Late last month, Snap released Spotlight, a new part of its Snapchat app that, on first swipe, closely resembles TikTok. The update adds a new tab to the app dedicated entirely to short, entertaining vertical videos. It incorporates some of TikTok’s signature features, like vertical swipe and the ability to soundtrack your videos with music that’s been uploaded to the platform. It’s even powered by a mysterious, personalized recommendation algorithm so that, like TikTok, it serves you an endless stream of content without requiring that you follow or add the creators who made it. All of this amounts to a user experience that almost feels like a TikTok feed inside your Snapchat app, but with one noticeable difference: Unlike TikTok’s carousel of delights, the content on Spotlight ranges from limp and joyless to cringey and grotesque. In other words, it’s very bad.
I’m no longer a regular user of Snapchat. The notoriously confusing-to-adults messaging platform once seemed like a plausible rival to Facebook, until Facebook’s Instagram ripped it off with Stories, rendering it obsolete for many millennials like myself. As TikTok became the entertainment app du jour, Snapchat did continue to add users on the merits of its messaging, Map, and Discover features—last quarter, the app reported an increase in daily active users of 18 percent over the previous year. But as the competition for Gen Z’s eyeballs becomes ever-fiercer, it’s not a mystery why Snap might want to create a TikTok-like experience. So as a hopelessly devoted TikTok scroller, I wanted to see if Snap had a hope of stealing back some of the attention that TikTok now commands.
In a departure for an app of this kind, Snapchat is paying people for videos that become popular on Spotlight. YouTube and TikTok also pay for content, but through a creators’ program, wherein accounts above a certain threshold of popularity are compensated for racking up views. Instagram doesn’t pay creators directly, but popularity on the app can be monetized into lucrative brand deals. On Spotlight, anyone 16 or older can submit a video without establishing an influencer-level presence or even having a public profile on the app. (Snapchat profiles are private by default.) And the incentive to submit is not insignificant: Through the end of the year, the most popular submissions that make it to Spotlight will split $1 million per day, with payouts calculated according to an opaque popularity algorithm.
What is Snapchat getting for its money? Here are some of the aspirationally viral things I saw over a few hours of scrolling:
• a dozen ASMR videos
• someone receiving an extra egg patty in their Chick-fil-A breakfast sandwich
• someone spying a man at an airport who looks like, but is not, Joe Biden
• someone scaring their roommates with a remote control snake
• someone eating a dried honeycomb from a wasp’s nest
•someone feeding a live mouse to an African lungfish in a tank
• someone lamenting their burnt toast
• two different people melting wax beads into hot wax and proceeding to wax off their arm hair
• someone demonstrating quick and easy ab workouts
• someone trimming their cat’s butt hair
• someone literally laying bricks
• a fish being deboned
• a handful of makeup tutorials
• a cute dog
• a prank involving a pair of men’s underwear, several melted Crunch bars, and something labeled “Stinky Ass Spray.”
Whew! The whiplash between deeply boring and extremely unpleasant was a lot. Spotlight’s interface might mimic TikTok’s convincingly, but the experience couldn’t be more different. TikTok starts new users out on fail-proof content like cute pets, funny jokes, and tasty-looking recipes, and gradually finds more specific niches you enjoy as its algorithm gets a sense for your interests and inclinations. You can always log out of your TikTok account and scroll the app anonymously to get a sense for what’s most popular sans algorithm, and whenever I do so, the content is reliably funny or interesting, if a little basic: The videos are well-edited using clever transitions, with canny song selection and a solid punchline.
By contrast, Spotlight’s algorithm plunged me directly into a pool of unpleasant and then dipped me into a pond of boring. ASMR and gross-out pranks aside, most of the submissions are low-quality captures of medium-amusing but very ordinary things—the kinds of videos that might make your Instagram story but not your permanent grid. The average video is lower-quality and less thoughtfully framed than on TikTok, there’s way less music, and Snapchat’s characteristic dark horizontal band of text often provides the captioning—it’s the app’s default option for writing in text, but for me it evokes the year 2015. To boot, this lo-fi content is delivered in what feels like a vacuum: It lacks the popularity metrics that are displayed on every TikTok video and features no commenting, dueting, or other ways for creators and audience to interact. When you’re served a weird TikTok, the suggestion is that you’ve been welcomed into a specialized community of weirdos. Spotlight, however, almost feels like spying on a randomly chosen selection of Snapchat videos sent privately all over the world. Given the prize-money setup, that isn’t so far from what’s actually happening.
In theory, this should amount to a sort of content meritocracy, with no one resting on their high-follower-count laurels and the most watchable videos rising to the top. So why is my entire feed practically unwatchable? I can think of a few potential reasons.
The first is that Spotlight isn’t much more than a week old. It’s entirely possible that as users update their app and become aware of the potential to earn money, higher-quality content will make its way to the feed. Snapchat does not accept Spotlight submissions that are watermarked in any way, meaning it’s difficult to repurpose content that’s already been posted on TikTok—a tactic that’s landed Instagram’s TikTok knockoff, Reels, with content aplenty.
It’s also possible that since the content recommendation algorithm is still in its infancy, it’s not yet adept at moving you down the funnel toward your content of choice. My current feed on TikTok is full of Phoebe Bridgers memes, Taylor Swift fandom conspiracies, astrology-related hot takes, and tiny dogs—just how I like it. In contrast, the more general-interest stuff I’m getting on Spotlight feels lukewarm. If Spotlight doesn’t learn to intuit what its users want to see quickly, it’ll have a lot of trouble poaching TikTok users. We’re used to specificity.
The worst-case scenario for Snap is that incentivizing its still-massive user base—249 million daily actives per day—to submit videos of their goings-on for a chance to win cash will simply land them with a barrage of mundane content. It’s incredibly easy to submit a video to Spotlight—it just takes one extra click from the same screen that allows you to send the same video to your Story or friends. The content chosen for Spotlight is moderated before it makes the feed. But even an army of moderators combined with the sharpest algorithm might have a hard time sifting through what is functionally millions’ of people’s private messages for gold. TikTok is in the process of graduating from amateur talent show to professionalized showcase of and powerful tool for world-class creative talent. If Snap can’t attract that talent, then Spotlight, like the ephemeral Snaps we loved all those years ago, may simply go poof.