Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Why Snapchat Is Launching a Tech Magazine

A messaging app investing in writing is a little baffling and weird, isn’t it?

Today Snapchat launches online magazine Real Life, in which a staff of five writers publish long-form essays and narratives about life with technology.

It’s headed by social scientist and researcher Nathan Jurgenson, who says Real Life “won’t be a news site with gadget reviews or industry gossip. It will be about how we live today and how our lives are mediated by devices.”

A messaging app investing in writing is a little baffling, isn’t it?

So why is an instant messaging app dominated by impermanent selfies and video suddenly investing in writing? When 100 million daily active users can turn images of themselves into a taco or a pooch or a baby, isn’t the very idea of reading kind of… well, basic, as my teens say?

Said another way: in a disappearing-photo, 10-second-video Snapchat world… isn’t writing pedantic and ordinary?

And perhaps cerebral? Again, from Nathan:

I’ve argued that “online” and “offline,” like “body” and “mind,” aren’t like two positions on a light switch—a perspective I’ve called digital dualism. Instead, all social life is made of both information and material; it’s technological and human, virtual and real. Together with friends and colleagues, I’ve theorized an experience of the internet based less in cyberpunk and more in body horror—and not just horror but other things too, like joy.

Or from an essay today on emojis: “Animative expressive forms are the new normal.”

Whoa, right? Kind of brainy.

But also kind of insightful—at least about Snapchat’s possible motivation for investing in long-form narrative and comparatively old-school tactics like writing and editing and… well, thought.

It puts Snapchat (the app) in a bigger context. And it puts Snapchat (the company) at the center of a much bigger conversation. Such a bigger conversation that even I am having a hard time relegating it to merely content marketing. (And I’m a big proponent of long-form content, especially as an extension of marketing.)

With Real Life, Snapchat is summer cannon-balling into the deep end of the pool. It’s making a splash in deeper waters because, according to its notion of self, Snapchat isn’t a silly app for teens or a nascent marketing tool.

Taking Snapchat Seriously

Instead, Snapchat is a key part of a revolution we are all living. For better or worse, technology fundamentally changes the way we do everything: the way we communicate, work, and live.

And Snapchat intends to both codify and comment on the revolution, while plunking itself down in the middle of it.

Its position is unique, because it’s part embedded journalist observing from the trenches, and part soldier driving the tank.

It’s not planting the revolutionary flag in just messaging, either. It’s already dabbling with augmented reality without actually calling it that.

Snapchat bought a Google glass-like company called Vergence Labs, and it’s been hiring talent from Microsoft, Google, Qualcomm, and Nokia, which could be a signal that it’s looking to further its augmented-reality tech, according to Business Insider.

Snapchat has tapped into something important; it’s not just another social media platform. Again, for better or worse.

Some business reasons

Of course, you could also look at the pure business reasons for the magazine:

  • Real Life might attract people older than Snapchat’s huge millennial, GenZ base.
  • Real Life gives Snapchat a desktop, non-mobile presence.
  • Real Life could expand Snapchat’s ad inventory (and therefore add revenue).

But, right now, it seems focused on bigger context and bigger ideas. Which wouldn’t be the first time a tech company has tried on bigger pants.

Ev Williams founded Medium, he said, to build a deeper understanding of what matters in the world.

Five years ago, Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey talked about Twitter in almost existential terms, less as company and more as a movement. What is Twitter? “It’s different things to different people at different times,” he said at a conference then.

Later, Dorsey clarified: “Twitter is live: live commentary, live connections, live conversations.”

Of course, Twitter has struggled to figure out exactly how to monetize a philosophy. Snapchat is well on its way to figuring out how to monetize itself, and is only now turning to the bigger questions.

The kind of questions that extend beyond their business model and beyond marketing, and get to the heart of who its customer—and all of us—are. And, more important, who we are becoming.

Focus Group Feedback

P.S. I asked a Gen Z focus group what it thought of Snapchat’s Real Life magazine. This focus group is a sample size of one, and she lives in my house.

Here is the conversation, reprinted verbatim, for the sake of science:

Researcher: “Did you hear about Snapchat’s new magazine?

Focus group of 1: “No. No one looks at Discover stories.”

Researcher: “No, it’s a magazine they are publishing as a standalone website, about life and technology.”

Focus group of 1: “Why? It’s a dumb idea. Snapchat needs to step back in their lane. No one reads magazines.”

Researcher: “Grownups read magazines. What if they’re looking to attract older people?”

Focus group of 1: “Is this one of your marketing questions? Would you read it? I mean—would you read it, if you weren’t you?”

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