spotlight

Snapchat operates in a weird area for me. Professionally, I am aware it's a huge social network. It's got more daily users than Twitter, a higher market cap, and a significantly more competent product team. The creation of Snapchat Stories alone would be enough to guarantee the app a place in the history books, as the most consequential change to social media since Facebook introduced the News Feed.

But on a personal level, it's almost completely empty to me. I don't just mean "I don't use it", I mean "it has no use to me". There's a lot of social media stuff I'm not heavily into: I rarely check reddit, watch a video on YouTube every month or so, and have dormant accounts on Facebook and LinkedIn that I only use to pester sources.

Snapchat, by contrast, is a wasteland. I have literally zero friends who are active users of the app. Discover, the tab on the app where media companies post professionally-produced stories, isn't just uninteresting to me but actively repellant. The app's discovery features are slim-to-none, which means that even if I wanted to use it to follow the lives of attractive strangers who produce mildly amusing content, I can't. 

The only thing the app offers for me is its camera – and, specifically, its AR lenses, which are inventive and fun to use. To take pictures which I then post on other social media services, or send to friends in other messaging apps.

It's a shame because, as a company, I want to like Snap. Founder Evan Speigel is one of the most thoughtful and interesting executives I've ever interviewed (even if he is, by all accounts, difficult to work with). He seems genuinely eager to make sure he creates a product which is liked, without destroying democratic civilisation. In the vague video-led, youth-focused space that Snapchat operates in, its two main competitors are TikTok and Instagram, and ultimately I trust Snap more than either of those two companies, for well-worn reasons.

That's the personal reason why I'm interested in Spotlight, the new product that Snapchat announced this week. The high level view is that it's Snap's attempt to build a TikTok competitor: a stream of user-generated content that users can just open and dive straight into, without needing to follow people, have friends on the app, or post anything themselves. 

There's some interesting stuff that Snap's doing differently from TikTok, though. The first is that it's paying for content. And unlike most social media companies, it's not only paying the highly influential creators with the most followers: it's paying anyone whose videos rise to the top of the algorithmically generated "spotlight" feed. A $1m daily fund will be split, based on engagement, to everyone who's video rises above a certain threshold.

The second is that it's discouraging people from using the feed to build followings. You'll be able to post to spotlight anonymously, there's no comment functionality, and while users can fav a video, the counts aren't public. In short, the pitch is: don't post here for the clout, post for the cash.

The user-first pitch that Snapchat's making here is interesting. It's saying two things: first, that normal people are put off posting great content by the fear of the downsides of going viral, and that it's letting them overcome that with cash and anonymity.

It's also, sotto voce, dismissing the influencer-driven models of Instagram and, increasingly, TikTok. When people rise to the top of those apps, they can coast, guaranteed millions of views on whatever dross they post; meanwhile, breaking through as a new user is increasingly hard, particularly on Instagram, and even if you have one viral hit, you won't be able to turn it into a payday without a tremendous amount of effort.

Of course, there's a sour note there too. Spotlight is also a sort of digital union-busting, working to head-off the power of creators before they even come into their own. Charli D'Amelio, PewDiePie and Logan Paul might not be household names, but they have enormous followings on their platforms, and that brings genuine power over those platforms. Sometimes that's in the form of cold hard cash – see Ninja being poached from Twitch for millions, for instance – and other times it comes in more subtle ways. You think YouTube likes constantly having to answer phone calls from me about the Paul brothers' misbehaviour? But it has to put up with it.

And this is all before the creation of any successful collective bargaining movement. D'Amelio has sway over TikTok just on her own ability to withdraw labour; imagine how much more she could do if she formed an Equity-style union with other top creators? That's been tried already, of course, and it hasn't stuck yet. But it only has to work once for the power dynamics of online creation to radically change.

Ryan Broderick, in a newsletter oroborous that quotes my tweets on this subject, puts it this way in Garbage Day:

Online social platforms, as they currently exist, make so much ungodly money for the same reason apps like Uber or AirBnb do. These platforms are just normal companies except they’ve convinced their customers to do the expensive and difficult parts of the business for free. Instead of paying a staff to make entertaining things, a platform like Facebook, YouTube, or Snapchat incentivizes users to make their own content. And instead of paying editors or producers to organize that content, they build algorithms to automate how it’s curated. Snapchat literally building a viral lottery to incentivize its users to make memes is just another extremely grim step in this direction.

I'm not, yet, as glum as Ryan. The question for me is this: does Spotlight end up with a professional creator class, working full-time to make content on the platform but being paid a pittance in a dehumanising lottery? Or does it succeed in its goal of encouraging genuine user-generated content, algorithmically dividing the cream from the dross, and simply acting as a filter for the vast amount of material that would be created anyway.

One sign that the latter could be Snap's ultimate goal: buried in the small print is the implication that the $1m a day might end at some point. The company's committed to paying out only til the end of this year, and while that seems likely to be extended, it doesn't seem like it's settling in to a long-haul plan of a $365m annual increase to its content budget.