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Amazon rolls out a new history feature for Sponsored Products and Sponsored Brands campaigns

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Amazon last week rolled out a new history feature for Sponsored Products and Sponsored Brands, providing a summary of all changes made to campaign settings in the past 90 days.

The history feature is available in Amazon DSP. To view campaign-level change history, advertisers need to click on the Campaigns tab, find the Sponsored Products or Sponsored Brands campaign, click on it, and then click on the History tab.

The history tab is also available for ad groups of a Sponsored Products campaign, inside the ad group view.

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This Week in Apps: Apple and Google’s best apps of the year, Amazon Appstore fails …

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Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the weekly TechCrunch series that recaps the latest in mobile OS news, mobile applications and the overall app economy.

The app industry continues to grow, with a record 218 billion downloads and $143 billion in global consumer spend in 2020. Consumers last year also spent 3.5 trillion minutes using apps on Android devices alone. And in the U.S., app usage surged ahead of the time spent watching live TV. Currently, the average American watches 3.7 hours of live TV per day, but now spends four hours per day on their mobile devices.

Apps aren’t just a way to pass idle hours — they’re also a big business. In 2019, mobile-first companies had a combined $544 billion valuation, 6.5x higher than those without a mobile focus. In 2020, investors poured $73 billion in capital into mobile companies — a figure that’s up 27% year-over-year.

This Week in Apps offers a way to keep up with this fast-moving industry in one place with the latest from the world of apps, including news, updates, startup fundings, mergers and acquisitions, and suggestions about new apps and games to try, too.

Do you want This Week in Apps in your inbox every Saturday? Sign up here: techcrunch.com/newsletters

Apple announced its top apps and games of 2021

Image Credits: Apple

Apple this week released its anticipated annual list of the best apps and games of the year across iPhone, iPad, Mac, Apple TV and Apple Watch. This year, children’s app maker Toca Boca won iPhone App of the Year for “Toca Life World,” and Riot Games’ “League of Legends: Wild Rift” was the iPhone Game of the Year. Other winners included iPad App of the Year “LumaFusion” from LumaTouch; iPad Game of the Year “MARVEL Future Revolution” from Netmarble; Mac App of the Year “Craft,” from Luki Labs Limited; Mac Game of the Year “Myst,” from Cyan; Apple TV App of the Year “DAZN,” from DAZN Group; Apple TV Game of the Year “Space Marshals 3,” from Pixelbite; Apple Watch App of the Year “Carrot Weather,” from Grailr; and the Apple Arcade Game of the Year: “Fantasian,” from Mistwalker.

What’s interesting about this year’s group of winners is the subtle statement Apple is making with its editorial picks. For instance, Toca Boca — which has produced more than 40 kids’ apps to date and celebrated its 10-year anniversary this year — is a reminder that developers are building long-term businesses on the App Store and Apple helped play a role in supporting that success. Other winners are those that compete with Apple’s own first-party apps, including Carrot Weather (which also uses weather data from Apple-owned Dark Sky), Pages rival Craft and iMovie competitor LumaFusion.

These are not necessarily coincidences. 2021 was a year that’s seen much backlash and upheaval for the App Store, which has faced increased regulatory scrutiny, new legislation in global markets and various lawsuits over the App Store’s commission-based business model — including the ongoing one with Epic Games, now under appeal. As a result, Apple has adjusted and clarified its policies and even reduced its commissions in some cases, as dictated by the market demands and settlement agreements. But despite all these changes, the winning lineup reminds us that the quality of the apps on the App Store remains high.

Apple also released its year-end list of the most-downloaded apps, led by TikTok (iPhone’s top free app), Procreate Pocket (iPhone and iPad’s top paid app), Among Us! (iPhone and iPad’s top free game), Minecraft (iPhone and iPad’s top paid game), YouTube (iPad’s top free app) and The Oregon Trail (top Apple Arcade app.) The full lineup is here.

Google Play introduced its “Best of 2021” app awards, too

Image Credits: Google

Google Play also this week announced its own year-end list of the best apps and games on Google Play. This year, Google expanded its awards lineup to include apps and games on tablets, Wear OS and Google TV. Its U.S. winners included meditation app Balance as its app of the year and top game Pokémon UNITE. Meanwhile, Paramount+ and Garena Free Fire MAX won the user’s choice awards.

In 2020, Google’s award winners had reflected a world undergoing a pandemic, where stressed users had turned to apps and soothing games to relax — like top sleep app Loóna, which was last year’s “Best App,” or escapist games like winner Genshin Impact.

But with the early days of the pandemic now behind us, some of this year’s award winners were apps that focus on personal growth and creativity, instead of just relaxing or escaping. In addition to Best of 2021 app Balance, which offers personalized meditation, other personal development-styled winners include Moonly, an app for “harmonizing your life” with the lunar calendar; a “comedic relaxation” app, Laughscape; a hypnotherapy app for women, Clementine; better sleep app Sleep Cycle; mentorship community Mentor Spaces; habit tracker and planner Rabit; and an app for navigating grief from loss, Empathy.

Other winners showcased how we adapted to pandemic life, as with audio chatroom Clubhouse, tools for reducing screen time, like Speechify, or those for reconnecting with nature, like Blossom.

The full list of award winners is here.

The Amazon Appstore stopped working on Android 12 and almost no one cared

In a telling piece of news that may reflect how little traction the Amazon Appstore has with the general public, the Amazon-run Android marketplace stopped working on Android 12 devices over a month ago, and there’s been almost no media coverage until this week. On Monday, however, tech news site Liliputing finally called attention to the matter, which followed the October release of Android 12. It said that not only did the Amazon Appstore not run on Android 12 devices, apps and games also couldn’t be launched because of how the Appstore handles DRM. The site noted some 90-plus users had posted complaints in a thread on Amazon’s forums about the problem, to which Amazon’s moderators had only replied that the company was “investigating the issue.”

Amazon wouldn’t provide TechCrunch with any details as to what the underlying issues were either, only acknowledging the problem was impacting the “small number of Amazon Appstore users that upgraded to Android 12.” (Oof! Burn!) While, sure, Android users aren’t as quick to jump to new versions as iOS users are, that the entire Amazon Appstore would fail on the latest Android release makes us wonder if anyone at Amazon had even run the thing on a beta build ahead of Android 12’s launch at all? Or maybe they were too busy with that Microsoft deal to bother?

Platforms: Apple

  • As the holidays draw near, Apple’s iOS 15.2 beta 4 has been released to both developers and public testers. It also stopped signing iOS 15.1, making downloads and restores no longer possible.
  • A report by 9to5Mac pointed out how Apple said in a legal filing that it could collect commission on in-app purchases that take place outside its App Store when asking for an extension on the injunction resulting from the Epic Games lawsuit. The claim had been first spotted and tweeted by David Barnard, leading to the coverage. Apple of course wants more time to implement the required changes, and used this argument about non-App Store IAPs (among many, many other reasons) as why it should be granted the extra time. But it’s too soon to read into the filing’s statements as an indication of Apple’s future plans. Tapping into non-App Store payments in order to commission them is a complex matter and one that could open Apple up to increased liability due to fraudulent transactions. Sure, Apple may very well do that, but it also might not. But right now, this is only proof that Apple is trying really hard to get an extension, and nothing more.

Platforms: Google

Image Credits: Google

  • Google announced a suite of new features coming to Android devices this winter. This includes new widgets for YouTube Music and Google Play Books, and the new Google Photos Pets & People widget, as well as a new Memories feature in Google Photos where a curated selection of special events will appear in your photo grid. Google Assistant’s Family Bell feature also expanded from home devices to mobile, and Gboard added new emojis. Android Auto received a host of updates as well.
  • Google, whose Android Developers YouTube channel has now reached 1 million subscribers, offered a number of updates on Paging, Gradle, AndroidX, Media3, Emoji2, CameraX, App Startup, Accessibility and Wear OS in its latest video (see below).

E-commerce and Food Delivery

  • Swiggy, India’s top food delivery startup, announced this week it will invest $700 million into growing its express grocery delivery service Instamart. The service was only available in two cities last year but is now in 18, where it sees more than 1 million orders per week.

Fintech & Crypto

Image Credits: Meta

  • Messenger introduced a Venmo-like feature for splitting payments. Starting next week, the company will begin testing a way for U.S. users to split the cost of bills and expenses, which can be done evenly or by modifying the contribution amount for each individual.
  • NFT collectibles app VeVe Collectibles is leading the NFT trading space on mobile with more than $100 million in consumer spending, reports Sensor Tower. This puts it ahead of Fantastec, SWAP, OurSong and Sweet, which focus on collectibles rather than wallet functionality. Though VeVe only launched in October 2020, it’s already leading the pack with 744,000 installs and $112.5 million in spending. The remaining apps have a collective 485,000 installs and $384,000 in spending.

Image Credits: Sensor Tower

  • Now with a full-time CEO back in place, Jack Dorsey’s Square changed its name to Block to better reflect its growing ambitions in the crypto market. Block will house all the company’s products, including its seller business Square, Cash App, crypto developer platform TBD and Spiral (formerly, Square Crypto).
  • Cypto CEOs are scheduled to testify at a House committee hearing titled “Digital Assets and the Future of Finance: Understanding the Challenges and Benefits of Financial Innovation in the United States” on December 8. CEOs from Coinbase, Circle, FTX, Bitfury, Paxos and Stellar will attend.
  • Meta’s top crypto exec, David Marcus, announced he’s leaving the company later this year. Marcus previously ran Messenger at Facebook before moving to lead the crypto unit Novi, maker of the Novia digital wallet app. Meta’s Diem cryptocurrency project has seen setbacks due to regulatory pushback which slowed its development and Marcus hinted he may want to do more in the crypto space, noting “I remain as passionate as ever about the need for change in our payments and financial systems — my entrepreneurial DNA has been nudging me for too many mornings in a row to continue ignoring it.”

Social

  • ⭐️ Twitter’s CEO Jack Dorsey resigned from his CEO role at the social media company on Monday and will only remain on the board until his term expires in 2022. His departure will free him up to work full-time at the other company he’s been running, Square (now renamed Block), which seems to be more closely connected with his current interests in cryptocurrency and Bitcoin. Twitter’s CTO Parag Agrawal has become CEO and is already making changes. Two Twitter execs, head of engineering Michael Montano and the controversial VP of design Dantley Davis, are leaving the company, The Washington Post reported. Other teams will be reshuffled, including consumer, revenue and core tech divisions, led by Kayvon Beykpour, Bruce Falck and Nick Caldwell, respectively.
  • Meta (formerly Facebook) is now heading in a new direction with its NPE team, which has historically tested new social apps in hopes of stumbling across the next big hit. Now, the company will direct its focus more globally with offices in Nigeria and Asia and even seed-stage investments for small teams. It’s also developing projects in the U.S., which is different from its prior attempts, like helping the formerly incarcerated re-enter society, or helping LGBTQ families on their journey to becoming parents.

Image Credits: Meta

  • TikTok added new creator monetization features, including Tips and Video Gifts. The former will allow fans to send direct payments to creators, who get to keep 100% of the money. Video Gifts, meanwhile, function like LIVE Gifts, except can be awarded to creators outside a live broadcast. The features are rolling out alongside a new “Creator Next” portal, which organizes all TikTok’s monetization opportunities in one place.
  • TikTok launched a new Transparency Center, which will house the company’s historical Transparency Reports as well as its more interactive reports going forward, including the latest release: H1 2021 Content Removal Requests Reports.
  • LinkedIn added support for the Hindi language, which allows it to reach 500 million people in India. Hindi is the first regional language to be supported by the social network. The move is timely, following a week that saw another India-born exec move into the CEO ranks at a top U.S. tech company, when Twitter announced @Jack would be replaced by CTO Parag Agrawal as the company’s new chief exec.
  • Reddit added new real-time features, including typing and commenting indicators. It’s also adding voting and comment count animations and reading indicators, with the goal of making its service across desktop, iOS and Android feel more engaging and dynamic.

Messaging

  • Messenger partnered with four creators to expand its new lineup of Group Effects (AR effects that can be applied to everyone on the call at once). The new effects hail from King Bach, Emma Chamberlain, Bella Poarch and Zach King. It’s also working with Netflix on new Stranger Things soundmojis and added a new Taylor Swift soundmoji in honor of the release of “Red.”

Dating

Image Credits: App Annie screenshot

  • Bumble surpassed the $1 billion mark in consumer spending, according to data from App Annie. The dating and networking app is one of only 15 other non-gaming apps, and the only dating app outside of Tinder, to have hit this milestone. In addition to Bumble and Tinder, other billion-dollar club members include YouTube, Netflix, Tencent Video, TikTok, iQIYI, Pandora Music, LINE, Disney+, HBO Max, BIGO LIVE, Google One, LINE Manga, piccoma and Youku. The WSJ also remarked this week that Bumble, with a fully diluted valuation of around $6.6 billion, is starting to look undervalued. 
  • Match settled its lawsuit with Tinder co-founders and execs for $441 million. The suit, filed in 2018, alleged that IAC and its then-subsidiary Match Group manipulated financial data in order to create a false, “lowball valuation” of the dating app when Tinder was merged into IAC in 2017. The employees also said they had been unlawfully stripped of their Tinder stock options. The suit sought “billions of dollars” in damages at the time of its filing. While they didn’t get quite that number, after the court dismissed some of their claims for damages, $441 million is no small number. Match said it’s paying the settlement in cash. It had around $510 million in cash and cash equivalents at the end of the third quarter.

Streaming & Entertainment

Image Credits: Spotify

  • Spotify’s anticipated year-end review, Wrapped 2021, has arrived. This year, the company introduced a number of new features, including artist and podcaster video messages, a version of Blend designed for Wrapped (which lets you compare your Wrapped with a friend), an in-app game based on “Two Truths and a Lie,” your “Audio Aura” (perfect for sharing when you don’t want to reveal your artists and songs) and more. The feature has become a popular way for Spotify to leverage its huge data collection in a way that’s not only engaging, but also makes Apple Music listeners green with envy.
  • Twitch’s iOS app added support for Apple’s SharePlay, allowing users and up to 31 of their friends to watch Twitch streams together while on a FaceTime call. To use the feature, everyone on the call has to log into their Twitch app and can then watch in either portrait or landscape mode along with friends.
  • YouTube on Android is testing a Material Design 3-inspired look, which includes pill-shaped bubbles surrounding the thin line-art icons, including a combined tab for likes and dislikes. The test design greatly shrinks the height of the bar under the video, however. The app has yet to get its Material You makeover, so this test is an indication that may soon on its way.
  • African streaming service WAW MUZIK partnered with B2B music streaming company Tuned Global on the relaunch of its music streaming app for French-speaking African territories.

Gaming

Image Credits: Sensor Tower

  • MrBeast’s parody video of Netflix’s “Squid Game” helped drive installs of Supercell’s Brawl Stars, reported Sensor Tower. The event had been sponsored by Supercell, which benefitted from the viral success of the video which had topped 100 million views. In the six days followed the YouTube video’s release, Brawl Stars’ downloads grew 41% week-over-week to 1.4 million. The majority (263,000) were from U.S. users. Player spending also grew 54% week-over-week worldwide to reach $8.2 million. The surge may not be all MrBeast-related, however. The Brawl Stars World Finals had just taken place November 26-28, which may have also boosted installs.
  • PUBG Mobile surpassed $7 billion in lifetime revenue after generating an average of $8.1 million per day in 2021 across the App Store and Google Play, Sensor Tower reported. Combined with the Chinese localization (Game for Peace), the title brought in $2.6 billion in 2021 so far and is the No. 2 Top Grossing game worldwide, behind Honor of Kings.

Travel & Transportation

  • Uber will begin testing an audio recording safety feature in the U.S. The company says it will begin piloting the program, which will allow drivers to send trip recordings to Uber in the case of a safety incident, in three U.S. markets:  Kansas City, Missouri; Louisville, Kentucky; and Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina.
  • Uber in India added ride-booking via WhatsApp, a first for both companies, Uber and Meta. The partnership lets users access Uber by sending a message to a chatbot, and follows WhatsApp’s rollout of in-app grocery shopping in partnership with JioMart.
  • As part of the Android winter update, Android Auto added support for digital car key for compatible BMW vehicles on Pixel 6 devices and Samsung Galaxy 21. It also now auto-launches when your phone is connected to your car, and is adding an always-on play button to its Home screen, as well as a new search icon. (The latter is coming in the “months” ahead.) Also planned is support for Smart Reply for responding to texts within Android Auto.
  • Spotify has decided to retire “Car View,” its easy-to-use interface that appears when Spotify is used while driving. The company didn’t offer an immediate replacement, which angered some users who worried that using Spotify in the car now won’t be as safe. Others, however, hated the feature and are glad to see it go.

Government & Policy

  • Some Chinese state-run companies have restricted the use of Tencent’s domestic messaging app, Weixin, citing security concerns. At least nine companies were told to stop the practice of using the app for work chats, including China Mobile, China Construction Bank Corp., China National Petroleum Corp. and others.
  • Apple and Google were fined €10 million apiece by Italy’s competition and market authority (AGCM), which said the companies didn’t provide their users with clear enough information on commercial uses of their data. Both were accused of omitting information during the account creation phase. For Apple, that includes when users first set up their Apple ID to access its digital storefronts, like the App Store.
  • U.K.’s antitrust watchdog has ordered Facebook (now called Meta) to sell Giphy, the online and mobile GIF platform it acquired for $400 million in May 2020.

Security & Privacy

  • Android devices will soon automatically turn off runtime permissions — which allow apps to access data or take actions on your behalf — for downloaded apps you haven’t used in a while. The feature was also a part of Android’s winter update and will roll out this month on Android 6.0 and higher.
  • Researchers discovered a batch of Android apps with a combined 300,000 installs that were revealed to be banking trojans that stole user passwords and two-factor authentication codes, logged user keystrokes and took screenshots. The apps had posed as QR scanners, PDF scanners and cryptocurrency wallets that had been discovered on Google Play for months.
  • Twitter expanded its safety policy by banning the posting of images and videos of private individuals without their consent. This doesn’t mean users can’t post images, necessarily, but if the private individual asks for the image to be taken down, Twitter will do so. The Columbia Journalism Review cautioned that the new policy’s wording could lead to difficulties in balancing what’s in the public interest (which is permitted) with individual privacy. Already things are not going well. Twitter Safety has locked the account of an extremism researcher who had posted videos of right-wing extremists who were discussing plans for assaulting a reporter in public, where legally, there’s no expectation of privacy.

Image Credits: Lowkey

🤝 Pokémon GO maker Niantic acquired social gaming platform Lowkey, which allows gamers a way to capture and share their favorite gaming moments. The company said it will bring on Lowkey’s team to help it build out the future of Niantic’s social experiences.

🤝 Digital creation platform Picsart announced the acquisition of R&D company DeepDraft in a seven-figure cash and stock deal. The company brings to Picsart deep expertise in AI and machine learning, which Picsart will leverage as it pushes further into the video space.

🤝 Social app IRL made its first acquisition with a deal for the “digital nutrition” company AeBeZe Labs. The company had been developing a range of products with an understanding of how digital content can impact people’s moods. IRL aims to use its technology to improve its event and community recommendations in a healthier way compared with how existing social rivals manage their own algorithms. Deal terms weren’t offered.

💰 Glorify, a Christian-focused subscription app offering meditation, bible passages and Christian music, raised $40 million in Series A funding led by Andreessen Horowitz, with participation from SoftBank Latin America Fund, K5 Global and others. Notable angel investors include Kris Jenner, Corey Gamble, Michael Ovitz, Jason Derulo and Michael Bublé.

📉 Southeast Asian super app Grab started trading on the Nasdaq under the ticker symbol GRAB after merging with the SPAC Altimeter Growth in the biggest Wall Steet debut by a Southeast Asian company, which saw the company raising $4.5 billion, valuing its business at nearly $40 billion. After an initial jump on Thursday, shares dropped more than 20% as investors reacted to its falling revenues and rising losses.

💰 Vinehealth, the makers of an app offering digital support for cancer patients and SaaS for R&D, raised $5.5 million in seed funding led by Talis Capital. The London-based startup has now launched the app, which has around 15,000 downloads, in the U.S.

💰 Francophone African super app Gozem raised $5 million in Series A funding from AAIC, Thunes (TransferTo), Momentum Ventures (SMRT), Innoport Ventures (Schulte Group), CMC Ventures (National Express) and Liil Ventures (Mobility ADO). The app offers transportation, e-commerce and financial services across 13 cities, including Gabon and Cameroon. Users have now completed over 5 million trips using its services.

💰 Financial literacy app for kids Goalsetter raised $15 million in Series A funding, led by Seae Ventures. The app allows kids to receive an allowance and financial gifts from family and friends, which comes to their Goalsetter debit card. But they can only unlock the money by taking financial literacy quizzes. The company now plans to sell a white-labled version of its service to banks.

💰 London-based money management app Plum raised $24 million in Series A funding from dmg Ventures and others, bringing its total raise to date to $43 million. The fintech company reported 189% YoY increase in revenue.

💰 Southeast Asian investment app Endowu raised $25.6 million in new funding following its $23 million Series A just seven months ago. The new round — which the company says is in between an A and a B — was led by Prosus Ventures, the venture firm majority-owned by Naspers, and EDBI. The app has $1.5 billion SGD in total assets under management.

💰 Algeria-based Yassir raised $30 million in Series A funding to build a super app for North Africa that includes ride-hailing, last-mile delivery, payments and more. The company had previously raised $13.25 million in seed funding.

Indie App Santa

Image Credits: Indie App Santa

The new Indie App Santa app is an advent calendar of sorts for those who love to download and try out iOS apps. The idea began last year as a Twitter account, which drove around 40,000 downloads to the apps the day they were featured. This year, the team at App Craft Studio decided to expand the project to the web, a native iOS app (with Home Widgets and Push notifications), in addition to social accounts on Twitter, Gumroad and Patreon.

According to creator and indie developer François Boulis, the team wasn’t sure if Apple’s App Store Review would approve their new app because it could be considered a “mini App Store” — which is against Apple’s rules. But the app passed through App Review on its first try, he says.

The new iOS app presents an advent calendar-like interface where each day you can tap to open a door and reveal a new deal on an indie developer’s app. The app will work from December 1 through December 24, and is a free download (with the option to pay to support its development).

So far, the app has revealed deals including a free version of MrClockface, a clock widget app; a free version of visual calendar Structured Pro; and puzzle game Blackbox. Most of the apps featured throughout the month will also be free, except for YarnBuddy (December 8), which will offer its $39.99 IAP for just $9.99 on the day of its featuring. Other coming app deals include those for Jinks!, Twidget, Vinyls, Crouton, Bluebird, PastePal, Wynk, Guessing Game, Inventory List, Skaffer, Sticker Doodle, Calory, Sync Flashlight, HabitMinder, un:safe, FitnessView, Times Up! Timer, Luxilux, Pile and Wordsmyth.

But India App Santa’s deals don’t last forever — you have to grab them as they arrive, or you’ll miss out.

Alms

Image Credits: Alms

A new startup called Alms is building a social network that focuses on users’ well-being through participation in creator-led challenges in areas like personal growth, sustainability and others focused on positive impacts. Instead of driving the collection of “likes,” as on other social apps, Alms aims to encourage real-world engagement through its challenges and the specific steps and actions that must be taken. The idea, explains Alms founder Alexander Nevedovsky, is to design an app that guides users to a happier and more meaningful life when they use it. At launch Alms has 30 creators on board, and more in the pipeline, and has attracted a couple of thousand users in its first few days on the App Store.

(Read a full review at TechCrunch.)

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The network effect is anti-competitive

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A U.S. federal judge last week struck down Apple rules restricting app developers from selling directly to customers outside the App Store.

Apple’s stock fell 3% on the news, which is being regarded as a win for small and midsize app developers because they’ll be able to build direct billing relationships with their customers. But Apple is just one of many Big Tech companies that dominate their sector.

The larger issue is how this development will impact Amazon, Facebook, Grubhub and other tech giants with online marketplaces that use draconian terms of service to keep their resellers subservient. The skirmish between Apple and small and midsize app developers is just a smaller battle in a much larger war.

App makers pay up to 30% on every sale they make on the Apple App Store. Resellers on Amazon pay a monthly subscription fee, a sales commission of 8% to 15%, fulfillment fees and other miscellaneous charges. Grubhub charges restaurants 15% of every order, a credit card processing fee, an order processing fee and a 10% delivery commission.

Like app developers, online resellers and social media influencers are all falling for the same big lie: that they can build a sustainable business with healthy margins on someone else’s platform. The reality is the App Store, online marketplaces and even social networks that dominate their sectors have the unilateral power to selectively deplatform and squeeze their users, and there’s not much anyone can do about it.

Healthy competition exists inside the App Store and among marketplace resellers and aspiring social media influencers. But no one seems to be talking about the real elephants in the room, which are the social networks and online marketplace providers themselves. In some respects, they’ve become almost like digital dictators with complete control over their territories.

It’s something every small and midsize business that gets excited about some new online service catering to their industry should be aware of because it directly impacts their ability to grow a stable business. The federal judge’s decision suggests the real goal in digital business is a direct billing relationship with the end user.

On the internet, those who are able to lead a horse to water and make them drink — outside the walled gardens of digital marketplace operators like Uber, Airbnb and Udemy — are the true contenders. In content and e-commerce, this is what most small and midsize companies don’t realize. Your own website or owned media, at a top-level domain that you control, is the only unfettered way to sell direct to end users.

Mobile app makers on Apple’s App Store, resellers on Amazon and aspiring content creators on Instagram, YouTube and TikTok are all subject to the absolute control of digital titans who are free to govern by their own rules with unchecked power.

For access to online marketplaces and social networks, we got a raw deal. We’re basically plowing their fields like digital sharecroppers. Resellers on Amazon are forced to split their harvest with a landlord who takes a gross percentage with no caps. Amassing followers on TikTok is building an audience that’s locked inside their venue.

These tech giants — all former startups that built their audiences from scratch — are free to impose and selectively enforce oppressive rules. If you’re a small fry, they can prohibit you from asking for your customer’s email address and deplatform you for skimming, but look the other way when Spotify and The New York Times do the same thing. Both were already selling direct and through the App Store prior to Friday’s ruling.

How is that competitive? Even after the ruling, Big Tech still gets to decide who they let violate their terms of service and who they deplatform. It’s not just their audience. It’s their universe, their governance, their rules and their enforcement.

In the 1948 court case United States v. Paramount Pictures, the Supreme Court ruled that film studios couldn’t own their own theaters because that meant they could exclusively control what movies were screened. They stifled competition by controlling what films made it to the marquee, so SCOTUS broke them up.

Today, social networks control what gets seen on their platforms, and with the push of a button, they can give the hook to whoever they want, whenever they want. The big challenge that the internet poses to capitalism is that the network effect is fundamentally anti-competitive. Winner-take-all markets dominated by tech giants look more like government-controlled than free-market economies.

On the one hand, the web gives us access to a global marketplace of buyers and sellers. On the other, a few major providers control the services that most people use to do business, because they don’t have the knowledge or resources to stand up a competitive website. But unless you have your own domain and good search visibility, you’re always in danger of being deplatformed and losing access to your customers or audience members with no practical recourse.

The network effect is such that once an online marketplace becomes dominant, it neutralizes the competitive market, because everyone gravitates to the dominant service to get the best deal. There’s an inherent conflict between the goals of a winner-takes-all tech company and the goals of a free market.

Dominant online marketplaces are only competitive for users. Meanwhile, marketplace providers operate with impunity. If they decide they want to use half-baked AI or offshore contractors to police their terms of service and shore up false positives, there’s no practical way for users to contest. How can Facebook possibly govern nearly 3 billion users judiciously with around 60,000 employees? As we’ve seen, it can’t.

For app makers, online resellers and creators, the only smart option is open source on the open web. Instead of relying on someone else’s audience (or software for that matter), you own your online destination powered by software like WordPress or Discord, and you never have to worry about getting squeezed when the founders go public or their platform gets bought by profit-hungry investment bankers. Only then can you protect your profit margins. And only then are the terms of service the laws of the land.

Politics aside, as former President Donald Trump’s deplatforming demonstrated, if you get kicked off Facebook and Twitter, there’s really nowhere else to go. If they want you out, it’s game over. It’s no coincidence Trump lost his Facebook and Twitter accounts on the same day the Republicans lost the Senate. If the GOP takes back the Senate, watch Trump get his social media accounts back. Social networks ward off regulators by appeasing the legislative majority.

So don’t get too excited about the new Amazon Influencer Program. If you want to build a sustainable digital business, you need an owned media presence powered by software that doesn’t rake commissions, have access to your customer contact information and has an audience that can’t be commandeered with an algorithm tweak.

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Facebook releases a glimpse of its most popular posts, but we don’t learn much

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Facebook is out with a new report collecting the most popular posts on the platform, responding to critics who believe the company is deliberately opaque about its top-performing content.

Facebook’s new “widely viewed content reports” will come out quarterly, reflecting most viewed top News Feed posts in the U.S. every three months — not exactly the kind of real-time data monitoring that might prove useful for observing emerging trends.

With the new data set, Facebook hopes to push back against criticism that its algorithms operate within a black box. But like its often misleading blogged rebuttals and the other sets of cherry-picked data it shares, the company’s latest gesture at transparency is better than nothing, but not particularly useful.

So what do we learn? According to the new data set, 87% of posts that people viewed in the U.S. during Q2 of this year didn’t include an outside link. That’s notable but not very telling since Facebook still has an incredibly massive swath of people sharing and seeing links on a daily basis.

YouTube is predictably the top domain by Facebook’s chosen metric of “content viewers,” which it defines as any account that saw a piece of content on the News Feed, though we don’t get anything in the way of potentially helpful granular data there. Amazon, Gofundme, TikTok and others also in the top 10, no surprises there either.

Things get weirder when Facebook starts breaking down its most viewed links. The top five links include a website for alumni of the Green Bay Packers football team, a random online CBD marketplace and reppnforchrist.com, an apparently prominent portal for Christianity-themed graphic T-shirts. The subscription page for the Epoch Times, a site well known for spreading pro-Trump conspiracies and other disinformation, comes in at No 10, though it was beaten by a Tumblr link to two cats walking with their tails intertwined.

Image Credits: Facebook

Yahoo and ABC News are the only prominent national media outlets that make the top 20 when the data is sliced and diced in this particular way. Facebook also breaks down which posts the most people viewed during the period with a list of mostly benign if odd memes, including one that reads “If your VAGINA [cat emoji] or PENIS [eggplant emoji] was named after the last TV show/Move u watched what would it be.”

If you’re wondering why Facebook chose to collect and present this set of data in this specific way, it’s because the company is desperately trying to prove a point: That its platform isn’t overrun by the political conspiracies and controversial right-wing personalities that make headlines.

The dataset is Facebook’s latest argument in its long feud with New York Times reporter Kevin Roose, who created a Twitter account that surfaces Facebook’s most engaging posts on a daily basis, as measured through the Facebook-owned social monitoring tool CrowdTangle.

By the metric of engagement, Facebook’s list of top-performing posts in the U.S. are regularly dominated by far-right personalities and sites like Newsmax, which pushes election conspiracies that Facebook would prefer to distance itself from.

The company argues that Facebook posts with the most interactions don’t accurately represent the top content on the platform. Facebook insists that reach data, which measures how many people see a given post, is a superior metric, but there’s no reason that engagement data isn’t just as relevant if not more so.

“The content that’s seen by the most people isn’t necessarily the content that also gets the most engagement,” Facebook wrote, in a dig clearly aimed at Roose.

The platform wants to de-emphasize political content across the board, which isn’t surprising given its track record of amplifying Russian disinformation, violent far-right militias and the Stop the Steal movement, which culminated in deadly violence at the U.S. Capitol in January.

As The New York Times previously reported, Facebook actually scrapped plans to make its reach data widely available through a public dashboard over fears that even that version of its top-performing posts wouldn’t reflect well on the company.

Instead, the company opted to offer a taste of that data in a quarterly report and the result shows plenty of junk content, but less in the way of politics. Facebook’s cursory gesture of transparency notwithstanding, it’s worth remembering that nothing is stopping the company from letting people see a leaderboard of its most popular content at any given time — in real-time even! — beyond the its own fear of bad press.

TechCrunch

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