All posts in “Social”

Amazon Spark, the retailer’s two-year-old Instagram competitor, has shut down

Amazon’s two-year-old Instagram competitor, Amazon Spark, is no more.

Hoping to capitalize on the social shopping trend and tap into the power of online influencers, Amazon in 2017 launched its own take on Instagram with a shoppable feed of stories and photos aimed at Prime members. The experiment known as Amazon Spark has now come to an end. However, the learnings from Spark and Amazon’s discovery tool Interesting Finds are being blended into a new social-inspired product, #FindItOnAmazon.

Amazon Spark had been a fairly bland service, if truth be told. Unlike on Instagram, where people follow their friend, interests, brands like they like, and people they find engaging or inspiring, Spark was focused on the shopping and the sale. While it tried to mock the Instagram aesthetic at times with fashion inspiration images or highly posed travel photos, it lacked Instagram’s broader appeal. Your friends weren’t there and there weren’t any Instagram Stories, for example. Everything felt too transactional.

Amazon declined to comment on the apparent shutdown of Spark, but the service is gone from the website and app.

The URL amazon.com/spark, meanwhile, redirects to the new #FoundItOnAmazon site — a site which also greatly resembles another Amazon product discovery tool, Interesting Finds.

Interesting Finds has been around since 2016, offering consumers a way to browse an almost Pinterest-like board of products across a number of categories. It features curated “shops” focused on niche themes, like a “Daily Carry” shop for toteable items, a “Mid Century” shop filled with furniture and décor, a shop for “Star Wars” fans, one for someone who loves the color pink, and so on. Interesting Finds later added a layer of personalization with the introduction of a My Mix shop filled with recommendations tailored to your interactions and likes.

The Interesting Finds site had a modern, clean look-and-feel that made it a more pleasurable way to browse Amazon’s products. Products photos appeared on white backgrounds while the clutter of a traditional product detail page was removed.

We understand from people familiar with the products that Interesting Finds is not shutting down as Spark has. But the new #FoundItOnAmazon site will take inspiration from what worked with Interesting Finds and Spark to turn it into a new shopping discovery tool.

Interesting Finds covers a wide range of categories, but #FoundItOnAmazon will focus more directly on fashion and home décor. Similar to Interesting Finds, you can heart to favorites items and revisit them later.

The #FoundItOnAmazon site is very new and isn’t currently appearing for all Amazon customers at this time. If you have it, the amazon.com/spark URL will take you there.

Though Amazon won’t talk about why its Instagram experiment is ending, it’s not too hard to make some guesses. Beyond its lack of originality and transactional nature, Instagram itself has grown into a far more formidable competitor since Spark first launched.

Last fall, Instagram fully embraced its shoppable nature with the introduction of shopping features across its app that let people more easily discover products from Instagram photos. It also added a new shopping channel and in March, Instagram launched its own in-app checkout option to turn product inspiration into actual conversions.

It was certainly a big move into Amazon territory. And while that led to headlines about Instagram as the future of shopping, it’s not going to upset Amazon’s overall dominance any time soon.

That said, Instagram’s changes may have prompted Amazon to give up trying to build its own Instagram clone, so it could instead focus on building out better and more differentiated tools for product discovery, like the new site.

Calendar influencers? Event social network IRL raises $8M

Why is there no app where you can follow party animals, concert snobs, or conference butterflies for their curated suggestions of events? That’s the next phase of social calendar app IRL that’s launching today on iOS to help you make and discuss plans with friends or discover nearby happenings to fill out your schedule.

The calendar, a historically dorky utility, seems like a strange way to start the next big social network. Many people, especially teens, either don’t use apps like Google Calendar, keep them professional, or merely input plans made elsewhere. But by baking in an Explore tab of event recommendations and the option to follow curators, headliners, and venues, IRL could make calendars communal like Instagram did to cameras.

“There’s Twitter for ‘follow my updates’, there’s Soundcloud for ‘follow my music’, but there’s no ‘follow my events’” IRL CEO Abe Shafi tells me of his plan to turbocharge his calendar app. “They’re arguably the best product that’s been built for organizing what you’re doing but no one has Superhuman’d or Slack’d the calendar. Let’s build a super f*cking dope calendar!” he says with unbridled excitement. He’ll need that passion to persevere as IRL tries to steal a major use case from SMS, messaging apps, and Facebook .

Finding a new opportunity for a social network has attracted a new $8 million Series A funding round for IRL led by Goodwater Capital and joined by Founders Fund and Kleiner Perkins. That builds on its $3 million seed from Founders Fund and Floodgate, whose partner Mike Maples is joining IRL’s board. The startup has also pulled in some entertainment and event CEOs as strategic investors including Warner Bros president Greg Silverman, Lionsgate films president Joe Drake, and Classpass CEO Fritz Lanman to help it recruit calendar influencers users can follow.

Filling Your Social Calendar

In Shafi, investors found a consumate extrovert who can empathize with event-goers. He dropped out of Berkeley to build out his recruitment software startup getTalent before selling it to HR platform Dice where he became VP of product. He started to become disillusioned by tech’s impact on society and almost left the industry before some time at Burning Man rekinkled his fever for events.

IRL CEO Abe Shafi

Shafi teamed up with PayPal’s first board member Scott Banister and early social network founder Greg Tseng. Shafi’s first attempted Gather pissed off a ton of people with spammy invites in 2017. By 2018, he’d restarted as IRL with a focus on building a minimalist calendar where it was easy to create events and invite friends. Evite and Facebook Events were too heavy for making less formal get-togethers with close friends. He wisely chose to geofence his app and launch state by state to maximize density so people would have more pals to plan with.

IRL is now in 14 states with a modest 1.3 million monthly active users and 175,000 dailies, plus 3 million people on the waitlist. “50% of all teens in Texas have downloaded IRL. I wanted to focus on the central states, not Silicon Valley” Shafi explains. Users log in with a phone number or Google, two-way sync their Google Calendar if they have one, and can then manage their existing schedule and create mini-events. The stickiest feature is the ability to group chat with everyone invited so you can hammer out plans. Even users without the app can chime in via text or email. And unlike Facebook where your mom or boss are liable to see your RSVPs, your calendar and what you’re doing on IRL is always private unless you explicitly share it.

The problem is that most of this could be handled with SMS and a more popular calendar. That’s why IRL is doubling-down on event discovery through influencers, which you can’t do anywhere else at scale. With the new version of the app launching today, you’ll be recommended performers, locations, and curators to follow. You’ll see their suggestions in the Explore tab that also includes sub-tabs of Nearby and Trending happenings. There’s also a college-specific feed for users that auth in with their school email address. Curators and event companies like TechCrunch can get their own IRL.com/… URL people can follow more easily than some janky list of events of gallery of flyers on their website. Since pretty much every promoter wants more attendees, IRL’s had little resistance to it indexing all the events from Meetup.com and whatever it can find.

IRL is concentrating on growth for now, but Shafi believes all the intent data about what people want to do could be valuable for directing people to certain restaurants, bars, theaters, or festivals, though he vows that “we’re never going to sell your data to advertisers.” For now IRL is earning money from affiliate fees when people buy tickets or make reservations. Event affiliate margins are infamously slim, but Shafi says IRL can bargain for higher fees as it gains sway over more people’s calendars.

Unfortunately without reams of personal data and leading artificial intelligence that Facebook owns, IRL’s in-house suggestions via the Explore tab can feel pretty haphazard. I saw lots of mediocre happy hours, crafting nights, and community talks that weren’t quite the hip nightlife recommendations I was hoping for, and for now there’s no sorting by category. That’s where Shafi hopes influencers will fill in. And he’s confident that Facebook’s business model discourages it moving deeper into events. “Facebook’s revenue driver is time spent on the app. While meaningful to society, events as a feature is not a primary revenue driver so they don’t get the resources that other features on Facebook get.”

Yet the biggest challenge will be rearranging how people organize their lives. A lot of us are too scatterbrained, lazy, or instinctive to make all our plans days or weeks ahead of time and put them on a calendar. The beauty of mobile is that we can communicate on the fly to meet up. “Solving for spontaneity isn’t our focus so far” Shafi admits. But that’s how so much of our social lives come together.

My biggest problem isn’t finding events to fill my calendar, but knowing which friends are free now to hang out and attend one with me. There are plenty of calendar, event discovery, and offline hangout apps. IRL will have to prove they deserve to be united. At least Shafi says it’s problem worth trying to solve. “I know for a fact that the product of a calendar will outlive me.” He just wants to make it more social first.

Facebook backs social commerce startup Meesho in first India investment

As Facebook explores ways to generate revenue from WhatsApp, the company is now turning to a startup that already has a lead. The social juggernaut said today it has invested in social-commerce startup Meesho in what is the first time the firm takes equity in an Indian startup.

Neither Facebook nor Meesho, which prior to this announcement had raised about $65 million, shared financial terms of the deal. A source familiar with the matter told TechCrunch the size of the capital was “very significant.”

Meesho, a Y Combinator alumnus, is an online social commerce that connects sellers with customers on social media platforms such as WhatsApp. The four-year-old startup claims to have a network of more than 5 million resellers who largely deal with apparels and electronics items.

These resellers are mostly homemakers, most of whom have purchased a smartphone for the first time in recent years. Meesho has most of its customers in smaller cities and towns, popularly dubbed as India 2 where the next phase of internet users are joining from. These are two things that attracted Facebook to Meesho, Ajit Mohan, VP and Managing Director of Facebook India, told TechCrunch in an interview.

“A platform that is aimed at India 2 and has such a large user base of women — when most people online in India are predominantly men — is a remarkable achievement,” he said. According to several estimates, males account for more than 80% of India’s internet user base.

Meesho claims that it is helping thousands of resellers earn more than Rs 25,000 ($360) each month. In an interview with TechCrunch last year, Meesho co-founder and CEO Vidit Aatrey said the startup, which operates in India currently, planned to enter international markets.

Even as WhatsApp is a crucial play for Meesho, the startup will continue to work with other social media platforms, Facebook’s Mohan said. Last year, Facebook launched its Marketplace, which operates in the same space as Meesho. Mohan said the company does not see Meesho as a vehicle to expand its own family of services.

On the contrary, Facebook is now open to exploring investment in other startups that are building unique solutions for the Indian market. “Wherever we believe there is opportunity beyond the work we do today, we are open to exploring further investment deals,” he said. There is no particular category that Facebook is necessarily focused on, he added.

Even as Facebook has not made any push to make WhatsApp expand beyond a communications service, users in India, the service’s largest market, are increasingly finding ways to incorporate Facebook’s app into their businesses.

Facebook collected device data on 187,000 users using banned snooping app

Facebook obtained personal and sensitive device data on about 187,000 users of its now-defunct Research app, which Apple banned earlier this year after the app violated its rules.

The social media giant said in a letter to lawmakers — which TechCrunch obtained — that it collected data on 31,000 users in the U.S., including 4,300 teenagers. The rest of the collected data came from users in India.

Earlier this year, a TechCrunch investigation found both Facebook and Google were abusing their Apple-issued enterprise developer certificates, designed to only allow employees to run iPhone and iPad apps used only inside the company. The investigation found the companies were building and providing apps for consumers outside Apple’s App Store, in violation of Apple’s rules. The apps paid users in return for collecting data on how participants used their devices and understand app habits by gaining access to all of the network data in and out of their device.

Apple banned the apps by revoking Facebook’s enterprise developer certificate — and later Google’s enterprise certificate. In doing so, the revocation knocked both companies’ fleet of internal iPhone or iPad app offline that relied on the same certificates.

But in response to lawmakers’ questions, Apple said it didn’t know how many devices installed Facebook’s rule-violating app.

“We know that the provisioning profile for the Facebook Research app was created on April 19, 2017, but this does not necessarily correlate to the date that Facebook distributed the provisioning profile to end users,” said Timothy Powderly, Apple’s director of federal affairs, in his letter.

Facebook said the app dated back to 2016.

TechCrunch also obtained the letters sent by Apple and Google to lawmakers in early March, but were never made public.

These “research” apps relied on willing participants to download the app from outside the app store and use the Apple-issued developer certificates to install the apps. Then, the apps would install a root network certificate, allowing the app to collect all the data out of the device — like web browsing histories, encrypted messages, and mobile app activity — potentially also including data from their friends — for competitive analysis.

A response by Facebook about the number of users involved in Project Atlas. (Image: TechCrunch)

In Facebook’s case, the research app — dubbed Project Atlas — was a repackaged version of its Onavo VPN app, which Facebook was forced to remove from Apple’s App Store last year for gathering too much device data.

Just this week, Facebook relaunched its research app as Study, only available on Google Play and for users who have been approved through Facebook’s research partner, Applause. Facebook said it would be more transparent about how it collects user data.

Facebook’s vice-president of public policy Kevin Martin defended the company’s use of enterprise certificates, saying it “was a relatively well-known industry practice.” When asked, a Facebook spokesperson didn’t quantify this further. Later, TechCrunch found dozens of apps that used enterprise certificates to evade the app store.

Facebook previously said it “specifically ignores information shared via financial or health apps.” In its letter to lawmakers, Facebook stuck to its guns, saying its data collection was focused on “analytics,” but confirmed “in some isolated circumstances the app received some limited non-targeted content.”

“We did not review all of the data to determine whether it contained health or financial data,” said a Facebook spokesperson. “We have deleted all user-level market insights data that was collected from the Facebook Research app, which would include any health or financial data that may have existed.”

But Facebook didn’t say what kind of data, only that the app didn’t decrypt “the vast majority” of data sent by a device.

Facebook describing the type of data it collected — including “limited, non-targeted content.” (Image: TechCrunch)

Google’s letter, penned by public policy vice-president Karan Bhatia, did not provide a number of devices or users, saying only that its app was a “small scale” program. When reached, a Google spokesperson did not comment by our deadline.

Google also said it found “no other apps that were distributed to consumer end users,” but confirmed several other apps used by the company’s partners and contractors, which no longer rely on enterprise certificates.

Google explaining which of its apps were improperly using Apple-issued enterprise certificates. (Image: TechCrunch)

Apple told TechCrunch that both Facebook and Google “are in compliance” with its rules as of the time of publication. At its annual developer conference last week, the company said it now “reserves the right to review and approve or reject any internal use application.”

Facebook’s willingness to collect this data from teenagers — despite constant scrutiny from press and regulators — demonstrates how valuable the company sees market research on its competitors. With its restarted paid research program but with greater transparency, the company continues to leverage its data collection to keep ahead of its rivals.

Facebook and Google came off worse in the enterprise app abuse scandal, but critics said in revoking enterprise certificates Apple retains too much control over what content customers have on their devices.

The Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission are said to be examining the big four tech giants — Apple, Amazon, Facebook, and Google-owner Alphabet — for potentially falling foul of U.S. antitrust laws.

Facebook’s Blood Donations feature arrives in U.S., will alert donors in times of need

Facebook today is expanding its set of features focused on blood donations. The company since 2017 has been working with blood donation centers worldwide who have been able to use the platform to reach potential donors and then reach out to them in times of need. Now, Facebook is bringing its Blood Donations feature to the U.S.

At launch, Facebook is partnering with leading blood donation organizations across the U.S., including America’s Blood Centers, the American Red Cross, Inova, New York Blood Center, Rock River Valley Blood Center, Stanford Blood Center, Versiti, and Vitalant.

It’s also first launching Blood Donations in select urban markets ahead of a nationwide rollout. To start, the feature will arrive in Chicago, New York City, the San Francisco Bay Area, Baltimore and Washington, D.C., the company says.

The U.S. Blood Donations feature is similar to the one already available elsewhere in the world — including Bangladesh, Brazil, India, and Pakistan.

To access the Blood Donations feature, U.S. Facebook users in the supported markets can sign up by visiting its page from the “About” section of their Facebook profile. Here, they’ll give Facebook permission to notify them when nearby blood banks need their help. When the blood banks are running low on supply, they can also turn to Facebook to alert the nearby donors through the platform.

People will see and respond to these blood donation requests and opportunities on the Blood Donations destination on Facebook. They can also use tools on this page to inspire their friends to donate, too.

Since its 2017 launch, the Blood Donations feature has performed well. Over 35 million people signed up in the handful of worldwide markets where it was first available. In India and Brazil, blood donation centers said that 20% of people said Facebook influenced their decision to donate — a statistic based on in-person surveys conducted at the blood banks.

“Through our partnership with Facebook, individuals will be able to conveniently find and connect with their local blood center to help meet the ongoing need for a diverse pool of blood donors in the US and share their experiences and the importance of blood donation,” said Kate Fry, chief executive officer at America’s Blood Centers, in a statement about today’s launch. “By encouraging blood donation as a way of life, each of us can assure that the more than 30,000 pints of blood used daily throughout the country is available.”

The launch is timed just ahead of World Blood Donor Day on June 14. Founded by the World Health Organization, the day is meant to raise awareness of the regular need for blood donations. Facebook says it will host blood donations in some of its own offices on this day, and will run awareness campaigns in Brazil and India. It’s also partnering with Missing Types for a campaign with the American Red Cross and Vitalant to help draw attention to the need for blood donors, it says.

“We are grateful to Facebook for supporting the Missing Types campaign, which underscores the critical need for blood donors,” said Cliff Numark, senior vice president, American Red Cross. “This campaign comes at exactly the right time, as busy summer schedules make it extremely challenging to sign up sufficient blood donors. And Facebook’s new blood donation feature makes it even easier to make a lifesaving donation,” he added.