8 February 2016

The not-so-mysterious case of the disappearing photographs


In the summer of 2010, Evan Spiegel and Bobby Murphy, one a sophomore in Stanford’s product-design program and the other a senior majoring in mathematics and computational science, developed Future Freshman, a suite of online software to help high schoolers, their parents and guidance counsellors to manage college admissions. They created a full-featured website with one problem. No one was interested. But when fellow Kappa Sigma fraternity brother Reggie Brown stepped into Spiegel’s room to talk about a photo he wished he hadn’t sent to someone, the seeds of Snapchat were planted in Spiegel’s head. Second time lucky perhaps?

The app failed to gain any traction as many wondered why anyone would want to send a disappearing photo: after all, it went against the logic of taking photos, to preserve a moment in time ‘forever’. Its initial release on Apple’s App Store on July 13, 2011 didn’t elicit much of a response and downloads remained sluggish. Despite adding more features like photo caption abilities, it seemed that the duo were destined for a repeat of Future Freshman – a technically competent product that no one wanted.

But after a few months, they noticed a pattern. Usage spiked between the hours of 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. as user numbers headed towards 1000. Spiegel’s mother had mentioned the app to her niece and since Facebook was banned on school-distributed iPads, the students at the Orange County high school turned to Snapchat as a convenient way of passing visual notes during class with no evidence left behind. As the students received newer and faster iPhones over the holidays, usage practically doubled and by January 2012 it was at 20,000; by April, 100,000.

How did Snapchat overcome such a slack debut?  Michael Wilson, a digital data analyst with Glowmetrics, credits the sense of privacy and the lack of an eternal digital footprint: “There’s less chance of something you post coming back to haunt you in years to come.”

The disappearing photos also reduce the need for phone memory for photo storage and the cognitive overhead for dealing with them. It seems trivial but the vanishing photos allow users to capture and share moments and memories without worrying about archiving and management.

Film director James Gunn agrees, saying that Snapchat provides an outlet for self-expression while helping to maintain a level of privacy that is unachievable for those with public Facebook or Twitter accounts.

Snapchat’s reputation as the first ‘disappearing message’ app may be responsible for drawing the hordes of youths to the platform but the app also appeals to the ever-changing nature of communication between teenagers.  The rise of instant messaging and its accompanying abbreviations in the early 90s has left its mark on the way teenagers today communicate, with ‘old’ slang such as ‘lol’  and ‘rofl’ mixing with more current terms such as ‘bae’ and ‘tfw’. Historically, people used to complain about their children texting all the time without even using full words and sentences.

According to Gene Marks, a columnist for The New York Times and Inc., Snapchat takes it even further: “There need not even be words”.

Topher Burns, group director of distribution strategy at Deep Focus attributes the app’s major advantage to the fact that “it’s entirely rooted in the user behaviour and values of a digitally native demographic.”

The increase in smartphone usage has also helped to propel Snapchat to the upper echelons of the App Store charts. Snapchat is primarily a mobile platform, with its website existing mainly to provide support and information about advertising opportunities.

And the advertising opportunities appear endless.

In 2015 Snapchat introduced the Discover section of the app, where media companies post daily roundups of their most millennial-focussed articles and videos. McDonald’s sponsored its first filter in June 2015 and Procter & Gamble sponsored Snapchat’s Father Day story stream. The app also started inserting full-screen, 10-second video ads from companies like Coca-Cola and Samsung into the feeds of media channels and various stories from cities or college campuses.

It seems everyone who is anyone, running the gamut from the presidential hopefuls to luxury fashion houses is eager to hop on the Snapchat bandwagon and set up their own account. Even the White House created an account in early January in an attempt to reach the American people before President Obama’s SOTU address.

2015 was a big year for the company, and predictions are rife that four years after its inception, its IPO listing is imminent. But it seems that Speigel and co. are in no rush to sell, reportedly turning down a $3bn acquisition bid. After all, according to Snapchat, there’s no time like the present.

Wei Tien Sng is a CapX contributor.