in Tech

Snapchat

Snapchat is everywhere these days. And with everywhere, I mean a lot of people are talking about it like it’s some sort of elusive enigma only the young kids are able to tune in to. The digital equivalent of high pitched notes.

What makes it so hard to grasp, what’s different about it and what’s important about it. Let’s dissect, shall we.

Different

Snapchat is unlike any other application that you’re familiar with. Even though most applications you use wouldn’t make sense to someone 15 years ago, your mind has already been trained to expect certain comparable things from modern social web applications. Call it a context. And when using Snapchat this context is missing. Because it is simply not there:

  • There are no number of likes
  • There are no number of views/loops/retweets
  • There are no number following/friends/followers
  • There is no record of older posts (snaps)

So everything you have created or accumulated is not important. Snapchat does keep certain scores. But that’s not the main focus. The main theme with Snapchat is that, everything will disappear. What is important, and the only thing that matters, is capturing, sharing and being in the moment. No other app as such a strong emphasis on the now.

The other thing that makes Snapchat different is: content creation. The app is very serious about this. The very first thing you will see when opening the app is the camera for making a snap. You can swipe right to see personal snaps from friends or left for stories. But you cannot make either of these your default start screen. Snapchat wants you, invites you, forces you, begs you, facilitates you to create and participate. No other app does this so explicitly.

Background

My first Snapchat experience was a couple of teenage relatives who would take my picture, draw something inappropriate on it, send it to each other and have the best time. Curious!

Around that same time, in 2013, I watched the founders of Snapchat explain their app on the Colbert Report and I was intrigued. And not because, let’s be honest here, this was a sexting app (or at least a very naughty app). Disappearing photos?  You know what’s up. So I could see why this would be popular for dubious reasons. But, my intrigue was triggered because of a technical aspect. These guys didn’t have to store anything! Until then having a popular social web app meant having big storage. And unlike Facebook, flickr, Instagram, YouTube, Vine, Tumblr that have to store costly petabytes of photos and videos, these guys seemingly found a way around this. Respectable!

But at that point, aside from using it for sending explicit pics, I just couldn’t get why you would want to take a decent picture send it to a friend and have it disappear. Maybe this was something only young kids understand, but why?

Youth

A lot is being said about the app’s specific appeal to teenagers/young people that have no interest in Facebook or Twitter. Because they identify these platforms as something for old people (i.e. uncool) and Snapchat is not. So they seem to get it, where everyone else has a hard time understanding it. But I think there are 4 reasons why Snapchat would appeal to this specific group in the first place.

Because I am not a teenager and because I grew up in a time before the internet my mind works differently than that of a teenager. For me a photo has value, whether it is digital or not. Because I can remember the first digital cameras, and I remember before that, that taking pictures with the family was a thing you dressed up for. So to me, photos mean something, and you cherish photos. But, say you are born in 2000-something. Knowing that the iPhone came out in 2007, that means you have never really lived in a world without an abundance of digital photos. Photos are easy and everywhere, so to you they are not important keepsakes. Reason 1.

Because Snapchat doesn’t keep track, so you can’t really tell how popular you or anybody else is. It’s low pressure. There are no numbers to keep up with. The popularity contest that dominates every other aspect of teenage life is eliminated. Anyone can join. Reason 2.

Snapchat is about NOW. The moment. Who cares what you did last week? Where are you now, what are you doing, who are you hanging out with, whose party are you at, what friends are you having over. That is the only thing that matters. And for a demographic who are mainly preoccupied discovering their own identity based on what other people/friends are doing now this is key. Reason 3.

Snapchat’s interface is often the main thing people don’t understand. It causes confusion. But as stated earlier, this is because people have come to expect a certain context that is just not there. But as cryptic the interface might seem, after you grasp it, Snapchat has one of the best interfaces around for creating content. This can not be emphasized enough. No computers, no difficult editing program. Right there in the app: edit, add, caption, draw, create, make it your own creation. Super easy fun and fast. Reason 4.

And on top of these 4 reasons, the sneakiness that goes with disappearing photos probably also contributed to the success in the beginning. However, Snapchat is not the app it used to be and people of all ages are coming to Snapchat now.

Pivoting

Snapchat started out as an one-on-one/one-to-many photo messaging app for disappearing photos that felt personal. This was the first two years or so. But the most brilliant move they made is that they were able to see the possibility and pivot to a new use of snaps with stories. And the app completely changed with this.

Stories are publicly available snaps (videos or photos) concatenated together for a maximum of 24 hours. Creators can keep adding snaps to their story and the interface facilitates very nicely that you can pick up where they left of. It is near-real-time video for everyone, not just one-on-one.

And stories are mainly where everything is happening now. YouTube, Vine and Instagram stars are flocking to Snapchat for this reason. Content creation is easy and fun, no editing, no uploading, just snapping. And viewing, keeping track of someone’s story is also easy (and a lot of stories are videos). Following these stories have a unique, personal and real feel to it. I follow a bunch of VC and tech guys that give advice on companies, startups, failing, building teams all that stuff and it’s like they’re talking directly to you unedited, unscripted. And you can directly interact with them (snap them). So it’s much more engaging and a rather different experience from YouTube or even a podcast (which comes close, but isn’t visual or near real time). You are in the moment with them.

It could have hardly been a planned move from the get go for Snapchat to implement stories so I give them credit for being able to pivot like this from one-on-one disappearing photos to a near-real-time streaming video platform.

What’s next

I see a lot of Instagram, YouTube and Vine stars moving to Snapchat. And because of that, Snapchat is snowballing hard into the mainstream. And because more and more people are seeing the fun or benefit in sharing realtime photos/videos and being in the moment. In that sense Snapchat is inching closer to the human experience, real-time unedited conversations. You know, like when you talk to people.

Also something I figured out recently: Snapchat is basically closer to early radio and television than it is to Facebook or YouTube. Tune in, listen and/or watch. And if you don’t, it’s gone. It has a much more ethereal feel to it. So from that viewpoint it seems we’re coming full circle.

Snapchat itself is of course doing well. Money and seemingly crazy or even crazier valuations are being thrown at them like you’d expect for a popular app. And they’re spending like you would expect also. And even though they seem to have a business model with the Discover tab (basically paid stories by brands) it is not generating that much at the moment. But they probably don’t mind too much and are 100% focused on growing their user base. As long as you can keep that up, VC money will flow.

But what is important here is that real-time video is one of the most fascinating developments on the internet right now (next to AI and VR). Periscope, Meerkat, Kamcord, Twitch and YouTube are also gearing up and trying to take some of the pie here. And it wouldn’t surprise me if Facebook starts introducing the option to have posts available for only a certain amount of time or concatenate (video) posts. So interesting developments, to say the least! And I will keep following these developments because after all, this is not about Snapchat, this is about the human race bending technology to fit human needs.

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