The Future Of Human Interaction Could Be In The Past, Says Snapchat
Snapchat is the multimedia messaging app that has made billionaires and, if not hosuehold names, certainly familiar ones, of its founders Evan Speigel, Bobby Murphy and Reggie Brown. That Snapchat was said to have reached reached 90 percent of all 13-24 year-olds and 75 percent of all 13-34-year-olds in the U.S in 2019 shows you that despite its relatively small useage numbers (200 million compared to, say, Facebook's 2 billion plus) it's not to be underestimated.
It also makes it more surprising that, according to the people charged with steering this digital behemoth, what these youthful users really want is a chance to look old.
Consider this: You’re walking down the street, and you bump into an old friend you haven’t seen in years. You embrace. You catch up on common friends, your work, weddings, children.
Then you leave, glowing from a priceless conversation whose memory will remain with you.
The details of the encounter will, in a short time, however, disappear into thin air.
It is a metaphor that has made Snapchat one of the biggest communications platforms in the world today.
VP of Product at Snap Inc. on the Future of Memory
“When you walk away from that moment, all you’re left with is the memory of how you felt,” Jacob Andreou, Vice President of Product at Snap Inc., says. “And we actually believe that dynamic is a very powerful thing because it makes the conversation about the content and about the emotional content, not about the specific words that were said.”
Snapchat, or its core values, go a lot deeper than funny cat filters and celebrity posts.
People in their 50s or 60s, Andreou says, grew up with a clear idea of what a camera is for, to commemorate events, to bookmark moments in time.
“For generation Z kids and millennials, however, the first camera they were exposed to was the one on their smart phone, a camera that was connected to the internet and friends. It was less about commemoration, more about communication.”
Things changed quickly, and even older users now appreciate “visual communications as the fastest way to communicate”. Significantly, Snapchat has never had a like button, a sharing service, or comments section.
“We think of ourselves as being distinctly different from the broader landscape of social media,” says Andreou. “We made a lot of decisions early on that went counter to the way a lot of other platforms have been built. And though a lot of these things seem obvious now, at the time they were huge risks actually.”
Social media is a landscape where everything lasts forever. Photos, and old tweets can come back to haunt users.
Many established platforms have long adopted a growth at all costs mentality that proved toxic, and are retroactively considering their paths now, but for Snapchat, this differentiation was no happy accident.
“A lot of those decisions were made early on, not just to be counter-culture,” he says. “We wanted to have the central focus on creating the most human platform that we possibly could. Internally we say often to our design team this simple phrase of ‘creativity is not the competition’,”
Andreou believes that keeping the friends section separate on the platform will embolden creativity for the individual user, as will the fact that celebrities and businesses have been give different “real estate” to operate in.
Snapchat Users in the Middle East
Users in the Middle East have noticeably embraced the celebrity, or “official”, accounts.
“When we look at MENA in particular, and the GCC countries, we do see that the platform is being used holistically in a really amazing way,” he says. “We see great engagements in the chat parts of the product, but we also see engagement in the content consumption, specifically in the official and popular account consumption compared to other markets.”
Andreou has been at Snap Inc. for five years now, and before this had worked on several start-ups, and products, which he sold, before most recently working with Facebook. It was Snap’s “human-centred design” that captured his heart.
As a student Andreou was fascinated by the early studies in academic sociology around social media. In particular, the work of Danah Boyd, who was one of the first academics to look at early social networks, and Nathan Jorgensen, who carried that torch by studying the “Instagramification” of the platforms.
“The way people started to interpret the presence as a ‘future past’ where you’re not really living in the moment anymore, where you’re already getting to think about how this will look as a memory. It was through studying his work that I found out he was employed by Snapchat.”
Snapchat's Latest Lens: Time Machine
Snapchat’s latest release is Time Machine, a lens that allows users to see younger and older versions of themselves by sliding their finger to the left or right of their screen. Like many of its other lenses, it seems like a bit of transient fun, but Andreou strongly believes augmented reality is one of the fundamental building blocks of the next computing platform.
“One of the interesting transitions that are coming up is that we’re going to see the barriers between the physical and digital world start to blur,” he said. “At the moment we are stuck in this world which we internally refer to as ‘digital-dualism’, which is a term coined by out sociologist Jorgensen. It’s where, basically, the digital and physical world exist separately.”
Simply, you are either engrossed in your phone, tablet or computer, shutting off the real world. Or, increasingly momentarily, in the physical world while away from your devices. It’s still a choice, for now.
“I think the most fascinating thing about augmented reality isn’t that you can put characters on a table or that you can put something on your face,” he said. “It’s actually that it’s the first step on this journey of merging the physical and digital world.”