Snap is working on two significant tests that could reshape its flagship app in a critical year. Tipsters have provided me with screenshots of two ongoing tests that have rolled out to a small percentage of Snapchat’s user base. One is a redesign of the app for Android and iOS that provides a new home for the Snap Map and the company’s original video programming. The other is a test of breaking news headlines inside the app that injects timely news briefs into Snapchat to complement the existing magazine-style stories on the Discover page.
Let’s look at them in turn.
The redesign takes an app that has long been limited to three screens and splits them into five. Snapchat currently opens to the camera, with a space for chats to the left and the Discover page — which features a collection of ephemeral stories from friends, creators, third-party publishers, and Snap itself — to the right. In the new design, the Snap Map — which displays your friends’ physical locations on an animated map, and was previously accessed by pulling down from the camera screen — is now on the left of your chats. Discover has been renamed “Community.” And Snap’s slate of original series, which includes serialized dramas and reality-style programs, can be found to the right of Community in a new tab that has inherited the “Discover” name.
Perhaps most dramatically for Snap, which once seemed to pride itself in its obscure design choices, Snapchat is getting a navigation bar. You’ll be able to see where you are within the app at a glance, and move directly from screen to screen with a single tap instead of swiping. It’s both a totally obvious thing to do and, for Snap, a radical departure.
“We’re exploring ways to streamline navigation across Snapchat, soliciting feedback from our community to inform future versions of our app,” a Snap spokeswoman told me. “This test’s UI offers more space to innovate and increases the opportunity to engage with and discover even more of what Snapchat has to offer.”
The test of this new look comes three years after Snap’s last redesign, which was widely panned and spurred 2 percent of active users to stop using Snapchat entirely. Snap gradually walked back some of the most hated changes, and that combined with new attention to its long-neglected Android app and marketing itself internationally led the company to have something of a comeback last year. Snapchat has added uses for the past four straight quarters, and is now used by 218 million people a month.
Still, the company is not profitable. And while it remains a hit with high school and college-age users, adults who try the app still complain — loudly — that they find Snapchat difficult to use. I find these complaints somewhat overstated — I think most people avoid learning how to use any technology they don’t have to, and that if boomers’ friends were all using Snapchat they would manage to figure it out within a couple of days. But still, there’s no denying that Snapchat has a learning curve higher than, say, Facebook Messenger.
And for everything that did to give Snapchat a sense of cool in its early days, there’s a good argument to be made that its more arcane user decisions are holding it back. I’d put the location of the Snap Map high on that list — it’s a clever feature that Facebook has found itself totally unable to copy due to privacy concerns, and today it’s basically invisible inside Snapchat. Giving the map an easy-to-find screen within the app feels like a no-brainer.
Similarly, Snap has invested heavily in premium programming for its Snap Originals. (Although not quite as heavily as, say, Quibi.) Currently, what Snap calls Shows are displayed in a row next to other publisher content on the Discover page, where they are easily ignored. Giving them a place of prominence within the app feels like a similarly obvious step.
Still, Snap learned its lesson from the great redesign debacle of 2017, which it rolled out globally with very little testing. Today Snap, like every other social company, is taking a deliberate approach to major changes. I suspect this one will be popular and ultimately implemented, though. Where the bad redesign scrambled a bunch of popular elements and moved them into unfamiliar places, the five-screen design feels additive to the experience. You navigate the app less, and use it more. That’s a win for the company.
The second test, while less dramatic, is more relevant to our everyday interests here at The Interface. There are two basic ways to put news on your social platform. The first is to let everyone fight it out in a feed, and do some light curating around the big moments. Think the Twitter timeline plus Moments, or Facebook’s News Feed plus a news tab. The upside to this approach is that you make room for lots of voices, including some who have been historically marginalized. The downside is that lots of voices have historically been marginalized for a reason — they’re overtly racist, for example, or they tell you that drinking bleach will cure your cancer.
The second approach, and the one favored by Snap, has been to allow only whitelisted publishers onto the platform. In theory, this should elevate high-quality and mainstream news publishers while limiting the amount of misinformation on the platform. It hasn’t always been perfect — Snapchat’s Discover page has long been criticized for clickbait and sexually provocative stories — but the company has seen far fewer scandals around hosting dangerous and extremist content than its peers.
The news briefs I saw featured timely headlines from publishers include NowThis, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post. Called “Happening Now,” the section curates top headlines about developments in the United States and the world. Each one-sentence headline can be tapped to bring up a full screen news brief containing a photo and a short article. (The one I saw, about the New Hampshire primary, was about 75 words.)
Snap confirmed the test.
“We are in the very early stages of exploring how to evolve news offerings on Snapchat,” the company said. “We are working with a handful of partners and testing with a small percentage of Snapchatters in the U.S. We don’t have additional details to share at this time.”
A collection of news briefs may look like a small thing, and perhaps it is. But surfacing high-quality mainstream news outlets like the Post and the Journal to a young audience strikes me as a good thing, particularly in an election year.
Snap emphasized to me that both of these tests are in their early stages and might change substantially before they are released to a global audience, if they are released globally at all. But it seems clear to me that at least in the case of the redesign, larger forces will continue pulling them toward the more accessible version of the app I saw in screenshots.
Having a reputation for being inaccessible benefited Snapchat — until it didn’t. As the app grows up, it’s working to become a more welcoming place. Which means being a little bit more like everyone else.
In Tuesday’s edition we referred to Maui in Moana as a god. A sharp-eyed reader pointed out that Maui is, in fact, a demi-god. The Interface regrets the error.
Today in news that could affect public perception of the big tech platforms.
Trending up: Twitter partnered with the US Census Bureau to launch a new tool aimed at combating misinformation about the Census. When someone searches for certain keywords associated with the Census, a prompt will direct them to an official government website.
Trending up: Instagram rolled out an update to combat misinformation about the coronavirus. Now, when users click on the #coronavirus hashtag, they’ll see a notice encouraging them to visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website for credible information.
Trending down: Coronavirus rumors are still going viral on YouTube despite the company’s efforts to stop them from spreading. The video platform is doing better than many other social networking sites, but misinformation abounds.
⭐ Mike Bloomberg has outspent Trump on Facebook ads since joining the presidential race. Over the past two weeks, the former mayor of New York has spent an average of $1 million a day on Facebook ads. Here’s David Ingram at NBC:
On a single day, Jan. 30, Bloomberg bought $1.7 million worth of Facebook ads, signaling just how much he’s willing to put his personal wealth behind his long shot bid.
“His campaign budget is virtually limitless, so he has the luxury of being able to engage on all of the campaign battlefronts,” said Fernand Amandi, a Democratic political consultant in Miami who is not working for a presidential candidate this year.
Bloomberg, with an estimated net worth of around $61 billion, said after the muddled results from the Iowa caucuses that he would ramp up his budget for ads and staff. He’s focused on the dozen-plus states that will cast votes on Super Tuesday, March 3, which is reflected in his Facebook spending.
The UK government is planning to give platforms like YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook a mandate to protect their UK users from illegal content related to child exploitation and terrorism, as well as harmful content more generally. The regulations will apply to any websites that allow user-generated content. What will this mean in practice? Seems like it could be big. (Jon Porter / The Verge)
Facebook suspended a network of accounts used by Russian military intelligence to plant misinformation online. The network targeted Ukraine and other countries in Eastern Europe. (Jack Stubbs / Reuters)
Facebook also suspended two more networks of accounts that were each engaging in coordinated inauthentic behavior on behalf of a government. The first operation originated in Iran and focused mainly on a US audience. The second originated in Myanmar and Vietnam and targeted audiences in Myanmar. (Facebook)
Facebook has been trying to ban gun sales on the platform for four years. But gun sellers are finding workarounds, gaming the Marketplace by using coded language. (Matt Drange / Protocol)
Facebook delayed the rollout of its dating feature in Europe after the Irish Data Protection Commission raised issues with the feature’s compliance with European Union data protection rules. The feature was supposed to debut before Valentine’s Day. (Sad trombone.) (Parmy Olson / The Wall Street Journal)
A man experiencing homelessness in Los Angeles is suing the city over a Facebook page used by police. The lawsuit asserts that Facebook groups where residents were complaining about homeless encampments led to the man being harassed by police. (Emily Alpert Reyes / Los Angeles Times)
The Department of Homeland Security is buying up cell phone location data for immigration and border enforcement purposes. While this seems like it could infringe on peoples’ Fourth Amendment rights, it’s unclear whether using location data to target people constitutes an unreasonable search and seizure. (Gilad Edelman / Wired)
WeChat users in the US and Canada are having their messages about the coronavirus blocked to prevent contacts in China from seeing them. It’s yet another example of China trying to censor unflattering information, even on international soil. (David Gilbert / Vice)
⭐ Essential Products, a consumer electronics start-up founded by the former Google executive Andy Rubin, is shutting down. The company was dogged by news about Rubin’s departure from Google, which involved a $90 million exit package and credible sexual misconduct allegations from an employee. (Rubin denied the allegations.) Daisuke Wakabayashi and Erin Griffith at The New York Times have the story:
In 2018, Essential received buyout interest from larger companies like Amazon, Walmart and several telecom carriers, according to a person familiar with the situation who was not authorized to speak on behalf of the company. Walmart and Amazon did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Any potential buyout would have valued the company below its $1 billion valuation, the person said.
But interest evaporated, in part because of the risk associated with Mr. Rubin’s workplace scandals. In 2017, The Information, a technology news site, reported that he had departed Google after an inappropriate relationship with a subordinate, prompting him to take a leave of absence from Essential to deal with “personal matters.”
Tim Sweeney, co-founder of Epic Games, criticized Facebook and Google onstage at the DICE Summit in Las Vegas. “They provide free services then make you pay for their service in loss of privacy and loss of freedom,” he said.
Carlos Maza, a journalist who calls YouTube “deeply unethical and reckless,” left Vox to work full-time as a YouTube creator. The move shocked fans who’d come to know Maza as a critic of the video-sharing platform, after it failed to stop a right-wing pile-on against him last year. Fun little profile. (Kevin Roose / The New York Times)
YouTube is testing out a new clap feature to let fans donate to creators. The emphasis on donations suggests YouTube is closely watching what’s working for creators on Twitch. Look what happens when platforms have something meaningful to compete against! (Julia Alexander / The Verge)
WhatsApp hit two billion users, up from 1.5 billion two years ago. The Facebook-owned messaging app is now the most popular chat platform. Seems like it will be a strong and growing business when the FTC forces Facebook to spin it into a separate company! (Manish Singh / TechCrunch)
In the early days of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg kept his plans for world domination in handwritten journals. He destroyed them. But a few revealing pages survived in this excerpt from a new book that I just got my hands on yesterday. (Steven Levy / Wired)
Reuters launched a new business unit to fact check misinformation on Facebook. The team will review videos and photos as well as news headlines and other content in English and Spanish submitted by Facebook or flagged by the wider Reuters editorial team. (Josh Constine / TechCrunch)
Digital blackface — the appropriation of words, dances, GIFs, and memes originating within communities of color — has found its way to TikTok. Questionable hashtags like #Ghetto, #InTheGhetto, and#NWordPass have taken off, as have challenges like #CripWalk. We should be talking a lot more about digital blackface, which you see everywhere once you start looking for it. (Tatiana Walk-Morris / OneZero)
Gossip influencers are creating an entire economy around chronicling the lives and romantic adventures of social media stars. In the process, they’re blurring the line between reporting and influencing. We’re here for it! (Rebecca Jennings / Vox)
Tech billionaires give away billions — but it’s just a small fraction of their staggering wealth. When you look at how much they’re giving away verses how much is in their bank accounts, the situation appears less admirable. (Theodore Schleifer / Recode)
This is what happens when you finally talk to the person you’ve been swiping left on, on Tinder (and why they keep showing up). Kaitlyn Tiffany has an absolutely perfect piece in The Atlantic on a phenomenon familiar to any longtime Tinder user (ahem): the person who keeps swiping right on you and showing up in your feed no matter how many times you say no to them:
I had heard from women on Twitter, and from one of my offline friends, that Alex was rude in their DMs after they matched on Tinder. When I asked him about this, he said, “I’m very narcissistic. I own that.”
Hammerli works in digital marketing, though he would not say with what company. He uses Tinder exclusively for casual sex, a fact that he volunteered, along with an explanation of his views on long-term relationships: “Idiotic in a culture where we move on from shit so easily and upgrade iPhones every year.” When I asked whether he’s ever been in love, he responded: “lmao no.” Monogamy, he said, is “a fly-over state thing.”
Happy Valentine’s Day.