Архив рубрики: TC

Under quarantine, media is actually social

The flood of status symbol content into Instagram Stories has run dry. No one is going out and doing anything cool right now, and if they are, they should be shamed for it. Beyond sharing video chat happy hour screenshots and quarantine dinner concoctions, our piece-by-piece biographies have ground to a halt. Oddly, what remains feels more social than social networks have in a long time.
With no source material, we’re doing it live. Coronavirus has absolved our desire to share the recent past. The drab days stuck inside blur into each other. The near future is so uncertain that there’s little impetus to make plans. Why schedule an event or get excited for a trip just to get your heartbroken if shelter-in-place orders are extended? We’re left firmly fixed in the present.
A house-arrest Houseparty, via StoicLeys
What is social media when there’s nothing to brag about? Many of us are discovering it’s a lot more fun. We had turned social media into a sport but spent the whole time staring at the scoreboard rather than embracing the joy of play.
But thankfully, there are no Like counts on Zoom .
Nothing permanent remains. That’s freed us from the external validation that too often rules our decision making. It’s stopped being about how this looks and started being about how this feels. Does it put me at peace, make me laugh, or abate the loneliness? Then do it. There’s no more FOMO because there’s nothing to miss by staying home to read, take a bath, or play board games. You do you.
Being social animals, what feels most natural is to connect. Not asynchronously through feeds of what we just did. But by coexisting concurrently. Professional enterprise technology for agenda-driven video calls has been subverted for meandering, motive-less togetherness. We’re doing what many of us spent our childhoods doing in basements and parking lots: just hanging out.
It’s time to Houseparty
For evidence, just look at group video chat app Houseparty, where teens aimlessly chill with everyone’s face on screen at once. In Italy, which has tragically been on lock down since COVID-19’s rapid spread in the country, Houseparty wasn’t even in the top 1500 apps a month ago. Today it’s the #1 social app, and the #2 app overall second only to Zoom which is topping the charts in tons of countries.
Houseparty topped all the charts on Monday, when Sensor Tower tells TechCrunch the app’s download rate was 323X higher than its average in February. As of yesterday it was #1 in Portugal (up 371X) and Spain (up 592X), as well as Peru, Argentina, Chile, Austria, Belgium, and the U.K. I despite being absent from the chart a week earlier. Apptopia tells me Houseparty saw 25 downloads in Spain on March 1st and 40,000 yesterday.
Houseparty rockets to #1 in many countries
A year ago Houseparty was nearly dead, languishing at #245 on the US charts before being acquired by Fortnite-maker Epic in June. Our sudden need for unmediated connection has brought Houseparty roaring back to life, even if Epic has neglected to update it since July.
“Houseparty was designed to connect people in the most human way possible when they are physically apart” the startup’s co-founder Ben Rubin tells me. “This is a time of isolation and uncertainty for us all. I’m grateful that we created a product that gives a sense of human connection to millions people during this critical moment.”
Around the world, apps for direct connection are spiking. Google Hangouts rules in Sweden. Discord for chat while gaming is #1 in France. Slack clone Microsoft Teams is king in the Netherlands. After binging through Netflix, all that’s left to entertain us is each other.
Undivided By Geography
If we’re all stuck at home, it doesn’t matter where that home is. We’ve been released from the confines of which friends are within a 20 minute drive or hour-long train. Just like students are saying they all go to Zoom University since every school’s classes moved online, we all now live in Zoom Town. All commutes have been reduced to how long it takes to generate an invite URL.
Nestled in San Francisco, even pals across the Bay in Berkeley felt far away before. But this week I had hour-long video calls with my favorite people who typically feel out of reach in Chicago and New York. I spent time with babies I hadn’t met in person. And I kept in closer touch with my parents on the other coast, which is more vital and urgent than ever before.
Playing board game Codenames over Zoom with friends in New York and North Carolina
Typically, our time is occupied by acquaintances of circumstance. The co-workers who share our office. The friends who happen to live in the neighborhood. But now we’re each building a virtual family completely of our choosing. The calculus has shifted from who is convenient or who invites us to the most exciting place, to who makes us feel most human.
Even celebrities are getting into it. Rather than pristine portraits and flashy music videos, they’re appearing raw, with crappy lighting, on Facebook and Instagram Live. John Legend played piano for 100,000 people while his wife Chrissy Teigen sat on screen in a towel looking salty like she’s heard “All Of Me” far too many times. That’s more authentic than anything you’ll get on TV.
And without the traditional norms of who we are and aren’t supposed to call, there’s an opportunity to contact those we cared about in a different moment of our lives. The old college roommate, the high school buddy, the mentor who gave you you’re shot. If we have the emotional capacity in these trying times, there’s good to be done. Who do you know who’s single, lives alone, or resides in a city without a dense support network?
Reforging those connections not only surfaces prized memories we may have forgotten, but could help keep someone sane. For those who relied on work and play for social interaction, shelter-in-place is essentially solitary confinement. There’s a looming mental health crisis if we don’t check in on the isolated.
The crisis language of memes
It can be hard to muster the energy to seize these connections, though. We’re all drenched in angst about the health impacts of the virus and financial impacts of the response. I certainly spent a few mornings sleeping in just to make the days feel shorter. When all small talk leads to rehashing our fears, sometimes you don’t have anything to say.
Luckily we don’t have to say anything to communicate. We can share memes instead.
My father-in-law sent me this. That’s when you know memes have become the universal language
The internet’s response to COVID-19 has been an international outpour of gallow’s humor. From group chats to Instagram joke accounts to Reddit threads to Facebook groups like quarter-million member “Zoom Memes For Quaranteens”, we’re joining up to weather the crisis.
A nervous laugh is better than no laugh at all. Memes allow us to convert our creeping dread and stir craziness into something borderline productive. We can assume an anonymous voice, resharing what some unspecified other made without the vulnerability of self-attribution. We can dive into the creation of memes ourselves, killing time under house arrest in hopes of generating smiles for our generation. And with the feeds and Stories emptied, consuming memes offers a new medium of solidarity. We’re all in this hellscape together so we may as well make fun of it.

The web’s mental immune system has kicked into gear amidst the outbreak. Rather than wallowing in captivity, we’ve developed digital antibodies that are evolving to fight the solitude. We’re spicing up video chats with board games like Codenames. One-off livestreams have turned into wholly online music festivals to bring the sounds of New Orleans or Berlin to the world. Trolls and pranksters are finding ways to get their lulz too, Zoombombing webinars. And after a half-decade of techlash, our industry’s leaders are launching peer-to-peer social safety nets and ways to help small businesses survive until we can be patrons in person again.
Rather than scrounging for experiences to share, we’re inventing them from scratch with the only thing we’re left with us in quarantine: ourselves. When the infection waves pass, I hope this swell of creativity and in-the-moment togetherness stays strong. The best part of the internet isn’t showing off, it’s showing up.

Under quarantine, media is actually social

Instagram prototypes Snapchat-style disappearing text messages

Instagram is finally preparing to copy Snapchat’s most popular feature, and one of the few it hasn’t already cloned. Instagram has prototyped an unreleased ephemeral text messaging feature that clears the chat thread whenever you leave it, a Facebook spokesperson confirms to TechCrunch. That could make users more comfortable with having rapid-fire, silly, vulnerable, or risque chats, thereby driving up the reply notifications that keep people opening Instagram all day long.

Instagram already has disappearing photo and video messaging which it launched in February 2018 to let users choose if chat partners can “view once”, “allow replay” multiple times for a limited period, or “keep in chat” permanently. Technically you could use the Create mode for overlaying words on a colored background to send an ephemeral text, but otherwise you have to use the “Unsend” feature which notifies other people in the thread.
But today, reverse engineering specialist and TechCrunch’s favorite tipster Jane Manchun Wong unearthed something new. Buried in the code of the Android app is the a new “” mode, labeled in the code with the ‘speak-no-evil’ monkey emoji.
How Instagram Disappearing Messages Work
When users enter this mode by swiping up from Instagram Direct message thread, they’re brought to a dark mode messaging window that starts as an empty message thread. When users close this window, any messages from them or their chat partners disappear. The feature works similarly to Snapchat, which clears a chat after all members of a thread have viewed it and closed the chat window.
Here’s how Instagram disappearing messages work
The ephemeral messaging feature is not currently not publicly available but a Facebook spokesperson confirms to me that they are working on it internally. “We’re always exploring new features to improve your messaging experience. This feature is still in early development and not testing externally.” The company later tweeted the confirmation. They gave no indication of a timeline for if or when this might officially launch. Some features never make it out of the prototype phase, but others including many spotted by Wong end up being rolled out several months later.
Instagram has seen great success using Snapchat as a product R&D lab. Instagram’s version of Stories rocketed to 500 million daily users compared to just 218 million users on Snapchat as a whole.

But ephemeral messaging has kept Snapchat relevant. Back in late 2017, just 51 million of Snapchat’s 178 million users were posting Stories per day, and that was when Instagram Stories was still in its first year on the market. According to Statista, Snapchat’s top use case is staying in touch with friends and family, not entertainment.
Instagram Stories caused Snapchat to start shrinking at one point, but now it’s growing healthily again. That may signaled that Instagram still had more work to do to steal Snap’s thunder. But Instagram’s existing version of ephemeral messaging that is clunkier, Facebook scrapped a trial of a similar feature, and WhatsApp’s take that started testing in October hasn’t rolled out yet.
That’s left teens to stick with Snapchat for fast-paced communication they don’t have to worry about coming back to haunt them. If Instagram successfully copies this feature too, it could reduce the need for people to stay on Snapchat while making Instagram Direct more appealing to a critical audience. Every reply and subsequent alert draws users deeper into Facebook’s web.

Instagram prototypes Snapchat-style disappearing text messages

TransferWise partners with Alipay for international money transfers

TransferWise, the London-headquartered international money transfer service most recently valued by investors at $3.5 billion, has partnered with China’s Aliplay for international transfers.
The launch enables TransferWise’s now 7 million-plus users to be able to send Chinese yuan from 17 currencies to users of Alipay, which serves more than 1.2 billion people worldwide including via its local e-wallet partners.
Promising “instant” money transfers — under 20 seconds, apparently — TransferWise users simply need the recipient’s name and Alipay ID to initiate a money transfer. The money will then be sent to the bank account linked to the recipient’s Alipay profile.
It could be a potentially smart bit of business by TransferWise, which has sometimes struggled to secure the kind of partnerships that can accelerate its customer base and increase transaction volume. According to a 2019 report, the fintech is citing, China is projected to be one of the top remittance recipient countries in the world, with £54bn expected to be sent back home by Chinese expats and migrants living abroad.
“The partnership is a major expansion for TransferWise as it reaches a new, additional market of people managing their money via the Alipay platform,” says the company.
With that said, Alipay is the second meaningful partnership that TransferWise has announced in the last few months. In November, it joined forces with GoCardless, the London fintech that lets customers pay via recurring bank payments (known as Direct Debits in the U.K.). GoCardless is used by more than 50,000 businesses worldwide, spanning multinational corporations to SMBs, and the partnership sees its own FX functionality powered by TransferWise.

TransferWise partners with Alipay for international money transfers

Immutouch wristband buzzes to stop you touching your face

In the age of coronavirus, we all have to resist the urge to touch our faces. It’s how the virus can travel from doorknobs or other objects to your mucus membranes and get you sick. Luckily, a startup called Slightly Robot had already developed a wristband to stop another type of harmful touching — trichotillomania, a disorder that compels people to pull out their hair.
So over the last week, Slightly Robot redesigned their wearable as the Immutouch, a wristband that vibrates if you touch your face. Its accelerometer senses your hand movement 10 times per second. Based on calibrations the Immutouch takes when you set it up, it then buzzes when you touch or come close to touching your eyes, nose, or mouth. A companion app helps you track your progress as you try to keep your dirty mitts down.

The goal is to develop a Pavlovian response whereby when you get the urge to touch your face, you don’t in order to avoid the buzzing sensation. Your brain internalizes the negative feedback of the vibration, training you with aversive conditioning to ignore the desire to scratch yourself.
“A problem the size of COVID-19 requires everyone to do their part, large or small,” says Slightly Robot co-founder Matthew Toles. “The three of us happened to be uniquely well equipped to tackle this one task and felt it was our duty to at least try.”
The Immutouch wristbands go on sale today for $50 each and they’re ready for immediate shipping. You can wear it on your dominant hand that you’re more likely to touch your face with, or get one for each arm to maximize the deterrent.
“We’re not looking to make money on this. We are selling each unit nearly at cost, accounting for cost of materials, fabrication, assembly, and handling” co-founder Justin Ith insists. Unlike a venture-backed startup beholden to generating returns for investors, Slightly Robot was funded through a small grant from the University of Washington in 2016 and bootstrapped since.
Slightly Robot and Immutouch co-founders (from left): Joseph Toles, Justin Ith, and Matthew Toles
“We built Immutouch because we knew we could do it quickly, therefore we had the obligation to. We all live in Seattle and we see our communities reacting to this outbreak with deep concern and fear” Slightly Robot co-founder Justin Ith tells me. “My father has an autoimmune disease that requires him to take immunosuppressant medication. Being in his late 60’s with a compromised immune system, I’m trying my best to keep the communities around him and my family clean and safe.”
How to calibrate the Immutouch wristband
Based on a study using wearable warning devices to deter sufferers of trichotillomania from ripping out their hair, Immutouch could potentially be effective. University Of Michigan researchers found the vibrations reduced long and short-term hair pulling. Ith admits you have to actually heed the warnings and not itch to instill the right habit, and it doesn’t work while you’re lying down. The Immutouch stops short of electrically shocking you like the older gadget called Pavlok that’s designed to help people quit smoking or opening Facebook.
Perhaps smartwatch makers like Apple could develop cheap or free apps to let users train themselves using hardware they already own. But until then, Ith hopes that Immutouch can gain some initial traction so “we can order larger quantities, reduce the price, and make it more accessible.”
Modern technologies like Twitter for rapidly sharing information could encourage people to take the right cautionary measures like 20-second handwashing to slow the spread of coronavirus. But having phones we constantly touch — before, during, and after we use the restroom — and then press against our faces could create a vector for infection absent from pandemics of past centuries. That’s why everyone needs to do their part to smooth out the spike of sickness so our health systems aren’t overrun.
Ith concludes, “Outbreaks like this remind us how we each individually affect the broader community and have a responsibility to not be carriers.” 

Immutouch wristband buzzes to stop you touching your face

Mobile banking app Empower Finance just closed a $20 million Series A round

Another afternoon, another round of funding for a mobile banking app. This time, it’s Empower Finance, a San Francisco-based company that’s headed up by former Sequoia Capital partner Warren Hogarth and which just closed on $20 million in Series A funding from Icon Ventures and Defy Ventures.
David Velez, who is the founder and CEO of Nubank, the largest fintech in Latin America, also joined the round.
We’d first written about the company in 2017, when Hogarth was just getting the business off the ground. Fast-forward a bit and Empower now employs 35 people and has attracted more than 600,000 active users to its platform, says Hogarth. What has drawn them in: the company’s promise of combining AI and actual human financial planners to help millennials in particular accrue some wealth, including, more newly, through its own checking account product and through a savings account that’s currently promising 1.60% in annual percentage yield with no minimums, no overdraft fees and unlimited withdrawals.
It’s all part of an overall offering that crunches through account holders’ bank and credit card accounts, and recommends how much they save into which account, how much they should spend given their overall picture, various ways they can cut costs and where and when they’ve surpassed their pre-configured budgets.
Of course, the company has so much competition it’s dizzying, but like the various upstarts against which it’s battling for mindshare, the opportunity that Empower is chasing is enormous, too. Though companies like Chime can seem overpriced given how fast investors have marked up their rounds — Chime’s newest financing, announced in December, was done at a $5.8 billion post-money valuation, which was four times more than the company was worth at the outset of 2019 — digital banks are still tiny fish in an ocean of institutional financial services, representing something like 3% of the market.
They’re gaining more market share by the day, too, including by charging far lower fees for much more.
In Empower’s case, users pay $6 a month, but Hogarth says they also save $300 a year in additional fees they would pay a brick-and-mortar bank. He insists that on average, it also helps them save $1,300 more annually, too.
As for all those other companies — Mint, Acorns, the list goes on — Hogarth sounds surprisingly sanguine. “If you look at it from the outside, it looks crowded. But the consumer financial services in the U.S. is a $2 trillion business, and we haven’t had a fundamental shift since maybe Schwab came along 30 years ago.”
Indeed, says Hogarth, because Empower and its rivals are mobile and branchless and don’t have legacy software to contend with, they’re able to take 60 to 70% of the cost structure out of the business.
What that means on an individual company level is that even if each upstart can attract 2 to 3 million customers, they can get to a multibillion-dollar market cap. At least, that kind of math is “why there’s so much interest in this space,” says Hogarth.
It’s also why people like Nubank’s Velez, who have seen this story play out in Europe and Latin America and who are seeing the early phases of it in the U.S., are apparently keeping the money spigot open for now.
Empower had earlier raised an undisclosed amount of seed funding from Sequoia, followed by a $4.5 million round led by Initialized Capital.

Mobile banking app Empower Finance just closed a $20 million Series A round