Author: Ingrid Lunden

TikTok downloads banned on iOS and Android in India over porn and other illegal content

TikTok, the user-generated video sharing app from Chinese publisher Bytedance that has been a global runaway success, has stumbled hard in one of the world’s biggest mobile markets, India, over illicit content in its app.

Today, the country’s main digital communications regulator, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, ordered both Apple and Google to remove the app from its app stores, per a request from High Court in Madras after the latter investigated and determined that the app — which has hundreds of millions of users, including minors — was encouraging pornography and other illicit content.

This is the second time in two months that TikTok’s content has been dinged by regulators, after the app was fined $5.7 million by the FTC in the US over violating child protection policies.

The order in India does not impact the 120 million users in the country who already have the app downloaded, or those on Android who might download it from a source outside of Google’s official Android store. But it’s a strong strike against TikTok that will impede its growth, harm its reputation, and potentially pave the way for further sanctions or fines against the app in India (and elsewhere taking India’s lead).

TikTok has issued no less than three different statements — each subsequently less aggressive — as it scrambles to respond to the order.

“We welcome the decision of the Madras High Court to appoint Arvind Datar as Amicus Curae (independent counsel) to the court,” the statement from TikTok reads. “We have faith in the Indian judicial system and we are optimistic about an outcome that would be well received by over 120 million monthly active users in India, who continue using TikTok to showcase their creativity and capture moments that matter in their everyday lives.”

(A previous version of the statement from TikTok was less ‘welcoming’ of the decision and instead highlighted how TikTok was making increased efforts to police its content without outside involvement. It noted that it had removed more than 6 million videos that violated its terms of use and community guidelines, following a review of content generated by users in India. That alone speaks to the actual size of the problem.)

On top of prohibiting downloads, the High Court also directed the regulator to bar media companies from broadcasting any videos — illicit or otherwise — made with or posted on TikTok. Bytedance has been working to try to appeal the orders, but the Supreme Court, where the appeal was heard, upheld it.

This is not the first time that TikTok has faced government backlash over the content that it hosts on its platform. In the US, two months ago, the Federal Trade Commission ruled that the app violated children’s privacy laws and fined it $5.7 million, and through a forced app updated, required all users to verify that they were over 13, or otherwise be redirected to a more restricted experience. Musically, TikTok’s predecessor, had also faced similar regulatory violations.

More generally the problems that TikTok is facing right now are not unfamiliar ones. Social media apps, relying on user-generated content as both the engine of their growth and the fuel for that engine, have long been problematic when it comes to illicit content. The companies that create and run these apps have argued that they are not responsible for what people produce on the platform, as long as it fits within its terms of use, but that has left a large gap where content is not policed as well as it should be. On the other hand, as these platforms rely on growth and scale for their business models, some have argued that this has made them less inclined to proactively police their platforms to bar the illicit content in the first place.

Facebook is discontinuing P2P payments in Messenger in the UK and France on June 15

Facebook is pulling away from its ambitions to provide peer-to-peer money transfers via Messenger in Europe. Today, the company announced that it would be discontinuing the service — which let individuals send money to each other — in the two countries in the region where it had rolled it out, the UK and France on June 15 of this year. It appears that for now, the service will remain active in the US, where Facebook holds a number of money transmitter licenses.

It’s not shutting down payments altogether in Europe: it will continue to let people make charitable donations through Facebook itself.

“On 15 June 2019, we will discontinue P2P services on Messenger or through Facebook messages for all residents in the UK and France,” the company noted in a short statement on its main help page for the payments service. “While you won’t be able to exchange money with friends and family, you’ll still be able to complete other transactions through Facebook, such as making donations to charitable organisations.”

Facebook has also started sending out notices to those who were using the service in the two countries. It’s never been clear just how many of them there were.

After getting a license at the end of 2016, Facebook made its first foray into P2P payments in Europe for people over the age of 18 in November 2017, taking on the likes of PayPal and others in the remittance world.

The move was long in the making: there had been rumors of Facebook developing social payments, and even acquiring a startup to help make it happen, for years before this as the market for remittances and people using social networks to make financial transactions to each other started to take off.

In particular, in developing markets, where transfer fees for services like Western Union are high and the amount of people holding bank accounts is low, remittances using mobile handsets have become a key way for people to send money to each other, either because they’re supporting family or to pay each other for a service or goods. Mobile — and Facebook’s supremacy in social graphs and messaging with the likes of WhatsApp, Messenger and Instagram all a part of the Facebook stable — made it a natural fit for something like this.

But in the end, the launch of P2P payments in France and the UK was a baby step — you could never transfer money to international recipients, and new countries were never added — that never grew up. The company reported in its last quarterly results in January that payments and other services generated just $274 million in the quarter, compared to $16.64 billion in advertising. Europe accounted for a measly $64 million of that.

Facebook does not explain why it decided to pull back on the strategy, but apart from question marks over just how popular the service actually was, there have other developments at the company and the wider payments space in Europe that could potentially have been factors.

Come September 14 of this year, there will be a new payment directive put in place across Europe called Strong Customer Authentication, requiring extra checks to be made for a user’s identity in any online transaction. It’s not clear how and if Facebook was preparing for this change.

Perhaps more interestingly, the company is reportedly working on a cryptocurrency that would allow for people on its messaging networks to send money to each other. If such a product really does get rolled out, it may be that Facebook would use that to become its primary P2P payment mechanism.

We have contacted Facebook and will update this post as we learn more.

LinkedIn adds celebrate, love, insightful and curious reactions to spur more engagement

Sometimes a “like” in social media doesn’t give the full picture, or you’re just not inspired enough to write a fuller response. Today, LinkedIn addressed that issue on its own platform, with the introduction of four new reactions people can use in response to posts in their timelines. In addition to “like,” you can now react in four other ways to posts with icons that indicate “celebrate,” “love,” “insightful” and “curious.”

I find it “curious” and “insightful” that there isn’t a “haha” among them. Not many laughs or entertainment to be found on LinkedIn, I guess?

The reactions are rolling out globally to the company’s nearly 600 million users starting today, to both the desktop and mobile apps.

LinkedIn’s rollout comes in the wake of similar moves on other social platforms, perhaps most noticeably on Facebook, which launched an expanded set of reaction buttons more than three years ago. LinkedIn has never been one for jumping quickly to new trends, but this nevertheless shows that it’s listening and understands that it has to provide more to users to make its platform more dynamic, to help spur more engagement (and in turn more people posting to the platform).

LinkedIn product manager Cissy Chen notes that the company based its selection of reactions on the kinds of conversations that people are already having on LinkedIn (and probably the kinds of conversations that LinkedIn would like to continue to encourage), and also what people were writing most commonly when providing one to two-word terse responses.

Typically, posts range from people announcing new professional roles or milestones to sharing learnings from somewhere else — hence the leaning to two reactions giving encouragement, and two more contemplative reactions.

LinkedIn’s wider goals in providing tools like this are to continue to get more users engaged on its platform.

In the years since Microsoft acquired the company, I’d argue that the iterations the company has made to different aspects of its service have decreased somewhat. That makes it more open to other companies coming in and creating more useful and modern replacements in some of its most lucrative areas of business, such as recruitment.

On the other hand, platforms like Facebook have been quick to add ever more features and functionality. While Facebook is far from providing the same kind of recruiter tools, or database of working professionals and their experience, its own efforts in recruitment services and mentoring are direct competitors to LinkedIn’s social tools for the working world, and provide a kind of lite alternative. So for LinkedIn to continue to keep people around, and to attract new users who might otherwise consider alternatives, even incremental additions like this one can make a difference.

Twitter updates twttr prototype app with engagement swipes, conversation tweaks, better Dark mode and more

Twitter’s new prototyping app twttr, which it created to test and get feedback on new features — and new approaches to old features — has been out in the wild for a month. Now, with Twitter taking in the first wave of responses from users, twttr is getting an update. The move highlights how Twitter continues to chip away at ongoing criticism that it is too confusing for most people to use, which has impacted overall growth for the social media platform.

The latest version of twttr is a decent step ahead in that mission. Updates include: the introduction of a swiping gesture, specifically in conversations to like or reply to a Tweet; new labels in threads indicating who is the original poster and who you follow and improved visibility with dark mode. Ironically — even as Twitter has shifted to putting experimental features into twttr — the latter app is also getting an import of new features from the main Twitter app, which has been getting updates that had yet to be rolled out to the prototype app. These include new versions of the Twitter camera, dark mode and profile previews that keep you in your timeline.

Note: neither I nor any of my colleagues using twttr seem to have gotten this update yet ourselves. So I will “update” this post with screenshots when Twitter actually pushes it to one of us on Test Flight…

Overall, those who are using twttr say they prefer it to the official Twitter app, says Sara Haider, Twitter’s head of product. That likely means certain features are sticking enough in the prototype app that they will be making their way into the permanent Twitter experience. But what form that will ultimately take is still in play.

One of the big areas that is still seeing some changes are engagement buttons — that is, the options to “like” a Tweet with a heart, to reply to it, or to retweet.

These are a cornerstone of how Twitter is used, but they are also potentially distracting and add to the noise in an often chaotic experience, since timelines and potentially conversations are more or less constantly on the move.

In the new build of twttr, engagements do not appear by default. Instead, you get to them by way of a swipe to the left or right on a Tweet.

This is not exactly new: it’s an iteration of what we saw in the first major build of twttr. There, the engagement buttons were also hidden away completely in conversations, and they only appeared when you tapped on a Tweet to begin engagement.

But it seems that design decision got very mixed reviews, said Haider, who said that while it was easier to focus without the distraction of metrics, it also made it harder to like and retweet since it required an extra tap.

My guess is that it also resulted in less engagement, even among the power users who signed up test twttr in the first place — which is likely not the end result that Twitter (or its advertisers, or others who measure and rely on engagement metrics) would want.

Replacing that tap with a swipe brings twttr in line with one of the most popular gestures in app user interfaces today, since the small touchscreens of smartphones are natural surfaces this gesture to make quick responses. My guess is that we will see yet more changes in how gestures are used in Twitter overall, since in the main Twitter app, currently a swipe to the left brings up the Camera, while a swipe to the right gets you to your Profile page.

Haider also said that early feedback, from those using twttr in English and Japanese, included a clear endorsement of the new threaded layout for conversations. This made them “easier to follow” and let readers see more replies.

The layout collapses side-conversations that branch out from the main Tweet, giving you the option either of expanding them to see more replies by way of a “show more” button, or continuing to scroll to see more replies to the main Tweet without confusing the two.

But some had complained that in an especially noisy conversation, the “show more” buttons appeared too much, serving the exact opposite of their intention: they ended up distracting from the flow of conversation. And if you were using the “dark mode” that was running in twttr, it was hard to follow the shading on replies (something we also highlighted in our initial review of the new app).

These are now getting addressed with more nuanced shading on replies that appears more clearly in dark mode, and it also seems that Twitter will be playing with the number of “show more” buttons that are coming up in threads.

Another interesting addition brings to light something that Twitter had already been experimenting with in its original app, the appearance of labels for “original Tweeter” and to indicate who you follow, to better organise what you might want to see or know as the reader.

We first saw these tags appearing in January, and indeed, even as they were appearing for some users as part of a test on the main app, the twttr app rolled out without them. Now that’s changing.

Parity between Twitter and twttr is something of a theme here, since Twitter has also made some other changes to bring features in the latter up to date with newer changes in the main app. That includes adding in updated, Snapchat-like camera features; and more nuanced Dark Mode that includes a darker, battery-saving black and other customizations. You are now also able to see profile previews in twttr without navigating away from the flow of conversation (something Twitter has been testing in the main iOS app).

All in all, the picture that this paints for Twitter (and twttr) is that the app and wider platform still remain very much in flux. The company says that it will be “many months” before anything goes from test to full launch, which is no bad thing when you’re on a mission not just to grow usage, but to keep people around for longer.

I’m still waiting (but not holding my breath) to see how and if twttr gets used for other kinds of changes that transcend user interface — such as as changing the mechanics around how to report abuse and manage your overall content experience on the app.

As more people flock to Twitter to get their opinions heard, and Twitter continues to sign up third parties to bring in a wider range of media into the app, transforming not just the application of its mechanics, but the whole reason you may be using Twitter in the first place, there is a lot of work to do in both.

Viber users can now get local numbers in the US, UK and Canada for inbound voice and SMS

Viber, the messaging app owned by Rakuten that a year ago said it had 1 billion registered users, has added another feature in its longer-term efforts to add more stickiness to its service, while also bringing in a little more revenue to the business: users now have the option of subscribing to have “local numbers” that can receive phone calls and SMS messages as if those calls and messages are being sent to mobile numbers in specific regions.

Viber Local Number, as the service is called, is available to anyone globally but for now the numbers you can register are in the US, UK and Canada, with more countries getting added soon. We’re asking which area codes in the US will be covered at launch, and what the roadmap is for subsequent countries.

Viber said that the first 10,000 people to sign up will be able to pay $1.99 per month indefinitely for the service. Otherwise, it’s being priced at $4.99/month, and according to a FAQ on its site, you pay either by way of Apple’s in-app payments service, Google Play or (if you’re on Android) via a credit card direct with Viber itself. You access the option to get the number by way of the “more” tab on the app.

Viber Local Number will sound fairly familiar to people who have used other messaging apps and VoIP services.

Skype, for one, has offered the option of getting a local number in a specific region, both to make and receive calls, for years. There have also been companies that have stepped into the feature gap between the existence of the capability and Viber yet to launch anything of its own. One that I found offering a local number feature for Viber, Freezvon, has an even wider range of countries listed for local numbers than the three that Viber currently offers.

We’ve asked Viber why it’s taken it so long for it to launch this, and also whether third-party services like these are partners for Viber Local Number, or conversely whether Viber will allow them to continue to operate in competition with its own offering. We will update this post as and when we learn the answers.

As with these other services, Viber Local Number is aimed at business people or others who want to offer customers or partners a local number in a particular region to call them, when they themselves might not be in that region. To note: that use case is only valid in countries where users are not required to show proof of residency before taking numbers.

In another possible application, if you are a person who wants to share a number with people but have that inbound traffic not mix with your other inbound calls, this would be a cheaper and more flexible way of handling that without paying for a fully-functional separate phone number. Similarly, those who are living abroad but want to give their family and friends back home a cheaper way to contact them would also be potential users.

“The new Viber Local Number enriches our users in a way that makes Viber the most powerful communication app out there,” says Viber CEO, Djamel Agaoua, in a statement. “We are excited to offer people new ways to be closer and more relevant to what matters and is important to them. From expats who need a local phone number that connects them back home, to global business owners who want overseas clients to feel they are located nearby, this new feature gives them a local presence no matter where they are.”

To be clear, it looks like Viber Local Number is focused only on inbound calls — there is no detail in Viber’s FAQ about pricing for outbound calls, nor even whether these would be possible.

But, the company already has a service called Viber Out that allows users to make calls from their Viber accounts to numbers outside of Viber itself. Viber Local Number sits within Viber Out as a product, and it seems that this is the main option for now but whether those outbound calls will register with your Viber Local Number is not clear. We’ve asked about this, too, and will update as we learn more.

In earlier years of its life as an “over the top” messaging app, Viber was a close competitor to WhatsApp, WeChat, Facebook’s Messenger, Line and others tapping into the smartphone boom with more flexible ways to contact people that transcended stingy SMS allowances with way more features on top of the basic ability to send texts.

When Rakuten acquired Viber for $900 million just weeks before Facebook announced its acquisition of WhatsApp for $19 billion, the two respectively had 300 million and 450 million monthly active users. Now, WhatsApp and Messenger have well over 2 billion monthly active users combined, while Viber never puts out MAU figures.

Indeed, more recently, Viber has arguably stagnated as a go-to messaging service, overtaken in users and features by its rivals. That the company does not give out updated user numbers doesn’t help its image, either.

But under new CEO Agaoua — an ad-tech veteran who joined in February 2017 — the company has been working on a number of new efforts around chatbots and other features that tie the app closer with Rakuten’s e-commerce roots and wider footprint of other holdings. In that regard, today’s announcement — given that it’s turning on functionality that arguably Viber should have added years ago — feels like an important move, enabling essential feature that lays the groundwork for potentially more to come.

German LinkedIn rival Xing is rebranding as ‘New Work’ acquires recruitment platform Honeypot for up to $64M

Xing, the business networking platform that has been described as Germany’s answer to LinkedIn, has made an acquisition to beef up its recruitment business ahead of a rebrand of the business as “New Work.” The company has acquired Honeypot, a German startup that has built a job-hunting platform for tech people, for up to €57 million ($64 million). Xing tells us that Honeypot is its biggest acquisition to date.

The figure includes the acquisition (€22 million) plus a potential earn-out of up to €35 million if certain targets are met in the next three years.

Xing said that it plans to rebrand as New Work in the second half of 2019, bringing together a number of other assets it has acquired and built over the years.

“This acquisition is an excellent addition to our New Work portfolio,” Thomas Vollmoeller, CEO at Xing, said in a statement. “Honeypot focuses on candidates by helping them to find a job matching their individual preferences… With subsidiaries and brands such as kununu and HalloFreelancer, Xing is far more than just a single network. New Work is the umbrella spanning all our business activities.” Xing said that all the smaller companies will keep their branding.

Xing already offered job listings as part of its platform, with 20,000 businesses as customers; but Honeypot will add a few different things to the mix.

First, it will give Xing more traction specifically in the tech vertical, since Honeypot first started out in 2015 targeting developers although it later expanded to other tech jobs.

Second, Honeypot’s structure is a natural fit for a social recuitment platform: as with a lot of social recruiting, Honeypot lets recruiters use platforms, profile pages and social graphics to find and approach candidates, rather than candidates reaching out in response to specific opportunities.

Honeypot adds additional features to help make this process more accurate and less of a waste of time on both sides. Those doing the recruiting have to provide specific details around salary and, say, programming languages required, as part of their outreach. On the other side, individuals go through a “brief expertise check” to vet them, and they too have to be a bit more specific on what they can and what they want to do, and what they want to earn, to help weed out opportunities that might not be suitable.

Third, the acquisition will help Xing make a bigger push into building its profile outside of Germany into more of Europe, as New Work.

This is no small thing. Xing years ago was considered a would-be rival to LinkedIn. But — and this was perhaps even more true in the past, and Xing was founded in 2003 — scaling startups to be global players out of Europe can be a challenge, even more so when there is a formidable direct competitor growing quickly as well.

In the end, Xing developed as a much more modest operation, relatively speaking. While LinkedIn today has some 600 million users and was acquired by Microsoft in 2016 for $26.2 billion, Xing is publicly traded and currently valued at around $2 billion (€1.81 billion), with some 15 million members.

Xing says that today Honeypot’s current emphasis is German-speaking countries and the Netherlands, which together cover some of the biggest startup hubs in Europe, including Berlin and Amsterdam.

The company is still relatively small but growing, adding 1,000 IT specialists to its books each week, with some 100,000 individuals and 1,500 businesses currently registered. Xing said that it will be investing in the company to expand to more markets in Europe, as well as to grow its business by tapping Xing’s own customer base.

Although there have been some notable exceptions like payments startup Adyen from the Netherlands, Farfetch from the UK and Spotify (originally from Stockholm, grown in London and now increasingly a US company), scaling startups in Europe has proven to be challenging.

One of the big reasons why has to do with a shortage of talent to build these companies: in Germany alone — home to the buzzy startup city of Berlin — there are 82,000 unfilled tech jobs. In other words, there is an opportunity for more user-friendly platforms to help connect those dots.

XING and Honeypot both have the vision of helping people to further their career. We want Honeypot to offer the world’s largest work-life community for IT specialists by giving candidates the power to decide on their next career step,” said Kaya Taner, CEO who founded Honeypot with Emma Tracey. “We will continue to pursue this vision with XING. Going forward, around 100,000 IT specialists from all over the world who are registered on Honeypot will be able to connect with the many first-rate employers in German-speaking countries. This will enable Honeypot to continue developing its domestic market, while also further expanding its international community.”

Report: Grindr’s Chinese owner Kunlun is selling the dating app after CFIUS raised personal data concerns

Grindr, the popular dating app for gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people, looks like it might be changing hands again, a year after it was acquired at a valuation of $245 million. According to a report in Reuters, Grindr’s owner Kunlun is looking for a buyer of the company after the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) determined that having the app owned by a Chinese company poses a national security risk.

Kunlun originally acquired a 60 percent stake in the company in 2016 for $93 million and completed the acquisition in January 2018, reportedly paying an additional $152 million.

Kunlun also publishes games, provides online financial services, and has other internet holdings such as the Opera internet browser. It has something of a track record with regulators over data privacy concerns, but also of being okay with losing battles to win the war, so to speak.

In 2016, when the company was part of a consortium acquiring the internet company Opera for $1.2 billion, it eventually renegotiated the deal down to $600 million for only part of the business after regulators raised red flags over data protection concerns. Kunlun is now a 48 percent shareholder of Opera Software as part of the Chinese consortium that owns the Norwegian company.

In August, it was reported that Kunlun had started the ball rolling for an IPO of the Grindr app. That is a process that has now been halted, writes Reuters, with the investment bank Cowen now handling enquiries in a sale process instead.

Interested parties  reportedly include investment groups and competitors. We have reached out to the Match Group (which owns Tinder), Bumble and Bumble’s owner Badoo to ask if they are among the bidders.

So far, Badoo’s founder and CEO Andrey Andreev has responded to say his company is not among the bidders.

“We are aware Grindr is looking for a new buyer,” he said, “however Badoo is not looking for any new additions to bring into our family. We are currently committed to our gay dating app and community, Chappy, along with the many other apps under our umbrella. As opposed to other technology groups, we have never bought an existing dating app as we believe in building and growing our own dating apps leveraging the technology and talent within the Group.”

We have also contacted Kunlun and Grindr for comment and will update this post as we learn more.

According to the report, the main reason for the CFIUS flagging Kunlun’s ownership is its concern over personal data protection.

Personal data protection has become a growing area of concern for government agencies because of an increasing number of data breaches, and how that data in turn gets used. The problem is not just private individuals, but specifically those who are in the government or military, who might be more vulnerable routes to disclosing confidential state information if their data gets compromised.

It’s not clear from the report what the specific concerns are that the CFIUS had with Grindr’s own data and how it is used. However, it’s notable that the company — which reported 3.3 million daily active users globally at the time of its acquisition last year, with some 27 million registered users overall as of 2017 — has been in the spotlight several times in the last few years over personal data and its handling of it.

Back in 2016, a researcher demonstrated how malicious hackers could pinpoint the location of users on the app. In 2018, it got embroiled in a controversy around how it shared users’ HIV status with third parties. Later in the year, the app was found again to be exposing users’ exact locations, this time to a third-party app that had gained unauthorized access to Grindr’s private API. And at a time when opinion has very much soured over just how much Facebook knows about us and how that information is used, Grindr was found (along with other apps) to be sending a lot of information to them, by way of its use of the Facebook login.

Agencies and others in positions of power in government have not been the quickest-responding to changing tides in technology, what the implications of those might be, and how they could and should act on behalf of consumers and the state to help protect them. (As one small example, if you watched any of the hearings involving Facebook and other internet companies, the elementary nature of some of the questions highlighted just how far behind certain decision makers are in their understanding of tech.)

In light of that, the CFIUS seems to be trying to redouble its efforts to help address that.

Notably, as Reuters points out, this is a very rare instance of the inter-agency committee flagging an acquisition that has already closed. Usually, it will halt a deal before it is completed, such as in the case of China’s Alipay dropping its planned acquisition of MoneyGram or Broadcom’s failed acquisition of Qualcomm, both stemming from objections by the CFIUS.

It seems that one of the reasons why the CFIUS has acted, or is in a position to be able to flag the sale after it’s completed, is because Kunlun never submitted its acquisition of Grindr to the agency for review at the time of either the first or second tranche of the deal, Reuters writes.

The twist that the acquirer happened to be Chinese, of course, is also notable.

China has been identified numerous times as the backer of many state-sponsored hacking groups; leading companies from the country, like Huawei, are embroiled in ongoing cases of corporate espionage; and more generally country is in the middle of a trade war with the US. That trade war concerns tariffs between the two countries, and technology is one of the leading actors in it because of the huge business that it represents. Beyond that, technology and specifically the data that can be collected using technology provide huge leverage in the power one country can hold over the other.

TikTok quietly picked up the assets of GeoGif, which created animated, location-specific overlays for video

Video sharing app TikTok passed 1 billion downloads last month, and its parent company ByteDance is ramping up its efforts to monetize those users with ads, while also continuing to add more features to the app to keep people engaged. In a move that could help both of those efforts, ByteDance has made a small acquisition, picking up the assets of a defunct startup called GeoGif, which developed location-specific, animated stickers and overlays for videos, suggested to users when they capture video or images in specific places.

It seems that the location-based, animated element of what GeoGif built is the key part of what might be coming soon to TikTok, since the app already had a range of visual and audio filters and stickers to alter appearances and your voice, or just to embellish and further personalize your video.

Here’s the general gist of what GeoGif can do for a video if you are, for example, in Miami for Spring Break. (Note: This is not the greatest example given the naff and objectifying subject matter, but it’s the only example the startup has provided.)

The terms of the acquisition have not been disclosed, although we are asking both Dean Glas, one of GeoGif’s co-founders, as well as ByteDance and we will update if we learn more. In any case, the deal appears to include only the assets of the startup, which ceased operating more than two years ago, judging by activity on its social media accounts and LinkedIn profiles. CEO Dean Glas and his co-founder Mendy Raskin are now both working on new startups.

“We are excited for GeoGif to have a new home at TikTok,” said GeoGif’s CEO Dean Glas, “and we believe our features will be enjoyed by millions of users. We will work closely to make sure it’s a smooth transition that provides a long-term positive impact for the TikTok community.”

A TikTok spokesperson also confirmed that the features that were built for GeoGif will get rolled into the main TikTok app: “GeoGif and TikTok share a common goal which is enabling people to connect, consume, and create great content. We’re impressed with what the team at GeoGif has built and with TikTok’s resources, we believe that we will deliver an even better user experience for our millions of users who love using TikTok to express their creativity through short videos.”

With TikTok, China’s ByteDance has created one of the world’s biggest video apps — and subsequently become one of the world’s most valuable startups — and it has used acquisition as a key lever for adding both users and features.

To help break into the US, the main app itself merged with Musical.ly last year after being acquired for between $800 million and $1 billion by Toutiao (a ByteDance sub-brand) in 2017. Other acquisitions have included Flipagram — another music-video app and startup — in 2017 for an undisclosed sum; the AR selfie camera FaceU in 2018, reportedly for $300 million; payments startup UIPay also in 2018; and — just last week — it appears ByteDance acquired a gaming startup, Mokun Technology, from previous owner 37 Interactive, also for an undisclosed sum.

It’s likely that the GeoGif acquisition was for a small sum: the company did not have anything close to mass-market traction, and it had raised only seed round of an undisclosed amount. It was originally spun out of parent company Bivid — which is also now defunct but had been a hyperlocal social network akin to YikYak, Highlight and Zenly, suggesting friends and others who were near to you for chit-chat and simply to know their whereabouts.

TikTok already runs ads and has other paid features in China, but in Western markets like the US, the company has largely only been doing limited runs and tests of different formats, such as this native video ad test we spotted in February.

In January, a leaked ad deck from the company in Europe also mentioned several advertising and marketing units it was running and planning to run including brand takeovers; in-feed native video; hashtag challenges; Snapchat-style 2D lens filters for photos; and 3D and AR lenses. It’s the latter of these where GeoGif’s efforts could be rolled in.

Also in January, Bloomberg reported that in 2018, ByteDance, for the first time, had failed to beat its own revenue forecasts: It had told investors when it was fundraising a monster $3 billion round that it expected to make between $7.4 billion and $8.1 billion in revenues for the year, and sources said it would be coming in at the lower end of that range.

These are, relatively speaking, huge numbers when you consider that ByteDance’s currency is social media apps, which often spend years making no money at all. But in the context of missing growth expectations, this slower expansion could be a lever for the company launching more ad formats in more places and launching more products, such as the Slack competitor it is also reportedly building.

ClassDojo, an app to help teachers and parents communicate better, raises $35M

Messaging apps have become the de facto way that many people today keep in regular contact with each other, and that trend has also found its way into the classroom. ClassDojo, a startup that has built a platform for teachers and parents to communicate small and big updates to each other, today is announcing that it has raised $35 million in funding.

The Series C — which is being jointly led by GSV (behind Spotify, Lyft, Dropbox) and SignalFire (which has backed Grammarly, Zume, Lime), and also includes General Catalyst and Uncork Capital — will be used in two ways. First, to fuel expansion of ClassDojo’s free communications app. And second, to drive its efforts to monetize its service by way of a new service called Beyond School, an optional subscription for families to complement in-school work with at-home tutorials around areas that are complementary to learning well, such as improving studying habits, mindfulness and so on.

(You could think of Beyond School as TedX meets Lynda for K-8, but co-founders Sam Chaudhary and Liam Don, respectively the CEO and CTO, said in an interview that they believe the content will be more than just that.)

ClassDojo has now raised $65 million, and while it is not talking valuation, I’ve been told by a good source that it is coming in at “$400ish” million. That is a huge leap on the $99 million the startup was valued at in 2015 (a figure quoted on PitchBook).

The boost in part is because of ClassDojo’s healthy growth. Since first starting out in 2011 as part of a Y Combinator cohort, the company has expanded to be used in more than 95 percent of all pre K to eighth grade schools in the US, with one in every six families with a child in primary school using the app daily.

The US is its biggest market, but ClassDojo is also now available in some 180 other countries, where it’s also starting to pick up some strong penetration. (In Singapore, Australia, Spain, Hong Kong, the UK, and the UAE, it’s used by some 25 percent of all primary school teachers, for example.) Impressively, all that growth has up to now been organic and word of mouth, one reason why the company has had to raise relatively little funding.

(It also only employs 40 people, another way of keeping costs massively down.)

One of the key things about ClassDojo is that the company has kept a very consistent focus when it comes to its mission: the idea has always been to try to identify the biggest communication problems that teachers might have in teaching kids, and trying to solve them.

Building an app that can bridge the sometimes large gaps between parent-teacher meetings, so that parents feel more engaged with what their children are learning, and teachers might have better feedback from those parents about what children are doing at home, was an obvious first step.

“Learning is so much about having strong relationships,” Chaudhary said. “It’s pretty cool to see the effect this can have not just with parents and teachers, but between parents and kids.”

Beyond School comes in the same vein and is a natural extension of that, and came not just out of what teachers said they wished they had more time to teach to students — but can’t because of the general emphasis in curriculums on academics — but from what parents wished they could work on with their children.

That, in essence, is the wider body of “learning” that you could loosely term emotional intelligence, and general techniques for coping and learning, beyond the academic work itself. “The learning experience in the classroom sparked a lot of ideas, and families were reaching out to us,” Dom said, “wondering if they could have a product to serve more unique needs at home.”

So far, the company does not have any numbers to share on how Beyond School has been taken up since launching at the end of 2018, except to say that it’s going well.

Longer term, it’s interesting to consider how ClassDojo fits into the wider trend of communication and messaging apps, and whether others might ever try to compete in the same space, or perhaps acquire ClassDojo as they extend into other verticals — a strategy that Microsoft, for example, has been following when it comes to acquiring other businesses as it works on tapping the $10 trillion market for education.

I asked Hemant Taneja, a partner at General Catalyst, if he ever thought the likes of Slack, for example, might ever try to compete with it. (No, is the short answer.)

“Slack is a work tool, and I can’t imagine there will be a synergy there,” he said, and nor would it possibly even work. “As a worker and parent, I think that there should be an education platform solely devoted to kids, where the stakeholders are family and teachers. I’ve always believed that from the beginning and I think that ClassDojo’s scale gives it that potential.”

 

Threads emerges from stealth with $10.5M from Sequoia for a new take on enabaling work conversations

The rapid rise of Slack has ushered in a new wave of apps, all aiming to solve one challenge: creating a user-friendly platform where coworkers can have productive conversations. Many of these are based around real-time notifications and “instant” messaging, but today a new startup called Threads coming out of stealth to address the other side of the coin: a platform for asynchronous communication that is less time-sensitive, and creating coherent narratives out of those conversations.

Armed with $10.5 million in funding from Sequoia, the company is launching a beta of its service today.

Roussau Kazi, the startup’s CEO who co-founded threads with Jon McCord, Mark Rich and Suman Venkataswamy, cut his social teeth working for six years at Facebook (with a resulting number of patents to his name around the mechanics of social networking), says that the mission of Threads is to become more inclusive when it comes to online conversations.

“After a certain number of people get involved in an online discussion, conversations just break and messaging becomes chaotic,” he said. (McCord and Rich are also Facebook engineering alums, while Venkataswamy is a Bright Roll alum who worked with McCord on another startup before this.)

And if you have ever used Twitter, or even been in a popular channel in Slack, you will understand what he is talking about. When too many people begin to talk, the conversation gets very noisy and it can mean losing the “thread” of what is being discussed, and seeing conversation lurch from one topic to another, often losing track of important information in the process.

And there is an argument to be made for whether a platform that was built for real-time information is capable of handling a difference kind of cadence. Twitter, as it happens, is trying to figure that out right now. Slack, meanwhile, has itself introduced threaded comments to try to address this too — although the practical application of its own threading feature is not actually very user friendly.

Threads answer is to view its purpose as addressing the benefit of “asynchronous” conversation.

To start, those who want to start threads first register as organizations on the platform. Then, those who are working on a project or in a specific team creates a “space” for themselves within that org. You can then start threads within those spaces. And when a problem has been solved or the conversation has come to a conclusion, the last comment gets marked as the conclusion.

The idea is that topics and conversations that can stretch out over hours, days or even longer, around specific topics. Threads doeesn’t want to be the place you go for red alerts or urgent requests, but where you go when you have thoughts about a work-related subject and how to tackle it.

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These resulting threads, when completed or when in progress, can in turn be looked at as straight conversations, or as annotated narratives.

For now, it’s up to users themselves to annotate what might be important to highlight for readers, although when I asked him, Kazi told me he would like to incorporate over time more features that might use natural language processing to summarize and pull out what might be worth following up or looking at if you only want to skim read a longer conversation. Ditto the ability to search threads. Right now it’s all based around keywords but you can imagine a time when more sophisticated and nuanced searches to surface conversations relevant to what you might be looking for.

Indeed, in this initial launch, the focus is all about what you want to say on Threads itself — not lots of bells and whistles, and not trying to compete against the likes of Slack, or Workplace (Facebook’s effort in this space), or Yammer or Teams from Microsoft, or any of the others in the messaging mix.

There are no integrations of other programs to bring data into Threads from other places, but there is a Slack integration in the other direction: you can create an alert there so that you know when someone has updated a Thread.

“We don’t view ourselves as a competitor to Slack,” Kazi said. “Slack is great for transactional conversation but for asynchronous chats, we thought there was a need for this in the market. We wanted something to address that.”

It’s may not be a stated competitor, but Threads actually has something in common with Slack: the latter’s launched with the purpose of enabling a certain kind of conversation between co-workers in a way that was easier to consume and engage with than email.

You could argue that Threads has the same intention: email chains, especially those with multiple parties, can also be hard to follow and are in any case often very messy to look at: something that the conversations in Threads also attempt to clear up.

But email is not the only kind of conversation medium that Threads thinks it can replace.

“With in-person meetings there is a constant tension between keeping the room small for efficiency and including more people for transparency,” said Sequoia partner Mike Vernal in a statement. “When we first started chatting with the team about what is now Threads, we saw an opportunity to get rid of this false dichotomy by making decision-making both more efficient and more inclusive. We’re thrilled to be partnering with Threads to make work more inclusive.”

The startup was actually formed in 2017, and for months now it has been running a closed, private version of the service to test it out with a small amount of users. So far, the company sizes have ranged between 5 and 60 employees, Kazi tells me.

“By using Threads as our primary communications platform, we’ve seen incredible progress streamlining our operations,” said one of the testers, Perfect Keto & Equip Foods Founder and CEO, Anthony Gustin. “Internal meetings have reduced by at least 80 percent, we’ve seen an increase in participation in discussion and speed of decision making, and noticed an adherence and reinforcement of company culture that we thought was impossible before. Our employees are feeling more ownership and autonomy, with less work and time that needs to be spent — something we didn’t even know was possible before Threads.”

Kazi said that the intention is ultimately to target companies of any size, although it will be worth watching what features it will have to introduce to help handle the noise, and continue to provide coherent discussions, when and if they do start to tackle that end of the market.