Snapchat Content: A Radical New Visual Language for Media

In all the years Anderson Cooper has covered politics, it’s safe to say viewers have never seen the anchor depicted the way he was at the Republican presidential debate on Feb. 26.

Before the debate at the University of Houston began, Cooper appeared at a campus event that was virtually ignored by assembled media. But one outlet led its report on the debate with footage from the event — images that focus more on Cooper than the candidates. It features a student who claims to have absconded with a water bottle used by the anchor, as if it were a keepsake from a teen idol. The segment is bookended by a red-crayon drawing of a heart superimposed over an image of Cooper seated on stage, finishing with him walking off, as a black bar reading “goodbye you beautiful soul” scrolls across the bottom of the screen. Why all this leads the report on the debate goes unexplained.

The world didn’t watch any of this on Cooper’s home network, CNN, and the anchor probably wasn’t aware of the footage being gathered, since the production team consisted entirely of iPhone-wielding twentysomethings. But users of Snapchat saw the video, streamed as one of the mobile app’s so-called Live Stories. A different story was shot at every major stop on the campaign trail in recent months.

Snapchat’s political coverage is the most prominent component of its growing ambitions to provide its distinctly strange style of programming to an audience CNN would envy: At an investor conference earlier this month, CEO Evan Spiegel reportedly divulged that his platform was delivering 8 billion video views each day worldwide. The number is all the more staggering considering it’s comparable to the last estimated video audience offered by Facebook, which has at least 10 times the 100 million-strong user base Snapchat boasts. The company also claims that 10 million-20 million users watch Live Stories daily, and 41% of Americans aged 18-34 access the app on a daily basis; only 6% of that demographic watch the average U.S. TV network by the same measure.

That’s why customized ads for “The Daily Show With Trevor Noah” appear between shots of Cooper, the result of a multiyear deal Comedy Central parent company Viacom signed with Snapchat. That’s why Ben Carson, at the time a presidential candidate, appears between shots of Cooper, appealing directly for votes from viewers who don’t likely watch much CNN. Snapchat won’t have to sweat ever being confronted by the FCC’s equal-time rule, considering all the candidates have appeared repeatedly on Live Stories — for about 10 seconds each — rarely longer than those “Daily Show” spots.

Everything on Live Stories can be measured in increments that last no more than 10 seconds, and that — along with a penchant for decorating everything with scrawled hearts and even rainbow vomit — is just the beginning of what makes Snapchat a weird environment. But when you take into account both its toehold in American politics and the young skew of its massive audience, perhaps it’s worth noting that Live Stories might be a phenomenon in the making, a new visual language that could transform media.

Forgive yourself if you never saw this coming. After launching in 2012, Snapchat spent its first few years as a platform subsisting entirely of communication between friends in the form of a single “snap” — a photo or video that can be decorated humorously with text and drawings. Because those snaps vanish within 24 hours, Snapchat gained notoriety as a hotbed for raunchy messages.

But the platform evolved in October 2013, enabling users to sequence multiple snaps together in a way that could form a narrative. About a year later, this functionality got a twist with the launch of Our Stories, which lets users at a single event submit footage that Snapchat combines in a way that tells a story from many different perspectives. By August 2014, this style of content got its own category, dubbed Live Stories, which cast its net from Lollapalooza to Mecca. Snapchat began attracting advertisers paying six figures per story — a crucial piece of the monetization strategy for a company with a $16 billion valuation — as top segments began drawing TV-size audiences.

Think of a Live Story as a video slideshow, each typically lasting just a few minutes. Instead of the seamless stream of images we’re accustomed to seeing from TV and movies, a Live Story is a linear presentation of snaps, each with a timer graphic in the upper-right corner to let you know how many seconds a clip runs. Touching the screen during a snap allows the user to skip to the next snap.

To the uninitiated, Live Stories can be a jarring barrage of smash cuts. No single image overstays its welcome in viewers’ field of vision, lest short attention spans be given the millisecond necessary for a gaze to wander. Each cut smacks you awake just in case your eyelids start drooping.

It’s also rare to encounter an image on Snapchat that isn’t partially obscured by at least one layer of graphics, from beautifully drawn geo-filters that call out the footage’s point of origin, to what seems like intentionally ugly visual graffiti that can overwhelm the images underneath them. The hottest thing going up on the platform right now are “lenses” that transform faces, from funhouse-mirror distortions to animal snouts that even supermodel Gigi Hadid was game to try in support of a Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue-themed Live Story. The presidential candidates haven’t gotten this kind treatment, though Live Stories never misses an opportunity to inject impertinence; the end of a Hillary Clinton campaign appearance was marked with the salutation “Hillz Out.”

Snapchat bends over backwards to convey a sense of “this isn’t your daddy’s” media, by suffusing each frame with an irreverent tone and less-than-stellar production values. When Snapchat reassembles its users’ footage into a Live Story, seemingly no effort is made to hide poor sound quality, ambient noise, nonexistent lighting or a shaky camera. If anything, Live Stories wear their rough edges as a badge of honor. It’s a no-cost approach to what was always referred to dismissively on YouTube as “user-generated content,” only on Snapchat that content is — to borrow another digital buzzword — “curated,” by being cleverly stitched together into a patchwork of perspectives.

While parsing out a story in eye-dropper increments via snaps may not be a lure for sophisticated types, Live Stories excel when they take on important happenings, like the water crisis in Flint, Mich., breaking them down to easily digestible infomorsels for a young audience that may not encounter that news elsewhere. There are even factoids within such stories, delivered a la “Pop-Up Video.”

But Live Stories’ region-specific content, known as Local Stories, can feel like a dystopian satire of media for an ADD-addled generation — the demographic the company is targeting. The app hop-scotches from one visual to the next with little narrative coherence, and some of the images aren’t exactly the stuff of postcards. Over time, Snapchat has gotten a lot better at front-loading exposition into Live Stories to help provide the kind of context that was too often in short supply, and still ends up glaringly absent from time to time.

But politics appears to be the place where Snapchat is putting most of Live Stories’ resources, judging not just by the sheer volume of content, but by the personnel brought in to guide it. Peter Hamby, a former political correspondent for CNN, jumped to Snapchat in April 2015, and has become the ersatz Walter Cronkite of the platform, hosting “Good Luck America,” a program about the presidential race, and one that perhaps most closely adheres to a conventional TV production model. Even with a baby face that makes the 34-year-old correspondent look 10 years younger, he strikes a more conservative profile than you might expect on an app that often features those festooned with tattoos and piercings. The only signal Hamby gives that he’s not on traditional TV: the absence of a suit and tie.

But Hamby isn’t just the face of Live Stories; he also oversees Snapchat’s news efforts, as well as Local Stories. He has lured a number of news producers from leading networks to join him at Snapchat, though their work bears no resemblance to their previous TV efforts. Sean Mills, formerly of mobile-news startup Now This, shepherds the event-driven Live Stories. Both Mills and Hamby report to Nick Bell, a one-time News Corp. exec who oversees all of Snapchat’s content efforts, which is broader than just Live Stories. There’s Discover, a collection of content from 15 media companies ranging from traditional brands like Comedy Central and People magazine mixed with newer entrants like Buzzfeed and Vox. Some of the content is similar in nature to Live Stories, but most is repackaged from the Web or TV, and given a Snapchat-style design. Brands, as well as individuals, use Snapchat accounts for content distribution, including the likes of ABC News and the New Yorker. In addition, celebrities are all over Snapchat, from established stars like Ellen DeGeneres, who added the platform to her already formidable digital roster, to DJ Khaled, a lesser-known hip-hop producer whose daily affirmations about life and luxury may be the best example of Snapchat’s ability to mint new celebrities.

Snapchat has a 75-person production team at its Venice, Calif., headquarters that puts together Live Stories from snaps taken by its users, Snapchat’s own producers and contributions from its media partners, who often provide images that require behind-the-scenes access, like in the locker room at sporting events. While the users’ content seems to get the most love, some Live Stories are a combination of all three different sources.

On any given day, a handful of Live Stories can pop up inside the app; watch them quickly before they disappear 24 hours later without the ability to retrieve them from an archive. It’s a content experience that exists inside the walled garden that is Snapchat, sequestered from the rest of the Internet. Perhaps that’s intentional, because Live Stories has the feel of a work in progress. Though already attracting big ad buys from blue-chip marketers, Live Stories has the in-beta vibe of an enterprise throwing everything against the wall to see what sticks.

But let’s give Snapchat some points for bravery. The app could have gone the same route as the bigger digital platforms that established ecosystems for video, which really aren’t doing anything materially different than TV. Subscription VOD players like Netflix are mainly streaming the same programming that appears on television, while YouTube and Facebook are specializing in shorter-form videos. Snapchat marches to the beat of a different drummer, one that’s pulsing with anarchic spirit. There is something admirable about the fact that rather than just licensing video clips and dumping them on the platform, Snapchat turned to behavior native to the platform and made the content organic to that.

Regardless of what you might think of the quality of the snaps, it should be noted the underlying streaming technology gets an A+; few platforms deliver video as effortlessly, without any buffering or false starts. And in a bizarrely counterintuitive way, the advertising experience is actually pretty good, mainly because the spots are so short that they don’t seem intrusive even when repeated two or three times in a single Live Story, as is often the case.

Yet for something called Live Stories, there’s nothing especially “live” about Snapchat, certainly not in a digital world occupied by Periscope. The turnaround time between actual event and publication varies greatly on Snapchat, but even at its fastest isn’t something users looking for the latest news would make their first stop. Live Stories are “live” in the sense that they’re constantly being updated with new footage, though identifying the additions can be a challenge, because Snapchat casually dumps updates in without differentiating new from old content. Nevertheless, the brand has certainly gotten the attention of rivals like Twitter, which whipped together its own curated approach to event coverage with Moments.

Another original Snapchat idea is its “vertical” video approach — the first platform to program for the dimensions of the mobile screen without having to turn a device on its side. While much of the content on Live Stories doesn’t really utilize Snapchat’s verticality at all, every now and then you’ll come across video, typically shot outdoors and involving some kind of physical activity with dramatic movement, that will make you wonder if one day our living-room screens will be standing on their sides, too. On Feb. 29, there was an assemblage of videos featuring all kinds of extreme-sports airborne stunts (“leap” year; get it?) that invigorated the mobile screen in a way that made it seem less small.

When Snapchat properly utilizes its vertical approach, it makes you understand what is fundamentally different about the platform from other screens. The point of a Live Story is to plunge the viewer into something approximating a experiential recreation. TV is going to give you a vastly better experience in terms of production quality, but Snapchat doesn’t seek to top that. ESPN may be able to zoom in on the swing of a home run-hitting batter, then follow the flight of the ball as it speeds from bat to center field stands, but when Snapchat shows you a similar image and the footage is grainy, herky jerky, and shot by someone sitting in the nosebleed seats behind home plate, that’s OK, because it’s trying to convey the perspective of the person watching the home run — not the home run itself. Rather than providing a “SportsCenter” highlight, Snapchat is staking a middle ground that delivers the vibrancy of a sense memory from someone in attendance.

On the one hand, it’s understandable if Snapchat approaches content from a start-from-scratch notion that the trappings of traditional programming should be jettisoned. The tune-out of old-school media by young folks is testament enough of the wisdom of that approach. But Snapchat doesn’t seem to be giving rise to a coherent new aesthetic; maybe it’s an anti-aesthetic. Or the freewheeling chaos is itself an aesthetic, only no one over 21 is capable of understanding it.

Perhaps we are witnessing the birth of a radical new visual language incomprehensible to a generation raised on the boob tube — that older people don’t get it is kind of the point. Who can tell if we’re seeing a future those of a certain age just aren’t mentally meant to take part of … or if Snapchat is taking a wild stab at what such a future is supposed to look like. The sheer reach of the platform allows Snapchat to essentially dictate what its vision of the video narrative should be, and force that vision on an impressionable audience that might actually be able to stomach something paced a little more thoughtfully or leisurely.

Snapchat may be attempting to engage young people in new ways regarding subjects vital to our democracy, like the presidential election. But at a certain point, we have to consider whether what we’re doing to sugar-coat the pill is so dumbed down that there’s no point to engaging them at all.

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