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Snap changes the subject

Snap is a great little factory for social-media invention, and a lousy business that loses money and
April 4 · Issue #310 · View online
The Interface
Snap is a great little factory for social-media invention, and a lousy business that loses money and executives at a higher rate than any of its peers. Whether it can ultimately remain an independent company hinges on two things: inventing something that others have a harder time copying than they have had to date; and building revenue products that can make the company profitable and entice executives to stay beyond a few months.
At its first-ever partner summit today, Snap sought to turn the focus away from its bruising post-IPO history and toward the future: one in which Snapchat stories make their way onto Tinder and Houseparty; Snap ads appears in other developers’ apps; a burgeoning video game platform and growing roster of original programs keep teens engaged with Snapchat longer; and the Eiffel Tower begins puking rainbows.
Taken together, Thursday’s announcements did little to explain how Snap will find new users, which seem to have leveled off at a still-robust 186 million people daily. But CEO Evan Spiegel did effectively describe how Snap can capture more of its users’ time and attention. Snap reaches 75 percent of 13- to 34-year-olds, Spiegel said on stage Thursday, and 90 percent of 13- to 24-year-olds. Spiegel’s best argument to doubters is that however big a lead Facebook might have as it prepares to pivot to privacy, Snap still owns the future.
For its first-ever major public event, Snap pulled out all the stops. The company built a small, temporary village in a Hollywood studio lot — a location that underscored the company’s ties to the entertainment industry, and distinguished the event from Silicon Valley’s cookie-cutter development conferences. (The event took place on the lot where “The Social Network” was filmed, as Alex Heath points out.) Art installations encouraged visitors to take snaps, and augmented-reality lenses brought studio buildings to virtual life. If you snapped someone’s badge, their Bitmoji would pop out and wave.
The keynote presentation began on time, with dramatic music rising to a crescendo over a spoken-word intro from the radio and television pioneer David Sarnoff. As the music hit its peak, the stage turned yellow, and Spiegel walked out to applause. None of it was necessary, but it all looked very cool, and the ability to pull off something cool tends to be underrated in the apps where we older folks spend most of our time.
Over the next 40 minutes, Spiegel and a small handful of executives laid out their announcements. (I imagine it was exciting for them to be able to address a large group in public without having to brandish a heart-shaped purple geode.) Afterward, developers were invited into adjacent sound stages to learn more about the various new tools Snap was making available to them. I ate bulgogi bao buns, took a selfie with a person in the Snapchat ghost, and tried to maintain my composure when Cindy Crawford walked by, looking like a billion dollars as usual.
I also tried to gauge the mood of developers about the day’s news. On the whole, everyone I spoke to seemed intrigued by Snap’s announcements, if relatively non-committal. A woman who works in augmented reality told me that Snap’s tools are good, but that every AR platform is basically the same, and where you decide to build your filters is largely a matter of personal preference. Two founders I spoke with, who built stickers to let their users share content back to Snap, were hopeful it would help them build a younger audience. A Snap employee told me about his work with pride, then approached a venture capitalist I know and mentioned he might be looking for a new job a few months from now.
But if we’ve learned nothing else, it’s that the ideas that incubate at Snap have a way of taking over the entire social-media industry. On stage, Spiegel showed a slide that ticked off the company’s contributions to social networks: ephemeral messaging, vertical video, stories, AR lenses, a real-time map of your friends’ locations, and Bitmoji personalized avatars. I don’t know whether Snap’s take on games — live, multiplayer, augmented with voice and text chat — will prove to be a winning formula. But if it is, I know we’ll see it everywhere.
One of my chief frustrations about Snap is that we hear so little from Spiegel, who despite his faults as a manager remains one of the foremost thinkers about social apps. His view of the world always seems about 30 degrees off from everyone else’s, and his betting record is good. “The internet started as a military research project,” he noted on stage Thursday. “It’s just not our natural habitat.” With Snap, he said, he hoped to “combine the superpowers of technology with the best of humanity. Things like friendship, compassion, creativity, generosity, and love.” It’s easy to imagine the Silicon Valley parody of a speech like that, but in the moment I believed him.

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