Brexit one month on: currency lows and talent fear

Brexit one month on: currency lows and talent fear

In late June a referendum vote in the UK delivered the shock verdict that a small majority of the British public wanted the country to leave the European Union.

Next came the resignation of the Prime Minister and a precipitous drop in the value of the pound, which remains languishing far below its former heights. Various economic indicators now suggest the country is heading back towards recession.

So how are UK startups coping with the unraveling of the old world order? In the immediate aftermath of the Brexit vote, TechCrunch spoke to several founders who expressed shock, disappointment and concern for the future. A month on, what — if anything — has changed for them and their businesses?

Business as usual-ish

It’s clear that Brexit remains a massive question mark over the future direction of the UK and its digital economy, with no plan for leaving the European Union yet set out, nor firm timetable for the government to trigger Article 50 — which would start the up to two-year process of disentanglement from the European project. So the current ‘post-referendum, pre-actual-Brexit’ period might well turn out to be “the quiet before the storm”, as one founder puts it.

In the meantime, business in the UK isn’t grinding to a halt. And, generally speaking, things have returned to normal-ish for the startups we spoke to a month+ after the referendum vote — with some even reporting record summers. Although others have seen a small drop in demand. One, a currency exchange startup, attributed its dip to Brexit-based uncertainty, given the wild swings of pound sterling.

For others there are also some potentially more disquieting signs, with evidence of a slowdown in decision-making with overseas partners and investors, as entities outside the UK grapple with what Brexit means for them, and assess possible risks — figuring out whether they need to rethink their own UK-market strategy. The strength and depth of any impact there — if hesitation turns into out-and-out rejection — is clearly going to take more time to shake out.

Currency swings and roundabouts

The post-Brexit value of sterling has caused some of the most immediate knocks on the UK startups we spoke to, with founders generally having to be more “currency aware”, as one put it. Another founder notes having to absorb a rising salary bill on account of paying some of their staff in Euros. Another recounts having to help one of their suppliers, who they pay in GBP, by covering 75 per cent of sterling’s value drop after their supplier’s margin was all but wiped out overnight.

The same business also tells us it lost out on a potential hire, after being outbid by a starup in another European country — which was able to offer a higher salary level because of the pound being so low.

On the flip side of a fallen pound, UK startups are now cheaper to foreign investors, as we’ve seen with the Softbank ARM acquisition. And, if the UK economy heads for recession — with the accompanying knock-on effect on rents and house prices — the cost of living in London might become more affordable, in theory boosting its attractiveness to lower waged startup workers. But the same founder who suggested this went on to emphasize that the huge negatives of recession will obviously weigh very heavily in that scenario too.

Another longer term concern on the money and currency front is what will happen to early stage investment in the UK, given how large a chunk comes from European VC funds. While, in the short term, funds have closed and still have that money to invest, and investments have continued to be made in UK startups since the referendum result, the question is what will happen when the time comes to close the next fund? Where will that money be ending up? In the UK, or elsewhere in Europe?

The human cost

The biggest and most pressing concern for UK startups in the wake of the Brexit referendum result remains what will happen with free movement, with many worried about the impact on existing non-UK EU staff and whether they will have easy access to a Europe-wide talent pool in future or not.

There’s also anecdotal evidence from UK startups that some EU workers are questioning whether they should now accept a job in London or the UK, given the uncertainty over their future status in the country.

One founder also recounted several instances of non-British EU workers being made to feel unwelcome in the UK after the referendum vote, and expressed concern about the UK’s social cohesiveness and the future trajectory of ‘Britishness’ — suggesting the UK could see a brain-drain if entrepreneurs feel compelled to look elsewhere for a social structure that matches their expectations for tolerance and liberal values.

A swift political reboot

Perhaps the brightest point as UK startups perceive it in the gloomy summer after the Brexit vote, is that the country already has a new government in place, under Prime Minister Theresa May — who triumphed earlier than expected in the Tory leadership race after her last rival voluntarily stepped aside. One founder pointed out that if this coronation had not happened the government would still be leaderless even now — thankful of one small mercy in a time of vast uncertainty.

Another founder expressed awe at the speed with which the Tory factions had regrouped around a new leader. While, on the flip side, several bemoaned the lack of a unified official opposition at such a crucial juncture for UK Plc. The official opposition Labour party remains riven with splits and embroiled in a self-induced leadership contest.

Clearly not all the founders that TechCrunch spoke to are politically affiliated with the Conservative party but many expressed relief at a new Prime Minister who is perceived to be experienced and detail-oriented — a sense of partial relief doubtless encouraged by the fact she was a Remainer (if only a weak one).

Technocratic, stable political leadership might not be able to save the UK from the fast-accelerating economic ravages of Brexit but for UK entrepreneurs — who overwhelmingly voted to Remain — it beats the alternative: the party’s hardline Brexiteer wing. Aka the “headbangers” as one founder dubbed them — noting that his biggest fear at this point is that “the full, totally cut-the-cord, independent UK [politicians] start getting listened to”.

May’s reputation for political caution is therefore being (mostly) welcomed as a salve for self-inflicted Brexit harm at this early point on the post-referendum timeline. Not rushing blindly ahead is generally seen as prudent. Although some founders were eager for a little more business certainty, especially on key points like freedom of movement.

The (relative) blessing of an experience Remainer as the least worse Tory leader for horribly uncertain times definitely only goes so far — and may prove to be a short lived honeymoon for May in time, as Brexit’s complexities pile up.

Plentiful political concerns persist for startups about the sustained uncertainty of the UK’s future — from fears about looming recession, to the lack of a concrete Brexit plan, to worries about immigration and borders, and concerns about losing beneficial EU regulatory frameworks, like financial passporting. All topped off by founders’ underlying ideological objections to the UK divorcing itself from the EU.

Make more connections is the sentiment you’d expect from the startup scene. So for many UK entrepreneurs, the Brexit vote clearly feels very personal indeed.

NB: The below interviews have been lightly edited for clarity

Read the prior article in the sequence: What UK startups make of the shocking Brexit vote

Brexit — one month on…

Michael Kent, founder and CEO

On a micro level my firm, I guess my sector, the immediate economic impact — I’m more bullish. Customers keep coming. We had our strongest ever month last month. But as we should do — we’re growing fast. But at a macro level if you look at a lot of the leading economic indicators I’m a little bit worried because I think it’s probably going to be slack growth next year. In the UK. That’s not great for anyone… Recessions suck.

We haven’t seen any fundamental weakness in customer demand. We’ve seen people continuing to transact, pretty much at normal rates. I think it’s more of a reflection of the kind of people that we serve — they tend to be people who are sending a good chunk of their monthly salary home and they’ve got to do that regardless of what the pound’s doing or whether Brexit’s happening or what the politicians are saying. So I’m not surprised. I think [business has] probably been a little bit weaker — we’ve seen a bit of a dip in large transactions. Because we handle anything from £10 to £1 million, in terms of the transaction size, so there is a big range. And I think we’ve seen less of the larger transactions, a little bit. But that’s kind of what you’d expect. The pound’s in the toilet, the Euro’s not doing much better…

Wait and see doesn’t really work for fast growing businesses. So we have to have a plan.

[On the political front] everything points to it being quite positive and having a pragmatic Prime Minister and Chancellor. And various hands in the government. But that could change…  I’ve been broadly pretty impressed by how fast the new government has pulled itself together and seemed to be getting on with stuff. I don’t comment on political affiliations but I think having a full strength government that’s in place and is getting on with stuff is a major thing that you want — it limits the uncertainty. I would like to see them come out in support of tech, and I think there’s a new industrial policy that looks like it’s being formulated at the moment, and I think it’s important that technology and early stage businesses in the tech sector are fully supported as part of that.

I haven’t changed my view. I think Brexit is a bad thing for the UK. And a bad thing for Europe. It’s fundamentally completely against the philosophy that underlies our business — which is bringing people together, and people moving around and sharing ideas is very powerful. And Brexit’s a reaction against that. So I think anything that says well actually we’re going to temper what we’re doing here and we’re going to take a conservative approach is great. I’d like to see the Prime Minister go farther and really consider whether it’s still the right thing to do for the country. I don’t think it is, and the closer we get to a ‘Brexit lite’ or no Brexit at all much better it will be for both the UK startup scene and our economic prospects in general.

Geographic expansion was always on our roadmap but I think there’s a renewed urgency to where we need to locate ourselves. Like most tech companies we’re not just in one place. We’re in a whole bunch of places to make sure that we’re fully protecting our customers’ interests in what might be a situation where [financial] passporting isn’t universally accepted by the EU. At its essence, if the UK’s part of the EU you can get a license in the UK and you can service the 500 million or 600 million consumers who are all over the EU with your particular financial service, that you’re regulated to offer. If the UK is not part of the EU and there’s nothing that’s been put in place to keep that passporting process in force whilst the UK is outside of the EU then you have get a license somewhere else in Europe in order to service all those customers. That’s just fact.

There’s not many facts in this debate but that’s one of them. Because we don’t know how that’s going to play out right now it would be remiss of us to just wait and see… Wait and see doesn’t really work for fast growing businesses. So we have to have a plan.

Rahul Parekh, CEO and founder

There’s still no clarity on [free movement] and it’s still my number one concern. There’s been plenty of headlines out about this kind of thing… but it still seems very much up in the air so it’s still our biggest concern.

Certainly from a business perspective we haven’t seen any impact — since the Brexit vote we’ve grown the most we’ve ever grown… and usually we see a bit of a drop off in summer, so we’re seeing the contrary to any drop off in impact… But as we’re growing and expanding we’re also hiring a lot and all across the board from developers to operations staff, which are engineering background to kitchen staff with the chefs, our entire team is full of European, non-British nationals, especially in the kitchen. Most of the top chefs in the UK come from Italian, French background. So this is definitely our biggest concern still and it’s a bit frustrating that there’s been no progress, or no information about how free movement would be affected even a month later.

I haven’t seen a drop off in applications [from EU job seekers] but I’ve definitely had, anecdotally, a lot of questions and concerns from Europeans about the future — Europeans that we’ve interviewed for positions obviously concerned about the future. If they move to London now are they going to be able to stay for many years to come? They don’t know. There seems to be no clear cut-off point, because there was definitely a call for a cut-off point, some sort of date beyond which [their leave to remain status] was not guaranteed. And that hasn’t been cleared up at all. We’ve not seen a drop off in applications but I think there is a lot of concern about it.

My main concern is staffing as we grow the business. Making sure we can still attract top talent.

We’re going through a lot of expansion as the business grows, and as a result of that — and the uncertainty about the future — it’s very difficult for us to plan entering new markets. Because we don’t know what the impact will be even about Brits being able to go and work abroad. So people from our team here being able to go and lead new businesses abroad… Free movement obviously works both ways and for us there’s a big benefit from being able to send our key business leaders from here over into new markets. And it’s hard for us to plan that before we know what’s going to happen. But we haven’t made any changes in business strategy [since the Brexit vote]. We’re still focused on growing the business in London and the UK. And so far the business has been growing really well. The main concern I have is from a hiring perspective as we grow.

We’ve not seen really any major new policies from the new Prime Minister or chancellor yet. Obviously we’ve had a lot of speeches about what’s potentially coming, and we’ve got a new cabinet, but we’ve not seen anything really in terms of concrete policies that affect our business so it’s not clear exactly yet. The only concern I have is that there’s been some talk about how the new Prime Minister sees corporate governance and wants to have much more influence on corporate governance.

In our market there has been a lot of positive impact from EU regulation in the food market so for example the EU legislation on allergen labeling was actually a very positive thing for the food business because it was much less clear for consumers before what allergens were going into their food. And I think that that directive, which came from Europe, was actually a very positive thing. So you potentially lose a lot of that — so the UK will have to do it on its own. But my main concern is staffing as we grow the business. Making sure we can still attract top talent into the roles that we have, especially the chef roles, engineering roles, development roles. Because traditionally, up until now, we’re hired actively — in the UK as well — but very actively in Europe.

I think the biggest impact will potentially be fintech. At this stage it’s far too early to tell — and no one has been specifically affected because there’s been no change… But there is some risk for fintech businesses depending on the rules around passporting of financial securities from the UK to Europe. The risk is much bigger for banks that are based here in the UK. That’s probably going to be the biggest impact but we’ll see. I’d hope that we’re able to negotiate keeping that.

Hiroki Takeuchi, CEO and founder

One thing that startups are pretty good at is dealing with uncertainty. We’re always operating in an environment of uncertainty by the very nature of what we’re doing — so increased uncertainty doesn’t phase us too much. I think where it is painful is where other businesses, potential customers, where it makes it harder for them to make decisions that makes it more challenging for us. But we haven’t seen too big an impact on that yet.

Not much has changed in many ways. In many ways business carries on as usual. The biggest thing I’m worried about is that whole issue of open access to employees across Europe. That’s the one area where we have seen people questioning whether they should move to London, seeing a drop in the kind of activity around applicants from other European countries. There’s definitely a bit more hesitancy and obviously from our perspective we’re saying please come and join us, we will support you no matter what happens, we really believe this will be okay. But that’s probably the biggest impact that we’re seeing. And the one I’m most worried about.

We have seen people questioning whether they should move to London.

[Brexit’s impact on the economy] doesn’t make me worry about the prospects for our business too much. Our business isn’t hugely tied to the economy in many ways anyway — it’s not like we’re really feeling the heat of that. We definitely have seen a bit of a slowdown in terms of people making decisions and there’s a lot more umming and ahhing but it’s not something I’m worried about the long term effects of.

For me, [Brexit] underlines the need for businesses like us even more. A lot of what we’re doing is building bridges between the different banking systems around the world. That’s the vision that we want to pursue and one of the ways I think about it is the more borders there are, the more bridges there are to build. And that’s a challenge but also an opportunity. And whilst on a personal level I feel the fewer borders the better, the reality is somewhat different and so we are trying to embrace that.

Given that we’ve committed as a country to going down this path I think definitely the right approach is to say let’s not rush it, let’s get it right. The big question for me in my mind goes back to the labour point… this question of open access to labour is hugely important. The bit I still feel a little unsure on is it’s unclear to me how wedded Theresa May and her party are to the idea of closing off our borders. If that happens then I worry a lot. That will have a huge, long term negative impact on our country. It’s also one of the most contentious issues of the whole vote — one of the biggest reasons why Brexit happened was precisely because of this issue. So obviously it’s a very, very complicated issues with a lot of arguments on both sides. So who knows what’s going to happen there.

Jonathan May, founder and CEO

We have been forced to be more currency movement aware. Almost our entire cost base is in GBP but increasingly our revenues are in USD or EUR, so we have needed to spend a bit more time making sure we’re not wasting money invoicing in the wrong currencies, and given the long sales cycles in our space, we’ve been careful to make sure quotes or price estimates are in the right currencies and have expiry dates on them.

That’s the kind of stuff larger companies worry about all the time; I just hadn’t expected it to demand so much attention for us yet.

I remain mostly concerned about the impact on growth and staffing — it’s the impact on people that is the hardest to do anything about. With the uncertainty around what will now happen and when — and the likelihood that this uncertainty isn’t going anyway any time soon — it’s really hard to assess the long term impact on the business.

[Brexit] has influenced our short term strategy and — if it goes ahead — it will likely impact whether we grow our London team or focus hiring overseas to match our new business focus.

Hard — and unpopular — decisions now need to be taken, in either direction, to resolve the uncertainty.

Until there’s more clarity on exactly what is going to happen when we won’t be moving, but we are currently looking at taking advantage of the Estonian e-residency programme to ensure we’ll have no problems subsequently incorporating within the EU if the UK does leave.

Until there is any degree of certainty on whether Brexit will definitely happen, and on what timescale, it’s not worth making other plans.

It has put a spanner in the works of several EU projects we were thinking of partnering on.

Our new business focus has shifted to the US… We think it was the right call. The market in the UK is a lot more uncertain and uncertainty leads to tightening budgets.

I’ll be honest — I have no idea what Theresa May’s policy on Brexit actually is. It seems that the political expediency of saying “Brexit means Brexit” so as not to alienate a voter pool is almost all we have been given so far. Hard — and unpopular — decisions now need to be taken, in either direction, to resolve the uncertainty. That is all that matters from a business point of view. From a personal point of view, I would like the UK to find a way to stay in the EU and stay together as a union.

I am concerned that stories travel faster than facts, and populism seems to be taking over as a result — whilst many of the socially liberal/left are interested only in facts. As Martin Luther King Jr said: “Those who love peace must learn to organize as effectively as those who love war” — and I think those words resonate really strongly with the Brexit vote, and the current political malestrom in the US surrounding Trump’s repeated and appalling soundbites.

Richard Mabey, founder and CEO

For us Brexit was particularly hard felt.  75 per cent of my team are from EU countries outside of the UK, we are backed by Seedcamp (whose biggest limited partner is the European Investment Fund) and 30 per cent of our customers are in continental Europe.

In the short term, we have seen a small impact.  Fortunately we drew down a large convertible note in Euros just before Brexit, but our salary bill has increased, as we pay some of our developer salaries in Euros.  We have also had to issue emergency guidance to our customers on how Brexit may impact their legal contracts (we are a contracts platform).

In terms of the future, we are feeling a bit more positive than we were.  Anecdotally, we have not seen our ability to hire impacted, nor have we seen lower investment appetite from funders or a decrease in our customer acquisition rate.

If we can’t hire who we want to, we head for Berlin.

We are broadly adherent to the Saul Klein philosophy of ‘when Brexit gives you lemons, it’s time to make lemonade’. The fundamentals in London are good and we are bullish on its potential in the future.   Where we still have concerns however is around certainty, and the government is not giving us the confidence we need to commit to stay in London.

We have two main concerns.

The first is that in the short term EU nationals currently residing in the UK may not be able to stay without applying for a visa. We are not so much bothered by the outcome of that decision – we can move very easily to Berlin if we have to — but it is the government’s sluggish decision-making that is most frustrating.  What the UK tech industry needs is certainty and we are not getting it quickly enough.

The second is that in the medium term there may not be sufficient appetite among the best developers, designers and marketers in the EU to come to live and work in London. London’s reputation as a leader in tech has to date been sufficient to draw talent to our business in spite of high rents and cost of living.  Without that reputation, we may see our ability to hire the best people impacted.  This is the line in the sand for us — if we can’t hire who we want to, we head for Berlin.

Graham Parker, founder and CEO

A month on the main thing is uncertainty.

You hear stories from people all the time because right now anything is possible post Brexit, e.g borders and free movement.

We sit at the intersection between tech and shipping, two areas that are seen as being potential big losers in Brexit.

They have put it on hold for six months in order to survey the fallout from Brexit.

We are very worried about the fallout and have already seen foreign companies ask us about duty rates for British goods post-Brexit to see if they will increase, meaning they could potentially source elsewhere and hurt exports.

Also speaking to US VC we can see a serious slowdown in the speed of talks with them, as well as a large global ecommerce group we were talking about a partnership. They have put it on hold for six months in order to survey the fallout from Brexit.

Finally as a company we are live in the US as well as UK and are considering putting greater resource into the US market at the expense of UK development.

Tom Adeyoola, founder and CEO

A month has gone by since Brexit but in just the two weeks that followed we saw more resignations and sackings than the history of the whole Upscale group put together and more political instability than a banana republic.

Startups are made to handle uncertainty and map a course through it, but I still feel intensely angry at having to deal with completely unnecessary obstacles: a nation knowingly inflicting self-harm.

After all the parlour game manoeuvrings we at least have a technocrat now in charge who will stay on top of the job in hand, regain stability and be sensible. In impact terms for us that means at least no formal Brexit for two years. No real actual change and recession won’t be felt for another quarter yet.

Government has a huge amount to do to rebuild and create a new tangible inclusive and attractive vision for this country.

However, the mindset is forever changed and businesses have already reacted to the expectations: e.g. our trademark lawyers have already opened and beefed up their offices abroad in Germany and France.

We ourselves have explicitly doubled down on international business development. We’ve also had to support one of our key suppliers who we pay in GBP by covering 75 per cent of the currency drop since Brexit which wiped out their margin overnight. The flip side of course is that we have become cheaper and more attractive to external investors. You’ve already seen a huge example of this impact with the two week deal by SoftBank to buy ARM post Brexit.

But the biggest impact so far has been felt by our staff and potential talent. Significant destabilisation for our international contingent who feel that this country no longer wants them here. One employee’s French wife was told to pack up and go home on the tube, another’s Spanish boyfriend was left in the office of his architecture firm with another international colleague as his firm went out to celebrate Brexit on the 24th, with his bosses later boasting about how he was good value for money and couldn’t possible ask for a pay rise now. Another was shouted at and abused as he cycled home in Cambridge. A potential hire has failed to commit, seeking more time to evaluate whether Berlin should now be her focus instead. And finally a non-EU but international colleague has felt destabilised enough to seek out a particular academic opportunity and leave now because they feel the door might be closing because of what is coming in terms of immigration policy and academic research funding.

For me and most of my friends be they Brits, EU or international citizens the vote on 23rd has had a fundamental impact on what we had taken for granted in British values meaning that we no longer see ourselves living here forever. That certain bond has been broken. Talent emigration is now more likely and more certain and government has a huge amount to do to rebuild and create a new tangible inclusive and attractive vision for this country.

My most immediate front and centre issues are talent, talent, talent. Stuff related to laws, tariffs, trade — will take much longer to come to life and are outside of my immediate time horizon. Because I am focusing outside of UK in the main for business and investment, despite me not liking it, all the negative domestic economy issues will probably be monetarily beneficial apart from rising prices, i.e. we become cheaper through GBP collapse abroad; economic recession will depress office rents, house price fall or stagnation will mean more of my staff will be able to get onto ladder. But don’t get me wrong recession is BAD, BAD, BAD, full stop.  I don’t want it.

On a different note — journalists might now actually care about businesses like mine growing outside the UK for a change!  We launched in Vietnam last week.

Featured Image: Stròlic Furlàn – Davide Gabino/Flickr UNDER A CC BY-ND 2.0 LICENSE

UK’s Network Locum makes first acquisition to expand its reach

UK’s Network Locum makes first acquisition to expand its reach

U.K. startup Network Locum, which has built a staffing platform and workplace management software targeting the U.K.’s National Health Service, has acquired a smaller locum GP-booking platform, Leicester-based RLocums, which operates across the East Midlands. The price for the acquisition has not been disclosed.

RLocums, which was founded back in 2011, has arround 3,000 doctors signed up to its regional marketplace — boosting the overall tally of temps in Network Locum’s national database (as of last month the latter said it had 40,000 registered sign-ups and 5,000 active users).

It’s Network Locum’s first acquisition, and follows the closing of a $7 million Series B round last month, led by U.K. fund BGF Ventures — feeding a stated strategy of unifying locum booking needs across the UK onto a single platform.

That said, Network Locum is not planning to change RLocums’ operations — with the latter business set to continue to operate under its own name, with its own business model and website, post-acquisition.

But this is really about beefing up a central database of potential customers and staff to expand cross-selling opportunities for its workplace management SaaS behind whatever front door locum booking systems Network Locum ends up owning.

Source: TechCrunch

How VR could have you walking in circles in future without knowing it

How VR could have you walking in circles in future without knowing it

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VR’s promise of boundless virtual worlds to explore is, in practice, rather more tethered to reality, given physical limits on play spaces meaning you can only walk so far in the corresponding virtual world before you’re out of sensor range and/or about to bump into a (real) wall. So how to square the circle of infinite virtual worlds vs finite play space?

One technique involves the player reorienting their visual perception by turning on the spot and stopping after a few turns facing in a new direction, allowing them to carry on walking straight again. However spinning around can make people dizzy so isn’t exactly an ideal solution given VR’s extant nausea problem. This method also inevitably breaks up play.

A team of Japanese researchers reckon they have come up with a better idea — which they’ve named Unlimited Corridor. The technique uses visual and haptic feedback to trick gamers into perceiving they are walking in a straight line, when in fact they are walking in circles. Which in turn allows for VR game worlds to appear to have infinitely long passageways. The gamer merely has to tap their way along one side of a (real) wall in the play space, an action which naturally orientates their walk alongside it, to perceive they are walking straight within the game. But in fact the wall is a circle. The team’s test world was developed on the Unity platform.

The project, which has been led by Dr Takuji Narumi of the University of Tokyo along with Unity Researcher Yohei Yanase, does still require a rather large real-world installation (of said circular wall unit) in the VR play space — and works best with mobile or portable VR (they used a high performance gaming laptop in a backpack on their testers) — so it’s not without its own real-world limits. But the team say they’ve now managed to shrink the wall to a radius of 2.5m, and reckon they could squeeze it further by increasing the strength of the visuo-haptic interaction — the other key component of the technique.

So what exactly is visuo-haptic interaction? Narumi describes it as “a kind of illusory effect in our brain” — which allows for a particular perception/sensation to be generated by combining sensory inputs in different ways.

“It alters our proprioceptive sensations corresponding to visual sensations by the combination of visual and haptic stimuli,” he tells TechCrunch. “It has long been thought that different sensory modalities operate independently of each other. However, recent behavioral and brain imaging studies are changing this view, now suggesting that cross-modal interactions have an important role in our perception. In cross-modal effects, the perception of a sensation through one sense is changed by other stimuli that are simultaneously received through other senses.”

The team has also developed what Narumi describes as a “flavor display”, also using cross-modal interaction, that alters the perceived taste of food — allowing for people in VR to virtually select a choice of cookie flavoring and taste that when they eat the real world (plain) cookie in their hand. (Although ‘augmented gustation‘, as they dub this, also requires the VR player to have an olfactory cap on their head which puffs flavored air into their nostrils at the moment of mastication, corresponding with their taste choice, in order for them to experience the sensation of a eating a chocolate cookie, for example. So it’s getting pretty out there, even by VR standards…)

“In case of ‘Unlimited Corridor’, we can reduce the required space for forever walking with a cross-modal (visual and haptic) VR. Therefore we believe the utilization of cross-modal effects becomes a key technology for next generation of VR,” adds Narumi, who has also conducted research into the perceived metamorphosis of shape, again using cross-modal interactions.

The team used a split circle design for their Unlimited Corridor wall which allows the player to make turns within a game, and also enables the installation to accommodate multiple players at a time without them bumping into each other. (Watching that part of the video it’s almost impossible not to be reminded of Pacman ghost-avoidance tactics.)

The core tech on the visuo-haptic side is a method for simultaneously matching the visual and haptic stimuli being presented to the player. The timing between visual and haptic presentation has to be within 200ms, according to Narumi, who notes the team investigated the acceptable gap between the visual and haptic curvatures via “various experiments”.

While the researchers assert the illusion of their Unlimited Corridor is “very strong”, they concede a few people will still sense the wall is round based on touch. So the technique won’t work for everybody. There’s also no absolute guarantee against warding off VR sickness, although the team claims this occurred “much less often” with their system than with normal VR or redirected walking (RDW), i.e. turning around on the spot, experiences.

While Unlimited Corridor is primarily a research project to explore how the boundary between reality and the brain’s perception of it can be manipulated, the team envisage their technique having potential outside the lab, for entertainment, education and simulation use-cases — noting that entertainment companies have expressed interest, including one that has started experimenting.

Source: TechCrunch

One in three UK web users has tried to cut down on digital distractions

One in three UK web users has tried to cut down on digital distractions

There are signs that a growing number of Brits are feeling overwhelmed by the neverending demands of digital technology, with many web users attempting to reset the balance between their online and offline lives by taking a temporary break from connected devices.

The finding comes from U.K. telecoms watchdog Ofcom’s thirteenth annual Communications Market report, which offers a yearly deep-dive into the domestic digital and media consumption landscape. (You can read the full report here.)

Ofcom found that one in three UK Internet users (or some 15 million people) have, in 2016, deemed there’s too much tech in their life — going on to take a so-called ‘digital detox’ to try to regain control over their devices.

A quarter of these reported spending up to a day Internet free; a fifth took a week off; and five per cent somehow managed to be web-free for up to a month.


One in 10 had apparently even taken a self-enforced break from their screens in the past week alone. The figures were extrapolated from a study of 2,025 U.K. adults and 500 teenagers, conducted by Ofcom.

The watchdog also found that many Internet users relished their self-enforced breaks, with a third (33 per cent) reporting they felt more productive; and 27 per cent describing it as ‘liberating’, while a quarter said they ‘enjoyed life more’. Not exactly a great verdict for tech.

On the negative side, 16 per cent of detoxers reported experiencing ‘FOMO’ during their break, 15 per cent described themselves as feeling ‘lost’, and 14 per cent as ‘cut-off’.

The report also unearths some distinctly addict-style behavior among UK tech (over)users, with almost half (49 per cent) reporting time spent online eating into hours originally intended for other tasks. More than a third (37 per cent) said the same was true of their use of social media.

Activities being neglected because Brits are overusing the Internet include housework (reported by 48 per cent); sleep and rest (47 per cent); and spending time with friends and family (31 per cent). So technology is making Brits more messy, tired and antisocial.

One in five (22 per cent) Internet users also admitted to being late for a meeting with friends or family because they’d been sucked into stuff online, while 13 per cent said they’d been made late for work because of their use of tech.


Tech’s attention-sucking ways appear even more pronounced for UK teens, with a quarter (26 per cent) reportedly being late for school as a result of web use, and the majority (60 per cent) of teenagers neglecting school work to spend time online.

Unsurprisingly,  Ofcom also found many UK parents are limiting children’s time online, with 61 per cent of teens who use a connected device reporting being digitally grounded, having their device taken away or its usage restricted. Although you can imagine teenagers fuming about hypocritical parents as a result.

For adult Internet users in the U.K., Ofcom found they’re spending an average of one day per week (25 hours) online, with 42 per cent reporting they go online or check apps more than 10 times a day, and a truly addicted one in 10 (11 per cent) accessing the Internet more than 50 times daily.

While Brit web users are clearly very wedded to the Internet, they are at least not in denial about their addiction: a majority (59 per cent) of Internet users describe themselves as ‘hooked’ on their connected device. And a third (34 per cent) admitted they find it difficult to disconnect.

The Ofcom report also charts a particular rise in the use of instant messaging in the UK, which is likely to be contributing to the feeling of being overwhelmed by time-sapping tech, given the ceaseless demands of open-ended real-time messaging chats which — unlike other comms technologies — don’t have clear or natural cut-off points.

Ofcom found that the proportion of U.K. adults using services such as Facebook Messenger and the Facebook-owned WhatsApp messaging app at least once per week rose from under a third (28 per cent) back in 2014 to approaching a majority (43 per cent) in 2016 — which it flags as the biggest increase across all comms and media activities it charts in the report.

It notes that instant messaging is also considered the single most important means of communication among 16- to 24-year-olds, with 36 per cent citing it as their top comms medium.

Also on an uptick in the U.K.: photo or video messaging services, such as Snapchat, which are now used by a fifth (21 per cent) of UK adults on a weekly basis, up from 14 per cent in 2014.

Email and texting (SMS) remain the most common methods of text-based communication, at 70 per cent and 63 per cent respectively in a given week, although usage of both has declined on 2014 levels (seven percentage points and eight percentage points, respectively).

Other findings from the report include:

  • 86 per cent of adults now have home Internet access via any device
  • Smartphones are considered the most important device for Internet access (cited by 36 per cent of Internet users), followed by laptops (cited by 29 per cent)
  • Many connected devices saw year-on-year increases in ownership between 2015 and 2016, with tablets (up from 54 per cent to 59 per cent), smartphones (up from 66 per cent to 71 per cent), smart TVs (up from 20 per cent to 27 per cent) and smart watches (up from 3 per cent to 5 per cent)


Featured Image: Jeremy Keith/Flickr UNDER A CC BY 2.0 LICENSE
Source: TechCrunch

inploi is another jobs app that wants to kill off the service industry CV

inploi is another jobs app that wants to kill off the service industry CV

Walking around the neighborhood handing out CVs in the hopes of scoring shifts in a local cafe or restaurant has never been an efficient job search process. But workers in the service industry still do it. London based startup inploi is hoping to change that — it’s gunning to replace the paper CV with a mobile profile and location-based jobs platform.

The founders say they came up with the idea after trying to find hospitality work themselves during their university holidays — a process they found to be time-consuming and frustrating. “We realised that employers were also spending too much time and money, hiring the people they need.”

inploi, which launched in beta late last month, is actually one of several European startups chasing high turnover service industry jobs with a new recruitment modus operandi via a smartphone chat app — with the likes of Accel-backed JobToday, Barcelona-based CornerJob and Atomico-backed jobandtalent all spying similar opportunities here: looking to leverage the speed, familiarity and convenience of mobile messaging to kill off the paper CV.

But inploi, which is backed by £200,000 in pre-seed financing at this point (raised in January from a group of friends, family, angels, a Chicago-based family office, and a Johannesburg based investment fund), reckons it’s positioning is a little different vs the better resourced regional competition. It argues rivals are taking existing structures — such as the job board model or the staffing agency model — and optimizing them for mobile. Whereas it claims it’s aiming for a more radical rethinking of how recruitment is done in this sector.

“‘Agency’ model startups still act as intermediaries, charging significant markups on the labour that they broker. Optimised jobs boards (like JobToday for instance) still uses the volume of candidates that they can send an employer as a selling point — we think that this misses the point. inploi is working to drive the candidate-to-hire ratio down by reimagining the process entirely, saving everybody time, and money,” co-founder Matthew de la Hey tells TechCrunch.

“On one level we are building a recruitment driven ‘LinkedIn’ for the service economy, rather than a mobile optimised jobs board. On a more macro level we want to change the way that staffing works at this end of the economy entirely, providing workers with credible ‘working passports’ with which they can get more and better work.”

Job seekers using the inploi app create a profile with their experience and skills (users can also create a short intro video for their profile if they wish), as well as specifying their hourly rate and location, in order to be matched with relevant job opportunities — applying in-app if they wish to do so.

de la Hey concedes the matching element is “fairly binary” at this nascent stage, but the intention is to hone it over time based on data generated by usage of the platform — such as response rates and reviews.

The platform covers both gig economy one-offs and full-time positions. So as well as matching job seekers with permanent roles, the aim is also to be a marketplace for one-off staffing needs, such as for festivals or corporate events, starting at one shift to up to five days’ work. In that instance inploi handles the entire transaction in the app, with payment powered by Stripe.

A key facet of the inpoli platform is ratings, with de la Hey noting that both staff and employers are expected to be rated. (For gig work, ratings are provided at the point of payment after the work has been completed; for full-time roles employers are prompted to rate hired workers “after a period of time” and vice versa.)

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“The review system is mutual,” he notes, talking up inploi’s wider “mission” to try to equalize the relationship between employers and workers which he argues is “too often skewed towards the former”. “The reviews employers receive from workers are private. Workers are rated across five areas — punctuality, presentation, co-operation, communication, and quality of work, in addition to short written feedback. These are public.

“However in order to avoid possible ‘downward spiral’ situations we will only make an employees reviews public once the employer reviewing them has received five or more 4/5 Star reviews from workers, rendering them a ‘trusted employer’.”

“Employers who consistently receive bad reviews from workers will be removed from the inploi community,” he adds.

inploi also offers a dashboard view for its enterprise users, providing them with what it dubs “key HR data” on things like staff hire costs, applicant volumes, labour turnover rates and market wage positions. “To our knowledge this is unique. In time as the data we have becomes more comprehensive our matching algorithm will become smarter and develop into a key piece of our technology,” adds de la Hey.

inploi launched its mobile recruitment platform on iOS a couple of weeks ago (an Android app is slated as coming soon), focusing initially on London and the UK, and on the hospitality industry specifically. Although de la Hey says he also sees future potential to expand into other sectors with similar characteristics down the line, such as retail, domestic work, security staff, construction and railway workers.

At this point, inploi has 65 employers signed up to offer jobs through the app, ranging from single site establishments to multi-site chains — including Bill’s, the Corbin & King Group, YouMeSushi, Daylesford and Deliveroo.

While the potential reach of signed up employers is around 700 sites across the U.K. less than 50 jobs are listed at present, and inploi has less than 500 job seekers. So it’s certainly very early days for the startup, albeit no one dominant mobile app network has emerged yet for this segment so there’s plenty to play for.

And while inploi is U.K.-specific right now, with an “immediate focus on EMEA, the team’s wider goal is to build a global marketplace — with de la Hey noting possible future expansion opportunities in the Middle East, Eastern Europe and Sub-Saharan Africa.

In terms of business model, while the platform is free for job seekers to use, inpoli charges employers seeking to fill permanent positions on a freemium tiered basis — so it’s free for small employers with limited hiring needs but larger employers with more activity are charged if they wish to interact with candidates applying for jobs they have posted, including using the in-app chat feature. In order to do this employers have to connect with applicants and it charges for the number of connections on a volume driven sliding scale, says de la Hey.

For gig work, via its QuickShift marketplace, inploi adds a service fee onto the total amount paid by the employer at the point of paying the finished job.

Source: TechCrunch

Yet another red quarter for HTC as revenue drops 44% year-on-year

Yet another red quarter for HTC as revenue drops 44% year-on-year

The latest HTC results, for its Q2, confirm another loss-making quarter for the smartphone and VR headset maker, with the Taiwanese company reporting revenue of NT$18.9 billion ($598 million) for the quarter versus the NT$33.0 billion ($1.07 billion) it made in the year ago quarter. That’s a drop of around 44 percent.

HTC reported a loss of NT$4.2 billion ($133 million) in its second quarter, which ended June 30. The only bright spot here is that it’s less of a revenue plunge than the company made in its Q1 when it was 64 percent down, year on year.

The company started shipping its Vive headset during the quarter, although it started taking pre-orders earlier in the year. While pre-orders of its new flagship smartphone, the HTC 10, only began at the start of the quarter, with a $699 price-tag for the device in the U.S. — but it evidently failed to deliver enough uplift to pull it out of the red entirely in Q2.

HTC reported its first loss-making quarter back in October 2013, and ever since the company has been struggling to turn its smartphone fortunes around in the face of increasingly fierce competition and a squeeze on hardware profit margins.

Since then it has diversified its business via a wearable and fitness tech partnership with Under Armor, and a side-step into VR, in collaboration with games publisher Valve — the latter a space where there are far fewer competitions but also far fewer consumers, given how early and unproven the tech yet is and the paucity of compelling content.

It’s certainly still early days for VR, but HTC is crediting the Vive VR rig with giving a boost to its brand and contributing to a 27 percent rise in revenues over Q1 this year.

The company is also touting “worldwide interest” and “sales momentum” for its HTC 10 smartphone, but isn’t breaking out any actual sales figures.

Nor is it breaking out Vive sales figures — saying only that sales were “strong” during the pre-order period in the latter half of its Q1.

That would tally with the notion of a pre-order spike from early adopters, while offering no evidence to suggest signs of any more sustained consumer demand for VR, at this nascent stage.

For that, the VR industry will need time to mature to convince consumers with compelling content. And, ultimately, prove it’s more than just a flash-in-the-pan nerd’s recurring fantasy.

Commenting on its Q2 in a statement, HTC CEO and chairwoman Cher Wang said: “In the space of one year, we have reimagined the company, reclaimed our top spot for innovation, and demonstrated solid execution across our major product lines. I believe that HTC has regained its innovative zeal and is looking ahead with confidence and ingenuity.”

Source: TechCrunch

TruRating pulls in $12.6M to grow its point-of-sale customer feedback platform

TruRating pulls in .6M to grow its point-of-sale customer feedback platform

UK startup truRating, which is aiming to offer restaurants and retailers an alternative feedback platform to the likes of Tripadvisor and Yelp by offering bricks-and-mortar outlets the ability to obtain feedback from customers at the point of paying, via the same POS device, has closed a £9.5 million ($12.6M) Series A funding round.

The London based startup, which was founded at the end of 2013, had previously raised a £2.7M seed round in 2015, and £1.5M in angel funding in 2014 — bringing its total raised to date to £13.7M. The new round is led by Sandaire, an international investment office for families and foundations, and a private family investment group.

Its software as a service payment terminal-based feedback system provides its restaurant and retailer users with the ability to ask their customers different questions after they have paid (and thus verifiably used the service) —  from soliciting direct service quality feedback to more general queries such as whether they shop in the outlet with their family or whether they would like music to be playing. Although the system only allows for one question per paying customers, to avoid payment terminals being diverted from their primary purpose for too long.

Customers who opt in to provide feedback are asked to offer a rated response on a sale of 0 to 9 (given those are the keys available on payment keypads). TruRating claims nine out of 10 people asked for feedback via its system go on to provide it. Its customers get this feedback in real-time, which it says allows them to assess service levels and make ongoing adjustments.

As well as offering offline retailers a feedback gathering mechanism, truRating’s wider play is a plan to make some of the ratings data it generates generally available to consumers online — with the aim of building up an alternative ratings platform, vs the likes of Yelp and Tripadvisor, but with the guarantee that the feedback has been generated by paying customers.

To power this future platform, its POS feedback system also includes some truRating questions, as well as custom questions created by retailers, so the startup can generate its own standardized ratings data-set to use online.

TruRating questions include: ‘Please rate the atmosphere/experience’, ‘Please rate the product/food’, ‘How likely are you to recommend’, ‘Please rate the service’, ‘Please rate the value for money’. It says it takes an average of answers to these questions to provide an overall TruRating rating.

TruRating is currently live in the UK (launching at the end of 2015) and Australia (at the start of 2016), but is eyeing expansion into the US and Canada to scale the business — slating a launch in North American for later this year “with its first payment partners, and a number of merchants”.

So far its system has generated a total of two million ratings, off of a customer base of around 200 users. Customers include smaller restaurant chains, such as Ping Pong and Franco Manca, and merchants such as Arco. It also claims to have pilots underway with “major brand names”.

TruRating co-founder Georgina Nelson says the new funding will be focused on building out its own ratings platform and on expanding its market footprint. “We’ll ramp up our global expansion, and start to build our services for consumers including a new consumer online recommendations website,” she says.

“We’re mainly active in the SME hospitality market in the UK, and Australia, plus some fashion retailers. Total live outlets is around 200, and growing. We’ve got pilots with household names underway,” she adds.

Source: TechCrunch

EU-US Privacy Shield open for sign ups from today

EU-US Privacy Shield open for sign ups from today

U.S. companies needing to transfer personal data of European customers across the Atlantic can now sign up to a new framework to govern such data transfers, with the so-called EU-US Privacy Shield up and running from today.

The European Commission has also now published the legal texts associated with the Privacy Shield agreement, along with a citizens guide — which aims to provide information to EU consumers as to how they can go about making complaints about the handling of their data by US companies, should they feel the need to.

The new data transfer deal was officially adopted by the EC last month, bringing to a close some nine months of limbo in the wake of the region’s Court of Justice decision to topple the predecessor framework last year (while failing entirely to end the uncertainty that the demise of Safe Harbor has wrought — given that critics continue to question Privacy Shield’s robustness to future legal challenge).

The EC has claimed the new deal is fundamentally different vs the prior self-certification Safe Harbor framework, flagging up the new role it creates of a dedicated US ombudsman to handle EU citizens’ complaints, as well as pointing to various assurances provided by the US government on the limits of bulk collection of data for national security purposes.

Companies signing up to the Shield also face new obligations, such as deleting personal data when it is no longer necessary. And there’s an annual joint review process built in to the framework so that it will be continually reviewed and any problems tackled.

However, the influential Working Party 29 body — which is made up of the heads of the various Member States’ data protection agencies — remains critical of the Privacy Shield, despite what it sees as some improvements over Safe Harbor.

In a statement put out late last month the WP29 said it remains concerned about various commercial aspects of the framework, flagging up the lack of specific rules on automated decisions and of a general right to object as problems. It also criticized a lack of clarity about how Privacy Shield Principles apply to processors.

The body also expressed ongoing concern about access by public authorities to data transferred to the U.S. under the Privacy Shield.

“[T]he WP29 would have expected stricter guarantees concerning the independence and the powers of the Ombudsperson mechanism,” it wrote. “Regarding bulk collection of personal data, the WP29 notes the commitment of the ODNI not to conduct mass and indiscriminate collection of personal data. Nevertheless, it regrets the lack of concrete assurances that such practice does not take place.”

The group looked ahead to the first joint annual review of the framework, couching it as a “key moment” for assessing the robustness and efficiency of the mechanism.

In the meanwhile, it added that individual DPAs will be committing themselves to assisting EU citizens in their countries with exercising their rights under the Shield, especially vis-a-vis complaints.

In the EC Citizens Guide to the Privacy Shield, the EU notes that citizens can check the Privacy Shield list on the US Department of Commerce website to determine whether a company has signed up to the framework. At the time of writing there was just under two hours remaining before US companies can self-certify to adhere to Privacy Shield so no companies are listed as yet.

Following the demise of Safe Harbor, companies have been using a range of alternative mechanisms to govern personal data transfers, such as contractual clauses and binding corporate rules, so it remains to be seen whether there will be a rush to adopt the Privacy Shield or not. Some of these other data transfer mechanisms are also currently subject to legal challenge.

Featured Image: Maksim Kabakou/Shutterstock
Source: TechCrunch

HTC Vive now £70 more pricey in the UK, thanks to Brexit

HTC Vive now £70 more pricey in the UK, thanks to Brexit

The impacts of the U.K.’s Brexit vote to leave the European Union will undoubtedly be playing out for years and years to come. But here’s one short term effect: the HTC Vive VR headset is now £70 more expensive — rising from its original pricing of £689 to £759 (+ P&P) from today.

In a blog post HTC blames the price hike (it calls it an “adjustment”) on “recent currency valuation changes and the current value of the GBP”.

Aka, Brexit — which triggered a massive fall in the value of the pound… (which remains very far off a recovery on that front)

Pound Sterling - Brexit

The Vive price hike is perhaps good news for the rival Oculus Rift VR headset, which is priced at £499 in the U.K. — at least until the Facebook-owned company decides it also needs to reconfigure pricing, post-Brexit. (As Engadget notes, phone maker OnePlus increased the price of one its smartphones in the UK last month, also blaming currency fluctuations.)

Although it’s also worth noting that Vive rival Rift’s price-tag is just for a VR headset; Oculus’ delayed Touch controllers are due later this year, and will cost extra (how much more is not yet clear). Whereas the Vive is an all-in price — you just need to already own a powerful enough PC to drive the thing. And now, from today, be willing to stump up even more cash to dive into virtual reality.

Source: TechCrunch

Don’t feed the trolls — tackle their abuse of platform power instead

Don’t feed the trolls — tackle their abuse of platform power instead

In the ever accelerating social media feedback loops of the modern Internet age, ‘don’t feed the trolls’ is a phrase that appears to have fallen out of fashion, favor and collective memory.

The result? An impoverished quality of debate that frequently and increasingly appears to be approaching something resembling mass hysteria as trolls are delivered dining on-demand.

Simply put: you can’t have meaningful discussion if you are forever polarizing into two sides simply screaming at each other. Both apparently convinced to the threat-sending death that one worldview rules supreme.

Case in point: Just this week Twitter finally fell into the trap of the Internet’s most self-aggrandizing troll — the self-styled “supervillain” Milo Yiannopoulos — by kicking him off its platform.

Twitter had previously punished Yiannopoulos’ provocations by removing his privileged blue-tick status. It’s now gone the whole hog and ‘no-platformed’ the platform-loving self-promoter. The predictable result? Yiannopoulos gets to step up his native swagger by parading a status as the ‘victim of Internet censorship’.

Quoth he:

With the cowardly suspension of my account, Twitter has confirmed itself as a safe space for Muslim terrorists and Black Lives Matter extremists, but a no-go zone for conservatives.

Twitter is holding me responsible for the actions of fans and trolls using the special pretzel logic of the left. Where are the Twitter police when Justin Bieber’s fans cut themselves on his behalf?

Like all acts of the totalitarian regressive left, this will blow up in their faces, netting me more adoring fans. We’re winning the culture war, and Twitter just shot themselves in the foot.

This is the end for Twitter. Anyone who cares about free speech has been sent a clear message: you’re not welcome on Twitter.

The straw that broke Jack Dorsey’s quavering resolve to let one professional troll’s tweets flow was the latter’s sophisticated ability to marshal his Twitter followers (aka his ‘adoring fans’) to fire forth a stream of targeted abuse on his behalf.

Not that Yiannopoulos takes responsibility for the actions of his followers, of course. He walks the provocateur’s fine line — ensuring the abuse he personally doles out, while horrible, remains just that: one person’s unpleasant viewpoint. So he wouldn’t admit to anything as crass as getting others to do his dirty work.

The wider point here is that tech platforms — most especially Twitter’s broadcast network — can be trivially manipulated to magnify a particular sentiment. Whether that’s a humorous trending hashtag or vile racial abuse.

Social media platforms are already structured to disseminate information. But with a little bit of choreographed intent a relatively small set of networked connections can be chained together to hugely theatrical effect — repurposing mainstream outlets into single cause megaphones.

All the modern day Internet ‘supervillain’ (or social justice warrior/SJW, if you prefer) has to do is pout out their call to action, which will disseminate onto sympathetic fellow forums, and watch as their adoring fans pile in. Then they merely need sit back in a high backed computer desk chair and let out a devilish laugh.

And so in the latest instance of Yiannopoulos’ slickly executed social media manipulations a public critique of Ghostbusters actor Leslie Jones yields a vile stream of targeted abuse — and the understandable reaction from Jones to quit Twitter.

“I leave Twitter tonight with tears and a very sad heart,” she tweeted, before departing the platform. “All this cause I did a movie. You can hate the movie but the shit I got today… wrong.”

What do trolls crave? Attention. What do they feed on? Outrage generated by provocation. How do you accelerate trolls’ outrage cycles? By doing what they’re hoping you’ll do – firstly by paying them attention, and then by reacting in a way they can paint as unjust (e.g. shutting them down). Or which they can celebrate as a win (e.g. the shutting down of their target).

In the Leslie Jones case Yiannopoulos can chalk up two wins: his own censorship by Twitter, and the self-censorship of Jones quitting Twitter after he criticized her performance and his fans piled in to racially abuse her.

This is the ‘by the book’ formula that lurks behind the well-trodden maxim ‘don’t feed the trolls’.

Yet Twitter just fed the Internet’s self-styled king troll a two-course meal of the very finest troll dining.

Platforms, power and perspective

So what can we learn from this sorry situation? Apart from the obvious – that trolls are horrible and racial abuse is intolerable.

One clear takeaway is that the structures of social networks are being far too trivially subverted and manipulated by entities with malicious or determined intent. Twitter clearly can and should do far more to stop orchestrated pile-ins designed to amplify abuse and carry out campaigns of harassment on its platform.

Bottom line: it’s not free speech if it’s a choreographed campaign of targeted abuse.

As I’ve pointed out before, at the time of the #Gamergate saga: “…small, orchestrated online groups can magnify the impact and influence of fringe viewpoints by weaponizing mainstream digital services to repurpose these platforms as propaganda machines. This is not a new thing but the frequency with which it is happening online appears to be growing, and the toxicity being generated is becoming harder to escape as the tactics in play are honed and polished to ever greater effect.”

But arguably there’s something else we need to consider.

We can perhaps also say that certain malicious entities are holding up a (black) mirror to the political correctness they abhor – aka the modus operandi of their SJW foes – and using the same single issue megaphone method, aka the bounce back amplification made possible by follower-based tech platforms, to win (or so they would argue, as Yiannopoulos has) the Internet’s ‘culture wars’.

At this strange juncture in the evolution of the mainstream media, see also: Donald Trump achieving a similar effect by subverting the news media’s drama-seeking lens.

The point is that when debate gets closed down and nuance gets tramped underfoot and empathy gets battered to death we all lose.

That’s the ugly truth Yiannopoulos is illustrating via a sort of ‘media process deconstructing performance art’, if I can put it that way.

Point is: Any single opinion amplified via this megaphone method of follower armies intent on crushing alternative perspectives can be oppressive to those with a differing view.

Moreover, no one who self-styles as an ‘Internet supervillain’ should be taken at face value. Such a person is stating they are playing a role and inviting us to critique their melodrama. Their mission is to force their enemies to confront their own Manichean flaws, reflected in reverse.

To not deconstruct the drama is to walk right into the massive pitfall trolls exist to set. And that’s where we are now: With the self styled king troll gloating over the Twitter whale tangled up in his subtle net.

Zooming out again, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the shouting down of points of view on the Internet happens on all sides of the political spectrum – whether it’s leftwing campaigners taking up a diversity/feminist/gay rights/etc etc cause, and urging their followers (implicitly or intentionally) to shout down opposing viewpoints. Or conservative supervillains jerking liberal chains and rattling leftwing cages on mainstream tech platforms by acting out a manist, white-supremacist tantrum-pantomime in plain sight.

You could argue that neither radical left nor radical right appears willing to accept there might be more shades of grey than are allowed for by one particular entrenched perspective — as they fight their take-no-prisoners culture wars via the tech platforms that give them the power to turn a personal viewpoint into a weapon of mass media destruction, aiming to level the landscape of debate via the tribalism of fervent follower armies.

Yet the Internet is connecting more diverse viewpoints than ever, as more and more people come online. So we’re going to have to get used to confronting alternative views. Simply screaming down difference doesn’t seem to be an approach that will scale.

You might not like the message but trigger-finger shooting down of the other side’s messenger is perpetuating the Internet’s culture clashes by encouraging a ramping up of verbal violence and a reduction in the diversity of debate available on tech platforms – which are fast becoming the only mass media. (And, as others have noted, pile-in public shamings that close down debate by cementing a majority judgment are fast becoming the new majority entertainment.)

If your actions end up stripping out the possibility for nuance or individual disagreement and demanding complicated humans reduce to polarized positions then you can’t be too surprised if braindead abuse is all you’re left with. And so we are all impoverished by Twitter’s knee-jerk banning of single transgressing individuals while it fails to address the underlying problem of the hijacking of its platform by orchestrated abuse campaigns.

As tempting as it may be, censoring individual trolls is not how the technology industry wins the war against trolling. Individual stupid opinions are just that: one voice in a sea of voices. Tech platforms need to tackle those actors who would weaponize a personal viewpoint by cutting the strings to the puppet armies that give them disproportionate volume to force their views on others.

It’s not the single bad or provocative opinion that should trouble society and its technology platforms. We should not fear to engage with difference or publicly shun ignorance. Indeed, by closing down the single voice of the other you hand that entity a verified status as a persecuted individual. You gift them additional fuel to pour on the fires they live to start.

Rather you need to take away their power to turn one opinion into a mass attack. It’s the follower armies that wreak havoc on mainstream platforms that Twitter should be seeking to close down with tools that prevent pile-ins of orchestrated abuse. And with rules and structures designed to pop not promote filter bubbles.

Social discourse suffers if it can’t support an understanding of alternative views. And empathy is rarely encouraged by closing the door on a lone problem voice.

At the end of the day, if you don’t offer the courtesy of listening, how can you properly articulate the valid reasons why you disagree?

Featured Image: Narux26/Flickr UNDER A CC BY-ND 2.0 LICENSE
Source: TechCrunch