Hands on with Telepath, the social network taking aim at abuse, fake news and, to some extent, ‘free speech’

There’s no doubt that modern social networks have let us down. Filled with hate speech and abuse, moderation and anti-abuse tools were an afterthought they’re now trying to cram in. Meanwhile, personalization engines deliver us only what will keep us engaged, even if it’s not the truth. Today, a number of new social networks are trying to flip the old model on its head — whether that’s attempting to use audio for more personal connections, like Clubhouse, eliminate clout chasing, like Twelv, or, in the case of new social network Telepath, by designing a platform guided by rules that focus on enforcing kindness, countering abuse, and disabling the spread of fake news.

Many of these early efforts are already facing challenges.

Private social network Clubhouse has repeatedly demonstrated that allowing free-flowing communication in the form of audio conversations is an area that’s notoriously difficult to moderate. The app, though still unavailable to the broader public, courted controversy in September when it allowed anti-Semitic content to be discussed in one of its chat rooms. In the past, it had also allowed users to harass an NYT reporter openly.

Meanwhile, Twelv, a sort of Instagram alternative, ditches the “Like” button concept and all the other features now overloading Instagram, which had once been just a photo-sharing network. But, unfortunately, this also means there’s no easy way to find and follow interesting users or trends on Twelv — you have to push friends to join the app with you or know someone’s username to look them up, otherwise it shows you no content. The result is a social network without the “social.”

Telepath, meanwhile, is a more interesting development.

It’s pursuing an even loftier goal in social networking — creating a hate speech-free platform where fake news can’t be distributed.

No social network to date has been able to accomplish what Telegraph claims it will be able to do in terms of content moderation. Its ambitions are optimistic and, as the network remains in private beta, they’re also untested at scale.

Though positioned as a different kind of social network, Telepath isn’t actually focused on developing a new sharing format that could encourage participation — the way TikTok popularized the 15-second video clip, for example, or how Snapchat turned the world onto “Stories.”

Instead, Telepath, at first glance, looks very much like just another feed to scroll through. (And given the amount of linked Twitter content in Telepath posts, it’s almost serving as a backchannel for the rival platform.)

The startup itself was founded by former Quora employees, including former Quora Business & Community head, Marc Bodnick, now Telepath Executive Chairman; and former Quora Product Lead, Richard Henry, now Telepath CEO. They’re aided by former Quora Global Writer Relations Lead, Tatiana Estévez, now Telepath Head of Community and Safety; and Ro Applewhaite, previously research staff for Pete Buttigieg for America, now Telepath Head of Outreach.

It’s backed by a couple million in seed funding, led by First Round Capital (Josh Kopelman). Other backers include Unusual Ventures (Andy Johns), Slow Ventures (Sam Lessin), and unnamed angels. Bodnick and his wife, Michelle Sandberg, also invested.

Image Credits: Telepath

When talking about Telepath, it’s clear the founders are nostalgic for the early days of the web — before all the people joined, that is. In smaller, online communities in years past, people connected and made internet friends who would become real-world friends. That’s a moment in time they hope to recapture.

“I’ve benefited a lot by meeting people through the internet, forming relationships and having conversations — that sort of thing,” says Henry. “But the internet just isn’t fun in the ways that it used to be fun.”

He suggests that the anonymity offered by networks like Reddit and Twitter make it more difficult for people to make real-world connections. Telepath, with its focus on conversations, aims to change that.

“If we facilitate a really fun, kind, and empathetic conversation environment, then lots of good things can happen. And it might be that you potentially find someone you want to work with, or you end up getting a job, or you meet new friends, or you end up meeting offline,” Henry says.

Getting Started

To get started on Telepath, you join the network with your mobile phone number and name, find and follow other users, similar to Twitter, then join interest-based communities as you would on Reddit. When you launch the app, you’re meant to browse a home feed where conversation topics from your communities and interesting replies are highlighted — orange for those replies from people you follow and gray for those that Telepath has determined are worth being elevated to the home screen.

As you read through the posts and visit the communities, you can “Thumbs Up” content you like, downvote what you don’t, reply, mute, block, and use @usernames to flag someone.

Image Credits: Telepath, screenshot via TechCrunch

Another interesting design choice: everything on Telepath disappears after 30 days. No one will get to dig through your misinformed posts from a decade ago to shame you in the present, it seems.

What’s most different about Telepath, however, is not the design or format. It’s what’s taking place behind the scenes, as detailed by Telepath’s rules.

Users who join Telepath must agree to “be kind,” which is rule number one. They must also not attack one another based on identity or harass others. They must use a real name (or their preferred name, if transgender), and not post violent content or porn. “Fake news” is banned, as determined by a publisher’s attempts at disseminating misinformation on a regular basis.

Telepath has even tried to formalize rules around how polite conversations should function online with rules like “don’t circle the drain” — meaning don’t keep trying to have the last word in a contentious debate or circumvent a locked thread; and “stay on topic,” which means don’t bombard a pro-x network with an anti-x agenda (and vice versa.)

Image Credits: Telepath

To enforce its rules, Telepath begins by requiring users to sign up with a mobile phone number, which is verified as a “real” number associated with a SIM card, and not a virtual one — like the kind you could grab through a “burner” app.

In order to the create its “kind environment,” Telepath says it will sacrifice growth and hire moderators who work in-house as long-term, trusted employees.

“All the major social networks essentially grew in an unbounded way,” explains Henry. “They had 100 million-plus active users, then were like, ‘okay, now how do we moderate this enormous thing?’,” he continues. “We’re in a lucky position because we get to moderate from day one. We get to set the norms.”

Moderation

“Day one” was a long time in the making, however. The team rebuilt the product four times over a couple of years. Now, they say they’ve developed internal tools that provide moderators with visibility into the system.

According to moderator head Estévez, these include a reporting system, real-time content streams organized in to buckets (e.g. a bucket for “only new users”), as well as various searchable ways to get context around a report or a particular problematic user.

“Really good tools — including real-time streams of content, classifiers for problematic behavior, searchable context, and making it hard for banned users to return — mean that each moderator we hire will be quite scalable. We think that there are network effects around positive behavior,” she says.

Image Credits: Telepath

“It’s our intention to scale up fast and high accuracy moderation decision-making, which means that we’re going to be investing a lot of engineering effort in getting these tools right,” she adds.

The founders have decided not to use any third-party systems to aid in moderation at this time, they told TechCrunch.

“We looked at a bunch of off-the-shelf [moderation systems], and we’re basically building everything that we need from scratch,” says Henry. “We just need more control over being able to tweak how these systems work in order to get the outcome that we want.”

The investment in human moderation over automation will also require additional capital to scale. And Telepath’s decision to not run ads means it will eventually need to consider alternative business models to sustain itself. The company, for now, is interested in subscriptions, but hasn’t made decisions on this front yet.

Banning the trolls

Though Telepath has only 4,000-plus users in its private beta, the two-person moderation team is already tasked with moderating posts from across the thousands of pieces of content shared on a daily basis. (The company doesn’t disclose how many violations it takes action against per day, on average.)

When a user breaks the rules, moderators may first warn them about the violation and may require them to take down or edit a specific post. No one is punished for making a mistake or being unaware of the rules — they’re first given a chance to fix it.

But if a user breaks the rules repeatedly or in a way that seems intentional, such as engaging in a harassment campaign around another user, they are banned entirely. Because of the phone number verification system, they also can’t easily return — unless they go out and purchase a new phone, that is.

These moderation actions don’t necessarily have to follow strict guidelines, like a “three strikes rule,” for example. Instead, the way the rules may be enforced are determined on a case-by-case basis. Where Telepath leans towards stricter enforcement is around intentional and flagrant violations, or those where there’s a pattern of bad behavior. (As with Reply Guys and sealioning behavior.)

In addition, unlike on Facebook and Twitter — platforms that sometimes seem to be caught off guard by viral trends in need of moderation — Telepath intends for nothing to go viral on its platform without having been seen by a human moderator, the company says.

Fake News

Telepath is also working to develop a reputation score for users and trust scores for publishers.

In the case of the former, the goal is help the company determine how likely the user is to break Telepath’s rules. This isn’t developed yet, but would be something used behind the scenes, not put on display for all to see.

For publishers, the trust score will be how factually correct they are what percentage of the time.

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

“For example, if the most popular article in terms of views from the publisher is just completely factually incorrect or intentionally misleading…that should have a bigger penalty on the trust score,” explains Henry. “The problem is that the incumbent platforms have rules against disinformation, but the problem is that they don’t enforce them out of this desire to appear balanced.”

Bodnick adds this challenge is not as insurmountable as it seems.

“Our view is that, actually, a handful of outlets are responsible for most of the disinformation…I don’t think our intent is to build out some modern-day truth system that will figure out if The Washington Post is slightly more accurate than The New York Times. I think the main goal will be to identify repeat disinformation publishers — determine that they are perpetual publishers of disinformation, and then crush their distribution,” says Bodnick.

This plan, however, involves setting rules on Telepath that fly in the face of what many today consider “free speech.” In fact, Telepath’s position is that free speech-favoring social networks are a failed system.

“The problem, in our view, is that when you take this free-speech centered approach that sort of says: ‘I don’t care how many disinformation posts Breitbart has published in the last — three years, three months, three weeks — we’re going to treat every new post as if it could be equally likely to be truthful as any other post in the system,'” says Bodnick. “That is inefficient.”

“That’s how we will scale this disinformation rule — by determining which relatively small group of publishers — I’m guessing it’s hundreds, low hundreds — are responsible for publishing lots of disinformation. And then take their distribution down,” he says.

This opinion on free speech is shared by the team.

“We’re trying to build a community, which means that we have to make certain tradeoffs,” adds Estévez. “In the rules we refer to Karl Popper’s paradox of tolerance — to maintain a tolerant society, you have to be intolerant of intolerance. We have no interest in giving a platform to certain kinds of speech,” she notes.

This is the exact opposite approach that conservative social media sites are taking, like Parler and Gab. There, the companies believe in free speech to the point that they’ve left up content posted by an alleged Russian disinformation campaign, saying that no one filed a report about the threat, and law enforcement hadn’t reached out. These MAGA-friendly social networks are also filled with conspiracies, un-fact checked reports, and, frankly, a lot of vitriol.

The expectation is that if you go on their platforms, you’re in charge of muting and blocking trolls or the content you don’t like. But by their nature, those who join these platforms will generally find themselves among like-minded users.

Twitter, meanwhile, tries to straddle the middle ground. And in doing so, has alienated a number of users who think it doesn’t go far enough in counteracting abuse. Users report harassment and threats, then wait for days for their report to be reviewed only to be told the tweet in question didn’t break Twitter’s terms.

Telepath sits on the other end of the spectrum, aggressively moderating content, blocking and banning users if needed, and punishing publications that don’t fact check or those that peddle misinformation.

“Kindness” carve-outs

And yet, despite all this extra effort, Telepath doesn’t always feature only thoughtful and kind-hearted conversations.

That’s because it has carved out an exception in its kindness rule that allows users to criticize public figures, and because it doesn’t appear to be taking action on what could be problematic, if not violating, conversations.

Image Credits: Telepath

A user’s experience in these “gray” areas may vary by community.

Telepath’s communities today focus on hobbies and interests, and can range from the innocuous — like Books or Branding or Netflix or Cooking, for example — to the potentially fraught, like Race in America. In the latter, there have been discussions about the capitalization of “Black” where it was suggested that maybe this wasn’t a useful idea. In another, sympathy is expressed for a person who was falsely pretending to be a person of color.

In a post about affordable housing, someone openly wondered if a woman who said she didn’t want to live near poor people was actually racist. Another commenter then noted that gang members can bring down property values.

A QAnon community, meanwhile, discusses the movement and its ridiculous followers from afar — which is apparently permitted — though supporting it in earnest would not be.

There are also nearly 20 groups about things that “suck,” as in GOPSucks or CNNSucks or QuibiSucks.

Anti-Trump content, meanwhile, can be found on a network called “DumbHitler.”

Meanwhile, online publishers who routinely post discredited information are banned from Telepath, but YouTube is not. So if feel you need to share a link to a video of Rudy Giuliani accusing Biden of dementia, you can do so — so long as you don’t call it the truth.

And you can post opinions about some terrible people in which you describe them as terrible, thanks to the public figure carve-out.

Cheater and deadbeat dad? Go ahead and call them a “disgusting human being.” VP Pence was referred to by a commenter as “SmugFace mcWhitey” and Ronny Jackson is described as “such a piece of sh**.”

Explains Estévez, that’s because Telepath’s “be kind” rule is not intended to protect public figures from criticism.

“It is important to note that toxicity on the internet around politics isn’t because people are using bad words, but because people are using bad faith arguments. They are spreading misinformation. They are gaslighting marginalised groups about their experiences. These are the real issues we’re addressing,” she says.

She also notes that online “civility” is often used to silence people from marginalized groups.

“We don’t want Telepath’s focus on kindness to be turned against those who criticize powerful people,” she adds.

In practice, the way this plays out on Telepath today is that it’s become a private, closed door network where users can bash Trump, his supporters and right-wing politicians in peace from Twitter trolls. And it’s a place where a majority agrees with those opinions, too.

It has, then, seemingly built the Twitter that many on the left have wanted, the way that conservative social media, like Gab and Parler, built what the right had wanted. But in the end, it’s not clear if this is the solution for the problems of modern social media or merely an escape. It also remains to be seen whether a mainstream user base will follow.

Telepath remains in a closed beta of indefinite length. You need an invite to join.

LA gets a big SAAS exit as Fastly nabs the Culver City-based Signal Sciences for $775M

Los Angeles was always more than a one industry town, even when it comes to technology startups, but media and entertainment (and social networking) were always the big draws in tinseltown.

Now the city’s enterprise tech scene can claim a really big winner with Signal Sciences, the security monitoring and management company that is getting bought by Fastly, a provider of content delivery networking services, for $775 million.

“Our team couldn’t be more excited about the opportunity to join Fastly to continue to drive forward security protections that empower developers. But we also believe this is a great moment to showcase the diversity of the LA technology scene,” wrote Signal Sciences chief executive, Andrew Peterson, in a direct message. “Being the largest enterprise tech outcome ever here, we’re just one of so many great deep technology companies who are paving the way for the next generation of SoCal based start ups. We’re thrilled to help lead the way for the broader tech community in Los Angeles.”

Content delivery and security go hand-in-hand and some of the biggest companies online use businesses like Fastly and its competitor, Cloudflare, to ensure that their online presence doesn’t go offline — and that browsers can quickly download and deliver websites.

Fastly said that the acquisition of Signal Sciences’ business will boost its ability to provide better security for applications and APIs — the connective fabric between different services that knit different technologies together behind the scenes.

With the acquisition, Fastly is planting a flag as a new competitor in the cybersecurity market, even as companies like Amazon, Microsoft, and Google offer a wider array of services under their Internet as a service business lines.

Application security is a higher value piece of the services stack and it takes advantage of the natural position that a company like Fastly has as a content distribution network.

“Fastly was founded to meet developers’ need for greater visibility and control. Now, as the digital transformation movement continues to accelerate, DevOps teams are struggling with inadequate and inflexible security tools,” said Joshua Bixby, Chief Executive Officer of Fastly, in a statement. “Together with Signal Sciences, we will give developers modern security tools designed for the way they work.”

Under the terms of the agreement Fastly is buying Signal Sciences for $200 million in cash and approximately $575 million worth of stock, subject to customary adjustments for transactions, according to a statement.

Fastly is also setting up a $50 million retention pool of restricted stock units to give out to Signal Sciences employees.

Signal Sciences employees aren’t the only winners in the deal. The company raised $63 million in venture financing from investors including CRV, Harrison Metal, Index Ventures, Oreilly Alphatech Ventures, Lead Edge Capital, and individual investors including former Facebook security officer Alex Stamos, and Etsy chief executive Chad Dickerson.

The company’s last round was a $35 million investment raised about two years ago, and one investor with knowledge of the company’s cap table called it a “pretty efficient exit” for its backers.

Morgan Stanley & Co. and Union Square Advisors are acting as financial advisors to Fastly, and Cooley LLP is acting as its legal advisor with regard to the transaction, according to a statement. Qatalyst Partners is acting as financial advisor to Signal Sciences, while Goodwin Procter was the company’s lawyer.

This subscription social network is happy to be an Albatross in a pandemic

In discussions of ethically dubious social networks, Facebook is the usual reference choice. But spare a thought for subscribers of InterNations, a Munich-based social networking community for expats, who have found themselves unable to obtain refunds for full-year payments charged in the middle of the coronavirus crisis.

InterNations has operated an expat networking experience since 2007, offering a free “Basic” tier of membership that gives users some access to site content and community-organized events (if they pay an entry fee); or a premium tier which requires shelling out for a year’s subscription up front to get free/reduced price entry to networking events, plus access to some additional site features.

The German company appears to be a fan of nominative determinism — having named the subscription tier of membership “Albatross,” given how difficult it is for users to exit once they upgrade from Basic to paying, perpetually renewing contract.

Several former members told us their memberships were auto-renewed for a full year without any warning in the middle of the pandemic. When they contacted InterNations to request a refund they were point-blank refused — with the company saying they were bound by the terms of the contract they’d entered into when they paid to upgrade the year before.

In emails we’ve reviewed between users and InterNations’ staff, the company repeatedly ignores requests for refunds.

One U.K.-based user, who told us she had signed up to use the service to attend networking events in London and Paris, where she traveled regularly for work, found herself put on furlough in March when the U.K. went into lockdown. She only noticed the InterNations subscription had auto-renewed when she saw a charge as she was checking her bank statement.

She contacted InterNations to request a refund — pointing out there were now no physical events near her, nor would she be able to attend in-person networking events for the foreseeable future due to shielding as a result of personal vulnerability to the health risk posed by COVID-19. But InterNations still refused to refund her subscription.

Instead it offered to put the year’s Albatross membership on hold until 2022 — suggesting she might be able to make use of the services she’d just been billed for in two years’ time.

“Many of the people complaining feel aggrieved by InterNation because the entire event offering is very much voluntary and community based. It relies on people stepping forward to organise groups of people to attend events, walks, screening etc. Most of them do not make financial gain out of it,” she told us.

“So for this organisation not to be looking after its very own community feels like a slap on our faces.”

“My local gym froze my membership from April 2020 without any of its members having to request it. They informed us by email they would do this. I was able to cancel in July without any question asked,” she added. “If my small gym is able to do this, how come InterNations is not stopping the auto-renewal of the membership at such a time?

“When everyone almost worldwide is worrying about their health, their livelihood, their relatives, we are not remembering to cancel or to stop memberships.”

Another user, who signed up to the service after moving from the U.S. to Singapore, told us he was sent repeated payment demands in the middle of the coronavirus crisis after his on-file credit card had expired — which meant InterNations couldn’t auto-collect his payment.

He told it he wanted to cancel the subscription but it told him he would only able to delete his account if he paid up for a full second year. Eventually he said he felt he had no choice but to pay the demand for around $100 in order that he could downgrade from Albatross to Basic and have his account deleted.

“I was (and still am) a paid subscriber and during the height of the pandemic I never received an offer of ‘free months’ of membership,” he said. “Instead, all I got was a deluge of threatening emails about how they couldn’t process my credit card information. Nothing even remotely about whether I was sick or even still alive. They just wanted my credit card details.”

A third user, who signed up for the service after moving to Hanoi, summed up her experience as “not the best.” She pointed us to a blog post in which she recounts a similar story — finding herself charged for a renewal in the middle of the coronavirus without any advance warning and having forgotten to cancel the subscription herself.

“I didn’t realise I’d been charged until a notification from PayPal arrived in my inbox,” she writes. “Say, what? Where was the email reminder? Where was the ‘now due’ invoice that is the hallmark of good business? Turns out InterNations don’t send them.”

This user was finally able to obtain a refund — but only via disputing the charge through PayPal. She got no joy asking for her money back from InterNations itself.

A deluge of similar complaints about the company can be seen on Trustpilot — where InterNations has an 81% “bad” rating at the time of writing.

“An annual membership was taken from my account, and refund was refused. A year on and I am being threatened with non payment of a new invoice,” writes one reviewer.

“I cancelled my membership the past two years and every year it shows that I didn’t and their records conveniently show no record of my cancellation. Then they will refuse refunds,” recounts another.

“InterNations contacted me via automated email about my membership payment being due. When I responded, asking to cancel membership since I haven’t logged in in months and can’t afford membership during these times, they refused to help,” says another irate reviewer. “They make it impossible to do this simple task. They’re greedily unable to help with anything other than take your money. No empathy. All they have to do is cancel the membership.”

“They don’t even send a reminder for end of membership. Some people have seen their credit card debited, without any reminder. And if your credit card you registered has expired, they keep harassing you and threaten you,” runs another despairing former user.

In emails to users who are requesting a refund which we’ve seen, InterNations simply points them to German law — which does appear to be the legal sticking point here. As a number of expat blogs warn, service contracts in Germany can be a lot harder to get out of than into.

Though, of course, it’s unlikely to have been immediately clear to people signing up to a global social network in cities like Hanoi and Singapore that they needed to understand German contract law before hitting “subscribe.”

BEUC, the European consumer rights group, told us there’s no pan-EU requirement for a notification to be actively sent to users ahead of an auto-renewal of a services contract — and the lack of such a notification ahead of the InterNations subscription renewal is one of the key recurring complaints.

“EU law only requires the consumer to be informed of the final price and the contractual conditions,” a spokesperson said, noting that consumer rights can vary substantially from member state to member state as the area isn’t harmonised at EU level.

So, while BEUC noted that, for example, Belgium law does have a specific provision which allows the consumer to terminate a contract at no cost after its tacit renewal — Germany, self evidently, does not. Although domestic pressure appears to be growing for reform of its one-sided contract rules.

When we put the various complaints we’d heard about refunds and cancellations (and indeed dark patterns) to InterNations, its founder and co-CEO, Malte Zeeck, said the company does not breach consumer law — and further claimed it “clearly communicates” subscription renewals to users.

“InterNations is operating on a standard subscription model like many other businesses, which is at no point in breach of consumer protection laws,” he said. “Subscriptions are renewed automatically, which is clearly communicated at the beginning of each subscription period, in each invoice, and in every user’s membership and account settings. This is also where a subscription can be canceled at any time, without a notice period that has to be observed.

“Our members have a continual visual reminder of their membership status through the Albatross symbol found on their profile picture. They can also always see their current membership status by visiting their membership page.”

And while he conceded that InterNations had had to cancel in-person events “during the height of the pandemic” he said it substituted this reduction in service by offering “additional free months of membership” and “working very hard to respond to the situation and find ways for our members to still meet and spend time together online.”

“After only a few weeks, we already offered over 500 online activities worldwide to help expats and global minds connect and share experiences — more online events were being added every day,” he added. “In addition, our users continued to benefit from other online networking and information features our premium membership offers. Since restrictions on in-person events are being lifted around the world, we have started to offer many opportunities for our members again to meet in person.”

EU consumer protection rules do bake in requirements that contract terms be fair — with provisions intended to protect against things like one-sided changes to a service without a valid reason. But it’s pretty clear that InterNations could argue a pandemic is a valid reason for canceling in person events and replacing them with online networking. So angry users are unlikely to find much solace there.

Still, maintaining such an inflexible and user hostile attitude during a pandemic does look risky for InterNations and its reputation, given new users are likely to be far less easy for it to net now that the coronavirus has settled like a dead calm on so much foreign travel.

So while it might be legally entitled to sit and claw in revenue from people who — living through a pandemic and worried about things like their jobs, health and loved ones — forgot to cancel a subscription that only comes round once a year, it’s hardly a recipe for long-term customer loyalty.

Indeed, we’ve seen these kind of auto-renewing subscription gigs crop up in the e-commerce space in years past. And none of those dubious tactics went the distance.

Tricking consumers into recurring payments is never a good long-term business strategy, and it certainly isn’t now that reputational damage can scale all over social media in seconds. (To wit: Irate InterNations users have been organizing via Twitter and have set up a website to amplify negative reviews where they urge people to boycott the service.)

None of the people who’ve been stung by InterNations’ auto-renewing subscription are likely to forget to cancel a second time so won’t be a source of recurring revenue in future. And treating users like so much chum when the company also relies upon their community spirit to power its service looks like a rotten business model long past its sell-by-date. (However many members InterNations claims have contacted it “to say how much our online events have helped them to stay in touch with people and also stay positive during a period of self-isolation,” a minority of satisfied customers are being drowned out by all the angry online views.)

In the meanwhile, it’s certainly curious to encounter a niche social network that’s happy operating with as little regard for users’ wishes as some of the far more maligned giants of the category. To the point where its website displays information regarding the European Commission’s “online dispute resolution” platform in small print right on the contacts page. Er, perhaps Facebook should take note.

On unhappy users, Zeeck only had this to say: “We are sorry that some of our former members perceive this differently and were not happy with the benefits our membership offered them. We are always taking our users’ feedback seriously and are working hard to provide a great experience for them. At the same time, we are aware that it is hard to have the perfect solution for everybody, and there will always be detractors.”

But perhaps he’s been taking cues from Mark Zuckerberg’s neverending apology tours.

Digitizing Burning Man

For decades, Burning Man has represented an escape from the current reality. An event for free-er spirits to rethink new age ideals inside a stateless entity where art, music and partying reign supreme on the desert plains.

Over the years, the Bay Area-founded event has dealt with an internal clash as the gathering has grown larger and attracted a heavy presence from Silicon Valley’s wealthy tech class, with tales of turnkey experiences, air-conditioned camps, helicopters and lobster dinners. Now, under the shadow of a historic pandemic, the organization behind the massive, iconic event is desperately working to stick to its roots while avoiding financial ruin as it pivots the 2020 festival to a digital format with the pro bono help of some of its tech industry attendees.

With just a few weeks before the event is set to kick off, the organization is bringing together a group of technologists with backgrounds in virtual reality, blockchain, hypnotism and immersive theatre to create a web of hacked-together social products that they hope will capture the atmosphere of Burning Man.

Going virtual is an unprecedented move for an event that’s mere existence already seems to defy precedent.

Burning Man is held in late August every year inside Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. For nine days, the attendees, who refer to themselves as Burners, fill up the desolate landscape with massive art installations, stages and camps. Attendance has been climbing over the past several decades, to the point that the federal government got involved, creating a more than 170-page report arguing why the event’s attendance should be capped. More than 78,000 people attended in 2019.

It’s an escape from society in a shared social experience that doesn’t seem to be replicable elsewhere.

The Multiverse

Steven Blumenfeld became the CTO of Burning Man days before the org’s leaders publicly announced that, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the physical event was being abruptly canceled and the team was going all-in on a virtual gathering. Though the serial CTO expected the position to largely involve crusty tasks maintaining the event’s media infrastructure, he soon was pressed to rethink the front-end of a sprawling event that’s decades old and steeped in lore.

“My first inclination is, ‘Great! Let’s go build a big 3D VR world blah blah blah… So then I spent the first two weeks looking at what I had for staff, what I had for time frame, and what we could actually do,” Blumenfeld says. “There was just no way. And you know, I actually still wanted to do it. I wanted a challenge… but the reality was it just wasn’t going to happen.”

Burning Man is a massive undertaking, with a particularly deep emotional hold inside San Francisco, where it was first held in 1986, and by extension Silicon Valley. It isn’t all that surprising that when the Burning Man Project announced the event was making the move to a digital format, there was a rapid influx of community input to help decipher what an on-the-grid virtual Burning Man might look like.

“We had 14,000 people tell us they wanted to contribute in some way to a virtual Black Rock City,” said Kim Cook, the org’s director of art and civic engagement. “Some of them said what they wanted to contribute was love; so that’s cool. We also had around a thousand of them say they wanted to do developer-type work.”

Some of the groups that reached out to the Burning Man Project were companies that were willing to build a Burning Man experience but wanted official branding present. Despite a precarious financial position, Burning Man’s organizers declined help from these sponsors, citing the org’s adherence to “de-commodification” — a desire to prevent corporate infiltration of the event, eschewing advertising, branded stages and corporate partnerships.

Turning away from the professional studios, Blumenfeld and others settled on a network of small indie teams filled with Burners that were willing to develop the official digital experiences for the event on their own time.

A new moment for social networking

Eight projects eventually emerged as official “recognized universes,” each taking drastically different approaches to what a virtual Burning Man should look like. While some focus their efforts on virtual reality, others add social layers to video chat or build 3D environments on top of existing platforms like Second Life or Microsoft’s AltspaceVR .

During the pandemic, revamped developer conferences and trade shows have been able to port keynote addresses or panels to a Zoom format fairly seamlessly, but there are plenty of elements of the Burning Man experience that the teams involved realize might be impossible to replicate with online platforms. The developers creating the event’s virtual worlds are determined to rethink the conventions of online social networking to ensure that Burners make new friends this year.

“The sense of awe and scale is tricky,” says Ed Cooke, who is building one of the official apps. “One way of explaining Burning Man is that it’s a state of mind that you access as a side effect of all the things that happen on the way there.”

Cooke, a London startup founder who also boasts the title of Grand Memory Master, earned for — among other things — memorizing the order of 10 decks of cards in less than an hour, has been building SparkleVerse with his friend Chris Adams, whose daytime gig is as a senior software manager at Airbnb.

Their web app, which pairs a 2D map interface with video chat windows, is primarily focused on advancing how shared context can facilitate and better frame social relationships.

Amid quarantine, the pair tells TechCrunch they have been creating deeply complicated video chat parties for their friends. One example is a moon-themed party where they created a clickable map of the lunar surface that guided the 200 attendees through 16 separate virtual spaces with their own themes. Before the party kicked off, the hosts walked people through the “experience of traveling to the moon” by guiding them through the effects of zero gravity and instructing them to play along with experiencing it. Another hot tub-themed party invited guests to jump into their bath tub before firing up Zoom.

Cooke and Adams are leaning on some of these mechanics to create a Burning Man theme, hoping that taking cues from immersive theatre will enable people to commit more deeply to the experience. The acts of driving, losing your phone connection and growing tired and hungry on the way to the physical event add to a “spaciousness in your consciousness” that allows people to act more freely, Cooke says. He wants participants to replicate these experiences by taking steps outside their normal life in the run-up to the event, whether that’s sitting through an obscenely long video chat session to simulate a drive to the desert or setting up a tent in their living room, or cutting off their water line and avoiding showers during the nine days.

“All of this is embedding you further and further into this distant context, miles away from your normal life, where effectively in the course of this, you’re just becoming a radically less boring person,” Cooke explains in a nine-minute video outlining the platform.

Many of the apps are building on the idea of how spatial interfaces can feed greater social context and make it easier to approach people and make new friends.

Another official app, Build-a-Burn, takes the idea of a stylized 2D interface for video chat even further with a sketched-out grayscale map of Black Rock City that users can navigate little stick figures across. As a user moves through different camps and their avatars get physically close to each other, new video chat screens fade in and users can gain the experience of venturing into a new social bubble.

A screenshot of Build-a-Burn

While Build-a-Burn and SparkleVerse are leaning more heavily on video chat, other experiences hope that creating massive 3D landscapes that match the scale of the real-world event will help people get into the spirit of the event.

Other than Burn2, which is wholly contained within the Second Life platform, most of the 3D-centric apps integrate some level of virtual reality support. Projects that support VR headsets include The Infinite Playa, The Bridge Experience, MysticVerse, BRCvr (which taps into Microsoft’s AltspaceVR platform) and Multiverse.

Each of the VR experiences will also allow users to join on mobile or desktop, an effort to ensure that the apps are more widely accessible.


Over on Extra Crunch, read about how a new generation of chat apps are leaning on game-like interfaces


Multiverse creator Faryar Ghazanfari, who runs an AR startup and previously worked on Tesla’s legal team, says that the motivations for building his app were a bit on the selfish side, telling TechCrunch that he became “extremely sad” after the physical event’s cancellation and felt the need to help build a place where he could reunite with his own camp.

Screenshot from a demo of Multiverse.

Ghazanfari tells TechCrunch he feels a responsibility in creating the environment that other Burners will experience; he says his chief concern is capturing the event’s complexity. Compared to the other apps, Multiverse focuses primarily on providing a photorealistic 3D playground where avatars can zoom around.

“As Burners, we don’t think of Burning Man as just a music festival or art festival; it is much more than that. Burning Man is a social experiment of creating a community out of a shared struggle,” Ghazanfari says.

Each of the Burning Man-approved apps seem to engage with evoking that shared struggle differently, which appears to be the most looming challenge of moving this event to a virtual format. While the apps hope to bring elements of the physical event into their virtual spaces, the creators also seem to realize that aiming to compete with attendees’ past memories is unwise. It’s a challenge that has been faced by dozens of startups in the virtual reality space over the past several years.

“I think the main challenge is taking something that exists in reality and then porting it into a different platform,” said Adam Arrigo, CEO of Wave, a venture-backed startup that initially launched a VR app for music concerts but has since shifted focus to mobile and desktop experiences. “When you’re in these digital spaces, the agency that you have as a user and the experiences you can create are so different than something that could exist, even at a concert.”

Financial uncertainty

Perhaps the biggest unknown, as the organization readies for Burning Man’s August 30 start date, is that nobody really has any idea how many people are going to show up. While Blumenfeld pointed me to suggestions the entire digital event could attract up to 30,000 people over its nine-day run, Ghazanfari hopes that hundreds of thousands or millions of users will come into the fold of his experience.

Another point of contention internally is how exactly the groups plan to monetize these digital experiences.

In 2020, the standard ticket price for Burning Man was $475. The organization postponed the “main sale” of tickets prior to this year’s physical event’s cancellation, but they had already sold tens of thousands of tickets. Ticket holders will have the option of being refunded, but the organization has encouraged those who “have the means” to consider making a full or partial donation of the ticket price instead.

In 2018, Burning Man cost $44 million for the organization to produce, according to tax documents. The Burning Man Project reported about $43 million in ticket sales from that event, with other donations and revenue streams bringing the nonprofit’s total revenue for that fiscal year to about $46 million. In a blog post, the event’s organizers noted that though the group had event insurance, they were not covered for a cancellation caused by a pandemic. Burning Man Project says it has $10 million in cash reserves, but that it anticipates draining through that funding by the end of the year to stay afloat. The organization is listed as having received a loan from the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program for between $2-5 million.

While some like Ghazanfari are pushing to make their experiences free to access with the option of giving a donation later, others expressed desire for a single digital ticket that would give attendees access to all eight digital experiences. Cooke says users will need to pay a $50 entrance fee to access the SparkleVerse.

The disparate nature of the experience being built this year — with some being shipped as native apps, others in HTML5 and others inside existing tech platforms — meant that a unified ticketing platform just wouldn’t work, Blumenfeld told TechCrunch. Not all of the developers were thrilled with this outcome, which they fear could fracture attendance at events on certain platforms. The biggest concern seemed to be ensuring that all of this effort pays off in some way for the organization so that they can continue to host the Burning Man event post-pandemic.

“One of the biggest reasons we’re all doing this is to help Burning Man survive, because the Burning Man organization unfortunately was really badly hit because of COVID,” Ghazanfari says. “The organization is in kind of a precarious situation financially.”

The organization has attracted criticism in recent years for the event’s inclusiveness. Some of the developers acknowledge that planning for a nine-day trip to the middle of the desert can be daunting and prohibitively expensive for people that want to join the community, and they hope that this year’s shift to a digital format will open up the event to more people and that these apps can be a less intimidating way for skeptics to get a taste of the community.

Thinking of the future

None of the developers behind the digital experiences are being paid for their efforts building these apps. However, the Burning Man Project has given at least some of them perpetual licenses to continue operating these digital platforms with the Burning Man name and an option to monetize, though a percentage of proceeds will be kicked back to the organization.

While getting this event across the finish line by the end of the month is daunting enough, the Burning Man Project is also trying to consider how its rapid learnings will apply to next year, though they hope that the physical event returns for 2021.

Blumenfeld says he plans to spend the next year working on the background infrastructure so that items like gating and ticketing functions for a virtual Burning Man can all be centralized.

While having eight distinct experiences this year could complicate the goal of getting one big group together, developers concerned about troubleshooting their new apps or having a sudden influx of virtual Burners overwhelm their infrastructures view multiple entry points to the festival as a necessary logistical move. Organizers hope the diversity of options will keep things interesting for attendees.

“I think we’ve got a good mix, and part of it is, we want to learn,” Blumenfeld says. “What we’re trying very hard to avoid is being in Zoom meeting hell.”

Whether users are connecting via video chat or as avatars inside a large virtual world, the developers building Burning Man’s virtual experiences believe they are operating on the cutting edge of virtual interaction and that they are rethinking elements of modern social networking to create a virtual Burning Man where people will be able to form new social bonds.

“I’ve fallen in love with this idea that at some point in the future, some Ph.D. student in 300 years time is going to write a thesis on the first online Burning Man, because it does feel like an extraordinary moment of avant garde imagineering for what the future of human online interaction looks like,” Cooke tells TechCrunch.

Waze gets a big visual update with a focus on driver emotions

Crowdsourced navigation platform Waze, which is owned by Google and yet remains a separate, but intertwined product relative to Google Maps, just got one of its biggest UI and design overhauls ever. The new look is much more colourful, and also foregrounds the ability for individual drivers to share their current emotions with Moods, a set of user-selectable icons (with an initial group of 30) that can reflect how you’re feeling as you’re driving.

Moods may seem like a relatively small user personalization option, but it’s actually a very interesting way for Waze to add another data vector to the crowdsourced info it can gather. In a blog post describing the feature, Waze Head of Creative Jake Shaw talks about the added Mood set, which builds upon the Moods feature previously available in Waze and greatly expands the set of expressible emotions.

“The fundamental idea of Moods has always been the same: to reflect how users feel on the road,” he wrote. “We had a lot of fun exploring the range of emotions people feel out there. A dozen drivers could all feel different in the exact same situation, so we set about capturing as many of those feelings as possible. This was critical to us, because the Moods act as a visual reminder of all of us out there, working together.”

Extending Moods to be more varied and personalized definitely has the advantage of being more visually-appealing, and that could serve to boost its engagement among the Waze user community. They don’t mention this explicitly, but you can imagine that combining this as a sort of sentiment measure along with other crowd-reported navigational details including traffic status, weather conditions, construction and more could ultimately help Waze build a much richer dataset and resulting analyses for use in road planning, transportation infrastructure management and more.

This update also includes a full refresh of all the app’s interfaces, using colored shapes based around a grid system, and new icons for reported road hazards. It’s a big, bright changes, and further helps distinguish Waze’s visual identity from that of its sibling Google Maps, too.

Shaw talk repeatedly about the value of the voice of the community in informing this redesign, and it definitely seems interested in fostering further a sense of participation in that community, as distinct from other transportation and navigation apps. Oddly, this serves as a reminder that Google’s most successful social networking product, with the exception maybe of YouTube depending on how you define it, may well be Waze.

Social networking app for women, Peanut, is rolling out video chat

Mobile social networking app for women, Peanut, is expanding into video chat to help better support its users amid the coronavirus outbreak. The company, which began its life with a focus on motherhood, has evolved over the years to reach women looking to discuss a range of topics — including pregnancy, marriage, parenthood, and even menopause.

Since the coronavirus outbreak, Peanut reported a 30% rise in user engagement and 40% growth in content consumption. It also grew its user base from 1 million in December 2019 to 1.6 million as of April 2020. On top of this growth, Peanut closed its $12 million Series A mid-pandemic, a testament to its increasing traction.

The app had originally offered a Tinder-like matching experience to connect its users with new friends — an idea that came about thanks to founder and CEO Michelle Kennedy’s background as the former deputy CEO at dating app Badoo and an inaugural board member at Bumble. Like many dating apps, this feature involved swiping on user profiles to get a “match.” Before the pandemic, many women would connect with nearby users on a one-on-one basis in order to make friends or find playdates for their kids, for example.

But following the coronavirus government lockdowns and social distancing recommendations, Peanut users have been clamoring for a way to virtually connect, the company says.

Since the lockdown, requests from users for video chatting capabilities increased by 700%, notes Peanut. Users also posted links to other video broadcasts 400% more than usual. To meet this growing demand, the app is now rolling out video chat so women can connect face-to-face and grow their relationships, even if they’re not yet able to spend time in person.

The company believes the new feature will provide a way for women to expand their virtual support network at a time where many are facing isolation and uncertainty about the future, which could otherwise negatively impact their mental health. Through video chat, moms can arrange to have their kids participate in a virtual playdate or they can just chat about life, their daily struggles, and more. Thye can also join a virtual happy hour via their phone — a popular lockdown activity these days.

To use the new feature, women will first connect with each other on a one-on-one basis, which allows them to message each other directly. From this screen, users could already share text chats, photos, and GIFs. But now, they can tap a new button to initiate a video call instead.

The video chat feature itself is powered by an undisclosed third-party.

Peanut says it’s now working on group video chat, another feature users want.

Peanut’s video chat features officially roll out on June 18, 2020 for all users.

 

Snap accelerator names its latest cohort

Yellow, the accelerator program launched by Snap in 2018, has selected ten companies to join its latest cohort.

The new batch of startups coming from across the U.S. and international cities like London, Mexico City, Seoul and Vilnius are building professional social networks for black professionals and blue collar workers, fashion labels, educational tools in augmented reality, kids entertainment, and an interactive entertainment production company.

The list of new companies include:

  • Brightly — an Oakland, Calif.-based media company angling to be the conscious consumer’s answer to Refinery29.
  • Charli Cohen — a London-based fashion and lifestyle brand.
  • Hardworkersa Cambridge, Mass.-based professional digital community built for blue-collar workers.
  • Mogul Millennial — this Dallas-based company is a digital media platform for black entrepreneurs and corporate leaders.
  • Nuggetverse — Los Angeles-based Nuggetverse is creating a children’s media business based on its marquee character, Tubby Nugget.
  • SketchAR — this Lithuanian company is developing an AI-based mobile app for teaching drawing using augmented reality.
  • Stipop — a Seoul-based sticker API developer with a library of over 100,000 stickers created by 5,000 artists.
  • TRASH — using this machine learning-based video editing toolkit, users can quickly create and edit high-quality, short-form video. The company is backed by none other than the National Science Foundation and based in Los Angeles.
  • Veam — another Seoul-based social networking company, Veam uses Airdrop as a way to create persistent chats with nearby users as a geolocated social network.
  • Wabisabi Design, Inc. — hailing from Mexico City, this startup makes mini games in augmented reality for brands and advertisers.

The latest cohort from Snap’s Yellow accelerator

Since launching the platform in 2018, startups from the Snap accelerator have gone on to acquisition (like Stop, Breathe, and Think, which was bought by Meredith Corp.) and to raise bigger rounds of funding (like the voiceover video production toolkit, MuzeTV, and the animation studio Toonstar).

Every company in the Yellow portfolio will receive $150,000 mentorship from industry veterans in and out of Snap, creative office space in Los Angeles and commercial support and partnerships — including Snapchat distribution.

“Building from the momentum of our first two Yellow programs, this new class approaches mobile creativity through the diverse lenses of augmented reality, platforms, commerce and media, yet each company has a clear vision to bring their products to life,” said Mike Su, Director of Yellow. “This class shows us that there’s no shortage of innovation at the intersection of creativity and technology, and we’re excited to be part of each company’s journey.”

Social network for motherhood Peanut raises $5M, expands to include women trying to conceive

Peanut, an app that began its life as a match-maker for finding new mom friends but has since evolved into a social network of more than a million women, announced today it has closed on $5 million in new funding and is expanding its focus to reach women who are trying to conceive. The round was led by San Francisco and London-based VC firm Index Ventures, also backers of Dropbox, Facebook and Glossier, among others.

Other Peanut investors include Sweet Capital, Greycroft, Aston Kutcher’s Sound Ventures, Female Founders Fund, Felix Capital and Partech. To date, Peanut has raised $9.8 million.

The idea for Peanut arose from co-founder Michelle Kennedy’s personal understanding of how difficult it was to forge female friendships after motherhood. As the former deputy CEO at dating app Badoo and an inaugural board member at Bumble, she initially saw the potential for Peanut as a friendship-focused matching app with swipe mechanisms similar to popular dating apps.

Over the past couple of years, however, Kennedy realized that what women needed was more of a community space. The team then built out the app’s features accordingly, with the launch of its Q&A forums, Peanut Pages, last year, and more recently, with Peanut Groups. The latter has now become Peanut’s main use case, with 60% of users taking advantage of the app’s community features and just 40% using the friend-finding functions.

“Community is definitely becoming a very important part of what we do. It’s where we see the users that we deem to be power users — women who are using Peanut for hours every day — they’re very much within the community section,” explains Kennedy. “We see that growth there and it actually guides the product. So we’re taking the behaviors that we see and letting that inform our roadmap,” Kennedy says.

Since around November 2018, Peanut has been growing by 20% month-over-month, as more women discover Peanut’s private and ad-free alternative to Facebook Groups. On Peanut, users are verified (by selfies!), and people have the sorts of discussions that don’t really take place in other social apps.

Even Kennedy admits she was surprised at first by what women were talking about in the app.

“The conversations were much, much more personal and intimate and more related to their lives. So whether that had to do with their sex life or relationships, it was on a deeper level,” she says. “These are conversations that women simply can’t have anywhere else. Of course, they’re not happening in Facebook Groups…these are very intimate and self-reflective moments. And [women] want to do that in a private setting in a private social network,” Kennedy adds.

The new funding, in part, will be used to grow Peanut’s 16-person team to 22 this year, which will then double next year.

In addition, Peanut is expanding access to women who are trying to conceive, with the launch of the Trying To Conceive (TTC) community. This will offer a separate sign-up experience and access to a dedicated network of women, where members can candidly discuss the topic and ask questions. Within TTC, members can also create their own groups — like one for women on their fifth round of IVF, for example — to have conversations with others who are at the same place in their journey.

The community, today, won’t point women to other fertility-focused apps or related health services, Kennedy says, though she sees the potential for strategic partnerships further down the road. In the near-term, however, Peanut plans to generate revenue by way of the freemium model and micropayments.

“We’re incredibly excited to partner with Michelle to grow Peanut from the essential platform for mothers it is today, to a social network for women globally. Peanut is a true companion for women, bringing them together when they need each other the most,” says Hannah Seal, principal at Index Ventures, about the firm’s investment. “We’ve been impressed with the response Peanut has received since launch and look forward to supporting the team as it enters into new areas such as fertility, and expands globally.”

“We want to shine a light on an often silent struggle. What has always been Peanut’s point of difference is enabling conversations women feel unable to have on any other platform. Providing a safe, inclusive space for women to discuss fertility is a natural progression for our brand as we continue to support women throughout each life stage. No woman should ever feel lonely, isolated or muted on such an important issue,” Kennedy says.

Earbuds lets audiences stream the playlists of athletes, entertainers and each other

Earbuds, a new startup from Austin founded by former Detroit Lions lineman Jason Fox, wants to bring the power of social media to your eardrums.

The company is one of a growing number of startups trying to rejuvenate the music streaming market by combining it with social networking so that audiences can listen to the playlists of their favorite athletes and entertainers… and their friends.

For Fox, the idea for Earbuds sprung from his experiences in the NFL, watching how other players interacted with crowds and hearing about the things fans wanted to know about their favorite players’ routines.

“We were playing Caroline in the first game of the season and Cam Newton was warming up right next to me,” Fox recalled. “He was jamming. Getting the crowd into it. And I was thinking there’re 85,000 people here and millions of more people watching at home…  And I thought… how many people would love to be in his headphones right now?”

Jason Fox TC

Earbuds founder Jason Fox

It wasn’t just Cam Newton who received attention. Fox said at every press conference one or two questions would be about what songs teammates played before games. On social media, players would take screenshots of their playlists and post them to platforms like Twitter or Instagram, Fox said.

The company has been out in the market in a beta version since February and has focused on lining up potential Earbuds devotees from among Fox’s friends in the NFL and entertainers from music and media.

“We made a decision to tweak something and make it very very heavily around influencers because that’s what’s really driving traffic for us,” Fox says. 

Screen Shot 2019 08 07 at 5.44.50 PM

Image courtesy of Earbuds

At its core, the app is just about making music more social, according to Fox. “There’s a social platform for everything, but in the days of terrestrial media distribution music has remain isolated,” he says. 

Logging on is easy. Users can create a login for the app or use their Google or Facebook accounts. One more step to link the Earbuds app with Spotify or Apple Music (the company offers one month free of the premium versions of either service to new users) and then a user can look for friends or browse popular playlists.

A leaderboard indicates which users on the app have streamed the most music and users can create their own streams by adding songs from their libraries to build in-app playlists.

Earbuds isn’t the first company to take a shot at socializing the music listening experience. The olds may remember services like Turntable.fm, which took a stab at making music social but shut down back in 2013. Newer services, like Playlist, are also combining social networking features with music streaming. That site focuses on connecting people with similar musical tastes.

Fox thinks that the ability to attract entertainers like Nelly (who’s on the app) and athletes could be transformative for listeners. Basically these artists and athletes can become their own online radio station, he says.

Fox spent nearly a year meeting with streaming services, music labels, athletes, artists and college students (the app’s initial target market) before even working with developers on a single line of code. The initial work was done out of Los Angeles, but after a year Fox moved the company down to Austin and rebuilt the app from the ground up to focus more on the user experience.

Early partnerships with Burton on an activation had snowboarders streaming their music as they rode a halfpipe proved that there was an audience, Fox said. Now the company is working on integrations across different sports and even esports.

Fox raised a small friends and family round of $630,000 before putting together a $1.5 million seed to get the app out into the market. Now the company is looking for $3 million to scale even more as it looks to integrations with sports teams and other streaming services like Twitch (to capture the gaming audience).

The company currently has seven employees.

Earbuds is available on iOS.

Screen Shot 2019 08 07 at 5.51.32 PM

Fortnite World Cup has handed out $30 million in prizes, and cemented its spot in the culture

The Fortnite phenomenon — the wildly popular battle royale game from Epic Games — has manifested itself in concerned articles, cultural shoutouts and now has sealed its place in the cultural firmament by wrapping up its first “World Cup” which saw the company give away $30 million in prizes.

The big winner in today’s solo challenge was sixteen year-old Kyle “Bugha” Giersdorf, who won $3 million for beating out the competition in the solo tournament. And, as sports writer Darren Rovell noted on Twitter, Giersdorf’s prize pool is only $800,000 smaller than the pot for the winner of the U.S. Open, which is set to begin in a few weeks at the same stadium.

Indeed, the esports prize pool is one of the biggest awards for a popular competitive event. Wimbledon winners will take home less than $3 million and Tiger Woods won $2 million for besting the field of competitors at the Masters. \

Fortnite’s big moment is also a big deal for competitive esports in the U.S. The biggest prize pool for an esports event in the U.S. was likely meant to plant a flag and show that competitive gaming is something that can capture the attention of a younger audience that has drifted away from watching more traditional pastimes and watching less sports, according to a McKinsey study.

Screen Shot 2019 07 28 at 6.01.13 PM

Courtesy of McKinseys

Giersdorf, who hails from Pennsylvania and plays professionally for the Los Angeles-based esports team, the Sentinels, became the inaugural Fortnite World Cup solo champion by putting in a dominant performance over the entire weekend of competition.

For folks who’ve never played the game (or had it explained to them) Fortnite involves dropping 100 players onto an island where they have to find weapons, build bases and try and eliminate the competition until only one player’s left standing.

It’s a cartoon version of the Hunger Games with no bloodshed, a lot of victory dances, and hours of social networking.

The game has turned its publisher, Epic Games into a multi-billion dollar business. Certainly it’s one that can afford to front a $30 million prize purse for a few days of competition.

The tournament wasn’t just about solo-play. The company had different rounds for the duos competition featuring two-player teams. That competition, which ended on Saturday, also featured a $3 million prize pool and was won by the European duo of Emil “Nyhrox” Bergquist Pedersen and David “Aqua” W.

Epic pulled out all of the stops it could for the multi-day event at Arthur Ashe stadium. In addition to pulling in some of the top names in livestreaming and competitive esports to participate in the event, the company also brought in the DJ Marshmello for a performance.

The tournament pulled in nearly 9 million viewers for the final day of the competition on YouTube alone. Over 40 million people tried out for a slot in the World Cup finals.

And while the prize pot takes a significant chunk out of the $100 million that Epic has committed to spend on competitions this year, the returns in terms of the social capital and cache’ that Epic has given to the esports world can’t be underestimated.

It’s certainly going to change the life of its first World Cup champion. A fact that Giersdorf knows all too well himself.

“Emotionally, right now, I don’t feel too much, except I know that this could pretty much change my life forever,” Giersdorf said in an interview with ESPN. “It’s just absolutely unreal.”