What Snapchat Might Learn from Facebook
In the week before the election, for forty-eight hours, you could open Snapchat and see President Obama trying to get you to vote for Hillary Clinton. The appearance, on a made-for-Snapchat political show called “Good Luck America,” was notable only because of where it was happening: on an app for people in their teens and twenties, who, as far as many people in their thirties and up can tell, mostly use it to send one another pictures of their faces morphed into tacos. At the time, it was only just becoming clear that the churn of news on the best-known social-media platforms had profoundly influenced public opinion about the Presidential candidates. But Snapchat was different. If Facebook and Twitter were crowded town squares—the locus of democracy at its meanest and dirtiest—Snapchat was the playground around the corner, a place reserved for silliness and fun. In August, Farhad Manjoo wrote in the Times that the app was among several that were “creating a charming alternative universe online—a welcome form of earnest, escapist entertainment that makes you feel warm and fuzzy inside.” For the President to appear on the app was unusual, and even his performance there seemed almost jokey at moments. “People, this is Barack Obama,” the President proclaimed at one point, the video angle suggestive of a selfie. “If I can figure out how to Snapchat, you can figure out how to go vote.”
Then came the election and Donald Trump’s triumph. Within hours, popular opinion was coalescing around the thought that the spreading of illegitimate news on social media had helped Trump win. Obama himself told David Remnick:
An explanation of climate change from a Nobel Prize-winning physicist looks exactly the same on your Facebook page as the denial of climate change by somebody on the Koch brothers’ payroll. And the capacity to disseminate misinformation, wild conspiracy theories, to paint the opposition in wildly negative light without any rebuttal—that has accelerated in ways that much more sharply polarize the electorate and make it very difficult to have a common conversation.
Facebook employees reportedly formed a group to try to combat the dissemination of bogus stories, and while their C.E.O., Mark Zuckerberg, at first defended his site, he later went on Facebook to acknowledge the spread of misinformation and to detail how he hoped to address it. Twitter suspended the accounts of some prominent right-wing figures for “abuse and harassment,” and Google vowed to stop selling ads on fake-news sites.
It was amid all this that it was revealed that Snap Inc., as the company behind Snapchat is now known, had filed documents to go public. The timing would seem to have been inauspicious, but, in the days since the I.P.O. revelation, Snapchat has managed to mostly stay out of the discussions about social media’s negative influence. Snapchat’s creators have always positioned the app as a kind of anti-Facebook—younger, less formal, more about friends keeping in touch than about mass communication. While the company couldn’t have anticipated the post-election backlash against Facebook and Twitter, its approach seems to have insulated the app against the worst of it. As people come to terms with the enormous social influence of platforms like Facebook, Snapchat seems to represent a less fraught model for social media: more social, less media.
That’s nice for Snap as it tries to generate enthusiasm for its I.P.O., which was reportedly valued somewhere between twenty billion and thirty billion dollars. But there’s reason to believe that Snapchat’s sweet, irreverent image has to do with its relative youth, and that of its users, rather than being intrinsic to the app itself. The first-ever post on my Facebook page, from 2005, was a crude inside joke from one of my best friends; these days, the same friend, a writer, mostly uses Facebook to express political outrage and post links to articles that she has written. This is partly because we’ve changed—grown older and more serious—but also because Facebook itself has changed. For years before it went public, Facebook was all about dumb fun: Remember that period of a couple of years when the main reason people used Facebook was to play those viral games housed on the site? But when, in 2012, Facebook went public, it had to answer to traditional investors, who wanted to see a solid business model. The site figured out that items like news articles and videos engage people’s attention particularly well. Advertisers liked that, and so Facebook evolved into what it is now: a place to go to find out what’s happening in the world at large, not just in your immediate social circle. (Although, last summer, Facebook announced it was tweaking its algorithm to favor presentation of more personal messages in the feeds.) Twitter, where some of the first tweets ever composed include “having some flowery orange pekoe tea,” “lunch,” and “feeling pains in my back,” followed a similar trajectory.
Snap, for its part, is already facing pressure to make money from its users, ahead of the I.P.O., and when it goes public that will surely intensify. The company expects to make between two hundred and fifty million and three hundred and fifty million dollars in revenue this year, mostly from ads. There’s a case to be made that Snapchat can do well by doubling down on the silliness—those taco-face images that people sent around, for a time, were sponsored by Taco Bell, and other advertisers have paid considerable sums for similar stunts—but even Snap seems to be acknowledging that that isn’t enough: the “Good Luck America” show on which Obama appeared is part of a big push toward original programs against which Snapchat might sell advertising; the “Discover” section of Snapchat, where that program appears, also surfaces news headlines, much as Facebook and Twitter do. Snapchat, at this point, has far fewer daily users than Facebook, but it has already surpassed Twitter and is growing fast; if past patterns hold, Snapchat’s users, on average, will probably get older over time and more like Facebook and Twitter’s typical users, whose interest in doctoring pictures of themselves and their friends is limited.
This might seem disappointing, but another way to see it is as an opportunity. Social-media companies are built on code. In Zuckerberg’s post, he wrote, “The most important thing we can do is improve our ability to classify misinformation. This means better technical systems to detect what people will flag as false before they do it themselves.” Designing these technical systems is a complex task, but reworking existing systems, as it seems Facebook will have to do, can be substantially more complicated. As Snapchat comes of age and turns into more of a mass-media tool, though, it should benefit from seeing how Facebook and other, more established companies have dealt with the spread of misinformation and racist, sexist vitriol—and be able to adopt those approaches into its software from the beginning. If blogs were the high-tech disruptors of the elections of the aughts, and Facebook and Twitter took their place more recently, Snapchat could well be 2020’s version. We’d all do well to be more prepared next time.