Tinder adds a new home for interactive, social features with launch of Tinder Explore

Tinder is redesigning its app to put a larger emphasis on its social, interactive features with the launch of “Explore,” a new section that will feature events, like the return of the popular “Swipe Night” series, as well as ways to discover matches by interests and dive into quick chats before a match is made. Combined, the changes help to push Tinder further away from its roots as a quick match-based dating app into something that’s more akin to a social network aimed at helping users meet new people.

This shift could resonate better with a younger generation that may feel like traditional online dating has lost its novelty. Today, these users are turning to apps marketing themselves as places to meet new friends, while newcomers to the dating app industry are experimenting with other means of connecting users — such as with short, TikTok-like videos, as in Snack, or even audio, as in SwoonMe. For Tinder, these market shifts may have represented an existential threat to its own business. But instead, the company has doubled down on interactivity as being core to the Tinder experience, as means of maintaining its dominant position.

At launch, Tinder Explore will include a handful of existing features alongside a new way to meet people. The latter allows users to connect with others based on interests — like Foodies, Gamers, Music Lovers, Social Causes, Entrepreneurs, and more. Over time, more interests will be added which will allow Tinder members to find someone based on what they’re like, rather than just what they look like.

Image Credits: Tinder

Explore will also be home to Tinder’s “Swipe Night,” the interactive series that launched in 2019 as an in-app “choose your own adventure” story which helped to boost Tinder engagement as it gave users a reason to relaunch the app at a specific time. Tinder hailed “Swipe Night” as a success, saying the feature attracted over 20 million users during its first run and led to a 26% increase in matches. In November, the series will return — this time, with new characters and a new “whodunit”-style storyline. It will now also leverage the “Fast Chat” feature that powers Tinder’s “Hot Takes” experience, which allows unmatched users to chat.

“Hot Takes” will also appear in Tinder Explore, which the company describes as a more low-stakes way to match with other users. As a timer counts down, users who are chatting can choose if they want to match. If the timer expires, they meet someone new — similar to an online version of speed dating. Since launching this summer, millions of Tinder users have tried “Hot Takes,” which is only available from 6 pm to midnight local time.

However, the bigger story about Tinder Explore isn’t just what sort of features it will host now, but what the company has in store for the future. Earlier this year, Tinder parent Match bought the Korean social networking company Hyperconnect for $1.73 billion — its largest acquisition to date. And it’s preparing to use Hyperconnect’s IP to make the online dating experience even more interactive than it is today, having announced plans to add audio and video chat, including group live video, to several of its top dating app properties, Tinder included.

Tinder Explore provides a platform where features like this could later be added — something Tinder hints towards, noting that the section is designed to offer users access to “a growing list” of social experiences with “many more to follow.”

“A new generation of daters is asking for more from us in the post-Covid world: more ways to have fun and interact with others virtually and more control over who they meet on Tinder,” said Tinder CEO Jim Lanzone, in a company announcement. “Today’s launch of Explore is a major step in creating a deeper, multi-dimensional, interactive experience for our members that expands the possibilities of Tinder as a platform,” he added.

Tinder Explore began rolling out to major English-speaking markets on Wednesday, Sept. 8, and will be available globally by mid-October.

Twitter wants you to tweet to interest-based communities, not just followers

Twitter is a useful place for following breaking news and keeping up with what the people you’re already interested in are doing, but its relative dearth of discovery features and a lack of organized community spaces make it pretty hard to connect with anyone you aren’t actively seeking out.

The company is thinking about changing that. Twitter is on a tear with new features lately and its latest experiment, called Communities, is designed to make it easier to connect around shared interests. Users will be able to join these new social hubs and tweet directly to other people with shared interests rather than their regular group of followers. Those tweets will still be public, but replies will be limited to other community members.

Communities will be user-generated, though Twitter says that will be “limited,” for now, so most people will have to wait a few months before starting their own groups. The earliest Communities will center around popular and generally benign topics on Twitter including “dogs, weather, sneakers, skincare, and astrology.” Twitter’s example images also include cryptocurrency, plants and Black women photographers.

The test begins Wednesday and will show up in a dedicated spot at the bottom of the iOS app or in the side menu on Twitter.com. Twitter says that Android users will be able to read Community tweets too, though “more functionality” is on the way soon — presumably a dedicated app tab and the ability to join and participate in the new groups.

Communities will be created and maintained by designated moderators, who will have the ability to invite other users to the group via DM and remove content posted within the group. Initially invites will be the only way into a Community, but it sounds like Twitter has some grand plans for discovery features that make it easier for people to find places they might want to hang out.

“Some conversations aren’t for everyone, just the people who want to talk about the thing you want to talk about,” Twitter Staff Product Manager David Regan wrote in a blog post announcing the feature. “… We want to continue to support public conversation and help people find Communities that match their interests, while also creating a more intimate space for conversation.”

With any user-driven community space on social media — particularly one where algorithmic discovery factors in — moderation is the big concern. Twitter says that anyone will be able to read, report and quote content posted in a Community, so you don’t have to be a member of a community to flag harmful content like you would in a private Facebook group. Twitter says that it is working on “new reporting flows, and bespoke enforcement actions” to proactively identify problem Communities.

The introduction of Communities pairs well with Twitter’s recent efforts to court creator communities. The company rolled out Super Follows, its paid subscription tool, earlier this month and also recently invited some users to sell tickets for audio rooms with Ticketed Spaces. It’s also testing one-time payments with a feature called Tip Jar that’s currently only available for a subset of accounts.

Communities are a pretty big departure for Twitter, which is obviously in the throes of reimagining the platform as a more dynamic place for community building. By carving out substantial space for subcommunities on Twitter, the company seems to be inching in the direction of a platform like Discord or Reddit, where everything revolves around self-moderating interest-based communities. Those platforms grapple with their own moderation headaches, but specific, interest-driven communities invite users to go deep in a way that makes interactions on Twitter look shallow by comparison.

The introduction of Communities is an interesting direction for a prominent social network that’s remained largely unchanged for more than a decade at this point. If the test sticks, Communities could build connective tissue between users and make the social network generally a more dynamic place to hang out — but that’s only possible if Twitter can strike the right balance between encouraging its newly imagined subcommunities to grow and keeping them safe.

Twitter is testing big ol’ full-width photos and videos

Twitter is exploring ways to build a more visually immersive experience with its latest test, which brings edge-to-edge tweets to the app on iOS.

Full-width images and videos track for the direction the company has shown some interest in going lately. Twitter introduced bigger images with improved cropping controls for its pair of mobile apps earlier this year, making plenty of photographers and other visual artists happy that the social network was suddenly much a much friendlier platform for sharing their work.

Twitter first tested the bigger photos and improved image previews in March before rolling them out broadly two months later, a short timeline we could see again if the test product sticks.

In the current test, tweets fill the full frame from left to right instead of being offset by a pretty large margin on the left. The changes result in much larger images and videos that look better in the feed and a cleaner, more modern design that doesn’t unnecessarily squish tweets to the right of users’ profile pictures.

In testing the feature, Twitter says that it wants to encourage users to have conversations across photos and videos, rather than focusing solely on text like the platform traditionally has. While the result looks like a win to us, any change to Twitter’s design is likely to inspire a vocal subset of users to hate tweet about it for a day or so before forgetting the changes altogether.

Voice chat is coming to Roblox

As one of the frontrunners in the race to build the metaverse, Roblox is thinking ahead to what virtual worlds really need. And while the platform has had no shortage of growth on its current path — as of July, it boasted 47 million daily active users — it’s looking to chart a course toward deeper, richer virtual experiences that will keep people coming back for years to come.

To that end, Roblox is taking careful but decisive steps toward weaving voice chat into the platform’s core experience. The first move: inviting a group of trusted developers to explore how they can integrate proximity-based audio into the wildly popular experiences that beat at the heart of the platform — from chill, vaporwavey vibe games to pulling off kickflips in a Vans-sponsored skate park.

With spatial audio, users will be able to speak with other people nearby through live voice chat. Roblox sees its new voice product as a natural extension of the way that text chat works now, but instead of text bubbles that pop up over an avatar’s head, visible to anybody around them, players will be able to talk naturally to the other people they bump into.

Say you’re hanging out in a virtual skatepark in Roblox with spatial audio enabled: skaters in the half pipe with you would sound loud and clear, just like they would in real life. But you wouldn’t be able to hear someone walking around on the sidewalk across the street, since they’re too far away. To have a private conversation with a nearby friend, you might peel off and walk toward a store down the block.

“As we think about the future of communication in the metaverse, we think that it needs to be very natural and feel very similar to the way we communicate in the real world,” Roblox Chief Product Officer Manuel Bronstein told TechCrunch in an interview. “But it also can transcend, some of the limitations that physics and space create in the real world.”

Bronstein joined the company in March, leaving Google to help realize Roblox’s particular vision for the metaverse. Prior to hopping over to Roblox, Bronstein worked on product teams at Zynga, Xbox and YouTube — three very different companies that are probably equal parts relevant to his current work.

“If you think about the the metaverse as the next incarnation of where you know I could go shopping or I could go to a concert, I could go to school, I think that you need to be relevant to everybody in society and you need to both build the content, the rules, the features that support all of those behaviors,” Bronstein said. “And part of bringing voice to the platform is to ensure that our older audiences has a natural way to communicate.”

Voice chat is very much on the way to Roblox, but that doesn’t mean it will appear overnight — and that’s by design. The company is inviting an initial group of 5,000 developers, all 13 and older, to try out the new spatial voice chat capabilities in a custom-built Roblox community space.

“We’ve put a bunch of neat features in there and places for them to chat and hang out and they’re going to be able to learn from the code that we wrote for that community space… So a few weeks later or a month later they can put that into their experiences and turn it on,” Bronstein said.

Bronstein emphasizes that Roblox will take this process slowly, building new moderation and safety tools in parallel as it goes. The voice rollout will go slowly, starting with the chosen circle of developers and gradually expanding out from there as the company feels confident that it can create a safe enough environment with its moderation tools.

“I think we want to take it slowly and we want to learn as we go through it,” Bronstein said. “We may start, as I mentioned, with the developers. It is likely that right after that, we may go to an audience that is 13+ and park there for a while until we understand exactly if all the pieces are falling into place before deciding if we ever open it to a younger audience.”

To moderate its sprawl of virtual worlds, Roblox uses a blend of automated scanning and a 3,000-person safety team of human reviewers. Like in any social network, players can report, block and mute other players to make their own experiences feel more comfortable. And because half of its player base is under 13, Roblox gives parents options on what kinds of age-appropriate experiences to allow and toggles for things like text chat. If voice chat ever makes its way to younger age groups, parents would be able to disable it altogether.

Roblox’s under-13 crowd comprises a massive chunk of its user base, but a surprising number of older kids and young adults hang out there too. According to the company, 50 percent of its users are over the age of 13 and it’s seeing the most explosive user growth among 17 to 24-year-olds. Roblox is attracting new users, but its core users are also growing up and the company knows it needs to grow alongside them.

Whether voice chat ever rolls out for younger users or not, Roblox seems well aware that keeping a virtual environment with voice chat feeling safe and friendly is a steep challenge. The company plans to rely on user-initiated reporting as voice rolls out and it’s exploring other tools that could bolster those efforts. The company is looking at a few different tools, including automatically recording a snippet of conversation just prior to a user being reported as a way to capture bad behavior for reviewers. It’s also interested in expanding reputation systems that automatically restrict users who have a certain number of strikes against them.

Much like any social platform, Roblox will likely lean heavily on user reporting, which disproportionately shifts the burden to users on the receiving end of hate and harassment — an unfortunate outcome that no social company has properly dedicated the human resources to solving.

Next on the voice roadmap

Bronstein describes spatial audio as “one component” of Roblox’s vision for natural communication. The next step is integrating a voice chat experience that’s persistent across experiences, letting users who know each other hang out even when they aren’t doing the same thing. For anyone who paid attention to the company’s quiet acquisition of a company called Guilded last month, that won’t come as a surprise. Though Roblox’s work on voice pre-dates the acquisition, Guilded will lay the groundwork for Roblox’s future voice plans

A Discord competitor, Guilded similarly built out a chat platform for gamers, doubling down on the competitive gaming scene where Discord expanded its horizons beyond gaming. Beyond group voice chat, Guilded gives gamers built-in scheduling and community management tools that ease the hassle of organizing complex online social events, like wrangling twenty some odd gamers to run raids in World of Warcraft.

“In the near term, Guilded has an amazing road map, we want to just continue with that road map and grow it without any hardcore integration at this point,” Bronstein said.

Into the metaverse

Moderation challenges aside, there’s basically nothing in Roblox’s way. The company went public in March and today it’s worth 49 billion, making it easily one of the most valuable companies in gaming. Investors, content creators and tech giants alike are going all-in on the metaverse, and really, it looks like a pretty safe bet.

Metaverse is a buzzy term right now, but it’s more shorthand than empty hype. When people talk about the metaverse, they generally want to evoke a futuristic vision of interconnected virtual worlds — online spaces that we can move through, socialize and shop within (for better or worse, that last part is key). Whether this will all be in virtual reality or not and when is a point of some debate, but really the interconnected part is the bigger challenge. In the app age, software was siloed by design. But to realize the promise of the metaverse, our virtual selves and our virtual stuff will need to be able to move through online worlds fluidly.

A few companies are ahead of the curve on this, and it’s no coincidence that two of the big ones, Roblox and Fortnite-maker Epic — best known for their virtual worlds stocked with custom avatars, in-game economies and a seamless social layer — are elevating user-created content. Those experiences, and the ability to easily hang out with friends while doing stuff in them and elsewhere in virtual space, may wind up being what the metaverse is all about.

Most adults can hardly grasp the appeal of the blocky, suburban worlds that their kids love hanging out in, but Roblox understands something fundamental about where online life is going. Or rather where we’ll all going — into online worlds like Roblox.

 

WhatsApp faces $267M fine for breaching Europe’s GDPR

It’s been a long time coming but Facebook is finally feeling some heat from Europe’s much trumpeted data protection regime: Ireland’s Data Protection Commission (DPC) has just announced a €225 million (~$267M) for WhatsApp.

The Facebook-owned messaging app has been under investigation by the Irish DPC, its lead data supervisor in the European Union, since December 2018 — several months after the first complaints were fired at WhatsApp over how it processes user data under Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), once it begun being applied in May 2018.

Despite receiving a number of specific complaints about WhatsApp, the investigation undertaken by the DPC that’s been decided today was what’s known as an “own volition” enquiry — meaning the regulator selected the parameters of the investigation itself, choosing to fix on an audit of WhatsApp’s ‘transparency’ obligations.

A key principle of the GDPR is that entities which are processing people’s data must be clear, open and honest with those people about how their information will be used.

The DPC’s decision today (which runs to a full 266 pages) concludes that WhatsApp failed to live up to the standard required by the GDPR.

Its enquiry considered whether or not WhatsApp fulfils transparency obligations to both users and non-users of its service (WhatsApp may, for example, upload the phone numbers of non-users if a user agrees to it ingesting their phone book which contains other people’s personal data); as well as looking at the transparency the platform offers over its sharing of data with its parent entity Facebook (a highly controversial issue at the time the privacy U-turn was announced back in 2016, although it predated GDPR being applied).

In sum, the DPC found a range of transparency infringements by WhatsApp — spanning articles 5(1)(a); 12, 13 and 14 of the GDPR.

In addition to issuing a sizeable financial penalty, it has ordered WhatsApp to take a number of actions to improve the level of transparency it offer users and non-users — giving the tech giant a three-month deadline for making all the ordered changes.

In a statement responding to the DPC’s decision, WhatsApp disputed the findings and dubbed the penalty “entirely disproportionate” — as well as confirming it will appeal, writing:

“WhatsApp is committed to providing a secure and private service. We have worked to ensure the information we provide is transparent and comprehensive and will continue to do so. We disagree with the decision today regarding the transparency we provided to people in 2018 and the penalties are entirely disproportionate. We will appeal this decision.” 

It’s worth emphasizing that the scope of the DPC enquiry which has finally been decided today was limited to only looking at WhatsApp’s transparency obligations.

The regulator was explicitly not looking into wider complaints — which have also been raised against Facebook’s data-mining empire for well over three years — about the legal basis WhatsApp claims for processing people’s information in the first place.

So the DPC will continue to face criticism over both the pace and approach of its GDPR enforcement.

 

Indeed, prior to today, Ireland’s regulator had only issued one decision in a major cross-border cases addressing ‘Big Tech’ — against Twitter when, back in December, it knuckle-tapped the social network over a historical security breach with a fine of $550k.

WhatsApp’s first GDPR penalty is, by contrast, considerably larger — reflecting what EU regulators (plural) evidently consider to be a far more serious infringement of the GDPR.

Transparency is a key principle of the regulation. And while a security breach may indicate sloppy practice, systematic opacity towards people whose data your adtech empire relies upon to turn a fat profit looks rather more intentional; indeed, it’s arguably the whole business model.

And — at least in Europe — such companies are going to find themselves being forced to be up front about what they’re doing with people’s data.

Is the GDPR working?  

The WhatsApp decision will rekindle the debate about whether the GDPR is working effectively where it counts most: Against the most powerful companies in the world, which are also of course Internet companies.

Under the EU’s flagship data protection regulation, decisions on cross border cases require agreement from all affected regulators — across the 27 Member States — so while the GDPR’s “one-stop-shop” mechanism seeks to streamline the regulatory burden for cross-border businesses by funnelling complaints and investigations via a lead regulator (typically where a company has its main legal establishment in the EU), objections can be raised to that lead supervisory authority’s conclusions (and any proposed sanctions), as has happened here in this WhatsApp case.

Ireland originally proposed a far more low-ball penalty of up to €50M for WhatsApp. However other EU regulators objected to its draft decision on a number of fronts — and the European Data Protection Board (EDPB) ultimately had to step in and take a binding decision (issued this summer) to settle the various disputes.

Through that (admittedly rather painful) joint-working, the DPC was required to increase the size of the fine issued to WhatsApp. In a mirror of what happened with its draft Twitter decision — where the DPC has also suggested an even tinier penalty in the first instance.

While there is a clear time cost in settling disputes between the EU’s smorgasbord of data protection agencies — the DPC submitted its draft WhatsApp decision to the other DPAs for review back in December, so it’s taken well over half a year to hash out all the disputes about WhatsApp’s lossy hashing and so forth — the fact that ‘corrections’ are being made to its decisions and conclusions can land — if not jointly agreed but at least arriving via a consensus getting pushed through by the EDPB — is a sign that the process, while slow and creaky, is working. At least technically.

Even so, Ireland’s data watchdog will continue to face criticism for its outsized role in handling GDPR complaints and investigations — with some accusing the DPC of essentially cherry-picking which issues to examine in detail (by its choice and framing of cases) and which to elide entirely (those issues it doesn’t open an enquiry into or complaints it simply drops or ignores), with its loudest critics arguing it’s therefore still a major bottleneck on effective enforcement of data protection rights across the EU.

The associated conclusion for that critique is that tech giants like Facebook are still getting a pretty free pass to violate Europe’s privacy rules.

But while it’s true that a $267M penalty is the equivalent of a parking ticket for Facebook’s business empire, orders to change how such adtech giants are able to process people’s information at least have the potential to be a far more significant correction on problematic business models.

Again, though, time will be needed to tell whether such wider orders are having the sought for impact.

In a statement reacting to the DPC’s WhatsApp decision today, noyb — the privacy advocacy group founded by long-time European privacy campaigner Max Schrems, said: “We welcome the first decision by the Irish regulator. However, the DPC gets about ten thousand complaints per year since 2018 and this is the first major fine. The DPC also proposed an initial €50MK fine and was forced by the other European data protection authorities to move towards €225M, which is still only 0.08% of the turnover of the Facebook Group. The GDPR foresees fines of up to 4% of the turnover. This shows how the DPC is still extremely dysfunctional.”

Schrems also noted that he and noyb still have a number of pending cases before the DPC — including on WhatsApp.

In further remarks, they raised concerns about the length of the appeals process and whether the DPC would make a muscular defence of a sanction it had been forced to increase by other EU DPAs.

“WhatsApp will surely appeal the decision. In the Irish court system this means that years will pass before any fine is actually paid. In our cases we often had the feeling that the DPC is more concerned with headlines than with actually doing the hard groundwork. It will be very interesting to see if the DPC will actually defend this decision fully, as it was basically forced to make this decision by its European counterparts. I can imagine that the DPC will simply not put many resources on the case or ‘settle’ with WhatsApp in Ireland. We will monitor this case closely to ensure that the DPC is actually following through with this decision.”

WhatsApp faces $267M fine for breaching Europe’s GDPR

It’s been a long time coming but Facebook is finally feeling some heat from Europe’s much trumpeted data protection regime: Ireland’s Data Protection Commission (DPC) has just announced a €225 million (~$267M) for WhatsApp.

The Facebook-owned messaging app has been under investigation by the Irish DPC, its lead data supervisor in the European Union, since December 2018 — several months after the first complaints were fired at WhatsApp over how it processes user data under Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), once it begun being applied in May 2018.

Despite receiving a number of specific complaints about WhatsApp, the investigation undertaken by the DPC that’s been decided today was what’s known as an “own volition” enquiry — meaning the regulator selected the parameters of the investigation itself, choosing to fix on an audit of WhatsApp’s ‘transparency’ obligations.

A key principle of the GDPR is that entities which are processing people’s data must be clear, open and honest with those people about how their information will be used.

The DPC’s decision today (which runs to a full 266 pages) concludes that WhatsApp failed to live up to the standard required by the GDPR.

Its enquiry considered whether or not WhatsApp fulfils transparency obligations to both users and non-users of its service (WhatsApp may, for example, upload the phone numbers of non-users if a user agrees to it ingesting their phone book which contains other people’s personal data); as well as looking at the transparency the platform offers over its sharing of data with its parent entity Facebook (a highly controversial issue at the time the privacy U-turn was announced back in 2016, although it predated GDPR being applied).

In sum, the DPC found a range of transparency infringements by WhatsApp — spanning articles 5(1)(a); 12, 13 and 14 of the GDPR.

In addition to issuing a sizeable financial penalty, it has ordered WhatsApp to take a number of actions to improve the level of transparency it offer users and non-users — giving the tech giant a three-month deadline for making all the ordered changes.

In a statement responding to the DPC’s decision, WhatsApp disputed the findings and dubbed the penalty “entirely disproportionate” — as well as confirming it will appeal, writing:

“WhatsApp is committed to providing a secure and private service. We have worked to ensure the information we provide is transparent and comprehensive and will continue to do so. We disagree with the decision today regarding the transparency we provided to people in 2018 and the penalties are entirely disproportionate. We will appeal this decision.” 

It’s worth emphasizing that the scope of the DPC enquiry which has finally been decided today was limited to only looking at WhatsApp’s transparency obligations.

The regulator was explicitly not looking into wider complaints — which have also been raised against Facebook’s data-mining empire for well over three years — about the legal basis WhatsApp claims for processing people’s information in the first place.

So the DPC will continue to face criticism over both the pace and approach of its GDPR enforcement.

 

Indeed, prior to today, Ireland’s regulator had only issued one decision in a major cross-border cases addressing ‘Big Tech’ — against Twitter when, back in December, it knuckle-tapped the social network over a historical security breach with a fine of $550k.

WhatsApp’s first GDPR penalty is, by contrast, considerably larger — reflecting what EU regulators (plural) evidently consider to be a far more serious infringement of the GDPR.

Transparency is a key principle of the regulation. And while a security breach may indicate sloppy practice, systematic opacity towards people whose data your adtech empire relies upon to turn a fat profit looks rather more intentional; indeed, it’s arguably the whole business model.

And — at least in Europe — such companies are going to find themselves being forced to be up front about what they’re doing with people’s data.

Is the GDPR working?  

The WhatsApp decision will rekindle the debate about whether the GDPR is working effectively where it counts most: Against the most powerful companies in the world, which are also of course Internet companies.

Under the EU’s flagship data protection regulation, decisions on cross border cases require agreement from all affected regulators — across the 27 Member States — so while the GDPR’s “one-stop-shop” mechanism seeks to streamline the regulatory burden for cross-border businesses by funnelling complaints and investigations via a lead regulator (typically where a company has its main legal establishment in the EU), objections can be raised to that lead supervisory authority’s conclusions (and any proposed sanctions), as has happened here in this WhatsApp case.

Ireland originally proposed a far more low-ball penalty of up to €50M for WhatsApp. However other EU regulators objected to its draft decision on a number of fronts — and the European Data Protection Board (EDPB) ultimately had to step in and take a binding decision (issued this summer) to settle the various disputes.

Through that (admittedly rather painful) joint-working, the DPC was required to increase the size of the fine issued to WhatsApp. In a mirror of what happened with its draft Twitter decision — where the DPC has also suggested an even tinier penalty in the first instance.

While there is a clear time cost in settling disputes between the EU’s smorgasbord of data protection agencies — the DPC submitted its draft WhatsApp decision to the other DPAs for review back in December, so it’s taken well over half a year to hash out all the disputes about WhatsApp’s lossy hashing and so forth — the fact that ‘corrections’ are being made to its decisions and conclusions can land — if not jointly agreed but at least arriving via a consensus getting pushed through by the EDPB — is a sign that the process, while slow and creaky, is working. At least technically.

Even so, Ireland’s data watchdog will continue to face criticism for its outsized role in handling GDPR complaints and investigations — with some accusing the DPC of essentially cherry-picking which issues to examine in detail (by its choice and framing of cases) and which to elide entirely (those issues it doesn’t open an enquiry into or complaints it simply drops or ignores), with its loudest critics arguing it’s therefore still a major bottleneck on effective enforcement of data protection rights across the EU.

The associated conclusion for that critique is that tech giants like Facebook are still getting a pretty free pass to violate Europe’s privacy rules.

But while it’s true that a $267M penalty is the equivalent of a parking ticket for Facebook’s business empire, orders to change how such adtech giants are able to process people’s information at least have the potential to be a far more significant correction on problematic business models.

Again, though, time will be needed to tell whether such wider orders are having the sought for impact.

In a statement reacting to the DPC’s WhatsApp decision today, noyb — the privacy advocacy group founded by long-time European privacy campaigner Max Schrems, said: “We welcome the first decision by the Irish regulator. However, the DPC gets about ten thousand complaints per year since 2018 and this is the first major fine. The DPC also proposed an initial €50MK fine and was forced by the other European data protection authorities to move towards €225M, which is still only 0.08% of the turnover of the Facebook Group. The GDPR foresees fines of up to 4% of the turnover. This shows how the DPC is still extremely dysfunctional.”

Schrems also noted that he and noyb still have a number of pending cases before the DPC — including on WhatsApp.

In further remarks, they raised concerns about the length of the appeals process and whether the DPC would make a muscular defence of a sanction it had been forced to increase by other EU DPAs.

“WhatsApp will surely appeal the decision. In the Irish court system this means that years will pass before any fine is actually paid. In our cases we often had the feeling that the DPC is more concerned with headlines than with actually doing the hard groundwork. It will be very interesting to see if the DPC will actually defend this decision fully, as it was basically forced to make this decision by its European counterparts. I can imagine that the DPC will simply not put many resources on the case or ‘settle’ with WhatsApp in Ireland. We will monitor this case closely to ensure that the DPC is actually following through with this decision.”

Substack acqui-hires team behind subscription social app Cocoon

Subscription newsletter platform kingpin Substack shared today that they’ve acqui-hired the team behind Cocoon, a subscription social media app built for close friends.

We covered the Y Combinator-backed startup’s initial $3 million seed raise led by Lerer Hippeau back in November 2019, shortly before the pandemic dramatically reconfigured how people used social media to communicate with the people nearest and dearest to them. Cocoon’s initial pitch was for a social network for your closest friends, something that could level-up the text group chat you may have been stuck using before, though over time Cocoon evolved its platform’s dynamics to allow for more open social circles that users could fine tune at will. With the app, users could share text and photo updates while also using passive data from sources like mobile location data or fitness stats to deliver automatic updates to Slack channel-like feeds for specific groups of their friends.

The app was co-founded by Sachin Monga and Alex Cornell, who met in product roles at Facebook.

Unlike plenty of other networking apps, Cocoon didn’t rely on advertising or user data to monetize, instead pushing users to pay for a $4 monthly subscription. Despite the app’s slick design, it didn’t seem to make much of a lasting splash or find its market fit and Substack says they won’t be continuing support for the app, instead choosing to bring the small team aboard. Given some of Substack’s recent initiatives around community building for their network of newsletter writers, it isn’t surprising that they’re seeking out more talent in the space to help evolve the functionality of their platform.

Back in March, the startup detailed it had closed a $65 million Series B at a $650 million valuation, bolstering up on cash as they look to define a space that has gotten more eyeballs on it as of late, with both Twitter and Facebook releasing newsletter products this year.  They’ve been snapping up a few smaller startups over the past few months. Earlier this month, they disclosed that they had bought the debate platform Letter for an undisclosed sum. In Maym, they acqui-hired the team from a community-building consultancy startup called People & Company.

Yik Yak returns from the dead

After meeting an ignominious end in 2017, the anonymous gossip app once popular with college students lives again. Yik Yak returned to the iOS App Store on Monday (sorry, Android users) under new ownership, inspiring a fresh round of interest in the long-dead social network.

With a reputation for rampant cyber-bullying and harassment, moderation woes were central to the app’s failure. Once ubiquitous on many college campuses, Yik Yak limped into 2016, laying off most employees and struggling to keep users engaged. The app tried to pivot away from campus gossip and toward location-based social networking that same year, but it wasn’t enough and the once high-flying social network was sold for scrap.

As co-founders Tyler Droll and Brooks Buffington wound down the app in 2017, Square paid $1 million for several Yik Yak engineers and rights to some of the company’s intellectual property. The company had raised $73 million and was valued around $400 million in 2014, during its peak. TechCrunch contacted the company for information about its new ownership, which is apparently based in Nashville, but has yet to receive a response.

Though we’re still not sure who re-launched it, the new version of Yik Yak is well aware of the original app’s pitfalls. After providing a phone number to sign up, a short onboarding sequence warns users of a zero tolerance “one strike and you’re out” policy for bullying and threats.

“We’re committed to combating bullying and hate speech on the Yik Yak platform by any means necessary,” the new Yik Yak team, which acquired the rights to develop the app in February, wrote on a relaunched website.

Being aware of what issues will inevitably arise on a social network and being prepared to moderate those issues at scale are two very different propositions. Yik Yak is anonymous, but it’s also an app focused on what’s happening IRL nearby within a tight radius, two factors that could combine to pose even more of a moderation challenge.

Within the new app, a sidebar points users toward “stay safe” resources address an array of issues that could arise on the app, like ride-sharing, bullying, sexual consent and COVID-19, though the app doesn’t yet include explicit misinformation policies.

Another section in the sidebar offers a list of mental health resources and encourages users to downvote and report any bullying on the app so it can be reviewed by the Yik Yak team. The company says that yaks with a negative ranking from five or more downvotes will be automatically removed from the app’s feed, though we’ve asked the company for more details about its content moderation plans, including if a team at Yik Yak is dedicated to the task.

The new Yik Yak is built around location-based sharing and users can share messages, called “yaks,” to anyone within a five mile radius. If you’re in a rural area of otherwise quiet zone devoid of yaks, you can amuse yourself with the confessions that show up on a chart of popular national posts.

For now, many high-ranking posts are excited chatter about the app’s return from former Yik Yak devotees — mostly younger millennials who’ve since graduated from college. A smattering of popular posts warns that Gen Z-ers too young to have used Yik Yak during its heyday won’t know what hit them.

“Is this app now 100% 25-30 year olds?” one post reads. “The Zoomers aren’t ready for the return of the Yak,” another user wrote.

Twitter taps crypto developer to lead ‘bluesky’ decentralized social network effort

Twitter’s ambitious upstart decentralized social media working group “bluesky” took an important step Monday as the social media company appointed a formal project lead who will direct how the protocol develops moving forward.

Crypto developer Jay Graber was tapped by Twitter to helm the initiative, which the company hopes will eventually create a decentralized social media protocol that a number of social networks including Twitter will operate on. The separate bluesky organization will operate independently but to date has been funded and managed largely by employees at Twitter.

Graber had already been working in a less formal role inside the bluesky team, with Twitter paying her to create a technical review of the decentralized social ecosystem for a working group of developers in the space. Graber previously worked on the developer team behind privacy focused cryptocurrency Zcash and built out her own decentralized social network called Happening, designed to compete with Facebook Events. Graber eventually walked away from the effort after having issues bootstrapping a user base interested in the benefits of decentralization, something that has grown to be a near-insurmountable issue for most upstart networks in the space.

In an interview back in January, Graber told TechCrunch she saw a major opportunity in Twitter entering the decentralized social space due to the hefty user base on the Twitter platform which will itself eventually migrate to the protocol, the company has said.

“The really powerful thing about Twitter doing a decentralized protocol move, is that if you could design a protocol that works in an ideal way, you don’t have to go through the initial effort of finding the niche to bootstrap from because Twitter will bring so many users,” Graber told us.

In January, TechCrunch profiled the initiative as it gathered more attention following Twitter’s permanent ban of former President Donald Trump from its platform. Following Trump’s removal, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey highlighted the bluesky effort as one of the company’s ongoing initiatives to ensure that social media moderation could be less decentralized in the future. A decentralized social media protocol would allow for individual networks to govern themselves without one company or organization exercising monolithic control over the sphere of online conversations. 

“I think a huge focus for everyone involved has been thinking how do we enable better moderation, and not just coming from one source,” Graber told TechCrunch.

The bluesky organization is still in its earliest stages. Graber’s next task is bulking up the team with its first hires, which include a protocol developer and web developer.

Medal.tv, a video clipping service for gamers, enters the livestreaming market with Rawa.tv acquisition

Medal.tv, a short-form video clipping service and social network for gamers, is entering the live streaming market with the acquisition of Rawa.tv, a Twitch rival based in Dubai, which had raised around $1 million to date. The seven-figure, all cash deal will see two of Rawa’s founders, Raya Dadah and Phil Jammal, now joining Medal and further integrations between the two platforms going forward.

The Middle East and North African region (MENA) is one of the fastest-growing markets in gaming and still one that’s mostly un-catered to, explained Medal.tv CEO Pim de Witte, as to his company’s interest in Rawa.

“Most companies that target that market don’t really understand the nuances and try to replicate existing Western or Far-Eastern models that are doomed to fail,” he said. “Absorbing a local team will increase Medal’s chances of success here. Overall, we believe that MENA is an underserved market without a clear leader in the livestreaming space, and Rawa brings to Medal the local market expertise that we need to capitalize on this opportunity,” de Witte added.

Medal.tv’s community had been asking for the ability to do livestreaming for some time, the exec also noted, but the technology would have been too expensive for the startup to build using off-the-shelf services at its scale, de Witte said.

“People increasingly connect around live and real-time experiences, and this is something our platform has lacked to date,” he noted.

But Rawa, as the first livestreaming platform dedicated to Arab gaming, had built out its own proprietary live and network streaming technology that’s now used in all its products. That technology is now coming to Medal.tv.

Image Credits: Medal.tv

The two companies were already connected before today, as Rawa users have been able to upload their gaming clips to Medal.tv, and some Rawa partners had joined Medal’s skilled player program. Going forward, Rawa will continue to operate as a separate platform, but it will become more tightly integrated with Medal, the company says. Currently, Rawa sees around 100,000 active users on its service.

The remaining Rawa team will continue to operate the livestreaming platform under co-founder Jammal’s leadership following the deal’s close, and the Rawa HQ will remain based in Dubai. However, Rawa’s employees have been working remotely since the start of the pandemic, and it’s unclear if that will change in the future, given the uncertainty of Covid-19’s spread.

Medal.tv detailed its further plans for Rawa on its site, where the company explained it doesn’t aim to build a “general-purpose” livestreaming platform where the majority of viewers don’t pay — a call-out that clearly seems aimed at Twitch. Instead, it says it will focus on matching content with viewers who would be interested in subscribing to the creators. This addresses on of the challenges that has faced larger platforms like Twitch in the past, where it’s been difficult for smaller streamers to get off the ground.

The company also said it will remain narrowly focused on serving the gaming community as opposed to venturing into non-gaming content, as others have done. Again, this differentiates itself from Twitch which, over the years, expanded into vlogs and even streaming old TV shows. And it’s much different from YouTube or Facebook Watch, where gaming is only a subcategory of a broader video network.

The acquisition follows Medal.tv’s $9 million Series A led by Horizons Ventures in 2019, after the startup had grown to 5 million registered users and “hundreds of thousands” of daily active users. Today, the company says over 200,000 people create content every day on Medal, and 3 million users are actively viewing that content every month.