How Snapchat became the forgotten social platform

How Snapchat became the forgotten social platform

2021-06-09 13:00:00
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Caren Babaknia has a lot of crazy videos saved on Snapchat. Since high school, the 24-year-old has saved thousands of random short clips to his Memories tab. He never thought they would be viewed by anyone or worth anything. That changed last November when Snapchat launched Spotlight, a TikTok-esque short video feature, and launched an initiative that paid users to post. Company distributed up to $1 million per day for users with the most popular Spotlight videos.

It was a rare opportunity for Babaknia, who hopes to become a full-time content creator, to make money. As of January, he says he has made more than $100,000 from a handful of viral videos, some of which were pulled directly from his Memories archive. In March he posted a old clip of his friends standing in a parking lot with the caption, "we just drove five hours to the nearest in-n-out." The video goes from the fast food shop to one of his buddies who says dead silently, "I think I'll just go get a water," and Babaknia bursts out laughing.

He suspected that the clip made him at least $15,000. (Vox was unable to independently verify the exact amount Babaknia has earned from his Snapchat activity.) "It's insane," he told me. "I've told my real friends how much I've made from Spotlight, and they don't believe me or they just post a few videos and give up completely."

The lack of faith, he argued, stems from people's general disregard for Snapchat as a viable platform. While TikTok's biggest names book The Tonight Show and Superbowl commercials, there is no such thing as a Snap star — and no way to become one. Babaknia has 45,000 followers on TikTok (after months of consistent posting) but has less than 1,000 followers on Instagram and YouTube and about 5,000 on Snapchat. It seems that fame is not a viable currency in the app unless the user is already internet famous. For some, that reduces Spotlight to a hollow business, despite its potential to make money.

As Babaknia sees it, TikTok produces fame at night and Snapchat provides wealth at night. He's hunting both while working part-time as an AT&T salesperson, but Snapchat's financial success feels tangible. Still, he acknowledged that the chances of becoming a viral phenomenon on both platforms are slim. Snap may be the cash cow, but its downside is its lack of cultural relevance. "On Snapchat, you're almost anonymous," Babaknia said, explaining that despite the money, the platform doesn't raise a creator's profile. "People want to expand an audience."

Snap is not designed to create stars or promote viral content. snap is, in his own words, a camera company based on intimacy and existing social networks. These factors continue to attract a steady group of teenage users, who enjoy the ability to send and view volatile messages and messages. People come for their friends and stay for their friends. But beyond these core social features, Snap has bigger ambitions with augmented and virtual reality. So why is the company spending millions of dollars a month on a clone of TikTok? What exactly is Snap trying to achieve – and what do users care?

The Cultural Decline of Snap

Once upon a time, like around 2017, Snap was the go-to app to watch casual, everyday content from celebrities, influencers, and friends. It satisfied our voyeuristic impulses in one unified feed. (It was like a vertical Instagram stories, organized in chronological order.) That is, until the controversial redesign, which put celebrities, influencers, and brands on the Discover page away from users' real friends. The move was, unsurprisingly, roundly criticized by users and celebrities alike.

“What Snap had done was completely ripping influencers out of the picture,” said Turner Novak, investor and founder of Banana Capital. "They decided they would not prioritize this class of users on the platform."

Snap's stock value became so volatile in 2018 that a tweet from Kylie Jenner made it tumble. “(D) o Is anyone not opening Snap anymore? Or is it just me…" Jenner early its 24 million Twitter followers. She later referred to Snap as her "first love," but if Jenner's affection was any indication, the first love is fickle and the damage to Snap's reputation seemed irreversible. The comment cost the already precarious Snap $1.3 billion in market value. A month later, Rihanna reprimanded the company for hosting an ad that prompted users to "hit Rihanna" or "hit Chris Brown," driving the stock price even further.

All in all, 2018 was a tough year for Snapchat. The platform was reeling from Instagram's successful replication of its 24-hour stories and lens filters in 2016. Advertisers and investors lost confidence in the long-term outlook and ability to make a profit; celebrities became disinterested. It didn't help that Snap gave itself the interface equivalent of a break-up haircut at the beginning of the year. The redesign of the app frustrated users and more than a million people signed a Change.org petition demanding that the update be rolled back.

Snap declined to overhaul it completely, and CEO Evan Spiegel said it would "take time for people to adapt". To Snap's critics, it seemed like the beginning of the end (the "click point", according to an article in Verge), or rather, the continuation of an inevitable decline caused by Facebook. Scott Galloway, a business professor at New York University, revered for his foresighted views, predicted that a dying Snap would eventually be snatched by Disney or Amazon. The growth of the app has slowed considerably and it is daily active user base started to shrink.

Still, Snap persisted. Spiegel was right: After months of grumbling, enough people adapted. Today's youngest users can't remember a time when the app looked significantly different. At the Snap Partner Summit in May, the company announced that 500 million people use the app monthly, and about 280 million check it daily. Snap brought in $2.5 billion in 2020 and $770 million in the first quarter of 2021, with the majority of the revenue generated from advertising. But despite this steady and impressive comeback, Snap's relevance is still disputed. There is no clear public consensus on its purpose as a platform. Is it an app for messaging, selfies, shopping or watching?

There are varying perceptions of Snap in the public discourse. One is futuristic, a vision that the company itself embraces. The other reduces Snap to an app useful for disappearing message communication that teens enjoy. For these users, it is a natural alternative to texting and keeping in touch with friends.

“I think it's interesting that it's called Snap (a teen app) because most people I know who started using it in high school are still using it,” said Devin, a 24-year-old Snap user from Indiana. . “Maybe not that often, but at least check. I'm 24 and my friends on Snapchat range from about 21 to 31. It's definitely more popular with teens, but I wouldn't say it's an app for them."

Snap continues to outpace Instagram according to a national survey of 9,800 American teens, though TikTok has emerged as a serious contender in the battle for Gen Z. But outside of the company's quarterly business coverage, Snap doesn't dominate the headlines the way TikTok does. It is occasionally mentioned in local news coverage, usually from incidents involving bullying, racism, or underage sexting that are documented or occurred in the app.

For the most part, Snap remains a silent afterthought compared to its competitors, not only among culture journalists, but also among ordinary adults. It is reduced to a running joke, a sign of infidelity and immaturity ("I don't know a single person who uses Snapchat anymore and that's being an adult"). Among an older millennial demographic, it's being mocked as an app for drug dealers, people who "topped in high school", and real high school students.

However, if the company's stats are to be considered at first glance, these common assumptions underestimate the app's active user base and growth potential. Snap is reportedly working on about half of all US smartphones and reached 90 percent of Americans aged 13 to 24. The monthly audience for the Discover feature is larger than Netflix's (although that may be an irrelevant comparison, based on the type and length of content), and the company partners with celebrities and influencers loved by Gen. Z for original content including Will Smith, Megan Thee Stallion, David Dobrik and the D'Amelio sisters.

Snap's True Believers See the Future in AR

Snap plans to introduce more augmented reality features that will make it easy for users to shop and search for items.
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Novak, the investor at Banana Capital, described Snap's business model as a mix of messaging, content, advertising, software and hardware. "Snap has always been very strategic and didn't care what the corporate world thought of them," he told me. “They built for their core demographic, which is Gen Z and young millennials.” Now it looks like the company is taking a page out of the playbook of major Chinese social apps in a quest to create a… "super app" — an all-in-one platform that provides gaming, shopping, messaging, payments and news features. And it's betting on augmented reality to achieve that.

Most social media users are already familiar with AR technology, whether they are aware of it or not. Camera filters or 'Lens', as Snap calls them, are features of Snap aims to make money through advertising and e-commerce. “AR is something that can dominate Snap now that it has a clear business model and the priority is no longer to retain users,” Novak added. "Years ago, nobody cared because everyone thought Snap was going to die."

Over the past few years, Snap has developed an ecosystem of AR-related products through tools like Snap Kit and Lens Studio — targeting app developers and brands, rather than consumers. These tools allow developers to create filters, lenses, and other interactive visuals for regular Snap users.

And on the consumer side, the company promised more AR capabilities that would allow people to shop and search for items, play games and better connect with friends, brands and businesses. Snap has partnered with brands to host betas where users can "try" products with AR and is prompted to purchase directly through the app. It's a top-down strategy that the average Snapchat user probably pays little to no attention to, as these added features don't affect their normal use of the app.

Yet these developments are exciting for an insular ecosystem of people: venture capitalists, entrepreneurs and techies who are optimistic about Snap's long-term success. In their eyes, Snap is at the forefront of building the elusive metaverse. There is no single definition of the metaverse; in short, it's an immersive online space that has been described as "the sum of all virtual worlds, augmented reality, and the internet." Sure, that description sounds like the plot of a science fiction novel, but the company is actively integrating its tools and products into a larger digital landscape. The partnership with Samsung, for example, will be Camera kit in all Samsung phones, which Novak estimates at about 20 percent of all Android devices.

"It's always amazed me how wide the reach for Snapchat really is," Novak said. “That's because people like me – venture capitalists and white-collar people – look down on the reality TV content or the latest Kim Kardashian photos on the Daily Mail, but in reality, the common denominator of consumers is really interested or interested in in the."

Joey Rauwreda, a 17-year-old high school student from Michigan, is surprised to learn that adults view Snapchat as less relevant than TikTok. It remains one of his most used apps since he downloaded it in high school. Most, if not all, of his friends are on it on a daily basis. "I probably open the app 50 to 100 times a day," he said. "To me, Snapchat is just less formal texting and I have more friends on Snap than numbers on my phone."

Rauwreda prefers to watch Stories and participate in group chats, rarely using camera filters or scrolling through the Discover page. In fact, he avoids Discover because of the amount of cringe content he sees. "I know Snap has Spotlight, the new TikTok thing, but I don't know anyone at school who uses that," he said. "Some people at school watch Discover and subscribe to shows, but I think it's a little bland. It's not the main point of Snap."

But what exactly is Snap's "point"? Rawreda isn't alone in its condemnation of the Discover page, where Snap generates the bulk of its revenue. Despite its impressive reach (the company reports that "hundreds of millions" of users use Discover daily), many people joke about — and purposefully avoid — its content.

The page is powered by clickbait, reality TV news, and influencer fodder, with a few TV networks and reputable news publishers including ESPN, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal. Users complain that they often get tabloid-like content about influencers they don't care about, or nonsensical clickbait that is best described as 'internet waste'. As a result, Snap is often mocked as youthful, and the humor on Discover and Spotlight reflects how the app skews disproportionately young.

"If a video is doing well on TikTok, it might not be on Spotlight," Babaknia said. "The people consuming this stuff are younger kids, maybe around 10 to 15 years old." The Discover page, in a way, reflects Snap's approach to its app: a mishmash of content with different usage scenarios that encourages people to scroll a little longer. Snap's Challenge, according to tech reporter Casey Newton, is to help people use these new tools and features "in an app that can already feel a bit crowded". Snap's quest to become an all-in-one app is certainly exciting for investors, advertisers and the company itself. But it might be negotiating more than what teenage users like Rauwreda actually want.

It feels like Snap is blindly throwing new features at users in the hopes that they will stick and stand out. In Spotlight's case, the $1 million-a-day fund accelerated how quickly users adopted the feature. It increased the likelihood of higher quality content with the promise of cash. That seemed to work. Spotlight had gathered in February 100 million users, about half the number of daily active users of the app.

But at the May summit, Snap hinted at reducing the amount of money poured into the Spotlight creators' fund. The company will offer top makers the opportunity to earn”millions a week,” instead of the previous pool of $1 million per day. Babaknia thinks his days on Spotlight are numbered. In a recent email exchange with Snap's support team shared with Vox, Babaknia no clarity how the daily amount offered will change. "Nothing has been confirmed yet, but I'm afraid I'm losing that earning potential," he said. "I'm sure they still have the money to support their creators."

Probably get it, but why would it keep handing out money at the same rate? Users are becoming more and more accustomed to Spotlight as a feature. “If you think about it, Snap paid about $1 per monthly user to get them on Spotlight,” Novak said. “It has put about $130 million into this feature to get it into a good place and is now winding it down.”

However, Snap, as it proved in 2018, doesn't really need traditional influencers or content creators — not in the way TikTok or Instagram do. And maybe that's where it falls flat. There is no cultural production of users, just content consumption (on Discover and Spotlight) and communication. People are already addicted to Snap's messaging capabilities. Spotlight is just the latest bait to keep users scrolling while continuing to build an augmented reality future. Snap cares lens makers and developers, who can create additional products and apps associated with the app that generate additional revenue.

In pursuit of the metaverse, Snap's goal in the world remains divided. Is Snap a social platform joke or is it the future? It depends on who you ask.


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