Remember when Snapchat seemed like a potential tech giant? The company grew from a fratty app startup into a company filing the “next great tech IPO” in a quick handful of years, turning down a rumored $3 billion buyout from Facebook in the process.
The company rebranded as Snap Inc. and debuted $130 sunglasses with a camera attached, called Spectacles, last year. At first, Snap hyped its first gadget with canny marketing, releasing the shades at pop-up vending machines. But brief faddishness did not translate into longer-lasting appeal. According to a new report from The Information, Snap wildly overestimated how popular its novelty wearable would be, with hundreds of thousands of unsold units sitting in storage. But Snap has a far larger problem than extra Spectacles: Facebook. Mark Zuckerberg’s juggernaut has openly and consistently mimicked Snapchat’s features, from Stories to camera filters, essentially turning Instagram into a retrofitted Snapchat clone. It was devious, it was derivative, and it worked. Instagram’s user base continues to grow, while Snapchat’s new signups are diminishing.
With Messenger, Instagram, and WhatsApp in addition to its flagship product, Facebook has entrenched itself as the premiere and dominant messaging app company—and it wants to see Snap burn. While pivoting to trendy but impractical party-boy gizmos didn’t work, it’s obvious that Snap is going to have to make major changes or get gobbled up by its larger competitor. I never thought I’d say this, but I’m rooting for Snap; Facebook’s got enough of a monopoly on our digital lives without destroying its pluckiest competitor. So: What can the company do to save itself? —Kate Knibbs
Molly McHugh: To me: better selfie cam, better face filters. Generally, more creative options.
Alyssa Bereznak: Snapchat’s face filters remain the best thing about the platform. And that hotdog it made. God, I loved that dancing hotdog, even if it was technically an ad.
Knibbs: Snapchat’s filters are definitely still better. Instagram’s are so janky!
McHugh: So janky! They are just bad. I never use the selfie cam, so it’s mostly just photos of my dog. Which, I mean, he’s great, so it’s OK. But that’s something Instagram is missing.
Claire McNear: My cat is very ugly, so if Instagram could perfect the make-you-look-more-beautiful filter for pets, I’d be in.
But a weird thing just happened on my end. I go through Washington, D.C.’s Union Station on a daily basis, and last week a giant yellow Spectacles vending machine suddenly appeared in the lobby. I’d never seen one in person, and had read about them only in the context of hours-long lines. At Union Station, there was no interest in this thing. Morning after morning, exactly no one got in line. Once during lunchtime, I saw a handful of people walk up excitedly, having mistaken it for a photo booth. Once the Snapchat minder explained what Spectacles were—and that they cost $129.99—everyone left.
McHugh: What a great visual representation of what’s going on: initial clamor, no longstanding interest.
McNear: NOBODY wanted Spectacles. Maybe they wanted to see themselves reflected with silly glasses, but that was it. (And only for free.)
McHugh: The Spectacles launch was SO smart. So much intrigue, it was fun, it was a game. But the actual product is ... whatever. It’s a gimmick, but Snap bet on it. Which was such a weird time to bet on hardware, when your biggest competitor is openly mimicking your product—which is an app.
Knibbs: One of the things I want to talk about is whether you guys think Snap has any chance as a “camera company.”
Bereznak: Yes, I do! Here’s how: One of the reasons that people love Snap’s face filters so much is that they’re flattering. Sometimes it’s because an animal nose covers up your regular, ugly nose. Sometimes it’s because it smooths your skin so that it’s dewy and perfect. If Snap could find a way to bring those filters to actual photo booths—kind of like that Kardashian-approved party-pic company Mirmir—it could get people to buy hardware. People love seeing themselves in new ways, and they would also probably love having high-resolution, physical printouts of those pictures.
Would that “save” the company? Maybe not? But it’s a better way forward as a camera company than some $130 glasses.
McNear: A camera with built-in Photoshop. I like it.
McHugh: That’s an expensive strategy. Does it mean Snap sells itself as a face-filtering software company and sells off that tech to other photo sharing companies like ... INSTAGRAM? I mean, that could work! If that conversation hasn’t happened yet, even in a hypothetically way, I would be surprised.
Victor Luckerson: Right, despite Snap’s ingenuity with hardware, the reason it was a darling startup that earned a $24 billion valuation is because investors saw it as the next Facebook. … As in, a digital advertising company with precious little overhead that could woo teens. I think the disconnect between the company’s hardware pursuits and what investors want is why it’s been trading below its IPO price since July.
Bereznak: For the record, teens still love Snapchat. Maybe the company should ask the teens for help.
McHugh: I also think it’s time to give up on Discover being focused on publishers and brands. What I like about Instagram is that I know the people using it, and they’re front and center when I log in. If I want to see a famous person’s story, that’s clearly designated and in another tab. I don’t know, this is an “old” person thing to say, but Snapchat’s UI still isn’t great, and, even if teens like it and use it, making it easier for everyone to use would be smart.
McNear: (Opens up Snapchat for the first time in months.)
McHugh: Yeah, I quit once I got on board with [Instagram] Stories.
Bereznak: This conversation is revealing how much Instagram Stories have dominated my life over the past six months.
Luckerson: Snapchat should bring back local stories! They were a great way to build a sense of digital community, and it was a fun game trying to get your snaps picked for curation.
McHugh: Yeah, agreed, people care about themselves, that’s why we use these apps!
Bereznak: I suppose all of this is setting up a dichotomy between what Snapchat should do to survive as a corporate entity, and what it should do to appeal to its discerning users. Is there a way to make both parties happy?
Knibbs: One of the reasons I prefer Instagram’s exploratory tab over Snapchat’s is because it pulls up acquaintances for me to creep on.
McHugh: Honestly, though, I would love if Snapchat decided to just sell its tech to make [Instagram] Stories better, right? As a user? I know that’s not what we’re debating here; we’re trying to figure out how to make Snapchat survive.
Knibbs: Well, I want to know if it even can survive, in the long term. I’m not sure if it can. Or, at least, not in the form we thought it would. It might struggle along for years. But I don’t think it will ever be the tech giant we thought it might become without making a major change.
McHugh: I wonder how many times the company has thought about that $3 billion offer.
Luckerson: Things would have to get dire for its valuation to fall back to that level. The company still added 7 million daily users last quarter.
Knibbs: So maybe I’m being overly pessimistic.
Bereznak: It’s interesting that when you’re a good social media company, the options are basically: (a) become a tech giant to compete with Facebook, (b) die, or (c) sell yourself to Facebook. (*Whispers* Facebook is a monopoly.)
McHugh: But Snap was overhyped, for sure, and I don’t think it’s going to be able to sustain its platform in the long term. Facebook isn’t going anywhere, at least for a very, very long time. Snapchat doesn’t feel like it has that kind of future. While it’s not going to shut its doors, I’m sure it’s strategizing about what to do next. I think becoming some sort of fun imaging software company—whether it’s putting that tech into new hardware ideas or new apps—feels right. That makes it more feature than platform, but hey, it’s a plan.
Knibbs: As long as the filters that make me look good are still available, I’m all for it.
McNear: Novelty cameras don’t tend to live long, though. Remember Flip?
(I had a Flip. I loved my Flip.)
Knibbs: I do not remember Flip. Sounds like a dolphin.
McNear: Suspect dolphins have more longevity.
Bereznak: I had a Flip! Wasn’t the novelty of it just that it was small and portable? Like, it didn’t make you look better.
Luckerson: Flip was awesome, until I could afford a smartphone.
Knibbs: I’m looking up Flip now, and it’s not super promising for Snapchat. It was acquired by Cisco.
McNear: Right! So I’m skeptical of app-inspired camera hardware, because the reason camera-inspired apps succeeded is because—stop me if you’ve heard this before—Smartphones Are Good, and it’s convenient to carry around just one small gadget. (And not $130 gadget glasses.)
McHugh: If we’re going to get REALLY hypothetical here: How much longer will we be using smartphones that look like smartphones?
Luckerson: I guess the question is whether some wearable can eventually replace the smartphone and who can figure out that form factor. The failure of Spectacles and Google Glass says it’s probably not glasses.
McHugh: Do you think Snap is working on whatever is next and trying to figure out how to translate its product into the next iteration of the smartphone? Honestly, I don’t think Snap is the company that will get there first. But that doesn’t mean they won’t or shouldn't try to get there. They definitely were ahead of the curve software-wise with Snapchat.
Luckerson: The next iteration of the smartphone is probably omniscient AI that follows you in your house/car/wireless apple headphones. I don’t know if Snap can hang with the big boys on this front.
Knibbs: If we’re talkin’ brain chips (and I hope we are) I’d bet on Google.
The REAL question is whether you’d install a Brain Chip that made everyone around you look like they had a Snapchat-filtered face.
McNear: And now, Mr. Bond, you will see the dancing hot dog wherever you look!
McHugh: I would install one that made it look like I had a Snapchat-filtered face all the time. 100 percent.
Luckerson: Snap did poach Facebook’s machine-learning guru, apparently.
McHugh: We thought we would have flying cars and instead we will have Snapchat dog faces. Snapchat is certainly going to give it a shot, and I don’t doubt they’ll be part of the conversation, but I don’t think they will ever dominate this space like they briefly did.
Luckerson: If Twitter can stumble on as it has for the last three or so years, Snap (which is still growing) will be with us a while longer.
Knibbs: I hope so. Dancing hot dogs >>>> Nazis.
Bereznak: I mean, *someone* needs to keep feeding us good Halloween costume ideas.