The ethics of internet culture: a conversation with Taylor Lorenz

Taylor Lorenz was in high demand this week. As a prolific journalist at The Atlantic and about-to-be member of Harvard’s prestigious Nieman Fellowship for journalism, that’s perhaps not surprising. Nor was this the first time she’s had a bit of a moment: Lorenz has already served as an in-house expert on social media and the internet for several major companies, while having written and edited for publications as diverse as The Daily Beast, The Hill, People, The Daily Mail, and Business Insider, all while remaining hip and in touch enough to currently serve as a kind of youth zeitgeist translator, on her beat as a technology writer for The Atlantic.

Lorenz is in fact publicly busy enough that she’s one of only two people I personally know to have openly ‘quit email,’ the other being my friend Russ, an 82 year-old retired engineer and MIT alum who literally spends all day, most days, working on a plan to reinvent the bicycle.

I wonder if any of Lorenz’s previous professional experiences, however, could have matched the weight of the events she encountered these past several days, when the nightmarish massacre in Christchurch, New Zealand brought together two of her greatest areas of expertise: political extremism (which she covered for The Hill), and internet culture. As her first Atlantic piece after the shootings said, the Christchurch killer’s manifesto was “designed to troll.” Indeed, his entire heinous act was a calculated effort to manipulate our current norms of Internet communication and connection, for fanatical ends.

Taylor Lorenz

Lorenz responded with characteristic insight, focusing on the ways in which the stylized insider subcultures the Internet supports can be used to confuse, distract, and mobilize millions of people for good and for truly evil ends:

Before people can even begin to grasp the nuances of today’s internet, they can be radicalized by it. Platforms such as YouTube and Facebook can send users barreling into fringe communities where extremist views are normalized and advanced. Because these communities have so successfully adopted irony as a cloaking device for promoting extremism, outsiders are left confused as to what is a real threat and what’s just trolling. The darker corners of the internet are so fragmented that even when they spawn a mass shooting, as in New Zealand, the shooter’s words can be nearly impossible to parse, even for those who are Extremely Online.”

Such insights are among the many reasons I was so grateful to be able to speak with Taylor Lorenz for this week’s installment of my TechCrunch series interrogating the ethics of technology.

As I’ve written in my previous interviews with author and inequality critic Anand Giridharadas, and with award-winning Google exec turned award-winning tech critic James Williams, I come to tech ethics from 25 years of studying religion. My personal approach to religion, however, has essentially always been that it plays a central role in human civilization not only or even primarily because of its theistic beliefs and “faith,” but because of its culture — its traditions, literature, rituals, history, and the content of its communities.

And because I don’t mind comparing technology to religion (not saying they are one and the same, but that there is something to be learned from the comparison), I’d argue that if we really want to understand the ethics of the technologies we are creating, particularly the Internet, we need to explore, as Taylor and I did in our conversation below, “the ethics of internet culture.”

What resulted was, like Lorenz’s work in general, at times whimsical, at times cool enough to fly right over my head, but at all times fascinating and important.

Editor’s Note: we ungated the first of 11 sections of this interview. Reading time: 22 minutes / 5,500 words.

Joking with the Pope

Greg Epstein: Taylor, thanks so much for speaking with me. As you know, I’m writing for TechCrunch about religion, ethics, and technology, and I recently discovered your work when you brought all those together in an unusual way. You subtweeted the Pope, and it went viral.

Taylor Lorenz: I know. [People] were freaking out.

Greg: What was that experience like?

Taylor: The Pope tweeted some insane tweet about how Mary, Jesus’ mother, was the first influencer. He tweeted it out, and everyone was spamming that tweet to me because I write so much about influencers, and I was just laughing. There’s a meme on Instagram about Jesus being the first influencer and how he killed himself or faked his death for more followers.

Because it’s fluid, it’s a lifeline for so many kids. It’s where their social network lives. It’s where identity expression occurs.

I just tweeted it out. I think a lot of people didn’t know the joke, the meme, and I think they just thought that it was new & funny. Also [some people] were saying, “how can you joke about Jesus wanting more followers?” I’m like, the Pope literally compared Mary to a social media influencer, so calm down. My whole family is Irish Catholic.

A bunch of people were sharing my tweet. I was like, oh, god. I’m not trying to lead into some religious controversy, but I did think whether my Irish Catholic mother would laugh. She has a really good sense of humor. I thought, I think she would laugh at this joke. I think it’s fine.

Greg: I loved it because it was a real Rorschach test for me. Sitting there looking at that tweet, I was one of the people who didn’t know that particular meme. I’d like to think I love my memes but …

Taylor: I can’t claim credit.

Greg: No, no, but anyway most of the memes I know are the ones my students happen to tell me about. The point is I’ve spent 15 plus years being a professional atheist. I’ve had my share of religious debates, but I also have had all these debates with others I’ll call Professional Strident Atheists.. who are more aggressive in their anti-religion than I am. And I’m thinking, “Okay, this is clearly a tweet that Richard Dawkins would love. Do I love it? I don’t know. Wait, I think I do!”

Taylor: I treated it with the greatest respect for all faiths. I thought it was funny to drag the Pope on Twitter .

The influence of Instagram

Alexander Spatari via Getty Images

What to expect from Apple’s ‘Show Time’ event

The biggest surprise about next week’s Apple event may be the fact that the company has anything left to announce. This week, several core pieces of Apple hardware received upgrades, including the iPad Air and mini, iMac and AirPods. Given the company’s rush to get all of that out the door, we don’t expect to see much in the way of new devices at Monday’s event.

Apple sent invites announcing that March 25 will be “Show Time.” The wording was a subtle nod to the “It’s Showtime” invites the company sent for its 2006 Special Event, which saw the announcement of, among other things iTV — an early peek at the product that would launch as Apple TV the following year.

This time out, however, the company is all about the services. Taking center stage will be its long-awaited original content play. Apple couldn’t keep the news fully under wraps as it pumped around $1 billion into content, so we’ve been hearing dribs and drabs over the past year or so (more on that below), including hiring everyone from Oprah to Spielberg.

The service is set to compete with the biggest names in streaming, including Amazon, Netflix and Hulu, along with long-rumored newcomers like Disney. Among the more compelling reports we’ve seen surface so far involve the company helping to sell you other streaming services.

In a sense, it wouldn’t be entirely unlike the current Apple TV model. Reports have the company building a new content store focused on offering bundles with cable services like HBO, Showtime and Starz. Put more simply, Apple may be looking to disrupt cable TV by essentially becoming a cable TV provider. Its tremendous hardware outreach will play a major role in helping it gain a toehold — like Apple Music before it.

As for the original content, it’s not clear whether Apple plans to monetize these shows at all. Instead, reports suggest that it could make them available for free to viewers with an Apple device.

Here are all of the projects that have been revealed so far. Keep in mind that they’re in various stages of development, and, as such, may change dramatically or never see the light of day.

  • “Amazing Stories” — a reboot of the science fiction anthology series executive produced (in both its old and new versions) by Steven Spielberg.
  • “Are You Sleeping?” — a crime show about true crime podcasts, executive produced by Reese Witherspoon and starring Octavia Spencer.
  • “Calls” — an adaptation of a French short-form series emphasizing audio storytelling.
  • “Central Park” — an animated musical comedy from Loren Bouchard (creator of “Bob’s Burger”), as well as Josh Gad and Nora Smith.
  • “Defending Jacob” — a thriller adapted from William Landay’s novel, starring Chris Evans.
  • “Dickinson” — a coming-of-age series about the poet Emily Dickinson, starring Hailee Steinfeld.
  • “For All Mankind” — a space race-themed science fiction series from Ronald D. Moore, who created the acclaimed reboot of “Battlestar Galactica.”
  • “Foundation” — an adaptation of the classic science fiction series by Isaac Asimov, with David S. Goyer and Josh Friedman as showrunners.
  • “Home” — a documentary series about extraordinary homes.
  • “Little America” — an immigrant-themed anthology series showrun by Lee Eisenberg (“The Office”) and Alan Yang (“Master of None”).
  • “Little Voice” — a romantic dramedy executive produced by J.J. Abrams and the creative team behind the “Waitress” musical, Sara Bareilles and Jessie Nelson.
  • “Losing Earth” — a series based on Nathaniel Rich’s New York Times magazine story and book about the history of climate activism.
  • “Magic Hour” — a mystery series inspired by the real-life story of Hilde Lysiak, executive produced and directed by Jon M. Chu (“Crazy Rich Asians”).
  • “My Glory Was I Had Such Friends” — a series that reunites J.J. Abrams and Jennifer Garner (Garner will star, and both will executive produce), based on the Amy Silverstein memoir of the same name.
  • “Pachinko” — a series based on the Min Jin Lee novel, a multi-generational saga about a Korean family.
  • “See” — a science fiction drama written by Steven Knight (“Peaky Blinders”) and directed by Francis Lawrence (multiple “Hunger Games” sequels).
  • “Shantaram” — A series based on the novel by Gregory David Robert, about a man who escapes from an Australian prison and ends up in Bombay.
  • “Swagger” — a scripted series inspired by basketball star Kevin Durant’s life.
  • “The Morning Show” — a drama about the world of morning TV, starring Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon and Steve Carell.
  • “Time Bandits” — a reboot of the cult classic Terry Gilliam film, co-written and directed by Taika Waititi.
  • Untitled Brie Larson series — a show featuring the “Captain Marvel” star, based on the real-life experiences of undercover CIA operative Amaryllis Fox.
  • Untitled Colleen McGuinness series — a comedy series inspired by Curtis Sittenfeld’s short story collection “You Think It, I’ll Say It.”
  • Untitled Damien Chazelle series — not much is known about the content of the series, but the “La La Land” director is expected to write and direct every episode of the first season.
  • Untitled M. Night Shyamalan series — a thriller written by Tony Basgallop, with Shyamalan directing the first episode and executive producing.
  • Untitled Oprah projects — Oprah Winfrey has signed a multi-year partnership to produce original content for Apple, though what kinds of content remains to be seen.
  • Untitled Snoopy series — a short-form series starring Snoopy and focused on STEM, which is part of a larger “Peanuts” deal between Apple and Canadian broadcaster DHX Media.
  • Untitled Richard Gere series — a drama based on the Israeli show “Nevelot.”
  • Untitled Rob McElhenny/Charlie Day series — a comedy from the team behind “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” with McElhenny playing an employee at a video game studio.
  • Untitled Simon Kinberg/David Weil series — a science fiction series co-written by Kinberg, a longtime writer and producer of “X-Men” movies.

That will no doubt monopolize the majority of the event, but Apple could well have some surprises up its sleeve. The leading contender for a second announcement is the company’s long-rumored subscription news service. As with its movie/TV plans, Apple’s reportedly been talking to a number of different publishers to launch what some are referring to as a “Netflix for News,” which would expand on its acquisition of digital magazine app Texture.

Reports have noted, however, that many outlets are less than thrilled about revenue share that would come with the service’s paid tier. Still, some big publishers, including The Wall Street Journal, are said to already be on-board for launch.

A third major rumor finds the company launching a consumer credit card through a partnership with Goldman Sachs. The investment giant’s CEO is reportedly planning to attend the event in order to launch a co-branded card.

Everything kicks off at 10am Pacific on Monday, March 25. TechCrunch will be on-hand to bring you the news as it breaks.

Crunchyroll raises its monthly subscription price to $7.99

Crunchyroll is announcing its first major price increase since the anime streaming service launched in 2006.

Prices for its premium subscription will go up in the United States, Great Britain, Australia and the Nordics — in the U.S. and Australia, the monthly price will increase from $6.95 to $7.99 (or $79.99 per year), while British subscribers will see their bill go up from £4.99 to £6.50 (or £64.99 per year).

You don’t need to pay to watch Crunchyroll content, but a subscription gives you access to an ad-free experience, simulcasts shortly after a program airs in Japan and full access to the Crunchyroll library.

The company says it has 12 million active monthly users and 2 million paying subscribers.

As for why it’s raising prices after so many years, a spokesperson suggested this is a natural part of Crunchyroll’s evolution, as it has transformed from a site that depended on fans for (often-pirated) content to one that works with all the major Japanese licensors, and claims to hold more than 90 percent of the world’s anime content in its library.

“Crunchyroll has the world’s largest collection of anime and we are grateful to have focused on building out such a robust library for over the last decade, without a significant price change in our company history,” the spokesperson said. “However, due to rising costs of content and infrastructure, now is the time to introduce new subscription pricing. This price increase will help us bring our community more of their favorite shows, allowing us to create even more experiences for them to connect with each other and through shared passion for anime.”

Current monthly subscribers will be able to continue paying their current price for another three months, while annual subscribers will be “grandfathered” at their current price for another year.

This comes amidst broader corporate changes. Following AT&T’s acquisition of the company now called WarnerMedia, it also took full ownership of Otter Media. And WarnerMedia has clearly been rethinking the strategy behind its individual streaming sites as it plans to launch a more comprehensive service later this year.

Updated with a revised quote from Crunchyroll

Asia’s AnyMind pulls in another $8M and expands into outdoor advertising

Asia-focused marketing startup AnyMind Group has landed a further $8 million in funding to close out its Series B round and expand into new verticals.

The company announced a $13.4 million raise back in November, but that has now expanded to $21.4 million thanks to an additional injection from VGI Global Media, a Thailand-based firm that specializes in outdoor media, and Tokyo Century, a financial services firm that has invested in Grab among others. Japanese messaging app Line and Mirai Creation Fund, which is backed by Toyota, are among the original investors in the round, which valued the company at $200 million — though it isn’t clear if that number has increased with this new tranche of investment. The company has now raised close to $36 million to date.

AnyMind, which was formerly known as AdAsia, started out with a focus on internet advertising but it has since expanded to offer HR and marketing services. There are also further vertical expansions following this capital. AnyMind is moving into outdoor advertising in Thailand — through a joint venture with VGI focused on covering commuter routes and public transport — while, also in Thailand, it has acquired YouTube media company Moindy. Both of these moves are likely to come with regional expansions further down the line, according to AnyMind, which has a sizeable office in Thai capital city Bangkok.

Finally, AnyMind is also launching another new service: CastingAsia Creators Network, which is a network of social media influencers to complement its marketing and advertising media units.

Here’s more background on the company from our earlier report on the earlier Series B announcement:

AnyMind was founded in April 2016 by Japanese duo CEO Kosuke Sogo, the former managing director of Japan’s MicroAd in APAC, and COO Otohiko Kozutsumi, who had been with MicroAd Vietnam — and both men are ambitious with their plans to grow.

Indeed, despite being less than three years old, AnyMind says it has been profitable since early 2017. It said total revenue for 2017 was $26 million, up from $12.9 million one year previous. In an interview with TechCrunch, Sogo said he expects revenue for this year to be more than double that of 2017. He added that Southeast Asia, where the firm first set its focus, accounts for the lion’s share of revenue, with its one-year Japan operation pulling the remaining 30 percent.

Today, the company has 12 offices — including a product development center in Vietnam — and its services are present in 11 markets across Asia. It has some 330 staff, up from 90 just 18 months ago, and serves more than 1,000 clients across its three businesses.

MoviePass parent’s CEO says its rebooted subscription service is already profitable

Two days after MoviePass announced the return of the company’s unlimited ticket plan, Ted Farnsworth, CEO of its parent company Helios and Matheson Analytics, sat down with TechCrunch to offer insight into the state of the beleaguered service.

According to the executive, MoviePass Uncapped is already seeing positive results. While he didn’t share concrete numbers, he says that subscribers have increased “well over 800 percent in the last few days. And that’s conservative.”

Asked what it would take to make the company’s subscription business profitable, Farnsworth says, “Well, it’s profitable right now.” As for when it turned the corner, he added, “I will tell you this, because it’s out there: MoviePass has actually paid Helios back money over the past several months, towards the loans that they have. So, that gives you an idea of when we really started focusing on getting rid of the 20 percent of the abusers.”

The plan marks a return to the initial unlimited model that helped turn MoviePass into a household name in the past year. But that success arrived with a massive price, as the service began hemorrhaging money. MoviePass withdrew the unlimited plan and began reworking its plans on what seemed to be a weekly basis.

In July, at the height of what was supposed to be the Summer of MoviePass, the service experienced an outage as it struggled to pay bills. Helios secured a $5 million loan from creditors Hudson Bay Capital Management in order to turn the lights back on.

Ted Farnsworth

WEST HOLLYWOOD, CA – FEBRUARY 24: Ted Farnsworth attends the 27th annual Elton John AIDS Foundation Academy Awards Viewing Party sponsored by IMDb and Neuro Drinks celebrating EJAF and the 91st Academy Awards on February 24, 2019 in West Hollywood, California. (Photo by Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for EJAF)

“I think the big SNAFU there was the credit card company,” the executive explains. “When one company sold to the other, we had been doing business with them for four years. They decided it was too much credit for them and literally call the credit line on a Friday night and I do a personal guarantee on a Saturday.”

However things might have gone down on the back end, the optics of such a situation were clearly less than ideal. MoviePass’ struggles were very public from the beginning, as part of a publicly traded company. A literal shut down for the service appeared to be just the latest sign that the too good to be true service was exactly that.

And while Farnsworth admits that the company would have benefited from a bit more privacy, he claims that he never had any doubts about MoviePass’ future, even as he negotiated with creditors for a fresh cash injection.

“There were no moments in my mind where I thought it would go down. In my mind, I thought it was too big to fail,” he says. “You created a household name in less than a year. I think any time you have something like that, where you’re going to run into issues from sheer growth. Our investors did well investing along the way. The investors believed in us and they still do. We knew we had to slow it down to get in front of the fraud side because there were so many moving parts. It was moving so fast.”

It’s that “fraud” that was at the center of MoviePass’ woes, says Farnsworth. MoviePass’ initial downfall, he believes, was the product of too many users “gaming the system.” He believes the total number of users that fall into that category to have been around 20 percent of the overall subscriber base.

It was a minority, certainly, but still a sizable figure, given that, by June of last year, that total figure had exceeded three million. By that point, the service also comprised around five percent of U.S. box office receipts. Much of the past year has been spent attempting to plug holes in the subscription service as the MoviePass boat began rapidly taking on water.

To be clear, “gaming the system” doesn’t just mean watching a lot of movies — Farnsworth says he’s happy to have “hardcore” users, even if they’re buying way more than $9.95 or $14.95 worth of tickets. Instead, his concern is users who are doing things like sharing their subscription or just using a MoviePass ticket to use the theater’s restroom — something surprisingly common in places like Times Square, where public bathrooms are hard to come by.

One of the primary fixes, Farnsworth says, is utilizing mobile tracking to ensure that subscribers are, in fact, using the service as intended, and looking for “red flags” like constantly changing the device using the app. Users are already required to enable location-based tracking in order to enable ticket purchase. This will utilize that to ping the ticket purchaser’s location, in order to make sure that they’re actually attending the movies for which they’ve purchased tickets.

HMNY moviepass parent chart

“For instance, another issue is where people would go to the theater, they’ll pick up the ticket, they’ll hand their ticket to the kid or their child or their friend or whatever it is … and the person that’s paying the subscription goes back home or whatever they do,” he says. The new strategy: “When the movie starts, 30 minutes later [we’re] able to ping them inside the theater, just to make sure they still are at that theater.”

Looking ahead, Farnsworth says that the days of constantly changing pricing and restrictions are over, and that the company is committed to the unlimited plan. In fact, in his telling, the goal was always to get back to the unlimited plan — it was just that MoviePass had to figure out how to cut down on fraud to make the plan work.

At the same time, he says MoviePass’ film studio will also be an important part of the business. It has been overshadowed by the headlines about the company’s subscription struggles, but MoviePass Films has titles starring Bruce Willis, Al Pacino and Sylvester Stallone scheduled for this year.

MoviePass also invested in “Gotti,” and although the film was reviled by critics and only grossed $4.3 million at the box office, Farnsworth doesn’t see it as a failure.

“We never looked at Gotti as a money-maker” he says. “They only projected that it would do a $1.3 million in the box office here. Because then, when we pushed it with MoviePass, we took that up to five million. So, I mean, when you can take a movie — I gotta be careful here, but when you take a movie that might not be that great or perfect, and you can move that needle, [that] was always our theory of subscription.”

Check back later for our full interview with Farnsworth. 

Veteran tech journalist Dan Frommer launches his own subscription publication, The New Consumer

Dan Frommer has worked at some of the best-known publications in tech and business journalism — he was editor in chief of Recode, an editor at Business Insider and he’s even done some writing and chart-making for TechCrunch. But he’s also started his own things, including the tech news site SplatF and the mobile travel guide startup City Notes.

Now, five months after leaving Recode, Frommer is launching a new publication, The New Consumer — an umbrella term he’s using to describe the changing landscape in e-commerce, online advertising and direct-to-consumer brands.

The goal, he said, is to become the first thing that industry executives read in the morning, whether they’re CMOs at Fortune 500 companies, or the founders of direct-to-consumer startups or “anyone who’s in the professional world [trying to figure out] what’s next, how are people using technology differently, how is technology influencing how people spend money differently.”

These are all topics covered by the major tech news sites and general interest publications, but Frommer said he will focus less on “covering the day-to-day moves at tech companies” and more on “the messy lines between the announcements,” and on what is and isn’t working.

“That thing that this company announced a few weeks ago, is it actually working?” he said. “Are people actually using it, is it successful or not and why? What are we learning from it?”

Dan Frommer

Dan Frommer

The core product at The New Consumer will be the Executive Briefing, a newsletter that Frommer plans to put out twice a week, and that you’ll need to pay a $200 annual subscription fee to read. He said that this month will be a “paid beta,” where you’ll need to subscribe to read the newsletters, but you’ll get 13 months of access for your money, rather than 12.

Frommer also plans to publish non-paywalled feature articles (like this piece about cookware startup Great Jones), and to organize events such as industry dinners as well.

He added that he’s hopeful that the subscription model can allow him to build a sustainable operation that he can spend all or most of his time on.

“I’m committed to this for the long term,” he said. “This is a job I’d love to be doing for 10 years, 20 years. But I also recognize that I have to iterate a little bit to meet the market where it is.”

The New Consumer is starting out as a one-man operation, with Frommer citing Ben Thompson’s Stratechery as one of his inspirations to build an “individual news agency” that’s focused on newsletters and supported by subscriptions. At the same time, he’s interested in expanding the team if things go well.

“Consumer spending represents the majority of all money around the world,” he said. “This is something that could eventually stretch to all kinds of verticals, from sports to entertainment to personal finance.”

MoviePass co-founder’s new startup PreShow gives you free movie tickets for watching ads

As founding CEO of MoviePass, Stacy Spikes has already changed the way we think about paying for movie tickets. Now he’s pursuing a new approach — providing a free ticket to people who watch 15 to 20 minutes of ads.

Spikes told me that when it comes to watching movies outside the theater, there are three basic business models — pay-per-view, subscription and ad-supported. MoviePass brought a subscription approach into theaters, but Spikes (who stepped down as MoviePass CEO in 2016) said he kept wondering, “Well, why can’t you have an ad-supported version that will allow you to go to movies for free?”

It’s hard to imagine digital advertising being worth enough to really pay for that ticket, but Spikes insisted, “You’re paying your way. This is not going to be a loss leader model. It’s an ad-revenue based business.”

To make that work, he said the new service, called PreShow, is bringing a couple innovations to the table. First, there’s facial recognition technology that ensures you’re actually present and watching the ad.

Spikes demonstrated this feature for me last week, showing me how his face unlocked the PreShow app. Once he’d chosen the film he wanted to watch, he was presented with a package of video ads that were specifically selected to run with that movie — and any time he looked away from the screen or moved too far away from his phone, the ads would stop playing. (Apparently the sensitivity can be dialed up or down depending on user feedback.)

PreShow facial recognition

Spikes also said the ads should tie into the film in some way, whether that’s thematically, or by highlighting products that are also featured in the movie. And they’ll always include an opportunity to further engage with the advertiser.

So although 15 to 20 minutes might sound like a long time to watch ads,  it should be more interesting for the viewer than just watching a random collection of promotional videos. And for the advertisers who are already paying for product placement in a film, this could be a way to reinforce their message with consumers who are actually watching the movie. (Spikes also compared this to the marketing packages that usually play before showtime in theaters — hence the company name.)

By watching one of these 15- to 20-minute packages, you should earn enough points to purchase a ticket at the theater using a virtual credit card provided by PreShow. Technically, those points can be used to buy any movie ticket, but Spikes said you won’t be able to earn more than two tickets at once, “so people don’t stockpile.”

As for whether PreShow is competing with his old company, Spikes said, “I don’t think they’re competitive in any way. If you compare a subscription platform to an ad platform to a pay-per-view platform, they’re different animals.”

Stacy Spikes

Stacy Spikes

The plan is to start testing the service with a select group of users in the next three to six months, and to find those users, PreShow is launching a Kickstarter campaign today. Pledge levels range from $15 to $60, with the amount you pay determining how early you get access, and how many friend invites you receiving.

Spikes said he’s less interested in raising money (which is why the campaign’s official goal is only $10,000) and more in attracting film lovers who want to try out the app.

“It’s a way to have innovation happen more organically, versus if you just open it up for the general public,” Spikes said.

Original Content podcast: ‘Shrill’ stays positive, despite bad boyfriends and terrible bosses

Many of the themes and stories found in Hulu’s “Shrill” will be familiar to fans of writer Lindy West — after all, it’s based on her book “Shrill: Notes From a Loud Woman,” and she’s a writer on the series.

But “Shrill” has mined the autobiographical material in West’s book to tell a fictionalized story about a young journalist played by Aidy Bryant of “Saturday Night Live” (she also co-wrote the first two episodes).

When we meet Annie, she’s ignored or belittled by everyone — a random yoga instructor, her dismissive boss, her lunkheaded kinda-sorta boyfriend and even her mother — for being fat. Over the course of the six-episode season, Annie begins to understand her own worth, and to stand up for herself.

On this week’s episode of the Original Content podcast, we’re joined by Devin Coldewey to review the show.

“Shrill” pushes boundaries and deals with some pretty serious topics, but it has a light touch — Annie’s empathetic, optimistic outlook seems to be reflected in the broader story. While at least one of us had some reservations about the writing (which can feel a little too on-message), we all agreed that Bryant’s performance is terrific, making the character’s empowerment feel real, specific and earned.

You can listen in the player below, subscribe using Apple Podcasts or find us in your podcast player of choice. If you like the show, please let us know by leaving a review on Apple. You can also send us feedback directly. (Or suggest shows and movies for us to review!)

Morphin instantly Deepfakes your face into GIFs

Want to star in your favorite memes and movie scenes? Upload a selfie to Morphin, choose your favorite GIF, and your face is grafted in to create a personalized copy you can share anywhere. Become Tony Stark as he suits up like Iron Man. Drop the mic like Obama, dance like Drake, or slap your mug on Fortnite characters.

Now after three years in a stealth developing image mapping technology, Morphin is ready to launch its put-you-in-a-GIF maker. While it might look like just a toy, investors see real business potential. Morphin raised $1 million last summer from Betaworks, the incubator that spawned Giphy, plus Founders Fund, Precursor, Shrug Capital, and Boost.vc’s accelerator.

Elon Musk as Iron Man

“We believe in the future you’ll be able to be the main character in your own film. Imagine a super hero movie where you’re a the main protagonist?” co-founder Loic Ledoux asks. “That sounded like science fiction a few years ago and now with AI and computer vision we definitely see our tech going there.”

Ledoux also wants to reclaim faceswaps as something fun rather than a weapon for misinformation. “Deepfakes brought something pretty negative to computer vision. But it’s not all bad. It’s about how you use the tech to give people a new tool for self expressions and storytelling.” And since Morphin re-generates the whole clip from scratch with CGI animation, they look right at a glance but clearly aren’t manipulated copies of the original video designed to fool anyone.

Kanye performs magic

Morphin started three years ago with the intention to build personalized avatars for games and VR so you could be a FIFA soccer player or Skyrim knight. Ledoux had started a 3D printing company to explore opportunities in scanning and modeling when he saw a chance to connect your real and virtual faces. He teamed up with his co-founder Nicholas Heriveaux who’d spent 13 years working on 3D tech while modding games like Grand Theft Auto to insert his avatar and assets.

What they quickly recognized was that “People were just reacting to themselves on the screen”, ignoring the gameplay, Ledoux recalls. “Being able to see yourself as a hero was the underlying sentiment, so we focused on video completely.” Recognizable GIFs became its preferred medium, as they combine familiarity and the ability to convey complex emotions with a template that’s easy to personalize so they stand out.

Morphin’s tech no longer requires 3D scanning hardware and it works with just a regular selfie. You just snap a headshot, select a GIF from its iOS or Android app’s library, and a few seconds later you have a CGI version of yourself in the scene with no watermark that you can export and post. “We wanted it to be super straight forward because we wanted people to relate to the content” Ledoux notes. Over 1 million scenes have been created by 50,000 beta users, and each time a celebrity shares one of the GIFs Morphin has been sending them for marketing, scores of their followers demand to know what app they were using.

Morphin’s 9-person French team will have to keep innovating to stay ahead of avatar-making competitors like the ubiquitous Snapchat Bitmoji, Genies, Moji Edit, and Mirror AI. Facebook, Microsoft, and Google all have launched or are building their own avatar creators. But these typically live as 2D stickers or 3D AR animations you overlay on the real world. By using GIFs as a canvas, Morphin takes the pressure off your visage looking perfect and instead emphasizes the message you’re trying to get across.

The challenge will be for Morphin to become a consistent part of people’s communication stack. It’s easy to imagine playing with it and posting a few GIFs. But iconic new GIFs don’t emerge each day and without a social network to stay for, Morphin is at risk of becoming a merely a forgotten tool. The app might need TikTok-style challenges like submitting the best personalized GIF to match a prompt or a GIF browsing feed to keep people coming back.

Turning Donald Glover into Jay Gatsby

Morphin isn’t racing to monetize yet, but sees a chance to sell longer premium video scenes a la carte or as an unlimited subscription. Ledoux eventually hopes to unlock new forms of storytelling beyond existing GIFs. There’s also a chance for Morphin to highlight sponsored clips from upcoming movies or TV shows. “In the long-term we’re more interested in the analogy of Lil Miquela and how people are interacting with digital characters” Ledoux explains, citing a virtual pop star who’s developer Brud recently raised at a $125 million valuation.

One of the most exciting things about Morphin is that it will allow people to take the spotlight no matter how they look. Often times certain races, genders, and looks are unfairly excluded from starring in today’s most popular media. But Morphin could let the underrepresented take their rightful place as stars of the screen.

Your faithful author Josh Constine dropping the mic like Obama

Disney closes its $71.3B Fox acquisition

As of 12:02am Eastern today, Disney has closed its acquisition of 21st Century Fox .

The goal of the enormous acquisition is to help Disney position itself for a streaming-centric future. The company has already taken a step in that direction with the ESPN+ streaming service, and it has plans to launch another service called Disney+ later this year, which will include new shows based on the Star Wars and Marvel universes, as well as Disney’s entire movie library.

With the Fox acquisition, Disney has even more films, TV shows and intellectual property to draw on — as indicated by the redesigned lead image on the on Disney corporate website, which now features “The Shape of Water,” “Avatar” and “Deadpool” (all Fox films), as well as “The Simpsons” and “Atlanta” (which are produced by Fox studios and air on Fox networks). It also becomes the majority owner of Hulu, with CEO Bob Iger (pictured above) saying that Disney will invest in more original content for Hulu and help it expand internationally.

In addition, the deal solidifies Disney’s already-dominant position in Hollywood — seemingly the one studio that can still reliably draw massive audiences to movie theaters. Thanks to its previous acquisitions of Marvel and Lucasfilm, Disney has had the number one movie at the worldwide box office for each of the past four years, and in 2018, it released all of the top three films, while Fox had two movies in the top 10.

Even after Disney won its bidding war with Comcast last year by making an offer of $71.3 billion, the deal has still taken nine months to gain all the necessary regulatory approval.

Meanwhile, Fox’s news and sports divisions — including Fox News, the Fox broadcast network and Fox Sports — have a spun out as a new Fox Corporation, and the acquisition is expected to result in more than 4,000 layoffs.

“I wish I could tell you that the hardest part is behind us; that closing the deal was the finish line, rather than just the next milestone,” Iger said in a staff memo. “What lies ahead is the challenging work of uniting our businesses to create a dynamic, global entertainment company.”