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19

May
2012

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In thoughts

By ninavizz

Adult Supervision

On 19, May 2012 | No Comments | In thoughts | By ninavizz

Yesterday marked the launch of a product that has stirred up quite a bit of controversy, here in San Francisco. SceneTap is a service that tracks the age, gender, and number of patrons currently at a bar, through use of video cameras that are discreetly located, and that patrons are notified about in a sign bar owners agree to post in clear-view. Do you pay attention to bar signage?

The video cameras use an algorithmic facial-recognition system to determine the age and gender of each identified face. From that data metrics are generated, and those metrics then published to public-facing web/product pages and directly to venue owners.

What SceneTap markets as its hot-offering (via the entire homepage) is its mobile app that scene-seekers can download. Through it folks are informed where the “hottest” or most “hoppin” places are—in real time—in addition to stats on what percentage of the patrons are men vs women, what the average age of each gender is, and how close the business is to capacity. Additional information about venues includes what their current drink specials are, when happy hours might be, and what sports teams each bar affiliates itself with.

On the SceneTap website that same information may be accessed by anybody (authenticated or not), and at the highest level is grouped into communities by metro areas. Filtering options are available that will sort bars within each Metro Area by current popularity, popularity among one gender, and popularity among one age group. Bars may also be bucket-sorted within a Metro Area by its Scene rating, it’s user-assigned Rating, by the percentage of each either men or women present, and then further by the average male age, or the average female age.

Anybody who knows me knows that I’m a die-hard hockey fan, and so of course (even though this year’s contenders were lame by the semi-finals) my first interest-pique was to sort by sports teams—or, even just by sports. Nope. Neither are options. Overall, the information seems to revolve around age, gender, total population density of each—drilldowns within each—and of course, drink specials. Hmm. Ok. I’m a woman over 30, and that shoots-up a little red flag on my radar. This subtlety also had the same affect on quite a few of my fellow San Franciscans. Sidenote—I was initially excited that SceneTap could help me find a good hockey bar, to watch tomorrow’s game on. Nope. No filtering on the types of sports, teams, favored players, channels, etc.

SceneTap CEO Cole Harper wrote a letter that he addressed to those of us concerned in San Francisco. The letter was the first insight most folks had into the company, as none of their team, advisers, or investors, are named on the website. SceneTap‘s homebase being Austin, TX isn’t mentioned anywhere on the site, either. To any professional over 25, I’d hope that these (absent) facts alone would trigger a little red-flag questioning their credibility.

The letter from Mr. Harper felt defensive, but also somewhat naive. No apparent interest on behalf of SceneTap’s CEO to learn about what exactly the thousands of naysayers here might be concerned about, or why. Mr. Harper was enthusiastic to offer forth detailed clarification around how his product works, and to specifically offer his objective assertion that SceneTap does not compromise individual data privacy rights. To thousands of folks in the US capitol of digital products & startups—San Francisco—the letter offered little more than well intentioned clarification around SceneTap’s objective attributes, while ignoring concern around the bigger-picture subjective compromises to public safety that SceneTap arguably facilitates.

My first thought after reading Mr. Harper’s letter, was drawing a parallel between SceneTap’s lack of transparency into it’s business, and the only businesses I know to be similarly dodgy around who they are: poker joints, publishers of adult entertainment content, strip clubs, speakeasies, and other marginally legal or community-disparaged businesses. Not tech startups, who typically boast who their team is and what stage funding they’re at with pride. A proud telling of the company’s “story” and how that inspired the creation of their product(s), is also custom fare for an About page. On SceneTap’s About page is simply an FAQ. No story of how the site was founded, what its most compelling value-prop is, who its founders & advisers are—nada.

Offering the team the benefit of the doubt, at worst this is just amateur. Not something you want when courting investors, or seeking to meet investor expectations. The “amateur” flag also got triggered when I saw not one, but two ads on their Metro Area page. No pre liquidity-event stage startup would be dumb enough to deter users away from its product/website nor would compromise the richest possible brand experience at such an early stage of their online product, for a few bucks hustled on ads. Well, clarification: no startup under sound (or any) advisorship. Hence this article’s title, Adult Supervision.

The last startup I worked at was Get Satisfaction. Its founders were Thor and Amy Muller, and Lane Becker. They all started GetSat well into their thirties, and none were novices at the startup game. All three had successfully started & left 4 organizations (between them) prior to this, and with GetSat they were doing something radically new & untested: a social customer-support platform. Their first year was as bootstrap as it gets, as evidenced by their pages on the WayBack machine. I especially like the cupcake in the masthead from their launch site—hehe.

Within their first year however Get Satisfaction had tightened their act considerably, were out of beta within 6 months, and had a proper introduction to themselves on their site. Prior to that, the About page simply pointed to the GetSatisfaction Customer Community—which to their credit, did at least provide transparency into who the employees of the company were. SceneTap claim 2012 to be their second year of operation, although June of 2011 was the oldest record of a domain presence that I was able to uncover on the wayback archive. The 2010 founding date I only learned about, after watching a few of the videos on SceneTap’s “Press” page, and finally viewing the one where that detail was revealed (note: a July 2011 product-launch date is noted in update section, at page bottom).

Just before my start at GetSat, Wendy Lea was brought on board as CEO. The running joke was that the gang had finally hired for its open “Adult Supervision” role. The first time I’d heard the term “Adult Supervision” was when a startup I was consulting at a few years ago, hired Sheeroy Desai from Sapient as their CEO. Sheeroy easily pulled-up the average age of the company from mid-twenties, to late thirties, but more relevantly Sheeroy brought with him a wealth of levelheaded leadership experience, sales savvy, informed intuition, earned wins and learned failures, and multiple investor relationships. The barefooted & frecklefaced team of founders dearly needed all of the above, and have since scaled slowly but solidly.

Wendy was new to the SF startup scene when she came to GetSat, and a seasoned veteran of the CRM, startup, and SilliValey scene. Her style is no-holds-barred, and my first impression of her was—”DAMN, that woman is FIERCE!” I was half inspired by her, half a wee bit afraid—and to date, she remains one of the most inspirational leaders I’ve yet worked with. Always in the office by 7:30, always perfectly put together, she rarely let meetings divert too far from their declared purpose or duration, and she was always driving a very smart hybrid of “RESULTS NOW!” balanced with “how to set-up the organization to be successful years from now,” on a momentum built-up from actions taken each day.

Among other things I learned from Wendy, I learned to appreciate the need to wisely pick and then seek advisement from a Board of Directors, because without them your success is entirely hit or miss—pure luck—because nobody, not even Steve Jobs, is that good. The barely old enough to drink Mark Zuckerberg so, so wisely brought aboard PayPal’s Peter Thiel as Facebook’s first major investor and adviser, before he’d even LLC’d Facebook as a legit organization. To Mark’s credit, he sought his own Adult Supervision as his FIRST recruit to Facebook’s post-Harvard life, while still running the operation from his dorm room.

So, ok—backup—why is not having advisers or a board of directors so friggin’ controversial? Do San Francisco folks just LIKE getting our panties all in a bunch? No, but folks here do know how to build businesses, social apps dependent on pushing live data were pioneered here, and we hold dear what it means to build products responsibly. Many of us have made lots of mistakes along the way, seen folks in our user communities hurt (or just feeling uncomfortably vulnerable), and organizations of hardworking folks hit-hard by inefficiencies or leadership arrogance not realized until too late. Through these follies many of us picked-up, dusted-off, and taken the optimist’s high-road of moving forward by publishing and evangelizing proven solutions to said follies, as best-practices that now serve our industry and users as a whole. To ignore this wealth of information now available to our industry’s future trailblazers that simply wasn’t available when we were all in our early 20s back in the early 90s, is just—well—baffling?

Responsibility is a touchy subject. Within 3 months of incorporating, Twitter had completed a Series-A round of funding. With that funding came LOTS of Adult Supervision. Especially with all of SceneTap’s employees appearing to be below 30 (which Twitter’s were not, and Ev Williams & Biz Stone had both previously started & sold Blogger), this level of oversight & advisement is critical. With Twitter, Dodgeball and FourSquare, many concerns were initially raised about people sharing all this information about themselves—as for the first time, people were now able to do. This had never been done before, and rightfully—what was a silly game to many, could have potentially posed a threat, to others.

Blasting to the world in real-time where you were, how you were dressed, that you had just ordered a tunamelt sandwich—yep, highly controversial stuff. Because of the richness and depth of these conversations, the nuances behind the whats and whys of dangerousness needed to be sorted out. The industry and businesses responsible all took charge to thoughtfully and proactively look at the concerns raised—not to rebuff them—and to articulately and deliberately address them in open, public conversations.

Risk and innovation leadership, but measured risk and responsible innovation leadership—no cowboy/maverick shenanigans with user safety as a concern (big air-quote) confidently rebuffed, even when at first the entrepreneurs did not see the writing on the wall that a few dozen others did. This was a very different approach than passively sitting around and waiting for the first person to get hurt while also not acknowledging this as a possibility, as if it’s about you being proven wrong or vindicated as disruptive, but right. Allowing communities to feel vulnerable, and establishing the expectation that it’s up to everyone on the outside to just sit tight until those feelings of vulnerability wear off, at which point we’ll just adapt and get used to things.

In the end it was determined that if a user decides to publish wether or not they’re home, or that they’re home and had just slipped into a bubble-bath; both are actions initiated by the user and thus the sole responsibility and business of the individual blasting said information about themselves. Twitter, Dodgeball, Facebook and FourSquare are all participatory applications—each requires direct participation for information to be broadcast. Thus, for the world to know that Nina is *not* at home (so go rob her!) but *is* wearing her favorite short skirt and stilettos at Zeitgeist Bar (199 Valencia St. at Duboce Ave, San Francisco, CA 94103) at this moment (so go stalk her!)—well—that’s Nina’s business to inform the public of. Or, she can make her accounts private and restricted to viewing only by folks she has pre-approved to view her blasts.

While the above steps may be Nina’s responsibility, there is shared responsibility by the product organizations to minimally provide education and evangelism around best practices for users to mind their own safety. Kind of like the signs at ATM machines that popped-up in the mid-80s, advising folks to cover the keypad so others don’t see them key in their passwords. If the aforementioned had been suggested in a press conference, with the major banks all shrugging-off customer safety as being the sole responsibility for customers to educate themselves about, I doubt the public would have taken that lightly.

Back to SceneTap. So last week, a big media stink-bomb dropped about an unknown service launching its San Francisco Metro Area presence. I went to the SceneTap site to learn about the organization, to make my own assessment if these were nefarious jerks or ignorant kids, and—nope—nada about the company, less their Press “brag” page. After writing down the names of the two founders from video captions, I Google’d them and got their LinkedIn profiles. On their profiles, I was able to look at their company’s presence on LinkedIn. 14 self-declared employees.

The few declared employees of SceneTap with photos are all young men, and almost half are accounts that were “private” (requiring a premium LinkedIn account to view) with no visible user photos. Having been a part of early stage startups, my reflexive gut feeling was “no, when you’re a part of something early, you want to brag about it to the world—not hide your profile—this looks fishy.” And, it does.

Even on SceneTap’s LinkedIn Company page, no information is provided about investors or advisers (which is something most jobseekers and investors alike want to see), which most strongly inclines me to believe that simply, there are none. That doesn’t read as stealth when lots of other information is provided, that reads as fishy. Their Business Development Director, only named as “Andrew N” (why all the friggin’ privacy, guys?!), is named as a seed stage investor. The fresh-faced lad also has Summer Associate as a recent job title, and- I’m sorry, but there just is no such thing, Andrew. Just call an internship what it is. The rest of the guys all have visible internships in their recent jobs, be man enough to do the same with yours.

To finally state the obvious: all things added-up (and you can’t say I didn’t try), I’m sorry, but SceneTap presents no stronger value proposition than as a trolling app. Guys, looking for girls, in venues that are hookup destinations for young people, and to get drunk. This is dangerous, especially considering that all of SceneTap’s Venue customers are bars. No cafes, no restaurants, public parks, beaches, no dance clubs—bars, only bars. Incredibly. Dangerous. SceneTap’s 28 y/o CEO Mr. Harper doesn’t believe so, however, as stated in his defensive letter. Additionally, the product’s assumption that a social scene by nature has to involve booze, and that age/gender/crowd-size are more relevant defining factors than organic user-generated attributes, just… really?

I sort of doubt any of the SceneTap employees see their business as potentially dangerous. Really: how many under-30 men would have the frame of mind to either look at a “fun social” app as dangerous, or self-police with restraint on such a seemingly no-brainer proposition with potential revenues behind it (or hell, young enough ladies- would I have?). Well, Mark Zuckerberg did, and he’s far from heralded as a leader in personal data ethics and online user safety. So did Kevin Rose, Stewart Butterfield, Marc Andressen, Jerry Yang, David Filo, Sergey Brin, Larry Page; Denis Crowley and Alex Rainert of Dodgeball, Andy Biao of Upcoming, Chad Hurley and Steve Chen of YouTube, Ev and Biz with Blogger. All young men well under 30, when launching what later became their multi-million dollar, multi-million user, groundbreaking social networks & web products.

The lack of product development on the sports stuff—the only additional datapoints on venues other than age/gender/crowd-size profiling—seems to be a safe proof-positive to me, that trolling for hookups is the only intended benefit of this site. The founders of course, cannot say that publicly, as (understandably!) this puts a lot of young folks at risk. Especially women. You don’t need to be in consultation with the FCC or the EFF about that: it’s COMMON SENSE to many people, and most definitely is common sense to anybody over 35. Especially with SceneTap’s other metro areas (Athens, Bloomington, Austin, Gainseville, Chigaco, and Madison), all being college towns filled with young folks new to town, new to scenes, most independent from mom & dad for the first time, all looking for fun. It does not matter how well intentioned and lighthearted an idea is: there is a responsibility for its consequences in the real world, and either your organization shoulders those, or you schlep that burden onto users who suffer harm when predictably impacted. Really, it is that black and white.

On the subject of the compelling business case for those revenues—jumping the harsh-gun on this… but, really—bartenders have been successfully running their shows as very human-engaged businesses, for centuries. What value does robot collected/parsed data have for them, and why? It’s a bar, not A/B testing between offered drink specials against demographics for the weekend that did or did not perform. And after you’ve hit 35, guys, you’ll start to observe that guessing someone’s age is really not that hard, as it’s not that hard to guess the median age and ratios of guys & gals in a crowd in a dark, noisy, sweaty bar throbbing with bustle & music.

Bartenders have been doing for centuries what SceneTap’s software purports to do—and with other factors added-in, to boot—all compiled and measured by plain human intuition by the guy/gal behind the well. The risk/reward ratio for venue owners spending upwards of $300/mo on this service seems worthless at best, and opportunistic, at worst. As a gal who grew-up in a college town and started to bar-hop at (cough) 15? On an aside, all that information may serve to accomplish is cultivating a sales-centric culture within an establishment, and bars are built on community—not happy-hour sales, well specials, or by bartenders not astutely aware of who their patrons are and what gets them to drink, stay, come back, bring friends, draw crowds, etc.

I asked SceneTap over Twitter, how many situations of a person being violated while drunk (or non-consensually under the influence of roofies) it would take, for the SceneTap  folks to take responsibility for this massive risk. I never heard back. I invited them to engage with me in further dialog on this, through email. He said they would. I have yet to hear from them. A pal who works at Forrester and focusses on Personal Identity Management did however, hear back from them, with SceneTap offering forth their CEO/Co-Founder to chat with her. It’s the weekend, and I look forward to hearing how that goes later in the week ahead.

One sexual assault, or one roofies incident that leaves a young adult confused and blurry the next morning with a massive stingy ache deep in their pelvis, is all it takes to ruin one whole life. Trauma at that level never goes away. For attempted sexual assaults or creepy guys getting the sought hottie to leave with them but then get dee-niii-ed when person wises-up; it’s still a very upsetting thing to have happen. Many adult woman have experienced something similar (creepy or trauma) at least once in their lives, tho men? Rarely.

Folks who seek to exploit the weaker and drunker among a bar crowd, are the most likely to use this application. Proven user research and human behavior studies, assert that. Common sense also asserts this. It’s begging to be used for predatory reasons, and especially in towns filled with young boys and girls open and eager for fun new adventures. Investors not so much interested in human concerns, but more interested in financial liabilities that a business they’ve invested in may be exposing themselves to, I suspect would have STRONGLY advised against how the product is currently setup. If not the investors, than most certainly any advisers over 30. Why am I so harping on the age thing? Well, the school of life—some wisdom you just don’t gain any other way. Ask anyone over 30, 35, 40—and just about all will stand firmly behind this truth.

The young founders & staff at SceneTap all have their eyes on the prize with their product, and having been there—I kinda don’t blame them. Blowing-off and downplaying the implied dangers however, is deftly irresponsible. Especially when it’s the town full of seasoned vets with social, gaming, and mobile apps, that’s offering-up the warnings. I’m dearly hoping that nobody gets hurt by either deliberate predators or by young, overly-stimulated men who have yet to understand the danger of their aggressive thirst, as this application seems out to clearly exploit. Very, dearly hoping. Wishing that SceneTap  had engaged in Adult Supervision. Hoping they will, before anybody gets hurt.

Airbnb was not so wise, and a woman had her apartment ransacked—with no liability insurance on behalf of airbnb to have the incurred expenses covered. In that situation, Adult Supervision had already been sought, and even with it airbnb somehow did not have the insurance/worst-case-scenario situation mapped-out. Initially they claimed no responsibility, but when the public backlash began their advisers QUICKLY got on the ball, a handsome settlement was offered, and a sincere apology with changes were quickly issued. All startups have their worst-case customer scenarios mapped out (the smart ones, anyway). No dollar amount though, could fix how assault or stalking permanently damages a life. To repeat myself: I sincerely hope the SceneTap team pulls and re-evaluates their product. My hunch is, that upon reading this, they’ll just run out and buy an insurance policy. Please guys: prove me wrong.


UPDATE 20 May, 6:30pm

  • This article from the New York times places SceneTap in Chicago (as it’s HQ and first launch city), and launching in July of 2011. So, they started thinking about the app and building it, in 2010? That doesn’t follow the standard convention for dating a company, fellas.
  • SceneTap’s Twitter feed from June 2011, also has RT’d a Business Insider article that touts SceneTap as the “app to find hot girls with.” To the SceneTap fellas: really, I’m not out to lynch you guys here… but for almost a year, the world has been trying to tell you something, and you’re simply not listening. Sit down. Shut Up. Listen.

Few of the doubting voices are worried about published recordings, personal identity violations, etc. You’re passively sourcing data. You’re publishing attributes about crowds, without the active participation (the signs in the entry of a bar do not cut that mustard, sorry) of the individuals who make-up the crowd, and then blasting that to the world curated by content categories that appeal to horny young men. Maybe girls looking for cute boys too, but those inclinations are rarely (if ever) acted upon in a predatory fashion.

Your intentions may not have been to create an app for decided predators or to induce predatory behavior in naieve young men, but folks nationwide have blasted loud and clear: this is in fact, what your app does. NO amount of verbal backtracking or clarification can change that.

Please guys back-up, cease using this technology for this purpose, cease dependency on this data in your application, and DO open your eyes to the ABUNDANT opportunities to tap a scene through more ethical, relevant to all ages, non-threatening, non-predatory criteria. Radical, nimble and creative adaptation, it’s sexy. Really.I would still love to have an app that could tap SF for the best place to watch the Stanley Cup finals, at- and Yelp truly does not cut the mustard, on that one.

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