Wattpad’s latest deal will turn its stories into TV shows and movies in Korea

Wattpad’s ambitions to grow beyond a storytelling community for young adults took another leap forward today with the announcement of a new partnership that will help expand its reach in Asia. The company has teamed up with Huayi Brothers in Korea, who will now be Wattpad’s exclusive entertainment partner in the region. The two companies […]

Wattpad’s ambitions to grow beyond a storytelling community for young adults took another leap forward today with the announcement of a new partnership that will help expand its reach in Asia. The company has teamed up with Huayi Brothers in Korea, who will now be Wattpad’s exclusive entertainment partner in the region. The two companies will co-produce content sourced from Wattpad’s community, as it’s adapted for film, TV and other digital media projects in the country.

Development deals like this are not new to Wattpad at this point.

In the U.S., the storytelling app made headlines for bringing the teen hit “The Kissing Booth” to Netflix, which shot up to become the No. 4 movie on IMDb for a time.

Wattpad also recently announced a 2nd season for “Light as a Feather,” which it produces with AwesomenessTV and Grammnet for Hulu.

It additionally works with eOne, Sony, SYFY, Universal Cable Productions (a division of NBCUniversal), and Germany’s Bavaria Fiction.

Outside the U.S., Wattpad has 26 films in development with iflix in Indonesia.

And WattPad’s feature film “After,” based on Anna Todd’s novel, will arrive in theaters on April 12.

Key to these deals is Wattpad’s ability to source the best content from the 565 million some stories on its platform. Do to so, it uses something it calls its “Story DNA Machine Learning technology,” which helps to deconstruct stories by analyzing things like sentence structure, word use, grammar and more in order to help identify the next big hits using more than just readership numbers alone.

The stories it identifies as promising are then sent over to content specialists (aka human editors) for further review.

This same combination of tech and human curation has been used in the past to help source its writing award winners and is now being used to find the next stories to be turned into novels for its new U.S. publishing arm, Wattpad Books.

In addition to its hit-finding technology, studios working with Wattpad also have a way to reach younger users who today are often out of touch with traditional media, as much of youth culture has shifted online.

These days, teens and young adults are more likely to know YouTube stars than Hollywood actors. They’re consuming content online in communities like Reddit, TikTok, Instagram, YouTube, Twitter, and elsewhere. And when it comes to reading, they’re doing more of that online, too – whether that’s through chat fiction apps like Hooked or by reading Wattpad’s longer stories.

Wattpad says it now has 70 million uses worldwide, who now spend 22 billion combined minutes per month engaged with its website and app.

With the Korean deal, Wattpad is further growing its international footprint after several other moves focused on its international expansions.

For example, today’s news follows Wattpad’s raise of $51 million in funding from Tencent; its appointment of its first Head of Asia for Wattpad Studios, Dexter Ong, last year; and its hiring of its first GM of India, Devashish Sharma, who is working with local partners to turn its stories into movies, TV, digital and print in the region.

Huayi Brothers Korea hasn’t announced any specific projects from the Wattpad deal at this point, but those will follow.

“Wattpad’s model is the future of entertainment, using technology to find great storytellers and bring them to an international audience,” said, Jay Ji, CEO, Huayi Brothers Korea, in a statement. “In an era of entertainment abundance, working with Wattpad means access to the most important things in the industry: a data-backed approach to development, and powerful, proven stories that audiences have already fall in love with,” he said.

Step targets teens and parents with a no-fees mobile bank account and Visa card

A new mobile banking startup called Step wants to help bring teenagers and other young adults into the cashless era. Today, cash is used less often, as more consumers shop online and send money to one another through payment apps like Venmo. But teenagers in particular are still heavily burdened with cash — even though […]

A new mobile banking startup called Step wants to help bring teenagers and other young adults into the cashless era. Today, cash is used less often, as more consumers shop online and send money to one another through payment apps like Venmo. But teenagers in particular are still heavily burdened with cash — even though they, too, want to spend their money on things that require a payment card, like Amazon.com purchases or mobile gaming, for example.

That’s where Step comes in.

The company aims to address the needs of what it believes is an underserved market in mobile banking — the 75 million children and young adults under the age of 21 in the U.S., who are still being forced to use cash.

This market isn’t the “unbanked,” it’s the “pre-banked,” explains Step CEO CJ MacDonald, whose previous startup, mobile gift card platform Gyft, sold to First Data several years ago.

Above: Step CEO, CJ MacDonald

“We’re building an all-in-one banking solution that primarily focuses on teens and parents,” he says. “We want it to be a teen’s first bank account. We want to be a teen’s first spending card. And we want to teach financial literacy and responsibility firsthand.”

MacDonald, along with CTO Alexey Kalinichenko, previously of Square and financial services startup Token, founded Step in May 2018. The 10-person team also includes several prior Gyft employees.

Last summer, Step closed on $3.8 million in seed funding from Sesame Ventures, Crosslink Capital and Collaborative Fund. Crosslink general partner Eric Chin sits on the board.

While there are a number of mobile banking apps out there today — like Chime, Monzo, Simple, Revolut and others — Step will specifically target teens, 13 and up, and other young adults with its marketing. Teens under 18 still need parents’ approval to sign up, of course. But the goal is to encourage the teens to bring the idea to their parents — not the other way around.

Step’s focus on this younger demographic puts it in a different space, where there are fewer competitors. Its more direct rivals are not the bigger mobile banks, but rather startups like teen debit card and bank app Current, or the parent-managed debit card for kids from Greenlight.

The mobile banking service Step provides will also aim to be more comprehensive than just a debit card. It will offer a combination of checking, savings and a Visa card that works as both credit and debit.

The card includes Visa’s Zero Liability Protection on all purchases from unauthorized use, and allows parents to set spending limits.

Parents will also be able to connect their own bank accounts to Step to instantly transfer in funds, which can then be distributed to kids’ accounts for things like allowances and chores, or other everyday spending needs. Step’s bank account itself is backed by Evolve Bank, so it’s FDIC-insured up to $250,000.

Unlike Current, which charges a subscription to use its service, Step aims to be a fee-free bank for consumers. Users don’t have to pay for their account, and there are no fees for things like overdrafts. Instead, Step’s plan is to generate revenue through traditional means — like interchange fees and by way of lending practices, once it has established a deposit base.

The company pays a 2.5 percent interest rate on deposits, offers a round-up savings feature and a range of budgeting tools and supports free instant transfers between Step accounts. It also provides access to a network of 35,000 ATMs with no fees.

Beyond simply facilitating mobile banking, Step’s bigger goal is to teach teens to become financially responsible.

“Schools do not teach kids about money. A lot of families don’t talk about money. And it’s a crucial life skill that’s not really addressed properly when people are growing up,” says MacDonald, who says he was lacking in life skills in this area, even as a young college grad.

“There were ‘Money 101’ skills that I had not learned — that no one had talked to me about. Things like building credit, how many credit cards you should have, debt to income ratio,” he continues. “A lot of people get released into the real world without experience [in those areas],” he says.

Long-term, after solving the needs associated with everyday banking transactions, Step wants to layer on other products and services — like tools that allow a family to save together for college, for example.

The company is launching the banking service under an invite-only system to scale up.

Today, it’s opening a waitlist and referral program. When you invite a friend, you each receive one dollar. Access will then be rolled out on a first-come, first-serve basis this spring. Users can join Step through the website, iOS or Android application.

Step targets teens and parents with a no-fees mobile bank account and Visa card

A new mobile banking startup called Step wants to help bring teenagers and other young adults into the cashless era. Today, cash is used less often, as more consumers shop online and send money to one another through payment apps like Venmo. But teenagers in particular are still heavily burdened with cash — even though […]

A new mobile banking startup called Step wants to help bring teenagers and other young adults into the cashless era. Today, cash is used less often, as more consumers shop online and send money to one another through payment apps like Venmo. But teenagers in particular are still heavily burdened with cash — even though they, too, want to spend their money on things that require a payment card, like Amazon.com purchases or mobile gaming, for example.

That’s where Step comes in.

The company aims to address the needs of what it believes is an underserved market in mobile banking — the 75 million children and young adults under the age of 21 in the U.S., who are still being forced to use cash.

This market isn’t the “unbanked,” it’s the “pre-banked,” explains Step CEO CJ MacDonald, whose previous startup, mobile gift card platform Gyft, sold to First Data several years ago.

Above: Step CEO, CJ MacDonald

“We’re building an all-in-one banking solution that primarily focuses on teens and parents,” he says. “We want it to be a teen’s first bank account. We want to be a teen’s first spending card. And we want to teach financial literacy and responsibility firsthand.”

MacDonald, along with CTO Alexey Kalinichenko, previously of Square and financial services startup Token, founded Step in May 2018. The 10-person team also includes several prior Gyft employees.

Last summer, Step closed on $3.8 million in seed funding from Sesame Ventures, Crosslink Capital and Collaborative Fund. Crosslink general partner Eric Chin sits on the board.

While there are a number of mobile banking apps out there today — like Chime, Monzo, Simple, Revolut and others — Step will specifically target teens, 13 and up, and other young adults with its marketing. Teens under 18 still need parents’ approval to sign up, of course. But the goal is to encourage the teens to bring the idea to their parents — not the other way around.

Step’s focus on this younger demographic puts it in a different space, where there are fewer competitors. Its more direct rivals are not the bigger mobile banks, but rather startups like teen debit card and bank app Current, or the parent-managed debit card for kids from Greenlight.

The mobile banking service Step provides will also aim to be more comprehensive than just a debit card. It will offer a combination of checking, savings and a Visa card that works as both credit and debit.

The card includes Visa’s Zero Liability Protection on all purchases from unauthorized use, and allows parents to set spending limits.

Parents will also be able to connect their own bank accounts to Step to instantly transfer in funds, which can then be distributed to kids’ accounts for things like allowances and chores, or other everyday spending needs. Step’s bank account itself is backed by Evolve Bank, so it’s FDIC-insured up to $250,000.

Unlike Current, which charges a subscription to use its service, Step aims to be a fee-free bank for consumers. Users don’t have to pay for their account, and there are no fees for things like overdrafts. Instead, Step’s plan is to generate revenue through traditional means — like interchange fees and by way of lending practices, once it has established a deposit base.

The company pays a 2.5 percent interest rate on deposits, offers a round-up savings feature and a range of budgeting tools and supports free instant transfers between Step accounts. It also provides access to a network of 35,000 ATMs with no fees.

Beyond simply facilitating mobile banking, Step’s bigger goal is to teach teens to become financially responsible.

“Schools do not teach kids about money. A lot of families don’t talk about money. And it’s a crucial life skill that’s not really addressed properly when people are growing up,” says MacDonald, who says he was lacking in life skills in this area, even as a young college grad.

“There were ‘Money 101’ skills that I had not learned — that no one had talked to me about. Things like building credit, how many credit cards you should have, debt to income ratio,” he continues. “A lot of people get released into the real world without experience [in those areas],” he says.

Long-term, after solving the needs associated with everyday banking transactions, Step wants to layer on other products and services — like tools that allow a family to save together for college, for example.

The company is launching the banking service under an invite-only system to scale up.

Today, it’s opening a waitlist and referral program. When you invite a friend, you each receive one dollar. Access will then be rolled out on a first-come, first-serve basis this spring. Users can join Step through the website, iOS or Android application.

Step targets teens and parents with a no-fees mobile bank account and Visa card

A new mobile banking startup called Step wants to help bring teenagers and other young adults into the cashless era. Today, cash is used less often, as more consumers shop online and send money to one another through payment apps like Venmo. But teenagers in particular are still heavily burdened with cash — even though […]

A new mobile banking startup called Step wants to help bring teenagers and other young adults into the cashless era. Today, cash is used less often, as more consumers shop online and send money to one another through payment apps like Venmo. But teenagers in particular are still heavily burdened with cash — even though they, too, want to spend their money on things that require a payment card, like Amazon.com purchases or mobile gaming, for example.

That’s where Step comes in.

The company aims to address the needs of what it believes is an underserved market in mobile banking — the 75 million children and young adults under the age of 21 in the U.S., who are still being forced to use cash.

This market isn’t the “unbanked,” it’s the “pre-banked,” explains Step CEO CJ MacDonald, whose previous startup, mobile gift card platform Gyft, sold to First Data several years ago.

Above: Step CEO, CJ MacDonald

“We’re building an all-in-one banking solution that primarily focuses on teens and parents,” he says. “We want it to be a teen’s first bank account. We want to be a teen’s first spending card. And we want to teach financial literacy and responsibility firsthand.”

MacDonald, along with CTO Alexey Kalinichenko, previously of Square and financial services startup Token, founded Step in May 2018. The 10-person team also includes several prior Gyft employees.

Last summer, Step closed on $3.8 million in seed funding from Sesame Ventures, Crosslink Capital and Collaborative Fund. Crosslink general partner Eric Chin sits on the board.

While there are a number of mobile banking apps out there today — like Chime, Monzo, Simple, Revolut and others — Step will specifically target teens, 13 and up, and other young adults with its marketing. Teens under 18 still need parents’ approval to sign up, of course. But the goal is to encourage the teens to bring the idea to their parents — not the other way around.

Step’s focus on this younger demographic puts it in a different space, where there are fewer competitors. Its more direct rivals are not the bigger mobile banks, but rather startups like teen debit card and bank app Current, or the parent-managed debit card for kids from Greenlight.

The mobile banking service Step provides will also aim to be more comprehensive than just a debit card. It will offer a combination of checking, savings and a Visa card that works as both credit and debit.

The card includes Visa’s Zero Liability Protection on all purchases from unauthorized use, and allows parents to set spending limits.

Parents will also be able to connect their own bank accounts to Step to instantly transfer in funds, which can then be distributed to kids’ accounts for things like allowances and chores, or other everyday spending needs. Step’s bank account itself is backed by Evolve Bank, so it’s FDIC-insured up to $250,000.

Unlike Current, which charges a subscription to use its service, Step aims to be a fee-free bank for consumers. Users don’t have to pay for their account, and there are no fees for things like overdrafts. Instead, Step’s plan is to generate revenue through traditional means — like interchange fees and by way of lending practices, once it has established a deposit base.

The company pays a 2.5 percent interest rate on deposits, offers a round-up savings feature and a range of budgeting tools and supports free instant transfers between Step accounts. It also provides access to a network of 35,000 ATMs with no fees.

Beyond simply facilitating mobile banking, Step’s bigger goal is to teach teens to become financially responsible.

“Schools do not teach kids about money. A lot of families don’t talk about money. And it’s a crucial life skill that’s not really addressed properly when people are growing up,” says MacDonald, who says he was lacking in life skills in this area, even as a young college grad.

“There were ‘Money 101’ skills that I had not learned — that no one had talked to me about. Things like building credit, how many credit cards you should have, debt to income ratio,” he continues. “A lot of people get released into the real world without experience [in those areas],” he says.

Long-term, after solving the needs associated with everyday banking transactions, Step wants to layer on other products and services — like tools that allow a family to save together for college, for example.

The company is launching the banking service under an invite-only system to scale up.

Today, it’s opening a waitlist and referral program. When you invite a friend, you each receive one dollar. Access will then be rolled out on a first-come, first-serve basis this spring. Users can join Step through the website, iOS or Android application.

It’s time to pay serious attention to TikTok

If you haven’t been paying attention to TikTok, you haven’t been paying attention. The short-form video app hailing from Beijing’s ByteDance just had its biggest month ever with the addition of 75 million new users in December — a 275 percent increase from the 20 million it added in December 2017, according a recent report […]

If you haven’t been paying attention to TikTok, you haven’t been paying attention. The short-form video app hailing from Beijing’s ByteDance just had its biggest month ever with the addition of 75 million new users in December — a 275 percent increase from the 20 million it added in December 2017, according a recent report from Sensor Tower.

Despite its rapid rise, there are still plenty of people — often, older people — who aren’t quite sure what TikTok is.

TikTok is often referred to as a “lip-syncing” app, which makes it sound like it’s some online karaoke experience. But a closer comparison would be Vine, Twitter’s still sorely missed short-form video app whose content lives on as YouTube compilations.

While it’s true that TikTok is home to some standard lip-syncing, it’s actually better known for its act-out memes backed by music and other sound clips, which get endlessly reproduced and remixed among its young users.

Its tunes are varied — pop, rap, R&B, electro and DJ tracks serve as backing for its 15-second video clips. But the sounds may also be snagged from YouTube music videos (see: I Baked You A Pie above), SoundCloud or from pop culture — like weird soundbites from Peppa Pig or Riverdale — or just original creations.

These memes-as-videos reference things familiar to Gen Z, like gaming culture (see below). They come in the form of standalone videos, reactions, duets, mirrors/clones and more.

The app has been growing steadily since it acquired its U.S.-based rival Musical.ly in November 2017 for north of $800 million, then merged the two apps’ user bases last August.

This gave TikTok the means to grow in Western markets, where it has attracted the interest of U.S. celebrities like Jimmy Fallon and Tony Hawk, for example, along with YouTubers on the hunt for the next new thing.

But unlike Vine (RIP), YouTube or Instagram, TikTok doesn’t yet feel dominated by micro-celebs, though they certainly exist.

Instead, its main feed often surfaces everyday users — aka, amateurs — doing something cute, funny or clever, with a tacit acknowledgement that “yes, this is an internet joke” underlying much of the content.

Okay, okay.

Sometimes these videos are described as “cringey.” 

But that’s because those of us trying to talk about TikTok are old(er) people who grew up on the big ol’ mean internet.

Cringey, frankly, is an unfair label, as it dismisses TikTok’s success in setting a tone for its community. Here, users are able to post and share unapologetically wholesome content, and receive far less mocking than elsewhere on the web — largely because everyone else on TikTok posts similar “cringey” content, too.

You might not know this, however, if your only exposure to TikTok comes from YouTube’s TikTok Cringe Compilations. But spend a day in the (oddly addictive) TikTok feed, and you’ll find a whole world of video that doesn’t exist anywhere else on the web — including on YouTube. Videos that are weird, sure — but also fun to watch.

It’s a stark comparison to the existing social media platforms.

Users today are engaged in the culture wars on Twitter (ban the Nazis! protect free speech!), while YouTubers are gaming the algorithm with hateful, exploitive, dangerous and otherwise questionable content that freaks out advertisers. And Facebook is, well, contributing to war crimes and the toppling of democracy.

Meanwhile, TikTok presents an alternative version of online sharing. Simple, goofy, irreverent — and frankly, it’s a much needed reset.

For example, some of the popular TikTok memes have included videos of kids proclaiming what a great mom they have, as they drag her into frame, or they remind people to pick up litter and conserve water. They might give themselves silly, but self-affirming makeovers where, afterwards, they cite themselves not as “cute” but rather “drop. dead. gorgeous.”

They might spend hours setting up gummy bears as Adele concert-goers, learning how to do a shuffle dance up a set of stairs or in a dance battle their dad. Or they may showcase some special talent — drawing, painting, gymnastics, dance or skateboarding, perhaps. They do science experiments, make jokes or use special effects for a little video magic.

They shout out “hit or miss!” in public places and wait to see who answers. (Look it up.)

Of course, it is still the internet. And TikTok isn’t perfect.

The app has also been the subject of troubling reports about its “dark” side, which is reportedly filled with child predators and teens bullying and harassing one another. It’s not clear, however, that TikTok’s affliction with these matters is any worse than any other large, social, public-by-default app of its size.

And unlike some apps, concerned parents — or the users themselves — can set a TikTok account to private, turn off commenting, hide the account from search, disable downloads, disallow reactions and duets and restrict an account from receiving messages.

It is concerning, however, that under-13 kids are setting up social media accounts without parental consent. (But, uh, have you seen Fortnite and Roblox? This is what kids do. At least the TikTok main feed isn’t worrisome, we’ve found.)

The bigger issue, though — and one that could ultimately prove damaging to TikTok — is whether it will be able to keep up with content filtering and takedown requests, or handle its security and privacy protection issues as it scales up.

Content and community aren’t the only things contributing to TikTok’s growth.

While Vine may have introduced the concept of short-form video, TikTok made video editing incredibly simple. You don’t need to be a video expert to put together clips with a range of effects. It’s the Instagram for the mobile video age — in a way that Instagram itself won’t be able to reproduce, having already aligned its community with influencers and advertisers.

TikTok’s sizable user base, meanwhile, is due not only to its growth in Western markets, but because of its traction in emerging markets like China and India.

This allowed TikTok to rank No. 4 worldwide across iOS and Android, combined, according to App Annie’s data on the most-downloaded apps of 2018. On iOS, TikTok was the No. 1 most-downloaded app of the year, mainly thanks to China.

At times last year, TikTok even ranked higher than Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and YouTube.

Both App Annie and Sensor Tower agree that TikTok scored the No. 3 position for most installs among all apps worldwide in 2018.

Now, TikTok is growing in India, says Sensor Tower.

The country accounted for 27 percent of new installs between December 2017 and December 2018, and last month was the source for 32.3 million of TikTok’s 75 million total new downloads — a 25x increase from last year.

Some of this growth comes from ad spend, according to a report from Apptopia, which examined the app’s widened use of ad networks. (It’s also driving people bonkers with its YouTube ads).

The revenue is starting to arrive, as well.

Worldwide, users spent $6 million tipping their favorite live streamers, a 253 percent year-over-year jump from December 2017’s total of $1.7 million, Sensor Tower estimates. But live streaming is not the default activity on TikTok — it added the feature after shutting down Musical.ly’s live streaming app, Live.ly.

Above: full-screen ad in TikTok when app is first launched; spotted today

Above: an ad appearing earlier this month

TikTok is also starting to test in-app advertising, and is being eyed by agencies as a result. When you launch TikTok, you may see a full-page splash screen ad of some kind — though the company has not officially launched ad products.

But the brands are starting to take notice. This week, for example, TikTok collaborated with SportsManias, an officially licensed NFL Players Association partner, for the introduction of NFL-themed AR animated stickers in time for the Super Bowl. The move feels like a test for how well branded content will perform within the TikTok universe, but the company says it’s “not an ad deal.”

The company also declined to say how many are today using TikTok.

However, parent company ByteDance had publicly stated last year that it had 500 million monthly active users when it announced the app’s rebranding post-merger. It has yet to release new numbers for its global user base.

That said, ByteDance just shared updated stats for China only, on all versions of the TikTok app (including the non-Google Play Android version). It says that TikTok now has 500 million monthly active users in China alone.

Sensor Tower today estimates TikTok has grown to nearly 800 million lifetime installs, not counting Android in China.

Factoring in those Android in China installs, it’s fair to say this app has topped 1 billion downloads.

Here comes the new new internet, folks. It’s big, dominated by emerging markets, mobile, video, meme-ified, and goes viral both online and off.

So if you haven’t been paying attention to TikTok, you may want to get started.

It’s time to pay serious attention to TikTok

If you haven’t been paying attention to TikTok, you haven’t been paying attention. The short-form video app hailing from Beijing’s ByteDance just had its biggest month ever with the addition of 75 million new users in December — a 275 percent increase from the 20 million it added in December 2017, according a recent report […]

If you haven’t been paying attention to TikTok, you haven’t been paying attention. The short-form video app hailing from Beijing’s ByteDance just had its biggest month ever with the addition of 75 million new users in December — a 275 percent increase from the 20 million it added in December 2017, according a recent report from Sensor Tower.

Despite its rapid rise, there are still plenty of people — often, older people — who aren’t quite sure what TikTok is.

TikTok is often referred to as a “lip-syncing” app, which makes it sound like it’s some online karaoke experience. But a closer comparison would be Vine, Twitter’s still sorely missed short-form video app whose content lives on as YouTube compilations.

While it’s true that TikTok is home to some standard lip-syncing, it’s actually better known for its act-out memes backed by music and other sound clips, which get endlessly reproduced and remixed among its young users.

Its tunes are varied — pop, rap, R&B, electro and DJ tracks serve as backing for its 15-second video clips. But the sounds may also be snagged from YouTube music videos (see: I Baked You A Pie above), SoundCloud or from pop culture — like weird soundbites from Peppa Pig or Riverdale — or just original creations.

These memes-as-videos reference things familiar to Gen Z, like gaming culture (see below). They come in the form of standalone videos, reactions, duets, mirrors/clones and more.

The app has been growing steadily since it acquired its U.S.-based rival Musical.ly in November 2017 for north of $800 million, then merged the two apps’ user bases last August.

This gave TikTok the means to grow in Western markets, where it has attracted the interest of U.S. celebrities like Jimmy Fallon and Tony Hawk, for example, along with YouTubers on the hunt for the next new thing.

But unlike Vine (RIP), YouTube or Instagram, TikTok doesn’t yet feel dominated by micro-celebs, though they certainly exist.

Instead, its main feed often surfaces everyday users — aka, amateurs — doing something cute, funny or clever, with a tacit acknowledgement that “yes, this is an internet joke” underlying much of the content.

Okay, okay.

Sometimes these videos are described as “cringey.” 

But that’s because those of us trying to talk about TikTok are old(er) people who grew up on the big ol’ mean internet.

Cringey, frankly, is an unfair label, as it dismisses TikTok’s success in setting a tone for its community. Here, users are able to post and share unapologetically wholesome content, and receive far less mocking than elsewhere on the web — largely because everyone else on TikTok posts similar “cringey” content, too.

You might not know this, however, if your only exposure to TikTok comes from YouTube’s TikTok Cringe Compilations. But spend a day in the (oddly addictive) TikTok feed, and you’ll find a whole world of video that doesn’t exist anywhere else on the web — including on YouTube. Videos that are weird, sure — but also fun to watch.

It’s a stark comparison to the existing social media platforms.

Users today are engaged in the culture wars on Twitter (ban the Nazis! protect free speech!), while YouTubers are gaming the algorithm with hateful, exploitive, dangerous and otherwise questionable content that freaks out advertisers. And Facebook is, well, contributing to war crimes and the toppling of democracy.

Meanwhile, TikTok presents an alternative version of online sharing. Simple, goofy, irreverent — and frankly, it’s a much needed reset.

For example, some of the popular TikTok memes have included videos of kids proclaiming what a great mom they have, as they drag her into frame, or they remind people to pick up litter and conserve water. They might give themselves silly, but self-affirming makeovers where, afterwards, they cite themselves not as “cute” but rather “drop. dead. gorgeous.”

They might spend hours setting up gummy bears as Adele concert-goers, learning how to do a shuffle dance up a set of stairs or in a dance battle their dad. Or they may showcase some special talent — drawing, painting, gymnastics, dance or skateboarding, perhaps. They do science experiments, make jokes or use special effects for a little video magic.

They shout out “hit or miss!” in public places and wait to see who answers. (Look it up.)

Of course, it is still the internet. And TikTok isn’t perfect.

The app has also been the subject of troubling reports about its “dark” side, which is reportedly filled with child predators and teens bullying and harassing one another. It’s not clear, however, that TikTok’s affliction with these matters is any worse than any other large, social, public-by-default app of its size.

And unlike some apps, concerned parents — or the users themselves — can set a TikTok account to private, turn off commenting, hide the account from search, disable downloads, disallow reactions and duets and restrict an account from receiving messages.

It is concerning, however, that under-13 kids are setting up social media accounts without parental consent. (But, uh, have you seen Fortnite and Roblox? This is what kids do. At least the TikTok main feed isn’t worrisome, we’ve found.)

The bigger issue, though — and one that could ultimately prove damaging to TikTok — is whether it will be able to keep up with content filtering and takedown requests, or handle its security and privacy protection issues as it scales up.

Content and community aren’t the only things contributing to TikTok’s growth.

While Vine may have introduced the concept of short-form video, TikTok made video editing incredibly simple. You don’t need to be a video expert to put together clips with a range of effects. It’s the Instagram for the mobile video age — in a way that Instagram itself won’t be able to reproduce, having already aligned its community with influencers and advertisers.

TikTok’s sizable user base, meanwhile, is due not only to its growth in Western markets, but because of its traction in emerging markets like China and India.

This allowed TikTok to rank No. 4 worldwide across iOS and Android, combined, according to App Annie’s data on the most-downloaded apps of 2018. On iOS, TikTok was the No. 1 most-downloaded app of the year, mainly thanks to China.

At times last year, TikTok even ranked higher than Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and YouTube.

Both App Annie and Sensor Tower agree that TikTok scored the No. 3 position for most installs among all apps worldwide in 2018.

Now, TikTok is growing in India, says Sensor Tower.

The country accounted for 27 percent of new installs between December 2017 and December 2018, and last month was the source for 32.3 million of TikTok’s 75 million total new downloads — a 25x increase from last year.

Some of this growth comes from ad spend, according to a report from Apptopia, which examined the app’s widened use of ad networks. (It’s also driving people bonkers with its YouTube ads).

The revenue is starting to arrive, as well.

Worldwide, users spent $6 million tipping their favorite live streamers, a 253 percent year-over-year jump from December 2017’s total of $1.7 million, Sensor Tower estimates. But live streaming is not the default activity on TikTok — it added the feature after shutting down Musical.ly’s live streaming app, Live.ly.

Above: full-screen ad in TikTok when app is first launched; spotted today

Above: an ad appearing earlier this month

TikTok is also starting to test in-app advertising, and is being eyed by agencies as a result. When you launch TikTok, you may see a full-page splash screen ad of some kind — though the company has not officially launched ad products.

But the brands are starting to take notice. This week, for example, TikTok collaborated with SportsManias, an officially licensed NFL Players Association partner, for the introduction of NFL-themed AR animated stickers in time for the Super Bowl. The move feels like a test for how well branded content will perform within the TikTok universe, but the company says it’s “not an ad deal.”

The company also declined to say how many are today using TikTok.

However, parent company ByteDance had publicly stated last year that it had 500 million monthly active users when it announced the app’s rebranding post-merger. It has yet to release new numbers for its global user base.

That said, ByteDance just shared updated stats for China only, on all versions of the TikTok app (including the non-Google Play Android version). It says that TikTok now has 500 million monthly active users in China alone.

Sensor Tower today estimates TikTok has grown to nearly 800 million lifetime installs, not counting Android in China.

Factoring in those Android in China installs, it’s fair to say this app has topped 1 billion downloads.

Here comes the new new internet, folks. It’s big, dominated by emerging markets, mobile, video, meme-ified, and goes viral both online and off.

So if you haven’t been paying attention to TikTok, you may want to get started.

Screen time inhibits toddler development, study finds

In news that will surprise few but still alarm many, a study has found that kids 2-5 years old who engage in more screen time received worse scores in developmental screening tests. The apparent explanation is simple: when a kid is in front of a screen, they’re not talking, walking, or playing, the activities by which basic skills are cultivated.

In news that will surprise few but still alarm many, a study has found that kids 2-5 years old who engage in more screen time received worse scores in developmental screening tests. The apparent explanation is simple: when a kid is in front of a screen, they’re not talking, walking or playing, the activities during which basic skills are cultivated.

The topic is a thorny one, as there are plenty of arguments on both sides as to the possible pros and cons of screen use at an early age, and as with any other topic pertaining to parenting, it is immediately personal to many people and reliance on anecdote is common. It’s only through studies like this one, these and other researchers note, that we can begin to be sure of anything. (Of course, we must study the studies as well.)

The study, from the University of Calgary psychologists and published today in the JAMA journal Pediatrics, examined the effect of screen time during a developmental period on performance in basic skills at the end of each period — specifically, at 24, 36 and 60 months old. Caregivers reported average screen time, and also filled out standard questionnaires on motor and communication skills.

A rather straightforward correlation appeared in the results:

Greater screen time at 24 months was associated with poorer performance on developmental screening tests at 36 months, and similarly, greater screen time at 36 months was associated with lower scores on developmental screening tests at 60 months.

Importantly, the effect was not bidirectional or ambiguous — kids with more screen time usually had lower scores, but kids with lower scores didn’t necessarily have more screen time. This strengthens the hypothesis that screen time leads to lower scores instead of an unknown variable or variables affecting both.

The exact mechanism can’t be tested with the present data, but lead author Sheri Madigan suggests it isn’t exactly mysterious:

“A lot of the positive stimulation that helps kids with their physical and cognitive development comes from interactions with caregivers,” she said in a University of Calgary news release. “When they’re in front of their screens, these important parent-child interactions aren’t happening.”

And not just those, either. The paper explains in a bit more detail:

When young children are observing screens, they may be missing important opportunities to practice and master interpersonal, motor, and communication skills. For example, when children are observing screens without an interactive or physical component, they are more sedentary and, therefore, not practicing gross motor skills, such as walking and running, which in turn may delay development in this area. Screens can also disrupt interactions with caregivers by limiting opportunities for verbal and nonverbal social exchanges, which are essential for fostering optimal growth and development.

It’s hard to find a counter-argument to this. Screen time isn’t just plain bad, and as many have pointed out its ubiquity precludes the possibility of avoidance. So the question is not “whether or not” but “how much?”

And while there are arguments for dividing screen time into high and low quality, or beneficial and non-beneficial (these are not differentiated in the study), those are much more applicable for older children who are capable of engaging with it in more sophisticated ways. At very early ages it’s hard to deny that a child’s time is better spent on activities through which they advance their most basic skills.

For reference, the kids in the study were averaging 2-3 hours per day. But it’s important to note that there isn’t some magical number of hours that’s okay or harmful — “Unfortunately, we can’t derive this ‘tipping point’ from the statistical analyses that we provided,” Madigan told me in an email. “It will be an important avenue of our future research.”

So you need to hide all screens from your kids and worry like mad if they somehow manage to wheedle an extra half hour of Dora time out of you while you finish dinner. The implication isn’t that screen time is inherently bad but that it risks replacing the “high quality caregiver-child interactions” that are so critical at this period of development. The solution therefore is not necessarily less screens, but more and better time spent with the kid.

Giving parenting advice is well outside the scope of a tech blog, but as an uncle and generally speaking as a human, I think it’s safe to say that there are great ways of integrating screen-based content with ordinary play, and in fact many companies are dedicated to that possibility.

Playing a game ought not to adversely affect communication if it’s a kid collaborating on a Minecraft base with their sibling, right? Or if a show is being watched in an active way that encourages communicating and trying new things? A parent will know best, but it’s important to pay attention in the first place, and establishing causal connections like the one suggested in this study is one more reason to do so.

I’ve asked the researchers a few questions about the study and will update this post if I hear back.

Consumer advocacy groups call on FTC to investigate kids’ apps on Google Play

A coalition of twenty-two consumer and public health advocacy groups, led by Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC) and Center for Digital Democracy (CDD), have today filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission asking them to investigate and sanction Google for how its Google Play Store markets apps to children. The complaint states that […]

A coalition of twenty-two consumer and public health advocacy groups, led by Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC) and Center for Digital Democracy (CDD), have today filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission asking them to investigate and sanction Google for how its Google Play Store markets apps to children. The complaint states that Google features apps designed for very young children in its Play Store’s “Family” section, many of which are violating federal children’s privacy law, exposing kids to inappropriate content, and disregarding Google’s own policies by luring kids into making in-app purchases and watching ads.

Google Play ‘Family’ Section

Google first introduced its “Designed for Families” program back in 2015, which gives developers of kid-friendly apps meeting certain guidelines additional visibility in the Play Store. This includes a placement in the Family section, where apps are organized by age appropriateness.

To qualify, “Family” apps must abide by specific content policies, Google’s Developer Distribution Agreement, and the Designed for Families DDA Addendum. The apps must also meet the Designed for Families program requirements. Legal compliance with federal privacy laws, including COPPA (Children’s Online Privacy Protection Rule), are among the requirements.

COPPA is designed to protect children under the age of 13 by giving parents control over what information sites and apps can collect from their kids.

Above: Google Play store showcases children’s content in its own dedicated sections

COPPA Violations

But the new FTC complaint claims that Google is not verifying COPPA compliance when it accepts these apps and, as a result, many are in continual violation of the law.

“Our research revealed a surprising number of privacy violations on Android apps for children, including sharing geolocation with third parties,” said Serge Egelman, a researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, in a statement shared by the group. “Given Google’s assertion that Designed for Families apps must be COPPA compliant, it’s disappointing these violations still abound, even after Google was alerted to the scale of the problem,” he added.

TechCrunch asked the coalition if it had some idea about how many apps were in violation of COPPA, and were told the groups don’t know an exact number.

“From our survey – and more comprehensive analyses like the PET Study – it seems fairly prevalent,” Lindsey Barrett, Staff Attorney at Georgetown’s Institute for Public Representation, told us.

“The PET Study found that 73% of the kids apps in the Play store transmitted sensitive data over the internet, and we saw apps sending geolocation without notice and verifiable parental consent, and sending personal information unencrypted,” Barrett said. “Further, under COPPA, children’s PII cannot be used for behavioral advertising. Yet, many of the children’s apps we looked at were sending information to ad networks which say their services should not be used with children’s apps,” she added.

Other Harms

The apps also engage in other bad behaviors like regularly showing ads that are difficult to exit or showing those that require viewing in order to continue the current game, according to the complaint. Some apps pressure kids into making in-app purchases – in one example, the game characters were crying if the kids didn’t buy the locked items, it notes. Others show ads for alcohol and gambling, despite those being barred by Google’s Ad Policy.

Above: disturbing images from TabTale apps

The coalition additionally called out some apps for containing “graphic, sexualized images” like TutoTOONS Sweet Baby Girl Daycare 4 – Babysitting Fun, which has over 10 million downloads. (The game has a part where kids change a baby’s diaper, wipe their diaper area, then rub powder all over the baby’s body.) Others model harmful behavior, like TabTale’s Crazy Eye Clinic, which teaches children to clean their eyes with a sharp instrument, and has over one million downloads. (The game is currently not available on Google Play and its webpage is down.)

The complaint also broadly takes issue with apps that use common SDKs like those from Unity or Flurry (disclosure: Flurry and TechCrunch share a corporate parent) to collect device identifiers from the children’s apps.

“Nearly three-quarters of the apps in the Family section transmit device identifiers to third parties,” reads the complaint. “There is no way for us to know for sure what the device identifiers are used for. Since many of the apps send device identifiers to third parties that specialize in monetizing apps and/or engaging in interest-based (behavioral) advertising, it seems unlikely that this information is being used solely to support internal operations,” it says.

Above: Strawberry Shortcake Puppy Palace was called out for aggressive monetization efforts. Strawberry tells kids to buy things to keep the puppy happy – the implication is if you don’t pay, you’re making puppies sad.

The groups say that Google has been aware of all these problems for some time, but hasn’t taken adequate steps to enforce its criteria for developers. As a result, the consumer advocacy groups are urging the FTC to investigate the Play Store’s practices.

The coalition had previously asked the FTC to investigate developers of children’s apps aimed a preschoolers who were using manipulative advertising. But today’s complaint is focused on Google.

“Google (Alphabet, Inc.) has long engaged in unethical and harmful business practices, especially when it comes to children,” explained Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy. “And the Federal Trade Commission has for too long ignored this problem, placing both children and their parents at risk over their loss of privacy, and exposing them to a powerful and manipulative marketing apparatus. As one of the world’s leading providers of content for kids online, Google continues to put the enormous profits they make from kids ahead of any concern for their welfare,” Chester said.

Apple was not similarly called out because a similar analysis has not yet been done on its app marketplace, Josh Golin, Executive Director at CCFC told us. In Google’s case, he explained, two major studies found widespread issues with the Play Store apps for kids. One from Berkeley researchers found widespread COPPA non-compliance; the other, by University of Michigan researchers, found children’s play experience was often completely interrupted and undermine by aggressive marketing tactics.

The complaint comes at a time where there is increased scrutiny as to how tech companies are misusing and abusing consumer data and violating privacy. Kids game have already been the subject of some of some concern. And this morning, an NYT investigation into Facebook revealed it had shared more of users’ personal data than disclosed with major tech companies, following a year of data scandals.

The issue of data privacy is an industry-wide problem. Tech companies’ failures on this front will likely lead to increased regulation going forward.

Google and the named developers were not immediately available to comment this morning. We’ll update if comments are provided.

The full complaint is below.

 

Google’s parental control software Family Link now supports Chromebooks

Since its public debut in fall 2017, Google’s parental control software dubbed Family Link, has been steadily expanding, both in terms of its capabilities and its reach. Today, it’s making the jump beyond smartphones for the first time, with newly added support for Chromebook computers. As on Android devices, parents will now be able to […]

Since its public debut in fall 2017, Google’s parental control software dubbed Family Link, has been steadily expanding, both in terms of its capabilities and its reach. Today, it’s making the jump beyond smartphones for the first time, with newly added support for Chromebook computers. As on Android devices, parents will now be able to manage their child’s use of a Chromebook – including by setting time limits, managing the apps that can be downloaded, setting content filters, and more.

As a Family Link household ourselves, I’ve found I prefer managing my child’s device from a single, dedicated app, rather than having to dig around in the iPhone’s settings – as I did when my daughter used to tote an iPod. (Parental controls moved to “Screen Time” on iOS 12, by the way, in case you’re wondering where the “Restrictions” section went).

With Family Link, you can configure nearly every aspect of device usage, including content restrictions on apps, movies, TV, and other media. Helpfully, you can enable settings across the Google ecosystem, as well. For example, you can turn on Google’s SafeSearch, enable a mature content filter in Chrome (or even limit Chrome to select websites), disable the child’s access to third-party apps on Google Assistant, and more.

You can also track your child’s location, locate or ring a lost device (you’ll do this often), and monitor and manage screen time and device bedtime schedules.

Now parents can configure these sorts of settings on a Chromebook, too. (However, only select Chromebooks support Google Play apps.)

The expansion makes Chromebooks a more compelling option for families. Already, there are a number of affordable Chromebooks that will work well for the child’s first computer, but Family Link can also work on a shared device, Google says.

That is, the software can manage the child’s account when they’re logged in. Parents can also manage the child’s Google account from Family Link and remotely lock a supervised account, if need be.

The support for Family Link on Chromebooks follows the shutdown of Chrome’s parental controls earlier this year. At the time, we suspected that the features would make their way over to Family Link in the months ahead.

Google’s search data shows YouTube’s influence over this season’s hottest toys

If there was any doubt about YouTube’s power to influence children, look no further than this year’s list of the hottest holiday toys, based on Google shopping search data. According to the search giant, at least four of the top 10 most searched toys were among those heavily featured in YouTube unboxing videos — subsequently […]

If there was any doubt about YouTube’s power to influence children, look no further than this year’s list of the hottest holiday toys, based on Google shopping search data. According to the search giant, at least four of the top 10 most searched toys were among those heavily featured in YouTube unboxing videos — subsequently turning them into the most in-demand and best-selling toys of the holiday season. Plus, another top toy is the JoJo Siwa Singing doll — a product from the YouTube star of the same name.

Clearly, we’re long past the days where TV commercials are the ways toy makers are reaching children. Instead, they’re leveraging the power of YouTube to drive hype and interest in their products, as Google’s list and those from the major retailers themselves show.

In particular, MGA Entertainment is having a great 2018 holiday season. The company, which is best known for disrupting Barbie with its Bratz dolls back in the day, is today the force behind some of the most in-demand toys, like L.O.L Surprise! and Num Noms, plus top preschooler brand Little Tikes, and others.

The toy maker has not one but three of its L.O.L. Surprise! toys on Google’s list this year, which the search giant points out were also all the subject of numerous YouTube unboxing videos over the holiday shopping season, which helped drive searches. The most searched for toy — Spin Master’s Luvabella doll — was also regularly featured across YouTube, the company notes.

This search data turns into real-world sales, too. Though we’ll have to wait for the holidays to wrap to get the final count, already L.O.L Surprise! toys have made their way onto Amazon’s Holiday Toy List, for example, and its Best Sellers. In fact, L.O.L. Surprises have claimed half the spots on Amazon’s top 10 list of the Best Selling Toys & Games, as of today. (And they’ve snagged spots further down the list: L.O.L Surprise! toys are the No. 13 and No. 34 best sellers, too.)

Not coincidentally, L.O.L. Surprises are the sort of toy that’s designed perfectly for the YouTube era. They’re basically made for unboxing.

The toys themselves are not sold in transparent packaging, but are rather hidden away inside some sort of container — a box, case or a ball, for example. The excitement for the kids comes from the unboxing process itself — only then will they see their doll and all their accompanying accessories. Sometimes there’s another step, too — like decoding secret messages on the outside of the packaging, or dunking a fizz in some water to reveal the enclosed toy.

With multiple steps to even get to the toy itself, it’s ideal content for YouTube. Combined with YouTubers’ high-pitched squeals of joy as they work their way through the process, and you’ve got the perfect recipe for selling toys.

Other most-searched toys from Google’s list also made an appearance on Amazon’s Top Toy list of 2018, like LEGO Friends Heartlake City Resort and the Kano Harry Potter Coding Kit, for example.

Google’s list is also biased toward tech toys, with top searches for things like the DJI Tello, VTech Kidizoom Smartwatch DX, as well as the Harry Potter kit, in addition to classics from NERF and LEGO.

Amazon’s best sellers include some VTech and Melissa and Doug products, but not the specific SKUs Google had picked up on.

YouTube’s influence can be spotted on Walmart’s toys list, as well.

In its list of top toys rated by kids, L.O.L Surprise!, Pikmi Pops, Hatchimals and Fingerlings — all of which star in dozens upon dozens of unboxing videos — make several appearances.

And then, of course, there’s Ryans World Giant Mystery Egg, which comes from one of the best-known YouTubers to date — the 7-year-old millionaire and toy unboxer supreme, Ryan of Ryan ToysReview who scored a lucrative deal with Walmart to launch his toy line. Walmart senior buyer Brad Bedwell recently told Yahoo Finance the toy egg has been “the big winner of the season.”

Walmart was pretty savvy to scoop up Ryan for this exclusive deal.

“Years ago, kids would have been glued to the TV watching the traditional channels, and now they’re watching content everywhere. They’re still watching TV, but they’re also watching it on tablets and parents’ cellphones,” Bedwell told Yahoo. “Everywhere they are, they can look at and consume content. And YouTube is now up there with the major TV channels with how many kids watch it.”