Twitter’s vision of decentralization could also be the far-right’s internet endgame

This week, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey finally responded publicly to the company’s decision to ban President Trump from its platform, writing that Twitter had “faced an extraordinary and untenable circumstance” and that he did not “feel pride” about the decision. In the same thread, he took time to call out a nascent Twitter-sponsored initiative called “bluesky,” which is aiming to build up an “open decentralized standard for social media” that Twitter is just one part of.

Researchers involved with bluesky reveal to TechCrunch an initiative still in its earliest stages that could fundamentally shift the power dynamics of the social web.

Bluesky is aiming to build a “durable” web standard that will ultimately ensure that platforms like Twitter have less centralized responsibility in deciding which users and communities have a voice on the internet. While this could protect speech from marginalized groups, it may also upend modern moderation techniques and efforts to prevent online radicalization.

Jack Dorsey, co-founder and chief executive officer of Twitter Inc., arrives after a break during a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2018. Republicans pressed Dorsey for what they said may be the “shadow-banning” of conservatives during the hearing. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

What is bluesky?

Just as Bitcoin lacks a central bank to control it, a decentralized social network protocol operates without central governance, meaning Twitter would only control its own app built on bluesky, not other applications on the protocol. The open and independent system would allow applications to see, search and interact with content across the entire standard. Twitter hopes that the project can go far beyond what the existing Twitter API offers, enabling developers to create applications with different interfaces or methods of algorithmic curation, potentially paying entities across the protocol like Twitter for plug-and-play access to different moderation tools or identity networks.

A widely adopted, decentralized protocol is an opportunity for social networks to “pass the buck” on moderation responsibilities to a broader network, one person involved with the early stages of bluesky suggests, allowing individual applications on the protocol to decide which accounts and networks its users are blocked from accessing.

Social platforms like Parler or Gab could theoretically rebuild their networks on bluesky, benefitting from its stability and the network effects of an open protocol. Researchers involved are also clear that such a system would also provide a meaningful measure against government censorship and protect the speech of marginalized groups across the globe.

Bluesky’s current scope is firmly in the research phase, people involved tell TechCrunch, with about 40-50 active members from different factions of the decentralized tech community surveying the software landscape and putting together proposals for what the protocol should ultimately look like. Twitter has told early members that it hopes to hire a project manager in the coming weeks to build out an independent team that will start crafting the protocol itself.

A Twitter spokesperson declined to comment on the initiative.

Bluesky’s initial members were invited by Twitter CTO Parag Agrawal early last year. It was later determined that the group should open the conversation up to folks representing some of the more recognizable decentralized network projects, including Mastodon and ActivityPub, which joined the working group hosted on the secure chat platform Element.

Jay Graber, founder of decentralized social platform Happening, was paid by Twitter to write up a technical review of the decentralized social ecosystem, an effort to “help Twitter evaluate the existing options in the space,” she tells TechCrunch.

“If [Twitter] wanted to design this thing, they could have just assigned a group of guys to do it, but there’s only one thing that this little tiny group of people could do better than Twitter, and that’s not be Twitter,” said Golda Velez, another member of the group who works as a senior software engineer at Postmates and co-founded civ.works, a privacy-centric social network for civic engagement.

The group has had some back and forth with Twitter executives on the scope of the project, eventually forming a Twitter-approved list of goals for the initiative. They define the challenges that the bluesky protocol should seek to address while also laying out what responsibilities are best left to the application creators building on the standard.

Parrot.VC Twitter account

Image: TechCrunch

Who is involved

The pain points enumerated in the document, viewed by TechCrunch, encapsulate some of Twitter’s biggest shortcomings. They include “how to keep controversy and outrage from hijacking virality mechanisms,” as well as a desire to develop “customizable mechanisms” for moderation, though the document notes that the applications, not the overall protocol, are “ultimately liable for compliance, censorship, takedowns etc.”

“I think the solution to the problem of algorithms isn’t getting rid of algorithms — because sorting posts chronologically is an algorithm — the solution is to make it an open pluggable system by which you can go in and try different algorithms and see which one suits you or use the one that your friends like,” says Evan Henshaw-Plath, another member of the working group. He was one of Twitter’s earliest employees and has been building out his own decentralized social platform called Planetary.

His platform is based on the secure scuttlebutt protocol, which allows users to browse networks offline in an encrypted fashion. Early on, Planetary had been in talks with Twitter for a corporate investment as well as a personal investment from CEO Jack Dorsey, Henshaw-Plath says, but the competitive nature of the platform prompted some concern among Twitter’s lawyers and Planetary ended up receiving an investment from Twitter co-founder Biz Stone’s venture fund Future Positive. Stone did not respond to interview requests.

After agreeing on goals, Twitter had initially hoped for the broader team to arrive at some shared consensus, but starkly different viewpoints within the group prompted Twitter to accept individual proposals from members. Some pushed Twitter to outright adopt or evolve an existing standard while others pushed for bluesky to pursue interoperability of standards early on and see what users naturally flock to.

One of the developers in the group hoping to bring bluesky onto their standard was Mastodon creator Eugen Rochko, who tells TechCrunch he sees the need for a major shift in how social media platforms operate globally.

“Banning Trump was the right decision though it came a little bit too late. But at the same time, the nuance of the situation is that maybe it shouldn’t be a single American company that decides these things,” Rochko tells us.

Like several of the other members in the group, Rochko has been skeptical at times about Twitter’s motivation with the bluesky protocol. Shortly after Dorsey’s initial announcement in 2019, Mastodon’s official Twitter account tweeted out a biting critique, writing, “This is not an announcement of reinventing the wheel. This is announcing the building of a protocol that Twitter gets to control, like Google controls Android.”

Today, Mastodon is arguably one of the most mature decentralized social platforms. Rochko claims that the network of decentralized nodes has more than 2.3 million users spread across thousands of servers. In early 2017, the platform had its viral moment on Twitter, prompting an influx of “hundreds of thousands” of new users alongside some inquisitive potential investors whom Rochko has rebuffed in favor of a donation-based model.

Image Credits: TechCrunch

Inherent risks

Not all of the attention Rochko has garnered has been welcome. In 2019, Gab, a social network favored by right-wing extremists, brought its entire platform onto the Mastodon network after integrating the platform’s open-source code, bringing Mastodon its single biggest web of users and its most undesirable liability all at once.

Rochko quickly disavowed the network and aimed to sever its ties to other nodes on the Mastodon platform and convince application creators to do the same. But a central fear of decentralization advocates was quickly realized, as the platform type’s first “success story” was a home for right-wing extremists.

This fear has been echoed in decentralized communities this week as app store owners and networks have taken another right-wing social network, Parler, off the web after violent content surfaced on the site in the lead-up to and aftermath of riots at the U.S. Capitol, leaving some developers fearful that the social network may set up home on their decentralized standard.

“Fascists are 100% going to use peer-to-peer technologies, they already are and they’re going to start using it more… If they get pushed off of mainstream infrastructure or people are surveilling them really closely, they’re going to have added motivation,” said Emmi Bevensee, a researcher studying extremist presences on decentralized networks. “Maybe the far-right gets stronger footholds on peer-to-peer before the people who think the far-right is bad do because they were effectively pushed off.”

A central concern is that commoditizing decentralized platforms through efforts like bluesky will provide a more accessible route for extremists kicked off current platforms to maintain an audience and provide casual internet users a less janky path towards radicalization.

“Peer-to-peer technology is generally not that seamless right now. Some of it is; you can buy Bitcoin in Cash App now, which, if anything, is proof that this technology is going to become much more mainstream and adoption is going to become much more seamless,” Bevensee told TechCrunch. “In the current era of this mass exodus from Parler, they’re obviously going to lose a huge amount of audience that isn’t dedicated enough to get on IPFS. Scuttlebutt is a really cool technology but it’s not as seamless as Twitter.”

Extremists adopting technologies that promote privacy and strong encryption is far from a new phenomenon, encrypted chat apps like Signal and Telegram have been at the center of such controversies in recent years. Bevensee notes the tendency of right-wing extremist networks to adopt decentralized network tech has been “extremely demoralizing” to those early developer communities — though she notes that the same technologies can and do benefit “marginalized people all around the world.”

Though people connected to bluesky’s early moves see a long road ahead for the protocol’s development and adoption, they also see an evolving landscape with Parler and President Trump’s recent deplatforming that they hope will drive other stakeholders to eventually commit to integrating with the standard.

“Right at this moment I think that there’s going to be a lot of incentive to adopt, and I don’t just mean by end users, I mean by platforms, because Twitter is not the only one having these really thorny moderation problems,” Velez says. “I think people understand that this is a critical moment.”

App stores saw record 218 billion downloads in 2020, consumer spend of $143 billion

Mobile adoption continued to grow in 2020, in part due to the market forces of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to App Annie’s annual “State of Mobile” industry report, mobile app downloads grew by 7% year-over-year to a record 218 billion in 2020. Meanwhile, consumer spending grew by 20% to also hit a new milestone of $143 billion, led by markets that included China, the United States, Japan, South Korea and the United Kingdom.

Consumers also spent 3.5 trillion minutes using apps on Android devices alone, the report found.

In another shift, app usage in the U.S. surged ahead of the time spent watching live TV. Currently, the average American watches 3.7 hours of live TV per day, but now spends four hours on their mobile device.

The increase in time spent is a trend that’s not unique to the U.S., but can be seen across several other countries, including both developing mobile markets like Indonesia, Brazil and India, as well as places like China, Japan, South Korea, the U.K., Germany, France and others.

The trend isn’t isolated to any one demographic, either, but is seen across age groups. In the U.S., for example, Gen Z, millennials and Gen X/Baby Boomers spent 16%, 18% and 30% more time in their most-used apps year-over-year, respectively. However, what those favorite apps looked like was very different.

For Gen Z in the U.S., top apps on Android phones included Snapchat, Twitch, TikTok, Roblox and Spotify.

Millennials favored Discord, LinkedIn, PayPal, Pandora and Amazon Music.

And Gen X/Baby Boomers used Ring, Nextdoor, The Weather Channel, Kindle and ColorNote Notepad Notes.

The pandemic didn’t necessarily change how consumers were using apps in 2020, but rather accelerated mobile adoption by two to three years’ time, the report found.

Investors were also eager to fuel mobile businesses as a result, pouring $73 billion in capital into mobile companies — a figure that’s up 27% year-over-year. According to Crunchbase data, 26% of total global funding dollars in 2020 went to businesses that included a mobile solution.

From 2016 to 2020, global funding to mobile technology companies more than doubled compared with the previous five years, and was led by financial services, transportation, commerce and shopping.

Mobile gaming adoption also continued to grow in 2020. Casual games dominated the market in terms of downloads (78%), but Core games accounted for 66% of games’ consumer spend and 55% of the time spent.

With many stuck inside due to COVID-19 lockdowns and quarantines, mobile games that offered social interaction boomed. Among Us, for example, became a breakout game in several markets in 2020, including the U.S.

Other app categories saw sizable increases over the past year, as well.

Time spent in Finance apps in 2020 was up 45% worldwide, outside of China, and participation in the stock market grew 55% on mobile, thanks to apps like Robinhood in the U.S. and others worldwide, that democratized investing and trading.

TikTok had a big year, too.

The app saw incredible 325% year-over-year growth, despite a ban in India, and ranked in the top five apps by time spent. The average monthly time spent per user also grew faster than nearly every other app analyzed, including 65% in the U.S. and 80% in the U.K., surpassing Facebook. TikTok is now on track to hit 1.2 billion active users in 2021, App Annie forecasts.

Other video services boomed in 2020, thanks to a combination of new market entrants and a lot of time spent at home. Consumers spent 40% more hours streaming on mobile devices, with time spent in streaming apps peaking in the second quarter in the west as the pandemic forced people inside.

YouTube benefitted from this trend, as it became the No. 1 streaming app by time spent among all markets analyzed except China. The time spent in YouTube is up to 6x that of the next closet app at 38 hours per month.

Of course, another big story for 2020 was the rise of e-commerce amid the pandemic. This made the past year the biggest ever for mobile shopping, with an over 30% increase in time spent in Shopping apps, as measured on Android phones outside of China.

Mobile commerce, however, looked less traditional in 2020.

Social shopping was a big trend, with global downloads of Pinterest and Instagram growing 50% and 20% year-over-year, respectively.

Livestreaming shopping grew, too, led by China. Downloads of live shopping TaoBao Live in China, Grip in South Korea and NTWRK in the U.S. grew 100%, 245% and 85%, respectively. NTWRK doubled in size last year, and now others are entering the space as well — including TikTok, to some extent.

The pandemic also prompted increased usage of mobile ordering apps. In the U.S., Argentina, the U.K., Indonesia and Russia, the app grew by 60%, 65%, 70%, 80% and 105%, respectively, in Q4.

Business apps, like Zoom and Google Meet among others, grew 275% in Q4, for example, as remote work and sometimes school, continued.

The analysis additionally included lists of the top apps by downloads, spending and monthly active users (MAUs).

Although TikTok had been topping year-end charts, Facebook continued to beat it in terms of MAUs. Facebook-owned apps controlled the top charts by MAUs, with Facebook at No. 1 followed by WhatsApp, Messenger and Instagram.

TikTok, however, had more downloads than Facebook and ranked No. 2 by consumer spending, behind Tinder.

The full report is available only as an online interactive experience this year, not a download. The report largely uses data from both the iOS App Store and Google Play, except where otherwise noted.

Healthvana’s digital COVID-19 vaccination records are about communication, not passports for the immune

As the vaccination campaign to counter COVID-19 gets underway (albeit with a rocky start), a number of companies are attempting to support its rollout in a variety of ways. Healthvana, a health tech startup that began with a specific focus on providing patient information digitally for individuals living with HIV, is helping Los Angeles County roll out mobile vaccination records for COVID-19 using Apple’s Wallet technology. A cursory appraisal of the implementation of this tech might lead one to believe it’s about providing individuals with easy proof of vaccination — but the tech, and Healthvana, are focused on informing individuals to ensure they participate in their own healthcare programs, not providing an immunity pass.

“I generally consider most of healthcare to look and feel like Windows 95,” Healthvana CEO and founder Ramin Bastani said. “We look and feel like Instagram . Why is that important? Because patients can engage in things they understand, it’s easier for them to communicate in the way they’re used to communicating, and that ends up leading them to better health outcomes.”

Bastani points out that they began the company by focusing this approach to patient education and communication on HIV, and demonstrated that using their software led to patients being 7.4 times more likely to show up for their next follow-up appointment versus patients who received follow-up information and appointment notices via traditional methods. The company has built their tooling and their approach around not only producing better health for individuals, but also on reducing costs for healthcare providers by eliminating the need for a lot of the work that goes into clearing up misunderstandings, and essentially hounding patients to follow-up, which can significantly dig into clinician and care staff hours.

“We’re actually also reducing the cost to healthcare providers, because you don’t have 1,000 people calling you asking what are their results, and saying ‘I don’t understand, I can’t log in, I don’t know what it means to be SARS nonreactive,’ or all those things we address through simplicity,” Bastani said. “That’s made a huge difference. Overall, I think the key to all healthcare is going to be to be able to get patients to pay attention, and take action to things around their health.”

That’s the goal of Healthvana’s partnership with LA County on COVID-19 immunization records, too — taking vitally important action to ensure the successful rollout of its vaccination program. All approved COVID-19 vaccines to date require a two-course treatment, including one initial inoculation followed by a booster to be administered sometime later. Keeping LA county residents informed about their COVID-19 inoculation, and when they’re due for a second dose, is the primary purpose of the partnership, and benefits from Healthvana’s experience in improving patient follow-up activities. But the app is also providing users with information about COVID-19 care, and, most usefully, prevention and ways to slow the spread.

While Bastani stresses that Healthvana is, in the end, just “the last mile” for message delivery, and that there are many other layers involved in determining the right steps for proper care and prevention, the way in which they provide actionable info has already proven a big boon to one key measure: contact tracing. In select municipalities, Healthvana will also prompt users who’ve tested positive to anonymously notify close contacts directly from their device, which will provide those individuals with both free testing options and information resources.

“Just us doing this in the greater Los Angeles area for less than two months, 12,000+ people have been notified that they’ve been exposed,” Bastani said. “Each of them likely lives with other people and families — this is how you can help slow the spread.”

Contrast that with the relatively slow uptake of the exposure notification tools built into iOS and Android devices via recent software updates provided by Google and Apple working in a rare collaboration. While the technology that underlies it is sound, and focused on user privacy, its usage numbers thus far are far from earthshaking; only 388 people have sent alerts through Virginia’s app-based on the exposure notification framework in three months since its launch, for instance.

Healthvana’s focus on timely and relevant delivery of information, offered to users in ways they’re mostly likely to understand and engage with, is already showing its ability to have an impact on COVID-19 and its community transmission. The startup is already in talks to launch similar programs elsewhere in the country, and that could help improve national vaccination outcomes, and how people handle COVID-19 once they have it, too.

This Week in Apps: Apple bans party app, China loses 39K iOS games, TikTok births a ‘Ratatousical’

Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the weekly TechCrunch series that recaps the latest in mobile OS news, mobile applications and the overall app economy.

The app industry is as hot as ever, with a record 204 billion total downloads and $120 billion in global consumer spend in 2019. Not including Chinese third-party app stores, iOS and Android users in 2020 downloaded 130 billion apps and spent a record $112 billion. In 2019, people spent three hours and 40 minutes per day using apps, rivaling TV.

Due to COVID-19, time spent in apps jumped 25% year-over-year on Android. Apps aren’t just a way to pass idle hours — they’re also a big business. In 2019, mobile-first companies had a combined $544 billion valuation, 6.5x higher than those without a mobile focus.

This week (after a week off for the holidays), we’re taking a look at holiday app store spending, how the Chinese gaming licensing rules have impacted the App Store, Apple’s move to ban a party app that could have helped spread COVID, and the collaborative musical created by TikTok users, among other things.

Top Stories

Christmas Day app spending grows 35% year-over-year

Global app spending didn’t seem to be impacted by the pandemic in 2020, according to data from Sensor Tower. The firm reports that consumers spent $407.6 million in apps from the iOS App Store and Google Play on Christmas Day, 34.5% from the $303 million spent in 2019. The majority of the spending was on mobile games, up 27% year-over-year to $295.6 million. Tencent’s Honor of Kings led the games category, while TikTok led non-game apps with $4.7 million in spending on Christmas Day.

Image Credits: Sensor Tower

As in prior years, Apple accounted for the majority of the spending, or 68.4% ($278.6M) vs Google Play’s $129M. The spending was led by the U.S., who accounted for ~$130 million of the total

Apple takes a stand on pandemic parties

Apple’s App Store Review guidelines don’t specifically detail how the company will handle apps that could contribute to the spread of COVID-19, but Apple found a way to draw the line when it came to a social app that encouraged unsafe gatherings. This past week, Apple banned the app Vybe Together, which had allowed people to locate “secret” indoor house parties in their area, sometimes including those held in violation of state guidelines.

NYT reporter Taylor Lorenz first called attention to the problem with a tweet. The app had been posting to TikTok to gain attention, but its account has since been removed. Following its removal, the company defended itself by saying that it was only meant for small get-togethers and the founder lamented being “canceled by the liberal media.”

There’s no good defense, really, for the unnecessary and ill-timed promotion of an app that encouraged people from different households to gather, which spreads COVID. And what the founder seemed to not understand, by nature of his recent tweets and statements on the app’s website, is that many cities and states also already prohibit small private gatherings of varying degrees, including those he believes are fine, like small parties in folks’ “own apartments with people in your area.”

The U.S. is coping with 346,000 COVID deaths, and in New York, where the app was promoting NYE parties, 74% of all COVID-19 cases from Sept.-Nov. 2020 have been linked to private gatherings.

The media may have reported on what the app was doing, but ultimately the decision to “cancel” it was Apple’s. And it was the correct one.

Apple removes 39K games from its China App Store.

Apple on Thursday, Dec. 31, 2020 removed 39,000+ games from China App Store. This was the biggest removal of games in a single day, Reuters reported, citing data from Qimai.

iOS games have long been required to obtain a Chinese gaming license in order to operate in the country, but Apple skirted this rule for years by hosting unlicensed titles even as Android app stores complied. Apple began to enforce the rule in 2020 and gave publishers a Dec. 31, 2020 deadline to obtain the license — a process that can be tedious and time-consuming.

Clearly, a large number of publishers were not able to meet the deadline. Included in the new sweep were Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed Identity and NBA 2K20. Qimai says only only 74 of the top 1,500 paid games remained following the removals. To date, Apple purged more than 46,000 titles from the China App Store, the report said.

TikTok births a “Ratatousical”

The TikTok musical version of Ratatouille has become a real thing. The pandemic forced a lot of creative types out of work in 2020, leading them to find new ways to express themselves online. On TikTok, this collective pent-up energy turned into a large-scale collaborative event: a musical version of Disney’s Ratatouille. (Or Ratatousical, as it was nicknamed.) TikTokers composed music, wrote lyrics and dialogue, choreographed dances, designed costumes, sets and more, as they worked together through the app.

Surprisingly, Disney is allowing a charity version of this collaboration to become a real event without any interference or lawsuits. The Ratatouille musical live-streamed on Jan. 1 at 7 p.m. Eastern, and will be available via video-on-demand through Jan. 4, for a minimum $5 donation to The Actors Fund.

The musical itself was lighthearted fun for a younger, Gen Z crowd. It also cleverly incorporated actual TikTok videos that featured the app’s well-known visual effects — like cloning yourself or the flashing colored lights typically associated with TikTok’s “you think you can hurt me” meme, for example. That made it more accessible and familiar to kids who had spent the past year being entertained via the internet.

TikTok users, of course, aren’t the only ones designing, creating and editing productions through remote and collaborative processes in 2020 — Hollywood itself has had to reorient itself for remote work at a much larger scale. TikTok was simply the platform of choice for theater kids looking for something to do.

It will be interesting to see if the TikTok-based collaborative process that birthed this musical ultimately becomes a one-off event that arose from the pandemic’s impacts — including the ability for many creative people to devote time and energy on side projects, for example, due to shuttered productions and stay-at-home orders. Or perhaps in-app collaborations have a real future? Time will tell.

TikTok has already proven it can drive the music charts, fashion trends, and app downloads, so it can probably generate an audience for this production, as well. But the cynic may wonder if such an event would have been as popular and buzzworthy had it been some entirely original production, rather than one based on already popular and beloved Disney IP.  But you may as well watch — it’s not like you have any other plans these days.

Weekly News

Platforms

Gaming

  • Samsung teams up with Epic Games on Apple battle over Fortnite. Samsung and Epic Games worked together on the “Free Fortnite” marketing campaign, which recently involving sending packages to influencers that contained a Free Fortnite bomber jacket and Samsung Galaxy Tab S7. Fortnite was the Samsung Galaxy Store game of the year in 2020, and the store also distributes the Epic Games app which distributes the Fortnite updates. This is an odd move as Epic alleges the app stores leverage their power to engage in monopolistic practices, but this makes it clear that Samsung is offering them distribution. Apple has the right to set its own pricing for its services (and it recently lowered commissions for small businesses, too). But even if Epic Games is not the knight in shining armor one would hope for, its lawsuit could help set precedent. And regulators may still decide one day that Apple can’t dictate rules about how businesses operate outside its app store — meaning, they should have the right to collect their own payments, for example.

Augmented Reality

Image Credits: The New York Times

  • The New York Times gets into AR gaming. The media company has experimented with augmented reality as a way to augment storytelling both in its app and through other efforts on social media. But it has now taken AR into the world of gaming with an AR-enabled crossword puzzle where you swipe to rotate broken pieces floating above the puzzle to find clues.

Social & Photos

Telegram photo by Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via Getty Images

  • Telegram begins to make money. The messaging app, now nearing 500 million users, will introduce an ad platform for its public one-to-many channels that is “user-friendly” and “respects privacy.” The company says it needs to generate revenue to cover the costs of server and traffic. Telegram earlier abandoned a blockchain token project due to regulatory issues.
  • Mr. Beast announces the second annual “Finger on the App” challenge on Feb. 19. The game doles out $100,000 to whoever can keep their finger on their smartphone the longest, via an app designed for this purpose. Last year, it was a four-way tie after 70 hours, and the prize money was divided. The new app introduces in-app challenges to dissuade cheating. YouTuber Mr. Beast rose to fame for his philanthropic-based viral videos and stunts. He has made sizable donations to people in need and those impacted by the pandemic. But this year, the otherwise silly game has a darker tone as it involves competitors who will likely be in more desperate situations.
  • Bumble uproar over indoor bikini and bra photos. The dating app found itself in the middle of a small controversy this week when a woman who wanted to pose in her bra had her photos taken down. The company said its existing policy prohibits things like shirtless bathroom mirror selfies and indoor photos of people wearing swimsuits and underwear. Bumble’s policies were crafted in response to user data and feedback, but may also help to prevent adult sites from spamming with fake profiles. However, there’s still something weird about an app that markets itself as female-friendly telling a woman to go put some clothes on.
  • ByteDance filings reveal TikTok U.K. business recorded a $119.5 million loss over 2019. The losses were driven by advertising and marketing expenses, indicating the app is still very much in a growth mode.
  • TikTok launches its first personalized annual recap feature. The company “year on TikTok” in-app experience joins other personalized wrap-ups like the Top Nine for Instagram or Spotify’s Wrapped. It also introduces a floating, tappable button to connect users to the experience. This could pave way for other sorts of mini-applications in the future.
  • Clubhouse power users invited to special club. A select group of creators inside the already invite-only audio conversations app have now been given exclusive access to tools and private meetings with Clubhouse leadership and influencers. In one meeting, the creators discussed monetization strategies. The app grew to popularity amid the pandemic as people have been prevented from typical forms of networking, but it’s also struggled with moderation as conversations go off the rails. Today, Clubhouse also hosts many adult topics, as well, which would give the app a 17+ rating if it were actually submitted to the App Store instead of being in a private beta.

Streaming

  • HBO Max’s mobile app set a single-day download record following the release of “Wonder Woman 1984.” During the release weekend (Fri.-Sun.) the app saw 554K downloads, including 244K downloads on Sunday alone, reported Apptopia. The firm estimates the app now has just under 12M mobile users.

Health & Fitness

Government & Policy

Security & Privacy

Funding and M&A

Image Credits: Tappity

Downloads

Yayzy

Image Credits: Yayzy

This U.K. startup’s new app will calculate the environmental impact of what you buy using payment data via Open Banking standards. You you can use this information to adjust your spending or buy offsets in-app in order to become carbon neutral. iOS only.

Waterscope

Image Credits: Iconfactory

The popular app maker Iconfactory released a new app, Waterscope, that is a weather app more specifically designed to provide users with information on water conditions. Creator Craig Hockenberry explains the app is something he largely built for himself, an ocean swimmer often in need of information about the tides, wave heights, water temperature, wind speed, air temperature, forecasts and more. The app could be useful to those who live around the water, whether they’re swimming, fishing, boating or anything else. iOS only.

Run Boggo Run

Image Credits: BuzzFeed

This endless runner is BuzzFeed’s first mobile game, which makes it worth noting if not exactly recommending. The mental health-themed game, inspired by BuzzFeed’s animated series The Land of Boggs, was created by BuzzFeed Animation Studios. In the game, characters try to avoid things like stress monsters and gremlins, which is a humorous take on the anxieties of 2020. However, early user reviews indicate the game’s controls are too difficult and complain the game is too hard to be fun. How stressful! $0.99 on iOS and Android.

Enso

A new meditation game Enso promises to help users relax, meditate or fall asleep faster using gameplay that involves soothing visuals and sounds, composed by A.I. The app consists of 5-minute journeys where users concentrate on a task while guiding their movements and breath to achieve their goals. iOS and Android.

Portal

Image Credits: Portal

Not Facebook’s Portal! This sleep and relaxation-focused app, also called Portal, has been updated with Apple’s new privacy measures in mind. The company announced in December it will not collect user data from its app, and will now no longer use any in-app analytics tracking. The app also never required a login or collected personal information, and didn’t include third-party ads and ad trackers.

That’s resulted in an App Store rare find:

How refreshing.

The Portal app is a free download and offers a $35 per year membership for those who want access to the full content library.

Yayzy app automatically calculates the environmental impact of your spending

Ahead of the turning of the New Year, many people are wishing they could do something about the environment. Now, a UK startup hopes to make our environmental impact more personal.

Yayzy has now launched an iOS app (but Android is coming) which literally links to your bank account to work out the environmental impact of what you buy. It uses payment data via Open Banking standards to automatically calculate the carbon footprint of each purchase a user makes, giving them a picture of their total monthly carbon emissions. This makes the carbon footprint calculated more accurate and bespoke to the individual, allowing them to immediately connect their spending to its impact on the planet.

Yayzy has secured £900,000 in backing from Antler Venture Capital, Seedrs (a crowdfunding round) and the CoreAngels Impact Fund. As the user sees what the carbon footprint is of their purchase, they can choose to offset it right then and there on the app via the carbon offsetter Ecosphere Plus. In the app, users can also find tips to reduce their carbon footprint, eco-friendly retailers near them or insights into lifestyle choices that have the highest environmental impact.

Their competitors are people like CoGo, a real-time Carbon Footprint tracker, and and Doconomy and the soon to launch Tred.

But Yayzy is taking a different approach. It brings together all of a user’s spending and shows them item by item as they spend, what the carbon footprint of that spend is. So far – it claims – its competitors don’t do that.

Yaysy app

This can be done ad hoc, item by item, or by signing up to a monthly subscription to either carbon offsetting projects or the user’s own unique climate portfolio. This portfolio would bundle multiple projects together for a more ‘holistic’ impact. Yayzy says all of these projects have been carefully selected based on strict criteria, and also advance the UN Sustainable development goals.

For its underlying carbon data, Yayzy is using Vital Metrics https://www.vitalmetricsgroup.com/
as used by Google, Microsoft and both the UK and US governments, among others.

Mankaran Ahluwalia, cofounder and CEO of Yayzy said in a statement: “While emissions have gradually risen as lockdown eases, YAYZY wants to put us all in the driver’s seat to control our own environmental impact… It is clear from a plethora of surveys that the majority of people want to address climate change before it is too late, but that a huge intention/action gap blocks much of it. Our solution with Yayzy is to make environmental impact ‘up close and personal’ and the action to tackle it super easy, all via your phone.”

Ahluwalia, was as a technology analyst with Infosys and built a lending platform for alternate credit. Cofounder Cristian Dan, CTO, previously built a discounts platform and cofounder Pedro Cabrero, CFO was in equity sales and trading for UBS and Citigroup, and co-founded the a leading online pharmacy in Mexico.

Google leads $145M investment in India’s Glance; backs DailyHunt in $100M round

Indian startup Glance, which serves news, media content, and games on the lock screen of over 100 million smartphones, has a new investor: Google.

The two-year-old Glance, which is part of advertising giant InMobi Group, said on Tuesday that it has raised $145 million in a new financing round from Google and existing investor Mithril Partners. The new round values Glance at over $1 billion, a person familiar with the matter said, making the startup a unicorn.

Glance uses AI to offer personalized experience to its users. The service replaces the otherwise empty lock screen with locally relevant news, stories, and casual games. Late last year, InMobi acquired Roposo, a Gurgaon-headquartered startup, that has enabled it to introduce short-form videos on the platform. Google is also investing in Roposo, a startup that Glance acquired last year. Roposo is a short video platform with over 33 million monthly active users. These users spend about 20 minutes consuming content across multiple genres in more than 10 languages on the app everyday. 

Glance ships pre-installed on several smartphone models. The subsidiary maintains tie-ups with nearly every top Android smartphone vendor including Xiaomi,  the top player in India, and Samsung. The service has amassed over 115 million daily active users.

“Glance is a great example of innovation solving for mobile-first and mobile-only consumption, serving content across many of India’s local languages,” said Caesar Sengupta, VP, Google, in a statement. “Still too many Indians have trouble finding content to read or services they can use confidently, in their own language. And this significantly limits the value of the internet for them, particularly at a time like this when the internet is the lifeline of so many people. This investment underlines our strong belief in working with India’s innovative startups and work towards the shared goal of building a truly inclusive digital economy that will benefit everyone.” 

Naveen Tewari, founder and chief executive of Glance and InMobi Group, said the investment will pave the way for “deeper partnership between Google and Glance across product development, infrastructure, and global market expansion.” The startup plans to deploy the fresh capital to expand in the U.S.

Investment in DailyHunt

Google said on Tuesday that it is also investing in VerSe Innovation, the parent firm of Indian startup DailyHunt. Across its apps including DailyHunt and short-video platform Josh, DailyHunt claims to serve over 300 million users news and entertainment content in 14 Indian languages. The startup said it has completed a round of over $100 million from Google, Microsoft, and AlphaWave among other investors and this new round values it at over $1 billion, making it a unicorn.

DailyHunt — which is co-run by Umang Bedi, former Facebook India head — plans to deploy the fresh capital to scale Josh app, the augmentation of local language content offerings, the development of content creator ecosystem, innovation in AI and ML and the growth of its truly “made-in-Bharat-for-Bharat short-video platform,” it said.

Josh and Roposo are among over a dozen apps in India that are attempting to fill the void New Delhi created after banning TikTok in late June in the country.

Google is writing both these checks from India Digitization Fund that it unveiled this year. Google has committed to invest $10 billion in India over the course of next few years. Prior to today, the company invested $4.5 billion from this fund in Indian telecom giant Jio Platforms.

More to follow…

ClickUp hits $1 billion valuation in $100M Series B raise

Just six month after raising its first bit of outside funding, ClickUp has closed $100 million in new funding and has reached a $1 billion valuation, a report in Bloomberg first reported.

The company has seen plenty of growth in the past several months to justify that new unicorn status, including doubling the amount of users to 2 million. In a press release the company also detailed it had grown revenue nine times over since the beginning of the year.

This latest $100 million round was led by Canadian firm Georgian with participation from Craft Ventures which led the startup’s $35 million Series A back in June. The high valuation showcases just how eager investors are to find winners in the productivity software space which has seen massive customer gains as an industry this year, partially as a result of shifting corporate attitudes towards working from home.

ClickUp is aiming to further capitalize as it scales its team and product. The company of 200 has doubled in size since its last raise and is hoping to double again in the next several months, CEO Zeb Evans tells TechCrunch.

ClickUp sells productivity software but their main sell has been tying several products in that space into a single platform, aiming to reduce the number of tools their customers use. The team has recently begun integrating tools like email into their platform so that users can complete workflows inside the product.

“It’s not just like a value play of of using one app instead of three or four, it’s an efficiency play by saving so much time and frustration from having all the other different solutions,” Evans tells TechCrunch.

Even as the company continues scaling the product through weekly updates to the company’s apps including a newly revamped iOS app which launched today (Android launches tomorrow), the team is looking towards how they can build for the long-term.

As to how long this cash will last them, Evans isn’t making any promises. “I think this will keep us going for a while, though to be honest with you I would’ve said the same thing with the Series A,” Evans says.

Snap launches a native Twitter integration

Twitter is partnering with Snap to bring tweets into Snapchat with a native integration that both companies hope will push users away from screenshots and towards more interactive embeds.

Twitter users who are also logged into the Snapchat app on their phone will be able to access the functionality by tapping share on a particular tweet and navigating to the Snapchat icon where they’ll be able to share and react or comment on a Twitter post and send it to a friend or share on their story. The functionality will notably only work for tweets from public accounts, not protected ones.

The feature is rolling out on iOS for now, with Android integration “coming soon.”

Given how much content across Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook and Reddit originates from Twitter, it’s surprising that this functionality is arriving so deep into Twitter’s life as a company. They’ve long had a web embed integration which has allowed reporters to embed tweets into stories, but when it came to sharing on social media, Twitter’s strategy has deferred to the un-trackable and un-monetizable screenshot.

This has been low-hanging product rollout for Twitter which will likely be able to coax some non-Twitter users to enjoy content straight from the source, something the company has been vaguely alluding to in marketing campaigns over the years but is just now approaching with a direct integration into another company’s platform.

With Twitter now starting to roll out its Stories product Fleets to users, the company likely feels as though they have more feature familiarity to bring new users onboard from Snap who might not have experimented with the platform previously.

The truth is there aren’t a ton of integrations across social media channels, screen recordings and screen shots tell one platform’s story in an imperfect way on another’s. This integration comes as a result of updates made to Snap’s Snap Kit API and a particular feature called Creative Kit. Snap says that Spotify, Reddit, SoundCloud, Sendit, YOLO and GOAT have also created integrations that allow content from those apps to be shared across Snapchat.

Twitter didn’t rule out the expansion of this feature to other platforms in the future.

“This agreement with Snap was focused on this feature,” a Twitter spokesperson told TechCrunch. “We would love to partner with other platforms to enable people to share Tweets more widely. We hope this will be the first of many integrations of its kind.”

California’s CA Notify app to offer statewide exposure notification using Apple and Google’s framework

The state of California has now expanded access of its CA Notify app to all in the state, after originally deploying the app in a pilot program at UC Berkeley in November, which later expanded to other UC campuses. The statewide launch of the app, announced by California Governor Gavin Newsom on Monday, means that the tool based on Apple and Google’s exposure notification API will be available for download and opt-in use to anyone with a compatible iPhone or Android device as of this Thursday, December 10.

Apple and Google’s jointly-developed exposure notification API uses Bluetooth to determine contact between confirmed COVID-positive individuals and others, alerting users to potential exposure without storing or transmitting any data related to their identity or location. The system uses a randomized, rolling identifier to communicate possible exposure to other devices, and individual state health authorities can customize specific details like how close, and for how long individuals need to be in contact in order to quality as an exposure risk.

In the case of California, the state has set contact with a confirmed COVID-19 positive individual of within 6 feet, for a period of 15 minutes or more as meriting an exposure notification. Users who receive a positive COVID-19 test will get a text message from the Department of Public Health for the state that contains a code they input in the CA Notify app in order to trigger an alert broadcast to any phones that met the criteria above during the prior 14 days (the period during which the virus is transmissible).

As mentioned, there’s no personal information transmitted from a user’s device via the notification system, and it’s a fully opt-in arrangement. Other states have already deployed exposure notification apps based on the Apple/Google API, as have many other countries around the world. It’s not a replacement for a contact tracing system, in which healthcare professionals attempt to determine who a COVID-19 patient came in contact with to find out how they might have contracted the virus, and to whom they may spread it, but it is a valuable component of a comprehensive tracing program that can improve its efficacy and success.

Google now lets anyone contribute to Street View using AR and an app

An update to Google’s Street View app on Android will now let anyone contribute their photos to help enhance Google Maps, the company announced this morning. Using a “connected photos” tool in the new version of the Street View app, users are able to record a series of images as they move down the street or a path. The feature requires an ARCore-compatible Android device, and for the time being, will only support image capture and upload in select geographic regions.

ARCore is Google’s platform for building augmented reality experiences. It works by allowing the phone to sense its environment, including the size and location of all types of surfaces, the position of the phone in relation to the world around it, and the lighting conditions of the environment. This is supported on a variety of Android devices running Android 7.0 (Nougat) or higher.

Meanwhile, Google’s Street View app has been around for half a decade. Initially, it was designed to allow users to share their own panoramic photos to improve the Google Maps experience. But as phones have evolved, so has the app.

The updated version of the Street View app allows users to capture images using ARCore — the same AR technology Google users for its own Live View orientation experiences in Maps, which helps phones “see” various landmarks to help users get their bearings.

After the images are published in the Street View app, Google will then automatically rotate, position and create a series of connected photos using those images, and put them in the correct place on Google Maps so others can see them.

It will also use the same privacy controls on these contributed photos as are offered on its own Street View images (the ones it captured by driving the Street View car around). This include blurring people’s faces and license plates, and allowing users to report imagery and other content for review, if needed.

Image Credits: Google

The new system of connected photos won’t be as polished as Google’s own Street View images, but it does make the ability to publish to Street View more accessible. Now, the image capturing process no longer requires a 360-degree camera or other equipment mounted to a top of car, for example. And that means users who live in more remote regions will be able to contribute to Street View, without needing anything more than a supported Android phone and internet connection.

Google says it will still default to showing its own Street View imagery when it’s available, which will be indicated with a solid blue line. But in the case where there’s no Street View option, the contributed connected photos will appear in the Street View layer as a dotted blue line instead.

Image Credits: Google

The company will also use the data in the photos to update Google Maps with the names and addresses of businesses that aren’t already in the system, including their posted hours, if that’s visible on a store sign, for instance.

During early tests, users captured photo using this technology in Nigeria, Japan and Brazil.

Today, Google says it’s officially launching the connected photos feature in beta in the Street View app. During this public beta period, users will be able to try the feature in Toronto, Canada, New York, NY and Austin, TX, along with Nigeria, Indonesia and Costa Rica. More regions will be supported in the future as the test progresses, Google says.