By Annalee Newitz
For the past ten days, I've been getting my news from Snapchat. I've learned stuff about internet dating, celebrity plastic surgery, Ukraine peace talks, and Bitcoin mines. But mostly, I've learned what old media thinks app media really wants. And it's not pretty.
First, some definitional challenges. We used to call print media "old media," but history keeps happening and now the term can refer to any large media company that predates Buzzfeed. (Yeah, bitches, that means Gawker Media is old media — though they aren't exactly "large" as compared to say News Corp or Time Warner.) Characteristics of old media include things like: relying on a website or television channel for content distribution, depending on social media like Facebook and Twitter to get attention, and using words like longreads as if they mean something.
App media is the new thing that is making everyone in old media get their knickers in a bunch. Basically, it's just any kind of self-contained app that has its own audience — especially on mobile. That's where wildly-popular app Snapchat comes in.
Snapchat has over 100 million registered users, and last year the company reported that 71% of their users are under 25. So you can see why old media and advertisers are slavering over this app. And you can see why, last month, Snapchat announced a new feature called Discover, which delivers news from a few select companies — from Vice and Yahoo News to CNN, National Geographic and Cosmopolitan.
Despite the enormous and young audience in play, Discover is a tremendously weird development. First of all, Snapchat isn't a likely vessel for news. The app is best known for allowing users to send ephemeral selfies and vids to each other. You point, click, and send to a pal, with the promise that the payload will disappear from their phone in a few seconds (though there are many ways to prevent it from disappearing, as last year's "Snappening" made clear). So how does news fit into this app? Do you watch a story that disappears after 10 seconds? Do videos from the Food Network show up with those little red "you've got a message" boxes in your friend list?
That's what I wanted to find out. I'm a casual user of Snapchat, mostly because I think it's always wise to be honing your skills with weird selfies and cat pics. So when Discover launched, I swiped left and poked the throbbing purple ball that takes you to the Discover screen.
Not surprisingly, Discover feels like an entirely different app that was desperately grafted onto Snapchat. It's functionality is nothing like anything else in Snapchat, unless you consider swiping left to be uniquely Snapchatterific. You get a page full of little circles that contain news brands, and each one delivers a pretty similar experience. First you get a welcome screen, which is sleazy or friendly depending on whether you poked Daily Mail or Yahoo News. Then you swipe through a handful of stories, often with sound and video at the top. When you scroll down into the story, half the time you discover that it's just text. When you reach the end of the swiping, you get another screen that tells you to come back tomorrow. You can re-read or re-watch this news on Snapchat for 24 hours and then it changes.
Just like a regular news cycle, on old media.
The fact is, you might as well be reading all this shit on the web. Basically all these news organizations took their web news, put a gif with some video at the top, and plopped it into Discover. Not surprisingly, the slickest and most entertaining ones belong to Vice, Comedy Central and Warner Music — but that's entirely because these companies are already deft at delivering a multimedia experience that ports nicely to mobile. The award for saddest attempt at relevance goes to Yahoo News, which has a dispirited Katie Couric reading their headlines earnestly in her Colourful Internet Newscaster dress. Oh Katie, has it really come to this? You're the spokesperson for Yahoo Discover on Snapchat?
My point is that Snapchat has done nothing new here. Adding insult to injury is the fact they haven't even made the slightest effort to replicate the fun of Snapchat in Discover. I was actually excited to see a ten-second news segment that unfolded under the pressure of my finger. How would they push the boundaries of the medium? It might be horrible, but it might be kind of awesome.
Maybe one day it will be awesome, or at least alluring. Certainly that's what John Herrman predicted rather darkly in a brilliant essay about app media on The Awl. He imagined a depressing future where old media, web media, races to catch up with app media that is always morphing into some new shape, ported to some new device, so that each generation of journalists always finds itself erased in middle age by the churn of new distribution mechanisms online.
But right now, Discover does not embody the promise of app media, nor is it a "disruptor." Currently it's sort of like the worst of the 1990s AOL walled garden web, but with video. As Kevin Roose explains over at Fusion, which has its own channel, Snapchat allows no links out. So your news lives on Snapchat and that's it. News organisations do get a chance to earn some cash from revenue-sharing agreements with Snapchat on advertising, but ultimately the only reason to put your content on there is to boost brand recognition with whatever we're going to call the generation that comes up after the Millennials. Again, nothing new to see here.
Ultimately, what Discover reveals is that the more media changes, the more it stays the same. You know who Snapchat is permitting into its special walled garden of Discover? Old media. There are no upstart journalists, no Snapchat natives with their own slant on the news. It's just quizzes from National Geographic, videos of Charli XCX (which — holy crap I love Charli XCX but I can see her on YouTube), recipes from the Food Network, and lovely, sparkling trash from Daily Mail and People. As if to underscore this, Vice posted its Discover video of Bitcoin mines on the web — just a day after it was on Snapchat. So even the news outlets using Snapchat realize that they're just repurposing web content.
App media isn't going to destroy old media. It's just going to become an extension of old media. The long, crooked fingers of Warner Music and CNN will reach into the future, aided by Discover and WhipWap and DailyNewsNipple, and whatever comes next. Sure, journalists will be bloodied and pushed aside in the process. But that's how we've always done it. Corporations come before humans, especially in the media business.