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Instagram to now flag potentially offensive captions, in addition to comments

22:15 | 16 December

Earlier this year, Instagram launched a feature that would flag potentially offensive comments before they’re posted. Now, the social media platform is expanding this preemptive flagging system to Instagram’s captions, as well. The new feature will warn users after they’ve written a caption for a feed post that Instagram’s A.I. detects as being similar to those that have already been reported for bullying.

It will not, however, block users from publishing their hateful remarks. Instead, Instagram says these little nudges simply give users time to reconsider their words — something it found was helping to cut down on the bullying taking place in the comments section after the launch of the earlier feature.

Once live, when users write a caption that appears to be bullying, a notification will appear that says: “This caption looks similar to others that have been reported.” The notification allows users to edit the text, click a button to learn more, or share their post anyway.

In addition to helping reduce online bullying, Instagram hopes the feature will also help to educate users about what sort of things aren’t allowed on Instagram and when accounts could be at risk of being disabled for rule violations.

While the addition doesn’t prevent someone from posting their negative or abusive captions, Instagram has rolled out a number of features to aid those impacted by online bullying. For example, users can turn off comments on individual posts, remove followers, filter comments, mute accounts, and more. It also this year began downranking borderline content, giving those whose accounts step close to the line — but not enough to be banned — fewer reasons to post violent or hurtful content in search of Instagram fame.

Unfortunately for Instagram’s over a billion users, these sorts of remediations have arrived years too late.

Like most of today’s social media platforms, Instagram wasn’t thoughtfully designed by those with an eye towards how its service could be abused by those who want to hurt others. In fact, the idea that tech could actually harm others was a later realization for Instagram and others, who are today still struggling to build workforces where a variety of viewpoints and experiences are considered.

While it’s certainly a welcome addition to flag remarks that appear to be bullying, it’s disappointing that such a feature arrived ten years after Instagram’s founding. And while A.I. advances may have made such a tool more powerful and useful as it debuts sometime next year, a simpler form of this feature could have existed ages ago, with improvements added over time.

Instagram says the feature is also rolling out slowly, initially in select markets, then globally in the “coming months” — meaning 2020.



Verizon’s 5G comes to (parts of) Los Angeles

21:26 | 16 December

The clock is ticking on Verizon’s plans to bring 5G to 30 cities. Short of an actual Christmas miracle, things are looking rough. On the upside, the carrier (and, disclosure, parent of TechCrunch) just brought the next-gen technology to a 19th city. And it’s a doozy.

Verizon announced this morning that it’s flipped the switch on 5G in Los Angeles. Or parts of it, at least. You get the usual caveat with Verizon’s chosen 5G tech here. It’s fast, coverage is limited. In fact, it’s limited to such a point that the company has to specify the specific neighborhoods covered by its ultra wide band tech. 

L.A. is, of course, quite large. It’s the second most populous city in the U.S. and 12th largest  by size (Alaska and Montana have a way of skewing those numbers). It’s a lot of ground to cover. The company’s rapidly gentrifying downtown area seems to have gotten most of the love here.

Here’s the per neighborhood breakdown straight form the carrier’s mouth,

[P]arts of Downtown, Chinatown, Del Rey, and Venice around landmarks such as: Grand Park, Los Angeles Convention Center, Union Station, LA Live, Staples Center, and Venice Beach Boardwalk.

Verizon promises that Charlotte, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, Des Moines, Little Rock, Memphis and Salt Lake City will be added to the list before end of year.



The Top Apps and Games of the 2010s

21:15 | 16 December

In addition to its new report on the top apps of 2019, app store intelligence firm App Annie also closed out the year with its Decade in Review analysis, which looks at the most popular apps over the past 10 years. Not surprisingly, Facebook dominated the charts, claiming four of the most-downloaded apps of the decade with Facebook, Messenger, WhatsApp, and Instagram. Subway Surfers, meanwhile, became the most-downloaded game of the decade, thanks to strong adoption in India.

To be clear, the analysis excludes third-party app stores in China, instead relying on iOS and Google Play data to come up with the list of top apps. But this still provides a way of examining worldwide app trends, despite that exception.

Making a good case for its monopoly status, Facebook didn’t just operate four of the most-downloaded (non-game) apps of the past ten years — it runs the top four most-downloaded apps. In order, that’s Facebook, Messenger, WhatsApp, and Instagram.

Right on Facebook’s heels is Snapchat as the No. 5 most-downloaded app of the 2010s — a big reason why Facebook was ready to spend billions earlier on in the decade to bring the app under its roof.

Communication and social media apps were also among the most popular over the past 10 years, claiming 7 out of the 10 top spots of the decade’s most-downloaded apps thanks to Skype at No. 6 and Twitter at No. 10.

In terms of consumer spending, video streaming and music apps ruled the charts (outside of games), with top apps including Netflix (No. 1), Pandora Music (No. 3), and Tencent Video (No. 4) also in the top 5.

And though dating app Tinder was the most profitable app this year, Netflix was the No. 1 app by all-time consumer spend over the past decade.

The rest of the list included No. 4 LINE, followed by iQIYI, Spotify, YouTube, HBO NOW, and Kwai.

On the gaming side, however, Subway Surfers by Kiloo was the somewhat surprising top game of the decade, in terms of downloads. It can attribute its No. 1 spot to the demand from Indian users, as the country accounted for over 15% of Subway Surfers’ all-time downloads across iOS and Google Play combined.

No one publisher dominated the charts, as a wide range of major gaming companies were represented.

Following Subway Surfers, the most-downloaded games of the decade included Candy Crush Saga from Activision Blizzard, Temple Run 2 from Imangi, My Talking Tom from Outfit7, Clash of Clans from Supercell, Pou from Zakeh, Hill Climb Racing from Fingersoft, Minion Rus from Vivendi, Fruit Ninja from Halfbrick, and 8 Ball Pool from Miniclip.

The top games by consumer spending were almost an entirely different list.

Clash of Clans and Candy Crush Saga were the only two games to appear on both the top games by downloads and consumer spend lists, App Annie found.

Instead, the top games by consumer spending were led Supercell’s Clash of Clans, followed by Monster Strike by mixi, then Candy Crush.

The rest of the list was rounded out by Puzzle & Dragons by GungHo Online Entertainment, Fate/Grand Order by Sony, Honour of Kings by Tencent, Fantasy Westward Journey by NetEase, Pokémon Go by Niantic, Game of War – Fire Age by MZ, and Clash Royale by Supercell.

Many of the decade’s most-downloaded and most profitable apps and games have also appeared on the top apps list at the end of every year, but some of the apps are growing in popularity while others are waning.

For example, the most profitable game of the decade, Clash of Clans, was ranked No. 8 as opposed No. 1 on 2019’s list of the most profitable games. HBO NOW had a big showing in the 2010s thanks to its hit series, “Game of Thrones,” but didn’t make this year’s list at all now that the show has wrapped. And though Facebook ruled the 2010s, there are now signs that consumers may be ready for something new as short-form video apps TikTok and Likee moved onto 2019’s most-downloaded app list, as No. 4 and No. 7, respectively.



In a post-cookie world, RTB is key to effective digital marketing

21:08 | 16 December

Jason Boshoff Contributor
Jason Boshoff is Chief Operating Officer at Bidtellect, a paid content distribution and analytics company.

We’re in a privacy panic.

It started with GDPR, and CCPA followed with new legislation aimed at giving consumers greater control and transparency into how their data is used. Tech giants took a mighty stand to get ahead of the changes and the oncoming cookie-free movement: Apple’s new Intelligent Tracking Prevention (IPT) in Safari places restrictions on cookies based on how frequently a user interacts with the website, purging cookies entirely after 30 days of disuse.

Without obtaining explicit consent from users, Google Chrome will now prevent cross-site cookies from working across domains. Microsoft announced that settings on its new Edge browser will influence how third parties will be able to track consumers across the web.

It worked: since GDPR became enforceable, the number of third-party cookies used per webpage declined from about 80 in April to about 60 in July, and the number of third-party cookies found on news websites (major advertising publishers) in Europe declined by 22%.

In response, there’s been an onslaught of articles claiming the value of real-time bidding (RTB) and all of programmatic will decline in direct correlation with enforced privacy regulation, browser and cookie depreciation. While yes, the cookie (and associated use of cookies) has been the centerpiece of all digital advertising performance reconciliation in the last 15 years, it is not the only reason RTB is an important component of effective digital marketing.

The question then becomes what is the vehicle that allows advertisers and brands to determine the value of those users or inventory in a less cookie-enabled environment.

Enter contextual targeting, which had been living in the shadow of shiny first-party data. It can stop those RTB pipes from rusting by using them to determine the value of the user and placement in the bidding process based on the information on the page, rather than the user. Understanding that we have enough information about ad space without user information means we can face the (more private) future of the industry with far less fear.

It is the answer to the cookie-free, privacy-forward, power-to-the-consumer movement. So how do you determine the value of a placement using contextual targeting – especially when you’ve never valued it that way before? These are – IMHO – the key tenets of deciding the value of a user in a contextual environment:

Placement Targeting: Placement is the exact spot on a publisher’s website/app where an ad unit will appear. Without the ability to target at the placement level, a contextual campaign will not be as effective as it could be. Two identically-sized placements on a page will vary in performance depending on multiple factors, including position, ad type, surrounding context and viewability.



The top mobile apps and games of 2019

20:25 | 16 December

Mobile consumers worldwide will have downloaded a record 120 billion apps from Apple’s App Store and Google Play by the end of 2019, according to App Annie’s year-end report on app trends. This represents a 5% increase from 2018 — a notable achievement given that the number doesn’t include re-installations or app updates. Consumer spending on apps, meanwhile, approached $90 billion in 2019 across both apps stores, up 15% from last year. The new report also examined the year’s biggest apps, including the most downloaded apps and games as well as the most profitable.

Worldwide, the most downloaded non-game apps remained relatively consistent in 2019, with only one new entry on the list of the most downloaded apps — a short-form video creation and sharing app called Likee, which is benefitting from the overall popularity of short-form video. Elsewhere on the chart, TikTok came in at No. 4, beating out Facebook-owned Instagram, plus Snapchat, Netflix and Spotify.

However, Facebook still owned the top of the charts. Its Messenger app was the most downloaded non-game app of 2019, followed by Facebook’s main app, then WhatsApp.

The top 10 games chart showed more volatility in 2019, as 7 out of the top 10 games were new to the chart this year. This included the hyper-casual title Fun Race 3D as well as the anticipated Call of Duty: Mobile, representing the battle royale genre.

While mobile gaming drives the majority of consumer spending on apps, the subscription economy in 2019 played a big role in increasing app revenues, as well.

Specifically, the non-game apps driving revenue growth this year included those in the Photo & Video and Entertainment categories — a trend App Annie predicts will continue in 2020, as new video services, like Disney+, continue to rise. 2020 will additionally see the launch of several other video services, including HBO Max, NBCU’s Peacock, and Jeffrey Katzenberg’s Quibi, which could aid in those increases.

Already, many of the top apps are subscription-based, App Annie had previously noted. During the 12 months ending in September 2019, over 95% of the top 100 non-gaming apps by consumer spend were offering subscriptions through in-app purchases. Publishers’ growing use of subscription services will continue in 2020 to drive consumer spending even higher, the firm says.


This year, Tinder switched places with Netflix for the No. 1 spot on this chart — last year, it was the other way around. HBO NOW, which saw a surge in spending thanks to “Game of Thrones” also fell out of the top chart this year, allowing LINE Manga to take its spot. Tencent Video and iQIYI have the same positions as 2018, while YouTube grew from No. 7 to No. 5, and Pandora slipped from No. 5 to No. 6, compared with last year.

App Annie also took a look at a new category of apps which it’s calling the “breakout” apps of the year. These are those that saw the largest absolute growth in downloads or consumer spending between 2018 and 2019. On this list, the No. 7 most-downloaded app of the year, Likee, from YY Inc., becomes the No. 1 “breakout” app of the year, followed by YY Inc.’s Noizz and Helo. Meanwhile, Indian users drove the adoption of social gaming app Hago at No. 4, which is also popular with Gen Z users in Indonesia.

Breakout apps by consumer spending included YouTube, iQIYI, DAZN, and Tencent Video — similar to the top 10 list.

On the gaming side, hyper-casual titles were successful, claiming 7 out of 10 slots on the breakout games of the year chart. Hot releases like Mario Kart Tour and Call of Duty: Mobile also appeared. But by consumer spending, core games like No. 1 Game of Peace and No. 2 PUBG Mobile, both published by Tencent, made up the top spots.



Buy a demo table at TC Sessions: Robotics+AI 2020 while you can

20:00 | 16 December

Early-stage startup founders heed this call. Lock down your opportunity to exhibit your early-stage startup in front of a veritable who’s who in the robotics and AI industries while you can. Yes, it’s only December. And yes, TC Sessions: Robotics+AI 2020 takes place months from now on March 3 in Berkeley. Here’s why timing matters.

We have a limited number of demo tables, and they’re going fast — only nine left. Get ahead of the curve and buy your Early-Stage Startup Exhibitor Package now. It includes four tickets to the event, so you and your crew can showcase your startup in front of 1,500 influential attendees. We’re talking about the exact demographic that can help move your business forward.

A one-day event, TC Sessions: Robotics+AI focuses exclusively on these two world-changing technologies. Programming features in-depth interviews, panel discussions, Q&As, workshops and networking opportunities with the industries’ leading minds, makers, technologists, researchers and investors.

As one of a select number of exhibitors, you’ll place your startup in the path of those industry leaders. Here are just a few of the luminaries scheduled to speak at this year’s event.

  • Noah Campbell-Ready, founder and CEO of Built Robotics, a company that’s developed an autonomous bulldozer
  • Tessa Lau, CEO and founder of Dusty Robotics. Her company developed a construction-site robot that helps automate building layouts.
  • Daniel Blank, CEO of Toggle, a startup that builds robots to fabricate and assemble rebar.
  • Tye Brady, Amazon Robotics’ Chief Technologist. Brady will join us to talk about Amazon’s robotics efforts and the future of the automation-driven workforce.
  • Stuart Russell, computer scientist and world-leading expert on AI, joins us to discuss how today’s researchers and founders will determine AI’s ultimate impact on humanity.

That’s an awesome start to the speaker lineup, and we’re just getting started. We’re announcing more every week, so keep checking back. Take a look at last year’s agenda to get a sense of the kind of programming you can expect.

Hey, there’s more than one way to shine at this event. Check out Pitch Night, our new pitch competition. It’s totally free and open to founders of early-stage startups focused on robotics and AI. Simply apply here by February 1.

TC Sessions: Robotics+AI 2020 takes place on March 3 at UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall. Don’t miss this opportunity to step in the spotlight. Buy an Early-Stage Startup Exhibitor Package and present your product and company to the top movers and shakers in robotics and AI.

Is your company interested in sponsoring or exhibiting at TC Sessions: Robotics & AI 2020? Contact our sponsorship sales team by filling out this form.



Robotic safety inspectors net Gecko Robotics $40 million

19:50 | 16 December

Gecko Robotics has landed $40 million in financing as it looks to build an additional 40 robots over the next year to meet what the company sees as growing demand for its safety and infrastructure monitoring services.

“We are growing fast solving a critical infrastructure problems that affect our lives, and can even save lives,” says Jake Loosararian, Gecko Robotics’ 28-year-old co-founder and chief executive officer, in a statement. “At our core, we are a robot-enabled software company that helps stop life threatening catastrophes. We’ve developed a revolutionary way to use robots as an enabler to capture data for predictability of infrastructure; reducing failure, explosions, emissions and billions of dollars of loss each year.”

In the three years since its launch in 2016, Gecko Robotics has managed to grow from a small team of Pittsburgh robotics experts hailing from Carnegie Mellon the company has added over 100 new employees. The hiring push has been largely around creating a team of qualified experts in particular market segments who can operate the robots that Gecko deploys to industrial worksites.

There’s been something of a robotics revolution in the safety and compliance market over the past few years. From automated assembly lines to warehouses and now to chemical plants and refineries, robots are making their presence felt.

And Gecko isn’t the only company that’s trying to tackle the market. Other companies like Invert Robotics, a Christchurch, New Zealand-based company has built its own competitive robotic safety inspector.

The initial pitch from Gecko managed to attract angel investors like Mark Cuban, Deep Nishar (a managing partner at Softbank), Josh Reeves, and Jake Seid, the managing director at Stone Bridge Ventures.

Now the company adds the midwestern venture capital juggernaut, Drive Capital, to its stable of investors.

“We are very excited for the future of robotics in industrial inspection. The Gecko Robotics team are revolutionizing an industry that is in need of a real upgrade and will save lives,” said Mark Kvamme, lead investor and partner at Drive Capital. “I see amazing potential for Gecko’s business model, they are on the path to become a market leader in their industry.”

Gecko Robotics has already opened a 20,000 square foot office in Houston, and offices Houston, Austin, and Pittsburgh.

“The robots are amazing but they’re not going to be able to complete the job done by these experts who have experience in thirty to forty years,” says Loosararian. “We have thought leaders who go out in the field… they take the robots out and they use their own manual ability and knowledge to provide these expertise to the clients.”

Gecko currently has 60 robots in its stable of robots and will add at least another 40 over the course of the year. “The product at the end is the software license that they pay for annually,” Loosararian says.



How many unicorns will exit before the market turns?

19:27 | 16 December

Hello and welcome back to our regular morning look at private companies, public markets and the grey space in between.

Today we’re digging into unicorns: how many will find an exit through an acquisition (selling themselves to a larger company) or an IPO (starting to trade as a public company) before the market turns?

When the business cycle does eventually turn ill, it’s generally expected that private capital will become scarcer, something that could harm yet-unprofitable unicorns. In turn, backers of private companies worth at least $1 billion could see the value of their investments decline or implode. The number of unicorns that manage to exit before a market turn is, therefore, something to keep an eye on.

This is doubly true as the number of un-exited unicorns continues to rise. Despite unicorn IPOs and acquisitions (more on that in a moment), the number of private companies worth $1 billion (unicorns that need an eventual exit to return capital to their backers who expect eventual, profitable liquidity) has risen each quarter for years now.

This has led to hundreds of unexited unicorns worth more than $1 trillion in total, according to the Crunchbase leaderboard. That’s a lot of corporate value to shift before the business cycle heads negative, possibly closing the IPO window and bringing winter to the sort of private finance that unicorns have long depended on.


In Q3 of 2017, there were 250 unexited unicorns according to the leaderboard, 39 unicorns that had gone public and 24 more that had been acquired. A year later those numbers rose to 307 unexited unicorns, 79 unicorns that had gone public and 40 more that had been sold.

In its most recent update for Q3 2019, the same dataset indicates that there are 400 unexited unicorns, 112 that have gone public and 50 that have been sold.

Doing the math, in Q3 2017 80 percent of unicorns were still private and independent (unexited). In Q3 2018, that improved to 72 percent. And, at the end of Q3 2019, the percent improved modestly to a little over 71 percent.

We can see, then, that the portion of unicorns that have managed to find an exit has improved over the last few years. Less encouraging, however, is that the raw number of unicorns still in hunt of an exit has grown by leaps and bounds.

In chart form, it looks like this:



Watch SpaceX launch a Boeing-built satellite and attempt to recover its spacecraft fairing live

19:23 | 16 December

SpaceX is launching yet another rocket this evening – its 13th this year. This Falcon 9 launch is set for liftoff sometime during a window that’ll last for just over an hour, and that opens at 7:10 PM EST (4:10 PM PST) and extends to 8:38 PM EST (5:38 PM PST). The launch will use a first stage rocket booster that previously flew in May and July of this year, and it’ll include an attempted landing of that booster, as well as a try at recovering both halves of the fairing used to protect the spacecraft’s cargo as it ascends to space.

The cargo itself is a satellite built by Boeing that hosts two payloads for different clients, including Japanese pay TV broadcast service provider SKY Perfect JSAT, and a high-speed broadband connectivity satellite developed by Kratos called Kacific1. The Falcon 9 spacecraft will be looking to deliver these to orbit around half-an-hour after liftoff.

It’s definitely going to be worth watching the secondary mission elements of this one, since SpaceX has so far succeeded only in recovering one half of a fairing used during a mission with a single barge stationed in the ocean. This will see it try to catch both pieces, using two ships named ‘Ms. Tree’ and ‘Ms. Chief’ respectively that have been retrofitted with a large net assembly specifically for the purpose.

Tune in here for the livestream above, which should get started around 15 minutes prior to the opening of the launch window, so at around 6:55 PM EST (3:55 PM PST).



Solve, the startup creating an interactive “Law & Order” for social media, raises $20 million

19:00 | 16 December

When “Law and Order” ended its twenty-year run in 2010, it had already cemented its place as one of the longest-running television dramas in history. Its success was a testament to the enduring popularity of a good mystery.

Mining that same well of a demand for whodunnits, a roughly one-year-old Los Angeles-based startup called Solve has raised $20 million in financing to update the genre for a new generation of media consumers.

Its eponymously titled social media programming, available on Instagram and Snap, has managed to nab roughly 30 million interactions over the year-and-a-half that it distributed its productions. Now the company is launching a true crime podcast, to tap into another potentially high-growth market, on the iHeartMedia and Apple platforms.

Solve began as a series developed within the mobile-focused entertainment studio, Vertical Networks. Helmed by Tom Wright and financed by Elisabeth Murdoch (through her Freelands Ventures fund, which Wright also managed) and Snap, the company was one of the early entrants to raise cash as a production studio for mobile content. But it was far from the only studio to see money in mobile-first entertainment. All of the major internet-age media companies had their own mobile strategies.

Murdoch eventually replaced Wright (so that he could work on spinning up Solve as an independent entity) and sold Vertical Networks two months ago to the online media startup, Whistle, for an undisclosed amount.

“I spent a year looking deep deep deep into audience behavioral data on snap and facebook,” Wright says. “The DNA of what I thought [audience] sensibilities was leading towards was this format.” 

As Vertical Networks was winding down, Solve was spinning up with help from Lightspeed Venture Partners, Upfront Ventures, and Advancit Capital.

“We’ve seen incredibly popular crime mystery shows across media, including podcasts like Serial and Dirty John, TV shows like Making a Murderer and Law & Order, and movies like The Usual Suspects and Gone Girl,” said Jeremy Liew, Partner at Lightspeed Venture Partners, in a statement. “Games have attained a first class status as media but we’ve yet to see a crime mystery format game achieve the same success, and Solve is going to right that wrong.”

The gamification element that’s made Solve’s episodes resonate with mobile audiences on social platforms will be a small part of the initial series, says Wright, with plans to expand the interactive elements going forward.

Produced in partnership with SALT audio, whose previous work includes “Blackout” and “Carrier” and iHeartMedia, the ten-episode series uses the same “ripped from the headlines” storytelling for its thirty minute broadcasts and offers listeners clues in leaked audio files, voicemails, courtroom testimony and other evidence to try and guess the killer.

For now, Solve is content to be a studio producing ad-supported media for platforms like Apple, Snap, Facebook, iHeartMedia, and other distributors, according to Wright. It’s a different path than studios like Quibi, which is creating its own streaming service dedicated to mobile storytelling and backed by many of the major Hollywood studios.

The current pace of production means that Solve is making 18 original episodes per-month. For the 40-year-old Wright, Solve represents a fourth foray into the world fo startups. And while he’s not a fan of the crime or mystery genre himself, Wright said that the data around engagement was too compelling to not try and launch a business around it.

“The Internet has changed how we interact with the world from taxis to news to shopping. We believe that Solve can fundamentally change how we interact with narrative video storytelling,” said Mark Suster, Managing Partner, Upfront Ventures, in a statement. “When we heard Tom’s vision for short-form video that you not only watch but also must ‘solve‘, we knew that it had enormous potential.”


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