What Snapchat’s evolution means for storytellers

November 16, 2015
Adam Przezdziek

The latest headlines around Snapchat have been a rollercoaster of highs, lows, and neck-jerking twists. Last week alone, the news that Snapchat’s vanishing videos now draw 6 billion views a day and that another legacy newsroom, this time The Wall Street Journal, would soon be joining its group of Discover publishers, were bracketed by a sobering report that Fidelity, which invested in the start-up through two different funds, devalued its stake in Snapchat by 25 percent, causing some stomachs to drop.

And then there was the hairbender. Snapchat’s announcement last week that it had updated its Privacy Policy and Terms of Services, reminding its users of, among other things, certain instances when their photos and videos do remain on the servers (as opposed to self-destructing after 24 hours), ignited a viral panic and sent the company into damage control mode.

Together, these headlines showed the company to be in a fitful state of growth, a rising star appropriately shadowed by doubt and paranoia. Just as Fidelity’s devaluation reflects broader anxieties about a new tech bubble–“I do think you’ll see some dead unicorns this year,” said Bill Gurley recently; his firm, Benchmark Capital, was an early investor in eBay, Twitter, and Instagram–the uproar over the Privacy Policy reflects a growing mistrust of tech companies and their data mining activities.

More intriguing, though, is how Snapchat’s user growth, Fidelity’s devaluation, and the updated Privacy Policy may be talking to each other. Even though Snapchat’s new policy is not really new–it’s more of a clarification, an attempt to “speak plain English”–it’s still a notable gesture that signals how Snapchat is widening its scope, retracing its legal framework, with an eye towards future growth. The concept of ephemeral posts has clearly struck a chord with a generation of users who increasingly care about privacy, but for a company with big editorial ambitions, it might be more of a hook than a path to media glory.

Twitter’s troubles may offer Snapchat a lesson, in the sense that what made it successful may smother it in the end. By imposing a 140-character word limit, Twitter took a chisel to a flood of information, giving users a tool to sculpt and pare it down (in theory, anyway). But the limitations of a tweet have also made it more difficult for the company to move into publishing in the same way that Facebook has done. Between the recent launch of Moments, which lets users follow editor-curated events from start to finish, and the extension of its 140-character limit in private messages, Twitter seems to know that it needs to broaden its format in order to survive. But that realization may have come too late. Facing stagnant user growth and dim fourth-quarter prospects, talk of Twitter’s decay is more emphatic than ever.

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Snapchat, on the other hand, seems to be trying to break out of its box while user growth is booming. Its Privacy Policy is just the most recent example. Using plainer, balder language, the revision explains that if you add photos to its public “Live Story” feed, then Snapchat has the right to show those photos around the world and even replay them at later times. While the privacy settings aren’t new, the new policy has been described a “major contrast” to the previous one, which stated simply (and boldly): “Delete is our Default.”

Jessica Silbey, a law professor at Northeastern University, sliced through the legalese on Northeastern’s website:

“It is an affirmative opt-in policy, which means if your privacy settings remain private, Snapchat has no right to republish or display your photos. This, however, does not prevent other users to whom the messages are sent from doing so. Screenshots and forwards of messages remain entirely possible—and likely—making the “privacy” of one’s messages largely up to the grace of addressees.”

In other words, not all snaps are private, nor do all of them vanish, at least when it comes to “Live Stories,” the relatively new tool that has turned Snapchat into a broadcast platform like NBC or YouTube. With a team of curators choosing which snaps to feature, Live Stories has been praised as addictively competitive, as well as a decisive step into television and original programming. And yet the company’s future is a toss-up, depending on who you ask. Investors like Fidelity see the stock as overvalued. But in the eyes of many newsrooms who are clamoring to join it, the one-time social-messaging app looks like the future of mobile news.

Snapchat did not immediately respond to CJR’s request for a comment.

Meanwhile, the company continues to test new advertising opportunities, such as geo-targeted ads and Sponsored Lenses, which launched in October, giving brands the chance to be featured alongside selfies. These experiments suggest that, in addition to expanding the kind of content it trades in, Snapchat is improving its analytics and degree of targeting to lure in big marketing dollars.

Which is not to say that vanishing posts are a fad. BuzzFeed reported at the end of last week that Facebook has begun testing ephemeral messaging in France, putting the social network in direct competition with its rising rival Snapchat. As the companies evolve to keep pace with each other, diversifying their platforms and extending their tentacles throughout the media ecosystem, ephemeral messaging may just be one of many assets in their widening portfolios.

Damaris Colhoun is CJR’s digital correspondent covering the media business. A reporter at large in New York, Colhoun has also written for The Believer, The New York Times, The Guardian, and Atlas Obscura. Find her on Twitter @damarisdeere.