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Tech giants offer empty apologies because users can’t quit – TechCrunch

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A true apology consists of a sincere acknowledgement of wrong-doing, a show of empathic remorse for why you wronged and the harm it caused, and a promise of restitution by improving ones actions to make things right. Without the follow-through, saying sorry isn’t an apology, it’s a hollow ploy for forgiveness.

That’s the kind of “sorry” we’re getting from tech giants — an attempt to quell bad PR and placate the afflicted, often without the systemic change necessary to prevent repeated problems. Sometimes it’s delivered in a blog post. Sometimes it’s in an executive apology tour of media interviews. But rarely is it in the form of change to the underlying structures of a business that caused the issue.

Intractable Revenue

Unfortunately, tech company business models often conflict with the way we wish they would act. We want more privacy but they thrive on targeting and personalization data. We want control of our attention but they subsist on stealing as much of it as possible with distraction while showing us ads. We want safe, ethically built devices that don’t spy on us but they make their margins by manufacturing them wherever’s cheap with questionable standards of labor and oversight. We want groundbreaking technologies to be responsibly applied, but juicy government contracts and the allure of China’s enormous population compromise their morals. And we want to stick to what we need and what’s best for us, but they monetize our craving for the latest status symbol or content through planned obsolescence and locking us into their platforms.

The result is that even if their leaders earnestly wanted to impart meaningful change to provide restitution for their wrongs, their hands are tied by entrenched business models and the short-term focus of the quarterly earnings cycle. They apologize and go right back to problematic behavior. The Washington Post recently chronicled a dozen times Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has apologized, yet the social network keeps experiencing fiasco after fiasco. Tech giants won’t improve enough on their own.

Addiction To Utility

The threat of us abandoning ship should theoretically hold the captains in line. But tech giants have evolved into fundamental utilities that many have a hard time imagining living without. How would you connect with friends? Find what you needed? Get work done? Spend your time? What hardware or software would you cuddle up with in the moments you feel lonely? We live our lives through tech, have become addicted to its utility, and fear the withdrawal.

If there were principled alternatives to switch to, perhaps we could hold the giants accountable. But the scalability, network effects, and aggregation of supply by distributors has led to near monopolies in these core utilities. The second-place solution is often distant. What’s the next best social network that serves as an identity and login platform that isn’t owned by Facebook? The next best premium mobile and PC maker behind Apple? The next best mobile operating system for the developing world beyond Google’s Android? The next best ecommerce hub that’s not Amazon? The next best search engine? Photo feed? Web hosting service? Global chat app? Spreadsheet?

Facebook is still growing in the US & Canada despite the backlash, proving that tech users aren’t voting with their feet. And if not for a calculation methodology change, it would have added 1 million users in Europe this quarter too.

One of the few tech backlashes that led to real flight was #DeleteUber. Workplace discrimination, shady business protocols, exploitative pricing and more combined to spur the movement to ditch the ridehailing app. But what was different here is that US Uber users did have a principled alternative to switch to without much hassle: Lyft. The result was that “Lyft benefitted tremendously from Uber’s troubles in 2018” eMarketer’s forecasting director Shelleen Shum told the USA Today in May. Uber missed eMarketer’s projections while Lyft exceeded them, narrowing the gap between the car services. And meanwhile, Uber’s CEO stepped down as it tried to overhaul its internal policies.

This is why we need regulation that promotes competition by preventing massive mergers and giving users the right to interoperable data portability so they can easily switch away from companies that treat them poorly

But in the absence of viable alternatives to the giants, leaving these mainstays is inconvenient. After all, they’re the ones that made us practically allergic to friction. Even after massive scandals, data breaches, toxic cultures, and unfair practices, we largely stick with them to avoid the uncertainty of life without them. Even Facebook added 1 million monthly users in the US and Canada last quarter despite seemingly every possible source of unrest. Tech users are not voting with their feet. We’ve proven we can harbor ill will towards the giants while begrudgingly buying and using their products. Our leverage to improve their behavior is vastly weakened by our loyalty.

Inadequate Oversight

Regulators have failed to adequately step up either. This year’s congressional hearings about Facebook and social media often devolved into inane and uninformed questioning like how does Facebook earn money if its doesn’t charge? “Senator, we run ads” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said with a smirk. Other times, politicians were so intent on scoring partisan points by grandstanding or advancing conspiracy theories about bias that they were unable to make any real progress. A recent survey commissioned by Axios found that “In the past year, there has been a 15-point spike in the number of people who fear the federal government won’t do enough to regulate big tech companies — with 55% now sharing this concern.”

When regulators do step in, their attempts can backfire. GDPR was supposed to help tamp down on the dominance of Google and Facebook by limiting how they could collect user data and making them more transparent. But the high cost of compliance simply hindered smaller players or drove them out of the market while the giants had ample cash to spend on jumping through government hoops. Google actually gained ad tech market share and Facebook saw the littlest loss while smaller ad tech firms lost 20 or 30 percent of their business.

Europe’s GDPR privacy regulations backfired, reinforcing Google and Facebook’s dominance. Chart via Ghostery, Cliqz, and WhoTracksMe.

Even the Honest Ads act, which was designed to bring political campaign transparency to internet platforms following election interference in 2016, has yet to be passed even despite support from Facebook and Twitter. There’s hasn’t been meaningful discussion of blocking social networks from acquiring their competitors in the future, let alone actually breaking Instagram and WhatsApp off of Facebook. Governments like the U.K. that just forcibly seized documents related to Facebook’s machinations surrounding the Cambridge Analytica debacle provide some indication of willpower. But clumsy regulation could deepen the moats of the incumbents, and prevent disruptors from gaining a foothold. We can’t depend on regulators to sufficiently protect us from tech giants right now.

Our Hope On The Inside

The best bet for change will come from the rank and file of these monolithic companies. With the war for talent raging, rock star employees able to have huge impact on products, and compensation costs to keep them around rising, tech giants are vulnerable to the opinions of their own staff. It’s simply too expensive and disjointing to have to recruit new high-skilled workers to replace those that flee.

Google declined to renew a contract with the government after 4000 employees petitioned and a few resigned over Project Maven’s artificial intelligence being used to target lethal drone strikes. Change can even flow across company lines. Many tech giants including Facebook and Airbnb have removed their forced arbitration rules for harassment disputes after Google did the same in response to 20,000 of its employees walking out in protest.

Thousands of Google employees protested the company’s handling of sexual harassment and misconduct allegations on Nov. 1.

Facebook is desperately pushing an internal communications campaign to reassure staffers it’s improving in the wake of damning press reports from the New York Times and others. TechCrunch published an internal memo from Facebook’s outgoing VP of communications Elliot Schrage in which he took the blame for recent issues, encouraged employees to avoid finger-pointing, and COO Sheryl Sandberg tried to reassure employees that “I know this has been a distraction at a time when you’re all working hard to close out the year — and I am sorry.” These internal apologizes could come with much more contrition and real change than those paraded for the public.

And so after years of us relying on these tech workers to build the product we use every day, we must now rely that will save us from them. It’s a weighty responsibility to move their talents where the impact is positive, or commit to standing up against the business imperatives of their employers. We as the public and media must in turn celebrate when they do what’s right for society, even when it reduces value for shareholders. If apps abuse us or unduly rob us of our attention, we need to stay off of them.

And we must accept that shaping the future for the collective good may be inconvenient for the individual. There’s an oppprtunity here not just to complain or wish, but to build a social movement that holds tech giants accountable for delivering the change they’ve promised over and over.

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Friendly Apps raises $3 million, pre-product, for apps that improve people’s well-being – TechCrunch

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Longtime engineer and product designer Michael Sayman has been building apps since he was a kid, landing him roles at Facebook, Google, Roblox, and most recently Twitter, where he’s often been tasked with developing products aimed at a teenage audience. Sayman was only 17 when he joined Facebook, but had already built several apps — an experience documented in his book “App Kid.” Over the years, Sayman contributed to high-profile products like Instagram Stories, WhatsApp Status, YouTube Shorts, and the Roblox Graph, among others. Now, Sayman is looking to leverage his understanding of what users want from their apps with the launch of his new startup, Friendly Apps.

The startup’s thesis is that his generation, Gen Z, understands that many of the social apps that have been built to date can be toxic to users’ health and can prevent people from accomplishing their true goals. Friendly Apps’ mission is to create a suite of apps with a different set of values that are targeted toward helping people with both their physical and mental health in new ways.

Prior to starting Friendly Apps, Sayman was working at Twitter. In fact, the founder had just joined Twitter in March, where he intended to aid the social network by building out new product experiences for teens via its 0–>1 team.

But after the Elon Musk acquisition deal was announced, internal product development efforts slowed down, he says. That situation gave him a push to finally break out of Big Tech to work on his own thing.

“It takes a billionaire trying to acquire a company that I worked at for me to finally go and do this,” Sayman says, with a laugh.

The idea for Friendly Apps is something he’s had in the back of his mind for years as he’s seen how tech companies developed their products.

“A lot of social media products use retention tactics that slowly deteriorate the well-being and mental health of their users because of the way they’re designed,” explains Sayman. The companies encouraged the wrong behaviors from their users, and have become popular because they’re addictive, he says.

“They have tactics to keep people coming in.”

He suggests the problem lies not only with the product design, but also with the internal goals and metrics companies pursue.

“The structures and the incentives within a lot of these social media companies are not set up in a way to encourage longer-term thinking around the well-being of the person that’s using the product,” Sayman notes. “If somebody is not doing well on the platform…if they’re feeling anxious, depressed, or insecure, over time, they’ll stop using the product. They’ll try to find other avenues or other ways of communicating or connecting with the people they care about through some other means,” he says.

Image Credits: Michael Sayman (opens in a new window)

Sayman wants Friendly Apps to be different. Although the startup will take the learnings from social apps and products he’s helped create for teens, its apps won’t be solely aimed at Gen Z users.

As for the apps themselves, they haven’t yet been created. Despite that fact, the startup raised a seed round of $3 million in about a week’s time. It seems a lot of people were willing to bet on Sayman, starting with Weekend Fund’s Ryan Hoover, founder of Product Hunt.

“I’ve known Michael for eight years. It was clear that he would eventually start his own company. He has a very rare ability to deeply intuit human behavior, translate his ideas into clean design, and build quickly,” says Hoover. “We committed to invest pre-product, pre-deck.”

Sayman does have a few different product ideas, however. He envisions one app could be focused on helping people achieve their physical fitness goals — even if they’re not a regular gym-goer or runner, or some other kind of hardcore fitness advocate.

Another app could help people remember to prioritize their real-world relationships and encourage them to spend time with people they care about in the physical world.

“Everyone’s doing so many things that we don’t actually end up catching up in person for a while,” Sayman says.

As time goes by, friendships can deteriorate as people know less and less about each other, which can impact mental health. Today’s social apps don’t help — they only further isolate us, he explains. Instead, we end up experiencing relationships through “a little tiny window of filtered photos,” he notes.

“We didn’t evolve to live that way — like we all do right now,” says Sayman. “So I think a lot of the mental health issues that we start seeing, in particular with younger generations, come as a result of a lot of that isolation and that ‘tiny window’ view of the world.”

The founder also plans to bring his worldview as a second-generation Latino immigrant into Friendly Apps’ product experiences, seeing the potential to help address specific hurdles that new immigrants to the U.S. may need to overcome.

But these sorts of concepts may or may not be among the first apps to launch. Instead, the startup plans to test a suite of products, experiences, features, and even various design elements before bringing anything to the public.

Sayman can build apps quickly. But as a sole founder, he will still need some time to get the products off the ground and tested. He hopes to have something released to the public in around 6 months, he says.

Seed investors in Friendly Apps include BoxGroup, Weekend Fund, Shrug Capital, Day One Ventures, Betaworks Ventures, SRB Ventures, 305 Ventures, CoreVentures, plus founders and operators from Snap, TikTok, Instagram, Meta, Google, Tesla, Things, and others.

The company also wants to include the perspectives of those outside Silicon Valley, Sayman says.

One angel investor, Hayley Leibson, told TechCrunch she was “extremely happy that Michael prioritized bringing onboard womxn angel investors like myself, and others including teachers, mothers, students, and immigrants from diverse backgrounds.”

“The tech industry doesn’t really gather a lot of investors from places that aren’t the tech industry,” Sayman points out. “If we’re thinking about how to make products that help people’s mental health and help people’s like physical well-being…I think we can have opinions, feedback, and input directly from people who aren’t in the tech world.”

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Gen Z social app Yubo rolls out age ‘estimating’ technology to better identify minors using its service – TechCrunch

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Yubo, a social livestreaming app popular with a Gen Z audience, announced today it’s becoming one of the first major social platforms to adopt a new age verification technique that uses live image capture technology to identify minors using its app, in order to keep them separated from adult users. While other companies serving a younger crowd typically rely on traditional age gating techniques, these are easily bypassed as all that’s generally required is for a user to enter a birthdate in an online form.

Many kids know they can lie about their age to gain access to platforms designed for older users, which is how they end up in online spaces that aren’t kid-friendly or that have greater risks associated with their use.

Yubo, on the other hand, has been thinking about what the future of social networking should look like for the next generation of users — and not just from a product standpoint, but also from a product safety perspective.

Founded in 2015, Yubo users hang out in live-streaming rooms where they can socialize, play games, and make new friends. There aren’t creators on the platform broadcasting to fans, and Yubo has no plans to move in that direction — the way that nearly all other major social platforms have today. Instead, its app’s focus is on helping users socialize naturally, the way they’re already comfortable with, after having grown up using services FaceTime and hanging out with friends in other live video apps.

According to Yubo co-founder and CEO, Sacha Lazimi, Generation Z sees “no difference between online and offline life,” he says.

“They have exactly the same needs of socializing offline as online, but there were no solutions [for this],” Lazimi explains. This led Yubo to launch a live video feature that launched to the app’s userbase in February 2018.

“We are taking the best of offline interaction and adding to that the power of technology to make sure that you will connect to the right group of people anywhere in the world, at any time, in a safe environment,” he adds.

The company today has seen 60 million sign-ups, which is up from the 40 million it reported in 2020 when it closed on its $47.5 million Series C funding round. 99% of them are Gen Z users, ages 13 to 25.

While Yubo doesn’t share its monthly active users, it notes that it’s seeing increasing revenue via its a la carte premium features and subscriptions, which grew from 7 million euros in 2019 to now 25 million euros as of last year. The app doesn’t run ads.

But with this younger audience and growth, comes the need for increased safety. Previously, Yubo had partnered with the digital identity provider Yoti to help it vet potentially suspicious users. If people were using different phone numbers or devices, for example, or if they had been reported by others, Yubo would ask them to verify themselves by submitting their IDs. The process of managing the ID verification was handled by Yoti.

On average, Yubo processed 6,500 verifications per day in 2021. Following this verification, 67,000 accounts per month were suspended due to discrepancies in age, the company says.

But there was one challenge with this system — minors often don’t have an ID.

“A lot of teenagers — especially under 18 years old — do not have any identity documents,” notes Lazimi. “So we could not ask everyone to verify their identity.”

Image Credits: Yubo

That led the company to now adopt another Yoti product for age estimations. This system will direct new and existing users to an age verification and agreement screen either during sign-up or as a pop-up for existing users upon launching the app. When they accept, their camera will activate and they’ll be prompted to place their face within an oval that appears on the screen. The “liveness algorithm” also takes a short video that analyses movement to confirm the image used is not fake or being pulled from a search engine.

When the face has been detected, the user will receive confirmation that they’ve been verified or they’ll be told if their age doesn’t match the age they entered upon sign-up, or that they’re not using a legitimate picture.

If the user’s age is confirmed, they’ll be directed to the homepage and can use Yubo as before. If verification fails, they’ll need to go through a full ID check instead.

Image Credits: Yubo

The new technology, as you may imagine, is not perfect.

Lazimi admits that it works better with younger people’s faces than with adults. Currently, the Yoti age estimation system can effectively identify the ages of 6 to 12-year-old users within 1.3 years, and those between 13 and 19 within 1.5 years, Yoti claims. After that, accuracy decreases. For 20 to 25-year-olds, it’s accurate within a range of 2.5 years. For 26 to 30-year-olds, it’s within an average of 3 years. But this accuracy could improve over time, as more analysis is performed.

“It’s actually very accurate for young users, and especially users under 15…I believe for 13 to 14-year-old users, it’s around 99%,” he says. (It’s 98.9% accurate across all ages, genders, and skin tones, says Yoti.). To date, Yoti has run the technology across some 500 million faces, and is certified by software testing service iBeta.

“It’s less accurate for older users — that’s why we’ve launched with the youngest users, because those are the ones we want to protect more and also because it’s more accurate and more precise,” Lazimi says.

The company will initially roll out the technology initially to 13 and 14-year-old users with the goal of age-verifying 100% of users by the end of 2022.

The age estimation tech is not the first tool that Yubo has adopted to keep younger users safe on live streams, the company points out.

It’s also using A.I. technology and human moderation to monitor livestreams by taking second-by-second screenshots, then flagging inappropriate content to human moderators in real-time, including nudity, partial nudity (including underwear), suggestive content, drug use, weapons, blood, and violence. (You can see some complaints about this in Yubo’s App Store reviews, where teens are complaining it flagged boys for streaming with their shirts off.)

Yubo also includes educational safety features. For example, the app pop-ups reminders about personalized modification options (like Muted Words), and sends alerts sent to users if they are participating in harmful and inappropriate behaviors or sharing sensitive personal information. The company has a Safety Advisory Board with international online safety experts, as well.

“We are also working closely with government and NGOs because we believe that social networks need to have stronger regulation from the top,” says Lazimi. But, he adds, “we are not waiting for regulation to do safety features. We are doing it proactively,” he says.

 

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Bumble is planning to expand further into social networking with a new communities feature – TechCrunch

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Dating platform Bumble is looking to enhance its non-dating social features with a further investment into its Bumble BFF feature, first launched in 2016. This friend-finding feature currently uses the same swiped-based mechanics to connect people looking for platonic relationships but will soon expand to include social networking groups where users can connect with one another based on topics and interests, not just via “matches.”

TechCrunch heard Bumble was venturing more into the social networking space, and Bumble recently hinted at this development during its first-quarter earnings, announced this month.

On the earnings call, the company referenced a Bumble BFF “alpha test” that had been performing well.

It described the test as offering new ways for “people to discover and get to know each other around shared joys and common struggles.” Bumble founder and CEO Whitney Wolfe Herd added that, so far, over 40% of “active BFF users” were engaging with the new experiences being tested and the feature’s one-month retention was upward of 75%.

Bumble didn’t, however, describe the product in much detail, beyond noting it offered a “new group format” for networking.

Reached for further insights, product intelligence company Watchful had additional information. It had uncovered screenshots showing a women-focused “social groups” feature.

There were around 30 different topics available, including things like “Women in Business,” “Networking + mentoring,” “Finding fulfillment,” “Mental health,” “Working moms,” “Body positivity,” “Self care,” “Eating well,” “Grad students,” “Money management,” “Building a better world,” “Recent grads,” “Women’s empowerment,” “Mom life,” “Breakups suck,” “Single not alone,” “Workouts,” “Study hacks + motivation,” “Path to parenthood,” “Pet Parents,” “Wanderlust” and others.

Users could join the groups and create multimedia posts or reply to existing posts, similar to a threaded group chat or lightweight networking product. The topics, so far, seem to cater to a slightly broader crowd than just “young adults,” given there were groups for students as well as working moms.

Bumble confirmed to us this is the same feature that was being discussed during its earnings.

“We are currently testing new product features in our Bumble BFF community for a small number of people. We are assessing feedback from this test to help inform our final product decisions,” a Bumble spokesperson told TechCrunch.

Image Credits: Bumble screenshot via Watchful

On the call, Wolfe Herd had also suggested the new BFF feature could potentially help Bumble generate revenue further down the road.

“We are very focused on the product, building the ecosystem, the communities and really going into this new group format and testing the functionalities that we’ve been hard at work building,” Wolfe Herd said. “As we look to revenue in the future from BFF, there are really multiple pillars of opportunity — and one of them would be advertising,” she continued.

“We will be looking at baking in functionalities to be greater economy efficient or advertising ready for the future but not to expect any near-term revenue from that,” the exec had noted.

Image Credits: Bumble screenshot via Watchful

Originally, the Bumble BFF feature had been designed to help Bumble serve its growing audience of younger singles, who were often looking for new friends to hang out with, not just date. The company had explained at the time of its 2016 launch that it got the idea not only based on user feedback but also because it observed people using its dating app to make friends — particularly when they had just moved to a new city or were visiting a place for a limited time, like on vacation.

Bumble BFF also allowed the company to leverage some of the same technology it was using to create romantic matches — algorithms based on interests, for example — and put them to use for helping users forge platonic connections.

But in the years following its launch, friend-finding has spun out to become its own app category of sorts, particularly among the younger Gen Z demographic who’s more inclined to socially “hang out” online, including through live video, audio and chat-based groups. Snapchat’s platform apps are a good example of this trend in action, as is Gen Z livestreaming app Yubo. Then there was dating giant Match Group’s biggest-ever acquisition with last year’s $1.73 billion deal for Hyperconnect, a company that had been more focused on social networking than dating.

In addition, dedicated social experiences have sprung up to serve Bumble’s core demographic of young, professional women including the motherhood-focused Peanut app; leadership network for professional women, Chief; creator platform for women, Sunroom; female college influencer network 28 Row; community-focused Hey! Vina; and others.

Combined, these factors could create trouble for Bumble, particularly if younger Gen Z users are less inclined to adopt traditional swipe-based dating apps — or, when they do, it’s more to just meet new people, not partners.

Of these, Peanut seems to have more overlap with what Bumble is building — which is interesting, too, since Peanut was founded by former Badoo deputy CEO Michelle Kennedy who brought her understanding of dating app concepts to online socializing. (Today, Bumble, Inc. operates Bumble, Badoo and its latest acquisition Fruitz.) Now, Peanut’s concepts are making their way back to Bumble.

Asked for thoughts on this latest development, Kennedy said it “completely validates the market” that Peanut has been working in for many years — particularly as the current groups spotted had been women focused.

“It’s something that we’ve always believed in. We’ve always known that it’s a huge opportunity. We’ve always seen that. And for Bumble to say, ‘yeah, we agree.’ Huge! Couldn’t be happier,” she said.

Bumble has not said when it expects to launch the social features to the general public.

The company just posted a strong Q1 where it reported $211.2 million in revenue, higher than the consensus estimate of $208.3 million and a 7.2% increase in paying users in the quarter. Bumble’s forecast for its fiscal year 2022 revenue is expected to be in the range of $934-$944 million, higher than previously estimated.

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