Can Snap snap back?

At its annual summit, the company gets bullish on AI — but feels haunted by the ghost of its past ambitions

Can Snap snap back?
"oil painting of a sad black ghost on a yellow background" / DALL-E

LOS ANGELES — For more than a decade, Snapchat has been a fixture in the lives of young people. But the business side of the app has been much less stable. This week I flew down to LA to check in the company — and while Snap still has plenty of big ideas, I was struck by how much the company’s ambitions seem to be limited at the moment by the recent downturn in the economy.

The occasion for my visit was the annual Snap Partner Summit. For the past three years, due to the pandemic, the event had been online-only. But this year the company gathered together its business partners and the press together in person again, in a giant airplane hangar in Santa Monica.

It was an inspired location for a tech event. Instead of bringing people together in some Silicon Valley theater, as has become standard, the company reimagined an airfield in Southern California as a kind of digital Coachella, complete with multiple stages, interactive exhibits, and roving staffers handing out slices of an influencer’s branded pizza.

The main event was a keynote speech, led by CEO Evan Spiegel, in which the company made its latest case that Snapchat has big growth potential: for creators, for brands, and for its own advertising business.

When Snap starts talking about changes to its product lineup, there’s good reason to pay attention. The company is among the most copied in the history of Silicon Valley, and is these days second perhaps only to TikTok in that regard. It previously managed to scale up big ideas including disappearing messages, ephemeral stories, vertically oriented videos, and augmented-reality glasses.

The more important story in recent years, though, has been about the bets that haven’t paid off. About Spectacles failing to find a big audience; about the winding down of its original video series, mini apps, and games; and about the cancellation of its adorable drone, Pixy.

All of these were rational decisions. The company, like Facebook and others who serve targeted ads, was hammered by the introduction of Apple’s App Tracking Transparency feature and the decline of the digital ad market. Snap stock, which traded at $83.11 in September 2021, today can be bought for $10.14.

Last year the company announced it would lay off 20 percent of employees – about 1,200 people — and has more lately seen a string of executive departures.

When times are good, and interest rates are low, companies can afford to invest in a series of side projects in the hopes that they’ll find a surprise hit. But in 2023, with the company losing money, a different approach was required.

And so this week’s event focused on ways Snap might be able to make more money in the short term, for its users and for itself. For creators, Snapchat introduced revenue sharing to anyone with more than 50,000 followers on the platform who get at least 25 million views and post 10 times a month. They’re also bringing creators’ stories to the Snap Map.

For businesses, the company introduced a division called AR Enterprise Services, or ARES, which is beginning with letting users try on clothes and shoes virtually using Snap’s AR technology. Snap is also offering AR Mirrors, which stores can install to let customers quickly try on digital versions of clothes while leaving their actual clothes on. And on the more experimental side, Snap is also building an interactive vending machine prototype for Coca-Cola. (You control it with hand gestures.)

Like a lot of companies right now, Snap is also increasingly interested in AI. In February, it introduced My AI, an chatbot powered by OpenAI’s ChatGPT, for subscribers to Snapchat’s premium tier. On Wednesday, Spiegel announced that the bot would be rolling out to all users for free.

In an interview, Spiegel told me that he’s already using My AI for all sorts of things: planning a birthday for his wife, rewriting a wedding speech, and coming up with stories to tell his children at bedtime, among other things.

And soon the bot will become much more interactive — you’ll be able to bring it into your conversations with friends to answer trivia questions, recommend restaurants, and do whatever else the latest large language models can do.

It’s in this feature, I think, that Snapchat sees the potential for a return on investment. Encourage users to ask the bot for recommendations will allow the company to capture search intent in a way it has never been able to before; that will provide new avenues for targeted first-party advertising that is permissible under Apple’s rules.

One Snap employee told me Wednesday that the intersection of ads and AI figures largely in the company’s sales plans going forward.

It’s not alone in that: Meta is already using AI to improve its ad targeting, and Google is working on AI ads of its own. And if Snap succeeds in getting users to use My AI as a partial substitute for Google, I suspect that the AI companion it’s now building will become the latest Snapchat feature to be widely copied in Silicon Valley.

Should that vision come together, maybe Snap can regain some of the creative spark it showed so consistently over the past decade. The company still has plans to build new hardware, I’m told, including for its Spectacles glasses; maybe 2023 is just an off year in that regard.

Still, I find myself missing some of the idealism Snap once brought to social networking. The company once loved to compare itself favorably to Facebook and Instagram, describing Snapchat as a place for close friends and real moments. But with creators ascendant on the platform and Spotlight, its TikTok clone, now a key part of its business strategy, Snapchat can feel like just another place to perform.

I’m not sure it really had any other choice. Messaging apps are fiendishly difficult to build durable businesses around. Just ask Meta, which spent $19 billion to acquire WhatsApp and is still working to recoup the cost nine years later. Snap had to try something new here.

Still, whatever problems it faced in the past, Snap always had the strength of its vision to fall back on. It would offer a smaller, more creative, more human experience, and leverage what it learned to build next-generation hardware and software in the best tradition of Apple.

This year, at least to me, that vision is starting to look a little hazy — or at least, less attainable as it once did. On the festival grounds this week, the party was as fun as ever. But below the surface, Snap feels more than a little haunted by the ghost of what it once wanted to be. 

Elsewhere in Snap: Snap’s user base in India doubled last year to 200 million MAUs, Spiegel revealed in an interview. (Samidha Sharma and Apoorva Mittal / The Economic Times)

On the podcast: Hard Fork is off this week while our team convenes in San Francisco to plot our next steps. While we’re away you’ll find a wonderful episode of The Ezra Klein Show about semiconductors in your feed; I highly recommend it.

I have another cool audio project for you this week, too: a collaboration with the greatest show in narrative journalism, This American Life. It’s a story about Yoel Roth’s time at Twitter, both before and after Elon Musk took over, and about the sacrifices that people working in trust and safety make in order to build a safer internet.

For more than 20 years, This American Life has produced some of the best stories I’ve ever heard, and it has continually reshaped my ideas about what journalism can be. Working with the team over the past few months to bring this story to life was a dream come true. Thank you to Ira Glass, David Kestenbaum, Zoe Chace, and the whole This American Life crew for guiding this radio newbie through their (spectacular) editorial process. And, of course, to Yoel for sharing his remarkable story.

The show airs Friday night on public radio outlets around the country, and should land in your podcast player Sunday evening. You can download the This American Life podcast here.



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