To those who think Snapchat is just for silly selfies: Think again.
Originally an app for sending photos and short videos (“snaps”) that permanently disappear after being viewed, the tool has evolved considerably since its 2011 launch.
Here’s a quick synopsis: In 2013, the company created “Snapchat Stories,” a feature that lets users stitch together multiple snaps that can be viewed an unlimited number of times in a span of 24 hours. In 2014, it added “Our Stories” (now called “Live Stories”), enabling people at events to submit their snaps to a common story curated by Snapchat itself. And in January 2015, Snapchat introduced “Discover,” a channel for media companies to push content to the app’s users, which now add up to over 150 million daily — more than Twitter, though a far cry from Facebook. Those audiences are not just teenagers and college students. At a conference in February 2016, Snapchat said more than half of its new users are over the age of 25.
While many other changes have marked the app’s short history (2014 also brought “geofilters,” which stamp a time or place on a snap, and “lenses,” which overlay masks on selfies), but it is the “Stories” and “Discover” features that have piqued the interest of journalists and media companies most.
Indeed, the New York Times published more than a dozen articles about Snapchat and its parent company, Snap, Inc., this past November and December. “If you secretly harbor the idea that Snapchat is frivolous or somehow a fad, it’s time to re-examine your certainties,” wrote the New York Times tech columnist Farhad Manjoo. “In fact, in various large and small ways, Snap has quietly become one of the world’s most innovative and influential consumer technology companies.”
It’s true: Snapchat is a tool allowing journalists to report and distribute news in completely original ways. It’s also a platform empowering consumers to engage with news like never before. But the company, notorious for its secretive culture, is tight-lipped about its editorial policies, making it difficult to answer the ethical questions raised by the app’s journalistic features: Who is responsible for validating crowdsourced content? Who should decide what news is important for audiences to see? And is a company like Snapchat bound by the principles of journalism?
Yusuf Omar, mobile editor at Hindustan Times and a Snapchat enthusiast, is one journalist pushing the boundaries of Snapchat in his work. In July, for example, he used the app to interview victims of sexual abuse. He had his sources shield their faces using a Snapchat filter. The move wasn’t a gimmick. Rather, it gave a voice to women who felt they must remain anonymous in a country that stigmatizes rape survivors.
At a conference in Chicago this October, Omar discussed how he and his staff use Snapchat more broadly as a content creation tool. A journalist could simply use a smartphone’s built-in camera app to take photos and record video, but Omar said there are unique benefits to using Snapchat instead. The obvious plus is that the app lets journalists send content directly to their followers, in real time. Snaps can also be manipulated with text, drawings and icons. So, a journalist could take a photo of a scene, manually circle a point of interest and describe it with a caption. Omar emphasized Snapchat’s time and place geofilters as a valuable feature for journalists because they can’t be manipulated by the person taking the snap. “These are layers of verification that help us add authenticity,” he said.
He admitted that Snapchat is not a perfect tool. It can be hard to build a following on the app because individual journalists can only share content with Snapchat users who have chosen to add them as a friend. What’s more, there are no “likes,” “shares” or “retweets” on Snapchat, so content does not flow from user to user as it does on Facebook or Twitter. Journalists can measure the reach of their snaps to a degree. Users can see how many times their stories have been viewed by their friends and by who, but they can’t see how many friends they have in total or a full list of friends following them. Not even celebrities have this power.
Omar also talked about how a team of journalists out in the field can take snaps and send them to an editor back at the office, who can then combine the pictures into a package. Savvy journalists can even ask their followers at events to send them snaps for this purpose. It’s worth noting that these “citizen journalists” are members of the public and therefore not bound to any journalistic principles. In cases where citizen journalists are utilized, Omar believes that the editor is responsible for the integrity of the final product. “It’s the same when you hire a freelancer to do a story,” he said. “It’s still going to be the news editor that’s going to be on the chopping board if that story doesn’t make sense.”
Snapchat uses citizen reporters to crowdsource content, too. In the past, the app called on its users to cover political debates, Ramadan in Mecca, Hurricane Matthew and battles in Iraq, although less serious events such as concerts and sporting events are more often showcased in Snapchat’s Live Stories.
This is how Live Stories work: At events deemed newsworthy, Snapchat activates a feature that allows users on location to submit photos and videos. (Those users grant Snapchat the right to use their content in the app’s terms of service.) Then, a team of curators at the company chooses footage from the submissions, stitches scenes together and adds context such as graphics and captions. The results are unprecedented, often intimate snapshots of events from a diverse array of perspectives many journalists could only dream of attaining.
As alluring and innovative as Snapchat’s Live Stories are, it’s important to note they come from an entity that identifies itself as a camera company, not a media company. A camera company makes no promise that its content will be factual and balanced. Maybe Snapchat’s curators are held to those principles internally, but maybe they’re not. When asked what is known about the people making decisions at Snapchat, Omar is blunt: “We know so little. I don’t think there is a startup that is more mysterious than Snapchat. We know so little about their direction and where they’re going.”
So, how does Snapchat decide what topics to cover in Live Stories? Do curators follow rules about how many sources and perspectives to include in a story? What voices does Snapchat miss by relying solely on its own users to submit content? Does Snapchat fact-check? Should it?
After Facebook’s fake news scandal broke in November, journalist Jessica Lessin wrote an editorial for the New York Times arguing that Facebook should not be responsible for policing news. “…hiring editors to enforce accuracy — or even promising to enforce accuracy by partnering with third parties — would create the perception that Facebook is policing the ‘truth,’ and that is worrisome,” she wrote. “I’m not comfortable trusting the truth to one gatekeeper that has a mission and a fiduciary duty to increase advertising revenue, especially when revenue is tied more to engagement than information.”
Does the same sentiment hold for Snapchat, a company that builds its own news packages while relying on advertising revenue? Of course, traditional news organizations count on advertising, too, but “are checked by the power of our competitors and … by readers who stop paying us if we fail them,” wrote Lessin.
Snapchat makes money in a couple ways: from ads (it costs $350,000 to $600,000 for a branded geofilter and up to $700,000 for a lens) and from its Discover tool — a distinct space in the app where media companies ranging from Cosmopolitan to the Wall Street Journal share their content with Snapchat users.
Snapchat introduced Discover in a post on its website in January 2015, calling it “a new way to explore Stories from different editorial teams” and “the result of collaboration with world-class leaders in media to build a storytelling format that puts the narrative first.” This line is perhaps the most striking: “Social media companies tell us what to read based on what’s most recent or most popular. We see it differently. We count on editors and artists, not clicks and shares, to determine what’s important.”
Again, the question arises: How does Snapchat ultimately decide what’s important? And how much does that answer depend on who is paying the bills? Only Snapchat’s paying media partners can use the Discover space, and a partner can reportedly be booted at any time. As with Live Stories, content in Discover appears to be fully at the mercy of Snapchat, which does not openly detail its policies for branded content. “The messaging and media app has no formal branded content program, and enforces rules arbitrarily about what is and isn’t permitted,” said advertisers and publishers contacted by Digiday.
Lately, it seems that Snapchat has made a new move every day: In September, the company debuted Spectacles, which are sunglasses with a built-in camera hooked up to Snapchat. In November, it filed paperwork for an initial public offering in early 2017 (the value of the company is said to be up to $25 billion, one of the highest stock debuts in years). Finally, in December, the company announced new partnerships with Disney and Turner to create original TV shows hosted on the app.
Outsiders don’t know what Snapchat’s plans for its news division entail, but it’s clear that as this so-called camera company grows, so will its power to influence what kind of content it exposes to its millions of users.
Nora Dunne is a Chicago-based writer and editor. She earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University in 2010.