagement. It’s not something unique to Facebook but inherent in human nature.” The borderline content policy aims to counteract this incentive to toe the policy line. Just because something is allowed on one our apps doesn’t mean it should show up at the top of News Feed or that it should be recommended or that it should be able to be advertised” said Facebook’s head of News Feed Integrity Tessa Lyons. ”

This all makes sense when it comes to click bait, false news, and harassment which no one wants on Facebook or Instagram. But when it comes to sexualized but not explicit content that has long been uninhibited and in fact popular on Instagram, or memes or jokes that might offend some people despite not being abusive, this is a significant step up of censorship by Facebook and Instagram.

Creators currently have no guidelines about what constitutes Borderline Content — there’s nothing in Instagram’s rules or  terms of service that even mention non-recommendable content or what qualifies. The only information Instagram has provided was what it shared at today’s event. The company specficied that violent, graphic/shocking, sexuall suggestive, misinformation, and spam content can be deemed “non-recommendable” and therefore won’t appear on Explore or hashtag pages.

 

Instagram denied an account from a creator claiming that the app reduced their feed and Stories reach after one of their posts that actually violates the content policy taken down.

One female creator with around a half-million followers likened receiving a two-week demotion that massively reduced their content’s reach to Instagram defecating on them. “It just makes it like, ‘Hey, how about we just show your photo to like 3 of your followers? Is that good for you? . . . I know this sounds kind of tin-foil hatty but . . . when you get a post taken down or a story, you can set a timer on your phone for two weeks to the godd*mn f*cking minute and when that timer goes off you’ll see an immediate change in your engagement. They put you back on the Explore page and you start getting followers.”

As you can see, creators are pretty passionate about Instagram demoting their reach. Instagram’s Product Lead on Discovery Will Ruben said regarding the feed/Stories reach reduction: No, that’s not happening. We distinguish between feed and surfaces where you’ve taken the choice to follow somebody, and Explore and hashtag pages where Instagram is recommending content to people.”

The questions now are whether borderline content demotions are ever extended to Instagram’s feed and Stories, and how content is classified as recommendable, non-recommendable, or violating. With artificial intelligence involved, this could turn into another situation where Facebook is seen as shirking its responsibilities in favor of algorithmic efficiency — but this time in removing or demoting too much content rather than too little.

Given the lack of clear policies to point to, the subjective nature of deciding what’s offensive but not abusive, Instagram’s 1 billion user scale, and its nine years of allowing this content, there are sure to be complaints and debates about fair and consistent enforcement.

New privacy assistant Jumbo fixes your Facebook & Twitter settings

Jumbo could be a nightmare for the tech giants, but a savior for the victims of their shady privacy practices.

Jumbo saves you hours as well as embarrassment by automatically adjusting 30 Facebook privacy settings to give you more protection, and by deleting your old tweets after saving them to your phone. It can even erase your Google Search and Amazon Alexa history, with clean-up features for Instagram and Tinder in the works.

The startup emerges from stealth today to launch its Jumbo privacy assistant app on iPhone (Android coming soon). What could take a ton of time and research to do manually can be properly handled by Jumbo with a few taps.

The question is whether tech’s biggest companies will allow Jumbo to operate, or squash its access. Facebook, Twitter and the rest really should have built features like Jumbo’s themselves or made them easier to use, since they could boost people’s confidence and perception that might increase usage of their apps. But since their business models often rely on gathering and exploiting as much of your data as possible, and squeezing engagement from more widely visible content, the giants are incentivized to find excuses to block Jumbo.

“Privacy is something that people want, but at the same time it just takes too much time for you and me to act on it,” explains Jumbo founder Pierre Valade, who formerly built beloved high-design calendar app Sunrise that he sold to Microsoft in 2015. “So you’re left with two options: you can leave Facebook, or do nothing.”

Jumbo makes it easy enough for even the lazy to protect themselves. “I’ve used Jumbo to clean my full Twitter, and my personal feeling is: I feel lighter. On Facebook, Jumbo changed my privacy settings, and I feel safer.” Inspired by the Cambridge Analytica scandal, he believes the platforms have lost the right to steward so much of our data.

Valade’s Sunrise pedigree and plan to follow Dropbox’s bottom-up freemium strategy by launching premium subscription and enterprise features has already attracted investors to Jumbo. It’s raised a $3.5 million seed round led by Thrive Capital’s Josh Miller and Nextview Ventures’ Rob Go, who “both believe that privacy is a fundamental human right,” Valade notes. Miller sold his link-sharing app Branch to Facebook in 2014, so his investment shows those with inside knowledge see a need for Jumbo. Valade’s six-person team in New York will use the money to develop new features and try to start a privacy moment.

How Jumbo works

First let’s look at Jumbo’s Facebook settings fixes. The app asks that you punch in your username and password through a mini-browser open to Facebook instead of using the traditional Facebook Connect feature. That immediately might get Jumbo blocked, and we’ve asked Facebook if it will be allowed. Then Jumbo can adjust your privacy settings to Weak, Medium, or Strong controls, though it never makes any privacy settings looser if you’ve already tightened them.

Valade details that since there are no APIs for changing Facebook settings, Jumbo will “act as ‘you’ on Facebook’s website and tap on the buttons, as a script, to make the changes you asked Jumbo to do for you.” He says he hopes Facebook makes an API for this, though it’s more likely to see his script as against policies.

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For example, Jumbo can change who can look you up using your phone number to Strong – Friends only, Medium – Friends of friends, or Weak – Jumbo doesn’t change the setting. Sometimes it takes a stronger stance. For the ability to show you ads based on contact info that advertisers have uploaded, both the Strong and Medium settings hide all ads of this type, while Weak keeps the setting as is.

The full list of what Jumbo can adjust includes Who can see your future posts?, Who can see the people?, Pages and lists you follow, Who can see your friends list?, Who can see your sexual preference?, Do you want Facebook to be able to recognize you in photos and videos?, Who can post on your timeline?, and Review tags people add to your posts the tags appear on Facebook? The full list can be found here.

For Twitter, you can choose if you want to remove all tweets ever, or that are older than a day, week, month (recommended), or three months. Jumbo never sees the data, as everything is processed locally on your phone. Before deleting the tweets, it archives them to a Memories tab of its app. Unfortunately, there’s currently no way to export the tweets from there, but Jumbo is building Dropbox and iCloud connectivity soon, which will work retroactively to download your tweets. Twitter’s API limits mean it can only erase 3,200 tweets of yours every few days, so prolific tweeters may require several rounds.

Its other integrations are more straightforward. On Google, it deletes your search history. For Alexa, it deletes the voice recordings stored by Amazon. Next it wants to build a way to clean out your old Instagram photos and videos, and your old Tinder matches and chat threads.

Across the board, Jumbo is designed to never see any of your data. “There isn’t a server-side component that we own that processes your data in the cloud,” Valade says. Instead, everything is processed locally on your phone. That means, in theory, you don’t have to trust Jumbo with your data, just to properly alter what’s out there. The startup plans to open source some of its stack to prove it isn’t spying on you.

While there are other apps that can clean your tweets, nothing else is designed to be a full-fledged privacy assistant. Perhaps it’s a bit of idealism to think these tech giants will permit Jumbo to run as intended. Valade says he hopes if there’s enough user support, the privacy backlash would be too big if the tech giants blocked Jumbo. “If the social network blocks us, we will disable the integration in Jumbo until we can find a solution to make them work again.”

But even if it does get nixed by the platforms, Jumbo will have started a crucial conversation about how privacy should be handled offline. We’ve left control over privacy defaults to companies that earn money when we’re less protected. Now it’s time for that control to shift to the hands of the user.

To stop copycats, Snapchat shares itself

Evan Spiegel has finally found a way to fight back against Mark Zuckerberg’s army of clones. For 2.5 years, Snapchat foolishly tried to take the high road versus Facebook, with Spiegel claiming “Our values are hard to copy”. That inaction allowed Zuckerberg to accrue over 1 billion daily Stories users across Instagram, WhatsApp, and Facebook compared to Snapchat’s 186 million total daily users. Meanwhile, the whole tech industry scrambled to build knock-offs of Snap’s vision of an ephemeral, visual future.

But Snapchat’s new strategy is a rallying call for the rest of the social web that’s scared of being squashed beneath Facebook’s boot. It rearranges the adage of “if you can’t beat them, join them” into “to beat them, join us”. As a unified front, Snap’s partners get the infrastructure they need to focus on what differentiates them, while Snapchat gains the reach and entrenchment necessary to weather the war.

Tinder lets you use Snapchat Stories as profile photos

Snapchat’s plan is to let other apps embed the best parts of it rather than building their own half-rate copies.

Why reinvent the wheel of Stories, Bitmoji, and ads when you can reuse the original? A high-ranking Snap executive told me on background that this is indeed the strategy. If it’s going to invent these products, and others want something similar, it’s smarter to enable and partly control the Snapchatification than to try to ignore it. Otherwise, Facebook might be the one to platform-tize what Snap inspired everyone to want.

The “Camera company” corrected course and took back control of its destiny this week at its first ever Snap Partner Summit in its hometown of Los Angeles. Now it’s a camera platform thanks to Snap Kit. Its new Story Kit will implant Snapchat Stories into other apps later this year. They can display a more traditional carousel of your friends’ Stories, or lace them into their app in a custom format. Houseparty’s Stories carousel shares what your buddies are up to outside of the group video chat app. Tinder will let you show off your Snapchat Story alongside your photos to seduce potential matches. But the camera stays inside Snapchat, with new options to share out to these App Stories.

Snap CEO Evan Spiegel presents at the Snap Partner Summit

This is how Snapchat colonizes the native app ecosystem similarly to how Facebook invaded the web with the Like button. Snap’s strong privacy record makes these partners willing to host it where now they might fear that Facebook and its history with Cambridge Analytica could tarnish their brand.

Instead of watching these other apps spin up mini competitors that further fragment the Stories world, Snap saves developers the slow and costly hassle while instantly giving them best-in-class tools to boost their own engagement. Each outpost makes your Snapchat account a little more indispensable, grants its camera new utility, and reminds you to visit again. It’s another reason to stick with Snap rather than straying to other versions of Stories.

If Spiegel knows what’s up, he’ll douse the Story Kit partnerships team with resources so they can sign up as many apps as possible before Facebook can copy this idea too. For now, Snap isn’t injecting ads into App Stories, but it could easily do so and split the cash with its host. This would attract partners, generate revenue, and give Snap’s advertisers more reach.

Houseparty embeds Snapchat Stories

Either way, Snap will score those benefits with its new Ad Kit. Later this year the Snapchat Audience Network will launch allowing partners to host Snap’s full-screen vertical video ads and earn an as-yet-undisclosed revenue share. They won’t have to build up an ad sales force or build an auction and delivery system, but just drop in an SDK to start displaying ads to both Snapchat users and non-users. The company’s message again is that it’s becoming easier to cooperate with Snapchat than copy it.

Snap’s new ad network

Giving its advertisers more reach and reusability for Snap’s somewhat proprietary ad unit format helps Snap address its core challenge: scale. Snap’s 186 million total users can look small in comparison to Instagram, Facebook, or YouTube, especially since that count sank in Q2 and Q3 before stabilzing in Q4 of last year. That makes it tougher for advertisers to justify the chore of spending on Snapchat. Ad Kit and potentially Story Kit give Snap more reach even without user growth.

Added size could tip the cards in Snap’s favor given it’s already popular with an extremely important demographic. Snapchat now reaches 75 percent of 13 to 34-year olds in the US, and 90 percent of 13 to 24-year olds there. It claims to now reach more of that younger age group than Facebook in the most lucrative countries: the US, Canada, UK, France, and Australia.

Facebook has massively neglected this segment. Case in point: Facebook Messenger’s Stickers feature that’s popular with kids has hardly improved since its launch in 2013, which I hear was a fight to get approved internally. Meanwhile, Snapchat keeps growing its lead on virtual identity with Bitmoji. Now Snap will let you put your personalized Bitmoji avatar on your FitBit smart watch face, use them to joke about Venmo purchases, and even represent yourself with one in Snap’s new multiplayer games platform.

Again, Snap wants partners to integrate the real thing rather than try to build some half-assed facsimile of Bitmoji. Surprisingly, Facebook’s Avatars have been mired in development for over a year and Apple’s Memoji can’t escape iMessage and FaceTime yet. That’s why Snapchat would be wise to double-down on trying to make Bitmoji the ubiquitous way to represent yourself without a photograph. Facebook’s lack of design cool and Bitmoji’s massive headstart with this differentiated product is a powerful way for Snap to wedge itself into partnerships.

Snap needs all the help it can get if the underdog is going to carve out a substantial and sustainable piece of social networking. Teaming up was the theme of the rest of the Snap Partner Summit. It’s built ways for Netflix, GoFundMe, VSCO, and Anchor to share stickers and for publishers like the Washington Post to share articles back to Snapchat. It’s got Zynga and ZeptoLab building real-time multiplayer Snap Games that live inside chat and are a clever way of slipping ads into messaging.

Snapchat’s new Scan augmented reality utility platform has signed up Giphy and Photomath as well as former partners Shazam and Amazon to let you squeeze extra interactivity out of your surroundings. And since the physical world is too vast for any one developer to fill with AR experiences, Snap beefed up its Lens Studio platform with new templates and creator profiles so developers add to its warchest of 400,000 special effects. Facebook may be able to clone Snap’s features, but not its developer army.

“If we can show the right Lens in the right moment, we can inspire a whole new world of creativity” says Snap co-founder Bobby Murphy . From partnerships to utilities to toys, all the new announcements drive attention back to Snapchat’s camera. That makes it ripe to become the augmented reality brower of the world.

It all feels like a coming of age moment for Snapchat, punctuated by the glitzy press event where media bigwigs gnoshed on Chinese steak buns and played with AR art installations in West Hollywood.

Spiegel has discovered a method of capitalizing on his penchant for inspiring mobile product design. With this strategy in place and Snap’s reengineered Android app and new languages rolling out now, I believe Snapchat will grow again, at least in terms of deeper engagement if not also total user count. Perhaps it will need a little bit more funding to get it over the hurdle, but I expect it will reach profitability before the end of 2020. 

During a pre-event press briefing with a dozen Snap executives including Spiegel and Murphy (that was on ‘background’ so we can’t quote or specify who said what), one Snap higher-up joked that Facebook has been copying it for seven years so it’s started to feel normal. Zuckerberg recently declared he wanted to reorient Facebook around privacy, ephemerality, and messaging — the core tenets of Snapchat. But a Snap leader used some colorful language to describe how they don’t care what Facebook says its philosophy is until it fixes the 2 billion-user product that keeps doing harm.

Subtly throwing shade from the stage, Spiegel concluded that “Our camera lets the natural light from our world penetrate the darkness of the Internet . . . as we use the Internet more and more in our daily lives, we need a way to make it a bit more human.” That apparently means making other apps a bit more Snapchat.