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Bangladesh regulator orders telcos to stop providing free access to social media

Posted by | Apps, Asia, bangladesh, Facebook, Free Basics, Government, india, Mobile, Social, TC, zero-rating | No Comments

Bangladesh’s regulator has ordered telecom operators and other internet providers in the nation to stop providing free access to social media services, becoming the latest market in Asia to take a partial stand against zero-rating deals.

Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission, the local regulator, said late last week that it had moved to take this decision because free usage of social media services had spurred their misuse by some people to commit crimes. Local outlet Business Standard first reported about the development. Bangladesh is one of the largest internet markets in Asia with more than 100 million online users.

Technology companies such as Facebook and Twitter have struck partnerships, more popularly known as zero-rating deals, with telecom operators and other internet providers in several markets in the past decade to make their services free to users to accelerate growth. Typically, tech companies bankroll the cost of data consumption of users as part of these deals.

In Bangladesh, such zero-rating deals have been popular for several years, said Ahad Mohammad, chief executive of Bongo, an on-demand streaming service, in an interview with TechCrunch (Extra Crunch membership required) .

Grameenphone and Robi Axiata, two of the largest telecom operators in Bangladesh, enable their mobile subscribers to access a handful of services of their partners even when their phones have run out of credit. Both telecom firms have said they are in the process to comply with Dhaka’s order.

It remains unclear whether Free Basics, a program run by Facebook in dozens of markets through which it offers unlimited access to select services at no cost, will continue its presence in Bangladesh after the nation’s order. Facebook relies on telecom networks to offer data access for its Free Basics program.

In Bangladesh, Facebook struck deals with Grameenphone and Robi Axiata, according to its official website, where Facebook continues to identify Bangladesh among dozens of markets where Free Basics is operational.

Several nations in recent years have balked at zero-rating arrangements — though they have often cited different reasons. India banned Free Basics in early 2016 on the grounds that Facebook’s initiative was violating the principles of net neutrality.

Free Basics also ended its program in Myanmar and several other markets in 2017 and 2018. Facebook did not respond to requests for comment.

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Roblox launches Party Place, a private venue for virtual birthday parties and other meetups

Posted by | coronavirus, COVID-19, families, Gaming, kids, parents, Roblox, Social | No Comments

The coronavirus pandemic and related government lockdowns have led to a surge in online gaming — particularly on social platforms where people can connect with real-life friends in a virtual venue. We’ve already heard of Fortnite birthday parties, Roblox playdates and Animal Crossing meetups taking place online amid the pandemic. Now, Roblox is launching a new feature called “Party Place” to directly cater to the growing demand among users for a dedicated, private place to host virtual events.

The company’s new “Party Place” venue is based on the technology the gaming company built to accommodate its own virtual events, including its 7th Annual Bloxy Awards and the One World: Together At Home concert, hosted in April in collaboration with Lady Gaga.

The venue itself doesn’t offer any activities or games, but rather serves as a private place for Roblox users to gather — for example, for a virtual birthday party, a remote learning activity with classmates, for virtual playdates, or anything else. From Party Place, the group can chat and hang out as they decide which Roblox game they plan to play next.

The product is in beta testing, according to the Roblox website, and has seen only around 45.3,000 visits since its launch last week. Likely, many of these visits were just from curious kids poking around in a public area as you can today join the Party Place venue without a private server if you want to just see the venue. Roblox, however, says it’s making private servers available for free in Party Place, so parents and kids can create a place where only those friends they directly invite can join and play.

Roblox has been doing particularly well as the pandemic has forced children to stay at home under lockdown. The entertainment platform now has more than 120 million active monthly players and, as of June, surpassed a milestone of $1.5 billion in lifetime player spending, according to a report from Sensor Tower. It hit the new record only seven months after reaching its $1 billion milestone — a surge in consumer spend attributed directly to the global COVID-19 pandemic and the related growth in entertainment platforms and social gaming.

In March, Roblox revenue grew 28% month-over-month to $69.8 million, the report found. In April, revenue grew 34% to $93.2 million. And by May, sales hit close to $103 million.

Roblox had already begun catering to players’ interest in social gaming with its launch of its “Play Together” game sort in April, which made it easier for players to find those games where you socialize with others — like visiting a virtual shopping mall, going camping or riding virtual water slides, for example. These games also offer an option for private VIP servers, often for a small fee paid in Roblox’s virtual currency, Robux, which is renewed on a subscription basis until you cancel.

Of course, the company isn’t the only one developing products in response to user demand for online “hangout” spots in virtual worlds. Fortnite, for instance, introduced “Party Royale,” a game mode offering a weapons-free party island featuring mini-games and, sometimes, even live concerts. Its Travis Scott concert was hosted in the game, attracting 12.3 million concurrent players at its peak.

For today’s younger players — the COVID kids, so to speak — platforms like Fortnite and Roblox are becoming their own version of a social network. The kids don’t just go online to play. They socialize, chat and hang out with a mix of real-life friends and virtual ones, blurring the lines between online and offline in ways that traditional social networks, like Facebook, do not.

 

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Google’s latest R&D project is Shoploop, a mobile video shopping platform

Posted by | Area 120, eCommerce, Google, Live-Shopping, Mobile, mobile shopping, shopping, Social, Video | No Comments

Google’s latest experiment is a video shopping platform designed to introduce consumers to new products in under 90 seconds. The company today is launching Shoploop, a project from Google’s internal R&D division, Area 120, where it tests out new ideas with a public user base.

Shoploop’s founder, Lax Poojary, had previously worked on online trip planner, Touring Bird, also at Area 120. Last year, that effort became one of a small number of R&D projects to graduate and become a part of Google itself. 

Poojary says his new idea for interactive shopping was inspired by how consumers today use a combination of social media and e-commerce sites together when considering purchases. For example, users will pop between a social media app, like Instagram, then head to YouTube to see a tutorial or demo, then — if they like what they saw — actually make a purchase.

Of course, video shopping is not a novel idea. A number of startups, and even large companies, have already embraced a combination of video and commerce.

Image Credits: Google

Amazon, for example, runs a livestreaming platform, Amazon Live, on its retail site. YouTube this year introduced a new shoppable ad format and is placing products to buy underneath videos. Facebook has enabled live shopping, as well, and made an acquisition in this area in 2019. Instagram now has its own Shop destination, too.

There are also a number of mobile shopping startups that have embraced video, like Dote, which raised $12 million last year. Popshop Live raised $3 million in January. NTWRK combines shopping and live events. Depop sells with both photos and videos, similar to Instagram.There’s also Yeay, Spin, and other apps. And there are startups focused on providing technology for brands and influencers engaging in this space, like Bambuser, MikMak, and Buywith, to name a few.

That is to say, Shoploop hasn’t discovered a new, untapped trend. It’s simply joining in.

The shopping experience on Shoploop is interactive. Users don’t just scroll through images and text, but instead watch videos where creators show off things like  nail stickers, hair products or makeup. The team says it’s starting with products in categories such as makeup, skincare, hair and nails and its working with creators, publishers and store owners in this market for the app’s content.

Currently, the creators work out their own brand deals for the content they showcase. The Shoploop product itself is not monetized.

The experience is similar to watching YouTube tutorials, but distilled down to the best bits. (Or perhaps it’s more like TikTok, in that case) The demos are meant to be relatable, giving consumers a feel for the brands and products in real life. When consumers find a product they like, they can save it for later or click to be directed to the merchants website to complete the purchase. The app also allows you to follow your favorite Shoploop creators and share videos with friends and family.

Such a product could prove important to Google’s larger mission around Shopping, if it gains traction. Google recently redesigned its Shopping vertical and shifted it to include mostly free listings, in response to Amazon’s growing ad business. Finding more ways to engage online consumers could be beneficial to the internet giant, and this video-slash-influencer fueled shopping experience appeals to a younger demographic, in particular.

Shoploop is launching today on mobile and is working on a desktop version. You can reach it via https://shoploop.app from your smartphone.

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Nextdoor launches Sell for Good for easy donations to local nonprofits

Posted by | Apps, eCommerce, Mobile, nextdoor, Social | No Comments

Nextdoor is launching a new feature called Sell for Good, allowing users to sell items on the neighborhood-focused social network and donate the proceeds to local nonprofits.

CEO Sarah Friar said that since the pandemic started, conversations about donations have increased 7x on Nextdoor .

“Communities are hurting,” Friar said. “People are looking to go donate, but things like Goodwill and so on are closed.”

At the same time, nonprofits are struggling. Pointing to a recent survey from the Nonprofit Finance Fund, she explained, “A lot of them depend on in-person events — the race that you might do, the book drive they always have, all of that has dried up.”

One way to support those nonprofits is to sell goods (perhaps the very same goods you were planning to give to Goodwill) on Nextdoor’s For Sale and Free section and then donate the money from the sale. In fact, Product Manager Rhett Angold said that users have already been doing this — for example, someone in Berkeley raised thousands of dollars for a local animal shelter by selling homemade masks.

So Sell for Good is designed to make this process as straightforward as possible. Nextdoor has partnered with the PayPal Giving Fund to support nonprofits in different cities, including A Better Chicago, LA Voice, New York Cares, Operation HOPE, Spark, The Hidden Genius Project and ViBe Theater Experience.

Sellers can choose which organization to support, then their sale will be identified as a donation. Once an item has been purchased, the seller can approve the donation and they’ll receive a receipt for their tax-deductible contribution.

And while the feature currently donates the full sale proceeds (minus the “typical PayPal processing fees”), Angold said his team is working on giving sellers the ability to donate a smaller portion as well.

Sell for Good is currently available to all Nextdoor users in the United States.

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This Week in Apps: US ponders TikTok ban, apps see a record Q2, iOS 14 public beta arrives

Posted by | Apps, Developer, Entertainment, Extra Crunch, Market Analysis, Mobile, Social, TC, this week in apps | No Comments

Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the Extra Crunch series that recaps the latest OS news, the applications they support and the money that flows through it all.

The app industry is as hot as ever, with a record 204 billion downloads and $120 billion in consumer spending in 2019. People are now spending three hours and 40 minutes per day using apps, rivaling TV. Apps aren’t just a way to pass idle hours — they’re a big business. In 2019, mobile-first companies had a combined $544 billion valuation, 6.5x higher than those without a mobile focus.

In this Extra Crunch series, we help you keep up with the latest news from the world of apps, delivered on a weekly basis.

This week, we’re digging into the news of a possible TikTok ban in the U.S. and how that’s already impacting rival apps. Also, both Android and iOS saw beta launches this week — a near-ready Android 11 beta 2 and the  public beta of iOS 14. We also look at the coronavirus’ impact on the app economy in Q2, which saw record downloads, usage and consumer spending. In other app news, Instagram launched Reels in India, Tinder debuted video chat and Quibi flounders while Pokémon GO continues to reel it in.

Headlines

Apple release iOS 14 public beta

Image Credits: Apple

The much-anticipated new version of the iOS mobile operating system, iOS 14, became available for public testing on Thursday. Users who join the public beta will be able to try out the latest features, like the App Library, Widgets and smart stacks, an updated Messages app, a brand-new Translate app, biking directions in Apple Maps, upgraded Siri and various improvements to core apps like Notes, Reminders, Weather, Home, Safari and others.

When iOS 14 launches to the general public, it may also include support for QR code payments in Apple Pay, according to a report of new assets discovered in the code base.

Alongside the public beta, developers received their second round of betas for iOS 14, iPadOS 14 and other Apple software.

Google’s efforts in speeding up Android updates has been good news for Android 10

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Tinder now testing video chat in select markets, including US

Posted by | Apps, dating, Match, Mobile, online dating, Social, TC, Tinder, Video, video calls, video chat | No Comments

Tinder announced this morning it will begin to test video chat in its mobile dating app with some members in select worldwide markets, including in the U.S. The feature, which allows Tinder matches to go on “virtual” dates when both opt in, will first be available to users in Virginia, Illinois, Georgia and Colorado in the U.S., as well as in Brazil, Australia, Spain, Italy, France, Vietnam, Indonesia, Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, Peru and Chile, also with some members.

Parent company Match had first promised it would introduce video chat in Tinder as part of its Q1 2020 earnings report and touted the feature as a way Tinder was evolving its business in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. The company had also then detailed the pandemic’s impact on its app, which had slowed Tinder user growth in the quarter as social distancing requirements and government lockdowns went into effect.

Tinder ended Q1 with 6 million subscribers, up from 5.9 million in December 2019 — meaning it only added 100,000 paid subscribers during the quarter. For comparison, in the year-ago quarter it added 384,000 paid users. Tinder’s average revenue per user (ARPU) also grew just 2%, mainly due to purchases of à la carte features, not subscriptions.

Tinder parent Match says it had tested video at various times before the COVID-19 outbreak, but said it never saw significant adoption. The pandemic has changed things, however. Today, Tinder allows users to search for matches worldwide through its Passport feature, making its dating app more of a social network. Meanwhile, Tinder users who do want to date now feel almost forced to use video for their early interactions instead of going on briefer “getting to know you” coffee or drink dates, as before.

Without a video option in the app, these users often turned to third-party apps like Snapchat or other video chat apps for these early connections. Meanwhile, daters who prioritized a video option may have even made the switch to rival Bumble, which has offered video for a year. Facebook also recently said it would add video for its Facebook Dating users, as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, forcing Tinder’s hand.

Image Credits: Tinder

The new feature itself is simple to use. Once two people have matched and are chatting in the app, they can indicate they’re ready to move to a video session by tapping the new video icon. The clever part is that the feature itself isn’t enabled until both matches opt in. The company notes that Tinder users won’t be informed if a match toggles on the video chat feature. The idea is to wait until the discussion comes up naturally, as it often does in a text-based chat.

When both users have toggled on video chat, they have to agree to ground rules before the chat begins. Tinder says calls should remain “PG,” with no nudity or sexual content. The chats are also supposed to stay “clean,” meaning no harassment, hate speech, violence or other illegal activities. Users also agree calls will need to be age-appropriate, meaning without minors involved.

The feature, which Tinder calls “Face to Face,” is enabled on a match-by-match basis, not universally for all matches.

How exactly Tinder plans to properly moderate what appears to be a fantastic new solicitation platform remains less clear. In addition, Tinder’s move to embrace video means it could be putting sex offenders in front of the camera. As an investigative report last year from ProPublica found, most of the Match-owned dating apps, including Tinder, were not screening for sexual predators.

For now, Tinder says users are asked to review the call when it wraps.

In a pop-up, users who finish a video call will be asked whether they would go Face to Face again. Here, they’ll also have the option to report the user, if needed. These sorts of retroactive rating systems don’t do much for anyone who feels unsafe in the moment, of course, and it’s not clear to what extent Tinder will step in to police calls in progress.

Asked for specifics, Tinder declined to share. (In an earlier report, Tinder CEO Elie Seidman suggested Tinder would use machine learning models to monitor chats.)

Also unclear is to what extent Tinder would step into to stop what may otherwise be consensual sexual activity, including of the paid variety.

Tinder doesn’t seem worried about these off-brand use cases for video chat, however. It says it recently surveyed around 5,000 members in the U.S. and around half of them have already had video dates with a match off its platform over the past month, indicating a willingness to try video for online dating. In addition, 40% of Gen Z members said they wanted to keep using video as an initial step before agreeing to meet in real life, even when places like restaurants and bars were re-opened.

“Connecting face-to-face is more important than ever, and our video chat feature represents a new way for people to get to know one another in-app no matter their physical distance,” said Rory Kozoll, head of Trust and Safety Products at Tinder, in a statement about the launch. “Face to Face prioritizes control to help our members feel more comfortable taking this next step in chats if and when it feels right for them. We’ve built a solid foundation, and look forward to learning from this test over the coming weeks,” Kozoll added.

The feature is launching in testing only starting today, in select markets.

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Dating app S’More adds blurred video calling and launches in LA

Posted by | Mobile, smore, Social, Startups | No Comments

The pandemic hasn’t slowed down dating app S’More — at least according to CEO Adam Cohen-Aslatei, who said that the app’s daily active user count doubled in March and hasn’t gone down since.

“When people are working form home, they have much more time to dedicate to their relationships,” Cohen-Aslatei told me.

The app (whose name is short for “something more”) launched last fall and has supposedly attracted nearly 50,000 users. The goal is to move beyond the superficiality of most dating apps, where you first learn about another user and then unlock visual elements (like a profile photo) as you interact.

Cohen-Aslatei said the team has also spent more on marketing to attract a diverse audience, both in terms of racial diversity (something S’more reinforces by not allowing users to filter by race) and sexual orientation, with 15% of users identifying as LGBTQ.

Of course, dating someone new can be challenging when meeting up in-person poses real health risks, but Cohen-Aslatei said S’More users have gotten creative, like remote dinners where they order each other takeout from their favorite restaurants. And now that things are reopening (though some of those reopenings are getting pulled back), users are asking, “How do we transition these virtual relationships into IRL?”

S'More video calling

Image Credits: S’More

To give users more ways to interact, the S’More team recently launched a video calling feature. But Cohen-Aslatei noted, “We had to to create it in a way that was really fitting for our app … Women actually don’t want to see a guy right away, when you don’t know if they’re a creep.”

So in S’more’s video calling, the video is blurred for the first two minutes, which means you’ve got to actually start an interesting conversation before you can see who you’re talking to, and before they see you (a concept that may be familiar to viewers of Netflix’s dating show “Love is Blind”).

S’More has also expanded geographically, launching last week in Los Angeles (it was already available in Boston, Washington, D.C., New York and Chicago). And it recently started its a video series of its own on Instagram’s IGTV — the S’More Live Happy Hour, where celebrities offer dating advice.

“There’s this negative history of dating apps perpetuating negative online behaviors, fake images, catfishers,” Cohen-Aslatei said. “But now we’re going into a new era of authenticity, where we’re going from super vain to super authentic. S’more is one of those apps that’s going to lead you in that direction.”

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Mobile developer Tru Luv enlists investors to help build a more inclusive alternative to gaming

Posted by | App, Apps, Developer, Gaming, Mobile, self-care, selfcare, Social, Startups, TC, tru luv | No Comments

Developer and programmer Brie Code has worked at the peak of the video game industry — she was responsible for many of the AI systems that powered non-player character (NPC) behavior in the extremely popular Assassin’s Creed series created by Ubisoft. It’s obvious that gaming isn’t for everyone, but Code became more and more interested in why that maxim seemed to play out along predictable gender lines, leading her ultimately to develop and launch #SelfCare through her own independent development studio TRU LUV.

#SelfCare went on to win accolades, including a spot of Apple’s App Store Best of 2018 list, and Code and TRU LUV was also the first Canadian startup to attend Apple’s Entrepreneur Camp program. Now, with more than 2 million downloads of #SelfCare (without any advertising at all), Code and TRU LUV have brought on a number of investors for their first outside funding, including Real Ventures, Evolve Ventures, Bridge Builders Collaborative and Artesian Venture Partners.

I spoke to Code about how she came up with and created #SelfCare, what’s next for TRU LUV and how the current COVID-19 crisis actually emphasizes the need for an alternative to gaming that serves many similar functions, but for previously underserved groups of people for whom the challenges and rewards structures of traditional gaming just don’t prove very satisfying.

“I became very, very interested in why video games don’t interest about half of people, including all of my friends,” Code told me. “And at that point, tablets were becoming popular, and everyone had a phone. So if there was something universal about this medium, it should be being more widely adopted, yet I was seeing really clear patterns that it wasn’t. The last time I checked, which was maybe a couple years ago, there were 5 billion mobile users and around 2.2 billion mobile gamers.”

Her curiosity piqued by the discrepancy, especially as an industry insider herself, Code began to do her own research to figure out potential causes of the divide — the reason why games only seemed to consistently appeal to about half of the general computer user population, at best.

“I started doing a lot of focus groups and research and I saw really clear patterns, and I knew that if there is a clear pattern, there must be an explanation,” Code said. “What I discovered after I read Sheri Graner Ray’s book ‘Gender Inclusive Game Design,’ which she wrote in 2004, in a chapter on stimulation was how, and these are admittedly gross generalizations, but men tend to be stimulated by the sense of danger and things flashing on screen. And women, in her research, tended to be stimulated by something mentioned called a ‘mutually-beneficial outcome to a socially significant situation.’ That’s when you help an NPC and they help you, for instance. In some way, that’s more significant, in the rules of the world than just the score going up.”

TRU LUV founder and CEO Brie Code (Image Credits: Brie Code)

Code then dug in further, using consumer research and further study, and found a potential cause behind this divide that then provided a way forward for developing a new alternative to a traditional gaming paradigm that might prove more appealing to the large group of people who weren’t served by what the industry has traditionally produced.

“I started to read about the psychology of stimulation, and from there I was reading about the psychology of defense, and I found a very simple and clear explanation for this divide, which is that there are two human stress responses,” she said. “One of them, which is much more commonly known, is called the ‘fight-or-flight’ response. When we experience the fight-or-flight response, in the face of challenge or pressure or danger, you have adrenaline released in your body, and that makes you instinctively want to win. So what a game designer does is create these situations of challenge, and then give you opportunities to win and that leverages the fight-or-flight response to stress: That’s the gamification curve. But there is another human stress response discovered at the UCLA Social Cognitive Neuroscience lab in 2000, by Dr. Shelly Taylor and her colleagues. It’s very prevalent, probably about half of stress responses that humans experience, and it’s called tend-and-befriend.”

Instead of generating an adrenaline surge, it releases oxytocin in the brain, and instead of seeking a victory over a rival, people who experience this want to take care of those who are more vulnerable, connect with friends and allies and find mutually beneficial solutions to problems jointly faced. Seeking to generate that kind of response led to what Code and TRU LUV call AI companions, a gaming alternative that is non-zero sum and based on the tend-and-befriend principal. Code’s background as an AI programmer working on some of the most sophisticated virtual character interactions available in modern games obviously came in handy here.

Code thought she might be on to something, but didn’t anticipate the level of #SelfCare’s success, which included 500,00 downloads in just six weeks, and more than 2 million today. And most of the feedback she received from users backed up her hypotheses about what the experience provided, and what users were looking for in an alternative to a mobile gaming experience.

Fast forward to now, and TRU LUV is growing its team, and focused on iterating and developing new products to capitalize on the clear vein of interest they’ve tapped among that underserved half of mobile users. Code and her team have brought on investors whose views and portfolios align with their product vision and company ethos, including Evolve Ventures, which has backed a number of socially progressive ventures, and whose managing director, Julius Mokrauer, actually teaches a course on the subject at Columbia Business School.

#SelfCare was already showing a promising new path forward for mobile experience development before COVID-19 struck, but the product and TRU LUV are focused on “resilience and psychological development,” so it proved well-suited to a market in which mobile users were looking for ways to make sustained isolation more pleasant. Obviously we’re just at the beginning of feeling whatever impacts come out of the COVID-19 crisis, but it seems reasonable to expect that different kinds of mobile apps that trigger responses more aligned with personal well-being will be sought after.

Code says that COVID-19 hasn’t really changed TRU LUV’s vision or approach, but that it has led to the team moving more quickly on in-progress feature production, and on some parts of their roadmap, including building social features that allow players to connect with one another as well as with virtual companions.

“We want to move our production forward a bit faster than planned in order to respond to the need,” Code said.”Also we’re looking at being able to create social experiences a little bit earlier than planned, and also to attend to the need of people to be able to connect, above and beyond people who connect through video games.”

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Newzoo forecasts 2020 global games industry will reach $159 billion

Posted by | console gaming, coronavirus, COVID-19, Extra Crunch, Gaming, hardware, Market Analysis, Mobile, PC Gaming, playstation, Social, TC, xbox | No Comments

Games and esports analytics firm Newzoo released its highly cited annual report on the size and state of the video gaming industry yesterday. The firm is predicting 2020 global game industry revenue from consumers of $159.3 billion, a 9.3% increase year-over-year. Newzoo predicts the market will surpass $200 billion by the end of 2023.

Importantly, the data excludes in-game advertising revenue (which surged +59% during COVID-19 lockdowns, according to Unity) and the market of gaming digital assets traded between consumers. Advertising within games is a meaningful source of revenue for many mobile gaming companies. In-game ads in just the U.S. drove roughly $3 billion in industry revenue last year, according to eMarketer.

To compare with gaming, the global markets for other media and entertainment formats are:

Counting gamers

Of 7.8 billion people on the planet, 4.2 billion (53.6%) of whom have internet connectivity, 2.69 billion will play video games this year, and Newzoo predicts that number to reach three billion in 2023. It broke down the current geographic distribution of gamers as:

  • 1,447 million (54%) in Asia-Pacific
  • 386 million (14%) in Europe
  • 377 million (14%) in Middle East & Africa
  • 266 million (10%) in Latin America
  • 210 million (8%) in North America

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Facebook tests Forecast, an app for making predictions about world events, like COVID-19

Posted by | Apps, Facebook, Mobile, Social | No Comments

Forecast, a new project from Facebook’s internal R&D group, NPE Team, is launching today to build a community around predictions. The iOS app will allow users to ask questions and then use in-app points to make predictions about what might happen in the future. Users can also create, discuss and view these crowdsourced predictions.

At launch, only invited participants in the U.S. and Canada will be allowed to make predictions and engage in conversations while the app is in beta testing. But these predictions and related discussions will be publicly accessible on the Forecast website, and made shareable.

Before today, Facebook tested the product internally with a small set of employees. Their initial forecasts will form the initial core content in the app at launch.

Starting now, Facebook will invite members of the health, research and academic communities to make predictions about the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on the world.

Image Credits: Facebook

At a time when Facebook and other major tech platforms are under fire for their role in aiding the spread of misinformation, fake news, propaganda, conspiracy theories and other non-factual content presented as truth, an app focused on making “guesses” about the future seems ill-advised — however educated those guesses may be. This is particularly concerning because much of the app’s content will focus on guesses about COVID-19.

Forecast’s predictions may help show what people are thinking, but COVID-19 isn’t a game. To understand the world, scientists form a hypothesis, which is essentially an expanded form of an educated guess. But they don’t then crowdsource voting to determine if a hypothesis is true — they test, experiment, gather supporting data, try to prove and disprove the hypothesis and ultimately aim to publish their findings and have them peer-reviewed.

The Forecast app turns the hypothesis into the end result, in a way. The app lets users make a forecast and explain their reasoning — in other words, form a hypothesis. But instead of doing the work to test the forecast, through the application of the scientific method, Forecast will track the votes a given question receives.

For example: “When will the first COVID-19 vaccine candidate begin phase 3 trials?” or “When will most U.S. residents be treated with a COVID-19 vaccine?” In non-COVID questions, you may come across something like “Will the US Presidential Election be fully or partially postponed?” 

Questions will be reviewed by the Forecast team and edited for clarity, if needed. Users will be notified if their question is published.

At some point, the question will be determined as “settled,” based on an elapsed time period or because an event has occurred. For instance, if users were guessing when a vaccine would be released, and then it’s actually released, the questions around that topics would be “settled.”

Forecast’s polls are given aesthetically pleasing charts and graphs, which can be shared outside the app. That means users could start posting these guesses and the crowdsourced responses to sites like Facebook, where the line between fact and fiction has already blurred. That could further complicate people’s understanding of what is already a complex topic: the COVID-19 pandemic.

Facebook users who see these shared “forecasts” may believe they have some basis in science and research, when instead, they are the result of a social polling app.

Of course, there is some fun in betting on world events and seeing if they turn out to be true, and there is even some value in organizing a wider community’s collective “best guesses” about a future event to gain an understanding of what people are thinking at a given time. Crowdsourced predictions have their place, as well. But spreading out specific, COVID-19 predictions to Facebook seems like an idea that’s fraught with potential problems and complications.

And Facebook’s goal here is only to test its own hypothesis — that a standalone, community-based predictions app that rewards a participatory audience with social credit will surface insightful voices and thoughtful discussions.

In the end, however, it seems like Facebook is looking for some angle that could prompt thought leaders to engage in meaningful discussions about subjects they know best on a Facebook platform. These sorts of discussions are difficult to have in Facebook’s comments section around a post — as comments, more often than not, are a place people go to troll, argue, threaten and otherwise derail a conversation. Forecast organizes these experts around a topic and allows them to debate. As a self-contained space with a vetted crowd of participants, that could be interesting. Making the data broadly shareable is an issue, however.

Facebook says the questions in Forecast will be moderated for clarity using Forecast’s own moderation guidelines and Facebook’s Community Standards. That means questions can’t mention death, or sexual or violent assault of any individual, including public figures. (This isn’t meant to be some sort of new internet Death Clock, for example.) Hate speech isn’t allowed. Questions around illegal content or those involving personal information also aren’t permitted, along with other guidelines detailed here.

The Forecast app is live on the iOS App Store here.

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