Snapchat’s $10B value proves ephemeral messaging is here to stay

One of the enduring truisms when it comes to the tech sector is that valuations often get pumped up by pockets of bubble-style enthusiasm, which means we should be careful when making statements like “Snapchat is worth $10 billion” because of a single round of financing. That said, however, the company has clearly ballooned in value over the past year, jumping from around the $2 billion mark just last December to somewhere in the $10 billion range thanks to the latest round of VC capital, which is said to include Kleiner Perkins Caulfield Byers.

As venture investor and market analyst Paul Kedrosky mentioned in a recent interview with Bloomberg about the financing, the price tag likely says almost as much about former Silicon Valley superstar Kleiner Perkins and its desire to win back some of its faded glory as it does about Snapchat’s actual value. But still, $10 billion is a lot of money for a company that less than a year ago only had 35 employees.

When Snapchat turned down a reported $3 billion takeover offer from Facebook, many observers thought its twenty-something founders had lost their minds and would likely regret their decision — and subsequent coverage of the company has spent more time on the sexist attitudes expressed by co-founder Evan Spiegel in emails he sent during his university years than on the value of the actual service he is offering.

Not just for sexting

Following the reaction to the company’s funding news reminds me of when Facebook decided to pay $19 billion (which later became $22 billion) to acquire WhatsApp, a service many aging tech reporters had barely heard of, let alone actually used. What could possibly be worth that amount of money, they wondered? Eventually, someone pointed out the enormous user numbers coming out of dozens of foreign markets where text messaging was orders of magnitude more expensive than using WhatsApp, and all of a sudden the deal started to make sense.

Snapchat has also been misunderstood for much of its brief history: the initial response to the app’s growth was that the “ephemeral” aspect of its messages — which are programmed to disappear after 10 seconds — was designed for sexting between teens and/or adults. But could there really be that much demand for sending sexy snapshots? After all, the company’s user base has exploded to a recent total of 200 million active users, which is not that far from Twitter’s 280 million and Instagram’s 300 million.

Ephemeral latte art in the shape of the Snapchat logo. Disappears as soon as the first sip is taken.

In watching my three daughters — who are in their teens and 20’s — interact with their friends, the appeal of Snapchat is much, much greater than just that. As someone once described it to me, the best way to think about it is that apps and services like Instagram or Facebook impose a kind of psychological and/or emotional pressure, for the simple reason that they involve a kind of public performance, and one that (theoretically at least) remains online forever and is searchable.

Some photos or status updates make sense in that context, but many do not — like instant messages or texts, they aren’t really designed to be kept forever, because they involve something fleeting, whether it’s an emotion or an event or a transient connection. You Snapchat a photo or a video clip in order to make someone laugh, or as a kind of non-verbal wink or eyeroll, or to create a shared moment between two people. But because it inevitably disappears, you don’t have to think about it too much.

The right to be forgotten

As Nick Bilton of the New York Times pointed out in a post about the appeal of Snapchat, the ephemerality of the service allows for a certain kind of freedom — and on top of that, the app makes it far easier to share a simple photo or video clip than almost any other service out there (although Vine is close). It probably helps in terms of street cred that the user interface is almost actively hostile to older users who are more comfortable with services like Facebook and Twitter.

Will the desire for this kind of ephemeral behavior change as my daughters and their friends get older? It could, but I don’t think so. I think the permanence of the internet and the social web makes it likely that a preference for lightweight, non-permanent interaction will continue to exist — in a sense, it’s a corollary of the pressure for the “right to be forgotten,” which is also a reaction to the permanence of the web and how poorly that jibes with the way that most people live their lives.

One of the challenges that Snapchat has to deal with is how to marry its ephemerality with the needs of the corporate partners and brands who want to reach its users: if your messages are designed to disappear, how do you handle advertising? The introduction of Snapchat “stories,” in which you can tie together multiple photos or clips about a single event, is an interesting way of trying to bridge that gap.

Is Snapchat worth $10 billion? I honestly have no idea. But I do know that it has tapped into a powerful desire among users of the social web for impermanence, and that is probably worth a lot.