Spam could kill Snapchat, and Evan Spiegel doesn't seem to care

By Cale Guthrie Weissman , written on January 13, 2014

From The News Desk

Snapchat has a big problem. Its dramatic increase in spam? Sure, that too. But the big problem is Evan Spiegel's outrageous arrogance that his users' annoyance doesn't concern him. Not to mention his complete blindness to the fact that his product's security errors are what caused this annoyance in the first place. For investors who've pumped money into this company at the price of billions, the second biggest problem is that apparently Snapchat's board is unwilling, unable, or afraid to act.

Snapchat was hacked just a few weeks back, when  the company learned it could have stopped it months prior. And even with all this, the photo-sharing service seems to remain relatively unscathed. As Adam Penenberg put it, the scope of this hack -- as compared to others -- is really just "meh." That is, yes, the security breach should not have happened, but its damage probably isn't lasting. At the same time, the company has completely avoided the issue or downplayed it to the point of being patronizing.

The general consensus following the revelation was that the most damage this hack could inflict was an increase in spamming. So many eschewed the attack as merely a warning and nothing more. But while spamming may not seem like such a huge deal in the grand scheme of hacking repercussions, for Snapchat it is.

The hackers themselves, when they posted the user data, claimed their purpose was to "raise the public awareness around the issue." They went so far as to blur the last two digits of users' phone numbers to mitigate spamming. While a nice touch on the spammers' part, it didn't actually help, and in the last week alone we've seen an enormous uptick in spam accounts sending users gratuitous snaps.


Two days ago a friend of mine posted a snap she received of a busty lady asking to be reached on Kik. Another friend commented with a similar picture, this one showing quite an extraordinary derriere, also asking to be hit up on Kik. In the same thread an additional friend posted a snap he received for penile enlargement (thankfully the image contained only text).

This isn't a security issue anymore, it's one of annoyance. And, for products like Snapchat, that actually matters.

Of course, Snapchat isn't the only service with a persistent spam problem. Social media platforms new and old have been experiencing this problem for ages. Tinder is one of the newer and more prominent ones trying to alleviate this problem. As Pando's Carmel DeAmicis reported, Tinder bots claiming to be single women are rampant on the app. Further, this is causing men to think twice about using it to meet other singles.

The difference, and potential problem, with Snapchat is that its use-case isn't one of utility. Snapchat doesn't make picture sending easier -- it's just more fun. Nor is a user looking for a new friend or sexual partner with the app. For the most part, snaps are just silly pictures sent among friends.

What's more, snaps feel like they're sent and delivered on a person-to-person basis (even if that's not always true). Avoiding the obvious dick pic pun, Snapchat is the most intimate social media platform out there. If I start to receive advertising snaps from robots, the mood of the app would almost certainly be destroyed. While Snapchat's user base is booming, if spam became the new normal in users' inboxes, the app would almost certainly die out.


Despite this, Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel seems reluctant to even admit this is a huge problem. While the company has finally offered an apology (of sorts), Spiegel's past crassness and refusal to even own up to the security issues show that he doesn't really understand how big this issue is. His response is not dissimilar from Mark Zuckerberg's completely tone-deaf response a few years back to issues with Facebook's privacy policy, and that backlash definitely hurt Facebook. But it was Zuckerberg changing his tune that made the company ultimately prevail.

Snapchat responded to the spam allegations earlier today, saying it is working to alleviate the problem. At the same time its message said in bold "it is the consequence of a quickly growing service." This is another sideswipe by the company; it is refusing to admit that the hack and spam are even correlated. Instead, it insists that Snapchat is popular so spam is just bound to happen.

While these issues persist, the company still has no monetization plan. The only way to come up with one is to continue accruing these users thus proving itself as a worthy messaging platform. Spiegel, in ultimately avoiding this issue or even connecting spam to the hack, is showing that even he doesn't understand the value of his product. The company says it is working to mitigate the bot problem, but if making your account private is the only way (a tip Snapchat offered to its users), monetization will undeniably suffer.

Spam won't be the thing that kills snapchat. It'll be Spiegel's and the Snapchat board's continual "fuck you" attitude towards its users.

[Illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando; Screenshots from Rebekah Volinsky and Jeremy Lawrence]