Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen will talk Section 230 reform with Congress this week

Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen will go before Congress again this week, this time offering her unique perspective on the company’s moderation and policy failures as they relate to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, the key legal shield that protects online platforms from liability for the user-created content they host.

The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications and Technology will hold the hearing, titled “Holding Big Tech Accountable: Targeted Reforms to Tech’s Legal Immunity,” this Wednesday, December 1 at 10:30 AM ET. Color of Change President Rashad Robinson and Common Sense Media CEO James Steyer will also testify on Wednesday.

The hearing is the latest Section 230-focused discussion from the House committee. In March, the chief executives of Facebook, Google and Twitter went before lawmakers to defend the measures they’ve taken to fight misinformation and disinformation — two major areas of concern that have inspired Democratic lawmakers to reexamine tech’s longstanding liability shield.

In an October Senate hearing, Haugen advocated for changes to Section 230 that would hold platforms accountable for the content that they promote algorithmically. While Haugen isn’t an expert on legislative solutions to some of social media’s current ills, given her time with Facebook’s since-dismantled civic integrity team, she’s uniquely positioned to give lawmakers insight into some of the most dangerous societal outcomes of algorithmically amplified content.

“User-generated content is something companies have less control over. But they have 100% control over their algorithms,” Haugen said. “Facebook should not get a free pass on choices it makes to prioritize growth, virality and reactiveness over public safety.”

Facebook’s former News Feed lead and current Head of Instagram Adam Mosseri is also set to testify before the Senate for the first time next week, addressing revelations in leaked documents that the company knows its business takes a toll on the mental health of some of its youngest, most vulnerable users.

In its announcement, the House Energy and Commerce committee cited four tech reform bills that Congress is currently mulling: the Justice Against Malicious Algorithms Act of 2021, the SAFE TECH Act, the Civil Rights Modernization Act of 2021 and the Protecting Americans from Dangerous Algorithms Act. The first bill, proposed by the committee holding Wednesday’s hearing, would lift Section 230’s liability protections in cases when a platform “knowingly or recklessly” recommends harmful content using algorithms.

Jack is leaving Twitter and we have ~thoughts~

Well, so much for a relaxed post-holiday week on Monday.

News broke this morning that Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey is stepping down from the company entirely. The company’s CTO, Parag Agrawal, will be taking over at the helm. Saleforce exec Bret Taylor will take over as board chairman.

So, Amanda and Natasha and Alex jumped into onto the mics — and, ironically, a Twitter space — to riff on all things Jack and future of Twitter. From the show:

  • Crypto and the CTO, what can we read from the tea leaves?
  • Jack’s dual role, and its detractors.
  • The fact that Twitter’s product work has been great lately, which we don’t want to stop. When is a good time to leave a company, is it on the up and up or when things are quiet?
  • And, finally, Jack’s somewhat biting words regarding founder-led companies, which are, frankly, a bit at odds with his own behavior until now.

The show is back on Wednesday, unless some other major CEO resigns.

Equity drops every Monday at 7:00 a.m. PST, Wednesday, and Friday at 6:00 a.m. PST, so subscribe to us on Apple PodcastsOvercastSpotify and all the casts.

Jack reportedly stepping down from Twitter CEO role

CNBC reported this morning that Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey is expected to step down from his role at the social media company.

Dorsey is the CEO of both Twitter and Square, a financial company that serves both consumer and corporate customers with payment, cash management and transference services.

Twitter’s stock rose on the news that Dorsey may step down, trading up 6.1% as of the time of writing after giving up some early gains in the first minutes of the week’s trading cycle.

The company did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

For comparison purposes, Twitter is worth around $40 billion today. No small number, to be clear, but less than half the value of Square, which has a public-market worth of just over $99 billion.

Running one public company is work. Running two is uncommon and, we presume, not a simple feat. Square shares are also trading higher this morning, albeit to a smaller degree. (Twitter has attracted investor dissent for its CEO’s split time.)

A great product run

Twitter’s leadership and product direction have received criticism over the years for being too conservative or too slow — or both. In recent quarters, however, Twitter’s ability to develop and ship new products and services has accelerated.

Though Twitter’s functionality remained largely stagnant for years — save for some major changes like making tweets longer — the app has introduced a slew of new features and acquisitions.

Twitter entered the live audio race with Spaces, then introduced monetization features, like Ticketed Spaces, Tip Jar and livestream shopping (Meta apps like Facebook and Instagram have also picked up the pace when it comes to e-commerce). More recently, the platform launched its subscription Twitter Blue service, which offers a more customizable user experience — including the ability to undo tweets — for $2.99 per month.

The social giant also opened its checkbook to bring more capabilities to its service. So far this year, Twitter has acquired companies like Threader (which helped develop a thread reading experience for Twitter Blue), Sphere (a group social messaging app), Breaker (which helped build Spaces), and, most notably, Revue, a newsletter platform that gives writers the convenience of linking their posts directly on their profile.

Finally, it’s no secret that Dorsey is interested in crypto — his Twitter bio is literally just “#bitcoin” — but he’s not the company’s only proponent. Twitter has been working on a way for users to display NFTs in their profile and, more broadly, Twitter houses Bluesky, a decentralized web project. Dorsey’s alleged departure may not slow the momentum of Twitter crypto, especially after the company announced earlier this month that it will build a dedicated crypto team.

This Week in Apps: Twitter launches livestream shopping, Netflix snags new games, Tile gets acquired

Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the weekly TechCrunch series that recaps the latest in mobile OS news, mobile applications and the overall app economy.

The app industry continues to grow, with a record 218 billion downloads and $143 billion in global consumer spend in 2020. Consumers last year also spent 3.5 trillion minutes using apps on Android devices alone. And in the U.S., app usage surged ahead of the time spent watching live TV. Currently, the average American watches 3.7 hours of live TV per day, but now spends four hours per day on their mobile devices.

Apps aren’t just a way to pass idle hours — they’re also a big business. In 2019, mobile-first companies had a combined $544 billion valuation, 6.5x higher than those without a mobile focus. In 2020, investors poured $73 billion in capital into mobile companies — a figure that’s up 27% year-over-year.

This Week in Apps offers a way to keep up with this fast-moving industry in one place with the latest from the world of apps, including news, updates, startup fundings, mergers and acquisitions, and suggestions about new apps and games to try, too.

Do you want This Week in Apps in your inbox every Saturday? Sign up here: techcrunch.com/newsletters

Top Stories

Twitter launches livestream shopping

Image Credits: Twitter

Twitter’s e-commerce initiatives now include livestream shopping, the company announced this week, and Walmart will be the first retailer to test the new platform. The Live Shopping service will take advantage of Twitter’s existing capabilities in livestreaming content and its newer e-commerce features, like the Shop Module for business profiles. During the upcoming livestream event, users will be able to watch the show, tweet to join the conversation from the Live Events page, and browse products on the “Shop” and “Latest” tabs just below the video. When ready to purchase, users will click through to the retailer’s website where the livestream will continue — so they don’t have to miss any of the show.

Walmart was a sensible first partner for the new effort, as the retailer has been increasingly investing in livestream events across social media. Over the past year, it hosted more than 15 livestream events across five platforms, including YouTube, TikTok and its own website, among others.

Its Twitter livestream will focus on Cyber Deals and will kick off on November 28 at 7 PM ET in the U.S. The stream will also be broadcast on Walmart.com/live, and across the retailer’s Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and YouTube accounts.

Twitter says this is the first-ever e-commerce livestream on its platform, but it plans to bring more experiences like this to its customers in the future.

The event will also serve as a means of testing the Twitter user base’s appetite for live shopping, which today often takes place on other social apps, like Instagram and Facebook, on dedicated live commerce platforms and on video services like YouTube and TikTok. But Twitter —  a place where users tend to track news, events, pop culture trends, politics and more — hasn’t yet defined itself as a platform. Its overabundance of new features released in the past year feel more like spaghetti being thrown at the wall to see what sticks, instead of a carefully planned roadmap. Twitter today wants to be a home to live audio, creator subscriptions, newsletters, bitcoin tipping, NFTs, private communities and more. But, in reality, only some of these things will actually work. For example, Twitter already had to kill its Stories feature (Fleets) due to lack of traction. And its early days of Super Follow, subscriptions didn’t produce much revenue.

Whether or not it will be able to offer the sort of live commerce experience that resonates with consumers and delivers retailers’ objectives still remains to be seen.

Weekly News

Platforms: Google

  • Google’s Play Store is testing out a new “Offers” section that’s different from the existing “Offers & Notifications” page in the app menu. Instead, it’s being used to bring up carousels of deals, limited-time specials and paid apps going free, while the “Offers & Notifications” section had only delivered a heavily curated list of offers, or, if none were available, the option to add a promo code.
  • Android 10 is still the most-used version of the Android OS, according to numbers crunched by 9to5Google using data provided through Android Studio. The Android 10 OS has a 26.5% market share, edging out Android 11’s 24.2%. Android 12 hasn’t yet made an appearance in the numbers.

E-commerce and delivery services

  • Uber enters the cannabis delivery market. The ride-hailing app announced that users in Ontario, Canada would be able to place cannabis orders on its Uber Eats app following its listing of cannabis retailer Tokyo Smoke on its marketplace. The company had said it would consider expanding cannabis delivery in the U.S. when the legality of doing so is made more clear.
  • Mobile advertising and app monetization company Tapjoy announced the launch of a rewarded shopping product, Tapjoy Shopping. The in-app marketplace lets consumers shop from hundreds of brands and retailers, and earn rewards in their favorite apps — like virtual currency — for their purchases. The feature is available in any of the over 10,000 apps that belong to Tapjoy’s network. Tapjoy says shopping offers like this have been increasingly important to mobile publishers after Cost Per Engagement app ads were banned on iOS.
  • France has asked search engines and app stores to remove the popular e-commerce platform Wish, which mostly sources products from China-based merchants. The order comes following France’s investigations into fraud, product safety and counterfeit goods on Wish, which found that 95% of toys on Wish didn’t comply with EU regulation, 45% were dangerous, 95% of electronics didn’t comply with regulation and 90% were dangerous.

Augmented Reality

Image Credits: Snap

  • Snapchat is bringing AR to holiday shopping. On Black Friday (11/26), the company will launch the Snap Holiday Market, which will feature immersive AR experiences from a half-dozen brand partners, including Amazon Prime Video, Coca-Cola, Hollister, Under Armour, Verizon and Walmart. Each brand will have a dedicated storefront where Snapchat users can browse their products and deal in an AR space designed for each brand. The market will be available from the Lens Carousel and the top of the “For You” tab in the Lens Explorer.
  • Snap also plans to offer AR try-on and e-commerce Lenses throughout the holiday shopping season, including those from brands like American Eagle, Fendi, Diork Kaja Beauty, NYX Cosmetics, Shein and Tory Burch.
  • The company announced a new AR stat, as well: Snapchat now sees over 6 billion AR Lens plays every day on average, it said.

Fintech

  • The German neobank N26 will shutter its U.S. operations. The company’s 500,000 U.S. customers will see their accounts closed on January 11 and will be provided with instructions on how to withdraw their funds. The company said it made the decision to better focus on its core European business and plans to launch to more countries in Eastern Europe, as well as Brazil. The bank had previously shut down its business in the U.K., citing post-Brexit difficulties.

Social

  • TikTok hires a new head of diversity and inclusion. The company has hired Shavone Charles, previously of VSCO, Instagram and Twitter, to fill the newly created role. The exec will be LA-based and report to TikTok’s head of comms, Hilary McQuaide.
  • Kuaishou, the Chinese maker of the largest short-form video platform after TikTok, reported earnings. Revenue rose 33% as the company reported 20.5 billion yuan ($3.2 billion) for the three months ended September, versus the 20.1 billion yuan average forecast. Total MAUs on its main app reached 573 million, though the company had to shut down its U.S. TikTok rival Zynn earlier this year.
  • Twitter made a change to its crowdsourced fact-checking program, Birdwatch, which now allows users to submit their contributions anonymously. Twitter says pilot users “overwhelmingly” requested this feature, particularly women and Black contributors. “Research has shown that aliases have the potential to reduce bias, by putting focus on the content of a note, not the author,” Twitter said, adding that aliases may also “reduce polarization by helping people feel comfortable crossing partisan lines.”

  • Twitter also updated its iOS app to address the annoying bug (which Twitter must have thought was a feature) where your timeline would refresh automatically, making the tweets you were actively reading disappear from view. After first fixing this issue on the web, Twitter is now rolling it out to iOS users.
  • Reddit said it’s shutting down Dubsmash, the short-form video app it acquired late last year, and is integrating video tools into its own app.  Reddit said its camera features will now include the ability to change recording speeds and the option to set a timer, similar to other short-form video apps. Users can now also upload videos in landscape, portrait mode and fill, as well as adjust and trim multiple clips. The company is also adding a new editing screen that includes text Stickers, a drawing tool and filters. And users have the option to add voiceovers or adjust the volume directly on the editing screen.
  • Social networking app for women Peanut announced a new feature called “Go Global,” which will allow its users to connect with other women around the world, instead of only those nearby. The company said there was demand for the option after it launched its live audio feature Pods. But it could also make Peanut more useful in markets where there just aren’t that many local users to connect with.

Image Credits: Peanut

  • The TikTok app ecosystem is huge. Correction! In our last newsletter, we pointed to Sensor Tower’s analysis of the TikTok app ecosystem and mistakenly referred to its “400 or so mobile apps.” The ecosystem saw 400 apps debut in 2020, but in total, there are some 900 apps tied to TikTok to offer things like downloading videos, viewing analytics, tracking hashtags and more. Meanwhile, those 900 apps reached over 1 billion downloads worldwide, not 3 billion. (But TikTok, including its sister app Douyin, have 3.3 billion installs, for comparison.)

Messaging

  • Facebook, err Meta, said it’s delaying the launch of end-to-end encryption (E2EE) across its messaging products until 2023 following warnings from child safety campaigns, including the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. Such a system would prevent law enforcement and tech platforms from being able to detect child abusers, critics warned, and asked Meta to not proceed until it had a plan in place to prevent child abuse from being undetected on its platform. A former Facebook employee also accused Meta of announcing an absurdly accelerated timeline for E2EE to preempt antitrust action and for “good marketing,” which would have resulted in systems to identify child grooming, sextortion and CSAM distribution operating at less than 10% of the effectiveness of the systems that did inspect content.
  • WhatsApp introduced a new feature that would allow its web and desktop users to make their own custom stickers for use in the messaging app. The sticker maker is available from any chat from the paperclip icon, then clicking on “Sticker.”

Streaming & Entertainment

  • Apple Podcasts gets a suspicious boost in its App Store ratings. At first, it looked like angry podcast listeners and creators would finally have their say about the app’s decline by downrating Apple’s Podcasts app after Apple, for the first time, made its first-party apps reviewable by the public. But soon thereafter, the previously (embarrassingly) 1.8 star-rated app jumped, in a little over a month, to a 4.6 star rating. What gives? Apple critic Kosta Eleftheriou first noticed the change, and theorizes it’s because Apple is now intelligently prompting users for reviews — which, to be fair, is its right. But many of the reviews seem to be people reviewing the podcasts themselves, not the actual app, which is odd and…a bit suspicious.
  • Spotify will drop its shuffle feature on albums, after Adele asked. The streamer would previously default to shuffle mode but Adele had asked Spotify to allow her new album to play in the intended order. The artist tweeted that “our art tells a story and our stories should be listened to as we intended,” when thanking Spotify for the adjustment.
  • Music streaming app Tidal introduced direct artist payments, which aims to more equitably distribute funds to artists, compared with the models used by Apple and Spotify. With this user-centric payment system, subscription fees are directly distributed to the artists a user streams.
  • TikTok expands its TV footprint. The short-form video app rolled out to more TV devices across the U.S. and Canada with the addition of support for Google TV and Android TV OS, as well as LG and Samsung Smart TVs. Amazon Fire TV was previously supported.
  • Spotify tests a TikTok-like feed. The company is the latest to experiment with short-form video in its app as a means of content discovery. Except in Spotify’s case, it’s capitalizing on its existing Canvas video format but presenting it in a new place.
  • Spotify also debuted a “Netflix Hub” on its app, which features playlists, soundtracks and podcasts tied to Netlflix shows and movies. The companies had partnered on other initiatives before now, and see the hub as a way to serve their respective audiences with new and, sometimes exclusive, entertainment content.

Image Credits: Spotify/Netflix

Gaming

  • Netflix’s new gaming service added two more titles, including the return of Gameloft’s “Asphalt Xtreme.” The streamer recently expanded its service worldwide across iOS and Android, with a handful of titles, including a few casual games and two “Stranger Things”-themed games. Now, it’s added another arcade title, “Bowling Ballers,” and a reboot of Gameloft’s action racing game, “Asphalt Xtreme,” which had officially shut down just in September.

Travel and Transportation 

  • Telsa’s app experienced an outage that prevented car owners from opening their doors or starting their vehicles. Users reported getting a 500 server error on their iOS app, leading them to tweet at Elon Musk directly for help.

Government & Policy

  • The EU passed new rules that may impact major European and U.S. tech companies. The Digital Markets Act’ would make messaging apps interoperable, bans behavioral ad targeting to minors and would fine a company as much as 20% of total global annual sales for breaches of the law. The vote was the final step toward finalizing the rules, expected to come into action in 2022.
  • WhatsApp is reorganizing its privacy policy to provide more information on the data it collects and how it’s protected, used and shared across borders, after Irish regulators fined the service a record €225 million ($267 million USD) for breaching EU data privacy rules.
  • Instagram head Adam Mosseri is the next big tech rep who will testify before Congress. The exec will appear before lawmakers for the first time, and will answer the senators’ questions about Instagram’s impact on young people following the whistleblower leaks.
  • China’s state media reported Tencent has to submit new apps or updates for regulatory inspection through December 31 after Beijing determine Tencent’s apps infringed on users’ rights and interests. Tencent said its apps are still functional and available for download.
  • Apple pushed back the feature that would allow U.S. users to store their state’s driver’s license or state ID on their iPhone. The company said Arizona and Georgia would be the first states to get the feature, with Connecticut, Iowa, Kentucky, Maryland, Oklahoma and Utah to follow. The feature was originally set to launch in late 2021, but will now arrive in early 2022.

Security & Privacy

  • Privacy-focused search engine DuckDuckGo added to its Android app the ability to block hidden trackers, as part of its new “App Tracking Protection for Android” feature. The new option, now in beta, aims to block data collection from happening inside apps, where third-party trackers are hidden away in the app’s code.
  • Apple sued NSO Group, the maker of the nation-state spyware Pegasus. The suit is asking for a permanent injunction that would prevent NSO Group from using any Apple product or service, to “prevent further abuse and harm to its users.”

Funding and M&A

🤝 Family locator and communication app Life360 announced it would acquire lost-item tracking company Tile for $205 million. The deal will see Tile continue to be led as its own brand under its existing CEO CJ Prober. The company says no further changes to the Tile team are currently planned and Prober will also now join the Life360 board of directors. Tile, an Apple critic, claims that its business suffered from the AirTag’s arrival and Apple’s anti-competitive practices. It had recently announced a $40 million debt round to keep the business going.

💰 Niantic raised $300 million from Coatue at a $9 billion valuation to build the “real-world metaverse.” The Pokémon GO maker is betting on a metaverse that blends the real world with augmented reality, not virtual reality. This month, Niantic unveiled the Lightship AR Developer Kit which offers tools for AR game development. It also recently launched a new AR game, Pikmin Bloom.

🤝 Triller, the one-time TikTok rival turned live events company, has acquired Thuzio, a live events company co-founded by NY Giants’ Tiki Barber. The business had suffered during the pandemic when live events were shuttered. TrillerNet (Triller’s parent) confirmed the deal to the New York Post but didn’t disclose terms.

💰 Creator-driven marketplace LTK raised $300 million from SoftBank’s Vision Fund, valuing the business at $2 billion. The company, which was previously branded RewardStyle and LIKEtoKNOW.it, helps social media influencers make their posts shoppable from a centralized marketplace on the web and the LTK app. Brands can also use LTK to connect with creators on marketing campaigns.

💰 Mobile DevOps company Bitrise announced a $60 million round of funding led by Insight Partners to help developers build better mobile apps. Bitrise aims to create an end-to-end platform for mobile development that automates core workflows, shortens release cycles and provides a better understanding of how new pieces of code will affect live apps before their release, and counts over 100,000 developers as users.

💰 Column Tax, a company that makes income tax software designed to be embedded in other fintech apps, raised $5.1 million in seed funding led by Bain Capital Ventures. The company’s Tax Refund Unlock feature also recently became available to 2 million users of the cash advance app Klover.

💰 Berlin-based same-day grocery delivery app Yababa raised $15.5 million in seed funding led by Creandum and Project A, to expand its service within Germany and across Europe. The service, which currently offers items that cater to Turkish and Arabic communities, plans to expand its product mix in the future.

🤝 Coinbase acqui-hired the team behind BRD, a crypto wallet startup that first launched its mobile wallet back in 2014. BRD’s co-founders say nothing will be changing for BRD users for the time being, but users will have the option to migrate to Coinbase’s wallet in 2022.

💰 TabTrader raised $5.8 million in Series A funding for its mobile app that aggregates crypto exchange data. The app has more than 400,000 active users, with a particularly strong presence in Europe and Asia. Investors include 100X Ventures, Hashkey Capital, Spartan Capital, SGH Capital, SOSV and Artesian Venture Partners.

Downloads

Fold AR (Fold)

Image Credits: Fold

Of course, the metaverse has bitcoin? I mean, for sheer rubbernecking purposes we have to check out Niantic’s latest app. The Pokémon GO maker has weirdly teamed up with a bitcoin rewards and payments app, Fold, to launch an AR bitcoin mining experience called Fold AR. Currently in beta, Fold AR lets users earn bitcoin and other in-app benefits by exploring their physical surroundings using augmented reality. Unlike in Pokémon GO, where users seek out rare creatures, Fold users will collect bitcoin and other prizes, including those that increase their bitcoin cashback rewards. The company believes the game will appeal to bitcoin newcomers and existing cryptocurrency fans alike and will drive users to Fold’s app — where the in-app AR experience lives. Before the AR launch, Fold was focused on its bitcoin cashback experience where users connect their credit card, their Fold card or a bitcoin wallet, in order to purchase gift cards and receive cash back in the form of BTC. Fold AR rolls out on November 23 to select users and will add more users over time.

Twitter iOS update prevents tweets from disappearing while you’re reading them

Twitter is updating its iOS app to prevent tweets from disappearing while users are still reading them. The change comes as the social media giant recently updated its web platform to no longer automatically refresh timelines with new tweets. Twitter acknowledged that in the past, tweets would often disappear from view as users were reading them when their timeline would automatically refresh, creating a frustrating experience.

“We’ve made some updates on iOS to prevent Tweets from disappearing mid-read. Now when you pause your timeline scrolling to look at a tweet, it should stay put,” Twitter outlined in a tweet.

In September, the company noted it would be rolling out updates to the way it displays tweets so that they wouldn’t disappear mid-read. These updates have now rolled out to Twitter’s web and iOS platforms. Twitter notes that it’s working on making changes to the disappearing Tweet experience on Android too, but it’s unknown when the updates will roll out.

Twitter also recently announced that it will no longer automatically crop image previews on the web, after rolling out full-size image previews on mobile earlier this year. On Twitter for the web, images will now display in full without any cropping. Instead of gambling on how an image will show up in the timeline, images will look just like they did when you shot them. The social media giant first tested the change in March with a small subset of iOS and Android users.

These tweaks come as Twitter has been working to enhance its platform and make its services more accessible. The social media giant recently rolled out the ability for users to share direct links to their Spaces to let others tune into a live audio session via the web without being logged into the platform. The company also recently introduced its in-app tipping feature to all Android users above the age of 18.

Walmart will be the first retailer to test Twitter’s new livestream shopping platform

Twitter’s e-commerce initiatives now include livestream shopping and Walmart will be the first retailer to test the new platform. Over the past year, Walmart has invested in live shopping by hosting events across social platforms like TikTok and YouTube, and soon it will debut Twitter’s first-ever shoppable livestream. On November 28, Walmart will kick off a Cyber Deals live event on Twitter, where users will be able to watch a live broadcast, shop the featured products, and join the conversation around the event by posting tweets.

The livestream will begin at 7 PM ET on Nov. 28, 2021, and will allow Walmart customers to shop from Twitter as well as a number of other platforms, including Walmart.com/live, and the retailer’s Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube accounts. Musician-turned-creator Jason Derulo will host the livestream where he’ll introduce the audience to deals in electronics, home goods, apparel, seasonal décor, and more during a 30-minute variety show. Surprise special guests will also drop in, says Walmart.

Image Credits: Walmart

Walmart has been broadening its support for livestream shopping throughout 2021. It hosted its first shoppable livestream last December when it worked with TikTok on its Holiday Shop-Along Spectacular event, shortly after its planned investment in the video app fell through. (Walmart was interested in a deal for TikTok following Trump’s executive order that would have forced a sale of TikTok’s U.S. operations. But Trump’s order was blocked by the courts.)

That first TikTok live event proved successful, Walmart said at the time, having delivered 7x more views than had been anticipated. It also helped Walmart grow its TikTok follower base by 25%. Though the retailer didn’t detail the sales revenue the event delivered, it ran a second TikTok livestream shopping event just a few months later.

While Walmart’s bid for TikTok had signaled the retailer’s interest in live, social e-commerce, it saw potential outside of TikTok, as well. Over the past year, Walmart expanded livestream shopping tests to include other platforms. To date, Walmart has hosted more than 15 livestream events across five platforms, including its own website.

Those live commerce initiatives will now include Twitter, which is today revealing its new livestream shopping platform to the public.

Twitter says the Walmart Cyber Deals livestream will serve as the initial test of Live Shopping on Twitter in the U.S.

Image Credits: Twitter

This new platform expands upon Twitter’s existing shopping products and livestream capabilities.

It will include a live broadcast that streams at the top of a Live Event page, followed by a Shoppable Banner and Shop Tab where the products shown in the livestream are featured. Twitter users will be able to toggle back and forth between the “Lastest” tab and the “Shop” tab during the event as they preview the products. When consumers want to make a purchase, they’re directed to the retailer’s website within an in-app browser where the livestream will continue to be broadcast. That way, users won’t miss anything during checkout, Twitter says.

At the bottom of the Live Event page, there’s also a text box where consumers can tweet about the livestream with a suggested hashtag.

“We are honored to have Walmart onboard as the first-ever brand to host a Live Shopping event on Twitter. Walmart is renowned for bringing customers an immersive look into their products and we are excited to bring this experience onto Twitter with them, while helping them reach their business objectives,” said Sarah Personette, Chief Customer Officer at Twitter, in a statement.  “This is just the first of many Live Shopping events we hope brands will be able to bring to market, and we can’t wait for people to watch, chat, and shop — all through Twitter,” she added.

Image Credits: Twitter

The livestream shopping platform builds on Twitter’s earlier tests of a Shop Module, launched in July, that gave brands, businesses, and retailers a way to showcase their products directly on their Twitter profiles. The test was meant to better understand if there was demand for shopping on Twitter, and had included a handful of pilot partners like gaming retailer GameStop and travel brand Arden Cove, among others.

Walmart said it was interested in testing Twitter’s new capabilities because it consistently sees high returns across top- and middle-of-funnel content on Twitter’s platform, which makes it a natural next step for Walmart’s explorations into social commerce.

The new Twitter livestream event represents the start of a bigger push into live shopping over the 2021 holiday season for Walmart. The company says it has over 30 shoppable livestream events planned across eight social and media platforms, including BuyWith, BuzzFeed, Facebook, IGN, TalkShopLive, Tasty, Twitter, and YouTube. (TikTok was not listed, but Walmart told us it’s working closely with the TikTok team on future shoppable livestreams.)

“Twitter continues to be an important platform for Walmart’s business and our customers,” said William White, Chief Marketing Officer at Walmart U.S. “We’ve been focused on charting new territory in shoppable livestreams and are excited to celebrate an important milestone together with the first Livestream Shopping event on Twitter. We’re meeting customers where they are and making it easier to shop incredible deals and find inspiration through dynamic, interactive experiences. We look forward to continuing to bring engaging experiences to our customers that allow them to shop seamlessly while also being entertained,” he added.

Following the initial test of Live Shopping with Walmart, Twitter says it will start testing a new way to house merchant onboarding and product catalog management tools through an interface called the “Twitter Shopping Manager.” This will simplify the process of getting started with Shopping on Twitter, the company says. It also plans to make the Shop Module available to more retailers over the coming weeks.

Twitter told TechCrunch it doesn’t take a cut of the e-commerce revenues delivered through Live Shopping nor are brands paying to be included. But offering live shopping on Twitter could entice more users to join the platform, which has historically struggled with growing consumer adoption.

The live event will be available on Twitter on iOS and desktop in the U.S., starting on Nov. 28th at 7 PM ET/4 PM PT.

Nigerian fintech Abeg faces its biggest test yet after blitzscaling to millions of users

On October 3, Big Brother Naija,” a reality show sponsored by Nigerian social payments company Abeg, came to a rapturous close after 72 days on air.

The show, which commenced on July 24, is the most popular and most-watched reality show in Africa, raking in impressive numbers in terms of money and viewership.

The “Big Brother” franchise, started in the Netherlands, has been duplicated worldwide, including Nigeria, where pay-TV company MultiChoice Nigeria organizes it.

It features a group of people who live together in a huge house, detached from the outside world but watched via television cameras.

The recent season of “Big Brother Naija” was the sixth since launching in 2006. In its fifth season, the show’s organizers claimed that viewers cast a whopping 900 million votes.

With millions of eyeballs tuned in to watch the show daily, it is only fitting that companies looking to appear before viewers have to pay a premium. According to some sources, it costs $2 million to become a headline sponsor of the drama show, and Abeg, the latest one, is the newest beneficiary of the kind of blitzscaling growth “BBN” provides.

A new generation fintech app with some drama

Abeg was founded in 2020 by Dare Adekoya, Muheez Akanni, Patricia Adoga and Eniola Ajayi-Bembe. Its name is a wordplay on popular Nigerian slang abeg, which means to ask or beg for something.

The platform launched in September of that year with a Cash App-esque play: By leveraging a wallet-based system, Abeg allows users to request and send money to each other with tags.

But what started as a couple of Gen Zs trying out cool stuff outside Nigeria’s traditional payments space quickly turned into a company looking to scale after gaining 5,000 users in its first few weeks with zero marketing.

And for the next few weeks, Abeg won more users. However, coming into 2021, the hype around the app — especially on Twitter, where it gained fame — died down. To many, it seemed like the app was marching toward a slow death.

So, it came as a surprise when in April, MultiChoice announced the startup as the show’s headline sponsor before the sixth season began months later.

How did the six-month-old startup, which at the time had not disclosed any fundraising and seemed to be struggling, manage to sponsor a show that cost $2 million? That was the question on the lips of many observers. And they came up with many theories.

However, TechCrunch got some answers in a call with the startup’s founders. “Before the Big Brother show, we had already raised a pre-seed round from local investors,” CEO Adekoya said on the call. He said the team used a portion of the undisclosed pre-seed round to sponsor the show.

Prior to this revelation, the answer appeared to be in the fine print of MultiChoice’s announcement back in April, which identified Abeg as “a product of leading financial technological company Piggytech Global Limited.”

Piggytech is the parent company of PiggyVest, Nigeria’s most popular savings app and one of the country’s most valued fintech startups. Multichoice’s announcement suggests that Abeg was acquired by Piggytech even before the show started (according to people familiar with the matter, this happened in late 2020), and some sources say Piggytech paid the “BBN” sponsorship money for Abeg.

Though Abeg CEO dismissed this report, it seems like a more logical assertion because rarely would you see a pre-seed stage startup with a few thousand users raise money and earmark a marketing budget of $2 million only to spend it at one go.

Abeg

Abeg founders.

Abeg’s acquisition by its parent company has been shrouded in secrecy. But it has also been glaring for months to many people — particularly Nigerian tech Twitter where the handles of Abeg and PiggyVest regularly exchange banter on the social media app.

Despite this, Piggytech and its subsidiaries have neither publicly refuted nor confirmed their relationship until now. “We [Abeg and PiggyVest] are more or less under the same parent company; so, like sister companies and subsidiaries of Piggytech,” CTO Akanni said in the call.

The relationship has also produced some drama. In August, Nigerian tech Twitter was abuzz about a young startup that regrettably relinquished most of its ownership to a big company. It didn’t take long to know the companies involved. There was more speculation on how this contributed to the ousting of Michael “Trojan” Okoh, the ex-CTO Abeg brought on to build out the app’s first version late last year.

Some sources told me that Okoh left because of ownership dynamics in which Piggytech allegedly bullied its way into acquiring Abeg. TechCrunch reached out to Piggytech and Okoh, but they declined to comment.

On the call with Abeg founders, though, Akanni denied the reports saying, “You can see it as how someone would leave the company usually and unusually. It wasn’t because of a ‘PiggyTech takeover’ — it was because of other reasons we won’t like to disclose.”

Since both camps moved past this drama, Okoh has launched Thepeer, a Nigeria fintech company where he is chief technology officer, while Abeg numbers have boomed courtesy of “BBN.”

The Big Brother impact and what next?

Abeg isn’t the first tech startup to sponsor the reality TV show; other tech companies have done so in the past. They include now-defunct e-commerce company PayPorte; betting companies Betway and Bet9ja; and fintechs Kuda, Patricia and unicorn Flutterwave.

Each of them reported astronomical growth following the season finale. Digital bank Kuda, for instance, said it doubled its users to a little over 650,000 after sponsoring the show.

It was the perfect blueprint for Abeg to copy. And it did, masterfully. Entering into the show with a new design, a relaunched app and over 20,000 users, Abeg claims it now has almost 2 million users.

“‘Big Brother’ is like a large billboard in Africa where brands can … advertise and promote their products. And as Abeg, we are trying to infuse culture, lifestyle into the app, because payments is part of people’s lives,” COO Adoga said.

“So it’s pretty much worked for us because we’re trying to … promote and introduce the brand to the market and [tell] people what we’re about and what Abeg is supposed to be.”

When Abeg launched last year, its best use case for social payments was to let users run giveaway campaigns. Giveaways on the app became more prominent during the Big Brother show as celebrities and influencers (sponsored by Abeg) used the app to send money to their fans.

Relying on such a model is unsustainable. Users enjoyed using the app for giveaways on version 1.0, but it surely wasn’t enough for user retention. Now that Abeg has acquired more users and grown 100x, retention will become more critical than ever in version 2.0.

The Abeg team knows this and is exploring more specific use cases with Piggytech’s backing.

“We went the giveaway route basically to attract a lot of signups, which worked, and for people to reserve their usernames and get around with the app,” Adekoya said. “Moving forward, Abeg will be your go-to payment app for anything you want to pay for.”

That’s why Patronize, also known as “Abeg for businesses” was launched. The platform, another Piggytech subsidiary as confirmed by the company to TechCrunch, is a Square-esque product for Nigerian small and medium businesses to accept payments from customers using the Abeg app.

Like Square, Patronize provides tools to help businesses grow, manage and reward their customers. Unlike Square, however, Patronize is void of cards.

With its own smart point-of-sale devices, Abeg is trying to disrupt POS machines in retail shops and stores and bank transfers.

Granted, these are two tough propositions, but Abeg is right to think there’s opportunity. While fund transfers in Nigeria are instant with the help of the Nigeria Interbank Settlement System (NIBSS) as the infrastructure behind it, failed transactions and downtimes are still common occurrences.

Abeg, with its wallet system, provides a unique channel to make payments which, according to the company, has a 99.9% uptime. Abeg is banking that customers will see it as an alternative when they feel dissatisfied with traditional payments and become the go-to platform to pay for a movie, food, event or drugs from pharmacies.

Will all these be enough to retain users? It’s not entirely certain because one would still need to use the bank transfers to fund an Abeg wallet. And some users I have spoken with about the product don’t see why they should make transfers into their Abeg wallets every time to make payments when they could also transfer money to the recipient’s bank.

These are issues Abeg needs to address to retain its millions of users. One way it plans to do this is via direct integration with PiggyVest so users from the savings app can fund their Abeg wallets.

What’s the play here? So PiggyVest reportedly paid out ₦250 billion (~$500 million) into its users’ bank accounts so far at their last email to them this month. That’s a lot of money. And since an Abeg wallet can perform some functions of a traditional bank account like transfers, bill payments or buying tickets, PiggyVest is telling its users, “why don’t we use your Abeg wallets as your default withdrawal vault instead of your bank accounts.”

Some users will likely find this inconvenient. And sources tell me that Abeg might begin to allow users to earn interest on money sitting in their wallets in a bid to appease them.

With these features, Abeg’s strategy is to leverage the pull and success of its “sister company” to achieve stickiness and, at the same time, bring into fruition the financial ecosystem Piggytech is building to retain float.

Outside that, Abeg is going big on social gatherings, sponsoring entertainment events and musical shows of Grammy-award winning artists such as Wizkid and Burna Boy to acquire more users this upcoming holiday season.

Despite the influx of venture capital into the Nigerian fintech space, the market is crowded with platforms housing comparable features such as buying airtime, paying utility bills, making transfers and savings.

Abeg claims to be different because its users won’t experience slow payments and high transaction costs which exist on other platforms.

Though this pitch remains lost on some people, Piggytech believes Patronize will do the trick in changing their opinions. The business-focused platform is also on a user acquisition spree, onboarding tens and hundreds of merchants with smart POS devices to cater to the millions of users acquired by Abeg.

Twitter is rolling out its tipping feature to Android users

Twitter is rolling out its in-app tipping feature to all Android users above the age of 18, following the iOS launch in September. The social media giant says the “Tips” feature is geared toward users looking to get a little financial support from their followers through Cash App, Paypal, Venmo and Patreon directly through the app. Android users can now get set up to receive tips from their profile by tapping the “Edit profile” button and then selecting “Tips” to start.

“With Tips, we’re creating an easy way to direct people to links to your payment profiles and we’re making it easier to support the people driving the conversation on Twitter – whether you want to support a content creator, help someone fundraise, tip someone who just needs some help or thank someone for making you laugh,” the social media giant notes.

Twitter first introduced the feature in May after reports had indicated that the company was working on a direct payment option. The launch of “Tips” on Android comes a month after Twitter rolled out “Ticketed Spaces” on Android. With this feature, hosts on Spaces, Twitter’s live audio room feature, are able to sell access to Spaces. The social media giant notes that the feature is a way to support creators for their time and effort in hosting and moderating public conversations.

Twitter isn’t the only social media platform pushing toward monetization and helping creators earn a living through its app. Last month, TikTok confirmed to TechCrunch that it is testing a new in-app tipping feature on its platform that would allow creators to accept money from fans outside of TikTok LIVE streams, where gifting is already supported. The company confirmed the feature is part of a limited test for the time being and is not yet widely available.

TikTok and Twitter’s direct tipping features appear to be a way for the companies to compete with other digital platforms like Instagram and YouTube, which offer lucrative ways for creators to make money.

Clubhouse finally has live captions on iOS

Clubhouse announced yesterday that closed captioning is now rolling out for iOS. This essential accessibility feature has been long missed from the live audio app. Without these live transcriptions, which were already the norm for competitors like Twitter Spaces, Clubhouse had rendered itself unusable to people who are Deaf or hard of hearing. Now, Clubhouse can reach a broader audience.

“We currently support 13 languages for captions, with more on the way. These 13 languages include: English, Cantonese, Mandarin Chinese, Yue Chinese, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Spanish, Arabic, Russian, Turkish,” a Clubhouse representative told TechCrunch.

One user reported on Twitter that Spanish live captioning worked in one room, but in another, the Spanish speech was transcribed as English gibberish. An engineer at Clubhouse replied that this means the language detection might not have worked, so it seems that the app is still learning how to distinguish among non-English languages in beta.

Clubhouse has rolled out a number of features recently like Wave, which makes it easier to start a conversation with a friend, replays for asynchronous listening, and recorded rooms. Recorded rooms help the app compete with startups like Callin and Space Pod, which seek to help creators turn live audio recordings into widely-distributed podcasts. But live captioning has been a glaring omission since the app’s initial bout of popularity. Clubhouse doesn’t have an estimate of when closed captioning will roll out on Android, but hopefully it won’t be long.

Formstack raises $425M for a no-code platform that helps businesses automate their customer and internal workflows

Platforms that bring more automation to the working environment, and platforms that are empowering more people to get involved in building tools to help themselves work, have equally seen a huge rise in usage in the last year and a half. Today, a company that ties both of those trends together — with a no-code platform designed to help build automated workflows for different tasks — is announcing a big round of funding to capture some of that growth.

Formstack, which provides a wide range of templates and integrations to let people create their own workflow automations, has raised $425 million, equity funding that it will be using to continue picking up more customers and to expand into more international territories.

The company today has some 238,000 users from 25,000 organizations, with some of the big names among its customers including Twitter, Netflix, the NHL and the Cleveland Clinic.

“We are helping non-tech users get things done, saving time and money,” said Chris Byers, Formstack’s CEO, in an interview. He said the company raised this round not because it needed the funds to operate — it is profitable — but because it sees helping non-tech users in this way as a very big opportunity, worth some $100 billion globally.

“About 25% of our customers are already international, so there is huge potential there.”

It will also use the funding to continue investing in its product, including adding in more integrations alongside the 250 it already has with a variety of big-name and lesser known email, payments, CRM, CMS and document storage services.

Silversmith Capital Partners and returning investor PSG are leading the round: PSG, along with Greater Sum Ventures, led a leveraged buyout of the company in 2018. This appears to be the company’s first big financing event since then, although the company is not disclosing many details about its management, nor its financial position, except to note that alongside being profitable, revenues have more than tripled since the LBO. We have asked, but valuation is also not being disclosed with this round.

Formstack is playing in the very heart of what is trendy in enterprise IT today — RPA and other kinds of automation to speed up mundane processes and reduce costs are huge, and the growing sophistication of no-code tools has helped to democratize how IT can be built and used in businesses — but the age of the company itself underscores just how long the concepts of low-code, no-code tools, and automation have actually been around.

Founded in 2006 — not in the Valley but Fishers, Indiana (near Indianapolis) — the initial aim of Formstack, Byers said, was to build a tool to make it easier to create online forms to gather customer information and more automatically channel that into relevant applications in the back office.

“Our original product was a drag-and-drop form builder, which could be used to put a form on site for lead capture,” said Byers. “Now we are not only focused on data collection, but document generation.” It has built out its reach very much with integrations, but it has also built a number of native features to complement that, such as e-signature.

Here’s a little more backstory: Byers himself is an integration of sorts. That is to say, he joined the company about five years after it was founded. When founder Ade Olonoh, who still sits on the board, moved on from Formstack, he built another startup: Formspring — similarly named but very different, initially focused on Q&A and then social networking. Unlike Formstack, which has found a very well-timed groove in the market, Formspring ultimately found it a struggle to grow amid the rapid rise of Facebook and others. Today, it no longer exists.

Formstack’s pitch, indeed, has resonated with its customers and seen it move into a number of newer areas, such as healthcare, where automatic flows built using Formstack have been used to take in patient data and help speed up the intake and triage process in clinical settings — a critical piece of the care process at a time when workers are stretched, and generally everyone concerned wants to minimize physical contact as much as possible.

“Digital transformation has been accelerated, and we’re seeing usage of our platform to improve customer and worker experience, as well as the move to remote work,” Byers said. There will be more applications emerging that Formstack is now building for, he said, to help organizations comply with vaccine mandates, by creating forms for users to fill out more easily to verify their status.

“The number of businesses looking to streamline and digitize business processes today is accelerating, yet a key pain point for companies is not having the technical resources to implement and maintain a solution,” said Jim Quagliaroli, managing partner at Silversmith, in a statement. “Formstack’s no-code workflow automation solution was built to address this problem by enabling non-technical employees who understand a business use case, but don’t have the technical skills to implement a solution, to become ‘citizen-developers.’ We are thrilled to partner with Chris, his team, and our friends at PSG as the company continues to rapidly scale.”

“We believe Formstack is at the forefront of innovation in the workplace productivity space. Their talented team continues to deliver solutions to help organizations across industries operate more effectively and efficiently,” added Tom Reardon, managing director at PSG. “It’s been a pleasure to witness the significant growth they’ve achieved in the past several years, and we’re excited to continue to serve as a partner and work alongside Silversmith to support their expansion.”