If you were the star of every show, would you watch more mobile television? Snapchat is betting that narcissism drives resonance for its new weekly videos that put you and your friends’ customizable Bitmoji avatars into a flurry of silly animated situations. Bitmoji TV premieres on Saturday morning, and it’s remarkably funny, exciting and addictive. Think cartoon SNL on fast-forward, with you playing a secret agent, a zombie president or a Moonlympics athlete.
It’s a style of content only Snapchat could pull off that relies on ubiquitous personalized avatars only Snapchat owns. The company says 70% of its daily active users, or 147 million of its 210 million, have made themselves a Bitmoji. Snapchat bought Bitmoji’s parent company Bitstrips in 2016 for a steal at $62.5 million, and it’s paying off. Amidst a sea of premium video and haphazard Stories that blur together across streaming services and social apps, Snapchat finally found something Facebook can’t copy.
“We really believe that we have invented a new category of entertainment. It’s scripted but it’s personalized. You could take that in a million directions,” says Bitmoji co-founder and CEO Ba Blackstock, who wrote and directed Bitmoji TV. “First and foremost, I hope that everyone who watches this has kind of a mind-blowing experience that they’ve never had before.”
Bitmoji TV, which TechCrunch was first to report Snapchat was building last month, will have its own Snapchat Show page where users can subscribe to get notifications and see new episodes on the Discover Page. Users can visit this page on mobile or tap and hold on the Snapcode below while pointing at it with the Snapchat camera to open Bitmoji TV.
The show is designed to be PG-13, with some bleeped out swearing and a little bloody violence. The shows are made out of Bitmoji’s Toronto office and are based on North American TV, film and advertising. Each episode cuts away and back to a main story, with the first two centered around an America’s Best Bitmoji game show and a Mime Cops hostage negotiation. Interspersed are “channel flips” between shorter single-gag clips that take your avatar into sit-coms, soap operas, action movies and infomercials.
The gags are ridiculous. At the basketball “Moonlympics,” a player jumps up for a dunk, but low gravity causes him to crash through the glass dome and suck all the other players into space. At Cannibal High, an school announcement says “Attention students, we’re all deeply saddened by the sudden passing of Vice Principal Schneider. To honor his legacy, today the cafeteria will be serving Vice Principal Schneider.”
You’re not alone it Bitmoji TV. There’ll be occasional celebrity guests like Randy Jackson, Andy Richter and Jon Lovitz. But your co-star in these segments is the Bitmoji of whichever person you last interacted with on Snapchat. That lets you control whether you want your best friend, your significant other or some rando alongside you. That decision will change the way you interpret the jokes and scenes. Your Bitmoji won’t talk, but their’s will.
Getting philosophical, Blackstock explains that “When you say words to me, it’s not just your words in a vacuum. They’re coming from you. You’re the medium . . . In any narrative fiction you learn about the characters, they have a back story, they have relationships that exist under the story that color it.” Who you make your supporting actor lends personal subtext that enriches each story. That’s one reason you can’t download or easily share clips of your version of Bitmoji TV, and Snap instead just lets you share a link to watch the real thing. Blackstock says it just doesn’t have the same effect if you’re not in the spotlight.
One thing you won’t find in Bitmoji TV, at least at first, are advertisements. The initial 10-episode season won’t have them. But that does seem to be the plan. When I asked Blackstock about monetizing the show, he said, “You can imagine. Discover has a business model of showing ads.” Since it make Bitmoji TV, Snapchat would get to keep that ad money rather than paying it out with revenue shares to partners or by buying content. Just as we’ve seen music and video streaming apps move to cut royalty expenses by creating content in-house, Snap seems to have the same idea.
Snapchat has yet to monetize Bitmoji directly beyond its merchandise store where you can get yours on t-shirts and mugs. Surprisingly, it doesn’t sell premium or branded clothes and looks for Bitmoji, nor does it allow brands to pay to have their apparel featured.
Snap did recently start letting people mix-and-match clothes for their Bitmoji, and when asked if that could foreshadow a revenue opportunity, Blackstock said, “You gotta build the store before you start selling the clothes . . . this was a foundational evolution designed to not only improve the experience for users but to set the stage for things to come.” You and your friends seeing your avatar’s fresh outfit on Bitmoji TV might make people care more about what their digital mini-mes wear.
Having watched the first three episodes, I’m pretty certain Bitmoji TV is going to be a hit. The show embodies the whimsy of Snapchat and the youth culture of the community who uses it. It’s rare to see something so premium but so unabashedly kooky. It’s reminiscent of the Rick and Morty “Interdimensional Cable” episodes that similarly feature rapid-fire snippets of fake and absurd TV shows.
Yet “the idea for Bitmoji TV actually precedes Bitmoji. It’s something I’ve been thinking about since those days [before Snapchat acquired it]. In a way it precedes Bitstrips. I’ve been making comics and cartoons since I was a little kid,” Blackstock tells me. “How I met two of the co-founders of Bitstrips was passing them comics in class. Even after school when we had jobs I would draw comics of my co-founder that were very compromising and I would fax them to his office to try to get him fired,” he recalls with a hearty laugh. Now he has the budget to make them TV-worthy, but just as crazy.
Snapchat has a good hunch it’s going to work because it’s been testing a comic-stripped down version called Bitmoji Stories. These still or lightly animated slideshows use the same idea of starring the avatars of you and your friends, but without full-motion video or constant audio. Indeed, 130 million people have watched Bitmoji Stories since they launched in late 2018.
As Blackstock tells me, “They were easier to make at a high volume and release ongoingly, which we could put out as a prelude to get our audience ready for personalized content — but also for us to learn from and see how people responded and figure out our own processes in terms of production.” Snapchat had animators and engineers work hand in hand to build a rendering system for Bitmoji Stories and TV. That helps it rapidly produce the personalizable content that can flex to accommodate any shaped avatar without them clipping into their surroundings.
Tonight, Bitmoji TV will receive an in-person “silent disco-style” premiere at Los Angeles’ Soho House. Guests will scan a code on the big screen, don headphones and each watch on their own phone with themselves as the star.
Snapchat’s head of original content Sean Mills tells me that “New technology will unlock new kinds of storytelling,” citing “the power of bringing a user into the experience with their best friends.” Bitmoji TV has certainly found a way to turn vanity into engagement. It’s more compelling than the mediocre originals on Facebook Watch. And it’s technologically innovative, unlike the planned lineup for Quibi.
If the modern era of visual communication began with the selfie, Snap honed it into a messaging tool. A few words were more interesting with a friend’s face behind it. The original Bitmoji chat stickers let your face say whatever you wanted even without having to get on camera. Snapchat’s new Cameo feature grafts your face into GIFs to express even more complex feelings. And now with Bitmoji TV, an animated version of your face can live out your wildest fantasies or weirdest dreams. That’s something worth tuning into.
Instagram’s TikTok rival, Reels, rolls out ads worldwide – TechCrunch
Instagram Reels are getting ads. The company announced today it’s launching ads in its short-form video platform and TikTok rival, Reels, to businesses and advertisers worldwide. The ads will be up to 30 seconds in length, like Reels themselves, and vertical in format, similar to ads found in Instagram Stories. Also like Reels, the new ads will loop, and people will be able to like, comment, and save them, the same as other Reels videos.
The company had previously tested Reels ads in select markets earlier this year, including India, Brazil, Germany, and Australia, then expanded those tests to Canada, France, the U.K. and the U.S. more recently. Early adopters of the new format have included brands like BMW, Nestlé (Nespresso), Louis Vuitton, Netflix, Uber, and others.
Instagram tells us the ads will appear in most places users view Reels content, including on the Reels tab, Reels in Stories, Reels in Explore, and Reels in your Instagram Feed, and will appear in between individual Reels posted by users. However, in order to be served a Reels ad, the user first needs to be in the immersive, full-screen Reels viewer.
The company couldn’t say how often a user might see a Reels ad, noting that the number of ads a viewer may encounter will vary based on how they use Instagram. But the company is monitoring user sentiment around ads themselves, and the overall commercially of Reels, it says.
Like Instagram’s other advertising products, Reels ads will launch with an auction-based model. But so far, Instagram is declining to share any sort of performance metrics around how those ads are doing, based on tests. Nor is it yet offering advertisers any creator tools or templates that could help them get started with Reels ads. Instead, Instagram likey assumes advertisers already have creative assets on hand or know how to make them, because of Reels ads’ similarities to other vertical video ads found elsewhere, including on Instagram’s competitors.
While vertical video has already shown the potential for driving consumers to e-commerce shopping sites, Instagram hasn’t yet taken advantage of Reels ads to drive users to its built-in Instagram Shops, though that seems like a natural next step as it attempts to tie the different parts of its app together.
But perhaps ahead of that step, Instagram needs to make Reels a more compelling destination — something other TikTok rivals, which now include both Snap and YouTube — have done by funding creator content directly. Instagram, meanwhile, had made offers to select TikTok stars directly.
The launch of Instagram Reels ads follows news of TikTok’s climbing ad prices. Bloomberg reported this month that TikTok is now asking for more than $1.4 million for a home page takeover ad in the U.S., as of the third quarter, which will jump to $1.8 million by Q4 and more than $2 million on a holiday. Though the company is still building its ads team and advertisers haven’t yet allocated large portions of their video budget to the app, that tends to follow user growth — and TikTok now has over 100 million monthly active users in the U.S.
Both apps, Instagram and TikTok, now have over a billion monthly active users on a global basis, though Reels is only a part of the larger Instagram platform. For comparison, Instagram Stories is used by some 500 million users, which demonstrates Instagram’s ability to drive traffic to different areas of its app. Instagram declined to share how many users Reels has as of today.
Twine raises $3.3M to add networking features to virtual events – TechCrunch
Twine, a video chat startup that launched amid the pandemic as a sort of “Zoom for meeting new people,” shifted its focus to online events and, as a result, has now closed on $3.3 million in seed funding. To date, twine’s events customers have included names like Microsoft, Amazon, Forrester, and others, and the service is on track to do $1 million in bookings in 2021, the company says.
The new round was led by Moment Ventures, and included participation from Coelius Capital, AltaIR Capital, Mentors Fund, Rosecliff Ventures, AltaClub, and Bloom Venture Partners. Clint Chao, founding Partner at Moment, will join twine’s board of directors with the round’s close.
The shift into the online events space makes sense, given twine’s co-founders — Lawrence Coburn, Diana Rau, and Taylor McLoughlin — hail from DoubleDutch, the mobile events technology provider acquired by Cvent in 2019.
Coburn, previously CEO of DoubleDutch, had been under a non-compete with its acquirer until December 2020, which is one reason why he didn’t first attempt a return to the events space.
The team’s original idea was to help people who were missing out on social connections under Covid lockdowns find a way to meet others and chat online. This early version of twine saw some small amount of traction, as 10% of its users were even willing to pay. But many more were nervous about being connected to random online strangers, twine found.
So the company shifted its focus to the familiar events space, with a specific focus on online events which grew in popularity due to the pandemic. While setting up live streams, text chats and Q&A has been possible, what’s been missing from many online events was the casual and unexpected networking that used to happen in-person.
“The hardest thing to bring to virtual events was the networking and the serendipity — like the conversations that used to happen in an elevator, in the bar, the lobby — these kinds of things,” explains Coburn. “So we began testing a group space version of twine — bringing twine to existing communities as opposed to trying to build our own, new community. And that showed a lot more legs,” he says.
By January 2021, the new events-focused version of twine was up-and-running, offering a set of professional networking tools for event owners. Unlike one-to-many or few-to-many video broadcasts, twine connects a small number of people for more intimate conversations.
“We did a lot of research with our customers and users, and beyond five [people in a chat], it turns into a webinar,” notes Coburn, of the limitations on twine’s video chat. In twine, a small handful of people are dropped into a video chat experience– and now, they’re not random online strangers. They’re fellow event attendees. That generally keeps user behavior professional and the conversations productive.
Event owners can use the product for free on twine’s website for small events with up to 30 users, but to scale up any further requires a license. Twine charges on a per attendee basis, where customers buy packs of attendees on a software-as-a-service model.
The company’s customers can then embed twine directly in their own website or add a link that pops open the twine website in a separate browser tab.
Coburn says twine has found a sweet spot with big corporate event programs. The company has around 25 customers, but some of those have already used twine for 10 or 15 events after first testing out the product for something smaller.
“We’re working with five or six of the biggest companies in the world right now,” noted Coburn.
Because the matches are digital, twine can offer other tools like digital “business card” exchanges and analytics and reports for the event hosts and attendees alike.
Despite the cautious return to normal in the U.S., which may see in-person events return in the year ahead, twine believes there’s still a future in online events. Due to the pandemic’s lasting impacts, organizations are likely to adopt a hybrid approach to their events going forward.
“I don’t think there’s ever been an industry that has gone through a 15 months like the events industry just went through,” Coburn says. “These companies went to zero, their revenue went to zero and some of them were coming from hundreds of millions of dollars. So what happened was a digital transformation like the world has never seen,” he adds.
Now, there are tens of thousands of event planners who have gotten really good at tech and online events. And they saw the potential in online, which would sometimes deliver 4x or 5x the attendance of virtual, Coburn points out.
“This is why you see LinkedIn drop $50 million on Hopin,” he says, referring to the recent fundraise for the virtual conference technology business. (The deal was reportedly for less than $50 million). “This is why you see the rounds of funding that are going into Hoppin and Bizzabo and Hubilo and all the others. This is the taxi market, pre-Uber.”
Of course, virtual events may end up less concerned with social features when they can offer an in-person experience. And those who want to host online events may be looking for a broader solution than Zoom + twine, for example.
But twine has ideas about what it wants to do next, including asynchronous matchmaking, which could end up being more valuable as it could lead to better matches since it wouldn’t be limited to only who’s online now.
With the funding, twine is hiring in sales and customer success, working on accessibility improvements, and expanding its platform. To date, twine has raised $4.7 million.
Facebook rolls out new tools for Group admins, including automated moderation aids – TechCrunch
Facebook today introduced a new set of tools aimed at helping Facebook Group administrators get a better handle on their online communities and, potentially, help keep conversations from going off the rails. Among the more interesting new tools is a machine learning-powered feature that alerts admins to potentially unhealthy conversations taking place in their group. Another lets the admin slow down the pace of a heated conversation, by limiting how often group members can post.
Facebook Groups are today are significant reason why people continue to use the social network. Today, there are “tens of millions” of groups, that are managed by over 70 million active admins and moderators worldwide, Facebook says.
The company for years has been working to roll out better tools for these group owners, who often get overwhelmed by the administrative responsibilities that come with running an online community at scale. As a result, many admins give up the job and leave groups to run somewhat unmanaged — thus allowing them to turn into breeding grounds for misinformation, spam and abuse.
Facebook last fall tried to address this problem by rolling out new group policies to crack down on groups without an active admin, among other things. Of course, the company’s preference would be to keep groups running and growing by making them easier to operate.
That’s where today’s new set of features come in.
A new dashboard called Admin Home will centralize admin tools, settings and features in one place, as well as present “pro tips” that suggest other helpful tools tailored to the group’s needs.
Another new Admin Assist feature will allow admins to automatically moderate comments in their groups by setting up criteria that can restrict comments and posts more proactively, instead of forcing admins to go back after the fact and delete them, which can be problematic — especially after a discussion has been underway and members are invested in the conversation.
For example, admins can now restrict people from posting if they haven’t had a Facebook account for very long or if they had recently violated the group’s rules. Admins can also automatically decline posts that contain specific promotional content (perhaps MLM links! Hooray!) and then share feedback with the author of the post automatically about why those posts aren’t allowed.
Admins can also take advantage of suggested preset criteria from Facebook to help with limiting spam and managing conflict.
One notable update is a new moderation alert type dubbed “conflict alerts.” This feature, currently in testing, will notify admins when a potentially contentious or unhealthy conversation is taking place in the group, Facebook says. This would allow an admin to quickly take an action — like turning off comments, limiting who could comment, removing a post, or however else they would want to approach the situation.
Conflict alerts are powered by machine learning, Facebook explains. Its machine learning model looks at multiple signals, including reply time and comment volume to determine if engagement between users has or might lead to negative interactions, the company says.
This is sort of like an automated expansion on the Keyword Alerts feature many admins already use to look for certain topics that lead to contentious conversations.
A related feature, also new, would allow admins to also limit how often specific members could comment, or how often comments could be added to posts admins select.
When enabled, members can leave 1 comment every 5 minutes. The idea here is that forcing users to pause and consider their words amid a heated debate could lead to more civilized conversations. We’ve seen this concept enacted on other social networks, as well — such as with Twitter’s nudges to read articles before retweeting, or those that flag potentially harmful replies, giving you a chance to re-edit your post.
Facebook, however, has largely embraced engagement on its platform, even when it’s not leading to positive interactions or experiences. Though small, this particular feature is an admission that building a healthy online community means sometimes people shouldn’t be able to immediately react and comment with whatever thought first popped into their head.
Additionally, Facebook is testing tools that allow admins to temporarily limit activity from certain group members.
If used, admins will be able to determine how many posts (between 1 and 9 posts) per day a given member may share, and for how long that limit should be in effect for (every 12 hours, 24 hours, 3 days, 7 days, 14 days, or 28 days). Admins will also be able to determine how many comments (between 1 and 30 comments, in 5 comment increments) per hour a given member may share, and for how long that limit should be in effect (also every 12 hours, 24 hours, 3 days, 7 days, 14 days, or 28 days).
Along these same lines of building healthier communities, a new member summary feature will give admins an overview of each member’s activity on their group, allowing them to see how many times they’ve posted and commented, have had posts removed, or have been muted.
Facebook doesn’t say how admins are to use this new tool, but one could imagine admins taking advantage of the detailed summary to do the occasional cleanup of their member base by removing bad actors who continually disrupt discussions. They could also use it to locate and elevate regulator contributors without violations to moderator roles, perhaps.
Admins will also be able to tag their group rules in comment sections, disallow certain post types (e.g. Polls or Events), and submit an appeal to Facebook to re-review decisions related to group violations, if in error.
Of particular interest, though a bit buried amid the slew of other news, is the return of Chats, which was previously announced.
Facebook had abruptly removed Chat functionality back in 2019, possibly due to spam, some had speculated. (Facebook said it was product infrastructure.) As before, Chats can have up to 250 people, including active members and those who opted into notifications from the chats. Once this limit is reached, other members will not be able to engage with that specific chat room until existing active participants either leave the chat or opt out of notifications.
Now, Facebook group members can start, find and engage in Chats with others within Facebook Groups instead of using Messenger. Admins and moderators can also have their own chats.
Notably, this change follows on the heels of growth from messaging-based social networks, like IRL, a new unicorn (due to its $1.17B valuation), as well as the growth seen by other messaging apps, like Telegram, Signal and other alternative social networks.
Along with this large set of new features, Facebook also made changes to some existing features, based on feedback from admins.
It’s now testing pinned comments and introduced a new “admin announcement” post type that notifies group members of the important news (if notifications are being received for that group).
Plus, admins will be able to share feedback when they decline group members.
The changes are rolling out across Facebook Groups globally in the coming weeks.
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