The Snapchat and The Platypus (Medium)

Scissor-testing A New Branch of the Mobile Evolutionary Tree

Andrew McLaughlin

The British Museum still has the first platypus sent back to Europe from Australia, by Captain John Hunter in 1799. There are scissor marks on its duck-bill.

The first platypus specimen studied by European scientists, at the British Museum.

That’s because George Shaw, the first scientist who studied the astonishing specimen, was pretty sure it was a hoax, sewn together by pranksters or profiteers. With its webbed feet, furry pelt, venomous claw, and ducky beak, it was too freakish to be believed; moreover, London society had lately been thrilled, then crestfallen, by a wave of Franken-mermaids and other concocted exotica hawked by foreign sailors. So Shaw’s first move upon examining the platypus was to reach for his scissors, to uncover what kind of clever stitches bound the amalgamation together.

First published illustrations of a platypus, by George Shaw, “The Duck-Billed Platypus,” Naturalist’s Miscellany, Vol. X (1799).

Finding that the platypus was held together by flesh, not thread, Shaw stopped snipping and starting measuring, and marveling. He published a dutiful summary of his anatomical observations, together with field notes from Australia, in the impossibly well-named Naturalist’s Miscellany. Even with the benefit of several additional, later-arriving specimens, he wrote that it was “impossible not to entertain some doubts as to the genuine nature of the animal, and to surmise that there might have been practised some arts of deception in its structure.”

Which brings me to Snapchat.

When a certain kind of person — OK, an older person, where “old” equals 24— first encounters Snapchat, the reaction is typically some mixture of mystification, disbelief, and annoyance. For people who have gotten used to the dominant evolved anatomies of mobile apps, Snapchat seems like an odd and improbable creature.

A typical sentiment:

Or, as the 32-year-old Will Oremus put it in a brilliant and entertaining screed: “Is Snapchat Really Confusing, Or Am I Just Old?

A quick cruise through the app reveals why people born before the dawn of Clinton Administration react so strongly to it: Snapchat’s UI is really different from what we’re used to. What we’re used to is desktop software and its lineal descendants, with their predictably-located upper-margin drop-down menus, scrollable windows and swappable tabs, and logo-bearing application icons. On our mobile devices, designers have forged comfortingly similar UI elements, ever-so-slightly tweaked to work on smaller screens: scrollable feeds, sliding drawers with logically stacked navigation and option menus, all signaled by a homescreen hamburger icon.

Here are some of the ways Snapchat is different:

  • The app opens in camera mode. You don’t start with a social feed like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, or Instagram, an editorial content feed like Digg, Buzzfeed, or the New York Times, a list of friends like Google Hangouts or Line, or a chronology of recent messages like FaceTime, Skype, or Slack. Instead, you start with whatever your phone’s camera is currently aimed at. Snapchat believes that you (should) want to create something — a photo, a short video— for immediate sharing. Snapchat is designed for you to create first, consume later.
  • There is no options menu. You have to navigate around the app without the crutch of a menu adorned with actual words that spell out what you can do and where you can go. But wait, you cry, there is (sometimes) a hamburger icon right there on the homescreen! Only it doesn’t do what you expect. Tapping the hamburger takes you to Snapchat Stories, a sort of expansive, broadcast-like version of the Snapchat snap. It doesn’t open a sliding drawer with a soothing hierarchical options menu. In Snapchat, navigation is done directly, via left/right/up/down thumb slides, supplemented by a handful of redundant touchable icons. People who are used to tapping well-labeled menu options are often baffled by Snapchat; but conversely, it will feel natural to someone whose first software experiences were on a mobile device, rather than a desktop.
  • Snapchat uses icons that change shape and color to signal different things. For example, a solid arrow is a sent snap (image or video); red if without audio, purple if with audio, and blue if a text chat only. The arrow becomes hollow once a friend has opened it. A solid square is a received snap or chat, with the same variations of color and hollowness. There are other icons that alert you when a friend has replayed or taken a screenshot of your snap. It’s not a complicated system, but it is esoteric and native to Snapchat; nothing about it is self-evident to new users.
  • Snapchat doesn’t pester you to keep connecting to more people.Adding friends in Snapchat is bizarrely cumbersome. If you’re used to traditional social apps, your first move will be tap on “Add Friends” (if you can find it), import your phone’s contacts database, and then squint through the entire list, name by name, to see which ones are on Snapchat and manually add them. It’s a huge pain if you have a lot of contacts. But Snapchat conversely makes it super-easy to add a friend when you are physically together by giving you a personally-encoded, QR-like Ghostface Chillah icon that can be snapped by a friend to add you. Notably, when you first set up Snapchat, you find that you can’t import your social graph from Facebook, Twitter, Google, etc. Snapchat draws solely on your phone’s contacts database. Though to some measure driven by necessity (at some point between the introduction of Pinterest’s “Add All My Facebook Friends” feature and the launch of Snapchat, Facebook started blocking new social services from using its social graph to kickstart theirs) Snapchat’s use of the phone’s contacts database reflects its emphasis on intimate, private, person-to-person communications with people you already know (or just met). It also shows Snapchat’s determination not to be dependent on other companies for core elements of its offerings.

So Snapchat’s user interface really is different, and different in ways that turn off a lot of people habituated to the dominant mobile design vocabulary, descended from desktop applications. And yet, Snapchat’s been getting hugely popular, with somebody.

Like any social or communications application, Snapchat has grown through real-world social pathways: its users tell their friends to get on it. If your friends or colleagues don’t use it, you won’t find much value in it. As a result, social and communications services like Snapchat, WhatsApp, WeChat, KakaoTalk, Viber, Line, Kik, etc., can saturate some discrete user clusters (e.g., U.S. Hispanic teens living in Southern California, Brooklyn-based social media junkies, female Korean professionals, etc.) but be almost unknown in others.

In the U.S., for example, Snapchat’s user cohort is overwhelming young — younger than any scaled social app we’ve seen before.

From Business Insider, July 30, 2014, http://www.businessinsider.com/a-primer-on-snapchat-and-its-demographics-2014-6

But the fact that Snapchat has become hugely popular with a wide swath of 12-to-24 year-old Americans doesn’t answer Will Oremus’s basic question. At the risk of stretching my metaphor past the breaking point, it doesn’t tell you whether Snapchat is a platypus (an isolated and precarious evolutionary adaptation well-suited to a specific subcontinental ecology), a fake mermaid (an apparent evolutionary advance that falls apart upon close inspection), or something more like a killer whale (a seemingly unlikely but wildly successful branch of the mammalian tree that has become an apex predator prowling every ocean and climate).


A few weeks ago, my betaworks partners and I found ourselves arguing about Snapchat, the merits of its app interface, and the trajectory of its future path. To get some practical data, and to understand Snapchat more thoroughly, we decided to commit to it, hard, for a week. And then to do the same for other fast-rising communications apps.

To reach meaningful scale, we enforced a herd migration among betaworkers. Starting two weeks ago, we announced that all intra-betaworks communications had to happen via Snapchat. If you wanted to reach us, you had to use Snapchat.

The result has been a scissor-test of Snapchat. We still ended up with conflicting opinions about whether Snapchat is poorly or brilliantly designed (or both). But we all agreed that the experience is more intimate, more private, and more creativity-sparking than we had previously understood. (And I learned the hard way how Snapchat punishes procrastination: one morning, my partner Sam sent me a couple of questions about a pending deal; I quickly scanned them while out on the sidewalk across town; when I returned to the office and opened the app to compose a response, Sam’s chats had disappeared and I couldn’t remember what the questions were.)

There’s one part of Snapchat, though, that really does seem to be grafted on like a fake duck-bill. Snapchat Discover is a new section of the app where big media companies like CNN, ESPN, People, Cosmopolitan, and the Daily Mail post slickly-produced packages that have as much in common with the casual, rough-hewn, intimate, person-to-person snap as Air Force One has with a homemade kite. Snapchat Discover is broadcast, not interpersonal; professional, not amateur; branded, not hacked. Snapchat’s ability to drive attention may ultimately make its Discover platform a viable (native, mobile, short-form) alternative to TV. But for now, it feels like an amphibian limb sutured onto a mammalian torso.

Looking at Snapchat Discover from the perspective of Digg, as a potential someday distribution platform, I can see why Buzzfeed declined to participate, at least for now.


My conclusion from the scissor-test is that Snapchat really is a new and promising branch of the mobile evolutionary tree, but burdened with at least one surgically dubious addition.

The Snapchat week was so much fun, we’re moving on. Last week, we all dogpiled onto Line. This week, WeChat. Next up, in some order, will be WhatsAppKikViberKakaoTalk, and so on.

More test results to come.

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