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With Syndicated Stories and an Ad Network, Snapchat Cautiously Opens Up

Snap CEO Evan Spiegel wants to have it both ways: Keep Snapchat insulated from the darker sides of the internet, and also open it up to some of the rest of the web.

Spiegel shared these dueling visions during the company’s first partner summit in Los Angeles Thursday. In a keynote speech, the chief executive not only introduced new products, but also aimed to separate Snap from some of the companies that have been under scrutiny in recent months.

Without naming competitor Facebook specifically, Spiegel seemed to suggest that Snapchat could be an antidote to many of the negative aspects of social networking. “Our camera lets the natural light from our world penetrate the darkness of the internet,” he said. “The internet started as a military research project. It’s just not our natural habitat. But as we use the internet more and more in our daily lives, we need a way to make it a bit more human.”

That notion is not new: Snapchat, with its ephemeral nature, and the absence of a newsfeed with like and share counts, has been immune to some of the privacy pitfalls and disinformation campaigns that Facebook has struggled with, executives have argued.

At the same time, Snap introduced a number of new features meant to interconnect with other apps and services Thursday that ultimately make the company and its products a lot more like Facebook. The most important such initiative is the Snap Audience Network, an ad network that promises to bring ads running on Snapchat to third-party apps, giving app publishers a new revenue stream and Snap the ability to sell bigger audiences to advertisers. The company said it would begin signing up app developers immediately, with plans to launch the actual ad network on iOS apps in the U.S. in the future.

Another example: As part of a new web integration, Snap is launching the kind of sharing buttons you already know from Twitter and Facebook. The Washington Post will be a launch partner for this feature, which will make it easier for users to share article links back to Snapchat. (The company also announced a range of different app and service integrations with a number of other companies, ranging from GoFundMe to Netflix.)

But as Snap rolls out those partnerships, it also shares some of its user data with those partners — a practice that has attracted criticism even in some more benign cases in recent months, with the biggest headlines reserved for data leaks affecting many millions of customers.

How hard it will be to square the notion of the knight in shining armor with the realities of inter-connected commercial services was evident during a background briefing the company conducted for select journalists ahead of the summit earlier this week. Peppered with questions about privacy implications of some of Snapchat’s new initiatives, company spokespeople scrambled to assure journalists that Snap had a different approach to privacy, and that it would stick to those values even while opening up.

Getting that balance right could be crucial for Snap. Facebook has faced an avalanche of criticism over the ways it has been sharing data with partners, and used its third-party integrations to grow its own data coffers.

Snap wants to avoid some of those pitfalls by limiting the types of data it shares with partners. Spokespeople said third-party apps won’t have access to friend graph data — an industry term for data points about the friends a user has on social networks, and data those friends are sharing with that user.

CREDIT: Janko Roettgers / Variety

Snap has been less specific about other types of data it could collect as it allows developers to add its own code to their apps and sites. One example: Facebook has faced scrutiny over so-called shadow profiles — data it collects on internet users that may not even have Facebook accounts of their own, but use websites that implement Facebook tracking codes, either through Facebook’s advertising network, or simply by adding a Facebook share button to their site.

Snap spokespeople suggested that the company would only collect aggregate data from third-party sources, but also acknowledged that some of the details of its ad network still had to be ironed out.

The company will also have to tackle other issues as it gradually opens up. One of them is what some have called Stories fatigue. Snapchat may have pioneered Stories as a format, but the rest of the internet didn’t shy away from copying it. Led by Facebook’s embrace of the rival’s core feature, Stories have found their way pretty much everywhere.

Now, Snapchat may further that overload by allowing its own users to share Stories in select third-party apps. Company executives said Thursday that Snap had partnered with dating service Tinder, video chat app Houseparty, and outdoor activities app Adventure Aide to bring custom Snapchat Stories to their apps. These types of integrations are supposed to launch at some point in 2019.

CREDIT: Janko Roettgers / Variety

In a way, these so-called App Stories can even be seen as a defensive move. If every app gets its own version of Stories, then why not power those Stories to make sure that these apps don’t replace Snapchat in the process?

Snapchat executives also announced new features that play to the company’s strengths. One of them is its AR integration, which has thus far primarily focused on lenses for selfies, animal pics, and more. Users and developers have created more than 400,000 such lenses, which have been used over 15 billion times, according to company information.

On Thursday, Snapchat started rolling out another version of lenses called Landmarkers. These are geolocated AR effects associated with historic landmarks. At launch, only five of these locations will be made available, including the Buckingham Palace in London, the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the Flatiron Building in New York, and the Chinese Theater in Los Angeles (see  the image above for an example).

The way Snap has been developing these AR filters shows that the company’s users are an asset in more ways than one. Spokespeople said Snap used photos from Stories feeds to recreate what’s known as a point cloud, which is essentially a way to recreate a 3D image of an object based on a number of individual data points.

Snapchat is also making use of some of its public user data to inform decisions around its original content efforts for Snapchat Discover. A show about sneaker culture that Snapchat announced Thursday was directly influenced by employees observing a trend of public stories of a sneaker convention over-performing with the app’s users, according to a company spokesperson.

CREDIT: Janko Roettgers / Variety

To gain these kinds of insights, Snapchat needs to keep its audience engaged, and ideally grow it further — something that has been a challenge in recent quarters. Spiegel seemed to suggest Thursday that the company’s stagnating growth doesn’t tell the whole story, pointing to a reach of nearly 75% of all 13- to 34-year-olds in the U.S. “We reach 90% of 13- to 24-year-olds,” he added during his keynote speech. “In fact, we reach more 13- to 24-year-olds than Facebook or Instagram in the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Canada, and Australia.”

“We believe that by opening into the camera, we can create a computing experience that combines the superpowers of technology with the best of humanity,” Spiegel said Thursday, further raising the bar for Snapchat’s lofty moral ambitions. Whether Snapchat’s users will buy into that idea may at least in part depend on how the company handles the challenges it faces as it adapts to a more interconnected world of apps and internet services.

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