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Beauty filters are changing the way young girls see themselves

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Veronica started using filters to edit pictures of herself on social media when she was 14 years old. She remembers everyone in her middle school being excited by the technology when it became available, and they had fun playing with it. “It was kind of a joke,” she says. “People weren’t trying to look good when they used the filters.”

But her younger sister, Sophia, who was a fifth grader at the time, disagrees. “I definitely was—me and my friends definitely were,” she says. “Twelve-year-old girls having access to something that makes you not look like you’re 12? Like, that’s the coolest thing ever. You feel so pretty.”

When augmented-reality face filters first appeared on social media, they were a gimmick. They allowed users to play a kind of virtual dress-up: change your face to look like an animal, or suddenly grow a mustache, for example.

Today, though, more and more young people—and especially teenage girls—are using filters that “beautify” their appearance and promise to deliver model-esque looks by sharpening, shrinking, enhancing, and recoloring their faces and bodies. Veronica and Sophia are both avid users of Snapchat, Instagram, and TikTok, where these filters are popular with millions of people.

“The beauty filter sort of changes certain things about your appearance and can fix certain parts of you.”

Through swipes and clicks, the array of face filters enable them to adjust their own image, and even sift through different identities, with new ease and flexibility.

Veronica, now 19, scrolls back to check pictures from the time on her iPhone. “Wait,” she says, stopping on one. “Oh yeah … I was definitely trying to look good.” She shows me a picture of a glammed-up version of herself. She looks seductive. Her eyes are wide, lips slightly parted, and her skin looks tanned and airbrushed. “That’s me when I’m 14,” Veronica says. She seems distressed by the picture. Still, she says, she’s using filters almost every day.

“When I’m going to use a face filter, it’s because there are certain things that I want to look different,” she explains. “So if I’m not wearing makeup or if I think I don’t necessarily look my best, the beauty filter sort of changes certain things about your appearance and can fix certain parts of you.”

The face filters that have become commonplace across social media are perhaps the most widespread use of augmented reality. Researchers don’t yet understand the impact that sustained use of augmented reality may have, but they do know there are real risks—and with face filters, young girls are the ones taking that risk. They are subjects in an experiment that will show how the technology changes the way we form our identities, represent ourselves, and relate to others. And it’s all happening without much oversight.

The rise of selfie culture

Beauty filters are essentially automated photo editing tools that use artificial intelligence and computer vision to detect facial features and change them.

They use computer vision to interpret the things the camera sees, and tweak them according to rules set by the filters’ creator. A computer detects a face and then overlays an invisible facial template consisting of dozens of dots, creating a sort of topographic mesh. Once that has been built, a universe of fantastical graphics can be attached to the mesh. The result can be anything from changing eye colors to planting devil horns on a person’s head.

These real-time video filters are a recent advance, but beauty filters more broadly are an extension of the decades-old selfie phenomenon. The movement is rooted in Japanese “kawaii” culture, which obsesses over (typically girly) cuteness, and it developed when purikura—photo booths that allowed customers to decorate self-portraits—became staples in Japanese video arcades in the mid-1990s. In May of 1999, Japanese electronics manufacturer Kyocera released the first mobile phone with a front-facing camera, and selfies started to break out to the mainstream.

The rise of MySpace and Facebook internationalized selfies in the early 2000s, and the launch of Snapchat in 2011 marked the beginning of the iteration that we see today. The app offered quick messaging through pictures, and the selfie was an ideal medium for visually communicating one’s reactions, feelings, and moods. In 2013, Oxford Dictionaries selected “selfie” as the word of the year, and by 2015 Snapchat had acquired the Ukrainian company Looksery and released the “Lenses” feature, much to the delight of Veronica’s middle school clique.

Filters are now common across social media, though they take different forms. Instagram bundles beauty filters with its other augmented-reality facial filters, like those that add a dog’s ears and tongue to a person’s face. Snapchat offers a gallery of filters where users can swipe through beauty-enhancing effects on their selfie camera. TikTok’s beauty filter, meanwhile, is part of a setting called “Enhance,” where users can enable a standard beautification on any subject.

And they are incredibly popular. Facebook and Instagram alone claim that over 600 million people have used at least one of the AR effects associated with the company’s products: a spokesperson said that beauty filters are a “popular category” of effects but would not elaborate further. Today, according to Bloomberg, almost a fifth of Facebook’s employees—about 10,000 people— are working on AR or VR products, and Mark Zuckerberg recently told The Information, “I think it really makes sense for us to invest deeply to help shape what I think is going to be the next major computing platform, this combination of augmented and virtual reality.”

They are subjects in an experiment that will show how the technology changes the way we form our identities, represent ourselves, and relate to others.

Snapchat boasts its own stunning numbers. A spokesperson said that “200 million daily active users play with or view Lenses every day to transform the way they look, augment the world around them, play games, and learn about the world,” adding that more than 90% of young people in the US, France, and the UK use the company’s AR products.

Another measure of popularity might be how many filters exist. The majority of filters on Facebook’s various products are created by third-party users, and in the first year its tools were available, more than 400,000 creators released a total of over 1.2 million effects. By September 2020, more than 150 creator accounts had each passed the milestone of 1 billion views.

Face filters on social media might seem technologically unimpressive compared with some other uses of AR, but Jeremy Bailenson, the founding director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, says the real-time puppy filters are actually quite a technological feat.

“It’s hard to do that technically,” he says. But thanks to neural networks, AI can now help achieve the kind of data processing required for real-time video altering. And the way it’s taken off in recent years surprises even longtime researchers like him.

A “beautiful” community

Many people enjoy filters and lenses—both as users and creators. Caroline Rocha, a makeup artist and photographer, says that social media filters—and Instagram’s in particular—provided her a lifeline at a crucial moment. In 2018, she was at a personal low point: someone very dear to her had died, and then she suffered a stroke that resulted in temporary paralysis of her leg and permanent paralysis of her hand. Things got so overwhelming that she attempted suicide.

“I just wanted to come out of my reality,” she says. “My reality was dark. It was deep. I passed my days inside four walls.” Filters felt like a breakthrough. They gave her “the chance to travel … to experiment, to try on makeup, to try a piece of jewelry,” she says. “It opened a big window for me.”

She had studied art history in school, and Instagram filters felt like a deeply human and artistic world, full of opportunity and connection. She became friends with AR creators whose aesthetic spoke to her. Through that, she became a “filters influencer,” though she says she hates that term: she would try different filters and critique them for a growing audience of followers. Eventually, she started creating filters herself.

Rocha became connected with creators like Marc Wakefield, an artist and AR designer who specializes in dark, fantastical effects. (One of his hits is “Hole in the Head,” in which a see-through hole replaces the subject’s face.) The community was “so close and so helpful,” she says—“beautiful,” even. She had no technical expertise when she started creating AR effects, and spent hours poring over help documents with help from others.

Her first viral filter was called “Alive”: it overlaid the electrical pulse of a heartbeat right across the face of its subject. After a moment, the line distorts into a heart that encircles one eye before flashes of colored light illuminate the screen. Rocha says Alive was an homage to her own story of mental illness.

https://www.instagram.com/p/B9xJ-edj5dO/?utm_source=ig_web_button_share_sheet

Rocha’s experience is not unusual: many people enjoy the playfulness of the technology. Facebook describes AR effects as a way to “make any moment more fun to share,” while Snapchat says the goal of Lens “is to provide fun and playful creative effects that allow our community to express themselves freely.”

But Rocha has changed her view. This artistic conception of filters now seems idealistic to her, not least because it is not necessarily representative of how the majority of people use filters. Artistic or funny filters may be popular, but they are dwarfed by beauty filters.

Facebook and Snapchat were both hesitant to provide any data breaking out filters that are solely appearance enhancing from those that are more novel. Facebook’s creators categorize their own filters into 17 ambiguous buckets, whose names include “Appearance,” “Selfies,” “Moods,” and “Camera styles.” “Appearance” is in the top 10 most popular categories, said the Facebook spokesperson, but refused to elaborate further.

Rocha says she sees many women on social media using filters nonstop. “They refuse to be seen without these filters, because in their mind they think that they look like that,” she says. “It became, for me, a bit sick.”

In fact, she struggled with it herself. “I’ve always fought against this kind of fakeness,” she says, but “I’d say, ‘Okay, I have to change my picture. I have to make my nose thinner and give myself a big lip because I feel ugly.’ And I was like, ‘Whoa, Whoa, no, I’m not like that. I want to feel beautiful without changing these things.’”

She says the beauty-obsessed culture of AR filters has become increasingly disappointing: “It has changed because, in my point of view … the new generation of creators just want money and fame.”

“There is a bad mood in the community,” she says. “It’s all about fame and number of followers, and I think it’s sad, because we are making art, and it’s about our emotions … It’s very sad what’s happening right now.”

“I don’t think it’s just filtering your actual image. It’s filtering your whole life.”

Veronica, the teenager, sees the same patterns. “If someone is completely portraying themselves in one filter and has only posted photos in a filter meeting all of the beauty standards and gaining followers and making money off of the beauty standard that we have right now—I don’t know if that’s, like, genius or if that’s terrible,” she says.

Claire Pescott is a researcher at the University of South Wales who studies the behavior of preteens on social media. In focus groups, she’s observed a gender difference when it comes to filters. “All of the boys said, ‘These are really fun. I like to put on these funny ears, I like to share them with my friends and we have a laugh,’” she says. Young girls, however, see AR filters primarily as a tool for beautification: “[The girls] were all saying things like, ‘I put this filter on because I have flawless skin. It takes away my scars and spots.’ And these were children of 10 and 11.”

“I don’t think it’s just filtering your actual image,” she says. “It’s filtering your whole life.”

And this change is only just beginning. AR filters on social media are part of a rapidly growing suite of automated digital beauty technologies. The app Facetune has been downloaded over 60 million times and exists simply for easy video and photo editing. Presets are a recent phenomenon in which creators—and established influencers in particular—create and sell custom filters in Adobe Lightroom. Even Zoom has a “touch up my appearance” feature that gives the appearance of smoother skin in video calls. Many have heralded the option to buff your appearance as a low-effort savior during the pandemic.

Reality distortion field

During our conversations, I asked Veronica to define what an “Instagram Face” looks like. She replied quickly and confidently: “Small nose, big eyes, clear skin, big lips.”

This aesthetic relies on categories of AR effects called “deformation” and “face distortion.” As opposed to the Zoom-like touch-up that simply blends skin tones or saturates eye color, distortion effects allow creators to easily change the shape and size of certain facial features, creating things like a “bigger lip,” a “lifted eyebrow,” or a “narrower jaw,” according to Rocha.

Teenagers Sophia and Veronica say they prefer distortion filters. One of Sophia’s favorites makes her look like singer and influencer Madison Beer. “It has these massive lashes that make my eyes look beautiful. My lips triple in size and my nose is tinier,” she says. But she’s cautious: “Nobody looks like that unless you are Madison Beer or someone who has a really, really good nose job.”

Veronica’s “ideal” filter, meanwhile, is a distortion filter called Naomi Beauty on Snapchat, which she says all her friends use. “It is one of the top filters for two reasons,” she says. “It clears your skin and it makes your eyes huge.”

There are thousands of distortion filters available on major social platforms, with names like La Belle, Natural Beauty, and Boss Babe. Even the goofy Big Mouth on Snapchat, one of social media’s most popular filters, is made with distortion effects.

In October 2019, Facebook banned distortion effects because of “public debate about potential negative impact.” Awareness of body dysmorphia was rising, and a filter called FixMe, which allowed users to mark up their faces as a cosmetic surgeon might, had sparked a surge of criticism for encouraging plastic surgery. But in August 2020, the effects were re-released with a new policy banning filters that explicitly promoted surgery. Effects that resize facial features, however, are still allowed. (When asked about the decision, a spokesperson directed me to Facebook’s press release from that time.)

When the effects were re-released, Rocha decided to take a stand and began posting condemnations of body shaming online. She committed to stop using deformation effects herself unless they are clearly humorous or dramatic rather than beautifying and says she didn’t want to “be responsible” for the harmful effects some filters were having on women: some, she says, have looked into getting plastic surgery that makes them look like their filtered self.

“I wish I was wearing a filter right now”

Krista Crotty is a clinical education specialist at the Emily Program, a leading center on eating disorders and mental health based in St. Paul, Minnesota. Much of her job over the past five years has focused on educating patients about how to consume media in a healthier way. She says that when patients present themselves differently online and in person, she sees an increase in anxiety. “People are putting up information about themselves—whether it’s size, shape, weight, whatever—that isn’t anything like what they actually look like,” she says. “In between that authentic self and digital self lives a lot of anxiety, because it’s not who you really are. You don’t look like the photos that have been filtered.”

 “There’s just somewhat of a validation when you’re meeting that standard, even if it’s only for a picture.”

For young people, who are still working out who they are, navigating between a digital and authentic self can be particularly complicated, and it’s not clear what the long-term consequences will be.

“Identity online is kind of like an artifact, almost,” says Claire Pescott, the researcher from the University of South Wales. “It’s a kind of projected image of yourself.”

Pescott’s observations of children have led her to conclude that filters can have a positive impact on them. “They can kind of try out different personas,” she explains. “They have these ‘of the moment’ identities that they could change, and they can evolve with different groups.”

A screenshot from the Instagram Effects gallery. These are some of the top filters in the “selfies” category.

But she doubts that all young people are able to understand how filters affect their sense of self. And she’s concerned about the way social media platforms grant immediate validation and feedback in the form of likes and comments. Young girls, she says, have particular difficulty differentiating between filtered photos and ordinary ones.

Pescott’s research also revealed that while children are now often taught about online behavior, they receive “very little education” about filters. Their safety training “was linked to overt physical dangers of social media, not the emotional, more nuanced side of social media,” she says, “which I think is more dangerous.”

Bailenson expects that we can learn about some of these emotional unknowns from established VR research. In virtual environments, people’s behavior changes with the physical characteristics of their avatar, a phenomenon called the Proteus effect. Bailenson found, for example, that people who had taller avatars were more likely to behave confidently than those with shorter avatars. “We know that visual representations of the self, when used in a meaningful way during social interactions, do change our attitudes and behaviors,” he says.

But sometimes those actions can play on stereotypes. A well-known study from 1988 found that athletes who wore black uniforms were more aggressive and violent while playing sports than those wearing white uniforms. And this translates to the digital world: one recent study showed that video game players who used avatars of the opposite sex actually behaved in a way that was gender stereotypical.

Bailenson says we should expect to see similar behavior on social media as people adopt masks based on filtered versions of their own faces, rather than entirely different characters. “The world of filtered video, in my opinion—and we haven’t tested this yet—is going to behave very similarly to the world of filtered avatars,” he says.

Selfie regulation

Considering the power and pervasiveness of filters, there is very little hard research about their impact—and even fewer guardrails around their use.

I asked Bailenson, who is the father of two young girls, how he thinks about his daughters’ use of AR filters. “It’s a real tough one,” he says, “because it goes against everything that we’re taught in all of our basic cartoons, which is ‘Be yourself.’”

Bailenson also says that playful use is different from real-time, constant augmentation of ourselves, and understanding what these different contexts mean for kids is important.

“Even though we know it’s not real… We still have that aspiration to look that way.”

What few regulations and restrictions there are on filter use rely on companies to police themselves. Facebook’s filters, for example, have to go through an approval process that, according to the spokesperson, uses “a combination of human and automated systems to review effects as they are submitted for publishing.” They are reviewed for certain issues, such as hate speech or nudity, and users are also able to report filters, which then get manually reviewed.

The company says it consults regularly with expert groups, such as the National Eating Disorders Association and the JED Foundation, a mental-health nonprofit.

“We know people may feel pressure to look a certain way on social media, and we’re taking steps to address this across Instagram and Facebook,” said a statement from Instagram. “We know effects can play a role, so we ban ones that clearly promote eating disorders or that encourage potentially dangerous cosmetic surgery procedures… And we’re working on more products to help reduce the pressure people may feel on our platforms, like the option to hide like counts.”

Facebook and Snapchat also label filtered photos to show that they’ve been transformed—but it’s easy to get around the labels by simply applying the edits outside of the apps, or by downloading and reuploading a filtered photo.

Labeling might be important, but Pescott says she doesn’t think it will dramatically improve an unhealthy beauty culture online.

“I don’t know whether it would make a huge amount of difference, because I think it’s the fact we’re seeing it, even though we know it’s not real. We still have that aspiration to look that way,” she says. Instead, she believes that the images children are exposed to should be more diverse, more authentic, and less filtered.

There’s another concern, too, especially since the majority of users are very young: the amount of biometric data that TikTok, Snapchat and Facebook have collected through these filters. Though both Facebook and Snapchat say they do not use filter technology to collect personally identifiable data, a review of their privacy policies shows that they do indeed have the right to store data from the photographs and videos on the platforms. Snapchat’s policy says that snaps and chats are deleted from its servers once the message is opened or expires, but stories are stored longer. Instagram stores photo and video data as long as it wants or until the account is deleted; Instagram also collects data on what users see through its camera.

Meanwhile, these companies continue to concentrate on AR. In a speech made to investors in February 2021, Snapchat co-founder Evan Spiegel said “our camera is already capable of extraordinary things. But it is augmented reality that’s driving our future”, and the company is “doubling down” on augmented reality in 2021, calling the technology “a utility”.

And while both Facebook and Snapchat say that the facial detection systems behind filters don’t connect back to the identity of users, it’s worth remembering that Facebook’s smart photo tagging feature—which looks at your pictures and tries to identify people who might be in them—was one of the earliest large-scale commercial uses of facial recognition. And TikTok recently settled for $92 million in a lawsuit that alleged the company was misusing facial recognition for ad targeting. A spokesperson from Snapchat said “Snap’s Lens product does not collect any identifiable information about a user and we can’t use it to tie back to, or identify, individuals.”

And Facebook in particular sees facial recognition as part of it’s AR strategy. In a January 2021 blog post titled “No Looking Back,” Andrew Bosworth, the head of Facebook Reality Labs, wrote: “It’s early days, but we’re intent on giving creators more to do in AR and with greater capabilities.” The company’s planned release of AR glasses is highly anticipated, and it has already teased the possible use of facial recognition as part of the product.

In light of all the effort it takes to navigate this complex world, Sophia and Veronica say they just wish they were better educated about beauty filters. Besides their parents, no one ever helped them make sense of it all. “You shouldn’t have to get a specific college degree to figure out that something could be unhealthy for you,” Veronica says.

Lyron Foster is a Hawaii based African American Musician, Author, Actor, Blogger, Filmmaker, Philanthropist and Multinational Serial Tech Entrepreneur.

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How one founder identified a huge healthcare gap and acquired the skills necessary to address it

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Our new podcast Found is now available, and the first episode features guest Iman Abuzeid, co-founder and CEO of Incredible Health. Abuzeid’s story of founding and building Incredible Health, a career platform for healthcare professionals focusing specifically on nurses, is all about a focused entrepreneur building a unique skill set, and acquiring the experience necessary to create a world-leading solution.

Abuzeid went to medical school and acquired her MD, but decided before residency to instead go get an MBA from Wharton, in order to pursue her dream of entrepreneurship, inspired by two generations of entrepreneurs in the family that preceded her. After eventually making her way to Silicon Valley and working in a couple of other startups in the healthcare space, Abuzeid took important lessons away from those experiences about what not to do when running your own company, and embarked on building her own with co-founder Rome Portlock, now the company’s CTO.

Incredible Health is tackling a huge challenge — the shortfall of availability of skilled nurses, and the lack of mature, sophisticated career resources to help those nurses in their professional life. COVID-19 threw those issues into stark relief, and Incredible Health adjusted its game plan to adapt to its users’ needs. Abuzeid tells us all about how she made those calls, and also how she convinced venture investors to come along for the ride.

We hope you enjoy this episode, and don’t forget to subscribe in Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your podcast app of choice. We’d love to hear your feed back, too — either on Twitter or via email, and tune in weekly for more episodes.

Found is hosted by Darrell Etherington and Jordan Crook, and is produced, mixed and edited by Yashad Kulkarni. TechCrunch’s audio products are managed by Henry Pickavet, and Bryce Durbin created the show’s artwork. Found published weekly on Friday afternoons, and you can find past episodes on TechCrunch here.

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This Week in Apps: Facebook’s other Clubhouse rival, Apple details ATT, App Store trial nears

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Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the weekly TechCrunch series that recaps the latest in mobile OS news, mobile applications and the overall app economy.

The app industry is as hot as ever, with a record 218 billion downloads and $143 billion in global consumer spend in 2020.

Consumers last year also spent 3.5 trillion minutes using apps on Android devices alone. And in the U.S., app usage surged ahead of the time spent watching live TV. Currently, the average American watches 3.7 hours of live TV per day, but now spends four hours per day on their mobile devices.

Apps aren’t just a way to pass idle hours — they’re also a big business. In 2019, mobile-first companies had a combined $544 billion valuation, 6.5x higher than those without a mobile focus. In 2020, investors poured $73 billion in capital into mobile companies — a figure that’s up 27% year-over-year.

This Week in Apps will soon be a newsletter! Sign up here: techcrunch.com/newsletters

This week we’re looking into the upcoming Apple lawsuit with Epic Games over App Store fees, the soon-to-launch game changer that is App Tracking Transparency and Facebook’s latest attempt to take on Clubhouse, among other things.

Top Stories

Epic vs Apple trial nears

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin

The Epic Games versus Apple trial is nearing launch. The trial, which begins May 3 and is expected to drag on for weeks, will see the Fortnite maker attempting to argue that Apple’s control over the App Store — and the 30% commission it requires on in-app purchases — represents anti-competitive behavior from a monopoly that requires regulation under antitrust law. Apple, meanwhile, feels confident that it can demonstrate its not a monopoly as it faces competition across the market, not just in its App Store. It will also likely point to the commission decreases it recently made in the wake of the increased regulatory scrutiny. Apple now takes a smaller 15% cut from developers making less than $1 million in revenues.

New filings this week detail Epic’s long-term program “Project Liberty,” which describes how Epic planned its antitrust battle by forcing app stores to reject Fortnite for circumventing their payment mechanisms. A filing from Epic also references comments by Apple’s senior vice president of Internet Software and Services Eddie Cue, senior vice president of software engineering Craig Federighi and Apple Fellow Phil Schiller that talk about how Apple locks users into its ecosystem with its services, including iMessage. Epic also argues that Apple uses security as a “pretext” for its commissions — even as a recent series of allegations (and threat of a lawsuit) from app developer Kosta Eleftheriou have demonstrated that Apple’s vetting process is failing to stop massive scams. Epic also says that allowing Apple to serve customers’ refund requests leads to fraud because it doesn’t have the same visibility into the developer’s content that the developer itself does.

Apple shares more ATT details

LONDON, ENGLAND – AUGUST 03: The Apple logo is displayed on the back of an iPhone on August 3, 2016 in London, England. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)

With the public release of iOS 14.5, which is expected soon, Apple will be shaking up the app economy with the launch of its App Tracking Transparency framework, or ATT. This requires iOS apps to begin prompting users for permission to track their users’ activity, instead of just quietly doing so — generally without the user’s informed consent. Apple has said developers can explain in this prompt why they’re asking for this permission — for example, because they want to serve more personalized ads, perhaps. Tech giants like Facebook and Google, as well as many other ad-supported apps (and particularly social media apps), will be impacted by the change. Some have even gone so far as to try to find workarounds using non-IDFA methods, it’s been reported (IDFA being the current system that assigns a unique advertising ID to each device that is then tracked across the apps and websites a user visits). It was revealed last week that Snapchat had investigated an IDFA alternative known as probabilistic matching, but claims it was just a “test.” Meanwhile, China’s largest tech companies — including Baidu, Tencent and ByteDance — have been exploring a state-backed IDFA alternative CAID.

This week, Apple made it clear that “no tracking” without permission means just that. It says that if a user opts out of any IDFA-tracking via the pop-up, that means the developer doesn’t have permission to track using any other sort of identifiers either — like hashed email addresses or whatever other workaround developers come up with.

Facebook tries another Clubhouse rival

Image Credits: Hotline

Facebook’s internal R&D group, NPE Team, this week launched its latest experiment, Hotline, into public beta testing. The web-based application could be described as a mashup of Instagram Live and Clubhouse, as it allows creators to speak to an audience who can then ask questions through either text or audio. However, unlike Clubhouse, creators can opt to turn their cameras on for the event, instead of being audio-only. Currently, users sign in with Twitter and then verify their phone number to authenticate with the app. They can then type in their question to submit it to the speaker, who pulls them “on stage” to discuss. For now, the participants were audio-only and represented by a profile icon, but settings suggest that Hotline will test video for users in the future.

As the questions are asked, users can react with emoji, including clapping hands, fire, heart, laughter, surprise and thumbs up. And most importantly, unlike Clubhouse, Hotline events are recorded. Creators get both an audio and video recording that they could edit and upload elsewhere, including on other social networks. Because of its use of video, upvoted questions and recording, the app has a different vibe than Clubhouse — it feels more like a virtual event than a more casual space. Facebook is catering to this audience, too, by seeking out creators who are focused on doling out professional advice, it says.

Of note, Hotline is being led by Eric Hazzard, who joined Facebook when it acquired his app tbh, a positivity-focused Q&A app.

Weekly News

Platforms: Apple

Still more betas. Apple this week released its seventh betas for iOS 14.5, iPadOS 14.5 and other platforms, including Apple TV and Apple Watch — iOS 14.5 brings the rollout of App Tracking Transparency, which is why Apple is probably taking its time with this one.

iOS 14 adoption has now surpassed 90% according to data from Mixpanel. In December, 81% of phones were running iOS 14, now 90.45% are. Another 5.07% of users are running iOS 13, while 4.48% are running iOS 12 or older versions.

Apple has been spotted testing tags in the App Store that will help guide users to more precise search results. The test, first reported by MacRumors, had users encounter tags at the top of App Store search results when searching for popular terms like “photos” or “wallpaper,” that could help narrow results. Some users were running the iOS 14.5 beta when they saw tags, but others were not. It’s unclear if or when tags will launch to the wider public.

Apple opens up its Find My app to third-party products and launches a new app to test them. The company has still not launched its own AirTags, a lost-item finder similar to Tile. Instead, it’s smartly positioning the Find My app as a platform anyone can plug into, in order to assuage anti-competitive concerns. The first items that will plug into Find My include VanMoof’s S3 and X3 e-bikes, Belkin’s SoundForm Freedom True Wireless Earbuds and the Chipolo ONE Spot tracker (a Tile rival).

However, one big name is notably missing from the lineup, and that’s AirTags’ biggest competitor, Tile itself. Tile doesn’t want to hand over the direct customer relationship it has by way of its Tile app just to be included in Find My. And some have suggested Apple is propping up the Chipolo tracker to counter any arguments from Tile that it’s being anti-competitive with the launch of AirTags when they finally arrive.

Image Credits: Apple

Apple updated its App Store Connect and Apple Music for Artists app icons to look more like the design choices used on macOS Big Sur. That’s leading to speculation that iOS 15 could also adopt the look of Big Sur when it comes to design.

Apple details its App Store takedowns in new transparency report. Apple’s latest transparency report offers information about app takedowns due to requests from government authorities due to suspected violations of local laws. Apple says it complies with these requests where it’s legally required to do so. These requests, however, are not focused on Apple’s own editorial guidelines, which prohibit content that Apple itself chooses not to host.

Platforms: Google

The new Google Play Store design arrives, killing off the hamburger menu for good. The design is rolling out to Android devices. An in-app message tells you that those menu items have been moved to your profile icon, which, when tapped, brings up a condensed menu. The Settings menu was also updated. Some have complained the changes are making menu items and options harder to find. The Play Store hadn’t been updated significantly since 2019.

Google announced a new app review process across AdMob and Ad Manager which will evaluate a mobile app’s inventory quality before allowing unrestricted ad serving. The process will give publishers feedback on their apps’ approval status so they can resolve issues that could lead to policy violations. Google says the new app reviews are being rolled out gradually in 2021 with two features: app readiness and app claiming. The former will require publishers to link apps they want to monetize with one supported app store, so their app can then be reviewed. The process will check the app source, publisher’s ownership and policy compliance. App Claiming will provide a list of apps that are being monetized with their ad code but aren’t yet on their AdMob or Ad Manager account.

Image Credits: Google

Android Auto apps can now be launched into production, Google announced this week, following months of testing. That means developers can now publish apps for navigation, parking and charging to Google Play without needing to sign up for a beta program.

Image Credits: Google

Android 12 may make it easier for third-party launchers to operate, as it will allow them access to perform universal device searches. The change was spotted in a new API (AppSearchManager API) by the developer of the Niagara Launcher.

All of Google’s flagship iOS apps have now adopted Apple’s new privacy nutrition labels, as Google Photos was finally updated on Tuesday.

Trends

Image Credits: App Annie

Consumers now average 4.2 hours per day in apps, up 30% from 2019. In the first quarter of 2021, the daily time spent in apps surpassed four hours in the U.S., Turkey, Mexico and India for the first time, the report notes. Of those, India saw the biggest jump as consumers there spent 80% more time in smartphone apps in the Q1 2021 versus the first quarter of 2019.

45% of apps used in Q1 2021 were games and 36% of gamers said they were now playing more mobile games compared to before the pandemic, AdColony said. In the first two weeks of 2021, the top 10 casual games saw 80 million downloads.

E-commerce

WhatsApp now allows business owners to manage their catalogs through the web and on desktop. The catalog feature was introduced in the messaging app in 2019 to allow businesses to better manage their inventory. To date, more than 8 million business catalogs are now live on the platform.

Fintech

Free trading app Robinhood says crypto trading has spiked to 9.5 million customers in the first quarter. That’s up from the 1.7 million customers who traded crypto in the 2020 fourth quarter.

Private messaging app Signal began testing payments in the U.K. using the cryptocurrency MobileCoin (MOB). The beta program will allow users to access a new Signal Payments feature in the app where they can then link a MobileCoin wallet after buying the cryptocurrency on the exchange FTX. Once set up, you can then send MOB to anyone else on the app who also has a linked wallet.

Social

Twitter is said to have discussed a $4 billion acquisition of hot new audio app Clubhouse, Bloomberg reported. TechCrunch also confirmed the talks, but understands they’re no longer taking place. Bloomberg had earlier reported Clubhouse is now looking to raise a round, also at a $4 billion valuation.

TikTok announces six new interactive music effects to keep its audience engaged as competition heats up, with tech giants Facebook, YouTube and Snap all releasing TikTok clones. The first effect is Music Visualizer, which runs real-time beat tracking to animate a retro greenscreen landscape. In less than a day since its debut, over 28,000 videos had used the effect.

TikTok rolls out a new feature, auto captions, to make its short-form videos more accessible to hard of hearing and deaf. Creators can enable the feature during editing, which could also be useful for times when you want to listen to TikTok privately but don’t have your headphones.

Image Credits: TikTok

A group of lawmakers wrote to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to press the company for information about its plan to create a curated version of Instagram for children under 13. Facebook already offers an under-13 app, Messenger Kids, and its rival TikTok offers an age-gated experience as well for under-13 users. Lawmakers expressed skepticism that Facebook would keep children’s data private.

Reddit drops support for iOS 12 and lower, given that iOS adoption for later versions now reaches the vast majority of users.

Tim Cook talked about the banned right-wing app Parler in a wide-ranging interview on The NYT’s “Sway” podcast. He made a straightforward case as to why the app needed to be removed, but also said he hoped they’d try to return. “I hope that they come back on. Because we work hard to get people on the store, not to keep people off the store,” Cook said. “And so, I’m hoping that they put in the moderation that’s required to be on the store and come back, because I think having more social networks out there is better than having less,” he added.

Messaging

WhatsApp was spotted testing a feature that would allow users to migrate their chat history between devices (iOS and Android, that is).

Group chat app Discord said it banned over 2,000 extremist communities in the second half of last year — nearly double the number it banned during the first half of the year, when the Capitol riot took place. Around 1,500 of the communities were first detected by the company. Discord had reportedly been talking to Microsoft about an acquisition.

Streaming & Entertainment

Spotify launched (but didn’t initially announce…until a slew of media reports forced their hand) a voice command feature, “Hey Spotify.” The feature lets you call up artists, songs, albums and playlists by name after first opting in and enabling the microphone permission. This will allow Spotify to listen and record your voice data once it hears the wake words, “Hey Spotify.” The company wouldn’t answer questions about the feature, which seems to indicate the rumors that Spotify is readying the launch of its in-car hardware, Car Thing, may actually be true.

Image Credits: Spotify screenshot iOS

Clubhouse launches payments so creators can make money from their shows. Users will be able to send money to favorite creators, which Clubhouse says it’s not taking a cut from — hoping to avoid the Apple tax on in-app purchases through the donations carve-out Apple agreed to for Tencent in 2018. Creators will have to enable the new virtual tip jar feature in order to accept payments.

YouTube Music’s mobile app is getting a design refresh. The app has begun testing new iconography that matches the update the YouTube mobile app received last year, when it dropped the gray icons for the more visually distinct ones.

The YouTube Kids app has rolled out to 11 new markets, including Bolivia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay and Uruguay.

As rumors about Spotify’s launch of “Car Thing” swirl, Amazon Music debuts a “Car Mode” that makes its music app easier to use while driving, with features like bigger text, bigger buttons and even Alexa built in — the latter countering Spotify’s launch of “Hey Spotify” voice commands.

Gaming

Image Credits: Epic Games/Houseparty

Fortnite users can now livestream gameplay to Houseparty’s social app, which Epic Games (Fortnite’s maker) also owns. To use the new feature, the Fortnite player will need to have enabled Fortnite Mode Streaming and be connected to Houseparty. When they begin to stream their gameplay, their friends on Houseparty will be notified that their game feeds are now available to watch. The addition follows Houseparty’s launch of a “Fortnite Mode” last November, which added a video chat feature to Fortnite where players could see live feeds from their friends while gaming, powered by Houseparty.

Google opened up applications for its 2021 Change The Game Design Challenge, which will again be virtual. Participants who are chosen will be invited to an online game development workshop hosted by Google’s partner, Girls Make Games. The workshop will offer four sessions, kicking off in June and running through the end of the summer. At the end of the workshop, participants will have learned skills needed to create a playable game, no coding experience required.

Apple was hit with a class action lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, which claims that Apple runs an “unlicensed casino” due to its hosting of free-to-play casino games. Though the games use virtual currency, the lawsuit notes that users can buy more coins with real money. The suit says this violates the anti-gambling laws of at least 25 U.S. states.

Health & Fitness

French startup Nabla launched its new app focused on women’s health, allowing women to chat with practitioners, access community content, centralize all their medical data and, soon, schedule telemedicine appointments. The startup has raised $20.2 million for its app and has a team of doctors on board to answer user questions.

Government & Policy

Apple must now show a set of Russian-made apps during iPhone setup, according to a new law that went into effect in early April. Apps getting a boost from the suggestions include Mail.ru, OK Live, VK and others. The apps are not being pre-installed as it turns out, but are being offered for download during the final step of the setup process.

Security & Privacy

Facebook is facing questions from the EU’s data protection regulator over the 2019 data breach that exposed, among other things, the emails and phone numbers of more than 500 million Facebook users. The breach was reported last weekend by Business Insider, leading to concerns. Facebook says the data dump was related to a vulnerability it had fixed back in August 2019. It later explained that the data was scraped from user profiles using a contact importer feature before Facebook made changes to the tool to prevent abuse.

Funding and M&A (and IPOs)

💰 Plaid competitor TrueLayer, which works with fintech apps like Revolut and Freetrade, raised $70 million to expand its service internationally.

💰 Indian investment app Groww raised $83 million at an over $1 billion valuation for its app aimed at millennial investors. Tiger Global led the round, and existing investors Sequoia Capital India, Ribbit Capital, YC Continuity and Propel Venture Partners participated. The app has over 15 million users, two-thirds who are investing for the first time.

🤝 Quiq acquires Snaps to create a combined customer messaging platform. Both startups help businesses communicate with businesses through text messaging and other messaging apps. But despite similarities, the two didn’t overlap much as Quiq had focused on customer service messaging and Snaps on marketing communications. Deal terms were not revealed, but Snaps had raised $13 million.

💰 Note-taking mobile app Mem raised $5.6 million from Andreessen Horowitz and emerged from stealth. Its app lets users quickly jot down thoughts without worrying about organizing them. The app allows for tagging users and topics, setting reminders and more.

💰 Indian social network ShareChat raised $502 million in Series E funding led by Tiger Global, valuing its business at $2.1 billion — up from $650 million last year. Snap and existing investors Twitter and Lightspeed Venture Partners also participated. The six-year-old startup has raised $765 million to date and claims to reach over 160 million users.

📈 Mobile game unicorn AppLovin is targeting a $30 billion valuation in its IPO. The Palo Alto-based business sold a majority stake to private equity firm KKR & Co. Inc, and is now hoping to raise as much as $2.13 billion in its IPO by selling 25 million shares for between $75 and $85 per share.

🤝 Saving and investing app Acorns acquired AI-powered startup Pillar, which helps people manage their student loan debt. Pillar launched in 2019 with $5.5 million in seed funding led by Kleiner Perkins and grew its business to manage over $500 million worth of student loan debt across 15,000 borrowers. Acorns will add Pillar to one of its monthly subscription plans in time.

💰 Berlin-based Charles raised €6.4 million to bring “conversational commerce” to WhatsApp. The startup helps businesses sell on WhatsApp and other chat apps by connecting them with shop and CRM systems, including Shopify, SAP and HubSpot.

💰 Design startup Canva, which offers its service across both web and mobile, raised $71 million more in funding, valuing its business at $15 billion. The company had just raised $60 million at a $6 million valuation in 2020.The round was co-led by Christian Jensen, a partner at Dragoneer. Other investors included T. Rowe Price, Skip Capital and Blackbird Ventures.

🤝 Online lender Avant acquired fintech startup Zero Financial and its mobile neobank Level. Deal terms weren’t disclosed but were a mixture of cash and stock. Avant has raised more than $600 million in equity. The company plans to leverage the deal to deliver personalized options to help underbanked consumers gain financial freedom, it says.

💰 App Store optimization tool provider AppTweak raised $22 million in Series B funding from Groupe Rossel. The company now tracks 3 million keywords daily and grew revenues 950% between 2016-2019, it says. Its tools are used by companies including Amazon, Jam City, Zynga, HBO Max, Adobe and Yelp.

💰 London mobile game studio Tripledot Studios raised $78 million in its first institutional round from Eldridge, Access Industries and Lightspeed Venture Partners. The studio’s games, which include classic titles like Solitaire and Blackjack, have an active user base of 11 million, up from 6 million six months ago. Its team hails from Facebook, King, Peak Games and Product Madness.

💰 Indian conversational messaging platform Gupshup raised $100 million from Tiger Global, valuing its business at $1.4 billion. The company had experimented with other business models over the years, including a messaging app and enterprise messaging before landing on its current suite of solutions for building messaging bots, APIs, a scripting engine and other tools that need to message customers on mobile devices. Its tools support sending messages via text and RCS as well as WhatsApp, Messenger, Telegram, Signal, Twitter, Slack, Skype and its own messaging channel. Gupshup currently delivers 6+ billion messages per month.

Downloads

Halo AR

Image Credits: LightUp

This relatively new AR app lets you add AR to anything — a textbook, a magazine cover, a piece of paper, a photo or any other flat real-world object. To use Halo AR, you first select the object and snap a photo, then choose which photo, video or 3D model you want to overlay on top of it. Teachers can use the app to “tag” their course materials with AR links of sorts to immersive content or videos. Or you could use it for fun to create a scavenger hunt in the house for the kids. The app is a free download in the Education category on iOS and Android.

SmartGym

Image Credits: SmartGym

This popular gym app for Apple devices, and one of Apple’s favorite Apple Watch apps of the year, got a big update this week. The new version of SmartGym more than doubles the number of exercises, growing the database of 290 exercises with the addition of over 330 more — including for those who work out at home with bands, resistance loops, TRX and more. The app’s AI Smart Trainer can then use these new exercises to make its personalized recommendations for you. There are new pre-made workouts for boxing, martial arts and even ultimate frisbee in the updated app.

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China gets serious about antitrust, fines Alibaba $2.75B

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Chinese regulators have hit Alibaba with a record fine of 18 billion yuan (about $2.75 billion) for violating anti-monopoly rules as the country seeks to rein in the power of its largest internet conglomerates.

In November, China proposed sweeping antitrust regulations targeting its tech industry. In late December, the State Administration for Market Regulation said it had launched an antitrust probe into Alibaba. SAMR, the country’s top market regulator, said on Saturday it had determined that Alibaba had been “abusing market dominance” since 2015 by forcing its merchants to sell on one of the two main e-commerce sites in China instead of letting them choose freely.

Since late 2020, a clutch of internet giants including Tencent and Alibaba have been hit with fines for violating anti-competition practices. The meager sums of these punishments were symbolic at best compared to the benefits the tech firms reap from their market concentration. No companies have been told to break up their empires and users still have to hop between different super-apps that block each other off.

In recent weeks, however, there are signs that the antitrust campaign is getting more serious. The latest fine on Alibaba is equivalent to 4% of the company’s revenue generated in the calendar year of 2019 in China.

“Today, we received the Administrative Penalty Decision issued by the State Administration for Market Regulation of the People’s Republic of China,” Alibaba said in a statement. “We accept the penalty with sincerity and will ensure our compliance with determination. To serve our responsibility to society, we will operate in accordance with the law with utmost diligence, continue to strengthen our compliance systems and build on growth through innovation.”

The thick walls that tech companies build against each other are starting to break down, too. Alibaba has submitted an application to have its shopping deals app run on WeChat’s mini program platform, Wang Hai, an Alibaba executive, recently confirmed.

For years, Alibaba services have been absent from Tencent’s sprawling lite app ecosystem, which now features millions of third-party services. Vice versa, WeChat is notably missing from Alibaba’s online marketplaces as a payment method. If passed, the WeChat-powered Alibaba mini app would break with precedent of the pair’s long stand-off.

This is a developing story.

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