Cent, the platform that Jack Dorsey used to sell his first tweet as an NFT, raises $3M

Cent was founded in 2017 as an ad-free creator network that allows users to offer each other crypto rewards for good posts and comments — it’s like gifting awards on Reddit, but with Ethereum. But in late 2020, Cent’s small, San Fransisco-based team created Valuables, an NFT market for tweets, and by March, the small blockchain startup was thrown a serendipitous curveball.

“We just wrapped up for the day, and I was about to go eat dinner, and all these people started texting me,” remembers CEO Cameron Hejazi. Then, he realized that Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey had minted Twitter’s first ever Tweet through Cent’s Valuables application. “I was basically like, mildly shivering for the rest of the night. The whole team, we were like, ‘Okay, battle stations, prepare to get hacked!'”

Dorsey ended up selling his NFT for $2.9 million, and he donated the proceeds to Give Directly’s Africa Response fund for COVID-19 relief. But for Cent, it was as if the small company had just been handed a free marketing campaign. Now, about five months later, Cent is announcing a $3 million round of seed funding with investors like Galaxy Interactive, former Disney chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg, will.i.am, and Zynga founder Mark Pincus.

On Valuables, anyone on the internet can place an offer on any tweet, which then makes it possible for someone else to make a counter-offer. If the author of the tweet accepts an offer (logging into Valuables requires you to validate your Twitter account), then Cent will mint the tweet on the blockchain and create a 1-of-1 NFT.

The NFT itself contains the text of the tweet, the username of the creator, the time it was minted, and the creator’s digital signature. The NFT also includes a link to the tweet, though the linked content lives outside the blockchain.

There’s nothing proprietary about minting tweets as NFTs — another company could do the same thing that Cent is doing. Even Twitter itself has recently dabbled in giving away free NFT art, though it hasn’t tried to sell actual tweets as NFTs like Cent. Still, Hejazi sees Dorsey’s use of Cent like an endorsement — he thinks it would be difficult for Twitter to shut them down, since Dorsey made $2.9 million on the platform himself. After all, Dorsey chose Cent instead of taking a screenshot of his first tweet, minting the .JPG as an NFT, and posting it on a larger NFT platform, like OpenSea.

“We’ve spoken with people at Twitter. I’m positive that we have a healthy relationship going,” Hejazi said (Twitter declined to comment on or confirm whether that’s true). “We thought about applying this approach to other social platforms, like Instagram and TikTok, but we hypothesized that this is particularly suited for Twitter, because it’s a conversation platform, and it’s where all of the crypto people are actually living.”

With Cent’s seed funding Hejazi hopes to continue building the platform. The company’s goal is to enable anyone creative to make an income through the use of NFTs — that means developing tools to make it simpler for its users to mint NFTs, but also, building out its existing creator-focused social network. The content people post on Cent is usually creative work, like art and writing, rather than short posts — it’s closer to DeviantArt than it is to Reddit. These are lofty goals for a $3 million seed funding round, but there are aspects of Cent’s Beta platform that make it promising.

“There’s already value in what we post on social media. It’s just being proxied through ad dollars, and it doesn’t have to be the case that there’s so much wealth concentration in a single entity. We can work toward a system that decentralizes that wealth,” said Hejazi. “These networks as they exist have monopolies on distribution — you can’t take your Twitter audience, download it as a .CSV, and send them all an email.”

A screenshot of Cent’s social platform.

In addition to independent distribution lists, Hejazi wants to move away from the ad-supported internet. He references Substack as an example of a company where the creator has control of their list, and at the same time, the platform can remain ad-free, since the money that propels it comes from the users who pay to subscribe to newsletters (and also, venture capital helps).

But Cent does something different by allowing users to essentially invest in creators who they think have the potential to take off on their platform.

Users can “seed” a post, which is how you subscribe to a creator participating on the creatives side of Cent’s platform. As the seeder, you pay a set fee of at least one dollar per month. There’s an incentive to support up-and-coming creators on the platform, because seeders get a portion of the creators’ future profit — it’s like making a bet on them that they will continue to make great content in the future. Five percent of profits go toward Cent, but the remaining 95% is split 50/50 between the creator and all of their past seeders. Participating on this platform would allow creators to network and show support for one another, but doesn’t prevent them from more directly monetizing their work on other creator platforms, like Patreon.

In addition to seeding posts, users can also “spot” other people’s posts — Cent’s version of a “like” button. Each “spot” is the equivalent of one cent from the user’s crypto wallet. Cent’s argument is that getting 1,000 likes on a post on other platforms yields nothing but a vague sensation of social clout. But on Cent, if a user gets 1,000 “spots,” that’s $10. Still, a project like this can only work if enough people use the platform.

“When we started Cent, we chose cryptocurrencies because we loved the idea of someone being able to earn money with nothing more than their creativity and a crypto address,” Hejazi said. “Over time, we’ve found it to be limiting as a payment type — very few people actually own it and have it ready to spend. We’re working on ways to make payments to creators using Cent easier, and are exploring both crypto-native and non-crypto options.”

This mindset echoes other NFT startups like Yat, which allows payments via credit card as part of its “progressive decentralization” model. So much of these companies’ success depends on public buy-in toward an eventual decentralized, blockchain-based internet. But until then, companies like Cent will continue to experiment in reimagining how creatives can get paid online.

Facebook cuts off NYU researcher access, prompting rebuke from lawmakers

Facebook shut down accounts belonging to two academic researchers late Tuesday, cutting off their ability to study political ads and misinformation on the world’s biggest social network.

The company accused the academics of engaging in “unauthorized scraping” and compromising user privacy on the platform, claims that Facebook’s many critics are slamming as a thin pretense for killing the transparency work.

The company took action against Laura Edelson and Damon McCoy, two well-known researchers affiliated with NYU’s Cybersecurity for Democracy project who have long sparred with the company. The move cuts off their access to Facebook’s Ad Library — one of the company’s only meaningful transparency efforts to date — and data on popular posts from the social media monitoring service CrowdTangle.

Facebook has a history with Edelson and McCoy. The company served the pair cease and desist letters just weeks before the 2020 election, calling on the team to disable an opt-in browser tool called Ad Observer and unpublish their findings. Ad Observer is a browser tool anyone can install that’s designed to give researchers a rare glimpse into how Facebook targets the ads that have transformed it into a trillion-dollar company.

“Over the last several years, we’ve used this access to uncover systemic flaws in the Facebook Ad Library, identify misinformation in political ads including many sowing distrust in our election system, and to study Facebook’s apparent amplification of partisan misinformation,” Edelson said on Twitter.

“By suspending our accounts, Facebook has effectively ended all this work. Facebook has also effectively cut off access to more than two dozen other researchers and journalists who get access to Facebook data through our project, including our work measuring vaccine misinformation with the Virality Project and many other partners who rely on our data.”

The incident set off a fresh round of criticism about the company’s preference for opacity over transparency when it comes to some of the more dangerous behavior that the platform incubates.

By Wednesday, Facebook’s actions had attracted the attention of some members of Congress. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) criticized Facebook’s decision to punish the researchers under the pretense of protecting users in light of the company’s long history of invasive privacy practices. Wyden also called Facebook’s bluff over its claim that revoking researcher access is an effort to comply with a privacy order from the FTC that the company was issued for its previous user privacy violations.

Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) also weighed in on Facebook’s latest controversy, calling the decision “deeply concerning.” Warner praised independent researchers for “consistently [improving] the integrity and safety of social media platforms by exposing harmful and exploitative activity.”

“It’s past time for Congress to act to bring greater transparency to the shadowy world of online advertising, which continues to be a major vector for fraud and misconduct,” Warner said.

Firefox developer Mozilla came to the defense of Ad Observer on Wednesday, noting that the company “reviewed it twice, conducting both a code review and examining the consent flow” before recommending the browser extension through its storefront. In a blog post, Mozilla’s head of trust stated that Facebook’s claims “simply do not hold water.”

A number of free press organizations, researchers and misinformation experts also condemned Facebook’s decision Wednesday. “Facebook’s cavalier approach to privacy enabled it to become so dominant,” The Markup’s Julia Angwin and Nabiha Syed wrote in a joint statement.

“But now, when independent researchers want to interrogate that platform and the influence it commands, Facebook is propping up user privacy as a shield to hide behind.”

WhatsApp photos and videos can now disappear after a single viewing

WhatsApp said that it would soon let users send disappearing photos and videos and this week the feature will be rolling out to everybody. Anyone using the Facebook-owned messaging app can share a photo or video in “view once” mode, allowing a single viewing before the media in question goes poof. Media shared with “view once” selected will show up as opened after the intended audience takes a peek.

The company notes that the new feature could be helpful for an array of needs that definitely aren’t sending nudes, like sharing a photo of some clothes you tried on or giving someone your wifi password. In the fine print, the company would like to remind you that just because the photos or video will vanish, that doesn’t prevent someone from taking a screenshot (and you won’t know if they do).

Facebook says the new feature is a step to give users “even more control over their privacy,” a song it’s been singing since Mark Zuckerberg first declared a new “privacy-focused vision” for the company back in 2019. Facebook has made a few gestures toward letting people wrest control of their online privacy since then, streamlining audience controls on its core app and enabling disappearing messages in WhatsApp.

The company has also been talking a big game about bringing end-to-end encryption to its full stable of messaging services, which it plans to make interoperable in the future. WhatsApp enabled end-to-end encryption by default back in 2016, but for Messenger and Instagram, the hallmark privacy measure could still be years out.

Discord now lets you customize your user profile on its apps

For mobile users, Discord is adding one new feature that you’d find on a more traditional social app. The company rolled out an option for users to customize their profiles across its iOS and Android apps Tuesday, following the feature’s release on the desktop version of Discord in late June.

The new option lives in Discord’s user settings menu under “user profile.” There, you can describe what you’re all about in 190 characters or less, including links and emojis. You can also select a custom profile color if the new default profile color that Discord assigned you isn’t vibing with your whole thing. If you don’t see the option yet, check back as the feature rolls out widely.

With the addition of custom profiles, the company also offered premium Nitro subscribers the option to choose an image or an animated GIF as a profile banner. The options have been out in the wild for desktop for a bit now, but the additional customization features will now give anyone who mostly uses Discord on iOS or Android a way to spice things up a bit.

The feature addition is small, but it’s a step toward the chat app becoming a touch more like more profile-centric social networks. Discord’s chat rooms, known as servers, have long been the platform’s sole focus, but the company has introduced a flurry of quality of life features in recent months.

Discord rolled out threaded, auto-archiving conversations and Clubhouse-like audio event spaces earlier this year, and also picked up a company called Sentropy that makes AI-powered platform moderation software. The app is already a killer service for community-driven voice and text chat, and the recent additions should help the app attract more users well beyond its humble gaming roots.

Demand Curve: Tested tactics for growing newsletters

There are very few marketing channels as well rounded as email newsletters. They provide a direct, owned line of communication with your audience; nearly 40x return on investment (~$40 generated per every dollar spent), are infinitely scalable and virtually free.

But to unlock these benefits, you’re going to need to be strategic. In this article, I’m going to share tactics we’ve used at Demand Curve to grow our newsletter list to over 50,000 highly-qualified subscribers and maintain an open rate of over 50%.

Increase popup conversion using the 60% rule

While they’re often thought of as intrusive, pop-ups work. On average, they convert 3% of site visitors, and strategic, high-performing pop-ups can reach conversion of about 10%.

To make higher-converting, less intrusive pop-ups, try the 60% rule.

  1. Choose a page you’d like to put a pop-up on. We recommend pages that aren’t conversion-focused (like product pages, checkout and sign-ups). We’ve found content pages work the best and they can act as a signal for visitors who are looking for something specific.
  2. Open your website’s analytics and see what the average time spent on that page is.
  3. Set your pop-up to appear after 60% of the average time of that page has elapsed.

So if the average time spent on a page is 50 seconds, set your pop-up to appear 30 seconds (60% of total time) after visitors land on that page.

Why 60%? Readers have shown interest in your content, but are nearing the end of their session. Prompting them to join your newsletter to see more relevant content in exchange for their email will feel fair.

To encourage new subscribers to open your welcome email, try breaking the welcome email pattern using delayed gratification and a recognizable sender.

Give samples of your newsletter to prove quality

If a visitor is new to your content, asking them to sign up for your newsletter can be a big step, and most new visitors won’t convert. To narrow the gap between a new reader and subscriber, provide a sample on the sign-up page. Use your most engaging newsletter as a sample to prove that your content is high quality.

To source your most engaging content, filter by open rate and replies. In your email service provider, sort your previous editions by open rate. This will help you identify which subject lines are most popular with existing readers. Modify your most popular subject line to turn it into a header on your newsletter sign-up page.

Next, go into your inbox and sort by replies to your newsletter. Identify which newsletter got the most replies from your readers. This is a positive signal that the content from that edition resonated the most and would be a solid choice for your free sample.

Give samples of your newsletter to prove your quality

Image Credits: Demand Curve

Emails from real people are opened more often

People reflexively ignore welcome emails after they sign up. But, those who do open your welcome email are more likely to consistently open your newsletters.

To encourage new subscribers to open your welcome email, try breaking the welcome email pattern using delayed gratification and a recognizable sender.

Delay your welcome email by 45 minutes. This will bypass the reflex that new subscribers have to ignore an email that pings them seconds after signing up. We’ve found 45 minutes to be ideal, because the delay is long enough that it breaks the pattern, but not so long that your email gets buried in their inbox.

Send your welcome from a person, not from a business account. We’ve found this tactic to be especially effective when the sender is the founder of the business or someone with an established audience. Use a photo of that person and not your company logo to help the email stand out.

To avoid overflowing the sender’s real inbox, create a subdomain for your website that will be used exclusively for sending emails. Create an account for your sender and begin using it for your newsletter. This avoids overwhelming their inbox and maintains the health of your sending domain.

Emails from real people get opened more frequently

Image Credits: Demand Curve

Send a superissue to new subscribers

A new subscriber will be keen to receive their first issue. To ensure they’re satisfied, piece together your best content from past issues into a superissue. But be careful not to use the same content you included as samples on your sign-up page.

Send this first superissue with the welcome email so that your new subscribers are immediately receiving value from your newsletter. Starting with your best content first will get your subscribers excited to open future emails.

We’ve found that shorter welcome emails perform better than long-winded ones. Keep your welcome message short and your opening issue tight. Once they’ve received the welcome email and the first superissue, add them to the regular email cadence.

Send a super-issue to new subscribers

Image Credits: Demand Curve

Consider sending fewer emails

We polled over 24,000 marketers on Twitter asking whether people suffer from “newsletter fatigue,” causing them to unsubscribe.

The results: 80% of respondents unsubscribe when they get too many emails.

To avoid overwhelming your subscribers:

Give your subscribers control over how often they are emailed: Some subscribers want them weekly, while others want monthly. In the footer of your email, create opt-out links that allow subscribers to customize the cadence they’ll receive emails. Giving them the opportunity to opt out of frequent emails while still remaining subscribed keeps them as valid contacts on your email list. You want to avoid losing them completely as a subscriber.

Send fewer emails: Putting a constraint on how many emails you’re allowed to send every quarter will force you to be more thoughtful about the contents of those emails. A high volume of emails just for the sake of being in your subscribers’ inbox can burn you and your readers out. We’ve seen very little correlation between volume of emails and the resulting conversion rate.

Make your emails fun — not just educational

Most emails in your inbox are serious. To stand out, consider injecting some lighthearted memes, jokes or interesting links from around the web.

We’ve found this tactic works extremely well, because it gives your readers a dopamine hit in every email. Not every piece of newsletter content you write will resonate with every subscriber. Humor, on the other hand, can have broad appeal. Including interesting and fun content will ensure that every reader is left feeling satisfied.

It also helps build a habit. If every edition is slightly different, your reader will never be sure what they’re opening when a new edition hits their inbox. We’ve found that including something fun at the bottom of the newsletter gives readers a reward: Read the serious stuff, then get rewarded with the fun stuff.

We add a meme to each issue. People reply to tell us how much they appreciate it.

Add a funny meme or interesting content to engage your readers

Image Credits: Demand Curve

Make referrals seamless

Referrals are a free way to grow your newsletter. To increase the chances of subscribers referring you to others, make sure the process takes no longer than 25 seconds.

Remind readers at the end of each issue that they can refer others. A simple way is to ask them to forward the email to a friend who would find it interesting. Include a short sentence in the intro to your newsletter telling people being referred where they can subscribe. Include a link.

An advanced tactic is to include a subscriber’s unique link to a referral program so they can track how many people they’ve invited. Give them the option to share through email or social media.

You should also have a web version of every issue so that your content can be easily shared outside of email. Most email service providers will automatically generate a web link that you can promote through social media or elsewhere. You can also copy the content and post it to your website as a blog post to generate traffic from search engines.

Consider providing rewards to those who refer your newsletter. Merchandise will likely only work as an incentive if your brand is well known or very unique. We suggest incentivizing referrals using exclusive content. Send a monthly bonus issue to subscribers who have referred five or more friends. This will keep your costs down and give your subscribers more of what they already want.

Note that you will need a critical mass of subscribers before referrals will prove to be effective. We’ve found the threshold is about 10,000 subscribers. But if your audience is extremely engaged or the community you serve is active, implementing a free referral program has virtually no downside.

How to turn followers into subscribers

Your subscribers will likely become aware of your content through a social media channel, but social media audiences are rented from the platform — you do not own a direct channel to communicate with them. Converting followers into newsletter subscribers is one way to control a direct line of communication and deepen your relationship with your audience.

When pitching your followers to subscribe to your newsletter, include a link in your bio. This may sound obvious, but many people don’t do it. When someone comes across your social media profile, make signing up for your newsletter the call to action. Otherwise, they’ll have no idea that you even have a newsletter.

You could also cut a Twitter thread or LinkedIn post short and tell people to subscribe for the rest of the insights. You probably don’t want to overuse this tactic.

Create an offer or unique piece of content that can only be accessed through the newsletter. This will motivate your followers to join your email list to get access to exclusive content or unique offers.

Recap

Getting new subscribers: Use pop-ups that are relevant and only to high-intent readers on your site. Provide proof of why they should subscribe to your newsletter with sample content. Make your welcome email stand out and front-load the first issue with your best content.

Keeping subscribers: To keep your subscribers wanting more, send fewer emails. Sprinkle in humor and interesting links to turn your newsletter into a habit.

Promoting your newsletter: Use exclusivity and offers to hook your social media followers into subscribing to your newsletter. Ask your subscribers to refer your newsletter to others to grow your subscriber base.

Anonymous Snapchat app Sendit surges with 3.5M installs after Snap bans Yolo and LMK

In May of this year, Snap banned two Snapchat platform apps that allowed users to send anonymous messages, Yolo and LMK, following a lawsuit filed on behalf of a mother whose son died by suicide after being bullied through messages on the apps for many months. In the wake of Snap’s ban, another anonymous messaging app called Sendit has been rising in the app stores’ charts, as Snapchat’s younger users sought a replacement for the apps the company blocked.

Since the news of the ban was first reported over 80 days ago, Sendit’s app has seen more than 3.5 million installs across iOS and Android, according to app intelligence firm Apptopia.

This is a rapid pace of installs compared with how quickly it grew while Yolo and LMK were active on the market. In the same period before the news was announced, Sendit had only seen seen 180,000 installs across iOS and Android, Apptopia says.

Image Credits: Apptopia

Sendit also received few user reviews before May 11, 2021. But in the days that followed the ban, “yolo” has become the second-most-used keyword in Sendit’s user reviews, Apptopia told TechCrunch. Most of these reviews are positive, saying the app is like “Yolo but better,” for instance. In other words, Snap’s ban hasn’t stamped out demand for anonymous Snapchat Q&A apps, it only crowned a new app as the market leader.

Sendit today is currently ranking No. 3 among Lifestyle apps on Apple’s U.S. App Store and has climbed to No. 57 on the App Store’s list of top free apps. It jumped three ranks overnight from Monday to Tuesday, in fact.

Like Yolo and LMK, Sendit also features a popular teen activity on Snapchat, anonymous Q&As. The app also includes other Lens games, like “Never Have I Ever,” “This or That,” “Kiss, Marry, Block” and others.

To be clear, none of these are official Snapchat applications. Instead, they integrate with a toolkit for third-party developers called Snap Kit, which allows them to create new product experiences that work with Snapchat’s best features, like Stories, Bitmoji, the Snapchat Camera and more.

Snap says its Snap Kit developers have to agree to its Terms of Service, which requires apps to prioritize user safety and take action on any reports of abuse. Those guidelines are meant to encompass any reports of bullying, harassment, hate speech or threats taking place on the third-party services. In addition, apps that offer friend finding, user-generated content and anonymous features are supposed to inform Snap of their moderation practices and customer support response times.

Image Credits: Screenshot of public App Store review of sendit; username redacted

In practice, however — as the lawsuit highlighted — there appears to be an issue with how well those terms are enforced on Snap’s end. The company tells us that it’s continuing to review developers to ensure their compliance. It has yet to announce any policy changes as result of that investigation, but some child advocates would argue that anonymous apps should have no place in a teenager’s life at all.

Even before the Snap lawsuit, apps like Yolo and LMK had raised concerns among child advocates and parents alike. For example, nonprofit Common Sense Media, an independent source for media recommendations and advice for families, pointed out that “anonymity on social media can easily lead teens down a slippery slope of poor choices.” The organization said that while teens will be drawn to the excitement of responding anonymously — perhaps learning that someone might have a crush on them — “hiding behind anonymity can also bring out hatefulness and sexually explicit risk taking.”

Sendit’s App Store reviews (see photos) indicate that is, indeed, taking place. (Sendit didn’t respond to a request for more information about its app’s operations.)

Image Credits: Screenshot of public App Store review of sendit; username redacted

The tech industry is littered with anonymous social apps that failed due to issues with cyberbullying. After numerous teen suicides related to Ask.fm’s anonymous platform, its owner IAC sold off the toxic property to an asset management firm. Other high-profile anonymous app failures include Secret, which became a home to cyberbullying; Sarahah, which was banned by the app stores and later pivoted; Yik Yak, whose founders left for Square after the app became plagued by cyberbullying; and After School, which also got kicked out of the App Store. To date, only anonymous platforms like Glassdoor and Blind, which focus on workplace chatter and career advice, have seemed to thrive.

The question for Snap to decide now is not just how it will enforce its terms on anonymous apps, but whether it’s worth allowing anonymous apps to operate given their documented dangers — and their potential tragic, as well as legal, consequences.

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

Substack doubles down on uncensored ‘free speech’ with acquisition of Letter

Substack announced last week that it acquired Letter, a platform that encourages written dialogue and debate. The financials of the deal weren’t disclosed, but this acquisition follows Substack’s recent $65 million raise.

Newsletters are all the rage — Facebook launched its exclusive, celeb-studded Bulletin platform last month, and Twitter acquired the newsletter startup Revue earlier this year. Letter doesn’t publish email newsletters like Substack, but rather, it allows writers to engage in epistolary exchanges about fraught topics like Brexit, dating and the 2020 U.S. Presidential election. The idea behind Letter makes sense. Complicated conversations require nuance, yet these online debates too often happen on platforms like Twitter, where short-form tweets make it harder to have nuanced conversations.

“We could see that Letter, like Substack, was working in opposition to the ad-driven attention economy, attempting to change the rules of engagement for online discourse,” Substack wrote in its acquisition announcement.

But this acquisition may be cause for concern among those already troubled by the controversy Substack faced earlier this year, when news came out that the platform offered some writers up to six-figure advances as part of its Substack Pro program. The problem wasn’t that Substack was incentivizing writers to join the platform, but rather, who Substack had hand-picked to pay an advance. Plus, Substack says that it’s up to the writer to disclose whether or not they’re part of Substack Pro, which creates a lack of editorial transparency.

As Substack grew, writers left jobs at Buzzfeed and the New York Times, lured by pay raises and cautious optimism. But as more writers came forward as part of the Substack Pro program, Substack was criticized for subsidizing anti-trans rhetoric, since some of these writers used their newsletters to share such views. Substack admits it’s not entirely apolitical, but the choices of which writers to subsidize, and its decision to use only lightweight moderation tactics, are a strong political choice in an era of the internet when content moderation has a tangible effect on global politics. Some writers even chose to leave the platform.

Annalee Newitz, a non-binary writer who since left the platform, wrote on Substack, “Their leadership are deciding what kinds of writing and writers are worthy of financial compensation. […] Substack is taking an editorial stance, paying writers who fit that stance, and refusing to be transparent about who those people are.”

So, when Substack described its new acquisition Letter as a platform that encourages people to “argue in good faith instead of dropping bombs for retweets,” it made the acquisition worthy of a deeper examination. Statements like this sound agreeable, yet this kind of language often appears in arguments that deem social justice a threat to free speech. But free speech shouldn’t mean endorsing hate speech.

Substack wants to position itself as a neutral platform, and for many writers, it’s a valuable way to make money, especially in an unstable journalism industry. But given that some users have already become skeptical of who Substack chooses to financially incentivize, it’s worth examining the implications of buying Letter, a platform that includes writers associated with the so-called intellectual dark web in its group of twenty “featured writers.” On Letter, some of these writers question the validity of childhood transgender identity and refer to the statement “trans women are women” as propaganda, for example. Substack has already lost the trust of some trans and gender non-conforming writers, and the content on its newly acquired Letter won’t help rebuild that trust.

In addition, Letter co-founder Clyde Rathbone wrote in support of a controversial letter published in Harper’s Magazine, which called for the “concerted repudiation of cancel culture.” But critics of the letter point out that free speech isn’t really at stake here.

The open letter had been signed by over 150 prominent writers — like Gloria Steinem, Noam Chomsky (a Letter author), and Malcolm Gladwell (a Bulletin author). It argued: “We need to preserve the possibility of good-faith disagreement without dire professional consequences.” These “professional consequences” echoed the predicament that J.K. Rowling — who also signed the letter — had put herself in. After denying that trans women are women, her reputation suffered. Some might call that “cancel culture,” but others might call it the refusal to continue to platform people who perpetuate harmful beliefs.

“The panic over ‘cancel culture’ is, at its core, a reactionary backlash,” wrote journalist Michael Hobbes. “Conservative elites, threatened by changing social norms and an accelerating generational handover, are attempting to amplify their feelings of aggrievement into a national crisis.”

Substack says it plans to use the acquisition of Letter to help writers collaborate, and that it won’t integrate Letter into its platform. Rather, the Letter team will relocate from Australia to San Francisco to “bring their expertise to help build more of the infrastructure and support.”

TechCrunch asked Substack if the anti-trans content on Letter is cause for concern within the company, given the recent backlash against the platform.

“We think that open debate and disagreement are absolutely part of having free press, and that includes views that you or I may not like,” a representative from Substack said. “Anyone could browse Substack and find things they agree with and things they don’t agree with. Substack has no ad-driven feeds pushing content based on virality and outrage, and there is a direct relationship between writers and readers who can opt out of that anytime. So the bar for us to intervene in that relationship and tell writers what they should be saying is really high, and the fact that Letter allowed writers to openly debate and discuss is consistent with that philosophy.”

We don’t know yet how or if Letter will change Substack — but given the existing discourse around the kind of content Substack pays for, Substack isn’t demonstrating “good faith” with this acquisition.

Livestream e-commerce: Why companies and brands need to tune in

What comes to mind when you think of livestreaming? In the U.S., most people would name their favorite celebrity leading a Q&A on Instagram or a gamer doing a speedrun on Twitch.

In China, it’s shopping, streamed live.

Livestream e-commerce has taken off in China in the last few years and is expected to yield more than $60 billion this year. In 2019, 37% of online shoppers in China (a cool 265 million people) made purchases on livestreams — and that was well before quarantine. In 2020, it’s estimated to have reached around 560 million people.

During Taobao’s annual Single’s Day Global Shopping Festival in 2020 (China’s Black Friday), livestreams accounted for $6 billion in sales — nearly doubled from a year earlier.

Starting to see a trend? The big U.S. companies have noticed, and they’re jumping on the bandwagon faster than you can say, “Swipe up to buy now!”

Last December, Walmart livestreamed shopping events on TikTok. Amazon released a live platform where influencers promote items and chat with customers. Instagram launched a Shop feature that encourages users to browse and buy within the app. Facebook also kicked off Live Shopping Fridays for the beauty and fashion categories.

“It’s an entertaining way for shops to tell the story behind their products. It brings buyers closer than ever to their favorite creators and allows them to have a voice in the conversation.”

Startups are growing fast to keep up with the heavy hitters — PopShop.Live raised $20 million to let people buy everything from books and toys to jewelry from sellers who livestream their offerings, and Whatnot raised a $50 million Series B, largely to expand its livestream commerce infrastructure. There’s also a burgeoning category of SaaS tools such as Bambuser, which is working with brands like Klarna to test native livestream shopping directly within branded apps.

At this pace, retailers will all welcome livestream commerce teams like they have influencer partnerships in recent years. It’ll just be part of the digital equation to stay competitive and relevant in the future of marketplaces and e-commerce.

From B.C. to 5G: The evolution of shopping

What is old is new again. Your grandparents spent years watching QVC because it balanced the experience of speaking with an associate with the convenience of their retirement community’s TV room. Livestream is today’s version of “shoptainment,” where hosts showcase products dynamically, interact with their audiences and build urgency with short-term offers, giveaways and limited-edition items.

Now, with livestream commerce, hosts can form deeper customer connections and answer questions in real time. It’s a new standard of communication that holds a longstanding truth from Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar to smartphones: People shop to kill time and are more likely to buy when they feel connected with a salesperson.

Spotify’s Clubhouse rival, Greenroom, tops 140K installs on iOS, 100K on Android

Spotify’s recently launched live audio app and Clubhouse rival, Spotify Greenroom, has a long road ahead of it if it wants to take on top social audio platforms like Clubhouse, Airtime, Spoon and others, not to mention those from top social networks, like Twitter and Facebook. To date, the new Greenroom app has only been downloaded a total of 141,000 times on iOS, according to data from app intelligence firm Sensor Tower. This includes downloads from its earlier iteration, Locker Room — an app Spotify acquired to make its move into live audio.

On Android, Google Play data indicates the app has been installed over 100,000 times, but Sensor Tower cannot yet confirm this figure.

For comparison, Clubhouse today has 30.2 million total installs, 18.7 million of which are on iOS, Sensor Tower says.

Other top audio apps include Airtime, with 11.4 million iOS installs, out of a total of 14.3 million (including Android); and Spoon, with 7.6 million iOS installs, out of a total of  27.3 million.

International apps like UAE’s Yalla and China’s Lizhi are massive, as well, with the former sporting 48.1 total installs, 3.8 million of which are on iOS. The latter has 29.5+ million total installs, but only a handful on iOS.

There are other newcomers that have managed to stake smaller claims in the social audio space, too, including Fishbowl (759,000 total installs), Cappuccino (497,000 installs), Riff (339,000 installs) and Sonar (154,000 installs.)

Image Credits: Sensor Tower. The firm analyzed 34 social audio apps. The chart shows those with the most installs.  

Spotify Greenroom’s launch last month, meanwhile, seems to have attracted only a small fraction of Spotify’s larger user base, which has now grown to 365 million monthly active users.

The majority of Greenroom’s installs — around 106,000 — took place after Greenroom’s official launch on July 16, 2021 through July 25, 2021, Sensor Tower says. Counting only its Greenroom installs, the app is ranked at No. 12 among social audio apps. It follows Tin Can, which gained 127,000 installs since launching in early March.

Because Greenroom took over Locker Room’s install base, some portion of Greenroom’s total iOS installs (141K) included downloads that occurred when the app was still Locker Room. But that number is fairly small. Sensor Tower estimates Locker Room saw only around 35,000 total iOS installs to date. That includes the time frame of October 26, 2020 — the month when the sports chat app launched to the public — up until the day before Greenroom’s debut (July 15, 2021).

We should also point out that downloads are not the same thing as registered users, and are far short of active users. Many people download a new app to try it, but then abandon it shortly after downloading it, or never remember to open it at all.

That means the number of people actively using Greenroom at this time, is likely much smaller that these figures indicate.

Spotify declined to comment on third-party estimates.

While Sensor Tower looked at competition across social audio apps on the app stores, Spotify’s competition in the live audio market won’t be limited to standalone apps, of course.

Other large tech platforms have more recently integrated social audio into their apps, too, including Facebook (Live Audio Rooms), Twitter (Spaces), Discord (Stage Channels) and trading app Public. A comparison with Greenroom here is not possible, as these companies would have to disclose how many of their active users are engaging with live audio, and they have not yet done so.

Despite what may be a slower uptake, Greenroom shouldn’t be counted out yet. The app is brand-new, and has time to catch up if all goes well. (And if the market for live audio, in general, continues to grow — even though the height of Covid lockdowns, which prompted all this live audio socializing in the first place, seems to have passed.)

Spotify’s success or failure with live audio will be particularly interesting to watch given the potential for the company to cross-promote live audio shows, events, and artist-produced content through its flagship streaming music application. What sort of programming Greenroom may later include is still unknown, however.

Following Spotify’s acquisition of Locker Room maker Betty Labs, the company said it would roll out programmed content related to music, culture, and entertainment, in addition to sports. It also launched a Creator Fund to help fuel the app with new content. 

But so far, Spotify hasn’t given its users a huge incentive to visit Greenroom.

The company, during its Q2 2021 earnings, explained why. It said it first needed to get Greenroom stabilized for a “Spotify-sized audience,” which it why it only soft-launched the app in June. Going forward, Spotify says there will be “more tie-ins” with the main Spotify app, but didn’t offer any specifics.

“Obviously we’ll leverage our existing distribution on Spotify,” noted Spotify CEO Daniel Ek. “But this feels like a great way to learn, experiment and iterate, much faster than if we had to wait for a full on integration into the main app,” he added.

Facebook warns of ‘headwinds’ to its ad business from regulators and Apple

Facebook posted its second quarter earnings Wednesday, beating expectations with $29 billion in revenue.

The world’s biggest social media company was expected to report $27.8 billion in revenue for the quarter, a 50 percent increase from the same period in 2020. Facebook reported earnings per share of $3.61, which also bested expectations.

In the first financial period to really reflect a return to quasi-economic normalcy after a very online pandemic year, Facebook met user growth expectations. At the end of March, Facebook boasted 2.85 billion monthly active users across its network of apps. At the end of its second quarter, Facebook reported 2.9 billion monthly active users, roughly what was expected.

In spite of a strong quarter, Facebook is warning of change ahead — namely impacts to its massive ad business, which generated $28.5 billion out of the company’s $29 billion this quarter.

“We continue to expect increased ad targeting headwinds in 2021 from regulatory and platform changes, notably the recent iOS updates, which we expect to have a greater impact in the third quarter compared to the second quarter,” the company stated its investor report outlook.

Facebook stock was down immediately following the news. The company’s shares opened at $375 on Wednesday morning and were down to $360 in a dip following the earnings report.

No matter what Facebook planned to report Wednesday, the company is a financial beast. Bad press and user mistrust in the West haven’t done much to hurt its bottom line and the company’s ad business is looking as dominant as ever. Short of meaningful antitrust reform in the U.S. or a surging competitor, there’s little to stand in Facebook’s way. The former might still be a long shot given partisan gridlock in Congress, even with the White House involved, but Facebook is finally facing a threat from the latter.

For years, it’s been difficult to imagine a social media platform emerging as a proper rival to the company, given Facebook’s market dominance and nasty habit of acquiring competitors or brazenly copying their innovations, but it’s clear that TikTok is turning into just that. YouTube is huge, but the platforms matured in parallel and co-exist, offering complementary experiences.

TikTok hit 700 million monthly active users in July 2020 and surpassed three billions global downloads earlier this month, becoming the only non-Facebook owned app to do so, according to data from Sensor Tower. If the famously addictive short form video app can successfully siphon off some of the long hours that young users spend on Instagram and Facebook’s other platforms and make itself a cozy home for brands in the process, the big blue giant out of Menlo Park might finally have something to lose sleep over.