tiktok

Instagram still doesn’t age-check kids. That must change.

Posted by | Apps, coppa, Education, Facebook, Facebook age policy, Government, instagram, Instagram age policy, Mobile, Opinion, Policy, privacy, Snapchat, Social, TC, tiktok | No Comments

Instagram dodges child safety laws. By not asking users their age upon signup, it can feign ignorance about how old they are. That way, it can’t be held liable for $40,000 per violation of the Child Online Privacy Protection Act. The law bans online services from collecting personally identifiable information about kids under 13 without parental consent. Yet Instagram is surely stockpiling that sensitive info about underage users, shrouded by the excuse that it doesn’t know who’s who.

But here, ignorance isn’t bliss. It’s dangerous. User growth at all costs is no longer acceptable.

It’s time for Instagram to step up and assume responsibility for protecting children, even if that means excluding them. Instagram needs to ask users’ age at sign up, work to verify they volunteer their accurate birthdate by all practical means, and enforce COPPA by removing users it knows are under 13. If it wants to allow tweens on its app, it needs to build a safe, dedicated experience where the app doesn’t suck in COPPA-restricted personal info.

Minimum Viable Responsibility

Instagram is woefully behind its peers. Both Snapchat and TikTok require you to enter your age as soon as you start the sign up process. This should really be the minimum regulatory standard, and lawmakers should close the loophole allowing services to skirt compliance by not asking. If users register for an account, they should be required to enter an age of 13 or older.

Instagram’s parent company Facebook has been asking for birthdate during account registration since its earliest days. Sure, it adds one extra step to sign up, and impedes its growth numbers by discouraging kids to get hooked early on the social network. But it also benefits Facebook’s business by letting it accurately age-target ads.

Most importantly, at least Facebook is making a baseline effort to keep out underage users. Of course, as kids do when they want something, some are going to lie about their age and say they’re old enough. Ideally, Facebook would go further and try to verify the accuracy of a user’s age using other available data, and Instagram should too.

Both Facebook and Instagram currently have moderators lock the accounts of any users they stumble across that they suspect are under 13. Users must upload government-issued proof of age to regain control. That policy only went into effect last year after UK’s Channel 4 reported a Facebook moderator was told to ignore seemingly underage users unless they explicitly declared they were too young or were reported for being under 13. An extreme approach would be to require this for all signups, though that might be expensive, slow, significantly hurt signup rates, and annoy of-age users.

Instagram is currently on the other end of the spectrum. Doing nothing around age-gating seems recklessly negligent. When asked for comment about how why it doesn’t ask users’ ages, how it stops underage users from joining, and if it’s in violation of COPPA, Instagram declined to comment. The fact that Instagram claims to not know users’ ages seems to be in direct contradiction to it offering marketers custom ad targeting by age such as reaching just those that are 13.

Instagram Prototypes Age Checks

Luckily, this could all change soon.

Mobile researcher and frequent TechCrunch tipster Jane Manchun Wong has spotted Instagram code inside its Android app that shows it’s prototyping an age-gating feature that rejects users under 13. It’s also tinkering with requiring your Instagram and Facebook birthdates to match. Instagram gave me a “no comment” when I asked about if these features would officially roll out to everyone.

Code in the app explains that “Providing your birthday helps us make sure you get the right Instagram experience. Only you will be able to see your birthday.” Beyond just deciding who to let in, Instagram could use this info to make sure users under 18 aren’t messaging with adult strangers, that users under 21 aren’t seeing ads for alcohol brands, and that potentially explicit content isn’t shown to minors.

Instagram’s inability to do any of this clashes with it and Facebook’s big talk this year about its commitment to safety. Instagram has worked to improve its approach to bullying, drug sales, self-harm, and election interference, yet there’s been not a word about age gating.

Meanwhile, underage users promote themselves on pages for hashtags like #12YearOld where it’s easy to find users who declare they’re that age right in their profile bio. It took me about 5 minutes to find creepy “You’re cute” comments from older men on seemingly underage girls’ photos. Clearly Instagram hasn’t been trying very hard to stop them from playing with the app.

Illegal Growth

I brought up the same unsettling situations on Musically, now known as TikTok, to its CEO Alex Zhu on stage at TechCrunch Disrupt in 2016. I grilled Zhu about letting 10-year-olds flaunt their bodies on his app. He tried to claim parents run all of these kids’ accounts, and got frustrated as we dug deeper into Musically’s failures here.

Thankfully, TikTok was eventually fined $5.7 million this year for violating COPPA and forced to change its ways. As part of its response, TikTok started showing an age gate to both new and existing users, removed all videos of users under 13, and restricted those users to a special TikTok Kids experience where they can’t post videos, comment, or provide any COPPA-restricted personal info.

If even a Chinese app social media app that Facebook CEO has warned threatens free speech with censorship is doing a better job protecting kids than Instagram, something’s gotta give. Instagram could follow suit, building a special section of its apps just for kids where they’re quarantined from conversing with older users that might prey on them.

Perhaps Facebook and Instagram’s hands-off approach stems from the fact that CEO Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t think the ban on under-13-year-olds should exist. Back in 2011, he said “That will be a fight we take on at some point . . . My philosophy is that for education you need to start at a really, really young age.” He’s put that into practice with Messenger Kids which lets 6 to 12-year-olds chat with their friends if parents approve.

The Facebook family of apps’ ad-driven business model and earnings depend on constant user growth that could be inhibited by stringent age gating. It surely doesn’t want to admit to parents it’s let kids slide into Instagram, that advertisers were paying to reach children too young to buy anything, and to Wall Street that it might not have 2.8 billion legal users across its apps as it claims.

But given Facebook and Instagram’s privacy scandals, addictive qualities, and impact on democracy, it seems like proper age-gating should be a priority as well as the subject of more regulatory scrutiny and public concern. Society has woken up to the harms of social media, yet Instagram erects no guards to keep kids from experiencing those ills for themselves. Until it makes an honest effort to stop kids from joining, the rest of Instagram’s safety initiatives ring hollow.

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Daily Crunch: TikTok starts experimenting with commerce

Posted by | Apps, Daily Crunch, Mobile, Social, tiktok | No Comments

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 9am Pacific, you can subscribe here.

1. TikTok tests social commerce

The short-form video app said it’s allowing some users to add links to e-commerce sites (or any other destination) to their profile, while also offering creators the ability to easily send their viewers to shopping websites.

On their own, these changes might not sound that dramatic, and parent company ByteDance characterizes them as experiments. But it could eventually lead TikTok to become a major force in commerce — and to follow the lead of Instagram, where “link in bio” has become one of the most common promotional messages.

2. Despite bans, Giphy still hosts self-harm, hate speech and child sex abuse content

A new report from Israeli online child protection startup L1ght  has uncovered a host of toxic content hiding within the popular GIF-sharing community, including illegal child abuse content, depictions of rape and other toxic imagery associated with topics like white supremacy and hate speech.

3. Lyft is ceasing scooter operations in six cities and laying off 20 employees

Lyft notified employees today that it’s pulling its scooters from six markets: Nashville, San Antonio, Atlanta, the Phoenix area, Dallas and Columbus. A spokesperson told us, “We’re choosing to focus on the markets where we can have the biggest impact.”

4. Takeaways from Nvidia’s latest quarterly earnings

After yesterday’s earnings report, Wall Street seems to have barely budged on the stock price — everyone’s waiting for resolution on some of the key questions facing the company. (Extra Crunch membership required.)

5. Virgin Galactic begins ‘Astronaut Readiness Program’ for first paying customers

The program is being run out of the global headquarters of Under Armour, Virgin Galactic’s partner for its official astronaut uniforms. The training, with instruction from Chief Astronaut Instructor Beth Moses and Chief Pilot Dave Mackay, is required for all Virgin Galactic passengers.

6. AWS confirms reports it will challenge JEDI contract award to Microsoft

In a statement, an Amazon spokesperson suggested that there was possible bias in the selection process: “AWS is uniquely experienced and qualified to provide the critical technology the U.S. military needs, and remains committed to supporting the DoD’s modernization efforts.”

7. SoftBank Vision Fund’s Carolina Brochado is coming to Disrupt Berlin

At SoftBank’s Vision Fund, Brochado focuses on fintech, digital health and marketplace startups. Some of her past investments with both Atomico and SoftBank include LendInvest, Gympass, Hinge Health, Ontruck and Rekki.

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TikTok expands its influence to third-party apps with new developer program & SDK

Posted by | Adobe, Apps, developers, Media, Mobile, sdk, Social, tiktok, Video, Video Editing | No Comments

TikTok is looking to expand its influence by integrating with popular third-party video creation and editing apps. The company today announced a new TikTok for Developers program which will introduce tools for third-party app developers, including those that allow them to access TikTok’s creative offerings as well as push content from their apps to TikTok directly. The first of these tools is the new Share to TikTok SDK, which will let users edit videos in other apps then publish them from that app to TikTok.

One of the key launch partners for the new SDK is Adobe Premiere Rush, Adobe’s mobile app for video editing. With the new TikTok integration, Premiere Rush users can access video editing features like aspect ratio switching, transitions, color filters, time lapse and slo-mo, audio control and more, then share instantly to TikTok and other video destinations.

In addition to Adobe, the apps supporting the Share to TikTok SDK at launch also include looping video creator Plotaverse, AR app Fuse.it, gaming highlights recorder Medal, Momento GIF Maker, PicsArt and Enlight Videoleop.

For some of the smaller, single-purpose apps, being able to become a useful tool for the creator community can have an outsized impact on their growth and revenues. For example, Facetune’s maker Lightricks has built a profitable business across its suite of photo and video editing apps, including Enlight Videoleap, and has now raised a total of $205 million.

In addition to built-in sharing features, apps that integrate with the new TikTok SDK will also gain access to a wider selection of creative tools, says TikTok.

But the apps will benefit in another way, too — when creators share their videos, they’ll include the specified partner hashtag along with the content. This will help to give the app the ability to gain exposure among even more TikTok users.

“This new Share to TikTok feature enriches the content available on TikTok, diversifies the types of videos users can discover, and offers more editing choices for users to explore in addition to TikTok’s built-in creative tools,” explained TikTok, in an announcement. “Most importantly, it gives users multiple avenues to create new original, high-quality content using platforms with exciting creative tools,” the company said.

The TikTok for Developers program also includes tools to embed videos on the web, and offers developer documentation, demos and more. The program’s terms of service restricts developers from collecting users’ personal data or other nefarious activity, and threatens developers’ access could be removed if terms are violated.

The news follows reports that the U.S. government has opened a national security review of TikTok owner, Beijing-based ByteDance, specifically with regard to its $1 billion acquisition of U.S. app Musical.ly.

TikTok didn’t say what other plans its has in store for the developers program, only that it will continue to expand access to its own creative tools further across the wider app ecosystem.

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China Roundup: TikTok stumbles in the US and Huawei shipments continue to surge

Posted by | alibaba, Android, Ant Financial, Apple, Asia, Beijing, bytedance, China, China Roundup, daniel zhang, huawei, kunlun, musical.ly, smartphones, TC, Tencent, tiktok, WeChat, WeWork | No Comments

Hello and welcome back to TechCrunch’s China Roundup, a digest of recent events shaping the Chinese tech landscape and what they mean to people in the rest of the world. It’s been a very busy last week of October for China’s tech bosses, but first, let’s take a look at what some of them are doing in the neck of your woods.

TikTok’s troubles in the U.S.

The challenge facing TikTok, a burgeoning Chinese video-sharing app, continues to deepen in the U.S. Lawmakers have recently called for an investigation into the social network, which is operated by Beijing-based internet upstart ByteDance, over concerns that it could censor politically sensitive content and be compelled to turn American users’ data over to the Chinese government.

TikTok is arguably the first Chinese consumer app to have achieved international scale — more than 1 billion installs by February. It’s done so with a community of creators good at churning out snappy, light-hearted videos, highly localized operations and its acquisition of rival Musical.ly, which took American teens by storm. In contrast, WeChat has struggled to build up a significant overseas presence and Alibaba’s fintech affiliate Ant Financial has mostly ventured abroad through savvy investments.

TikTok denied the American lawmakers’ allegations in a statement last week, claiming that it stores all U.S. user data locally with backup redundancy in Singapore and that none of its data is subject to Chinese law. Shortly after, on November 1, Reuters reported citing sources that the U.S. government has begun to probe into ByteDance’s acquisition of Musical.ly and is in talks with the firm about measures it could take to avoid selling Musical.ly . ByteDance had no further comment to add beyond the issued statement when contacted by TechCrunch.

The new media company must have seen the heat coming as U.S.-China tensions escalate in recent times. In the long term, TikTok might have better luck expanding in developing countries along China’s Belt and Road Initiative, Beijing’s ambitious global infrastructure and investment strategy. The app already has a footprint in some 150 countries with a concentration in Asia. India accounted for 44% of its total installs as of September, followed by the U.S. at 8%, according to data analytics firm Sensor Tower.

lark

ByteDance is also hedging its bets by introducing a Slack-like workplace app and is reportedly marketing it to enterprises in the U.S. and other foreign countries. The question is, will ByteDance continue its heavy ad spending for TikTok in the U.S., which amounted to as much as $3 million a day according to a Wall Street Journal report, or will it throttle back as it’s said to go public anytime soon? Or rather, will it bow to U.S. pressure, much like Chinese internet firm Kunlun selling LGBTQ dating app Grindr (Kunlun confirmed this in a May filing), to offload Musical.ly?

Huawei is still selling a lot of phones

The other Chinese company that’s been taking the heat around the world appears to be faring better. Huawei clung on to the second spot in global smartphone shipments during the third quarter and recorded the highest annual growth out of the top-5 players at 29%, according to market analytics firm Canalys. Samsung, which came in first, rose 11%. Apple, in third place, fell 7%. Despite a U.S. ban on Huawei’s use of Android, the phone maker’s Q3 shipments consisted mostly of models already in development before the restriction was instated, said Canalys. It remains to be seen how distributors around the world will respond to Huawei’s post-ban smartphones.

Another interesting snippet of Huawei handset news is that it’s teamed up with a Beijing-based startup named ACRCloud to add audio recognition capabilities to its native music app. It’s a reminder that the company not only builds devices but has also been beefing up software development. Huawei Music has a content licensing deal with Tencent’s music arm and claims some 150 million monthly active users, both free and paid subscribers.

Co-living IPOs

danke apartment

China’s modern-day nomads want flexible and cost-saving housing as much as their American counterparts do. The demand has given rise to apartment-rental services like Danke, which is sometimes compared to WeLive, a residential offering from the now besieged WeWork that provides fully-furnished, shared apartments on a flexible schedule.

Four-year-old Danke has filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and listed its offering size at $100 million, typically a placeholder to calculate registration fees. Backed by Jack Ma-controlled Ant Financial, the loss-making startup is now leasing in 13 Chinese cities, aggressively growing the number of apartments it operated to 406,746 since 2015. Its smaller rival Qingke has also filed to go public in the U.S. this week. Also operating in the red, Qingke has expanded its available rental units to 91,234 since 2012.

Apartment rental is a capital-intensive game. Services like Danke don’t normally own property but instead lease from third-party apartment owners. That means they are tied to paying rents to the landlords irrespective of whether the apartments are ultimately subleased. They also bear large overhead costs from renovation and maintenance. Ultimately, it comes down to which player can arrange the most favorable terms with landlords and retain tenants by offering quality service and competitive rent.

Also worth your attention

  • WeChat has been quite restrained in monetization but seems to be recently lifting its commercial ambitions. The social networking giant, which already sells in-feed ads, is expanding its inventory by showing users geotargeted ads as they scroll through friends’ updates, Tencent announced (in Chinese) in a company post this week.
  • Alibaba reported a 40% revenue jump in its September quarter, beating analysts’ estimates despite a cooling domestic economy. Its ecommerce segment saw strong user growth in less developed areas where it’s fighting a fierce war with rival Pinduoduo to capture the next online opportunity. Users from these regions spent about 2,000 yuan ($284) in their first year on Alibaba platforms, said CEO Daniel Zhang in the earnings call.
  • Walmart’s digital integration is gaining ground in China as it announced (in Chinese) that online-to-offline commerce now contributes 30% sales to its neighboorhood stores. Last November, the American retail behemoth began testing same-day delivery in China through a partnership with WeChat.

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Zuckerberg misunderstands the huge threat of TikTok

Posted by | Apps, bytedance, Entertainment, Facebook, instagram, Mobile, Opinion, Snapchat, Social, Startups, TC, tiktok, Video | No Comments

“It’s almost like the Explore Tab that we have on Instagram” said Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in leaked audio of him describing TikTok during an all-hands meeting. But it’s not. TikTok represents a new form of social entertainment that’s vastly different from the lifelogging of Instagram where you can just take a selfie, show something pretty, or pan around what you’re up to. TikToks are premeditated, storyboarded, and vastly different than the haphazard Stories on Insta.

That’s why Zuckerberg’s comments cast a dark shadow over the future of the Facebook family of apps. How can it beat what it doesn’t understand? He certainly can’t ignore it. Facebook’s copycat Lasso has been installed just 425,000 times since it launched in November, while TikTok has 640 million installs in the same period outside of China. Oh, and TikTok has 1.4 billion total installs beyond China to date.

TikTok Screenshots

TikTok

Casey Newton of The Verge today published two hours of audio and transcripts from two internal-only all-hands Q&As held by Zuckerberg at Facebook in July. His comments touch on the company’s plan to fight being broken up by regulators, especially if Elizabeth Warren becomes President. He thinks Facebook would win, but on resorting to suing the government, he says “does that still suck for us? Yeah.” Zuckerberg also describes how Facebook is working to launch a payments product in Mexico and elsewhere by year’s end as Libra deals with regulatory scrutiny.

But beyond his comments on regulation, it’s his pigeonholing of TikTok that’s most alarming. It foreshadows Facebook failing to win one of the core social feeds that its business depends on. Perhaps his perspective on the competitor is evolving, but the leak portrays him as thinking TikTok is just the next Snapchat Stories to destroy.

Zuckeberg’s Thoughts On TikTok

Here’s what Zuckerberg said about TikTok during the internal Q&A sessions, (emphasis mine):

So yeah. I mean, TikTok is doing well. One of the things that’s especially notable about TikTok is, for a while, the internet landscape was kind of a bunch of internet companies that were primarily American companies. And then there was this parallel universe of Chinese companies that pretty much only were offering their services in China. And we had Tencent who was trying to spread some of their services into Southeast Asia. Alibaba has spread a bunch of their payment services to Southeast Asia. Broadly, in terms of global expansion, that had been pretty limited, and TikTok, which is built by this company Beijing ByteDance, is really the first consumer internet product built by one of the Chinese tech giants that is doing quite well around the world. It’s starting to do well in the US, especially with young folks. It’s growing really quickly in India. I think it’s past Instagram now in India in terms of scale. So yeah, it’s a very interesting phenomenon.

And the way that we kind of think about it is: it’s married short-form, immersive video with browse. So it’s almost like the Explore Tab that we have on Instagram, which is today primarily about feed posts and highlighting different feed posts. I kind of think about TikTok as if it were Explore for stories, and that were the whole app. And then you had creators who were specifically working on making that stuff. So we have a number of approaches that we’re going to take towards this, and we have a product called Lasso that’s a standalone app that we’re working on, trying to get product-market fit in countries like Mexico, is I think one of the first initial ones. We’re trying to first see if we can get it to work in countries where TikTok is not already big before we go and compete with TikTok in countries where they are big.

We’re taking a number of approaches with Instagram, including making it so that Explore is more focused on stories, which is increasingly becoming the primary way that people consume content on Instagram, as well as a couple of other things there. But yeah, I think that it’s not only one of the more interesting new phenomena and products that are growing. But in terms of the geopolitical implications of what they’re doing, I think it is quite interesting. I think we have time to learn and understand and get ahead of the trend. It is growing, but they’re spending a huge amount of money promoting it. What we’ve found is that their retention is actually not that strong after they stop advertising. So the space is still fairly nascent, and there’s time for us to kind of figure out what we want to do here. But I think this is a real thing. It’s good.

To Zuckerberg’s credit, he’s not dismissing the threat. He knows TikTok is popular. He knows it’s growing in key international markets Facebook and Instagram depend on to keep user counts rising. And he knows his company needs to respond via its standalone clone Lasso and more.

Facebook Lasso Screenshots

Lasso

But while TikToks might look like Stories because they’re vertical videos, and TikTok might algorithmically recommend them to people like Instagram Explore, it’s a whole ‘nother beast of a product and one that may be harder than it seems to copy.

To crystallize why, let’s rewind to Snapchat. With the launch of Stories, it started to blow up with US teens. Facebook’s attempts to clone it in standalone apps like Poke and Slingshot never gained traction. In fact, none of Facebook’s standalone apps have succeeded unless they splintered off an already-popular piece of Facebook like chat and users were forced to download them like Messenger. It wasn’t until Zuckerberg stuck his clone of Stories front-and-center atop Instagram and Facebook that Snapchat’s user count went from growing 18% per quarter to shrinking. There, Facebook used the same strategy laid out in Zuckerberg’s comments — push its good-enough clone in countries where the original isn’t popular yet.

But Facebook was fortunate because Stories really wasn’t that dissimilar to the content users were already sharing on Instagram — tiny biographical snippets of their lives. Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel had originally invented Stories as a vision of Facebook’s News Feed through the lens of an ephemeral camera. All users had to know was “I take the same videos, but shorter and sillier, posted more often, and then they disappear”. The concept of Instagram and Facebook didn’t have to change. They were still about telling friends what you were up to. Choking off TikTok’s growth will be much more complicated.

Why TikTok Is Tough To Clone

TikTok isn’t about you or what you’re doing. It’s about entertaining your audience. It’s not spontaneous chronicling of your real life. It’s about inventing characters, dressing up as someone else, and acting out jokes. It’s not about privacy and friends, but strutting on the world stage. And it’s not about originality — the heart of Instagram. TikTok is about remixing culture — taking the audio from someone else’s clip and reimagining the gag in a new context by layering it atop a video you record.

TikTok Remixes

That makes TikTok distinct enough that it will be very difficult to shoehorn into Instagram or Facebook, even if they add the remixing functionality. Most videos on those apps aren’t designed to be templates for memes like TikToks are. Insta and Facebook’s social graphs are rooted in friendship and augmented by the beautiful and famous, but don’t encompass the new wave of amateur performers TikTok elevates. And since each post to the app becomes fodder for someone else’s creativity, a competitor starting from scratch doesn’t offer much to remix.

That means a TikTok clone would have to be somewhat buried in Instagram or Facebook, rebuild a new social graph, and retrain users’ understanding of these apps’ purpose…at the risk of distracting from their core use cases. This leaves Facebook hoping to grow its standalone TikTok clone Lasso which TechCrunch scooped a year ago before it launched last November. But as we’ve seen, Facebook struggles growing brand new apps, and that effort is further hindered by its increasingly toxic brand and sheen of uncoolness. Nor does it help that Facebook must divert development resources to comply with all the new privacy and transparency obligations as part of its $5 billion FTC fine and settlement.

The Next Feed

Facebook’s best bet is to assess the future value of the ads it could run on a successful TikTok clone and apply some greater fraction of that grand sum to competing directly. It’s already made some smart additions to Lasso like tutorials for how to remix and the option to add GIFs as sections of your video. But it’s still failing to gain serious traction in the US. While typical videos on the TikTok homepage where I’m spending a few hours a week have hundreds of thousands of Likes, the top ones I saw in my Lasso feed today received 70 or fewer.

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TikTok trounces Facebook’s Lasso in the US iOS App Store charts

I had Sensor Tower run some analysis comparing TikTok with Lasso since its launch last November, and found that Lasso gets 6 downloads for every 1000 for TikTok in the US. Some more stats:

  • US Total Downloads Since November: Lasso – 250,000 // TikTok – 41.3 million
  • US Downloads Per Day Since November: Lasso – 760 // TikTok – 126,000
  • Average US Google Play Social App Chart Ranking: Lasso – #155 // TikTok – #2

Beyond the US, Lasso has only launched in one other market, Mexico in April, where it’s been faring better but could hardly even be considered a competitor to TikTok. Facebook needs to lean harder into Lasso:

  • Mexico Total Downloads Since April: Lasso – 175,000 // TikTok – 3.3 million
  • Mexico Downloads Per Day Since November: Lasso – 1,000 // TikTok – 19,000

Facebook Lasso Logo

Zuckerberg may need to find a coherent place for TikTok style features inside Instagram and potentially Facebook. That could be another horizontal row of previews like with Stories and/or a header on the Explore page dedicated to premeditated content. Certainly something more prominent than a single button like IGTV that still no one is asking for. One opportunity to best TikTok would be building a dedicated remix source browser into the Stories camera to help users find content to put their own spin on.

Facebook will also need to buy out top TikTok creators to make videos for it instead, and even quasi-hire some of the most prolific video meme or challenge inventors to give users trends to jump on rather than just one-off clips to watch. Its failure to offer IGTV stars monetization has led many to ignore that platform, and it can’t afford that again.

If Zuckerberg approaches TikTok as merely an algorithmic video recommender like Explore, Facebook will miss out on owning the social entertainment feed. If he doesn’t decisively move to challenge TikTok soon, its catalog of content to remix will grow insurmountable and it will own the whole concept of short form performative video. Snapchat’s insistence on ephemerality makes it incompatible with remixing, and YouTube isn’t nimble enough to reinvent itself.

If no American company can step up, we could see our interest data, faces, and attention forfeited to an app that while delightful to use, heralds Chinese political values at odds with our own. If only Twitter hadn’t killed Vine.

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TikTok-parent is getting into mobile search

Posted by | Apps, Asia, Baidu, bytedance, China, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Mobile, Tencent, tiktok, Toutiao, WeChat | No Comments

China’s ByteDance, which owns popular video sharing app TikTok, is already working to enter the smartphone business and the music streaming space. It appears the world’s most valued startup also has ambitions about developing its own search engine. Kind of.

A company spokesperson told TechCrunch on Thursday that it has introduced a search function in ByteDance’s Toutiao news app.

“The function is in line with Toutiao’s mission of ‘information creates value.’ Users can try the function in the app and provide feedback and suggestions on the new function,” the spokesperson said.

The search function gleans information from both content on Toutiao as well as the entire world wide web, TechCrunch understands.

From the looks of it, ByteDance’s current search functionality is more alike WeChat’s in-app search function than local giant Baidu’s or Google’s offering.

On WeChat, when a person looks up a keyword, they see news articles about that topic, followed by mentions of it from their friends. This is followed by random articles about the subject. When a user clicks on any of these article or news links, WeChat serves them the page through its in-app browser, giving them no option to leave the walled-garden.

The idea is to change the way people think about — and use — a search engine altogether. And in China, where apps such as WeChat and TikTok have gained gigantic reach on mobile, it seems logical to add all new functionalities within those apps.

ByteDance’s interest in a search engine became public on Wednesday after it published a recruitment post on its WeChat account. The startup said its “search engine” is aimed at “hundreds of millions of mobile users in China.”

“We will build a universal search engine with a better user experience from 0 to 1. Only you don’t want to search, there is no [info] you can’t find, because we can search the whole network,” the company said in the post.

According to the description in the listing, ByteDance has already hired people from other search engines such as Google, Baidu, Bing and 360.

An analysis of LinkedIn listings by TechCrunch found more than 100 people from Google, Microsoft and Baidu, many of whom worked around search divisions at the previous companies, have joined ByteDance in recent quarters.

ByteDance following Tencent’s WeChat model to create its alternate search business may add more worries to Baidu, which currently holds more than 75% of the search engine market in China, according to third-party web service StatCounter Global Stat. Microsoft’s Bing is also operational in the country, though its market share remains in the low-single digits. Google currently does not offer its search feature in China — though it has attempted to change that in recent months to no luck.

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The need-to-know takeaways from VidCon 2019

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VidCon, the annual summit in Anaheim, CA for social media stars and their fans to meet each other drew over 75,000 attendees over last week and this past weekend. A small subset of those where entertainment and tech executives convening to share best practices and strike deals.

Of the wide range of topics discussed in the industry-only sessions and casual conversation, five trends stuck out to me as takeaways for Extra Crunch members: the prominence of TikTok, the strong presence of Chinese tech companies in general, the contemplation of deep fakes, curiosity around virtual influencers, and the widespread interest in developing consumer product startups around top content creators.

Newer platforms take center stage

GettyImages 1161447217

Photo by Jerod Harris/Getty Images

TikTok, the Chinese social video app (owned by Bytedance) that exploded onto the US market this past year, was the biggest conversation topic. Executives and talent managers were curious to see where it will go over the next year more than they were convinced that it is changing the industry in any fundamental way.

TikTok influencers were a major presence on the stages and taking selfies with fans on the conference floor. I overheard tweens saying “there are so many TikTokers here” throughout the conference. Meanwhile, TikTok’s US GM Vanessa Pappas held a session where she argued the app’s focus on building community among people who don’t already know each other (rather than being centered on your existing friendships) is a fundamental differentiator.

Kathleen Grace, CEO of production company New Form, noted that Tik Tok’s emphasis on visuals and music instead of spoken or written word makes it distinctly democratic in convening users across countries on equal footing.

Esports was also a big presence across the conference floor with teens lined up to compete at numerous simultaneous competitions. Twitch’s Mike Aragon and Jana Werner outlined Twitch’s expansion in content verticals adjacent to gaming like anime, sports, news, and “creative content’ as the first chapter in expanding the format of interactive live-streams across all verticals. They also emphasized the diversity of revenue streams Twitch enables creators to leverage: ads, tipping, monthly patronage, Twitch Prime, and Bounty Board (which connects brands and live streamers).

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App revenue tops $39 billion in first half of 2019, up 15% from first half of last year

Posted by | analyst, android apps, app revenues, app stores, app-store, Apple, Apps, China, Google Play, instagram, iOS App Store, iOS apps, Mobile, mobile applications, mobile apps, mobile games, Netflix, online marketplaces, sensor tower, smartphones, streaming services, Tencent, tiktok, Tinder | No Comments

App store spending is continuing to grow, although not as quickly as in years past. According to a new report from Sensor Tower, the iOS App Store and Google Play combined brought in $39.7 billion in worldwide app revenue in the first half of 2019 — that’s up 15.4% over the $34.4 billion seen during the first half of last year. However, at that time, the $34.4 billion was a 27.8% increase from 2017’s numbers, then a combined $26.9 billion across both stores.

Apple’s App Store continues to massively outpace Google Play on consumer spending, the report also found.

In the first half of 2019, global consumers spent $25.5 billion on the iOS App Store, up 13.2% year-over-year from the $22.6 billion spent in the first half of 2018. Last year, the growth in consumer spending was 26.8%, for comparison’s sake.

Still, Apple’s estimated $25.5 billion in the first half of 2019 is 80% higher than Google Play’s estimated gross revenue of $14.2 billion — the latter a 19.6% increase from the first half of 2018.

The major factor in the slowing growth is iOS in China, which contributed to the slowdown in total growth. However, Sensor Tower expects to see China returning to positive growth over the next 12 months, we’re told.

To a smaller extent, the downturn could be attributed to changes with one of the top-earning apps across both app stores: Netflix.

Last year, Netflix dropped in-app subscription sign-ups for Android users. Then, at the end of December 2018, it did so for iOS users, too. That doesn’t immediately drop its revenue to zero, of course — it will continue to generate revenue from existing subscribers. But the number will decline, especially as Netflix expands globally without an in-app purchase option, and as lapsed subscribers return to renew online with Netflix directly.

In the first half of 2019, Netflix was the second highest earning non-game app with consumer spending of $339 million, Sensor Tower estimates, down from $459 million in the first half of 2018. (We should point out the firm bases its estimates on a 70/30 split between Netflix and Apple’s App Store that drops to 85/15 after the first year. To account for the mix of old and new subscribers, Sensor Tower factors in a 25% cut. But Daring Fireball’s John Gruber claims Netflix had a special relationship with Apple where it had an 85/15 cut from year one.)

In any event, Netflix’s contribution to the app stores’ revenue is on the decline.

In the first half of last year, Netflix had been the No. 1 non-game app for revenue. This year, that spot went to Tinder, which pulled in an estimated $497 million across the iOS App Store and Google Play, combined. That’s up 32% over the first half of 2018.

1h 2019 app revenue worldwide

But Tinder’s dominance could be a trend that doesn’t last.

According to recent data from eMarketer, dating app audiences have been growing slower than expected, causing the analyst firm to revise its user estimates downward. It now expects that 25.1 million U.S. adults will use a dating app monthly this year, down from its previous forecast of 25.4 million. It also expects that only 21% of U.S. single adults will use a dating app at all in 2019, and that will only grow to 23% by 2023.

That means Tinder’s time at the top could be overrun by newcomers in later months, especially as new streaming services get off the ground (assuming they offer in-app subscriptions); if TikTok starts taking monetization seriously; or if any other large apps from China find global audiences outside of China’s third-party app stores.

For example, Tencent Video grossed $278 million globally in the first half of 2019, outside of the third-party Chinese Android app stores. That made it the third-largest non-game app by revenue. And Chinese video platform iQIYI and YouTube were the No. 4 and No. 5 top-grossing apps, respectively.

Meanwhile, iOS app installs actually declined in the first half of the year, following the first quarter that saw a decline in downloads, Q1 2019, attributed to the downturn in China.

The App Store in the first half of 2019 accounted for 14.8 billion of the total 56.7 billion app installs.

Google Play installs in the first half of the year grew 16.4% to 41.9 billion, or about 2.8 times greater than the iOS volume.

1h 2019 app downloads worldwide

The most downloaded apps in the first half of 2019 were the same as before: WhatsApp, Messenger and Facebook led the top charts. But TikTok inched ahead of Instagram for the No. 4 spot, and it saw its installs grow around 28% to nearly 344 million worldwide.

In terms of mobile gaming specifically, spending was up 11.3% year-over-year in the first half of 2019, reaching $29.6 billion across the iOS App Store and Google Play. Thanks to the fallout of the game licensing freeze in China, App Store revenue growth for games was at $17.6 billion, or 7.8% year-over-year growth. Google Play game spending grew by 16.8% to $12 billion.

The top-grossing games, in order, were Tencent’s Honor of Kings, Fate/Grand Order, Monster Strike, Candy Crush Saga and PUBG Mobile.

1h 2019 game revenue worldwide

Meanwhile, the most downloaded games were Color Bump 3D, Garena Free Fire and PUBG Mobile.

Image credits: Sensor Tower

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Instagram one-ups TikTok with karaoke lyrics

Posted by | Apps, instagram, Instagram Music, Instagram Stories, Mobile, Social, Startups, TC, tiktok | No Comments

Lip-syncing jumpstarted TikTok’s rise to the center of teen culture, arguably displacing Instagram . Now the Facebook-owned app is striking back with a new feature that lets you displays lyrics on your video Story synced to a soundtrack you’ve added with the Music sticker. Lyrics could help creators and their fans sing along, and the visual flare could make the amateur MTV content more watchable.

Instagram scored a big endorsement from teen scare-pop phenomenon Billie Eilish who’s featured in the demo video for Story lyrics, which are now available in all the countries where Instagram Music has launched including the US, Germany, and France.

To play with the feature, first select the Music lens type (amidst Boomerang and other options) before you shoot or the Music sticker after. Once you pick a song, you’ll see lyrics pop up which can help you cue the segment of the music you want to play. Then you can cycle through a bunch of animation styles like traditional karaoke teleprompter, a typewriter version that preserves mystery by only revealing lyrics as they’re sung, and big flashy billboard font.

“Music can be a big part of expression on Instagram – between adding music to Stories, connecting with artists, sending song recs back-and-forth, there are lots of ways to connect with music on IG” an Instagram spokesperson tells me. “Now, we’re building on our music features and introducing the ability to add lyrics when you add a song to your story.” As with pretty much everything Instagram launches, it was first dug out of Android code and revealed to the world by frequent TechCrunch tipster and reverse engineering master Jane Manchun Wong. She first spotted Lyrics in March and we wrote about the prototype in April.

But TikTok isn’t waiting up. Today it launched its own text feature for adding overlaid captions to videos. Typically, creators had to use Snapcat, Instagram Stories, or desktop editing software to add text. Creators are sure to find plenty of hilarious use cases for text on TikTok, and it could help replace the common trope of writing captions on paper and holding them up during clips.

All of these features are about keeping social video from going stale. The manicured, painstakingly posed Instagram aesthetic is over, as The Atlantic’s Taylor Lorenz deftly identified. Fans are sick of perfection, which breeds envy and feels plastic or inauthentic. Comedy, absurdity, and the rough edges of reality are becoming the new ‘look’ of social media. Tools to overlay lyrics and text give creators more freedom to express complex jokes or just act silly. The popularity of Billie Eilish’s own dirtbag chic fashion and willingness to reveal her own insecurities exemplifies this shift, so it’s smart Instagram is using her as the face of its next wave of visual communication.

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Alibaba pumps $100 million into Vmate to grow its video app in India

Posted by | alibaba, Apps, Asia, bytedance, Disney, funding, Google, india, Media, Mobile, Social, Startups, tiktok, Vmate, YouTube | No Comments

Chinese tech giant Alibaba is doubling down on India’s burgeoning video market, looking to fight back local rival ByteDance, Google and Disney to gain its foothold in the nation. The company said today that it is pumping $100 million into Vmate, a three-year-old social video app owned by subsidiary UC Web.

Vmate was launched as a video streaming and short-video-sharing app in 2016. But in the years since, it has added features such as video downloads and 3-dimensional face emojis to expand its use cases. It has amassed 30 million users globally, and will use the capital to scale its business in India, the company told TechCrunch. Alibaba Group did not respond to TechCrunch’s questions about its ownership of the app.

The move comes as Alibaba revives its attempts to take on the growing social video apps market, something on which it has missed out completely in China. Vmate could potentially help it fill the gap in India. Many of the features Vmate offers are similar to those offered by ByteDance’s TikTok, which currently has more than 120 million active users in India. ByteDance, with a valuation of about $75 billion, has grown its business without taking money from either Alibaba or Tencent, the latter of which has launched its own TikTok-like apps with limited success.

Alibaba remains one of the biggest global investors in India’s e-commerce and food-tech markets. It has heavily invested in Paytm, BigBasket, Zomato and Snapdeal. It was also supposedly planning to launch a video streaming service in India last year — a rumor that was fueled after it acquired a majority stake in TicketNew, a Chennai-based online ticketing service.

UC Web, a subsidiary of Alibaba Group, also counts India as one of its biggest markets. The browser maker has attempted to become a super app in India in recent years by including news and videos. In the last two years, it has been in talks with several bloggers and small publishers to host their articles directly on its platform, many people involved in the project told TechCrunch.

UC Web’s eponymous browser rose to stardom in the days of feature phones, but has since lost the lion’s share to Google Chrome as smartphones become more ubiquitous. Chrome ships as the default browser on most Android smartphones.

The major investment by Alibaba Group also serves as a testament to the growing popularity of video apps in India. Once cautious about each megabyte they spent on the internet, thrifty Indians have become heavy video consumers online as mobile data gets significantly cheaper in the country. Video apps are increasingly climbing up the charts on Google Play Store.

In an event for marketers late last year, YouTube said that India was the only nation where it had more unique users than its parent company Google. The video juggernaut had about 250 million active users in India at the end of 2017. The service, used by more than 2 billion users worldwide, has not revealed its India-specific user base since.

T-Series, the largest record label in India, became the first YouTube channel this week to claim more than 100 million subscribers. What’s even more noteworthy is that T-Series took 10 years to get to its first 10 million subscribers. The additional 90 million subscribers signed up to its channel in the last two years. Also fighting for users’ attention is Hotstar, which is owned by Disney. Earlier this month, it set a new global record for most simultaneous views on a live-streaming event.

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