San Francisco hates your startup: SceneTap

San Francisco hates your startup: SceneTap

Summary: San Francisco denizens are angry that facial-detection cameras placed in bars by nightlife startup app SceneTap go live on Friday.


When locals heard that Scenetap's facial detection cameras are going live in over a dozen San Francisco bars this Friday, the new startup received the opposite of a San Francisco welcome.

SceneTap was not met with a Ritual Roasters latte and welcome basket of organic olive oil, sourdough bread, bespoke vegan artisan cupcakes and a complimentary set of rainbow condoms.

Instead, fledgling startup app SceneTap got a sound flogging on every local blog that covered it, in addition to a thrashing on locals' Facebook/Twitter streams.

Needless to say, it wasn't the sexy kind of spankings we SFians prefer to give, either, with the shiny boots and stuff.

Right now SceneTap is backpedaling, but still coming up short with its responses. What went so horribly wrong in SF for baby startup SceneTap?

So many things.

Step #1: Launch an app that makes people feel spied on by technology

SceneTap bills itself as a Chicago-founded, Austin-based "nightlife startup." It's now being compared to "stalker app" Girls Around Me.

The SceneTap Apple and Android apps gather information from cameras that SceneTap has placed in participating bars and clubs. SceneTap claims to have already tracked over 8.5 million people.

Their cameras combine what they see with facial detection software and SceneTap's app - to provide SceneTap app users a specific, real-time data set on bar patrons. FastCompany writes,

SceneTap looks at a variety of characteristics to determine gender and age: the nose, the eyes, the jaw structure, mouth and overall face shape, forehead and skeletal structure. "It almost takes your face and creates a grid, matching general facial features to males or females, before determining how old you are," [CEO Cole] Harper explains. "In a certain sense, it's trying to find your look-alike in an anonymous database."

Step #2: Launch a spyware app for "bros" in San Francisco

Sounds awesome, right? No, no it doesn't.

Not to anyone that's in San Francisco, the epicenter for earthquakes, technology, sexual tolerance, stuck-up coffeehouses, prima donna chefs and... privacy.

Unless you're really that one guy. You know the one. The one who keeps saying that you shouldn't ever do anything on the internet that you'd ever be embarrassed about. Where is he from? (Oh right, he's from Facebook...)

SceneTap's name can be interpreted in many ways, but its modus operandi, and the way the startup's PR is framed - as a "hookup hotspot app" - the app doesn't seem very female-friendly.

For venue owners, it's a gender measuring tool; for the target market it's a "tap that ass" app, plain and simple.

But it's not just any bro-app, it's flavor-enhanced by video cameras, sure to make women feel a little more like hunted prey as we imagine a bunch of tech scene brotards getting liquored up in the Marina (or Marina lite, aka SOMA), skimming Mission bars for ones with the most chicks in them, and then showing up as if on an exotic safari.

One where we women are the game animals.

That scenario doesn't make me want to "SceneTap" - it makes me want to double-tap, to be sure.

Step #3: Act like nothing is wrong with nonconsensual surveillance

Cameras. In bars. Scanning your face. Sending information it gathers about you to a database.

Giving that information to anyone that signs up - or anyone this startup partners with for data brokering.

The likely eventual sale of this, and every startup on the planet, to Facebook. Or, the failure of hare-brained startup idea #5678388 launched in San Francisco, the fire sale of its database and cameras to whoever, and the further use of those cameras by whoever.

Yup, this will end well.

Look, some of us still see messenger bags being worn around town. Right now, the way most SFians are finding out about SceneTap is by friends sharing articles about the app - as a handy list of places to boycott.

When press about your new startup hits and results in local businesses being actively targeted as a place for locals to avoid giving their business to, perhaps it's not a good time to dismiss their concerns in the raging comment thread of a primary local blog.

SceneTap's (now blood-drenched) PR is currently knee-deep in comments on various websites trying to defend itself against accusations ranging from mild to wild about what their cameras can and can't do.

They're also trying to gentle down perceptions of what kind of information on patrons is being scraped and disseminated. SceneTap insists that it's only gender, age, crowd size in venues, drink specials and "no personal data whatsoever."

Right. Gender profiling in San Francisco bars. I hereby suggest they partner exclusively with Asia SF.

Step #4: Fail to acknowledge why people are upset

It's really not helping that SceneTap is in comments telling San Franciscans they don't know what they're talking about if they haven't downloaded the app.

Especially when San Franciscans, in particular, are well versed in the tech behind invasive technologies and have been contending with their public use for years.

Commenter netik asked SceneTap,

ID scanners at the door are sold as devices to "protect the venue against underage drinking" but really are designed to skim data off of the back of the ID for marketing, demographic, and advertising purposes. That data's stored. What's to stop you from taking the image of my face, which you now have from your database and passing that to another image search to correlate my face with my social networking profile? You don't need to share pictures to mine them for demographics. Do you correlate faces visit-to-visit? Your site clams that you never store images or share them. How can we be so sure?

SceneTap responded,

Individual privacy is a huge concern, to be sure. We actually met with the FTC on this very issue a few months back to help start the conversation. Bottom line - this technology is new, and it needs to be used responsibly.

SceneTap did not elaborate on that responsible use of the technology would be, or what "responsibly" means in SceneTap's world - although they were asked to. And then there was this:

Meanwhile, some local club goers on Twitter are discussing playful ways to prank SceneTap.

Step #5: Can SceneTap recover?

SceneTap is an idea at its core that lets you know the guy-girl ratio in clubs and if the club is busy. It is for when your decision about going out is based on whether or not you want a sausage party or clambake, and if the club is "worth it."

I can't generalize about whether or not this is what SFians want - because you just can't generalize about what San Franciscans want any night of the week.

That's a huge hurdle for SceneTap to overcome (in any major city). That and the fact that as a "tap that" style app, women in the tech scene around here now feel repulsed by it.

The people who work hard in San Francisco to make Twitter go, keep the lattes flowing, the parks clean and the gays gaying love to play just as hard - we are a town that loves our nightlife (and wishes we had more).

The people here care about our bars and clubs, we care about each other, and we take our privacy seriously around here. We also know a lot about tech, so a startup that rolls in to carpetbag an invasive app space into clubbing is - in most ways - doomed to fail.

There isn't much SceneTap could have done to smooth over the idea of putting cameras into bars - in this city, anyway. And perhaps with growing national awareness about Facebook privacy concerns, our increasing TSA exhaustion, and upswing of unease about living in a surveillance society (IDs with chips, credit card databases)...

Perhaps cameras weren't the right method of execution for this idea? SceneTap could do a couple of things right now. They could make a clear statement that addresses the serious concerns being raised by San Franciscans (instead of dismissive answers - or non-answers telling people to read positive articles about the startup on tech blogs regurgitating SceneTap's PR).

It could take an aggressive stand to outline its definition of responsible use of facial recognition technology - SceneTap could partner with a respected entity in tech and privacy (EFF?) and use this as an opportunity to write a groundbreaking "best practices" for emergent businesses in the consumer sector that want to use these technologies.

This "best practices" could focus on privacy, the rights of consumers, has an end date (so it's not left hanging and forgotten), and has a data use policy that is crystal clear.

SceneTap could do everything it can to show it will not be irresponsible with the data it scrapes and gathers, and show that it deletes the data in a timely manner.

Or, SceneTap could ignore everyone here and blunder forward until someone buys it, absorbs it, and then haunt SF like the ghosts of 2001 past.

We're pretty used to that around here.

Topics: Android, Apple, Data Centers, Google, Legal, Mobile OS, Operating Systems, Social Enterprise

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  • Are you the Authority??

    I live just south of the city (26 yr old male) and I think this is one hell of an idea. Yes maybe more geared for men, but none the less!! I read some other articles on this scenetap SF launch and it seems that you may have regurgitated others thoughts throughout your writing here. Possibly you are a bit harsh on these fellas, ehh?? Either way, I don't think you are the Authority for the entire bay area Miss Blue!! "SF HATES YOU SCENETAP" ... COME'ON
    walking tall
    • Are you one of the creepy guys who use this kind of app?

      It certainly would explain your answer. On the flip-side, if the start-up would have been more subtle about the gender profiling, it would not be a bad thing to know where the party's are. Sadly, they portray creepiness by making it look like they are telling you where to go to get laid. If you don't already know where to go, you probably aren't going to get some by using this app, and I'm sure the ladies don't want to be stared at by nerds all night.
  • Maybe you can help SceneTap with their PR

    Mr. tall, I'm glad you could find the SceneTap app though my opinion piece here on ZDNet. I think you will make the most of it.

    Aside from that, I don't think I can agree with you that I have regurgitated others' thoughts (though I did use that word in my article in reference to tech blogs re-spinning SceneTap's PR materials).

    I wonder if you noticed the comments on any of the articles I linked to? They are all overwhelmingly negative, and SF Weekly's first article about SceneTap is up to 104 as of right now - less than ten of the 104 comments are positive for SceneTap, and most of those are from SceneTap itself.
    Violet Blue
    • Congrats... You made it to Forbes
      walking tall
  • real life

    Guys, go the bar yourself in person, make mature conversation with real people. It's way more fun than staying at home stalking people on the internet.
    • No way, stalking is much more fun

      Real people are threatening.

      Stay home, choose your victim, use Tap to follow her from club to club, printing color pictures and putting them on the walls of your bedroom, connected by threads, with post-its detailing the time and duration of each stay, and what she is drinking.
      marc van hoff
      • Working on automation for that project...

        pre beta now - code named "Zodiac". Take the guesswork out of creeping, create personal cyphers for notes to the newspapers, etc..
        marc van hoff
  • Big Brother

    It is weird how lately I actually am feeling more paranoid about private companies acting as big brother and collecting data to use inappropriately than I am about government doing it.

    I absolutely agree that this will end badly. I predict a future where freakos will not only be able to search bars etc. by gender ratios, but ethnic makeup too.

    The farther we allow these companies to push us the more comfortable the masses will become with this kind of technology and more invasive it will be.

    Google says their unified tracking data is anonymous but then kicks people off of google+ for using a pseudonym. How stupid do they think we are?

    Anyway, the fact that this technology can be used for major badness almost certainly means it will be, despite what the company claims, and I do not want this technology where I live.

    I hope San Francisco tourism is listening, because I'm not sure I even want to visit a town that tolerates this kind of creepiness. I don't think I'm alone. There are so many scenic places right around the city I can go to instead.
    • Govt/business - what's the difference?

      If a private company can collect it, the government can access it. As long as they're not trying to introduce that particular bit of data as evidence in a court proceeding and as long as the company decides to make it available (to fight the terrorists, or something) then the government can use it to build individualized profiles of every person who goes in to a club.

      After all, club goers are risk takers, are statistically more inclined than the median to engage in illegal drug use (and thereby commit conspiracy and tax crimes at the same time).

      This thing is in some clubs right now, but why not put it in every business tomorrow. Got a problem with that? Do you have something to hide?

      On second thought, maybe there ought to be a law requiring specific opt-in before a company can photograph you on private property.
      marc van hoff
  • Love the take Violet!

    Very interesting article, esp the female take on the situation and the creepy feel to the brand. What I'd I really like to know is in your opinion what kind of "nightlife app" would women want. Surely they have idea's how they want their night to turn out, similarly to men, and it must be possible to improve the current situation as it stands, no? Resorting to your usual bar because you "it's the best bet" is so boring, but the odd experimentation is usually worse esp. if there's a cover charge.
    • The Scoop...

      Ok, so here's the deal. I actually downloaded and tried the app (yes, I was hesitant at first). It's actually a lot more mundane than I thought it was going to be in terms of the information you actually get. It shows you how full a venue is at that moment (appears to be as a % of capacity maybe?), and then a rough breakdown of the average age of the people and a gender ratio. I was originally expecting to see pictures of people or something like that, but that doesn't seem to be the case. @lorcanmcneela - you're totally right when you say that odd experimentation with new bars is usually a mess... it's the exact reason my girlfriends and I fall back on our usual spots WAYYYY too much. I think the hesitation in trying new places, though, is that you're not sure what to expect - and the fact that you know what to expect at your routine hangouts is comforting. So, even as a female, I do like the idea of where the SceneTap app is going (alleviating the unknown in bar hopping). It kind of prepares you for what to expect - like checking traffic on your computer before getting in the car. Maybe it just needs a stronger feminine touch.
      Chloe M
  • Of course, clubs that allow Tap cameras inside are the real villains

    If a club allows the 'tap, don't go there(?)
    marc van hoff
  • Off Topic - but disturbing

    Anti-gay Google+ account suspensions? My account's been suspended again and I think it's because of homophobic censorship. I didn't think Google would encourage Thought Police and strong-arm tactics. What gives? ???Jeff Funk
  • Creepy no matter how you slice it

    Great article Violet Blue! As a Software Engineer working in Social Media I still find this app extraordinarily creepy. Your article addressed why it is particularly creepy to women.

    Today Cole Harper issued a letter to us San Franciscans to try and ease our worried little heads about his creepy app. I look at it more like, now that SceneTap has hit rock bottom in San Francisco, Cole has decided to dig.
  • A human tracking number ??

    Wao! Way to go about stealing our privacy little by little. What’s next a Department of Nightlife Security where every night lifer would have an assigned number in the database for spying purposes? When a company spend much time defending themselves than promoting, it obviously not a good sign. That’s scary! This actually made me do a little google search for an alternative night life app and I found this:

    This free app/mobile site Livenightout is unique and perfect for night life scene in SF and its totally the opposite of Scene tap when it comes to privacy concerns. Livenightout allows you to anonymously post and read live reviews as well as engage in real-time chat conversations with other night lifers around you.
    And it can be used in nightclubs, bars, pubs, restaurants, and social events.