Twitter’s Tip Jar, Clubhouse on Android, and TikTok extends itself: this is issue 202 of The Tech Landscape, a weekly collection of news about consumer digital technology. Stories are selected by me, Peter Gasston, with a little insight and opinion where appropriate.
This week I want to take a little dump on a tweet I read. I’m not going to link to it (I’m not that person), but it basically said something like: “I’m afraid to Google something because I don’t want the algorithm to think I like it, and I’m afraid to click a link because I don’t want the algorithm to show me more like it… what a cage.”
When I was at school, a new kid joined—let’s call him Paul. We became friends, and a few months later he invited a group of us to his birthday party. Of course, we didn’t know him well, so we asked him what he liked, and he said he liked a series of books—let’s say Mr Men (I’m sure we were too old for them, but I genuinely can’t remember the series). So on the day of his birthday we all bought him Mr Men books. He wasn’t very happy. Over the years we’ve all got to know him better, and learn more about his tastes, and can buy things we know he likes, or has a reasonable chance of liking. He doesn’t get 10 of the same books for his birthday anymore.
That’s “the algorithm” in real life. It’s observing what someone likes or does, then trying to make recommendations for more things like it—whether that’s books, TV shows, clothes, advertising, or whatever. It works on probability, so it’s going to make better guesses the more it knows you; if you like ten things of type A, then liking one thing of type B shouldn’t be enough to completely change its recommendations. The problem is, we don’t like “the algorithm” if it doesn’t work, and we don’t like it if works too well (“creepy!”). But it’s not sinister, and it’s not a cage.
“The algorithm” is the best way to navigate a world of infinite choice; imagine you went to a record shop (remember them?) which had every recording ever released; how would you find new music? You’d either buy music by bands you know you already liked, or you’d take a pure gamble on something—which most of the time would be a miss. So you’d ask a store worker, and they’d recommend the music they liked—but that’s no guarantee you’d like it. A good worker would ask what type of music you like, and recommend music based on that—you might not like all the recommendations, but there’s more of a chance you’d like some. That’s just what “the algorithm” does.
And yes, I know there’s no such thing as “the algorithm”.
OK, let’s get on with it. Hope you’re well!
Payments and Subscriptions
Twitter announced Tip Jar, for select accounts to receive donations from followers. Twitter doesn’t handle the payments or take a cut. Approved accounts will have a Tip Jar icon on their profile, and on Android will have the option to show it in Spaces.
Twitter bought Scroll, which removes ads from select publishers for a monthly fee. It’s expected to be integrated into the platform to provide ad-free browsing as part of a subscription model. I’ve used Scroll since it launched and it works well; better than an ad blocker as the publishers get paid.
WhatsApp confirmed that its payments service is available again in Brazil. The service premiered last year in Brazil but the country’s central bank quickly banned it. The problem seems to have been cleared up now, though. Payments have since also launched in India, but aren’t available globally yet.
Social & Messaging
TikTok released its first two software development kits to extend the platform with or into third party apps. Sound Kit lets music and audio apps share songs and sounds into TikTok, and Login Kit lets users log into apps using their TikTok credentials. It’s a way to extend the reach of TikTok; Snapchat has been doing similar for a few years now.
Clubhouse released its Android app on the Play Store in the US. The launch blog post acknowledges that its popularity lies largely outside of the US, so it seems more convenient than well-planned to release in the US only—possibly another mis-step in growing the service.
Instagram added an auto-captioning feature to Stories. People using the app in English can add a sticker to automatically transcribe speech, which can then be edited manually. It’s useful for accessibility and for sound-off viewing, and should be coming to Reels in the future. TikTok released a similar feature last month.
Facebook launched Neighbourhoods, a space in the app for people to connect with their local community. If you’ve used Nextdoor, this should feel very familiar. It’s a further example of the move away from the News Feed towards communities of shared interests.
Facebook announced new features for Messenger, including visual replies and hands-free voice messages. Messenger is integrated with Instagram in some countries but not yet everywhere, so the features aren‘t available to everyone.
Snapchat is launching a Creator Marketplace for brands and businesses to hire Lens developers. It’s a straightforward way for Lens creators to earn a revenue cut from the platform, and will open up to all Snapchat creators later in the year.
Warner Music Group announced a partnership with Wave, a virtual concert platform. Wave hosted events with artists including The Weeknd and John Legend last year, and also has a partnership with Tencent in China. Virtual concerts proved they have an audience during the pandemic, and even when physical performances are allowed again the virtual can reach a wider audience.
PUBG Mobile’s latest content update brings a crossover with the Godzilla vs Kong movies. PUBG was the ‘original’ Battle Royale game before Fortnite took off, but it seems the makers have learned some lessons about cross-promotions with entertainment franchises.
Google launched Entertainment Space for video, games, and books on Android tablets. It works in a similar way to Google TV’s interface, and indicates a new desire by Google to promote entertainment beyond the Play Store. And also that it still cares about tablets.
Google extended some features of Assistant, including Broadcast and Family Bell. Broadcast, which sends a message to all connected Assistant devices, will now work with Family groups; and Family Bell, which schedules alarms for Family groups, will now ring on all connected devices.
Assistants & Voice
Google announced its intention to make everyone use two-step verification in future. This means using a prompt on your phone to log in to accounts, adding an extra level of security.
Google Play will require all apps in its store to declare their security and privacy features from 2022. Apps will have to state that they meet certain requirements, and the data they capture and the purpose it will be used for. This is similar to Apple’s App Store requirements introduced earlier this year.
Google released its Gboard software keyboard for Wear OS devices. The release of a keyboard on smart watches isn’t usually worthy of comment, but there are finally signs that Google is investing in Wear OS again, and rumours of a Pixel Watch coming this year.
Stat of the Week
Sales through social platforms accounted for 44% of all ecommerce in Southeast Asia last year. Total ecommerce was around £78bn, so close to half of that is not to be sniffed at—and gives you some idea of why Facebook, in particular, is rapidly scaling up Shops.
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