Facebook and Snapchat: metrics versus creation

There's a pretty common narrative that Google & Facebook have a lot of control of the internet, in that they choose where you go and what you see. While this is true in an obvious sense, it also misses something important: Google and Facebook don't have fundamental control over what's actually in your search results or your news feed.

This is pretty clear for Google - it doesn't control what you search for. It does decide what results you get, but that decision is also in some sense out of its hands, because it has to give you the best results it can. So while Google is always making decisions around search, and those can create or uncreate companies, they are in essence technical, mechanistic judgements (or ought to be, at any rate), and not editorial ones. Google search is and has to be a mirror of the internet - both the content of the internet and human behaviour on the internet. It's useful to compare it with an index fund, that doesn't have opinions about individual stocks, but only makes technical, mechanistic adjustments to how well its holdings reflects the index: so too, Google can only adjust how well it reflects the internet. That's a very partial kind of control. 

While this is explicit for Google, it's implicit for Facebook. You tell Google explicitly what you want and you don't think you tell Facebook, but actually you've spent months and years telling it, through everything you've interacted with or ignored. Facebook makes technical, mechanistic judgements about what will be in your newsfeed that are just as bound by things beyond its control - by the internet - as Google's are. It's an index of its users. Every now and then, it decides that it's got off track, no longer aligns with users, and course-corrects. But the need, as for Google, is to mirror the internet (or that large part of it that's accounted for by Facebook itself). And so just as Google can't control what you search for, Facebook can't control what engages you.  

This means that Facebook is surfing user behaviour, and must go where the user takes it. This is why it looks like such an unreliable partner: it will invite you onto the surf board, certainly, but if you're unbalancing the board then it will push you off, and that isn't Facebook's choice. If it didn't push you off then the board would upset and Facebook would be at the bottom of the ocean as well, next to MySpace. The genius of Facebook has been to stay on the board all this time. and especially through the transition from desktop to mobile. 

Within this, there have been some times where Facebook took user behaviour in places that the users themselves didn't think they wanted to go - with the newsfeed itself, with the algorithmic newsfeed and with the continuous rolling back of privacy (you can see some of this repeated again as it has reworked Instagram, of which more later). But in all of these cases, what drives Facebook is data - metrics and algorithms. You think you want a linear newsfeed, but actually, the data shows that you're wrong. Facebook is the first company to measure false consciousness.  

How does this relate to Snapchat? Well, there are several ways you can draw contrasts between Snapchat and Facebook. One, pretty obviously, is that it's a swing of a pendulum away from order and control towards fun and chaos. Another, that it's a swing from passive consumption ('I'm bored - what's in the newsfeed?') to creation (hence opening the app into the camera). Another again is that, like Instagram, it unbundles the camera from Facebook (and from iMessage, WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger) into a better stand-alone model.

But it's also a swing away from metrics. Instead of asking where metrics, data and algorithms take us, Snap is looking for creation. Creation is the common thread repeated over and over again all though the IPO filing, and comes out very strongly in the roadshow video - 'we must create the new, different and fun all the time'. 

"Our strategy is to invest in product innovation and take risks" - Snap 'S1' IPO filing

Much of this creation is centered on the camera - Snap says it's a camera company, and it's often useful to try taking companies at their word on things like this. But camera is a broad term. As I've written elsewhere, thinking about the image sensors on a smartphone just as taking 'photos' is very limiting. For Snap this is clear with the first product - disappearing photos comes from the idea that imaging on a phone is communication as well as or instead of memory, and hence that making you keep all your photos is like saving all of your phone calls. More broadly, one way to look at Snap's products is as trying to work out what it means that the display, the input and the camera are all the same thing - all one digital piece of glass. Most of Facebook's smartphone apps could be controlled with a mouse and keyboard, or even just the 'tab' key, and use the camera as though it's a webcam sticky-taped to the top of the CRT. In contrast, Snapchat and a whole bunch of other apps are much more mobile-native than they are mobile-first, and have the tabula rasa freedom that they can target only the billion or so people with lots of bandwidth and high-end phones, rather than Facebook and Google's commitment to reaching everyone. That creates a great many possibilities for the completely new idea. 

[Source: Snap S1 filing]

[Source: Snap S1 filing]

It's hard to design products like this with metrics - you don't already know what those products would be and your users have no idea. You can iterate with data (that is, 'surf your users'), and you can discover that something you have isn't working, but you can't always create with data - you can't use algorithms to work out what to invent. This is the (much over-used) Steve Jobs argument - it's not the consumer's job to invent new things. Yes, you analyse your users to see if it works, and Snap's S1 talks a lot about listening to users, but that's not how you create.  

"You look to customers to define the problem, not prescribe the solution" - John Warnock

So, you could see Snap's emphasis on 'new' as just running away from Facebook. Facebook is, after all, systematically cloning cool new Snapchat features, and with some success -  there are clear signs of Snapchat's growth slowing in favour of Facebook's apps, especially in some of its non-core markets. But it's also important that Snap thinks that it's mining imaging, touch, GPUs and experience just as Facebook mined sharing, and thinks that there are many more places that this could go. And, of course, the more you create and the more risks you take, and the more you're interested in fun and anarchy, the more possible it is that you create products that burn brightly and then flame out - so you have to keep creating because your experiences have to be new, not (just) because the old ones are being copied by someone. 

This could, perhaps, take Snap to places and generate new 'graphs' that might be structurally more difficult for Facebook to follow . On the other hand, one of Facebook's tactical advantages is that it has four places where it can try to clone features -  it could choose to put a Stories clone into Instagram, not Messenger, WhatsApp or the main newsfeed app. It could put other ideas into other places, depending on where it thinks they fit best - on how best it can surf these new waves, to return to the metaphor. 

Meanwhile, Instagram hasn't just been implementing Snapchat features - it's gone through a more structural shift that illustrates a more structural question for Snapchat's long-term potential. If Google and Facebook try to mirror the internet (again, in the sense both of content and behaviour), and Snapchat deliberately does not, Instagram has moved from one camp to the other. Instagram has moved not just towards Snapchat but also away from the beautiful, carefully considered image and towards a more general, mass-market use case - towards being another index. 

"It became a place where people kept raising the bar on themselves in terms of the quality of what they had to achieve to post. We didn’t want that.”  - Kevin Weil, Instagram's Head of Product

"Your connections with your friends and your family are the thing that make Instagram work. All the data supports that if you follow more friends and engage with your friends, your activity goes through the roof. If you just follow more celebrity content or more interest-based content, that doesn’t move the needle at all.” - Kevin Systrom, Instagram's co-founder (source)

To me, this is Instagram moving towards being another index, or mirror - moving towards the behaviour of billions of people instead of the behaviour of millions of people, and to surfing users rather than prescribing for them. There are millions of people who will post beautiful pictures of coffee or 1960s office blocks, or like a photo by a celebrity, but there are billions who'll share a snapshot of their lunch, beer, dog or child. Instagram is moving to capture that in the same way Messenger and WhatsApp captured chat. It's becoming an index. 

So, one question for Snapchat is whether you can get to a billion users without being an index, no matter how many new things you create? Is the risk not that it gets overtaken by Facebook but that it can't generalise enough? That's obviously a specific concern with the specific character of the user experience today ('too hard for anyone over 25'), but it's also a much more basic question with the character of the product vision - can you scale from having insight and product vision around 150m people to having them for everyone

One of the ways I've talked about social on smartphones is that smartphones themselves are a social platform in a way that the desktop web was not. Every app has an icon on the home screen, so it's quicker to switch apps than switch tabs in the same app. Every app has push notifications, and access to your address book, and your photo library. So, it's much easier to use multiple apps on a phone than on the web. This makes it much easier for apps to take off, but they can look like fireworks - burning brightly and then disappearing. Each social app is trying to capture some piece of psychology or of Maslow's hierarchy and encapsulate it in a few interaction mechanics, and each one is trying to find some angle that's unique enough to break out but not so unique that it becomes a fad. They're also trying to find a mechanic that can't entirely co-opted by Facebook (live video is another good example here). Not many have managed all of this.

One could argue that the leading apps have now captured the key parts of the social domain - filled in the 'white space', as some people say - and that though people will keep finding quirky angles, it'll get harder and harder to get onto the first page of apps and stay there. Following this narrative, Snap found the last piece of white space (if it can keep Facebook away, which is actually all that matters) and there may not be another big one. But you could also argue that Snap thinks there will always be entirely new ways to interact (just as there are always more human desires) and that it will be there trying to be the one creating them.