Authenticity and Crowdsourced News Have Made Snap a Dominant Player

Great NYT piece about Snapchat’s dominance.

While We Weren’t Looking, Snapchat Revolutionized Social Networks

Snap Inc., the parent company of the popular photo-messaging and storytelling app Snapchat, is having a productive autumn.

A couple of weeks ago, Snap filed confidential documents for a coming stock offering that could value the firm at $30 billion, which would make it one of the largest initial public offerings in recent years. Around the same time, it began selling Spectacles, sunglasses that can record video clips, which have become one of the most sought-after gadgets of the season.

And yet, even when it’s grabbing headlines, it often seems as if Snap gets little respect.

Though Snapchat has overtaken Twitter in terms of daily users to become one of the most popular social networks in the world, it has not attracted the media attention that the 140-character platform earns, perhaps because journalists and presidential candidates don’t use it very much. Snapchat’s news division has become a popular and innovative source of information for young people, but it is rarely mentioned in the hand-wringing over how social media affected the presidential election.

This is all wrong. If you secretly harbor the idea that Snapchat is frivolous or somehow a fad, it’s time to re-examine your certainties. In fact, in various large and small ways, Snap has quietly become one of the world’s most innovative and influential consumer technology companies.

Snap, which is based far outside the Silicon Valley bubble, in the Venice neighborhood of Los Angeles, is pushing radically new ideas about how humans should interact with computers. It is pioneering a model of social networking that feels more intimate and authentic than the Facebook-led ideas that now dominate the online world. Snap’s software and hardware designs, as well as its marketing strategies, are more daring than much of what we’ve seen from tech giants, including Apple.

Snap’s business model, which depends on TV-style advertising that (so far) offers marketers fewer of the data-targeted options pioneered by web giants like Google, feels refreshingly novel. And perhaps most important, its model for entertainment and journalism values human editing and curation over stories selected by personalization algorithms — and thus represents a departure from the filtered, viral feeds that dominate much of the rest of the online news environment.

Snap is still relatively small; its 150 million daily user base pales in comparison to Facebook’s 1.2 billion, and its success is far from assured. In its novelty, it can sometimes veer toward the bizarre and inscrutable. And it’s not obvious that all of its advances are positive. (For instance, I’m not sure that it’s always better for our relationships to lose a record of our chats with friends.)

Yet it’s no wonder that Facebook and its subsidiaries appear obsessed with imitating Snap. As a font of ideas that many in the tech industry hadn’t considered before, Snap isn’t just popular, but also increasingly important.

“Regardless of what happens, they’ve reshaped the social media landscape,” said Joseph B. Bayer, a communications professor at Ohio State University who has studied Snapchat’s impact on how people communicate. “They’re making risky moves, trying to rethink what people want online as opposed to taking what’s already been done and adding a new flash.”

Techies value disruption, and it’s difficult to think of another online company that has shuffled the status quo as consistently as Snap has over the past few years.

Before Snapchat, the industry took for granted that everything users posted to the internet should remain there by default. Saving people’s data — and then constantly re-examining it to create new products and advertising — is the engine that supports behemoths like Google and Facebook.

At its founding in 2011, Snap pushed a new way: By default, the pictures posted through Snapchat are viewable for only a short time. At the time, it was a head-scratching idea, one that many assumed was good only for sexting. To the tech industry’s surprise, disappearing messages captivated users who had been afraid that their momentary digital actions might follow them around forever.

Snapchat’s “ephemeral” internet — which has since been imitated by lots of other companies, including, most recently, Instagram — did not just usher in a new idea for online privacy. It also altered what had once been considered a sacred law of online interaction: virality.

Every medium that has ever been popular online — from email to the web to social networks like Facebook — has been pervaded by things that are passed along from one user to another. This is not the case on Snapchat. Though Snapchat has introduced some limited means of forwarding people’s snaps, the short life of every snap means there is no obvious means for any single piece of content to become a viral hit within the app. There are no ice bucket challenges or Chewbacca moms or Macedonian teenagers pushing fake news on Shap.

There is, instead, a practiced authenticity. The biggest stars — even Kylie Jenner — get ahead by giving you deep access to their real lives. As a result, much of what you see on Snapchat feels less like a performance than on other networks. People aren’t fishing for likes and follows and reshares. For better or worse, they’re trying to be real.

The diminution of personalization algorithms and virality also plays into how Snapchat treats news. Snapchat’s primary format is called a Story, a slide show of a user’s video clips that are played in chronological order. This, too, is an innovation; before Snapchat, much online content, from blogs to tweets, was consumed in reverse chronological order, from the most recent to the oldest. Snapchat’s Stories, which have since been widely copied, ushered in a more natural order — start at the beginning and go from there.

A few years ago, insiders at Snapchat noticed that Stories were an ideal vehicle for relaying news. They could be crowdsourced: If a lot of people were at a concert or sporting event or somewhere that breaking news was occurring, a lot of them were likely to be snapping what was happening. If Snapchat offered them a way to submit their clips, it could spot the best ones and add them to a narrative compilation of the event.

While Silicon Valley was shunning editing and curation done by humans, and instead relying on computers to spot and disseminate news, Snapchat began hiring producers and reporters to assemble clips into in-depth pieces.

The company calls these Live Stories, and they have been transformative, unlike any other news presentation you can find online. Every day, Snapchat offers one or several stories about big and small events happening in the world, including football games, awards shows and serious news.

For instance, this summer, while the rest of the media were engulfed by Hurricane Trump, Snapchat’s news team spent days following the devastating floods in Louisiana. That in itself was unusual, but Snap’s presentation was also groundbreaking: Rather than showing the overhead shots or anchor stand-ups that are conventional on TV news, Snapchat offered video from inside people’s houses, from shelters, from schools. It mixed the macrostory of an impending natural disaster and the government’s response to it with the microtragedies of personal loss, and even the lighter moments of humor and boredom in between.

When a knife-wielding attacker went on a rampage at Ohio State University this week, Snapchat’s news story was similarly remarkable. Between scenes of government officials and students describing the attack, there were clips captured by students holed up in classrooms, expressing their fear and sense of bewilderment over what was going on. It wasn’t just an informative story, but it engendered a sense of empathy for its subjects that is rare in the news.

Snapchat has said that it thinks of itself as a camera company rather than a social network. This sounds like marketing puffery (after all, it only just started making its first actual camera, Spectacles), but I think its determination to set itself apart from the rest of the tech industry is important to note.

Snap can free itself from Silicon Valley’s accepted norms because it doesn’t think of itself as just another Silicon Valley tech company. It’s time we all started to see it that way, too.

see original article at NYT.com


Content = Codependent + Competitive

Julia Greenberg wrote a great piece for Wired about how Facebook is evolving its business model to keep people on the platform longer, doing things that can drive revenue for Facebook.

Facebook’s Quest to Quash Boredom by Moving Beyond Friends

FACEBOOK CAN BE boring. On any given day, you may see baby pictures, cat videos, engagement announcements, photos of a friend’s lavish vacation, a diatribe on bacon, a video from a wedding you weren’t invited to, and asinine arguments about politics. Because you’ve added “friends” through the years—high school classmates, college housemates, coworkers, family—your feed can fill with meaningless ephemera from people you haven’t spoken to in, well, years.

But when you absentmindedly open Facebook on, say, the commute home, you don’t want to be bored. Facebook doesn’t want you to be, either. Its whole business depends on keeping people like you entertained. It wants News Feed to reveal the most important things for people to see on any given day, or in any given moment, tailored to each of its 1.49 billion users. Otherwise, you might stop looking—and if people stop looking, Facebook stops making money.

Lately, in an effort to hold your attention, Facebook has turned its own attention beyond being a place to share content to becoming the place where that content lives. For years, you and your friends haven’t just shared thoughts, you’ve also shared links. Now, by building tools for publishers and entertainers, Facebook is looking to bring the content of those links—the videos, photos, and articles—inside its own walls to not only have the most desirable content, but to make it look and feel good too.

After all, how we use the Internet today has fundamentally changed since Facebook started a decade ago. We read, watch, and consume more stuff on the go. Our phones are quickly becoming the main portal, and apps the gatekeepers. To keep users within its walls as media becomes increasingly distributed, Facebook wants to ensure that it has the best content, presented in the easiest, most seamless ways, so you have little incentive to leave.

To that end, Facebook has embraced native video (no need to go to YouTube) and launched Instant Articles (no need to seek news elsewhere). In the case of Instant Articles, Facebook announced last week that everyone using its iPhone app will now see stories, natively hosted on Facebook, from news organizations, ranging from The New York Times and NBC News to BuzzFeed and MTV.

All of them, it turns out, are ultimately in the same business: capturing your attention. And now the giant social network that has siphoned off so much attention from traditional media is turning to that same industry to help keep it. That shift has caused some anxiety within the media industry itself as it grapples with what it means to lose a more direct connection with its audience.

In a way, Facebook has become a bit like a mix of a broadcast network, a movie studio, and a cable company all in one, partnering with publishers, entertainers, athletes, and other personalities to become the ultimate destination. It’s working with media giants like HBO and CNN along with celebrities and journalists like The Rock and Anderson Cooper. And unlike the engineering culture that drives much of Facebook’s work, this part of Facebook doesn’t thrive on a hacker culture of moving fast and breaking things. Instead, it depends on something far more traditional: good, old-fashioned relationships.

News Matters

When Justin Osofsky joined Facebook in 2008, it was a completely different site. The company had recently opened its digital walls to include more than just college students, but there weren’t yet 100 million users in what he likes to call “the community.”

Now Facebook’s vice president of global operations and media partnerships, Osofsky, like seemingly everyone at Facebook, is on an ostensible mission: to make the world a more open and connected place. To do that, Facebook needs more users; to get them, it needs the content people want to see. So Osofsky was tasked with putting together what he calls a “partner management team” that understood the needs of creators, like, say, The New York Times, NBC, or Disney.

“In the very early days of setting it up, there was a recognition that for News Feed to be interesting we had to work with partners,” Osofsky tells me one recent afternoon at Facebook’s headquarters in Menlo Park. “And to work with partners you have to deliver value to them.”

And who better to understand the needs of partners than former employees? Five years ago, Osofsky hired Andy Mitchell, who previously led business and marketing groups at CNN and the Daily Beast and now runs the news division, and Nick Grudin, who was in the midst of helping Newsweektransition to the web before joining Facebook and now leads the partnership team under Osofsky. The team has grown to include dozens, from former journalists to TV producers, who were first in the the news, entertainment, and sports industries.

“If you’re a partner,” Osofsky says, “you actually want us to be able to take a 180-degree turn and put us in your shoes to understand what’s important to your strategy and how Facebook helps you understand it.”

To bring as much content inside Facebook as possible, the company continues to roll out tools and products for publishers, journalists, and entertainers. In addition to Instant Articles, the Mentions app, for example, allows public figures to see what fans are saying about them; this summer, Facebook expanded the app to allow them to broadcast themselves directly to the site. There are also new video initiatives, like the recent addition of 360-video, and new tools like Signal, a dashboard for media companies to track what’s happening on Facebook.

To introduce these products, the partnership team does exactly the kinds of things you’d expect: they meet with their clients, they have phone calls, they show them new products, and they help them figure out how to best use Facebook to serve their needs. It’s the human side of how Facebook operates; a part of the business not easily reduced to lines of code.

Whose Content

As the late David Carr first noted in The New York Times last year, it’s difficult for news organizations to know if publishing straight to Facebook is a great way to reach an audience or a slippery slope toward ceding too much control. “For publishers, Facebook is a bit like that big dog galloping toward you in the park. More often than not, it’s hard to tell whether he wants to play with you or eat you.”

In May, when Facebook announced Instant Articles, anxiety spread through the news industry. “The issue for us, and I think the broader industry, is do we run headless chicken-like towards offers from companies like Apple and Facebook to put our content in their walled gardens?” Dow Jones chief executive Will Lewis said earlier this year. “Or do we pause and think together about what the most appropriate way of dealing with these opportunities are and make sure that we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past?”

In the past 20 years, readers have progressively ditched print publications for digital ones, and now audiences are gravitating to mobile. The Internet continues to rock publishers’ business models as readers shift their attention. The idea of natively housing content on platforms owned bytech companies themselves led to new concerns.

“It is the first time in 400 years that you don’t have a publisher have complete transparency about how your journalism reaches the reader,” Columbia Journalism School professor Emily Bell says of Instant Articles. “We’ve always been destinations and distributors. Now we’re no longer really the distributor—what does that mean about maintaining our own identity, our own destination? That’s such a huge question.”

It’s a question that the news industry seems to be coming to terms with—or at least with which it seems willing to experiment. Last week Facebook announced that dozens of additional media companies, from People to the NBA to Business Insider, will join Instant Articles—and The Washington Post is going all in.


“We’re sending 100 percent of our articles,” says Cory Haik, Postexecutive director of emerging news products. “The idea is that this is the best way to figure out if this works. Get some scale to it.”

A crucial aspect of Instant Articles, Haik says, is that publishers will be able to the get analytic data for articles hosted there, which is important for publishers to understand where their audience is (and for selling ads). With help from the partnership team, Facebook has tried to incorporate features seen as essential, like sharing traffic data, into Instant Articles to meet publishers’ needs.

“We have a good relationship with those guys, we can talk to them,” Haik says of Facebook’s news team when I ask about the feelings of uncertainty in the industry. “We thought it would be a risk not to try it, but we’ll be paying attention.”


Distributed, Codependent, Competitive

A few days after chatting with Facebook’s partnership team in Silicon Valley, I call Sibyl Goldman, head of the company’s entertainment partnerships, in Los Angeles. Her team works with celebrities as well as networks and labels to launch trailers, release videos, promote causes, or celebrate events on Facebook.

Goldman’s been in the entertainment business for 21 years. She eagerly talks about how Facebook works with AwesomenessTV, Maker, and Fullscreen—the digital-first agencies known for their stables of YouTube stars—as well as big name studios too.

The difference is that for major companies like, say, HBO or Disney, Facebook is an additional way to reach an audience—not the main way. Star Wars, for example, doesn’t need Facebook as much as Facebook needs Star Wars. Facebook, like traditional media, is one part of Hollywood’s enormous PR machine.

On the other hand, Facebook surpassed Google this year as the number-one driver of traffic to major news publishers, according to analytics service Parse.ly. The Times gets 16 percent of its traffic from Facebook referrals. BuzzFeed sees 75 percent of its traffic come from social platforms; 27 percent of it from Facebook native video alone.

Facebook and news publishers want to see the relationship as symbiotic—that’s where those relationships come in. But the tech giant’s power is ultimately disproportionate to any one media brand. Yes, it needs publishers. It needs entertainment companies. It needs sports. But it doesn’t need all of them.

“This wonderful universe that we imagined 10 or 15 years ago of a great decentralized web where people can compete on an equal playing field is quickly giving way to an environment controlled by these enormous tech companies that have their own agendas,” says Dan Kennedy, Northeastern University journalism professor.

“It’s a difficult space for small independent news organizations to play in. The rise of these partnerships with Facebook and Apple is only going to encourage a news diet in which people are looking at large national platforms fromThe New York Times to BuzzFeed and not paying an awful lot of attention to small or even decent-sized local newspapers.”

Facebook, for its part, seems intent on partnering with a mix of publishers for its Instant Articles rollout, including Gannett and Billy Penn, both of which publish local news. And for some older media companies, it’s still early in an experiment that started a decade or more ago. Kinsey Wilson, executive vice president of product and technology at the Times, says Instant Articles isn’t terribly different than the days when the Times shared stories with AOL.

And Facebook also isn’t the only place to play. Apple recently launched Apple News, its native news app on iOS. Snapchat offers news and entertainment in the Discover portion of its app. YouTube, Google, Twitter, Yahoo, and other platforms will continue to play a role in the distributed web, especially as Google develops its own version of Instant Articles, its open source AMP project, to help mobile web pages load faster. As other tech giants join the game, Facebook won’t have the sole power in determining who you see.

The problem, however, remains that Facebook won’t say that it will pick winners or losers. It says it wants to create a more open and connected world. But to do that it’s building a closed ecosystem that it controls. If Facebook’s algorithm favors Instant Articles or native video—even if only because people click on those stories more—that could still hurt smaller publishers or those who aren’t given the chance to post natively on its platform. It could adversely impact the news you see today and the videos—or even virtual reality—you’re served up in the future. It’s a complicated situation. And it’s always in flux. But one thing’s for sure: It’s not boring.


see the original:

JULIA GREENBERG for Wired.com, published 10.28.15