Snapchat’s parental control features spotted in development

Snapchat is preparing to introduce a new parental control feature dubbed “Family Center,” which will allow parents to see who their teen is friends with on the app as well as who they’ve been messaging with over the past seven days, and more.

Snap’s CEO Evan Spiegel first teased the planned offering during an interview in October, where he explained the feature would give parents better visibility into how teens use its service and, hopefully, make them feel more comfortable with the app.

Snap is one of the last Big Tech social platforms to address the need for parental monitoring tools, though its app sees heavy use among younger users. At Snap’s NewFronts presentation to advertisers earlier this month, the company noted the Snapchat app now reaches more than 75% of 13-34-year-olds in over 20 countries, and 80% of the U.S. Gen Z population had watched at least one of its Snap Original shows.

According to new screenshots of Snapchat’s forthcoming Family Center shared with TechCrunch by the product intelligence firm Watchful, the new Family Center feature allows parents to see who their teen is friends with on the app. This is useful for parents because, unlike many social networks, Snapchat’s friend lists aren’t public. Parents will also have visibility into who their teen has chatted with over the past seven days — but not the contents of those conversations. The screenshots additionally explain that parents will be able to assist their teen in reporting abuse and harassment, if needed.

Image Credits: Snapchat screenshot via Watchful

The parental control feature works by allowing parents to invite their teen (or teens) to the new in-app Family Center in order to begin the monitoring. The recipient of that invitation has the option of either accepting or declining the invitation.

This is, arguably, an appropriate approach to parental controls involving teens, as it respects their privacy. Instead of allowing parents to surreptitiously spy on their teens, it ensures the parent and child will instead have a conversation about parental monitoring, where they agree to a set of rules appropriate for their own household.

The images provided by Watchful represent early designs of Snapchat’s feature, which is still in development and not yet live or being tested. We should note that products at this stage often change before their launch to the general public. That means the final product could look quite different. (The U.K. spelling of the word “Center,” too, suggests that we’re not seeing a global version of the Family Center product here.)

Image Credits: Snapchat screenshot via Watchful

Other large social platforms have already launched their parental control features and other age-appropriate experiences for their younger users. Snap is running a little behind.

TikTok, for example, has continued to develop its parental controls offerings following the debut of its in-app Family Pairing tool back in 2020. The tool allows parents to pair their TikTok account with a child’s in order to control the account’s privacy, whether it’s suggested to other TikTok users, whether the child can use search, and who, if anyone, can view, comment or interact with the child’s content, among other things. There’s also a toggle to put the account into an even safer mode for under-13 users.

YouTube also launched parental control features into testing last year that allow parents to select between different levels of YouTube access for teen or tween users. And Instagram arrived even later with its new safety tools for parents, also called Family Center, which didn’t roll out until March 2022. Its tools let parents monitor time spent on the app, who has followed the child’s account and more.

Although all platforms compete broadly in the social media space, they all operate a bit differently, which informs what type of parental control features are actually needed. In Snapchat’s case, minors on the app have to mutually accept each other as friends before they can begin messaging. Minors’ accounts also aren’t shown in search results or as friend suggestions to another user — unless they have friends in common. And minors are not able to have public profiles. That means Snap wouldn’t need to roll out parental control features to control these types of experiences.

Snap declined to comment on the Family Center screenshots, but the company had previously said the offering would arrive in the coming months.

WhatsApp ramps up revenue with global launch of Cloud API and soon, a paid tier for its Business App

WhatsApp is continuing its push into the business market with today’s news it’s launching the WhatsApp Cloud API to all businesses worldwide. Introduced into beta testing last November, the new developer tool is a cloud-based version of the WhatsApp Business API — WhatsApp’s first revenue-generating enterprise product — but hosted on parent company Meta’s infrastructure.

The company had been building out its Business API platform over the past several years as one of the key ways the otherwise free messaging app would make money. Businesses pay WhatsApp on a per-message basis, with rates that vary based on the region and number of messages sent. As of late last year, tens of thousands of businesses were set up on the non-cloud-based version of the Business API including brands like Vodafone, Coppel, Sears Mexico, BMW, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, Iberia Airlines, Itau Brazil, iFood, and Bank Mandiri, and others. This on-premise version of the API is free to use.

The cloud-based version, however, aims to attract a market of smaller businesses, and reduces the integration time from weeks to only minutes, the company had said. It is also free.

Businesses integrate the API with their backend systems, where WhatsApp communication is usually just one part of their messaging and communication strategy. They may also want to direct their communications to SMS, other messaging apps, emails, and more. Typically, businesses would work with a solutions provider like Zendeks or Twilio to help facilitate these integrations. Providers during the cloud API beta tests had included Zendesk in the U.S., Take in Brazil, and MessageBird in the E.U.

During Meta’s messaging-focused “Conversations” live event today, Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced the global, public availability of the cloud-based platform, now called the WhatsApp Cloud API.

“The best business experiences meet people where they are. Already more than 1 billion users connect with a business account across our messaging services every week. They’re reaching out for help, to find products and services, and to buy anything from big-ticket items to everyday goods. And today, I am excited to announce that we’re opening WhatsApp to any business of any size around the world with WhatsApp Cloud API,” he said.

He said the company believes the new API will help businesses, both big and small, be able to connect with more people.

In addition to helping businesses and developers get set up faster than with the on-premise version, Meta says the Cloud API will help partners to eliminate costly server expenses and help them provide customers with quick access to new features as they arrive.

Some businesses may choose to forgo the API and use the dedicated WhatsApp Business app instead. Launched in 2018, the WhatsApp Business App is aimed at smaller businesses that want to establish an official presence on WhatsApp’s service and connect with customers. It provides a set of features that wouldn’t be available to users of the free WhatsApp messaging app, like support automated quick replies, greeting messages, FAQs, away messaging, statistics, and more.

Today, Meta is also introducing new power features for its WhatsApp Business app that will be offered for a fee — like the ability to manage chats across up to 10 devices. The company will also provide new customizable WhatsApp click-to-chat links that help businesses attract customers across their online presence, including of course, Meta’s other applications like Facebook and Instagram.

These will be a part of a forthcoming Premium service for WhatsApp Business app users. Further details, including pricing, will be announced at a later date.

 

We (skim)read Meta’s metaverse manifesto so you don’t have to…

Meta’s recently crowned president of global affairs, Nick Clegg — who, in a former life, was literally the deputy prime minister of the U.K. — has been earning his keep in California by penning an approximately 8,000-word manifesto to promo “the metaverse”: aka, the sci-fi-inspired vapourware the company we all know as Facebook fixed on for a major rebranding last fall.

Back then, founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, pronounced that the new entity (Meta) would be a “metaverse-first” company “from now on”. So it’s kinda funny that the key question Clegg says he’s addressing in his essay is “what is the metaverse” — and, basically, why should anyone care? But trying to explain such core logic is apparently keeping Meta’s metamates plenty busy.

The Medium post Clegg published yesterday warns readers it will require 32 minutes of their lives to take in. So few people may have cared to read it. As a Brit, I can assure you, no one should feel obliged to submit to 32 minutes of Nick Clegg — especially not bloviating at his employer’s behest. So TechCrunch took that bullet for the team and read (ok, skim-read) the screed so you don’t have to.

What follows is our bullet-pointed digest of Clegg’s metaverse manifesto. But first we invite you to chew over this WordCloud (below), which condenses his ~7,900-word essay down to 50 — most boldly featuring the word “metaverse” orbiting “internet”, thereby grounding the essay firmly in our existing digital ecosystem.

Glad we could jettison a few thousand words to arrive at that first base. But, wait, there’s more!

Image credits: Natasha Lomas/TechCrunch

Fun found word pairs that leap out of the CleggCloud include “companies rules” (not democratic rules then Clegg?); “people technologies” (possibly just an oxymoron; but we’re open to the possibility that it’s a euphemistic catch-all for ill-fated startups like HBO’s Silicon Valley‘s (satirical) ‘Human Heater’); “around potential” (not actual potential then?); “meta physical” (we lol’d); and — squint or you’ll miss it! — “privacy possible” (or possibly “possible privacy”).

The extremely faint ink for that latter pairing adds a fitting layer of additional uncertainty that life in the Zuckerberg-Clegg metaverse will be anything other than truly horrific for privacy. (Keen eyed readers may feel obligated to point out that the CleggCloud also contains “private experience” as another exceptionally faint pairing. Albeit, having inhaled the full Clegg screed, we can confirm he’s envisaging “private experience” in exceptional, siloed, close-friend spaces — not that the entire metaverse will be a paradise for human privacy. Lol!)

Before we move on to the digest, we feel it’s also worth noting a couple of words that aren’t used in Clegg’s essay — and so can only be ‘invisibly inked’ on our wordcloud (much like a tracking pixel) — deserving a mention by merit of their omission: Namely, “tracking” and “profiling”; aka, how advertising giant Meta makes its money now. Because, we must assume, tracking and profiling is how Meta plans to make its money in the mixed reality future Clegg is trying to flog.

His essay doesn’t spare any words on how Meta plans to monetize its cash-burning ‘pivot’ or reconfigure the current “we sell ads” business model in the theoretical, mixed reality future scenario he’s sketching, where the digital commerce playground is comprised of a mesh of interconnecting services owned and operated by scores of different/competing companies.

But perhaps — and we’re speculating wildly here — Meta is envisaging being able to supplement selling surveillance-targeted ads by collecting display-rents from the cottage industry of “creators” Clegg & co. hope will spring up to serve these spaces by making digital items to sell users, such as virtual threads for their avatars, or virtual fitting rooms to buy real threads… (‘That’s a nice ‘Bored Ape T-Shirt’ you’re planning to sell — great job! — but if you want metamates to be able to see it in full glorious color you’ll want to pay our advanced display fees’, type thing. Just a thought!)

Now onwards to our digest of Clegg’s screed — which we’ve filleted into a series of bulleted assertions/suggestions being made by the Meta president (adding our commentary alongside in bold-italics). Enjoy how much time we’ve saved you.

  • There won’t be ‘a’ or ‘the metaverse’, in the sense of a single experience/owned entity; there will be “metaverse spaces” across different devices, which may — or may not — interoperate nicely [so it’s a giant rebranding exercise of existing techs like VR, AR, social gaming etc?] 
  • But the grand vision is “a universal, virtual layer that everyone can experience on top of today’s physical world” [aka total intermediation of human interaction and the complete destruction of privacy and intimacy in service of creating limitless, real-time commercial opportunities and enhanced data capture]
  • Metaverse spaces will over index on ephemerality, embodiment and immersion and be more likely to centre speech-based communication vs current social apps, which suggests users may act more candid and/or forget they’re not actually alone with their buddies [so Meta and any other mega corporates providing “metaverse spaces” can listen in to less guarded digital chatter and analyze avatar and/or actual body language to derive richer emotional profiles for selling stuff] 
  • The metaverse could be useful for education and training [despite the essay’s headline claim to answer “why it matters”, Clegg doesn’t actually make much of a case for the point of the metaverse or why anyone would actually want to fritter their time away in a heavily surveilled virtual shopping mall — but he includes some vague suggestions it’ll be useful for things like education or healthcare training. At one one point he enthuses that the metaverse will “make learning more active” — which implies he was hiding under a rock during pandemic school shutdowns. He also suggests metaverse tech will remove limits on learning related to geographical location — to which one might respond have you heard of books? Or the Internet? etc]
  • The metaverse will create new digital divides — given those who can afford the best hardware will get the most immersive experience [not a very equally distributed future then is it Clegg?] 
  • It’s anyone’s guess how much money the metaverse might generate — or how many jobs it could create! [🤷]
  • But! Staggeringly vast amounts of labor will be required to sustain these interconnected metaverse spaces [i.e. to maintain any kind of suspension of disbelief that it’s worth the time sink and to prevent them from being flooded with toxicity]
  • Developers especially there will be so much work for you!!! [developers, developers, developers!]
  • Unlike Facebook, there won’t be one set of rules for the metaverse — it’s going to be a patchwork of ToS [aka, it’ll be a confusing mess. Plus governments/states may also be doing some of the rule-making via regulation]
  • A lack of interoperability/playing nice between any commercial entities that build “metaverse experiences” could fatally fragment the seamless connectivity Meta is so keen on [seems inevitable tbh; thereby threatening the entire Meta rebranding project. Immersive walled gardens anyone?]
  • Meta’s metaverse might let you create temporary, siloed private spaces where you can talk with friends [but only in the same siloed way that FB Messenger offers E2EE via “Secret Conversations” — i.e. surveillance remains Meta’s overarching rule]
  • Bad metaverse experiences will probably be even more horrible than 2D-based cyberbullying etc [yep, virtual sexual assault is already a thing]
  • There are big challenges and uncertainties ahead for Meta [no shit]
  • It’s going to take at least 10-15 years for anything resembling Meta’s idea of connected metaverse/s to be built [Clegg actually specified: “if not longer”; imagine entire decades of Zuckerberg-Clegg!]
  • Meta hopes to work with all sorts of stakeholders as it develops metaverse technologies [aka, it needs massive buy-in if there’s to be a snowflake’s chance in hell of pulling off this rebranding pivot and not just sinking billions into a metaverse money-hole]
  • Meta names a few “priority areas” it says are guiding its metaverse development — topped by “economic opportunity” [just think of all those developer/creator jobs again! Just don’t forget who’s making the mega profits right now… All four listed priorities offer more PR soundbite than substance. For example, on “privacy” — another of Meta’s stated priorities — Clegg writes: “how we can build meaningful transparency and control into our products”. Which is a truly rhetorical ask from the former politician, since Facebook does not give users meaningful control over their privacy now — so we must assume Meta is planning a future of more of the same old abusive manipulations and dark patterns so it can extract as much of people’s data as it can get away with… Ditto “safety & integrity” and “equity & inclusion” under the current FB playbook.] 
  • “The metaverse is coming, one way or another” [Clegg’s concluding remark comes across as more of a threat than bold futuregazing. Either way, it certainly augurs Meta burning A LOT more money on this circus]

Voicy wants to pwn gamers with audio memes

If meme stocks can be a thing, what’s to stop audio meme sharing from going viral!? Hoping to storm the ear-bending arena of social audio and win friends amid the gamer/creator crowd is Voicy — a Netherlands-based startup that’s building a platform for user-generated audio snippets (typically a few seconds long), offering tools to create emotive samples for reaction sharing to spice up your messaging/streams.

It’s not hard to predict where this idea goes: Straight to gross out fart sfx and pwning troll clips — which are indeed plentiful on this fledgling platform for user-generated (or, well, sampled) audio. Dank audio memes anyone?

Other viral noises are available. Borat clips, for example, or Squid Game sounds. Plus a cacophony of over-enthusiastic Internet memes in audio form. John Oliver screaming “GOOGLE IT!” repeatedly, or Epic Sax Guy’s epic saxing, and so on.

The typical Voicy user is, unsurprisingly, young and trigger happy, per the startup — which envisages gamer voice chat as a key target for a pipelines of social integrations it hopes to build out. So far it has one integration inked with messaging app, Viber — but it’s offering a “simple universal API” to encourage other platforms to sign up.

Zooming out, Voicy’s stated mission is to do for sound clips what Giphy has done for GIFs.

“We want to create a new way for people to express themselves creatively in how they communicate. In areas such as gaming, where communicating with images or text doesn’t work as well — there’s a huge gap for audio to really enhance the experience,” suggest co-founders Xander Kanon, Joey de Kruis and Milan Kokir via email.

“As we’ve seen with memes and GIFs, people love to create their own very creative content. Audio has the capacity to have the same, if not bigger impact on modern communications. We’ve seen from instant chat, to emoticons to GIFs that people all over the world want to experiment with and simply have fun with how they communicate — it’s one of the things we all have in common. In addition to this, the competition among apps and platforms is immense and all of them are working hard to make their offering more sticky, fun and engaging. This is where Voicy comes into play.”

“From the ground up, we have developed our platform to give users the express ability to create,” they add. “Our technology directly serves that purpose through an open-source approach to content, with safeguards layered in to moderate. With integrations, our approach has been to connect our platform with other platforms and give users wider accessibility to sharing content. With the addition of public API, further integrations and a strong foundation within the platform, we believe our impact can be exponential.”

The platform fully launched in October 2020, per the founders, and they’ve grown usage to 1.1 million monthly active users at this stage (although that’s including usage via Viber, not just ears they’re pulling into their own platform).

Other usage metrics they share include that users have created some 145,000 sound clips so far, with an average of 10k more being added per month. They also say a Voicy user plays, on average, 20 sound clips and shares one per visit.

While, following their recent partnership with Viber, users there have sent over 20 million audio messages — which have been played 100M times in just three months.

The startup is planning to build out a pipeline of third party integrations to drive for further growth, with the help of a €1.2 million pre-seed raise being announced today — eyeing potential love-ins across social messaging, streaming and gaming platforms. Or basically anywhere where noisy memes might find an appreciative audience.

“There are a lot of potential integrations within social messaging, for example WhatsApp, FB Messenger; social video — Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, YouTube; gaming — Roblox, Ubisoft, Xbox, Discord; and streaming — Twitch, Streamlabs and Corsair,” they suggest, reeling off the tier one consumer platform list.

Voicy’s pre-seed raise is led by Oliver Samwer’s Global Founders Capital, with a number of tech senior execs also participating from companies including Twitch, Spotify, Deezer, Snapchat, Booking, Uber, Reddit, Acast and Tesla.

Commenting in a statement, Global Founders Capital’s Soheil Mirpour said: “Voicy is a very exciting new startup. In short order, their strong team has grown a huge community of very active users who are creating hundreds of pieces of new audio content every day. There’s a massive amount of potential for short audio in social communication. A Discord user spends on average 285 minutes a day in a Discord voice chat, people share 7 billion voice messages per day on WhatsApp alone and billions of people use short audio in their TikTok or Instagram videos. Voicy brings a new concept to the table, which is ready to disrupt an enormous market — we knew we had to invest.”

But why do web users need audio memes when there are already, er, audio GIFs? Isn’t this a rather niche proposition — given existing overlap, plus the general (broad) competition from other reaction ‘shareables’ consumers can easily use to express themselves, from ye olde emoji, to customizable stickers to viral GIFs?

Soundless reaction formats (like GIFs) are also essentially an advantage to the sizeable ‘never turn up the volume’ mobile crew — whose silence-loving (voice-message hating) existence explains why even short video clips which are made to be shared on social typically come with captions to provide an baked in alternative to engaging any ear. (And, well, an audio meme with the sound off is just some sad-looking pixels, right? … Quite possibly, though, this is an older vs younger Internet user generation thang 😬)

Surprising no one, Voicy users so far are Gen Z or Gen Alpha, with a strong following amid the TikTok/Roblox generation, per the founders. (“Our users use us for gaming, creation, and messaging. Across our user base, most users are located in the USA (60%). The majority of users are aged below 35 years old (75%+),” they also confirm.)

“The advantage of a sound clip over a GIF/sound GIF is the wider applicability of it,” argue Voicy’s founders. “Practically, you can use a sound clip in your stream, during gaming, or to edit your video or your TikTok video/Youtube Short as well as use it in messaging. You simply cannot do this with an audio GIF due to user experience and practical constraints.”

“Audio memes are funny, iconic and unique shareable audio bites that can be used in any form of online communication to express thoughts or feelings in a specific context,” add the trio — who are self professed avid gamers themselves.

What about risks around copyright? How are they managing that issue? Voicy is not licensing any audio content currently but the founders suggest they may do in future. For now they’re relying on fair use to recirculate samples (plus their platform supports a DCMA reporting and takedowns procedure). They say they’re also using a third party service to stop protected samples from being piped onto any third party platforms they integrate with.

While it’s early for such a consumer-focused product to be focused on monetization, the team says they’re building Voicy as a marketplace — and ultimately intend to focus on the needs of the creator community.

“We believe that our long term opportunity lies at enabling creators to monetise their content,” they tell TechCrunch. “With the creator’s economy continuing to grow at a rapid speed, we provide them a platform to create, clipify, distribute, earn, and build a community around their sonic identity. With a large integration network and a platform as an end-destination for consuming and engaging with sounds and sound-creators, Voicy can monetise its library and integrations. Voicy can provide a ton of value both for the supply side and the demand side.”

“More specifically, our business model will be focused around the sub-licensing of clips, and by providing additional premium features for creators to do what they do best: creating content. Content will have the possibility to be sub-licensed to integration partners, fans, other creators, and premium consumers,” they add.

NY AG is investigating Twitch, Discord and 4chan for their role in the Buffalo mass shooting

New York Attorney General Letitia James will launch an investigation into the role that social media and online message boards played in the tragedy that unfolded in Buffalo over the weekend.

On Saturday, an 18-year-old shooter opened fire at a Tops supermarket, killing 10 people and wounding three others. In online materials, the suspected shooter describes how discovering white supremacy on 4chan radicalized his thinking and ultimately inspired him to carry out the deadly attack.

The investigation was prompted by a referral from New York Governor Kathy Hochul, who called on social media companies to monitor content more aggressively for dangerous extremism in the days following the mass shooting.

“I am seeking your assistance to investigate the specific online platforms that were used to broadcast and amplify the acts and intentions of the mass shooting that took place in Buffalo on May 14, 2022 and determine whether specific companies have civil or criminal liability for their role in promoting, facilitating, or providing a platform to plan and promote violence,” Hochul wrote in a letter to the AG’s office Wednesday.

The attorney general’s office plans to examine social apps and sites “including but not limited to” Twitch, Discord, 4chan and 8chan.

“Time and time again, we have seen the real-world devastation that is borne of these dangerous and hateful platforms, and we are doing everything in our power to shine a spotlight on this alarming behavior and take action to ensure it never happens again,” James said.

Her office did not provide much detail on the investigation, which lumps mainstream social media services with content moderation together with notorious, anything goes hubs of extremism like 4chan and 8chan. While the former will likely comply with the AG’s office, the latter two web forums are less likely to humor the investigation.

8chan, which is run out of the Philippines, in particular is a hotbed of activity for extremists planning racist violence. Mass shooters in El Paso, Christchurch, New Zealand, Poway, California and now Buffalo all posted their plans and screeds to 8chan prior to their deadly attacks. In a journal entry prior to the attack, the Buffalo shooter noted that he would publish his writing on 8chan and 4chan in addition to sending it to his Discord servers and friends list.

The web forum that appears to be the main source of the suspected shooter’s ideals, 4chan, refuses to make any proactive efforts to moderate content and has long incubated white supremacy and other dangerous forms of extremism.

Amazon-owned Twitch detected the shooter’s livestream within two minutes of the violence beginning and removed the video, though it continues to circulate openly on platforms like Twitter and Facebook. It’s not clear if the AG’s investigation will also examine the spread of the graphic video, which has been copied many times and shared around the web.

The suspected shooter published his plans in detail to a private Discord server and on Google Docs, but neither private digital space is scanned to detect extremist threats. The question of how much online platforms should monitor non-public spaces is a difficult one given privacy concerns and existing laws, but it’s also a conversation we’re likely to be hearing a lot about in the coming days.

Buffalo shooter invited others to his private Discord ‘diary’ 30 minutes before attack

Discord has provided more insight into how the shooter who opened fire in a Buffalo, New York supermarket over the weekend used its service prior to the tragic act of violence.

The shooter, 18-year-old Payton Gendron, is charged with first degree murder in the mass shooting, which left 10 people dead and three injured. In the month leading up to the attack on the Buffalo Tops grocery store, which he researched and selected in an effort to harm as many Black people as possible, he used Discord to document his plans in extreme detail.

According to Discord, the suspected shooter created a private, invite-only server that he used as a “personal diary chat log.” The server had no other members until 30 minutes before the attack began, when a “small group of people” received an invite and joined.

“Before that, our records indicate no other people saw the diary chat log in this private server,” a Discord spokesperson told TechCrunch. TechCrunch reached out to the company for more details about the server’s activity and insight into how it handles moderation for private servers and messages.

Discord, a text and voice chat app, is best known for its large, public messaging rooms but it also allows users to create private, invite-only servers. In updates to the Discord server, which shares a username with the Twitch channel he used to livestream the shooting, the suspect documented his violent, racist views in depth. He also detailed the logistics of how he would carry out the mass shooting, including the gear he would use, his shopping trips leading up to the shooting and his day-of plans.

While it’s unknown what other Discord servers Gendron was active in, he references his activity on the app in the chat logs. “I didn’t even think until now that the people in my discord groups are probably going to get no knock raided by ATF and FBI agents,” he wrote. While Discord served as a kind of digital journal for the atrocities he would later carry out, he also compiled a nearly 200-page screen about his beliefs, weapons and plan to commit violence in Google Docs.

In early May, he expressed concerns that Google might discover his plan for violence in messages sent on the private Discord server. “Ok I’m a bit stressed that a google worker is going to see my manifesto fuck,” he wrote. “WHY did I write it on google docs I should have had some other solution.” Unfortunately, those concerns were unfounded. After the shooting, Google did remove the document for violating its terms of service.

The suspect, who livestreamed the shooting over Twitch, also spent time on 4chan’s /pol/, an infamous sub-message board rife with racism, misogyny and extremism. Unlike mainstream social networks like Discord, 4chan does not do any proactive content moderation and only removes illegal content when required to do so. In Discord chat logs. reviewed by TechCrunch the shooter notes that he “only really turned racist” after encountering white supremacist ideas on 4chan.

Five years ago, Discord was implicated in the Charlottesville Unite the Right rally, an open gathering of white supremacists and other far-right extremists that ended with one counter-protester dead. The rally’s participants and organizers came together in private Discord servers to plan the day’s events and discuss the logistics of what would take place in Charlottesville. The company responded by cracking down on a number of servers hosting extremism, though maintained that it did not read messages on private servers.

Like Reddit, most of Discord’s hands-on moderation comes from community moderators within its chat rooms. And like most social companies, Discord relies on a blend of automated content scanning and human moderators. Last year, the company acquired Sentropy, an AI software company that detects and removes online hate and harassment, to bolster those efforts.

In the years following the deadly violence in Charlottesville, Discord successfully sought to distance itself from its association with the far-right extremists and white supremacists who once called the social network home. More recently, Discord has also put some distance between its current brand and its origins as a popular chat app for gamers, reframing itself as an inviting hub for a huge spectrum of thriving online communities.

“Our deepest sympathies are with the victims and their families,” a Discord spokesperson said of the tragedy in Buffalo, adding that it is assisting law enforcement in the ongoing investigation. “Hate has no place on Discord and we are committed to combating violence and extremism.”

YouTube teases expansion of livestream shopping with new features arriving later this year

In recent years, YouTube has been working to transform its platform into more of a shopping destination with product launches like shoppable ads or more recently, the ability to shop directly from livestreams hosted by creators. Now, it’s furthering that investment with new features for live shopping experiences. At yesterday’s YouTube Brandcast event, where the company pitched itself to advertisers as a better place for their TV ad dollars, YouTube teased upcoming features that it claimed would make it easier for viewers to discover and buy from brands.

The company touted its forthcoming tools as offering advertisers a better way to engage viewers and make connections with their audience.

One new feature, explained YouTube, will allow two creators to go live at the same time to cohost a single live shopping stream. This could effectively double the draw for the event, as each creator would bring their own fanbase to the stream.

This feature arrives shortly after YouTube in March announced a pilot program called “Go Live Together,” a new mobile collaborative streaming feature that would enable creators to invite guests to their livestream with a link before going live together. This trial suggested YouTube had its eye on developing tools to better power joint livestreams — just as it’s now planning to introduce with its upcoming two-person live shopping streams. The addition could also make YouTube more competitive with Instagram which launched the ability for creators to go live with up to three people last year.

In addition to leveraging creators to build an audience for a live shopping event, YouTube’s shopping livestreams platform also offers other tools specifically designed to drive sales. The brand-integrated shopping experience actually allows viewers to shop the products shown in the video by tapping on a built-in “view products” button which then brings up a list of items featured by the creators.

The company says its new two-person live shopping feature will roll out sometime later this year.

Another upcoming option announced at Brandcast is something YouTube calls “live redirects.”

In this case, creators will be able to start a shopping livestream on their channel, then redirect their audience over to a brand’s channel for fans to keep watching. This allows brands to tap into the power of the creator’s platform and reach their fanbase, but then gives the brands themselves access to that audience — and the key metrics and analytics associated with their live event — directly on their own YouTube channel. This will also roll out sometime this year, says YouTube, but didn’t provide a timeframe.

YouTube’s announcements follow the broader growth of the live e-commerce market in the U.S. — a trend inspired by the livestream shopping activity surging in China, where streamers can pull in billions of dollars in a matter of hours. Today, a number of startups have also entered this space, including TalkShopLive, PopShop Live, NTWRK, Whatnot, ShopShops, Supergreat, and others. Klarna even added virtual shopping capabilities to connect its buy-now, pay-later customers with live product demos from retail partners.

Retailers, too, are getting in on the action. Nordstrom launched a live events platform, while Forever 21 and Macy’s are among those that added live shopping to their apps.

Meanwhile, big tech platforms are wooing brands by touting their wider reach.

Over the past year or so, we’ve seen Walmart pilot testing TikTok’s first livestreamed shopping experience; Facebook’s live shopping boosting sales for brands like Petco, Benefit, Samsung, Anne Klein, and others; and Instagram hosting live shopping events to cater to holiday crowds. Twitter even began to test livestream shopping, also with Walmart’s help on its pilot run — but it’s unclear where such initiatives will land if the Elon Musk buyout comes to pass.

While YouTube is certainly one of the largest creator platforms for video, there is some indication that it needs to catch up to its big tech rivals in livestream shopping, however. An eMarketer study from Jan. 2022 found that only 14.4% of survey respondents said YouTube’s platform drove them to purchase during a livestream event compared with 15.8% for TikTok, 45.8% for Instagram, and 57.8% for Facebook.

Image Credits: eMarketer/Insider Intelligence

YouTube’s new livestream features — and particularly the one that pushes a creator’s fanbase to a brand’s channel — could make its solution more compelling.

“People come to YouTube every day to make decisions about what to buy, and 87% of viewers say that when they’re shopping or browsing on YouTube, they feel like they can make a faster decision about what to purchase because of all the information that we have in videos,” said YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki, speaking to the audience at the Brandcast live event last night. “We have so much shopping activity that is already happening on YouTube, so we are making it even easier for viewers to discover and to buy,” she said.

Twitter rolls out the ability for creators to host Super Follows-only Spaces

Twitter has announced that it’s rolling out Super Follows-only Spaces. Creators who offer Super Follows subscriptions can now host Spaces exclusively for their subscribers. The social media giant says this new option will give creators a way to “offer an extra layer of conversation to their biggest supporters.”

Subscribers globally on iOS and Android will be able to join and request to speak in Super Follows-only Spaces, whereas subscribers on Twitter’s web platform can join and listen, but won’t have the option to request to speak. Creators can start a Super Follows-only Space by selecting the “Only Super Followers can join” button when starting a new Space. Users who aren’t Super Following a creator will still see the Space, but won’t be able to access it unless they subscribe.  

It’s worth noting that the new Super Follow-only option for Spaces isn’t the only way for creators to hold exclusive Spaces. For example, Twitter launched its Ticketed Spaces feature last year to allow creators to set a price for users to listen in on a Space. Creators can set their ticket price anywhere between $1 and $999 and can also limit how many tickets are sold.

Super Follows, which was first revealed in February 2021, allows users to subscribe to accounts they like for a monthly subscription fee in exchange for exclusive content. Super Follows is currently in testing with select creators in the United States on iOS. Eligible accounts can set the price for Super Follow subscriptions, with the option of charging $2.99, $4.99 or $9.99 per month.

The launch of Super Follows-only Spaces adds another layer of exclusivity to Super Follows subscriptions. Twitter says it plans to launch more Super Follows features to allow creators to grow their audiences and get closer to their most engaged followers.

Twitter says its research shows that hosting consistent Spaces leads to more follower growth and also gives creators more ways to engage with their followers. The company found that consistently hosting Spaces, around two times per week, leads to a 17% follower growth over a quarter. In addition, the company says creators who host consistent Spaces for a month see a 6-7% growth in followers, and creators who do so for two months see a 10% growth in followers.

TikTok launches its first creator crediting tool to help video creators cite their inspiration

After years of stolen memes and uncredited dance trends, TikTok today is introducing a new feature that it says will be the first iteration of its creator crediting tools that allow creators to directly tag and credit others using a new button during the publishing process. This button lets creators credit all sorts of inspiration for their content, including dances, jokes, viral sounds, and more — and will help TikTok viewers discover the original creators behind the latest trend by tapping on the credit from the video’s caption.

Larger creators lifting ideas from smaller ones is an issue that’s not limited to TikTok. But as one of the largest social apps on the market, particularly among a younger Gen Z to Millennial demographic, how it approaches the issue of creator recognition matters.

To that end, TikTok says it’s now rolling out a new feature that will allow users to add a credit as part of the publishing process on the app.

Image Credits: TikTok

To access the feature, users will tap on a new “video” icon on the posting page after creating or editing their own video. Once on the video page, users will be able to select a video they have liked, favorited, posted, or that had used the same sound.

After this video is selected, the video tag will be added as a mention in the caption.

Those whose videos were tagged by another creator will then be alerted to this via an alert in their TikTok app Inbox.

Image Credits: TikTok

The feature’s launch follows years of controversy over creator credits and attribution on TikTok.

In particular, TikTok had struggled with some of its top stars sourcing new choreography to perform in their dance videos from creators on other, smaller platforms — like the rival short-form video app Dubsmash, later acquired by Reddit. Many of these unknown creators had helped kick off TikTok’s biggest dance trends in years past, like the Renegade, Backpack Kid, or Shiggy. And many were creators of color, who saw their dances go viral after more famous TikTokers would perform their moves without tagging them as the inspiration. This issue came to a head when The New York Times in 2020 reported on the original creator of the Renegade, then a 14-year-old Atlanta teen, Jalaiah Harmon, who hadn’t received credit for her work after TikTok’s largest creator, Charli D’Amelio, performed her dance for her millions of fans, helping her to further grow her already outsized celebrity status.

The following year, a similar controversy made headlines after TikTok star Addison Rae went on “The Tonight Show” where she taught host Jimmy Fallon a number of popular TikTok dances. Meanwhile, the dances’ original creators, many of whom are Black, remained uncredited in the segment. Later, a number of Black creators went on strike as part of a viral campaign to call attention to the issue of creator credits by refusing to choreograph a dance to Megan Thee Stallion’s latest single.

D’Amelio and some other creators have since begun to handwrite dance credits in their video descriptions, often using the shorthand “dc” for dance credit followed by a tag pointing to the username of the creator. A famous Hollywood choreographer, JaQuel Knight, who made history as the first to copyright his work, has also begun helping other dancers on TikTok get credit for their work too, Vice reported in December.

But dances aren’t the only things being stolen on TikTok. Creators have fielded accusations of stealing everything from cheerleading routines to comedy bits to challenge ideas to music or sounds and much more.

 

A TikTok spokesperson acknowledged the problem with credits on the platform, noting that the culture of credit was “critical” for the community and for  TikTok’s future. “Equitable creator amplification is important for creators, especially the BIPOC creator community,” they added.

Image Credits: TikTok

In an announcement, Director of the Creator Community at TikTok, Kudzi Chikumbu introduced the feature and highlighted other efforts the company has made to help better highlight original creator work on its platform.

Chikumbu pointed to TikTok’s Originators series, launched last October, which showcases trend originators through the app’s Discover List feature. TikTok also recently debuted a TikTok Originators monthly social series highlighting Originators on the platform. In addition, the TikTok Creator Portal includes a “Crediting Creators” section that highlights the importance of attributing trend originators for their work. Here, the company lays out best practices for crediting originators and explains how to find the originators if you aren’t sure who had started a trend.

The use of the new crediting tag could help make it easier for creators to cite their inspiration. However, it still relies on user adoption to work. If a creator wants to lift ideas without credit, they could simply not use the feature.

“It’s important to see a culture of credit take shape across the digital landscape and to support underrepresented creators in being properly credited and celebrated for their work,” said Chikumbu. “We’re eager to see how these new creator crediting tools inspire more creativity and encourage trend attribution across the global TikTok community.”

Social maps app Zenly rolls out its own maps

Zenly, the popular social app with 35 million monthly active users, released a complete redesign just last month. But it turns out that this was just the first part of a bigger change at the company owned by Snap. Zenly is going to compete with the likes of Google Maps and Apple Maps as it has begun rolling out its own mapping data and engine.

This massive project began more than three years ago. And the result is a beautiful, living and breathing mapping experience. There are a ton of animations, thoughtful details and delightful easter eggs. For this reason, comparing Zenly’s maps with Google Maps or Apple Maps isn’t exactly fair.

“When I started at Zenly we were working with MapKit and Google Maps SDK. We were frustrated about not being able to express the ideas that we had,” Charly Delaroche, the software engineering manager that has led the map effort at Zenly, told me. “Knowing that the core of Zenly is a map, it was really frustrating — not being able to control it.”

This is how Zenly’s mapping project started under the codename ‘Wonka’. While Zenly started as a way to see what your friends are up to, the company wanted to control and own the canvas to expand beyond this location sharing feature. For instance, the new Zenly lets you search for places — not just people.

And starting a new maps app from scratch in 2019 presents many advantages. You don’t have to carry over the legacy of an old codebase that can run on old iPhones and Android devices. Knowing that it would be a multi-year project, the team targeted newer phones, which are not so new today.

For instance, on iOS, Zenly requires iOS 12. All devices that run iOS 12 support the new Zenly map. “What we called newer phones then is really current phones right now,” Delaroche said. “We wanted to do something that was more 3D and used video game technology to use the maximum performance of the device,” he added.

Image Credits: TechCrunch

A personal map

Apple Maps and Google Maps keep getting better and better. A quick look at Justin O’Beirne’s website will show you how detailed these two products have become.

But there’s one issue with these existing apps. They are a bit static and focused on giving you as much information as possible.

“The map that you’re using every day, they weren’t made for you. Everyone is seeing the same map,” Delaroche said.

For instance, Zenly displays a ‘fog of war’ on the map view. If you’ve played real-time strategy games, you’re already familiar with this feature. It displays a fog on top of the map if you’ve never been to a location so that you know where you should head next to explore new areas.

Right now, Zenly adds this layer on top of the map. They are two distinct elements. With Zenly’s own maps, the fog of war is seamlessly integrated in the map, which means that it looks better and is more customizable.

Similarly, when Zenly wants to show you your best friends, it doesn’t have to figure out whether your friend’s name appears on top of a city name. Zenly’s own map engine can prioritize your friend’s name over the city name when it makes sense.

Image Credits: Zenly

Reconstructing a global map with a team of 10

Zenly has built a global map. And yet, there are currently only 10 people working on the mapping project. The basis of Zenly’s map is accurate data and algorithmic transformation.

The company leveraged open-source data from OpenStreetMap and it acquired proprietary data sets from third-party partners. After that, the company created a ton of rules to understand what’s on the map and recreate it in Zenly’s style.

“We added many rules to transform it from something flat to something interesting,” Charly Delaroche said.

For instance, Zenly has classified different areas depending on their intrinsic nature. When there’s a river, Zenly knows that it’s water and users can tap on it to get a splashing effect. When there’s a forest, Zenly adds 3D trees to approximate the real-life version.

As for roads, Zenly automatically adds tiny cars and trucks that move up and down the street — yes, it looks really cute. There are also boats, ducks, golf carts and sea creatures.

Everything is automatically generated from various data sets and Zenly’s algorithmic rules. The company doesn’t manually edit maps to make them more accurate.

And then, there are landmarks — the only thing that is 100% handmade. The company has built its own art editor and created 3D models for popular landmarks. It works with studios for those assets, such as Ocellus Studio (based in Lyon) and Nieko Play (based in Lithuania).

I spent a lot of time looking at landmarks in Paris, from the Eiffel Tower to the Louvre, the Arc de Triomphe and more. There are still some missing landmarks, such as the statues on the Place de la République or Place de la Nation.

But the existing landmarks are beautiful. In that case, Zenly isn’t trying to recreate these landmarks. These are playful representations of iconic places.

Landmarks also have a purpose. People who live in big cities tend to identify where they are based on surrounding landmarks. With the new Zenly map, you can instantly identify where your friends are hanging out without reading any street name.

A new engine

In addition to data, Zenly had to create a 3D engine from scratch. Everything is custom made. It’s a fully cross-platform engine in low-level C and C++ code. It supports physically based rendering, deferred rendering and temporal shadow maps.

Of course, it doesn’t look as good as a 3D mobile game. But it’s fast. You can move around the map without any major performance hit. More importantly, there is no loading screen when you launch the app. It still feels like a social app — not a video game.

In addition to basic animations for cars and boats, the water is also animated and reflects light. At any point in time, the sun is accurately positioned so that shadows are more realistic as well.

Moving around Zenly becomes a different experience. You don’t swipe and pan to zoom like in other maps apps. You move the 3D camera to look around.

A progressive rollout

Because landmarks are an important feature, Zenly’s new maps are only available in a handful of cities at first —Taipei, Tokyo, Paris, Los Angeles, New York and Seoul.

The rollout started earlier this week, but it’s going to be a progressive rollout. Right now, only 5% of new Zenly users will see the new maps. And users can always change back to the default map style in the settings. But the goal is to roll it out to everyone this year and add a new city every two weeks or so.

Zenly is well aware that it can’t compete with Apple Maps and Google Maps when it comes to data accuracy. But what’s more exciting is that this new mapping engine unlocks a ton of possibilities. The company can integrate social data with mapping data in one seamless view.

“Do we really need to compete and be pixel perfect in every place of the world?” Delaroche said. Clearly, Zenly doesn’t want to be better, it wants to be different. And Zenly’s new map platform is a great starting point for some different features.