catch it while you can

Snapchat (a.k.a. the “teen sexting app”) just raised $10 million from one of Instagram’s backers

December 12, 2012
December 12, 2012

Snapchat, the app you may have vaguely heard about as a potential conduit for teen sexting (its founder’s protestations to the contrary), is now huge, and is getting the valuation to go with it: around $70 million, after an investment of about $10 million by Benchmark Capital, which was also an investor in Instagram. Why so much? Here are the numbers:

1. On Thursday, Nov. 22, Thanksgiving Day, Snapchat processed 1,000 images a second, its founder, Evan Spiegel, told Forbes. The same day, Instagram images tagged “Thanksgiving” hit a peak of 226 images per second around the time that people were tucking in to their turkeys—obviously not a direct comparison, but it still gives a rough sense of the scale Snapchat is reaching.

2. As of October 28, Snapchat had processed a billion images and was handling 30 million “interactions” a day, which presumably include sending images as well as viewing them.

3. Snapchat is the #4 free app on the US iTunes store, while Instagram is #18. Granted, that is because Snapchat is the new hot thing among teens, while Instagram is where people who are already a hair too old to be cool take arty pictures of artisanal cheeses.

So easy, even an adult could use it

Snapchat, available for both iOS and Android phones, is dead simple, and that seems to be the core of its appeal. It lets you send images to friends, but they disappear after a few seconds. That’s it. Like Twitter before it, Snapchat’s genius is its refusal to make itself more complicated. Any number of possible features leap to mind, such as the ability to make some photos permanent or to share images with groups instead of individuals, but it isn’t adding them.

Worried parents think teens are using the service to send each other sexually explicit images, but in fact, many more are probably sending absurd “selfies”, pictures of their own faces, paired with doodles and captions.

Learning to use it takes less time than microwaving a burrito. After snapping a picture, you can send it to one of your contacts immediately, or add a doodle or caption with dead-simple (and entirely optional) tools. To view a picture sent by a friend, you must hold one finger on your screen, in part to discourage you from pressing the combination of buttons that would let you capture a permanent copy. If you do screen-capture an image, that friend is immediately notified by the app.

Tap image to zoom
Snapchat’s user interface is simplicity itself.

Fun, reliable, and dangerously addictive

This impermanence is the main point of Snapchat. Facebook and Instagram are filling up with with carefully curated, assiduously enhanced, permanent records of your friend’s lives. Everyone knows you don’t share anything too spontaneous online, for fear it could be found later.  “People are living with this massive burden of managing a digital version of themselves,” SnapChat co-founder Evan Spiegel told Forbes. “It’s taken all of the fun out of communicating.”

My limited testing of the app revealed that, in addition to its simplicity, Snapchat can be addictive. If you have at least one friend with a sense of humor, you might find the way the app encourages disposable–and therefore spontaneous–communication nothing short of marvelous. In is similar to Instagram in having shown that just adding a small twist to something that a phone can already do—share images—can be enough to create a whole new and wildly popular service. In Instagram’s case that twist was a range of filters to make pictures look artistic; in Snapchat’s case, the captions and doodles, plus the impermanence.

Also important to Snapchat’s success is that the app works well—I found it even faster than sending a picture the ordinary way, via MMS—and that when you open the app, the first thing it asks you to do is to text all your friends an invite to SnapChat. That kind of built-in recruitment mechanism is one reason the service has gone viral. And the volume of images the company says it is handling suggests it has managed to build a robust technical infrastructure that can scale up fast. This is one of the hardest things for a new startup to do; in the early days of Twitter, the service was so notoriously unreliable that outages became their own meme.

Show us the money

SnapChat is advertising- (and revenue-) free, but that hardly matters in an era when a 13-person startup like Instagram can be acquired for $715 million based purely on how many users it has. It’s hard to think of a more obvious acquisition target for everyone from Google to Facebook than SnapChat, and the latest round of investment means it’s probably fending off venture capitalists with a stick.

As with so many startups before it, the question now is how well Snapchat’s founders will time their exit. Too soon, as one of Instagram’s early investors now says the company sold to Facebook, and they could miss out on the chance of making even more millions. Too late, and they might pass the point at which frothy excitement in the market gives way to hard questions about how exactly they plan to use a free photo-sharing app that doesn’t even leave any permanent content behind to make money from teenagers, the most fickle and least wealthy consumer demographic on the planet.

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