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Main article: Social

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Facebook unveils new tools to control how websites share your data for ad-targeting

18:00 | 20 August

Last year, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced that the company would be creating a “Clear History” feature that deletes the data that third-party websites and apps share with Facebook. Today, the company is actually launching feature in select geographies.

It’s gotten a new name in the meantime: Off-Facebook Activity. David Baser, the director of product management leading Facebook’s privacy and data use team, told me that the name should make it clear to everyone “exactly what kind of data” is being revealed here.

In a demo video, Baser showed me how a user could bring up a list of everyone sending data to Facebook, and then tap on specific app or website to learn what data is being shared. If you decide that you don’t like this data-sharing, you can block it, either on a website and app level, or across-the-board.

Facebook has of course been facing greater scrutiny over data-sharing over the past couple years, thanks to the Cambridge Analytica scandal. This, along with concerns about misinformation spreading on the platform, has led the company to launch a number of new transparency tools around advertising and content.

In this case, Facebook isn’t deleting the data that a third party might have collected about your behavior. Instead, it’s removing the connection between that data and your personal information on Facebook (any old data associated with an account is deleted as well).

Baser said that disconnecting your off-Facebook activity will have the immediate effect of logging you out of any website or app where you used your Facebook login. More broadly, he argued that maintaining this connection benefits both consumers and businesses, because it leads to more relevant advertising — if you were looking at a specific type of shoe on a retailer’s website, Facebook could then show you ads for those shoes.

Still, Baser said, “We at Facebook want people to know this is happening.” So it’s not hiding these options away deep within a hidden menu, but making them accessible from the main settings page.

He also suggested that no other company has tried to create this kind of “comprehensive surface” for letting users control their data, so Facebook to figure out the right approach that wouldn’t overhwhelm or confuse users. For example, he said, “Every single aspect of this product follows the principle of progressive disclosure” — so you get with a high-level overview at first, but can see more information as you move deeper into the tools.

Facebook says it worked with privacy experts to develop this feature — and behind the scenes, it had to change the way it stores this data to make it viewable and controllable by users.

I asked about whether Facebook might eventually add tools to control certain types of data, like purchase history or location data, but Baser said the company found that “very few people understood the data enough” to want something like that.

“I agree with your instinct, but that’s not the feedback we got,” he said, adding that if there’s significant user demand, “Of course, we’d consider it.”

The Off-Facebook Activity tool is rolling out initially in Ireland, South Korea and Spain before expanding to additional countries.

 


0

Week in Review: Snapchat beats a dead horse

15:00 | 18 August

Hey. This is Week-in-Review, where I give a heavy amount of analysis and/or rambling thoughts on one story while scouring the rest of the hundreds of stories that emerged on TechCrunch this week to surface my favorites for your reading pleasure.

Last week, I talked about how Netflix might have some rough times ahead as Disney barrels towards it.


3d video spectacles 3

The big story

There is plenty to be said about the potential of smart glasses. I write about them at length for TechCrunch and I’ve talked to a lot of founders doing cool stuff. That being said, I don’t have any idea what Snap is doing with the introduction of a third-generation of its Spectacles video sunglasses.

The first-gen were a marketing smash hit, their sales proved to be a major failure for the company which bet big and seemingly walked away with a landfill’s worth of the glasses.

Snap’s latest version of Spectacles were announced in Vogue this week, they are much more expensive at $380 and their main feature is that they have two cameras which capture images in light depth which can lead to these cute little 3D boomerangs. One one hand, it’s nice to see the company showing perseverance with a tough market, on the other it’s kind of funny to see them push the same rock up the hill again.

Snap is having an awesome 2019 after a laughably bad 2018, the stock has recovered from record lows and is trading in its IPO price wheelhouse. It seems like they’re ripe for something new and exciting, not beautiful yet iterative.

The $150 Spectacles 2 are still for sale, though they seem quite a bit dated-looking at this point. Spectacles 3 seem to be geared entirely towards women, and I’m sure they made that call after seeing the active users of previous generations, but given the write-down they took on the first-generation, something tells me that Snap’s continued experimentation here is borne out of some stubbornness form Spiegel and the higher-ups who want the Snap brand to live in a high fashion world and want to be at the forefront of an AR industry that seems to have already moved onto different things.

Send me feedback
on Twitter 
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lucas@techcrunch.com

On to the rest of the week’s news.

tumblr phone sold

Trends of the week

Here are a few big news items from big companies, with green links to all the sweet, sweet added context:

  • WordPress buys Tumblr for chump change
    Tumblr, a game-changing blogging network that shifted online habits and exited for $1.1 billion just changed hands after Verizon (which owns TechCrunch) unloaded the property for a reported $3 million. Read more about this nightmarish deal here.
  • Trump gives American hardware a holiday season pass on tariffs 
    The ongoing trade war with China generally seems to be rough news for American companies deeply intertwined with the manufacturing centers there, but Trump is giving U.S. companies a Christmas reprieve from the tariffs, allowing certain types of hardware to be exempt from the recent rate increases through December. Read more here.
  • Facebook loses one last acquisition co-founder
    This week, the final remnant of Facebook’s major acquisitions left the company. Oculus co-founder Nate Mitchell announced he was leaving. Now, Instagram, WhatsApp and Oculus are all helmed by Facebook leadership and not a single co-founder from the three companies remains onboard. Read more here.

GAFA Gaffes

How did the top tech companies screw up this week? This clearly needs its own section, in order of badness:

  1. Facebook’s turn in audio transcription debacle:
    [Facebook transcribed users’ audio messages without permission]
  2. Google’s hate speech detection algorithms get critiqued:
    [Racial bias observed in hate speech detection algorithm from Google]
  3. Amazon has a little email mishap:
    [Amazon customers say they received emails for other people’s orders]

Adam Neumann (WeWork) at TechCrunch Disrupt NY 2017

Extra Crunch

Our premium subscription service had another week of interesting deep dives. My colleague Danny Crichton wrote about the “tech” conundrum that is WeWork and the questions that are still unanswered after the company filed documents this week to go public.

WeWork’s S-1 misses these three key points

…How is margin changing at its older locations? How is margin changing as it opens up in places like India, with very different costs and revenues? How do those margins change over time as a property matures? WeWork spills serious amounts of ink saying that these numbers do get better … without seemingly being willing to actually offer up the numbers themselves…

Here are some of our other top reads this week for premium subscribers. This week, we published a major deep dive into the world’s next music unicorn and we dug deep into marketplace startups.

Sign up for more newsletters in your inbox (including this one) here.

 


0

Facebook’s human-AI blend for audio transcription is now facing privacy scrutiny in Europe

13:42 | 14 August

Facebook’s lead privacy regulator in Europe is now asking the company for detailed information about the operation of a voice-to-text feature in Facebook’s Messenger app and how it complies with EU law.

Yesterday Bloomberg reported that Facebook uses human contractors to transcribe app users’ audio messages — yet its privacy policy makes no clear mention of the fact that actual people might listen to your recordings.

A page on Facebook’s help center also includes a “note” saying “Voice to Text uses machine learning” — but does not say the feature is also powered by people working for Facebook listening in.

A spokesperson for Irish Data Protection Commission told us: “Further to our ongoing engagement with Google, Apple and Microsoft in relation to the processing of personal data in the context of the manual transcription of audio recordings, we are now seeking detailed information from Facebook on the processing in question and how Facebook believes that such processing of data is compliant with their GDPR obligations.”

Bloomberg’s report follows similar revelations about AI assistant technologies offered by other tech giants, including Apple, Amazon, Google and Microsoft — which have also attracted attention from European privacy regulators in recent weeks.

What this tells us is that the hype around AI voice assistants is still glossing over a far less high tech backend. Even as lashings of machine learning marketing guff have been used to cloak the ‘mechanical turk’ components (i.e. humans) required for the tech to live up to the claims.

This is a very old story indeed. To wit: A full decade ago, a UK startup called Spinvox, which had claimed to have advanced voice recognition technology for converting voicemails to text messages, was reported to be leaning very heavily on call centers in South Africa and the Philippines… staffed by, yep, actual humans.

Returning to present day ‘cutting-edge’ tech, following Bloomberg’s report Facebook said it suspended human transcriptions earlier this month — joining Apple and Google in halting manual reviews of audio snippets for their respective voice AIs. (Amazon has since added an opt out to the Alexa app’s settings.)

We asked Facebook where in the Messenger app it had been informing users that human contractors might be used to transcribe their voice chats/audio messages; and how it collected Messenger users’ consent to this form of data processing — prior to suspending human reviews.

The company did not respond to our questions. Instead a spokesperson provided us with the following statement: “Much like Apple and Google, we paused human review of audio more than a week ago.”

Facebook also described the audio snippets that it sent to contractors as masked and de-identified; said they were only collected when users had opted in to transcription on Messenger; and were only used for improving the transcription performance of the AI.

It also reiterated a long-standing rebuttal by the company to user concerns about general eavesdropping by Facebook, saying it never listens to people’s microphones without device permission nor without explicit activation by users.

How Facebook gathers permission to process data is a key question, though.

The company has recently, for example, used a manipulative consent flow in order to nudge users in Europe to switch on facial recognition technology — rolling back its previous stance, adopted in response to earlier regulatory intervention, of switching the tech off across the bloc.

So a lot rests on how exactly Facebook has described the data processing at any point it is asking users to consent to their voice messages being reviewed by humans (assuming it’s relying on consent as its legal basis for processing this data).

Bundling consent into general T&Cs for using the product is also unlikely to be compliant under EU privacy law, given that the bloc’s General Data Protection Regulation requires consent to be purpose limited, as well as fully informed and freely given.

If Facebook is relying on legitimate interests to process Messenger users’ audio snippets in order to enhance its AI’s performance it would need to balance its own interests against any risk to people’s privacy.

Voice AIs are especially problematic in this respect because audio recordings may capture the personal data of non-users too — given that people in the vicinity of a device (or indeed a person on the other end of the phone line who’s leaving you a message) could have their personal data captured without ever having had the chance to consent to Facebook contractors getting to hear it.

Leaks of Google Assistant snippets to the Belgian press recently highlighted both the sensitive nature of recordings and the risk of reidentification posed by such recordings — with journalists able to identify some of the people in the recordings.

Multiple press reports have also suggested contractors employed by tech giants are routinely overhearing intimate details captured via a range of products that include the ability to record audio and stream this personal data to the cloud for processing.

 


0

PopBase launches its platform for social media stars to share and monetize their work

21:53 | 12 August

It’s been almost a year since PopBase first launched on the Battlefield Stage at TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2018.

In the ensuing months the company has been working hard to sign up influencers and get its platform for social media stars ready for prime time. The company is launching its early access release today… enabling social media stars of all stripes to use PopBase as a new tool for exclusive distribution and monetization.

The company has already signed up an impressive roster of talent. The list includes YouTube entertainers like Snarled, Caleb Hyles and Mr. Creepy Pasta, who collectively have around 4.3 million followers, and emerging TikTok stars like Leanne Bailey and Mihaiu Dania, who have 6.5 million followers between them.

Snarled

Logo for Snarled

Social media entertainers today have very few channels available to them to monetize their following. YouTube doesn’t pay that well, they say, and other, newer platforms like TikTok are still ironing out the kinks of how to monetize their incredible reach.

As we reported at the time of its launch, PopBase is designed to take the relationship between a social media celebrity and their audience beyond videos and encourage a more interactive experience.

As we reported at the time of the company’s launch, that means interactive quizzes and exclusive video clips, but the company plans to enable games, augmented reality experiences, collectibles and more.

For Binary Bubbles, the Los Angeles-based company behind PopBase, it’s a chance to help creative users of social media monetize their work.

Creators take a 60% cut of all revenue with the remainder going to Binary Bubbles. But creators who really succeed in generating revenue through the channel could see their share of the proceeds rise to 70%, according to chief executive Lisa Wong.

“PopBase is all about brand expansion,” said Wong, in a statement. “The platform was built to allow creators to expand their brand into new mediums. Our tools were built by creators, for creators. We believe that creators today are special, building their brands on personality, responsiveness, and playfulness. And we’re designing our tools and tech to leverage that.”

[gallery ids="1704425,1704424,1704423,1704422"]

Wong, who spent over 25 years working in the video game industry for companies like Sony PlayStation and Activision, started Binary Bubbles in January 2017 alongside CTO Richard Weeks and CBDO Amit Tishler. Wong reconnected with Weeks — a programmer whose past employers include Lucas Art — when they both worked on an AR project, and the addition of Tishler, who is an artist/animator, rounded out the founding team.

 


0

Twitter’s latest test lets users subscribe to a tweet’s replies

16:33 | 12 August

Twitter in more recent months has been focused on making conversations on its platform easier to follow,

in, and in some cases, block. The company’s latest test, announced via a tweet ahead of the weekend, will allow users to subscribe to replies to a particularly interesting tweet they want to follow, too, in order to see how the conversation progresses. The feature is designed to complement the existing notifications feature you may have turned on for your “must-follow” accounts.

Many people already have Twitter alert them via a push notification when an account they want to track sends out a new tweet. Now you’ll be able to visit that tweet directly and turn on the option to receive reply notifications, if you’re opted in to this new test.

If you have the new feature, you’ll see a notification bell icon in the top-right corner of the screen when you’re viewing the tweet in Twitter’s mobile app.

When you click the bell icon, you’ll be presented with three options: one to subscribe to the “top” replies, another to subscribe to all replies, and a third to turn reply notifications off.

Twitter says top replies will include those from the author, anyone they mentioned, and people you follow.

This is the same set of “interesting” replies that Twitter has previously experimented with highlighting in other ways — including through the use of labels like “Original Tweeter” or “Author,” and as of last month, with icons instead of text-based labels. For example, one test displayed a microphone icon next to a tweet from the original poster in order to make their replies easier to spot.

The larger goal of those tests and this new one is to personalize the experience of participating in Twitter conversations by showcasing what the people you follow are saying, while also making a conversation easier to follow by seeing when the original poster and those they mentioned have chimed in.

This latest test takes things a step further by actually subscribing you to those sorts of replies — or even all the replies to a tweet, if you choose.

The new experiment comes at a time when Twitter is attempting to solve the overwhelming problem of conversation health in other ways, too. Beyond attempting to write and enforce tougher rules regarding online abuse and harassment, it also last month officially launched a “Hide Replies” feature in Canada that would allow the original poster to put replies they didn’t feel were valuable behind an icon so they weren’t prominently displayed within the conversation. It’s unclear how “Hide Replies” would work with this new reply notifications option, however — presumably, you’d still get alerts when someone you follow responded, even if the original poster hid their reply from view.

Twitter says the new test is available on iOS or Android.

 


0

India’s Reliance Jio inks deal with Microsoft to expand Office 365, Azure to more businesses; unveils broadband, blockchain, and IoT platforms

11:09 | 12 August

India’s Reliance Jio, which has disrupted the telecom and features phone businesses in India in less than three years of existence, is now ready to aggressively foray into many more businesses with the help of global giants including Microsoft.

The subsidiary of India’s largest industrial house Reliance Industries today announced that it will commercially launch its optical fiber broadband business next month, an IoT platform on January 1, 2020, and “one of the world’s biggest blockchain networks” in the next 12 months.

The broadband service, called Jio Giga Fiber, is aimed at individual customers, small and medium sized businesses, as well as enterprises, Mukhesh Ambani, Chairman and Managing Director of Reliance Industries, said at a shareholders meeting Monday. The service, which will be available to consumers starting September 5, will offer free voice calls, high-speed internet and start at Rs 700 per month.

The company also announced a 10-year partnership with Microsoft to leverage the Redmond giant’s Azure, Microsoft 365, and Microsoft AI platforms to launch new cloud datacenters in India to ensure “more of Jio’s customers can access the tools and platforms they need to build their own digital capability,” said Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella in a video appearance Monday.

“At Microsoft, our mission is to empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more. Core to this mission is deep partnerships, like the one we are announcing today with Reliance Jio. Our ambition is to help millions of organizations across India thrive and grow in the era of rapid technological change… Together, we will offer a comprehensive technology solution, from compute to storage, to connectivity and productivity for small and medium-sized businesses everywhere in the country,” he added.

As part of the partnership, Nadella said, Jio and Microsoft will jointly offer Office 365 to more organizations in India, and also bring Azure Cognitive Services to more devices and in many Indian languages to businesses in the country. The solutions will be “accessible” to reach as many people and organizations in India as possible, he added.

Ambani also said Jio is working on a “digital stack” to create a new commerce partnership platform in India to reach tens of millions of merchants, consumers, and producers.

More to follow…

 


0

India’s Meesho raises $125M to expand its social commerce business

09:30 | 12 August

Meesho, a Bangalore-based social commerce startup, has raised $125 million to expand its business in the country and change the way millions shop online.

The Series D round was led by Naspers, and existing investors SAIF, Sequoia, Shunwei Capital, RPS and Venture Highway participating as well. Facebook also participated in the round, so did Arun Sarin, former CEO of Vodafone Group. The startup has raised $190 million to date.

Meesho is an online marketplace that connects sellers with customers on social media platforms such as WhatsApp, Facebook, and Instagram. The four-year-old startup claims to have a network of more than 2 million resellers from 700 towns who largely deal with apparel, home appliances and electronics items.

These resellers are mostly homemakers, most of whom have purchased a smartphone for the first time in recent years. Eighty percent of Meesho’s user base is female.

meesho android

Meesho said the startup will use the fresh capital to expand its reach in the nation and add as many as 18 million new sellers by end of next year. “The latest investment will also strengthen Meesho’s aim to grow its community of women entrepreneurs who have dreamt of running their own businesses but lacked the funds and expertise to do so,” the company said.

“I am particularly proud that Meesho has cut across gender, education levels, risk appetites and vocations to create livelihoods for people with no investment of their own. Our social sellers are small retailers, women, students and retired citizens, with 70% being homemakers who have found financial freedom and a business identity without having to step outside their homes,” said Aatrey.

Meesho also plans to use the new funds to further build its technology platform to accommodate new product lines, and to evolve its analytics and machine learning platforms to handle national scale.

“The phenomenal growth they are already experiencing shows that Meesho has hit a sweet spot in the market and is well-poised to serve the next 500 million online shoppers in the country,” said Ashutosh Sharma, Head of India Investments, Naspers Ventures, in a statement.

 


0

Why AI needs more social workers, with Columbia University’s Desmond Patton

20:32 | 9 August

Sometimes it does seem the entire tech industry could use someone to talk to, like a good therapist or social worker. That might sound like an insult, but I mean it mostly earnestly: I am a chaplain who has spent 15 years talking with students, faculty, and other leaders at Harvard (and more recently MIT as well), mostly nonreligious and skeptical people like me, about their struggles to figure out what it means to build a meaningful career and a satisfying life, in a world full of insecurity, instability, and divisiveness of every kind.

In related news, I recently took a year-long paid sabbatical from my work at Harvard and MIT, to spend 2019-20 investigating the ethics of technology and business (including by writing this column at TechCrunch). I doubt it will shock you to hear I’ve encountered a lot of amoral behavior in tech, thus far.

A less expected and perhaps more profound finding, however, has been what the introspective founder Priyag Narula of LeadGenius tweeted at me recently: that behind the hubris and Machiavellianism one can find in tech companies is a constant struggle with anxiety and an abiding feeling of inadequacy among tech leaders.

In tech, just like at places like Harvard and MIT, people are stressed. They’re hurting, whether or not they even realize it.

So when Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society recently posted an article whose headline began, “Why AI Needs Social Workers…”… it caught my eye.

The article, it turns out, was written by Columbia University Professor Desmond Patton. Patton is a Public Interest Technologist and pioneer in the use of social media and artificial intelligence in the study of gun violence. The founding Director of Columbia’s SAFElab and Associate Professor of Social Work, Sociology and Data Science at Columbia University.

desmond cropped 800x800

Desmond Patton. Image via Desmond Patton / Stern Strategy Group

A trained social worker and decorated social work scholar, Patton has also become a big name in AI circles in recent years. If Big Tech ever decided to hire a Chief Social Work Officer, he’d be a sought-after candidate.

It further turns out that Patton’s expertise — in online violence & its relationship to violent acts in the real world — has been all too “hot” a topic this past week, with mass murderers in both El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio having been deeply immersed in online worlds of hatred which seemingly helped lead to their violent acts.

Fortunately, we have Patton to help us understand all of these issues. Here is my conversation with him: on violence and trauma in tech on and offline, and how social workers could help; on deadly hip-hop beefs and “Internet Banging” (a term Patton coined); hiring formerly gang-involved youth as “domain experts” to improve AI; how to think about the likely growing phenomenon of white supremacists live-streaming barbaric acts; and on the economics of inclusion across tech.

Greg Epstein: How did you end up working in both social work and tech?

Desmond Patton: At the heart of my work is an interest in root causes of community-based violence, so I’ve always identified as a social worker that does violence-based research. [At the University of Chicago] my dissertation focused on how young African American men navigated violence in their community on the west side of the city while remaining active in their school environment.

[From that work] I learned more about the role of social media in their lives. This was around 2011, 2012, and one of the things that kept coming through in interviews with these young men was how social media was an important tool for navigating both safe and unsafe locations, but also an environment that allowed them to project a multitude of selves. To be a school self, to be a community self, to be who they really wanted to be, to try out new identities.

 


0

Earbuds lets audiences stream the playlists of athletes, entertainers and each other

04:03 | 8 August

Earbuds, a new startup from Austin founded by former Detroit Lions lineman Jason Fox, wants to bring the power of social media to your eardrums.

The company is one of a growing number of startups trying to rejuvenate the music streaming market by combining it with social networking so that audiences can listen to the playlists of their favorite athletes and entertainers… and their friends.

For Fox, the idea for Earbuds sprung from his experiences in the NFL, watching how other players interacted with crowds and hearing about the things fans wanted to know about their favorite players’ routines.

“We were playing Caroline in the first game of the season and Cam Newton was warming up right next to me,” Fox recalled. “He was jamming. Getting the crowd into it. And I was thinking there’re 85,000 people here and millions of more people watching at home…  And I thought… how many people would love to be in his headphones right now?”

Jason Fox TC

Earbuds founder Jason Fox

It wasn’t just Cam Newton who received attention. Fox said at every press conference one or two questions would be about what songs teammates played before games. On social media, players would take screenshots of their playlists and post them to platforms like Twitter or Instagram, Fox said.

The company has been out in the market in a beta version since February and has focused on lining up potential Earbuds devotees from among Fox’s friends in the NFL and entertainers from music and media.

“We made a decision to tweak something and make it very very heavily around influencers because that’s what’s really driving traffic for us,” Fox says. 

Screen Shot 2019 08 07 at 5.44.50 PM

Image courtesy of Earbuds

At its core, the app is just about making music more social, according to Fox. “There’s a social platform for everything, but in the days of terrestrial media distribution music has remain isolated,” he says. 

Logging on is easy. Users can create a login for the app or use their Google or Facebook accounts. One more step to link the Earbuds app with Spotify or Apple Music (the company offers one month free of the premium versions of either service to new users) and then a user can look for friends or browse popular playlists.

A leaderboard indicates which users on the app have streamed the most music and users can create their own streams by adding songs from their libraries to build in-app playlists.

Earbuds isn’t the first company to take a shot at socializing the music listening experience. The olds may remember services like Turntable.fm, which took a stab at making music social but shut down back in 2013. Newer services, like Playlist, are also combining social networking features with music streaming. That site focuses on connecting people with similar musical tastes.

Fox thinks that the ability to attract entertainers like Nelly (who’s on the app) and athletes could be transformative for listeners. Basically these artists and athletes can become their own online radio station, he says.

Fox spent nearly a year meeting with streaming services, music labels, athletes, artists and college students (the app’s initial target market) before even working with developers on a single line of code. The initial work was done out of Los Angeles, but after a year Fox moved the company down to Austin and rebuilt the app from the ground up to focus more on the user experience.

Early partnerships with Burton on an activation had snowboarders streaming their music as they rode a halfpipe proved that there was an audience, Fox said. Now the company is working on integrations across different sports and even esports.

Fox raised a small friends and family round of $630,000 before putting together a $1.5 million seed to get the app out into the market. Now the company is looking for $3 million to scale even more as it looks to integrations with sports teams and other streaming services like Twitch (to capture the gaming audience).

The company currently has seven employees.

Earbuds is available on iOS.

Screen Shot 2019 08 07 at 5.51.32 PM

 


0

Squad, the ‘anti-bro startup,’ is creating a safe space for teenage girls online

14:30 | 6 August

When we go online to communicate, hang out or play, we’re typically logging on to platforms conceived of and built by men.

Mark Zuckerberg famously created Facebook in his Harvard dorm room. Evan Spiegel and his frat brother Bobby Murphy devised a plan for the ephemeral messaging app Snapchat while the pair were still students at Stanford. Working out of a co-working space, Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger built Instagram and yes, they also went to Stanford.

Seldom have social tools created by women climbed the latter to mainstream success. Instead, women and girls have battled the lion’s share of digital harassment on popular social platforms — most of which failed early-on to incorporate security features tailored to minority user’s needs — and struggled to find a protected corner of the internet.

Squad, an app that allows you to video chat and share your phone screen with a friend in real-time, has tapped into a demographic clamoring for a safe space to gather online. Without any marketing, the startup has collected 450,000 registered users in eight months, 70% of which are teenage girls. So far this year, users have clocked in 1 million hours inside Squad calls.

“Completely accidentally we’ve developed this global audience of users and it’s girls all over the world,” Squad co-founder and chief executive officer Esther Crawford tells TechCrunch. “In India, it’s girls. In Saudia Arabia, it’s girls. In the U.S., it’s girls. Even without us localizing it, girls all over the world are finding it.”

Squad screens

Squad, the social screen sharing and group video chat app, has pulled together a $5 million investment led by First Round Capital.

Learn from the best but get rid of the shit

A remote team of six people led by Crawford, who’s a graduate of Oregon State University, Squad’s compelling founding story and organic growth helped them close a $5 million seed round led by First Round Capital general partner Hayley Barna, the only female partner at the historically all-male early-stage investment fund known for being the first institutional check in Uber.

Betaworks, Alpha Bridge Ventures, Day One Ventures, Jane VC, Mighty Networks CEO Gina Bianchini, early Snapchat employee Sebastian Gil and Y Combinator, the startup accelerator program Squad completed in the winter of 2018, have also participated in the funding round.

“We want to be a place where girls can come and hang out,” -Squad co-founder and CEO Esther Crawford.

Crawford describes Squad, which she’s built alongside her co-founder and chief technology officer Ethan Sutin, as the “anti-bro startup.” Not only because it’s led by a woman and boasts a cap table that’s 30% women and 30% people of color, but because she’s completely rewriting the consumer social startup playbook.

“We are trying to learn from the best in what they did but get rid of the shit,” Crawford said, referring to Snap, WhatsApp, Twitch and others. Twitch, a live-streaming platform for gamers, has become a social gathering place for Gen Z, she explains, but like many other communities on the internet, it’s failed its female users.

“Girls have been completely pushed off of Twitch,” she said. “The Twitch community didn’t want them there and they weren’t friendly to them. For boys, there are places you can go to consume content with other people, like Fortnite, but for girls there hasn’t been a place that’s really broken out. We want to be a place where girls can come and hang out.”

What Crawford and the small team at Squad have realized is that you don’t have to sacrifice growth for user safety and comfort. From the beginning, Squad has made sure users could easily block and report inappropriate behaviors and users, a feature that was an afterthought on many other social tools. They also made users unsearchable unless another user knows their exact username. By prioritizing the security of its primarily female audience, Squad is betting girls will continue coming back to the app and telling their friends about it.

“It’s possible to make girls feel safe and still have growth as a consumer product,” she said. “If people don’t feel safe on your app, they won’t stick around long-term.”

A new playbook

Squad quietly launched in January after pivoting away from building an information-sharing tool called Molly, which was backed with $1.5 million from BBG, Betaworks, CrunchFund and Halogen Ventures. Crawford’s now 14-year-old daughter unintentionally inspired the transition, when she proposed her mom create an app where she could peer into her best friend’s phones from afar.

IMG 2588

This reporter and Squad CEO Esther Crawford discuss the startup’s growth via Squad video chat.

Using Squad, people can browse memes, pore through DMs, plan a trip on Airbnb, peruse Tinder or a photo album with a friend via its video chat and screen share features. As Crawford describes it, it’s all the stuff you don’t want to post to Snap or Instagram but want to show your best friends. An app that may seem frivolous or non-essential seems to have quickly become a space online where girls can are opting to spend hours intimately engaged with their friends — without fear of stumbling into a troll.

“People can use this digital tech to hang out together instead of it being so performative,” Crawford said.

The downside of Squad’s screen sharing capabilities is a user can view another user’s Facebook friend’s profile, even if, say, they themselves were blocked from viewing that content. Most apps are available for viewing through screen share aside from premium video streaming apps like Netflix or Amazon Prime Video, so its entirely possible someone could use Squad solely for the purpose of viewing social content they are otherwise barred from seeing. In response to this possibility, Crawford says they are considering alerting users when their Squad chat’s been screen-shotted. To avoid additional privacy issues, Squad users can’t record or save anything from their calls or replay what happened on Squad.

Like many early-stage startups, the company isn’t making any money yet because the app is free and without ads. As soon as next year, however, Squad plans to monetize the product with in-app purchasing, scraping another rule from the consumer social playbook that has long encouraged companies to expand their user base first before trying to profit off users at all. (See: The Snapchat Monetization Problem).

Techno-optimism

Crawford, a product marketing veteran, grew up in a cult in Oregon where girls were barred from wearing makeup and from watching television or listening to music. But because the internet was so early, the dangers of it were yet to be discovered and miraculously, she was allowed to go online. Quickly, she made connections with people all over the world thanks to everyone’s favorite messaging tool at the time, AOL Instant Messenger.

The experience planted in her a deep love for the internet and a desire to share her life online. After developing a community through AIM, Crawford became one of the very first original content creators on YouTube and garnered millions of views on her videos. Without trying, she became an influencer, long before the term entered the zeitgeist.

Squad Screensharing1

She used her newfound digital prowess to launch one of the first social marketing agencies, where her clients included Weight Watchers and K-Mart, legacy brands that had no idea how to tap into her native digital communities. Ultimately, Crawford landed in the tech startup world, hopping from Series A startup to Series A startup, offering up her product marketing skills before her daughter’s idea prompted her to go into business on her own again.

“I’m a techno-optimist and yet, so many of these tech companies we thought were going to connect people turned out to have accidentally made people more lonely,” she said. “With a different lense and approach, I thought there could be an app that built bridges.”

Now with a new bout of funding, Squad can implement strategic marketing campaigns, continue adding integrations with complementary platforms (the startup has just announced a new integration with YouTube) and hire product designers. The next few years will be critical to Squad’s success as it looks to young people to give them a permanent spot on their home screen.

For Crawford, what’s most important, aside from growing group of teenagers using Squad, is to make sure only good people see a big payday thanks to her great idea: “I am ready to do everything I can to make Squad successful and make sure our success has a positive downstream effect so that we have great people on our team that get rich off our success.”

 


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