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The makers of the virtual influencer, Lil Miquela, snag real money from Silicon Valley

Brud, the actual company behind one of Instagram’s most popular virtual influencers (it’s a thing), has raised millions of dollars from Silicon Valley investors because this is 2018 and everything is awful.

Last week, the Los Angeles-based startup led by Trevor McFedries, outed itself as the collective consciousness behind the virtual celebrity Lil Miquela and her less well known contemporaries Blawko22 and BermudaisBae in a choreographed melodrama worthy of Los Angeles’ best reality television.

i am deeply invested in the drama surrounding lil miquela and now you all have to be too. sorry!!! https://t.co/ta1T4rDFGz

— maya kosoff (@mekosoff) April 19, 2018

The subject of numerous glowing profiles in online and print fashion and lifestyle magazines (including, most recently, in High Snobiety), Lil Miquela’s stardom (and her fellow avatars) fascinated because the characters’ creators coyly toed the line around “her” self-awareness and their own. In the process, they created a sensation that’s become well-known worldwide.

It’s less well-known that the company is backed by some of the biggest names in venture capital investment — firms like Sequoia Capital. Our sources put the company’s funding somewhere around $6 million in its recent funding round.

There are other notable investors from Silicon Valley and New York rumored to be in the round — like New York’s BoxGroup and the Bay Area’s SV Angel. Sequoia declined to comment for this article and Box Group’s David Tisch did not respond to a request for comment.

All of the virtual drama with Miquela started late last week when news outlets (including TechCrunch) reported that Miquela’s Instagram account (or that of her handlers) was hacked by operators of a social media account belonging to another virtual personality known as “Bermudaisbae” (a more right wing social media persona with fewer followers).

McFedries, brud‘s founder and chief executive, confirmed that the Miquela account had been hacked in a text exchange with me, writing, “some redditor idiots hacked the page we think.”

That was a lie.

The account “hack” was architected by brud as part of an ongoing virtual reality drama playing out on Instagram and other social media platforms between avatars it had developed, all designed to attract media attention, according to people with knowledge of brud and its plans. It worked. 

McFedries has not responded to further requests for comment after confirming that the Miquela account was “good”.

One Los Angeles investor familiar with the company said brud was “using conflict to introduce new characters… same as the Kardashians always have.”

The investor added that two years into the development of the Miquela persona, brud‘s founders knew that the fad could lose some of its luster as the is-she-or-Isn’t-she-real tension dissipates under the weight of continuously thwarted expectations — like a post-modern twist on the will-or-won’t-they dramatic tension defining most sitcoms since Cheers.

“People aren’t going to buy that she’s human so they make it seem as if she’s had an existential crisis and now she is the first in a breed of conscious AR characters that they will build a world around,” this investor wrote. “[Manufacturing] social influence.”

Blawko22 and Lil Miquela imposed over a gas station exterior simulating a pit stop on the road to Coachella

For his part, the 33-yar-old McFedries had been manufacturing social influence in Los Angeles through his talents as a dj, producer and director before entering the startup world.

First under the name of DJ Skeet Skeet and then as DJ Skeeter, and, finally, Yung Skeeter, McFedries has worked or performed with a number of the world’s best selling recording artists including Chris Brown, Ke$ha, and Katy Perry (and — interestingly — more obscure acts like Bonde do Role).  

Working as an an “artist advocate” for Spotify, a DJ for a radio show on iHeartRadio, and as a spokesman for VitaminWater sustained McFedries along with managing the career of BANKS and executive producing her first album and a single on Azealia Banks’ 2014 record “Broke with Expensive Taste” — at least according to a Wikipedia page on Yung Skeeter. 

Around this time McFedries also began investing in companies, according to AngelList.

Roughly two years after the Banks record release, Lil Miquela made her first appearance on Instagram. And the rest is history as written in Internet archives and memes. Ephemeral, but infinite.

The project that brud seems to be pursuing — turning celebrity into a virtual commodity; commenting on the unreality of the “real” entertainment industry by literally creating an unreal celebrity — is fascinating.

There’s certainly a valid criticism to be made about the ways in which celebrity operates, the ways in which our “social” media has corroded society, and the unbridled power of these platforms to transform messengers and their messages into movements.

Perhaps brud wants to make these critiques through its very existence — or at least use its low-brow as high-brow (or is it vice versa?) intellectual appeal as a veneer over the more crass (but potentially honest) mission of selling more shit more effectively through the use of spokespeople whose views only change when their creators want them to (it worked for Hollywood’s star system). That at least gets sponsors and advertisers out of the potentially messy situations that can come from working with spokespeople whose actions can’t be controlled by software — or an ingenious marketing team.

In the High Snobiety profile-as-honors-senior-English-thesis on Lil Miquela published yesterday, the avatar’s own spokesperson was quoted as saying:

“The internet is endlessly powerful, and that power has been wielded in many ways. It feels like we’re not going to put the genie back in the bottle, so we’ve got to learn how to leverage these tools in positive ways. I’ve used my platform to raise real money for important organizations throughout LA and I’ve seen lives changed as a result. I think the only chance we’ve got is to collectively teach our loved ones how to think critically and how to spot misinformation. I know that we can manifest the change we want to see, and the internet can be a part of that.”

It’s a lofty goal backed by a number of inarguably good works. However, lying to reporters may not be the best way to continue trying to achieve it.

Minds aims to decentralize the social network

Decentralization is the buzzword du jour. Everything – from our currencies to our databases – are supposed to exist, immutably, in this strange new world. And Bill Ottman wants to add our social media to the mix.

Ottman, an intense young man with a passion to fix the world, is the founder of Minds.com, a New York-based startup that has been receiving waves of new users as zealots and the the not-so-zealous have been leaving other networks. In fact, Zuckerberg’s bad news is music to Ottman’s ears.

Ottman started Minds in 2011 “with the goal of bringing a free, open source and sustainable social network to the world,” he said. He and his CTO, Mark Harding, have worked in various non-profits including Code To Inspire, a group that teaches Afghani women to code. He said his vision is to get us out from under social media’s thumb.

“We started Minds in my basement after being disillusioned by user abuse on Facebook and other big tech services. We saw spying, data mining, algorithm manipulation, and no revenue sharing,” he said. “To us, it’s inevitable that an open source social network becomes dominant, as was the case with Wikipedia and proprietary encyclopedias.”

His efforts have paid off. The team now has over 1 million registered users and over 105,000 monthly active users. They are working on a number of initiatives, including an ICO, and the site makes money through “boosting” – essentially the ability to pay to have a piece of content float higher in the feed.

The company raised $350K in 2013 and then a little over a million dollars in a Reg CF Equity Crowdfunding raise.

Unlike Facebook, Minds is built on almost radical transparency. The code is entirely open source and it includes encrypted messenger services and optional anonymity for users. The goal, ultimately, is to have the data be decentralized and any user should be able to remove his or her data. It’s also non-partisan, a fact that Ottman emphasized.

“We are not pushing a political agenda, but are more concerned with transparency, Internet freedom and giving control back to the user,” he said. “It’s a sad state of affairs when every network that cares about free speech gets lumped in with extremists.”

He was disappointed, for example, when people read that Reddit’s choice to shut down toxic sub-Reddits was a success. It wasn’t, he said. Instead, those users just flocked to other, more permissive sites. However, he doesn’t think those sites have be cesspools of hate.

“We are a community-owned social network dedicated to transparency, privacy and rewarding people for their contributions. We are called Minds because it’s meant to be a representation of the network itself,” he said. “Our mission is Internet freedom with privacy, transparency, free speech within the law and user control. Additionally, we want to provide our users with revenue opportunity and the ability to truly expand their reach and earn rewards for their contributions to the network.”

Nike ramps up membership benefits with Apple Music, ClassPass and Headspace unlocks for app users

 The top line is that Nike is rolling out some membership related updates to its app for iPhone and Android today. The updates will come in the form of new unlocks with partnerships like ClassPass, Apple and Headspace. There will also be a bunch of new unlocks coming for exclusive shoes and clothing. NikePlus Unlocks, the official name for these cards that appear in the Nike+ app Members… Read More

BlackBerry’s KEYone ‘Black Edition’ offers more than just good looks

 BlackBerry’s most interesting phone in years – if not an entire decade – is the KEYone, an Android device with a classic BlackBerry hardware keyboard that finally answers the needs of truly dedicated thumb typists with a modern mobile OS. Now, the KEYone ‘Black Edition’ has arrived, and it’s more than just a fresh coat of paint on an older gadget. In fact,… Read More

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Xiaomi secures $1B loan to expand its international presence and offline retail footprint

 Chinese smartphone maker Xiaomi has secured a $1 billion loan in order to develop its international focus and build out its offline sales presence. The company revealed today that it has secured a three-year syndicated loan agreement from 18 banks across Europe, Middle East, India, China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Deutsche Bank and Morgan Stanley served as joint global coordinator, with Bank… Read More

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CMU researchers create a huge dome that can read body language

 The Panoptic Studio is a new body scanner created by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University that will be used to understand body language in real situations. The scanner, which looks like something Doc Brown would stick Marty in to prevent him from committing fratricide, creates hundreds of videos of participants inside the massive dome interacting, talking, and arguing. The team has… Read More

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Samsung will reportedly revive the Galaxy Note 7 with a Korea-only ‘Fandom Edition’

 Samsung is reportedly gearing to revive the Galaxy Note 7, its disastrous 2016 smartphone that was recalled after battery problems caused units to catch fire, with the limited release of a new model. The company hinted a few months ago that it planned to make such a move, but now we have more details. The Wall Street Journal reports that the Note 7 FE (that stands for ‘Fandom… Read More

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Xiaomi’s second bezel-less Mi Max smartphone claims a two-day battery

 Chinese smartphone giant Xiaomi made a big splash when it announced the the Mi Max, its much-heralded device with a near bezel-less display, last year — now we have a follow-up phone. The Mi Max 2, unveiled today at an event in Beijing, will be available in China from June 1 priced upwards from RMB 1699, that’s around $247. Xiaomi claims it sold over three million of the… Read More

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Companies, governments brace for a second round of cyberattacks in WannaCry’s wake

A silhouette of a hacker with a black hat in a suit enters a hallway with walls textured with blue internet of things icons 3D illustration cybersecurity concept As the world readies to open for business on Monday, companies and governments are bracing for a second round of cyberattacks in the aftermath of Friday’s WannaCry hack.
Indeed, security experts are already warning that a new version of WannaCry has emerged over the weekend that doesn’t have the kill switch protocol that stopped the initial version of the cyberattack late on… Read More

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DeepGraph feeds enterprise sales teams with hyper-targeted warm leads

 The best way to grow sales is to better understand sales, but unfortunately that’s often easier said than done. Kemvi, a seed-stage startup, is launching out of stealth today to announce DeepGraph, which helps sales teams reach the right potential customers at the right time. The company has closed north of $1 million in seed financing from Seabed VC, Neotribe Ventures, Kepha… Read More

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Media Prima buys Rev Asia for $24M to create Malaysia’s largest digital media platform

 The U.S. isn’t the only market where media companies are consolidating to offer an advertising platform to rival Facebook and Google.
While AOL (which owns TechCrunch) is in the process of acquiring Yahoo, over in Malaysia a similar consolidation was announced this week — although not quite on the scale of AOL-Yahoo (Oath?!) and its $4.48 billion price tag. Media Prima, a… Read More

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Netflix rival iFlix reveals its first original content series for emerging markets

 Fresh from raising $90 million from investors in March, iFlix, a Netflix-like service for emerging markets, has announced its first slate of original content. The Malaysia-headquartered business claims five million registered users across 10 countries — it recently branched out into Africa and the Middle East — for its service which costs around $3 per month. Beyond cheaper… Read More

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Commission your own traffic and construction studies without ever leaving bed using SpaceKnow

 The number of things that can be done from the comfort of one’s own bed has increased in recent years — shopping, banking and now geospatial analytics. Ok, it doesn’t sound sexy but it might give you a leg up the next time your friend starts an arcane argument with you over whose neighborhood historically has more vehicles on the road. With SpaceKnow’s online… Read More

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Facebook opens up 360-degree live streaming to all

 Facebook just made live streaming 360-degree video relatively easy, provided you have the equipment to capture the content. Users of devices like the new 2017 model Gear 360 just announced at the S8 smartphone launch, or the Insta360 Nano (for iPhone) and Air (for Android), or a host of higher-end models designed for pros, you can go live and broadcast an immersive feed for your audience.… Read More

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Nomos Glashütte’s Metro Neomatik is modern, slim and sophisticated watch

 The smartwatch era has done nothing so much as renew my interest in real watches, which have their own type of special intelligence, albeit laid out in intricate arrays of gears and springs rather than written in silicon. Few watchmakers express this intelligence site so wonderfully as Nomos Glashütte, the German manufactory that produces exquisite timepieces with house made movements in… Read More

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Chat app Line is developing an AI assistant and Amazon Echo-style smart speaker

line nyse 2 Messaging app Line is taking a leaf out of the books of Amazon, Google and others after it launched its own artificial intelligence platform. A voice-powered concierge service called Clova — short for “Cloud Virtual Assistant” — is the centerpiece of the service, much like Amazon’s Alexa, Microsoft’s Cortana and Google Assistant. Beyond the assistant… Read More

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Octane AI boldly bets that Convos are the future of content

maroon-5-facebook-post-to-octane-ai-convo-in-situ One billion people use Facebook Messenger every month. And no matter how bad the current perceptions of the bot scene are, that number is hard to ignore. Octane AI is counting on celebrity content creators to build conversational experiences that people actually want to have. With its public launch and the rollout of its content creation platform Convos, the Octane team is taking a gamble on… Read More

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Nearly one year after launch, Apple Pay finds limited traction in China

An employee works on a laptop computer as he talks with a customer near a sheet showing accepted methods of payment, including Apple Pay, top left, at an Apple Store in Beijing, Thursday, Feb. 18, 2016. Apple Inc. on Thursday launched its smartphone-based payment system in China where the electronic payments market is already dominated by an arm of e-commerce giant Alibaba. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein) Editor’s note: This post originally appeared on TechNode, an editorial partner of TechCrunch based in China. After a slow start, Apple Pay is now dominating its home country, the United States, but the same can’t be said of China where it is up against a different set of challenges. Data from Boston Retail Partners shows that Apple Pay is now accepted by 36 percent of merchants in… Read More

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Xiaomi’s new Mi5c is the first phone to be powered by its custom chipset

mi5c_5 Xiaomi may be skipping Mobile World Congress, the year’s biggest phone show, but it is still making news this week after it unveiled its first processor and the first phone it is powering. The device is the Mi5c, an updated model of its 5.15-inch Mi5 that it launched at Mobile World Congress last year. The Mi5c is powered by the Surge S1, Xiaomi’s first SoC chipset and its bid… Read More

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Microsoft launches Skype Lite Android app for India and other emerging markets

screenshot-2017-02-22-14-08-23 Microsoft has retooled Skype, the messaging service synonymous with business users, for people living in emerging markets. Today, at its Future Decoded event in India, Microsoft took the wraps off Skype Lite. The service is an Android app that mains the core video and voice calling functionalities, but is optimized for those on limited internet connections such as 2G data. It… Read More

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Gamalon leverages the work of an 18th century reverend to organize unstructured enterprise data

Red and white dice casting shadows on grey surface It’s hard to fathom that the work of Reverend Thomas Bayes is still coming back to drive cutting edge advancements in AI, but that’s exactly what’s happening. DARPA-backed Gamalon is the latest carrier of the Bayesian baton, launching today with a solution to help enterprises better manage their gnarly unstructured data.
The world of enterprise is full of unstructured data. Read More

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Amazon hints at Prime sales in latest filing

amzn-feature Amazon Prime has driven growth for the e-commerce company for years now. But Amazon has traditionally been cagey about disclosing too many details regarding the popular service. In a 10-K filing summarizing performance throughout 2016, the business did something that drew the attention of Wall Street analysts. It designated a category entitled “retail subscription services”… Read More

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Outdoor ad firm buys Swiss dating app Blinq to power beacon push

Blinq The dating game sure is tough to maintain. Zurich-based dating app Blinq has been acquired by a Swiss outdoor advertising firm, APG|SGA, with the latter coveting the team’s experience in rolling out beacon networks for a new division that will be developing interactive ads. Read More

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Samsung and Chinese brands utterly dominated India’s smartphone market in Q4 2016

india phone India is in the midst of a revolution: the Chinese smartphone revolution. For the first time on record, there were no Indian companies ranked among the top five smartphone sellers in the country during the most recent quarter of business. Samsung and a glut of ambitious, young companies from China have been busy pushing their devices in India, one of the few global markets that has… Read More

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Will the last person to leave social media please turn off the light?

fb-dark-stage1 After the early, exciting expository years of the Internet – the Age of Jennicam where the web was supposed to act as confessional and stage – things changed swiftly. This new medium was a revelation, a gift of freedom that we all took for granted. Want to post rants against the government? Press publish on Blogspot. Want to yell at the world? Aggregate and comment upon some… Read More

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App.net, the ambitious project to build a better Twitter, is finally dead

screen-shot-2017-01-12-at-8-05-35-pm Aiming for the stars and not quite making it, the ambitious App.net has finally officially shut down. Its timely rise and fall comes as highly symbolic as its once rival, Twitter, continues to struggle, years later, with monetization, content management and harassment.
Today’s announcement of its closure isn’t hugely surprisingly since App.net had been in… Read More

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Tim Cook’s compensation not spared as Apple misses performance goals

New Product Announcements At The Apple Inc. Spring Forward Event As a result of Apple’s performance based executive compensation packages, CEO Tim Cook and other leaders within the company will be taking pay cuts. Apple missed internal revenue and operating income targets for 2016 by 3.7 and 0.5 percent respectively, resulting in a 15 percent cut for the CEO. Apple is reporting annual sales of $215.6 billion and operating income of $60 billion for… Read More

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