A guide to the TikTokish apps that want to be the next TikTok

Last week, Alessandro Bogliari wouldn’t have imagined that anyone posed a serious threat to TikTok. Yes, there were imitators and competitors out there, but Bogliari, who runs a social media agency called the Influencer Marketing Factory, thought the app was so successful that there was no way it would be overthrown in the near future. But a lot can change in just a few days on the internet. 

When US president Donald Trump said on Friday that he was “banning” TikTok from the US, creators on the app, going live to their fans en masse and pleading with them to follow them on Instagram and YouTube instead. Although Trump’s declaration turned out not to be quite true (TikTok’s Chinese parent company, ByteDance, now has 45 days to sell the app’s American operations before a possible ban, and is talking with Microsoft to do so), the ensuing chaos accelerated something that was already in motion: the rise of a wave of TikTok competitors. 

“Everyone is in a war trying to get the majority of these people,” Bogliari says. 

Assuming a deal goes through, TikTok’s dominance is likely still safe. The app is uniquely appealing for its recommendation algorithms, for the features it offers creators to help them make videos and collaborate with others, and for its ability to launch nearly anyone into at least temporary viral fame—something that is harder to achieve on other social media platforms. But that could change as its future hangs in the balance.

There are four apps that seem to be the main potential threats to TikTok’s dominance, each with different audiences, features, and challenges. Here’s a rundown of each. 

Byte

What it is: Byte launched earlier this year as resurrection of Vine, the short-form 6-second video platform that was shut down by its corporate owner, Twitter, in 2016 (Vine is the inspiration for every other video app out there right now, including TikTok.) Byte’s creator Dom Hofmann, who was also one of the founders of Vine, teased Byte as a sequel to the beloved app during its development. 

byte by @SymphonicRon

What it’s like: If TikTok absorbed the internet’s latent Vine energy to fuel its culture, without necessarily elevating or crediting the Vine creators responsible for it, then Byte became the place where some of those creators and fans actually ended up. @SymphonicRon, a 29-year-old musician who grew a modest following on Vine is now on Byte, in part, because it provided an opportunity to earn some income off of his work through its audio licensing program, he said in an interview (he doesn’t use his full name online, and asked to go by his handle for privacy reasons for this article.) He heard about it from fellow former Viners. 

But Byte was a pretty quiet place, @SymphonicRon said, before TikTok came under scrutiny of the US government. “There weren’t that many people there. The most popular posts were getting 300 likes,” he said. Now, things are getting a lot more interaction, as TikTok users flood in, and the actual content that does well on the platform has “”definitely changed” in just a few days. 

Who it’s for: Bogliari described Byte as the least threatening to TikTok’s dominance of the contenders out there, but that might be because of the same things that make Byte fun to be on. There’s a lot of art and music, and a lot of humor subgenres that are kind of similar to Alt TikTok. It’s niche, and maybe that’s the point. 

Reels 

What it is: Facebook, which owns Instagram, has a history of copying the features of other successful social media platforms and absorbing them into its own products. Reels is the latest attempt to do that, working within Instagram, and allowing users to create 15-second, looped videos. There’s a tab in explore that leads to a feed of Reels content, much like TikTok’s “For You” page.

What it’s like: Reels launched on Wednesday in the US after a test run in some international markets. When I scrolled through my feed, the content felt a lot like Straight TikTok, or the part of TikTok where you see a lot of dance videos by 20-something influencers who live in giant LA mansions. But TikTok has had more than a year to learn my personal interests, and get to the point where it knows I want to see, well, this on my “for you” page.  It’s perhaps unfair to expect Reels to match that understanding.

Malick Mercier, a 21-year-old student journalist at Ithaca College who was asked by Instagram in 2018 to cover the March for our Lives rally for the platform, was one of those granted early access to Reels last week to help populate the feed for its launch. A lot of the early content on Reels, he says, might be shaped by what Instagram told early adopters in a phone call about what was working during their international test runs. Reels videos, Instagram told them, tended to succeed when they focused on “things that work on Instagram anyway” like dancing, “fluffy cute dogs,” and visual videos that “transcend language” for an international audience. Fashion was another big area that succeeded.

That could change as more users start playing with Reels, creating content without those guidelines and figuring out if it has an audience there.

Who it’s for: Reels already has a huge potential userbase because it’s part of Instagram. And it’s a pretty good clone of TikTok, says Bogliari. “I personally like it, I think it’s pretty similar to TikTok.” It’s missing some features, but those are easy to copy. Bogliari argued that Reels would be a truly viable threat to TikTok if it manages to attract Gen Z back to Instagram and promotes Reels better than it did IGTV, a previous attempt to attract video-viewing audiences.

Instagram also has some huge cultural differences to TikTok,  Mercier noted. “TikTok has gotten to be a lot of activism, and a lot of distinct voices,” he said. “Instagram isn’t the same thing.” People are more professional on Instagram, more careful about their self-presentation. Even though TikTok isn’t exclusively full of Gen Zers, it’s felt like a relatively safe space for that generation to talk to each other. Instagram is more intergenerational at this point.

“They’re not worried that some 40-something who is hiring them is going to check their TikTok,” Mercier quips. In fact, he guessed that older generations might feel more comfortable trying out short-form video on Instagram, an app they already use, as opposed to TikTok, which is always a bit of a weird place to be if you’re over 25. 

Triller 

Photo by Solen Feyissa on Unsplash

What it is: Triller has been around since 2015, when it launched as a tool for creating personal music videos without actually needing to learn how to edit like a professional. But in recent weeks, it’s become perhaps the most aggressive challenger to TikTok’s dominance, hitting No 1 in the app store over the weekend as news of TikTok’s potential ban spread. It’s also recruited away some of TikTok’s most popular influencers, who now post to Triller dancing in Triller-branded merch. Oh, and it recently sued TikTok for patent infringement. 

What it’s like: Triller feels like a more polished TikTok, which is maybe in part due to the app’s promotion of the celebrities they’ve attracted away from TikTok. It’s also because Triller appears more focused on its AI-editing features than it is on their recommendation and search, the latter of which play a huge role in what makes TikTok feel special. Given its origins, Triller is also just much more music focused. 

Who it’s for: Among other things, Bogliari said that Triller is good for brands, since the platform already has deals with many major record labels. 

It could potentially become the main home for TikTok influencers looking to jump to another app with similar features and a willingness to invest in them. The question is how many will actually leave? Although it hasn’t happened yet, Bogliari said that Triller is likely hoping for a “domino effect.” Now that a few TikTok stars have left for Triller, others may be more willing to follow, bringing their millions of fans along for the ride. 

TikTok isn’t just sitting back and letting apps like Triller poach their stars, however: it announced last week that it will support US creators with more than $1 billion in funding over the next three years through a new creator fund. 

Clash 

What it is: Clash, like Byte, has its roots in Vine culture, co-founded by former Vine super-user Brendon McNerney. As Tubefilter noted, the app also saw a burst of new downloads after Trump’s TikTok comments. Clash has one big distinctive feature from all the other apps on this list, including TikTok, however: it seems to prioritize finding ways for creators to monetize their content right away.  

What it’s like: Because the app is still in beta, and only available on iPhone (I, sigh, only have an Android phone), this is the only app on the list we haven’t been able to personally try out. But Bogliari described it as full of “Vine energy,” and the most similar to TikTok in feel of all the contenders. 

Who it’s for: Creators who want to make money off their content right away, and fans who want to support their favorite internet celebrities. McNerney told TubeFilter that Clash wasn’t created explicitly to be a TikTok competitor, but instead to fill a void in how creators can actually earn a living off what they do. 

 “I saw TikTok take off and hoped that it was going to bring some sort of tools or some sort of atmosphere that would help creators more,” he says. “Definitely seen a lot of creators grow, but never saw something that was truly for creators that actually helps them make a living, and helps them do what they want and chase those dreams.” 


A guide to the TikTokish apps that want to be the next TikTok 2020/08/06 12:00

How to cast a wider net for tracking space junk

Space junk isn’t going away anytime soon—and neither are the problems it causes. We’re poised to see more satellite launches with every passing year, which means more pieces of rocketry and spacecraft getting loose and zipping around at over 22,000 mph. At those speeds, even an object just a few centimeters long could instantly destroy a satellite, and send even more debris hurtling through space. 

How do you deal with this? You can use powerful lasers to measure the distance of these objects, like radar or sonar. A laser beam hits the debris in orbit and bounces back to Earth, and ground crews can measure how long that takes to figure out where they are where they are going, alerting you to possible collisions with other objects. This laser ranging technique is far from a new practice for tracking satellites, “but with tracking space debris, the situation is different,” says Carolin Frueh, an astrodynamics expert at Purdue University. Space junk doesn’t stay in a stable orbit. It will “start to tumble and pick up potentially rapid attitude motion, so it is not well oriented,” she says. Laser detections will appear more randomly than they would for satellites, so more continuous observations are needed to really predict where debris is headed. 

Laser ranging only gives you a location window that’s up to several thousand kilometers in distance. For better predictions, debris trackers can also measure the reflection of sunlight off these objects, which can be used to narrow those windows to just a few meters. But these sunlight reflections can only be observed around dawn or twilight, when the ground stations are still dark but the satellites themselves are illuminated.

A team of European researchers think they’ve finally gotten around this problem, according to a new paper published in Nature Communications. A team led by Michael Steindorfer, a space debris researcher from the Austrian Academy of Sciences, has figured out a way to visualize space debris during broad daylight against a blue sky background. Instead of measuring sunlight reflections the old fashioned way, the new daylight technique uses a specialized filter, telescope, and camera system to observe stars in the sky during daylight (when they are 10 times harder to spot). This gives you a background that contrasts with the space junk, which reflect light more brightly since they’re closer to Earth, so you no longer have to wait till twilight or pre-dawn to get sunlight reflection measurements. In addition, the team designed new software that automatically corrects object location predictions in real-time more accurately than previous systems. 

The team tested out this new “daylight system” during the daytime on four different rocket bodies moving through orbit just under 1,000 kilometers above Earth’s surface, pinpointing their locations down to a range of about one meter or so. They later validated the system through observations of 40 other objects. Altogether, the researchers believe the new daylight system can make a laser ranging system more accurate for between 6 and 22 hours a day, depending on the season. It should be well within the means for a tracking station to set up such a system. 

Work in progress

objects in low earth orbit
Some estimates suggest there are 130 million pieces of space debris orbiting Earth.
NASA ODPO

Conducting observations in daylight does have its drawbacks, however, and Steindorfer allows that reflections from other objects could easily interfere with debris tracking. Both the hardware and software need to be improved over time to reduce inaccurate predictions, and Steindorfer argues that the whole system needs to be thought of as a continued work in progress. Frueh, who did not work on the new study, also adds that daylight tracking is already possible with radar, and daylight optical observations have also been used to detect the movement of particularly bright debris. 

But combining these telescope observations with laser ranging measurements does provide “a significant improvement to the current accuracies of catalogued objects, especially in high altitude orbits, which are not radar tracked,” says Frueh. She cautions it cannot serve as an end-all solution for scanning debris of all sizes and altitudes—but should make for another useful tool in the debris tracking toolbelt. 

Steindorfer is naturally more optimistic about the impact of the new daylight system. He believes it could help foster a more organized network of debris tracking stations around the world, working together in a way that “significantly improves orbital predictions and provides better warnings of possible collisions, or even inform future space debris removal missions.” Given how bad the space junk problem is getting, any new solutions are more than welcome at this point. 


How to cast a wider net for tracking space junk 2020/08/05 21:28

SpaceX flew a prototype of its Starship vehicle for the first time

SpaceX successfully flew a prototype of its next-generation Starship vehicle for the first time ever on Tuesday, a major step forward in the company’s quest to eventually send people to Mars.

What happened: Around 8:00pm Eastern Time, from its testing site at Boca Chica, Texas, SpaceX flew the prototype about 500 feet into the air (the company has not yet stated what the exact altitude of the test flight was.) After “hopping” into the air, the vehicle skirted sideways a little before coming back to the ground, deploying six landing legs before successfully descending. The whole flight took about 45 seconds. 

Starship takes flight pic.twitter.com/IWvwcA05hl

— SpaceX (@SpaceX) August 5, 2020

Called SN5, and with just one of the company’s powerful Raptor engines, this vehicle is a long way from the version SpaceX is hoping to build down the road. In its final form, Starship is expected to be about 400 feet tall and 30 feet wide, able to take more than 100 tons worth of cargo and passengers to deep space destinations like the moon and Mars. When it flies, it will do so with six of the same engines, on top of a giant rocket booster called Super Heavy.

Better late than never: Four previous iterations of the Starship prototype were destroyed during failed ground testing. This is the first time SpaceX has managed to get a prototype to survive engine fires, let alone get off the ground. It is also the first time the company has flown a full-sized version of the vehicle. A smaller prototype called Starhopper was flown as high as 490 feet last year.  

What’s next: SN5 may fly again, but the company has already build a sixth prototype which is expected to be tested under more rigorous conditions, possibly to an altitude higher than 500 feet. Starship is a long-term project that’s already behind a schedule. Company CEO Elon Musk had stated he wanted to fly Starship 12 miles into the air within just a couple months when he first unveiled the design last September, and that it would fly into orbit within half a year. The reality on the ground has failed to meet those ambitions. 

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SpaceX flew a prototype of its Starship vehicle for the first time 2020/08/05 20:10

The UK is dropping an immigration algorithm that critics say is racist

The news: The UK Home Office has said it will stop using an algorithm to process visa applications that critics claim is racially biased. Opponents to it argue that the algorithm’s use of nationality to decide which applications get fast-tracked has led to a system in which “people from rich white countries get “Speedy Boarding”; poorer people of color get pushed to the back of the queue.”

Time for a redesign: The Home Office denies that its system is racially biased and litigation is still ongoing. Even so, the Home Office has agreed to drop the algorithm and plans to relaunch a redesigned version later this year, after conducting a full review that will look for unconscious bias. In the meantime the UK will adopt a temporary system that does not use nationality to sort applications. 

Traffic system: Since 2015 the UK has filtered visa applications using a traffic light system that assigns a red, amber or green risk level to each applicant. People assigned a red risk level were more likely to be refused.

Broader trend: Algorithms are known to entrench institutional biases, especially racist ones. Yet they are being used more and more to help make important decisions, from credit checks to visa applications to pretrial hearings and policing. Critics have complained that the US immigration system is racially biased too. But in most cases, unpacking exactly how these algorithms work and exposing evidence of their bias is hard because many are proprietary and their use has little public oversight. 

But criticism is growing. In the US, some police departments are suspending controversial predictive algorithms and tech companies have stopped supplying biased face recognition technology. In February a Dutch court ruled that a system that predicted how likely a person was to commit welfare or tax fraud was unlawful because it unfairly targeted minorities. The UK Home Office’s decision to review its system without waiting for a legal ruling could prove to be a milestone.


The UK is dropping an immigration algorithm that critics say is racist 2020/08/05 14:55

The hack that could make face recognition think someone else is you

Researchers have demonstrated that they can fool a modern face recognition system into seeing someone who isn’t there.

A team from the cybersecurity firm McAfee set up the attack against a facial recognition system similar to those currently used at airports for passport verification. By using machine learning, they created an image that looked like one person to the human eye, but was identified as somebody else by the face recognition algorithm—the equivalent of tricking the machine into allowing someone to board a flight despite being on a no-fly list.

“If we go in front of a live camera that is using facial recognition to identify and interpret who they’re looking at and compare that to a passport photo, we can realistically and repeatedly cause that kind of targeted misclassification,” said the study’s lead author, Steve Povolny.

How it works

To misdirect the algorithm, the researchers used an image translation algorithm known as CycleGAN, which excels at morphing photographs from one style into another. For example, it can make a photo of a harbor look as if it were painted by Monet, or make a photo of mountains taken in the summer look like it was taken in the winter.

Examples of how cycleGAN morphs photos from one style into another, including turning a photo into a Monet, a horse into a zebra, and a summer landscape into a winter landscape.
JUN-YAN ZHU AND TAESUNG PARK ET AL.

The McAfee team used 1,500 photos of each of the project’s two leads and fed the images into a CycleGAN to morph them into one another. At the same time, they used the facial recognition algorithm to check the CycleGAN’s generated images to see who it recognized. After generating hundreds of images, the CycleGAN eventually created a faked image that looked like person A to the naked eye but fooled the face recognition into thinking it was person B.

The intermediate stages of CycleGAN morphing person A into person B
MCAFEE

While the study raises clear concerns about the security of face recognition systems, there are some caveats. First, the researchers didn’t have access to the actual system that airports use to identify passengers and instead approximated it with a state-of-the-art, open-source algorithm. “I think for an attacker that is going to be the hardest part to overcome,” Povolny says, “where [they] don’t have access to the target system.” Nonetheless, given the high similarities across face recognition algorithms, he thinks it’s likely that the attack would work even on the actual airport system.

Second, today such an attack requires lots of time and resources. CycleGANs need powerful computers and expertise to train and execute.

But face recognition systems and automated passport control are increasingly used for airport security around the world, a shift that has beenaccelerated by the covid-19 pandemic and the desire for touchless systems. The technology is also already widely used by governments and corporations in areas such as law enforcement, hiring, and event security—although many groups have called for a moratorium on such developments, and some cities have banned the technology.

There are other technical attempts to subvert face recognition. A University of Chicago team recently released Fawkes, a tool meant to “cloak” faces by slightly altering your photos on social media so as to fool the AI systems relying on scraped databases of billions of such pictures. Researchers from the AI firm Kneron also showed how masks can fool the face recognition systems already in use around the world.

The McAfee researchers say their goal is ultimately to demonstrate the inherent vulnerabilities in these AI systems and make clear that human beings must stay in the loop.

“AI and facial recognition are incredibly powerful tools to assist in the pipeline of identifying and authorizing people,” Povolny says. “But when you just take them and blindly replace an existing system that relies entirely on a human without having some kind of a secondary check, then you all of a sudden have introduced maybe a greater weakness than you had before.”


The hack that could make face recognition think someone else is you 2020/08/05 13:00

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