Start Up No.1236: AirBnB scams listed, YouTube’s a $15bn business (but is it profitable?), your too-smart TV, TikTok India gets censor-y, and more


Imagine if you started with a blank slate: is this how you would lay out the buttons on a phone? That was Bell’s problem 70 years ago. CC-licensed photo by Chris Campbell on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. You say corona, I say bologna. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Here are the most common Airbnb scams worldwide • VICE

Anna Merlan, following on from fellow Vice writer Allie Conti getting scammed on the site:

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Hoping to get a better sense of the issue, we asked readers to tell us about their own experiences using Airbnb. In response, we got nearly 1,000 emails, many of them outlining similar tales of deception.

The stories quickly started to fall into easily discernible categories. Scammers all over the world, it seems, have figured how best to game the Airbnb platform: by engaging in bait and switches; charging guests for fake damages; persuading people to pay outside the Airbnb app; and, when all else fails, engaging in clumsy or threatening demands for five-star reviews to hide the evidence of what they’ve done. (Or, in some cases, a combination of several of these scams.)

In the aggregate, these emails paint a portrait of a platform whose creators are fundamentally unable to track what goes on within it, and point to easily exploitable loopholes that scammers have steamed their way through by the truckload. After Conti’s story, Airbnb promised to “verify” all 7 million listings on the site by December 2020. Brian Chesky, Airbnb’s CEO and co-founder, said at the DealBook conference that the verification process is part of a dawning realisation that, as he put it, “we have to take more responsibility for stuff on our platform.”

“I think many of us in this industry … are going from a hands-off model, where the Internet’s an immune system, to realising that’s not really enough, that we have to take more responsibility for the stuff on our platform,” he said. “And I think this has been a gradual, maybe too gradual, transition for our industry.”

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Oh, now you’re realising, Brian. Meanwhile, a load of people get scammed.
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Censorship claims emerge as TikTok gets political in India • BBC News

Nilesh Christopher:

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In one of the videos, Mr Barman is dressed as a Muslim man wearing a white prayer cap who is being carried by a Hindu man as harmonious music plays in the background. In another popular skit, he is dressed as a Muslim writer from Pakistan who is in India to research a book and is greeted and hosted by two gleeful Hindu strangers.

The fact that a young Hindu man from the Indian city of Bhopal was uploading videos promoting brotherhood and peace between Hindus and Muslims captured significant attention, earning him the moniker of top “humanity” content creator.

But over the past four months, TikTok India has been restricting the reach of his account to stay away from such “risky” content, he says, adding that he has lost some 25,000 followers since the end of October.

In particular, his videos were no longer suggested on the front page, where TikTok gives tailored recommendations of creators and hashtags for users to discover.

“My videos used to get an average of 200,000 views but it’s now down to 8,000 views. None of my videos show up on the ‘For You’ page,” Mr Barman says.

He says his account started losing prominence last year, around the time a backlash began against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) – a controversial law which offers Indian citizenship to non-Muslims fleeing religious persecution in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan.

The law sparked fears it would marginalise India’s Muslim minority, triggering protests. In the past few months, many of TikTok’s 200 million Indian users have posted skits and songs on the app to voice their own opposition.

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If TikTok really thought that (a) it wouldn’t get teens being political (b) people wouldn’t notice when it downrated them, it really didn’t think it through.
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YouTube is a $15 billion-a-year business, Google reveals for the first time • The Verge

Nick Statt:

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YouTube generated nearly $5bn in ad revenue in the three months to the end of December, Google revealed today as part of parent company Alphabet’s fourth quarter earnings report. This is the first report under newly instated Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai, who took over as the chief executive of the entire company late last year after co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin stepped back from day-to-day duties and promoted Pichai, formerly Google CEO, to the top spot.

The announcement marks the first time in YouTube’s nearly 15 years as a Google-owned platform, since Google bought the website in 2006 for $1.65 billion, that the company has revealed how much money YouTube-hosted ads contribute to the search giant’s bottom line.

On an annual basis, Google says YouTube generated $15bn last year and contributed roughly 10% to all Google revenue. Those figures make YouTube’s ad business nearly one-fifth the size of Facebook’s, and more than six times larger than all of Amazon-owned Twitch.

Separately, Google says YouTube has more than 20 million subscribers across its Premium (ad-free YouTube) and Music Premium offerings, as well as more than 2 million subscribers to its paid TV service.

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The suspicion is that it did this to help mask an $800m on forecast revenue, but revealing revenue is long-term; it wouldn’t make sense to break it out just for a single revenue miss.

What would be really telling – if it’s possible – would be knowing whether YouTube is profitable. I’d guess it’s a pretty close-run thing: it must have to give away a sizeable chunk of that revenue, and video servers aren’t cheap to run. Plus the moderation cost is wayyyy higher for YouTube than for Google itself. (You can look at the financial statement and try to tease it out.)
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Addressable TV: the pros and cons of ads made just for you • Raconteur

Alex Brownsell:

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A new era is underway in which media companies can show different ads to different households while they are watching the same programme. More than half of UK households have connected their TV sets to the internet, according to Ofcom figures. Where TV ads have traditionally been traded against a limited number of pre-determined audience segments, addressability enables advertisers to target based on a multitude of location, demographic and behavioural criteria.

In some instances, as was the case with McDonald’s, the advertiser’s motivation is simply practical: the fast food chain was introducing a new menu to selected branches and wanted to minimise the number of people left disappointed if the latest burgers were not available at their local restaurant.

Addressable TV also opens the possibility for brands to target individual households with messages relevant to that viewer and their place in the purchase journey. For instance, if occupants have been scrolling through social media content relating to new cars, an automotive brand can run an ad suggesting a test drive at their local dealership.

Perhaps most significantly, advancements in dynamic ad insertion have paved the way for marketers to address specific audiences with assets tailored to their tastes and preferences, calling into question the very future of the traditional TV ad as we know it.

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Which is why you shouldn’t connect your TV to the internet, in my view.
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Why I’m joining 6CVentures • Medium

Sameer Singh:

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Today, I’m joining 6CVentures, a new early stage venture capital firm, as Partner and Head of Research. Long story short, we’re a sector-agnostic fund investing at the Pre-Seed and Seed stage (so if you’re an entrepreneur at this stage, reach out). I will be spending a lot of time in the coming months talking about our investment thesis on 6CV Perspective, but I wanted to start on a personal note.

About 18 months ago, I began thinking of moving back to venture capital. I have been a visible technology commentator in the past and was a seed-stage investor in India before moving to the UK. At least to me, venture capital seemed like a natural fit. But reaching out to VC firms was more challenging than I expected. I quickly learnt that personal introductions/references were the most effective way to reach a VC. I had only been in the country for a few years, so that was clearly a problem for me. It took me the better part of 18 months to build some semblance of a network in the space, through angel investing and working through the contacts I did have.

This experience was eye-opening for me, because I clearly come from a privileged background. If it was this hard for me to get introductions, how much harder would it be for founders who don’t have the advantages I have?

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Sameer has always been an insightful analyst of technology; it will be really interesting to see what he thinks is worth funding.
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The 17 designs that Bell almost used for the layout of telephone buttons • The Atlantic

Megan Garber:

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This layout is so standardized that we think about it as almost inevitable. But the layout was, in the 1950s, the result of a good deal of strategizing and testing on the part of the people of Bell Labs. And Numberphile has dug up an amazing paper — published in the July 1960 issue of “The Bell System Technical Journal” — that details the various alternative designs the Bell engineers considered for the layout. Among them: “the staircase” (II-B in the image above), “the ten-pin” (III-B, reminiscent of bowling-pin configurations), “the rainbow” (II-C), and various other versions that mimicked the circular logic of the existing dialing technology: the rotary. 

Everything was on the table for the layout of the ten buttons; the researchers’ only objective was to find the configuration that would be as user-friendly, and efficient, as possible. So they ran tests. They experimented. They sought input. They briefly considered a layout that mimicked a cross.

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They really, really didn’t limit themselves. It’s quite wild in parts.
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Is Siri a spy? Why my Apple iPad changed after hearing Spanish at home • USA Today

Jennifer Jolly:

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I watch most TV shows and movies on my iPad these days, and something strange happened recently. My iPad – or rather apps such as Hulu and Bravo linked via Apple TV on my iPad – started showing me commercials in Spanish. 

That was interesting, since I hadn’t touched the language settings, watched any shows in Spanish, or done any kind of internet activity in another language. But even more curious, was what had changed when the new commercials popped up.

We had just moved to a more Spanish-speaking area of Oakland, California. While I don’t speak Spanish (very well at least), my husband does and was doing so daily with contractors in our new house within “earshot” of my iPad. 

Could this timing and sudden sprinkling of Spanish commercials for insurance, seatbelt safety, and affordable college degrees be mere coincidence? Or was it a clear sign of location-based tracking? With Siri voice-assistance active, is my gadget, or the TV apps on it, specifically working to better predict my wants and needs – and providing Spanish speaking commercials – to be more “helpful?”

…“The simple answer is no, your (gadget) is not likely actively listening to your conversations,” Northeastern Associate Professor of Computer and Information Science David Choffnes told me over the phone. “But that doesn’t mean they aren’t (enabling the collection of) millions of data points to know who you are, where you live, what stores you shop at, where your kids go to school, and just about everything else.”

Choffnes also explained that some of the most basic tracking for advertising uses our IP address and that since I had just moved, “maybe you got someone else’s address,” he surmised. “I don’t know that for sure, but it’s not uncommon.”

Sure enough, when I deleted and then reinstalled both the Bravo and Hulu apps now that we have our router all set-up in our new home, I didn’t get any more commercials in other languages.

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Which is quite creepy. But wouldn’t the download have come from the same IP address? (Thanks Nic for the link.)
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Trump’s titanic gift to China’s solar panel makers • Bloomberg

Brian Eckhouse:

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For most of the past year, there’s been a big hole in President Trump’s China tariffs—one in the shape of a solar panel. Companies that build America’s major solar farms spent 2018 and early 2019 begging the administration to exempt jumbo versions of two-sided “bifacial” panels used to create vast, utility-scale solar farms. Relatively few bifacials are made domestically. For some reason, when the administration finally agreed to issue an exemption, it was much broader than the industry had suggested. So broad, in fact, that it reshaped the market and left Chinese panel makers as dominant as ever.

Since June, all bifacial panels have been tariff-free, and Chinese panel makers are turning the once-niche design into a cornerstone of their U.S.-aimed product lines. A trade court has temporarily blocked the White House’s efforts to kill the exemption. Trump is expected to decide as soon as next month, as part of a scheduled review, whether to make the otherwise-harsh solar tariffs even harsher.

Trade adviser Peter Navarro has said “the loophole for bifacial solar panels China is currently exploiting needs to be slammed shut.” The White House declined to comment.

Solar power is one of America’s cheapest sources of electricity, and installing it is one of its fastest-growing occupations. Chinese companies’ cheap panels are a big reason: “They’ve lowered the price of solar for the whole world,” says Noah Kaufman, a Columbia economist with a focus on global energy policy. They also crowded out domestic U.S. manufacturing, meaning the White House could satisfy ailing homegrown panel makers as well as its favored fossil fuel industries by making the Chinese models less competitive.

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The Trump admin is so adept at shooting itself in the foot; it’s the only thing it is good at. I often tell myself that it might be a good thing they’re in power now rather than, say, during the Cuban Missile Crisis or in 2001.
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Huge success in business is largely based on luck, says new research • The Conversation

Chengwei Liu is an associate professor of strategy and behavioural science at Warwick Business School:

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Bestselling business books promise to teach you the winning formula and reveal the secrets of success. But the inconvenient truth is that exceptional successes in business are largely based on luck. No rule exists for achieving exceptional performance because it usually requires doing something different or novel and there can be no recipe for such innovation.

My new research provides systematic evidence that luck plays a critical role in such performance, not only in business but also in music, movies, science and professional sports. A key finding is that more can be gained by paying more attention to “second best”.

Let’s look at the music industry. If a new band or musician has a top 20 hit, should a music label immediately try to sign them? My analysis of 8,297 acts in the US Billboard 100 from 1980 to 2008 would suggest not. Music label bosses should instead be looking to sign up those reaching positions between 22 and 30, the “second best” in the charts.

A common feature of many artists charting in the top ranks is that they enjoyed a “runaway success”. A classic example is Gangnam Style by Korean artist PSY. The music video went viral beyond anyone’s foresight. Since such an outcome involved exceptional luck, PSY’s success is unsustainable. In fact, artists charting in the top 20 will likely see their next single achieve between 40 and 45 on average, regressing disproportionally more to the mean than their lower performing counterparts.

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Oh come on, we all know PSY’s followup single, er.. you hum it, I’ll do the words.. Not so sure how this works for sports. Always pick the runner-up? Or just that it’s luck, which I’d certainly agree with – except when it’s sustained over years.
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Google Maps hacks • SIMON WECKERT

Weckert is an artist based in Berlin:

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99 second hand smartphones are transported in a handcart to generate virtual traffic jam in Google Maps.Through this activity, it is possible to turn a green street red which has an impact in the physical world by navigating cars on another route to avoid being stuck in traffic. ” #googlemapshacks

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The associated paper (in English) is worth reading too, particularly for the phrase “every human being is a wandering hyperlink”. Certainly to Google they are.

So the logic of this is that if you want to have an open road behind you, fill the back seat with phones. Or, better, get someone to go on the route you want to take with their back seat full of phones so that they look like a moving jam. Except they have to move slowly enough that Google thinks it’s a jam and begins routing around it. Tricky, this hacking stuff.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

1 thought on “Start Up No.1236: AirBnB scams listed, YouTube’s a $15bn business (but is it profitable?), your too-smart TV, TikTok India gets censor-y, and more

  1. This observation from the TikTok article “..really didn’t think it through” applies to a large swath of internet- connected companies.

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