Stop Calling Snapchat a Social Network

First, it was the rampant copycatting of Stories. Then, the spectacular failure of Spectacles. Then the Great Millennial Migration to Instagram. And the redesign so universally hated that more than a million people signed a petition to undo it. Oh, and that tweet from Kylie Jenner—queen of the teens and formerly the most popular person on Snapchat—declaring that Snapchat was over and done.

The year since Snapchat went public has been full of ups and downs—and downs and downs. If you downloaded the app for the first time today, you'd be forgiven for not knowing what you're supposed to do with it, or why you'd want to use it over an app like Instagram. Is Snapchat the place you're supposed to post what you're having for breakfast? The place you're supposed to read the news? Is it for finding your friends, or keeping up with celebrities? For creating content, or creating a following?

The best part of Snapchat has nothing to do with any of that. The best part is the camera. It's what taught a generation how to selfie, introduced the internet to augmented reality, and primed millions to experience the world through a lens. Even without all the AR bells and whistles, the camera and its filters just makes you look good. (Like, maybe even too good.) Snapchat can't compete with Facebook or Instagram in terms of daily users, but there are 3.5 billion Snaps created every day. Name one camera that's produced as many photos.

When Snap launched in 2011, it didn't want to compete with the likes of Facebook or Twitter. It wasn't out to "connect the world;" it just wanted you to take pictures. There were no Stories, no Discover. You couldn’t even send text-based messages on the app until 2014, three years after it launched.

Even now, there are no likes, no retweets, no comments. You open the app, and you're looking through a lens. Evan Spiegel, the company’s founder and CEO, doubled down on this commitment to the camera when he filed for Snap's IPO last year, plainly saying, “Snap Inc. is a camera company.”

Despite Spiegel's succinct summation, Snapchat's evolution tells a different story. As the app became more popular, its users started commanding huge followings on the app. DJ Khalad showed up, along with the Kardashians. It became the place to see to your real friends, but also your internet friends, your favorite celebrities, and your ex-girlfriend's cousin's dog. While Snapchat was initially designed to work like a direct messaging app, with a friends list culled from your real-life contacts, users started to use it more like Instagram, as a place to follow and be followed by the internet at large. Capitalizing on its growth, Snapchat introduced features that looked a lot like social media: Stories, its video version of a newsfeed; Memories, a place to store and save important content; Discover, a space to connect with the news; and more. (Full disclosure: WIRED is on Snapchat Discover.) Call it the great homogenization of social media: As Facebook and Instagram and Snapchat started competing for users and features, it became harder to tell them apart.

Snapchat, though, wasn't supposed to look like a social network. "It was supposed to be this fun little place for your friends," says Billy Gallagher, author of the recent book How to Turn Down a Billion Dollars: The Snapchat Story. "They’ve had trouble reconciling that with the growth they’re going for."

If you had to reduce that identity crisis to a single thing, it would be the constant comparison to Instagram. “The biggest overall issue with [Snap] right now is that they’re caught in this headwind where they’re being compared to Instagram Stories on size, on daily active users, on views, and on ad revenue,” says Gallagher. In other words: Snap, a company that doesn’t think of itself as a social network, has gone head-to-head with arguably the best social network there is today. “Instagram has so many more resources and such a headstart. Snapchat needs to figure out how to get out of that headwind.”

Forty years ago, another camera company found itself in a similar situation: Polaroid.

Snapchat and Polaroid have more in common than you may think. Both companies oriented themselves around a camera. Neither of them made any money selling hardware. Both imagined photography as something social and instant; both became a platform for trading nudes. And both had to stand up to rivals who brazenly copied their best innovations.

In Polaroid’s case, that rival was Kodak. The company had quietly watched Polaroid’s success in the instant camera business for years when Kodak introduced its own line of instant cameras. It looked almost identical to Polaroid.

“For Kodak, it was a business thing. For Polaroid, it was almost personal,” says Christopher Bonanos, author of Instant: The Story of Polaroid, which chronicles the company's history. “They said, ‘Kodak is 10 times our size, they have so many more scientists. The best they can do is rip us off?’ They were offended not only at the business attitude, but at the lameness of it.”

Polaroid sued. Shortly after filing the lawsuit, Edwin Land—the company's founder and CEO—stood before Polaroid’s shareholders and reportedly told them that while Kodak had all the resources in the world, Polaroid had something better. "The only thing that keeps us alive,” he said, “is our brilliance."

Land would spend the next 14 years in court, but in the end, it paid off. Polaroid was awarded the biggest settlement ever in a patent case at the time, and, more importantly, earned the recognition for what it created. In this case, Bonanos says, Polaroid proved that “being a pure copycat only gets you so far.”

Of course, Polaroid also had patents. Snap has no such protection against Instagram (or any of its other copycats) and features like Stories are not easy to protect under intellectual property law. But that's fine. Like Polaroid, Snap has something brilliant: the coolest camera of its time. For Snap, that's way more valuable than Stories.

Spiegel seems to know this. At a conference last week, he pointed to Snapchat's camera as the center of something big happening in tech. The cameras of today are more than the sum of their parts, he said. They're software, and "they are connected to each other, which means you can use cameras for talking, you can use cameras to learn about the world, you can use cameras for storytelling, and that is what the next couple of decades look like for the evolution of cameras and the evolution of Snap.”

A spokesperson from Snapchat says that every week, on average, more than half of the entire 13- to 34-year-old population of the United States plays with augmented reality lenses in Snapchat. That's a huge number of users who are learning to love augmented reality not because of Facebook, or Google, or Apple—all of whom are feverishly working on developing AR technology—but because of Snapchat's puppy filters and flower crowns.

Edwin Land used to tell his teams: "Don't do anything that someone else can do." That’s part of why Polaroid became as successful as it did, and why today—20 years after the company went bankrupt and a decade after it stopped making film altogether—people still look at a square instant photo and call it a Polaroid. Snapchat could do the same thing. Lose the features that make it look like a social network, and stop sinking costs into trying to chase the incremental iterations of the social media behemoths. Instead, focus on being the internet's best augmented reality camera. Pour resources into improving the camera technology that made it great in the first place. Then someday, in the future, people will look back at selfies with the puppy filter and instead of calling it "AR photography," they'll call it a Snap.

Snap Back to the Future

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