All mixed up
Snap today introduced a redesign of its flagship app intended to promote more intimate sharing among friend groups while pushing professionally produced content into a separate feed. The redesigned Snapchat includes a new dynamic friends page that incorporates both chat messages and ephemeral stories, and pushes items from your close friends to the top of the feed for the first time. It will begin appearing later this week for a small test group, and is expected to roll out more broadly in coming weeks.
The move comes at a time when Snap is under mounting pressure to grow its stagnant user base. The core idea in the new Snapchat is to put your friends on one side of the app, and brands on the other. In the center is Snap camera, which will remain the app’s home screen. (It produces 3.5 billion snaps a day, the company says.) The left side of the app is now for sharing and discussing, while the right side is for searching and consuming.
The idea is not completely new. The left side of the app has always been for chats with friends, and the right side has always been for brands. But before now, stories — the ephemeral, public photo and video posts that disappear after 24 hours — have been housed in their own tab to the right of the camera screen. The stories tab blended content from friends and brands, to sometimes confusing effect.
“Until now, social media has always mixed photos and videos from your friends with content from publishers and creators,” the company said in a blog post. “While blurring the lines between professional content creators and your friends has been an interesting internet experiment, it has also produced some strange side-effects (like fake news) and made us feel like we have to perform for our friends rather than just express ourselves.”
So how does Snap know who’s a friend, and who’s a brand? Either can create a Snapchat account, after all. Snap says it works like this: if an account follows you back, it’s considered a friend, and shows up on the left side of the app. If it doesn’t follow you back, it shows up on the Discover page.
Snap executives hope the reorganization will lead to more conversations between close groups of friends. In addition to separating people and brands, it’s creating a true algorithmic feed on the friends page for the first time. The company currently has a “best friends” algorithm that puts the people you engage with most at the top of your feed; the redesigned feed expands that to rank all of your friends by closeness. The more you chat with them and watch their stories, the higher in your feed they will rise.
There’s no more button for watching all the stories in your feed; instead, after you watch one, you’ll see an interstitial screen previewing the next story from one of your friends. You can either tap the screen to watch it or swipe it away to return to your chats. It marks a return, sort of, to auto-advancing stories, which Snap killed last October.
The move could have negative consequences for publishers, who are accustomed to their stories appearing in a central feed alongside stories from users’ friends, likely generating more views as a result. Publishers could begin following back their user bases en masse, but unless they start interacting with millions of accounts, they might show up lower in the feed than they would on the Discover page. Snap said it would release unspecified new tools to help creators profit from their work on the platform.
You can personalize your Discover page by subscribing and unsubscribing from what you see there. (There’s also a somewhat mysterious “see less like this” button that will show you less of … whatever this is.)
On one hand, much of what you see in the new Snapchat represents a simple moving of furniture. But for Snap, the stakes are high. The company’s future depends on it becoming more accessible to a wider base of users, while retaining the core audience that uses it today. It’s a tricky puzzle — one that Twitter has been trying to pull off for years, with largely disappointing results.
Still, even Snapchat employees had begun to feel like the app’s design was confused. In their eyes, the new version represents the app’s core ideas at their most distilled. The question now is how large an audience those ideas will ultimately reach.