Are media companies building another house of cards on SnapChat?

If there’s an “It Girl” in the online-media space right now — a single company that sums up the current landscape and the current mood, for better or worse — it would have to be SnapChat. The four-year-old company is the platform everyone wants to be seen with, whether it’s Vice News using it to post a 10-minute documentary on Bitcoin, or Madonna featuring a video from her new album.

But what exactly do media companies get out of this arrangement? Is it a potential share of future revenues (since SnapChat has no actual revenues)? Is it exposure to new users, and especially the much-sought-after millennial generation? And are those returns going to be worth it, or are they building another house of cards on someone else’s land?

The big story right now is SnapChat’s new Discover feature, which launched last month with partners like Vice, CNN and Yahoo News, and more expected in the near future (BuzzFeed, which you might think would be a natural fit with the somewhat ephemeral nature of SnapChat content, reportedly backed out of a deal, citing creative differences). Media companies both large and small have been jockeying to be part of the new offering.

More eyeballs and clicks

And what is the payoff? Everyone who has talked about their decision to play ball with SnapChat mentions the platform’s reach, how it has more than 200 million active users (and reportedly growing quickly) and how they are trying to expand their audience. And the engagement levels are apparently off the charts, according to some media execs: One told Digiday that “I can’t tell you what the numbers are, but they’re f***ing incredible.”


The publishing executive quoted by Digiday didn’t specify what exactly was so incredible about SnapChat’s numbers, but presumably it was some combination of number of users and the time they spent with the media company’s content. In an era when the attention span of some web readers is measured in tenths of a second, anything more is worth celebrating.

So what if users are showing up in droves and clicking on those video links or text stories or photo galleries? SnapChat says that it is planning to offer advertising within the Discover content, and that it’s going to be good enough that it will generate revenue for everyone, including the content creators. But do we have any way of knowing whether that’s true? Not really. And are any readers being driven back to the actual websites of the content companies themselves? No one knows.

A full-fledged media entity

For a dystopian — but arguably not inaccurate — perspective on where this all could be leading us, check out John Herrman’s recent piece at The Awl on how the internet’s future appears to be much like TV: in other words, a cheap and cheerful attention factory designed to monetize eyeballs as efficiently as possible, regardless of the inherent value of the content. And chat apps are where the attention is.

“The only apps that people use in the way publications want their readers to behave — with growing loyalty that can be turned into money — are basically communications services. The near-future internet puts the publishing and communications industries in competition with each other for the same confused advertising dollars, and it’s not even close.”

If you had suggested even six months ago that SnapChat was going to become any kind of savior for media, you would have been laughed out of the room or committed somewhere for psychiatric observation. The service was known — if it was known at all — as a dodgy startup founded by a bunch of dude-bros, whose platform specialized in messages that self-destruct. It was widely seen as a “sexting” app and nothing more.


Fast forward to now, and SnapChat has become a full-fledged media entity: in addition to the ephemeral messaging that it launched with, it now has Discover, as well as SnapChat Stories, which are collections of photos and videos that users can share. The company has even launched its own original series, called “Literally Can’t Even.” And the service is apparently working with AT&T to find popular video stars from YouTube to create content.

Owning the game

Much like Twitter, SnapChat’s growth and expansion is a great example of a saying based on the disruption theories of Clay Christensen — that the next big thing always starts out looking like a toy. In the war for attention, SnapChat and other services are clearly winning, and traditional media companies seem to be losing. So it makes sense to play ball with them, in order to learn from them, and hopefully convert some of those ephemeral users into loyal readers or even potential customers.

This is the rationale behind BuzzFeed’s project, known as BuzzFeed Distributed, in which a team produces content of various kinds — photos, videos, text, cartoons — just for the specific platforms they appear on, whether it’s SnapChat and Instagram or Facebook. And there’s no question experimenting is good, and the principle of “promiscuous media” (as Fusion’s Felix Salmon has called it) has a lot going for it.

At the same time, however, the risk with SnapChat is the same as it is for media companies who play ball with Twitter or Facebook: Namely, that the main beneficiary of this deal is the platform itself, since it is the one that reaps most of the revenue and the attention, and theoretically the trust relationship that goes along with them. And they control not only the ball but the field, and the umpires, and the stadium — and they can change the rules whenever they want to. It’s awfully hard to win at a game like that.

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