Snapchat, the wildly successful venue for sharing photos, is taking a big risk with its latest update: Either it will become the place where millions of teenagers and other users do much of their communicating, or it will alienate its customers by trying to do too much.
The update, introduced last week, takes a simple app that allowed people to send each other self-destructing photos and expands it into the territory of WhatsApp, Viber, Skype, Apple's Facetime and Google's Hangouts by allowing text messaging and video chatting. This being Snapchat, all traces of activity disappear within a set amount of time, unless your interlocutor saves them by taking a screenshot. Snapchat Inc. co-founder Evan Spiegel's idea is to create "seamless communication": Now you're texting, now you're transmitting video of what you're looking at, now you're sending a selfie -- all within the same session. No need to switch over to Skype or iMessage to continue your conversation.
The change has sparked a lot of controversy. Tracie Schroeder, a Kansas high school teacher, achieved momentary fame by tweeting that "In 16 years of teaching I can't think of anything that has ever disrupted my classroom more than today's @snapchat update." Lots of teenagers hate the update, and I must say it's a lot messier than the original. I couldn't figure out how to use the new functions until I Googled the instructions. One set came with the author's warning: "Despite what Spiegel says, these tools are not exactly intuitive." For instance, to keep up the video chat, you need to keep your finger on the screen. As soon as you lift it, the conversation is over. It's almost like a hand-crank flashlight. Is this how you would choose to maintain a connection? No one asked you, anyway.
The beauty of Snapchat was its simplicity. It did only one thing, and it had a fashionably Spartan interface. Users -- 23 percent of them -- said it was "easier than texting." I will not carp about a generation for which texting is hard. You can always add value by making something easier, even if it was not too demanding in the first place. Now Snapchat has made itself complicated. It is also reneging on its erstwhile ideology of "right here, right now, no consequences" by keeping a texting session on the screen for one of the participants even if the other ends the chat and by allowing you to send old photos, not just ones taken from the app.
Spiegel went so far as to make an acquisition to make the update possible: AddLive, a company specializing in video communication independent of hardware.
Spiegel, who has been proven right before by Snapchat's runaway success with a young audience, is making a big bet. If his fickle, young audience buys the expanded functionality -- and with it the seamless-communication philosophy, in which different modes of communication are all happening on a single connection, not as separate transactions -- Snapchat can become the dominant modern communications suite, fit for more than sending selfies (70 percent of female college students using the app say that's what they send more than half the time). Adults might get interested, too, making monetization -- something Spiegel has been putting off -- more realistic.
If Speigel is right, Tracie Schroeder will let her students download the next update in peace, because she'll be immersed in it, too. I'm not a taker, but try it for yourself: At the very least, the idea is intriguing.
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Leonid Bershidsky at firstname.lastname@example.org
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