There may be no major tech company that thinks more critically about the role of social media in our lives—and gets less credit for it—than Snap. The Stanford-incubated, Los Angeles–based company was conceived partly as a reaction to the way Facebook and Twitter were turning us all into performers on a public stage, mugging and posing for likes, while they recorded it all for posterity and built shadow profiles of us for the benefit of advertisers. That Snapchat was also born partly as a way for people to send racy selfies without getting in trouble does not necessarily invalidate its philosophical underpinnings.
Now, CEO Evan Spiegel is pitching his app’s latest redesign as a reaction to another set of problems that Facebook has wrought. In an Axios op-ed Wednesday, Spiegel talked about “separating social from media.” It’s a characteristically contrarian idea—and, like many of Snap’s ideas lately, one that may represent a risk for a company whose future depends on its ability to compete successfully for our attention with Facebook and Instagram. But if anyone can pull it off in a way that appeals to young people, it would be Snap.
On a literal level, Spiegel was talking about Snapchat’s new layout, which began rolling out this week. The notoriously confusing app’s new design literally divides your social interactions from its professionally produced media content. The former—snaps from your friends—can be found to the left of the main camera screen. The latter—including the Discover tab, populated with stories from publishers like the Daily Mail, BuzzFeed, and the New York Times, as well as TV-like video “Shows”—will be to the right.
This change, along with some tweaks to the interface, might make Snapchat marginally more comprehensible to newcomers. But it isn’t quite the user-friendly overhaul that some had in mind when Spiegel admitted last month that the app was “hard to use” and promised changes to make it more accessible.
For Spiegel, however, the division of social from media is freighted with meaning beyond its practical implications for ease of use. It’s a declaration that Snapchat is not, in fact, a “social media” company—a category Spiegel clearly associates with Facebook. It’s also a bold attempt to segregate online socializing from online news reading, two activities that Facebook and Twitter have linked in recent years to potent effect. At the same time, it represents an attempt to capitalize on Facebook’s “fake news” problem and position Snapchat as a more responsible alternative. Spiegel writes:
Social media fueled “fake news” because content designed to be shared by friends is not necessarily content designed to deliver accurate information. After all, how many times have you shared something you’ve never bothered to read?
The combination of social and media has yielded incredible business results, but has ultimately undermined our relationships with our friends and our relationships with the media. We believe that the best path forward is disentangling the two by providing a personalized content feed based on what you want to watch, not what your friends post.
That’s a compelling and somewhat radical critique of Facebook’s news feed. Critics often blame the company for the biases built into its algorithm or its failure to adequately police its platform. Spiegel is going further here, attacking the very idea of letting users’ interactions with a news story determine who sees it. Without quite saying as much, he’s calling for a return to the era when the news people saw was determined by a combination of professional editors and their own preferences rather than by crowd wisdom.
It’s easy enough for a media theorist to lob these sorts of structural critiques of the modern news business. The challenge for Spiegel and Snapchat is that they’re putting their money—and lots of investors’ money—where their mouth is. So the question now is: Will their approach work? Will users still want to spend time poring through headlines one publication at a time when they could instead be on Facebook reading the posts that all their friends are talking about?
For those worried about what Facebook and Twitter have done to the media, a return to a more professionally curated news environment holds a lot of intuitive appeal. Besides rewarding click-bait and sensationalism, Facebook’s news feed algorithm removed publisher credibility from the equation that determines what people read—with predictably disastrous effects. Crucially, Snapchat’s approach re-establishes the publication, rather than the headline or the number of “likes,” as the primary source of reader trust.
There are reasons to be skeptical that the genie can be stuffed back in the box. Part of the reason people get so much news on Facebook is that opening Facebook doesn’t really feel like reading the news.
Reading the news feels like a serious activity that requires some mental preparation—especially these days. Opening Facebook, in contrast, is what you do to kill time or distract yourself from more pressing issues. One analogy is that opening Facebook is less like opening the morning paper or turning on CNN and more like moseying over to the watercooler or a local pub to see what everyone’s gossiping about. The latter sounds a lot more fun, right?
That’s why news-focused apps and websites like Flipboard, Digg, Prismatic, and Facebook’s Paper have failed to catch on with the masses in the way that Facebook and Twitter have. Apple News seems to be faring better, but it’s hard to say whether that’s because people really like it or just because it comes preinstalled on every iOS device. People use Apple News, sure, but they don’t get addicted to it the way many people do to social media.
It seems telling that Snap has not disclosed how many people use its Discover tab. (The company declined to provide any statistics for this story.) If it were a huge hit, Snap would have no reason to hide those figures. The company did announce in October that 97 million people had tuned into at least one of its Shows in the feature’s first year. But it’s hard to interpret that statistic without knowing how many of those people watch regularly as opposed to just trying it once. It’s not clear how putting the Discover tab to the right of the camera instead of the left would drastically change its popularity.
That said, if Snap is really committed to becoming a destination for online media, the company has a few things going for it that others don’t. First of all, it appeals to exactly the young audience that might be open to consuming their news in a novel way. Snap’s vertical video format, which works so well for Stories, still feels like a promising medium for delivering news on a mobile phone. Snap has also smartly prioritized entertainment and lifestyle content in its Discover tab alongside more serious fare: You can find CNN and the Times on there, but also People, Cosmopolitan, Tasty, and Bleacher Report. Something new media outlets often seem to forget about print newspapers is that a lot of people read them mainly for the sports scores and advice columns.
Perhaps most importantly, Snap isn’t entirely divorcing the social component of its app from the media portion. Making Discover its own app, as Facebook did with Paper, might doom it to niche status, at least at this relatively early stage of its development. But putting it a mere two swipes away from your friends’ snaps could position it as an attractive procrastination feature in its own right. Think about it: If you’re a young person who snaps all day with your friends, you’re going to spend a lot of minutes waiting anxiously for someone to snap you back. Why not flip over to Discover in the meantime?
It’s often hard to tell these days how much of Spiegel’s philosophizing is earnest and how much is strategic—that is, a convenient way to take shots at rival Facebook while pumping up his own product. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter much. Snap may not succeed in developing a successful alternative to Facebook for reading the news on your phone. But if it does, we’ll all be better off for it.