2014 AXS Partner Summit Keynote
The following keynote was delivered by Evan Spiegel, CEO of Snapchat, at the AXS Partner Summit on January 25, 2014.
I was asked to speak here today on a topic I’m sure you’re all familiar with: sexting in the post-PC era.
I’ve always thought it was a bit odd that this period in our history has been called the “post-personal computer” era – when really it should be called the “more-personal computer” era.
I read a great story yesterday about a man named Mister Macintosh. He was a man designed by Steve Jobs to live inside the Macintosh computer when it launched, 30 years ago from yesterday. He would appear every so often, hidden behind a pull-down menu or popping out from behind an icon – just quickly and infrequently enough that you almost thought he wasn’t real.
Until yesterday, I hadn’t realized that Steve’s idea of tying a man to a computer had happened so early in his career. But, at the time, the Macintosh was forced to ship without Mister Macintosh because the engineers were constrained to only 128 kilobytes of memory. It wasn’t until much later in Steve’s career that he would truly tie man to machine – the launch of the iPhone on June 29, 2007.
In the past, technical constraints meant that computers were typically found in physical locations: the car, the home, the school. The iPhone tied a computer uniquely to a phone number – to YOU.
Not all that long ago, communication was location-dependent. We were either in the same room together, in which case we could talk face-to-face, or we were across the world from each other, in which case I could call your office or send a letter to your home. It is only very recently that we have begun to tie phone numbers to individual identities for the purpose of computation and communication.
I say all this to establish that smartphones are simply the culmination of Steve’s journey to identify man with machine – and bring about the age of the More-Personal Computer.
There are three characteristics of the More-Personal Computer that are particularly relevant to our work at Snapchat:
1) Internet Everywhere
2) Fast + Easy Media Creation
When we first started working on Snapchat in 2011, it was just a toy. In many ways it still is – but to quote Eames, “Toys are not really as innocent as they look. Toys and games are preludes to serious ideas.”
The reason to use a toy doesn’t have to be explained – it’s just fun. But using a toy is a terrific opportunity to learn.
And boy, have we been learning.
Internet Everywhere means that our old conception of the world separated into an online and an offline space is no longer relevant. Traditional social media required that we live experiences in the offline world, record those experiences, and then post them online to recreate the experience and talk about it. For example, I go on vacation, take a bunch of pictures, come back home, pick the good ones, post them online, and talk about them with my friends.
This traditional social media view of identity is actually quite radical: you are the sum of your published experience. Otherwise known as: pics or it didn’t happen.
Or in the case of Instagram: beautiful pics or it didn’t happen AND you’re not cool.
This notion of a profile made a lot of sense in the binary experience of online and offline. It was designed to recreate who I am online so that people could interact with me even if I wasn’t logged on at that particular moment.
Snapchat relies on Internet Everywhere to provide a totally different experience. Snapchat says that we are not the sum of everything we have said or done or experienced or published – we are the result. We are who we are today, right now.
We no longer have to capture the “real world” and recreate it online – we simply live and communicate at the same time.
Communication relies on the creation of media and is constrained by the speed at which that media is created and shared. It takes time to package your emotions, feelings and thoughts into media content like speech, writing, or photography.
Indeed, humans have always used media to understand themselves and share with others. I’ll spare you the Gaelic with this translation of Robert Burns, “Oh would some power the gift give us, to see ourselves as others see us.”
When I heard that quote, I couldn’t help but think of self-portraits. Or for us Millennials: the selfie! Self-portraits help us understand the way that others see us – they represent how we feel, where we are, and what we’re doing. They are arguably the most popular form of self-expression.
In the past, lifelike self-portraits took weeks and millions of brush strokes to complete. In the world of Fast + Easy Media Creation, the selfie is immediate. It represents who we are and how we feel – right now.
And until now, the photographic process was far too slow for conversation. But with Fast + Easy Media Creation we are able to communicate through photos, not just communicate around them like we did on social media. When we start communicating through media we light up. It’s fun.
The selfie makes sense as the fundamental unit of communication on Snapchat because it marks the transition between digital media as self-expression and digital media as communication.
And this brings us to the importance of ephemerality at the core of conversation.
Snapchat discards content to focus on the feeling that content brings to you, not the way that content looks. This is a conservative idea, the natural response to radical transparency that restores integrity and context to conversation.
Snapchat sets expectations around conversation that mirror the expectations we have when we’re talking in-person.
That’s what Snapchat is all about. Talking through content not around it. With friends, not strangers. Identity tied to now, today. Room for growth, emotional risk, expression, mistakes, room for YOU.
The Era of More Personal Computing has provided the technical infrastructure for more personal communication. We feel so fortunate to be a part of this incredible transformation.
Snapchat is a product built from the heart – that is the reason why we are in Los Angeles. I often talk with people about the conflicts between technology companies and content companies – I’ve found that one of the biggest issues is that frequently technology companies view movies, music, and television as INFORMATION. Directors, producers, musicians, and actors view them as feelings, as expression. Not to be searched, sorted, and viewed – but EXPERIENCED.
Snapchat focuses on the experience of conversation – not the transfer of information. We’re thrilled to be a part of this community.
Thank you for inviting me today and thank you for being a part of our journey. Our team looks forward to getting to know all of you.
Snap Spam Update
We’ve heard some complaints over the weekend about an increase in Snap Spam on our service. We want to apologize for any unwanted Snaps and let you know our team is working on resolving the issue. As far as we know, this is unrelated to the Find Friends issue we experienced over the holidays.
While we expect to minimize spam, it is the consequence of a quickly growing service. To help prevent spam from entering your feed, you can adjust your settings to determine who can send you Snaps. We recommend “Only My Friends” :)
We appreciate your patience and we’ll keep you posted.
Find Friends Improvements
This morning we released a Snapchat update for Android and iOS that improves Find Friends functionality and allows Snapchatters to opt-out of linking their phone number with their username. This option is available in Settings > Mobile #.
This update also requires new Snapchatters to verify their phone number before using the Find Friends service.
Our team continues to make improvements to the Snapchat service to prevent future attempts to abuse our API. We are sorry for any problems this issue may have caused you and we really appreciate your patience and support.
The Frame Makes the Photograph
A common thing we hear about social media today is that near-constant picture taking means not ‘living in the moment’. We should put the phone down and just experience life rather than worry ourselves with its documentation. This sentiment wrongly assumes that documentation and experience are essentially at odds, a conceptual remnant of how we used to think of photography, as an art object, as content, rather than what it is often today, less an object and more a sharing of experience. But not all social media are built the same, and I think we can use a distinction in social platforms: those that are based in social media versus those that are more fundamentally about communication.
Researcher Sherry Turkle discusses this in a recent New York Times op-ed, describing how very-famous comedian Aziz Ansari greets his fans on the street. They want a photo with him, some documentary proof, but he instead offers conversation about his work, leaving many fans unsatisfied. Turkle extrapolates this encounter as representative of how social media works in general, which, I think, is a significant misunderstanding of, and disconnection from, how people use social services today. Meeting a famous person is that special moment you may want proof of; conversation might be nice, but with a celebrity it will be a one-sided affair, they will likely not remember you or keep the conversation going at a later date. To compare everyday sociality online as akin to meeting a celebrity, as Turkle does, is inaccurate. Sure, meeting Ansari might be a situation where some desire a document more than conversation, but everyday digitally-mediated social interaction is often less about the media object but rather centered in a back-and-forth reciprocal dialogue, something different social services can encourage or preclude, depending how they’re designed.
The way to understand photography as it happens on social platforms is not to compare it to traditional photography, which is about creating an art object, but instead as a communicating of experience itself. It’s less making media and more sharing eyes; your view, your experience in the now. The atomizing of the ephemeral flow of lived reality into transmittable objects is the ends of the traditional photograph, but merely the means of the social snap. As photos have become almost comically easy to make, their existence alone as objects isn’t special or interesting, rather, they exist more fluidly as communication; a visual discourse more linguistic than formally artistic. As such, social photography should be understood not as a remove from the moment or conversation but a deeply social immersion.
Turkle centers her analysis on selfies—those photos you take of yourself—arguing that we are trading the experience of the moment for its documentation. But when viewing selfies as not an abundance of self-portrait photographs but rather a sharing of experience, a communication of this is who I am, I was here, I was feeling like this, the commonality of selfies isn’t surprising or anti-social at all. Selfies, largely, are not recording the exceptionally rare events with famous people but exactly the opposite, the everyday moments that weave the fabric of life in all of its variety. An immaculately framed and perfectly lit photo of the beach makes for a good art object can be a pretty boring speech act given how that same shot multiplies in social feeds looking kind of the same. Instead, the selfie is the image-speak that is uniquely yours, no one else can take your selfie, it is your own voice-as-image and is thus especially intimate and expressive. It’s intensely in the moment and that’s exactly why we desire to share and view them.
Through this example of modern photo sharing, the distinction being made here is between social services that are primarily fixated on content versus communication. All social media is both, of course, but not all media focus on both equally.
Today’s dominate social services are very concerned with the media object, the singular slice of experience that is pulled apart, made discrete, placed in a profile or stream, and given all sorts of metrics to quantify how many people appreciate it. More simply, dominant social media organize their sites and your experience around these media objects, be they photos, videos, chunks of text, check-ins, and so on. They are the fundamental unit of experience for you to click on, comment on, and share. A photo is posted, and the conversation happens around it, side-by-side, on the screen.
Alternatively, one key component of ephemeral social media—appreciated by its users but unexplored in most analyses—is that it rejects this fundamental unit of organization. There are no comments displayed on a Snap, no hearts or likes. With ephemerality, communication is done through photos rather than around them.
That media object, say, a photo, is the ends of dominant social media, but merely the means for services that are ephemeral, letting the media object fade away and making disposable the very thing that other services are built upon. Like the proliferating selfies, the actual photographic object is merely a byproduct of communication rather than its focus.
By diminishing the importance of the media object, by making it disposable, the emphasis is placed on communication itself. This goes a long way to explain the intimacy of a Snap versus a static image shared on another site. Other services, even their direct messaging components, are organized by and around persistent media objects. This is the media based sociality that gives social media its name.
An image becomes a photograph, in part, by having borders. The frame makes the photo. Tellingly, a Snapchat usually exists unframed, full-screen, more moment than an art object. Less than sharing experience-trophies and hoping communication happens around them, an ephemeral network leaves the art objects to fade in favor of focusing on the moments, the experience, the communication; more social than media, more social than network.
Perhaps the reason most of our dominate social media have been fixated on content, on media objects, is because content can be stored. Sociality is treated like information that can be indexed as search engines do to the Web. Photos and the rest are recorded, kept, organized into profiles to be measured and tracked and ranked. It made sense, that’s largely what people used desktop computers to do. Perhaps it was the rise of the mobile phone, where people do less information searching and more communicating that revealed this as a flawed model for organizing anything social. I’m concluding on a highly speculative note here, but it is certainly time to rethink sociality based so fundamentally on media objects.
One can still understand the appeal of the media object and why we continue to want to produce and consume those beautiful moments placed within a photo border. The band you are watching at their most intense, the sun setting, the family gathering, meeting a famous comedian: there’s certainly a place for the important photo, saved permanently. As I often argue, ephemeral and permanent social media work together rather than in opposition. Even Snaps are often turned into great pieces of art.
But as easy as it is to appreciate the importance of those special moments, it is equally easy to underestimate the seemingly banal moments in-between. Those who study the social world appreciate the complexities of the seemingly trivial. What is often thought to be the boring, mundane parts of everyday life are instead profoundly important. Minor social groomings make up the textures of our lives: saying hello, smiling, acknowledging each other, our faces, our stuff, and our moods from good to bad. Permanent social media have a difficult time capturing these important trivialities in a comfortable way. And this is exactly where ephemeral social media excels; built for everyday communication in its fleeting, often fun, always important nature. By not trying treating social life as just about capturing moments as trophies, ephemeral social media is more familiar, it emphasizes everyday sociality, and that is anything but trivial.
Nathan Jurgenson, Researcher
Find Friends Abuse
When we first built Snapchat, we had a difficult time finding other friends that were using the service. We wanted a way to find friends in our address book that were also using Snapchat – so we created Find Friends. Find Friends is an optional service that asks Snapchatters to enter their phone number so that their friends can find their username. This means that if you enter your phone number into Find Friends, someone who has your phone number in his or her address book can find your username.
We acknowledged in a blog post last Friday that it was possible for an attacker to use the functionality of Find Friends to upload a large number of random phone numbers and match them with Snapchat usernames. On New Years Eve, an attacker released a database of partially redacted phone numbers and usernames. No other information, including Snaps, was leaked or accessed in these attacks.
We will be releasing an updated version of the Snapchat application that will allow Snapchatters to opt out of appearing in Find Friends after they have verified their phone number. We’re also improving rate limiting and other restrictions to address future attempts to abuse our service.
We want to make sure that security experts can get ahold of us when they discover new ways to abuse our service so that we can respond quickly to address those concerns. The best way to let us know about security vulnerabilities is by emailing us: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Snapchat community is a place where friends feel comfortable expressing themselves and we’re dedicated to preventing abuse.
Finding Friends with Phone Numbers
Occasionally computer security professionals and other helpful people reach out to us about potential bugs and vulnerabilities in Snapchat. We are grateful for the assistance of professionals who practice responsible disclosure and we’ve generally worked well with those who have contacted us.
This week, on Christmas Eve, a security group posted documentation for our private API. This documentation included an allegation regarding a possible attack by which one could compile a database of Snapchat usernames and phone numbers.
Our Find Friends feature allows users to upload their address book contacts to Snapchat so that we can display the accounts of Snapchatters who match the phone numbers found in the address book. Adding a phone number to your Snapchat account is optional, but it’s helpful for allowing your friends to find you. We don’t display the phone numbers to other users and we don’t support the ability to look up phone numbers based on someone’s username.
Theoretically, if someone were able to upload a huge set of phone numbers, like every number in an area code, or every possible number in the U.S., they could create a database of the results and match usernames to phone numbers that way. Over the past year we’ve implemented various safeguards to make it more difficult to do. We recently added additional counter-measures and continue to make improvements to combat spam and abuse.
Who Can View My Snaps and Stories
Two questions we get a lot are “do you keep all of the Snaps?” and “do you look at them?” An earlier blog post detailed how Snaps are stored and when they are deleted, so now with the introduction of Stories, we’d like to share a bit about access.
As mentioned in our previous blog post, Snaps are deleted from our servers after they are opened by their recipients. So what happens to them before they are opened? Most of Snapchat’s infrastructure is hosted on Google’s cloud computing service, App Engine. Most of our data, including unopened Snaps, are kept in App Engine’s datastore until they are deleted.
Is Snapchat capable of retrieving unopened Snaps from the datastore? Yes—if we couldn’t retrieve Snaps from the datastore, we wouldn’t be able to deliver them to their recipients desired by the sender. Do we manually retrieve and look at Snaps under ordinary circumstances? No. The ordinary process of sending Snaps to their recipient(s) is automated.
Since May 2013, about a dozen of the search warrants we’ve received have resulted in us producing unopened Snaps to law enforcement. That’s out of 350 million Snaps sent every day.
Law enforcement requests sometimes require us to preserve Snaps for a time, like when law enforcement is determining whether to issue a search warrant for Snaps.
Only two people in the company currently have access to the tool used for manually retrieving unopened Snaps, our co-founder and CTO, Bobby (who coded it), and me.
Okay, so what about Stories?
The biggest difference between Stories and Snaps is that unless deleted by the user, Stories are available for 24 hours and can be viewed repeatedly in that time. Unlike unopened Snaps, which are stored until viewed or for 30 days if not opened, Snaps that have been added to your Stories are deleted from our servers after 24 hours. Stories are subject to the same legal requirements for access and disclosure as described above for Snaps.
Micah Schaffer, Snapchat Trust & Safety
Every Snap received brings excitement and change. Today is no different.
We’re introducing Snapchat Stories. A totally new way to share your day with friends - or everyone. It’s fun and ephemeral, just like Snapchat.
Snapchat Stories add Snaps together to create a narrative. When you add a Snap to your Story it lives for 24 hours before it disappears, making room for the new. Your Story always plays forward, because it makes sense to share moments in the order you experience them.
Your Story never ends and it’s always changing. The end of your Story today is the beginning of your Story tomorrow. And each Snap in your Story includes a list of everyone who views it.
Playing with Stories is the best way to understand it. So for the first time ever, we’re releasing an update simultaneously on iOS and Android. We hope you love it as much as we do.
The Liquid Self
Social media doesn’t need to be what it has come to be. Social media is young, growth comes with pains, and we should keep questioning assumptions and push this new media to new limits. My first post here on the Snapchat blog, fittingly, questioned the assumed permanence of social media content. Permanent content is just one option, a choice with far-ranging implications, and it isn’t necessary. Here, I’d like to think about one major consequence of permanence: the social media profile.
The familiar social media profile is that collection of information about you and/or created by you, usually with some other people you’re connected to. Profiles structure identity in more or less constraining ways: real name policies, lists of information about our preferences, detailed histories and current activities all comprise a highly structured set of boxes to squeeze oneself into. Further, as our documented histories grow, the profile grows both in literal size as well as in weight on our minds and behaviors.
The social media profile attempts to convince us that life, in all its ephemeral flow, should also be its simulation; the ephemeral flow of lived experience is to be hacked into a collection of separate, discrete, objects to be shoved into the profile containers. The logic of the profile is that life should be captured, preserved, and put behind glass. It asks us to be collectors of our lives, to create a museum of our self. Moments are chunked off, put in a grid, quantified, and ranked. Permanent social media are based on such profiles, with each being more or less constraining and grid-like. Rethinking permanence means rethinking this kind of social media profile, and it introduces the possibility of a profile not as a collection preserved behind glass but something more living, fluid, and always changing.
Recording identity into categories on social media isn’t all bad and my goal here is not to argue they should disappear, but rather ask if they can be rethought, made into only an option and perhaps not the default? Can social media be created that doesn’t ask us to work ourselves into as many identity-containers given that humans and identity itself are fundamentally fluid and ever changing?
To get at this, let’s think for a moment about that common, and distinctly modern, cultural truism found in children’s stories, self-help books, and everyday advice asking us to be true to ourselves. We are to discover and remain faithful to that real, authentic version of who we are. It can often be good advice, but if you cringed at reading the word “authentic” any bit as much as I did typing it, then you already know that advice can leave little room for anything other than having just one self, regardless of time and place, and as such runs the risk of discouraging change. There’s another school of thought, one that understands identity as never solidified and always in flux. Instead of a single, unchanging self, we might consider a ‘liquid self’, one more verb than noun.
This is abstract, I know, and we won’t settle this philosophical debate on a blog, but the Internet has played an Interesting role in this tension between identity consistency and change. The tale is a familiar one by now: the Web arrived pregnant with the possibility of rethinking who we are by transcending geographic location, physical ability, as well as things like race, gender, age, even species [though, this detachment was always only a fantasy]. The New Yorker cartoon infamously joked that, “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog”. As the story goes, however, the Web went mainstream and commercial. It got normal and somewhere along the way spontaneous anonymity became replaced by consistent identity. Now that everyone knows you’re a dog, it’s difficult to be anything but.
Social media has come to put a tremendous emphasis on our own identity, constantly recorded, always accumulating, stored, and presented back to us in an always-available profile of ourselves. Yes, Identity can be a source of importance, meaning, history, and pleasure, but, today, identity is rapidly piling up, exponentially increasing our own contact with ourselves. The profile photo, the background, what you like, what you do, who your friends are all lead to a never ending and always growing self-surveillance that’s paired with a healthy dose of being watched by others, too. What can be in one breath “self-expression” can be in another “self-policing” when who you are (and thus who you are not) become increasingly part of everyday life.
Self-expression, when bundled into permanent category boxes (digital or otherwise), has the danger of becoming increasingly constraining and self-restricting. Given that pressure to be “real”, authentic, and “true to yourself” as mentioned above, this massive evidence of one’s own self can become limiting and impede identity change. My worry here is that today’s dominant social media is too often premised on the idea (and ideal) of having one, true, unchanging, stable self and as such fails to accommodate playfulness and revision. It has been built around the logic of highly structured boxes and categories, most with quantifiers that numerically rank every facet of our content, and this grid-patterned data-capture machine simply does not comfortably accommodate the reality that humans are fluid, changing, and messy in ways both tragic and wonderful.
While social media is in its adolescence, it has yet to comfortably incorporate adolescence itself. By that I do not mean young people specifically, but instead the type of change and growth that is healthy regardless of age. The default of requiring social media users to permanently record and display themselves damages the invaluable importance of identity play. Put differently: many of us desire social media that is less like the mall and more like a park. Being far less standardized, constrained, and policed, yes, the park is somewhere you might do something a little dumb. Knees get scraped. But mistakes shouldn’t be fully avoided, which is what dominate, permanent social media demand, resulting in constant over-anxiety about what’s being posted. A healthy corrective to existing social media would be to create platforms that provide more room to behave without that behavior always defining who one is and what one can do. The idea of non-patrolled spaces for expression can be frightening, but a lack of such spaces is far more worrisome.*
Dominate social media has thus far taken a stand, a radical one in my opinion, for a version of identity that is highly categorized and omnipresent, one that forces an ideal of a singular, stable identity that we will continuously have to confront. It is a philosophy that doesn’t capture the real messiness and fluidity of the self, fails to celebrate growth, and is particularly bad for those most socially-vulnerable. I wonder how we can build social media that doesn’t always intensify our own relationship to ourselves by way of identity boxes. I think temporary social media will provide new ways of understanding the social media profile, one that isn’t comprised of life hacked into frozen, quantifiable pieces but instead something more fluid, changing, and alive.
Nathan Jurgenson, Researcher
*Note: The idea that a person should have a single, stable, true or authentic identity is most difficult for those who are more socially vulnerable. Having only one, unchanging identity may not seem all that problematic if who you are is not often stigmatized and penalized. However, there needs to be far more recognition that many people justifiably enjoy and need some social-closets where identity can be played with and not put on bright display because the potential consequences are greater. Race, class, sex, sexuality, ability, age, and all the other various intersections of power and vulnerability need to be part of the discussions around how social media is built, used, and improved.