Oh Snap! How intelligent people make themselves stupid for Snapchat

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Comment Perv-magnet app Snapchat is no more. It has renamed itself Snap! as it wants to be a respectable media tech company. Specifically, it says “a camera company”.

Here’s perhaps the only interesting thing about Snapchat. Nobody really understands what the point of it is, and maybe Snapchat doesn’t either. But it’s exploited this brilliantly.

Snapchat is a beneficiary of the inter-generational trolling that’s been there since we heard utopian internet rhetoric for the first time. The argument is: because young people (mostly teenagers and millennials) use Snapchat, old people will never “get it”.

This kind of intergenerational antagonism was evident twenty years ago in John Perry Barlow’s self-indulgent Davos manifesto, A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace. Barlow pretty much advised oldies to check in at the glue factory when he wrote: “You are terrified of your own children, since they are natives in a world where you will always be immigrants.”

What happens is that people do one of two things when invited to explain Snapchat. They are either throw their hands in the air, and say it’s impossible. Or they make complete fools of themselves trying to do so. Just as people make themselves stupid to make robots look smart (so they can act all surprised by them) Snapchat seems to blow a fog of stupid over all kinds of pundits, young and old.

Don’t look for clues in profiles of Snapchat’s founder, Evan Spiegel.

He’s “a 25-year-old unlike any 25-year-old you’ve likely ever met” Recode gushes, unhelpfully.

So how about asking the young ‘uns who use it? Here’s an example of a millennial working in tech who feels obliged to explain for us why Snapchat is important.

What is it then, O Millennial One?

“Snapchat is not mobile-first, and it’s not really an app any more. Nor is it a meta-app platform at this point like Facebook Messenger is angling to become (at least not yet).”

We could be in for a long night, you’re thinking, fearing that he might have a very long list of things Snapchat is not. (“It’s not a fish. It’s not a door-opener…”)

Then suddenly, he lunges at an explanation.

“Snapchat is a true creature of mobile, a living, breathing embodiment of everything that our camera-enabled, networked pocket computer can possibly offer.”

Er, OK then. So what can a camera-enabled networked pocket computer offer? Unfortunately, the writer doesn’t elaborate, but he does explain how he feels, which is apparently what matters most to a millennial.

“When I open Snapchat up to the camera, I can’t shake the feeling that the ghost is banging on the glass, trying to break out into the world.”

Er, thank you for sharing. But that’s not much help. Apparently being in the same age bracket as Snapchat’s users by itself doesn’t help you explain Snapchat.

How about a professional enthusiast, such as an editor at the distinguished Indian broadsheet The Hindustan Times? What persuaded Yusuf Omar to encourage the adoption of Snapchat?

“It’s almost as if Snapchat’s growth is a mystery,” he told an audience recently. There’s “no post production process” Omar said in a video talk. This is not a Bad Thing – it is a Good Thing:

“You shoot everything within the app, You put your text down, you put your emoji down and you’re good to go. I want a platform that’s like a blank canvas. Snapchat is like that,” he added.

Omar cited one compelling use case: undercover journalism. “It’s not unethical, it’s simply observing,” he maintained.

(Actually, it can be highly unethical and costly too, as he’ll realise once he gets round to the legal training he needs on Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. But I suppose legal training is one of those things that muddies the “blank canvas”, and legal advice slows down the “post-production process”.)

We could see how Snapchat could help, we mused, so long as the subject in the undercover job didn’t realise they were being filmed from a smartphone. Yet the example Omar showed us didn’t really back up his enthusiasm for Snapchat as the undercover sleuth’s best friend.

The video story purported to show how easy it was to buy cocaine on the streets. Omar hailed a cab, then sat in a car while the driver went off, fetched the cocaine and brought it back.

Oh. Perhaps it’s not so undercover then.

Omar was just one of the stars at an event last week called SnapHappen last week: a self-facilitating swarm of Snapchat users, who described itself as “the world's first Snapchat™ conference, run BY the community FOR the community… NOT in any way endorsed, affiliated or organised by Snapchat.” The Guardian popped in.

It isn't a community so much as a self-help group for walking billboards. The millennials recite a list of product endorsements – and big brands are so frantic to attract this demographic, they'll shower the Snapchatters with goodies.

“Each speaker had a long list of partners to mention: Disney, Nintendo, 20th-Century Fox, Coca-Cola, Red Bull, AT&T, General Electric, Gucci, Microsoft, Hyundai and Starbucks.”

Have a look.

Snaphole

But Snapchat, sorry, Snap has people very excited because it’s making the new Google Glass.

Snap is creating a cut-down $130 version of the notoriously creepy Google spyware, without the always-on HUD, that records 10 second video clips on demand. These will be called “Spectacles” and Brian Solisfalse, principal analyst at the Altimeter Group calls them “a fun, but thoughtful sunglass package… “an admirable and approachable entrant into the wearable space”.

But wait. Do you think Spectacles will fare any better than Google Glass, whose “glasshole” wearers were being beaten up in bars? It depends on whether you think the creepy part of Google Glass was the HUD, or the video recording part. If the creepy bit is someone filming you with their specs, I suspect not.

Solisfalse reassures us: “Those on the other side of the lens, will know they're being recorded because of a halo-like light that surrounds the lens.”

Again, I don’t see a problem there at all. Do you?

Snapchat’s success seems to be fairly obvious: it's the Mission Impossible-style assurance that the media you send or receive will self destruct in a few seconds. By removing permanence, and any ability to "catch up" later, the photos and videos create an unrepeatable experience. It’s a one off performance, not video on demand. And Snapchat scares parents, which is always a plus, although not for parents.

So why do intelligent people run into such difficulties when presented with new media? Possibly because they feel obliged to. It’s like the Emperor’s New Clothes. You have to say something.

Endearingly, the Hindustan Times' Omar admitted as much to the Guardian's Stuart Dredge: “The more ‘social media experts’ I meet, the more I realise we’re just making it up”, he confessed.

So go on, please say something New Media Pundit-like in the comments. Bonus points for incorporating the phrases “It’s the End of …” and/or “It’s the New”. ®

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