Snapchat’s Twitter lesson

One of the things that initially drew me to Twitter years ago was celebrities. Actors, authors, musicians, and tech investors were all directly posting and sharing their thoughts to this medium, in a seemingly unfiltered fashion. This was pretty exciting; you couldn’t friend a celebrity on Facebook, but you could follow them on Twitter and get a peek into their thoughts.

Posting to Twitter is another matter. Hashtags and at-replies are part of the vernacular, but it’s not obvious when and how to use them. Conversations among people are hard to follow and join. Most importantly, it’s hard to find your social graph there. Sure, you can add people via your address book, but an address book is not a complete network, given how easy it is to make casual acquaintances online.

I post to Twitter, but I don’t get a lot of return from it, such as replies, likes, and retweets. And, a lot of people I know are either on Twitter purely for consumption, or don’t bother with the service at all. For me, this turns Twitter into a source of breaking news and celebrity chatter, and not a place to have a conversation with my social graph. This is an engagement problem for Twitter; there’s only so much one-to-many broadcasts from celebrities one can consume before wanting to move on to a real, engaging conversation.

Snapchat Stories vs Instagram Stories

When I first started using Snapchat, I had that same feeling as I did with Twitter. Here were people like Macklemore, Mark Suster, and Bob Saget posting videos, and I could watch them, unfiltered. How cool! But, posting to Snapchat had echoes of Twitter’s troubles: it’s tough to figure out how to post to Snapchat, conversations between people are difficult, and social return is low. Most people I know are not on the service. My posts get seen by 4 or 5 people, at most.

Recently, Instagram unabashedly copied Snapchat stories. I was surprised to see about a dozen friends had already posted to Instagram Stories. I tried it out, and found it simpler to use than Snapchat. And, in 18 hours, my first Instagram story had 10 times as many views as my most popular Snapchat story.

At this point, I’m questioning whether I’ll continue to post to Snapchat. Why post there when all of my friends and family are on Instagram (or, by extension, Facebook)? And here’s where Facebook’s advantage shines through: Facebook has the most complete social graph and is able to bootstrap any new feature or service they build or buy with it. The network effect is strong, and draws people in.

Snapchat’s Twitter lesson

Snapchat’s Twitter lesson is this: one-to-many broadcasts from famous people with millions of followers is great, and will get you far. But, at some point, you’re going to want everyone to post and consume to have a vibrant, growing social service. And to do that, you need to make it easy for users to find those they know and to post very easily. Right now, Snapchat is not that place.

For Snapchat to scale, it will need to heed Twitter’s hard lessons, invent new ways to differentiate, or suffer a usage plateau. There’s only so many videos of Bob Saget telling puns one can stomach.

Want to predict the future? Think 100x.

My first computer was a Tandy 1400FD. It had an 8MHz processor (which you could slow down to 4.77MHz for those games that were synchronized to the processor). It had two floppy drives, 768KB of RAM, and no hard drive. It had a CGA monitor. The first modem I purchased for it was 1200 baud.

My smartphone is an iPhone 6. It has a 1.4GHz processor, 64GB of storage, and 1GB of RAM. It has a high-quality, multi-color screen. It has a host of other technologies like WiFi, Bluetooth, NFC, LTE, and sensors galore. It can download and upload data at speeds measured in tens of megabits.

When you compare these two computers, you see that their processor speed, storage, memory, and bandwidth are all at least 100 times (100x) different. And, my smartphone can also do about 100x the things my Tandy could do.

At the time I was using my Tandy, I don’t think I ever envisioned something like an iPhone 6 (though I did envision having a Tricorder). However, I could have predicted parts of the experience of using an iPhone 6 if I had asked myself, “What happens if all of these things in my computer became 100x faster, smaller, cheaper, or better?”

If you want to predict the future of technology, imagine what will happen if something in today’s technology gets faster, smaller, cheaper, or better, by a lot. For example:

  • What if everyone had bandwidth measured in the terabits, anywhere they went?
  • What if computers were as small as a grain of salt?
  • What if everyone had exabytes of storage, both locally and in the cloud?
  • What if you could put dozens of touch screens around your house, car, and workplace, for the same cost as one inexpensive tablet today?
  • What if every light, appliance, wall, floor, and piece of furniture in your home had an Internet-connected computer within it?
  • What if your devices understood not only your speech as well as a person, but could anticipate your thoughts by analyzing your brain waves?

Of course, not all of these things will happen at the same rate, if ever. And speed, size, cost, and quality are not the only factors that drive new technology. Yet, imagining 100x improvements are a good thought exercise if you are trying to look ahead beyond two or three years.