No More Words From TuneWiki As Vert Capital Pulls The Plug On Its Music Lyric App

So much for being pulled out of the dead pool. TuneWiki, a popular social music app with millions of users that let people see the lyrics to songs they were streaming on Spotify and other platforms, may have finally sung its last song.

After announcing in July 2013 that it would shut down, it then got acquired at the 11th hour, as it turned out by private equity firm Vert Capital, which continued to operate the service. Yet now TuneWiki has gone completely offline after a source described it as going delinquent on paying bills and getting the plug pulled on its servers. (In fact, the TuneWiki links above are WayBack links because the originals are no longer there.)

It’s a somewhat surprising end for the app, considering it was one of the most popular apps on the Spotify platform — a fact confirmed by Spotify itself, whose spokespeople I contacted asking if the company knew what had happened (they did not). Close to the time of shutdown, TuneWiki had over 10 million active users in 70 countries, playing over 8 million songs each day and having over 1 million social interactions each month (interactions include comments, shares, likes, follows and lyric art).

Other services that integrated with TuneWiki included Slacker and Deezer along with apps for iOS, Android, Windows Phone and preloads for specific carriers and other devices.

Unfortunately, ubiquity does not always equal business success. By the time that Vert had approached TuneWiki, the startup — which was founded in 2007 and had raised $10 million from the likes of Motorola, NTT Docomo and Benchmark — was unable to raise more funding and didn’t appear to be making good enough returns from its free, ad-based services. Plus there are other competitors, like musiXmatch and others. Vert, we understand, paid a mere $115,000 for the company, assuming everything including assets and stock in the process.

Sidenote: Vert Capital’s MD is Adam Levin, who you may recall was, at Criterion Capital, also the person behind both the acquisition of Bebo from AOL in 2010, running Bebo for a period of time. Later Levin also acquired PoolWorks from Holtzbrinck Digital. PoolWorks was the name of the company that included various German social networks, including StudiVZ, sometimes called the “Facebook of Germany.” Both companies are listed as a part of Vert’s portfolio today alongside TuneWiki.

After the sale to Vert, most of TuneWiki’s employees were let go. Some, like director of engineering Jared Fleener, appear to have stayed on, while an interim CEO (Seth Gerson) was brought on “to try and flip the company,” our source says.

Then, a difficult situation seemed to get worse. In the past 2 months, “Vert has been delinquent on many of TuneWiki’s bills,” the source says. “As of [Monday], the datacenter pulled the power on the equipment due to delinquent payment. It would seem Vert has elected to let the company die.” We have tried to contact Vert Capital and its MD Adam Levin to ask about whether this is indeed what’s happened. We will update as we learn more.

It’s a curious end to the company, if this is really the end. There are assets: at least one patent, datacenter equipment, the company’s Lyric database and its user database, along with “several terabytes worth of user metrics.”

In the meantime, users appear to be slowly realising that the lack of functionality is more than a small blip: here you can see their reactions interspersed with the usual bot-fuelled Twitter marketing spam.

Looksee Debuts A Tinder-Meets-Instagram For Connecting Around Shared Photos

A new “anonymish” app called Looksee has launched, combining mobile photography with a Tinder-like matching element that lets anonymous users connect with each other over their shared photos. The idea is that when two users mutually like one another’s photos, their identities will then be revealed to each other, allowing them to make a personal connection and begin messaging within the app.

Tinder without the superficiality, perhaps. Or just a different way to make Internet friends?

Looksee_4LikedLooksee is largely an experiment at this point, given its launch took place July 31st. The app is a product from Quebec Drive, a company which has previously released a handful of single-named photo apps and games, including Dropin, Phodeo, and Flyin.

The bootstrapped startup was co-founded by L.A.-based actor-turned-app-designer (because waiter/actor is so passé) Justin Spraggins, who has been interested the iPhone since day one – when he was starring in the first Apple TV commercials, in fact. Even back then, he says, he saw the potential for the iPhone to change photography, and he later began working on apps after getting the entrepreneurial bug following his first tech industry job involving video content production for an early stage startup.

Along with N.Y.-based developer Jarid Kemink, the two quietly launched Looksee a few weeks ago, seeding it with photos posted by their photographer friends, who signed up to test the app in its first days. That has given the Looksee’s initial experience to be one of browsing a more professional photo community, and not your typical user-generated content site. Of course, with traction and popularity, that could certainly change.

The app’s main thesis is this: anonymity doesn’t just have to be about risqué photo-sharing and cowardly bullying, it also gives us the opportunity to make a different sort of connection with people. Explains Spraggins, “when you see something you like, you want to know who’s behind it. And it drives you to share, too, because if you don’t share…you’re never going to reveal anybody.”

“It’s like you’re unmasking people,” he says. “It’s cool and you get addicted to it.”

The app works by asking you to sign up with your Facebook or Instagram account, which is what is later revealed when you and another Looksee user are matched up. That keeps some of the more distasteful content at bay, since unlike on most anonymous apps, you are associated with your real identity – it’s just hidden at first. However, a “report” feature is available if anyone should go too far.

You can view content that’s popular across the service, or, more importantly, photos taken around your current location, which is what gives it a dating-app like appeal.

Looksee_Feed

After a match takes place, you can either chat directly in the app, or follow the user on Instagram, taking your conversation to a larger, more public network.

Spraggins thinks the app will encourage deeper friendships, and possibly even relationships, to blossom.

Looksee has already been featured by the App Store, giving it an initial boost with thousands of sign-ups, but the challenge for the company now is to better differentiate its community versus that of…well…Instagram itself. While not necessarily created for getting locals together around their shared photos, it can certainly play a role in helping online friends connect, and continue messaging in private if they choose.

Looksee is a free download here.

ChangeTip Wants To Kill Clickbait With Social Bitcoin Micropayments

ChangeTip is hoping to drive mass adoption of micropayments on the web by using Bitcoin plus existing social networks as the medium to deliver feeless micro donations to content creators. Which means part of its mission is “to spell the end of clickbait“. And that’s something anyone who spends time online should really be rooting for.

Those who want a better business model for online content, i.e. one that isn’t based on increasingly invasive surveillance and increasingly insidious advertising, have long held up the hope that micropayments could power an alternative rewards-based system, where the cumulative act of lots of users donating small amounts to the services they use and love adds up to something substantial. It’s a great idea in principle but in practice there are ongoing barriers to creating a web powered by micropayments — transaction fees being one of the biggest.

The closest we’ve yet come to a functioning, mass adopted micropayment model is arguably app stores, where the mobile device user has attached their payment credentials to their device account or carrier — allowing them to purchase apps for small amounts of money with a few clicks. But that only works within a particular walled garden, be it Apple’s or Google’s. Appreciating content all over the web regardless of device used or OS favoured is more difficult.

There are startups trying to tackle this problem, such as, for instance, social micropayments service Flattr. But Flattr still involves a 10% cut creamed off your donations. Which, when you’re talking small amounts in the first place, is rather a large proportion of your tip not going where you’d like it to. Because it’s using Bitcoin as the donation medium, ChangeTip can offer micropayments that don’t come with a fee-shaped chunk cut out.

On the ease of use front, ChangeTip’s tipping system works by mentioning the person you want to tip in a tweet or other public social missive (the service currently supports tipping on Twitter, StockTwits, Reddit, GitHub, YouTube, Google Plus and Tumblr), the amount you want to tip them (which can also be a generic term like ‘beer’ — which ChangeTip has assigned a dollar value to) and that’s it. ChangeTip handles the transaction and the creation of the Bitcoin wallet when the tip collector logs in to pick up a tip. Tips that aren’t claimed are returned to the sender within seven days.

ChangeTip

“We’re building a micropayment infrastructure for the web. Micropayments have been talked about for a long time, clear back to [this] in 1999. Digital currencies like Bitcoin make now the right time because they have low transaction fees, they allow for pseudonymity, and they act as currency neutralizers,” says founder Nick Sullivan, a serial entrepreneur with an engineering background and an interest in Bitcoin (he’s an active partner in the largest Bitcoin syndicate on AngelList).

ChangeTip aims to help drive the mass consumer adoption of Bitcoin by creating a micro transaction platform for the web. Circle, Coinbase, Bitpay and others are working on the on-ramps and off-ramps, we are building out the tools to move money around online on the main highway of the Internet: social media.”

ChangeTip works by transacting tips off-blockchain — until the point when any money is actually deposited or withdrawn.

“We’ve built an off-blockchain ledger, which makes sending and receiving tips free and instant. We only do a Bitcoin transaction when you deposit or withdraw funds. The analogy here is that you wouldn’t have a gambling site do a credit card transaction for every blackjack hand, only when you sit down and leave the table. And of course our users don’t have to worry about the particulars of the tip transactions themselves. We’ve built out an extensive set of social network integrations, where we monitor for mentions of @changetip and then react with a set of robots that parse the tip, notify the recipient, and perform the transaction.”

In terms of rivals, Sullivan identifies DogeTip as most similar but notes that that service only works with the DogeCoin cryptocurrency, making it even more crypto-fringe than Bitcoin.

He also argues that ChangeTip’s focus on “enabling a new set of behaviors” sets it apart from others in the space. “Bitcoin tips are sent instantly and without a fee, allowing for micro-payments of less than a penny. This effectively changes the concept of a ‘share’ or ‘like’ into financial appreciation, which can quickly add up to substantial amounts of money,” he adds. “Once you’ve become the easiest way to move money around online, there are a lot of interesting use cases.”

Among the potential use-cases Sullivan envisages for ChangeTip are tipping on Quora for “high quality, thoughtful answers” — so perhaps micropayments could fix bad comments and tame trolls too? (Here’s hoping…); donating to content creators on services such as YouTube, SoundCloud and Instagram to reward quality; viewing blogs ad-free for 30-days by donating directly to the blogger; skipping pre-roll ads on YouTube by paying a tenth of a penny per video watched; social gifting to friends and family; and rewarding a Github user who contributes a patch that fixes your problem.

ChangeTip launched its service back in February, with support for Twitter, StockTwits, Reddit and GitHub, adding YouTube, Google Plus and Tumblr earlier this month. In terms of usage, it’s got “tens of thousands of users” so far who have linked their social media accounts to ChangeTip and sent “tens of thousands of dollars worth of tips”. The startup itself has raised $750,000 in funding to date from what Sullivan terms “strategic angels” — i.e. who have expertise in payments, fin-tech, bitcoin and the consumer web. ChangeTip investors include Gil Penchina, Howard Lindzon, Brock Pierce and Adam Nash.

In terms of its own business model — given that it’s not taking a cut of tips — Sullivan takes a big picture view, seeing potential for the ChangeTip micropayment infrastructure to both disrupt existing large players on the web and create new revenue streams based on encouraging new behaviors.

“In the former category, PayPal, Western Union, and Visa/MC for person-to-person payments. In the latter, disrupting the online advertising ecosystem sounds fun. We would love to spell the end of clickbait,” he says, adding: “We call ourselves a Love Button for the Internet. We aim to revolutionize appreciation and giving. Our hope is that these small tokens will add up to a fundamental change in the quality of content that is available and prevalent on the web.”

To make that grand vision happen ChangeTip is going to need other startups and businsses in the Bitcoin ecosystem to flourish in tandem, to act as additional emollient to grease the wheels of its vision of easy-peasy micropayments. Safe to say, there is not much about Bitcoin that has been easy to date.

One big blocker to ChangeTip adoption — beyond the huge shift in online mindset that currently says content must be free — is that tippers still need to buy some Bitcoin to tip, and those who receive tips will probably want to exchange their tips for fiat currency so they can actually buy that beer they’ve been tipped (unless they find a watering hole that accepts Bitcoin).

“You’re right to point out that the process of buying and selling Bitcoin is still non-trivial,” adds Sullivan. “Circle, Coinbase, and others are working hard with well-funded companies to solve that problem, and they are making great progress. We’re watching their progress closely and integrating where we can. We are also exploring other options for making it easier for ChangeTip users to top up their wallet, such as with a credit card or ACH.”

But the idea of the tipping going on regardless of whether a tip receiver has a Bitcoin wallet yet is one way to encourage people to think different — i.e. if they get to see ChangeTips flowing around their social media sites, they can start to imagine what online life would be like if more people got involved with micro donations for great content.

Shifting attitudes — and online business models — is the core change referenced in ChangeTip’s name. So the strategy they’re going for amounts to let the social tips flow for micropayments to grow. I for one will be watching keenly to see whether they can build momentum.

GetSet Uses Natural Language Processing To Reduce College Drop-out Rates

GetSet, a new stealthy US edtech startup that’s aiming to reduce the high college drop-out rate is uncloaking today and revealing its first rollout at Arizona State University, with its 10,000+ freshmen.

First up, in case you’re feeling a spot of deja vu, last week TechCrunch covered a UK startup called Wambiz that’s taking aim at the same problem. Yes, yes, you wait ages for college drop-out reduction startups and then two come along at once. So it goes.

That said, they’re not identical. Wambiz is building an engagement platform cum social network as a better way to reach/engage with students, rather than sending comms via more traditional channels like email and SMS.

While GetSet is taking an algorithmic approach to the drop-out problem, building a natural language processing (NLP) engine that asks students to feed it with data about their college aims and problems which it uses to match students to others who have similar goals/backgrounds or who had the same sort of issues previously and overcame them.

Although the GetSet front end does also include a social network layer where students have profiles and can share content with each other and generally participate in a digital community that’s specifically tied to their college, so there is some overlap in the approach. But engaging young people digitally is inevitably going to involve something social and connected.

Fixing the problem of student orientation in a new and potentially alienating environment is key to the college drop-out problem, argues GetSet CEO and founder Karan Goel, because “social factors” play the biggest role in high US college drop-out rates. He says research has shown that more than half (54%) of college drop-outs are driven by social factors, such as students not feeling like they fit in or not making friends, vs around a third (30%) leaving for financial reasons, and even fewer (16%) for academic reasons.

Goel argues that traditional support channels for students — such as face to face counseling — aren’t working well any more because students are no longer comfortable utilizing these forms of support. They want something faster and more accessible via the channels they are used to: aka their digital devices. “The challenge has changed a lot in the last 50 years,” he says. “Traditionally students would go see their counsellor when they ran into an issue. In today’s age students just don’t go. They don’t reach out to the counsellor. They want something instant.”

The GetSet system gives freshers a social platform that connects them to similar peers — based on things like their shared goals — to help them make friends when they first arrive. And even before day one at college. “We use a community of peers to create instant support,” is how Goel puts it. He stresses that it is instant — it’s not a forum style system where you post a question and have to wait an indeterminate amount of time for a response; the matching is done immediately.

“Whatever we’ve learned about the student, we show them someone just like them who’s run into that same challenge and overcome it,” he says. “We call this vicarious success. Showing you examples of good behaviour and how to overcome challenges or solve problems. And it’s instant. It’s not like you post something on the school network and you wait for people to respond. You just tell us what you want to accomplish, or what your question is and we instantly find a match for you.”

The platform also provides an ongoing support role for students after they have initially settled in by giving them a quick way to find peers who can help them when they are having specific difficulties, beyond the challenge of arriving at a new school. It does this by real-time matching an individual with a problem to someone else at the college who was able to resolve the same sort of issue — again using NLP to achieve real-time matches.

GetSet’s NLP and matching engine is called PeerWisdom. “It’s very powerful because, as you can imagine, the average 18-year-old is much more likely to listen to something from a 19-year-old who’s relevant to them than from an expert who’s much older — even though the expert might have the best answer, they’re more likely to listen to the peer,” Goel adds.

Obviously, the more data this sort of system has the better it gets — so there’s initially likely to be the equivalent of a learning curve as it accrues data from the students that will ultimately be reflected back to them to provide community support for their very specific problems.

“It just gets better over time. All the information the school has to give us is the name, email, cell phone number if they have it… It basically learns about them over time. Let’s say they first question comes up — what’s your inspiration [for going to college] — so you’d answer it and that would be the only thing we would really know about you at that point. And we would match you with somebody at the same university with the same inspiration. And then you answer one more thing and then we keep building a richer and richer profile of you over time,” says Goel.

The startup is leaning on psychology as its underlying basis when it comes to matching criteria. “Our chief scientific advisor, his name is Dr Robert Feldman, he’s the deputy chancellor of the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He’s spent the last 30 years — he’s the leading researcher in student success, [asking] how do you get students to graduate? He’s helped us develop these questions in a way that we get students to open up,” says Goel.

“GetSet facilitates the rapid development of meaningful relationships and sense of connection with other students at the very start of college.  In turn, this significantly raises the likelihood of future college success,” adds Feldman.

Goel’s prior edtech startup, PrepMe, sold to the owner of Blackboard in 2011. He’s been bootstrapping GetMe since founding the startup in October 2012, running a series of experiments and trials since early last year to refine the technology.

On the funding front, GetSet is in the process of closing a seed round of funding — it’s taken in some of this financing already (but not announced it before today) and is continuing to expand the round. Goel says the aim is to close $2.5 million in total.

Investors will include Social+Capital, founder of Braintree, founder of Fieldglass, Chicago Ventures, serial edtech entrepreneur Paul Freedman, and serial entrepreneur and prior investor in PrepMe Howard Tullman, according to Goel, plus some additional unnamed investors.

How exactly does GetSet work? It initially asks the students a handful of questions, such as what they hope to get out of college or their reasons for attending, and uses the initial shared data to power matching — with a view to helping them find others with similar backgrounds or aims who they might be likely to make friends with. As time goes on, students can set more goals or ask the system for help with specific problems.

They can also choose to share the information they submit publicly to the GetSet social network if they want to, but there’s no requirement to share to be sent matches. That means students can ask for help with a specific issue privately, i.e. without going public about it, and still be matched with a relevant peer who may be able to help them.

Matches are presented as one main match and a few  secondary matches. It’s then up to the student to contact the suggested peer if they choose. Students are incentivised to help each other via the system — which gives positive reinforcement in the form of thanks when students help others. “That’s why we deliberately use the term PeerWisdom, because I think a lot of students don’t think of themselves as wise — so it’s this nice surprise to feel like ‘hey I have wisdom, I know something that could help someone else’,” adds Goel.

From its initial trials of the tech, GetSet usage skews towards new students wanting to orient themselves in the environment — falling back to more of a support role after that. “Our current usage shows that students use it pretty heavily when they’re starting, so in the first few weeks, but then after that they’re coming back maybe 15 minutes, or 20 minutes, just to put in a new question or a new challenge, or something they want to do that they don’t know how to do. So the usage, they’re coming back, but they’re not using it as intensely — and that’s fine, because that’s really the point,” he says, adding: “We’ve got them embedded in the community, they feel like they belong, they’ve taken some of those relationships and are now engaging with those people offline or through Facebook or through Twitter — but we helped them get introduced to those people. And really what the school is measuring us on is did more students graduate, did more students stick around.”

Goel says the early indications for GetSet’s ability to improve drop-out rates look good, with the results from three months of trials involving a few hundred students — who self-selected to try out the product — showing users being 5% to 10% more likely to “stick around”, as he puts it. That’s pretty early data so it will be interesting to see what kind of success rates GetSet can achieve with far more substantial usage as it rolls out across universities — today’s ASU rollout being its first sizable deployment.

“We’ve got another big college in Southern California that’s launching the week after [ASU], so that’s our next big launch,” adds Goel. “And then we’ve got a whole set of schools. We’re trying to get it right — we’re only launching one school a week or every two weeks right now. We’re not going to try to sign up lots of schools but we have a very deep pipeline of traditional universities, online colleges.

“The drop-out problem is really across the board. I think people traditionally think of it as something that only happens at lower tier universities or online universities but really with the exception of maybe the top 50 or 100 universities in the US, everyone else has a big drop-out problem.”

In addition to targeted help to cut drop-out rates, Goel says the platform can help universities to quickly identify large-scale problems that are affecting the student body — giving them a chance to intervene early — such as, for example, a Chicago university that the startup has been working with being able to identify a parking problem that was making it tough for students to get to their classes via comments made on its platform.

“We provide some pretty deep business intelligence to the school. So the university has a word cloud so they can see what are emerging issues that are occurring on campus. This is really important for them because traditionally universities will only know if something is wrong if the student comes in to see a counsellor. Which today almost never happens,” adds Goel.

The GetSet business model is equivalent to a SaaS one, with the universities paying the startup so they can offer the platform as a free service to their students.

Truth Lets You Send Anonymous Texts

Truth app

With Whisper and Secret raising millions of dollars to build anonymous services, all kinds of apps are popping up that let you share things without attaching your identity.

While most of the apps emerging try to build a community by letting you scroll through streams of anonymous messages, some developers are creating apps that let you reach out directly to people in your contacts.

There seems to be some latent demand for these kinds of services. Leak, a service for anonymously emailing people, recently launched and shut down in a manner of days due to the combination of a huge influx of people trying it out and the fact that it was quickly built on platforms not intended for that use.

Over the last few days I’ve been playing with Truth, a similar app for iOS that lets you send anonymous text messages to people in your phone’s contacts.

The interface is a close facsimile of Apple’s default Messages app, so there isn’t much of a learning curve. There is a bit of friction to get started with the app, however: besides the expected popups asking for permission to access your contacts, Truth also makes you register with an email address and password.

That doesn’t seem like it should be a necessary step, considering the point is that the app in anonymous and it confirms that you’re actually using your phone number with a text verification. I asked Ali Saheli, one of the creators of the app, why it requires that step. He told me via email that credentials are being collected so that they can be used in an unannounced upcoming “part of [their] platform.”

Protip: if collecting an email address isn’t needed for the primary function of your app and you can’t tell users exactly what it will be used for, just don’t.

That quibble with the setup process aside, Truth works as advertised. You can choose any contact in your address book to send an anonymous text, and in several tests, messages arrive in about as much time as they would via a regular text. Messages begin with “The truth is” by default, which is meant to inspire compliments or hard truths that might be too awkward to express openly.

If you send a message to someone who has also installed Truth, it’ll show up in their app with an anonymized identity. If the chosen recipient hasn’t used the app — which is far more likely — they’ll get a text from a Bay Area phone number that they haven’t seen before.

My biggest concern with Truth is that, like other anonymous apps, the service seems easy to abuse. Most of the screenshots Truth uses to market the app suggest that it’ll be used for flirting, which would be fine except for the fact that receiving messages isn’t opt-in. Considering how often flirty behavior can turn into unwanted advances in situations where identities are known, I have a feeling that quite a few people who receive messages from Truth before installing the app will end up blocking its number.

IMAGE BY Truth (IMAGE HAS BEEN MODIFIED)

Sympler Offers An Easy Way To Create Fun, Music-Centric Videos

Sympler Aims to Make Video Remixing Easier

Co-founders Ben Jenkins and Alexander Kane swung by the TechCrunch office recently to show off Sympler, their new video app for iOS.

Asked why the world needs yet another app for creating videos on your iPhone, Jenkins argued that “the ones that are out there aren’t really helping people do it.” Specifically, apps like Vine and Instagram don’t tackle video editing, which Jenkins described as “one of the keys” to creating good videos, but also something that has “traditionally been a very complicated process.”

So Jenkins said that Sympler (which launched last month) has borrowed tools from the music world, turning the act of editing into something like a game. Not only can users watch the videos you’ve created — they can also take the assets and create their own “remixed” versions.

“We want to sort of indirectly teach people about some of the principles of editing, like quick cuts, synchronization with music, or some relationship with music is a good thing,” he added. “But we don’t want to lecture them, and we don’t want to tell them how to do it.”

You can see some of the results (sometimes silly, sometimes very cool) in the video above. You can also watch me fumble around with the app — I don’t think I did a particularly good job, but hey, I was having fun.

Unseen, An Anonymous Photo Sharing App For Colleges, Raises $2.1 Million

An Austin-based company called Bearch has raised $2.1 million in seed funding for its anonymous photo-sharing app Unseen, which has been trending on college campuses. Investors in the round include Rackspace co-founder Dirk Elmendorf, Indeed.com CEO Rony Kahan, CEO of Woodbolt International Doss Cunningham, and several other angel investors.

At first glance, Unseen looks similar to other anonymous networking apps that have become popular in recent months, including competitors like Secret or Whisper, for example. But co-founder Michael Schramm stresses, its intention is to ultimately build a different type of community for its users. Using both manual and outsourced moderation procedures, the idea with Unseen is to cut down on the bullying and other inappropriate behaviors that anonymous apps can contribute to without being heavy-handed.

screen568x568 (7)But Unseen isn’t there yet, from what I saw. A brief tour around one university’s photos in the app included spy shots of a girl commenters called “slut,” and suggestions of sexual activity that could later take place, to put it mildly. Many posts are sexual in nature, and there are quite a few of female body parts. Others are photos of joints or packed pipes, and a lot seem to be groups of guys discussing girls in photos or directly asking female users more general sexual questions.

Of course, like other apps in this space, Unseen isn’t only going to feature this sort of content. There have been a couple of threads about serious matters, like depression, says Schramm, where support was offered.

But from what I saw, the app favors sexual content, drugs and spy shots. Some users are posting goofy photos, or text-only comments that you could imagine would come from a young college kid, like “What are the best places to buy alcohol with a fake [ID]..?”

Kids will be kids, I guess. But if this is the future of social media, I’m glad I’m so darned old.

Schramm, who created Unseen along with co-founder Munjal Budhabhatti, believes that anonymous apps are not just a flash in the pan, and they’ve entered this space because they want to figure out how to get things right. In fact, Unseen grew out of two pivots from previous attempts to connect users via mobile, one a Jelly-like local Q&A app and the other a place for group discussions.

Unseen is the one that took off – or at least, the one that was able to attract investor attention. The company declined to share user numbers but says growth has been 93 percent week-over-week for the past five weeks. The app is only three months old, so that doesn’t really prove much of anything at this point. Going from zero to anything is going to yield big numbers.

And on Android, there are only somewhere between 500-1,000 users according to Google Play’s install tracking. On iOS, there are likely more, but Unseen is not a runaway hit at this early stage so much as it is a calculated bet.

screen568x568 (8)The app is live now on 40 college campuses. Users don’t have to sign up or log in; they just pick their college campus feed from a search box to participate.

Setting The Right Tone?

“I hate anonymous apps, I think they’re garbage,” co-founder Schramm proclaimed at the beginning of our conversation, but then explained how anonymous apps are a great door for people to enter into things with. Traditional social media, he added, “is actually driving people further apart rather than bringing them together because you have to maintain this appearance to your friends, or professionally.”

The younger generation – those who grew up being publicly exposed (and shamed) for their Facebook activity and photos – has certainly been drawn to anonymous platforms. They like Snapchat and other private and “ephemeral” messaging apps, and more “social” apps like Yik Yak or Whisper. Unseen is hoping to ride that trend, too, but set a different tone.

Schramm says they quietly censor photos on Unseen. If someone posts a full nude, for example, they delete it. If the poster returns and posts a partial nude, they just keep deleting it until the photo fits in with the guidelines and rules of the community Unseen wants to establish. (It’s “no nipples” by the way.) There’s even a long user agreement up front when you first open up the app that tells you what you can and cannot do.

In time, Unseen’s…well…unseen censorship hopes to help set the community’s tone.

Now the plan with the new funding is to moderately grow its install base. The wait list today includes 863 schools where users have signed up to join. Schramm says they need to be careful about their next steps. “Growth unchecked in the anonymous world is a very dangerous thing,” he says.

So is the anonymous world itself.

Why #Ferguson Wasn’t Trending For Some Social Media Users Last Night

As the situation worsened for a fifth night in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri, where protestors were met with rubber bullets and tear gas, journalists were arrested, and many were asking how something like this could happen in America, a number of people following the events in real-time on social networks like Facebook and Twitter had a few questions of their own.

For starters, why wasn’t Twitter displaying the #Ferguson hashtag as a Twitter trend, when a glance at the number of tweets pouring in seemed to qualify it for “trending” status? And why wasn’t “Ferguson” ranked at the top of Facebook’s “Trends” section, when surely it was what everyone was talking about?

The answers, as it turns out, are nuanced and many. There are a million reasons why a single person using social media to follow the news out of Ferguson wouldn’t have seen a Ferguson hashtag or trend. But simply put, the answer is that social media networks use algorithms, not real live human editors.

While #Ferguson was by all means trending in some places, for some people on Twitter last night (in fact, it continues to trend today for me as this post is written), not everyone who uses Twitter in the U.S. would have seen the hashtag appear in their own trends section.

That’s because Twitter trends are determined not by the total volume of tweets, but the acceleration of those tweets. A trend is a reflection of that acceleration, relative to the acceleration of other tweets about other subjects.

Twitter’s Trends are also subject to the whims of “personalization.”

This is generally a good thing as it means when you log into Twitter, you’ll find things of interest to you, whether that’s what your Twitter friends are talking about right now, or things going on in your own city.

#mediablackout blackout but not #Ferguson showing up in my trends pic.twitter.com/lDTHFdrYeY

— Hell is Empty (@Sleestak) August 14, 2014

#Ferguson NOT showing up in the Trends section? BULLSHIT, Twitter (and Facebook).

— Genial Black Man (@trecoolx) August 14, 2014

Tweets about #Ferguson are the only things in my newsfeed, but it’s not showing up in trends. How is that even possible?

— sheryl (@shherryylll) August 14, 2014

It’s hard for me to not understand why Ferguson isn’t even showing up in my Facebook or Twitter trends. Cmon, America. #doyouseewhatisee

— Lisa Jones (@TheJonesesBlog) August 14, 2014

Though personalization is a switch that can be turned on or off, it’s one of those virtual knobs Twitter users may have twisted in the past – perhaps with a click at the suggestion of a website prompt, or maybe following a random trip into their Twitter Settings – then later forgot existed.

Explains Twitter on its website, “trends are determined by an algorithm and, by default, are tailored for you based on who you follow and your location.” The algorithm, which favors recency, identifies topics of immediate popularity, not those that have remained popular for some time.

So people who didn’t see a #Ferguson hashtag may have had nothing but their own network of friends to blame. Or they may have been located somewhere that the hashtag wasn’t accelerating more quickly than the other hashtags that were being displayed to them.

To be clearer: Twitter wouldn’t – and didn’t – actively censor or remove this trend.

SomratTVTwitter

The company never comments on trend activity publicly, as doing so could be a full-time job (and then some), but it has always prided itself on being a place where people come to discuss the latest news.

Currently, Twitter’s top-ranking execs, including General Counsel Vijaya Gadde and Head of Public Policy Colin Crowell, are tweeting about #Ferguson. And in the past, Twitter has been the network where a number of notable news stories broke first, from celebrity deaths and royal weddings to the raid that led to Osama Bin Laden’s death, “Arab Spring,” news emerging following the Boston Marathon bombing, natural disasters like earthquakes, and much more.

So Twitter is not censoring the news. However, for some users, it will just feel that way.

Meanwhile, some users on Facebook were having a similar problem: Ferguson wasn’t appearing in Facebook’s trends or was ranked lower in the list than they thought appropriate – often below more frivolous fare like the band “Death Cab for Cutie” losing its guitarist, or something about a new Muppets video.

Again, the problem on Facebook is one of personalization. Facebook’s Trends section – the social media giant’s response to Twitter – offers a personalized list that’s based on what they “Like” and who they’re connected to, in addition to what’s trending overall on Facebook.

In other words, if Ferguson was missing for you…well, pick better friends?

Facebook International Phone

Of course, when some social media users log in and see a “missing” trend, they’re quick to make the assumption that Twitter or Facebook itself is to blame. One could argue, maybe, they are because of their reliance on algorithms over human-driven editorial, especially at times when social media serves as one of the only ways news gets out.

After all, in Ferguson, reporters on the scene were being man-handled, handcuffed, then released with no explanations by area police.

And maybe, just maybe, the computers can’t do a good enough job of figuring out what news events you want to see.

This, we have to understand, is how social media works.

We’ve turned ourselves over to services that learn our interests from our clicks, our friends, our networks, our location.

In the end, neither Twitter nor Facebook, is really to blame. In the most literal sense of the phrase, we are.

Snapchat Could Be Stripped Of Valuable “Tap-And-Hold For Video” Patent

Snapchat has quietly been embroiled in an intellectual property interference proceeding that could revoke its lucrative patent for a design trick now widely copied by Facebook, Google and more.

Snapchat filed for a patent on the ability to tap and hold a smartphone camera’s shutter button to record a video on August 8th, 2012, while another company called Mojo Media filed for a nearly identical patent on August 27th, 2012. Snapchat was awarded the patent in April 2013, but Mojo has since successfully pulled Snapchat into a patent interference proceeding where a panel of United States Patent and Trademark Office judges will decide who is the rightful owner.

Screenshot of working model of Mojo Media's tap-and-hold for video feature

Screenshot of working model of Mojo Media’s tap-and-hold for video feature

Though Snapchat applied for the patent before Mojo, the U.S. uses a “first-to-invent” not a “first-to-file” rule, and  Mojo actually created a legal “reduction to practice” or working model of tap-and-hold for video three weeks before Snapchat filed.That means it may have the upper hand in the case, even though Mojo Media never publicly launched an app with the feature.

Mojo Media co-founder Richard Marlin writes in his company’s Suggestion Of Interference to the USPTO, dated November 27th, 2013, that his invention “was conceived earlier than April 30, 2012.”

He explains that “On July 19th, 2012, Mojo Media, Inc. tested the Beta App, which worked as expected. The Beta App provided a single user interface element on the touch screen of a personal communicator device that when touched quickly would take a photographic snapshot through the device’s image sensors. When, instead, the single user interface element was held greater than or equal to a preset length of time, the device would record a video until the user interface element was released.” That’s exactly how Snapchat’s shutter button works.

Mojo Media co-founder Richard Marlin's sketches and description of a photo shutter button that could be held down to record video.

Mojo Media co-founder Richard Marlin’s sketches and description of a photo shutter button that could be held down to record video.

The USPTO has already investigated the claims and confirmed that the patents are similar enough that only one company will be awarded it, as noted in the May 30th, 2014 Declaration Of Interference. The decision could come in the next few months. Mojo Media declined to comment when contacted. Snapchat acknowledged there was an ongoing patent-interference proceeding and noted it was the first to file a patent on the technology, but declined to comment further.

The fate of this “Single mode visual media capture” could be very important to the tech industry. Snapchat first popularized the system which lets an app use a single button but detect if you’re trying to take a photo or video based on how long you hold down. But now, apps like Google Hangouts, Facebook Messenger, Facebook Slingshot, Instagram Bolt, TapTalk, Mirage and Shotclock all feature the same user interface element. It’s become widely used because it prevents people from having to toggle a photo/video switch before shooting.

Screen Shot 2014-08-13 at 6.18.19 PM

Diagram for Snapchat’s “Single mode visual media capture” patent aka tap-and-hold for video.

If Snapchat wins the interference proceeding and retains the patent, it could use it to either sue or collect licensing fees from any company that infringes on it. Alternatively, it could use the patent to protect itself from IP lawsuits from these companies for infringing on their patents by forcing a stalemate where both sides infringe on each other’s IP.

But if it loses and the patent goes to Mojo Media, the results could be disastrous for Snapchat and annoying to others.

Mojo Media could sue or extort licensing fees from Snapchat and others with tap-and-hold for video if they don’t change their designs. Since it is core to Snapchat’s main feature and the company is still pre-revenue, getting sued, paying fees, or modifying its UI could all hurt the Los Angeles startup.

Mojo Media could also sell the patent to one of the giants like Google or Facebook. That would let them avoid lawsuits or licensing, as neither go on the offensive with their vast patent armories unless provoked.

And worst-case scenario, a patent troll buys the patent from Mojo Media and sues the heck out of everyone.

This is just the latest in Snapchat’s legal drama, as it’s still fighting with allegedly ousted co-founder Reggie Brown over who invented self-destructing photo sharing and deserves to own the company.

Snapchat has done well staying focused on its product, with this year’s launches of Stories and texting having gone very well. It’s new geo-filters and Our Story curated, crowdsourced live streams of big events like music festivals both show potential for Snapchat to start making money. But these lawsuits cast a dark cloud in the corner of Snapchat’s otherwise blue L.A. sky.

Below you’ll see the initial Suggestion Of Interference from Mojo Media outlining its claim to Snapchat’s patent, followed by the Declaration Of Interference that confirms that USPTO is deciding who will own the patent.

Camoji Lets You Create And Send Animated GIFs Via iMessage

An iOS application called Camoji, which lets you create your own animated selfies and other GIFs, will be your new favorite toy. Like a number of mobile messaging applications that have come out in recent weeks, Camoji is designed primarily to work with iMessage, as opposed to attempting to establish its own messaging platform that would compete with giants like WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger, for example.

The app is also the latest to emerge from the founders of Leo, an ephemeral messaging application launched late last year.

4_memesLeo’s team, including founders Austin Broyles, previously of Google and Square, and Jisi Guo, previously head of product at Ribbon, are now mainly focused on Camoji, they tell us.

The company had raised $1.5 million from a large syndicate of investors in order to build Leo, including Battery Ventures, Freestyle Capital, Greylock Partners, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, SV Angel, and a number of other individual investors.

But Leo emerged at a time when there’s a lot of competition on the App Store for mobile messaging apps. And its nifty feature of offering disappearing messages was already popularized by Snapchat, and has since been adopted by a variety of apps, like Confide, Wickr, Frankly, Path, (recently acquired) Blink, and many more.

So instead of continuing to try to differentiate itself among a rapidly growing crowd, Camoji offers a simpler experience.

Camoji does one thing, but does it well: it lets you create your own emojis using the iPhone’s camera.

“The app evolved from an idea Jisi had for a custom ‘emoji’ keyboard that would let you make emojis from your camera inside the keyboard, in any app,” explains Broyles.

imessage2“Everyone can receive text messages, so you can share your Camojis with your friends without making them download a new app to get them. It’s a really smooth experience,” he says.

“The GIFs animate inline inside of iMessage, giving a fun, almost always hilarious experience. When someone sees a Camoji in iMessage for the first time, the most common reaction is, ‘wow! how did you do that?’” Broyles adds.

How It Works

There’s really not much to using this app. Camoji, which is a mash-up of “camera” and “emoji,” is a one-screen experience where you just tap and hold to create your GIF-like images, optionally add a caption, then swipe up to send it to a friend via iMessage.

The entire user interface is gesture-based, letting you swipe to flip the camera around, press and hold to copy a “Camoji” to your clipboard, or swipe right to share to other social networks, like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. There’s also no need to sign up to use the app, which makes it even easier to get started.

Camoji is similar in some ways to a handful of new applications that are working on top of Apple’s iMessage, in order to augment the experience with GIFs and stickers – things iMessage technically supports, but doesn’t have built-in. For example, imoji lets you turn any image from the web into custom emojis while UltraText lets you quickly create flashing GIF text, and Nutmeg lets you quickly snag popular GIFs for use in iMessage.

Now live on the App Store, the Leo/Camoji team is now working on internationalizing the app and adding more ways to share your GIFs. The app is a free download here.