Snapchat entering the breaking news business could be a good thing

Imagine that a mass shooting is happening. What should you do? Well, if you’re in danger, you should probably find safety. And if you’re safe, there’s a good chance that you should wait until the next day to learn more about what the shooting because of how much misinformation is involved with a major story such as this. But, if you must follow breaking news, you might want to check Snapchat first.
Snapchat might seem like an improbable source of breaking news updates. The service is known primarily for letting people superimpose goofy stickers over their selfies and taking some of the risk out of sharing nude photographs with others (because those photos sort of disappear forever). As the San Bernardino shooting that killed 14 people and injured another 21 on December 2 unfolded, though, the service became a source of up-to-the-minute briefings on what was happening in neighborhoods around the targeted area.
Offering these updates required Snapchat to find publicly-posted snaps, curate them into one story, and, in some cases, use text to clarify what was happening. This gave Snapchat users an idea of what people in the area were sharing — and provided much needed background information that informed users without making it seem like Snapchat knew the entire story. It was just a simple service gathering news and making it available to the people who might benefit from seeing it.
Combine this with the ephemeral nature of Snapchat’s content and it seems like the service might be a good source for breaking news. It can react quickly, use content from many users, and pass along brief updates on the situation as they happen. When the situation has resolved, all that content disappears, making it less likely to contribute to the flood of misinformation that can haunt the web, while law enforcement and the journalists covering it struggle to find the truth.
It’s easy for misinformation to spread on the web. Hitting “like” or “retweet” on a false report doesn’t require much effort — certainly less than it does to spend a few seconds looking for accurate information or sharing new info as it becomes available. That misinformation often remains until someone goes through and deletes it, which is another opportunity for someone to get the wrong idea about something, share that idea, and keep the perpetual ignorance machine going.
Snapchat’s self-deleting updates don’t afford this opportunity. There’s no perpetuity. It’s a bit like talking on the phone with someone: Unless they’ve taken extra steps to record whatever was said, the information is passed along once before it disappears into the aether. The photo-and-video-based nature of the service also lends itself to eyewitness accounts, which limits the claims people can make. (Not that video or photo evidence on social media is infallible.)
I reached out to Snapchat to get their perspective on their news-aggregation. I was given a statement attributed to the company’s head of communications: “We published this story because we felt that the content, which comes from the LA Local Story, was newsworthy and held national significance” — and later told that my followup questions wouldn’t be answered. “We have nothing more to share at this time, sorry,” a spokesperson said in a rather short email. “Thanks!”
Still, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Snapchat did something similar in the future.  It’s in a unique position to offer people lightweight updates about a developing situation from the eyes of the people most affected by it. Combined with a little editorial judgment and some other features, like the one that allows Snapchat users to view similar content from other public stories, that seems like a nice setup for anyone who wants to know what’s happening in a breaking news story.
Will there be downsides? Of course. Some of Snapchat’s verbiage doesn’t mesh with what it’s showing during stories like this. (“Swipe up to Explore similar Snaps!” read a line of text shown over a photo of kids lining up to leave a locked-down school.) And there’s always the chance that the company will pass along videos or images that somehow mislead their viewers. I wouldn’t expect the company to have all the answers about important story developments, either.
But if someone is unwilling to wait for law enforcement to investigate the situation, for journalists to get to the bottom of the story, and for the frenzied masses to stop sharing whatever information comes to them, they could do worse than to check Snapchat. And even if they end up getting bad information they can at least take solace in knowing that their blunder won’t be available for anyone to see hours, days, weeks, months, or years after the truth is revealed.

Snapchat rethinks content discovery with Story Explorer

[This post has been updated to fix an error related to how Snaps will be added to Story Explorer. It doesn’t surface private content; only things people have decided to upload to Live Stories and thus make available for public viewing.]
A new Snapchat feature called Story Explorer will allow people in New York and Los Angeles to view specific moments from perspectives shared by other users.
Snapchat says in a blog post today that Story Explorer works by taking Snaps curated into its Live Stories and making other Snaps of the same event available with a swipe. (That sentence would have been gobbledygook just a few years ago.) Put another way: It’s like viewing a movie through multiple views instead of just one.
“It’s the first time you’ll be able to experience that incredible game-winning dunk from thousands of perspectives throughout the stadium — or feel like you’re right there on the scene when breaking news unfolds,” Snapchat says. It adds that this is possible because its users contribute “so many diverse perspectives” all at once.
A report from the Los Angeles Times says that Snapchat’s curators will still be tasked with choosing the content that appears in the company’s Live Stories. This feature simply makes it easier for people interested in a particular moment to view relevant content without requiring the curator to find similar Snaps.
Story Explorer feels a bit like Snapchat’s attempt to replicate the hashtag. That omnipresent symbol often serves as a gateway to similar content, but it’s limited because it requires people to categorize whatever they’re sharing. Snapchat’s doing something similar with an automated system that requires no user effort.
“Story Explorer relies on technology developed by our research team to provide more depth to every Snap in a Story,” the company says in its blog post. “When you see a moment that inspires or excites you, simply swipe up to see more Snaps of that same moment – from every perspective.” Who needs hashtags?
It will be interesting to see how Snapchat’s users respond to having their Snaps made available to anyone who swipes up on something shared to a Live Story. Despite the app’s utility as something more than a sexting service, its beginning as a private and ephemeral social network doesn’t lend itself to features like this.
Update: Story Explorer doesn’t surface private content; it only shows Snaps that have been shared to Live Stories. This could expand a Snap’s potential audience — its entire purpose for being is surfacing more content — but it won’t take someone’s private communications and make them available to the public.
Not from the person sharing the Snap’s perspective, anyway. For everyone else this little bit of communal voyeurism makes perfect sense. Why view something from one angle when you can view it from a thousand? And who cares about how Snapchat began if this is what it is now? The first answer’s clear; the second isn’t.

Why it’s impossible to put Snapchat’s 6B daily video views in context

The last few weeks have seen a handful of massive social services announced measurements for video views that reach into the billions. But those figures are actually far less impressive (at least right now) when you consider the value of each view.
For instance, Snapchat users watch a collective 6 billion videos every day. That seems like a lot, especially when compared against the 8 billion videos watched by Facebook users and the 7 or 8 billion videos watched on YouTube in the same time period. Snapchat doesn’t have nearly as many users as those services, so if it’s coming close to their videos-watched tallies, its users must be moving picture fanatics.
That said, there is some discrepancy between what each of these services counts as a video being watched. As the BBC reports, Facebook only charges advertisers if a video is watched for more than three seconds; YouTube does the same after 30 seconds; and Snapchat charges advertisers if a video plays for less than a second. Apparently these companies can’t even agree on what “watching a video” means.
Those are just the numbers that determine when an advertiser is charged. While advertising is the lifeblood of these services — though each also has other ways to make money, whether it’s ad-free subscriptions or offering in-app purchases — that doesn’t always line up with what the companies focus their attentions on. YouTube touts the number of hours its users spend on its service each day, for example, while Facebook emphasizes how many videos its users are watching.
Then there are the differences in how the videos are presented to their viewers. Facebook automatically plays videos that appear in users’ News Feeds (as long as those users haven’t disabled auto-playing videos in the service’s settings) so it could tally up videos that no-one is paying attention to. YouTube and Snapchat, on the other hand, don’t play videos until their users signal their desire to do so.
Facebook’s method has its fans. The Wall Street Journal reports that more companies reliant on videos are considering the addition of auto-play features to their websites. But automatically playing videos have their detractors, too, and some Web browsers have even introduced features that make it easy to mute obnoxious videos that play even though someone isn’t actually watching them.
This problem isn’t restricted to videos. Tech companies measure success in whatever metric suits them, whether that’s the number of people who have downloaded their application or the amount of in-app purchases those apps facilitate. There’s no widely-accepted definition; even something as simple as “active users” is presented in the way that most benefits the affected company.
Nor is this statistic favoritism restricted to tech companies. Publishers will often do the same thing: Some tout their pageviews, others their unique visitors, and still others the amount of time the average visitor spends on their website. These numbers are all calculated using different analytics tools that produce differing measurements. Objectivity in measuring the audience for journalism is dead.
All of which leaves reports on user growth, or increases in the time people spend on a site, or whatever metric is being touted limited to talking about changing numbers. Company X has Metric Y and that figure changed by Number Z. (Oh, which reminds me, the 6 billion video views Snapchat is touting is an increase from the 2 million daily views chief executive Evan Spiegel shared back in May.)
So there isn’t much sense in comparing the number of videos watched on Snapchat to those watched on Facebook or YouTube. The three services don’t just have different purposes — they’re also tallying things up differently. Until that changes (which is unlikely) the comparisons don’t mean that much.

Snapchat’s effort to make its policies more readable backfires

Snapchat has attempted to ease the fear, uncertainty, and doubt that spread like wildfire after it updated its terms of service and privacy policy last week.
The company said in a blog post today that it continues to delete users’ photos from its servers after they are viewed or have expired. This means it “could not — and do not — share [private images] with advertisers or business partners,” according to the company. Content shared via Snapchat is just as ephemeral as it was before the updates.
Snapchat explained in the post that it changed the policies to be more readable, to allow for in-app purchases like the counterintuitive Replays, and to make users aware about the information they have given the service. These were all routine updates tech companies make to their policies semi-regularly.
The reaction to these updates was also routine. Just look at when Instagram updated its policies to make it clear that it planned to use photos shared to its service in advertisements. People started to lose their minds, but as the Verge’s Nilay Patel explained, the problem didn’t lie with the policies themselves. It lied with Instagram’s inability to explain them and a lack of trust in Facebook.
Snapchat could have learned from the Instagram debacle. Instead of posting something on its blog when people started to freak out, it could’ve published the same exact blog post when it first made the changes. That might’ve helped people understand exactly what the company intended with its new policies.
There might be another problem: Making the policies readable to humans sounds good in theory, but in practice things could be just a little bit messier.
Nobody can be expected to read through all the terms of service and privacy policies for everything they use. That would require far more time than anyone wants to spend when they’re setting up their iPhone, for example, or signing up for the newest social tool for teens who want to indicate their down-ness.
So we click the “agree” button without knowing what’s happening, content to keep ourselves from drowning in a flood of legalese. Even if we did read many of these policies, it would be hard to tell exactly what companies are allowed to do, mostly because the vast majority of us aren’t familiar with applicable laws.
This is an obvious problem. Making policies and agreements easier to read is admirable. But when people realize exactly what they’re agreeing to, especially if those terms aren’t broken down like they are in Snapchat’s blog post, they’re likely to respond with the fear Snapchat’s users showed after these updates.
It would be easier for tech companies to keep the legalese and prevent their users from ever understand what they’ve agreed to until scandal breaks out. The companies are damned if their policies are inscrutable to normal people, and damned if they make them more readable but people misinterpret them.
Snapchat has learned this the hard way. Some of the blame lies with the company — as I said, it could’ve saved itself a headache by publishing yesterday’s blog post earlier — but a lot of it lies with us for not knowing what we’ve agreed to in the past. Welcome to the wonders of modern technology.

Snapchat prioritizes its platform over its original content

Tech companies love to dip their toes into the fetid waters of media production. Sometimes that works out, as Netflix and Amazon have shown. Other times it doesn’t, which appears to be the case with Snapchat following a report that it has permanently shut down the in-house video network it debuted in January.
That network was called Snap Channel. It was supposed to relaunch after its  team moved into a 12,000-square-foot studio in Marina del Rey. Instead the channel has been shut down, the studio will be used by other Snapchat workers, and the 15-person team behind Snap Channel was laid off or reassigned. The channel was part of the Snapchat’s Discover network, which emphasizes byte-sized videos and animated GIFs. The network has been compared to a “cool kids table” that media companies fight each other to access — could that change now that even Snapchat has shuttered its own channel on the network? Probably not.
While some have interpreted Snap Channel’s demise as a sign of Discover’s greater problems, it seems more likely that Snapchat has decided to focus on building its platform instead of creating its own content. That’s hardly a surprise; tech companies often have to choose between one of those two sides.
Just look at Medium, which recently made a series of changes that could allow it to become an even more popular way for people to publish their stories. (It also, ya know, raised $57 million at a $400 million pre-money valuation. No biggie.) That company cut down on its editorial content production earlier this year by killing several sites, laying off writers, and reducing its budget for freelancers. Now it runs just two publications: the tech-focused Backchannel, and Matter, the science website it acquired in 2013 and turned into a general interest blog.
Medium went from a hybrid platform-publisher (please, god, don’t make me call them “platishers“) to being a straightforward platform. In doing so it reduced its costs, made itself less threatening to the media companies it’s wooing with new features, and was able to settle a long-running debate about its raison d’être.
Snapchat is probably doing the same thing. Instead of fussing around with content production — and taking up one of the valuable spaces at a table with intentionally limited seating — it’s focusing on the platform used to distribute that content. It likely isn’t abandoning Discover; if anything, it’s focusing on it.
Of course, there are platforms that have increased their focus on making original content in recent months. Vimeo announced three new shows earlier this month, and Reddit introduced a publication called Upvoted to stop sites like BuzzFeed from stealing content shared to its platform, among other things. These efforts make a little more sense than Snapchat’s, if only because both platforms are well-established and the companies can afford to split their focus.
And even when companies get original content right, like Netflix often does, it’s hard to please fickle consumers. Snapchat is essentially admitting that content is expensive, time-consuming, and hard to target at a broad audience. Owning the digital tubes that deliver that content to a bunch of eager, easy-to-market-to millennials, on the other hand, can be quite lucrative. It opted for the latter.

Snapchat plans advertiser-supported ‘sponsored lenses’

Snapchat has found a new way to monetize its service — and this time it’s not undermining the reason it’s become such a popular social tool in the process.
The Financial Times reports that Snapchat wants advertisers to pay for “sponsored lenses” that change the way its users’ selfies look. Citing the ever-popular “people familiar with the matter,” the report says the feature should debut on Halloween, which seems like a good time to launch a tool devoted to making things look weird.
Sponsored lenses are said to cost $750,000 during important dates like Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. They’ll cost $450,000 during other days — an option which could make it attractive to companies looking to promote new films, albums, or other content that is tied to a specific date but doesn’t coincide with any holiday.
Advertisers who want to reach Snapchat’s valuable millennial user base have other options, too. They can pay to create special “geofilters” that allow people to modify their photos with stickers unique to specific locations. They can also pay to show ads in the app’s Discover section, with Snapchat taking varying portions of the revenues.
All those ads live alongside other, non-sponsored features inside Snapchat’s app. People can use lenses to change their selfies even if an advertiser didn’t pay for it, modify their photos with geofilters from places unaffiliated with any business, or watch a couple dozen videos through Discover without encountering a single ad.
These sponsored lenses would follow another new revenue scheme: Asking people to pay for the ability to re-watch the ostensibly-ephemeral content sent to them. The feature is available for free, but consumers are asked to pay 99 cents to receive three more of the “Replays,” as they’re called. A used-to-be free feature went freemium.
That change is worrisome. As I wrote when Snapchat changed the feature:

Snapchat has now popularized and, indeed, monetized, a concept that runs counter to the notions that made it popular in the first place.

Today it’s paying a little less than a buck to re-watch some videos or take another peek at a photo. What might it be later? A few dollars to view a snap more than twice? Doing away with the restriction when teens don’t pay for Replays? Perhaps that won’t happen, but it seems more likely than it did yesterday.

Features like these new sponsored lenses are a little less hostile to Snapchat’s original vision. Besides looking like a goofball for a few seconds — double if someone uses one of their precious Replays to view the snap again — they’re harmless. They’re also fun, and they fit with Snapchat’s monetization strategy to date.

Snapchat monetizes a feature that runs counter to its reason for being

Snapchat has released an update today that allows its users to pay for the ability to replay the photos and videos their friends send.
While the feature could help the company make some money,it could also damage the perception of ephemerality that made it popular.
People have actually been able to access a single disappeared snap (message, photo, or short video) for a while now. These second chances to see old messages are what the company refers to as a “Replay,” which were previously free and available every 24-hour period. (The first taste is always free.) Now the company wants users to pay 99 cents for a pack of three Replays.
Snapchat has also pulled Replays out from behind several layers of navigation. Instead of living inside the “Manage” section of the app’s “Settings” page, Replays are now available by default. A free-and-hidden feature’s now “freemium” and readily apparent.
It’s similar in concept to Tinder’s decision to restrict the number of people a user is allowed to express interest in each day. The specifics differ — Replay is being expanded instead of restricted — but the concept of asking people to pay for tools they could previously use for free is the same across services.
Yet, this also feels like a much bigger shift. The whole appeal of Snapchat is that most of the content shared to it will be viewed once before it’s sent to oblivion. Making it easier for someone to view one of these items again, thus providing another opportunity for the item to be saved, runs counter to all that.
There is one notable restriction: Users can only Replay an item, whether it’s a photo or a video, once. This means anything sent via the service can be viewed a maximum of twice — provided the item isn’t part of the not-so-ephemeral Stories — at any time. That’s good, but I can’t help but wonder if it will be enough.
For Snapchat, the rules of communication aren’t supposed to be flexible. Tinder could introduce metered matches because the concept of meeting people (whether for hookups or relationships) remained the same. But Snapchat has now popularized and, indeed, monetized, a concept that runs counter to the notions that made it popular in the first place.
Today it’s paying a little less than a buck to re-watch some videos or take another peek at a photo. What might it be later? A few dollars to view a snap more than twice? Doing away with the restriction when teens don’t pay for Replays? Perhaps that won’t happen, but it seems more likely than it did yesterday.
On the upside, now it’s a little clearer why the company has been cracking down on third-party services. I used to think it was because it really believed that people shouldn’t be able to save content sent to them via its service. Now I think the company was just protecting a future monetization strategy.
Oh, the difference a single feature can make.

Pew confirms lots of social networking stereotypes

Pew has released a new report today detailing America’s usage of social networking tools, and much of the report confirms things many people already suspected.
First there’s Facebook. It remains the undisputed king of social networking, with a reported 72 percent of Internet users having an account with the service. Of those, an estimated 70 percent visit the site at least once a day, making it the most popular social network in terms of both sheer numbers and actual usage. Then there’s Pinterest. The site is gaining users — roughly 31 percent of Internet users have an account with the service — but is still half the size of Facebook. But the more interesting tidbit in Pew’s report is that the stereotype about Pinterest being dominated by women is true: 44 percent of online women are said to have an account with the service, while just 16 percent of online men do.
That’s a trend throughout Pew’s report. Basically, if there’s an assumption that has been made about a social network’s users, it’s probably accurate. Just look at Snapchat — 41 percent of smartphone owners between the ages of 18 and 29 use it or tools like it; that number drops off a cliff as a group’s age increases. Snapchat really is used predominantly by teenyboppers and young millennials.
Then consider Pew’s report on the popularity of message boards like Reddit. The site, and others like it, is used mostly by young people. It also has a much higher percentage of male users (20 percent) versus female users (11 percent). Might that discrepancy have something to do with that particular forum’s reputation for sexism, as shown by attacks on former chief executive Ellen Pao?
And then there’s the evidence showing that LinkedIn really is for people who want to get ahead in their careers. It’s the only social network used more by older people than young people. It also shows more popularity among college graduates than people with only high school educations, or with people who have jobs versus those who are unemployed. None of that comes as a surprise.
Of course, there is a question about which came first, the audience or the stereotype. It’s possible that early stories about each of these networks influenced their demographics. Pinterest being described as a woman’s social network probably scared off many men, and Reddit’s portrayal as a haven for sexism isn’t likely to have endeared it to women who’ve never visited it.

Either way, it’s clear many stereotypes about social networks are (partly) true. But there is at least one surprise in Pew’s report: Tumblr’s unpopularity.
The blogging tool is said to be used by just 10 percent of online Americans — that’s less than are using message boards, LinkedIn, and every other social service. It’s enough to make you wonder why the site is paid so much attention by the tech press, at least until you learn about the site’s popularity amongst urbanites.
Pew’s report shows that 16 percent of Internet users from urban areas use Tumblr. That number is halved when you move to the suburbs (8 percent) then halved again (down to 3 percent) when you consider rural areas. Tumblr is plainly used mostly by people who live in cities — which is where many tech reporters also live. Could this mean the Internet habits of roughly 20 percent of the population aren’t given as much attention by the media as they should be?
That’s what makes reports like this one valuable. Even though they often confirm what we already think we know, as shown by most of the information cited in this post, they might also reveal unconscious biases. Before this report, it would’ve been easy to assume that Tumblr is more popular than it is based solely on the attention paid to it by the media. Now we know that’s not the case.
Pew: confirming stereotypes then shattering a public misconception, sometimes in equal measure, since before many Snapchat users had even been born.