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Cheugiest tech moments of 2021

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Technology has come a long way in 2021. There’s widespread mRNA vaccines! An asteroid-deflecting space mission! A very powerful laptop with a very controversial notch! But it’s unfortunately easier to think about the cringiest moments of the year than it is to remember times when we marveled at indoor farming robots

So hop aboard the choo-choo-cheugy train. We promise, this isn’t just a list of things Elon Musk tweeted in 2021.


Facebook is so Meta

The biggest and most eye-wateringly silly rebrand of the year is uncontested: Facebook, one of the most recognizable names in the world, changed its name to Meta in order to distract from unflaggingly awful decisions and the irreparable harm it has caused countless people focus on the “metaverse,” something no one asked for and certainly no one wanted Facebook of all companies to take the lead on.

Block this out

Meta’s not the only rebrand that went teeth-grindingly meta this year. Readers, we present… Block, FKA Square, originally a small business champion known for square-shaped card swiping dongles (quant!). Now, it’s taking a bite out of blockchain for its new name and identity, although apparently Block is not just about that. The company says it’s also a reference to block parties, building code, obstacles to overcome, “and of course, tungsten cubes.” (click for more cringe) Well, not so fast, Jack! H&R Block is already suing Block for trademark infringement, with the name, a block in its logo, and a green color scheme that all come a little too close to home, since H&R Block, best known for tax filing prep, also happens to sell accounting services to SMBs, mobile banking to consumers and other fintech services just like Square’s… I mean, Block’s. Hard to guess which blockhead will back down first/move to settle here.

Saturday Night Musk

Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX and chief executive officer of Tesla Inc., arrives at the Axel Springer Award ceremony in Berlin, Germany, on Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2020. Tesla Inc. will be added to the S&P 500 Index in one shot on Dec. 21, a move that will ripple through the entire market as money managers adjust their portfolios to make room for shares of the $538 billion company. Photographer: Liesa Johannssen-Koppitz/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Image Credits: Bloomberg (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

Mr. Musk perhaps said it best when he played a doctor in the Gen Z Hospital skit: “You all might want to sit down, what I have to say might be a little cringe.” Elon may have hoodwinked a substantial part of the population of global fanboys hoping to get rich on his coattails, but at the end of the day this couldn’t hold any water on Saturday Night Live. He’s not an actor, and he’s not that funny, so even with the wattage of being one of the world’s richest men and a major celeb on social media, his SNL hosting was… a smug, wooden, boring, awkward dud. You’re left wondering how/why he was anointed to be in the limelight in the first place (but then again, I wonder that about him most of the time).

How do you do, fellow NFT owners

The gold rush over NFTs caused some otherwise smart people to attempt to implement them in regrettable ways. Numerous companies announced NFT-adjacent projects, like using them to tokenize fanfic, in-game items, Discord things(?), and so on. After failing to read the internet in general’s skepticism of this interesting but at present highly dubious tech, the companies backpedaled madly, sometimes within hours of announcements or rumors. Literally anyone would have said it was a bad idea, try asking next time!

Bezos thanks everyone for their money, which he shot into space

Image Credits: Joe Raedle / Getty Images

The relentless self-congratulatory fanfare around Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic’s first “real” trips to space was extremely tiring. While there was some relief in Branson’s company getting grounded for shady maneuvers, and in Bezos eliciting scorn for his tamales and his giant hat, the chef’s-kiss moment was the latter’s tone-deaf thanks offered to the world that financed his ego trip by shopping at his ethically bankrupt mega-corporation. “I want to thank every Amazon employee, and every Amazon customer, because you guys paid for all this.” I’m sure he meant every word, which is why it’s so bad. (Also pity the poor cowboy hat, which Bezos has definitely also ruined for me.)

Blue Origin whining postpones the next Moon landing

After losing big time on the Human Landing System contract to arch-rival SpaceX, Blue Origin sued NASA, alleging impropriety. Its claims were dismissed in a highly embarrassing manner (NASA basically pantsed the company in front of the entire industry) but the necessary rigmarole resulted in the planned 2024 crewed lunar landing being pushed out to 2025. To be fair, we all suspected this would be the case anyway, but Blue presented itself as a perfect scapegoat. The blunder may have permanently tainted relations with NASA, which isn’t great when they’re pretty much Blue Origin’s only source of real money… other than “every Amazon employee, and every Amazon customer,” of course.

OnlyFans bans itself

We all know what OnlyFans is for, and it’s been great seeing a platform where sex workers, among others, can monetize themselves. Until that platform abruptly announced that the people who’d made it rich in the first place were henceforth banned. Bye, good luck! The backlash was so severe that the decision, unconvincingly blamed on prudish bankers, was reversed within a week. Don’t bite the hand that feeds you, people. (Unless the hand consents as part of a healthy fantasy.)

From the desk of Donald J. Trump

Trump’s tempestuous relationship with social media is perhaps too serious a matter to treat of here, but one aspect of it deserves a palm to the face, and that’s his short-lived “social” platform, From The Desk of Donald J. Trump. This barebones microblog appeared after his ouster from every major social media network, but it was so minimally functional and got so little traffic that it only lasted a month or so before being mothballed. No doubt so his media team could focus on borrowing Mastodon’s code for the follow-up, Truth Social. But even that was all just preliminary to the desperate-looking pitch deck and SPAC we would receive later in the year. As they say, if at first you fail badly, fail, fail again.

Senator Blumenthal asks Facebook rep to “commit to ending finsta”

Now known as the Facebook whistleblower, Frances Haugen leaked thousands of internal documents from her former employer, including some showing that Instagram is aware of its adverse effect on teenage girls. Soon after, Facebook Global Head of Security Antigone Davis was summoned to testify before the Senate about children’s internet safety.

Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), a 75-year-old, was worried about young people using secret accounts that they hid from their parents.

“Will you commit to ending finsta?” he asked.

“Senator, let me explain. We don’t actually do finsta. What finsta refers to is young people setting up accounts where they may want to have more privacy,” Davis patiently replied.

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Facebook’s leaked benefits enrollment video

It must be hard to work at Facebook – or, as it’s called now, Meta – on days when the company is getting loads of bad press for, you know, not doing enough to stop the January 6 insurrection. But it’s also probably hard to work at Facebook when you have to enroll in your benefits.

There’s some pretty awful stuff detailed in the files that Haugen leaked, but if you want to experience some lower-stakes incredulity at our Metaverse overlords, check out this video. I’m sure Facebook has good benefits – they’re a huge, trillion-dollar tech company, after all – but is the subsidized care even worth it when there’s choreographed dancing involved?

NFTs aren’t even good at gatekeeping

Bored Apes Yacht Club is like a fraternity for people who love Coinbase. Instead of paying dues to join an exclusive Greek society of bros, you can buy a 52 ETH (~$210,000 at time of publication) NFT of an ape to be part of a cool club. Yes, Jimmy Fallon, Steph Curry and Post Malone are Yacht Club members – just like how some B-list actor was in your college’s fraternity twenty years before you were born. But it’s not just about the ape – the value of the NFT is that you get access to fancy events and stuff. So, nightlife journalist Adlan Jackson concocted a clever plan to sneak into a Bored Apes party.

As it turned out, a friend’s boss owned an Ape and sent Jackson a screenshot of a QR code that could get them into the party. The bouncers were checking for some wristband from a previous event, though, not the literal NFT, so he was turned away despite his Ape possession. Later in the night, Jackson tried to get in again, and… they simply let him in. No wristband, no NFT, no nothing. So much for exclusivity! Luckily, Jackson was just in time to see The Strokes frontman Julian Casablancas ask on stage, “This is kind of about art, right? NFTs? I don’t know, what the hell. All I know is… a lot of dudes here tonight.”

Please make it stop

If NFTs are now blowing up in the speculation bubble that is financial social media (how does that not have a short name? FiSo?) they owe a lot to Gamestop, the memestock that could. The company could have headed into oblivion like so many other mediocre retailers crowded out by innovations in technology, consumer habits and changing tastes in entertainment. But instead, it was picked up and carried on the wings of a wave of hype that drove its price into the stratosphere, leading to so, so many questions about who gets to be the gatekeeper in the world of trading, who makes money, and who are the biggest losers. You hate to see people getting manipulated, but also understand why those who bought in hated to be treated like unempowered peons. No one gets covered in glory in this one. But amazing, there has yet to be a final chapter in this saga: the stock is lower compared to January’s stratospheric peak, but it’s not that far off.

Spotify Wrapped is cheugy

Yeah, yeah, we know that sharing your Spotify Wrapped round-up is basically just doing free PR for Spotify. But the copywriting on Wrapped read like it was penned by a forty-year-old communications staffer who asked his niece for some phrases that gen-Zers like.Spotify even hired an aura reader named Mystic Michaela to collaborate with them on generating audio auras. The result? Cheugy.

“There was one podcast that lived in your head, rent-free, all year long,” it said.

“You always understood the assignment.”

“While everyone else was trying to figure out what NFTs were, you had one song on repeat.”

“You deserve a playlist as long as your skincare routine.”

Elizabeth Holmes has stans

Former Theranos founder and CEO Elizabeth Holmes was on trial for criminal fraud for over four months this year. But on the first day of the trial, some fans – yes, fans – showed up dressed as Elizabeth Holmes. If you’re blonde, it’s a pretty easy costume – just wear a black turtleneck and some red lipstick, put your hair in a low ponytail, and there you go! You’re ready for the Halloween party!

But these cosplayers were legit, as far as the reporters who talked to them could tell. They really admired Elizabeth Holmes, despite the fact that she may or may not be guilty of serious criminal fraud charges running a company that actively jeopardized people’s health by giving them false blood test results. But to each their own.

Even LinkedIn wants to be like TikTok

Basically every social or entertainment platform is finding a way to wedge in a vertically-oriented short form video feed. It makes sense for direct TikTok competitors like Instagram or Snapchat to do this, even though it feels very inorganic and derivative. But toward the end of the year, even companies like Netflix, Spotify, Reddit, Twitter and Pinterest were trying it out. In 2022, Linkedin plans to join them.

The professional networking platform tried doing stories this year, but it wasn’t as successful as Instagram at integrating that Snapchat copy-cat feature.

Fleets fly away

Then again, Twitter didn’t do so hot with Fleets either. I guess you could have seen the writing on the wall with this one: Twitter basically sealed Fleets’ fate with its very name. Its own attempt to throw a hat into the short, ephemeral videos never quite struck a note with Twitter users, who mainly love the format precisely for what it does differently from the rest of social media: fast-paced, short punctuations of words and pictures that flutter down from each other with biting humor, searing criticism, perfectly-timed factoids and occasional glimpses of greatness, regardless of your follow numbers. Who really needs another Story format? Especially one launching so late in the day, with no great twist or even easy way to be used?

Instagram forgot to turn on teen safety features on the web

In July, Instagram tried to cover its metaphorical ass when it comes to user safety by rolling out some new features. One feature made it so that any new account from a user under 16 would default to private. But Senator Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) put tech journalists to shame by unearthing a scoop that was right in front of our eyes for months. If a teen made an Instagram account on the web, it defaulted to public.

To be fair, who even uses Instagram for the web? Still, this felt like a pretty big oversight. Head of Instagram Adam Mosseri had to admit under oath that his team messed up. It was pretty cringe, but at the same time, it’s an alarming, lackadaisical error for a company that’s been repeatedly defending its commitment to teen safety in the Senate this fall.

The headline of this article

It was Devin’s idea. Amanda enthusiastically approved. Still cheugy.

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A network of knockoff apparel stores exposed 330,000 customer credit cards

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If you recently made a purchase from an overseas online store selling knockoff clothes and goods, there’s a chance your credit card number and personal information were exposed.

Since January 6, a database containing hundreds of thousands of unencrypted credit card numbers and corresponding cardholders’ information was spilling onto the open web. At the time it was pulled offline on Tuesday, the database had about 330,000 credit card numbers, cardholder names, and full billing addresses — and rising in real-time as customers placed new orders. The data contained all the information that a criminal would need to make fraudulent transactions and purchases using a cardholder’s information.

The credit card numbers belong to customers who made purchases through a network of near-identical online stores claiming to sell designer goods and apparel. But the stores had the same security problem in common: any time a customer made a purchase, their credit card data and billing information was saved in a database, which was left exposed to the internet without a password. Anyone who knew the IP address of the database could access reams of unencrypted financial data.

Anurag Sen, a good-faith security researcher, found the exposed credit card records and asked TechCrunch for help in reporting it to its owner. Sen has a respectable track record of scanning the internet looking for exposed servers and inadvertently published data, and reporting it to companies to get their systems secured.

But in this case, Sen wasn’t the first person to discover the spilling data. According to a ransom note left behind on the exposed database, someone else had found the spilling data and, instead of trying to identify the owner and responsibly reporting the spill, the unnamed person instead claimed to have taken a copy of the entire database’s contents of credit card data and would return it in exchange for a small sum of cryptocurrency.

A review of the data by TechCrunch shows most of the credit card numbers are owned by cardholders in the United States. Several people we contacted confirmed that their exposed credit card data was accurate.

TechCrunch has identified several online stores whose customers’ information was exposed by the leaky database. Many of the stores claim to operate out of Hong Kong. Some of the stores are designed to sound similar to big-name brands, like Sprayground, but whose websites have no discernible contact information, typos and spelling mistakes, and a conspicuous lack of customer reviews. Internet records also show the websites were set up in the past few weeks.

Some of these websites include:

  • spraygroundusa.com
  • ihuahebuy.com
  • igoodlinks.com
  • ibuysbuy.com
  • lichengshop.com
  • hzoushop.com
  • goldlyshop.com
  • haohangshop.com
  • twinklebubble.store
  • spendidbuy.com

If you bought something from one of those sites in the past few weeks, you might want to consider your banking card compromised and contact your bank or card provider.

It’s not clear who is responsible for this network of knockoff stores. TechCrunch contacted a person via WhatsApp whose Singapore-registered phone number was listed as the point of contact on several of the online stores. It’s not clear if the contact number listed is even involved with the stores, given one of the websites listed its location as a Chick-fil-A restaurant in Houston, Texas.

Internet records showed that the database was operated by a customer of Tencent, whose cloud services were used to host the database. TechCrunch contacted Tencent about its customer’s database leaking credit card information, and the company responded quickly. The customer’s database went offline a short time later.

“When we learned of the incident, we immediately contacted the customer who operates the database and it was shut down immediately. Data privacy and security are top priorities at Tencent. We will continue to work with our customers to ensure they maintain their databases in a safe and secure manner,” said Carrie Fan, global communications director at Tencent.

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All Raise CEO steps down again

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Less than a year after assuming the role, All Raise CEO Mandela SH Dixon has stepped down from her position at the nonprofit. The entrepreneur, who previously ran Founder Gym, an online training center for underrepresented founders, said in a blog post that the decision was made after she realized “being in the field working directly with entrepreneurs everyday” is her passion. Dixon said that she will be exploring new opportunities in alignment with that.

Her resignation is effective starting February 1st, 2023. She will remain an advisor to the Bay Area-based nonprofit.

This is the second chief executive to leave All Raise since it was first founded in 2017. In 2021, Pam Kostka resigned as the helm of the nonprofit to rejoin the startup world as well; Kostka is now an operator in residence and limited partner at Operator Collective, according to her LinkedIn. With Dixon gone, Paige Hendrix Buckner, who joined the outfit as chief of staff nine months ago, will step in as interim CEO. In the same blog post, Buckner wrote that “Mandela leaves All Raise in a strong position, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to continue the hard work of diversifying the VC backed ecosystem.”

Dixon did not immediately respond to comment on the record. It is unclear if All Raise is immediately kicking off a permanent CEO search.

The nonprofit has historically defined its goals in two ways: first, it wants to increase the amount of seed funding that goes to female founders from 11% to 23% by 2030, and, second, it wants to double the percentage of female decision-makers at U.S. firms by 2028.

In previous interviews, Dixon said that the company will work on creating explicit goals around what impact it wants to have for historically overlooked individuals. The data underscores the challenge ahead. Black and LatinX women receive disproportionately less venture capital money than white women; non-binary founders can also face higher hurdles when seeking funding, as All Raise board member Aileen Lee noted in the blog post.  The nonprofit has created specific programs for Black and Latinx founders but has not disclosed a specific goal for the cohort yet. These disconnects can be lost if not tracked. All Raise’s last impact report was published in 2020 and they’re working on bringing that analysis back, Lee tells TechCrunch in an interview.

“All Raise is in great hands with Paige as interim leader and we’ve got a lot of exciting things that we’re shaping and scaling,” Lee said. “We have to all continue to link arms to try and continue to make improvements for our industry…we’ve made good progress that we can’t let up.”

Since launch, the nonprofit has raised $11 million in funding, and opened regional chapters in New York, Boston, Los Angeles, Chicago, DC and, soon, Miami.

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Shopping app Temu is using TikTok’s strategy to keep its No. 1 spot on App Store

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Temu, a shopping app from Chinese e-commerce giant Pinduoduo, is having quite the run as the No. 1 app on the U.S. app stores. The mobile shopping app hit the top spot on the U.S. App Store in September and has continued to hold a highly-ranked position in the months that followed, including as the No. 1 free app on Google Play since December 29, 2022. More recently, Temu again snagged the No. 1 position again on the iOS App Store on January 3 and hasn’t dropped since — even outpacing competitor Shein’s daily installs in the U.S.

Offering cheap factory-to-consumer goods, Temu provides access to a wide range of products, including fast fashion, and pushes users to share the app with friends in exchange for free products, which may account for some of its growth. However, the large majority of its new installs come from Temu’s marketing spend, it seems.

When TechCrunch covered Temu’s rise in November, the app had then seen a little more than 5 million installs in the U.S., according to data from app intelligence firm Sensor Tower, making the U.S. its largest market. Now, the firm says the app has seen 5 million U.S. installs this January alone, up 19% from 4.2 million in the prior 22 days from December 10 through December 31.

According to Sensor Tower estimates, Temu has managed to achieve a total of 19 million lifetime installs across the U.S. App Store and Google Play, more than 18 million of which came from the U.S.

The growth now sees Temu outpacing rival Shein in terms of daily installs. In October, Temu was averaging around 43,000 daily installs in the U.S., the firm said, while Shein averaged about 62,000. In November, Temu’s average daily installs grew to 185,000 while Shein’s climbed to 70,000 and last month, Temu averaged 187,000 installs while Shein saw about 62,000.

The shopping app’s fast rise recalls how the video entertainment platform TikTok grew to become the most downloaded app worldwide in 2021, after years of outsized growth. The video app topped 2 billion lifetime downloads by 2020, including sister app Douyin in China, Sensor Tower said. Combined, the TikTok apps have now reached 4.1 billion installs.

Like Temu, much of TikTok’s early growth was driven by marketing spend. The video app grew its footprint in the U.S. and abroad by heavily leveraging Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat’s own ad platforms to acquire its customers. TikTok was famously said to have spent $1 billion on ads in 2018, even becoming Snap’s biggest advertiser that year, for instance.

By investing in user acquisition upfront, TikTok was able to gain a following which then improved its ability to personalize its For You feed with recommendations. Over time, this algorithm became very good at recognizing what videos would attract the most interest thanks to this investment, turning TikTok into one of the most addictive apps in terms of time spent. As of 2020, kids and teens began spending more time watching TikTok than they did on YouTube. And earlier this month, Insider Intelligence data indicated all TikTok users in the U.S. were now spending an average of nearly 1 hour per day on the app (55.8 minutes), compared with just 47.5 minutes on YouTube, including YouTube TV.

While Temu is nowhere near TikTok’s sky-high figures, it appears to be leveraging a similar growth strategy. The company is heavily investing in advertising to acquire users, which it uses to personalize the shopping experience. One of Temu’s key features, in fact, is its own sort of For You page that encourages users to browse trending items “Selected for You.” In addition to gamification elements, Temu also puts heavy emphasis on recommending shops and products on its home page, which is informed by its user data.

But the app’s growth doesn’t seem to be driven by social media. While the Temu hashtag (#temu) on TikTok is nearing 250 million views, that’s not really a remarkable number for an app as big as TikTok where something like #dogs has 120.5 billion views. (Or, for a more direct comparison, #shein has 48.3 billion views.) That suggests Temu’s rise isn’t necessarily powered by viral videos among Gen Z users or influencer marketing, but rather more traditional digital advertising.

According to Meta’s ad library, for instance, Temu has run some 8,800 ads across Meta’s various platforms just this month. The ads promote Temu’s sales and its extremely discounted items, like $5 necklaces, $4 shirts, and $13 shoes, among other deals. These ads appear to be working to boost Temu’s installs, allowing the app to maintain its No. 1 slot on the App Store’s “Top Free” charts, which are heavily influenced by the number of downloads and download velocity, among other things.

Of course, having a high number of downloads doesn’t necessarily mean Temu’s app will maintain a high number of monthly active users. Nor does it mean those users won’t churn out of the app after their initial curiosity has been abated. Still, Temu’s download growth saw it ranking as the No. 1 “Breakout” shopping app by downloads in the U.S. for 2022, according to data.ai’s year-end “State of Mobile” report. (Data.ai calculates “Breakout” apps in terms of year-over-year growth across iOS and Google Play.)

Because Temu’s growth is more recent, the app did not earn a position on the Top 10 apps in 2022 in either the U.S. or globally in terms of downloads, consumer spend, or monthly active users, on this report. Instead, most of those spots still went to social media apps, streamers, and dating apps like Bumble and Tinder. The only retailer to find a spot on these lists was Amazon, which was the No. 7 app worldwide by active users and the No. 8 most downloaded in the U.S.

Temu’s marketing investment may not pay off as well as TikTok’s did, though, as other discount shopping apps saw similar growth only to later fail as consumers found that, actually, $2 shirts and jeans were deals that were too good to be true. Wish famously fumbled as consumers grew frustrated with long delivery times, fake listings, missing orders, poor customer service, and other things consumers expect from online retail in the age of Amazon.

Temu today holds a 4.7-star rating on the U.S. App Store, but those ratings have become less trustworthy over the years due to the ease with which companies can get away with fake reviews. Dig into the reviews further and you’ll find similar complaints to Wish, including scammy listings, damaged and delayed deliveries, incorrect orders and lack of customer service. Without addressing these issues, Temu seems more likely to go the way of Wish, not TikTok, no matter what it spends.

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