Comparing Snapchat's new feature to Facebook misses the point (once again)

By Sarah Lacy , written on October 3, 2013

From The News Desk

Snapchat has launched a significant new product update today called "Stories." It allows users to stitch their snaps together into a broader story of their day that's also immediate and ephemeral but in a different way. You can watch a story over and over again, but it only spans 24 hours.

It immediately opens up new ways for celebrities and brands to play within Snapchat's framework, while also providing something new and cool to keep its notoriously fickle young user base interested.

It's an interesting announcement on a week when Facebook announced more intense search of what you've posted in the past, and some commentators were pushing that Twitter do a better job surfacing your past too.

What's impressive about Snapchat's announcement is that it continues to expand its product, but still push in its own unique direction that has nothing to do with what Facebook and Twitter are doing. It's one reason we recently dubbed it one of the leading "anti-social networks." To Snapchat, forced virality, mass broadcasting, careful crafted messages, and scaling yourself to keep in touch with anyone you've ever met aren't the keys to human relationships. The opposite of those things are.

The company's utterly unique point of view is a testament to the perennial advantages of youth in entrepreneurs. Founder Evan Spiegel is looking at the industry fresh, through eyes that are bored with Facebook and living in a mobile world first.

Being outside the Valley hub and based in LA may help with forging an utterly different point of view as well. In the early Facebook days, Zuckerberg & C0 holed up in Palo Alto while everyone else cross pollinated in San Francisco. That's good there are some advantages to Spiegel's youth and location, because we hear the company is also experiencing challenges because of them as well. (More on that in a second.)

But for how impressively distinct Snapchat continues to be, the media (including me) can't help but evaluate this new release in comparison to Facebook and Twitter. A lot of the coverage has compared it to Facebook, calling it Snapchat's version of the newsfeed. But reading about Spiegel's intention in building it in the Verge reminded me far more of the early days of Twitter.

Like Snapchat and most social networks, Twitter was originally seen as something frivolous. The best early explanation of its depth I ever heard came from a lunch meeting with co-founder Evan Williams in 2007, near Twitter's then South Park headquarters. He described it as the thing that could passively and easily keep you posted on the ins and outs of your friends' lives as events were happening. Those "throw away" moments, he argued, is where real intimacy is built in human relationships. Similarly, when Biz Stone described his earliest "aha!" moments of Twitter they involved things like this between friends -- not so much the chronicling of an Egyptian uprising.

Back then, even Jack Dorsey described his own seminal Twitter moment as being when his brother, who'd been in an accident, gave him a thumbs up -- a huge milestone in his recovery. While it was a message blasted to everyone, it has special resonance for those who knew what he was going through and cut through space and time in a way few other social or messaging apps could. Each of the three founders always described Twitter's importance in very personal intimate terms.

But that has long since stopped being the value of Twitter. It's become much more about broadcast and media than the intimate thread between very personal human relationships. This new feature by Snapchat picks up where that early intention of Williams and Stone and Dorsey left off. It's the exact same insight: That intimacy is built in the seemingly throw away moments -- the mundane aspects of our lives.

This is why we're so close to someone we work next to, or share a locker with, or live on the same hall with in college. This is why the relationships of school days are so formative and lasting. Not because we like them better. Not because we connect with them more. Not even because we have more in common. But because we share our lives with them -- not just the headlines of our lives every six months when we can bother to get together for dinner.

People always look at me funny when I say my husband and I communicate almost exclusively by Snapchat these days. "Dirty!" Dennis Crowley said to me a few months ago shaking his head. After two kids and 15 years together, there's no sexting going on, I assure you. Rather, it's because Snapchat fulfills this early promise of Twitter. My husband and I are living more separate lives than we have at any point in our relationship. I am building a company in San Francisco; he is building one in Las Vegas. I travel to New York once a month and LA once a quarter. And we've got two small kids under two that we're chasing whenever we are in the same city.

I'll get upwards of 10 Snaps from him every day. A "good morning" picture of him when he wakes up. I'll send him the kids in the bath at night or my daughter's outfit of the day. He'll send me something funny he sees on the street. It's not a stretch to say that Snapchat is one of the only reasons we still feel like we're living together these days. It's keeping that thread of throwaway moments and in-jokes alive in an unnaturally stressful time.

And it just can't be accomplished by any other social tool: These moments don't need to be permanent and they don't need to be shared widely. Not because they are salacious, but because they only have meaning to us. It's the thread that matters, not each individual one.

Snapchat has muscled its way into being one of my most used apps on my very crowded phone because of this. What I'm describing is the illusive social use case that typically gets lost when these social graphs get huge. The aspect of connection that doesn't scale with sheer size. And with this new announcement, Spiegel just doubled down on it.

One reason the experience of using Twitter changed so much from the founders' early more personal vision to being a media and broadcast tool, is that the company itself didn't drive the product. It allowed users to drive the product. Users came up with some of the most iconic Twitter features, like @s and #s, and an aggressively early and open API strategy meant that many users weren't even using

Twitter has mostly evolved by staying stubbornly the same. Snapchat on the other hand has innovated pretty aggressively given the runaway growth and challenges it must be facing in terms of scaling and combating bugs. In less than a year after entering the mainstream, Snapchat released an innovative new video feature -- simply tap and hold to record? Brilliant and apparently patentable -- and now, a new way to ephemerally share your lives.

You have to hand it to Spiegel and his team. He's displaying true leadership and vision in the (anti)social space. He's doing something different and doing it at tremendous scale, with a decently rapid clip of new launches. Which gets back to my point about the disadvantages of all that youth, brashness, and LA location.

Unquestionably things are going well for Snapchat, but there are cracks emerging. I've repeatedly heard reports that Snapchat is having a very hard time hiring as much technical talent as it needs. I've spoken with half a dozen coders who've been heavily courted and flown down to LA to interview but opted instead for a Valley job. The only reason they've said no, according to my conversations, is the location. Startups are transient and uncertain, and there are a million backups if things don't work out up here. There are fewer in LA. It's just a hard sell. Not an impossible one, but hard. And does a company growing this quickly need things to be harder?

Does LA have a good endemic talent pool? Yes, certainly. But it's not inexhaustible. As Chris Dixon discussed at our PandoMonthly, companies in markets like New York and, to a lesser degree, LA can scale up to 50 employees. Scaling to 500 is just easier in the Valley.

We initially heard that Snapchat was launching something big in October because Spiegel agreed to do an LA PandoMonthly chat. When we spoke in the summer, he was excited about it and said he was happy to lock in a date in accordance with whatever he was launching. But in subsequent conversations he started to hedge, expressing an uncertainty about when the launch would be ready. And then he just went dark on me, pulling out of the whole thing altogether with little explanation.

Indeed, LA and Silicon Valley are becoming peppered with accounts of Spiegel's "revolve around me" arrogance -- another thing that's inviting comparisons to an early Facebook. But rather than rudeness and arrogance, I view stories like these as a sign that building a company at this scale is starting to become a bigger challenge than Spiegel expected. As a user, I wish him luck.

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