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Discord is close to closing a round that would value the company at up to $7B

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Discord, the communications service that’s become the 21st century’s answer to MUD rooms, is close to closing a new round of financing that would value the company at up to $7 billion, according to sources with knowledge of the round.

The new funding comes just months after a $100 million investment that gave the company a $3.5 billion valuation. Discord’s doubling in corporate value comes as the persistent, inept, American response to the COVID-19 pandemic continues to accelerate the adoption and growth of businesses creating virtual social networking opportunities.

Those opportunities are apparent in Discord’s explosive growth. Monthly active users have almost doubled to 120 million this year and the company has seen 800,000 downloads a day thanks, in part, to the wildly popular game Among Us (which received a ringing endorsement from the popular congressional representative Alexandria Ocasio Cortez).

Discord built its initial growth on the back of the gaming industry and the rise of multi-player, multi-platform games that supplanted earlier social networks as the online town square for a generation of young gamers (whose numbers globally now spiral north of several billion).

But, as the company’s founders noted when they announced their last round of financing, the Discord use case has extended far beyond the gaming community.

“It turns out that, for a lot of you, it wasn’t just about video games anymore,” wrote co-founders Jason Citron and Stanislav Vishnevskiy in a July blog post announcing the latest financing.

The two men frame their company as “a place designed to hang out and talk in the comfort of your own communities and friends.” Discord, they say, is “a place to have genuine conversations and spend quality time with people, whether catching up, learning something or sharing ideas.”

If that sounds familiar to some of the internet’s earliest users, that’s because it is. Back in the dawn of the world wide web, multi-user dungeons (MUD) provided ways for practitioners of any number of sub cultures to find each other online and chat about whatever tickled their collective fancy.

As the web evolved, so did the number of places and spaces for these conversations to happen. Now there are multivariate ways for users to find each other within the web, but Discord seems to have risen above most of the rest.

As analyst John Koetsier noted in Forbes back in 2019, there were already 250 million Discord users sending 315 million messages a day. Those are the company’s pre-pandemic numbers — and they’re impressive by any standards.

As with any platform that has become popular on the web, Discord isn’t without its underbelly. Three years ago, the company tried to boot a number of its most racist users, but their ability to use the platform to disseminate hate speech has stubbornly persisted.

Until mid-2019, white nationalists were comfortable enough using the service to warrant a shoutout from Daily Stormer founder, Andrew Anglin, who urged his fellow travelers to stop using the service.

“Discord is always on and always present among these groups on the far-right,” Joan Donovan, the lead researcher on media manipulation at the Data & Society Research Institute, told Slate in 2018. “It’s the place where they do most of the organizing of doxing and harassment campaigns.”

To date, Discord has raised $379.3 million, according to Crunchbase, from an investor group that includes Greylock, Index Ventures, Spark Capital, Tencent and Benchmark.

In addition to the cash it raised earlier this year, Discord emphasized a new user experience and added video functionality so that users could communicate more readily (and so the company could compete with Zoom). There are templates available to help users create servers, and the company has increased its voice and video capacity by 200%.

As part of this new focus on product, Discord has launched what it calls a “Safety Center” that clearly defines the company’s rules and regulations and what actions users can take to monitor and manage their use of service for hate speech and abuse.

“We will continue to take decisive action against white supremacists, racists and others who seek to use Discord for evil,” the founders wrote in June.

As we reported at the time, Index Ventures co-founder Danny Rimer, who led the investor group that backed Discord’s latest $100 million cash infusion, was an advocate for the company’s expanded vision for itself.

“I believe Discord is the future of platforms because it demonstrates how a responsibly curated site can provide a safe space for people with shared interests,” Rimer wrote in a statement. “Rather than throwing raw content at you, like Facebook, it provides a shared experience for you and your friends. We’ll come to appreciate that Discord does for social conversation what Slack has done for professional conversation.”

Apparently, investors are doubling down on that assessment.

 

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Daily Crunch: Twitter unveils Birdwatch

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Twitter pilots a new tool to fight disinformation, Apple brings celebrity-guided walks to the Apple Watch and Clubhouses raises funding. This is your Daily Crunch for January 25, 2021.

The big story: Twitter unveils Birdwatch

Twitter launched a new product today that it says will offer “a community-based approach to misinformation.”

With Birdwatch, users will be able to flag tweets that they find misleading, write notes to add context to those tweets and rate the notes written by others. This is supposed to be a complement to the existing system where Twitter removes or labels particularly problematic tweets, rather than a replacement.

What remains to be seen: How Twitter will handle it when two or more people get locked into a battle and post a flurry of conflicting notes about whether a tweet is misleading or not.

The tech giants

Walking with Dolly — Apple discusses how and why it brought Time to Walk to the Watch.

Google pledges grants and facilities for COVID-19 vaccine programs — The tech giant is one of several large corporations that have pledged support to local government agencies and medical providers to help increase vaccinations.

Facebook will give academic researchers access to 2020 election ad targeting data — Starting next month, Facebook will open up academic access to a data set of 1.3 million political and social issue ads.

Startups, funding and venture capital

Clubhouse announces plans for creator payments and raises new funding led by Andreessen Horowitz — While we try to track down the actual value of this round, Clubhouse has confirmed it will be introducing products to help creators on the platform get paid.

Taboola is going public via SPAC — The transaction is expected to close in the second quarter, and the combined company will trade on the New York Stock Exchange under the ticker symbol TBLA.

Wolt closes $530M round to continue expanding beyond restaurant delivery — The Helsinki-based online ordering and delivery company initially focused on restaurants but has since expanded to other verticals.

Advice and analysis from Extra Crunch

Qualtrics raises IPO pricing ahead of debut — After being acquired by SAP, Qualtrics announced it would spin out as its own public company.

Fintechs could see $100 billion of liquidity in 2021 — The Matrix Fintech Index weighs public markets, liquidity and a new e-commerce trend.

Unpacking Chamath Palihapitiya’s SPAC deals for Latch and Sunlight Financial — There’s no escaping SPACs, at least for a little while.

(Extra Crunch is our membership program, which helps founders and startup teams get ahead. You can sign up here.)

Everything else

Moderna says it’s making variant-specific COVID-19 vaccines, but its existing vaccine should still work — Moderna has detailed some of the steps it’s taking to ensure that its vaccine remains effective in the face of emerging strains of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that leads to COVID-19.

Original Content podcast: ‘Bridgerton’ is an addictive reimagining of Jane Austen-style romance — Did I mention that the cast is insanely good-looking?

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 3pm Pacific, you can subscribe here.

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Debunk, don’t ‘prebunk,’ and other psychology lessons for social media moderation

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If social networks and other platforms are to get a handle on disinformation, it’s not enough to know what it is — you have to know how people react to it. Researchers at MIT and Cornell have some surprising but subtle findings that may affect how Twitter and Facebook should go about treating this problematic content.

MIT’s contribution is a counter-intuitive one. When someone encounters a misleading headline in their timeline, the logical thing to do would be to put a warning before it so that the reader knows it’s disputed from the start. Turns out that’s not quite the case.

In a study of nearly 3,000 people who evaluated the accuracy of headlines after receiving different (or no) warnings about them.

Going into the project, I had anticipated it would work best to give the correction beforehand, so that people already knew to disbelieve the false claim when they came into contact with it. To my surprise, we actually found the opposite,” said study co-author David Rand in an MIT news article. “Debunking the claim after they were exposed to it was the most effective.”

When a person was warned beforehand that the headline was misleading, they improved in their classification accuracy by 5.7 percent. When the warning came simultaneously with the headline, that improvement grew to 8.6 percent. But if shown the warning afterwards, they were 25 percent better. In other words, debunking beat “prebunking” by a fair margin.

The team speculated as to the cause of this, suggesting that it fits with other indications that people are more likely to incorporate feedback into a preexisting judgment rather than alter that judgment as it’s being formed. They warned that the problem is far deeper than a tweak like this can fix.

“There is no single magic bullet that can cure the problem of misinformation,” said co-author Adam Berinsky. “Studying basic questions in a systematic way is a critical step toward a portfolio of effective solutions.”

The study from Cornell is equal parts reassuring and frustrating. People viewing potentially misleading information were reliably influenced by the opinions of large groups — whether or not those groups were politically aligned with the reader.

It’s reassuring because it suggests that people are willing to trust that if 80 out of 100 people thought a story was a little fishy, even if 70 of those 80 were from the other party, there might just be something to it. It’s frustrating because of how seemingly easy it is to sway an opinion simply by saying that a large group thinks it’s one way or the other.

“In a practical way, we’re showing that people’s minds can be changed through social influence independent of politics,” said graduate student Maurice Jakesch, lead author of the paper. “This opens doors to use social influence in a way that may de-polarize online spaces and bring people together.”

Partisanship still played a role, it must be said — people were about 21 percent less likely to have their view swayed if the group opinion was led by people belonging to the other party. But even so people were very likely to be affected by the group’s judgment.

Part of why misinformation is so prevalent is because we don’t really understand why it’s so appealing to people, and what measures reduce that appeal, among other simple questions. As long as social media is blundering around in darkness they’re unlikely to stumble upon a solution, but every study like this makes a little more light.

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Smart lock maker Latch teams with real estate firm to go public via SPAC

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This week, Latch becomes the latest company to join the SPAC parade. Founded in 2014, the New York-based company came out of stealth two years later, launching a smart lock system. Though, like many companies primarily known for hardware solutions, Latch says it’s more, offering a connected security software platform for owners of apartment buildings.

The company is set to go public courtesy of a merger with blank check company TS Innovation Acquisitions Corp. As far as partners go, Tishman Speyer Properties makes strategic sense here. The New York-based commercial real estate firm is a logical partner for a company whose technology is currently deployed exclusively in residential apartment buildings.

“With a standard IPO, you have all of the banks take you out to all of the big investors,” Latch founder and CEO Luke Schoenfelder tells TechCrunch. “We felt like there was an opportunity here to have an extra level of strategic partnership and an extra level of product expansion that came as part of the process. Our ability to go into Europe and commercial offices is now accelerated meaningfully because of this partnership.

The number of SPAC deals has increased substantially over the past several months, including recent examples like Taboola. According to Crunchbase, Latch has raised $152 million, to date. And the company has seen solid growth over the past year — not something every hardware or hardware adjacent company can say about the pandemic.

As my colleague Alex noted on Extra Crunch today, “Doing some quick match, Latch grew booked revenues 50.5% from 2019 to 2020. Its booked software revenues grew 37.1%, while its booked hardware top line expanded over 70% during the same period.”

“We’ve been a customer and investor in Latch for years,” Tishman Speyer President and CEO Rob Speyer tells TechCrunch. “Our customers — the people who live in our buildings — love the Latch product. So we’ve rolled it out across our residential portfolio […] I hope we can act as both a thought partner and product incubator for them.”

While the company plans to expand to commercial offices, apartment buildings have been a nice vertical thus far — meaning the company doesn’t have to compete as directly in the crowded smart home lock category. Among other things, it’s probably a net positive if you’re going head to head against, say Amazon. That the company has built in partners in real estate firms like Tishman Speyer is also a net positive.

Schoenfelder says the company is looking toward such partnerships as test beds for its technology. “Our products have been in the field for many years in multifamily. The usage patterns are going to be slightly different in commercial offices. We think we know how they’re going to be different, but being able to get them up and running and observe the interaction with products in the wild is going to be really important.”

The deal values Latch at $1.56 billion and is expected to close in Q2.

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