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Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Snapchat: Another Instance of Well-Financed Tech Inanity

Posted By on Tue, Oct 8, 2013 at 3:45 PM


I haven't paid much attention to Snapchat because really -- who gives a rat's ass? As far as I knew, it was some app for creeps to send people pictures of their wangs. Yet another one, I mean, because that's the kind of thing the tech industry, and its financiers, seem to be most focused on these days. Not necessarily wang-oriented stuff, but trivial, inane stuff.

I tend to scoot right past headlines about such disruptive innovations when I see them in my news feeds.

On Monday, though, Snapchat's CEO, Evan Spiegel, got my attention via a post on Jim Romenesko's blog. He gave an interview last August to the local paper where he lives, the Palisadian-Post. Romenesko linked to it because of a highly unusual disclaimer at the bottom of the article: "Full disclosure: Spiegel agreed to be the interviewed by the Palisadian-Post under the guideline that no controversial questions would be asked. He also would not let this reporter audiotape the interview."

My first reaction was, well why the hell would the reporter and the editors of the paper go ahead with the interview under such restrictions? Doing so violates a pretty basic law of the news business, after all. And it wasn't like there was some compelling reason to give the guy such cover. The article contained no news and was basically a puff job, giving Spiegel a chance to talk about how great he is, in between the reporter, Reza Gostar, making basically the same point. The article didn't have all that much to do with Snapchat, an app that automatically deletes files seconds after they're received -- which of course makes it hugely popular among "sexters."

The paper's editor, Bill Bruns, told me on Monday that he just really wanted to have an interview in his paper about a hometown boy making good, and, with refreshing candor, he admitted that didn't think hard enough before agreeing to the restrictions brought to him by Gostar. (Whether Bruns' willingness to be so open on this matter is related to his impending retirement is hard to say.)

For his part, Spiegel claimed on Twitter that the disclaimer was "entirely inaccurate" and so he found it "really disappointing." The only restriction, he said, was that he wouldn't talk about "pending litigation." Any other topic, he insisted, "was and is fair game." (Snapchat is being sued by a former college classmate who claims he was involved in the invention of the app, Winklevii vs. Facebook-style. The company also has some complaints against it having to do with allegations that pictures don't actually disappear quite as completely as is claimed.)

Gostar apparently no longer works for that Palasadian-Post. He describes himself in his Twitter bio as "Newshound at The Desert Sun" in Palm Springs. Somebody asked Gostar on Twitter which version of events was the truth, his or Spiegel's. The newshound's response was: "Sorry guys, I don't engage in in Twitter debates." I asked him via Twitter to please email me a response to the question. He followed me, but hasn't responded to my query.

He did finally get back to Romenesko, saying that the "guidelines" were hammered out between him and Spiegel's PR flack. The interview was to "strictly focus on [Spiegel's] life in Pacific Palisades." He didn't explain why he would agree to such restrictions, and he still hasn't directly addressed Spiegel's claim that the only off-limits topic was litigation.

In any case, as I read the interview, my disdain for Gostar gradually shifted over to Spiegel as Spiegel described himself as a former frat boy who during high school worked for the company that makes Red Bull, the popular kiddie speed ... er, energy drink. "I loved the brand and was obsessed with the beverage," he told the Palisadian-Post.

During the interview -- remember, this is a small, hometown paper -- Spiegel was "extremely guarded" and "accompanied by his public relations representative," Gostar wrote.

So I checked out his Twitter page, which is mostly pretty innocuous and chatty. On Monday, though, he expressed disdain for The New York Times' recent eye-opening, extremely well-reported story about how the tea partiers in Congress and their financial backers have been planning for months to use the debt ceiling as a way to get Obamacare defunded. Spiegel's pro-obstructionist response (on Twitter!): "oversimplification and distraction from the core issue: govt debt."

It came as no surprise that such sentiments and behaviors would come from a guy whose contribution to American technological progress is an app used by creepy dudes to send pictures of their wangs, and by teenagers for "sexting" and other dumb (if less peril-fraught) activities.

Snapchat got lots of attention when it launched because of its core feature: files sent through the service disappear after a few seconds (unless recipients decide to save them, in which case the sender is notified). Spiegel has said, with supreme disingenuousness, that this has nothing to do with sexting. He told TechCrunch last year that Snapchat somehow "makes communication a lot more human and natural." He added: "I'm not convinced that the whole sexting thing is as big as the media makes it out to be. I just don't know people who do that. It doesn't seem that fun when you can have real sex."

So we are left to assume that Spiegel enjoyed an unusually lucky teenhood. Maybe it was that bitchin' Red Bull gig. He's probably right that sexting isn't nearly as big a problem as the media makes out, but to imply that it hardly ever happens is to ignore observable reality.

And anyway, despite his protestations, he has also said that he and his pal and co-founder Bobby Murphy invented the app (in a fraternity house at Stanford, natch) after the first time Anthony Weiner got busted for sending pictures of his wang to people. So, who are we kidding?

Moral panic aside, the main problem with Snapchat is what is says about the state of technology and innovation. Like so many other products developed in recent years, it once again raises the question: what the fuck are we doing? Silicon Valley was once a place where real advancements were made -- advancements that helped make this the best, strongest, and most admirable economy in the history of the world. The integrated circuit, the personal computer, and Ethernet were invented here. Now we're creating a lot of dumb crap aimed at kids and narcissists (and guys who want to send pictures of their wangs to people.)

Snapchat is reportedly valued at a ridiculous $800 million. It has no revenues, and no known plans to create a revenue model (surely they have something in mind, we just don't know what yet). And yet it has high-powered backers like Institutional Venture Partners, General Catalyst, Lightspeed Ventures, and Benchmark Capital.

Investor Bill Gurley of Benchmark explained to Gostar his reason for believing in Snapchat: It's "growing like crazy," he said, "because it provides a private forum for people to goof off."

Doesn't it just bring a tear of pride to your eye? Wait, no, not pride. Shame.

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Dan Mitchell


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