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

Facebook staff raised concerns about Cambridge Analytica in September 2015, per court filing

Further details have emerged about when and how much Facebook knew about data-scraping by the disgraced and now defunct Cambridge Analytica political data firm.

Last year a major privacy scandal hit Facebook after it emerged CA had paid GSR, a developer with access to Facebook’s platform, to extract personal data on as many as 87M Facebook users without proper consents.

Cambridge Analytica’s intention was to use the data to build psychographic profiles of American voters to target political messages — with the company initially working for the Ted Cruz and later the Donald Trump presidential candidate campaigns.

But employees at Facebook appear to have raised internal concerns about CA scraping user data in September 2015 — i.e. months earlier than Facebook previously told lawmakers it became aware of the GSR/CA breach (December 2015).

The latest twist in the privacy scandal has emerged via a redacted court filing in the U.S. — where the District of Columbia is suing Facebook in a consumer protection enforcement case.

Facebook is seeking to have documents pertaining to the case sealed, while the District argues there is nothing commercially sensitive to require that.

In its opposition to Facebook’s motion to seal the document, the District includes a redacted summary (screengrabbed below) of the “jurisdictional facts” it says are contained in the papers Facebook is seeking to keep secret.

According to the District’s account a Washington D.C.-based Facebook employee warned others in the company about Cambridge Analytica’s data-scraping practices as early as September 2015.

Under questioning in Congress last April, Mark Zuckerberg was asked directly by congressman Mike Doyle when Facebook had first learned about Cambridge Analytica using Facebook data — and whether specifically it had learned about it as a result of the December 2015 Guardian article (which broke the story).

Zuckerberg responded with a “yes” to Doyle’s question.

Facebook repeated the same line to the UK’s Digital, Media and Sport (DCMA) committee last year, over a series of hearings with less senior staffers

Damian Collins, the chair of the DCMS committee — which made repeat requests for Zuckerberg himself to testify in front of its enquiry into online disinformation, only to be repeatedly rebuffed — tweeted yesterday that the new detail could suggest Facebook “consistently mislead” the British parliament.

The DCMS committee has previously accused Facebook of deliberately misleading its enquiry on other aspects of the CA saga, with Collins taking the company to task for displaying a pattern of evasive behavior.

The earlier charge that it mislead the committee refers to a hearing in Washington in February 2018 — when Facebook sent its UK head of policy, Simon Milner, and its head of global policy management, Monika Bickert, to field DCMS’ questions — where the pair failed to inform the committee about a legal agreement Facebook had made with Cambridge Analytica in December 2015.

The committee’s final report was also damning of Facebook, calling for regulators to instigate antitrust and privacy probes of the tech giant.

Meanwhile, questions have continued to be raised about Facebook’s decision to hire GSR co-founder Joseph Chancellor, who reportedly joined the company around November 2015.

The question now is if Facebook knew there were concerns about CA data-scraping prior to hiring the co-founder of the company that sold scraped Facebook user data to CA, why did it go ahead and hire Chancellor?

The GSR co-founder has never been made available by Facebook to answer questions from politicians (or press) on either side of the pond.

Last fall he was reported to have quietly left Facebook, with no comment from Facebook on the reasons behind his departure — just as it had never explained why it hired him in the first place.

But the new timeline that’s emerged of what Facebook knew when makes those questions more pressing than ever.

Reached for a response to the details contained in the District of Columbia’s court filing, a Facebook spokeswomen sent us this statement:

Facebook was not aware of the transfer of data from Kogan/GSR to Cambridge Analytica until December 2015, as we have testified under oath

In September 2015 employees heard speculation that Cambridge Analytica was scraping data, something that is unfortunately common for any internet service. In December 2015, we first learned through media reports that Kogan sold data to Cambridge Analytica, and we took action. Those were two different things.

Facebook did not engage with questions about any of the details and allegations in the court filing.

A little later in the court filing, the District of Columbia writes that the documents Facebook is seeking to seal are “consistent” with its allegations that “Facebook has employees embedded within multiple presidential candidate campaigns who… knew, or should have known… [that] Cambridge Analytica [was] using the Facebook consumer data harvested by [[GSR’s]] [Aleksandr] Kogan throughout the 2016 [United States presidential] election.”

It goes on to suggest that Facebook’s concern to seal the document is “reputational”, suggesting — in another redacted segment (below) — that it might “reflect poorly” on Facebook that a DC-based employee had flagged Cambridge Analytica months prior to news reports of its improper access to user data.

“The company may also seek to avoid publishing its employees’ candid assessments of how multiple third-parties violated Facebook’s policies,” it adds, chiming with arguments made last year by GSR’s Kogan who suggested the company failed to enforce the terms of its developer policy, telling the DCMS committee it therefore didn’t have a “valid” policy.

As we’ve reported previously, the UK’s data protection watchdog — which has an ongoing investigation into CA’s use of Facebook data — was passed information by Facebook as part of that probe which showed that three “senior managers” had been involved in email exchanges, prior to December 2015, concerning the CA breach.

It’s not clear whether these exchanges are the same correspondence the District of Columbia has obtained and which Facebook is seeking to seal. Or whether there were multiple email threads raising concerns about the company.

The ICO passed the correspondence it obtained from Facebook to the DCMS committee — which last month said it had agreed at the request of the watchdog to keep the names of the managers confidential. (The ICO also declined to disclose the names or the correspondence when we made a Freedom of Information request last month — citing rules against disclosing personal data and its ongoing investigation into CA meaning the risk of release might be prejudicial to its investigation.)

In its final report the committee said this internal correspondence indicated “profound failure of governance within Facebook” — writing:

[I]t would seem that this important information was not shared with the most senior executives at Facebook, leading us to ask why this was the case. The scale and importance of the GSR/Cambridge Analytica breach was such that its occurrence should have been referred to Mark Zuckerberg as its CEO immediately. The fact that it was not is evidence that Facebook did not treat the breach with the seriousness it merited. It was a profound failure of governance within Facebook that its CEO did not know what was going on, the company now maintains, until the issue became public to us all in 2018. The incident displays the fundamental weakness of Facebook in managing its responsibilities to the people whose data is used for its own commercial interests.

We reached out to the ICO for comment on the information to emerge via the Columbia suit, and also to the Irish Data Protection Commission, the lead DPA for Facebook’s international business, which currently has 15 open investigations into Facebook or Facebook-owned businesses related to various security, privacy and data protection issues.

An ICO spokesperson told us: “We are aware of these reports and will be considering the points made as part of our ongoing investigation.”

Last year the ICO issued Facebook with the maximum possible fine under UK law for the CA data breach.

Shortly after Facebook announced it would appeal, saying the watchdog had not found evidence that any UK users’ data was misused by CA.

A date for the hearing of the appeal set for earlier this week was canceled without explanation. A spokeswoman for the tribunal court told us a new date would appear on its website in due course.

This report was updated with comment from the ICO

Facebook’s AI couldn’t spot mass murder

Facebook has given another update on measures it took and what more it’s doing in the wake of the livestreamed video of a gun massacre by a far right terrorist who killed 50 people in two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.

Earlier this week the company said the video of the slayings had been viewed less than 200 times during the livestream broadcast itself, and about about 4,000 times before it was removed from Facebook — with the stream not reported to Facebook until 12 minutes after it had ended.

None of the users who watched the killings unfold on the company’s platform in real-time apparently reported the stream to the company, according to the company.

It also previously said it removed 1.5 million versions of the video from its site in the first 24 hours after the livestream, with 1.2M of those caught at the point of upload — meaning it failed to stop 300,000 uploads at that point. Though as we pointed out in our earlier report those stats are cherrypicked — and only represent the videos Facebook identified. We found other versions of the video still circulating on its platform 12 hours later.

In the wake of the livestreamed terror attack, Facebook has continued to face calls from world leaders to do more to make sure such content cannot be distributed by its platform.

The prime minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern told media yesterday that the video “should not be distributed, available, able to be viewed”, dubbing it: “Horrendous.”

She confirmed Facebook had been in contact with her government but emphasized that in her view the company has not done enough.

She also later told the New Zealand parliament: “We cannot simply sit back and accept that these platforms just exist and that what is said on them is not the responsibility of the place where they are published. They are the publisher. Not just the postman.”

We asked Facebook for a response to Ardern’s call for online content platforms to accept publisher-level responsibility for the content they distribute. Its spokesman avoided the question — pointing instead to its latest piece of crisis PR which it titles: “A Further Update on New Zealand Terrorist Attack”.

Here it writes that “people are looking to understand how online platforms such as Facebook were used to circulate horrific videos of the terrorist attack”, saying it therefore “wanted to provide additional information from our review into how our products were used and how we can improve going forward”, before going on to reiterate many of the details it has previously put out.

Including that the massacre video was quickly shared to the 8chan message board by a user posting a link to a copy of the video on a file-sharing site. This was prior to Facebook itself being alerted to the video being broadcast on its platform.

It goes on to imply 8chan was a hub for broader sharing of the video — claiming that: “Forensic identifiers on many of the videos later circulated, such as a bookmarks toolbar visible in a screen recording, match the content posted to 8chan.”

So it’s clearly trying to make sure it’s not singled out by political leaders seek policy responses to the challenge posed by online hate and terrorist content.

Further details it chooses to dwell on in the update is how the AIs it uses to aid the human content review process of flagged Facebook Live streams are in fact tuned to “detect and prioritize videos that are likely to contain suicidal or harmful acts” — with the AI pushing such videos to the top of human moderators’ content heaps, above all the other stuff they also need to look at.

Clearly “harmful acts” were involved in the New Zealand terrorist attack. Yet Facebook’s AI was unable to detected a massacre unfolding in real time. A mass killing involving an automatic weapon slipped right under the robot’s radar.

Facebook explains this by saying it’s because it does not have the training data to create an algorithm that understands it’s looking at mass murder unfolding in real time.

It also implies the task of training an AI to catch such a horrific scenario is exacerbated by the proliferation of videos of first person shooter videogames on online content platforms.

It writes: “[T]his particular video did not trigger our automatic detection systems. To achieve that we will need to provide our systems with large volumes of data of this specific kind of content, something which is difficult as these events are thankfully rare. Another challenge is to automatically discern this content from visually similar, innocuous content – for example if thousands of videos from live-streamed video games are flagged by our systems, our reviewers could miss the important real-world videos where we could alert first responders to get help on the ground.”

The videogame element is a chilling detail to consider.

It suggests that a harmful real-life act that mimics a violent video game might just blend into the background, as far as AI moderation systems are concerned; invisible in a sea of innocuous, virtually violent content churned out by gamers. (Which in turn makes you wonder whether the Internet-steeped killer in Christchurch knew — or suspected — that filming the attack from a videogame-esque first person shooter perspective might offer a workaround to dupe Facebook’s imperfect AI watchdogs.)

Facebook post is doubly emphatic that AI is “not perfect” and is “never going to be perfect”.

“People will continue to be part of the equation, whether it’s the people on our team who review content, or people who use our services and report content to us,” it writes, reiterating yet again that it has ~30,000 people working in “safety and security”, about half of whom are doing the sweating hideous toil of content review.

This is, as we’ve said many times before, a fantastically tiny number of human moderators given the vast scale of content continually uploaded to Facebook’s 2.2BN+ user platform.

Moderating Facebook remains a hopeless task because so few humans are doing it.

Moreover AI can’t really help. (Later in the blog post Facebook also writes vaguely that there are “millions” of livestreams broadcast on its platform every day, saying that’s why adding a short broadcast delay — such as TV stations do — wouldn’t at all help catch inappropriate real-time content.)

At the same time Facebook’s update makes it clear how much its ‘safety and security’ systems rely on unpaid humans too: Aka Facebook users taking the time and mind to report harmful content.

Some might say that’s an excellent argument for a social media tax.

The fact Facebook did not get a single report of the Christchurch massacre livestream while the terrorist attack unfolded meant the content was not prioritized for “accelerated review” by its systems, which it explains prioritize reports attached to videos that are still being streamed — because “if there is real-world harm we have a better chance to alert first responders and try to get help on the ground”.

Though it also says it expanded its acceleration logic last year to “also cover videos that were very recently live, in the past few hours”.

But again it did so with a focus on suicide prevention — meaning the Christchurch video would only have been flagged for acceleration review in the hours after the stream ended if it had been reported as suicide content.

So the ‘problem’ is that Facebook’s systems don’t prioritize mass murder.

“In [the first] report, and a number of subsequent reports, the video was reported for reasons other than suicide and as such it was handled according to different procedures,” it writes, adding it’s “learning from this” and “re-examining our reporting logic and experiences for both live and recently live videos in order to expand the categories that would get to accelerated review”.

No shit.

Facebook also discusses its failure to stop versions of the massacre video from resurfacing on its platform, having been — as it tells it — “so effective” at preventing the spread of propaganda from terrorist organizations like ISIS with the use of image and video matching tech.

It claims  its tech was outfoxed in this case by “bad actors” creating many different edited versions of the video to try to thwart filters, as well as by the various ways “a broader set of people distributed the video and unintentionally made it harder to match copies”.

So, essentially, the ‘virality’ of the awful event created too many versions of the video for Facebook’s matching tech to cope.

“Some people may have seen the video on a computer or TV, filmed that with a phone and sent it to a friend. Still others may have watched the video on their computer, recorded their screen and passed that on. Websites and pages, eager to get attention from people seeking out the video, re-cut and re-recorded the video into various formats,” it writes, in what reads like another attempt to spread blame for the amplification role that its 2.2BN+ user platform plays.

In all Facebook says it found and blocked more than 800 visually-distinct variants of the video that were circulating on its platform.

It reveals it resorted to using audio matching technology to try to detect videos that had been visually altered but had the same soundtrack. And again claims it’s trying to learn and come up with better techniques for blocking content that’s being re-shared widely by individuals as well as being rebroadcast by mainstream media. So any kind of major news event, basically.

In a section on next steps Facebook says improving its matching technology to prevent the spread of inappropriate viral videos being spread is its priority.

But audio matching clearly won’t help if malicious re-sharers just both re-edit the visuals and switch the soundtrack too in future.

It also concedes it needs to be able to react faster “to this kind of content on a live streamed video” — though it has no firm fixes to offer there either, saying only that it will explore “whether and how AI can be used for these cases, and how to get to user reports faster”.

Another priority it claims among its “next steps” is fighting “hate speech of all kinds on our platform”, saying this includes more than 200 white supremacist organizations globally “whose content we are removing through proactive detection technology”.

It’s glossing over plenty of criticism on that front too though — including research that suggests banned far right hate preachers are easily able to evade detection on its platform. Plus its own foot-dragging on shutting down far right extremists. (Facebook only finally banned one infamous UK far right activist last month, for example.)

In its last PR sop, Facebook says it’s committed to expanding its industry collaboration to tackle hate speech via the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism (GIFCT), which formed in 2017 as platforms were being squeezed by politicians to scrub ISIS content — in a collective attempt to stave off tighter regulation.

“We are experimenting with sharing URLs systematically rather than just content hashes, are working to address the range of terrorists and violent extremists operating online, and intend to refine and improve our ability to collaborate in a crisis,” Facebook writes now, offering more vague experiments as politicians call for content responsibility.

Slowdown or not, China’s luxury goods still seeing high-end growth

Despite well-documented concerns over an economic slowdown in China, the country’s luxury goods market is still seeing opulent growth according to a new study. Behind secular and demographic tailwinds, the luxury sector is set to continue its torrid expansion in the face of volatility as it’s quickly becoming a defensive economic crown jewel.

Using proprietary analysis, company data, primary source interviews, and third-party research, Bain & Company dug into the ongoing expansion of China’s high-end market in a report titled “What’s Powering China’s Market for Luxury Goods?

In recent years, China has become one of the largest markets for luxury good companies globally. And while many have raised concern around a drop-off in luxury demand, findings in the report point to the contrary, with Bain forecasting material growth throughout 2019 and beyond. The analysis provides a compelling breakdown of how the sector has seen and will see continued development, as well as a fascinating examination of what strategies separate winners and losers in the space.

The report is worth a quick read, as it manages to provide several insightful and differentiated data points with relative brevity, but here are the most interesting highlights in our view:

PicsArt hits 130 million MAUs as Chinese flock to its photo editing app

If you’re like me, who isn’t big on social media, you’d think that the image filters that come inside most apps will do the job. But for many others, especially the younger crowd, making their photos stand out is a huge deal.

The demand is big enough that PicsArt, a rival to filtering companies VSCO and Snapseed, recently hit 130 million monthly active users worldwide, roughly a year after it amassed 100 million MAUs. Like VSCO, PicsArt now offers video overlays though images are still its focus.

Nearly 80 percent of PicsArt’s users are under the age of 35 and those under 18 are driving most of its growth. The “Gen Z” (the generation after millennials) users aren’t obsessed with the next big, big thing. Rather, they pride themselves on having niche interests, be it K-pop, celebrities, anime, sci-fi or space science, topics that come in the form of filters, effects, stickers and GIFs in PicsArt’s content library.

“PicsArt is helping to drive a trend I call visual storytelling. There’s a generation of young people who communicate through memes, short-form videos, images and stickers, and they rarely use words,” Tammy Nam, who joined PicsArt as its chief operating officer in July, told TechCrunch in an interview.

PicsArt has so far raised $45 million, according to data collected by Crunchbase. It picked up $20 million from a Series B round in 2016 to grow its Asia focus and told TechCrunch that it’s “actively considering fundraising to fuel [its] rapid growth even more.”

picsart

PicsArt wants to help users stand out on social media, for instance, by virtually applying this rainbow makeup look on them. / Image: PicsArt via Weibo

The app doubles as a social platform, although the use case is much smaller compared to the size of Instagram, Facebook and other mainstream social media products. About 40 percent of PicsArt’s users post on the app, putting it in a unique position where it competes with the social media juggernauts on one hand, and serving as a platform-agnostic app to facilitate content creation for its rivals on the other.

What separates PicsArt from the giants, according to Nam, is that people who do share there tend to be content creators rather than passive consumers.

“On TikTok and Instagram, the majority of the people there are consumers. Almost 100 percent of the people on PicsArt are creating or editing something. For many users, coming on PicsArt is a built-in habit. They come in every week, and find the editing process Zen-like and peaceful.”

Trending in China

Most of PicsArt’s users live in the United States, but the app owes much of its recent success to China, its fastest growing market with more than 15 million users. The regional growth, which has been 10-30 percent month-over-month recently, appears more remarkable when factoring in PicsArt’s zero user acquisition expense in a crowded market where pay-to-play is a norm for emerging startups.

“Many larger companies [in China] are spending a lot of money on advertising to gain market share. PicsArt has done zero paid marketing in China,” noted Nam.

Screenshot: TikTok-related stickers from PicsArt’s library

When people catch sight of an impressive image filtering effect online, many will inquire about the toolset behind it. Chinese users find out about the Armenian startup from photos and videos hashtagged #PicsArt, not different from how VSCO gets discovered from #vscocam on Instagram. It’s through such word of mouth that PicsArt broke into China, where users flocked to its Avengers-inspired disappearing superhero effect last May when the film was screening. China is now the company’s second largest market by revenue after the U.S.

Screenshot: PicsArts lets users easily apply the Avengers dispersion effect to their own photos

A hurdle that all media apps see in China is the country’s opaque guidelines on digital content. Companies in the business of disseminating information, from WeChat to TikTok, hire armies of content moderators to root out what the government deems inappropriate or illegal. PicsArt says it uses artificial intelligence to sterilize content and keeps a global moderator team that also keeps an eye on its China content.

Despite being headquartered in Silicon Valley, PicsArt has placed its research and development center in Armenia, home to founder Hovhannes Avoyan. This gives the startup access to much cheaper engineering talents in the country and neighboring Russia compared to what it can hire in the U.S. To date, 70 percent of the company’s 360 employees are working in engineering and product development (50 percent of whom are female), an investment it believes helps keep its creative tools up to date.

Most of PicsArt’s features are free to use, but the firm has also looked into getting paid. It rolled out a premium program last March that gives users more sophisticated functions and exclusive content. This segment has already leapfrogged advertising to be PicsArt’s largest revenue source, although in China, its budding market, paid subscriptions have been slow to come.

picsart 1

PicsArt lets users do all sorts of creative work, including virtually posing with their idol. / Image: PicsArt via Weibo

“In China, people don’t want to pay because they don’t believe in the products. But if they understand your value, they are willing to pay, for example, they pay a lot for mobile games,” said Jennifer Liu, PicsArt China’s country manager.

And Nam is positive that Chinese users will come to appreciate the app’s value. “In order for this new generation to create really differentiated content, become influencers, or be more relevant on social media, they have to do edit their content. It’s just a natural way for them to do that.”

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

Snap is under NDA with UK Home Office discussing how to centralize age checks online

Snap is under NDA with the UK’s Home Office as part of a working group tasked with coming up with more robust age verification technology that’s able to robustly identify children online.

The detail emerged during a parliamentary committee hearing as MPs in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) questioned Stephen Collins, Snap’s senior director for public policy international, and Will Scougal, director of creative strategy EMEA.

A spokesman in the Home Office press office hadn’t immediately heard of any discussions with the messaging company on the topic of age verification. But we’ll update this story with any additional context on the department’s plans if more info is forthcoming.

Under questioning by the committee Snap conceded its current age verification systems are not able to prevent under 13 year olds from signing up to use its messaging platform.

The DCMS committee’s interest here is it’s running an enquiry into immersive and addictive technologies.

Snap admitted that the most popular means of signing up to its app (i.e. on mobile) is where its age verification system is weakest, with Collins saying it had no ability to drop a cookie to keep track of mobile users to try to prevent repeat attempts to get around its age gate.

But he emphasized Snap does not want underage users on its platform.

“That brings us no advantage, that brings us no commercial benefit at all,” he said. “We want to make it an enjoyable place for everybody using the platform.”

He also said Snap analyzes patterns of user behavior to try to identify underage users — investigating accounts and banning those which are “clearly” determined not to be old enough to use the service.

But he conceded there’s currently “no foolproof way” to prevent under 13s from signing up.

Discussing alternative approaches to verifying kids’ age online the Snap policy staffer agreed parental consent approaches are trivially easy for children to circumvent — such as by setting up spoof email accounts or taking a photo of a parent’s passport or credit card to use for verification.

Social media company Facebook is one such company that relies a ‘parental consent’ system to ‘verify’ the age of teen users — though, as we’ve previously reported, it’s trivially easy for kids to workaround.

“I think the most sustainable solution will be some kind of central verification system,” Collins suggested, adding that such a system is “already being discussed” by government ministers.

“The home secretary has tasked the Home Office and related agencies to look into this — we’re part of that working group,” he continued.

“We actually met just yesterday. I can’t give you the details here because I’m under an NDA,” Collins added, suggesting Snap could send the committee details in writing.

“I think it’s a serious attempt to really come to a proper conclusion — a fitting conclusion to this kind of conundrum that’s been there, actually, for a long time.”

“There needs to be a robust age verification system that we can all get behind,” he added.

The UK government is expected to publish a White Paper setting out its policy ideas for regulating social media and safety before the end of the winter.

The detail of its policy plans remain under wraps so it’s unclear whether the Home Office intends to include setting up a centralized system of online age verification for robustly identifying kids on social media platforms as part of its safety-focused regulation. But much of the debate driving the planned legislation has fixed on content risks for kids online.

Such a step would also not be the first time UK ministers have pushed the envelop around online age verification.

A controversial system of age checks for viewing adult content is due to come into force shortly in the UK under the Digital Economy Act — albeit, after a lengthy delay. (And ignoring all the hand-wringing about privacy and security risks; not to mention the fact age checks will likely be trivially easy to dodge by those who know how to use a VPN etc, or via accessing adult content on social media.)

But a centralized database of children for age verification purposes — if that is indeed the lines along which the Home Office is thinking — sounds rather closer to Chinese government Internet controls.

Given that, in recent years, the Chinese state has been pushing games companies to age verify users to enforce limits on play time for kids (also apparently in response to health concerns around video gaming addiction).

The UK has also pushed to create centralized databases of web browsers’ activity for law enforcement purposes, under the 2016 Investigatory Powers Act. (Parts of which it’s had to rethink following legal challenges, with other legal challenges ongoing.)

In recent years it has also emerged that UK spy agencies maintain bulk databases of citizens — known as ‘bulk personal datasets‘ — regardless of whether a particular individual is suspected of a crime.

So building yet another database to contain children’s ages isn’t perhaps as off piste as you might imagine for the country.

Returning to the DCMS committee’s enquiry, other questions for Snap from MPs included several critical ones related to its ‘streaks’ feature — whereby users who have been messaging each other regularly are encouraged not to stop the back and forth.

The parliamentarians raised constituent and industry concerns about the risk of peer pressure being piled on kids to keep the virtual streaks going.

Snap’s reps told the committee the feature is intended to be a “celebration” of close friendship, rather than being intentionally designed to make the platform sticky and so encourage stress.

Though they conceded users have no way to opt out of streak emoji appearing.

They also noted they have previously reduced the size of the streak emoji to make it less prominent.

But they added they would take concerns back to product teams and re-examine the feature in light of the criticism.

You can watch the full committee hearing with Snap here.

misterb&b hits the equity crowdfunding trail to expand into hotels

Homosexuality is illegal in a third of the counties on this planet; in eight countries it is punishable by death. In the febrile atmosphere of today’s politics, hate-crime incidents in the U.S. increased by 17 percent from 2016 to 2017, according to the FBI.

More than 20 of those incidents were crimes against an individual’s sexual orientation — the largest increase since 9/11. Similar hate-crime statistics have increased in the U.K. and several other western countries.

It’s strange and saddening to think that men, women and gender non-conforming people who “travel while gay” are now in a more dangerous — and potentially life-threatening — situation around the world, despite us being well into the 21st century.

The key to the situation is knowing whether the place you’re staying will be welcoming or not. There are many incidents where, at hotels, gay travelers have been rejected or forced to book separate rooms, and had to fall back on third-party, unverified, user-generated reviews.

Now, misterb&b, the short-term rental marketplace aimed at the gay community, has a simple solution. Customers can book an entire home or rent a private room at the home of a gay or gay-friendly host, with many located in gay-friendly neighborhoods. The startup competes with more home-spun sites like “Gay Home Stays,” however, misterb&b has already raised substantial amounts in VC.

The startup graduated from the 500 Startups accelerator and has raised US$13.5 million from institutional investors like Project A and Ventech, and from angels like Joel Simkhai (founder of Grindr, which sold for US$300 million). The marketplace now has 310,000 hosts in more than 135 countries, and claims to have 30 percent revenue growth YoY; with 60 percent of the business done organically by repeat customers.

Indeed, misterb&b has now raised more than half a million dollars inside a week via Wefunder to fund its expansion. This will allow guests, hosts and the public to invest in the company’s push to launch its services into the hotel sector.

Investors are buying into a lucrative market. The niche of global gay tourism is estimated to be a $100 billion market, while gay people travel twice as much as other travelers. Its fundraising may also benefit from the influx of new tech millionaires being created by the upcoming IPOs of Uber, Lyft, Postmates and Airbnb.

CEO and founder Matthieu Jost says he wants to “build equality into the sharing economy and give back to a community that’s been historically economically marginalized,” providing its community “with the power of part ownership of the company.”

The idea for starting misterb&b was first conceived in 2013 after he had a negative experience while traveling with his partner and didn’t feel welcome by his host. “Six years ago, my partner and I traveled to and booked a room in Barcelona through a third-party rental website,” he told me via email.

“Unfortunately, when we arrived there, we were faced with a host who was very much homophobic and asked me if we were seriously going to share a bedroom. This was a very sad thing to have to face. Straight, hetero folks never have to worry about something so humiliating as this while on a lovely vacation; they will never have to think about it or prepare for it.”

“When I returned home I felt dejected, but I felt I had do something to solve this horrific problem — yet common fear — that our community faces. I don’t want my community to be afraid of traveling anymore,” he said.

“We are reaching out to the most passionate people in the community: our hosts and our guests, as well as LGBTQ allies,” said Jost. “We want to provide the opportunity to financially benefit from our successes,” he added.

The crowdfunding is for a new selection of gay-friendly and gay-welcoming hotels that have been selected by the company’s editorial team for their quality, exclusive and verified reviews from LGBTQ travelers. The idea is that travelers will also be able to connect with each other to explore the city together — especially because there’s safety in numbers.

YC-backed Basement is a social network for close friends only

The past few years have been a bit of a dark age for budding social media startups. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snap and messenger apps took up all the time of their users, leaving little room for yet another social media platform.

But the tide is shifting. Privacy scandals have shaken some users’ faith giants like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, and users have grown fatigued by the constant onslaught of #content.

Basement, a YC-backed startup, is looking to give users a new, simpler social network.

Basement allows users to only add up to 20 friends on the network. Cofounders Fernando Rojo and Jeremy Berman said they waited around for someone to build something like Basement after seeing their own friend groups migrate most of their communication to messenger apps from Facebook and other social networks.

On Basement, there are no filters or influencers. The hope is that users share with the people they actually want to share with.

It uses a feed-based system for sharing, letting users share content to their 20 friends. Users can also share to a smaller group of friends by tagging them, which limits the viewership to only mutual friends of those tagged.

Users who are friends can see one another’s comments on a mutual friend’s post. However, comments left by non-friends will always appear anonymous.

Alongside the main feed, Basement also has a meme feed, letting users choose from the internet’s top trending memes to share to their friend group.

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Of course, Basement isn’t the first startup to try out the idea of a close-friends social network. Path was founded by Shawn Fanning and Dave Morin in 2010, giving users a photo-sharing and messaging platform that maxed out at 50 friends.

The network grew in the face of competition from Facebook, and at peak had around 50 million users. In fact, Path was raising money at a valuation of $500 million and turned down a $100 million offer from Google in its early months.

But it failed to retain talent, users and momentum. (A controversial privacy scandal in 2012 didn’t help.) In 2015, Path sold to Kakao for an undisclosed amount and was shut down for good just last year.

Rojo and Berman believe timing is more in their favor than it was with Path, but are also targeting a different audience. Whereas Path was aimed both at close friends and family, Basement wants to position itself squarely with young people who are already spending their time in meme-laden group chats.

“One of the challenges is that growth isn’t necessarily as inherently explosive in a micro-network as it would be with a broader social network,” said Rojo. “What’s exciting to us is that if anyone tries to spark up something similar to this, they’ll be one or two years behind. It’s harder to grow a micronetwork, but once it’s bigger it’s much more robust because it’s the place where people turn when they want to connect with their close friends.”

What’s more: Basement promises to never run ads on the platform.

The company plans to mimic the WhatsApp business model, giving users their first year free and then charging an inexpensive subscription after that.

After Christchurch, Reddit bans communities infamous for sharing graphic videos of death

In the aftermath of the tragic mosque massacre that claimed 49 lives in Christchurch, New Zealand, tech companies scrambled to purge their platforms of promotional materials that the shooter left behind. As most of the internet is now unfortunately aware, the event was broadcast live on Facebook, making it one of the most horrific incidents of violence to spread through online communities in realtime.

As Twitter users cautioned others from sharing the extraordinarily graphic video, some Reddit users actively sought the video and knew exactly where to look. The infamous subreddit r/watchpeopledie was quarantined (making it unsearchable) in September 2018 but until today remained active for anyone to visit directly. The subreddit has a long history of sharing extremely graphic videos following tragic events and acts of violence, like the 2018 murder of two female tourists in Morocco.

After Thursday’s shooting, the subreddit became extremely active with users seeking out a copy of the video, which was shot in first-person perspective from a head-mounted camera.

After the flurry of interest, one the subreddit’s moderators locked the a thread about the video and posted this statement:

“Sorry guys but we’re locking the thread out of necessity here. The video stays up until someone censors us. This video is being scrubbed from major social media platforms but hopefully Reddit believes in letting you decide for yourself whether or not you want to see unfiltered reality. Regardless of what you believe, this is an objective look into a terrible incident like this.

Remember to love each other.”

Late Thursday, the subreddit’s members were actively sharing mirrored links to the Christchurch video, though they did so largely via direct messaging. After watching the footage, many users returned to the thread to express that the content was extremely disturbing and to caution even their most violence-hardened peers from seeking the video.

The subreddit remained active until some time late Friday morning Pacific Time, when Reddit banned the controversial community.

Reddit declined to provide details about its decision to ban the long-running community after this particular act of violence. “We are very clear in our site terms of service that posting content that incites or glorifies violence will get users and communities banned from Reddit,” a company spokesperson told TechCrunch. “Subreddits that fail to adhere to those site-wide rules will be banned.”

The subreddit’s many detractors consider the act of seeking and sharing such graphic depictions of death both inherently disturbing and disrespectful to victims and their families.

The subreddit is unquestionably grisly but remains surprisingly well-loved by some devotees, who insist that its graphic depictions of death are in fact life-affirming.

“Definitely saved me and helped me figure out I didn’t necessarily have tomorrow to get my shit in order,” one former member said in a thread discussing the since-banned community.

“Don’t think it is the kind of place to spend too much time in but, we all need reminders.”

Reddit banned the adjacent subreddits r/gore and r/wpdtalk (“watch people die talk”) on Friday as well.