I suppose I shouldn't even be writing about this here, at all. This is Social Media Today, after all, and my column is called Social Advocacy and Politics. It's all social here. Yet Snapchat says of its new Discover service, "This is not social media."
According to Snapchat's blog, "Social media companies tell us what to read based on what's most recent or most popular. We see it differently. We count on editors and artists, not clicks and shares, to determine what's important." And the hype across the media coverage of Discover is that it should hook younger audiences into reading the news.
But will it succeed?
I certainly hope it will succeed, because new generations of news consumers are essential to the health of our democracy. A free market of ideas only works, according to Thomas Jefferson and John Locke, if the electorate is informed. These days, it seems that everyone wants to share the news but nobody wants to pay for producing the news. That is a recipe for failure.
But Snapchat's Discover play is built on some questionable assumptions, which may prove to be big obstacles.
First, while Snapchat is very popular among young social media users, just adding a set of news channels to the app won't necessarily tap into that enthusiasm. The appeal of Snapchat is the novelty of messages disappearing. And while no informed social media user would assume that the ephemerality provides true security (there are plenty of third-party apps that are designed to capture Snapchat content), there is this thrill snaps create, even if the urgency is artificial.
The content on Discover is very different from the content shared in the primary channels on Snapchat. Discover's news content disappears after 24 hours, not after seconds. So there is significantly less urgency to read it. Also, the new content channels are long-form, as opposed to the snapshot and short text typical of Snapchat messages. If young people like Snapchat because of it short-lived, highly snackable content, there is no reason to predict they will love the long-form journalism just because it is on the same app. And, at least in the current layout of the app, Discover's content is buried deep; several unintuitive clicks away from the place the app's users spend their time.
Then there is Snapchat's own explanation of why Discover is different from social media. They tell us, "Social media companies tell us what to read based on what's most recent or most popular." But, frankly, this is not accurate. Social media companies don't tell us what to read at all (except in what their algorithms share to our feeds). People and organization using social media tell us what to read and we choose which of these channels to follow.
What we read on social media is what the people and organizations we trust recommend we read. Whether we only follow curators we trust or monitor lists that aggregate several curators on a common topic, we use social media to find high quality content to consume. Much of this is shared via links to news media websites, blogs, videos and other quality content producing organizations. In other words, many social media channels curate high quality long-form content. If I wanted to check out a featured story on CNN, I could easily get it through its Twitter feed or on its Facebook page.
Now, I can also get such high quality long-form CNN content from Snapchat.
I have often quoted my friend Kyle Stoneman that, "We used to live in a world where the producers of content determined the channels of distribution, but now we live in a world where consumers determine the channels of distribution." Given this reality, it makes sense to deliver news through Snapchat. After all, that's where the kids are (yes, I know older people use it, too; I do and I am 53).
But wouldn't it make more sense to figure out how to deliver news using Snapchat's established and very popular channels' format? Wouldn't CNN have more success hooking a new generation of news consumers using regular, quickly fading snaps to deliver the news?
We should not assume that just because Discover is delivered through the Snapchat app that it is the same channel. It is a second channel (or collection of channels) on an app that also has many snap-type channels. By comparison, Facebook offers page administrators the option to blog on their page via Notes. But Notes have never succeeded like Wall posts. These are two different types of channels on Facebook. One is very effective; the other not as much.
Let me be clear, efforts to reinvigorate the market for long-form news and analysis content should be applauded. And I want them to succeed. Snapchat's Discover channels, like the new Brookings Essay, are attempts to create amazing content in a form that has been in its last throes of death for years now (hopefully Dick Cheney's definition, not the real definition). Being able to read and comprehend long-form content is an essential civic skill, as Neil Postman eloquently argued to Camille Paglia, because it not only keeps us informed, but hones our linear logic. But as, Paglia countered, sometimes you can walk out of a building and a piano can fall on your head. We also need non-linear logic skills that are honed by short-form social media.
So I would encourage news and analysis media to serious embrace both the long-form and the short, snackable form of content so effective on social media. The market for news and analysis content is still there, even if the delivery channels, and thus the form, are changing. That said, I am hopeful about Snapchat's Discover channels, even if I see challenges and room for improvement.