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Snapchat’s Local Stories Were a Grand Experiment in Crowdsourced TV

The app gets a little less human, and a little more corporate

Ringer illustration
Ringer illustration

Before Facebook was the place for engagement proclamations, it was where we randomly Poked one another. Before Twitter was a platform for live-blogging protests and TV shows, it was the website where people wrote about what they had for lunch. Before the architects of our digital spaces can figure out how to create a high-engagement, advertisement-friendly environment, they have to watch us piddle around in trivial human pursuits for a while. They have to watch us be boring.

This week, it seems, Snapchat is graduating from that “boring” phase of its growth by excising one of its most human features. The company is dumping daily Local Stories, the 24-hour montages that it used to capture slices of urban life in locations across the globe. The company will continue to publish Live Stories pegged to major events, such as concerts, protests, and sports, but the day-to-day activities that populated Stories between major spectacles will no longer be up for mass public consumption.

Here’s how it used to work: Every day in a number of major cities, including New York, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and Paris, users could submit any photo or video they captured with the Snapchat app to be part of “Our Story,” a public feed of snaps from a given community. Snapchat employed a team of human curators to trawl through these submitted snaps, which numbered as many as 20,000 per day, and pick 50 to 60 of the best ones.

Over time, these daily stories developed a certain dependable rhythm as I watched them unfold in New York. A twentysomething walking to the office offers a Khaled-esque motivational speech for the workday. A street performer on a subway platform attracts a delighted audience, preferably including a dancing child. It’s beer o’clock in the offices of an anonymous Manhattan skyscraper, and Wine Wednesday in an anonymous park (probably Central). A celebratory parade ensues uptown, while a fiery protest rages downtown. The Knicks are losing — again. A front-row fan at a Rihanna concert catches her mid-“Umbrella.” And a rooftop dweller bids the city good night with a somber view of the skyline. It’s the six o’clock news condensed into three minutes.

Local Stories were not always revelatory, but they provided a very specific sense of community in a digital space. I liked having a crowdsourced mini-documentary about young people’s lives in New York beamed to my phone every day. Trying to craft the perfect snap to be selected by the curators encouraged use of the app. And sometimes, regular folks did happen upon legitimate news — a Snapchatter recorded Donald Trump reporting for jury duty last summer, and it ended up in the Local Story.

I’ll admit that I didn’t look at the New York local story every day, and Bloomberg reports that one reason the videos were axed is because they weren’t as popular as other features. But Snapchat also deemphasized all Live Stories, including these local ones, in a recent redesign, shuffling them to the bottom of the screen below content from friends. At the top of the screen you’ll now find Discover, a series of branded channels from traditional media companies such as CNN, ESPN, and The Wall Street Journal. Local Stories were joyful and bizarre, but they weren’t partnership-friendly. Discover’s brand names signal to advertisers that Snapchat is no longer a Wild West of dick pics, but rather a family-friendly space to bombard us with marketing messages. It’s a business decision through and through.

For a while, it seemed like Snapchat might be able to pioneer a new kind of TV composed through the camera lenses of regular folks. It would have been exciting to see the Local Stories feature expanded and perhaps given more context, the way Snapchat attempts to educate users through its political coverage. But hyperlocal content was a losing financial bet for traditional media, so it’s no surprise to see a social media company back off as well.

We’ll still get Live Stories of Justin Bieber concerts and World Series games, which are an easy sell to advertisers. Hopefully Snapchat will continue to offer unique perspectives on important news events as well, like they did during the shootings in Charleston and San Bernardino. But I’ll miss the very relatable glue that held the flash-point events together. There’s always been something a little bit mischievous about Snapchat (“I shouldn’t be sending you this, but …”). Now the app has a few less secrets.