A Russian startup called Unface.me has created a new social network inspired by the Gossip Girl TV series which lets users create an alter ego to — let’s face it — troll their friends, or even post even worst types of gossip entirely anonymously. The site connects with Facebook and Russian social network VKontakte so it can pull in users’ genuine friend networks, then furnishes them with a series of tools to poke fun, dish salacious gossip or vote on who of their friends is coolest and therefore who is not. Y’know, teen stuff.
Teens powered the rise of social networking giant Facebook. But today’s teens are arguably starting to be less enamoured with the platform their siblings spent all their time on, what with so many other, more flexible ways to ping and poke each other. Facebook’s insistence on real names, and its standard comms toolset of public posts, private messages and IM isn’t helping here. Looked at through the hyper layered and stratified teenage lens, it’s pretty limting. Which is giving startups the opportunity to crowd in.
Zuck and co were also not as quick to respond to the growth in mobile messaging as they should have been. The long and short of it is that today’s teens are spoiled for choice; they don’t need Facebook to stay in touch — they have a whole arsenal of creative digital tools to get around being grounded.
Facebook’s difficulty, of course, is that it can’t keep up with the kids without risking alienating its massive user base of oldies. With such a whoppingly huge user base that spans multiple age-groups comes a big responsibility not to put segments of users off. Keeping things fairly simple is the compromise path, but that too risks boring the kids — so they go looking to get their kicks elsewhere, whether it’s Snapchat or Unface.me.
Now it must be said that Unface.me is pretty rough round the edges — and focused pretty squarely on the Russia market for now. It isn’t necessarily anything more than a curiosity. It’s just come out of a closed beta, so its user base is small, with a test group of around 20,000 that it’s now looking to grow — having just opened up to the public. It says it’s also starting to advertise to get the word out. But as an experiment in extending social networking by adding an element of privacy it’s interesting to watch — also bringing to mind secret-sharing app Whisper.
Unface.me’s founders are three computer science graduates from Moscow State University, with respective specialisms in marketing, business development and web development. The startup is currently bootstrapped with funds from founders, friends and family.
“The inital idea came from the Gossip Girl series, but we decided to go further and develop a place where people can share their feelings freely and get honest opinions from their friends, but sharing secrets and gossips can be done too. We strongly believe that anonymity loosens up and helps discovering new facts about friends and yourself,” Unface.me’s Dmitrii Ponomarev tells TechCrunch.
The site has been in development for around a year and a half, with the closed beta kicking off six months ago. The “mission” is to “let every person discuss freely anything or anyone”. And, judging by some of the public posts, there’s certainly plenty of that going on already. Indeed, it’s pushing into some pretty unpleasant territory, which is generally what happens when you mix teens and gossip, regardless of the medium they’re using.
The key twist here is the mixture of unknown and known, says Ponomarev. Since the users are interacting with their real friends, pulled in from third party social networks, not random online strangers. From there they can choose to chat and post anonymously or under a fixed alterego. Or indeed using the real name they use on the linked social network.
“A user can anonymously write a story about his friends on yesterday’s party, share it anonymously via sms and watch the discussion,” explains Ponomarev. “Or he or she can post a photo of his new look and get really honest responses from friends because the are anonymous. Or he can start an anonymous chat with his friends and discuss something that matters with his friends but no one will know each others’ names… We’ve gone much further than just posting anonymous text messages.”
Teens are famously creative in their communications. Even within the Facebook straitjacket they find subtle and not so subtle ways to hack the limits — by ‘being in a relationship’ with all their BFFs, say, or asking each other to like a post for feedback on what they look like and so on. Unface.me looks like it’s picking up on that preference for teens to gamify their communications — and giving them even more layers to interact with each other.
Facebook can still be part of the mix, of course — as one of the foundation networks that Unface.me is using as its jumping off point. However, if more teenage chatter ends up going on anonymously outside Facebook’s walls that’s not an outcome that will end up pouring coin into Zuckerberg’s coffers as it restricts the flow of data. Addressing the innovation challenge posed by upstart startups that are offering cooler, more teen-friendly ways to do stuff is the sort of war that is looking impossible for a single, central dominant service like Facebook to win. When it comes to the social networking/social messaging space, it’s definitely time to get the popcorn in.
Google is the latest suitor to be reportedly circling around social sat-nav smartphone app Waze. Bloomberg reports ‘people familiar with the matter’ who say Mountain View is considering an acquisition, and that Waze is “fielding expressions of interest from multiple parties and is seeking more than $1 billion”. However sources contacted by TechCrunch have poured cold water on the Google rumour.
We’ve reached out to Google and Waze but at the time of writing neither company could be reached for comment. Update: A spokeswoman for Waze said: “We don’t comment on rumors or speculation.”
Earlier this month we covered reports that Facebook was sniffing around the mapping and traffic service, with a view to ramping up its mobile efforts. Meanwhile Apple has also previously been linked with a Waze buy – having had its own highly public problems with maps. Google has also previously been rumoured to be interested, as has Microsoft. So that’s the full complement of tech giants all apparently eyeing up the same crowdsourced traffic startup.
Waze was founded in 2007 and has raised some $67 million in VC funding from backers including Kleiner Perkins, BlueRun Ventures, Magma Venture Partners, Vertex Venture Capital, and Li Ka-shing, according to Crunchbase. In February it announced it had grown to 40 million registered users, some of whom it picked up during Apple’s mapgate troubles. Waze has offices in the U.S. and Israel — the latter being where its R&D is based.
A key blocker for any Waze acquisition has been apparent investor conflict over the terms of any deal, with questions about whether Waze would move fully to the U.S. or keep R&D in Israel causing disagreements. There has also been investor conflict about whether to accept a lower, mostly cash offer or a higher offer comprised of more shares, according to our sources. Rumours of big tech suitors like Google sniffing around could also be a way for Waze investors to try to leverage more out of an acquisition — by making other suitors, such as Facebook (whose up to $1 billion interest in Waze we have previously confirmed), up their own offers.
Bloomberg’s sources claim Google and “other large tech companies” — but not Apple — have approached Waze about a possible acquisition since its talks with Facebook become public. However they also say none of the bidders is close to clinching a deal, and add that the talks may fall apart or Waze may walk away and seek more VC funding to continue expanding its mapping program. So really that’s saying everything is still to play for and any outcome is possible at this point.
To our ear, the most plausible-sounding scenario here is that investors are trying to leverage more out of a possible Facebook acquisition of Waze. Especially because multiple credible sources contacted by TechCrunch have told us that the Google acquisition rumour is not at all true.
Imonomy, an Israeli startup which makes software that analyses webpages and automatically inserts relevant, copyright-free images to accompany the content, has closed a $400,000 seed round from a group of angel investors. Investors include Inon Axel, former CEO of Kasamba (acquired by LivePerson for $40m), Liron Rose, cofounder of AfterDownload (acquired by ironSource for $28m), and Itai Levitan and Tal Shaked, partners at AfterDownload.
Imonomy said it will be using the new seed funding for product development and initial marketing and sales activities.
The startup was founded in the middle of last year by Oren Dror and Amit Halawa who previously held senior R&D and engineering positions at Yedda, an online Q&A service that was acquired by TechCrunch’s parent company AOL, back in 2007.
Imonomy targets its software at smaller-sized web publishers who have a pool of online content but don’t necessarily have the means to spice it up with illustrations — either lacking the production staff to spend the time hunting down royalty free images or the licensing money to pay to display copyrighted images. Imonomy says its semantic software is being used by more than 500 medium-sized websites (with up to 10 million monthly impressions) at present, including AOL Answers and Articles Base.
Imonomy’s software scans web content to figure out relevant images to serve up from its database of copyright-free images, and also determines the optimal place to position them on the page to improve user engagement. Inserted images support hover over links to other articles and also displaying ads, giving publishers (and Imonomy) a way to monetise the added eyecandy. It’s effectively a more aesthetic version of inline text link ads.
“The idea behind Imonomy is that publishers of content-heavy web sites need to tools to help their sites be visibly attractive,” the startup tells TechCrunch. “High quality copyright-free images are hard to come by and the time and effort required to locate such pictures is a hassle. Imonomy created its content enrichment and monetization system to automate this process in order to help publishers save time, improve user engagement and create monetization opportunities.”
Here’s how it describes its system on its website:
Our database contains millions of images that cover every possible topic. Our system scans your webpage, finds the best fitting image and automatically insert them into the published page. Thus making content more interesting and informative. Our technology brings our customers greater user engagement and lower bounce rates, which has been in proven to result in significantly increased revenues. imonomy also creates intelligent links between pages, which encourages visitors to easily navigate to additional relevant content. The visual semantic engine can be implemented easily on any website, and we also provide a free API that expands the functionality and the systems abilities.
In terms of competition, Imonomy concedes there are “numerous content enrichment tools” out there — name-checking the likes of OutBrain, Zemanta and GumGum — but argues that its approach is unique because it’s bundling “content enrichment and monetization opportunities in a single automated process to publishers for free”.
It’s not charging for use of its technology, instead it has a freemium model, tied to the ads that are inserted along with the images — sharing this revenue with its publisher customers so also taking a cut itself. Its revenue-sharing percentage depends on the size of the publisher and the volume of traffic on its website. But for larger sites with more impressions it takes a lower percentage than for smaller, less well visited sites. The startup added that it expects to be profitable by the end of the year.
An example of an added image plus ad powered by Imonomy’s engine is shown below:
After the aesthetic elegance of Dots, prepare for another injection of minimalist puzzle game beauty. Blip Blup is the new game from London-based design house and app studio ustwo — maker of Whale Trail, a mobile game that snagged an e-book deal, plus a raft of other interesting apps including most recently Rando (random photo-sharing) and Honk (visual messaging).
Blip Blup has just launched on iOS for iPhone and iPad, either free with ads, or $1.99 ad free. It’s also available free with ads on Android (upgradable to ad-free via in-app purchase). The basic gameplay involves triggering pulses of light so that they fill in all the empty space in each level. Light pulses can be blocked by walls, and won’t travel around corners but will travel diagonally. There are also other elements introduced as your progress, such as arrows that force the direction of the light and explosive tiles to avoid. The fewer light pulses (blips) you use to fill in a level, the higher your score.
The first thing that stands out about Blip Blup is that ustwo has gone for a minimalist, abstract design aesthetic, rather than a skeumorphic look and feel — despite apparently experimenting with the latter. Too much realism just didn’t fit the puzzle gameplay, says ustwo. “Getting to the final treatment was an exercise in finding a balance between our love for beautiful design as a studio and simple graphics that allow the puzzle-solving to be centre-stage,” it explains in a blog.
“Skeuomorphic design in this instance would have stifled the complex puzzle solving nature of Blip Blup,” adds ustwo co-founder Matt Miller. “The puzzle and the solution needed to be at the front and centre stage with nothing getting in the way of that focus. We believe in the core gameplay of Blip Blup and feel that the minimal design supports that without overwhelming it with unnecessary graphics.”
Miller says Blip Blup is designed specifically to appeal to people who are also interested in visual design, and who therefore might not be turned on by traditional gaming aesthetics. “Over the past decade and as a direct result of mobile app-based gaming, gamers have increased in terms of numbers and diversity. This shift has meant that creators, who previously had to appeal to large and ‘safe’ audiences, can instead cater to more specific and targeted audiences. For example appealing to players who are interested in interacting with great visual design, rather than those who prefer cartoon characters and fantasy locations,” he tells TechCrunch.
“Minimalist design in game visuals presents interesting challenges. In a way, you are reducing your available visual toolset, to a few essential tools. But with these tools, you still need to convey success and failure, important objects, objects that are on or off, and so on. ??The mass audience definitely reacts favourably to matching shiny gems together, or seeing projectiles strike a tower of glass and wood blocks. But there’s an audience out there that love the cleanliness of a grid, or the satisfaction of filling an abstract space completely with colour even more.”
“We see visual design and interaction design as one area in gaming and this means we can ultimately create new experiences and potentially speak to a new audience,” he adds.
Blip Blub’s minimalist design certainly brings to mind betaworks’ Dots (not least because ustwo wanted to call it just Blip, before realising that name had been taken), which also recently caught our eye. Or even Peter Molyneux’s Curiosity. But with so many mobile games still opting for a cartoon aesthetic — a la Angry Birds — taking a different tack by stripping back the visuals feels refreshing — likely making these puzzlers stand out more than they would have on gameplay alone. It also seems to echo the wider digital design trend that’s been flattening graphics and decluttering visuals all over the web and mobile, doing away with realistic bells and whistles and replacing them with plain blocks of colour to allow shapes to shine through.
Blip Blub doesn’t feel entirely flat — the light pulses move via subtle colour gradations — but it’s certainly minimalistic. Its look is complemented by an ambient soundtrack that weaves in gameplay actions, with each light pulse adding a few more notes to the soundscape. (In fact ustwo says the sound is “50% of the Blip Blup experience”.) The overall effect is reflective, meditative and very relaxing. This would be a great game to play to destress after a hard day.
The slow, relaxed paced is matched by the gradual gameplay progression, with basic tutorial puzzles leading you step by step to proper levels and from there turning the screw to up the difficulty by adding new elements to the mix. There are 120+ puzzles in the free game distributed across nine levels, and 140+ across 10 levels in the paid game.
Truecaller, the Sweden-based creater of a crowdsourced phone directory app and online white pages service, has opened its API to a select group of “handpicked” developers. Truecaller said its directory now contains some 960 million phone numbers, either contributed by individuals or harvested through partnerships with other directory services. The API covers only the numbers Truecaller has in its own datacase, i.e. not partner numbers, meaning it covers around 600 million digits.
Truecaller’s numbers are global in scope, and include landline, mobile and pre-pay digits — the latter category giving it an edge over other directory services, it argues. Being as phone numbers amount to highly sensitive data in the wrong hands, Truecaller is being careful about who is getting access to its API — hence no open API. Telemarketing companies are specifically barred from getting their wires in. Being the company that helped spammers is clearly not the kind of publicity Truecaller is hoping for here.
One scenario where it envisages its API being a benefit to others but also without causing irritation to phone number owners is for call centres to identify who is calling before starting a call. Truecaller’s API allows for reverse number lookup, meaning developers can attach a name to a known number. It also returns a ‘Spam score’ to indicate if a number is a likely spammer (e.g. telesales or robocalls) and — at the other end of the spectrum — a ‘True score’ to indicate how important the number is. This score is “the measurement of how popular a phone number is with our users over time”.
Name search is not included in the API but remains solely a feature of Truecaller’s mobile app. Truecaller is charging developers to use some of the features of its API, so this is clearly part of its monetisation strategy. Its free API includes only how popular a phone number is. Pricing for the more fully featured APIs starts at $299 per month, rising to $4,999.
Truecaller said cloud e-signing company Scrive has been trying its API — as a way to validate the identity behind a phone number.
Asked about the types of customers it is envisaging for the API, Truecaller CEO Alan Mamedi told TechCrunch: “We’ve had more than a thousand applicants till now even as the API was unannounced. However, we evaluate all of them internally and in all cases test their application before given access. For the time being, the developers and companies that have been given access to our API are developing for B2B services.
“I believe the Truecaller API will benefit various companies such as major airlines like Delta Airlines to improve their customer support and experience (greeting by name, decrease waiting times by connecting incoming name to ticket information), but also identify well networked and loyalty members based on their True score.”
Last September Truecaller raised a $1.3 million Series A from Open Ocean, with the aim of expanding its footprint in its key markets of North America, Asia and the Middle East.