I’ve been online for nearly 30 years (yes, there was CompuServe and Prodigy before the www), blogging for 10 and using social media tools since the earliest days.
I love to watch networks evolve, see how crowds gather and communicate and curate and share.
Twitter was the most unique social sharing platform that had emerged in my experience because it unintentionally innovated on a constraint of 140 characters (initially so that it could send messages as SMS, which it self had a size constraint). The constraint forced people to use links and link shorteners and thus to drive traffic.
In the early days of Twitter most users didn’t follow too many people, which was good and bad. On the good side we had a lot more public “conversations” on Twitter, making it feel like a chat room. Because it felt small and we also felt like we didn’t miss much and when we shared our friends saw it.
As Twitter grew everybody’s followed counts grew, which meant that we missed things in our timeline and our friends missed a lot of what we shared. Twitter became ephemeral. I found that if I shared a post at 5am PST it would get 300–400 clicks and then drop off a cliff. By the time my West Coast friends were awake and Tweeting nobody would see it.
I began experimenting with time-of-day, number of Tweets, headline text, etc and learned a ton about usage patterns of Twitter and I even invested in a social media analytics company called Awe.sm, an influencer network called Adly and a data firehose company called Datasift (who now powers the Facebook Topics feed).
I learned that the “influencers” I wanted to reach — often my friends — used Twitter late at night when other people were off the network and few used it during the day when we were all at work. We secretly still wanted that small network chat room experience as a place to chat amongst friends.
Because Twitter was a reverse chronology network once a Tweet had passed by your stream you were unlikely to see it. The “half life” was very short. As somebody who invested his time heavily in writing and wanting to share his thoughts through a blog I learned that I had to Tweet a post 3 times to get it read: 5am, 8am and 10pm. The readers seldom overlapped so nobody seemed pissed off at me as being an “over sharer” but it was clearly a fear of mine. You don’t want your friends to stop following you because they think you’re polluting their stream.
Facebook had an elegant solution to the “half life” problem in that it developed an algorithm that determined what users saw in their feeds. I’m not an expert in the algo but essentially if a “post” got some heat (lots of people clicking, favoriting & sharing) in a short period of time then more people saw the post in their feeds. The more heat you got the more your post would stay at the top of the feed of your friends.
Of course there was good and bad to this also. The bad was that it seems like when I shared media on Facebook I wouldn’t get any heat initially so Twitter was my go to place to share my blog. But if a post got read and resonated then Facebook finished stronger than Twitter.
I’m sure Twitter knew this but the community of Twitter was so public and vocal about “not fucking with the feed” that they resisted changing anything to the “purity” of followers seeing everything that got posted and always is reverse chronology. Twitter was “full fidelity” and Facebook was “curated” by an algo controlled by the company.
The puritans in us loved the former, the pragmatists in us knew the algo produced more engaging results. Eventually Twitter acquiesced and started putting Tweets that you missed “while you were away.” I actually think they did a pretty good job of introducing what was a controversial change and navigating the trolls in all of us that resist change.
As a technology prognosticator, watching Twitter and Facebook grow up was a real pleasure.
And Snapchat has changed the game and in ways that I think the community doesn’t even quite understand yet. (If you’re not a Snapchat user and want a taste of what I do there check out: Snapstorms.com where I save the videos permanently.)
As many of you know, Snapchat started a place to send ephemeral photos with friends and thus was perceived to be only a sexting app for teens in the same was as Twitter was pegged as a place to share what you ate for lunch. Neither caricature of course was correct.
Snapchat’s big innovation was “stories” in which users could post everything from their last 24 hours in one “reel” that would combine videos and photos plus fun (filters, face swaps, emojis, stickers).
There are two reasons that stories was a big leap forward for Snapchat.
First, prior to stories users had to spam every follower by pushing every snap into their inbox. It was annoying as a user to get random snaps and felt spammy as a content creator. Stories allowed people to publish into a stream in which the users could choose to watch the story or not. It was better for consumer and producer for this type of use case and you could still privately message people like an IM platform (or DM in Twitter, PM in Facebook).
Second, there is one big innovation that the market hasn’t talked about. Snapchat stories takes everything that I do in a 24 hour period and builds it into one cohesive story.
Think about that. On Twitter if I post at 7:35am and again at 8:15am there will probably be 150 Tweets in your stream between those meaning there is no cohesion in my successive Tweets and meaning that if you log in at 8:30am your chances of seeing my 7:35am Tweet is slim-to-none. That’s not necessarily good or bad — but it’s different.
On Snapchat when you click on my “story” you see every post of mine sequentially for my entire past 24 hours. This is a big deal. If you don’t want to “complete” my story you simply swipe left and you’re on to the next story.
But here is what I’ve learned about Snapchat.
- The story structure allows me to create a more cohesive storyline and when I consume other people’s content (even when it’s just life casting) I feel like I get a better, more cohesive story of what’s going on in their life. Right now I’m getting about 9,000 views at the “top end of my funnel” video on my story. By about the 5th or 6th video I have about 25% of my viewers drop out. If you complete 10 videos of mine the completion rate to the end is like 85% meaning if you like the topic I’m sharing that day and invest in it you’re highly like to complete.
- Snapchat has a much longer half life. For a content creator this is BIG. There is no ephemeral stream in which my content is mixed with others. People go to their stories and see whom they follow and decide whether to consume that story. So the consumption of my stories remains very consistent throughout the 24 hours when a story is live. I put a story out once and I’m done and for consumers they know that they don’t have to log in at the same time I’m producing in order to see my story.
Snapchat is biggest innovation in media right now and the biggest innovator in product design from a user perspective. Will that continue? Will new players emerge? Will the titans fight back and recapture share-of-mind and share-of-time?
I have no idea. But as somebody who loves to watch, play with and learn about media and applications it has sure been a pleasure to watch over the past year.
Half Lives. Social Media. And Snapchat Stories. was originally published in Both Sides of the Table on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.