Snapchat isn't disappearing. Get used to it

This isn't just another social network -- it's the new MTV.

Richard Nieva Former senior reporter
Richard Nieva was a senior reporter for CNET News, focusing on Google and Yahoo. He previously worked for PandoDaily and Fortune Magazine, and his writing has appeared in The New York Times, on CNNMoney.com and on CJR.org.
Richard Nieva
7 min read
Oscar Gutiérrez/CNET

When MTV launched on August 1, 1981, the world watched a now classic video: A rocket sits ready to blast off from its launchpad as a voice from NASA Mission Control counts down to T-minus one. The voice-over fades, the rocket fires and we cut to an astronaut planting a flag with the network's logo on the moon's surface. "Ladies and gentlemen, rock and roll," a new voice says.

Moments later, the scene switches to a young, curly-haired man perched casually on a bench in front of a large TV screen. "Behold, a new concept is born," says Mark Goodman, one of the first VJs for the brand-new network.

It's an iconic moment in the history of youth culture.

Do you remember it? Your kids definitely don't. A lot has changed in the last 35 years. Instead of cable TV screens, teens are watching the smaller ones they keep in their pockets. We're knee-deep in the era of social media. And while Facebook made that a global phenomenon, a different company has muscled in as the arbiter of cool. Just like MTV did three and a half decades ago.

The new king of cool: Snapchat, the mobile app co-founded five years ago by a college dropout named Evan Spiegel. It's a social network for posting photos and videos that self-detonate after a short period. Once dismissed as just an app for sexting, it's now clearly so much more than that.

It's also not for everyone. The app's confusing design feels as if someone is intentionally trying to keep out anyone who could threaten its hipness -- kind of like a user interface secret handshake.

But if you work hard enough to understand it, you'll find it's the best way in the world to reach young adults. While 1.2 billion people sign into Facebook every day, Snapchat practically owns advertisers' most coveted demographic. "On any given day, Snapchat reaches 41 percent of all 18- to 34-year-olds in the United States," the company boasts on its website. And nearly 70 percent of all 18- to 24-year-olds in the US use the app, according to ComScore.

Snapchat is basically this generation's MTV.

"You can guarantee these kids are always on it checking their phones," says Grace Segundo, senior manager of digital marketing at Capitol Records, who uses Snapchat as a centerpiece of promotion for the label's artists. "It's like being at the actual party, instead of curating what people see from the party."

The company, which has changed its name to Snap, declined to comment for this story.

Celebrities' choice

The app's power users are a who's who of celebrities, including Kim Kardashian, Lady Gaga and John Mayer. DJ Khaled, a record producer and radio personality, became a mainstream name because of his prolific Snaps.

In July, Kardashian posted a recorded conversation of Taylor Swift telling Kanye West she was cool with his lyric, "I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex." The internet went crazy. Later that month, Golden State Warriors power forward Draymond Green apologized after accidentally posting, then quickly deleting, a picture of his penis to his Snapchat account.

"It's all-encompassing," says Gary Vaynerchuk, an author and social media marketer. "They live on this platform."

Snap's Spectacles let you record 10-second videos for Snapchat.

Snap's Spectacles let you record 10-second videos for Snapchat.

James Martin/CNET

That kind of cool may be worth billions. In November, it was reported that Snap confidentially filed for an initial public offering that values the company at $30 billion. It could become one of the biggest IPOs in years.

How did we even get here?

The kids are all right

Snap may be the most unlikely startup success story of the past decade.

Its roots are anything but humble. It was co-founded by Spiegel, a lanky, sharp-featured then-21-year-old from an affluent family; Bobby Murphy, the cherub-faced son of American and Filipino parents; and Reggie Brown, their classmate, who has since been ousted from the company and claims he came up with the original idea of a disappearing-photo app. The three were members of the Kappa Sigma fraternity at Stanford University.

In 2011, they went all-in on the app. The company set up shop in Spiegel's hometown in his father's house in tony Pacific Palisades, near the Southern California neighborhood of Brentwood. Spiegel was CEO, Murphy was CTO and Brown CMO. In true Silicon Valley fashion, the origin story is not without its drama. Eventually, Brown claimed he was forced out, and in 2014, Snapchat settled a lawsuit with him.

The company, now based in nearby Venice, California, eventually caught the eye of Mark Zuckerberg, who reportedly offered $3 billion in hard cash to buy Snapchat. Spiegel famously declined that 2013 bid. The tech world couldn't decide if the move was genius, hubris or both.

Spiegel and Murphy made Time magazine's 2014 list of the 100 Most Influential People.

Spiegel and Murphy made Time magazine's 2014 list of the 100 Most Influential People.

Gary Gershoff/Getty Images

Snapchat has since become Facebook's favorite scavenging ground. Zuckerberg's company tried to clone it with two built-from-scratch apps, Poke and Slingshot. Both are now dead. In August, Facebook's Instagram added Instagram Stories, an almost exact copy of Snapchat Stories, in which people can string together photos and video clips that disappear after 24 hours.

The most recent -- and possibly most lethal -- rip-off: a new photo feature with digital masks and filters, just a right-swipe away when you open the Facebook mobile app. It's currently being tested in Ireland. You can send self-destructing photos to individuals or groups of friends.

"In most social apps today, a text box is still the default way we share," Zuckerberg told financial analysts in November. "Soon, we believe, a camera will be the main way that we share."

Wonder where he got that idea? When you open Snapchat, the first screen that pops up is the camera. Snapchat is literally a fancy camera app with some filters and sharing tools.

Snap judgments

Since it went live, most of the tech world has been confused about Snapchat. The story of people trying to figure it out goes something like this:

2011: It's for sexting, right? Why would young people love an app for disappearing photos so much if they weren't just sending nudes?

2013: Oh, maybe it's for more than that. But I still can't figure it out. I've opened the app on my phone, but where are all the controls? It's just a camera!

2016: Michelle Obama uses it. I guess this is a thing now.

2017: $$$$$.

The anti-Facebook

Snapchat's true genius can be seen in the way it ushered in the era of casual social networking, the antithesis of Facebook.

At some point during Facebook's stratospheric rise, Wall posts became annoying. You know the ones: Got up, made eggs for breakfast, went to the gym, leg day.

Worried about oversharing, people overcorrected. Facebook became a place for highlights -- not only the highlights of your day, but of your life: the perfectly angled photo, palm trees at sunset, the first shot of your newborn, that astute New Yorker article because look everyone, I read The New Yorker.

It turns out there was a big market for eggs for breakfast, went to the gym, leg day. You could share that minutiae with a network of friends without worrying how it might look next to your wedding photos.

Snapchat's big innovation is that Spiegel and Co. figured this out before anyone else.

Facebook's Timeline feature literally functions as a cradle-to-grave museum of a person's life. (We were all reminded of that in November, when a glitch listed a number of Facebook users, including Zuckerberg, as dead.)

Spiegel thinks Snapchat is about "instant expression and who you are right now."

Spiegel thinks Snapchat is about "instant expression and who you are right now."

Larry Busacca/Getty Images

When Facebook introduced the feature in 2011 -- the same year Snapchat was founded -- it did so with an eye toward preservation and posterity.

Spiegel made a brash bet on the exact opposite: ephemerality. Stories disappearing was a feature, not a bug. You weren't facing down eternity with every post. Spiegel's promise, then, of casual social networking -- without anxiety, without legacy -- was in a weird way existentially freeing.

"It's not about an accumulation of photos defining who you are. It's about instant expression and who you are right now," Spiegel said in September when Snap unveiled a new product that pushes "instant expression" in a whole new direction.

The empire expands

How do you take an already audacious story and make it even more brazen? Ditch the word "chat" from your corporate name, tell the world you're now a camera company and unveil something completely out of left field.

That something is called Spectacles: flamboyant, colorful sunglasses with an on-board video camera that records 10-second clips you can post directly to Snapchat.

The company has slowly begun to release Spectacles in a way guaranteed to generate buzz. Apart from a pop-up shop in Manhattan, or a site like eBay, you can buy them only at one of Snap's bright yellow vending machines, called Snapbots, which appear someplace with practically no warning. In true ephemeral tradition, Snapbots typically fold up shop by the end of the day.

In the first few weeks of the Snapbots' appearance, one man in Australia reportedly traded a free round-trip flight to Oz for a pair of Spectacles. Another man hired a chopper for $250 to take him to that day's Snapbot at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. He bought four pairs and sold them the next day for a $1,100 profit. So yeah, people want them.

If you're a pessimist, it's a repeat of Google Glass: internet-connected eyewear that ended up being banned in movie theaters, bars and restaurants because of privacy concerns. It didn't help that Glass cost $1,500, or that its wearers were called Glassholes. If you're an optimist, Snap's $130 smart specs fall in the so-crazy-they-just-might-work category.

Stranger things have happened. Like a 24-hour cable music network becoming the most influential outlet in a generation. Or a "sexting app" taking over the world.

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