Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel's hands are shaking as he points to his iPhone.
He's unmistakably nervous, and not in a sweaty, early-Mark Zuckerberg kind of way. There must be a lot on his mind as the young CEO of a company bounding toward a $1 billion valuation — a company that has changed the course of being a teenager in the year 2013. Spiegel brushes off Snapchat’s latest bragging right: the service sees 350 million snaps sent per day. He seems anxious, as if he's about to interview for a job or deliver a commencement speech to his graduating class.
Instead, he tells me about Stories, his team’s latest invention: a rolling compilation of snaps from the last 24 hours that your friends can see. You create your Story as you go about your day by tapping "My Story" above the friends you want to send a snap to. Or, you can tap a new shortcut button in the app's camera screen to instantly post a snap to your Story. But unlike conventional snaps, Stories don't disappear in a puff of ephemeral smoke after you've watched them. You can watch a friend’s (or your own) Story over and over.
Each Story is the sum of all the snaps you’ve added over the last 24 hours, which means its size is always fluctuating. What doesn’t change is that every piece of the Story is less than a day old, so viewing one might be the fastest way to see what a friend's been up to. Snapchat may not look much like Facebook, but with Stories, the company is taking its first steps toward competing with Facebook’s most important product: News Feed.
Behind Stories is a deep understanding, or perhaps loathing, of the way social apps work today. Spiegel claims to have no special knowledge of the way we work as social organisms aside from what he learned as a college student, but has thus far proven himself and his colleagues to be surprisingly thoughtful about our hidden social behaviors and desires. Stories is the next big piece of how Snapchat thinks social media should work, and everybody’s watching. No wonder Spiegel’s a little nervous.
Stories, one of Snapchat’s most visible feature additions in its two-year lifespan, was first conceived as a way to address perhaps the most common request from users: a way to send a snap to your entire friends list. Spiegel and his team thought that a "Send All" button could destroy Snapchat, and instead sought a more passive means of sharing an image or video with everyone you know. Over the next year they built Stories, which live inside Snapchat’s "My Friends" page — one of just four screens in the entire app. The final result recalls the early days of Facebook, where the quickest way to catch up with a friend was to visit their profile.
Each person in your friend list is now flanked by a circular thumbnail of the most recent moment in their daily Story. Holding your finger on a friend’s name starts a stream of every snap they’ve shared to their Story within the last 24 hours. "When you have a minute in your day and are curious about what your friends are up to, you can jump into their experience," says Spiegel. If you’re bored, you can skip ahead by tapping with a second finger. Unlike most forms of social media updates, Spiegel stresses, Stories play back in the order they occurred, and not in reverse chronological order. There’s also no algorithm to decide which stories are more important than others.
"The last snap today will also be the beginning of tomorrow," says Spiegel, "so there’s no pressure to compose a narrative." Without naming any rivals, Spiegel digs at the Facebooks, Twitters, and Pinterests of the world that implicitly ask you to build an identity online. "There's this weird thing that happens when you contribute something to a static profile," he says. "You have to worry about how this new content fits in with your online persona that’s supposed to be you. It's uncomfortable and unfortunate." He seems to say that when Facebook released Timeline, a simple way to pore through years of updates and photos, it inadvertently cursed itself. By providing users with an enormous degree of transparency into their posts, Facebook may have also given its users anxiety about posting new content.
Stories operates on the opposite principle. By providing users with fleeting, pocket-sized "live profiles" that last at most 24 hours, Spiegel hopes that users will feel free to act more like their true selves. He cites the practice of "white-walling" as evidence: where social media users on Facebook or Twitter post updates, only to delete the posts a short time later. The term was coined by one of Spiegel’s role models, researcher danah boyd, who describes it as a "Risk Reduction Strategy" on sites like Facebook. "The internet is a timeless void — you put something in there and it's there forever and loses a lot of context," says Spiegel.
"There’s no pressure to compose a narrative."
Snapchat actually has its own sociology researcher on staff, Nathan Jurgenson, made famous for "The IRL Fetish," an essay on the augmented reality of our digital lives. "He invented a concept called ‘digital dualism’ — something our company is fascinated by," says Spiegel. "It’s the notion that people conceptualize the world into online and offline, which makes for a lot of very awkward experiences."
Spiegel doesn’t explicitly say that Snapchat is meant to emulate our real-life relationships, but he isn’t shy about saying that his app is doing a better job at it than competitors. "We never saw Google+ Circles or Facebook Lists as reflective of the way our friendships play out," he says. "We believe that the next generation of powerful mobile companies have a deep understanding of the world as a unified whole," Spiegel argues, with the kind of hubristic, starry-eyed optimism only possible in the insular world of startups, "where digital and analog experiences affect each other, rather than transporting analog experiences into the digital realm."
"We never saw Google+ Circles or Facebook Lists as reflective of the way our friendships play out."
Spiegel won’t comment on Snapchat’s plans to monetize its business, but there’s potential in Stories. Imagine a future where Miley Cyrus opens her Story to everyone (since the app allows two settings for who can see your Stories: friends or everyone). At any point in the day, you could check on what she’s been up to — which would provide plenty of opportunities for advertising or brand placement. Spiegel smiles when I suggest the "follow a celebrity’s story" idea — which is already entirely possible with the latest version of Snapchat — but affirms his pledge to keep any kind of grown-up business ideas out of the app for now.
"We don't have Biz Dev boots on the ground trying to make it happen," Spiegel says, but he won’t rule it out either. "We want to find ways to support artists who don't have a lot of reach." Three such artists will greet Snapchatters worldwide this morning when they open up the app, in three custom videos meant to introduce Stories to users.
Spiegel’s final pitch is to narrate a day in his own life that seems almost too good to be true. "I spoke at a TechCrunch thing a little while ago," he says. "I took snaps of me being nervous, and of lots of people, and when I got lunch, and when I met with friend of mine, and then when we announced we do 350 million snaps per day." Snapchat employees, even though they were busy working out of the company’s beachfront office, got a glimpse into each of these moments as Spiegel went about his day, since they had access to his Story. "And at midnight," he says, "I was with friends at McDonald’s, and when I ordered I looked down at my receipt and it was number 350."
A new kind of digital communication
"It was a great narrative that I could've never captured ... in any other form of content," he says. "You never know what's gonna happen until it happens."
Spiegel takes a deep breath, leaning forward as if to hear the results of an exam he has just taken. The year of work and high-concept thinking behind Stories may just be "a feature" to his users — but for Spiegel, it's obviously a lot more than that. Snapchat surprised the world and pushed aside myriad competitors, including Facebook itself. For the 23-year-old Spiegel, the story of Snapchat isn't about a clever and fun app for messaging, but about building a new kind of digital communication where our statuses, chats, photos, and videos don’t have to last forever. "Ephemeral messaging" was just the beginning.