Published on March 10, 2017 on LinkedIn
Most people I meet think Snapchat is only good for frivolous uses and are dismissive of the app, but as someone who studies social apps I see something quite the contrary. I see Snapchat as a bellwether for the future of communication and it has shown how amazing video is as a medium for self-expression. Snapchat was founded in 2011 and is commonly thought of as the app with disappearing pics, but that’s a simplistic view as it has evolved into something more complex and unique.
In the beginning
Evan Spiegel and Bobby Murphy, undergrads at Stanford in 2011, observed their college friends deleting pics from Facebook before interviewing with companies. This observation led them to create an app where pics disappear after being viewed for a few seconds. The app quickly became popular among the college-going crowd and developed a reputation as the anti-Facebook app. Over time the interest in Snapchat didn’t fizzle and its user base continued to grow as it solved an important problem for people who wanted to communicate visually without any baggage. Facebook saw Snapchat growing rapidly and created a copycat app called Poke in 2012, but this app quickly lost steam and was discontinued. In 2013, Facebook tried a different tact by making a $3 billion offer to buy Snapchat, but the founders stuck to their guns and rejected the offer. Last week, Snapchat debuted on the NYSE with a $28 billion market cap. Clearly it was a brilliant decision to stay independent.
Some features make Snapchat a standout app. The app opens into a phone’s camera view so you’re able to snap the moment before it passes. A snap is either a photo or video up to 10 seconds long. You can share snaps privately with users on your network. Private snaps disappear after they’ve been viewed. You can also broadcast a snap publicly as a story so anyone who follows you can view it. Public stories disappear after 24 hours. There is another feature in the app called Discover, which contains highly produced video content from media houses like Cosmopolitan and Wall Street Journal. Think of Discover as a next generation TV experience.
Snapchat has been quick to innovate by introducing cool video tools like Lenses and Geofilters. Lenses are special effects and sounds users can add to their videos. This adds a certain juvenile humor to snaps that has been embraced by the public and celebrities alike. When a testy Lewis Hamilton faced reporters at a press conference before the Japanese Grand Prix in 2016, he used Snapchat filters to troll them, drawing bunny ears on his fellow drivers’ faces instead of fielding their questions. Thanks to Lenses, my fun uncle status among my toddler nephews and nieces has received a major boost. I regard Snapchat as prescient in acquiring the Lenses technology, which came about through the purchase of a company called Looksery in 2014. Geofilters are art that can be overlaid on snaps created in a predefined physical location. Before Geofilters, users would have to textually describe the location of the snap, but now they get to overlay beautifully designed art instead. This can be a compelling way for local businesses to gain visibility with Snapchat users.
Stories, the killer format
I find Stories, which is essentially micro video-blogging, to be the main attraction on Snapchat. While the most popular content on Stories is generally from celebrities, I personally gain the most from stories by people like Justin Kan, Mark Suster, Alex Ohanian and Jill Rettberg. Justin Kan answers startup-related questions from followers while riding an exercise bike. Mark Suster shows things written on paper to emphasize advice on startup fundraising, etc. Stories feel informal and leave a mark on you unlike blogs which are tedious in comparison (the one you’re reading is an exception I am sure).
Snapchat showed they have loftier ambitions when they launched camera glasses called Spectacles in late 2016 and started calling themselves: “a camera company.” The company was split into two subsidiaries, one for the app, which retained the name Snapchat, and another for hardware, called Spectacles. The holding company for these subsidiaries was named Snap Inc. The trademark quirkiness you associate with the app is also seen in the way Spectacles has been rolled out to the general public. One can only buy Spectacles through a Bot (really a vending machine) that appears out of the blue in the most surprising locations, like on a beach. While this guerilla sales campaign has generated enough excitement to ensure the bots empty out quickly when their location is revealed, it’s too early to tell whether Spectacles is a sticky product or not.
Seeing the future
Now that Snap Inc. is publicly listed, the big question, as always, is whether it can attract lots of new users. Regardless of the future of Snap, their biggest contribution is showing the world the power of a video social network. Kevin Kelly, founding editor of Wired magazine says that due to the smartphone camera “the ease of recording a video now approaches the ease of writing” and Mark Zuckerberg says “a camera will be the main way that we share.” The success of Snapchat is validation of these trends and heralds the beginning of a new era.
Thanks to Ashwin Kannan for the edits.