Facebook snags former Vine GM to run product for its new experimental app division, NPE Team

Is Facebook preparing to launch a serious competitor to TikTok? If so, the company just picked up some key talent to make that happen. Last week, Facebook announced plans for a new division, called the NPE Team, which will build experimental consumer-focused apps where it will try different ideas and features, then see how people react. Now, Facebook has picked up former Vine GM Jason Toff to join the NPE team as a Product Management Director.

Toff’s experience also includes time spent at Google, most notably as a Product Lead for YouTube before exiting to Vine in 2014. At the short-form video app maker, Toff worked as Head of Product for a year, then became Vine’s General Manager.

Vine, of course, was later snatched up by Twitter — and there, Toff moved up to Director of Product Management before boomeranging back to Google, where his initial focus was on AR and VR projects.

Most recently, Toff worked as a Partner at Google’s Area 120, Google’s in-house incubator where employees work on experimental projects.

That’s not all that different from what Facebook appears to have in store with its own NPE Team ambitions. Similar to Area 120 or Microsoft Garage, for example, the NPE Team plans to deliver apps that will “change very rapidly” in response to consumer feedback. It will also be quick to close down experiments that aren’t useful to people in fairly short order.

That’s not how Facebook itself operates. Its more experimental apps have had longer runs, as the company used them to gain feedback to inform its larger projects. For example, its photo-sharing app Moments ran from 2015 through early 2019, and its TrueCaller-like app Hello for emerging markets ran for several years, despite fairly limited adoption.

Facebook has also tried and failed with a number of other offshoots over the past decade, like Facebook Paper, Notify, a Snapchat clone called Lifestage, and others, as well as those it picked up through acquisitions, then later shut down like tbh or Moves. It also previously ran an internal incubator of sorts called Facebook Creative Labs, which birthed now-failed projects like Slingshot, Riff, and Rooms.

Many of these efforts were fairly high-profile at launch, which made their eventual shut down more problematic for Facebook’s image. With NPE Team — as with Area 120 or Microsoft Garage — there’s a layer of separation between the test apps and the larger company. Many of the apps that the NPE Team puts out will bomb, and that’s the point — it wants to get the failures out of the way faster so others can find success.

While Toff can’t yet say what he’ll be working on at Facebook, there’s a lot of speculation that NPE Team will try to come up with some sort of answer to TikTok, the Beijing-based short-form video app that sucked up Musical.ly in 2018 and now is a Gen Z social networking hit with some 500 million-plus monthly users. Toff’s background with Vine could certainly be helpful if that were the case.

Facebook, of course, already tried to get a TikTok clone off the ground with Lasso, but the experiment didn’t take off and the app lead, Brady Voss, left Facebook soon after its launch. It

Toff says he’s hiring for NPE Team, including both UX designers and engineers.

Twitch continues to dominate live streaming with its second-biggest quarter to date

Twitch continues to lead rivals including, YouTube Live, Facebook Gaming and Microsoft’s Mixer, when it comes to live-streaming video. Despite experiencing its first decline in hours watched in Q2 2019, the Amazon-owned game-streaming site still had its second-biggest quarter to date, with more than 70% of the hours watched during the quarter.

According to a new report from StreamElements, Twitch viewers live-streamed a total of 2.72+ billion hours in Q2 — or 72.2% of all live hours watched — compared with 735.54 million hours on YouTube Live (19.5%), 197.76 million on Facebook Gaming (5.3%) and just 112.29 million hours (3%) on Mixer.

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Combined, the total hours watched across all four platforms was 3.77 billion in Q2.

While none of Twitch’s rivals are nearly catching up, YouTube Live did have a good month in May, breaking its own record with 284 million hours watched. Overall, YouTube Live’s hours watched improved in Q2 as a result, while Twitch saw a slight decline.

Facebook Gaming is also gaining steam. It’s now the third-biggest live-streaming platform, having passed Microsoft Mixer.

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Despite its traction, Twitch doesn’t have much of a long tail when it comes to stream viewership. That’s a problem it has faced for some time, as newcomers complained they spent years broadcasting to no one in hopes of gaining a fan base, with little success. Twitch has tried to remedy this problem with various educational efforts as well as product features like Raids and Squad Streams, for example.

However, the new report finds that the majority (almost 75%) of Twitch’s viewership still comes from people tuning in to the top 5,000 channels. Out of the 2.7 billion hours watched in Q2, these top 5,000 channels drove 2 billion of those hours watched.

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In addition, the average concurrent viewership (viewers watching at the same time) of the top 5,000 channels increased by 12% in Q2 2019, compared with Q1. The top 200 channels have the highest concurrent viewership with 10,590 people watching together, on average.

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Also in the quarter, viewership of top titles like Fortnite, League of Legends, Dota 2 and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive declined, while vlogging — aka “Just Chatting” — grew, along with other titles.

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Esports, meanwhile, still draws big numbers, but represents only a small slice of the overall pie.

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The full report, which takes a look at other trends, including which streamers are gaining and losing popularity, is available here.

YouTube is giving creators more ways to make money

YouTube is rolling out more ways for its creators to engage fans and generate revenue, the company announced today at the VidCon event in Anaheim, Calif. Last year, YouTube used the event to launch new products like channel memberships, merchandise shelves, premieres and more. This time around, it’s expanding several of those existing options with new features, while also introducing new products like Super Stickers and Learning Playlists — the latter which aims to promote the educational use of YouTube.

Super Stickers, meanwhile, is meant to complement the existing monetization tool, Super Chat.

Launched in January 2017, Super Chat lets fans pay to make their message stand out during a YouTuber’s live stream or premiere. Today, YouTube says Super Chat is now the No.1 revenue stream across nearly 20,000 channels — a 65% year-over-year increase.

More than 90,000 channels have used Super Chat to date, with some earning more than $400 per minute, thanks to the feature.

Given Super Chat’s traction, YouTube is introducing Super Stickers, which will launch in the next few months. Fans will be able to purchase these new, animated stickers during live streams and premieres in order to show creators how much they like their content.

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The idea for Super Stickers seems to be inspired by gaming site Twitch’s Bits emotes and cheermotes, which also bring animated stickers into chat as a way of supporting video creators. However, YouTube’s Super Stickers will have a different look-and-feel, and will be offered across different languages and categories — including gaming, fashion and beauty, sports, music, food and more.

At last year’s VidCon, YouTube also introduced Channel Memberships — an expansion of YouTube Gaming’s previous Twitch-like “Sponsorship” model, where fans pay a subscription to gain access to special features associated with a favorite channel.

At present, fans can opt to pay the $4.99 Channel Membership subscription to get unique badges, new emojis and other special perks like access to exclusive live streams, extra videos or shout-outs. Today, YouTube is introducing a much-requested change to memberships: levels.

With levels, creators can set up to five different price points for memberships, each with their own set of perks. The feature has already been tested by select YouTubers, including the Fine Brothers Entertainment on their REACT channel. Their channel membership revenue increased by 6x after they rolled out two more expensive pricing tiers, YouTube said.

In addition, YouTube is expanding its Merch shelf feature that also launched last year at VidCon. Its debut partner Teespring helped creators sell merchandise like t-shirts, hats, phone cases and more. YouTube took a small commission on the sales, but said the majority went to the creator — along with the money made from the merch sales themselves.

Today, the Merch shelf is gaining several more partners, like Crowdmade, DFTBA, Fanjoy, Represent and Rooster Teeth.

YouTube says “thousands” of channels have more than doubled their revenue since launch thanks to the Merch shelf, Super Chat and Channel Memberships.

Beyond the monetization features, YouTube also took time to speak about the educational and inspirational use cases on its site.

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To make it easier for people to use YouTube to learn something new, the company is debuting a new feature called Learning Playlists, which offers more structure than is available with playlists today. The feature allows educational video creators to divide videos into chapters around key concepts, going from more basic to more advanced. And it hides recommendations from the Watch page — a first for YouTube.

Initially, only a handful of trusted partners get to test this feature, including Khan Academy, TED-Ed, The Coding Train and Crash Course, to name a few.

Finally, the site’s fundraising tool, YouTube Giving, is preparing to exit beta after a year of testing. The feature will launch in the months ahead and become available to thousands of U.S. creators. Once live, fans can click a Donate button to give to the nonprofit the creator wants to support.

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Ahead of today’s VidCon keynote from YouTube Chief Product Officer Neal Mohan, the company had announced some well-received changes to the site’s copyright infringement tools.

It said copyright owners now have to specify the timestamp in the video their content appears, while creators will be able to use an updated version of YouTube Creator Studio to easily remove the portion of the content associated with the claim.

This helps to address situations where the Manual Claiming system was being used (or some would say abused) to claim very short — even only one-second long — pieces of content, or incidental content — like when a creator walks past a store that’s playing music, for example. The company had said in April it was looking to address this.

The new system lets creators easily mute the sound when the claimed song plays, replace the song with free-to-use tracks or quickly trim out the infringing content instead of taking their video down.

Creators generally welcome the changes and new features that help them better engage fans and make money (or at least, not lose money).

That being said, YouTube is still under scrutiny for its bigger missteps and other practices like the gaming of its recommendation system and its role in creating a pedophilia wormhole; its alleged COPPA violations, which the FTC was alerted to; its ability to radicalize viewers as they’re pointed to ever more extreme content; its contribution to a world where parents exploit their kids for cash; and issues around how it polices “free speech” and hate speech, among other things.

In the grand scheme of things, YouTube has a lot on its plate beyond a few stickers and new ways to sell swag. But these are the sorts of tools that lock in creators to the YouTube platform, even amid threats from other large tech companies like Facebook, Instagram and now Snapchat, which just announced new creator shows.

YouTube lands on Fire TV and Amazon Prime Video arrives on Chromecast, Android TV

It’s nice when people can come together and work through their differences to make it easier to watch stuff. That’s exactly what happened today, when the long-standing detente between Google and Amazon over streaming video services came to an end, with YouTube arriving on Fire TV and Prime Video making its way to Chromecast and Android TV.

Amazon’s second-generation Fire TV Stick, their Fire TV Stick 4K, the Fire TV Cube, Fire TV Stick Basic Edition and Fire TV Edition smart TVs made by partner OEMs will all get support for the official YouTube app globally starting today, and Amazon intends to extend support to even more of its hardware in the future. YouTube TV and YouTube Kids will also come to Amazon Fire TV devices later this year.

On the Google side, both its own Chromecast devices, as well as partner TVs and hardware that support Chromecast built-in, or that run Android TV, will gain support broadly for Prime Video. Plus, any Chromecast Ultra owners will also get access to Prime Video’s 4,000-title library normally reserved for Prime members, at no additional cost, as part of the new tie-up between the two companies.

Prime has been available on some Android TV devices to date, but it’s expanding to a much broader selection of those smart TVs and streaming boxes from today.

This has been a long time coming — several years in fact, with the most recent spat between the two coming as a result of Amazon’s implementation of YouTube on the Echo Show. Then, in May, the companies announced they’d reached an agreement to put the feud behind them in the interest of consumers, which is what resulted in this cross-platform launch today.

Let the streams flow!

Adopting a ratings system for social media like the ones used for film and TV won’t work

Internet platforms like Google, Facebook, and Twitter are under incredible pressure to reduce the proliferation of illegal and abhorrent content on their services.

Interestingly, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg recently called for the establishment of “third-party bodies to set standards governing the distribution of harmful content and to measure companies against those standards.” In a follow-up conversation with Axios, Kevin Martin of Facebook “compared the proposed standard-setting body to the Motion Picture Association of America’s system for rating movies.”

The ratings group, whose official name is the Classification and Rating Administration (CARA), was established in 1968 to stave off government censorship by educating parents about the contents of films. It has been in place ever since – and as longtime filmmakers, we’ve interacted with the MPAA’s ratings system hundreds of times – working closely with them to maintain our filmmakers’ creative vision, while, at the same time, keeping parents informed so that they can decide if those movies are appropriate for their children.  

CARA is not a perfect system. Filmmakers do not always agree with the ratings given to their films, but the board strives to be transparent as to why each film receives the rating it does. The system allows filmmakers to determine if they want to make certain cuts in order to attract a wider audience. Additionally, there are occasions where parents may not agree with the ratings given to certain films based on their content. CARA strives to consistently strike the delicate balance between protecting a creative vision and informing people and families about the contents of a film.

 CARA’s effectiveness is reflected in the fact that other creative industries including televisionvideo games, and music have also adopted their own voluntary ratings systems. 

While the MPAA’s ratings system works very well for pre-release review of content from a professionally- produced and curated industry, including the MPAA member companies and independent distributors, we do not believe that the MPAA model can work for dominant internet platforms like Google, Facebook, and Twitter that rely primarily on post hoc review of user-generated content (UGC).

Image: Bryce Durbin / TechCrunch

 Here’s why: CARA is staffed by parents whose judgment is informed by their experiences raising families – and, most importantly, they rate most movies before they appear in theaters. Once rated by CARA, a movie’s rating will carry over to subsequent formats, such as DVD, cable, broadcast, or online streaming, assuming no other edits are made.

By contrast, large internet platforms like Facebook and Google’s YouTube primarily rely on user-generated content (UGC), which becomes available almost instantaneously to each platform’s billions of users with no prior review. UGC platforms generally do not pre-screen content – instead they typically rely on users and content moderators, sometimes complemented by AI tools, to flag potentially problematic content after it is posted online.

The numbers are also revealing. CARA rates about 600-900 feature films each year, which translates to approximately 1,500 hours of content annually. That’s the equivalent of the amount of new content made available on YouTube every three minutes. Each day, uploads to YouTube total about 720,000 hours – that is equivalent to the amount of content CARA would review in 480 years!

 Another key distinction: premium video companies are legally accountable for all the content they make available, and it is not uncommon for them to have to defend themselves against claims based on the content of material they disseminate.

By contrast, as CreativeFuture said in an April 2018 letter to Congress: “the failure of Facebook and others to take responsibility [for their content] is rooted in decades-old policies, including legal immunities and safe harbors, that actually absolve internet platforms of accountability [for the content they host.]”

In short, internet platforms whose offerings consist mostly of unscreened user-generated content are very different businesses from media outlets that deliver professionally-produced, heavily-vetted, and curated content for which they are legally accountable.

Given these realities, the creative content industries’ approach to self-regulation does not provide a useful model for UGC-reliant platforms, and it would be a mistake to describe any post hoc review process as being “like MPAA’s ratings system.” It can never play that role.

This doesn’t mean there are not areas where we can collaborate. Facebook and Google could work with us to address rampant piracy. Interestingly, the challenge of controlling illegal and abhorrent content on internet platforms is very similar to the challenge of controlling piracy on those platforms. In both cases, bad things happen – the platforms’ current review systems are too slow to stop them, and harm occurs before mitigation efforts are triggered. 

Also, as CreativeFuture has previously said, “unlike the complicated work of actually moderating people’s ‘harmful’ [content], this is cut and dried – it’s against the law. These companies could work with creatives like never before, fostering a new, global community of advocates who could speak to their good will.”

Be that as it may, as Congress and the current Administration continue to consider ways to address online harms, it is important that those discussions be informed by an understanding of the dramatic differences between UGC-reliant internet platforms and creative content industries. A content-reviewing body like the MPAA’s CARA is likely a non-starter for the reasons mentioned above – and policymakers should not be distracted from getting to work on meaningful solutions.

YouTube update gives users more insight and control over recommendations

YouTube today announced a series of changes designed to give users more control over what videos appear on the Homepage and in its Up Next suggestions — the latter which are typically powered by an algorithm. The company also says it will offer more visibility to users as to why they’re being shown a recommended video — a peek into the YouTube algorithm that wasn’t before possible.

One new feature is designed to make it easier to explore topics and related videos from both the YouTube Homepage and in the Up Next video section. The app will now display personalized suggestions based on what videos are related to those you’re watching, videos published by the channel you’re watching, or others that YouTube thinks will be of interest.

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This feature is rolling out to signed-in users in English on the YouTube app for Android and will be available on iOS, desktop and other languages soon, the company says.

If YouTube’s suggestions aren’t right — and they often aren’t — users will now be able to access controls that explicitly tell the service to stop suggesting videos from a particular channel.

This will be available from the three-dot menu next to a video on the Homepage or Up Next. From there, you’ll click “Don’t recommend channel.” From that point forward, no videos from that channel will be shown.

However, you’ll still be able to see the videos if you Subscribe, do a search for them, or visit the Channel page directly — they aren’t being hidden from you entirely, in other words. The videos may also still appear on the Trending tab, at times.

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This feature is available globally now on the YouTube app for Android and iOS starting today, and will be available on desktop soon.

Lastly, and perhaps most notably, YouTube is giving users slight visibility into how its algorithm works.

Before, people may not have understood why certain videos were recommended to them. Another new feature will detail the reasons why a video made the list.

Now, underneath a video suggestion, YouTube will say why it was selected.

“Sometimes, we recommend videos from channels you haven’t seen before based on what other viewers with similar interests have liked and watched in the past,” explains the company in its announcement. ” Our goal is to explain why these videos surface on your homepage in order to help you find videos from new channels you might like,” says YouTube.

For example, the explanation might say that viewers who also watch one of your favorite channels also watch the channel that the video recommendation is coming from.

YouTube’s algorithm is likely far more complex than just “viewers who like this also like that,” but it’s a start, at least.

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This feature is launching globally on the YouTube app for iOS today, and will be available on Android and desktop soon.

The changes come at a time when YouTube — and other large social media companies — are under pressure from government regulators over how they manage their platforms. Beyond issues around privacy and security, the spread of hate speech and disinformation, platform providers are also being criticized for their reliance on opaque algorithms that determine what is shown to their end users.

YouTube, in particular, came under fire for how its own Recommendations algorithm was leveraged by child predators in the creation of pedophilia wormhole. YouTube responded by shutting off the comments on kids’ videos where the criminals were sharing timestamps. But it stopped there.

“The company refused to turn off recommendations on videos featuring young children in leotards and bathing suits even after researchers demonstrated YouTube’s algorithm was recommending these videos to pedophiles,” wrote consumer advocacy groups in a letter to the FTC this week, urging the agency to take action against YouTube to protect children.

The FTC hasn’t commented on its investigation, as per policy, but confirmed it received the letter.

Explaining to end users how Recommendations work is only part of the problem.

The other issue that YouTube’s algorithm can end up creating “filter bubbles,” which can lead users to down dark paths, at times.

For instance, a recent story in The New York Times detailed how a person who came to YouTube for self-help videos was increasingly shown ever more radical and extremist content, thanks to the algorithm’s recommendations which pointed him to right-wing commentary, then to conspiracy videos, and finally racist content.

The ability to explicitly silence some YouTube recommendations may help those who care enough to control their experience, but won’t likely solve the problem of those who just follow the algorithm’s suggestions. However, if YouTube were to eventually use this as a new signal — a downvote of sorts — it could influence the algorithm in other more subtle ways.

 

U.S. Senator and consumer advocacy groups urge FTC to take action on YouTube’s alleged COPPA violations

The groups behind a push to get the U.S. Federal Trade Commission to investigate YouTube’s alleged violation of children’s privacy law, COPPA, have today submitted a new letter to the FTC that lays out the appropriate sanctions the groups want the FTC to now take. The letter comes shortly after news broke that the FTC was in the final stages of its probe into YouTube’s business practices regarding this matter.

They’re joined in pressing the FTC to act by COPPA co-author, Senator Ed Markey, who penned a letter of his own, which was also submitted today.

The groups’ formal complaint with the FTC was filed back in April 2018. The coalition, which then included 20 child advocacy, consumer and privacy groups, had claimed YouTube doesn’t get parental consent before collecting the data from children under the age of 13 — as is required by the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, also known as COPPA.

The organizations said, effectively, that YouTube was hiding behind its terms of service which claims that YouTube is “not intended for children under 13.”

This simply isn’t true, as any YouTube user knows. YouTube is filled with videos that explicitly cater to children, from cartoons to nursery rhymes to toy ads — the latter which often come about by way of undisclosed sponsorships between toy makers and YouTube stars. The video creators will excitedly unbox or demo toys they received for free or were paid to feature, and kids just eat it all up.

In addition, YouTube curates much of its kid-friendly content into a separate YouTube Kids app that’s designed for the under-13 crowd — even preschoolers.

Meanwhile, YouTube treats children’s content like any other. That means targeted advertising and commercial data collection are taking place, the groups’ complaint states. YouTube’s algorithms also recommend videos and autoplay its suggestions — a practice that led to kids being exposed to inappropriate content in the past.

Today, two of the leading groups behind the original complaint — the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC) and Center for Digital Democracy (CDD) — are asking the FTC to impose the maximum civil penalties on YouTube because, as they’ve said:

Google had actual knowledge of both the large number of child-directed channels on YouTube and the large numbers of children using YouTube. Yet, Google collected personal information from nearly 25 million children in the U.S over a period of years, and used this data to engage in very sophisticated digital marketing techniques. Google’s wrongdoing allowed it to profit in two different ways: Google has not only made a vast amount of money by using children’s personal information as part of its ad networks to target advertising, but has also profited from advertising revenues from ads on its YouTube channels that are watched by children.

The groups are asking the FTC to impose a 20-year consent degree on YouTube.

They want the FTC to order YouTube to destroy all data from children under 13, including any inferences drawn from the data, that’s in Google’s possession. YouTube should also stop collecting data from anyone under 13, including anyone viewing a channel or video directed at children. Kids’ ages also need to be identified so they can be prevented from accessing YouTube.

Meanwhile, the groups suggest that all the channels in the Parenting and Family lineup, plus any other channels or video directed at children, be removed from YouTube and placed into a separate platform for children. (e.g. the YouTube Kids app).

This is something YouTube is already considering, according to a report from The Wall Street Journal last week.

This separate kids platform would have a variety restrictions, including no commercial data collection; no links out to other sites or online services; no targeted marketing; no product or brand integration; no influencer marketing; and even no recommendations or autoplay.

The removal of autoplaying videos and recommendations, in particular, would be a radical change to how YouTube operates, but one that could protect kids from inappropriate content that slips in. It’s also a change that some employees inside YouTube itself were vying for, according to The WSJ’s report. 

The groups also urge the FTC to require Google to fund educational campaigns around the true nature of Google’s data-driven marketing systems, admit publicly that it violated the law, and submit to annual audits to ensure its ongoing compliance. They want Google to commit $100 million to establish a fund that supports the production of noncommercial, high-quality and diverse content for kids.

Finally, the groups are asking that Google faces the maximum possible civil penalties —  $42,530 per violation, which could be counted as either per child or per day. This monetary relief needs to be severe, the groups argue, so Google and YouTube will be deterred from ever violating COPPA in the future.

While this laundry list of suggestions is more like a wish list of what the ideal resolution would look like, it doesn’t mean that the FTC will follow through on all these suggestions.

However, it seems likely that the Commission would at least require YouTube to delete the improperly collected data and isolate the kids’ YouTube experience in some way. After all, that’s precisely what it just did with Tik Tok (previously Musical.ly) which earlier this year paid a record $5.7 million fine for its own COPPA violations. It also had to implement an age gate where under-13 kids were restricted from publishing content.

The advocacy groups aren’t the only ones making suggestions to the FTC.

Senator Ed Markey (D-Mass.) also sent the FTC a letter today about YouTube’s violations of COPPA — a piece of legislation that he co-authored.

In his letter, he urges the FTC take a similar set of actions, saying:

“I am concerned that YouTube has failed to comply with COPPA. I therefore, urge the Commission to use all necessary resources to investigate YouTube, demand that YouTube pay all monetary penalties it owes as a result of any legal violations, and instruct YouTube to institute policy changes that put children’s well-being first.”

His suggestions are similar to those being pushed by the advocacy groups. They include demands for YouTube to delete the children’s data and cease data collection on those under 13; implement an age gate on YouTube to come into compliance with COPPA; prohibit targeted and influencer marketing; offer detailed explanations of what data is collected if for “internal purposes;” undergo a yearly audit; provide documentation of compliance upon request; and establish a fund for noncommercial content.

He also wants Google to sponsor a consumer education campaign warning parents that no one under 13 should use YouTube and want Google to be prohibited from launching any new child-directed product until it’s been reviewed by an independent panel of experts.

The FTC’s policy doesn’t allow it to confirm or deny nonpublic investigations. YouTube hasn’t yet commented on the letters.

Week-in-Review: YouTube’s awful comments and Google’s $1B tech-free investment

Hello, weekend readers. This is Week-in-Review where I give a heavy amount of analysis and/or rambling thoughts on one story while scouring the rest of the hundreds of stories that emerged on TechCrunch this week to surface my favorites for your reading pleasure.

Last week, I talked about how the top gaming industry franchises were proving immortal and how that could change. I mainly asked questions and I got some great answers in my email. Keep the feedback coming.

An interesting corollary to that conversation was Niantic releasing its Harry Potter title this week, a game that takes liberal gameplay cues from Pokémon GO but attaches it to new IP. The big question is whether Niantic can strike gold twice; here’s an Extra Crunch interview my colleague Greg did with the startup’s CEO.


This week, the biggest tech topic at hand from the big companies was probably Facebook’s Libra cryptocurrency, I’d normally dig into that but my colleague Josh did such a bang-up job breaking down Libra and why it’s important that I don’t feel the need to. You can read his explainer below.

Facebook announces Libra cryptocurrency: All you need to know 

In the midst of scouring this week’s headlines, a pretty low-key story from Friday caught my eye detailing how YouTube was testing a version of its app where the comments were hidden by default. Companies test this stuff all the time and it’s hardly a commitment but it did make me reflect on how the nature of user-submitted comments has shifted and how certain platforms develop community cultures based on the way those comments are sorted.

Web comments have been searching for their final form for a while now. Twitter turned comments into the main 140 character dish, but Twitter’s influence is getting baked into a ton of platforms. Sites like Instagram are starting to gain a greater understanding of how users want responses to complement their content and the opportunities they’ve seized on really showcase the user-submitted opportunities being wasted by platforms like YouTube and Twitch.

YouTube downgrading their comment visibility kind of highlights what a cesspool the company has allowed them to turn into, but rather than being a place where people are vile, the platform just hasn’t grown them into something useful or exciting over the past decade.

As Instagram continues to become a place where more and more famous users interact with each other, the comment fields are becoming the place where users “bond” with the accounts they follow even if they’re still lurking around and reading how the account responds to other high-profile users. 

This is how public channels with big audiences should operate. Sure, it’s partially a result of the culture of the platform, but algorithms can shape these cultures.

The issue is so many other comment systems are seemingly organized to treat anonymous users, real-name users and verified personalities the same. Ascribing an equal weight to all of these types of content is kind of a surprisingly quaint way to handle user-generated content, it’s also a great way for platforms to find engagement ceilings and the limits of what spam can become.

You don’t have to go searching far through TechCrunch’s stories to find some good old-fashioned “how I earned $72/hour working from home” spam, but just because something isn’t spam doesn’t means it’s worthwhile. Platforms have developed their own comment memes based on what can play the algorithms, it’s not particularly useful, “Like if Jimmy Fallon brought you here,” “Like if you’re watching this in 2019.”

Platforms organized around building communities have an incentive to elevate anonymous voices and foster relationships and dialogue. Back in the Gawker days, most of my time on the site was spent digging through the comments looking for commenters I recognized and enjoying their dialogue. That’s what Reddit has become in a lot of ways, a place where the posts are secondary to the reactions, but the forum systems of web 1.0 aren’t made for such general influencer-focused platforms of 2019 and it’s an area where there are a lot of wasted opportunities.

YouTube comments have garnered this reputation for being so laughable bad because the company has let the average of what’s submitted define them, acting as a one-size fits all for platforms that are decidedly more dynamic.

Send me feedback
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On to the rest of the week’s news.

Trends of the week

Here are a few big news items from big companies, with green links to all the sweet, sweet added context.

  • Tesla paints it black (for a price)
    Tesla is looking to keep those margins hopping and there next play to make your Tesla a bit more pricey is by making the white paint job on its vehicles, making white the standard color. It may seem like a rough deal, especially when you can a monitor stand for your new Apple Display for the same price. Read more here about why Elon did this.
  • Google drops a B on the Bay
    To those living in the arena of Silicon Valley, it’s no secret that the housing shortage is hurting wallets. How much of that is big tech’s fault and how much of it is the local government’s fault is hard to tell at times, but certainly neither is doing as much as they could. This week Google pledged a whopping $1 billion worth of assistance to the problem. Forking over $750 million worth of real estate and a quarter-billion dollars worth of funding for residential projects is quite the pledge, let’s see how the money gets spent. You can read more here.
  • Slate failures
    Google’s Pixel Slate tablet was such hot garbage that the company is leaving the tablet game for good and focusing on its Pixel laptop line instead. Read more here.

GAFA Gaffes

How did the top tech companies screw up this week? This clearly needs its own section, in order of awfulness:

  1. Apple recalls some MacBooks:
    [Apple issues voluntary recall of 2015 MacBook Pro batteries due to overheating concern]
  2. Google swats down shareholder vote:
    [Google defeats shareholders on ‘Dragonfly’ censored search in China]
  3. Facebook in hot water over fake review sales: 
    [Facebook and eBay told to tackle trade in fake reviews]
  4. Maps keeping it real fake:
    [Google responds to report that concluded there are millions of fake business listings on Maps]

Image via Getty Images / Feodora Chiosea

Extra Crunch

Our premium subscription service had another week of interesting deep dives. TechCrunch’s Ron Miller wrote a story asking VCs and CEOs just how much startup founders should be paying themselves.

Startup founders need to decide how much salary is enough

“…Murat Bicer,  general partner at CRV,  says you could probably ask 10 VCs this question, and get 10 different answers, but he sees the range at the low end of perhaps $125,000 and at the high end maybe $200,000, depending on the location of the startup and the cost of living in a particular city…”

Here are some of our other top reads this week for premium subscribers. This week TechCrunch writers talked a bit about keeping your H-1B status and how you should be negotiating your term sheet with strategic investors.

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YouTube confirms a test where the comments are hidden by default

YouTube’s comments section has a bad reputation. It’s even been called “the worst on the internet,” and a reflection of YouTube’s overall toxic culture where creators are rewarded for outrageous behavior — whether that’s tormenting and exploiting their children, filming footage of a suicide victim, promoting dangerous “miracle cures” or sharing conspiracies, to name a few high-profile examples. Now, the company is considering a design change that hides the comments by default.

The website XDA Developers first spotted the test on Android devices in India.

Today, YouTube’s comments don’t have a prominent position on its mobile app. On both iOS and Android devices, the YouTube video itself appears at the top of the screen, followed by engagement buttons for sharing, liking, disliking, downloading and saving the video. Below that are recommendations from YouTube’s algorithm in a section titled “Up Next.” If you actually want to visit the comments, you have to scroll all the way to the bottom of the page.

In the test, the comments have been removed from this bottom section of the page entirely.

Instead, they’ve been relocated to a new section that users can only view after clicking a button.

The new Comments button is found between the Thumbs Down and Share buttons, right below the video.

It’s unclear if this change will reduce or increase user engagement with comments, or if engagement will remain flat — something that YouTube likely wants to find out, too.

On the one hand, comments are hidden unless the user manually taps on the button to reveal them — users won’t happen upon them by scrolling down. On the other hand, putting the comments button behind a click at top of the page instead of forcing users to scroll could make them easier to access.

As XDA Developers reports, when you’ve loaded up this new Comments section, you can pull to refresh the page to see the newly-added comments appear. To exit, you tap the “X” button at the top of the window to close the section.

While it reported the test was underway in Android devices in India, we’ve confirmed it’s also appearing on iOS and is not limited to a particular region. That means it’s something YouTube wants to test on a broader scale, rather than a feature it’s considering for a localized version of its app for Indian users.

The change comes at a time when YouTube’s comments section has been discovered to be more than just the home to bullying, abuse, arguments, and other unhelpful content, but also a tool that was exploited by pedophiles. A ring of pedophiles had communicated through the comments to share videos and timestamps with one another.

YouTube reacted then by disabling comments on videos with kids. More recently, it’s been considering moving kids content to a separate app. (Unfortunately, it will never consider the appropriateness of having built a platform where young children can be put on public display for the whole world to see.)

A YouTube spokesperson confirmed the Comments test, in a statement, but downplayed its importance by referring to it as one of many small experiments the company is running.

“We’re always experimenting with ways to help people more easily find, watch, share and interact with the videos that matter most to them,” the spokesperson told TechCrunch. “We are testing a few different options on how to display comments on the watch page. This is one of many small experiments we run all the time on YouTube, and we’ll consider rolling features out more broadly based on feedback on these experiments.”

YouTube’s new AR Beauty Try-On lets viewers virtually try on makeup while watching video reviews

Makeup tutorials and reviews are some of the most popular content on YouTube, as they help people learn about new products as well as how to apply them. YouTube is now kicking that experience up a notch with the introduction of a new AR feature for virtual makeup try-on right from the YouTube app. Called AR Beauty Try-On, the feature is designed to be used in a split screen experience while YouTube viewers watch the makeup tutorial.

When available, the YouTube makeup review or tutorial video plays at the top of the screen, with a stream from your own front-facing camera below. Here, a YouTube viewer could access a palate of colors — like new lipstick shades, for example — and tap to apply them to their own face while the video plays above.

The feature is currently in the very early stages of development — alpha testing — and is being offered to YouTube creators through Google’s in-house branded content program, FameBit. Through this program, brands are connected with YouTube influencers who market their products through paid sponsorships.

YouTube says it already tested AR Beauty Try-On with several beauty brands, and found that 30% of viewers chose to activate the experience when it was available in the YouTube iOS app. While that’s not a majority by any means, those who did try the feature were fairly engaged, spending over 80 seconds trying on the virtual lipstick shades.

M·A·C Cosmetics is the first brand to launch an AR Beauty Try-On campaign, which includes the ability for the brand to see real-time results from the try-on activity.

AR Beauty Try-On is the latest of several AR initiatives from Google, including also the recent launch of AR in Google Search and updates to its developer platform ARCore.

However, Google is not the first to offer a virtual makeup try-on experience. Beyond the fun makeup filters in various social networking apps, there are a number of AR beauty apps offering a similar experience to YouTube’s AR Beauty Try-On, including YouCam Makeup, Sephora’s Virtual Artist, Ultra’s GLAMLab, and others. L’Oreal also offers Live Try-On on its website, and partnered with Facebook last year to bring virtual makeup to the site. Target’s online Beauty Studio also offers virtual makeup across a number of brands and products.

The difference with YouTube’s AR Try-On is that it’s really more about offering an AR-powered ad campaign, not just a fun consumer product or a tool for on-site e-commerce conversions.

The AR ad format launch is one of several new ad products Google announced today.

The company is also introducing a new immersive display format called Swirl for the mobile web which lets consumers view products in a 360 format. Swirl allows for rotating a product, zooming in and out, or playing an animation.

The format is only available through Display and Video 360, says Google. Brands will be able to use a new editor on Google’s 3D platform Poly to create their Swirl display ads. If they already have 3D assets, they can build a Swirl ad using the 3D/Swirl component in Google Web Designer instead.

Perfume maker Guerlain is using Swirl for ads that animate to capture consumers’ attention.

Another new format in Display & Video 360 lets brands run their YouTube live stream content in display ads, which can also be built with Google Web Designer.

The new tools will be available to brands and advertisers this summer, Google says.