Pando

Snap(chat) Spectacles is a smart move, messaged perfectly. There's just one horrifying problem...

By Sarah Lacy , written on September 26, 2016

From The Disruption Desk

Last Friday, the company formerly known as Snapchat dropped a whopper of a slide-it-in-before-the-weekend announcement: It’s long rumored hardware debut has arrived. Oh and the company is now simply called “Snap.”

One of the best quips on the news that I saw came from Aaron Levie:

He described much of my own thought process about the news over a 24 hour period. I went to bed Friday night thinking this was idiotic. I’ve criticized Snap’s Evan Spiegel before for getting too wrapped up the Hollywood/LA scene and these glasses have bro with a flat bill cap who wore Ed Hardy a dozen years ago written all over them.

More to the point: I’ve long criticized Snapchat-- when it was called that-- for defining its user base as “millennial” through its polarizing and vapid Discover news product which shows you little more “news” than how to make a brownie in a cup and stories about Kim Kardashian’s boobs in a bikini. (I wish I were joking.) Snapchat is a genius communication product, and this window dressing around it only limits the appeal.

I’ve said before it’s like Facebook trying to aim for being VICE (a delta of several hundred billion in valuation… and some consider Vice overrated.) But really, that’s an insult to VICE. For all the embarrassing stories VICE has done, it’s also taken the stance that millennials do give a shit about the world and hard news. Discover does not. Discover wallows in the millennial cliche more than this season of Survivor.

Some Ed Hardy looking sunglasses that “dudes” may want to wear to a BBQ as a lark? Yep. Initially it sounded to me like Discover on your face.

Saturday morning I woke up. I read more about it. I thought more about it. And by lunch I made a startling admission to Paul: I actually think Spectacles is sort of a genius move.

The arguments I made to him were four fold:

The positioning was genius. Even the way they snuck it into the Friday news cycle. I was hardly the only one to think this:

As Andy Matuschak said on Twitter:

It reminds me of the TechCrunch’s would-be foray into hardware, the CrunchPad, which blew up in flames, mostly because of bad partnerships. But that was OK because it was a lark. A passion project. Not core to the company. “A toy.”

Compare that to the other major tech companies moves into wearables. The Apple Watch was as hyped as anything out of Apple ever is, and was mostly a disappointment. Facebook spent a whopping $2 billion to buy Oculus Rift in hopes it might be the next “mobile.” And Google Glass was touted as one of it’s “moon shots” and a “ubiquitous computer.”

Remember how self important the launch was? From Wikipedia:

In early 2013, interested potential Glass users were invited to use a Twitter message, with hashtag #IfIHadGlass, to qualify as an early user of the product. The qualifiers, dubbed "Glass Explorers" and numbering 8,000 individuals, were notified in March 2013, and were later invited to pay $1,500 and visit a Google office in Los Angeles, New York or San Francisco, to pick up their unit following "fitting" and training from Google Glass guides. On May 13, 2014, Google announced a move to a "more open beta", via its Google Plus page.

In February 2015, The New York Times reported that Google Glass was being redesigned by former Apple executive Tony Fadell, and that it would not be released until he deemed it to be "perfect."

Fadell has since left Google.

Contrast that to: “A toy.”

We wrote from the earliest days that Spiegel was a living reaction against Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. (That’s not 100% a compliment) We wrote last week that Spiegel is similarly breaking ranks from the Silicon Valley decacorn group-think when it comes going public before it’s growth days are behind it. (Something that was meant as a compliment)

The positioning around his move into hardware is everybit as off-script. Again, the Journal:

The glasses are the culmination of a years-long development process described by Spiegel as “Measure a thousand times, cut once.”

That said: Let’s not pretend the company has nothing at stake here. This is a company readying to go public at a $20 billion valuation with some $350 million in annual ad sales. There’s no time for “larks.”

That brings me to my other points.

Setting a tone internally and externally that Snap will throw shit at the wall early, and creating that muscle memory. No one knows how this market is going to continue to evolve. Much like Uber, Snap is competing against the largest companies on earth. Companies that are all gunning to be the first trillion dollar tech company one day. And Snap -- like Uber-- is coming of age in a time with greater international competition than Valley tech companies have ever had before.

Unlike Uber, Snap doesn’t know what inflection point is coming next. Uber knows it’s self driving cars and is -- well-- trying to figure out how to make cars. Snap has no idea and needs to be open for anything. Arguably this move shows a lack of arrogance, as much as some people think it shows “oh you make hardware now?” hubris.

And it’s a hedge against dependence-- something that Uber might think more about. Again from the Journal:

Then there’s another side: Spiegel’s eye on what’s coming down the pike. Spectacles will allow Snap Inc. to at last control a physical camera, instead of making the app a slave to your smartphone’s built-in lens. He hints that there could be far-reaching implications if Snapchat can seize the means of image production. It’s not mere fun, it turns out. There are commerce gears clicking beneath the frivolous exterior of these glasses.

Smart.

Snapchat is a camera company, not a messaging company, not a communication company. This Tweet from Snapchat investor Jeremy Liew made one of the biggest differences in how I parsed the news:

That’s another Journal quote, one buried deep in the article, and it’s telling that an investor surfaced it.

Yes. Whenever I start to think Spiegel is pulling his head of his weird LA media ass, it’s quotes like this one:

Snapchat opens to the camera, Spiegel said. Chat is available to the left of the camera, and Stories is available to the right of the camera. That not only differentiates it from other social media products, but allows Snapchat to straddle the line between the defining features of several of them.

“The beautiful thing is it sort of sits in the middle, but more importantly it opens to the camera,” Spiegel said. “The thing that feeds a social network is content… Similarly with communication… So in our view, when you take a snap and you choose this path between talking to your friends or adding it to your Story we end up with this harmony where both of these businesses feed themselves. I don’t think it’s one or the other.” 

This is what’s great about Snapchat, and universal about Snapchat. Capture. Self-expression. Why Stories are such a great addition onto the core product. In this sense, Spectacles-- astoundingly, even being a hardware product-- is a better extension of what Snapchat is than Discover.

A conversation I once had with Sergey Brin. Back in 2014, Google co-founder Brin spoke at Code or D or whatever it was called back when I (and everyone else at Pando) wasn’t banned. His talk was incredibly compelling. He came off as a guy who didn’t give a shit about a lot of things except going to work everyday to build “moon shots” for which there was infinite funding. While Larry Page took on the challenge of running the company, Brin seemed to have all of the money, the glorious unlimited resources and none of the hell of being the CEO running a several hundred billion dollar public company.

But Glass.

Every year there is a “talk” of Code/D. The thing everyone who sits in that red chair is asked about. Last year it was Peter Thiel and Gawker or Peter Thiel and Trump. In 2014, it was Google Glass. It seemed still ascendant. Glassholes permeated the flights to the event, the conference hall, and the cocktail parties.

After his talk, I ran into Brin and asked him about Glass. I confessed I found the technology remarkable, but didn’t get it. That I worried it would remove us even more from reality. I told him that I found tremendous power in forcing myself to put my phone away when I was playing with my kids. The power of forcing yourself to be in the moment…. Didn’t wearing the “Ubiquitous computer” on your face make that harder?

Brin had an amazing answer. He showed me video he took of his young kids playing in the ocean and explained that without glass he couldn’t have recorded that memory without running back to the beach getting a phone, then putting it back, worrying about it getting wet, et cetera. It allowed him to still be in the moment and capture the moment. Watching that clip was the single best articulation for Glass I ever heard from anyone.

And since then, I’ve had those moments. Moments I wanted to capture but needed my hands free or was waist deep in water or mud or in some other circumstances where a phone just wasn’t feasible. That is a need.

I’ve also found that Snapchat-- sorry, SNAP-- is an incredible tool for parents. For capturing and sharing tiny moments of my kids growing up without the permanence and broadcasting of social media. I have friends who’ve recorded Stories of the day their wives went into labor and delivered their child for the people closest to them to see. I have friends who have adopted children and aren’t yet legally allowed to post pictures on social media. Snap is the only way I’ve seen all the crucial milestones of that journey.

This, I get. And this, I would buy for $129.99. I’d have these dorky glasses (the teal, likely) on not at some douchey BBQ or Coachella but my five year old’s birthday party.

Spiegel’s own articulation in the Journal was similar:

Why use a pair of video sunglasses—available this fall, by the way, one-size-fits-all in black, teal or coral—instead of holding up your smartphone like everyone else? Because, Spiegel says, the images that result are fundamentally different. Spectacles’ camera uses a 115-degree-angle lens, wider than a typical smartphone’s and much closer to the eyes’ natural field of view. The video it records is circular, more like human vision. (Spiegel argues that rectangles are an unnecessary vestige of printing photos on sheets of paper.) As you record, your hands are free to pet dogs, hug babies or flail around at a concert. You can reach your arms out to people you’re filming, instead of holding your phone up, as Spiegel describes it, “like a wall in front of your face.”

Of course, this too, is what’s potentially horrifying about Spectacles: Lowering the social friction of someone lifting a phone up to record something. I don’t so much give a shit about the average person’s privacy-- the tech elite have gleefully put bugs in their home via Amazon Echo. They kinda deserve privacy invasions at this point.

What I worry about are teenage girls. Snap has the allure of ephemerality, but in a sense that makes it more dangerous. Pictures can be screenshot; videos can be saved. A party where a guy is wearing Ed Hardy looking glasses that might record every moment? It’s pretty much Nancy Jo Sales worse nightmare. And should worry any parent of a young girl who is remotely clued in on social media and the hyper-masculinity of teen boys and hyper-sexualization of teen girls.

Sure, on the face of me or Sergey Brin we’re seamlessly recording our kids splashing the bath. But what about on the face of a guy who would write these emails:

That, of course, was from the college emails of Evan Spiegel, the man who put this “toy” into the world. I’m not trying to hold back wearables or the eventuality of the “ubiquitous computer” or even merely the world’s most inconspicuous, seamless camera. But let’s not pretend, this kind of technology could make the world a worse place.

Reminder: Spiegel is 26. These emails weren’t sent that long ago. He’s since said he’s “mortified” by them.

The Spectacles launch? Perfect. The positioning of Spectacles? Inspired. The price point? Genius. They even look better-- if bro-ier-- than Glass. I’m convinced this was a smart business move with little downside. I’m hoping it signals that Snapchat is back on track as camera/self-expression platform not a lesser-VICE

That’s my view as a business reporter. As a human being, it’s hard to believe Spiegel has truly thought through the potential ways a frictionless recording device can shatter young girl’s lives. These are the questions the press should be asking in the coming months.