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The real story behind Stories is advertising

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Messaging apps don’t pay for themselves

instagram stories

Facebook copied Snapchat Stories in its main “big blue app” today, after ripping it off in Instagram, Messenger, WhatsApp, and every other product Facebook has ever thought about. Oculus VR Stories have certainly been whiteboarded in an office somewhere.

The trend is so clear that there’s a delightful #storieseverywhere hashtag of insane mock-ups. I lol’d:

Behind the explosion of Stories as a format lies a great Silicon Valley sleight-of-hand: pretending a revenue stream is actually a meaningful shift in how people think or feel. “Stories are the new News Feed” is the TechCrunch headline; “the camera is the new keyboard” is the self-satisfied cocktail party conventional wisdom. I heard that line at SXSW so many times. I want to die.

This is about money. Not people or culture or communication. Just money.

Here’s the thing: the reason Stories are everywhere is because they allow Facebook and Snapchat and whoever else to insert ads into free messaging apps in a way that users would completely revolt against in any other circumstance. Just compare:

  • You’re flipping through Snapchat Stories and there’s an ad between two stories from your friends. It’s a big photo or video that fills the screen; it looks like a print or TV ad. And this... is fine. A momentary interruption. You tap again and move on.
  • You’re scrolling through a list of text messages in Messenger and Facebook sticks a text ad in the feed. This... would be extremely invasive! I don’t think anyone would accept this, and the advertising canvas is just a couple lines of text. You hiss and move on. A hashtag protest against Facebook begins, because no one trusts Facebook with a goddamn thing.

Facebook runs a number of free messaging apps, and the company’s previous attempt to monetize them was last year’s ill-fated push into bots. At some point Facebook has to create revenue from these things, and at its core what it sells is advertising. Stories let Facebook stick video advertising into its messaging apps. It’s that simple.

You can go on and on about cameras being the new keyboards, but the real problem is that monetizing text is hard. There’s a reason every media company on the internet has become a real-life version of this Onion piece in the race to become video publishers — the advertising experience around text on the internet is bad, and consumers are fine with video advertising. Or at least more fine with it. Tech companies want cameras to be the new keyboards, because there’s more money there. That doesn’t mean they are.

Words are still vitally important, and they’re not going away, no matter how much the zeitgeist wants to pretend that a new advertising platform is an actual innovation. The real challenge is putting revenue around words, the most efficient system of communication anyone’s ever developed. Maybe stick some of those big brains around that.

Because just remember: “the camera is the new keyboard” is an idea that can’t actually be expressed with a camera.