Tumblr’s subscription product Post+ enters open beta after much scrutiny from users

Tumblr is entering open beta for its subscription product Post+, meaning that all U.S. users can now try out the monetization feature. The product launched in closed beta in July, allowing users hand-picked by Tumblr to place some of their content behind a monthly paywall. This marked the first time that Tumblr allowed bloggers to monetize their content directly on the platform, but the feature was met with backlash from users who worried about how the feature would change the site’s culture.

Now, Tumblr has responded to user feedback by removing the blue Post+ badge that appeared next to the names of users who enabled the feature. Tumblr differentiates itself from other sites by not revealing users’ follower and following counts, so users were concerned that this distinction, which looked like a Twitter verification badge, contradicted that key aspect of Tumblr culture. Tumblr is also adding a $1.99/month price point in open beta — before, subscriber-only content could be priced at $3.99, $5.99, and $9.99. Tumblr will only take 5% of creator profits — comparatively, Patreon takes between 5% and 12% depending on the tier. Payments will be processed through Stripe.

Still, Tumblr users were dismayed by the way Post+ was rolled out. Many bloggers were concerned that in the closed beta, Post+ users didn’t have the ability to block paying subscribers without first contacting support — this could potentially expose users to harassment without the tools to manage it. Tumblr corrected that mistake in the open beta, so now, users can block subscribers themselves. Creators can also put existing content behind the Post+ paywall.

Some users upset with the Post+ rollout staged a protest, which — with over 98,000 notes — is the first thing that shows up when you search “post plus” on Tumblr. Many people on Tumblr have amassed followings by posting iterative fan content, like fanfiction. Tumblr cited fanfiction as an example of the kind of content that creators can put behind a paywall, but users remain concerned that they will be subject to legal action if they were to do so. Archive of Our Own, a major fanfiction site, prohibits its users from linking to sites like Patreon or Ko-Fi, since some intellectual property rights holders can be litigious about the monetization of fanfiction. While it’s considered fair use to make fan content, profiting from it can be considered a violation of copyright.

When Tumblr banned pornographic content in 2018, monthly page views decreased by 29% — to date, the blogging platform hasn’t regained that traffic. After being sold to Automattic in 2019, Tumblr has committed to capturing the attention of Gen Z audiences, who the platform says make up about 48% of its users. Tumblr says it’s catering Post+ to serve Gen Z audiences, but the results of the open beta will begin to reveal whether or not this is what users on the platform want.

Cameo launches Cameo Calls, a service for fans to video chat with celebs

If you really want to video chat tonight with William Hung of retro American Idol fame… got twenty bucks to spare? Yesterday, Cameo launched its Cameo Calls products, which lets fans video chat for up to 15 minutes one-on-one with their favorite influencers and celebrities. The talent sets the duration, time, and price of their call, which Cameo says averages around $31.

To book a call, users can go to Cameo’s website or app to see a schedule of upcoming Cameo Calls that they can buy. These also appear on individual talent’s Cameo pages. When you purchase a Cameo Call, you get a unique ticket code that you enter on the app to join your call.

In June 2020, Cameo enabled users to book Zoom calls with celebrities as lockdown became a global norm, but Cameo phased out that feature in April. Instead, Cameo Calls now offers a native experience in the app, rather than relying on third-party software. The downside for consumers, though, is that this makes it more difficult to invite your favorite reality star to your office’s Zoom happy hour. But on the bright side, the Cameo Calls includes a dedicated photo opp at the end of the call, so you can get your celebrity selfie without dealing with the awkwardness of asking to take a photo.

Experiences like Cameo Calls make sense in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, when celebrity meet-and-greets might not be safe in many places. But Cameo also thinks this product can stand in for a typical meet and greet even in “normal” times. Often, celebrity meet-and-greets require waiting in a long line to only have 5 or 10 seconds of time with the talent. Even though many Cameo Calls sessions are only a few minutes long, you might be able to get a more personal experience than if you were the 100th fan in a long line in person.

“We foresee Cameo Calls replacing meet and greets at music festivals and world tours, fan conventions, sporting events, and more,” said Cameo Co-founder & CEO Steven Galanis.

Cameo says it tested this product with over 3,000 calls — during testing, talent-hosted themed meet-and-greets, coffee chats, private concerts, and tarot card readings. Some performers who tested the feature include James and Oliver Phelps, who played the Weasley twins in the Harry Potter movies, and David Henrie, a former Disney Channel star.

OpenSea released an app — but it’s for browsing, not buying and selling

It’s a big day for the Amazon of the decentralized internet — OpenSea now has an app for iOS and Android. For most companies, having a mobile app is a milestone you’d reach before hitting a $1.5 billion valuation. But like any store — whether you’re selling NFT art or not — there’s a hefty price to pay for app store transactions, whether you’re on Android or iOS. That’s possibly why OpenSea’s shiny, new app is only for browsing NFTs, not for buying or selling them. For context, OpenSea saw $3.4 billion in trading volume across two million transactions in August. With Apple and Google taking 30% of in-app transactions, if that volume had been traded on the new app… What’s 30% of $3.4 billion?

Perhaps more of a roadblock, there’s still no way to make in-app payments with crypto. If OpenSea wanted to support buying and selling, it would have to build out its infrastructure for USD payments and push more users towards it. But part of the appeal of OpenSea is that it’s a crypto native platform, largely reliant on the Ethereum blockchain which gives people easier access to information about when an NFT was minted, who minted it, how it’s been traded, etc. It could upset the existing ecosystem of users if the startup pushed the platform towards being more dollar-friendly.

On the OpenSea app, users can connect their profile, browse NFTs, favorite NFTs, search and filter NFTs, and view collection and item stats. When you view an NFT in the app, a button appears that lets you share the NFT outside of the app. Rarible, another NFT marketplace, released a mobile app about a month ago. Like OpenSea’s app, on the Rarible app, you can only browse NFTs, not buy, sell, or trade them.

Image Credits: OpenSea

OpenSea hasn’t yet responded to questions from TechCrunch about the company’s plans for the app, including whether or not users might one day be able to buy and sell NFTs in the app. It wouldn’t be the first time that crypto was exchanged on an app, as even PayPal now lets you pay with crypto. Instead, perhaps the app can offer a way to help new users onboard into the NFT space, giving them an easy, user-friendly way to browse NFT art without knowing anything about wallets or blockchains or apes.

This app was unveiled just days after an OpenSea executive was accused of trading NFTs on insider information. The company announced on its blog Wednesday that the employee has since resigned.

Apple brings macro, low light and cinema-focused updates to the iPhone 13 Pro camera

Apple continues its tradition of improving the photography capabilities of consumer devices with today’s announcement of the iPhone 13 and 13 Pro, available on September 24.

Last year’s iPhone 12 had two rear camera lenses, while the iPhone 12 Pro had three; the iPhone 13 and iPhone 13 Pro follow suit. The iPhone 13 features a wide (f/1.6 aperture) and an ultra wide (f/2.4 aperture) lens, which are the same specs as the iPhone 12. But the iPhone 13 Pro unveils an entirely new camera system.

Compared to the iPhone 12 Pro, the iPhone 13 Pro improves low-light performance by allowing for apertures as wide as f/1.5 on the main lens, compared to f/1.6 on the previous model. The ultra wide lens follows the same trend, boasting f/1.8, improved from f/2.4 on the iPhone 12 Pro. These wide apertures should collect more light in darker settings like bars and concerts, hopefully leading to improved image quality. Apple claims that the ultra wide lens will have “up to 92% improvement in low light,” but… we’ll just have to test that ourselves.

Image Credits: Apple

Perhaps the most notable lens upgrade is the improvement to the telephoto lens. Though this lens has a smaller aperture than its predecessor (f/2.8 compared to f/2.0), the new telephoto lens is 77mm-equivalent, while the iPhone 12 Pro’s telephoto was 52mm. This allows users to zoom closer in on far-away scenes without sacrificing image quality. The telephoto lens also now supports night mode, which it didn’t previously.

Apple also announced Macro mode, which will be available on the iPhone 13 Pro. The ultra wide lens and autofocus system work together to magnify subjects as close as 2 centimeters away. These shots are challenging to pull off even on professional, non-phone cameras. Users can also record video and even slow-mo at this scale, which should open up some interesting options.

Image Credits: Apple

Apple also announced Photographic Styles and Cinematic Mode, new features available on both the iPhone 13 and iPhone 13 Pro.

Photographic Styles applies local edits to an image in real time as the photo is rendered, so photographers can compose their shots using one of four presets and see what their end product will look like before they click the shutter button. Of course even point-and-shoots have had real-time filters for a decade, but Apple claims these Photographic Styles are more technologically sophisticated than those, using machine learning to understand how to intelligently apply edits without compromising a subject’s skin tone.

Image Credits: Apple

Cinematic Mode allows users to shoot video, but then change the background blur and virtual focus of the clip later. This feature seems more catered toward professional filmmakers — Apple brought in Kathryn Bigelow and Greig Fraizer to demonstrate the functionality. Still, Canon and Nikon need not worry — there will always be advantages of a camera that’s a camera, as opposed to a camera that’s a phone — but hey, it’s not as though smartphone films have never made a splash in the Academy.

The iPhone 13 will start at $799 (which, for the record, is more expensive than an entry-level DSLR camera and a decent lens). The iPhone 13 Pro — telephoto lens, macro photography and all — starts at $999.

Read more about Apple's Fall 2021 Event on TechCrunch

Apple adds Fitness+ updates, including a group workout feature

After unveiling the Apple Watch Series 7, Apple shared updates that are coming to Fitness+, its fitness service designed around Apple Watch.

Currently, the $9.99/month service is available in six countries, like the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. But at its press event today, Apple announced that the service will become available in many more countries this fall, including Brazil, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, France, Italy, Russia and more. Content will be subtitled in six languages.

Apple also announced that it will add new Pilates and guided meditation content for Fitness+ subscribers starting in the fall. Every day, Fitness+ will add guided meditations that focus on gratitude, mindfulness and calming. These experiences will be available in both video and audio form, and could pose competition to apps like Headspace and Calm.

Also in the fall, Fitness+ will roll out Group Workouts, powered by Share Play. This enables subscribers to exercise alongside their friends via FaceTime or a group message thread, no matter where they are in the world. Up to 32 people can exercise together at once.

Read more about Apple's Fall 2021 Event on TechCrunch

TikTok expands mental health resources, as negative reports of Instagram’s effect on teens leak

TikTok announced this morning that it is implementing new tactics to educate its users about the negative mental health impacts of social media. As part of these changes, TikTok is rolling out a “well-being guide” in its Safety Center, a brief primer on eating disorders, expanded search interventions, and opt-in viewing screens on potentially triggering searches.

Developed in collaboration with International Association for Suicide PreventionCrisis Text LineLive For TomorrowSamaritans of Singapore, and Samaritans (UK), the new well-being guide offers more targeted advice toward people using TikTok, encouraging users to consider how it might impact them to share their mental health stories on a platform where any post has the potential to go viral. TikTok wants users to think about why they’re sharing their experience, if they’re ready for a wider audience to hear their story if sharing could be harmful to them, and if they’re prepared to hear others’ stories in response.

The platform also added a brief, albeit generic memo about the impact of eating disorders under the “topics” section of the Safety Center, which was developed with the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA). NEDA has a long track record of collaborating with social media platforms, most recently working with Pinterest to prohibit ads promoting weight loss.

Already, TikTok directs users to local resources when they search for words or phrases like #suicide,* but now, the platform will also share content from creators with the intent of helping someone in need. The platform told TechCrunch that it chose this content following consultation with independent experts. Additionally, if someone enters a search phrase that might be alarming (TikTok offered “scary makeup” as an example), the content will be blurred out, asking users to opt-in to see the search results.

As TikTok unveils these changes, its competitor Instagram is facing scrutiny after The Wall Street Journal leaked documents that reveal its parent company Facebook’s own research on the harm Instagram poses for teen girls. Similar to the Gen Z-dominated TikTok, more than 40% of Instagram users are 22 or younger, and 22 million teens log into Instagram in the U.S. each day. In one anecdote, a 19-year-old interviewed by The Wall Street Journal said that after searching Instagram for workout ideas, her explore page has been flooded with photos about how to lose weight (Instagram has previously fessed up to errors with its search function, which recommended that users search topics like “fasting” and “appetite suppressants”). Angela Guarda, director for the eating-disorders program at Johns Hopkins Hospital, told The Wall Street Journal that her patients often say they learned about dangerous weight loss tactics via social media.

“The question on many people’s minds is if social media is good or bad for people. The research on this is mixed; it can be both,” Instagram wrote in a blog post today.

As TikTok nods to with its advice on sharing mental health stories, social media can often be a positive resource, allowing people who are dealing with certain challenges to learn from others who have gone through similar experiences. So, despite these platforms’ outsized influence, it’s also on real people to think twice about what they post and how it might influence others. Even when Facebook experimented with hiding the number of “likes” on Instagram, employees said that it didn’t improve overall user well-being. These revelations about the negative impact of social media on mental health and body image aren’t ground-breaking, but they generate a renewed pressure for these powerful platforms to think about how to support their users (or, at the very least, add some new memos to their security center). 

*If you or someone you know is struggling with depression or has had thoughts of harming themselves or taking their own life, The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) provides 24/7, free, confidential support for people in distress, as well as best practices for professionals and resources to aid in prevention and crisis situations.

Amazon releases a Kindle software redesign to make navigation easier

Yeah, yeah, you don’t need to charge a real book — but you also don’t need to update a book’s software, and that’s also often true for Amazon’s Kindle, which rarely gets a software refresh. But now, our trusty Kindles remind us that they’re actually Wi-Fi connected, electronic devices capable of change as Amazon unveils a significant design upgrade for the first time in years.

To simplify navigation, the new look adds a two-tab bar to the bottom of the home screen, letting users easily toggle between the “home” and “library” screens. To access frequently used features, Kindle introduced an arrow on the top of the screen. When tapped, it reveals buttons to access airplane mode, bluetooth, dark mode, sync, or the rest of the settings menu. There’s also a brightness slider.

Amazon notified customers about the update on Friday and says it will roll out in the coming weeks, but many users with eligible devices — Kindle (8th Gen and above), Kindle Paperwhite (7th Gen and above), and Kindle Oasis — have already downloaded the upgrade. If you’re not sure what kind of Kindle you have, you can check here, but if your Kindle is from 2015 or later, you’re probably eligible. If your Kindle is connected to Wi-Fi, the update will install automatically, but you can manually download it here.

The company says it will continue to improve the home and library screens later this year — users will be able to swipe left on the home page to see recently read books from their library. Then, the library screen will introduce new filter and sort menus, a new collection view, and an interactive scroll bar.

Image Credits: Amazon

This is the biggest design update that Kindle has released since around 2016 — but if you noticed that the user interface felt outdated while you wrapped up your summer reading, now you know that Amazon noticed too.

Apple Music is using Shazam to solve the streaming industry’s problem with DJ mixes

Apple Music announced today that it’s created a process to properly identify and compensate all of the individual creators involved in making a DJ mix. Using technology from the audio-recognition app Shazam, which Apple acquired in 2018 for $400 million, Apple Music is working with major and independent labels to devise a fair way to divide streaming royalties among DJs, labels, and artists who appear in the mixes. This is intended to help DJ mixes retain long-term monetary value for all creators involved, making sure that musicians get paid for their work even when other artists iterate on it. And, as one of Apple’s first major integrations of Shazam’s technology, it appears that the company saw value in

Historically, it’s been difficult for DJs to stream mixes online, since live streaming platforms like YouTube or Twitch might flag the use of other artists’ songs as copyright infringement. Artists are entitled to royalties when their song is played by a DJ during a live set, but dance music further complicates this, since small samples from various songs can be edited and mixed together into something unrecognizable.

Apple Music already hosts thousands of mixes, including sets from Tomorrowland’s digital festivals from 2020 and 2021, but only now is it formally announcing the tech that enables it to do this, even though Billboard noted it in June. As part of this announcement, Studio K7!’s DJ Kicks archive of mixes will begin to roll out on the service, giving fans access to mixes that haven’t been on the market in over 15 years.

“Apple Music is the first platform that offers continuous mixes where there’s a fair fee involved for the artists whose tracks are included in the mixes and for the artist making those mixes. It’s a step in the right direction where everyone gets treated fairly,” DJ Charlotte de Witte said in a statement on behalf of Apple. “I’m beyond excited to have the chance to provide online mixes again.”

Image Credits: Apple Music

For dance music fans, the ability to stream DJ mixes is groundbreaking, and it can help Apple Music compete with Spotify, which leads the industry in paid subscribers as it surpasses Apple’s hold on podcasting. Even as Apple Music has introduced lossless audio, spatial audio, and classical music acquisitions, the company hasn’t yet outpaced Spotify, though the addition of DJ mixes adds yet another unique music feature.

Still, Apple Music’s dive into the DJ royalties conundrum doesn’t necessarily address the broader crises at play among live musicians and DJs surviving through a pandemic.

Though platforms like Mixcloud allow DJs to stream sets and monetize using pre-licensed music, Apple Music’s DJ mixes will not include user-generated content. MIDiA Research, in partnership with Audible Magic, found that user-generated content (UGC) — online content that uses music, whether it’s a lipsync TikTok or a Soundcloud DJ mix — could be a music industry goldmine worth over $6 billion in the next two years. But Apple is not yet investing in UGC, as individuals cannot yet upload their personal mixes to stream on the platform like they might on Soundcloud. According to a Billboard report from June, Apple Music will only host mixes after the streamer has identified 70% of the combined tracks.

Apple Music didn’t respond to questions about how exactly royalties will be divided, but this is only a small step in reimagining how musicians will make a living in a digital landscape.

While these innovations help get artists compensated, streaming royalties only account for a small percentage of how musicians make money — Apple pays musicians one cent per stream, while competitors like Spotify pay only fractions of cents. This led the Union of Musicians and Allied Workers (UMAW) to launch a campaign in March called Justice at Spotify, which demands a one-cent-per-stream payout that matches Apple’s. But live events remain a musician’s bread and butter, especially given platforms’ paltry streaming payouts — of course, the pandemic hasn’t been conducive to touring. To add insult to injury, the Association for Electronic Music estimated in 2016 that dance music producers missed out on $120 million in royalties from their work being used without attribution in live performances.

Twitter tests a safety feature on web to remove followers without blocking them

Twitter announced yesterday that it’s testing a feature on the web that makes it possible to remove followers without blocking them. Sometimes, users want to stop a follower from seeing their tweets without outright blocking them — if that follower were to navigate directly to their page, it’d be clear that they had been blocked, which can pose safety risks. Now, some Twitter users with access to this test can remove a follower by navigating to their profile and clicking to view their list of followers. Then, they can click on a three dot icon next to the follow button and select “remove this follower” from the drop-down menu. Not all users currently have this functionality.

Previously, users had maneuvered this “soft block” themselves — if you block a user, then unblock them, it removes them from your followers list. The current test only allows you to remove followers from your own follower list, so if you’re a particularly popular tweeter, it could be difficult to scroll through thousands of names to find the one person you’re looking for. But according to app researcher Alessandro Paluzzi, Twitter has also been working on the ability to remove a follower from their profile, not just your own followers list.

The platform is showing a continued investment in user experience updates focused on web safety. Last week, it revealed a suite of privacy tools that it’s working on, which included the ability to remove followers. The platform also proposed the potential to archive tweets after 30, 60, or 90 days, hiding liked tweets, and leaving conversations. While third-party programs like Semiphemeral have long made it possible to automatically old tweets and unlike messages, having these features built into the app itself could make it easier for users to have greater control over their digital presence without sharing their data with outside developers.

TikTok and Snap alums launch mayk.it, a social music creation app, with $4M in seed funding

After living through the global upheaval of the COVID-19 pandemic, many workers are re-evaluating their career path. Stefan Heinrich Henriquez, a former Head of Global Marketing at TikTok and Chief Marketing Officer at Cameo, is one of them.

“I have been thinking about music since my time at TikTok, and I was really thinking about building something on my own, but then it took me another year to finally have the guts to do it,” said Henriquez. “Then when the pandemic started, I think so many people were thinking about like, ‘What am I doing with my life?”

Along with his co-founder Akiva Bamberger, who was a software engineer on Snap’s Spectacles, Henriquez began work on mayk.it last summer. Today, the social music app launches on iOS and announces its $4 million seed round from investors including Greycroft, Chicago Ventures, Slow Ventures, firstminute, Steven Galanis, Randi Zuckerberg, YouTuber Mr. Beasts’ Night media, Spotify’s first CMO Sophia Bendz, Cyan Banister, artist T-Pain and music industry veteran Zach Katz, among others.

Mayk.it wants to help people easily produce, own, and share music that they can create using just their phone. Users can upload their own beat or select an existing beat from another user, then add vocals (voice effects and somewhat corny lyric generators are available if you’re shy), and then add a visual from Giphy. Once you make (or, “mayk”) something, you can post it on the app, where other users can see it via a discovery page, which categorizes music by feeling or theme, rather than genre.

Mayk.it also poses “ideas,” or prompts to spur creativity, like “What is your pet thinking about right now?” or “Make a song about your first crush.” There’s also a Tinder-like tab that lets you swipe left or right on songs — if you really like it, you can leave a comment (called an “encouragement” in an attempt to keep things supportive) or remix it.

Of course, for creators who might want to get a bit more serious about their creations, remixing and collaborating poses a question of ownership — if someone writes a beat and another user sings over it, who owns it? While you can’t monetize music on mayk.it, you have the right to export it and sell it elsewhere. Henriquez said that anyone involved in the creation of an audio clip or song on the app gets an equal cut, so the beat-maker would get 50% of any profit, and the singer would get 50%. Mayk.it doesn’t take a cut.

Right now, the mayk.it doesn’t have in-app purchases, but Henriquez said that down the road, it could be possible to profit from working with brands or establishing an in-app marketplace. For now, mayk.it is focused on using its seed funding to add new features, improve the product and build a tool that inspires creativity — Henriquez added that, as an LGBTQ+ founder, it’s important to him that users can find community on the app through its social features.

“When I worked at YouTube, you really needed to know Adobe Premiere and After Effects,” said Henriquez. “And what I learned since Musical.ly and TikTok is that you could be a video creator or an actor without having to go through all these things. I think Roblox is doing that now with games, and Canva is doing that with design tools.”

Mayk.it wants to be like a Roblox or Canva for music composition and sharing. You can’t currently create something on mayk.it that sounds like it came from an artist who’s mastered Ableton, but something from mayk.it could easily make the rounds on TikTok.

Though mayk.it is now in the App Store, there’s a waitlist to gain access — but you can also test your skills with a “vibe check,” which invites you to make a song and see if existing users will right-swipe you in. Not to brag, but we passed.