After a dark year, Snap Inc. is letting in some light.
Evan Spiegel, Snap’s famously private 28-year-old co-founder and chief executive, took to the stage Thursday to deliver a keynote speech and announce a new suite of products for the company’s disappearing-message app Snapchat — including a major new social gaming platform and an extension of its core products into partner apps.
That’s standard procedure for most tech companies. But it marks a first for Snap.
Spiegel used the opportunity to draw a bright line between Snap and the rest of the tech industry.
“Our camera lets the natural light of the world penetrate the darkness of the internet,” he said at Snap’s “partner summit” event in West Hollywood. “The internet started as a military research project — it’s just not our natural habitat.”
Twitter Inc., Alphabet Inc.’s Google (which owns YouTube), and Facebook Inc. (which owns Instagram) have in the last year been plagued by high-profile scandals over user privacy and destabilizing effects on society and democracy.
After a disastrous redesign of Snapchat in early 2018, Snap has had its own annus horribilis, marked by executive churn, slipping user growth and a roller-coaster stock price.
But with a stabilized user base of 186 million daily active users (according to the Santa Monica company’s own metrics, 90% of 13- to 24-year-olds in America use Snapchat) and a longstanding emphasis on user privacy, the company is betting that it can regain its footing and move toward profitability by positioning itself as the safe, fun social network for its core users.
“On Snapchat, you’re free to be you, with your real friends,” Spiegel said Thursday. “As we use the internet more and more in our daily lives, we need a way to make it a bit more human.”
Snap shares rose 1.1% to close at $11.28.
Spiegel also made Snap’s competition with Facebook — which secured nemesis status after cloning Snap’s popular Stories feature for Instagram in 2016 — more explicit, claiming that Snap’s advertising reaches more users in the 13-to-24 demographic than Facebook’s or Instagram’s, both in the United States and in the U.K., France, Canada and Australia.
The premise that users value private, ephemeral messaging and intimate social experiences more than the overwhelming scrum of Facebook’s news feed or Instagram’s brand- and influencer-heavy lineup was recently supported by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who announced last month that Facebook’s own products would be shifting in that direction.
After Spiegel’s keynote, Snap executives announced a string of new features and products focused on deepening existing users’ engagement with Snapchat, rather than bringing in huge numbers of new users (which the company believes is most likely to come from untapped overseas markets).
The company added 10 new shows to its Originals lineup of scripted and nonfiction video, available starting in May, many of which play with the first-person vertical video format native to the app. “2 Sides,” for instance, presents a wrenching teenage breakup as a split screen showing each side of the relationship. “Dead of Night” shows the main character navigating a zombie apocalypse from the point of view of the character’s phone camera. On the nonfiction front, Snap partnered with author, professor and filmmaker MK Asante to produce “While Black,” a docuseries on race in America.
On the camera front, Snap announced a new set of its augmented reality lenses. Users of the new Scan feature can summon up particular GIFs, trigger site-specific animations at world landmarks and solve math equations within the app.
Snap also unveiled a new suite of back-end tools called Snap Kit, which enables developers to integrate Snap videos and the company’s popular Bitmoji cartoon avatars, as well as Snap’s standard six-second video ad format, into their apps. Inaugural Snap Kit partners include Tinder, which now enables users to include Snap videos in their dating profiles. Fitbit is also a partner; in that integration, a user’s Bitmoji appears on the watch-like fitness tracker in various states of exaltation or exhaustion, depending on the state of the user’s workout goals.
The biggest announcement of the day — a major new games platform within Snap that began rolling out to users in the United States on Thursday — marked a turn away from the camera, focusing instead on making Snapchat’s private social aspect more fun.
“We wanted to build something that makes us feel like we’re playing a board game with family over a long holiday weekend,” said Will Wu, Snap’s director of product. “Something that makes us feel like we’re sitting with friends, controllers in hand, looking at the same screen.”
The marquee title in the lineup is “Bitmoji Party,” which allows users to compete in wacky mini games against their friends, with avatars that are digital versions of themselves.
The games are integrated into Snap’s existing structure for group chats — the same way they get a notification that a friend has sent a new message to the chat, users get a notification that a friend has started a game, and anyone who’s free can pile in.
Once “Bitmoji Party” is started, one player gets designated the game master, and players drop into various game modes such as “Pool Party,” where the game master controls a giant slingshot that throws pool toys the other players try to dodge, and “Zombie Escape,” where one player begins as the infected brain-muncher who tries to catch the other players (who join the zombie team as they succumb).
For the five other launch titles, Snap partnered with outside game studios. In “Alphabear Hustle,” from Spry Fox, players rush around as small bears carrying letters to spell out words and can then use points to build a personal bear village. The surreal “Snake Squad,” from Game Closure, adds a Snap spin to the classic snake game, putting users’ Bitmoji faces on top of ever-extending snakes that wind through spacey worlds before crashing into other players.
And Zynga, of “Farmville” fame, made a cartoonish battle royal game called “Tiny Royale.”
“Farmville” was one of Facebook’s early successes in social gaming, from the early era when the social media giant opened up its platform to any third-party developer with an idea. This led to an explosion in Facebook-embedded content and time spent on the social network, boosting ad revenue, but also opening users up to shady privacy policies and data usage. The unregulated approach to fostering integrations on Facebook opened up the door for companies such as Cambridge Analytica to gain access to private information on users’ entire social networks without the users’ explicit consent.
Snap took a very different approach, hand-picking partners and building the new games directly into the Snapchat app.
It also came up with a mechanism to defuse one of the worst dynamics of online gaming. Users can play solo, fighting against bots or total strangers, depending on the game in question. But in a game with strangers, players can’t communicate with anyone who isn’t a friend (or at least looped in to the same group chat).
Multiplayer online games — and internet communities writ large — have always struggled to deal with the problems that arise when anonymous users occupy a digital space and can harass fellow players or spew foul language. By shutting off the line of communication between strangers, Snap hopes its games can avoid this toxicity and encourage users to mostly play with friends.
For the moment, Snap has eschewed the in-game purchase model that has brought in billions of dollars for popular free-to-play games such as “Fortnite” and “Apex Legends,” where players shell out to buy costume upgrades and unlock dances for their avatars. Instead, the game platform presents players with the option to watch ads — in the same six-second uninterruptible format that Snap deploys across its platform — in exchange for game coins (whose use changes depending on the game).
Meanwhile, it remains to be seen whether the company can pursue Snap Kit without jeopardizing its privacy-centric self-image. The company said it’s accepting applications for advertising partners, which would allow advertisers using Snap’s automatic ad placement tool to place similar video ads on other apps.
Often, similar partnerships have been built on a two-way flow of user data to maximize the ads’ efficacy. If Snap follows in the footsteps of Google and Facebook, the partner app would be able to see some of the Snap user’s information to better target the ad, or Snap would be allowed to acquire some data about people who have never used Snapchat in order to measure ad performance.
Snap wouldn’t share many details, saying that the nature of the ad partnerships would evolve as companies apply to join the network, but executives took every chance to emphasize a commitment to doing only what Snap users want.
A slide reading “Snap Kit respects the privacy of our community” was projected onto the keynote screen Thursday. Snap’s competitors have repeated the same corporate mantra time after time, only to have their credibility shaken by the next privacy scandal. We’ll see whether Snap, even as it opens up more to the wider world, actually means it.
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