When I was 26 or 27, my boss at the time (hiya J!) sent me an email: “come to my office, immediately.” I ran to her office, afraid of being fired, only to find her starring aimlessly at her desktop screen looking flummoxed at the now familiar blue and white iconography of the Facebook news feed. “What do I do?” she looked at me like a technological Valerie Cherish, knowing that a fate of irrelevance was worse than that of humiliation. A couple of weeks ago Snapchat, the ephemeral (FWIW ephemeral is just a fancy word for disappearing) image and messaging platform, famous for spurning a $3B buy out from the original social network and now valued at $10B, launched a new user tool called Snapchat Discover. What is Discover? According to Snapchat’s blog, “It is a new way to explore Stories from different editorial teams… that puts the narrative first.” Emphatically, Snapchat wants you to know that, “This is not social media.” Because, “All too often, artists are forced to accommodate new technologies in order to distribute their work. Discover is new, but familiar. That’s because Stories are at the core – there’s a beginning, middle, and end so that editors can put everything in order.” True to form, “Every edition is refreshed after 24 hours – because what’s news today is history tomorrow.” Where I come from (Canada) if it sounds like social media and looks like social media – it is social media; but then again who can argue with Evan Spiegel and his chin dimple? When I first read about Snapchat’s new discover feature I spent a good ten minutes trying to find the Discover tab within the app thinking it was some sort of technological El Doroado. I got so flummoxed and lost in Snapchat’s user interface that my new boss was like – “yo Naymark, have you finished that email you were going to send?” I thought about being cheeky and telling her that my work was ephemeral in nature, but I realized that work life is unlike the surreality through which 25 year-old Spiegel views the world; in an interview last year with The Verge, Spiegel mentioned that Snapchat’s goal was to make, “digital conversations better reflect real ones.” i.e. forgettable and disposable.
One of the smartest things anyone ever said about the various types of social networks that now plague our lives was the following by fellow Canadian Sarah Nicolle Prickett, who observed that: “If Twitter is the street, Facebook the suburban-sprawl mall, and Pinterest some kind of mail-order catalog, Instagram is the many-windowed splendor of a younger Bergdorf’s…” Using Prickett’s line of thinking then what exactly is Snapchat? The photocopy machine in your high school teacher’s lounge that you once secretly used to photocopy your ass?
Snapchat has always gotten a bad rap for being the sexting app or that app that dudes use to send pictures of their dick with. While pornography is a big business, its not $10B big, which is why the launch of Discover, a content focussed play, is obviously a pretty big deal for Snapchat as it discovers its post-sexting maturity. Yet as Joseph Volpe (the self described parker posey of tech) wrote in Endgadget “Snapchat as a content app is like using Grindr for friendships. Everyone involved is just kidding themselves.” Volpe understands the obvious: the last thing that the world needs is another tool to disseminate hastily produced content.
Essentially Snapchat has a lot of users but doesn’t know how to make money off of them. Discovery is an attempt to do so even if it re-imagines what the core utility of Snapchat is. Discover is what my friends who worked at Fab (a billion dollar start-up now worth nothing) would call a “pivot”, or what Jason Goldberg would describe as “solving for a repeatable viable business model.”
Repeatable viable business models or monetization (for short) is a problem that a lot of start-ups face; however, it is not an insurmountable one. Facebook overcame its early monetization snafus by hiring Sheryl Sandberg. Companies like Instagram, give zero fucks about monetization, because they got bought out by Facbeook and are part of a larger play. But if Snapchat wants to be its own behemoth and play with the big boys, then solving for a repeatable business model is going to become a really big problem.
Discover comes about a year or so ago after Snapchat launched a more robust messaging service and something called Snapchat Stories. I could never make sense of the Snapchat Story tool, it seemed like another overly complicated way to post a Snapchat and I needed another messaging app like I needed another password. At the time PandoDaily waxed poetically about Snapchat’s new turn: “It’s trying to find a happy medium by creating new tools that take advantage of modern technologies while trying to preserve the human aspect of social interaction. Consider it a conversational cyborg.” Messaging, however, is like blogging, in that it is fun, but doesn’t pay the mortgage. How many people are really buying sticker expansion packs on WeChat? This is not to say that messaging has no value – What’sApp was acquired by Facebook for $22B even though it only had revenue of $15M. But, like instagram, what’s app is part of a larger mobile play by the granddaddy of social media.
Now it seems like Snapchat is betting big on re-inventing itself as a content discovery tool. And when it comes to reinvention enter stage left the mother (and now grandmother) of reinvention: the original Material Girl. Snapchat’s Discovery window launched a couple of weeks ago, but in some places reached the mainstream last week when Madonna premiered her new video, Living for Love, on Discovery. Website the MuuMuse gave the directions as follows (with edits from Buzzfeed’s Dorsey Shaw): The overall consensus from the peanut gallery was that Discovery is downright impossible to find. Certainly There are some things about The overallSnapchat’s Discovery tool that I actually like, once I found out how to get there, in that it is very clearly mobile first, the left and right scrolling of previous and up and down scroll for full content makes a lot of intuitive sense from a mobile perspective BUT and this is a big and giant BUT for a company that is valued at $10B dollars: Discovery is inherently counter-intuitive to how a lot of people use their phones to find things within an App.
For example, lets say I want to follow or discover a J. Crew video on Instagram.
1) I open Instagram
2) Go to the universal recognized internet icon for search (a magnifying glass)
3) Type J Crew and Voila…
This is half the steps to find the Madonna video on Snapchat on AND it plays on well known and globally recognized digital iconography (i.e the magnifying glass)
As a content play, even as a discovery content play, Snapchat seems like an also ran. Which is why there there is something symbolically depressing about the Queen of Re-invention and Snapchat’s partnership. It is the symbiotic equivalent of two losers marrying each other in the hopes the other elevates their social standing. As Volpe noted there is something inherently “thirsty” about this match, Snapchat’s obvious need to prove relevancy in the content game and Madonna trying to appear relevant to a companies who’s largest demographic are 13 year olds (who were negative 13) when Like a Prayer came out. As gossip blog DListed noted: ‘What’s a Madonna?’ said the average Snapchat user who is around 13 years fucking old.”
To point out an even more obvious part of this problem: Madonna’s core audience is gay men. Gay men don’t use Snapchat because gay men don’t need Snapchat to send pics of their dicks. Gay men already have an app for that – its called Grindr. And unlike how straight brothers who are all like: ohhh I’m going to send you a pic of my dick on snap chat so that it becomes “ephemeral” gay men are like – you wanna see my dick, its here, let me unlock 20 photos of various angles that I have stored of my dick in various stages of erectness. The thing about content is that when content is good – you want to remember it; tweet it; share it with a friend.
The idea of ephemeral content is an oxymoron: who wants an ephemeral dick pic, when you can have a folder full of saved dick pics on your phone?, which is why Snapchat’s Discover tool seems about as thirsty as Madonna still proving her own relevance. We get it Snapchat… you’re trying to be cool; instead of trying to be cool why not just give me some sort of utility (or in Madonna’s bid for perma relevancy how about a sick beat)?